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ChooseYourOwnSlaveventure (Part 1)

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Feb 22nd, 2017
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  1. > "Are you sure, sir? I mean, she did-"
  2. "Yes, I'll be quite alright."
  3. > "If you insist, sir."
  4. > The cell door slides aside with a grinding screech, allowing you an unrestricted view of the pony shackled within.
  5. > Her head rises slowly, mane hanging in long pink curtains to either side of her head.
  6. > Eyes locking on to you with a fearsome focus to them.
  7. > If not for the bit lodged firmly between her jaws, you suspect she'd already have slung some insult or quip at you.
  8. > Irregardless.
  9. > Pulling over a stool, you settle down on it and rest your elbows on your thighs, meeting her eyes easily.
  10. > The alicorn's hooves had been hoisted above her head, leaving her body stretched unnaturally under her own weight.
  11. > At least whoever had shackled her up like that had allowed her hindlegs to touch the floor, sparing her the agony of being suspended on her shoulders.
  12. > If the former princess cared about the indignity of the exposed position, she didn't show it.
  13. > A droplet of saliva runs from the edge of the bit, falling to the floor.
  14. > Her tail hangs limply, forming a multihued pool between her hind hooves.
  15. "Hello, Cadance."
  16. > No reaction.
  17. "Well..."
  18. > Sighing, you drop your head and rub both palms into your forehead.
  19. "I suppose you're rather proud of yourself, Cadance. We're still doing roll call, but I'm thinking you must've moved out a hundred, a hundred and fifty at least?"
  20. > Giving neither assent nor denial of your estimation, she instead remains still and focused on you.
  21. > Her wings give the slightest twitch, but you imagine that has more to do with the leather binders uncomfortably fastened around them.
  22. > Another droplet of drool stains the floor beneath her.
  23. "A hundred ponies, snuck out in the middle of the night. God, I don't even know where you think they're all going to go, but you must've had a plan for that."
  24. > Straightening up on the stool, you wave a hand expressively.
  25. "I admit, it was well-organized and well-done; I doubt I will see most of them again. A magnificent plan - except, of course, for six things."
  26. > Ticking off on your fingers, you speak with a growing smile.
  27. "Stardust, Lyra, Cheerilee, Derpy, Rumble, and Bon B-"
  28. > "Hrmgh!"
  29. > Cadance surges in her chains, jerking forward at you.
  30. "Oh, yes - I got your ringleaders. It was stupid of you to have them stay behind when the others left. Stupid of you to stay, too."
  31. > "Nmmrrmf!"
  32. "I don't honestly know why they'd stay. I think they would understand that as the ones responsible, they'd be held accountable for it."
  33. > Again Cadance jerks harshly, desperate cries erupting from her throat.
  34. > Now it is you who goes silent, letting her work herself out as she writhes desperately.
  35. > Tears creep from her eyes, staining her pink-furred cheeks as she realizes the futility of what she is doing.
  36. > Reaching out, you slip a hand beneath her chin and brush each cheek clean before speaking softly:
  37. "What I want to know above all else is, why. I spent a small fortune acquiring you, Cadance - put you in charge of all the others because I thought it would be better for them and you alike."
  38. > With your hand on her jawline you can feel the subtle tremble in her muscles.
  39. > Whether because of the burning pain she'd undoubtedly inflicted on her shoulders with that struggling or the emotions churning within her, you aren't sure.
  40. "I really, really thought it would be for the better, Cadance. You could be a leader again, actually representing your ponies and looking after them; they could have an alicorn to look up to again. I thought..."
  41. > Dropping your hand, you shake your head.
  42. "I thought it'd make everything go more smoothly. Make everyone happier. Instead, I wake up and find out you've masterminded running off a tenth of my entire stock..."
  43. > Reaching up, you unbuckle the bit and allow it to fall from her muzzle.
  44. "So honestly, Cadance, tell me: Why?"
  45. > Her voice, when she answers after a long silence, is low and agonized.
  46. > "I'm not a real leader here. I'm an enforcer. A tool for you. And we - we're still slaves. You think we can ever lose sight of that? Forget that there's a fence around this 'town', that our doors are locked at night from the outside?"
  47. > Again her head snaps up, meeting your eyes with a burning intensity.
  48. > "You didn't purchase me because you want them to be happy. You want them pacified, and you want me to do it for you. But you know what? I can't do that. In Equestria or here, it's my duty to look after their true needs."
  49. "And instead you send over a hundred ponies out into a world that doesn't see them as individuals, looking for what - a place they won't be found? A town they'll build themselves?"
  50. > "Looking for hope. Looking for someplace where tomorrow doesn't mean working for things they will never see any benefit from. Looking-"
  51. > She is cut off by your slap, head snapping aside and chains rattling as she is set swinging by your blow.
  52. "No hope?! No benefit?! For fucks' sake, Cadance - I gave you a whole damn town to live as you like! Somewhere else you could've been locked in cages, cutie marks branded over, raped by your owners - I give you the best you're going to get!"
  53. > "But we are still slaves!"
  54. > He voice is rising now too.
  55. > "Every day, we face the same hopelessness as anywhere else. Every day, Cheerilee has to lie to the foals, teaching them about how much 'better' things are now than in Equestria. Every day, Stardust has to use his magic to heal ponies so they can get back to working for you. Every day, Rumble has to stand guard and make sure nobody takes an extra loaf of bread home!"
  56. > Tears are running again, her wings twitching in their binders and tail flicking wildly.
  57. > She is somehow managing to stand up in her chains now, trying to seem imposing.
  58. > It'd work better if she wasn't barely as tall reared up as you are sitting down.
  59. > "I know it could be worse. But don't you for a second dare pretend that you're somehow actually good to us. You don't hurt us because we make you a profit, nothing more!"
  60. "That profit lets me give you these freedoms, Cadance! Hell - I don't know what I'm going to do now that I have to budget in replacing all that labor you just snuck out!"
  61. > "...that would be your first concern."
  62. "Yes, it would!"
  63. > Slumping back down again, you sigh.
  64. > Across from you, Cadance does the same.
  65. "This stunt has cut a huge hole in everything I've built here... and someone has to be held responsible."
  66. > Catching your tone, her ears fall back again.
  67. > "...Anonymous, please. You have to understand - we only want hope. You shouldn't hurt them-"
  68. "And what lesson does that teach? 'Feel free to run the fuck away, there won't be any repercussons'?"
  69. > Shaking your head, you hiss softly.
  70. "I don't like it either, Cadance. They're good ponies, all six of them. But they also had key roles in running and planning this whole escape, that much is clear. And I can't let this just slip away."
  71. > "...then punish me."
  72. > Her head falls - indeed, the alicorn's entire body seems to droop in her bindings, as if some energy finally fled from her.
  73. > "I am their leader, and I am an alicorn. I can take it. Whatever you were going to do, inflict it on me instead."
  74. "You'll have your own punishment. But they have to be held responsible for what they did."
  75. > "No! They look up to me, all of them! They won't act if they know it will land on me!"
  76. > Raising her head at last, Cadance lowers her voice to a whisper:
  77. > "Please, Anonymous. I'm going to beg you, shamelessly: Punish me in their place."
  78. "...just tell me this. Did you know it was going to happen?"
  79. > "I don't - that's not important -"
  80. "Tell me, Cadance!"
  81. > Your hand slips around her head, fingers gripping her mane to pull her head forward towards yours.
  82. > She lets out a slight grunt as her shoulders are strained beyond the angle pony limbs can normally reach.
  83. "Did you know they were going to escape?"
  84. > "...yes."
  85. > Her voice is a small, soft whisper.
  86. > "I did know. Knew for weeks."
  87. > Briefly you run through the possibilities.
  88. > She could be lying to try and protect the others - make you angry at her and focus on harming her out of some revenge.
  89. > Or she could be telling the truth, and she really did hide this from you.
  90. > Either way, it seems like the best way to deny her what she wants is to deny her the chance to be some kind of hero to them.
  91. "Then no."
  92. > You shake your head, settling back on the stool and letting her mane go.
  93. "I've had to be tough at times, Cadance, but I've always been fair - in reward and punishment. You are their leader, their representative - but they are responsible for their own actions nonetheless."
  94. > The alicorn's head falls to stare at the floor, her entire body sagging in the chains.
  95. > Her mane drapes down around her head, forming a curtain over her muzzle.
  96. > "Please..."
  97. "What is your obsession with trying to - what, protect them? Be a martyr for them? Don't you understand, the sooner they come to realize that escape yields punishment the sooner this can stop?"
  98. > "Escape... staying here like this is a punishment as well. I wish I knew for what."
  99. > Head barely rising, you catch a gleam of light from her eyes filtering through the strands of mane covering them.
  100. > "I won't ever be what my auntie was to them, but I can be something good for my little ponies."
  101. "Then maybe that is what you are forgetting: They aren't your little ponies. They're mine."
  102. > She flinches, and if you could see her face in fully you're quite certain her eyes had just narrowed to furious slits.
  103. > "That - that is exactly why we won't ever be able to just live here as if we were free. Exactly that."
  104. "You aren't free. Nobody's questioned that; what I question is what makes you think that actions like this will somehow make it better."
  105. > Leaning forward, you rest a hand on your chin and regard her levelly.
  106. "Truth is, this couldn't have come at a worse time. Everything had been running so well - this weekend I was planning to announce another expansion. Another ten percent increase in my herd's size. You'd have been rewarded for doing so well as their leader too, but..."
  107. > Your shoulders shrug lightly.
  108. > Chains creak lightly as Cadance hangs limply in them, no longer able to summon up the energy to argue.
  109. "...well, now that purchase is just barely going to even out the losses from your little stunt. Not to mention, I already put down the money for the priciest part of it, and - well, alicorns are pricey. Even for a filly."
  110. > "WHAT?!"
  111. > Finding some hidden reserve within her, Cadance's head jerks up.
  112. > "You don't - she isn't - you -"
  113. > Standing, you turn for the doorway.
  114. "Especially in light of what this little rebellion has cost me, I'll have to reconsider what I'm going to do with her."
  115. > Outside, the cell door closes with a heavy thud.
  116. > Glancing aside to the guard working it, you sigh softly.
  117. "After half an hour, go in there and let her forehooves down but keep her shackled. I don't want her to look like I'm torturing her off-hours or something."
  118. > "Understood, sir."
  119. "And the rest of them, if any are shackled up like that."
  120. > You glance around to the other cell doors in the small prison wing.
  121. > Except for one that thuds under repeated, regular impacts of the pony locked behind it - probably Bon Bon, you reckon - all are utterly silent.
  122. > No pleading, begging, or sobbing.
  123. > Surprising, since they must know they're in neck-deep shit over this.
  124. > But then, if every one of them felt their convictions as deeply as Cadance had, they must've understood that from the start.
  125. > Moving for the exit of the prison building, your thoughts quickly drift to the other six ringleaders and what could have driven them.
  126. > So you're caught by surprise when a dark shape detaches itself from the side of the corridor and blocks the passage in front of you.
  127. > It takes a moment for it to resolve itself into the shape of a charcoal-coated pegasus stallion with an unmistakable mohawk mane.
  128. "Thunderlane."
  129. > "I want him out of there, Anonymous."
  130. > His voice is hard, but there's an underlying tremble that betrays the stallion's nervousness.
  131. > "I want Rumble off that punishment line and safe. Now."
  132. "You know very well why I can't do that."
  133. > "Fuck you."
  134. > Spreading his legs wide into a ready stance and wings hanging half-open, Thunderlane seems all but ready for a fight.
  135. > "You want my help anymore? You get my little brother off that punishment line and back home."
  136. > When you don't reply, his voice rises into a cry:
  137. > "I spied for you, Celestia damn it! I betrayed everypony else here and you promised me you'd keep my little brother safe!"
  138. "And I have, Thunderlane. I gave Rumble a nice cushy job handing out bread. I've gave him quarters for him and his marefriend. I've even looked the other way when I know he's been giving out extra food left and right against the rules."
  139. > "So then let him off! Isn't me turning over this whole thing to you worth his safety?"
  140. "You didn't exactly prevent the escape from happening, you know."
  141. > "I've stopped plenty of other escape attempts. Plus, a hundred more would be gone - including all of the ones who planned it - if I hadn't told you where to find them."
  142. > Shaking your head, you switch to a different tactic:
  143. "If I do that, ponies are going to ask why not him? They might think he's the one who squealed. It's opening him up to be singled out."
  144. > "I don't care. They'll realize it wasn't him eventually."
  145. "And what about Rumble himself? Won't he wonder? Won't he look at you eventually and ask himself what you had to do with it?"
  146. > Thunderlane's mouth opens to answer, but he stops himself and takes a shaky breath.
  147. > "...if you want me to keep reporting to you, to keep looking ponies in the eye and smiling while I deliver them to you served up on a plate - then you get him off that punishment line. That's my ultimatum."
  148. > You hiss softly, hands bunching up into fists.
  149. > The truth was, Thunderlane's services were actually valuable to you.
  150. > He wasn't exaggerating about stopping plenty of other plots before they could come to anything.
  151. > While they nominally served on your security staff, both had built solid bridges to the community - presenting themselves as ponies just as crushed by your ownership as the others, instead of holding their position over the other slaves.
  152. > For Thunderlane, it left him able to hear secrets others would never be able to reach.
  153. > However, in Rumble's case, the feelings had apparently been genuine,
  154. > "...he's just a foal in the middle of puberty, boss. You put him under the lash, he'll only get angrier - rebel harder. It's natural for any colt his age."
  155. "Natural, but not acceptable if these are the consequences."
  156. > "I can keep him in line. I'll even smack him around if I have to, and nobody will question sparing a colt a full punishment."
  157. > You grimace mentally.
  158. > Why couldn't Cadance have been legitimately remorseful?
  159. > Then you could at least have spared the other six that harsh a punishment...
  160. > And after all, Rumble might have had a job and a marefriend, but he was far from fully grown.
  161. > Sighing softly, you fold your arms.
  162. "Alright, Thunderlane. Here's what I can do: I can pull him off that punishment line, but someone still has to be held responsible. I'll have to swap you in inst-"
  163. > "I'll do it."
  164. > Not even a second's hesitation at your offer, not even to let you finish.
  165. "You know it won't be a light punishment. And I won't cut your working hours either."
  166. > "I don't care. I've already sold out enough ponies to condemn myself to Tartarus forever. What's a little more pain to keep my brother safe?"
  167. > Running a hand through your hair, you nod.
  168. "Alright, then. When the punishment is being handed out, make sure you're there. Step up, make your plea again, and I'll make the swap."
  169. > "Thank you, sir."
  170. > Ducking his head, Thunderlane's eyes fall to the ground.
  171. > You wonder if, perhaps, the implications of what he has just signed himself up for are finally coming home.
  172. > "If I can ask, what's the punishment going to be?"
  173. "That depends;"
  174. > "On what?"
  175. "On whether any of them feel remorse, on if Cadance pulls her head out of her cunt and stops acting all high and outraged..."
  176. > She won't, you suspect.
  177. > Whatever that outburst had been, it'd clearly been building for weeks, if not months.
  178. > "I... understand. Can I see him, sir?"
  179. "Rumble? Yes. Go ahead. In fact, make sure he doesn't run his mouth before we do the swap: If he snaps at me, I won't be able to do a thing for him."
  180. > Thunderlane's mouth opens quickly - probably to retort that you own them, you could always do something - but he thinks better and chooses his words with care:
  181. > "I'll do my best to make sure he gets it, sir."
  182. "Good. For his sake."
  183. > Apparently dismissed, Thunderlane steps around you - hooves echoing on the poured concrete floor.
  184. > Thus, you can easily hear the him miss a step and stumble when you speak up and ask:
  185. "Tell me this, Thunderlane. Did you know Rumble was one of them?"
  186. > ""
  187. "Would you have still done it, if you had known?"
  188. > This time, he thinks rather longer before answering.
  189. > "Yes. I... he's not wrong. This isn't really living. You can't just give us little houses and think we'll forget everything you're taking from us. But... acting up like this? Running a hundred ponies off into the middle of nowhere like that? That isn't the answer."
  190. > He is, as best you can tell, telling the truth.
  191. "Thank you. You may go now."
  192. > ...
  193. > Later that evening.
  194. > You rest in a well-stuffed, high-backed seat in your manor's living room, a book spread out before you and a unicorn servant sitting silently at your side with a tray for your drinks.
  195. > A brief moment of quiet, after the day's hectic aftermath.
  196. > Quiet broken with a curt rap on the door.
  197. > Sighing, you snap the book shut and call out.
  198. "Enter!"
  199. > If they disturbed you anyhow, it must be important enough.
  200. > Indeed, the door swings open to reveal two of your security staff - human security staff - standing to either side of a haggard-looking and hobbled Cadance.
  201. > "She said she wished to speak with you, sir. You did say to alert you..."
  202. "Yes, I did. Let her in; you are dismissed."
  203. > Glancing down to your unicorn attendant, you nod:
  204. "You as well."
  205. > After a moment's hestiation, the staff nudge Cadance in before closing the door behind her with a painfully loud slam.
  206. > She glances around, eyes roving over the resplendent displays of luxury resting on the shelves lining the room.
  207. > They pause on her one-time crown and tiara, set in a well-protected case, before moving on to fall on you.
  208. > Slowly she makes her way forward to your chair, chains from her hoof-cuffs and leash hanging from her collar dragging on the floor.
  209. "You wanted to speak to me?"
  210. > "Yes."
  211. > The monosyllabic answer produces a raised eyebrow from you, and when no further answer is forthcoming a pointed reply:
  212. "Well, go on then. I presumed you wouldn't try calling on me just to waste my time."
  213. > Nodding and drawing an unsteady breath, Cadance somehow manages to deliver her next line in an unsteady breath.
  214. > "I want to see her."
  215. "I would imagine you do."
  216. > Her expression falls, knowing what you want to hear from her.
  217. > Yet Cadance manages all the same.
  218. "What do you want from me, Anonymous? Humiliate myself in front of the others submitting to you? Give some kind of speech explaining how I was terribly wrong to help with the escape? Make them all-"
  219. > She cuts off, breathing suddenly shallow and nervous.
  220. > It takes her a few moments to recover, but you're a patient man.
  221. > "...I want to see her, Anonymous. What is it going to cost me? Just tell me?"
  222. "Well. First of all, you can't see her in person - not just yet. She hasn't arrived yet; still receiving delousing and flea treatments, I think."
  223. > Cadance's breath catches, her lips silently forming the words 'louse' and 'fleas'.
  224. "But, you'll be happy to know she is far, far better now than when I acquired her. Some fool running a travelling show, couldn't keep his budget balanced even with her as an attraction."
  225. > "A - a picture then. A movie. Something - I have to see her!"
  226. "I can do both of those, Cadance. And a lot more, actually. But, the thing is..."
  227. > Setting your book aside, you lean forward to lower your head to her level.
  228. "The thing is, I'm not sure you're ready to see her. That was an awfully bold thing you said earlier, and honestly now I'm wondering. if you think it's so bad to live here, maybe Flurry Heart belongs somewhere else."
  229. > "If I'd known she was-"
  230. "You'd what? Have lied to me? Sucked up to me? Why do you think I didn't tell you?"
  231. > Finally having run out of pleas to make, Cadance simply lets her head fall to stare at the floor.
  232. > "I just want to see my daughter."
  233. "But you don't want to see any of those ponies you let escape, is it? Because I can guarantee you: A lot of them aren't coming back safely, and not through any action of mine."
  234. > Leaning back into the seat, you fold your hands together and eye her over them.
  235. "You said you wanted to be something like your aunt was to them, Cadance. But honestly, if you're willing to sacrifice all of them but turn for a single filly -"
  236. > "That's nothing like the same!"
  237. "Isn't it? I'm going to have to ask you to make a lot of hard choices. I thought that was clear, but apparently not enough. Maybe Flurry Heart doesn't belong with someone who can't make those kinds of decisions."
  238. > The tears that had long since crowded the edges of her eyes burst forth in full measure now, running down her cheeks.
  239. > Falling to her belly, Cadance cries softly - her sobs muted, private, and yet shamelessly on display in front of the one person she'd undoubtedly like to hide them from the most.
  240. > "Please, I just want to know. What do I have to do..."
  241. "It isn't that simple, I'm afraid. I don't want to hold her over your head every time something happens. I'd rather simply not bring her in to our little community than resort to that."
  242. > Hiccuping an unintelligible reply, her eyes fall shut.
  243. "The truth is, there is something you could do to prove to me that you can make hard choices. But, it isn't going to be easy..."
  244. > In an instant, her shackled forehooves are up on your knee - pink eyes rimmed with red wide and pleading for your offer.
  245. > "What?! What do I have to do?!"
  246. "What you have to do..."
  247. > Cadance leans forward, her breath catching in anticipation of your declaration.
  248. " decide for yourself."
  249. > For a second she seems to hang impossibly still in space, staring dumbly before she finally erupts.
  250. > "What?!"
  251. "You heard me. I want you to decide what happens to them - your six ringleaders - on your own. Punish them yourself, pass it off to my guards, whichever - it makes no difference. What I want is for you to choose."
  252. > Several long moments pass while Cadance digests this information, breathing shallow and unsteady.
  253. > When she finally speaks again, her voice is tremulous but filled with righteous indignation layered atop her fear.
  254. > "You... are lying. This is no real choice at all; if I don't brutalize them, you're going to take it out on my daughter."
  255. "What kind of monster do you think I am? Didn't I just tell you that the point of this is to ensure that the ones responsible are held accountable, rather than pointless brutality?"
  256. > It's easy to see she doesn't believe you even before she counters:
  257. > "And what if I decide not to punish them? What then?"
  258. > Leaning back into the seat again, you shrug evenly.
  259. "Then you're welcome to pardon them. They'll still be noted as accountable, but a pardon will excuse them from immediate punishment."
  260. > Eyes having again fallen to mere slits, Cadance's tail flicks wildly as she tries to find the catch in your logic.
  261. "...of course, if they raise trouble again in the future, there will be repercussions especially because they were given that pass this first time."
  262. > "I knew you were lying!"
  263. "Am I, Cadance?"
  264. > Folding your fingers together and meeting her gaze with one just as had and fierce, you raise both eyebrows.
  265. "You said you want to be like your aunt was to her ponies. Well, do you think your aunt never considered the repercussions of her actions? Never struggled with balancing her choices? Do you think I don't, Cadance? There's repercussions to everything we do - even me giving you this, just as if there'd have been repercussions if I'd agreed to let all the punishment fall on you."
  266. > That halts her again, the gears once more almost visibly turning in her head.
  267. > "...I take it these repercussions will include my daughter."
  268. "If by your choices you breed so much rebellion, so much work lost, that I am forced to choose between buying food or medical supplies and keeping your daughter? I will auction her without a thought. I do not play favorites."
  269. > Cadance flinches at the reminder of her status as property.
  270. > "I understand."
  271. > No.
  272. > By the tone of her voice, she really doesn't.
  273. > Motioning to the drink tray set to one side when your house-servant had been excused, you soften your voice.
  274. "Would you like a drink?"
  275. > Eyeing the cautiously - as if wondering what a mere drink would cost her - Cadance eventually nods.
  276. > "I would, Sir."
  277. > Without hesitation you turn another glass upright and fill it halfway with wine.
  278. > Magic sealed by the limiter on her horn and hooves still hobbled by chains, you did not trust her to do so herself.
  279. > Accepting the drink, Cadance takes it gently between her hooves.
  280. > "Thank you."
  281. > Rather than answer, you take your own drink and rise to tread across the thickly-carpeted floor to one of your lounge's vast floor-to-ceiling windows.
  282. > Though the sun's departure has stripped the detail from the view, a myriad of lights from within the ponies' little town and guards' compound add a new facet.
  283. > Dark shapes move in the distance: Teams of guards, sweeping with their fierce flashlights, but also ponies both individual and small groups lit by both lamp and ethereal horn-glow.
  284. > Gait unsteady between both hobbles and carrying the glass in a delicate mouth-hold, Cadance arrives at your side - the two of you staring out over the sum total of your achievements.
  285. "The truth is, Cadance, that I think our objectives are ultimately the same. You want your daughter to be able to stay. I want no more of this absurd resistance from the ponies here. The former follows directly from the latter."
  286. > "Only because you insist on making it so..."
  287. "You're treading on dangerous ground, arguing with me just after desperately begging for a way to please me."
  288. > "You told me Flurry would only be sent away if I couldn't lead them. Arguing with you has no bearing on that. I'm either safe, or you're a liar in which case you'll find a reason anyhow."
  289. > Despite her impertinence, a touch of a smile graces your lips.
  290. > The wineglass raised hides the expression, but cannot hide the amusement in your voice.
  291. "A fair point."
  292. > This time it is Cadance who breaks the following silence:
  293. > "Why refuse my plea to be the only one punished, just to give the option back to me?"
  294. "To make it your choice. That's the point of all of this: To make you understand the choices I have to make. Whether I honored your plea or not would have been my decision; to spare them now is yours."
  295. > "And if I make this decision, I will get to see my daughter?"
  296. "Yes. And depending on the results of your decision, she will get to stay."
  297. > Cadance sips from her wine - and then drinks deeply from it.
  298. > "I'll hold you to your word, then. About not punishing me if I choose to show them mercy."
  299. "It will be held. This little exercise is to teach your the weight of your choices; there'd be no point if I had a finger on the scale."
  300. > "You always have a finger on the scale."
  301. > Draining the last of her glass, Cadance spins about with surprising agility and glares upward at you.
  302. > "If we were free, this 'choice' would be irrelevant and your sadistic game unneeded. You hold us captive and pretend to teach us lessons for our own good, dangle the threat of my child being returned back to whatever state left her riddled with lice and fleas while claiming I have control of her fate... you live up here surrounded by luxury and gold while complaining about your budget. I know my regalia alone would net you a fair amount."
  303. "Are you quite done?"
  304. > "...yes."
  305. "Good. Then you can return to your cell and consider what choice you will make tomorrow."
  306. > If her tirade's failure to phase you is upsetting to Cadance, she does not show it.
  307. > Instead she simply gives a bow - mocking in its deepness - and turns for the door.
  308. > "Of course, Sir."
  311. > The following morning comes grey and miserable, a heaviness in the air as if the sky itself had come down to watch the proceedings.
  312. > Rain ought to have come long ago, but seemed locked away in the charcoal-toned clouds overhead.
  313. > So, too, in your wings can you feel the impending weather - finally freed from their binders and able to sense the natural flow of pegasus weather magic.
  314. > "My lady?"
  315. > And thus the moment is broken.
  316. "Mayor, please. Simply call me Cadance. You know they do not like it when such... honors are laid on me."
  317. > "Of course, Cadance. They are asking for you, however."
  318. > It was time, then.
  319. > You'd been released for your cell far earlier than the others, to prepare for the sentencing today.
  320. > Couldn't hide forever, much as you might want to.
  321. > Had Celestia ever felt like this...?
  322. > Not merely not wanting to go somewhere, but dreading so?
  323. > Emerging outside, you find much of the camp's inhabitants have already gathered around the platform raised in an open field.
  324. > A multitudinous crowd of ponies, of all sizes, ages, and tribes.
  325. > United by one thing only:
  326. > Their status in bondage.
  327. > Now security officers are pulling the six of your ringleaders from an armored van and forward to the stage.
  328. > They all react differently.
  329. > Sunburst, berift of his glasses, blinks owlishly and stumbles against the pull of his collar.
  330. > Lyra and Bon Bon stick close together despite their leashes.
  331. > The others simply walk.
  332. > Six pairs of eyes meet yours, noting the lack of shackles on your hooves.
  333. > None show signs of obvious abuse, although Bon Bon bears several bruises.
  334. > Knowing her, though, she probably held them as tokens of pride - medals of resistance.
  335. > Anonymous has arrived on the opposite side of the stage too, seating himself in a chair brought by his escorts.
  336. > You rather wish you hadn't noticed him; even after looking away, you can feel his judging gaze resting on you more heavily than your crown ever had.
  337. > Ascending the stairs yourself feels as though walking to an execution, though you know even Anonymous would not have ordered that.
  338. "...two days ago..."
  339. > A princess' voice should be strong and certain when speaking to your subjects, but you cannot keep the waver out of yours.
  340. "Two days ago, a plan to free a number of our kin was put into action. Though many did flee, this comes with a cost that I am sure all involved knew would have to be paid."
  341. > Struggling, you try to meet the crowd's eyes.
  342. > Was that hatred?
  343. > Fear, of what you would do?
  344. > Acceptance that the cost of freedom?
  345. > Dare you even hope to see respect among them?
  346. > Unfortunately, you cannot tell.
  347. > Emotions have turned the crowd into an unreadable jibberish.
  348. "As I am responsible for all of you, I have been called upon to announce and see carried out the sentence on those who foremost lead and organized this plan."
  349. > Turning to face the six - all forced to sit on their haunches, but some with heads hung in anticipation while others hold them poised high with pride.
  350. "Before the sentence is announced, each will be allowed to speak."
  351. > Not plead.
  352. > You would not ask them to plead.
  353. > But the option was surely understood.
  354. > Privately, you almost wished some would.
  355. > If they did, you maybe show a little mercy...
  356. > Walking down the line, you first arrive at Sunburst.
  357. > He peers up at you, squinting despite almost certainly knowing who you must be.
  358. > Opening and closing his mouth in a struggle to speak, he finally gives up and shakes his head.
  359. > You understand, though it hurts.
  360. > He'd been ecstatic at reuniting with you, even in a slave camp.
  361. > But he'd also always left the impression he'd taken a lead in planning the entire escape simply because it had your blessing - simply because his princess had accepted it.
  362. > Bon Bon is next, and understandably the cream mare gives no words to you.
  363. > Instead, she fixes her gaze straight at Anonymous and spits - audibly and visibly - on the platform.
  364. > Further down the line, Lyra flicnhes.
  365. > Allowing yourself only a mental sigh, you continue.
  366. > Derpy is next.
  367. > The warmhearted pegasus is not even attempting to hide her emotion - golden eyes filled with tears and wings trembling.
  368. > "I only wanted my daughters to be free..."
  369. > Her voice is weak, but you are certain will carry to the edges of the crowd.
  370. > Only one of her daughters had joined in the escape, the other having waited for a later chance that never came before it was discovered.
  371. > Leaning in, you nuzzle her and whisper.
  372. "I understand."
  373. > "I'm so sorry. I just wanted them to be free. I never meant you to have to - to -"
  374. > Shaking your head, you rest your lips on her forehead for a moment before moving on.
  375. > Don't want to let your own emotion slip through, after all.
  376. > Rumble says nothing.
  377. > He wants to, but will not - his lips pursed as if to physically prevent the words from leaping out.
  378. > You move to the next pony before his willpower can fail.
  379. > "Please!"
  380. > Lyra doesn't wait for you to step in front of her, physically throwing herself at your hooves.
  381. > "Let - let me take Bonnie's! I can do it - I can! I will-"
  382. "Shh..."
  383. > Dropping to your belly, you slip a wing beneath her chin to raise her head.
  384. > "Please, Cadance; let me be the one to take it for her..."
  385. > How ironic that you had just spoken those words a little under a day ago.
  386. > Briefly you wonder if Anonymous had felt this torn when you'd made your plea.
  387. > Probably not.
  388. > "Cadance? Cadance! Please!"
  389. > Accepting her request is also likely impossible... but lowering Lyra's own punishment might be an even greater gift to Bon Bon than reducing the Earth Pony's immediate suffering.
  390. > Moving along, you stop at last in front of Cheerilee.
  391. > Raising dull eyes to examine you lightly, she lets out a heavy breath.
  392. > "Do what you have to. I couldn't keep feeding those foals poisoned lies. I couldn't bring up a generation believing that being a slave was... right."
  393. > Neither could you.
  394. > Her situation, most of all, had awakened a deep ache in your heart:
  395. > Forced not merely to see friends and family enslaved, but to help ensure that their foals would not even realize what prisoners they were.
  396. > But then, you cannot show them all mercy either.
  397. > Turning back to face the crowd, you raise your voice again:
  398. "The sentences as decided are as follows: You each will receive thirty lashes. You and anyone who lives with you will be moved from their individual quarters back to group barracks, and unneeded personal possessions confiscated by my assistants. Additionally, for four months they will suffer the following."
  399. > Already murmurs are rising in the crowd.
  400. > Whether of surprise you were being so hard on them, or relief it was not worse you aren't sure.
  401. "Sunburst. You value your time working with me; as a result, you will be transferred away and banned from my office and quarters. We are forbidden to hold unnecessary conversations."
  402. > His head falls, but you can see the consolation that it was not forever.
  403. "Bon Bon. You will be transferred away from Lyra, and similarly banned from her quarters and workplace. You are also transferred to field labor."
  404. > Anonymous would hate loosing her cooking skills, but others could fill in for only four months.
  405. > Bon Bon does not react, too busy staring daggers into Anonymous' throat.
  406. "Rumble -"
  407. > "Wait!"
  408. > A grey pegasus breaks through the crowd, stopping just short of the security officers who intercept him.
  409. > "Wait - he's only a colt, let me take his place!"
  410. > "Bro?! What-"
  411. > Extending a wing to silence Rumble before his attendant officer can do it forcefully, you nod to Thunderlane.
  412. "Accepted. Thunderlane, in Rumble's place you will be transferred to new duties and forbidden contact with your marefriend."
  413. > Shoulders heaving in heavy relief, Thunderlane slowly ascends the platform while you continue:
  414. "Lyra Heartstrings. You are similarly transferred away from Bon Bon, your lyre confiscated, and you are forbidden to acquire or make use of any others."
  415. > She would offer a new plea on Bon Bon's behalf, you can tell, but the officer holding her leash has given her a warning tug.
  416. "Derpy Hooves. Your remaining daughter will be transferred away and you are forbidden contact with her."
  417. > There's no stopping the pegasus' tears - not even when you'd announced the flogging had they flowed like that.
  418. > Quickly, you speak again:
  419. "Cheerilee. You will be transferred away from teaching and into a field labor position. You are also forbidden from entering the schoolhouse."
  420. > Dully, the schoolmare simply nods.
  421. > She, you think, has come to terms with her fate.
  422. > But have the foals who loved her teaching?
  423. > They, you thought, might end up feeling worse from this than Cheerilee would.
  424. > Sucking in a deep breath, you move to the hardest part:
  425. "However, in light of what was said before these sentences were announced...."
  426. "...based on what has been said here, I will offer all here the chance to face up to what they have done and face a greater immediate punishment, rather than stretch it out over months. An additional thirty lashes, to negate the second half of your sentence and show you are ready to fully face the cost of what you have done here and now."
  427. > The crowd shifts, and you spare a subtle glance towards Anonymous' seat to try and judge his reaction to the announcement.
  428. > He remains seated in the chair, hands placidly folded in his lap, eyes inscrutable from this distance.
  429. > Sixty lashes total would be... harsh, compared to what most slaves were given.
  430. > Not the worst you'd heard of, not by far.
  431. > But still a great, especially for one sitting.
  432. "If any of you wish to accept this, say so now or-"
  433. > "Yes!"
  434. > Struggling against her leash and wings aflutter, Derpy practically lunges forward.
  435. > "Yes, I'll do it! If I can see my daughter!"
  436. > There's another commotion in the crowd - muted, but still there - that you suspect is focused around the unicorn in question.
  437. > Would she hate you, you wonder, for what you're putting her mother through?
  438. > Moving back up the line, you pause in front of each pony in turn.
  439. > Cheerilee shakes her head with the same listless emptiness she'd shown before.
  440. > "More or less lashes, it doesn't matter. I can't go back to poisoning those foals' minds again."
  441. > Nodding in silent understanding, you move on to Lyra.
  442. > The lime-green unicorn glances down the line at Bon Bon, searching for some indication that both of them will accept the deal.
  443. > It's fruitless, you already know.
  444. > Bon Bon had never passed up any opportunity to spite the Owners, and any move that showed she was 'facing up' to doing wrong would be automatically discarded.
  445. > Eventually Lyra realizes as well, and - eyes wet, but refusing to let the tears spill out - mouths 'no'.
  446. > Thunderlane's jaw is set in a stoic line, but it his head jerks in a single, curt affirmative motion as you pass in front of him.
  447. > No words are given, and none are needed:
  448. > He'd already substituted himself for his brother; you'd have been surprised if he then let himself be cut off from the younger colt.
  449. > Passing in front of Bon Bon without even stopping - her answer is a forgone conclusion - you halt lastly in front of Sunburst.
  450. > He is struggling the most with this, at least outwardly.
  451. > His teeth gritted and horn spitting tiny sparks despite the limiter on it, he at last whispers:
  452. > "Yes. Do it."
  453. > Your heart plunges.
  454. > Above all the others, he is the one you wish would have said no.
  455. > To be parted from him for that long would be difficult for both of you.
  456. > He seemed to rely on you to keep himself from collapsing into despair, and as one of your only true confidants he'd been a source of relief for you as well.
  457. > But, to ask you to do this...
  458. "All have been spoken. The sentences will now be carried out -"
  459. > Again your eyes snap aside to Anonymous.
  460. "- all seven of them, as I was complicit in this too. I was fully aware of the plan, and I hold responsibility for it every bit as much as the other six ponies up here."
  461. > He's sat up, leaning forward with a hand on his knee and now fully attentive to what you are saying.
  462. "As your leader - as your princess, despite where we find ourselves now - it is my place to not just mete out judgements while I rest easy but to face the same troubles all of you do. Therefore, I will take sixty lashes and-"
  463. > The next words choke in your throat.
  464. > Squeezing your eyes shut, you struggle to force them out knowing full-well how incredibly bitter they will be.
  465. "- and for four months will not see my daughter, who has recently been purchased and would otherwise have soon joined me here."
  466. > Now you have the crowd's full attention as well.
  467. > Murmurs race through them, reaching a small hubbub that is only halted when you extend a wing to silence them.
  468. "Understand, my daughter's well-being is not being threatened. She is not going to be punished if I had merely walked away now safely. I am not being forced to do this. My decision to hold myself responsible is mine as your leader, not as a slave."
  469. > Through all of this, your eyes have been firmly locked on Anonymous.
  470. > Daring him to step in, to halt you.
  471. > To break his promise and just confirm that he is the one ruling over everypony here.
  472. > In the end, however, he only gives a simple nod.
  473. > Apparently he knows when he has been beaten.
  474. > Turning aside, you walk back to Derpy and lower your head to whisper in her ear:
  475. "A mother's love for her child is something I can always understand. When she comes, look after Flurry Heart for me?"
  476. > "...yes, Princess."
  477. > Her voice is soft, almost reverent.
  478. "Thank you."
  479. > Raising your voice one last time, you simply call out:
  480. "The sentences will now be carried out."
  481. > Moving quickly, the guards set up the post on the stage with a speed that belies the awful cruelty of how commonly it is in use.
  482. > Cheerilee is taken up first, her hooves slipped into the cuffs suspended from the oiled post and tail tucked beneath her belly by an elastic band, leaving her reared up with back and haunches exposed.
  483. > Yet, when a guard approaches whip in hand, you step in front of him - shaking your head and taking the whip in your magic.
  484. > He hesitates, glancing briefly to Anonymous.
  485. > But when no contradicting order is issued, he releases his grip on the implement and steps back.
  486. > A hush falls over the crowd as they realize what you intend to do, and even in Cheerilee's eyes there's a flicker of emotion.
  487. "I'm sorry..."
  488. > Your apology earns no spoken response from her, but after a moment she turns her head forward again and leans it against the pole.
  489. > That is, you suppose, as good an indication to start as any.
  490. > At least the whip in question was not a full-weight, full-length thing like you'd seen used a few times before.
  491. > It wouldn't tear the hides from their backs when you used it.
  492. > Heaving the whip back in your grip, you begin.
  493. > Cheerilee, to your utter thanks, does not show significant emotion even as you reach the final blow.
  494. > Low, squelched groans and gasps burst from her throat on occasion and a few tears run down her cheeks.
  495. > But they are nothing compared to the intense, heart-rendering cries you'd seen other ponies give up on the post.
  496. > Her jaw is not even gritted to halt a noise; she truly seems to not be that bothered by the lashing.
  497. > Perhaps, you reflect, she'd truly meant it when she said that having to teach the foals' approved curriculum was worse than any beating.
  498. > Wobbly on her legs but still able to walk on her own as she is lead away, Cheerilee is replaced by Thunderlane - a crossbar inserted over his back to lift his wings out of the way and ensure they would not be hit by a stray blow.
  499. > He, too, shows little emotion initially - but as you cross the threshold from thirty into his additional punishment, his forehooves twitch and twist in the cuffs keeping him reared up as his wings spasm with each blow.
  500. > By the end you are thankful Rumble had been taken off the stage and out of sight.
  501. > Restraining himself as his older brother was released from the stocks - his back a mess of red welts against his dark coat - would not have been likely.
  502. > Lyra is secured into the position third, and your heart sinks as you begin.
  503. > She was not prepared for this, and your ears flatten themselves against your skull as her cries rise as her lashes are meted out.
  504. > Two-thirds of the way through them, you find the handle of the whip trembling in your magical hold.
  505. > Lyra is slumped loosely against the post, her sides heaving and mane already disheveled.
  506. > But you're still not done.
  507. > Steeling yourself, you soldier on, finishing her time on the post.
  508. > Carried away by two guards, she is in turn replaced by Bon Bon.
  509. > Her sentence is easier to complete; rather than focus on you, she keeps her eyes firmly locked in a harsh glare speared at Anonymous.
  510. > Though she clearly struggles with it, her gaze is undiminished when she is taken down.
  511. > You shudder softly, wondering if at least that meant she was not angry with you.
  512. > The two ponies remaining, however...
  513. > Derpy is already sucking heavy, deep gasps of air in anticipation of what will be done to her.
  514. > But Starburst...
  515. > Barely able to meet his eyes, you're instead forced to watch as Derpy is limpy brought up to the post and secured into position, her wings lifted safely away and exposed for your duty.
  516. > Not even the first blow has fallen and she is already squirming.
  517. > A sick, heavy feeling forms in your stomach.
  518. > Celestia, why did it have to be like this?
  519. > Stepping forward, you brace yourself and begin.
  520. > The pegasus' body jerks as each blow lands, the softly mewled noises coming from her throat quickly morphing into full on-sobs as the lashes continue to fall.
  521. > Somewhere in the back of your head you wish she would have refused your offer - spared you the pain of having to do this.
  522. > The crowd is shifting too, discomforted by the obvious cruelty of this punishment.
  523. > They can see how this is paining you, you realize, and that is being reflected back on their faces.
  524. > That if nothing else gives you the strength to carry on - the knowledge that they understood you were not being needlessly cruel to the mare strapped to the post.
  525. > At least, not by your own decision.
  526. > Even so, you can't help but feel you heart wrench as she screams out after each blow.
  527. > When your duty is finally complete and she is lifted away from the post - limp, sweat-laden, lines of raw red criss-crossing her grey coat - you have to look away.
  528. > And yet, the final of the six is far worse.
  529. > Sunburst cannot keep his eyes off of you as he is lead to the post, his face a mixture of disbelief that the pony he'd put so much trust in would be the one doing this, and relief that you were clearly so unhappy by being forced to do it.
  530. > Your heart twists as his forehooves are lifted into position, the plaintive, fearful, and yet thankful look more than you can bear.
  531. > At least, when you took up your position behind him, you didn't have to see that any more.
  532. > Seeing him jump as the whip falls on his back, however, is almost as bad - especially since he, too, is unable to hold back his cries.
  533. > That is little surprise - Sunburst had never been a physically tough pony, more immersed in his books than for hard labor.
  534. > By the end of his time on the post, you're barely able to maintain a good hold on the whip - letting it fall to the platform with a thud and hanging your head, stomach wrenching.
  535. > The heavy thud of boots on wood pulls your attention back.
  536. > Anonymous is ascending the platform, rolling up his own sleeves.
  537. > Your heart skips a beat; he is going to deliver your punishment?!
  538. > "It's time."
  539. > A guard had moved up beside you as your attention was elsewhere.
  540. > His low-toned voice holds no threat, but there's an iron certainty there.
  541. > Does he know you wouldn't dare flake out of this now?
  542. > Was that a hint of respect in his tone?
  543. > Maybe.
  544. > You move to the post, falling back on your haunches and lifting your forehooves to allow the leather loops to be fitted over them.
  545. > Instead, however, Anonymous pauses beside you.
  546. > His face is a carefully-controlled mask, guarding whatever thoughts he may have on your declaration.
  547. > His words, on the other hand...
  548. > "As you have decided to take on responsibility for this as well, I will offer you the same chance that you gave them before you confirmed their sentences. Is there anything you wish to say?"
  549. > Before you'd confirmed their sentences?
  550. "Just do it. Get it over with."
  551. > You keep your voice down, hoping that even if he does not get the groveling he wants then Anonymous will at least settle for you not publicly defying him.
  552. > It's hard to tell, though, as he simply turns and walks away - boots thudding ominously on the wooden planking.
  553. > Absent any further presence at your side, you allow your eyes to fall shut and release a tense breath.
  554. > Now that you were actually here - forehooves strapped into place, reared up just as the other six had been over the past minutes - you begin to feel a nervousness bubbling deep in your belly.
  555. > So far you'd managed to swallow your anxiety even when faced with the awful task you'd been forced to commit.
  556. > But when it is your turn up on the post...
  557. > Your wings give a little tremble.
  558. > What would your aunt think of this?
  559. > The niece she had groomed from the moment she had taken you in, bound and lashed by her own order?
  560. > Certainly your aunt had never hesitated to suffer small indignities for the sake of her ponies - and, you suspected, a few far greater points of anguish than even you knew.
  561. > But, this?
  562. > At the same time, some small fragment of your mind wonders if you should have been the first one on the post.
  563. > To know exactly what the others had suffered through when you carried out their sentences.
  564. > Even after your ordeal of capture, repeated sale, and several owners attempting to mold you to their preferences you'd never been truly whipped before.
  565. > Alicorns were far, far too valuable for that kind of treatment; most had preferred the gilded cage both figurative and once literal instead.
  566. > But when you were the one who had ordered it...
  568. > At least Anonymous wouldn't be likely to be too hard on you, for that same reason.
  569. > Forcing your eyes open again you're met with an increasingly agitated crowd, the sight of their leader -
  570. > No, their princess.
  571. > -bound up for punishment one they have trouble tolerating as well.
  572. > Setting your jaw, you refuse to allow your trepidation to show any further.
  573. > If they were already agitated, there was no need to feed -
  574. > A siblant sound pricks your ears, giving you only a fraction of a second's warning of the lash's arrival.
  575. > Instantly you understand it is far, far worse than anything you had ever anticipated.
  576. > Somehow you'd expected a quick, striking agony and then brief relief before the pain built back up from many strikes.
  577. > It is, in fact, anything but.
  578. > From the second the whip falls on your hide, it lays a path of unrelenting agony across your back.
  579. > Barely do you have time to take the full implications of this before the second blow arrives and sends your mind reeling again.
  580. > By the fifth blow you've bit your lip to stay the pain; by the twelfth, your cheeks are freely stained by fresh tears.
  581. > Time ceases its march, its passage grinding to an anguished halt marked only by the inevitable fall of the lash.
  582. > Sweet Celestia - he was only at what, Sixteen? Seventeen?
  583. > You had done this to another pony?!
  584. > Each blow only adds to the mountain of anguish.
  585. > Somehow you find yourself detaching from the whole experience - a filly huddling in a tiny, hidden corner of Cadance's mind.
  586. > It grants you just enough reasoning to understand that he was spreading the blows across your back and haunches, ensuring the most of your body would find itself subject to the awful torment.
  587. > He had, you dully reflect, held his word.
  588. > Despite your words, he had allowed you to chose the punishment.
  589. > But he had chosen how it was going to be applied.
  590. > How had the others managed to keep themselves from crying out?
  591. > You are screaming - the damn broken, willpower alone unable to keep your jaws clamped shut.
  592. > Everything is fading into a rolling haze of delerium, even the safe retreat in the back of your mind no longer safe from the scourging.
  593. > The next thing you know, your head is being held aloft by the a hand beneath your chin.
  594. > With some effort, your eyes focus and ears prick - pushing through the crashing roar that had filled them to bring in real sounds once again.
  595. > "...can't do this to her, she's our princess!"
  596. > "Get her down from there!"
  597. > Angry calls fill your head.
  598. > Somehow - you really, honestly don't know how - you manage to heave yourself up and raise your head.
  599. > Anonymous kneeled beside you, an indeterminate look on his face as he releases your chin.
  600. > The crowd, your ponies, are nearly pushing against the line of guards that had formed up to bar them from the stage.
  601. > Not quite, but almost.
  602. > If anyone of them dared lay a hoof on one of the guards...
  603. > Shuddering gently, you put the thought out of your head.
  604. > You couldn't wield the whip on another pony.
  605. > Not after this.
  606. "My ponies-"
  607. > No good.
  608. > Your voice is hoarse, rough.
  609. > Probably from screaming.
  610. > Swallowing, you try again.
  611. "My ponies, please, stop! I - I chose this for myself. This is something that must be done!"
  612. > Or, you add silently, you would never be able to look yourself in the mirror again and not feel your gut twist with shame.
  613. "I cannot be your leader if you will not let me suffer as you do."
  614. > Amazingly they do quiet somewhat; rowdy shouting reducing to troubled murmurs.
  615. > Panning your gaze across them, you try and meet eyes with as many as possible and hammer them with the most forceful look you can muster.
  616. > It isn't a tremendously powerful look - it's obvious that your appearance must be truly awful, mane plastered to your neck with sweat and forelegs trembling with the effort of keeping you from slumping in your bindings.
  617. > But it is enough.
  618. > Turning to Anonymous, you ask more quietly:
  619. "How many left?"
  620. > "Thirteen."
  621. > Almost done.
  622. > Sort of.
  623. > Maybe.
  624. "Finish it."
  625. > He, too, is a recipient of a fearful glare.
  626. > Daring him to refuse and break his promise to let you choose the punishment.
  627. > After a second he grunts, standing and taking up his place behind you again.
  628. > There isn't much else to be said about the remainder of the experience.
  629. > Twice the lash fell before you broke and started to cry out again.
  630. > And yet, it does end.
  631. > You become aware of your tail being released from its bindings, forehooves from their straps.
  632. > Of dropping to a normal stance on rubbery legs.
  633. > Walking in a half-asleep stagger, back aflame with an undying torment renewed by each movement, to the edge of the stage and off to where a nurse waits.
  634. > Only when you had somehow lurched into the trailer the others had been taken to did you dare to allow yourself to collapse and fall back into the merciful haze again.
  635. > ...
  636. > This... is not the medical tent.
  637. > That is the first thing you become aware of on really waking again.
  638. > How you fell asleep is another question you find yourself asking, but it is shoved aside in favor of attempting to figure out exactly where you are.
  639. > One eye cracks open, jolting your brain with a spike of agony.
  640. > You are immediately made aware of exactly where you are, however.
  641. > After all, you'd been here just the night before.
  642. > The question then becomes, why did Anonymous have you brought back to his quarters?
  643. > Struggling to stand, you're caught off guard when he speaks:
  644. > "Don't try to move. You're still recovering, and it will be a while yet."
  645. > Also awoken by your efforts were the terrible welts he had inflicted on you, so it is a very real relief to let your legs fold beneath you and fall back to the mattress you rest on.
  646. "Water."
  647. > Throat far to ruined to manage even a 'please' after it, you hope the tone your single-word plea is uttered in conveys the desperation you feel.
  648. "Water..."
  649. > Eventually a glass is placed at your lips.
  650. > Greedily you suck it down, not caring how much dribbles down your chin to stain your coat.
  651. > Head collapsing in relief after it is gone, you lick your lips nervously and try to fold your wings.
  652. > Instantly you realize your mistake; a feather-tip brushes across your brutalized back and reignites the pain that had laid somewhat dormant.
  653. > Sucking in a sharp hiss, you hear Anonymous sigh softly.
  654. > "Lay spread your wings and lay still."
  655. > Too exhausted to protest, you obey.
  656. > Still you are surprised when something cool and soothing touches your back, gently dabbing and spreading its merciful relief over the freshly-aggravated injuries.
  657. > He is treating your injuries, you realize, probably with kind soothing or numbing agent.
  658. > Why?
  659. > "Because to some degree this was my fault."
  660. > Had you said that aloud?
  661. > Apparently so, as Anonymous finishes his work on your back and then moves to seat himself in front of you.
  662. > Eyes tilting up, you peer at him from beneath the edge of your mane.
  663. > He looks...
  664. > Upset.
  665. > Not angry, not sad, just - upset.
  666. > "I expected you to be a leader. Instead you go easy on them and then play the martyr yourself..."
  667. "Didn't go easy. Don't know how they stood it."
  668. > With your injuries numbed again and throat dampened, it's easier to speak.
  669. "Never - never felt anything like that."
  670. > "What you originally laid out - it was... soft. Too easy. That escape stunt is going to cost ponies' lives, and you just take them away for a few months?"
  671. > He shakes his head.
  672. > "And then you not only offer them a more severe 'alternative', but force it on yourself as well... God damn, Cadance."
  673. "What - what would you have done?"
  674. > "Oh, that's easy. Flayed off their cutie marks, executed them in boiling pitch, impaled the corpses in the center of the town and left them as a warning to any other would-be resistance leaders."
  675. > Your stomach wrenches, bile threatening to creep up into your throat.
  676. > He... cannot possibly be serious.
  677. > Seeing your look, Anonymous shakes his head and at least has the decency to look mildly horrified himself.
  678. > "Of course I wouldn't do that! Fucking hell - I'm not the devil or something!"
  679. "S'not funny."
  680. > "It wasn't a joke."
  681. > He slumps back across the bed you are resting on.
  682. > "The truth is, you've created a bit of a problem for me, Cadance. You played the martyr very well - the ruler struggling with her people. The problem is, a martyr has to be martyred by someone else. Do you understand what I am saying?"
  683. > Head twisting, he looks at you again.
  684. > "You made it clear you not just didn't stop the plan, but implicitly approved it... and then subjected yourself to the punishment anyhow. You know what they're going to read in to that? You made it look like I was the one who wrote the punishments, even if it was 'your' choice."
  685. "You did. Not - not literally. Leverage - my daughter."
  686. > "That's not the same, Cadance. I thought you understood - to make this place safe, you need to be a governess, not a martyr for freedom."
  687. > To that, you don't have an immediate answer.
  688. > Turning your head away, you ruffle your spread wings nervously.
  689. "...can I just see a picture of my daughter? You promised me I could."
  690. > The plea sounds far more demanding - more foalish - than you'd meant it to.
  691. > Anonymous sighs softly.
  692. > "Not in the mood to talk about it... well. I did promise, you have that right."
  693. > He stands, plodding away.
  694. > You're left with the distinct impression you'd somehow disappointed him, but that's still probably better than arguing, right?
  695. > Still thinking it over when he returns, you're caught off guard when a tablet is held before you - a picture already pulled up on the screen.
  696. > You are, frankly, not prepared for what you see.
  697. > Flurry was...
  698. > Well.
  699. > Not a foal, for one.
  700. > Her barrel had lengthened, filling out to match her head - wings still seeming far too large, practically ready to wrap around her body.
  701. > And yet...
  702. > Heart wrenching, you manage to light your horn and take the tablet in your magical grip.
  703. > Struggling upright, the pain of your own flogging forgotten as you peer closer at the screen.
  704. "Oh, Flurry!"
  705. > Ribs poked through a coat that was devoid of all luster, joints bulging on too-thin legs.
  706. > A heavy metal band bowed her neck, the weight of a collar meant for a fully-grown stallion too much for her.
  707. > What remained of her mane was filthy and clumped; seated as she is in the picture, you cannot see her tail but fear it is the same if not worse.
  708. > There is are patches of what you suspect with a horrible, sinking feeling is mange scarring her flanks.
  709. > Worst of all, however, were her eyes.
  710. > They peered at the camera with a disinterested emptiness you'd seen before - a sign of a pony who simply did not care anymore.
  711. > Beyond even accepting the cruelty of their position.
  712. "What did they do to you?"
  713. > "That was when she went up for sale. Like I said, some idiot with a rolling show who couldn't balance the books to save his life and cut corners to make up for it."
  714. > Anonymous settles back on the bed.
  715. > "Honestly, it might have saved her life that he finally gave in and put her up for sale. Sooner or later, she would have caught something."
  716. > Reaching out, he swipes a finger across the screen.
  717. > The picture that moves in to replace the first draws another gasp from your lips, but for a different reason.
  718. > Flurry Heart had clearly been shaved at some point, coat looking thin while her mane and tail had just only begun to grow back.
  719. > And yet, she somehow looked infinitely better nonetheless.
  720. > The mange was gone, her coat smooth and beginning to show a healthy luster.
  721. > Feathers, previously disarranged and ragged, showed in even rows again.
  722. > But, as before, what truly brings tears to your eyes is her own gaze.
  723. > There was life in those eyes.
  724. > Uncertainty, maybe a little fearfulness, but still hope.
  725. "Th-this is new?"
  726. > Had your voice truly become that tremulous?
  727. > "Yes. Only a few days ago. Like I said last night, I was going to tell you soon..."
  728. > He sounds so smug, so confident, that you can't quite feel a bit of resentment.
  729. > That smoldering flame is quickly squashed, though.
  730. > "But then, of course, you won't be seeing her directly for some time now."
  731. > Yes.
  732. > That was true.
  733. > You would keep your word.
  734. "Will she still be brought here? Moved into the camp?"
  735. > "If you prove capable of actually leading them."
  736. > Swallowing the lump in your throat, you nod - setting the tablet down and resting your head back on the bed again.
  737. "If you give her to me, I think - the other ponies. They'll understand. See - that I'm not just carrying out your orders while you hold her hostage."
  738. > Even though he could still take her away at any time, you know.
  739. > There are desperately few ponies in the camp capable of actually fighting, and even fewer with the willpower to dare strike one of his guards.
  740. > "Should no other problems come up between now and when she is cleared to arrive, I will have her delivered to you. Or at least, to whoever you designate."
  741. "Thank you."
  742. > "But Cadance? I will be watching."
  743. > No amount of willpower can hide the goosebumps that run down your coat.
  745. > The hospital bed is impossibly soft and smooth, easily the equal of any cloud you have ever slept on.
  746. > ...not that you've been sleeping on many clouds lately.
  747. > Not much chance for that.
  748. > Having your own room is nice too.
  749. > It also leaves you able to hear exactly when the door opens for a visitor.
  750. > "Bro?"
  751. "Hey, Rumble."
  752. > Heaving yourself up, you're again thankful for whatever salve they had slapped on to your welts as you'd arrived.
  753. > Whatever the product, it was monstrously powerful and had thoroughly numbed your entire back (and, unfortunately, both wings).
  754. > Opposite you, the young colt rears up tenderly, carefully nuzzle the side of your neck.
  755. > "I can't believe you actually did that..."
  756. "It's alright, little bro. Just my back that's real bad, and I can't even feel that right now. Come on up."
  757. > He does, enthusiastically leaping up onto the bed with a few flaps of his still-coltish wings and then burrowing down against your side.
  758. > In his haste a few of your welts are brushed against, reawakening a throbbing pain in them.
  759. > You force down any reaction, however, instead spreading out a wing over him and swinging your head over to rest on top of his.
  760. > It takes a couple tries with your wing numbed, but you manage.
  761. > Rumble, however, only has eyes for staring at your back.
  762. > Glancing at it yourself does draw a wince; there's no doubting the abundance of marks from your time at the post looked plainly awful.
  763. "Worse than it looks. They put something nice on it; I can barely feel a thing."
  764. > "Still. I can't believe you did that."
  765. > After a moment he adds more softly:
  766. > "I can't believe she did that to you."
  767. > Or would have done it to him.
  768. > He doesn't say it, but you can hear the unspoken thought in Rumble's voice.
  769. "She had to. It was that or leave it up to our dear and loving master, and you know he wouldn't have been as kind."
  770. > "This is kind?"
  771. > Rolling your eyes at his sarcastic quip, you lightly whack him in the back of the head with your wing.
  772. "This is rough, but it was also once. Direct. Like a good thunderstorm - there and then passed, you know?"
  773. > "I guess."
  774. "And don't you forget she went up there too. Celestia above, hearing her scream like that..."
  775. > "Yeah. It - I wish everypony had just told Anonymous to go rut himself instead of letting him do that."
  776. "They couldn't, Rumble. And she did say it was her choice."
  777. > "Windigo shit it was!"
  778. > Groaning at his language, you drop your head down atop his.
  779. > Rumble makes a surprised noise and struggles briefly before acquiescing to the position.
  780. > After a moment, though, you feel him curl a bit closer to you.
  781. "Bro, it means more that we still respect her choices. That we still know she's our princess, even if she doesn't have a crown anymore. That's part of what still makes us loyal Equestrians."
  782. > "I know, but - come on, if he'd held her up with puppet strings it wouldn't have been any more obvious what was going on there! He makes her buck us, then he gets his turn with her!"
  783. "Maybe. But what if it was his choice? What if it was like my choice to go up there in your place?"
  784. > This pulls a long silence from him, after which comes a question:
  785. > "Thunder... why did you do that? How? What'd you say to get him - get Cadance, whatever - to let me out? You know he's gotta be pissed about what we pulled off-"
  786. > You wish for a moment that he could at least not sound so proud of that.
  787. > "-so what'd you tell him?"
  788. "That you're a young colt - young, hormonal, and stupid - and while someone had to take it, it shouldn't be you. He said it should be just family."
  789. > It's not a lie - not in the strictest sense, anyhow.
  790. > Unfortunately, Rumble isn't buying it.
  791. > One ear flicks beneath your chin.
  792. > "C'mon - I know it couldn't have been that simple. How'd you do it, bro?"
  793. > There's more than just simple curiosity in his voice now.
  794. > Suspicion tars it as well.
  795. "It's because of the work I've been doing for him. We've been doing."
  796. > "Huh?"
  797. > You sigh gently, lifting a hoof to lightly tap Rumble on the nose.
  798. "You know it's not too easy for Anonymous to find ponies who will join his guard force, right?"
  799. > Rumble mutters something into the sheets.
  800. > You don't bother asking; it's reasonably easy to figure out what.
  801. "I know, Rumble. We don't have to like what we're doing, but the fact is we do it. We keep the others in line, keep them following his rules."
  802. > "We keep them slaves..."
  803. "...yeah, I kinda guessed you felt that way."
  804. > He doesn't respond; instead, you lay your head back down and go on:
  805. "Whatever your feelings are, we do it. When you're seeing that the bread gets passed out, or we're checking everypony is in after curfew, or finding out why somepony skipped their work shift... and he values that."
  806. > Rumble shifts, mouth opening, but you cut him off:
  807. "We do it, and we can do it because we're a lot more kindly about it than any of his guards could be. Would be. You and I, bro - we're not tougher than we have to be. Sometimes, we even give a pony a bit of help when they need it."
  808. > This time, Rumble simply nods.
  809. > Even with the door to your room closed, speaking about specifics makes you nervous.
  810. > Fortunately it's clear that he understands what you mean.
  811. > When he'd see a pony whose rations clearly weren't meeting what they needed or obviously needed a pick-me-up and would 'forget' that he'd already issued them a ration of fresh bread.
  812. > Or when you'd find somepony rushing back to their quarters just after curfew and leave them with a mere talking-to rather than the report to the overseers your rules demanded.
  813. > A thousand other little mercies, to ease the daily existence of living here.
  814. "Bro - let me lead you in on a secret. All that stuff you're doing, that you think is secret from Anonymous? He knows. He's always known. He knows about the things I do too."
  815. > To this, Rumble can't help but respond.
  816. > Pulling his head out from beneath your chin, he rears it back to peer at you with wide eyes and shrunken pupils:
  817. > "Then why - I don't - we've seen ponies get punished for less than that!"
  818. "We have. But we're valuable, you and I - so he lets it go. He looks the other way too, just like we do, because what's a few extra rations given out or a hooffull of late workers when everypony else doesn't hate us?"
  819. > His head falls back down, eyes narrowed and ears laid flat.
  820. > You can see the thoughts churning between Rumble's ears.
  821. "For every thing we cost him, we can stop three ponies from being hurt. He knows it."
  822. > Even hiding this much from your little brother sets your stomach churning, but it's all you can bare to do.
  823. > Telling him the whole truth now would be impossible, but hiding everything...
  824. > That's not something you can stomach either.
  825. > "...I don't want to be 'valuable' to him. I don't want to do anything for him."
  826. > Dropping your chin to the bed as well, you stare into the far wall - as if your gaze could carve a hole straight through it and the perimeter fence beyond.
  827. "That's why you got mixed up in... all that, huh?"
  828. > "Yeah. It - I -"
  829. > Slipping from beneath your wing entirely, he rises and begins to pace on the bed.
  830. > "I couldn't fall asleep at night, couldn't put that uniform on in the morning and not be sick on the floor right there if not! I had to do something!"
  831. > Your stomach wrenches again.
  832. > How did you manage to look yourself honestly in the mirror and not want to shatter it underhoof, you wonder.
  833. > What let you somehow live with yourself after selling ponies out to the man you hated more than anyone else?
  834. > A mystery as much as anything else.
  835. > Somehow, you do.
  836. "None of us want to, Rumble. But we do what we can."
  837. > "I won't be."
  838. "Don't be like that. Ponies being able to smile just a little because of what we do is more important than-"
  839. > "It's not my choice. They kicked me off the guard roster."
  840. > Stomach flipping, you swallow.
  841. > Anonymous had promised nothing would happen to Rumble.
  842. > But, he couldn't exactly keep a pony who'd been caught up in leading an escape attempt on his guard post.
  843. "Do you know where you're being assigned...?"
  844. > "No. Getting the new role tomorrow. Today I got off."
  845. > He had?
  846. "Whose order?"
  847. > "Cadance."
  848. > There's still a degree of anger in how he spits the name.
  849. > But, less than before.
  850. > Maybe he is coming to understand the delicate balance between being useful to Anonymous and being his puppet.
  851. > Certainly you did.
  852. > More than anything else, you pitied the once-princess.
  853. "Well, whatever it is... just do your part, help other ponies where you can. That's how we keep ourselves loyal Equestrians in here: Looking out for everypony."
  854. > Pausing in his pacing, Rumble nods - then abruptly leans over to nuzzle your cheek.
  855. > "Thanks, big bro. For taking that for me..."
  856. > For a few moments you're taken away by the action and his soft voice - seeing not a young stallion on the cusp of adulthood, but the colt who'd played hoofball and been walked to school in Ponyville.
  857. > Who'd come home blushing after that orange filly had given him a peck on the cheek.
  858. > Who'd buzzed little happy circles around your head when he'd been first-pick for a game of cloud-tag.
  859. > ...who'd never had a chance to get his cutie mark before the end had come crashing down on you all.
  860. "Go rest up then. I'll be fine - I get a couple of days off to heal from this too."
  861. > "Alright. Thanks, bro."
  862. > He leaps from the bed, peering back at you with a small smile.
  863. "Don't worry about taking your uniform in, if you haven't already. I'll make sure it gets done."
  864. > That much humiliation, at least, you could spare him.
  865. > Just at the door, Rumble halts and looks back again.
  866. > "Hey, bro...?"
  867. "Yeah?"
  868. > "What if - you said following Cadance still makes us Equestrian subjects, 'cause she's a princess, right?"
  869. "One of the things, yeah."
  870. > "What happens if she tells us - well, tells you now - to stop helping everypony in the little ways you do?"
  871. "She wouldn't. She hates this as much as we do."
  872. > "But what if she does?!"
  873. > Turning around entirely now, Rumble shows you the full depth of the anguish on his face.
  874. > "What if - what if Anonymous makes her, or if she just goes crazy and tells us we have to be tough as a thundercloud on everypony?"
  875. "Then..."
  877. "We have to trust that she knows what she is doing. Maybe she thinks it will give us better chances down the line, or prevent Anonymous from doing something worse."
  878. > "What if she doesn't? What if-"
  879. "Then we answer that when we see it happening, Rumble. But we can't just... put her aside because we don't like what she says, especially without knowing everything she is doing."
  880. > You aren't looking, but can hear his final footsteps out and the door closing after him.
  881. > His mind wasn't settled, that was for sure.
  882. > Laying your head back down on the bed, you shuffle your wings and hope he doesn't do anything too rash.
  883. > Once, you were lucky to have been able to convince Anonymous to even substitute yourself in Rumble's place.
  884. > A second time...
  885. > You wouldn't have anything to offer him in return, and another ultimatum would only get yourself added to the line as well.
  886. > Would Cadance be any more responsive?
  887. > Despite her time 'leading' the camp, the alicorn was something of an enigma to you.
  888. > She'd mostly kept her authority relegated to small matters - the assignment of what meager extra materials were given to the camp's population, organizing the handful of holiday celebrations were allowed...
  889. > And, apparently, planning the escape.
  890. > That had caught you by surprise, as did Cadance's direct role in both delivering and accepting the lashings.
  891. > Now she seemed to be trying to straddle those two roles, and what would come of it yet you weren't sure.
  892. > ...
  893. > By the time they release you from the hospital two days later, you're long since ready to get back into motion.
  894. > Though the rest was welcome there was only so long you could go without becoming somewhat stir-crazy.
  895. > Pegasi were creatures of the sky, after all, not of closed-up rooms.
  896. > At least they'd given you a bottle of ointment to help with numbing and healing your welts.
  897. > Only a brief stop is made at your own room, however, as there's one bit of business you would have to deal with first.
  898. > It was mid-afternoon, with the day's work shifts well underway, and Rumble had let slip during his visit that he'd be assigned a new working position without any delay.
  899. > So, there wasn't any chance of him being in his quarters.
  900. > Plenty of time to go in, collect his guard uniform, and turn it in for him.
  901. > Spare him, at least, the humiliation of having to be the one to do so.
  902. > Trotting through the mostly-empty streets, of the little town - Anonymous called it a camp, but in all honesty it was a town - you pass through its eclectic mix of buildings:
  903. > A cluster of concrete-and-cinderblock boxes formed the core; some of the ponies claimed it had been originally meant as a temporary facility for only briefly holding ponies before they were sold on.
  904. > You were inclined to believe it; the buildings might be the most solid of those in the town, but they were also the most decrepit.
  905. > Peeling paint and leaking pipes were the least of it.
  906. > The barracks there were the first place newly-arrived slaves stayed on entering the camp, until they 'earned' a coveted place among the newer homes.
  907. > Misery and depression brought in with them seemed to have impregnated the very prisonlike walls of the buildings, forming a toxic mix with their natural oppressive hardness.
  908. > A good motivation for working hard enough to get out - or to fear having your spot in a home confiscated and returned to the barracks.
  909. > Further out as you walk, the streets begin to be populated by more familiar buildings.
  910. > Some of cinderblocks still, but also many of wood and sideboard - lumber harvested as your owner added new land and expanded his operations.
  911. > One-time city ponies sometimes complained about the 'rudimentary' buildings, but to you they weren't that far from Ponyville's rough architecture.
  912. > Even more welcome were the little ways in which everypony had striven to add a little livable touch to the place.
  913. > Here, a bit of excess paint had been put to use adding a touch of color to a building's front.
  914. > There, somepony with a talent had woven scraps of corn husks into a hood for a gently-buzzing streetlamp - breaking up its boxy metallic frame into a gentler, familiar oval one with light bleeding between the straps.
  915. > Turning a corner, you come on the individual homes.
  916. > Not truly individual, of course.
  917. > All shared at least one, maybe two walls with another home and often more.
  918. > And yet, they were the most individuality, the most privacy anypony had anymore.
  919. > Windows displayed shards of glass hung in elaborate hanging patterns, spreading light into otherwise gloomy homes.
  920. > Name placards whose letters each bore a different color were set over doors.
  921. > Flowers, tended in the spare few minutes anypony had, sprung up in cardboard boxes rescued from dumpsters.
  922. > They were really pathetic displays in all honesty, and yet they made life remotely tolerable.
  923. > You would know - your own home bore a mural in the shape of a Wonderbolts' Academy poster you could remember in almost near-perfect detail.
  924. > A relic of your one-time dreams, incarnate.
  925. > Rumble's quarters also show a longing for the sky, albeit in a different way:
  926. > A clear plastic sheet had been stretched across an unfinished section of roof, tacked down with copious amounts of glue and warded from peeping colts by a blanket hooked across the inside.
  927. > The door was locked, but as a guard you had a skeleton key that opened almost all the private homes.
  928. > This one is no different, the door opening to reveal a simple room typical of them.
  929. > Your hooves draw creaks and groans from the cheap tile laid down over the concrete floor.
  930. > At least they had tile, though; others you knew hadn't even had concrete poured across the whole floor, only the edges near the walls.
  931. > Moving in, you cast your eyes around the room.
  933. > Here, a simple table and cabinets holding the week's rations for those meals not taken at the communal food halls.
  934. > There, a low cabinet holding the inhabitants' few personal possessions.
  935. > A framed picture set atop the cabinet - its edges browned and warped while a deep rip enters from one side but somehow otherwise unscathed - draws your eyes.
  936. > Though a single bare compact-fluorescent bulb hangs from the ceiling, when you grab the pull string attached to it and tug nothing happens.
  937. > Burned out - typical.
  938. > Trotting closer in the dimly-lit room, you lower your head to peer closely at the image:
  939. > A cluster of foals rolling in the grass, a tangle of hooves, wings, tails, and manes, their mouths open in laughter.
  940. > Memories - or hope for the future.
  941. > Beside the cabinet, folded neatly on a stand, his uniform.
  942. > Probably untouched since he'd folded it at the end of a shift, then sneaked from this room to oversee the escape.
  943. > The garment wasn't really protective enough to call it armor, although the reinforced plastic would give some edge against an unruly pony.
  944. > Stars forbid you actually be given anything that might protect you from the human security staff, though.
  945. > Resuming your sweep of the room, you scan for a saddlebag to put the uniform into:
  946. > Here, the single-tap spigot on a metal basin that served as a sink.
  947. > There, the double beds of the room, one currently occupied by a creamy mare staring at you with a deadpan expression-
  948. > "For a guard, you're really not that observant."
  949. > Despite yourself and your healing injuries, wings spread and launch you into a backwards leap out of surprise.
  950. "Celestia's teats, Bon Bon! Don't do that!
  951. > "Hey, I wasn't the one who didn't bother to sweep the room."
  952. > Lazily she stands on the bed, stretching cat-like - seeming completely oblivious to the fact that she was in another pony's quarters without a clear reason why.
  953. > "Though I can't blame you for not being able to scent me. That stuff they put on our backs is killing my sense of smell."
  954. "That - you know, I kind of wasn't expecting anypony to be here!"
  955. > "And?"
  956. > Smirking, she hops down - giving you a good view of the damage to her own back.
  957. > Unlike your own charcoal coat, Bon Bon's lighter coloring left the inflamed lines in full view.
  958. > Even so, you catch her shooting a glance at the remnants of your own, far worse punishment.
  959. "What are you even doing here? Weren't you moved back into the barracks?"
  960. > "Yeah."
  961. > She shrugs lightly, pacing in a small circle and flicking her tail.
  962. > "But I have a few days to recover before those Tirek-spawn start trying to get more money out of me, and I was hoping your brother would be here."
  963. > Flickers of anger stir in your heart.
  964. > This mare had already gotten Rumble deep in trouble, and now she was after him again?
  965. "No. They sent him right on to a new position. What do you want with him anyway?"
  966. > "To talk."
  967. > Seeming to sense the hostility in your words, Bon Bon pauses before seating herself on haunches.
  968. > "Just to talk."
  969. "Well, he's not going to be home until shift's over, and it can't be later than-"
  970. > Glancing out the window, you try and guess the sun's position in the sky.
  971. > Nopony bothered to spend their scrip on a clock; chimes would play in the streets on the hour anyhow.
  972. "-three in the afternoon, so you can talk to me in the meantime."
  973. > "I'm not sensing a choice in those words."
  974. "Well, I'd rather like to know what somepony was doing sneaking around in my little bro's room."
  975. > "You're allowed to keep wondering."
  976. > The flat look you give her conveys all Bon Bon needed to know on how you felt about that.
  977. > Unfortunately, it only draws a chuckle from her.
  978. > "So I'm not allowed to see my friends either now? Is this an official order-"
  979. "Ponies sneaking around get me antsy for a lot of reasons, y'know. You want to talk to him, there are plenty of other places to do so. You didn't have to come to his house and-"
  980. > Your heart thuds a little harder as you remember that you'd had to unlock the door.
  981. > No way Rumble would have left the key out where someone could find it.
  982. > She must have picked the lock to get in, then re-locked it behind her.
  983. "-and wait in his bed for him."
  984. > "Maybe I didn't want to be mobbed. Do you know how many questions I've had to handle since that morning?"
  985. "Just who do you think you're asking?!"
  986. > Bon Bon inclines her head slightly in acknowledgement of your point, but still fails to explain her purpose here.
  987. "If you can't explain, I can still put you down for breaking and entering."
  988. > "That's the biggest pile of steaming-"
  989. "Then tell me what you're doing here."
  990. > "No."
  991. > Her obstinance draws a snarl to your lips; your wings spread on their own, stance widening to a wider, aggressive one.
  992. > "Am I not allowed to have a private talk with a pony I care about?"
  993. "You absolutely are... as soon as you tell me what's going on."
  994. > Bon Bon rises from her haunches as well, ears flipping back and tail flicking.
  995. > "Oh, come off it! Who do you think you are? You think that uniform makes you something special? That because you've turned into a quivering pet for that scumbag who thinks he 'owns' us that you can order us around?"
  996. "I think I'm trying to look out for my family!"
  997. > "And I think you're sticking your muzzle where it doesn't belong!"
  998. "Why? Trying to get another 'pony you care about' whipped like Lyra was? Is that what you like seeing?"
  999. > The words seem to strike like a physical blow; Bon Bon's legs all but collapse, sending her stumbling back a few steps before she catches herself.
  1000. > A snarl begins to develop on her own face, but before it can fully form she catches sight of your own shamed expression and eyes cast on the floor.
  1001. > Instead of a howled retort, a pained silence settles in the room.
  1002. "...I'm sorry, Bon Bon. That was way out of line for me."
  1003. > "No. You - you did look out for him, taking his place, and I should better respect that."
  1004. > Mutually each of you settle to your haunches again - a kind of peace signal as the anger that had built up flows out.
  1005. "Truth is, I'm worried about him. Scared, even."
  1006. > Though you can't bring yourself to lift your eyes and look at her, out of the corner of your eye you can see Bon Bon pointedly looking off to the side as well.
  1007. "I don't think this uniform makes me anything special - that I'm anything more than a 'quivering pet'. I know exactly what I am."
  1008. > "And I can tell from your tone that you aren't pleased about it. For Rumble's sake, then?"
  1009. "Yes. It keeps me able to step in for him, and keeps him - kept him - in a place where he could do a little good and feel like he was bucking the system and getting away with it. Or, I thought it was, anyhow."
  1010. > Nodding, the Bon Bon lowers herself to the floor with a soft hiss of pain.
  1011. "He's young, Bon Bon. You know what colts are like at that age - constantly trying to challenge the world, always pushing to show they're capable... Especially since he was 'allowed' a marefriend to stay with him, he'll be acting out to try and impress her."
  1012. > "I know. He's young and aggressive, but also smart, capable, and determined. It's why he was brought in with us."
  1013. > She doesn't specify who 'us' was, but it's easy to guess:
  1014. > Those who'd planned and put the escape into action.
  1015. "I understand that, Bon Bon. Trust me, I do - every day I wake up in the morning and look at myself in the window's reflection, and wonder if there's anything of the pony who left Equestria in me still."
  1016. > "So then why are you so worried about the idea of me speaking to him?"
  1017. "Because I know he wouldn't have gotten mixed up in this and not told me if someone hadn't been talking him into it."
  1018. > To this, she doesn't answer.
  1019. > Heaving a heavy breath out, you finally force yourself to look straight back at her.
  1020. "Just tell me this. Did he come to you, or did you recruit him?"
  1021. > "A little of both. He was... being foolish, advertising his thoughts a bit too much. Derpy stepped in, told him to be quiet, and then eventually brought him into our little ring."
  1022. > You only nod, head drooping a bit more.
  1023. > The grey mare is owed something for that, you suppose.
  1024. "I thought I could keep him from doing that..."
  1025. > "It's not your fault, Thunderlane. Not everypony can do what you do, surviving day to day here just by trying to look out for somepony. Some of us need more."
  1026. > You nod fractionally.
  1027. > She didn't understand, though.
  1028. > Had no idea what you'd done in the pursuit of that goal.
  1029. > No comprehension of how many resisting ponies you'd sold out to a turn on the whipping post, or days in the solitary pens, or the far worse things that nopony ever spoke about but everypony knew were happening in the disobedient cell block.
  1030. > No way of realizing how your guts were wrenching at the understanding that all of that had been in vain.
  1031. > Rumble had still gone off on his own, gotten himself into something you almost couldn't have bailed him out of even with your work.
  1032. "Bon Bon. I get what you're doing - I honestly do. This place... I hate it every bit as much as you do. But something like this - the more we push on him, he can put us through even worse Tartarus. Much as I hate to say it, you know it could be vastly worse here."
  1033. > "That's no excuse for rolling over and showing him our bellies, then scurrying off to work like good little slaves."
  1034. "No, but it's a good reason not to pull things like this either. If Anonymous is provoked, tightens the screws on us, and Rumble goes and does something worse..."
  1035. > Fixing your gaze directly into her, you give Bon Bon the hardest look you can.
  1036. "I won't try and tell you what you can and cannot do on you own; It's your hide. But I want you away from Rumble. Don't involve him in anything more like this. I'd rather he learn the lesson that acting out big like that than caught up in some kind of dream of a grand escape."
  1037. > "You can't control another pony like that, any more than the our 'owner' can rule over us."
  1038. "But I can damn well keep those who'd pull him closer to trouble away from him. I mean it, Bon Bon."
  1039. > Maybe this way you could keep telling yourself that all the ponies you'd betrayed were worth it as well.
  1040. > Maybe you could sleep at night.
  1041. > Finally finding a saddlebag, you shove the uniform into it.
  1042. > Halfway strapped on, you remember that trying to tie something tight across your barrel was probably a bad idea - numbing agent or not, the chafing of the straps would reawaken every drop of pain.
  1043. > When you turn for the door, Bon Bon rises and moves for it as well.
  1044. > "I can tell I'm not going to convince you. Fine - if it means anything to you, though, I never had anything other than the best of intentions for him."
  1045. > You nod, then pause.
  1046. "...if I can ask, what is your reason? Why'd you get involved in this?"
  1047. > "I hate that rutting son-of-a-Tirek-spawn. Anything I can do to put a hoof in his eye - it's worth doing."
  1048. "We all do, Bon Bon. But why a mass escape that puts ponies' lives at risk? Why stay behind when the escape was happening? Why not go yourself, take Lyra with you?"
  1049. > For the first time, you see something that looks like real regret in the mare's eyes.
  1050. > "I wanted her to. She wouldn't go without me."
  1051. "And why wouldn't you go?"
  1052. > "I am loyal to the Equestrian Rulership, represented here by Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. I will not break my loyalty, even if it was not sworn to her specifically."
  1053. > With that, she opens the door and slips out - a flash of two-tone tail vanishing through it.
  1054. > By the time you follow her out a moment later, she is gone entirely.
  1055. > How did an Earth Pony manage that?
  1056. > Snorting softly through your nostrils, you lock the door and take off down the street for the guard post.
  1057. > A few steps in, something occurs to you.
  1058. > So she was loyal to Cadance, was she?
  1059. > Could Cadance get her to back off from Rumble, then?
  1060. > Or would you only be seen as interfering if you did?
  1061. > Or worse, traitorous.
  1062. > Fighting the treason in your own heart was one thing; facing others discovery of what you'd been doing was quite another.
  1063. > Was it worth the risk?
  1064. >
  1065. > Even bringing up the topic could seriously expose yourself.
  1066. > And the last thing you need is to put yourself at risk of being found out as a traitor.
  1067. > Not only would it put you on a short path to a long stay in medical, but it would put Rumble at risk of the same.
  1068. > Whatever you do, you do it on your own.
  1069. > Trotting through the streets, you set your head down and plot a course for the security office.
  1070. > A low, squat concrete building on the edge of the town, it was a place that few ever willingly visited.
  1071. > Even as a watchpony on the roster, you never felt comfortable there.
  1072. > Probably because half the building was meant for the human security staff, and it was clear who was fully in charge.
  1073. > Rumor held that the reason the town never expanded past it was so that the security forces couldn't get surrounded and trapped if a riot broke out.
  1074. > You weren't sure of that, though the building was certainly built like a fortress and another, wooden and smaller, station was set further in the town for the watchponies.
  1075. > A fortress like something of a foal's book on Sombra, that is.
  1076. > Slipping through the solid metal door that serves as the entrance, you're met by a (human) desk officer who peers down at you through thick glasses.
  1077. > Ordinarily he'd have required you to show the badge you'd been issued earlier, but today he takes one look at your back and buzzes the door open.
  1078. > "Come on in, Watchpony. I wasn't expecting to see you today - you're off until tomorrow."
  1079. "I know. Turning in my younger brother's uniform."
  1080. > "Ah."
  1081. > Rising from his desk, the officer, takes your bag (carefully avoiding the strap that'd been in your mouth) and peers within.
  1082. > "Well, yes. We would've needed that back at some point."
  1083. > He doesn't sound too pleased, and you cock your head slightly.
  1084. > Before an explanation can be given, however, a door at the back opens and another officer strides in.
  1085. > Setting eyes on you, a wide grin splits his face.
  1086. > "Well, lookie here! The runt's brother finally shows himself over here."
  1087. "...just taking care of a bit of business."
  1088. > "Just taking care - hah!"
  1089. > With a laugh, he slaps you jovially across the back - a 'friendly' gesture that nonetheless draws a sharp intake of breath as he strikes your welts.
  1090. > "You, taking care of that lying little runt? Why bother; he's shown his colors."
  1091. "All due respect, sir, I'm a liar too. I lie every day."
  1092. > "Oh yeah? How's that?"
  1093. "Whenever I put on that uniform and pretend I feel anything less than utter hate for it."
  1094. > The words again slip out before you can stop them, and a moment later you find yourself reared back, eyes squeezed in pain, as he hauls a handful of your mane up.
  1095. > "You might've been stood in for your brother, but that doesn't mean you won't be held accountable for what you do."
  1096. "Yes, sir."
  1097. > Spitting the words out, you find your wings spreading to try and keep your balance.
  1098. > "Then don't ever mouth off at me like that again. You don't like this job, you can get kicked out plenty easy."
  1099. > Releasing your mane, he grabs a stack of paper and stalks back to the door - but stops at the last minute, peering back with a sharp scowl.
  1100. > "And be on time tomorrow. You're chasing delinquents."
  1101. "Yes, sir."
  1102. > Your heart sinks as you reply.
  1103. > Chasing delinquents - those ponies who'd failed to show up for their shifts - was never a task anypony on the watch looked forward to.
  1104. > He eyes you a moment longer, as if looking for something he could pin on you right this very moment, before spinning on his heels and retreating from the room.
  1105. > In his absence, the desk officer breathes out softly.
  1106. > "That was stupid."
  1107. "I know."
  1108. > Finding your saddlebags and righting them again, you feel your wings drooping.
  1109. "But it's getting harder to do this every day."
  1110. > Falling back into his seat, the desk officer grunts.
  1111. > "Don't envy your position. In all honesty, though - that kid might be your brother, but you might want to consider not looking out for him anymore."
  1112. "He's my family."
  1113. > "He's a sinking stone, and when he steps out of line next time I don't figure Anonymous is going to tolerate it too well - no matter what you do."
  1114. > 'When' Rumble steps out of line again.
  1115. > Not 'if'.
  1116. > Blinking slowly, you nod.
  1117. "...I'm still going to try and keep him on the right path. Anyhow - uniform's dropped off, I'll be in tomorrow."
  1118. > "Got it."
  1120. > Shuffling the papers on your desk, you squeeze your eyes again and pray that when you open them the number will look better.
  1121. > "Your highness?"
  1122. > Mayor Mare's voice drags you back to reality, forcing your eyes open and back down to the paper.
  1123. "Sorry. Simply - drifted off for a moment. And just Cadance, please."
  1124. > They do not look better.
  1125. > One way or another, there was no way to avoid it:
  1126. > There simply weren't enough ponies left to keep the level of productivity Anonymous was demanding.
  1127. > He'd 'magnanimously' reduced the quotas while new ponies could be brought in, but that simply wasn't enough.
  1128. > Not only were ponies having to cover for each other in the interim, but new ponies were having to be trained, talents sorted into useful placements...
  1129. > It simply wasn't going to happen.
  1130. > You weren't going to meet the quotas.
  1131. > Letting out a hissed breath, you stand and stretch - trying to ignore the twinges of pain.
  1132. > The look Mayor Mare gives you is something mixed between admiration and a suspicion that you were a fool of incalculable magnitude.
  1133. > "Your Highness, if you need to rest there is simply nothing wrong with taking some time-"
  1134. "It's quite alright, Mayor."
  1135. > Instead of reprimanding her on the use of your nonexistant title, you simply give her a /look/.
  1136. > She wasn't the only one who'd taken to using it lately.
  1137. > Whether it was your admission that you had sanctioned the escape or that you had refused to excuse yourself from what the others had endured you didn't know.
  1138. > But either way, more than a few ponies now looked at you with a new degree of appreciation in their eyes.
  1139. > Whispers of, 'your highness' or 'princess' as greetings when you passed in the street or entered a room were alarmingly common.
  1140. > Alarming, if only because you knew somepony was inevitably going to speak just a touch too loudly and then there'd be another turn up at the whipping post or a new inhabitant of the cages for a night.
  1141. "...I'm fine, really. Just - uncertain about how we are going to meet these."
  1142. > Eyeing the quota sheets with distaste, Mayor Mare shakes her head.
  1143. > "Perhaps we simply shouldn't. Don't make them - Anonymous will live if he cannot buy another car. We will not if we work ourselves ragged."
  1144. "You know he won't take that. He'll just make our six-day weeks seven for a month or two until it can be made up."
  1145. > "And when ponies start to fall apart because of that? He may not care about us, but even as a businessman he must be able to see that you there's sense in not sense in pushing us even further."
  1146. > Would he?
  1147. > You gaze again falls to the papers.
  1148. > "I hate being property."
  1149. "We all do, Mayor."
  1150. > Though you eyes have not risen, your question is barely whispered to her.
  1151. "If I told the foreponies to not even try to make the quotas - to just leave us be - would they listen to me?"
  1152. > "Quite possibly. Even if they did not, many of their workers would."
  1153. > Before you can reply, the door to your office flies open as a heavily-breathing stallion practically crashes through it.
  1154. > "Cadance, Mayor - you'd better come now."
  1155. > His tone tells all you need to know.
  1156. > Surging forth from the office, you follow close on the heels of the stallion.
  1157. > The streets are abuzz with ponies making use of the little spare time given to them between the end of shift and the beginning of curfew.
  1158. > Time to pick up food, hang out washing, and all the other little tapestries of real life.
  1159. > Parting before you, some join to form a small procession - perhaps understanding that wherever their princess was rushing off to, it was worth investigating as well.
  1160. > When you come in full view of the main gate, however, you wish they had not.
  1161. > Two trucks rest nearby the gate, parked beside the guard house.
  1162. > Their cargo had already been unloaded, however, and it is that cargo that makes breath stop in your throat.
  1163. > A little over twenty ponies, shackled in two lines - their muzzles caught in cruel traps that forced metal bits between their teeth, wings roughly pinioned by plastic straps, horns locked in heavy blockers, hooves hobbled with thick chains...
  1164. > All look plainly miserable, their eyes bagged by exhaustion and coats ragged from poor care.
  1165. > What makes your breath halt, however, is that you know these ponies.
  1166. > Each and every one of them, those who'd fled from the camp.
  1167. > On some level, you'd known all of this was coming:
  1168. > That fleeing for days without rest as they would have to demanded a harsh toll on their bodies, and that some would inevitably be recaptured.
  1169. > But, mere exertion could not explain the bruises lining their barrels or the way chunks of feathers missing from some of the pegasi's wings.
  1170. > Nor had tiredness kept emotion from showing in those eyes, though, and you can plainly see the fear with which they eye the man and woman circling the lines with cattle prods held at the ready.
  1171. > Runaway-hunters had rather greater leeway with their actions when their prey was on the hoof.
  1172. "Mayor Mare?"
  1173. > "Yes, your highness?"
  1174. "Go find Anonymous. If you cannot, find someone who can."
  1175. > Not even pausing to answer before she takes off, the mayor vanishes with a flick of grayed tail and rapid hoofbeats.
  1176. > A testament to her loyalty to you that she would not hesitate to attract his attention.
  1177. > Looking around at the small crowd that had gathered around, you raise your voice to speak to all of them.
  1178. "All of you, stay back here. Do not surround them."
  1179. > This time not waiting yourself to see how they reply, you stride out towards the lines of miserable ponies.
  1180. > Even from this distance, you can see the guards' eyes widen as they spot the wings tucked against your sides as well as the horn on your head.
  1181. > Perhaps that is what stays their hands as you approach, or maybe it was the deliberately submissive and cautious posture you force yourself to hold.
  1182. > Either way, you are grateful for the chance to offer a modicum of comfort.
  1183. > Gently nuzzling the first pony in line, you're able to see just how bad the damage is.
  1184. > More than a few showed even further signs of rough handling.
  1185. > Some of that might have been picked up during their desperate flight, but...
  1186. > From somewhere in back, there's a soft snap-pop and a yelp of pain.
  1187. > Your eyes flick up just to in time to see a pale-coated unicorn fall to his hooves, only to force himself back up a moment later.
  1188. "That's enough of that. He isn't going anywhere now; there's no need for-"
  1189. > The guard responsible shakes her head, waving the cattle prod in the unicorn's direction again.
  1190. > "They aren't your business, alicorn. Not until your owner takes delivery of them."
  1191. > Wincing at the reminder that you were still, ultimately, property
  1192. > Unfortunately, she is right.
  1193. > Until Anonymous - or someone working for him - could claim them back, exactly how they were treated was up to the slave-catchers.
  1194. > Sucking in a deep breath, you bow your head and back down.
  1195. > Instead, however, you beckon a single pony from the crowd watching.
  1196. > When he approaches, you issue a quick and curt order:
  1197. "These ponies are parched. Get some water - mugs or cups if you can, but a bucket or something if that is taking too long."
  1198. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  1199. > Out of the corner of your eye, you notice one of the slave-catchers start at the title.
  1200. > Would she try to stop you from giving them something?
  1201. > Nodding for the pony to go, you resume working your way down the line.
  1202. > Offering what little you could - a reassuring whisper here, a nuzzle there, a gentle touch of comfort from a wing or hoof there.
  1203. > You dared not use your magic to heal their injuries - not yet.
  1204. > Even so, you can see the effect it has on them:
  1205. > Eyes lose their glassy look, ears perk up, soft snorts of relief are heard.
  1206. > When the bucket comes, you grab it in your teeth before looking questioningly to the two guarding the lines of escapees.
  1207. > After a moment the woman - the superior, you've decided - gives a small nod.
  1208. > Not a single one hesitates to dunk their muzzles in and shamelessly drink from the bucket - swallowing huge gulps, some coughing as it goes down roughly.
  1209. > When the first bucket is drained, another has already been brought.
  1210. > The next time you look up, a new figure stands at the edge of the group:
  1211. > Anonymous, his arms folded and eyes covered with sunglasses that render his expression inscrutable, the lead slave-hunter beside him and speaking inaudibly.
  1212. > Waiting until they seem to finish before you approach, you unhesitatingly sink into a bow before speaking.
  1213. > Have to earn the most to pull this off, after all.
  1214. > "This is what you had me pulled out here for? Any of my employees could have handled this."
  1215. "Anonymous. I would like to see them returned to my supervision as soon as possible."
  1216. > "I imagine you would."
  1217. > His voice is clipped, and your heart sinks.
  1218. > Even so, you still try.
  1219. "You wanted me to be a leader - to take responsibility for them. So, let me do that. Give them back to me."
  1220. > "Yes, I did tell you that."
  1221. "And it will do no good for their opinion of you if they are beaten just as they come back here."
  1222. > Nevermind that nopony held a high opinion of him anyhow.
  1223. > Or ever would - that he had purchased each and every pony as easily as one might go buy a daisy sandwich was not something easily forgotten.
  1224. "If you punish them now, it will only reinforce the feeling that you're mindlessly cruel-"
  1225. > "No. If I punished random slaves now, that would be mindlessly cruel. It's true, you are responsible for all the ponies here."
  1226. > Arms dropping from his chest to point at the two lines of slaves, he goes on:
  1227. > "But these slaves didn't stay here. They chose to flee your responsibility - my protection - when they ran. If they didn't want to give that up, they shouldn't have run."
  1228. > Your heart leaps to your throat as you realize Anonymous isn't going to let them simply walk back in.
  1229. > After a moment, he adds almost as an afterthought:
  1230. > "If you didn't want them to lose that, maybe you shouldn't have let them run."
  1231. > Does he mean this to be a punishment for you, as much for them?
  1232. > Retribution for how he'd seemed to feel you'd failed to appropriately punish the ringleaders?
  1233. > With the options whirling frantically in your head, you almost fail to see Anonymous walk past you and approach the lines.
  1234. > "Get this lot moving to the-"
  1235. > Snapping out of the daze, you launch into a momentary gallop to catch up to him.
  1236. "It won't do any good to punish them now! Look at them - they've already been through plenty. They don't need to go through worse!"
  1237. > A hand drops to hold in front of your muzzle, halting you as he walks away.
  1238. > "They need to learn - every one of you here needs to learn - that you don't give up the protection of either one of us and simply walk away from it."
  1239. "Then if not for that, at least for you own sake!"
  1240. > That at last manages to bring Anonymous to a halt.
  1241. > Capitalizing on the small victory, you push on:
  1242. "Even if you think the lesson to be taught, you need those ponies. We're short on workers; you were the one who told me how hard it was going to be to balance your budget so I know you're not oblivious to it!"
  1243. > Panting slightly, you take a few cautious steps towards him again.
  1244. "I've been looking at the rates and quotas all morning. There's no way they are going to be met as is but if you let these ponies rest up and then get them back to work-"
  1245. > "How much of a loss?"
  1246. "What?"
  1247. > "If they don't go back to work immediately. How much will it cost me?"
  1248. > Racking your brains, you try to find an answer.
  1249. "T-Ten? Twelve percent loss. Maybe a little bit more, with the time others will have to take off to train replacements."
  1250. > Anonymous doesn't react; unfortunately, he still faces away from you so it is impossible to know determine what he is thinking.
  1251. "And if you do just send them back to work, they'll pay you back by trying even harder-"
  1252. > "They'll pay me back by trying to escape again. Just like the first time."
  1253. "Master..."
  1254. > The word is bitter on your lips, but even so you force yourself to speak it - and more.
  1255. > Circling around to face him directly again, you fold your forelegs and let yourself sink into a deep, grovelling bow - chest and brushing against the ground and wings spread wide.
  1256. "Please, master - if you punish these ponies now, they will only undercut you further. I'm begging you, at least let them see some medical treatment and rest first..."
  1257. > Dropping your muzzle to touch the pavement as well and complete the picture of utter submission, you close your eyes and raise your voice.
  1258. "I'm begging you, master: Do not do this."
  1259. > For several long moments everything is silent.
  1260. > You think even the ponies surrounding you have stopped breathing.
  1261. > "...fine."
  1262. > The relief that runs through you is so strong you almost collapse fully to the ground then and there.
  1263. > "You lot - get them over to the clinic, make sure they aren't suffering from worse than just a bit of roughing. Keep them overnight - guards on the doors."
  1264. > An affirmative is shouted, but you barely hear it.
  1265. > Levering yourself onto all four hooves again, you raise your eyes just enough to be able to meet Anonymous' - keeping your muzzle still lowered submissively.
  1266. > He runs a hand through his hair; by your estimation, he seems both relieved and perturbed by his decision.
  1267. > Before he can second-guess it, you speak up and pull his attention from the departing lines of slaves.
  1268. "Thank you, Master. I - I deeply appreciate it."
  1269. > "We will talk about this tonight, Cadance."
  1270. > His tone makes your stomach do a flip, but you still nod.
  1271. "I was hoping to as well."
  1272. > Grunting a response, he strides off; you take the opportunity to turn and follow the returnees.
  1273. > If there had only been part of a crowd before, now you can feel a great many more eyes on you.
  1274. > A touch flushes your cheeks at the thought of what they had just seen you doing, but it barely seems to matter.
  1275. > You'd spared these ponies from the lash or worse, at least for now, and as many eyes might be judging far more are looking out in thanks or recognition.
  1276. > Will they still feel that way when they see what the cost is, you wonder?
  1277. > ...
  1278. > Come evening, you make your way to the edge of the camp.
  1279. > A security officer would be sent had you not, but this was something you wanted to make the most of as well.
  1280. > So you arrive early and with your head held high and proud, waiting calmly as you are passed through the multiple gates out of the ponies' town and into Anonymous' home.
  1281. > Everything there is practically the opposite of the what was given to your ponies:
  1282. > Warm, soft lighting replaces coldly buzzing lamps, lush carpeting and shining hardwood floors in place of the limp tiling or cheap secondhand wood you got.
  1283. > Anonymous' study is a familiar place, but even so you pause and take a moment to examine the various artifacts and items he has set on display.
  1284. > More than a few awaken a low, angry feeling in your stomach - a complete (but ruined) set of Royal Guard armor, a set of chinaware looted from Canterlot palace, and of course your own tiara and crown.
  1285. > A reminder of everything that had been lost, before you speak with him.
  1286. > Finally you approach Anonymous' seat, where he rests with a computer in his lap.
  1287. > Barely looking up at your arrival, you were only a few steps away from his seat when he finally speaks:
  1288. > "I suppose if there is one thing I should thank you for, it's having the sense not to challenge me out there in front of all of them."
  1289. "I... you're welcome, Master. Starting a... fight in front of others isn't what I hoped to do."
  1290. > "I take it, however, that you are still in the belief that I cannot punish them."
  1291. > You're about to answer an affirmative, but catch a certain inflection in his words.
  1292. "You /can/ punish them if you want, Master. I do believe that you /shouldn't/ punish them, though."
  1293. > The computer's lid falls shut with a snap.
  1294. > "A good answer. Why?"
  1295. > Taking a deep breath, you launch into the explanation you'd carefully tailored and perfected all afternoon.
  1296. "Three reasons, Master. One, you gave me the authority to look out for the ponies in this camp - to be their leader. So, let me lead; let me show them that you were telling the truth. They're already trusting me, believing in my and following my orders. Show them to trust in what you say as well."
  1297. > "Yes, I noticed that they'd begun to... elevate you. Using your title as well, I hear."
  1298. > So that had been passed on.
  1299. > Turning your gaze away from him, you drop it to the ground.
  1300. "...yes, they have at times."
  1301. > "I won't expect to be able to police what they whisper in their rooms, but I hope you remember what you really are now."
  1302. "I know, Master."
  1303. > Apparently convinced by your lowered tone and title, he nods.
  1304. > "Go on, then."
  1305. ", like I was saying: They follow my orders. If you do this, I can ask them to work another day and make up the quotas. Which brings me to the second reason: You really need those ponies back at work. Even adding back those few ponies will help us get closer to making them up in reasonable times."
  1306. > "I've been examining the ledgers as well, and there is... some truth in your argument. Even with the new arrivals coming, the time needed to sort the talents and properly find positions for them..."
  1307. > That had been one of Anonymous' great leaps of judgement, you knew.
  1308. > Instead of simply forcing everypony to perform one simple task, diversify - develop small work areas suited to a wide category of talents.
  1309. > Find niches for their talents to shine, and they would produce products he could demand much more for.
  1310. > If not for the fact that they were still slaves forced to their jobs by threat of the whip, you would have been thankful for allowing ponies to work in tasks they were suited for.
  1311. "It's more than that - not just about getting ponies back in their jobs. It's about making them grateful; if I'm forced to ask them to put in extra time while you're torturing those poor ponies..."
  1312. > You shake your head firmly.
  1313. "At best, it will sow the seeds of further problems down the line. At worst, it will lead to open refusal now."
  1314. > "But if I don't, then they think that they can flaunt my authority without repercussions..."
  1315. "I don't think that's the lesson it teaches. Did you look at them? They'd been through Tartarus and back. They were miserable. Even you should see that... your property had been treated poorly. Damaged."
  1316. > "Unfortunately, that wasn't a choice I can make."
  1317. > He pauses, then motions for you to come sit at his side.
  1318. > Not in a seat, but on your haunches by the side of his.
  1319. > "The moment they fled, turned fugitive - until I verify that they've been returned to my custody, their treatment is the catchers' decision."
  1320. > His eye turns down to you, one eyebrow raised.
  1321. > "And let us remember who was responsible for allowing them to flee, for a moment."
  1322. > Wincing, you simply duck your head and fidget with your wings.
  1323. "Then - then make this place a safe one for them. That's my third reason: You'll never keep them from resisting - I'll never be able to keep them from resisting - if you make this place as bad as 'out there'. Didn't you tell me you wanted them to appreciate being here? Show that."
  1324. > Turning back his own words to you finally seems to get through to Anonymous.
  1325. > He is the one to look away this time, eyes falling out the window to the camp framed against the sun just touching the distant horizon.
  1326. "If you show them lenience, I can convince everypony else to take an additional day - help make up the quotas. We might even be able to get back to the original quotas!"
  1327. > "'re making a great deal of trouble for me, Cadance."
  1328. > Your head snaps back.
  1329. "I-I'm sorry, Master."
  1330. > "For once, don't be. The problem is, your points make too much sense."
  1331. > He stands, beginning to pace back and forth in front of his seat.
  1332. > "Despite how much I want to punish those ungrateful rats for running off on me, I do need them working and I did make them your responsibility. That means I should rightfully punish you for causing my property to be damaged."
  1333. > Spinning back around at the end of a pace, he raises a finger.
  1334. > "But! You are in no shape to face another punishment. Nor are many of them, for that matter."
  1335. > Finding his seat again, he slumps back down into it.
  1336. > "And furthermore I have already punished you for your role in this escape. I won't punish you twice for the same failing."
  1337. > That, at least, you suppose to be a relief.
  1338. "...what will you do, then?"
  1339. > At last, he answers.
  1340. > When he does, though, any thoughts of relief vanish from your mind.
  1341. > "One of them. Pick one of them, and they will stand to teach the others why running away is a bad idea. The others will be returned to your management."
  1342. > Stomach heaving, you feel pricks of sweat emerge underneath your coat.
  1343. "I - please, Master, even subjecting one to that-"
  1344. > "Will make it clear that although the majority are safe under your wings now, if any further runaways should occur then there will be hell to pay for all involved."
  1345. > Squeezing your eyes shut, you shake your head.
  1346. > "Empty threats are no threats at all, Cadance. I have to show that discipline will be enforced."
  1347. "Isn't that what putting me up on that stage and forcing me to whip those ponies bloody was for?!"
  1348. > You can't help but raise your voice just a bit.
  1349. "Where does it end? Are you going to take another pony from the next lot to be returned, and again after that?"
  1350. > "No. Just this one - just to make it clear what cost fleeing from me has. A warning for the future, rather than a punishment for the past."
  1351. > To this, you have no answer.
  1352. > A very real part of you wishes he had simply demanded you submit to the lash again.
  1353. > It would have been easier than condemning a pony to that.
  1354. > But to refuse...
  1355. > There was no guarantee you could argue him down from punishing them all.
  1356. "I-I accept, Master."
  1357. > The words leave your stomach churning, but you spit them out anyhow.
  1358. > Legs go weak; you're forced to lock your forelegs' joints simply to remain seated.
  1359. > Somehow, you manage to keep yourself from collapsing.
  1360. "I'll do it."
  1361. > You're reminded of something you'd read once, back when you were learning under Celestia's wing.
  1362. > A pegasus-chariot is falling from the sky, and will land on an innocent family; a pony can buck it out of the way, but will knock it toward another, equally innocent pony instead...
  1363. > When had this cruelty become so immutable, you wonder, that it was comperable to something falling in gravity's hold?
  1364. > "Good. I'll want to hear your choice of which of them soon, though."
  1365. > All of that carefully kept self-composure falls to pieces.
  1366. > With utter horror in your eyes, your head snaps up.
  1367. "What?!"
  1368. > "I won't be making that decision, Cadance. You will."
  1369. > Legs fold beneath you, bringing your chest and muzzle to the floor for the second time that day.
  1370. > Whether it was in the hope that grovelling would satisfy him yet again, or simply because you couldn't possibly keep yourself up anymore, you aren't sure.
  1371. > Either way, it fails:
  1372. > Anonymous shakes his head.
  1373. > "You're going back on our agreement? Then I will use all of them-"
  1374. "No!"
  1375. > Even you are surprised by how loudly you bark out the word.
  1376. > Gathering yourself yet again and forcing your voice down to a more normal volume, you try again:
  1377. "No. I - I will give you an answer."
  1378. > "Good. It doesn't have to be today - they will need time to recover and ensure they aren't hurt any worse, after all - but it will be soon."
  1379. "Tonight - I'll tell you tonight."
  1380. > That decision wasn't one that you could bear the thought of looming over your head.
  1381. > Anonymous' eyebrows rise slightly, but he simply nods.
  1382. > "Very well then. I'll have a security officer sent over to the medical ward. Go on, then."
  1383. > Limbs like jelly, you force yourself to all four hooves and all but stagger from his room.
  1384. > Your unsteady walk draws the attention of his staff human and pony alike, many shooting glances in your direction.
  1385. > None speak to you, however.
  1386. > The trip back to the camp and in to the medical building feels like a walk to your own sentencing.
  1387. > A trip to the metaphorical gallows.
  1388. > Ponies - doctors and patients alike - drop their heads and step out of your way.
  1389. > You keep your eyes fixed stolidly ahead, refusing to meet their gazes.
  1390. > It doesn't take long to find the ward the returned escapees had been sent to:
  1391. > Twenty three beds, newly filled; a doctor quickly appears at your side as you walk among them.
  1392. > Cutting off his words, you begin inquiring about each pony in turn - sorting out those who you could not subject to Anonymous' mercies.
  1393. > Those who'd shown signs of already suffering harsher treatment while being returned were automatically disqualified.
  1394. > The doctor didn't say it so directly, but an alarming number of euphemisms for such brutality had sprung up.
  1395. > Of the twenty-three, that left sixteen.
  1396. > Two had suffered significant accidental injuries while fleeing; they were also excluded.
  1397. > Fourteen left.
  1398. > One mare was expecting; no wonder she had tried to flee - no pony would wish their foal into this existence.
  1399. > Thirteen.
  1400. > A pony whom the doctor seemed nervous about, and after considerable prodding revealed to have a congenital heart defect.
  1401. > Twelve - twelve ponies remaining who you could not find reason to spare this.
  1402. > Somewhere in the back of your mind, you wished that it had been possible to narrow it down to one by such simple, cold logic.
  1403. > Walking among them, offering soft words of reinforcement and comfort to those who were awake, you struggle to find some way to explain what you were about to do.
  1404. > To yourself, as much as them.
  1405. > Lost in what you are doing, the small commotion at the door catches you by surprise.
  1406. > Hands on his hips, a security officer had appeared and shooed the doctor out the door.
  1408. > Now he stands, waiting expectantly, as two more officers wait just beyond the door.
  1409. > You break his gaze and look down to the mare whose bed you'd stopped beside.
  1410. > Tired eyes peer out from beneath an ivory mane, her sides rising and falling softly as she watches you.
  1411. > You did not know this pony.
  1412. > Leaning down, you whisper softly in the mare's navy-coated ear:
  1413. "What is your name?"
  1414. > "Corona, Your Highness."
  1415. > Nodding, satisfied, you rise.
  1416. > Her name was written on a dozen charts and papers around her bed, but you wanted to hear it from her.
  1417. > If you were to do this, you wouldn't send her to this a complete unknown.
  1418. > The curt, brief nod you give to the security officer is all that is needed.
  1419. > He marches in, you march out - ears folded flat to ignore the questioning voice raised behind you.
  1420. > "Wait - what's happening - what did I do?! Cadance? Your Highness!"
  1421. > Turning a corner, you halt briefly against a wall and swallow hard to avoid being sick on the floor.
  1422. > When you no longer feel as if your entire innards were preparing to force their way up your throat, you stagger from the hospital and back through the camp.
  1423. > It's near curfew, but if any of the watch patrols call out to you it goes unheard.
  1424. > What you do notice, though, is the ponies nodding their greetings to you - soft murmurs, your title whispered so that nopony who might think to gain a little bonus by turning in their fellow slaves might hear it.
  1425. > The words speed your hooves, bringing you to your quarters - three rooms including your own personal bathroom, a practical palace in this place - at a near trot.
  1426. > Only by unimaginable force of will do you avoid breaking out into a gallop.
  1427. > That cannot help you from collapsing into bed, though, and burying your head in your hooves.
  1428. > Despite all those ponies' greetings, you weren't sure you'd ever felt so alone.
  1431. -----
  1434. > Striding through the security doors, you're met by nods and small greetings of 'Mr Anonymous' from the security staff.
  1435. > And more than a few eyes on your back as you head for the small group of cells - separated in an entirely different building from the main security station - that housed severely resistant ponies.
  1436. > Peering through the eyehole into the large, expansive cell you briefly ponder the irony that these cells were so much larger than the ones far less problematic prisoners stayed in.
  1437. > But then, of course, there was good reason for that.
  1438. > These cells needed to be able to hold several of your staff to manage them as well.
  1439. > Or otherwise work on them.
  1440. > Motioning for the door to be buzzed open, you're promptly met by a surprisingly thin and short man - one of your longest-term and most expert officers.
  1441. "She's ready for this, Eric?"
  1442. > "Absolutely. She was already in better shape when she got back, and two days' rest has done her good. There'll be no damage."
  1443. "I'll speak to her."
  1444. > "All yours, boss."
  1445. > Stepping to the side, he still remains in the cell - watchfully regarding you.
  1446. > Turning to face the pony in question, you find her stretched between two parallel horizontal bars - one shackled to her forehooves, the other to her hindlegs.
  1447. > Originally they had been meant for keeping a violent slave in check, but now both bars had been lifted from the floor entirely by chains - forelegs and hindlegs alike stretched out as far as they would go in front of and behind her.
  1448. > Muscles had long since given out, leaving her entire body sinking between the bars to a strained, bowed curve that left her belly entirely exposed.
  1449. > Already her sides were heaving in terrified anticipation, no doubt made worse by the heavy leather muzzle wrapping around her entire head.
  1450. > Blinders covered both eyes, while heavy leather straps filled both nostrils with their scent - her only chance to breath, around the bit jammed between her jaws.
  1451. > Was the experience was made worse by the scent of the dead, tanned hide being all that she could smell?
  1452. "That's what you have to do, unfortunately. I want you to understand just how much betrayal hurts, so you can know how I feel when you betray me."
  1453. > "Whatever you do, I w-won't tell. I won't. She's running far, far away from you and I won't help you-"
  1454. "Help me?"
  1455. > A low smile forms on your face.
  1456. "You misunderstand. We've already recovered Merribelle. She's on her way back here already. All you have to do is beg us to have her take your place."
  1457. > Corona's shallow breathing stops entirely as she tries to process this.
  1458. > Reaching up, you gently stroke over her mane, running your fingers between her navy-furred ears.
  1459. "It's just that easy, Corona. Then you'll understand exactly how much betraying someone hurts."
  1460. > "No..."
  1461. "We will see."
  1462. > Standing, you begin to circle around the suspended mare.
  1463. > At first she tries to follow you with her head, but it quickly proves to be too much.
  1464. > This gives her no warning when you begin to run your hand over her sweat-dampened sides, feeling the creases of her ribs beneath.
  1465. "The truth is, I'd really rather not do this. Honestly - it does me no good to have you in here. Much rather have you back at work. But someone has to understand me, or we'll never be able to work together."
  1466. > Her only response is a low moan as she tries to pull herself away from your touch.
  1467. > It's futile, though, and after a short while that too is abandoned.
  1468. "So, really - I won't drag this out any longer than I have to. In fact, if you want to end it right now..."
  1469. > Halting, you wait for any kind of reply.
  1470. > It comes in the form of a globule spat onto the floor beneath her.
  1471. "...well, then. Five extra lashes for that. In fact, why don't we get those out of the way right now."
  1472. > You shoot a questioning glance at Eric before taking the whip that lays curled in the corner.
  1473. > Despite his being your employee, this was his domain.
  1474. > If he said no, you knew better than to risk going against his advice.
  1475. > He nods a shallow affirmative, however, so you uncoil the whip and - cracking it against the ground with a noise that makes Corona jump in her chains - begin to lay it across her back.
  1476. > Even the very first blow has a startling effect; Corona jumps in the chains she is suspended between then sinks back down with a heavy groan.
  1477. > Each successive blow causes the same, by the time all are done, her head hangs limply between her extended forelegs as she whimpers gently.
  1478. > Setting the whip down, you lift her head again and hold it in both your hands - a woeful expression on your face.
  1479. "Last chance. I'm giving you this now, so please take it."
  1480. > Knowing better than to provoke you again, she simply lets her eyes slide shut.
  1481. "No? Alright. Later, then. Another time."
  1482. > "Later?"
  1483. > Corona's outburst comes suddenly after her determined silence.
  1484. "Yes, later. You're going to have quite a while to think about this, so I'm sure you'll put it to good use. At least, I hope you will."
  1485. > Coiling the whip again, you pause just long enough to pin the picture to the wall in front of her with sticky tack before selecting your next stepping back through the door.
  1486. > Closing it behind you, Eric folds his arms and regards you - his lips set into a thin, flat line.
  1487. > "Will I actually be working on that other mare if this one gives in?"
  1488. "No. Merribelle hasn't been found yet, and in any case this one will be the only example. Will that be a problem?"
  1489. > "Nah. I can work around that. Between the hood, a few days without more than a few hours' sleep, and coming in at random to add a couple lashes, she's going to lose sense of time pretty quick. I'll be able to get her to say anything. Or at least, believe she said it."
  1490. "Good. That rig she's in is pretty rough; you're sure it won't damage her?"
  1491. > "You know me, boss. I don't damage the property. She'll walk out of here on her own - I'll just keep her up there long enough to get the point across."
  1492. "Excellent."
  1493. > Despite the satisfaction in knowing that an example would be made - an example that she would carry back to the other ponies - of why it was a bad idea to betray you, somehow you can't force yourself to smile.
  1494. "I'll be waiting to hear an update on her."
  1495. > The trip back to your house is only half-experienced, as your thoughts were elsewhere.
  1496. > That Cadance had actually been able to not only commit herself to doing this but turned the mare over to you on such short notice was... surprising.
  1497. > None of the earlier hesitation to take up the stark choices you'd presented her with.
  1498. > Oh, a little begging - but nothing a stern tone hadn't taken care of.
  1499. > Still, though...
  1500. > If she would be able to marshal the ponies to pull an entire extra day together, that would be no small feat.
  1501. > Diverting from your original course, you fire up the computer and begin pouring over the numbers again.
  1502. > What you saw only confirmed you suspicions:
  1503. > An extra work day might catch them up to lost work, perhaps even put them a little bit ahead.
  1504. > But only for a week.
  1505. > After that, they would be falling behind again.
  1506. > And while Cadance might be able to marshal them once, the ponies ultimately needed that day for themselves.
  1507. > Besides, it didn't sit right with you either.
  1508. > Undoubtedly there were some in the camp who had meant to escape, but you were just as certain there were many who'd had no part in it.
  1509. > And if there was one thing you despised, it was deliberate collective punishment for the acts of a few.
  1510. > Hardships imposed on themselves by their actions were one thing, but punishments you inflicted would not be inflicted so randomly or totally.
  1511. > A feeling, you suspected, that set you apart from a great many others who owned this many slaves.
  1512. > But, if they could not make it up once...
  1513. > More spreadsheets are pulled up, work volumes compared.
  1514. > The new arrivals would be here in two weeks.
  1515. > Another week after that while they were trained, so three weeks total until you were approaching your prior output.
  1516. > Assuming the new ponies had compatible talents, that was; your system for matching talents to jobs may have been a lucrative one, but it sometimes had its slowdowns.
  1517. > But, if Cadance could get them to make up the output for this week...
  1518. > The remaining weeks' losses could be handled in other fashions.
  1519. > Temporarily putting off the worst-affected contracts, perhaps having to buy others' products to make up for your own lost production.
  1520. > Some of your considerable wealth generated from this place, dipped into.
  1521. > A painful hit to your profits still, but a far more viable long-term solution.
  1522. > And perhaps most importantly, a way to keep the ponies from feeling they were all being subjected to your punishments, regardless of what they had done individually.
  1523. > The completion of the lesson you were teaching with Corona's punishment:
  1524. > Betraying you hurt, but working harder for you was rewarded.
  1525. > Perhaps - if Cadance could marshal them a second week - you could even see about directing a further delivery of supplies and funds in their direction.
  1526. > Or, her direction now.
  1527. > Pulling this off would be Cadance's first real independent test as a leader.
  1529. > The morning after you'd 'delivered' Corona to Anonymous, you've managed to compose yourself.
  1530. > Mostly.
  1531. > Maybe.
  1532. > Enough to tell yourself that you have, anyway.
  1533. > The day seems to float past in a dull haze, a half-remembered whirl of meetings and orders given.
  1534. > Of the mare you had condemned to Anonymous' mercies, there is no sign.
  1535. > You should have asked him what he intended to do to her, but that hadn't come up at the time.
  1536. > You should also probably start figuring out how you were going to try and sell putting in an extra day's shifts to all the ponies here.
  1537. > All your ponies.
  1538. > Try as you might to focus on putting together a speech - a reason, to go along with your order - the truth is that your mind is elsewhere.
  1539. > Not even the arrival of a second lot of recovered ponies two days in can wrench the matter from your mind.
  1540. > The memory of that mare's eyes peering up at you seems to loom out of every shadow, every corner.
  1541. > And yet, you struggle to remember what had been in those eyes.
  1542. > Logic tells you it ought to have been simple exhaustion, or perhaps relief that she had even been given that long to recover.
  1543. > But now it morphs to hatred, accusation, condemnation - glaring down at you from over the withers of the ponies you speak to.
  1544. > Unable to escape, thoughts begin to bubble up from your own mind as well:
  1545. > Had you chosen her at that moment, when you found yourself beside her bed, because you hadn't known her?
  1546. > Because she had not been a familiar face, a pony whose entire life you'd known?
  1547. > No, you tell yourself.
  1548. > To choose any other pony wouldn't have been any easier.
  1549. > But all the same, you can't help but feel...
  1550. > Uncertain.
  1551. > Worse yet, you can plainly see that the ponies you work with can tell you are troubled as well.
  1552. > Nervous glances shot in your direction, whispered conversations from behind walls they thought would mask their voices.
  1553. > At last, Mayor Mare simply halts in the middle of speaking to you - in the middle of a sentence, even.
  1554. > With a quick nudge of a hind hoof she nudges the door to your office shut, pulling over one of the chairs and seating herself across from you without so much as asking.
  1555. > That it takes you a moment to realize what she has done makes your cheeks flush lightly.
  1556. > No wonder it was so obvious that your thoughts were elsewhere.
  1557. > "Your Highness, there is quite clearly something on your mind. You are hardly able to focus on this; if there is something else you need to be doing, I can deal with-"
  1558. "It's nothing like that, Mayor..."
  1559. > Shaking your head softly, you lay down the papers you'd been holding aloft with your magic and rest your forehooves on the desk as well.
  1560. "I have... done something terrible, and even though there wasn't any choice to do it I still can't help but feel..."
  1561. > You trail off, not sure how to explain it.
  1562. > Or if you should explain it at all.
  1563. "It's just..."
  1564. > You look down at the papers again, needing some time to gather yourself.
  1565. > When you look back up, for just a moment you see Corona's accusing, enraged glare peering in through the doorway behind the mayor.
  1566. > It takes all your self control not to rear back and whinny in surprise; then you blink, and the face is gone - the door closed, as it had been.
  1567. > You want to tell her.
  1568. > To break down right then and there and tell her everything.
  1569. > But if Mayor Mare told anypony else...
  1570. > If word got out of what you'd done...
  1571. > The specter of everypony's face replaced by the same hateful leer as Corona's flickers before your eyes.
  1572. > No.
  1573. > This was a burden you'd have to suffer alone.
  1574. "...I'm just worried about how I'm going to convince everypony to give up their one day off to put in extra shifts."
  1575. > "It won't be easy, that's for certain. You're set on this?"
  1576. "Absolutely."
  1577. > Hesitating, you then add:
  1578. "I don't quite understand exactly why Anonymous gave me the authority over everypony. Maybe he expected me to fail, or maybe he genuinely expected me to learn something. Either way, he made it clear that if I couldn't manage everypony here, he would be retaking direct control."
  1579. > "So you use a show of force to show that you are in control.
  1580. > Taking her pen and starting to scratch out a first few lines on the paper, Mayor Mare adopts a thoughtful look - tail swishing as the wheels turn in her head.
  1581. > "Unfortunately, even with that threat there will be few ponies here who want to show him anything but how much we hate being owned."
  1582. > Your face falls.
  1583. "You're saying it can't be done?"
  1584. > "Now, I didn't say that, Your Highness. They may not like him, but they are proud of you."
  1585. > Warmth rises in your chest, though it is quickly chilled by the voice whispering in the back of the head that if they knew what you did, all that pride would vanish in a heartbeat.
  1586. > "Tell me, how much do you think Anonymous cares what you say in here?"
  1587. "Not a great deal, I think. And if I do annoy him somehow, a little grovelling will pacify him well enough - and is a small price to pay."
  1588. > "Indeed."
  1589. > Scratch, scratch, scratch goes the pen.
  1590. > "I will leave some ideas here for you to consider for your statement. However, I will say this: If you are going to keep everypony's respect, you will have to show a bit of spine to Anonymous now and then."
  1591. > That you had not been able to save Corona does not preclude your ire from rising.
  1592. "Mayor, if you think I have not argued with him for inch I-"
  1593. > "I said no such thing."
  1594. > Despite your sharp tone, Mayor Mare keeps her composure - an admirable display, while being snapped at by an alicorn.
  1595. > "But that is not what ponies see. What they see will be what they judge you by. If you cannot argue him back, find another way to earn their respect."
  1596. > Your ears fall; of course she hadn't meant to insult you.
  1597. > The shame returns, now mixed with your regret for raising your voice to her.
  1598. "Forgive me, Mayor. I"m sorry, I should have realized that's what you were referring to."
  1599. > "Not your fault, Your Highness."
  1600. > Crinkles form at the corners of her eyes and mouth as the middle-aged mare smiles to you.
  1601. > "Certainly I understand the weight of leadership, and I never had to face half the choices you do."
  1602. "Well, let it be known that I deeply appreciate your advice nonetheless."
  1603. > In that, at least, there is truth.
  1604. > If only you could tell her all of it.
  1606. "Hello, my little pony."
  1607. > Corona barely raises her head as you bend down to greet her, the mask and earpads you'd only just removed from her head dangling limply by the steel collar they are attached to.
  1608. > She was up in the chains again, stretched hoof and leg to the very extent her body could bear - skin pulled taught across her belly and ribs.
  1609. > "Not... no' your pony."
  1610. "Well, see that's just wrong."
  1611. > Eyes red-rimmed and bagged from lack of sleep, coat mottled and tangled, struggling to even keep her head up - she looks plainly awful.
  1612. > Smells it, too.
  1613. "I own you, Corona. You belong to me. It's not a debate, but a statement of fact."
  1614. > "Y'own nopon-"
  1615. > A casual slap across the muzzle interrupts her.
  1616. > Lowering your hand with a sigh, you seat yourself on a stool beside her slumped form.
  1617. > She doesn't dare speak again, the lesson of now to talk back to you having apparently once again sunk in.
  1618. > For now, anyway.
  1619. "Tell me, Corona. What do you think the point of this stubbornness of yours is? Do you honestly think that you're going to outlast me?"
  1620. > Her head falls back down to hang between her forelegs, eyes drooping but not quite falling shut.
  1621. "I mean, I'm in no hurry to release you. It's no great loss to me to keep one more pony out of work for a while if it means a lesson properly taught."
  1622. > ...
  1623. "We're only two days in - and you've had what, three hours of sleep altogether in that time? Maybe four, if you count nodding off for a few seconds here and there and add it up. And hell, I haven't even ordered your boxed yet."
  1624. > No outward sign of hearing you is given.
  1625. > But when you slip your hands round her cheeks, bringing her head back around to meet your eyes, there is a deep and wretched fearfulness in them - an awareness of just how much worse it would be getting.
  1626. > "I... I wan'..."
  1627. > Her voice is a croak, hardly able to give voice to her emotions.
  1628. "Come on. You know what gets you out of here - all you have to do to make it end. Then we can find you a nice, soft bed and let you rest for a while. Wouldn't you like to just get curled up beneath a warm blanket?"
  1629. > Shivers run the length of her body, trembling that sets the chains clinking softly.
  1630. > "...nothing's worth sendin' Mer'belle t'thi'."
  1631. > Her words are slurred by lack of rest.
  1632. "And what makes you think that you will have a choice?"
  1633. > Whether it is the confidence in your tone that you would be proven or that she had been chosen for this by the same pony you now accuse, Corona doesn't question your words again.
  1634. > Reaching out, you rest a hand against her chest - feeling the flutter of her heart, beating madly beneath her ribs.
  1635. > Corona stirs uncomfortably as you run your hand down from her chest, over her belly.
  1636. > But that is the point of the action - reminding her that you own her.
  1637. "One simple thing you have to do, and this all ends. It won't even hurt you. Just that simple."
  1638. > "Won' hurt me..."
  1639. > Bitterness mars her tone.
  1640. > "M'not everythin'. I won' hur' Mer'belle either. She's m'friend."
  1641. > By some awesome feat of willpower, Corona raises her head again.
  1642. > The glare in her eye is still strong - too strong.
  1643. > Evidently her lesson hasn't entirely sunk in yet.
  1644. > One hand still on her chin to keep her head upright, you lean in until your face fills one side of her vision.
  1645. "Right now, in here, you're the only thing you should be worried about."
  1646. > Your other hand starts to run down her sides, feeling the heaving of her lungs.
  1647. > Once more running your hand down her belly, skin pulled taught as she'd sunk lower and lower in the chains.
  1648. "Honestly. Nobody outside is worrying about you - Cadance was the one who turned you in, and Merribelle-"
  1649. > In retrospect, you aren't absolutely certain why she does what comes next.
  1650. > Perhaps your hand had strayed just a bit too close to her teats for Corona to tolerate.
  1651. > Maybe the thought of what you were about to say regarding Merribelle hit too close - a loss she wasn't prepared to take.
  1652. > Or maybe Corona had just gotten tired of hearing you.
  1653. > Whichever it is, the result is the same.
  1654. > Faster than you'd have thought possible, her head jerks back and teeth around your arm.
  1655. > The next thing you're aware of is howling, your arm erupting in agony as Corona simply refuses to release it from her jaw's grip no matter how hard you pull back.
  1656. > Dimly you hear other voices raised, people moving around you, and then at last merciful release that allows you to stumble back against the wall with your arm clutched tight against your chest.
  1657. > Eric is there, gripping something that resembles a massively oversized pair of pliers that he has used to force Corona's mouth open.
  1658. > As soon as you are free, though, he is at your side.
  1659. > "Fucking hell, Anonymous! What did you do?"
  1660. "Was just fucking talking to her! God damn - I'm going to - to -"
  1661. > You don't finish that statement, instead simply stumbling from the room and out of the detention block entirely in search of medical treatment.
  1662. > The initial white-hot flash of pain has faded now, endorphins doing their merciful work and reducing it to a merely intense, throbbing agony from an overwhelming, almost blinding on.
  1663. > Everything still passes in a slight haze, though, and when you look down next you detachedly note the red staining your clothing.
  1664. > A moment passes before it clicks in your mind that she had actually broken your skin.
  1665. > No tearing, by the looks of it, but still a reasonably deep wound that is in fact leaking an alarming amount of blood.
  1666. > Stitches are definitely in your future.
  1667. > Snapping up the roll of bandage gauze in a first aid kit held by a worried, you stalk out through the door while fumbling for your phone.
  1668. > ...
  1669. > The prediction turns out to be entirely correct.
  1670. > One ride to the hospital later, you are the none-too-proud owner of one thoroughly stitched-up arm.
  1671. > At least the bandages hid that, and your shirt-sleeve hid the bandages - though the curious bulge underneath would be obvious, unless you wore a jacket over that.
  1672. > ...perhaps it would have been better to say, at least the painkillers they had administered to you had further reduced the pain to an ignorable level.
  1673. > Or maybe even, 'at least Corona hadn't broken your bone when she bit you'.
  1674. > Intense anger had replaced the initial shock, though it isn't all directed at the responsible mare.
  1675. > Some is also pointed firmly at yourself.
  1676. > After all, you'd seen what a desperate and angry pony could do with their teeth before - especially an earth pony.
  1677. > Despite her being immobile, there was absolutely no reason for you to casually let down your guard around Corona like that.
  1678. > Perhaps you had become a bit too comfortable around the ponies - a bit too used to them preferring to obey, even plead or bow, than risk violence.
  1679. > ...of course, that was in large part because you were used to being around the vastly larger, obedient portion of the population that had everything to lose from doing so.
  1680. > A pony in Corona's position - let alone one that had been deliberately reduced to a point she was not thinking straight - was a far more wild card.
  1681. > At the same time, however, that did not mean that you were not going to remind her of just how staggering a mistake she had made.
  1682. > While being bitten had been your fault, biting you was hers - something you were going to make abundantly clear.
  1683. > You pass back into the security wing and to the cell block with an intense, storming presence.
  1684. > Eric is waiting at the door to her cell when you arrive at it, his arms folded and lips fixed in a thin, flat line.
  1685. > "You going to go in there, boss?"
  1686. > It's a rhetorical questions - one look at the object clutched in your hand would tell him all he needed to know - but you answer it anyhow:
  1687. "I am. My fuckup for letting her do that, but her major fuckup for doing it."
  1688. > "I'm going in with you."
  1689. > For a moment you're ready to snap at Eric and remind him that you were hardly going to let Corona get the better of you again.
  1690. > Then you catch another look at his posture and realize that it isn't you he is concerned about.
  1691. > He's afraid of what you might do to Corona.
  1692. "Anyone worked on her since I left?"
  1693. > "Not a touch. We had a... suspicion you would be back."
  1694. > Deflating a bit, you simply nod.
  1695. > That was, you suppose, something you should be thankful for:
  1696. > Employees willing to be on the lookout for when you might be shooting yourself in the foot, damaging your own property, at the same time as they met your expectations even without being asked.
  1697. "Alright. You stay."
  1698. > The cell's door is quickly unlocked.
  1699. > At some point while you were gone, Corona had been let down to the floor, even given a bit of slack in her chains to sprawl out.
  1700. > That wasn't to say she'd been given any rest.
  1701. > The light in the cell's ceiling strobed at random intervals, a disorienting experience that would leave her struggling to think straight - let alone sleep.
  1702. > Between the door opening and that light reverting to an incessant but constant harsh glare, however, Corona realizes something is happening and drops her hooves from her eyes.
  1703. > Instantly she is trying to shift herself into a bow, though her tired muscles are far too sore to properly support her body.
  1704. > "Master..."
  1705. > Oh, she knows what is coming.
  1706. > Knows no assault on her owner would ever go unpunished.
  1707. > "P-Please master, I didn't mean to-"
  1708. > Eyes go wide as she catches sight of the tool swinging at your side, breath catching in her throat.
  1709. > "Please, please not that-"
  1710. > Pleading dissolves into gurgles as the prod's electrodes find their way to her throat, the surge of current sending spasms through her limbs that send her sprawling on her side.
  1711. > Quickly Corona is up on her hooves again, the jolt having awoken fresh reserves of stamina hidden away deep inside that allow her to stand.
  1712. > Her legs are trembling and tail jammed firmly down, ears flattened and eyes turned to the floor.
  1713. > Every bit of her coat navy coat shines with sweat, chains on her hooves clinking softly as she takes step after nervous step.
  1714. > Too soon, though, she encounters another barrier:
  1715. > The corner of the cell, which she protectively wedges herself into, terrified eyes wide and pleading.
  1716. > And yet, Corona does not speak another word.
  1717. > Apparently come to terms with the fact that no degree of self-humiliation will save her anymore.
  1718. > That doesn't stop her head from shaking, practically instinctively, as you lay the prod against her cutie mark and jab the triggering stud with your thumb.
  1719. > Nor does it keep a scream ripping from her throat as her body twitches under the current.
  1720. > You give her a few moments to recover after that, her breath gradually returning to something approaching .merely terrified'.
  1721. > Squatting down in front of her - the prod held out almost like a blade to hold her back - you let your lips draw back to show her a tooth-laden grimace.
  1722. "You bit me, Corona. You hurt me quite badly. And - even putting aside my emotions on the matter - if I ever let something that serious go unpunished, it would send a very dangerous message."
  1723. > Before she had looked away from you whenever possible.
  1724. > Now, though, Corona's eyes are locked firmly on yours - wide, shrunken to pinpricks, filled with tears that run freely down her cheeks.
  1725. "In any situation the punishment for this would be quite severe, but in your case you somehow decided that physically harming your owner was a better choice than speaking a few, simple words. That's a decision I have to make certain I correct."
  1726. > Her mouth opens to say something, but all that comes out is another scream as the electrodes make firm contact with her cutie mark once more.
  1727. > Chains clink loudly as her legs convulse; you keep the jolts coming for several long moments until her struggles begin to grow weaker despite themselves.
  1728. > Eric shifts somewhat behind you, arms folded but silent and making no move to stop you.
  1729. > When Corona is again approaching something close to coherency, you motion up to Eric with your bandaged arm.
  1730. "You should really honestly thank him. He insisted on being in here with me, so he was just about the only thing keeping me from putting this thing inside you and holding the button until the batteries go."
  1731. > A soft hiccup escapes Corona's throat, her body apparently too tired to manifest a proper sob.
  1732. > Standing up, you again gesture towards Eric.
  1733. "In fact, why don't you just show both of us how thankful you are for that."
  1734. > Corona does not stand on her first attempt, legs weakened by hours upon hours stretched at harsh angles and now by the prod's merciless shocks failing her.
  1735. > It takes until her fourth try for her to properly stand, nervous and careful shuffling steps taken towards you.
  1736. > When she sinks into the bow, it's more like her forelegs folding beneath her again than a real bow.
  1737. > "T-T-Thank y-you, Mast-ters."
  1738. "What are you thanking us for, slave?"
  1739. > "T-Thank you for n-not p-putting that i-inside of me, Masters."
  1740. "And what are you?"
  1741. > It takes her a moment's thought, her mind addled by the days of treatment, to realize what you are asking for.
  1742. > "I am y-your slave, Master."
  1743. > Her body sags as she admits this, head sinking entirely to the floor.
  1744. > And so it comes as a complete surprise to Corona when you drive the prod into her neck.
  1745. > With a shriek and a tumble she collapses onto her side, legs curling defensively around herself.
  1746. > "Why? WHY? I s-said it, I said what y-you wanted me to-ooooo!"
  1747. > Words turn to a howl as the sparking electrodes find their way to her belly, sending her into another writhing fit.
  1748. > She may not have the innate electrical resistance a pegasus does, but Corona's earth pony resilience means you have little to fear from holding the prod in place for several seconds.
  1749. > Indeed, when it is removed she is able to curl herself into the corner again, shackled forehooves covering her head defensively.
  1750. > "Why...?"
  1751. "Why indeed, Corona. You could have just said what you needed to - just told us to take Merribelle instead - but evidently this is so much better an option in your head."
  1752. > Despite everything she has gone through, Corona still shakes her head at your demand.
  1753. > She seizes up tight when the prod again brushes across her belly, but no shock comes.
  1754. > Even so, it takes her several moments to untense.
  1755. > It's not so much 'untense' as 'slump back down sobbing again.'
  1756. "Of course, if you meant why am I doing this now - well, I think even you can figure that out."
  1757. > The prod traces back and forth over her stomach, back and forth.
  1758. > Already jammed tight into the corner, Corona still attempts to pull back from it.
  1759. > Her efforts to tuck her belly in away from it - even empty out her lungs to suck it in further - are ever more pitiful.
  1760. > After a little bit of playing like this, though, you opt to simply jab the prod straight into her and demonstrate that there was simply no further she could go.
  1761. > Prod snapping and popping you trace a line down along her belly.
  1762. > Each new bolt draws another animalistic howl from her throat.
  1763. > And yet, still you do not stop.
  1764. > Not until the prod hovers over her teats - ready to send a surge through those delicate nubs, to inflict a new level of agony on her through their nerve-rich tips.
  1765. > Corona stares up at you with eyes that only half-see for the tears filling them, silently resolved to the anguish she is experiencing.
  1766. > And, in that moment, you flinch.
  1767. > What were you doing?
  1768. > Had she learned her lesson by now?
  1769. > Trapped in a corner, unable to escape your vengeance, she clearly understood that there was no escaping the results of biting you.
  1770. > Was there a point in pushing her any further with the prod?
  1771. > But then again, she hadn't just nipped or chomped once.
  1772. > She'd dug her teeth in and refused to let ago until her jaws had been literally forced open.
  1773. > Didn't that kind of behavior demand more than just a point made?
  1774. > Shouldn't it call for an extra-severe punishment for an extra-severe attack?
  1775. > Mauling her as she'd done to you was of course out of the option, but there were other, equally worse things you could do with this prod...
  1776. > You glance from the corner of your eye to Eric, trying to gauge if he feels you've gone too far already.
  1777. > Unfortunately, he's kept a clearly neutral look on his face - impossible to tell what his opinion is.
  1778. > Besides, this is your call and Corona is your property.
  1779. > Ignoring her plaintive head shakes begging you to halt, your finger descends on the control stud and unleashes a new jolt into her teats.
  1780. > Head snapping back and body curving into a spine-arching arch, Corona unleashes a fresh, aching wail.
  1781. > That turns to a hiccuping, almost bouncing series of sobs as you snap the prod back and forth between her teats, each subjected to the burning touch of the current in turn.
  1782. > And yet, despite her obvious misery, Corona never once tries to kick the prod away or close her legs to protect her most vulnerable spots.
  1783. > As if she'd simply given in to being tormented.
  1784. > Or, perhaps more likely, was to addled to even give that kind of basic, instinctual response.
  1785. > Perhaps a little of both, perhaps-
  1786. > A particularly hard jerk of her muscles, and there is the soft sound of fluid spattering off hard floor and a distinctive acrid scent.
  1787. > You glance to her back and - yep, Corona had lost control of herself.
  1788. > Urine pools behind her haunches, matting her tail.
  1789. > Your nose wrinkles as you drop the prod's contacts from her heaving belly.
  1790. > The silence that fills in now that her screaming has halted at last seems to have a weight of its own.
  1791. > Turning to set the prod down on a nearby table, you catch a glimpse of Eric retreating back a step.
  1792. > He'd unfolded his arms, you realize, and taken a step towards you that he was only now drawing back from.
  1793. > If you hadn't stopped right then, he had been about to stop you himself.
  1794. > Looking back at Corona - her sides still occasionally spasming, although whether it is residual twitches of current or simply her breath catching you aren't sure - a familiar feeling twists your stomach.
  1795. > That had been wrong.
  1796. > Too much.
  1797. > Standing back, you motion to Eric.
  1798. "We'll hood her and box her. Wash her down, then leave her to recover from this for a bit."
  1799. > Nodding in understanding, he reaches out and starts to undo the clasps holding her forelegs from the bars between them.
  1800. > When he is ready, you take her hind legs and together lift Corona from the floor - ignoring what was running from her coat onto your hands.
  1801. > Pain reignites in your arm as you grunt and heave the pony about; even though she was smaller than the average mare, she still bore an earth pony's muscles.
  1802. > For her part, Corona is only semi-conscious, head lolling and eyes unfocused as you slide her into the box..
  1803. > The 'box' you push her into is in fact more of a trapezoid, with one full-height wall while the opposite slopes down to a barely high enough to fit a pony's head.
  1804. > Corona is carefully slid in, her forelegs folding at the 'knee' to rest on the floor of the box while her hind hooves - still anchored far apart by the bar between them - support her hips upright.
  1805. > Though that bar is fixed to a ring on the floor of the box keeping her from kicking out deliberately or not, no similar measure is needed for forehooves.
  1806. > Her own body, pressed down by the sloping ceiling of the box, would keep her from rising up on them.
  1807. > Instead she was forced to 'kneel' on them in a sharp bow, an enforced posture of submission.
  1808. > Stepping away to wash your own hands and check your bandages to make sure nothing had opened up, you simply watch while Eric drags a hose over and begins to thoroughly wash Corona down with its harsh spray.
  1809. > She gasps at the sharply cold jet, the its icy touch dragging her back to reality, but makes no protest.
  1810. > Water runs down from the box, through holes in its bottom meant to handle a prisoner within being unable to avoid relieving themselves, and from there to a drain set in the floor.
  1811. > When that is done, Eric closes a rear door and opens one on the shortened wall, reaching in with the severe bridle and snapping it into place around her head.
  1812. > The box itself was bad enough for many ponies, but Corona barely shows any sign as the blinders are slid over her eyes, bit between her jaws, and stifling cap over her nostrils.
  1813. > You stay just long enough to see him fixing it in place before you leave, your mind awash in uncertainties.
  1814. > Corona bitten you, yes, and needed to be punished heavily for that.
  1815. > But that last jolt - a jolt, which, if you were honest with yourself, had been delivered with a side dose of sexual molestation - that had not been a lesson taught.
  1816. > That had been personal vengeance, pure and simple.
  1817. > Had it been too much?
  1818. > Thoughts remain your own as you slip back into your manor, returning to your office and startling the unicorn quietly cleaning there.
  1819. > Dismissing her amid a flurry of hurried excuses and scented towels, you slouch down into your seat and stare at the screens of your computers.
  1820. > Eventually you force yourself to work, diverting your mind from those questions.
  1821. > Right on the top of a stack of papers for you is one that you'd been expecting but still manage to be surprised by anyhow.
  1822. > A proclamation from Cadance, declaring that an extra shift of work would be taken that Sunday to make up for lost production.
  1823. > Though your lips curl at some of the language - "the cost of our brothers' and sisters' freedom is one we must all continue to pay" indeed - the gist of it was still there.
  1824. > Well.
  1825. > It was Thursday now.
  1826. > Another day to marshal them, and you would see just how much the ponies were willing to follow Cadance's commands.
  1827. > And if they did, you force yourself to promise, they would see a reduction in their quotas to something more reasonable as well.
  1828. > Moving on from that, you throw yourself into the work with an unusual gusto.
  1829. > Emails written and sent, phone calls made, spreadsheets reviewed and sample work done.
  1830. > When dinner rolls around, you ask it be brought up to your office.
  1831. > It is, you tell yourself, so that you will not be slacking while the ponies are putting in extra hours - couldn't afford to get lazy, or all their work would go to waste and you would get nothing.
  1832. > But the truth is inescapable, even to your mind.
  1833. > You've not suddenly become a workaholic because of a business-sense revelation.
  1834. > You're trying to avoid thinking about the earth pony squeezed into that oppressive metal box.
  1835. > It's a lingering thought that hang over you throughout the entire night, even when you lay yourself down to bed with a mental congratulations of a day well done.
  1836. > And when it is still there first thing the next morning - literally, the first coherent thought you have on waking - you know there will be no escaping it forever.
  1837. > What you'd done was wrong, by any metric.
  1838. > Eric isn't there when you head back down into the high-risk cell block, and the man who takes his place - an unfamiliar face - is waved off with a dismissive hand.
  1839. > You'll be careful enough on your own.
  1840. > At first glance the cell appears to be empty, but the box looms in the corner it had been left - stark, grey, silent for now.
  1841. > Silent does not mean unconscious, however, and when you slide open the panel in front of her face Corona is already lifting her head.
  1842. > At some point someone had set a bowl of stew in a hollow on the box's floor, and apparently Corona's head had come to rest there once she'd emptied it.
  1843. > Bits of food cling to her muzzle and cheeks as she raises her head to stare blindly at the entrance, the bridle still in place covering her eyes.
  1844. > At least whoever'd been looking after her had taken the mask off her nostrils, making it easier for her to breath, though they'd evidently replaced the bit.
  1845. "...hello, Corona."
  1846. > Her breath quickens, head backing off from the entrance as far as she can in the tiny, confining space.
  1847. > Which is to say, virtually nowhere at all.
  1848. > Reaching in to (extremely carefully) unclip and pull the bit from between her jaws, you pull a stool over and seat yourself with a sigh.
  1849. "I suppose... I owe you an apology, of all things. Biting me wasn't the right choice, but what I did to you - hell, that wasn't right."
  1850. > Gesturing even though she can't possibly see the motions, you go on:
  1851. "I guess none of this has really been 'fair', has it? You being chosen out of all of them. But that, wasn't just unfair but wrong. And... I think it's been enough. Any lesson I might've had has been taught. I'm taking you out."
  1852. > She licks her lips, but it seems to be as much an instinctual reaction as anything else.
  1853. > Suddenly you feel really quite stupid.
  1854. > Talking to her wasn't going to do much, was it?
  1855. > She was obviously completely lost inside that little box.
  1856. > Not hearing a thing you say.
  1857. > Standing, you walk around to the far side of the box and open the door behind her - the only one large enough to allow her out.
  1858. > Getting Corona out is a whole different story entirely, especially since halfway through she abruptly begins to struggle.
  1859. > "No... No! No, nonono!"
  1860. > Quickly you lose control of her, and Corona's body slides from the box to land on the floor with a boneless thud.
  1861. > In a second she is curled up again, ears laid flat and tail clamped down to her haunches.
  1862. > "No more, no more..."
  1863. > Her wail is so plaintive, so heart-rending, that a moment later you find yourself squatting down beside Corona with your arms around her barrel.
  1864. "Hey, hey. Easy there, easy. Don't move, alright?"
  1865. > This touch - firm, but gentle - finally breaks through to Corona.
  1866. > She stops wriggling, but her body is no less tense.
  1867. "You're out of the box, okay? I'm go-"
  1868. > "Take her..."
  1869. > You pause, freezing.
  1870. > Had she just...?
  1871. > As if reading your thoughts, Corona repeats herself:
  1872. > "Take her. Take Merribelle. Just - no more. Celestia, Luna, help me, PLEASE!"
  1873. > Your arms are still fixed around her barrel, but you're as numb and limp as Corona is.
  1874. > She'd broken.
  1875. > Given in.
  1876. > Maybe thought she was just being taken out for another session with the cattle prod.
  1877. "Corona..."
  1878. > "Merribelle... I'm sorry, Merribelle. I'm sorry, sorry, sorry..."
  1879. > Her voice trails off to inaudible mumbling.
  1880. > You can't move her on your own, and there's no way Corona is moving under her own power.
  1881. > Acquiring a stretcher is easy - the broad leather cuffs intended to be secured around a pony's limbs going unused - but getting Corona up onto it requires assistance from a pair of security officers.
  1882. > Driven by some unknown sense of duty, you keep pace alongside it and wait while she is shifted onto a soft, clean medical cot before seating yourself on the edge of her bed.
  1883. "...Corona?"
  1884. > Her ear flicks.
  1885. "It's over, Corona. It's done with. You..."
  1886. > Does she know she broke?
  1887. > Remember selling out her closest friend to save herself from torture that would never come?
  1888. "'s over."
  1889. > Though your hands stay far from her muzzle, you place a gentle one on her withers.
  1890. > Would it do any good?
  1891. > Hard to say.
  1892. > "Where..."
  1893. > Her voice cracks.
  1894. > "Where's Merribelle..."
  1895. > And now the hardest part to explain of all.
  1896. > The other reason you'd almost wished she'd hung on for just a few minutes longer instead of cracking at the last moment.
  1897. > If you'd known this was how it was going to turn out, you'd never have used her friend's name in the first place.
  1898. > Your mistake, you suppose.
  1899. "Corona... Merribelle is dead."
  1900. > You speak softly, slowly.
  1901. "She never even made it back here. She was - was sneaking around someone's house, maybe looking for food, I don't know. He said she became afraid and lit her horn against him..."
  1902. > A not impossible situation.
  1903. > Ponies fleeing their masters were always unpredictable.
  1904. > That you didn't drug away (or worse, take more permanent action against) your unicorns' magic was a mercy you'd always been proud of, but in this moment it might have been a liability.
  1905. "...well, he had a gun."
  1906. > "Y-You said - already found her -"
  1907. "I know. I..."
  1908. > Lied.
  1909. > Stupid, stupid choice!
  1910. > Another mistake made in the throes of your anger.
  1911. "...she's not coming back, Corona. I can show you the police report, the newspaper story..."
  1912. > The newspaper story that had humiliated you by being the first you'd heard of Merribelle's fate.
  1913. > Abruptly she shifts, head rising to point at you.
  1914. > Hand trembling, you reach out with your good arm and pull the bridle from her head - releasing her eyes from the blinders to meet your own.
  1915. > To see the truth in your gaze.
  1916. "She's gone, Corona."
  1917. > No more than two seconds pass before she collapses back to the bed, fresh tears leaking from her eyes.
  1918. > After days of you trying your hardest to work your way into your mind, you suppose, she would be able to tell when your face was not spiteful or hostile but leaden with real, honest, genuine sadness.
  1919. "That's the risk of running away. You can't look after everyone out there. Just... think about that, the next time you're planning on getting another pony to run away."
  1920. > There's no chance in reaction, her face still buried in the pillow.
  1921. > You sigh again.
  1922. "I'm releasing you back to the camp now. Back to Cadance-"
  1923. > Impossible to miss, however, is how she bristles at the alicorn's name.
  1924. "-and that's my first order to you, by the way. Any time there's a rumor of another big escape plan going to happen, you just remind them of what happened to Merribelle. I didn't kill her..."
  1925. > 'But you did by taking her out.'
  1926. > That was what you'd been about to say.
  1927. > One glance at Corona tells you that she knew it too.
  1928. > You look away, for once unsure of what to say next.
  1929. "...I'll be going, then. You'll be given some time to rest."
  1930. > Even to you, the words seem empty.
  1931. > You cannot even imagine how she must feel.
  1932. > Never had you imagined that she would somehow hold out that long, much less drive you to subject her to that kind of punishment...
  1933. > The bed creaks as you stand, but even so Corona says nothing - her muzzle buried in the pillow to mask the tears she continues to shed.
  1934. > Turning, you march from the room without any further word.
  1936. "...she's what?"
  1937. > "Corona was delivered to the medical clinic this morning, Your Highness."
  1938. > Your eyes squeeze tightly shut to hide the worry building in them.
  1939. > Of course she would be returned to you now - one day before your greatest test of leadership yet.
  1940. > Forcing your face down into a more neutral expression, you reopen them and issue a curt nod.
  1941. "Thank you for telling me. Would I be able to see her now, or-"
  1942. > "No."
  1943. > The pony shakes her head, nurse's uniform swaying slightly.
  1944. > "More than anything right now, she needs time to rest. We're nearly done performing diagnostics-"
  1945. > That it had taken that long to do sends a new tremor through your body.
  1946. > Just how bad was the damage that had been done to her?!
  1947. > "-but even so, she will need plenty of time to recover. Not until tomorrow at the earliest, perhaps even a day or two after that."
  1948. > Turning to face the nurse, you're suddenly aware that the painting roller you'd been using was still clutched in your magical grip.
  1949. > ...trying to get out and do some 'everyday work' with other ponies had seemed like a good idea, especially since you were about to ask a great deal more of them.
  1950. > Setting it down on a nearby bucket, you sigh.
  1951. "I realize that patients' situations isn't something you can openly discuss anywhere, but if you can tell me-"
  1952. > After a glance around, the nurse approaches to put her muzzle to your ear.
  1954. > "No serious injuries. A lot of strained tendons and muscles, signs of serious sleep loss, slight malnourishment... and one minor burn."
  1955. > Your stomach twists.
  1956. > Even with that little bit of information, it's easy enough to put the pieces together.
  1957. "You're certain I cannot see her?"
  1958. > "Not yet, Your Highness. But, I, ah..."
  1959. > She hesitates, then adds:
  1960. > "Word of this is going to get out. Ponies are going to be... upset. Already there are a lot of angry ponies in the clinic..."
  1961. > It is a measure of her trust, you suppose, that she is not only telling you of Corona's status but giving you this forewarning as well.
  1962. "Thank you, Nurse...?"
  1963. > "Nurse Joyheart."
  1964. > As soon as the nurse is out of sight you drop your haunches to the floor, legs folding beneath you.
  1965. > Signs of serious sleep loss?
  1966. > A burn?!
  1967. > Just what had you sacrificed Corona to?
  1968. > Eyes forced shut, you barely hear the sound of hooves on wood until a voice calls out:
  1969. > "Misses Cadance?"
  1970. "I - I am alright. I - I am sorry, something terribly important has come up-"
  1971. > And you aren't sure how much longer you can keep your stomach's contents down.
  1972. "-and I'm afraid I have to go early."
  1973. > "That's quite alright, Misses Cadance. Even just this much is deeply appreciated, and I..."
  1974. > The rest fades into a buzz - then a rising roar - as you half-stagger from your quarters.
  1975. > They were sheer, pure luxury by the standards of the camp - a whole three rooms, including your own private bathroom with an actual bathtub! - but goes completely unnoticed as you stumble to the bed and sink into it, stomach twisting.
  1976. > Hiding, you knew, was no answer.
  1977. > Other ponies were going to hear soon enough.
  1978. > But right now, you cannot even begin to think of how you are going to respond to this.
  1979. > Rolling over, your eye catches sight of a painting hung on a wall.
  1980. > It was of a photograph, actually - some formal image you'd posed for once at some formal event or another, yourself and your husband and daughter.
  1981. > At some point a pony in the camp had re-painted this image from that photograph, thoughtfully erasing the ball ongoing in the background while leaving just the focus on the three of you in the foreground.
  1982. > You'd acquired it the first chance you had, a simple moment of lost times past.
  1983. > But now, it is an accusing prosecutor.
  1984. > What would Shining think of what you are doing now?
  1985. > What would Flurry think when she comes?!
  1986. > Again your eyes are squeezed shut as you struggle to shut out the fears hammering on your mind.
  1987. > When they open again, you're surprised to find the sun suddenly streaming in across the bed.
  1988. > ...oh, sweet Celestia - had you fallen asleep?!
  1989. > That was the last thing you needed, especially with the impending extra work shift tomorrow...
  1990. > A quick glance at your clock reveals that it is not quite time for dinner to be served out at the dining hall.
  1991. > Good; you've got some time yet.
  1992. > Again you thank all the stars as it turns out Mayor Mare is still working just outside your 'office'.
  1993. > She looks up as you stride in, one eye steadily rising on the normally unflappable mare.
  1994. "...Mayor, forgive me for intruding, but it's approaching dinner hour and I need to know if everypony is ready for tomorrow."
  1995. > "I, ah - I've heard back from nearly all the foreponies and they're giving good reports. Um, Your Highness - is everything alright? Your, ah - your mane -"
  1996. > Oh!
  1997. > A quick glance in a window reveals that you'd somehow rolled out with a truly awful case of bedhead, your typical long curl having turned into a mess of cowlicks and tangles.
  1998. > Had you gone galloping through the streets like that?
  1999. > Giving a small, displeased nicker under your breath, you approach the window and begin fixing your mane as best you can without completely redoing it.
  2000. "It's been a long day. I received some... rather unwanted news this afternoon."
  2001. > "That mare Anonymous dropped off at the medical wing?"
  2002. > Damn, did she know already?
  2004. > Evidently your shock shows, as Mayor Mare nods.
  2005. > "Odd situation, that. Everypony's figured out what happened to her, but they're saying Anonymous himself brought her in and talked with her a bit before leaving."
  2006. > That gives you pause.
  2007. "...what?"
  2008. > "Just what I've been hearing, Your Highness."
  2009. > Another thing to wonder about.
  2010. "Well. For the moment - you said most of the foreponies are saying their crews are all in. Focaccia down at the southern bakery is going to be a real problem, and Lemon Hearts says she might be missing a couple of her enchanters."
  2011. > You grimace deeply.
  2012. > If ponies flaunted your orders enough to give some of the foreponies real problems, you might have to call out the watch to go recover them...
  2013. > And that'd go well for nopony.
  2014. "I can probably fill in for one of Lemon Hearts' missing ponies myself, but send a message for Focaccia to find out how many he needs. We might have to pull a couple ponies off the Central Bakery's roster."
  2015. > "Cream Batter won't forgive you if you start stealing his ponies."
  2016. "Batter knows I won't hold it against him if he falls a little behind."
  2017. > You glance over at the clock again and sigh.
  2018. > So little time left - not really more than enough to do one more errand before dinner hour.
  2019. > Probably you should keep focusing on working out the kinks in any of the work groups' rosters.
  2020. > It's your duty right now, your job as leader to ignore the voice screaming inside of you to go confront Anonymous and find out what he did to Corona.
  2021. > ...but that is a strong urge indeed, and it would probably set your mind at ease to know what the story was there.
  2022. > Not to mention you wouldn't be caught off-guard by any more information about her.
  2023. > Then again, maybe what you need her is to stick to a script.
  2024. > Go back to your office, let Mayor Mare handle this and Corona wait until you could see her directly.
  2025. > Write up a proper speech, prepare yourself to appear calm, collected, prepared... princess-ly before everypony.
  2027. "Mayor Mare? Can you see to the rest of this? I'm afraid I need to speak to Anonymous."
  2028. > "Afraid?"
  2029. "...I doubt it will be a pleasant conversation."
  2030. > As you tread across the camp, just how bad it is likely to be settles across your withers like saddlebags full of lead.
  2031. > Crossing the threshold into his home does nothing to relieve that feeling.
  2032. > Even so you swallow and force you way on.
  2033. > Directed to his office, you find the door closed but not locked.
  2034. > Tapping your hoof lightly on it, however, produces no answer from within.
  2035. > Again.
  2036. > Still nothing.
  2037. > Cracking the door open and peering through with one eye, you find Anonymous slumped over his desk - a stack of papers on one side of him and three separate screens lit in front of his face.
  2038. > "I didn't say you could answer."
  2039. > His head does not rise as he speaks.
  2040. "My apologies, Anonymous, but I needed to talk to you immediately."
  2041. > Another moment he waits, as if ignoring you might somehow possible cause you to simply vanish.
  2042. > "...what?"
  2043. > That is, you suppose, an invitation to come in - of a fashion.
  2044. > Stepping through, you shut the door behind your tail for privacy.
  2045. "Corona."
  2046. > He jerks as if you'd jabbed him with the sharped tip of your horn, but still does not look up.
  2047. > "...yes? What about her?"
  2048. > Frustration boils over.
  2049. > The next few words come before you even realize your lips are moving.
  2050. "What about her? What about her?! Signs of serious sleep deprivation, stress injuries, a burn-"
  2051. > "I KNOW!"
  2052. > Now it is your turn to jerk back.
  2053. > Anonymous rarely ever screamed - spoke sharply, sometimes raised his voice, but rarely ever screamed at the top of his lungs.
  2054. > "I know, I was hard on her. What did you think I would do, tickle her? Not give her a cookie before bed?"
  2055. "I didn't think you were going to torture her!"
  2056. > "After I whipped you bloody, you think that I'm going to be merciful to some ungrateful nag?"
  2057. "No, but - I didn't - didn't expect /this/!"
  2058. > "Fucksake, Cadance, you knew what you were sending her-"
  2059. "You think I need to be reminded?"
  2060. > Keeping your own voice steady is demanding as well.
  2061. "Do you think I haven't been literally making myself sick because of her? That I - I'm not disgusted with myself?"
  2062. > "Congratulations, Cadance."
  2063. > He finally turns around, and you unconsciously take a step back.
  2064. > Anonymous... does not look good.
  2065. > Dark circles are set beneath his eyes which have a slightly distant look to them.
  2066. > "Congratulations. Now you now what being a leader feels like. What having to make decisions that disgust you feels like."
  2067. > Drawing a steadying breath, you retake that step back forward.
  2068. "Be that as it may, Anonymous, word of what happened to her is already spreading in the camp. Ponies are going to be upset - are upset - right as I need them to trust me and put in hours that nopony really wants to."
  2069. > Tucking your legs beneath yourself, you drop down on your haunches and firmly plant yourself directly in front of him.
  2070. "So tell me then, Anonymous - what does a leader say when somepony asks her what she was thinking when she turned over a pony to... that?"
  2071. > "Exactly what I told you: That an example had to be made!"
  2072. "But why like that? I hate a lot of things you do, but you've never been sadistic in your punishments - what made you decide to do that to her?"
  2073. > It's a staring contest, a game of chicken in its purest form.
  2074. > And to your deep surprise, Anonymous flinches first.
  2075. > He looks away, eyes falling.
  2076. > "Tell your ponies whatever you like. I... I don't know. I was..."
  2077. > Trailing off, he falls silent.
  2078. > Once again you're reminded of just how... off he seems.
  2079. > Had whatever he'd done to Corona really affected Anonymous that badly?
  2080. "...Sir, if I may be open with you, I think - I think the best thing for you to do right now would be to take action."
  2081. > "Action?"
  2082. "Show that you regret what you did. Not everypony out there can walk into your office like this and see-"
  2083. > "Duly noted. And if I may be open with you, I think the next time I want your opinion on my thoughts, I'll ask for it."
  2084. > Closing your mouth with a click, you drop your eyes to the floor.
  2085. > Evidently that had not been the right move.
  2086. "...apologies, sir."
  2087. > "Accepted."
  2088. > A tense, laden silence falls in the room after that.
  2089. > Before long, your eyes are drawn to sun falling towards the horizon outside.
  2090. "...if I may go, I need to be there when dinner hour begins. I am going to try and speak to them - get them to put in that extra shift."
  2091. > Daring to look up, you find that Anonymous' eyes had also been drawn out the window.
  2092. > His gaze is far more distant, though, and no reply comes forth.
  2093. > After another minute you turn and, quietly as you can, open the door.
  2094. > "Cadance."
  2095. > Fear freezes you - had you you angered him by leaving without permission?
  2096. > "You want to tell them something... tell them that if they put this shift in, I've freed up a sum in my accounts to handle the lost revenue for the remaining weeks until the replacements arrive. They won't have to do this again, and quotas will be dropped to account for the missing ponies."
  2097. > Still you are frozen, one hoof raised mid-step.
  2098. > Not by fear, though, but by shock.
  2099. > He'd obviously been working on that before you'd demanded some action.
  2100. > But how well it fit your request was... eerie.
  2101. > Looking back, you force a small, wain smile to your lips.
  2102. "...thank you, Anonymous."
  2103. > "Now get out of my office. I have work to do. We both do."
  2104. > You don't need to be told twice.
  2105. > In an instant you are gone - though not before you'd seen the shining wetness on his cheeks as he stared out the window.
  2106. > How long you stay staring at the door after Cadance vanishes from your office, you don't really know.
  2107. > Despite the truth in what you'd told her about having work to do, you find your thoughts drifting and unable to focus on the jobs waiting to be done.
  2108. > The neat, squared-off stack of pages remains on your table alongside the screens still lit with figures and data.
  2109. > But your mind is far, far distant.
  2110. > It pours through other data - data of you, of your emotions.
  2111. > You generally tried not to lie to your ponies, yet you'd told two important ones now - once to Corona, and now again to Cadance.
  2112. > The reason you'd been so cruel to Corona was something you knew very well.
  2113. > After digging down to the core of your heart, you'd realized exactly why you'd been so sadistic.
  2114. > It was an alarmingly simple thing in the end, and you wondered why it hadn't come to you earlier.
  2115. > When you might have spared Corona the worst of your rage.
  2116. > Envy.
  2117. > Corona hadn't been the one you'd been furious with.
  2118. > It'd been the others - the six ponies who'd planned the escape, and perhaps even Cadance herself.
  2119. > The ones who'd truly set the betrayal of your good will in motion.
  2120. > But Cadance had taken the chance to punish them as you saw fit, and despite her needing to learn the lesson it'd taught your own feelings on the matter apparently weren't been as clear as you'd thought.
  2121. > So instead, you'd insisted on punishing the returned escapees - and then on Corona alone, when Cadance had successfully plead their case.
  2122. > Corona had not been innocent, but she had not been a mastermind.
  2123. > Sucking down a trembling, unsteady breath you stand and totter to a cabinet - finding a glass and golden bottle of liquid within.
  2124. > The liquor's fire serves as a momentary distraction from the greater pain in your chest, and soon that is dulled by a more general fuzz.
  2125. > More than one finger of the brew vanishes before you stumble into bed.
  2126. > "Master? Master Anonymous?"
  2127. > Something nudges your side, dragging you away from the merciful blackness of unconsciousness.
  2128. > Groaning heavily, you attempt to roll away.
  2129. > Unfortunately, the tangled covers turn it into a half-hearted attempt at best.
  2130. > A moment later, the frustrating nudging is back again.
  2131. > "Master Anonymous, you really do need to get up. It's quite late-"
  2133. > With surprising speed, you snap a hand out to seize whatever it is that dares touch you.
  2134. > It proves to be soft and squeaks frightfully when taken hold of.
  2135. >, wait.
  2136. > Dragging your eyes open, you're met with a blur of cream and brown that slowly resolves into a unicorn wearing a maid's outfit - her ears pinned back and eyes wide with surprise.
  2137. > Groaning, you slump back into bed and squeeze your eyes against the lancing pain that had invaded them with that image.
  2138. "Leave m'alone..."
  2139. > Instead of doing so, though, soft breath puffs against your exposed cheek.
  2140. > Cracking an eye again, you find the maid reared up onto the bed - her head beside yours, nose wrinkled.
  2141. "...there a reason you're sniffing me, maid?"
  2142. > ", sir, I - ah - I thought you might have been ill, so I..."
  2143. > Briefly you puzzle over the contradiction in that statement before discarding it.
  2144. > Your head hurt far too much to deal with that right now.
  2145. > Reaching up to scratch your stubble-laden cheek, you suddenly catch a whiff of your own breath and realize why her nose had been wrinkled.
  2146. > Alcohol.
  2147. > Right.
  2148. > Before you can respond again, a distant chord is carried through the air from somewhere in the camp - loud and piercing despite its low tone.
  2149. "...why's th'shift siren goin'? S'Sunday, M... wha's y'name?"
  2150. > "Mocha Cream, sir."
  2151. > Right.
  2152. > Same pony who brought you your breakfast and paper every day.
  2153. > "They're putting in an extra shift, Master."
  2154. > ...
  2155. > Everything comes back in a flash.
  2156. > Corona.
  2157. > Cadance.
  2158. > The extra shift.
  2159. > Whatever she said to them after leaving your office the last night, it must've worked.
  2160. > Standing abruptly - and driving another surprised squeak from the uniformed pony - you stumble to a dresser and peer into the mirror set above it.
  2161. > You look plainly terrible.
  2162. > Eyes puffy and reddened, the previous day's clothes rumpled and creased, skin covered in a slight sheen...
  2163. > Definitely too much to drink the previous night.
  2164. > As if the thudding in your head wasn't enough to remind you of that.
  2165. "...are my clothes for today laid out in the bathroom, Mocha?"
  2166. > "Just like normal, Master."
  2167. "Good."
  2168. > A shower helps clear your mind some and leaves you feeling remotely human again.
  2169. > But it also brings back a reminder of just what you'd faced down the prior night.
  2170. > Breakfast is eaten mechanically as Mocha Cream bustles around your room, not even the day's news able to distract you from those thoughts.
  2171. > At last you set it down, hunching forward over the breakfast table with a hefty sigh.
  2172. > "Is something wrong, Master?"
  2173. "Mocha, if you'd royally fucked up and done something way out of line to someone... what's the best way to set things right?"
  2174. > "I - I don't -"
  2175. > Her blush shows easily through her creamy coat, pink touching her cheeks and ears and tail swishing nervously.
  2176. > "I'm sorry, Master, I can't give y-you advice like that! I'm afraid I don't know too much about what, ah, humans do like that... and, uh, we don't have too many options here beyond words and little gifts..."
  2177. > The sheer lameness of her excuse actually manages to bring a slight smile to your lips.
  2178. "...we're not to different from ponies, Mocha, and in any case... I never said it was with another free person."
  2179. > Realization dawns slowly on her face.
  2180. > "I... I don't know if I can help you with that, sir..."
  2181. "Relax, Mocha. I'm not asking for the key to the future or anything. Just... advice."
  2182. > "Well, I, ah..."
  2183. > Her tail curls beneath her a moment, voice still slightly trembling.
  2184. > "...I meant what I said, Master. Just think about what you would do for another, um, another person."
  2185. > More softly, she adds:
  2186. > "When I was a filly, my mother used to reward me by setting aside a whole night to do fun things together."
  2187. "Unfortunately, I don't think of 'fun' or out at a good restaurant is going to solve this particular issue."
  2188. > "...oh..."
  2189. > Her despondent voice is accompanied by the maid almost seeming to try and shrink back into her uniform and hide herself from you.
  2190. > Sighing gently, you beckon her over.
  2191. > Mocha Cream approaches, ears flat and eyes downcast; she jumps slightly when your hand settles amid her thick mane and begins to rub.
  2192. "Don't have to be so jumpy. I may've woken up looking like hell, but that doesn't mean I'm going to bring it."
  2193. > "Thank you, Master."
  2194. > Gaze finally rising to meet yours, Mocha's cheeks tint with a touch of pink.
  2195. > Her ears flick underneath the touch of your hand, but she doesn't tense up or shy away either.
  2196. "You have any family here, Mocha? I don't ever remember you mentioning them."
  2197. > And you had spoken to her before - light chatter with breakfast, or while she laid your clothes out.
  2198. > "No, sir. I... was sold separately from them. "
  2199. "...ah. I see. Before this?"
  2200. > "Two sales ago, sir. We were... captured together, but sold apart at the first sale. You bought me from my first owner."
  2201. > Now she hunkering down again - though from your presence or against the weight of those memories, you can't tell.
  2202. "Your husband?"
  2203. > "Parents, sir."
  2204. > Then, more softly:
  2205. > "I'm only fifteen..."
  2206. > Eyes snapping down, you study her more closely.
  2207. "...and how long were you with your last owner?"
  2208. > "Three years, sir..."
  2209. > Mentally adding on the time she's been your maid, you feel your frown deepening.
  2210. "... first sold when you were ten? That's a bit young."
  2211. > "Nine, sir..."
  2212. > Thinking back, you try and remember what you were doing at nine years old.
  2213. > Certainly not working.
  2214. "Well, I suppose I have to thank you for not deciding to run off with the rest of them, then."
  2215. > "I, ah.. you're... welcome? But, um... we weren't asked."
  2216. "We?"
  2217. > "The ponies who work in this house. Nopony trusts the house slaves."
  2218. > That, you suppose, made sense.
  2219. > Yet you'd never particularly thought about it before.
  2220. > Unconsciously your hand begins to run through her mane again.
  2221. > Mocha Cream tilts her head slightly, as if unsure of how to react to this.
  2222. > Yet, as before, she does not show any sign of discomfort.
  2223. "Tell me, Mocha... do you think you're capable of taking care of another pony?"
  2224. > "Taking care of..."
  2225. > Her head tilts again, the first real motion she'd made since your hand started moving through her mane.
  2226. > "I... suppose so. I've never been asked to before. I, um - the three of us in my room, we mostly look out for each other..."
  2227. "It'd probably be easier than taking care of me."
  2228. > You can't quite bring a chuckle up to follow that, though.
  2229. > "Well, um... you are the Master... sir. But, can I ask what you are planning?"
  2230. "Just an idea. I think I might know a way to make up for part of what I've done."
  2231. > Rising, you deliver one final pat on the head.
  2232. "I'll keep you updated. For now, I'm going to go down and see about this extra shift."
  2233. > Lighting her horn, Mocha quickly begins cleaning up the remnants of your breakfast.
  2234. > "Yes, Master. Ah, will you be needing anything for your arm?"
  2235. > Arm?
  2236. > Glancing over abruptly reminds you of the thick bandage still bulging beneath your sleeve - obvious, unless you had a coat.
  2237. > The painkillers - and the far greater throbbing of your head from the previous night's indulgence - had been enough you'd almost forgotten about it.
  2238. > Unfortunately, it was still far too warm for a proper jacket.
  2240. > And considering who you were going to see...
  2241. > Sighing gently, you nod.
  2242. "Yes, Mocha. See if you can go find the lightest jacket I have."
  2243. > ...
  2244. > Even from a distance, you can tell the camp is abustle with unusual activity for a Sunday morning.
  2245. > Certainly ponies were usually at work, usually working on the town itself, but it was somehow different from a typical working day's busyness.
  2246. > Seeing this is far, far different.
  2247. > Though the security officer at your side does draw a few looks, and you sometimes do get the feeling that they are slowing and pausing as you pass.
  2248. > Finding Cadance is thankfully quite easy.
  2249. > She sits on her haunches at one in a long row of benches, horn alight and a pair of eyepieces held up to her face to see the tiny charm she currently works on.
  2250. > A human might not be able to use magic, but you can certainly feel it:
  2251. > Skin prickles at the ambiance of energy in the air as you walk between the rows of unicorns at work, the flow of energy channeled by dozens of horns hard at work.
  2252. > The enchantments they produced were simple things, relatively:
  2253. > One for keeping mosquitos away, a charm against sweating, a localized levitation spell for hovering desk displays...
  2254. > Absurdly simple pieces, and from what you understood nothing a talented enchanter would have wasted their energy on back in Equestria.
  2255. > Here, though, the market was vast.
  2256. > Cadance drops the eyepieces as you approach, setting the magic down in her telekinetic grasp.
  2257. > She issues you a curt bow, but it's more businesslike than groveling.
  2258. "I'm impressed you pulled it off. How many are you missing?"
  2259. > "Only a few here and there. I'm filling in for one of them here."
  2260. "So I see. I mean what I told you last night, by the way - I'll see the funds transferred immediately."
  2261. > More than a few ears turn in your direction, though none of the ponies openly look up from their work.
  2262. > They must've heard of your promise through Cadance, but to hear it confirmed directly...
  2264. > "We... appreciate it, sir. Everypony does. Especially because of why-"
  2265. "Understandable."
  2266. > You cut her off before she can go too far down that path.
  2267. > "If I can ask, sir... the ponies who aren't here today. Will the guards be looking...?"
  2268. "No. Not unless you decide to send them looking; this isn't a shift I asked for, so it's no skin off my back if some skip it."
  2269. > Wincing sharply at your phrase, Cadance still manages to put in a strong shake of her head.
  2270. > "Absolutely not. Everypony here is here because I asked them to be, not because I forced them."
  2271. "An easy thing to say now."
  2272. > "What do you mean?"
  2273. > Your mouth turning up in a bitter smirk, you simply shake your head.
  2274. "If accepting that not everyone will always follow directions was always so easy, none of this would be needed. I do hope you remember what I told you about leaders making hard choices?"
  2275. > Brows lowering to narrow her eyes, she snaps back:
  2276. > "I don't believe I could forget that now, Master."
  2277. > Hiding your own wince draws a considerable amount of mental fortitude.
  2278. "Good."
  2279. > "Is there anything else, Sir? If not, I'd like to continue on my work here."
  2280. > No, she wouldn't.
  2281. > Her words might say she does, but tone and body language only say she wishes to stop speaking to you.
  2282. "No, that will be it."
  2284. > Yawning a wide, hard yawn, you raise one hoof to scratch at the tip of your muzzle as you wait beside the guard station.
  2285. > The rush of ponies heading for their work stations had long since passed, but it was still the early morning yet.
  2286. > A distinct chill still hung in the air and sleep had not yet released the last vestiges of its grip on your body.
  2287. > Missing your typical rest-day yesterday on the extra shift had cost you.
  2288. > Monday morning were never good, but this one was somehow worse.
  2289. > At last the side-door to the guard's station opens; the man who emerges carries a clipboard in one hand and a coffee cup in the other.
  2290. > The latter draws your envy; real coffee was a luxury rarely seen in the camp, and the "instant" stuff the humans produced never tasted right.
  2291. > Still, you draw yourself up as he sets eyes on you - if for your own well-being than anything else.
  2292. > "Well, you're on time. Color me surprised."
  2293. > About typical.
  2294. > The sergeant had never been a friend of yours, and it'd gotten worse after you'd taken Rumble's lashes.
  2295. > He still wasn't ready to let you forget you'd 'backed up a rebellious runt'.
  2296. "Good morning, sir."
  2297. > "Nothing good about it, smartass. Now c'mon - we've got a good dozen delinquents to round up today."
  2298. > You'd never been able to prove that being shifted to this duty wasn't an unofficial punishment either.
  2299. > Certainly he knew that you hated finding ponies who hadn't - or couldn't - show up at their morning shifts.
  2300. > Especially the ones who could, but didn't.
  2301. > Walking through the streets, you catch the eyes of a few ponies moving from one part of the camp to another.
  2302. > Most shoot quick, nervous glances in your direction; the human security guard speeds their hooves out of sight.
  2303. > Though technically not late, nopony wanted to be cited for delinquency.
  2304. > A few, though, had harsher emotions bubbling behind their eyes.
  2305. > Those you meet with your own gaze, calm and veiled, refusing to show either fear or hostility to meet the hatred they directed at a pony who'd cooperate with the hated captors.
  2306. > It wasn't as if you didn't understand, after all.
  2307. > Watchpony might be a volunteer position, but as far as you were concerned it was no more an option than the fence that locked you in here in the first place.
  2308. > It wasn't, a voice at the back of your mind whispers.
  2309. > You were just taking the easiest path, selling out your fellow ponies.
  2310. > Long practice squashes that voice, though.
  2311. > The nights when your guilt kept sleep from you were long since passed.
  2313. > It helped that the first pony on the list was absent, and the second you spotted vanishing down the corner of a street a few blocks distant.
  2314. > Nothing, of course, was said to your accompanying sergeant.
  2315. > All the other bunkrooms you peer into are empty, their occupants off to start the day's labor.
  2316. > Third on the list is unfortunately still in his room when you arrive, buthe thankfully raises little fuss - sitting with downcast eyes as the sergeant with you writes out a report on his tablet and sends it off.
  2317. > Smartly refusing to give him a reason to recommend anything more than a mild cut in luxury rations.
  2318. > When he is done you walk the young stallion to the door, speaking softly.
  2319. "Now, Hoops, do I have to walk with you the whole way?"
  2320. > "No, Mister Thunderlane."
  2321. > He shakes his head softly, eyes still on the floor.
  2322. > "I'm a good pony. I - I just overslept. I know it was my fault."
  2323. "Where do you work?"
  2324. > "Cloud-jar packing, Mister Thunderlane."
  2325. > You grimace softly, ears falling and blowing a soft huff from your nostrils.
  2326. > Pushing clouds around all day, and after the extra shift the day prior?
  2327. > No wonder he'd overslept.
  2328. "Well, I'll trust you on that. You'll be there in... ten minutes?"
  2329. > "Five, Mister Thunderlane."
  2330. > Five, to cross the camp?
  2331. "No need to gallop. If you arrive exhausted, you won't be able to work. Take ten, and if anypony asks tell them I said so."
  2332. > "...thank you, Mister Thunderlane."
  2333. > Even as his grey tail vanishes into the distance, you can't help but feel your heart sink a little bit.
  2334. > The way he'd called you 'Mister Thunderlane'...
  2335. > That wasn't respect driving that.
  2336. > "You still gawking at his ass, or can we get moving now?"
  2337. > Ignoring the implication, you shake your head.
  2338. ", sergeant. I'm done."
  2339. > Somehow you manage to keep the annoyance from your voice.
  2340. "Where are we going next?"
  2341. > "Ah, Drizzle. Block C-15."
  2342. > Halfway there, though, the sergeant's radio squawks to inform him the pony in question had turned up at the medical clinic, obviously too ill to work.
  2343. > Privately, you breath a sigh of relief.
  2344. > One less pony you'd have to chase down.
  2345. > Instead you head to a nearby block for another pony on the list.
  2346. > As you reach the block of rooms she lived in, the sergeant calls back:
  2347. > "You wait at the end of the hall in case she runs, I'll go in and get her."
  2348. "Got it, sergeant."
  2349. > Nevermind that Cotton Cloudy was a pegasus, and could quite likely 'run' out the window if she wanted.
  2350. > Settling on your haunches, you watch the sergeant vanish into her room.
  2351. > ...wait.
  2352. > Your ears swivels, something having dragged its attention.
  2353. > Yes, there it was again - the creak of a bed, behind another door several paces down.
  2354. > Trotting up to it, you call in:
  2355. "Hello? This is Thunderlane, with the watch. Is anypony in there?"
  2356. > Pressing an ear to the door, you barely catch the creak of a shifting bed from inside.
  2357. > Somepony was in there, for sure.
  2358. > It wasn't her room, but...
  2359. "Cotton Cloud, are you in there? You've been tagged as delinquent, we're here to find you."
  2360. > No response.
  2361. "Whoever's in there, I'm going to have to come in."
  2362. > Reaching for the master key hung on your neck, you slip it between your teeth and quickly unlock the door.
  2363. > Stepping in, you're met by an apparently-empty room:
  2364. > Four cots, a water tap, a small shelf/nightstand for the few treasured possessions they would have...
  2365. > ...and a lump, buried beneath multiple blankets on one bed, that sniffs softly.
  2366. > Approaching, you sit on your haunches beside the bed and put on your best reassuring-voice.
  2367. "Hey. Cotton Cloudy, is that you?"
  2368. > Sniff.
  2369. "Listen, you've been tagged as delinquent, but you're not in too much trouble yet. So, please come out?"
  2370. > Nothing.
  2371. "If you're sick, I can take you too medical. You won't be in trouble."
  2372. > Still silence.
  2373. > Celestia above, you hated this job.
  2374. "Cotton? I'm going to have to pull the blanket off."
  2375. > "No... please, just leave me alone."
  2376. "I'm sorry, Cotton. I can't do that, but I promise I won't hurt you, okay?"
  2377. > "Just go..."
  2378. > Reaching forward, you grip the edge of the blanket in your teeth and yank.
  2379. "Now, why don't you get up and we can ta-"
  2380. > The smell hits you like a hurricane-blast.
  2381. > Cotton Cloudy, curled into a tiny white-and-blue ball on the bed, peers out with red-rimmed eyes, ragged wings wrapping around herself to replace the blanket you'd taken.
  2382. > For several long moments, you stare dully at her - trying to reconcile your memories of the energetic young filly you'd once known in Ponyville and the grown mare once again reduced to a shocked and broken foal in front of you.
  2383. > The stench of old sex and stale semen grows only stronger.
  2384. > Heart thudding you fall back again on your haunches, mind whirling.
  2385. > "Please, don't tell them. Just go away..."
  2386. "Alright, Cotton."
  2387. > You reach out to touch her shoulder lightly.
  2388. > She flinches, wings tightening down against her sides.
  2389. > Were you not supposed to touch her?
  2390. > You didn't know - you'd been a weatherpony, a Wonderbolts trainee for Celestia's sake!
  2391. > Nopony had ever told you what to do with a pony who'd been raped!
  2392. "I'm not going to report you, okay? You're not going to be in trouble."
  2393. > Eyes watery, she gives the barest nod.
  2394. "But I have to take you tot hte medical building. They'll be able to help you there, and I promise you won't be in trouble."
  2395. > "N-No. Nopony can... they'll smell it!"
  2396. "You're hurting, Cotton. They'll be able to help you, but you have to come with me."
  2397. > When she doesn't move, you pull the blanket back up over her - folding it repeatedly until it rests across her back, draping like a giant cloak.
  2398. "There. You'll be all covered up. Now, get up?"
  2399. > With some prodding, you're able to get her out of bed and on her hooves.
  2400. > It's clear, though, that actually convincing her too walk down the street wouldn't be anywhere near as easy.
  2401. > Sidling up to her, you drop your belly to the floor and spread a wing.
  2402. "Climb up on to my back, okay Cloudy? You're going to be okay."
  2403. > With a fair bit of nudging you're able to convince her to do so, scrambling up to settle draped across your withers.
  2404. > Thank Celestia your back had mostly healed up by now - nothing more than a dull irritation at the weight.
  2405. > She squirms uncomfortably at contact, and it belatedly occurs to you that such intimate position might not be best for a pony who'd just suffered such trauma.
  2406. > There was a chance it'd been a stallion, after all.
  2407. > Such things were rare - and, from what you'd heard, often lead to 'punishments' handed out long before the owners ever heard of it.
  2408. > But the alternative option - the more likely one...
  2409. > Your shudder is mostly hidden by the padded sections of your uniform.
  2411. > Stepping out into the hallway beyond, you glance back and forth.
  2412. > No sign of the security officer you'd been paired with, although a few doors further down had been opened.
  2413. > Was he searching each individually?
  2414. > Setting out, you march out to the road and off towards the medical clinic.
  2415. > Cloudy was certainly heavy - a full-grown mare, albeit a bit on the small side - but you manage.
  2416. > Mercifully, the streets were mostly cleared out from the morning rush now.
  2417. > The few ponies you pass spare only a little glance, none getting close enough to catch a whiff of Cloudy's humiliation.
  2418. > As your world focuses down to taking one step after another, a worrying thought creeps up out of the back of your head:
  2419. > Why hadn't you told your sergeant you'd found Cloudy and were taking her to the clinic?
  2420. > What'd made you check the hallway before heading out into it?
  2421. > Anonymous' guards weren't all gentle balls of love and kindness, but raping a slave...
  2422. > It wasn't terribly likely.
  2423. > But then, why had he ordered you to wait outside?
  2424. > Hoops was, if anything, the more risky of the two should he fight or flee.
  2425. > Yet there'd be no orders to hang back there...
  2426. > Tucking your head down, you put a bit of extra speed into your steps.
  2427. > As the clinic comes into sight, you twist your head look back at Cotton Cloudy.
  2428. > She was still hunkered under the blanket, purple eyes tinted red nervously flicked from spot to spot.
  2429. "Almost there, Cotton."
  2430. > "O-Okay..."
  2431. > Opening the front door with her on your back is going to be impossible, so instead you knock insistently until a scowling nurse sticks her muzzle out from within.
  2432. > In an instant, it seems, you are surrounded by a whole team - gently lifting Cotton from your back and lowering her onto a stretcher, ushering you into the clinic and away from her.
  2433. > The blanket is pulled away, and then quickly replaced the second they realize why you'd brought her in - not a word needed as they wheel her off to a proper room.
  2434. > Just as quickly as it'd begun, the entire hustle seems to vanish in a moment leaving you standing alone in the lobby almost shocked by the whiplash of it all.
  2435. > At last a nurse trots up to you again, clipboard floating in her magic.
  2436. > "Thunderlane? We'd like to just get some basic information on how you found her."
  2437. "Of course..."
  2438. > Thankfully the nurse's demeanor was professional - had she held this profession back in Equestria? - and if she held any ill-will towards ponies on the Watch, never did it come up in her tone with you.
  2439. > If anything, she seems mostly concerned for Cotton Cloudy's wellbeing.
  2440. > As the last of your answers is jotted down, you finally work up to ask a question back:
  2441. "Is she alright?"
  2442. > The second you blurt the words out, you realize how incredibly stupid they seem.
  2443. "...I mean, I know she isn't - but, I mean, is she..."
  2444. > What do you mean?
  2445. > You don't actually know.
  2446. > Sighing, the nurse puts her clipboard down.
  2447. > "She is - not suffering from any severe injuries. Physical ones, anyhow. However-"
  2448. > The sudden cut-off in her words draws your gaze.
  2449. > She's hiding something.
  2450. > Spotting your look, the nurse drops her eyes to the floor and huffs heavily, her tail swishing and nostrils flared.
  2451. > "May I ask you something, Thunderlane?"
  2452. "Of course?"
  2453. > "Completely off the record."
  2454. > Jerkily you nod.
  2455. > "You're in the watch. Who're you watching? Is there a way for you to report one of... them?"
  2456. "...what're you saying?"
  2457. > "There's bruising on her wings, near the base - where she was grabbed. It's - not the first time we've seen it on her..."
  2458. > An icy ball forms in your stomach.
  2459. > No pony could do that without magic, and a unicorn wouldn't bother focusing on the wings...
  2460. "...she's been here before?!"
  2461. > "Not - not for this! She was - she's taken some lashes, a couple weeks back. Before the big escape. We always thought it was from rough handling there, but this time it's fresh."
  2462. > The ball expands, filling your entire lungs with an icy chill.
  2463. > "If - if we'd known to look for any injuries... under her tail back then, we might've known. But nopony did..."
  2464. "Can you look after her here for a while? Put her off in a side room somewhere?"
  2465. > "...of course! We aren't going to throw her out! She's in 223."
  2466. "Good."
  2467. > Getting to your hooves, you turn for the door.
  2468. > "What're you doing?"
  2469. "I've a sick feeling I just flew into a thunderstorm nopony saw coming... but I'm damn well not going to let Cotton Cloudy get hit by it."
  2470. > All but fleeing the clinic at a gallop, you charge to the guard station at a pace that leaves your sides heaving, coat running with sweat, and lungs burning.
  2471. > The desk officer's eyes rise as he catches you stumbling in through the door.
  2472. > "Thunderlane? Where the hell've you been; Sergeant Albero reported you missing-"
  2473. "Had to run to the clinic. Listen, I need a huge, huge favor?"
  2474. > Eyebrows continuing their migration up his forehead, the desk officer frowns but doesn't stop you.
  2475. "The, uh - the list've ponies who've gone through pretty serious violations, right? I need to know what one pony got some lashes for."
  2476. > "...well, I can look that up, but I'm wondering-"
  2477. "I can't wait. This is -"
  2478. > Swallowing and sucking down a few more lungfuls of sweet air, you steady your body and collect your thoughts.
  2479. "Sir, I just had to drop off a pony at the clinic who'd been raped, and I've reason to believe it wasn't the first time. Now - whatever you think of us, please just-"
  2480. > "What's her name?"
  2481. "Huh?"
  2482. > "The pony you want records on. What's her name?"
  2483. "Cotton Cloudy, pegasus, mare, white coat -"
  2484. > "Yeah, yeah. Got her - uh, delinquency. Got caught out after curfew at night. Four times, got lashes for the last three."
  2485. "Reporting officer?"
  2486. > Frowning the desk sergeant squints at his screen.
  2487. > "Sergeant Albero. He's not on patrols at night, though..."
  2488. > Celestia above...
  2489. "Thank you. I - I just had to know for sure."
  2490. > You're halfway out the door before he calls again:
  2491. > "Hey, wait! You've still got the rest of your rounds-"
  2492. > Anything else is lost as you again set a hard pace straight back to the clinic.
  2493. > Everything was coming together, and the picture it painted - not one bit.
  2494. > Anonymous, you're certain, would forgive you.
  2495. > But you wouldn't forgive yourself if you let this one go.
  2496. > Being a watchpony meant turning on your brothers and sisters.
  2497. > Now, at last, you had a chance to stand up to defend them.
  2499. "I'd like to see Corona, if she able to?"
  2500. > "Certainly, Your Highness right this way."
  2501. > The room you're lead to holds eight beds, but only one is filled.
  2502. > Corona lays in the furthest one in a corner, resting on her haunches with her tail wrapped around her legs - distantly gazing out the windows.
  2503. "...thank you, nurse. That will be all for now."
  2504. > A subtle bow, and the third pony vanishes leaving you alone with Corona.
  2505. > Moving to the side of her bed, you seat yourself on the tiled floor and patiently wait.
  2506. > At last Corona speaks, her voice somehow seeming tired and sore despite her days of rest.
  2507. > "What do you want?"
  2508. "To see..."
  2509. > How you are doing?
  2510. > The answer to that is obvious.
  2511. > How your recovery is going?
  2512. > Just as painful.
  2513. > How is it that it was easier to speak before a whole crowd of ponies, convincing them to do more work, than it is to speak to this single one?
  2514. "...if there is anything I can do for you."
  2515. > "You - you can go away."
  2516. > The sheer venom in her voice actually makes you recoil.
  2517. > Wings drooping, you bow your head.
  2518. "Perhaps - I - it's hard to admit it even to myself, but perhaps the reason I came is to beg your forgiveness?"
  2519. > Silence holds for several long moments.
  2520. > At last Corona drags her eyes from the window to actually face you, and when you do the sheer pain in them again forces you to jerk back.
  2521. > "Forgive you? Why should I forgive you? You sold me out, a sacrifice to that monster. You - you abandoned me."
  2522. "...he demanded-"
  2523. > "And did you even stand up to him? Did you even think of what you were doing?"
  2524. > Standing up now despite the trembling that appears throughout her body, Corona glares down at you from atop the bed.
  2525. > "You - you think you're still a princess. You think you're so fucking special, but you just save yourself and all your little 'friends' and throw the rest of us into the fire..."
  2526. "That is not-"
  2527. > "Not true? Do you even know what he did to me in there?"
  2528. > White mane flipping wildly, Corona snaps her head back and forth.
  2529. > "I - it felt like - like my whole body was on fire. I thought - I didn't know how long I'd been in there. A day? A week? No way to tell time, I - I kept being woken up, everything burning. I thought my back was going to break when I couldn't hold myself up, my legs were going to fall off..."
  2530. > Legs folding beneath herself, Corona collapses to the bed sobbing.
  2531. > Rising, you approach and reach out to place a hoof on her withers - only for her to snap out a leg and knock it away.
  2532. > "Don't touch me, you - you - traitorous whore!"
  2533. > A few moments more of sniffles and heaved breaths, and Corna speaks again:
  2534. > "I begged him - pleaded with him - called him Master, swore to never run away again.. I remember he came back - had an electrical prod - don't even remember what I did, but I must've hurt him somehow..."
  2535. > Rolling over onto her back, Corona spreads her hindlegs and points to where a small pad of gauze has been taped over her teats - patches of white standing out on her dark-blue coat.
  2536. > "You see this, 'princess'? This is what you gave me too. It hurt - everything hurt so much - they'd put me in that box sometimes, then take me out and stretch me out again, hose me down, shove food in my mouth. Couldn't see, couldn't smell, couldn't hear, bridle in my mouth - he had a fucking electrical prod, Cadance, and he just held it there until I pissed myself! Didn't know how long it'd been until I got out and saw-"
  2537. > Anything more she said goes unheard; an uneasiness that had been building in your stomach from the moment you'd set foot in the room finally reaches a peak.
  2538. > Magic grabbing the nearest waste basket, you barely bring it under your mouth before being violently sick into it.
  2539. > Yet when you look up - spitting to fruitlessly try and clear the taste from you mouth - you find Corona staring at you with the same dull, angry look.
  2540. > "...I was sick a lot too, you know. Wouldn't let me sleep, made me sick too. Have you ever gone without sleep for days, Cadance?"
  2541. > Without waiting for an answer, she immediately continues:
  2542. > "No, you haven't. Because you're an alicorn and you're so fucking special they'd never actually do anything that bad to you."
  2543. "Corona..."
  2544. > "Shut - just shut up!"
  2545. > Eyes squeezing shut, Corona again rolls back onto her belly - mercifully hiding the evidence of her torment from you.
  2546. > "And even when I got out, I know it's only because I told him to do this - all of this - to my best friend instead. I - I became you. I was willing to sell her out to him. And th-then he tells me M-Merribelle is d-dead!"
  2547. > The last word is drawn out into another long cry.
  2548. > Finding a tissue box in the corner, you hold it out to Corona.
  2549. > She does not take it, instead burying her muzzle in her hooves.
  2550. > At last her cries fade.
  2551. "If it's my shame you're looking for - I've rightly earned that. This..."
  2552. > "No. Shut up. Nothing you say could ever make up for being in there."
  2553. > Dragging her head back up, Corona glares at you with a truly withering gaze.
  2554. > "You're disgusting, 'princess'. You should've been the one protecting us, but you're picking up the whip and sacrificing us for your own damn safety. Selling us out so Anonymous can get your daughter back."
  2555. > Your ears fold down and tail snaps to your legs, and a tiny vicious grin appears on Corona's lips.
  2556. > "What, thought I wouldn't hear about that? Well, congratulations - you get to see your daughter again and I can't close my eyes without being back in that room. I hope you're happy."
  2557. "No..."
  2558. > "And then, you couldn't even be bothered to come and see me because you were too busy getting everypony to work even more for him!"
  2559. "That is not true. Not one bit."
  2560. > You try to force some strength back into your voice, but even then it comes out sounding hollow.
  2561. > The truth is, you betrayed this pony.
  2562. > No matter how much you may deny it - say the circumstances forced your hoof - the Tartarus that Corona experienced was your decision.
  2563. > Apparently satisfied with the obvious distress she had put you in, Corona lowers her head to the bed.
  2564. > "...I don't want to see you again. Leave, 'princess'."
  2565. > It'd be entirely possible for you to say 'no'.
  2566. > But you find your legs carrying you away from Corona's bed, out from the room - mind in a daze.
  2567. > Not until you collide with a dark-grey blur that comes speeding around a corner, hooves squeaking and sliding on the smooth tiling, do you finally snap back to reality.
  2568. > Just in time to meet him in a tumble of wings, legs, and aches.
  2569. > "O-Oh... Cadance, my apologies..."
  2570. > Extricating yourself and standing upright again, you shake your head.
  2571. "No, I should have heard you coming... Thunderlane?"
  2572. > "Yeah - I'm sorry, but I have to -"
  2573. > Something has made him seriously distraught; yet as his eyes focus on you, they widen slightly.
  2574. > "- actually, can you keep up with me?"
  2575. "...of course?"
  2576. > And so you find yourself keeping a rapid clip as Thunderlane explains.
  2577. > With each word you find the icy mess still swirling in your stomach growing ever colder, ever heavier.
  2578. > If he was right about what he suspected...
  2579. > Yet, when you reach the room he comes to a sudden halt in front of, the door is locked and refuses his attempts to turn the protruding handle.
  2580. > One ear goes to the door, and Thunderlane pales.
  2581. > "Sweet Celestia, no -"
  2583. > Anything further is drowned out as you wrench the door open with your magic - lock tearing away in a puff of dust and terrible crunch.
  2584. > Thunderlane is first through, his voice carrying out within:
  2585. > "Sergeant - stop! This isn't -"
  2586. > Stepping through behind him, you survey the nightmarish scene within.
  2587. > The mare on the bed, her hindquarters reddened, face streaked with tears, yet tail lifted - an image of a pony who knew what was happening, and not to resist.
  2588. > The man behind her, his pants pooling around his ankles, eyes narrowing and mouth splitting into a snarl as his face transitions from shock to rage.
  2589. > The way he gripped one of her wings, crushing the delicate feathers and twisting the muscled limb beneath.
  2590. > "Get the fuck out of here, sla-"
  2591. > ...
  2592. > Something snaps deep inside of you.
  2593. > A limit, finally reached.
  2594. > The ice pooling in your belly from the instant you'd laid eyes on Corona again ignites into an awful, rage-fueled fire.
  2595. > You'd been whipped, humiliated, and forced into the sadistic choice of giving a mare to satisfy your owner's lust for vengeance.
  2596. > But now?
  2597. > Now, you would not be stopped.
  2598. > You do not feel your horn ignite, nor the magic spread through you like a scalding wave.
  2599. > But you certainly know what happens next.
  2600. > Cotton Cloudy and Thunderlane alike duck - the former with a squeal - as the man flies overhead, slamming into the wall back-first before collapsing to tumble over the cabinet beneath and to the floor.
  2601. > With a toss of your head, your magic picks him up again - this time impacting him into the drywall with sufficient force to crack it.
  2602. "YOU -"
  2603. > The voice you project is enough to rattle the room's furnishings.
  2604. "- WILL NOT -"
  2605. > Another flick, this time pulling him from the wall to plow into a crumpled pile on the floor - flecks of paint following his downward trajectory from the splintered wall.
  2606. "- HURT -"
  2607. > That he is completely exposed, flopping about, does not even register to you.
  2608. > Later you would realize that at that particular moment, it was probably the last thing on his mind either.
  2609. "- MY PONIES!"
  2610. > Horn blazing, you send him scooting across the floor directly into the cabinets - his impact marked by an explosion of particle-board fragments as they collapse.
  2611. "My ponies are my charge, and despite everything - every humiliation I receive here - I will spend every breath I can to protect them!"
  2612. > He comes up, impact cushioned by the bedding in the cabinets - but blood still running down the side of his face.
  2613. > Somehow having managed to grab his pants and slip his fingers into the taser's holster on his belt.
  2614. > Again your horn flares, and his hand twists until something pops and the weapon clatters to the floor.
  2615. > That he does not cry out probably has more to do with the air being driven from his lungs.
  2616. "You dare - dare! - to not only rape her, but have her whipped for the time she lost at your mercy?! You are - I - I don't even have words for what you are!"
  2617. > Gathering your magic, you simply press down - driving him into the ruined cabinet with enough force to bring him back to his knees, and then completely down as he at last screams out.
  2618. "You are a monster, evil in the shape of a living thing! I thought I knew evil, but you..."
  2619. > Someone is calling your name.
  2620. > Hooves on your flank.
  2621. > ...and everything snaps back again.
  2622. > Thunderlane is at your side, his eyes wide and shocked.
  2623. > No, not just shocked.
  2624. > Fearful.
  2625. > He'd never seen you like that.
  2626. > Twisting your head, you lay eyes on Cotton Cloudy.
  2627. > Though she'd not even moved from her spot on the bed, she too bore the same expression.
  2628. > More slowly now, you turn back around to look at the bleeding lump of a man curled moaning in the ruins of the cabinet.
  2629. > And, in truth, feel the same jarred and horrified expression appear on your face.
  2630. > Where had that - that anger, that cruelty, come from?
  2631. > ...what had you just done?
  2632. "T-Thunderlane?"
  2633. > Your own voice is shaking now, the rush of adrenaline finally wearing off and fire in your belly cooling from the raging inferno it had been moments earlier.
  2634. > "Yes, Cadance?"
  2635. "Go - go get Anonymous. Now. Yourself, not anypony else. Now!
  2636. > "I..."
  2637. > He falters.
  2638. > Not because he is afraid of Anonymous, you realize from the way he looks at you.
  2639. > He is afraid of what you might do.
  2640. "I'll be okay, Thunderlane. We'll be okay."
  2641. > Perhaps not so literally, considering how you'd thrown the guard around.
  2642. > But close enough.
  2643. "Hurry now. Somepony will have heard that and will be coming to investigate. Anonymous needs to see this before it gets out of control."
  2644. > That phrase - out of control - finally seems to get through to Thunderlane.
  2645. > Without another single word he is out the door; raising your voice, you call after him:
  2646. "And send a doctor up, if you see one!"
  2647. > Then it is only three of you in the room.
  2648. > Silently you turn, climbing up onto the bed beside the filly - Cotton Cloudy, Thunderlane had said her name was.
  2649. > She is still standing on the bed, frozen by shock, barely able to move.
  2650. > Not until you stretch a wing out across her back, gently but firmly pressing her into the mattress.
  2651. > All at once she seems to collapse, legs folding beneath her.
  2652. > You join her, keeping the wing stretched out over her like a sheltering blanket.
  2653. > After a moment, Cotton Cloudy tucks her head into your ribs and you feel the first heavy sob rack her body.
  2654. > Laying your neck comfortingly over her, you twist your head just enough to lay a sharp, piercing glare in the direction of the man curled trembling in the corner.
  2655. > He somehow curls even more tightly into himself, clutching at the wrist you'd twisted.
  2656. > Not merely shocked.
  2657. > Not even enraged.
  2658. > Fearful.
  2659. > He is terrified of you.
  2660. > Understandably, too.
  2661. > That Anonymous did not suppress his slaves' magic was a mercy.
  2662. > As he'd put it, he could no more take that than tie a man's hands and expect him to work.
  2663. > But it'd also been made abundantly clear that ever using your magic on a human would be treated even more harshly than if a pony bit or kicked.
  2664. > A greater penalty, for misusing a luxury given.
  2665. > Laying your head down over the trembling mare beneath, a soft nickering coming from your throat as you try to push back the prickling memories of what you'd done.
  2666. > It'd felt so - so good to finally release.
  2667. > To not just pull him off Cotton Cloudy, but to avenge every indignity, every cruelty you'd suffered.
  2668. > Finally being able to stand up for your ponies.
  2669. > Ears prick at the sound of hooves on the tiled floor.
  2670. > A horned head, eyes wide and awestruck at the room's status, cautiously emerges between the doorposts.
  2671. > With the wing not currently covering Cotton Cloudy you beckon him over, speaking softly:
  2672. "Do you have sterile containers? I - I am afraid - I think we may need to take some samples from her."
  2673. > It takes him a few glances between the trembling mare beneath your wing and the bottomless man for your meaning to become clear, and the doctor's pupils shrink.
  2674. > "I - ah - yes, I - I can get something."
  2675. > You don't know exactly that to take.
  2676. > Humans, you know, had a way of determining who had committed a crime from blood, hair, or other... fluids.
  2677. > You aren't sure exactly what to take, and so when the doctor returns he simply takes samples from everywhere.
  2678. > Cotton Cloudy winces at the undoubtedly miserable process, but raises no objection.
  2679. > He is nearly done when a new series of pounding footfalls echo in through the open doorway.
  2680. > Footfalls and hooffalls both; not a moment later, the room suddenly becomes quite full as Thunderlane, Anonymous, two more security officers, and a unicorn nurse pour in through the ruined doorway.
  2681. > "What the actual fuck..."
  2682. > Anonymous' breathless exclamation is your signal to rise from the bed.
  2684. > Now you call on the memories of what you'd seen instead of pushing them back - fanning the flames in your belly to give you the strength to speak with a steady voice:
  2685. "He was raping her."
  2686. > Amazingly there is no tremble in your voice, even though the security men behind him have slipped their hands into their holsters.
  2687. > They will not, you know, be bothering with tasers if you appear truly threatening.
  2688. "I followed Thunderlane here. He was going to - was in the middle of raping her. I - stopped him."
  2689. > "I'll fucking say you did."
  2690. > Running a hand through his hair, Anonymous gawks at the demolished cabinets and spider-webbed dent in the wall where you'd tossed the man.
  2691. > "Fucking hell, Cadance. Was this - this really necessary?"
  2692. "You told me the ponies here are my responsibility. That includes standing up for them - protecting them when they are being tormented far in excess of any reason you could even give."
  2693. > That finally seems to give Anonymous pause.
  2694. > In that moment, the guard you'd attacked finally finds his voice - raw and miserable, but there nonetheless:
  2695. > "She fuckin' attacked me out of the fuckin' blue! No warning, nothing! She was going to kill me; if he hadn't stopped her -"
  2696. > He points with his injured arm, which you can now see is turning a nasty shade of purple all around the wrist.
  2697. > "-if he hadn't got in her way, she'd have turned me into fuckin' hamburger with her magic! Ask him - she broke down the door -"
  2698. > "Shut up."
  2699. > Thunderlane's voice is beyond cold.
  2700. > It is frigid.
  2701. > "She is here because I asked her to be here. If she hadn't been the first to act when we broke that door in, I would have taken you down too. I won't-"
  2702. > "That's enough, Thunderlane."
  2703. > Anonymous' voice is soft, but layered in steel-hardened tones.
  2704. > "Did you have to stop Cadance, yes or no?"
  2705. > "She wouldn't have actually killed him. She was just keeping him down; he'd already gone for his taser -"
  2706. > "Yes or no?"
  2707. > Thunderlane snaps his eyes to you for just a second.
  2708. "Yes. He did."
  2709. > Something flickers on Anonymous' face - respect?
  2710. > Or incredulity?
  2711. > "Right. You -"
  2712. > A snap of Anonymous' fingers, and the nurse who'd followed him in is suddenly there once again.
  2713. > "-take the mare, get her to another room. Look after her."
  2714. > "Yes, Master."
  2715. > "Thunderlane - Adolfi, take him and get his report on what happened here. Martin -"
  2716. > His hand raises to point at you, but Anonymous does not finish the order.
  2717. > Something has grabbed his attention, on his arm itself.
  2718. > For the first time you notice that it seemed swollen or inflated beneath the shirt sleeve.
  2719. > Was his arm bandaged...?
  2720. > "Martin, hold the end of the hall. No one comes in here."
  2721. > The last remaining security officer - Martin, you presume - frowns in your direction.
  2722. > "Boss..."
  2723. > "She won't hurt me. I've faced her in worse moments than this."
  2724. "I won't. This is my promise - I will not lay hoof or spell on him."
  2725. > Martin scowls, but turns from the room as well.
  2726. > Anonymous makes his way to the other bed in the room, passing between yourself and the cringing guard.
  2727. > The bed is covered with a fine layer of powderboard and plaster dust - and, in all likelyhood, so are you - but Anonymous doesn't even bother brushing it off before seating himself.
  2728. > "...for God's sake, put your pants back on."
  2729. > His sharply-spat order finally snaps the guard back into action - suddenly seeming to remember that he was still completely exposed.
  2730. > "And Cadance? If he reaches for his weapon, put him into the wall again."
  2731. > A firm sense of satisfaction settles in your stomach.
  2732. > Whatever happens next, this battle you'd won.
  2733. > Freezing, the guard is caught in an awkward pose as he'd tried to buckle his ruined pants.
  2734. > "W-What?!"
  2735. > Eyes narrowing, Anonymous skewers him with a furious glare.
  2736. > When no answer is forthcoming, he goes on.
  2737. > "Thunderlane is going to walk you back to the security post. You're going to turn over your uniform, badge and equipment. Then you're getting to sit nice and still while the police show up. If you try to flee now, Thunderlane will run you into the ground. If you are ever seen here again, I'll let Cadance make sure that you'll be leaving your balls behind when you leave again."
  2738. > With that, Anonymous marches from the room - you close on his heels.
  2739. > Pausing only long enough to relay his orders to the other two security officers present, Anonymous then turns and quickly heads for his house.
  2740. > You stay on his heels; it seems right, and when he reaches his study he locks the door behind you - collapsing into a seat.
  2741. > Forehead resting in a palm, he speaks far more softly - as if his strength had been spent in those few moments of anger.
  2742. > "You've an amazing ability to put me in awkward situations, Cadance."
  2743. "I'm... sorry, sir?"
  2744. > "Don't be. This time, it isn't your fault."
  2745. > Running the hand down his cheek, Anonymous sighs.
  2746. > "I made a liar of myself. God, how the hell didn't this get reported the first time so I could've kicked him out right then?"
  2747. "Master..."
  2748. > Approaching, you drop to your haunches in front of him.
  2749. "I don't think it was your fault alone."
  2750. > "You are my property. If I don't know what is happening to what is mine, then that damn well is my fault."
  2751. > Anger flickers in the back of your mind at his words, but you quench it:
  2752. > His meaning, if not how he put it, was right.
  2753. > "Which brings me to my conundrum now. You - you really went to town on him. Well beyond anything that was absolutely needed, and that was with Thunderlane having to stop you from even more! But it turns out you were carrying out my orders better than I knew of, so I can't exactly punish you for that."
  2754. > His head falls back, eyes sliding shut.
  2755. > "Not to mention, if I laid a whip on your back after that the others'd riot. Hell, maybe you'd riot. Besides, I..."
  2756. > Head falling back forward, his eyes glance down at his swollen-looking sleeve.
  2757. > "...I understand losing control out of anger.
  2758. "If I may ask, Master... what happened to your arm?"
  2759. > For a moment, he seems ready to snap - to tell you that it's none of your business.
  2760. > Then his face falls again, tiredness overtaking anger.
  2761. > "Corona bit me. Chomped down and wouldn't let go. I... lost control, and hurt her quite badly afterwards."
  2762. > Your own heart leaps, an accusation building in your throat.
  2763. > What he'd done to her was sickening, and wrong on every level.
  2764. > Lashing out at the man tormenting her was nothing like breaking down a door to see an innocent pony being raped again.
  2765. > Now was not the time to vent those thoughts, though.
  2766. > "Right. Well - we have to do something, both of us, before this runs out of hand. So, here's what's going to happen to you...
  2767. > "...well, the typical punishment for striking a human is twenty lashes."
  2768. > Your heart leaps into your throat.
  2769. > "But - the indisputable truth is that this was as much my fault. For letting everything get to this point. I need to show that somehow."
  2770. > Silent, you put your head down.
  2771. > This wouldn't be a good place to argue; he might-
  2772. > "Hell, maybe you should whip me too."
  2773. > Unable to prevent your head from snapping up and wings falling open, your astonished expression is on fully display for Anonymous.
  2774. > He grins, though there's a deeply sour look to the expression.
  2775. > "You like that idea, Cadance? Twenty lashes for the both of us, each to the other. Finally get to work out some of that hate for me."
  2776. "...I don't think this is an appropriate thing to joke about."
  2777. > "I'm not. I need to show - to make a clear sign that I know how badly I let things slip, and am aware of it."
  2778. > Leaning forward in his seat, Anonymous props his elbows on his knees to steady himself.
  2779. > "And yes, I'm under no illusions that it will be... bad. I know what that whip does. But frankly, it might be what is needed to show how dedicated I am to fixing this."
  2780. > He's serious.
  2781. > Incredibly - impossibly - Anonymous is dead serious about letting you whip him.
  2782. > And, to your utter horror, there is a part of you that wants to take him up on the offer - and perhaps even more.
  2783. > It almost seems worth getting the whip across your back to have a chance to lay it into him.
  2784. > Disgust churns in your belly, even as your heart beats slightly faster at the thought of wielding the lash against Anonymous.
  2785. > But...
  2786. "No."
  2787. > Rising to all four hooves, you step forward until you're practically nose-to-muzzle with him.
  2788. "I am not that cruel. No sane pony would inflict this kind of misery on another creature as a personal grudge, and I will not start; down that road lies the likes of Sombra and Nightmare Moon. However much I might want to see you pay for what you've done to us... no."
  2790. > Anonymous' face is inscrutable as he considers that reaction.
  2791. > Reaching out one hand, he brushes your cheek lightly with a few fingers.
  2792. > Your coat bristles at the contact, but you quickly surpress the urge to pull back.
  2793. > "Sometimes - sometimes I think you're too damn naive, Cadance. But sometimes, I honestly envy your ability to hold yourself up like that."
  2794. "It isn't easy to hold on to what makes me myself. But I have to - for them, too."
  2795. > Stroking your cheek one last time, Anonymous falls back into his seat.
  2796. > "Alright. No whipping then. Instead, for using excessive force, I am going to have your magic dampened with a mild dose of the pills."
  2797. "I will need greater amounts of magic for some tasks. If I have to fill in for another pony in the enchanting shop again, for instance."
  2798. > "I know. It shouldn't hit your basic magic too hard, but keep you from doing anything too spectacular. And in any case, it'll only be for a week or two - until I know if anything major is going to come of this incident."
  2799. > Your eyebrows knit.
  2800. "That's... Master, that's a slap on the fetlock."
  2801. > "Yes, it is."
  2802. "For nearly killing a man."
  2803. > "For following my orders. And like I said, this is as much my failure as yours. If I am not going to be severely punished, neither will you. Besides, I've heard how unpleasant having your magic suppressed is. Not a cruelty, but still not something forgettable."
  2804. > You'd argue having a unicorn's - or alicorn's - fundamental connection to magic severed is hardly 'not a cruelty', but you're hardly going to refuse a minor dose of drugs when the alternative had been the whip.
  2805. > "Besides - I'm no fool. If I give you something remotely harsher for protecting a pony for rape - rules or not, there'll be a riot. And I'd deserve it, too."
  2806. > Abruptly he looks down at his hand, suddenly coated in white grime where the mixture of dust and sweat coating you had rubbed off.
  2807. > "You're filthy, you know that?"
  2808. "I - this was more important than cleaning up."
  2809. > "It was. Mocha!"
  2810. > Hooves pitter-patter on the soft carpet, and a door opens as a brown-maned unicorn maid peers in.
  2811. > "Yes, Master?"
  2812. > "Get my bath prepared for Cadance. She's going to wash up before we head back out again."
  2813. > Her eyes flick to you for just a second - surprise? Shock? - running through them before she bows.
  2814. > "Of course, Master."
  2815. "Is that really-"
  2816. > "Yes. You're going to have to be making another speech soon, and you need to be perfect for them. Poised. Every bit a leader."
  2817. > Sighing softly, you droop your ears.
  2818. "Understood."
  2819. > ...
  2820. > The bathroom is, honestly, every bit of luxury you'd imagined it would be.
  2821. > Stone tiles on the floor - heated, you suspect, judging by one of the controls on the wall - cover at least as many square feet as your entire bedroom in the camp.
  2822. > Despite the matters at hand, you can't help but pause and boggle at the wealth on display even hear.
  2823. > "Miss Cadance? Just this way?"
  2824. > Right.
  2825. > The pony he'd called - Mocha - she was ahead of you, towels and assorted bottles held in her magic.
  2826. "I'm sorry. Just - lost myself, for a moment."
  2827. > And again despite the matters at hand, you feel a pang of regret as the maid directs you away from the bathtub and to a large, open shower space.
  2828. > A long soak would have been... delightful.
  2829. > Refocusing on the mare as she lays out the bottles - two varieties of shampoo, several mane and coat brushes, a towel laid over its bar - you study her thoughtfully.
  2830. > She works with a familiar smoothness to her actions; the elaborate maid's uniform she wears doesn't hinder her at all.
  2831. > Clearly this is a pony who's worked in here many times before.
  2832. > When she looks up and spots your glare, however, the mare gives a small squeak and nearly drops the face-towel she'd been setting out.
  2833. > Your ears fall, head lowering down to her level.
  2834. "Please, don't be worry. I just don't think I've met you before. What's your name, dear?"
  2835. > "M-Mocha Cream, Miss Cadance."
  2836. "You work for Anonymous?"
  2837. > "Y-Yes, Miss Cadance. I've been his maid for a few years now."
  2838. > She's young, you realize - not yet fully grown into a mare.
  2839. > Sinking entirely down to your belly, you stretch out one leg.
  2840. "It's okay, Mocha. I'm not going to be angry at you."
  2841. > Red flushes her face.
  2842. > "I - I didn't think you were. I'm sorry, Miss Cadance..."
  2843. "Don't be, little one. Please, don't let me disturb you."
  2844. > She turns back to her work, neatly folding the towel and hanging it up.
  2845. > Halfway through, though, she pauses.
  2846. > "I heard what you did."
  2847. "Hmm?"
  2848. > "W-With the guard. Who was h-hurting a pony. I heard what happened to him."
  2849. > You tilt your head, tail flicking - not totally sure what to say.
  2850. > Fortunately, Mocha continues without you:
  2851. > "I, um. I'm - happy somepony stopped him. I, um... I just..."
  2852. > Her hoof taps softly on the floor.
  2853. > Patiently you remain sprawled on your belly, waiting for her reply.
  2854. > When it comes, it is with a small, timid voice:
  2855. > "Would you - stand up - for me? Like you - did there?"
  2856. > You blink, mind grinding to a halt as a horrible thought enters your head.
  2857. "He was not... hurting you, was he?"
  2858. > "Oh! Oh, nonono!"
  2859. > To your surprise, she seems almost panicked.
  2860. "Is it someone else?"
  2861. > You struggle to keep your voice calm.
  2862. > How many ponies would be-
  2863. > "No, n-nothing like that, Miss Cadance."
  2864. > For a second you fear that she'd been somehow forced to deny it, but it doesn't seem to be that kind of panic.
  2865. > "We're - no one has hurt us. We work hard, but no one hurts us."
  2866. "Ah. Then why do you wonder if I would stand up for you?"
  2867. > Her head falls until her muzzle nearly touches the floor.
  2868. > "It's just... it'd be nice to have somepony stand up for us, for once."
  2869. > For us?
  2870. "Who are you talking about? Why wouldn't anypony stick up for you."
  2871. > "Because - um - we're the house slaves, Miss Cadance. Nopony stands up for us. Except, well, us - but there's not that many of us..."
  2872. > Oh...
  2873. > Was that truly...
  2875. > "We, um. We get to sleep inside his house. And, um, sometimes can eat from his food. But it's not because we don't want to share it with anypony! We, um - we would, if we could. If anypony would let us..."
  2876. > Her voice trails off as she admits this.
  2877. > A sharp pang splits your heart.
  2878. > This pony was isolated, alone... but not because of the guards, or even Anonymous.
  2879. > It was other ponies who'd isolated her.
  2880. > Rising to your hooves, you move to Mocha's side.
  2881. > She seems lost in her own thoughts, not noticing you until you're nearly there.
  2882. > A surprised squeak bursts forth as you slip a wing around her.
  2883. "I will never, ever refuse to stand up for anypony here. You are all my little ponies, and I won't ever forget that."
  2884. > Mocha seems to sink a little into herself as she hears your words, a relieved sigh coming from her throat.
  2885. > "Thank you, Miss Cadance."
  2886. "It's not right for ponies to be cruel to each other, just because of what Anonymous has told you to do. And if you ever need help, I will always be there to listen to you."
  2887. > Looking down, you offer her a warm smile as you withdraw your wing.
  2888. > Mocha Cream smiles back, though it barely reaches her eyes.
  2889. > A moment later, she looks around at the room - seamlessly slipping back into her role as a servant.
  2890. > "Um - well - I think this is everything. If there's anything else you need?"
  2891. "No, Mocha. Thank you very much - I do appreciate it."
  2892. > "You're, um - you're very welcome, Miss Cadance."
  2893. > Once she is gone, you step beneath the showerhead and turn the water on.
  2894. > Quickly bringing the water to a steaming heat, you do not begin washing immediately.
  2895. > Standing under the heavy blast of steaming water falling from the showerhead is a small luxury you allow yourself, letting the pummeling spray work out the stress in your back.
  2896. > It is nothing compared to a long soak in the crystal baths back in the Empire, but that life is gone now.
  2897. > This is a small, welcome respite before you have to-
  2899. > "So, we need to discuss what changes will be made in the near future."
  2900. > You stumble as Anonymous' voice interrupts your reverie; he'd somehow entered and leaned against the wall nearby the door without you hearing.
  2901. > It is his bathroom, you suppose, but even so you have to resist the urge to snap at him for entering.
  2902. > Privacy, after all, was for ponies with dignity.
  2903. > Not for slaves.
  2904. > Drawing a steadying breath, you nod.
  2905. "What are you proposing?"
  2906. > The open shower precludes hiding yourself entirely, but even so you subtly turn with heated cheeks to avoid Anonymous getting an any particularly compromising views as you begin to properly wash down.
  2907. > "For starters, I don't know how he was getting a pony put in for lashes just for being out after curfew. But, whatever it was, I want to move curfew patrols completely over to the Watch - not my security - and make it clear the whip is not a proper response."
  2908. > Your eyebrows rise.
  2909. > Patrolling for - and handling - ponies breaking curfew or refusing to work was already a large portion of the pony-staffed Watch.
  2910. > But to move it over to them entirely...
  2911. "You understand not every pony on the Watch is going to be perfect at reporting. Some of them are going to let ponies slip entirely."
  2912. > "You honestly think I care if ponies are out a few minutes after the curfew? As long as they aren't wandering around at midnight or digging tunnels out of the camp - that's the kind of thing I'm concerned about."
  2913. > Squirting out a dollop of the shampoo the maid had provided, you scrunch your eyes shut but listen attentively as he goes on:
  2914. > "For second, I want to make it absolutely clear, crystal clear: I do not tolerate my guards using any of you for their pleasure, ever. If anything like that - anything - ever happens, I want it to be reported."
  2915. > The anger in his voice is rising, and you're actually surprised by how furious he sounds.
  2916. > "They shouldn't ever be afraid to report that kind of mistreatment from the guards."
  2917. "...I think it would be better if you said that, Master. It's one thing to hear it from me..."
  2918. > "I will be. What I want you to do, though, is talk to them. Dig down, find out what else has been going on behind my back. In the meantime, I'm going to start planning what other moves I can make to show the ponies that I'm genuinely sorry for letting things reach this point.
  2919. "And what will you do about the guards if it does come out this has been going on more widely than you thought?"
  2920. > "How do you mean?"
  2921. > Finally washing the last of the shampoo from your mane, you peer back around at him.
  2922. "One of your guards was attacked. Rightfully, but still attacked."
  2923. > "Ah. You're afraid they're going to start getting upset if I start putting any of them up on the chopping block."
  2924. "Yes. They won't miss that you're not laying a particularly heavy punishment on my head."
  2925. > "Well, frankly, I think you're underestimating their professionalism - aside from that one absolute cunt. But, nonetheless, I have thought about that, and my plan is..."
  2926. > "My plan is, I want to start expanding the guards to include a handful of select, proven ponies from the Watch - to tide us over until new staff can arrive. I realize it might raise divisions, having ponies guarding ponies, but it'll keep things secure while I hire replacements."
  2927. > The water shuts off; you take a moment to shake yourself free of the bulk of the moisture before stepping to where Mocha Cream had left the towels.
  2928. "It might. Depending on who you are thinking about promoting to those positions."
  2929. > "Well, only one so far. But I know who I want in that position already-"
  2930. "Thunderlane?"
  2931. "-and it's Thunderlane."
  2932. > You two stare at each other for a moment before Anon pops a small grin.
  2933. > "We're thinking alike, I see. But yes - it seems I can rely on him to carry out his duties and think on his own fe- hooves."
  2934. "And I can trust him to be willing to act out for us as well, yes."
  2935. > "Then it's decided. I can't hire him, but I can give him the authority of an actual guard..."
  2936. > Anonymous pauses, thinking.
  2937. > "...actually, I could give him what'd been his sergeant's authority. Not too high up, but enough to let him issue some orders. A trial run... yeah, that'd work."
  2938. "I'll deliver the news to him."
  2939. > "Good. Talk to him about digging through and seeing how far this rot goes at the same time."
  2940. > Nodding, you set the towel aside and begin running a brush through your mane - trying to loosely rearrange its various colors to fall back in line.
  2941. > "And Cadance? I can't afford to have this become a witchhunt. I'm willing to act on your information and clean this mess up, but if this turns into a game of accusations being thrown around wildly, I'm going to have to cut it off."
  2942. "I... understand."
  2943. > No, you don't just 'understand'.
  2944. > Doesn't he get that it very well could be his entire guard force?
  2945. > Certainly none of them would have dared to touch you, but other ponies...
  2946. "I'll work with Thunderlane to make sure any claims get cleared."
  2948. > "Good. Work with me on this, Cadance, and we can take a big step towards improving things for everyone."
  2949. > He turns to go, halted only by your sudden calling after him:
  2950. "Master?"
  2951. > Pausing in the doorway, he looks back.
  2952. > "Yes?"
  2953. "What about... my pills?"
  2954. > An emotion flickers across his face - regret?
  2955. > As if he'd almost wanted to forget about that?
  2956. > "They'll be delivered to you at morning breakfast tomorrow. Seven days, on a lighter dose - I'll have a proper number by then."
  2957. "Understood, Master."
  2959. > By the time you finish with your day, stumbling out from the guard post, you can't shake the feeling that you've fallen into some bizarre alternate universe.
  2960. > You'd woken that morning for just another security patrol, the same kind of thing you'd done every day for months.
  2961. > The next thing you knew, there was an alicorn at your side.
  2962. > And you were having to stop her from beating a guard senseless.
  2963. > Somehow you'd always figured it'd be you who'd snap like that one day - finally getting fed up with the small cruelties and indignities you'd been forced to heap on your fellow slaves.
  2964. > Certainly not Cadance, especially not after you'd found she'd taken the quiet route instead, supporting the escape from the background.
  2965. > But so it'd been, and so too you'd somehow defied orders, raised your voice to a guard, and talked back to him - yet somehow not found yourself in a cell awaiting punishment.
  2966. > Even after you'd escorted the sergeant to the guard station and seen the police cars come up the road to pick him up, you'd walked around half-expecting a tap on the withers from another uniformed officer.
  2967. > Was Anonymous stepping up to shield you again?
  2968. > Or Cadance, for that matter?
  2969. > The experience of turning him over to the police - the glares leveled in his direction from the other security staff, answering the police's questions on your own - had been enough to temporarily pull your attention.
  2970. > But after that, the worry had soon returned.
  2971. > Not until Anonymous had come onto the PA system and explained that there would be no retaliation, that he in fact encouraged reporting of things like that - then it'd been clear that something big had shifted.
  2972. > You'd bucked a cloud and spawned a tornado.
  2973. > The fury still in Anonymous' voice - audible even through the PA system - had testified to that.
  2974. > Ponies had been whispering about it everywhere you went the rest of the day, his announcements clear on everypony's mind.
  2975. > If not for the public walk you'd made escorting your own one-time sergeant out, nopony would believe it.
  2976. > But that had been seen by enough eyes, the sirens of the police cars heard by enough ears - everypony knew what'd happened back there.
  2977. > And he'd said there would be more announcements to come!
  2978. > Even your evening meal had seemed bizarre.
  2979. > Watchponies normally ate alone, or in small tightly-knit clisters where they could avoid the unwanted attentions from the ponies they policed.
  2980. > From the moment you'd stepped through the door, however, you'd practically been mobbed.
  2981. > Wings slapped you on the back, extra desert rations landed on your tray until you'd had to refuse them, the table you sat at had become crowded beyond reasonable capacity.
  2982. > You were a hero.
  2983. > A pony who'd done the impossible - stood up to the guards, won Anonymous' attention, even seemingly lit a fire under his rump to do more!
  2984. > Now, as you trudged home, the thoughts whirled in your head.
  2985. > What, exactly, had you set off?
  2986. > And where would it-
  2987. > "Thunderlane."
  2988. > The voice startles you out of your thoughts.
  2989. "Your Highness."
  2990. > The bow - wings spread, head dipping low - comes easily.
  2991. > After this morning, she'd proven herself a better pony - a better leader - than you.
  2992. > Cadance smiles, but the gesture is marred by the pain in her eyes.
  2993. > "Could we speak a moment, if you have time?"
  2994. "I do. I've already eaten, and I don't think it'll be any problem if I'm out late."
  2995. > Turning, Cadance leads you a block aside - back to what passed for the 'town hall'.
  2996. > Stepping inside, she flicks a light on and settles in her seat.
  2997. > You take one across her desk, too weary of mind to ask permission first.
  2998. > "I should, I suppose, begin by thanking you."
  2999. "Thanking me?"
  3000. > "For stopping me. For - I lost myself in there a moment, overcome by everything. I... was not myself. You brought me back, and for that you have my thanks."
  3001. > Dazed you stare for a second before bobbing your head in appreciation.
  3002. "I - I suppose you'd right, Your Highness. You're - you're welcome. I was just trying to do right, you know?"
  3003. > "I do. Very rarely do I see it now, but I do still know it."
  3004. > Reaching up with one wing, you rub at the back of your mane - feeling the spray of bristly hair sticking up from the back of your neck.
  3005. "I guess I kind of snapped as well. I just - I've dealt with a lot of things here, but that - that was the limit."
  3006. > "Well. You are not the only one. I suspect by now you've realized that Anonymous is not taking this lightly."
  3007. > You snort heavily.
  3008. "He wasn't even this immediate about it when the big escape happened. Yes, I've realized."
  3009. > "It's gotten to him quite badly. He seems to actually believe that he was in the wrong to inflict such a harsh punishment on us, if this is what was really happening."
  3010. > Your eyebrows rise, wings ruffling.
  3011. > Anonymous, admit he was... wrong?
  3012. > There's something else coming, you realize - one of those 'coming announcements' he'd mentioned on the PA today.
  3013. "Cadance, I have to ask - what's going to happen now?"
  3014. > She studies you a moment before sighing.
  3015. > Behind you, the door to her office swings shut in her magic - even though there is nopony else there to hear.
  3016. > The entire thing sets a low buzzing in your stomach - a wariness that something is wrong.
  3017. > "Anonymous... would like to expand the guard to include some ponies, replacing any guards he has to fire. They would be able to hold real authority, to make real calls on how to carry out his orders..."
  3018. > Stomach doing a flip, you sit rigidly upright in the seat.
  3019. > "...and yes, they would have responsibilities to him as well. But, they would be able to use that to help ensure nothing like this can ever happen again."
  3020. ""
  3021. > Cadance's eyes widen, but you go on before she can stop you.
  3022. "I'm sorry, Princess. But - it doesn't take a genius of a pony to figure out what you're going to ask me. And, no. I won't. I can't."
  3023. > "It's a chance, Thunderlane. It's our chance to do some real good."
  3024. "I've already sold my soul being part of the watch, Princess. Remember what I said about snapping? I was - I was just about there. I don't know how much longer I could've..."
  3025. > You trail off.
  3026. > It's not all about the watch, of course.
  3027. > The information you'd been passing to Anonymous - privately - had been what really kept Rumble safe.
  3028. > And what'd really left you feeling like a hole had been carved in your gut.
  3029. "Princess, I understand what you want. But if I take up a position in the Guard... you talk about 'responsibilities'. You know what they have to do as well - carry out punishments, his orders -"
  3030. > "You heard him today, I'm sure. He's cutting back on using the whip already; you could push for even more-"
  3031. "At what cost? What would I have to do to convince him to give me that kind of responsibility?"
  3032. > Your head falls, staring into the floor in front of her desk.
  3033. "...if I could even get to the point where I'd convince him to do more, would there be anything left of me to save? Would I even care anymore?"
  3034. > Hooves fall on the wood-panel floor as she stands, circling the desk to come and stand beside you.
  3035. "I'm... afraid, Princess. Every day I go out there, I'm afraid that I'll walk back a little less me. A little more just a... tool for him to use."
  3036. > "You are anything but, Thunderlane."
  3037. > Her wing reaches out to brush against your cheek.
  3038. > "Today proved that. When you saw a pony who really, truly needed your help, you gave it."
  3039. 'I was lucky!"
  3040. > The words come out louder than intended, but you continue at the same volume:
  3041. "What if it hadn't been that? What if it'd been a pony who just couldn't go on anymore? What then? I can't - I can't make calls like that, Princess, who to fight for and who to report. Maybe I've only gotten this far because I didn't have any real choice, because I didn't have the option to fight. You give me that 'power', and I'll go mad."
  3042. > "If not you, who, Thunderlane? I saw how ponies were looking at you tonight. You're a hero. You did-"
  3043. "Something I can't do again! And you know what I will have to do again? I'll have to sell out ponies I love, look at them and know that I am choosing to send them to a punishment I can't reduce. Walk among them knowing I'm a traitor and if they knew there'd be a noose on my throat-"
  3044. > You cut yourself off hard, throat closing up.
  3045. > That had come dangerously close to admitting what you'd been doing for Anonymous.
  3046. > Bowing your head, you squeeze your eyes back to hold the emotions building behind them.
  3047. > Cadance's hoof slips beneath your muzzle, lifting it again.
  3048. > "What are you talking about, Thunderlane...?"
  3049. > She's so... gentle.
  3050. > There's no real force behind that hoof and her horn stays unlit, but even so you cannot turn your head away.
  3051. > Because you know the truth:
  3052. > This is a poisoned offer.
  3053. > If Anonymous agreed to it, he will certainly demand more of your private agreement as well.
  3054. "I'm... the reason I've been doing this, Cadance, is that it kept Rumble safe."
  3055. > She tilts her head, frowning slightly.
  3056. > "He threatened you?"
  3057. "No. Anything but. I was the one who came to him first - but I didn't want anything out of it. No better quarters, no reduced work hours... Just one demand. I just wanted Rumble to be safe. He's an impetuous colt, you know? Always wanting to buck the nearest thing..."
  3058. > " you would work to make sure he would not suffer for it."
  3059. > Your head bobs in a single, jerking nod.
  3060. "I can't protect everypony. But I can protect my own brother, even if it meant putting on that uniform and becoming a monster."
  3061. > Gently Cadance draws her hoof back.
  3062. > "You must hate me. After I allowed him to help with the escape, turned back everything you'd dedicated yourself to doing no matter the cost. After I whipped you-"
  3063. > She halts, eyes growing wide again as another thing clicks.
  3064. > A bitter smile appears on your face.
  3065. "Yes. I asked Anonymous to let me take his place there. And yes, it's crossed my mind to hate you too."
  3066. > Cadance seems to slump in place, her wings drooping and tail falling limp.
  3067. "Maybe I do - there's so much hate in me these days I can't even tell where all of it's going anymore. But I can tell you this: I don't hate you nearly as much as I hate myself."
  3068. > "Why...?"
  3069. > Her voice is barely above a whisper.
  3070. "Because I shouldn't be doing this. We - we should all be sticking together. It's ponies like me who sell the rest of us out to save their families and themselves that are turning us against each other."
  3071. > "You are talking to the pony who whipped you to ensure her daughter would be arriving here safely."
  3072. "I don't think Anonymous exactly gave you a lot of choice."
  3073. > Turning away, Cadance's gaze falls to your side.
  3074. > Had she, you wonder?
  3075. > Was there a choice in this, or that other pony she'd had taken from the returnees.
  3076. > As if reading your thoughts, she speaks again:
  3077. > "I have done... truly despicable things, Thunderlane. I try to tell myself that I had no other choice, that Anonymous imposed his demands on me... but the truth is, I did make a choice. Maybe not to cause those cruelties, but certainly to play my part in them."
  3078. "Then you understand how I feel. And why I can't do what you're asking."
  3079. > "I do understand how you feel. But I also think you have to take this offer, because I can only trust a pony who hates what they do as much as you or I to hold that kind of power."
  3080. > The grimace that crosses your face cannot be hidden.
  3081. > No matter how much you hated her, you understood her too.
  3082. > Maybe that was why you couldn't bring yourself to actually spit at her hooves - because you'd heard, after she brought the lash to your back, Cadance scream as she took her own turn on the whipping post.
  3083. > Because you knew she did not mean to harm Rumble, or yourself.
  3084. > Even so...
  3085. > "I could order you."
  3086. "Would you do that, Princess?"
  3087. > She visibly flinches at the tone used with her title.
  3088. > "I might. If I thought it would spare other ponies worse, I would order it an instant. Would you obey."
  3089. "I would hate you for it."
  3090. > A bitter kind of smile forms on Cadance's lips.
  3091. > "You could never hate me as much as I hate myself."
  3092. > Almost laughing at her turning your own point back, you shake your head.
  3093. "I don't know how you find the strength to do what you do, Cadance. But I can't. I won't become an even greater monster. Not for your order, not for Rumble's sake, not for anypony's."
  3094. > Rising from the seat, you're halted by her next question:
  3095. > "Do you think Cotton Cloudy thinks you are a monster, Thunderlane?"
  3096. > You...
  3097. > ...don't have an answer.
  3098. > Cadance's hoofsteps behind you turn your ears; she must be standing just to your rear.
  3100. > "You rescued her, Thunderlane. You finally had a chance; you could do it again. If I am wrong and Anonymous intends to just make you a tool, then you yourself just said it: Nothing can force you to become a monster."
  3101. > Lips twitching and tail flicking as you wrestle within yourself, you finally release a hefty huff of breath.
  3102. "Just tell me one thing, Cadance."
  3103. > "Yes."
  3104. "Corona. What happened to her - was that your choice?"
  3105. > You can hear her stiffen - the barely-audible scuff of hooves on wooden floor as your question hits her.
  3106. > "I... yes. And no. Anonymous insisted on taking one pony or all of them... I chose her."
  3107. "Alright."
  3108. > Still unable to turn and face her, you stomp a hoof against the floor.
  3109. "You win. I'll do it."
  3110. > A part of you expects her to relish that victory, at least a morsel of it.
  3111. > But nothing comes, except the soft touch of a wing on your back - covering the scars from the flogging she herself had inflicted.
  3112. > "Thank you. And if you ever can, please forgive me for what I've done to you."
  3113. > Opening your mouth to say something, you're instead cut off by the rising howl of an atonal buzzer echoing across the camp.
  3114. > Both your heads rise to rotate in unison, ears pricking at the cacophony.
  3115. "That's-"
  3116. > "The security alarm. It's a lockdown. Something's gone wrong."
  3117. "Did you plan another escape?!"
  3118. > "No! I didn't do anything!"
  3119. > The two of you stare at each other a moment before rushing to a window.
  3120. > If there'd been any ponies on the streets - making their way home before curfew began - they were gone now, ducked into the nearest open door to wait out the lockdown.
  3121. > Soon enough, however, a guard comes down the street at a half-jog, flashlight wobbling wildly across shadowed nooks as she passes them.
  3122. > Raising a window, Cadance leans her head out.
  3123. > "Excuse me! What's happening?"
  3124. > The guard's head snaps around, seemingly ready to confront her.
  3125. > Nudging a window open with your muzzle, you stick your head out too.
  3127. "Sorry to bother you, Ma'am, but we need to know."
  3128. > Thank Celestia you'd not had a chance to drop your uniform after finishing for the day.
  3129. > "Ah-"
  3130. > She looks between the two of you before answering:
  3131. > "Nothing big. A pony vanished from the medical wing - no sign of her. It's just a lockdown while we search."
  3132. > "Corona..."
  3133. > Cadance's breathed exclamation goes barely heard by you and completely unheard by the guard as she jogs away.
  3134. "You think she would have gone?"
  3135. > "She had nothing to stay for."
  3136. > Staring out into the darkened sky, Cadance struggles to speak.
  3137. > "Anonymous tortured her. Her best friend is dead. I betrayed her. And now - she must have heard what happened. Questioned why I would risk my life to defend another mare, but turn her over to that misery..."
  3138. > Your own stomach twisting, you shut the window again and settle back on your haunches.
  3139. "Now you know why I'm... honestly terrified of having any real authority here."
  3140. > She flinches sharply at your words, and you belatedly realize how unintentionally pointed they might have sounded.
  3141. > "I failed her. Of all the chances I had, I failed her. You might not be able to bring yourself to hate me, Thunderlane, but Corona did. And I deserve it."
  3142. "You think that would have driven her to try running again? After what happened last time?"
  3143. > "I don't think she saw that as because of her running away. She saw that as because I chose her. She won't be there. She won't be anywhere else in the camp either."
  3144. > ...
  3145. > Corona is not there.
  3146. > Not that evening, not the next morning when the lockdown is lifted.
  3147. > And so you cannot hide a bit of apprehensiveness when you are called in to speak with Anonymous.
  3148. > No doubt this is mostly about your decision to accept his request.
  3149. > But if there was any question as to what was on his mind, it vanishes when - as you sit waiting outside his office - the door briefly opens to allow a house slave out.
  3150. > Anonymous' voice drifts from within, barely held at reasonable volume:
  3151. > "-telling me that a pony who could barely walk a few days ago somehow gathered enough food to sustain a run, stole a jacket and tools, leapt a fifteen-foot fence while evading the pegasus detectors all on her own, and vanished without anyone seeing her?"
  3152. > "That seems to be the short of it."
  3153. > "Bullshit. Complete and total bullshit, and I want-"
  3154. > The door shuts again, severing the conversation once more and leaving you shaken and alone once more.
  3155. > Even so, you force yourself to settle -
  3156. > When it reopens again, the head of Anonymous' security - a man by the name of Gene - stomps out, a foul grimace etched on his face.
  3157. > You'd never known him to be a cruel man - demanding, but never cruel to any slave - but even so you lean away as he passes, as if repelled by the aura of foul temper he exuded.
  3158. > Abruptly pausing as he passes you Gene glances down, his frown deepening.
  3159. > "You. Pony. Thunderlane."
  3160. > His voice was tinged with just the slightest hint of an accent, though you weren't sure from where - you didn't know human accents.
  3161. "Yes, sir?"
  3162. > "Anonymous wants you on my security force. I think he is insane, but what the hell do I know. What do you think?"
  3163. "I... am not totally certain about this, sir. I know it won't be easy or simple, but if it means we all have less..."
  3164. > Finding the right word takes a moment.
  3165. "...conflict here, then I am for it."
  3166. > "Heh. Straight to the point."
  3167. "I don't get the feeling this would be a good thing to lie about, sir."
  3168. > "Right. Now, get in there. He wants to see you."
  3169. > And so you do, nudging the door open with a wing.
  3170. > Anonymous is not as nearly furious-looking as you expected.
  3171. > More, he seems... drained.
  3172. > Seated in his chair, head in one hand just barely rising as you enter.
  3173. > "Thunderlane. Come in, and shut the door."
  3174. > Once the door is securely closed - latching with a heavy thunk - Anonymous speaks again:
  3175. > "I won't mince words. We both know why I trust you with this, though I have to admit that business with Cotton Cloudy and your sergeant impressed me as well. Remarkable restraint there, actually... but no hesitation to stand in place, either."
  3176. "You know I've never hidden how I felt about this."
  3177. > "Which is another point in your favor. I'm pretty fucking tired of lies right now."
  3178. "Like about how a pony could escape a hospital room and gather supplies without being seen?"
  3179. > "Heard that, did you?"
  3180. > To your surprise, Anonymous doesn't seem angry - bitterly smirking, but not angry.
  3181. "I expect you'll want me to figure out where Corona went. How she went."
  3182. > "No. It's a fool's errand - something we'll have to watch out for, but not worth looking into this time."
  3183. > Your brows knit, nostrils flaring.
  3184. > Why wasn't he having her escape investigated?
  3185. > Certainly discovering what had happened wouldn't be an easy task.
  3186. > But a pony had escaped!
  3187. > "No, your task is going to be looking into another question of security - I need you to sort out any real claims of abuse from attempts at taking the opportunity to settle grudges."
  3188. > For a moment you consider asking if he'd have taken Corona's experience as a "real" claim.
  3189. "That... will be a tricky one."
  3190. > "But it's something ponies need to hear. And speaking to you... I hear you've become popular lately. Put that to good use."
  3191. > Before your reputation was ruined by the real day-to-day hardships of being a guard of his.
  3192. "Again, speaking directly, Master - I'll be glad to be doing this rather than... other security duties."
  3193. > "I believe it. Though, I frankly don't expect you to do this without any kind of reward. Especially since we're making our previous personal agreement the de facto state of things."
  3194. > You cock an ear, listening.
  3195. > What was he aiming at...?
  3196. > "So tell me this, Thunderlane. What do you want out of this...?"
  3197. "I need to know that you're honest about trying to fix the way things are going for here. You're right - this would be making everything I've already sold my soul for status quo, and I can't do that for just Rumble. I need to know that things will improve for everypony."
  3198. > "What are you proposing?"
  3199. "You're not paying me, or any other ponies who end up taking your guards' positions-"
  3200. > Anonymous seems to be about to question the idea that there will be more guards leaving their current positions, but wisely doesn't give voice to them.
  3201. "-and if you put that money into your own pocket, it'll seem like you're just making use of us for your own benefit."
  3202. > "I don't think I have to remind you that I do own you."
  3203. > The barest touch of a snarl forms on your lips.
  3204. "No, you don't. But impressions matter, Master. And we're not exactly costing you anything more by filling in what used to be paid positions."
  3205. > "That's a fallacy; you're still vacating your past positions which I'll have to fill from ponies who might be working elsewhere. Besides, I wasn't planning to leave those guards unhired forever..."
  3206. > He seems to pause and think about that, though.
  3207. > "...anyhow, what exactly are you proposing?"
  3208. "What I'm proposing is that you put that money back to making things better for us. More food, better food, a place for ponies to relax in the little time you give us, some games or toys for the foals - something."
  3209. > Adopting a pensive look as you spoke, he finally turns away to browse through files on his computer.
  3210. > "What you're suggesting isn't something I've not thought about before. I threw together a few plans, but with the new purchases soon to arrive and then the escapes, there was never a chance."
  3211. > The printer whirrs,beeps, clicks, whirrs again, and spits out a series of sheets.
  3212. > "I'll be honest, Thunderlane. I cannot promise what you ask without question. If money becomes tight for me, I will put it to other uses - to keeping this place open, before I try handing out any gifts. But - what you're proposing does have merit."
  3213. > Turning back to face you, he staples the papers together in a sheaf.
  3214. > "So while I can't swear the money will always will go there... here's what I can do. For every pony you can get to take up guard positions like yourself, I will redirect the salary towards getting something for you ponies."
  3215. "Ponies aren't going to like that, master. They're going to see it as you trying to tie any rewards to use chaining ourselves even deeper into slavery."
  3216. > Shrugging, Anonymous raises his hands.
  3217. > "Then they won't get anything. I've a few candidates in mind, so don't think that I'm choking you off or anything like that... but I will be vetting any proposals you put forward."
  3218. "As long as something comes of it, Master. As long as ponies know something is happening... they just want hope, Sir. Just like me. Little hopes, so that they have something to work towards."
  3219. > Anonymous chuckles softly.
  3220. > "Little things."
  3221. "Yes. A place to have a little happiness - to forget that we are your property."
  3222. > "Well, little things I can definitely do. I take it you are accepting, then?"
  3223. "I..."
  3224. > In truth, you'd gotten so wrapped up in what you were asking for that you'd forgotten about the rest.
  3225. "...yes. I do."
  3226. > "You understand you won't be able to shirk out of duties. There might come a time when you have to be the one running down ponies escaping, or carrying out punishments with your own hands. Hooves."
  3227. > Ignoring the acidic burning that seems to threaten at eating away your heart entirely, you nod.
  3228. > Your ears betray you, though - laying flat to the sides of your head.
  3229. "I told you before, Sir. I don't want to be a slave, but raising trouble... there's a pegasi saying from back home: Charge a thunderstorm, get zapped."
  3230. > "Heh. I get the meaning."
  3231. > Leaning forward, Anonymous holds the sheaf of papers out; you take it under a wing.
  3232. > "Take that to Cadance. Have her look over those plans; if she finds they're acceptable, bring them back to my house."
  3233. "Yes, Master."
  3234. > "Otherwise, I'll pass word on to Gene."
  3235. > Hesitating a moment, Anonymous adds:
  3236. > "You know, this is going to raise a lot of hell. Internal investigations always do, and there're going to be a fair number of ponies enraged by what you're doing."
  3237. "That's why you have to give them some benefit as well."
  3238. > "I told you, I will. I just hope you can keep them in line."
  3239. > Another moment, and then he waves dismissively.
  3240. > Go on, then. Gene'll probably get to you later today, so best to report to the security station anyhow."
  3241. > ...
  3242. > The first day at your new 'job' proves to be completely and utterly uneventful.
  3243. > Mostly a series of discussions:
  3244. > Between yourself and Cadance, on accepting the plan.
  3245. > She didn't look happy about it, but the gave her okay to it.
  3246. > And then with Gene, defining what exactly you would be doing, how to handle problems with ponies - or other guards - objecting to it.
  3247. > Then with Cadance again, about how to go about digging up the information you would need.
  3248. > Then Gene again.
  3249. > Then all three of them.
  3250. > By the end of it, you're starting to feel a bit wistful for your old patrol walk.
  3251. > It might've had some painful moments, but at least you'd had the chance for a moment of quiet, just for thinking to yourself.
  3252. > Though even that was debatable now, as ponies were keen to wave, greet, even walk alongside you.
  3253. > ...would they still do that when news of what Anonymous was planning broke?
  3254. > Hard to know.
  3255. > You'd taken dinner early, taking advantage of your newly-flexible schedule to slip in and out before you could be trapped there in the crowd.
  3256. > Stumbling home and into your quarters, you slip out of the uniform:
  3257. > Carefully laying the leg guards atop the folded main bulk of your uniform, you pause to sniff lightly at your fetlock.
  3258. > Sweaty - definitely need a shower before bed.
  3259. > Stifling a yawn, you stagger off towards your bed to find the bottle of shampoo kept in the drawers beneath it - almost stumbling face-first into the cream mare stretched across the mattress.
  3260. "...fucksake, Bon Bon! Stop doing that!"
  3261. > Grinning pointedly, she rolls off the bed and lands four hooves on the floor.
  3262. > "You need to stop searching better."
  3263. "You need to stop breaking into my home."
  3264. > "The door isn't locked."
  3265. "None of these doors lock."
  3266. > "So, it isn't breaking in. After all, not your home. Everything here belongs to our dear owner."
  3267. > The venom in her voice isn't hard to hear, but you just roll your eyes.
  3268. "Alright, Bon Bon. Seriously - what do you want this time?"
  3269. > For a moment your snapped question seems to have inspired an equally sharp response, but at the last minute Bon Bon drops her head and lays her tail flat.
  3270. > "To apologize, actually."
  3271. > In the midst of widening your stance, you're caught again by surprise - cocking your head to raise one ear.
  3272. > "I - didn't have the best opinion of you. For obvious reasons. Thought you were a traitor, out for just your brother at the cost of the rest of us - at best. At worst..."
  3273. " worst, no different than what I've thought about myself."
  3274. > The slightest touch of a smile appears on Bon Bon's face.
  3275. > "Yeah - and - I guess I see that now. So - I wanted to genuinely apologize. What you did - a traitor wouldn't have done that."
  3276. > Shaking your head, you flop down on the bed she'd just vacated with an exhausted laugh.
  3277. "Yeah, you say that now. Just wait until you see what they've got me doing next."
  3278. > Now it is Bon Bon's turn to cock her head, the earth mare following you with inquisitive eyes.
  3279. > "What? Is there going to be more?"
  3280. "...they're going to have me trying to wring out any other real problems in the guard force, along with Cadance. Real problems, not just hard-asses."
  3281. > Eyebrows rising, she settles on her haunches.
  3282. > "He trusts you to do that?"
  3283. "Yes. Because after that, I'm going to have to be a guard - not a watchpony, tattling on anyone out late. A real guard, with everything that implies."
  3284. > For a few seconds silence reigns.
  3285. "There are going to be others, too. Cadance is going to announce the beginning of it tomorrow. He wants to replace any guards fired with ponies-"
  3286. > Then begins a whirlwind of destruction, a maelstrom of fury as Bon Bon leaps about the tiny room - bucking at the walls and snorting wildly.
  3287. > "That - that utter bastard! That tyrannical, monstrous, complete cunt! He thinks - thinks he can split us up, make us hate each other?! Think we can forget him?! Forget what his kind took from us? Ooooh - that cold-blooded, lizardous, shit flinging monkey!"
  3288. > As the walls shudder from another impact of her hooves, you're off the bed at last.
  3289. > Wrapping her in a hold, you both go down in a tangle of legs and snapping jaws.
  3290. > "Get off of me! I'm going to go put my hoof so far up his ass-"
  3291. "Enough! Bon Bon, stop!"
  3292. > She does, stunned into stilness by your yell.
  3293. "Bon Bon - I don't like it either. But I swear to you - I swear, by my life, Rumble, and everything I have left to care about - I won't be becoming one of them. I won't be forgetting about us, and nopony else will be either."
  3294. > " can't promise that."
  3295. "I can. He's going to be giving some money back to us, for us to do with as we want."
  3296. > This time, she doesn't respond.
  3297. "It'll be better, Bon Bon. Please, trust me on this. We need - and I mean need - to have somepony with his ear, or nothing will ever change for the better."
  3298. > "That's a lie. We can always resist. Corona-"
  3299. "You helped her get out. And she's just one pony."
  3300. > Not to mention that Anonymous bizarrely hadn't wanted to go after her.
  3301. > "No. I didn't help her."
  3302. "I didn't mean literally you. I mean your little bunch of friends-"
  3303. > "I get what you mean, Thunderlane. We didn't. Not as far as I know."
  3304. > They hadn't...?
  3305. > Then how'd she gotten out...?
  3306. "...fine. But the point holds, Bon Bon: She's just one pony free. We're still here, and we can still make things better here."
  3307. > "We're not ever going to be able to get home if we just think about the here."
  3308. > "I don't know, Bon Bon. But I do know that if we push him - if we drive him to squeeze us ever tighter - we're not going anywhere."
  3309. > The earth mare huffs softly, jerking in your grip.
  3310. > There's real strength in her - solid bands of Earth Pony muscle beneath the candy-maker's slight pudge - and you aren't sure how long you could actuall hold her if she tried to wrestle you.
  3311. > "Fine. I - I think I'm going to go somewhere quiet. Before my anger gets the better of me again."
  3312. "...aren't you staying in the barracks?"
  3313. > "Yes. I can find a quiet place for the night, though."
  3314. > It takes you a moment to realize what she means, and your frown deepens when it comes to you.
  3315. "If they catch you sneaking out to your resistance's hidey-holes, there's going to be Tartarus in this camp."
  3316. > "Well, the point of it being a hidey-hole is not to be found."
  3317. > Slipping from your loosened grip, Bon Bon stands - her ears still drooping.
  3318. > "Just... Celestia above! I can't believe he's really going to try that! I can't believe you accepted!"
  3319. "I told him he had to be giving us - all of us - something back, or no deal.
  3320. > That seems to mollify the mare somewhat.
  3321. "Well, at least you're still thinking of us. That's a relief."
  3322. > "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't."
  3324. > All in all, when the investigations were done sixteen guards would be fired from your security force.
  3325. > Not a tiny number, but more than the couple you'd expected.
  3326. > A few of them were for minor, yet still inexcusable things.
  3327. > Doctoring paperwork, failing to report their proper hours... that sort of minor thing.
  3328. > The rest, though...
  3329. > You'd been legitimately disturbed by some of the things that'd been uncovered.
  3330. > Yes, they were your property.
  3331. > But they were your working property, damn it!
  3332. > Emphasis on 'yours'.
  3333. > Not some toys for others to play around with as they wanted!
  3334. > And certainly not free to be tormented and teased for giggles.
  3336. > If they wanted to do that, there were plenty of low-grade, broken slaves coming out of some of the worst camps they could who wouldn't find it any worse than what they were used to.
  3337. > On the other hand...
  3338. > Thank God you'd thought to have Thunderlane question each and every report clearly, because it was also clear that not everything which was being reported had serious merit.
  3339. > And it was mildly alarming how many ponies seemed to take this as a chance to settle grudges with guards they didn't like - or even just the guards they knew the best, looking to lash out at anyone.
  3340. > Reactions to Thunderlane's new appointment were also decidedly... mixed.
  3341. > From both sides.
  3342. > Some ponies seemed ready to lynch him in the night, and there'd been some less-than-pleased exclamations as Gene had announced the particulars of your new plan.
  3343. > By and large, though, it seemed to be working out for now.
  3344. > Especially as two further lots of ponies recovered from your escape had been returned - this time with no punishments handed out for their actions.
  3345. > But while those problems were being solved, a new one rolled into camp a little over a week after Thunderlane took up his new position.
  3346. > Literally rolled in, packed into the back of several tractor-trailers that pulled up just outside the gate.
  3347. > You'd resisted the urge to go out and watch your new stock being unloaded, instead occasionally glancing from the window as an increasing pastel-hued crowd formed up between them.
  3348. > Only when it seemed the last truck was being emptied out did you slip from your room and down to meet the new arrivals.
  3349. > Cadance was already waiting on the inside of the entrance gate, seated calmly with her eyes shut - though her swiveling ears betrayed her awareness of your approach.
  3350. "Come."
  3351. > Not even bothering to stop, you wait until she's caught pace with you before speaking again:
  3352. "I don't think I need to tell you, keep yourself in line here. We've got some thing to talk about later."
  3353. > "Yes, Master."
  3354. > Her gaze is low, but you can still hear the emotion hidden in it.
  3355. > The line you approach is a mixed lot - chained neck-to-neck by the steel collars they bore, some hobbled by shackled hooves as well.
  3356. > Horn limiters and wing binders were also in evidence.
  3357. > Those, presumably, were the 'second-rate' lower-grade slaves that made the bulk of the order.
  3358. > Or more accurately, the 'normal' slaves - as opposed to the handful of specialists, usefully-talented, and pre-trained ponies you'd also ordered.
  3359. > More than a few also bore scars - some from whipping, a few old brands hot and cold, and a few... worse.
  3360. > Though the handlers from the trucks had occasionally cracked their whips to get the lines moving, you saw no evidence of recent lashings.
  3361. > Dull eyes flick over you neutrally you walked the length of one line, but more than a few low intakes of breath are heard as Cadance passes close by.
  3362. > Some whispers of reverence, but more of shock at the sight of a one-time princess, of an alicorn in the flesh, walking obediently at your heels with head lowered submissively.
  3363. > Good.
  3364. > That was exactly what you wanted them to see - their would-be leader, subservient to you.
  3365. > Getting an early start on making it clear that you were fully in charge here.
  3366. > There would be time for showing a softer side later.
  3367. > An infusion of newcomers at this delicate time could be a moderating force... or the tinder to start a new conflagration.
  3368. > Passing between a few more lines, you're suddenly accosted by a new voice at your side.
  3369. > " 'scuse me, you the one taking delivery of this lot?"
  3370. > Like magic, a man in a delivery uniform had appeared by your elbow with his tablet already at hand for you to sign.
  3371. > " 'cause if y'are, we'd like to get them all in, get our chains'n'shit back, get back out-"
  3372. "You'll be signed for when we've confirmed that the ponies have arrived in the right number and good health."
  3373. > Your voice is cold, the familiar mask for dealing with such people sliding into place.
  3374. "Until then -"
  3375. > Turning back away, you motion Cadance to your side.
  3376. "-Cadance, I hope you've had everything prepared?"
  3377. > "Yes, Master."
  3378. > Her voice is appropriately low.
  3379. > Good.
  3380. "Then take them in. Head count and roll call as they come. Check for major injuries, then get some food in their bellies, give them the introduction - and then see about logging useful talents and skills in the second-rates."
  3381. > "Yes, Master."
  3382. "And unless you find any problems, when the head count is done you're clear to sign in my place for this."
  3383. > There's a small annoyed noise from the man who'd been trying to get your signature - at just the delay, or the thought of having his delivery signed for by a slave.
  3384. > Waiting until Cadance is out of sight, you turn to him again.
  3385. "I needed her away. The special delivery is here as well?"
  3386. > "Yes."
  3387. > Pointing out a separate car that had pulled up to your manor directly, he goes on:
  3388. > "We brought her separately."
  3389. "Good. She'll have been brought in already; I'll sign for her now."
  3390. > That ameliorates his mood somewhat, and soon you're making your way back to the manor.
  3391. > Pausing a moment outside your room, you take a deep breath before stepping in.
  3392. "Hello, Flurry Heart."
  3393. > "Master!"
  3394. > Sweeping immediately into a deep bow, the alicorn filly greets you from the middle of the room.
  3395. > She must have been waiting for the door to open.
  3396. "I'd like to say, welcome to your new home. I hope the treatment you've had so far has been welcome?"
  3397. > "Absolutely, Master!"
  3398. > Her voice is squeaky - still very definitely in the midst of fillyhood despite the nearly adult-span wings held close to her sides.
  3399. > She waits until you've found your seat before standing.
  3400. > "I - I have t'say, I just - I don't know how to say 'thank you enough', and-"
  3401. > Waving her off, you instead give a warm smile.
  3402. "I understand, Flurry. You've been in some bad places, with some bad people. Come over here, let me see you."
  3403. > The way she prances over - lifting her hooves with each step - and stops in front of you to spin in place suggests that this was a long-practiced routine.
  3404. > ...then again, she had been part of a road tour before this.
  3405. > Leaning forward, you let your eyes wander over her appearance.
  3406. > Her coat was still short, and mane barely growing back in to what you suspected its ultimate length would be.
  3407. > And, in truth, there were subtle signs of the trauma she'd experienced:
  3408. > She's still on the worrying side of slim, among others.
  3409. > But her coat holds a smooth luster, and barring a few missing feathers her wings also seem to be in relatively good shape.
  3410. > There's no sign of the infections and infestations she'd suffered through.
  3411. > A gesture, and she is rearing up - allowing you to slip your arms around her ribs and lift her into your lap.
  3412. "Well. My name is Anonymous, but you can call me master-"
  3413. > "Yes, Master!"
  3414. "-now that you're here. I'm the one who bought you a few months back-"
  3415. > "Yes, Master! They've been telling me all about you!"
  3416. "-and I can promise that I am a fair owner; as long as you obey everything can stay as you've been enjoying things."
  3417. > "Yes, Master."
  3418. > She seats herself with practiced precision.
  3419. > Stroking her back, you find your hand met by a silken softness - her coat truly has recovered from her ordeal.
  3420. > A little hard, beneath that - but that'll be solved the more she eats.
  3421. "I can assure you the work you'll be doing here won't be anywhere near as bad as what you've experienced, and I don't think you'll have any problem with it."
  3422. > "Yes, master!"
  3423. > The more she repeats that phrase, the more you start to feel there's something slightly wrong with it.
  3424. > Too much enthusiasm.
  3425. "'s alright, Flurry. You can speak freely to me here."
  3426. > "I..."
  3427. > The alicorn's eyes drop, unable to look higher than mid-chest.
  3428. > "You promise...?"
  3429. "Yes, Flurry. I promise."
  3430. > "Please don't - I don't want to go back there. Everything's been so - so nice! I - I keep being afraid. It's like - a dream, or something, and..."
  3431. "Shh...."
  3432. > Your hand slips up to the crown of her head, sinking into her mane to rub gently.
  3433. "I know. I know. But like I said - everything can stay the way you've been living now if you obey."
  3434. > "I will. I swear I will, Master! I swear, I won't do anything-"
  3435. "Shhh, shh. It's okay. I know, Flurry. You'll do your best. That's why I got your - I needed a pony for a job who I know will always do their best. I'm a good master to my property."
  3436. > "T-Thank you, Master."
  3437. > She leans forward, then abruptly hangs back - hesitating.
  3438. > A subtle pressure from your hand on the back of her head, and she caves in.
  3439. > Burying her muzzle in your shirt, Flurry slowly slips out her wings - amazingly able to wrap around your chest - and softly cry.
  3440. > You're reminded that this is still just the equivalent of a child, crying in your lap.
  3441. > A pony child, but a child nonetheless.
  3442. > "I-I don't wanna go anywhere else again..."
  3443. "I know, Flurry."
  3444. > Stroking along her side, feeling her tiny heart thudding against her ribs, you slip both arms around her.
  3445. "You're with me, now. This is your home now."
  3446. > "T-Thank you, Master."
  3447. > She pauses, hesitating again.
  3448. "It's okay, Flurry. Tell me?"
  3449. > "I - I heard o-one of them say that you owned my M-Mother as well..."
  3450. > Damn.
  3451. > You'd wanted to break that to her slowly, rather than all at once.
  3452. > The staff you'd sent had been instructed not to talk about it in earshot of her, but evidently people weren't as good at keeping their mouths shut as you thought.
  3453. > "C-Could I s-see her?"
  3454. > ...oddly, she seemed less upset by the idea that you owned her mother than by the risk you'd be upset with her for asking.
  3455. > But that was a question for another time.
  3456. > Right now...
  3457. > Cadance had said part of her 'punishment' for helping ponies escape would be to not see her daughter.
  3458. > But she'd proven herself since then, and you could always overrule her decisions.
  3459. > It might be a good idea to allow her to be with her daughter - to have a reminder of why, exactly, she was working for you.
  3460. > And the costs of failing to get the results you needed.
  3461. > ...of course, Cadance might be upset with you for 'violating' the terms of her punishment.
  3462. > You had given her governance of that, after all, even if you'd not intended for her to interpret it to include herself.
  3463. > Perhaps just a brief visit, then?
  3464. "I'm afraid not right now, Flurry."
  3465. > Her expression cracks, ears drooping.
  3466. "Your mother... did something very, very foolish. She helped some ponies run away from me-"
  3467. > The little gasp Flurry Heart gives is the noise made by a pony who's just had her world torn apart.
  3468. "-and so she's not allowed to see you for a while."
  3469. > "Yes, Master."
  3470. > Her voice doesn't convey the dispirited state you'd expected, but that doesn't mean you don't have reason to be concerned.
  3471. > If anything, it seems more like she is too shocked to understand what you'd told her, comprehension still trickling through her system.
  3472. "Hey..."
  3473. > You stroke her back lightly trying to think of how to ease the shock.
  3474. > "...Master?"
  3475. "Yes, Flurry?"
  3476. > "Is mom... is she a bad pony?"
  3477. > How do you explain this to a child?
  3478. > Seeing your hesitation, Flurry ducks her head and murmurs softly:
  3479. > "I'm sorry, Master. I-"
  3480. "No, no... just... don't you remember her?"
  3481. > Flurry shakes her head.
  3482. > "Don' remember much. I... remember her an' dad at home, and, uh, Aunt Twilight I think, but not too much else."
  3483. > That's... odd.
  3484. > From the age listed on her file, Flurry must have been at least five or six when they finally tracked down the ponies hiding her.
  3485. > And she couldn't have been in hiding for that much longer before then.
  3486. > Surely she should have some memory.
  3487. "Your mother..."
  3488. > Leaning back in your seat, your raise your eyes to stare at the ceiling.
  3489. > Trying to mask your rage at the idiots who'd mistreated this creature.
  3490. > She was the perfect opportunity - an alicorn filly, a blank slate, freshly-moldable clay to be the worked into a new, obedient 'leader' for your property.
  3491. > Any man could have seen what she was worth, and still you'd found her covered in mud and parasites.
  3492. "Yes, Flurry. Your mother was a bad pony; that's why she can't see you now. I'm sorry..."
  3493. > As if you'd just conveyed some fundamental truth, Flurry nods in solemn understanding.
  3494. > "I-It's okay, Master. I know bad ponies have to be punished."
  3495. "Yes, they do. But she's been doing better now, so she might be able to see you soon. In fact..."
  3496. > Slipping your phone from your pocket, you hold it up and select the camera.
  3497. > Flurry instantly sits upright in your lap, gathering her hooves neatly beneath herself and putting on a small smile for the camera.
  3498. > Clearly she's seen this done before.
  3499. "...and there we go. I'll show your mother these photos, so she knows that you're doing okay."
  3500. > "Thank you, Master."
  3501. > Her smile quickly falls away as the phone goes away.
  3502. > "I just don't... I don't get why she'd be a bad pony. You're - you're the best master I've ever had."
  3503. > As far as you could tell, you were the only the second master she'd ever had aside from the temporary auction holdings.
  3504. "Well, some ponies... they don't like being my property. They think it's wrong."
  3505. > "But you... do you... do they not get someplace to sleep, Master?"
  3506. "Someplace to sleep?"
  3507. > "Like, um, beds. In a room. I... used to have a pole I slept next to a lot. And, um, it was outside, so when it rained the mud got-"
  3508. "Oh, hell no!"
  3509. > Reaching down to tip her head up with a hand beneath her chin, you meet Flurry's eyes with your own serious gaze.
  3510. "First of all, don't say that word I just used. It's a bad word. Second... Listen to me very carefully, Flurry. Never, ever have I made a pony sleep outside like that. Even when they've been very, very bad ponies they stay in a room."
  3511. > A room with shackles and a locked door, but she didn't need to know that.
  3512. "So no. I don't make them sleep outside. I make sure everyone at least gets some food. I make sure nopony is too hot or cold."
  3513. > Letting that kind of treatment spread would only hinder their ability to work anyhow.
  3514. > Abruptly you realize Flurry Heart had gone stiff and ears down in your lap - reacting to your hard tone and scowling expression.
  3515. > ...she thought she was being scolded.
  3516. > Sighting softly you release her chin and slip you arms around her again, practically enveloping the filly and reducing her to a head peeking through them which quickly comes to rest softly on your chest.
  3517. > Even before you begin to speak, Flurry huffs softly into your shirt - blowing out all her stress through her nostrils as well.
  3518. "I'm not angry at you. I'm sure you'll be a good pony for me, and I'm sure your mother will be too."
  3519. > "...Mom'd better. I really, really wanna see her..."
  3520. > Stroking back her mane draws a small happy noise from Flurry.
  3521. "I'll tell her that too. Before I show you your job here, though... is there anything you want to ask me?"
  3522. > Flurry shifts, hesitating.
  3523. > "I... anything, Master?"
  3524. "Yes, anything."
  3525. > "...why did anypony want to run away from you?"
  3526. > That was not a question you'd expected.
  3527. > Of course, it figures she'd home in on the most delicate topic.
  3528. "Well - for starters, I made some mistakes too. I let some bad men work for me, and they hurt some of my ponies. I stopped them when I found out, but some of the ponies thought I was letting them. Also, I think..."
  3529. > What the hell do you say to explain to a filly who barely remembers being free?
  3530. "...I think some ponies don't care about me in particular. They just don't like being anyone's property."
  3531. > "But we're all your pro-per-ty now. Except the, um, special dis- dis-per-say..."
  3532. "Special dispensation ponies, yes."
  3533. > The ones who'd earned their freedom through truly spectacular acts for their owners.
  3534. > And, of course, the ones who'd managed to evade the catchers long enough to cross the border to and hide out past the pursuit statute time limits.
  3535. > But Flurry didn't seem to know about those.
  3536. > "So then why don't they want to work even more for you, so they can become special dispation-"
  3537. > The way she inevitably mangles the word makes you grin.
  3538. "Well, I really don't know. I guess they just can't understand that we own them now."
  3539. > "...did mom want to run away too?"
  3540. > Ah.
  3541. > That's why she was asking.
  3542. "Your mother... I think she might've considered it, but ultimately she never tried. Even when I found out she'd been bad, she never tried to run or hide from me."
  3543. > "...I don' want her t'run away."
  3544. "I know, Flurry."
  3545. > Giving her one last rub around the ears, you nudge her slightly to remove her from your lap.
  3546. "Now, I'm going to go talk to her, and you're going to go see the room you stay in."
  3547. > "...I get a room?!"
  3548. > Her squeaky, elated voice makes you chuckle softly as you rise to head for the door.
  3549. "Eventually you'll be sleeping in there along with your charge, but for now I just want you to get familiar with it."
  3550. > "Yes, Master!"
  3551. > Even the announcement that it wouldn't be her room alone does little to dampen Flurry Heart's enthusiasm.
  3552. > She practically hops alongside you with enthusiasm, though you notice she keep firmly close to your side.
  3553. > The room, when you reach it, already has its door cracked.
  3554. > Inside Mocha Cream works busily, filling out a closet with pastel-colored dresses.
  3555. > She spins about, falling into a half-bow when you enter.
  3556. "Mocha, this is the mare I was speaking to you about."
  3557. > "Of course, Master. She's the one you got for...?"
  3558. "Yes."
  3559. > Flurry Heart is too busy peering around the brightly-painted, sequined room to pay attention to your conversation - at least until you call her name.
  3560. "Flurry, this is Mocha Cream. She is my personal maid, which means she looks after my personal things. She'll be helping you settle in here until you begin your proper duties."
  3561. > "Yes, Master!"
  3562. "Mocha, you remember all of my instructions about her?"
  3563. > "Of course, Master."
  3564. > Flashing both of them a smile, you nod.
  3565. "Alright then. I trust you. Look after her."
  3566. > You have other problems to address, after all.
  3568. > Hoofstep by hoofstep you move among the newly-arrived slaves, well-piled plates of tomato and cheese sandwiches hovering over each wing.
  3570. > The suppression pills you had been given as a result of your 'overuse of magical force' were taking their toll, turning what ought to have been a thoughtless task into one that required some degree of focus.
  3571. > Every magical sense - those you'd inherited from the Unicorn, Pegasus, and Earth tribes alike - seemed muffled in a slight, grating buzz or mired in a soupy mud.
  3572. > Even so you set your face into a practiced mask and refuse to show the strain, moving like a graceful angel of mercy through the arrivals.
  3573. > Many whispered reverent thanks as you handed out the food.
  3574. > Some bowed.
  3575. > Most simply sank their teeth into what must have seemed like a luxurious feast.
  3576. > You were not insulted by the ones who ignored you in favor of the food.
  3577. > For those who did give you there attention, words of comfort and reassurance joined the food in calming them.
  3578. > The way they'd arrived - collared and shackled in steel, forced to watch as Anonymous marched you in front of them - it was little surprise that they would need time to reawaken to a slightly less miserable existence.
  3579. > At least the slave traders themselves were gone now.
  3580. > Signing for the delivery had left an ill taste in your mouth - the foul tang of becoming a part of your own race's subjugation.
  3581. > But it'd gotten them to leave, taking their chains with them, and left you to visible control the ponies.
  3582. > That had been worth it, even if your task sometimes left you desiring to cry in a corner at the parade of hollow eyes and bones protruding from beneath hides.
  3583. > It seems almost shameful to admit that your heart had quickened slightly at the appearance of a pair of crystal ponies among them.
  3584. > Their natural lustrous appearance diminished, they still shared gentle nuzzles with you and soft, wordless nickers of recognition at their once-sovereign returned to them.
  3585. > Moving on, you're caught off guard when a hoof reaches out from a pony you'd just passed to brush your side.
  3586. > "Excuse me, ma'am?"
  3587. > It's the tone that really grabs your attention.
  3588. > The voice that carried it was thin, weak - but it was still hard and full of determination.
  3589. > It belongs to a unicorn stallion, you find, of grey coat and brownish mane.
  3590. "Yes, is there something I may give you?"
  3591. > "I just wanted to ask - who was Corona?"
  3592. > The plates nearly clatter to the floor before you catch them.
  3593. "I - I'm sorry?"
  3594. > Reaching out a hoof, he points.
  3595. > "Corona. Who was he? She?"
  3596. > Your eyes follow, and your heart sinks into an icy chill.
  3597. > Just above head height, somepony had painted - directly on a column in the midst of the mess hall - in bright crimson letters:
  3599. > ...nopony had noticed this before they were brought in?
  3600. > Apparently not.
  3601. > You could have it covered now.
  3602. > Or would that just draw more attention.
  3603. > "'am? Er, your highness? I'm sorry, I -"
  3604. > And what do you tell him?
  3605. > There's no point in hiding it.
  3606. > He'd find out soon enough anyhow, with how often Corona's disappearance was a topic of discussion.
  3607. "A former slave mare who used to be here. There was... a large breakout some weeks back. Rather than beat every slave who had escaped, Corona alone was chosen."
  3608. > "I... see."
  3609. > He glances up to the sign, the first touch of fear flickering in his eyes.
  3610. > "That's... you said she isn't here anymore?"
  3611. "No. You don't need to concern yourself what what happened to her."
  3612. > "Ah-"
  3613. > Damn, that'd come out rather harsher-sounding than you'd intended.
  3614. > "-my apologies, Ma'am."
  3615. "No, if anything I should be sorry for snapping at you like that. And there's no need to call me 'Ma'am'."
  3616. > "Forgive me, Ma'am, I may not have my uniform any longer but I am still an officer of the EUP Guard..."
  3617. > That drives you to do a double-take, jerking back around to study the stallion again.
  3618. > He falters as your eyes focus on him, voice dropping to a nervous stutter:
  3619. > "...and I did not know if it would be insulting to call 'Your Highness'. Er, Ma'am."
  3620. > Turning around fully, you set the tray down to allow you to properly focus.
  3621. "It is something some ponies do here, at times. In all honesty, I'm... flattered that anypony thinks I still deserve that title."
  3622. > "Ah. So then, should I-"
  3623. "Do what you feel is right. I no longer have the crown that earned me that title."
  3624. > Or, for that matter, do you deserve it after what you did to Corona.
  3625. "I will say this, though: If you choose to use my title, do not let the guards hear you. They will not punish you, but it is not looked on favorably either."
  3626. > "I understand, Ma- Your Highness."
  3627. > Ducking his head with a small smile, the earth stallion raises a shaky hoof to offer a salute.
  3628. > "Lieutenant Granite Cleave."
  3629. "A pleasure."
  3630. > In truth, you have to keep the sadness from your voice.
  3631. > He wasn't the first pony formerly of the guard you'd encountered who had insisted on keeping their rank.
  3632. > It was, in your eyes, meaningless.
  3633. > Equestria as it had been was gone, and holding those ranks meant no more than if you'd attempted to hold on to your royal title.
  3634. > You could be - would be - these ponies' leader.
  3635. > But you were not their princess; that rank had left your head as surely as the crown which rested in a velvet nest behind glass walls in Anonymous' study.
  3636. > At the same time, however, you understood why ponies would cling to whatever they could to survive in this Tartarus.
  3637. > "Speaking of the guards... are those ponies really helping them?"
  3638. > Your eyes follow where he points, to the two ponies watching over the crowd of arrivals alongside similarly-uniformed human guards.
  3639. "Yes. Before you judge them, they replaced some other guards who had been fired for being... far too harsh. It's been better this way."
  3640. > "If you're certain-"
  3641. "I am. Thunderlane - he isn't here, but you'll probably see him soon enough - had to be convinced to take up the position, but he's been given some authority with the guards and is actually doing well with them."
  3642. > "...ah."
  3643. > Granite still doesn't look convinced, but there's little point in arguing with him further.
  3644. > A moment of focus is required as you lift the trays again, steadying them so none of the sandwiches fall.
  3645. "I'm afraid I have to keep moving."
  3646. > "Yes, I understand. It's -"
  3647. > He falters, then adds more softly:
  3648. > "It's really good to see you alive and sane, Ma'am."
  3649. > At least, you thought, your appearance was doing some good.
  3650. > Even if you weren't too certain about the 'sane' part.
  3651. > ...
  3652. > "Cadance, Cadance to my office."
  3653. > Anonymous' voice echoes tinny over the PA system, raising your ears and those of the mare facing you.
  3654. > What did he want now...?
  3655. > At least organizing the arrivals was nearly done.
  3656. > Fed and somewhat rested, they'd been organized into lines - each pony's talent recorded along with any other skills, medical information...
  3657. > Anything that could be put to use.
  3658. > Once that was done they were being lead away in groups to the barracks.
  3659. > Sighing gently, you lay down the pen you're holding and turn to the mare beside you.
  3660. "Quill, can you see to the rest of these?"
  3661. > "Yes, Miss Cadance."
  3662. "Good. Best remain on hand for a little while after, in case anything comes up."
  3663. > The trip across to his home leaves you free to digest the thoughts you'd pushed aside while your tasks were completed.
  3664. > 'Remember Corona's sacrifice' the loosely-scrawled message had demanded.
  3665. > But what was the meaning behind it?
  3666. > Certainly one meaning was obvious - the sacrifice she'd had thrust upon her by being solely chosen for punishment.
  3667. > But also a particularly vicious rumor had sprung up, you knew, that Anonymous had ordered Corona murdered.
  3668. > Why varied between the tellings - she had refused to submit to him and raised his fury, or he had vanished her to cover evidence of far worse tortures she had been subject to.
  3669. > Some said he had snuck in himself to smother her in the night while she was still weak; others spoke of a last meal of poisoned food.
  3670. > All seemed ridiculous to you.
  3671. > For one, Anonymous had never been cruel enough to murder a pony; for another, you knew murder was a line that even the wretched laws that ordered your enslavement had declared un-crossable.
  3672. > Surely most sane ponies saw the same.
  3673. > But not everypony had seen Anonymous' shaken state when you confronted him.
  3674. > And given what he had done to Corona, it was hard to quash such thoughts among the bitterest minds.
  3675. > Drifting, wandering thoughts consume your mind until you cross into Anonymous' room.
  3676. "You called?"
  3677. > "Yes."
  3678. > Anonymous turns from his computer, grabbing his phone.
  3679. > "I wanted to show you something. Here, come over."
  3680. > You do, rearing up to place your forehooves on the chair's armrest to peer at the phone's screen.
  3681. > It takes you a moment to realize the full implication of what you see.
  3682. > Flurry Heart, eyes sparkling happily and smiling - that is obvious.
  3683. > The lap she rests on, the neatly-pressed pants - that it takes you a moment longer to recognize as the same one just a few scant inches from your muzzle now.
  3684. > Breath catches in your throat as the full weight of what you are seeing bears down on you.
  3685. > She - your daughter, your beautiful filly - is here.
  3686. > Here.
  3687. > No more than a hundred feet in any direction.
  3688. > Coat prickling, you struggle to restrain yourself.
  3689. > Every urge, every neuron is urging you to take off now and tear the house apart until you can find her, gather her into your hooves and never allow her to leave your side again.
  3690. "I..."
  3691. > "Cadance."
  3692. > A hand on the back of your neck breaks the vortex of emotion you'd been sucked into.
  3693. > "Easy, Cadance."
  3694. > Eyes dragging up, you rip them away from the image to settle on your owner.
  3695. > Anonymous smiles softly, knowing the connection has been made in your mind.
  3696. > "Yes, she's here. Perfectly fine and quite happy, too."
  3697. "She - is -"
  3698. > Your tongue seems swollen and heavy.
  3699. > Unable to form the words you need.
  3700. > "Cadance. Are you still with me?"
  3701. > Swallowing, you squeeze your eyes shut and try to focus.
  3702. "I - I am."
  3703. > "Good."
  3704. > His hand, stroking back along your mane, gives you something to focus on.
  3705. > It's a not totally wanted touch, but that only makes it easier to focus on.
  3706. > "Now. I know you had decided that you would not see her for some time yet, but right now I am going to give you a choice: You've been doing well enough that I could overrule that decision and take you to meet her in the future. If you decide you want that."
  3707. > 'If you decide you want that'?
  3708. > How could he ever ask that?!
  3709. > Was this a test of your loyalty, your dedication?
  3710. > And yet, in the end, you know there is only one answer to that question.
  3711. " I - I knew what I was saying when I made that ruling. Being separated from her makes me no different than any other pony here who has lost a colt or filly."
  3712. > Anonymous pats you lightly, and you swallow.
  3713. "But I have to ask... what are you planning on doing with her now?"
  3714. > The subtle touch of anger you feel at having to ask what someone would do with your daughter is carefully smothered.
  3715. > "I'm going to keep her in the house for a while. She'll stay with the house staff-"
  3716. > Staff, he called them, as if that somehow changed the reality that those ponies were in bondage.
  3717. > "-and take a little while getting familiar with the house. Then we can get her started on her real duties; I frankly doubt she's received any education, so it might be good to give her a little tutoring in reading and arithmetic."
  3718. "From you?"
  3719. > "Mocha Cream is looking after her. My maid, you remember?"
  3720. > Of course - the little brown-and-tan mare who you'd met in his bathroom.
  3721. "Yes, I do. She... seems like a good pony."
  3722. > An awkward silence stretches after that, which Anonymous is only too happy to fill.
  3723. > "She wanted to know if you'd tried to run away."
  3724. > Your throat seems to close up, choking on any answer.
  3725. "I..."
  3726. > "She doesn't seem to remember much, but she very definitely wants to see you again."
  3727. > Your heart wrenches.
  3728. > How could you have been so stupid as to cut yourself off from her as a punishment?
  3729. > Not for your sake, although every bit of your soul yearns to see her, but for her sake.
  3730. "I'm... not surprised. She was so young... I sent her away, hiding with some of my subjects. I'd hoped it would be easier to hide a filly than a full-grown alicorn..."
  3731. > Head hanging, you stare at the floor - nostrils flared as you try and scent out any hint of that long-lost scent.
  3732. > If there was any lingering, however, it was far to mixed with the other scents in the room.
  3733. "I was a coward. I didn't want to see her torn away from me, so I sent her away..."
  3734. > Abruptly Anonymous' hand slips beneath your chin, lifting your head with a soft touch.
  3735. > "Well, until you can be reunited... I will look after her well."
  3736. > A part of you knows that he has very much self-serving reasons for saying that.
  3737. > That his holding Flurry Heart is what keeps you from ushering every single pony in this camp to freedom, no matter what else he would do to you.
  3738. > And yet, you can't help but feel an immediate and deep gratefulness.
  3739. "Thank you... Master."
  3740. > That thought quickly sours as the day's earlier conundrum bubbles up in your mind again.
  3741. "Ah, though... there is something else I should mention...."
  3742. > Anonymous' face darkens as you explain, growing especially stormy as you dance around the issue of the rumors that had sprung up.
  3743. > "That's a problem, Cadance. Especially with the new stock arriving..."
  3744. "I know. Celestia help me, I know."
  3745. > "I still trust you to do your job as a leader, and you've Thunderlane to work with now as well. Do you have a plan if you catch whoever is responsible for this?"
  3746. "I can't try and enforce the way ponies think, Anonymous. If they actually damage the camp, damage your property - then I can stop them. But until then, trying to dictate what they think is just going to generate more resistance."
  3747. > Anonymous grimaces, nodding.
  3748. > "Sometimes, I admit, I wonder if giving you that kind of authority this early on was a good thing... but I'll hold you to that if it does become something bigger."
  3749. "I know."
  3750. > Besides, your reputation - and neck - were already on the line with the way these rumors were heading.
  3751. > "Good. In the meantime, you're going to have to put on another performance for me."
  3752. > That... doesn't sound reassuring.
  3753. "Yes, Master?"
  3754. > "I'm going to be hosting a dinner in the near future. A meeting of several entrepreneurs like myself. You're going to be the centerpiece of my success, which means you are going to be there all night and -"
  3755. > He raises a finger to tap your muzzle lightly, provoking a mildly annoyed scrunch.
  3756. > "-on your best behavior."
  3757. " behavior, right."
  3758. > "They'll be looking to invest money in my activities, which is going to be awkward enough considering that stunt you pulled recently. Unfortunately, they're very insistent on the meeting and frankly I need the cash right now."
  3759. "So you're expecting me to play this as some kind of... repentance."
  3760. > "Unless you want me to have to cut off that cash I agreed to put towards your projects: Yes."
  3761. > Leaning back in his chair, Anonymous folds his arms and regards you neutrally.
  3762. > "I am, frankly, convincing them that the level of independence I've given you is a good thing. Some of them may not be inclined to be as... pleasant as I am towards you. Fortunately, as best as I can tell nobody has figured out that it was my shell company that acquired your daughter, so they can be kept well away from her."
  3763. > But would not be, the implied threat seems to say, if you would not be there to entertain them instead.
  3764. > "So, you'll be doing everything you can to ensure their visit is a good one."
  3765. "I will, of course. I hope none of the performance required from me will be too... wanton."
  3766. > It takes a moment for Anonymous to catch your meaning, but his own nose wrinkles and lightning sparks in his eyes when he does.
  3767. > "God, no, Cadance! I can't just whore out a random pony to a guest, even in this state."
  3768. "Thank Celestia..."
  3769. > The oath was murmured beneath your breath, but even so Anonymous catches it.
  3770. > "She's not to be thanked anymore. Her time is passed."
  3771. "...fine. What will I have to do, anyhow?"
  3772. > "Greet them at the door. Lead them anywhere they need to go. Deliver food, answer requests, tell them about what I've been doing, and generally be the picture-perfect example of an obedient slave. Oh, and I'll be have a proper outfit for you."
  3773. > Of course.
  3774. > Your mind instantly wonders what exactly what the 'proper' outfit for a captive alicorn is.
  3775. > Ignoring some of the more... licentious depictions of royals taken prisoner - a few so-called 'novels' had slipped into your reading back when you were Princess of Love - there was still something deeply humiliating about it.
  3776. "Well, it's not like debasing myself for others' enjoyment isn't a familiar order."
  3777. > "Har, har."
  3778. > Anonymous regards you with a flat gaze.
  3779. > "Just remember, Cadance, that your success is tied to the well-being of all my property."
  3780. "I doubt I could forget if I tried."
  3781. > "Hmm. Well, at least this will be off by then, so we can avoid any questions about... that."
  3782. > He gestures, indicating his bandaged arm, and make a small noise of agreement.
  3783. "Best."
  3784. > "I'll have a few profiles of the big names who'll be there sent down to you. You'd best learn them; I expect you to know each and every one in detail when they come."
  3785. "...yes, Master."
  3786. > "Back to work, then."
  3787. > That's your leave, and you're all too eager to take it.
  3788. > There are ponies out there who are relying on you.
  3789. > Mentally occupied with scheduling the remainder of your day, you've just stepped out of Anonymous' manor and are circling around it back towards the camp when a sudden noise catches your ears sending them swivelling.
  3790. > Seconds later your brain catches it too, and you nearly plant your muzzle into the ground as the foalish squeal of laughter hits you.
  3791. > That laugh...
  3792. > It'd been so long - so incredibly long - but you could never forget her laugh.
  3793. > Not since the first day one bubbled out of her.
  3794. > Standing firmly planted in place, eyes wide and nostrils flared as you suck deep, hard lungfuls of air, you're barely aware of the trembling that's overtaken you.
  3795. > So close - your daughter must be no more than literally feet from you.
  3796. > A few steps, to peer in the windows and lay eyes on her again.
  3797. > That's all it'd take.
  3798. > That's all...
  3799. >
  3800. > Squeezing your eyes closed to curtail the tears that threaten to spill from them, you force your hooves into motion again.
  3801. > Carrying you away from the temptation - away from the hope.
  3802. > Cold logic dictates that you cannot break your oath, that much is true.
  3803. > But cold logic wrenches your heart until it aches, deep within your ribs.
  3804. > By the time you look up again, you're nearly at the 'town hall'.
  3805. > Mayor Mare calls out when you enter:
  3806. > "Ah, Your Highness! It's good that you're back; there's something here you really need to-"
  3807. > Eyes finally taking note of your lowered posture, her ears fall and tail droops.
  3808. > "What is wrong, Cadance? Anonymous did not-"
  3809. "No. No, nothing is - he didn't do anything. I did this to myself."
  3810. > Swallowing hard, you force your head to rise.
  3811. "What is it, Mayor?"
  3812. > "You..."
  3813. > Still she seems to hesitate.
  3814. "Please, Mayor. I am hurting, yes, but what better way for healing it than to help others?"
  3815. > "Not - not this time."
  3816. > Still she steps out from behind her desk, leading you into her office.
  3817. > Tapping the door lightly with a hoof, she calls in cautiously:
  3819. "Cadance is here now. Can we come in?"
  3820. > "Y-Yes..."
  3821. > The voice that answers is raw from tears and pain, but still manages.
  3822. > Cracking the door open, you're met by a white-coated pegasus - her similarly lightly hued mane plastered to her head and cheers streaked from tears.
  3823. > Thunderlane sits beside her, a wing stretched out over her back.
  3824. > She was one of the new arrivals, you thought, although you hadn't spoken to her directly yet.
  3825. > Putting on your farest smile, you lean down to nuzzle her cheek gently.
  3826. "Hello there, my little pony. I am Cadance. Can I ask your name?"
  3827. > "V-Vapor... Vapor Trail..."
  3828. > That'd definitely been her voice who'd called out.
  3829. > She's clearly been crying quite hard.
  3830. "And what can I do to help you, Vapor Trail?"
  3831. > "I'm... pregnant."
  3832. > Her simple declaration plows into your plan to comfort and calm her like a Yak set loose in a glasswares shop.
  3833. > "She came over from the medical clinic. They noticed while giving her a basic checkup, and she fled - came looking for you."
  3834. > Thunderlane's addition barely registers, but still you nod just to show him that you are listening.
  3835. > A moment later he dumbly adds:
  3836. > "She's fast."
  3837. "I... they will tell Anonymous. He will need to be told."
  3838. > "No!"
  3839. > Vapor Trail's shriek brings your ears down again.
  3840. > "No - don't tell him, please please please don't tell him..."
  3841. "I... okay. Nopony tells him right now. How did this happen, Vapor?"
  3842. > Now it is her turn to hang her head, and though she mumbles out her answer you get the gist of it.
  3843. > Coltfriend at her last owner's, a night spent together when she hadn't realized she was in season yet, sold to fund a replacement slave when her owner had realized a mouth he could not feed was on the way...
  3844. > "...if you tell the owner, he'll... he'll..."
  3845. > Here she stumbles, and you nod in full understanding.
  3846. > How many owners would abandon a slave who would soon be unable to work full time - if at all?
  3847. > Very few, you suspected, had proper nurseries for taking care of newborn foals.
  3848. > Some markets would even... stop their mares from foaling, if it would be too problematic to shift them.
  3849. > Vapor was lucky to not have suffered that fate, you thought; she was so early on into her pregnancy it must have slipped by their doctors.
  3850. > But not the pony physicians in the medical clinic here, who both knew what to look for and cared enough to actually examine her.
  3851. > Taking a place at her side opposite Thunderlane - likewise wrapping her in the comforting weight of your wing - you lean over to rest your chin atop her head.
  3852. "I have never, ever known Anonymous to be that cruel, Vapor Trail. He would not abandon you, nor would he ever allow a foal to be ended-"
  3853. > Thunderlane stiffens, Vapor Trail heaves out a fresh sob, Mayor Mare winces, and too late you realize your mistake in your estimation of the situation.
  3854. > "I can't..."
  3855. > Another cry erupts from her throat.
  3856. > "I can't bring a foal into this. I can't - can't give them this life."
  3857. > Shaking, you turn away.
  3858. > Anonymous... would not be pleased.
  3859. > He truly never had forced a pony to end their pregnancy.
  3860. > Quite the contrary, there'd always been mild encouragement for ponies to... grow the size of his property.
  3861. > Indeed, the camp's clinic did not even have the proper drugs freely stored; if a pony was endangered by their foal, Anonymous would always have the drugs released on his authority.
  3862. > And this was, strictly speaking, not a need.
  3863. "I... Anonymous will have to be told. If we ask the doctors to do it quietly and world leaks out-."
  3864. > "No!"
  3865. > Vapor Trail latches onto your leg, clutching it in a fearsome grip of her own two forelegs locked around it.
  3866. > "No, please, please! The - the doctors, they could lie, you could tell them to-"
  3867. "I'm sorry, Vapor. Even if they did, if somepony told and Anonymous heard..."
  3868. > Your gentle murmur does little to calm her; the pegasus gives another harsh, raw cry.
  3869. > Leaning down, you brush the tip of your muzzle across her head - nosing through her mane and down to her withers, like a mother would groom her foal.
  3870. "Shh..."
  3871. > Dropping to your haunches, you lightly press on her back until Vapor sinks to the floor as well.
  3872. > Joining her in dropping prone you continue to lightly groom the back of her neck.
  3873. "Listen to me now, Vapor. Anonymous is not the cruelest master, and this is not the absolute worst place for your foal."
  3874. > Her mouth opens, but you cut her off before she can cry out again:
  3875. "And you can trust me when I say that, because my own filly is here too. In fact, I just found right before I came here."
  3876. > "R-Really?"
  3877. "Yes, really. She's staying with Anonymous in his home, and even though I haven't even seen her myself I trust that she is safe and sound."
  3878. > "B-But she's a s-slave..."
  3879. > Vapor Trail's objection doesn't have quite as much energy to it - your gentle actions are calming her, however un-reassuring your words might be.
  3880. "Yes, she is. And yes - I do dearly, dearly wish she was not and would give up... so very, very much to see her return home safely."
  3881. > "What about-"
  3882. "Vapor Trail. Please, listen to what I am saying. I know this hurts, but please listen: I understand how much it hurts to see your own child become property. Celestia help me, I know - but things are what they are, and I am dedicated to seeing everypony here live the best life they can."
  3883. > After a moment's thought you add more softly:
  3885. "And, frankly, I believe Anonymous may see that as well. Things are getting better here; in a few years this may be, as strange as it may sound, one of the better places to raise a foal."
  3886. > "The best place is Equestria. Home."
  3887. "I know, Vapor. I know."
  3888. > Giving one last brush down the length of her neck with your muzzle, you lay your head down atop her own.
  3889. "I will still go to Anonymous and ask him if you can. He really has been trying to make things better. Maybe this... this would be a way to show he really does care."
  3890. > Thunderlane - standing a distance, aloof yet obviously listening with one ear tilted towards your conversation - makes a small noise of agreement.
  3891. > "And what if he says no?"
  3892. "Then..."
  3893. > Then you face yet another pony who'd had everything taken from them by this miserable state of existence.
  3894. "...then we will see what we can do to ensure you are not overworked as the foal comes."
  3895. > Shudders run through Vapor Trail's body, but she does not cry out.
  3896. "In the meantime... in the meantime, we need to find you somewhere proper to stay."
  3897. > Would it be better to give her one of the quieter, individual dormitory rooms - a place for just herself and a roommate, some space for her to think?
  3898. > Or better for her to be around other ponies to potentially distract her mind from her growing belly?
  3899. > The former, you decide, at least in part because there you could pair her with another long-time... resident, a trusted one who could attest to what was being done to improve the camp.
  3900. > It might not entirely settle her mind, but it would help.
  3901. "But - you do have to go back to the medical building and let them finish looking you over."
  3902. > Squirming softly, Vapor Trail shakes her head - a nervous tremor added to her voice.
  3903. > "Please, I don't want them to know - not just yet..."
  3904. "It's better to let these things be known, Vapor. Please, trust me on this - no one is going to shackle you in a stall until the foal comes, but hiding things... it's not a good idea."
  3905. > She doesn't sound convinced, but rises anyhow when you lift your head from her.
  3906. "Thunderlane, can you look after her?"
  3907. > "Not if I want to get any work done, but I'll get Basalt Pillar to look after her. He's another good pony on the Watch."
  3908. > Mayor Mare at last takes action as well, gently leading Vapor Trail from the room.
  3909. > As she disappears through the door, you murmur to Thunderlane:
  3910. "Will she be alright?"
  3911. > "In all honesty, Your Highness... you know better than I. I've never sired a foal; I've never been with a mare through this. She was truly hysterical when she realized she was going to be examined, though. And fast."
  3912. "...I see..."
  3913. > Still staring at the empty doorway, you heave a soft sigh.
  3914. > "Will Anonymous let her...?"
  3915. "I don't know. He never would have before, but he truly has changed some I think."
  3916. > "The business with Corona."
  3917. > You shudder, but from Thunderlane the words don't have the same accusing sting they might otherwise.
  3918. "Yes. That. I think it really got to him."
  3919. > "Let's hope. I'll go to him tomorrow."
  3921. > A thunderstorm rolls in that night, lightning snapping through the sky left and right with loud, close, and fierce peals of thunder following close behind.
  3922. > The first harbinger of what was to come as the weather shifted through towards winter.
  3923. > It isn't that which wakes you up - that would be your full bladder - but as you stumble back to bed somewhere close to two in the morning a bolt of lightning sends an illuminating flash through your darkened room.
  3924. > And reveals, huddled next to your bed in the split second when everything was bright as day, a tiny and decidedly equine form.
  3925. > Squinting your bleary eyes, you rub at them with one hand and hazard a tentative guess.
  3926. "...'lurry?"
  3927. > The form gives a terrified squeak, hurling itself from the floor and scrambling on unsteady hooves that rake across the room's carpeting.
  3928. > "I'm sorry, sorry, sorry!"
  3929. "Flurry, stop!"
  3930. > To her credit, she does - one hoof raised to the doorknob.
  3931. "...come here."
  3932. > Visibly nervous even when you can see little more than a blurry, darkened outline Flurry does, stopping in front of your bed.
  3933. > "Y-Yes, Master?"
  3934. "...what are you doing in my room? I told you to get familiar with yours."
  3935. > "I can't sleep, Master..."
  3936. > Flurry Heart's mumbled admission is given with head hung.
  3937. "Why not, the thunder?"
  3938. > "Yes, Master. It... when it rained before I was always too wet to sleep, so I can't now..."
  3939. "Too... wet?"
  3940. > "Yes, Master. If my last owner forgot to take us back inside, we were still on our posts or-"
  3941. > Your question doesn't come from lack of understanding why she couldn't sleep, but from questioning what kind of true moron would leave her out in the rain.
  3942. > Groaning, you slump down into the bed and rub your bare arms; the storm had brought with it a mild chill that now penetrated the manor.
  3943. > Honestly, you didn't mind - the covers were more than adequate - but you hadn't planned on being beyond their protective warmth this long and the shorts you wore just weren't enough to compensate for a lack of a shirt or pants.
  3944. "So, uh, you couldn't sleep. And you came up to camp out next to my bed?"
  3945. > "Y-Yes, Master. I was thinking I could sleep-"
  3946. > Comfort.
  3947. > She'd just been seeking comfort.
  3948. > "I - um - I... I'm sorry I disobeyed, and, um... I thought I'd go back to my room in the morning before you got up, and - and please don't cook me, Master!"
  3949. "It's just a sto-"
  3950. > Cook her?
  3951. "-cook you?!"
  3952. > "Y-Yes, Master."
  3953. "I'm not - what could possibly make you think I would cook you?!"
  3954. > If possible, her voice turns even more thin and tenuous.
  3955. > "M-My old Master said th-the ponies who didn't o-obey and went away were g-getting c-c-cooked, and if I disobeyed-"
  3956. "No - just - augh! Nobody's going to cook you, Flurry. God, I've never heard something so disgusting... Look, it's just a storm, Flurry. Go back to bed, and nothing needs to come of this."
  3957. > Halfway through climbing back beneath the covers, you realize she hasn't moved.
  3958. > "Um..."
  3959. "What is it, Flurry?"
  3960. > "C-Could I stay with-"
  3961. > Oh, God.
  3962. > The familiar question of children everywhere, and one you thought you'd long since heard the last of.
  3963. > As you open your mouth to answer, another bolt of lightning reveals her for you again - the filly's tear-streaked cheeks and still terrified expression.
  3964. > You had been snapping at her a bit, hadn't you?
  3965. > That was what happened when you were suddenly woken at 2 AM, after all.
  3966. > And yet even so, she still wanted to stay with you.
  3967. > Sighing softly, you hold up the edge of the covers.
  3968. "...yeah. Get in up here."
  3969. > An excited squeak overcomes even her urge to say 'yes, master' - the bed squeaking slightly as she bounds up onto it and surprisingly quickly burrows down beneath the covers next to you.
  3970. > Two things immediately become clear:
  3971. > One, she is frigid - the cold air having implanted an icy chill onto her coat.
  3972. > Two, she has absolutely no qualms about being close to you despite the sweat-shorts being the only thing you wear.
  3973. > She truly was innocent, you think as Flurry's widely-beaming muzzle emerges from the covers next to you, seeing no issue with laying against your bare skin.
  3974. > Truly you were nothing more than a welcome protector, a point of comfort for her.
  3975. > At least they had not taken that innocence from her.
  3976. > And, to some degree, you can't help but feel a small smile come to your lips as she lays her chin down against your side.
  3977. > "W-We always slept close together like this when I was with the other ponies... I hope you don't mind, Master."
  3978. > Not one bit.
  3979. > As an answer you reach up and begin to stroke along her spine - feeling the ridges of muscle that supported her outsized wings.
  3980. > Flurry Heart nuzzles your shoulder and expels a soft nicker-sigh.
  3981. "Going to be able to sleep now?"
  3982. > "Y-Yes, Master. Thank you."
  3983. "Good."
  3984. > Laying your head down, your eyes are half-closed when Flurry Heart mumbles out a soft question:
  3985. > "Master?"
  3986. "...yes, Flurry?"
  3987. > "Why aren't all masters good like you?"
  3988. > What is it with children asking questions like that at the worst moments?
  3989. > And for that matter, what the hell do you tell someone who asks that?
  3990. > Especially a pony who'd been neglected as she had, not out of any maliciousness or cruelty but seemingly by simple apathy and stupidity.
  3991. "Flurry, I'm not as good a Master as you think. I've made many mistakes in the past, both with people and with ponies. Even now, I still make mistakes - but I'm trying to be better and fix things that I did."
  3992. > She seems to think that over for quite a while before replying:
  3993. > "You've been good to me."
  3994. > It is, you think, the closest she could possibly get to saying that you were lying without actually saying so directly - something Flurry would never dare do.
  3995. > The most she could say without implying you - her Master - were being untruthful.
  3996. "Maybe. Maybe instead I've just been thoughtful... because, honestly, the masters you've had? I don't think they were hateful. They just... didn't care, because it's easy to not care, to not bother knowing you and what you want."
  3997. > Your fingers seek out the lines of muscle that support her neck, drawing a soft coo from the alicorn filly.
  3998. "I care for my property, Flurry. You'll be mine, and I won't ever stop caring for you."
  3999. > "Yes, master."
  4000. > You can feel Flurry Heart's soft breaths puffing against your skin.
  4001. > Her voice is growing sleepier under your soft ministrations, body draped limply despite the ongoing thunder.
  4002. "Now, go to sleep. In the morning... well, there'll be plenty to do. We'll have to get you fitted for a proper collar. But we can think about that then."
  4003. > "Will it be a pretty collar, master?"
  4004. "I imagine so."
  4005. > You chuckle softly, knowing the proclivities of the one who'd be making the final decision on it.
  4006. > "I'd like that, master."
  4007. > The words are mumbled so softly as to be almost indecipherable.
  4008. > Soon all there is to be felt from her is the occasional feather-brush of an exhale against your skin.
  4009. > ...ironically now it is you who cannot sleep.
  4010. > Awake, you lay resting - listening to the soft rush of rain beating on the windows, the occasional lightning-flicker and rumbling crash of the world outside.
  4011. > Though one window you could, if you raised your head, see the edge of the ponies' town - a blurry mess of wavering lights, distorted by the running water.
  4012. > A single point of light drifted through the streets - the distant searching lamplight of a watchpony circling the perimeter.
  4013. > You did care for them; you were certain of this.
  4014. > Not just in what you'd done to reform the guard, but even more basic things - in how many places could a slave stay with their sire or dam, enjoy hot meals regularly cooked by their own kind, express their talents in day to day life?
  4015. > Some ponies lead easier lives, surely - those who belonged to owners who held only a few, who sometimes forgot that they were property and not family.
  4016. > But you were not in a position to do that for all of them, nor frankly were any other large work farms.
  4017. > Many, in fact, got far less - especially in this state.
  4018. > And yet, despite the undeniable benefits of your ownership relative to what otherwise might be expected, they still seemed so hesitant to confide in you.
  4019. > Certainly the frankly disgusting abuses that had crept into the guard contributed some, but they had never tried to alert you to what was occurring either...
  4020. > Sighing, you let your fingers brush across one downy wing of the pony curled sleeping beside you.
  4021. > Why couldn't more masters be like you, she'd asked.
  4022. > Why, you wonder, couldn't your property be more like Flurry was?
  4023. > Perhaps in another couple of generations.
  4024. > ...
  4025. > That your window is tilted away from the rising sun does little to protect it from the morning's rays.
  4026. > Flurry Heart is still utterly unconscious, but you stir as light begins to fill the room.
  4027. > Barely have you rung the buzzer beside your bed when the door cracks open and Mocha Cream nervously tip-toes in, her eyes downcast and expression obviously traumatized.
  4028. "Good morning, Mocha."
  4029. > "G-Good morning, Master. I... ah..."
  4030. "Look up at me when you are talking, Mocha."
  4031. > Levering yourself upright, you prop up on one elbow and raise one eyebrow.
  4032. > "M-Master, forgive me - Flurry was not in her room this mornin-"
  4033. > Beside you, dragged from sleep at last by your movement, Flurry stirs - raising her head and shoulders in a wide stretching, yawning widely and shuffling her wings before burying her head back against your side and beneath the beneath the mercifully sun-less covers.
  4034. > Drawn perhaps by the sounds of small movement or the low yawn, Mocha's eyes do rise.
  4035. > Just fast enough to catch brief sight of your newest prize as she burrows back down against you.
  4036. > "-aaaah..."
  4037. > Raising a finger to your lips, you drop your voice to a far lower volume.
  4038. "She slipped in last night, during the storm. No fault of yours - I'm not sure how she did it myself."
  4039. > "Thank you, Master."
  4040. > Dropping into a slight bow, Mocha Cream tilts her head.
  4041. > "Will she be staying with you today, or...?"
  4042. "No, she needs to meet her mistress. She should be arriving later in the morning, so there's plenty of time if you think there's more to teach Flurry."
  4043. > "No, Master. Not today, at least. There is, um.. there is going to be a lot more for her to learn if you want her to be a full servant for-"
  4044. "That's fine; there'll be time for that. As soon as she is up and you've done everything for me you'll take her back downstairs and get her ready."
  4045. > "Of course, Master."
  4046. > Turning aside, you brush a single finger over the tip of Flurry's muzzle.
  4047. > She scrunches up mightily at the touch, then cracks her eyes open - going slightly crosseyed as she tries to track the offending digit.
  4048. "Good morning there, little Heart."
  4049. > "Good morning, Ma-"
  4050. > Abruptly Flurry tenses as the reality of where she still is crashes down on her.
  4051. > "Oh no. Ohnononono, I was going to go in the morn-"
  4052. "Easy there! It's okay - I'm not upset; I told you to stay here."
  4053. > Sighing in relief, she drops her head down against your side again.
  4055. "But, you did give Mocha Cream quite the scare. I think you need to apologize to her."
  4056. > Promptly clambering up again, Flurry circles around to you other side - walking down to your legs, rather than step over your chest - and seats herself on the edge of the bed, ears drooping.
  4057. > "I'm sorry, Miss Mocha. I didn' mean to scare you - I, um..."
  4058. > She glances back to you, seemingly reticent to explain why she'd found herself in your room.
  4059. "The storm - it spooked her; she couldn't sleep."
  4060. > Sitting up yourself, you slip an arm around Flurry; she puts on a noticeably embarrassed expression at your explanation, but leans into your side and nuzzles your ribs anyhow.
  4061. > Grin growing even wider, you scratch lightly at the spot directly between her wings.
  4062. > Mocha actually looks... mildly jealous at the affection?
  4063. "Yes, she's a good pony. But even good ponies have to get started on the day. Mocha, lay my clothes out and bring breakfast up, if you haven't already. Flurry, you will be eating downstairs with Mocha."
  4064. > ...
  4065. > "Master?"
  4066. > Mocha's head creeps in through the study door, circling around to try and find you as she calls with a soft voice.
  4067. > Holding up a single finger, you hush her long enough to finish your phone call:
  4068. "...yes, I fully understand that I just purchased a tremendous amount of stock. I want you to start scoping out another acquisition; the facilities for them are in place and just gathering dust - no, the funds won't be a problem. Not in a couple weeks, anyway, and I just want to make sure a reputable auctioner can provide that kind of stock. Yes - goodbye."
  4069. > Slapping down the phone, you spin to face her.
  4070. "Yes, Mocha. Is she arrived?"
  4071. > "No, Master. But, ah, Cadance wants to see you."
  4072. > What now?
  4073. > Rubbing your forehead softly, you nod.
  4074. "Send her in, I suppose."
  4075. > "Yes, Master."
  4076. > Soon enough the alicorn appears in your doorway; though her ears are held low and tail nervously flicks a few times, she doesn't seem angry that you can tell.
  4077. "Cadance. How are the new arrivals holding up?"
  4078. > "Well enough. There've been no major injuries, no fights or problems from them. They are in... reasonably good health as far as I know."
  4079. "Excellent!"
  4080. > Clapping your hands together, you rub them thankfully.
  4081. "You've been doing well. If we can pull off that dinner properly - well, then things will finally be righted around here. But - you did come looking to speak to me, so...?"
  4082. > "There is... one particular problem. One of the new arrivals, a mare by the name of Vapor Trail, is pregnant."
  4083. "Oh? How did it happen?"
  4084. > "A coltfriend she spent a night with; she didn't know she was in season yet."
  4085. "...I was afraid it was another case of - well, you know. How is it a problem, then?"
  4086. > "She wants to end it."
  4087. > All other trains come screeching to a halt as those words plow straight into your mental station.
  4088. "Is she at medical risk?"
  4089. > "No."
  4090. "Ill? Infected with something when the foal was conceived?"
  4091. > ""
  4092. > Now you are beginning to frown, uncertain of what Cadance is getting at.
  4093. "Why, then?"
  4094. > "She... does not want to have a foal who will become a slave."
  4095. > That - that's it?
  4096. > Not a life-threatening disease or injury, not a birth defect, but she just didn't want to have a foal here?
  4097. "No. You're asking me to put a pony through a reasonably risk medical operation - she's got to be fairly far along by now - just because she suddenly realized she doesn't like where she is? Hell, this is the best place for a mare like that! I'm not going to throw her in the reject pile because of her foal!"
  4098. > "I know, and I've tried to explain to her - but she is fervent, Anonymous, and I am actually afraid she may harm herself if forced to keep the foal."
  4099. "Nobody it ultimately asking her to keep the foal."
  4100. > Arms folding across your chest, you raise one hand to rest your cheek in.
  4101. > And the day had started so nicely ...
  4103. "Cadance - I understand you're upset. Hell, I understand she's upset. But no - I can't authorize this. She does not have to keep the foal after it is born - there are plenty of others who can raise - but demanding a medical operation is too much."
  4104. > "Something has to be done, Anonymous, or she'll do an 'operation' on herself!"
  4105. "Cadance!"
  4106. > Your sharp tone cuts across her rising voice; the alicorn recoils, cringing as she realizes she yelled at you.
  4107. > "Don't ever try to blackmail me like that. Don't you ever forget what you are, and what I can do if problems are raised."
  4108. > Her teeth are gritted, lips drawing back to reveal her teeth.
  4109. > "Yes, Master."
  4110. > The reply is spit back, every word fired like a bullet.
  4111. > "But don't you dare punish her when-"
  4112. > A soft thud-thud of running boots, resounding even on the carpet, is your only warning before the doors to the study burst open and a whirlwind of golden-blond hair sprints into the room.
  4113. > "Daddy!"
  4114. > Though she must have surely heard footsteps that heralding the child's arrival, the sudden and dramatic appearance spooks Cadance - pulling a startled neigh from her lips.
  4115. "Ooof!"
  4116. > Grunting heavily as the girl leaps onto you, wrapping both your arms tight around her as she clings to your chest, you spin in place laughing heavily.
  4117. "Hey there, sweetheart! Didn't hear that you'd already gotten here!"
  4118. > "Just did it!"
  4119. > Chirping a happy response as she is set down, the girl quickly shrugs off the oversized, tassel-laden jacket she'd been wearing - but carefully puts it on a chair, rather than just tossing it aside.
  4120. > Good, just like you'd taught her.
  4121. "You're getting big, honey! I can't believe it; you almost knocked me over!"
  4122. > Behind her, you can see Cadance watching your daughter with rounded, shocked eyes.
  4123. > The golden-blond hair almost floating in a halo around her head did give her a striking appearance, you know - even for ponies.
  4124. > At last your daughter notices Cadance as well, grin again growing wide as she takes in the alicorn's appearance.
  4125. > "Woah! Is that your pony, daddy? He's huge!"
  4126. > Her cheeks color at the child's mistake,growing even more crimson-tinged when you laugh as well.
  4127. "That's a she, sweetheart. Her name is Cadance. She is mine, yes."
  4128. > "Can I pet her?"
  4129. "Of course!"
  4130. > In those words you, you hope, an order is delivered as clearly as an answer to her question.
  4131. > Evidently Cadance gets it, as she puts on a wide but clearly faked smile and ducks her head to allow your daughter's approach.
  4132. > It is to her considerable seeming surprise that your daughter doesn't simply roughly stroke her back but instead runs her hands gently around Cadance's cheek and behind one ear - a surprisingly pleasant experience, evidently.
  4133. > Before you can speak again, more hoofsteps at the door - this time, Mocha Cream practically tumbling in.
  4134. > "I am terribly sorry, sir! I tried to stop her, but she wouldn't listen to a thing I said and-"
  4135. > It is who comes in behind, Mocha, though, that catches your attention.
  4136. > Evidently confused by the hubbub and simply tagging along behind her assigned guide, Flurry Heart and stumbled through the doorway as well - eyes darting and wings spread to steady herself.
  4137. > You could see the exact second when Cadance drew her head up, following Mocha's voice.
  4138. > Her body went promptly rigid, wings snapping out and nostrils flaring as she draws a deep breath of surprise.
  4139. > Mother and foal lock eyes for the first time in however many years, and you are left with a conundrum.
  4140. > ...well.
  4141. > This certainly wasn't how you'd planned it going.
  4142. > Certainly not how Cadance had planned it, especially after she'd refused seeing Flurry once.
  4143. > But now - no, there's no way to break them apart again.
  4144. > You aren't sure even Cadance would obey if you told her to.
  4145. "Come in, Flurry."
  4146. > With tentative steps she almost tip-toes the rest of the way through the doorway; though one ear pricks towards your voice, Flurry's eyes remain firmly locked on the larger alicorn.
  4147. > And her eyes on Flurry; almost forgetting your daughter's nearness, Cadance reaches out a trembling hoof.
  4148. > "F-F-Flur-"
  4149. > "Momma?"
  4150. > That breaks the tension; Cadance leaps for her daughter, wings and forelegs alike snapping out to scoop the filly up and hold her with the force only a parent thought they'd lost their child can muster up.
  4151. > Both of them are babbling - half crying, almost barely speaking, as they nuzzle with foreheads pressed together and nickering softly to each other.
  4152. > Your own daughter looks slightly lost; with a small smile you beckon her to your own side, seating her on your lap and pulling an arm around her in a gentler mirror of the ponies' actions.
  4153. > "F-Flurry, I'm so so-o-orry. I - I shouldn't have s-sent you away. I d-didn't ever mean it to be this long!"
  4154. > Cadance's cries even leave something stirring in your own chest.
  4155. > "I only m-meant to protect you; I'm so sorry..."
  4156. > Flurry's cries are rather more incoherent - the even greater weeping of a heart that had not just lost her family, but accepted it - only to have this reunion creep up in ambush.
  4157. > Eventually, thought, she rips her eyes from her mother and speaks up in a shaky, trilling voice:
  4158. > "M-Master, we're allowed-"
  4159. "Yes. Both of you are."
  4160. > "D-Does that mean Mommy isn't a bad pony anymore?"
  4161. > Cadance recoils as if shot, disbelief and horror flickering on her face.
  4162. "It means... she's done well enough for this."
  4163. > With a happy squeal Flurry throws herself back against Cadance, but the shock on the elder alicorn's face has not faded.
  4164. > "Bad pony?"
  4165. > Her question is whispered - inaudible to you, only knowable because of your ability to see her lips and from Flurry's reaction.
  4166. > "Master said you were making ponies run away from him..."
  4167. > You hadn't, actually - only that she'd helped them.
  4168. > But Cadance takes it as it is said.
  4169. > Flurry peers up with trembling lip and soft, questioning eyes.
  4170. > "Please don't be a bad pony, momma. I don't want to go away; Master's been so good-"
  4171. > "G-Good..."
  4172. > "I get my own bed! In a fancy room, too - not outside, and not leashed to it. And there's hot food too! And he lets me sleep next to him when I'm scared-"
  4173. > At the enthusiastic declaration of such simple things as reason not to flee, Cadance shudders again.
  4174. > Or perhaps it was the revelation that her daughter had been sleeping next to you, instead of with her own parent.
  4175. > Either way, she sweeps her daughter close to her chest and holds her there again.
  4176. > "No. Never. I will never again send you away. You understand, love? You're here now and I'm never letting you go."
  4177. > Standing yourself, you take your daughter's hand.
  4178. "Honey, let's go get you some food. I'm sure you must be starving after the trip, and you can tell me everything that's been going on."
  4179. > Your eyes are on Cadance, even if your words are not, and the meaning is clear:
  4180. > This was a gift to them, a few minutes of time for mother and daughter alone.
  4181. > When you return - your daughter following close behind you, happily munching on a cookie - the two ponies have moved to the center of the room, laying prone in opposite directions.
  4182. > Flurry rests her head on her mother's flank, eyes closed and nostrils flared as she sucks in Cadance's familiar scent.
  4183. > Her mother, meanwhile, has her muzzle buried in Flurry Heart's expansive wings, giving her what is probably the first real preening from a pony in months.
  4184. > Both rise as you enter, eyes equally watery but any tears long since spent.
  4185. "Well, then."
  4186. > Closing the door, you put a hand on your daughter's shoulder.
  4187. "This is my daughter, Megan. She is going to be staying here a while. Flurry, come here?"
  4188. > Extricating herself from her mother's presence, Flurry does - drawing herself up tall as she approaches.
  4189. "Megan, this is Flurry Heart."
  4190. > "Her wings are huuuuuge."
  4191. > Flushing, Flurry ducks her head beneath one of said wings.
  4192. > Megan squats down, petting the feathered appendages with a cautious hand.
  4193. > "That's super cool!"
  4194. "I'm glad you think so. She's going to be yours, Megan."
  4195. > "Really?!"
  4196. > Both Megan and Flurry had exclaimed at nearly the same moment; Cadance remained quiet, but you could see her lay questioning eyes on your daughter.
  4197. "Yes. Your own pony - your responsibility as well. Eventually she'll even accompany you out of the house, if you take good care of her."
  4198. > "Daddy!"
  4199. > A hefty roll of her eyes,and Megan at last gains the confidence to hug Flurry around her neck.
  4200. > "As if I'd ever not. I can't believe it - my own pony!"
  4201. > The tone she speaks in is one that suggest a simple, astonishing happiness in even that small, simple fact.
  4202. > Her excitement is contagious, and you find yourself smiling as well.
  4203. "Flurry, you will be my daughter's servant and maid and will listen to her orders within reason. But, you will also look after her - making sure she keeps up on her homework and tell me if there are any problems, understand?"
  4204. > Megan sticks out her tongue at you, but it does nothing to diminish her smile.
  4205. > Flurry, on the other hand, is still eager to carry out your orders:
  4206. > "Yes, Master! Um - do I still sleep in my own bed, or...?"
  4207. "Of course; the one you've been using in Megan's room is fine. Unless she decides she'd rather have you close, but I don't think that'd be a problem for you."
  4208. > Megan, for her part, gives out a little squeal of happiness - dancing in place and clapping her hands.
  4209. > "Yes! Yes, yes, yes!"
  4210. "Alright, I'm setting you two loose for now. You know the rules - dinner is at six-thirty, so at the very least I'll see you then."
  4211. > "Gotcha!"
  4212. > Leaping up, Megan scurries to your side and again locks you in a fierce hug before departing with Flurry Heart eagerly at her heels..
  4213. > "C'mon, Flurry. I'm gonna show you all my stuff, and you can show me where..."
  4214. > Long after their voices vanish into the distant murmur of the house's activities, Cadance finally shakes herself free of the daze that has settled around her.
  4215. > "I... did not realize you had children, Master. Or were married."
  4216. "I am..."
  4217. > You wave a hand tentatively.
  4218. "...technically. It's a paper marriage at this point."
  4219. > Cadance nods, eyes going distant again.
  4220. > "And... your daughter?"
  4221. "Megan does not stay with me as often as I'd like, so I do treasure my moments with her."
  4222. > "She'll be good to Flurry, though."
  4223. > Setting your mouth in a thin line, you nod.
  4224. "Absolutely. She's always been a bit of a hellion, but I've never tolerated Megan acting like a rotten little thing. She's a good kid - your daughter will do well with her. Thankfully even my 'wife' hasn't been able to ruin her.."
  4225. > The last statement is said under your breath, but Cadance's ear swivels and it is clear that your voice was not anywhere near low enough to hide from her acute equine hearing.
  4226. > Settling yourself in a seat by one enormous window, you pat the side of the chair.
  4227. "I'd understand if you thought that I was being cruel, holding your daughter against you. But I hope you'll understand now - I want the best for her, because I want the best for my little Megs as well."
  4228. > "You told her I was a bad pony."
  4229. > Cadance had settled on her haunches at your side, also looking out the window.
  4230. > Her voice was hollow and shaken.
  4231. > In the yard below, Megan and Flurry burst from one of the doors and took off - sprinting and galloping across the grass in a wild zig-zag.
  4232. "I told her the truth."
  4233. > "You destroyed how she looks at me. I - she yelled at me, Anonymous. Yelled and screamed and I cried and begged her to forgive me..."
  4234. "You sent ponies out to starve, be hunted, and die."
  4235. > Mouth snapping open to spit out a reply, Cadance's eyes catch on her daughter again and she halts herself.
  4236. > Reaching over, you run the back of your fingers through the light fur covering Cadance's cheek.
  4237. "You'll earn her back in time."
  4238. > Her eyes half-shut, Cadance nods.
  4239. > "I have to. She is the only family I have left."
  4240. "Now... as to Vapor Trail. I still cannot authorize what she asks, but - maybe I could come down there and talk to her myself."
  4241. > "If you think that will help."
  4242. "Hopefully. She may yet understand that living under my roof is not as bad as she imagines."
  4243. > "Anonymous-"
  4244. > Cadance pulls from your hand at last, turning to face you.
  4245. > "-Master, I want to tell you this now, so that you understand. I'm not forgetting that you've been better to us than many others would be - I can't forget, after what you did for my Flurry. But I want you to understand - no matter what you do, we are still your property."
  4246. > Your hand had fallen from her cheek, and now curls into a fist.
  4247. > "You've shown you care about our well-being, but we've still been taken from our homes - our freedom stolen from us. We are still property, owned like you would a table or car. And we can't ever forget that either."
  4248. "And at some point you are going to have to come to terms with that fact, Cadance. You do belong to me - so does Vapor Trail. So does every pony here."
  4249. > "We know. But some ponies - like Vapor - aren't ever going to be happy here, because that fact weighs on their mind. No matter what you say or do, they will still know they are slaves. They will still try to flee."
  4250. > Fingernails dig into your palm, but at last you force the fist to open.
  4251. " that as it may, I will still try."
  4252. > ...
  4253. > You had seen Cadance open a clear path to walk through the halls of the medical ward by presence alone.
  4254. > Together, the both of you open a wide chasm.
  4255. > Ponies practically dash to either side out of respect, fear, or both.
  4256. > Vapor Trail turns out to be a light-colored pegasus of strong build.
  4257. > With a discerning eye, you're only just able to spot the swelling around her midsection where the foal had begun to make itself known.
  4258. > Vapor shoots up when you enter - head swiveling between yourself and Cadance, as if unsure of which of you to greet first.
  4259. > "I, ah - Ca - Master-"
  4260. "It's okay, Vapor."
  4261. > Waving in a nurse to follow you into the room, you seat yourself on the bed beside Vapor Trail.
  4262. > Vapor shies away, but Cadance settles herself on Vapor's opposite side.
  4263. "So, Vapor Trail. Cadance has told me about your situation."
  4264. > Vapor's eyes again dart to the alicorn.
  4265. > You aren't sure it is betrayal or relief expressing itself on her face.
  4266. > "Yes."
  4267. "She says you want to end it."
  4268. > Both vapor and the nurse start at the frankness of your words, but Vapor gather herself again.
  4269. > "Yes. I can't - have a foal. Not here."
  4270. "Well..."
  4271. > Sighing gently, you slip an arm around her withers.
  4272. "I'm afraid I can't let them give you the drugs to end it - not here, not now. Not without a risk to you."
  4273. > "I..."
  4274. > Vapor trail swallows, looking down.
  4275. > "I can't..."
  4276. "Vapor Trail - I want you to understand one thing. I do care about my ponies here. Your foal won't be born into a life where I will tolerate any abuse against her. She'll get an education, solid food, a good life..."
  4277. > "A good life?"
  4278. > Cadance's ears prick as the pegasus speaks again.
  4279. "Yes. You can ask Cadance; her own daughter is here too, so she has as much concern for this as you do."
  4280. > "You think that this - this is a good life?"
  4281. "Yes. Look around you, Vapor; you're in a reasonably well-equipped medical clinic, you've had a solid roof over your head since the moment you got here. There'll be other foals for friends-"
  4282. > "She'll be a slave."
  4283. > "Vapor..."
  4284. > Cadance's warning tone goes ignored.
  4285. > "My foal will never even know the life of flying free. She'll never sleep away a day on a cloud, challenge herself for her own sake, dance through the liquid rainbows in Cloudsdale."
  4286. > "Vapor!"
  4287. > "She'll be 'educated' in lies to make her complacent, given food so she can bend her back to you. No - whether or not I get the drugs, no matter what it takes, I won't give my foal that 'good life'."
  4288. > Again your hand folds into a fist.
  4289. > This - this was the exact kind of attitude that infuriated you the most.
  4290. > Not a pony who you'd done anything against, who had even been harmed by a previous master.
  4291. > Yet, she still stood against you.
  4292. "So you want to what - murder your own unborn foal? For what? To spite me? To state your own sense of morality?"
  4293. > Vapor Trail recoils, and you give her a moment to let your words sink in before pressing your attack:
  4294. "Now, humans and ponies may think differently, but choosing such a cowardly way out disgusts me. You have a child, a miniature extension of yourself, growing inside you. And you want to kill it."
  4295. > Shooting upright, Vapor Trail locks eyes with you - her glare every bit as fiery as your own.
  4296. > "I want to give my foal the only freedom I can! Every day - every day I see ponies crushed under the weight of what you're doing to us, and there's nothing I can do about it! It's a slow death - and I'd rather she never live than die like that!"
  4297. "That's exactly why I'm trying to make things better here! There's no need to condemn ponies to a death like that - hell, there's not even any benefit in it for me!"
  4298. > "You think this is any better? That you aren't grinding us down into compliance? Your cage is as much a cage as anywhere else."
  4299. > Collapsing back down, she nearly falls from the bed until Cadance catches her with a wing.
  4300. > "This is still slavery. And I will not have her be part of it."
  4301. > Lips drawing back into a snarl, you feel your hand tightening into a fist again.
  4302. > "Anonymous..."
  4303. > Cadance.
  4304. > Of course she'd be concerned.
  4305. > But she had warned you, hadn't she?
  4306. > Turning away, you spit out your reply:
  4307. "Fine. Cadance, have her watched to make sure she doesn't harm herself."
  4308. > Striding out the door, you send ponies scurrying from the cloud of fury that hangs over you.
  4309. > Soon enough hurried hoofsteps creep up behind you, and then Cadance is pacing at your side again.
  4310. > "Anonymous, Master - what are you going to do to her? You can't keep her locked away or constantly supervised for the next seven months-"
  4311. "I know!"
  4312. > You snap at Cadance, pausing to spin and face her.
  4313. > Looking around, you decide there are few enough ponies within earshot to have this conversation.
  4314. "Yes, I can't keep her just shackled up... wouldn't exactly help how I'm viewed by all the others, too."
  4315. > "Even if you put a watchpony on her..."
  4316. > Grimacing, you lean against the wall and rub your forehead.
  4317. "Do it. For now, at least, until she calms down. One of the nurses."
  4318. > "And her foal?"
  4319. "She doesn't have to raise it, but I can't have her losing it."
  4320. > Not to mention what message that might send to the other slaves...
  4321. > You should've let Cadance handle this on her own, honestly.
  4322. > Though you loved her, your own daughter had taught you all the pains that come with raising a child.
  4323. > There was no need to get wrapped up in pony families-
  4324. > Families.
  4325. > Snapping your fingers, you point to Cadance.
  4326. "Find Derpy Hooves."
  4327. > "Derpy-"
  4328. "Yes, Derpy. And have her meet me-"
  4329. > On second thought, better not.
  4330. > Your plan might be overheard and revealed - or worse, if you met her in a private place, imagination would invent things far worse than reality.
  4331. > Best to keep suspicion at a minimum.
  4332. "Actually, you'd better be the one to speak to her."
  4333. > Cadance tilts her head slightly, clearly uncertain of your intentions.
  4334. > Slipping into a nearby room, shut the door after Cadance - hopefully leaving the two of you to speak undisturbed for the moment.
  4335. > "What exactly do you want me to do, Anonymous?"
  4336. > ...evidently Cadance believes you are alone as well, if she is addressing you by name.
  4337. "Derpy still has a daughter in the camp. Used to have two."
  4338. > Cadance winces softly, but nods.
  4339. > There'd been no word of the one who'd fled; whether she'd made it beyond state lines or was laying cold in a ditch was beyond your knowledge.
  4340. "I think she may be able to convince Vapor Trail to keep the foal."
  4341. > "By telling her... what? That life is good in the camp?"
  4342. "By telling her that there is hope. That it is possible for a foal to be free. That if she tries something now, it will only lead to trouble - but if she waits..."
  4343. > The look of utter shock on Cadance's face is matched by the tone of her voice.
  4344. > "W-What?! You want to encourage Vapor Trail to rebel? Are you setting her up-"
  4345. "I'm setting her up for nothing, Cadance. She's hysterical right now, completely unreasonable. Maybe it's the hormones, maybe the transfer to a new owner. Maybe both. This'll give her time - give us both time - to cool our heads and reconsider."
  4346. > "And if she does try to flee with her foal?"
  4347. "Do you think a pony who cares that much would risk her foal in an escape attempt?"
  4348. > "If she is hysterical..."
  4349. "Then some time to reconsider will do her good."
  4350. > Kneeling down, you cup Cadance's cheek with an open palm and match her eyes easily.
  4351. "I trust you can do this. You want Vapor Trail safe and sound as much as I do, Cadance."
  4352. > "Yes, but..."
  4353. > She flinches, eyes falling.
  4354. > "...I am afraid of what will happen if she can't be calmed. If she does try something foolish."
  4355. "Afraid of what I will do?"
  4356. > "No - what I will have to."
  4358. > "Miss Cadance?"
  4359. > The wall-eyed pegasus peeks around a door, calling nervously into your 'office'.
  4360. "Ah - come in, Derpy."
  4361. > She does, slipping the rest of the way through the door with nervous, halting gait.
  4362. > Not bothering to seat herself at the opposite side of the desk, she instead circles around and stands just in front of your seat - neither eye managing to land on you.
  4363. "How are you, Derpy? It's been far too long."
  4364. > "I've -"
  4365. > Her head twists around, nosing at her barrel where ruffles in her coat still show the places you'd laid the whip across her back.
  4366. > "-I've been okay. They still hurt sometimes, but I think I'm just imagining it."
  4367. > Your heart feels squeezed in your chest, compressed between your ribs.
  4368. "...I'm sorry, Derpy. I... I don't have any excuse for what I did to you-"
  4369. > "Yes! Yes you do!"
  4371. > Stomping her hoof softly, Derpy finally manages to bring her eyes - or one, at least - to rest on you.
  4372. > "I knew exactly what I was doing. You did too, Your Highness! And I know you wouldn't be any crueler than he forced you to, because you helped us too!"
  4373. "Yes, but-"
  4374. > "But nothing!"
  4375. > Derpy reaches around to nose at your own back - at the ruffles in your own coat.
  4376. > "You were whipped too, Your Highness. You were with us, not against us."
  4377. > A shudder runs through your body - memories of the fog of agony and time seeming to slow to a crawl between the blows.
  4378. > How had she ever managed when you'd whipped her?
  4379. > At least you had the benefit of your alicorn constitution; Derpy had no such thing.
  4380. > Leaning in, you brush your nose through her mane.
  4381. > She smells, you conclude with a start, like baking.
  4382. "Thank you, Derpy. I am glad somepony here still thinks that... tell me, is your daughter well?"
  4383. > "Yes. Well, um - the one who's, you know..."
  4384. > Still here.
  4385. "Yes."
  4386. > "She's, um. She's doing... okay."
  4387. > Lowering her head, Derpy whispers:
  4388. > "I wish she were free too... but I'm glad to be here for my little Muffin even if we aren't."
  4389. > In a way, you're relieved and terrified both to hear those words from her.
  4390. > Relieved, because it meant she hadn't been crushed entirely by what you'd done to her.
  4391. > Terrified, because you suspected Derpy wouldn't ever rest until she'd seen her remaining daughter to freedom as well.
  4392. > ...especially with what you were about to ask her to do.
  4393. "Perhaps I should speak to her at some point. See if there isn't anything I can-"
  4394. > "Ohno! No, um - no, I don't think that'd be a good idea."
  4395. > You tilt your head, one ear dropping.
  4396. "May I ask why not?"
  4397. > "She, um - she's not..."
  4398. > Derpy's voice again drops to a nearly-inaudible whisper.
  4399. > "She doesn't like you very much."
  4400. > Oh.
  4401. "I - suppose I cannot blame her."
  4402. > "But you-"
  4403. "Hurt you very badly, even if I had to. She is right."
  4404. > Stepping up, Derpy leans in to brush her wing against your cheek.
  4405. > "S'okay, Your Highness. If any of us six forgive you, it's me. I know a mom's gotta do what's right for her foal."
  4406. > You give a pained little laugh.
  4407. > Only Derpy could be such a confusing mix of formality and irreverence - but that irreverence was exactly what you needed right now.
  4408. > The touch of her wing makes the ever-burning hole in your chest where you thought your soul might have once been close up ever so slightly.
  4409. "Well, Derpy - I think I may have somepony else who needs to hear you."
  4410. > "To - hear me?"
  4411. "Yes. There's a pony in the medical ward right now, Vapor Trail. She's new here, one of the other slaves coming in. She -"
  4412. > Halting, you hesitate.
  4413. > How do you convince Derpy to do this - to play at being Anonymous' pawn?
  4414. > She didn't hate him in particular, you thought, not like some of the slaves did.
  4415. > But she certainly hated that her children were slaves.
  4416. > Would she play along if she knew that Anonymous surely didn't intend to actually let Vapor flee with her child?
  4417. > If you hid it from her, conversely, what might she do when she inevitably found out?
  4418. "Well, Derpy... Vapor Trail is pregnant. She's scared, though, and - she wants to end the foal."
  4419. > "What?!"
  4420. "She doesn't want it to be a... slave."
  4421. > Why is that word so hard to say?
  4422. > You'd long ago come to terms with what you were, if never stopped hating it.
  4423. "Vapor Trail is a kind spirit, and a free-flying one. She's determined her foal shouldn't be a slave... one way or another."
  4424. > The mare gives no response, though her eyes in a rare moment of agreement both fall to the floor together.
  4425. "I - I don't think I can convince her on my own, Derpy. I need your help. I need somepony to show her that a foal has hope of being free. I need your help."
  4426. > "Why me?"
  4427. "Because I trust you. Because there's very few ponies here who can tell her this. Because - of what you did for your own daughters."
  4428. > "But it didn't work. They didn't get away."
  4429. "One did."
  4430. > "Cadance-"
  4431. > Derpy shuffles her wings, clearly uncertain.
  4432. > "Why are - are you telling me to think about that again? Is this - did Anonymous ask you to... try to get me to act out or something?"
  4433. > Your heart seizes.
  4434. "...I won't deny he asked me to do this, but it's not to get you in trouble. It's because he's just as much scared of what Vapor Trail might do as I am."
  4435. > "So - so you want me to go tell her that she can run away with her filly?"
  4436. "Yes."
  4437. > Lowering your head, you nod.
  4438. "I do. Maybe she will change her mind... maybe she will not. But if she does something foolish now, I fear what will happen."
  4439. > She is, you can see, not convinced.
  4440. "Please, Derpy. If not for her sake, then for the foal's - you know that a mother's love can light the darkest places. I know it, too. That foal doesn't have to just know misery and suffering. We just have to show her."
  4441. > Derpy stares for a long time; you can not just see the gears turning in her head as she considers the matter but almost hear them as well.
  4442. > " I going to be lying?"
  4443. "I-"
  4444. > "Cadance - am I going to be lying to her? Can she get away? Can her foal get away?"
  4445. > Once more nausea ripples through your stomach.
  4446. > But what can you do?
  4447. > Fail now, and Anonymous would likely take it poorly...
  4448. "In all likelyhood... yes, we will be lying. I don't know if her foal will ever be free. Even after it is born it'll be months until it is strong enough to travel at all, let alone flee. In that time... who knows. I'm afraid of what else Vapor Trail might do that gets her in trouble."
  4449. > Derpy hangs her head, wings drooping and scuffing at the floor with one hoof.
  4450. "I know it feels... sickening to do. Celestia above, I know it - but what else can we do?"
  4451. > She could refuse.
  4452. > You couldn't order her to do this - not as a mother yourself.
  4453. > "And, you're sure I'm not gonna get in trouble for this?"
  4454. "Absolutely not."
  4455. > At last she speaks up in a small, plaintive voice:
  4456. > "You promise?"
  4457. > Again pain lances through your heart.
  4458. > Consciously forgive you she might have, but seeing the loving mare that scared still struck you as hard as if she'd spit acid.
  4459. "Yes, Derpy. I promise."
  4460. > "I'm - I can't leave my daughter alone. I - I want her to be free, but there's nothing I'm going to do that will let him take me away from my daughter."
  4461. > You decide not to point out that realistically, he could order Derpy taken from her at any time.
  4462. "He knows exactly what is going on and told me to ensure that Vapor Trail doesn't do anything... impulsive. You won't be punished, Derpy."
  4463. > "Okay."
  4464. > Once, then more firmly she jerks her head in a nod - mouth setting into a thin, determined line.
  4465. > "I'll do it."
  4466. "Thank you, Derpy."
  4467. > The relief could not be kept from your voice even if you tried.
  4468. "Here's how we're going to do this..."
  4469. > ...
  4470. > Your head pops up as the grey pegasus slips back out of the clinic's room, settling the door quietly shut behind her with a wing.
  4471. "Will she...?"
  4472. > "I think so."
  4473. > Despite the relieved breath that rushes from your lips, Derpy doesn't look so pleased.
  4474. "What's wrong...?"
  4475. > "She's... I got her to believe that her foal could be free, but I reeeally think she's gonna try it too, Cadance."
  4476. > Standing, you turn and start walking; Derpy is quickly at your side.
  4477. "To run away?"
  4478. > "To get her foal away, anyhow..."
  4479. "I don't blame her, honestly."
  4480. > Your drop your voice down low, and Derpy nods her assent as well.
  4481. > "Th'thing is... She saw my scars. From... y'know. And, she asked me what happened, and I told her."
  4482. > Peering up at you with one of her mismatched eyes - both of them wide and shimmering.
  4483. > "And you know what she said? 'If my foal is free, I'd take twice as many lashes.' "
  4484. > That renders you silent for a long time.
  4485. > Stepping out of the clinic, you're stuck by the cool night air.
  4486. > The sky above is clear and star-shot; you tilt your head back and watch the distant lights of passing planes blink in the darkness.
  4487. > Derpy follows your eyes, looking up at the night sky.
  4488. > "Feels funny, sneaking around after curfew again."
  4489. "We're not sneaking. Just - keeping out of the eyes of other ponies."
  4490. > "If you say so."
  4491. > Another silence, and then:
  4492. "...would you help her, Derpy? If she asked?"
  4493. > "Yes."
  4494. "I thought you didn't want any part of resisting anymore."
  4495. > "I don't want to be separated from my filly in here. I still want her to be free - but I'm not gonna do something silly."
  4496. > Dropping your head and leaning over to nuzzle her gently, you nod.
  4497. "I understand."
  4498. > She closes her eyes, giving a soft nicker.
  4499. "I won't ask what you're doing, then - but for both our sakes, don't tell me and don't get caught."
  4500. > "Won't blame you for what you have to do if I am."
  4502. > Both the mares walk off in different direction, and you finally slip from the shadowed corner you'd crowded yourself into - again thankful for the dark coloring of your own coat and guard's uniform.
  4504. > While it'd been far too distant to catch their words on the chill air, you had a fair guess at why they were here.
  4505. > Twitching your own wings and rubbing at your spiked-up mane with one hoof, you debate tailing either of the two but ultimately decide against it.
  4506. > Vapor Trail's situation struck at your heart, especially as you were fairly certain you remembered her face and scent from the Wonderbolts' Academy.
  4507. > And, you were fairly sure Cadance was acting on Anonymous' behalf there as well.
  4508. > No need to raise more issues.
  4509. > Turning away yourself and breaking into a trot, you quickly find yourself back at the security station.
  4510. > Halfway there, however, a glint of light catches your eye.
  4511. > Many glints, in fact; glass lays scattered across the road, glittering in the distant streetlamps' glare.
  4512. > The source of the glass isn't hard to spot; a window had been almost entirely cleared, an entire pane blasted out.
  4513. > Crouching down, you take gentle hoof-steps to the window and cautiously peer up - tilting your head nearly ninety degrees to hide your mane.
  4514. > It is, unfortunately, too late.
  4515. > The room inside is very much empty, a fact confirmed when you grab the keys hanging from your uniform and unlock the door.
  4516. > What was odd, though, was the contents of the room:
  4517. > Supplies for camp repairs stood stacked on shelves - small pieces of lumber, nails and bolts, paints and primers, tarps and floor tiles.
  4518. > Why would anypony break in here?
  4519. > Repairs were one thing Anonymous had never hesitated to supply; none of the camp's buildings were decrepit.
  4520. > Searching the building thoroughly yields no clues, as you cannot even tell what - if anything - had been taken.
  4521. > Locking the door again, you spread your wings and leap up to the roof - hoping to spot any sign of movement.
  4522. > Whoever had done this is long gone; however, you do discover exactly what had been taken.
  4523. > Paint - at least two can, judging by the varying colors, laid splashed across the road perhaps half a block up:
  4524. > A crude rendition of a cutie mark, and beneath that in two-foot-high letters 'REMEMBER WHAT THEY DID TO HER'
  4525. > There's no question in your mind whose cutie mark it was.
  4526. > In fact, the entire thing had been painted at least three times - the message varying, but the gist always similar.
  4527. > Further up it was joined by further polemics:
  4528. > 'FIGHT TO BE FREE' and 'EQUESTRIA UNFORGOTTEN' - and the paint cans abandoned near the last one.
  4529. > Swearing softly and breaking into a fast trot, you quickly make for the security station.
  4530. > Apart from a couple even-tempered nods in greeting, barely any of the handful of late-night guards on duty register your passage.
  4531. > That was something you were thankful for - for a time you'd feared how those who'd survived the abusive ones being purged would regard you, but it seemed they hadn't been too pleased about it either.
  4532. > Stepping in back, you find the head of security with his feet propped up on a table and eyes glued to a screen.
  4533. "Gene - I just got back from my walkaround-"
  4534. > "Yes, yes. Nothing of note on your patrol?"
  4535. "Actually, you'd better see this."
  4536. > He does see it - also cursing, albeit in a language you do not recognize but with unmistakable tone as he and two other guards sweep their flashlights over the damaged window.
  4537. > "This - this is bad. Anonymous is not going to be happy."
  4538. "Tell me about it."
  4539. > "You see anything else on your patrol?"
  4540. > Your lips form a 'no', but you hesitate.
  4541. > Gene raises an eyebrow.
  4542. > "Thunderlane-"
  4543. "There were a couple ponies out after curfew, but I don't think they're responsible for this. For one, I saw them fairly far away. For two, I'm fairly certain I know what they were doing, and it isn't this."
  4544. > "Mmm."
  4545. > He nods, simply seemed to accept your word, and circles around again.
  4546. > That surprises you, keeping pace at his side, you tilt your head to look up at him.
  4547. "You trust me?"
  4548. > "Yes."
  4549. "Why?"
  4550. > "You have everything to lose from lying, nothing to gain."
  4551. > Stopping again, Gene looks down.
  4552. > "In my country, when I was a boy - I saw men like you, putting on uniforms even when they did not want to. I saw how they thought."
  4553. > Eyes drifting up again, he studies the building.
  4554. > "You are smart enough to see what the truth of things here, and I trust you. You said the door was locked?"
  4555. "Yes."
  4556. > "Unicorn did this."
  4557. > His hand sweeps out over the glass fragments littering the ground.
  4558. > "Glass is all outside, none inside. They must've grabbed something inside with their magic and pulled it through the window."
  4559. "Or somepony was waiting inside."
  4560. > Gene's face darkens as he considers that.
  4561. > "Or that. No pony works here alone, though. Has to be unlocked whenever someone needs something."
  4562. "...we don't need to turn this into a big thing now."
  4563. > One eyebrow shoots up questioningly.
  4564. > "Not a big thing? Anonymous is going to be furious-"
  4565. "No, I mean - we don't need to launch a pony-hunt right this second. Whoever did this is driven enough to break the peace in here, but if we scare them with a big search they'll just go to ground and never pop back up."
  4566. > Drawing close, Gene lowers his voice.
  4567. > "What are you suggesting?"
  4568. "They'll want to do this again. But-"
  4569. > You motion to the emptied and dripping paint buckets where they had been cast aside at the edge of the road.
  4570. "-they'll need more. This place will be too dangerous to try again, and I can only think of a couple other places we keep paint..."
  4571. > "Ah. So, we wait - actually, better you take your ponies and wait there, so they don't smell us."
  4572. "Yes. It also helps how ponies might view this... they'd be going after buildings guarded by other ponies, after all."
  4573. > "Good, yes. I approve - Anonymous may overrule me, but I think he will not. Go get the others after your shift, and we can settle this before it becomes a bigger problem."
  4574. > ...
  4575. > Thus do you find yourself, three days later, once again crouched in a nearly-unlit closet in a larger building - cans of spraypaint lining the shelves around you.
  4576. > You'd taken to reading the labels to pass the time - a boring tactic, but one to keep you awake.
  4577. > Shifting to a nocturnal watch schedule had not been easy.
  4578. > Nor was it easy to read them with the low light in the room, the single flashlight having its lens covered over to reduce the mount of light that could be seen from around the door.
  4579. > One of the other ponies who'd joined the guard, Seismic Shift, had even less:
  4580. > The shed he was waiting in had windows, so even the slightest amount of light from within couldn't be tolerated.
  4581. > Grumbling and shifting how you are seated - no legs going to sleep tonight - you lean your side against a shelf and snort softly.
  4582. > Alone and with nothing to pass the time, your thoughts drift.
  4583. > How had it come to this, hiding in the dark like a colt sneaking home from his filly-friend's?
  4584. > You'd been a Wonderbolt trainee, for Celestia's sake!
  4585. > ...Wonderbolts...
  4586. > Rolling onto your back, you stare up at the ceiling and sigh again.
  4587. > The more you thought back on it, the more you knew you that your memories were right - she'd been a Wonderbolts Trainee as well.
  4588. > Possibly even further along than the process than yourself, though you weren't sure about that.
  4589. > And, for that matter, you could sympathize with the desperation she felt to give her foal a reasonable life.
  4590. > After all, look at what you had done for Rumble's sake:
  4591. > Turned traitor on your entire race, sold out ponies who had just wanted to escape and get control of their lives back, all so that Rumble could-
  4592. > Snorting more forcefully this time, you nostrils flaring, you roll to your belly and try to banish those thoughts.
  4593. > You weren't holding them in bondage, you remind yourself.
  4594. > Nor were you the only pony to turn to aiding the guards.
  4595. > ...but you had been the one to sell out the escape, a sibilant voice hisses in the back of your head.
  4596. > You had, it whispers, denied them that freedom.
  4597. > And now you were going to turn over another pony to their mercies.
  4598. > No!
  4599. > Your hoof hits the floor, its contact echoing through the room.
  4600. > For a moment you freeze, ice in your veins.
  4601. > That had been far, far louder than you'd thought.
  4602. > If anypony had heard...
  4603. > When, a few minutes later, nopony has come you finally relax.
  4604. >
  4605. > They were not going to be turned over for the same kind of punishment.
  4606. > Cadance would be overseeing this, and you could trust her to be-
  4607. > Your ears prick at the distant, soft howl of a whistle.
  4608. > Another one of the guards, blowing as hard as they could.
  4609. > An instance passes, and you've burst from the closet to gallop - hooves skidding and sliding on the smooth floor - out through the woodshop it was attached to.
  4610. > Outside you could hear the whistle far more clearly, and based on the direction already know exactly who is blowing it.
  4611. > Seismic Shift was a hefty Earth Pony, easily capable of downing any opponent he could get his hooves on.
  4612. > But he must not have been able to get that close, or he'd have had no need to use his whistle like that.
  4613. > Kicking off the ground, you leap to the air and spread your wings.
  4614. > A few quick beats send you skimming are barely above the ground, picking up speed.
  4615. > Distant whining catches you ears - one of the little motorized carts guards used to patrol the camp.
  4616. > They'd be faster than by foot or by hoof but not faster than by wing; you couldn't be more than a block or two out.
  4617. > Turning yet another corner, your wings heave an abrupt and unexpected heave-up to lift you over the cloaked pony you'd nearly collided with.
  4618. > A moment later, however, yet a second cloaked form dashes past you.
  4619. > ...that explained the whistle - there'd been more than one of them.
  4620. > The pony you'd nearly collided with, however, was not so adept on their hooves - stumbling as they try to regain a steady pace of hoofbeats.
  4621. > It's little use; they tumble head over hooves to the ground - not rising again.
  4622. > Landing and pushing off a nearby building, you rebound off it and are back on the remaining pony's tail - literally.
  4623. > Putting on an extra burst of speed that earns them a few seconds longer lead, but by wing you're still faster.
  4624. > They - she, you realize - gives a stifled squeak as your jaws close around her wildly waving tail, sending her skidding and weaving.
  4625. > You release, overtaking them and spinning about to slam into the ground in front of her.
  4626. > A minute later she're up again, hoofing at the ground and getting ready to charge.
  4627. > Widening your stance, you fold your wings and eye them evenly.
  4628. "This isn't the time to try and get past me. It's over."
  4629. > That... came out sounding awful.
  4630. > But hopefully it got the message across.
  4631. > Spitting on the ground, the pony makes a sudden leap to the left - but you're still faster.
  4632. > Tangling hooves, wings, necks you go down in a bundle.
  4633. > She's stronger than you expect, and it's to your surprise that you note the complete lack of horn on their head.
  4634. > Even that isn't quite as surprising as the face revealed by your assailant's cloak - no more than a cut-up burlap bag, you now realize - falling away.
  4635. "...Nurse? Nurse Mellowheart?!"
  4636. > "Get out of my way."
  4637. > Her voice drips with anger, and in the moment of your surprise she heaves - putting her Earth Pony strength to good use and nearly throwing you clear.
  4638. > Almost.
  4639. > Barely do you manage to hang on - she fights with the unique desperation of a trapped pony, snapping teeth and jabbing edges of her hooves, neighing and squealing.
  4640. > Air burns in your lungs as you duck and weave; she isn't really trying to cause injury, you realize, but just force you back long enough to get free.
  4641. > In equal desperation, you lean in and - opening wide - slip your jaws around her neck.
  4642. > Not biting, but placing enough pressure there to make it clear that fighting further was not an option.
  4643. > Mellowheart freezes, instinctual fear taking over.
  4644. > One final neigh tears from her throat, and then she goes limp - twisting slowly over to display her belly in the universal sign of surrender.
  4645. > Getting up, you place a hoof on her belly just in case and suck in desperately needed lungfuls of air.
  4646. > On her back, Mellowheart stares up at you with miserable and pained eyes - the anger from earlier gone, replaced with resignation and despair.
  4647. "...why?"
  4648. > "Because - I treated - her - when she came - back from - his torture."
  4649. > She is panting too, words being used sparingly as her breath catches up.
  4650. > "You - you would too - if you were there. There's no - no way to be silent after seeing that."
  4651. " you break in like a thief and play 'bored, angry teenage colt painting graffiti?"
  4652. > "So I make sure nopony will forget what she went through - what we still are! And especially not him - Anonymous can't be allowed he can just sweep her away and expect us to forget!"
  4653. > Anger smolders just beneath your surface, but you can't find the willpower to ignite it into flame.
  4654. > Perhaps seeing the conflict in your posture, Mellowheart turns her head away.
  4655. > "I'm not hurting anypony. Paint is replaceable. There's no need to turn me over, Thunderlane. I'm nowhere near as bad as he is."
  4656. "I'm not here to debate right and wrong, Mellowheart."
  4657. > In the distance, the rising whine of a cart's motor again reaches your ears.
  4658. > Security was coming.
  4659. "If you'd just talked, or painted your own home, or whatever, I'd have put my hide at risk backing you up. But you broke the rules."
  4660. > "The rules of a man who tortures us when we just try to go home and live freely!"
  4661. > Closing her eyes, Mellowheart shudders softly.
  4662. > "You really think he would let me be if I told everypony what happened to Corona?"
  4663. > Her ears are tracking the cart's motors as well now - she knows she is on a time limit.
  4664. > "I - I made sure nopony got hurt. If you turn me over, though..."
  4665. > ...why is this so hard to question?
  4666. > "Please, Thunderlane. Don't give me up to that... I can vanish. I won't break in anymore - we'll find another way-"
  4667. > She's afraid.
  4668. > Terrified.
  4669. > Of course she is - she knew exactly what happened to Corona.
  4670. > But then, Anonymous won't be handling this; Cadance will.
  4671. > And Cadance...
  4672. > ...won't let her off the hook either, you're forced to admit.
  4673. "No, Mellowheart."
  4674. > You press your hoof ever so slightly harder into her belly, denying any chance to flee.
  4675. > She squeaks at the pressure, turning her head aside, but you know it isn't really hurting her.
  4676. "You broke the rules and you pay the price."
  4677. > Head twisted to rest her cheek against the cool tarmac, she nods.
  4678. > "Yes. I understand. You're theirs now."
  4679. > Grabbing the whistle on your own uniform between your teeth and blowing hard, you're soon able to hear the rising whine of a security cart traveling in your direction.
  4680. > Spitting it out, you shake your head.
  4681. "I'm not theirs, Mellowheart. I'm a pony who realizes that if we turn to things like this, the screws are only going to get tightened until we can't do a thing. Do you want them to start locking us in our homes at night?"
  4682. > "I want ponies to never forget what's happened to us here. I've treated ponies who've been whipped, tortured, raped-"
  4683. "He threw out the ones who were doing that! That's why I can even be here!"
  4684. > She laughs - a pained, bitter sound.
  4685. > "You don't get it. He stopped them - but they wouldn't have even been able to do that if we weren't slaves!"
  4686. > The cart is turning the corner, pulling up; you extend a wing to beckon them over.
  4687. > Mellowheart hears it too, eyes closing in final defeat.
  4688. "...if it makes you feel any better, you're going to Cadance for judgement. Not Anonymous."
  4689. > "Is that any different? She was the one who gave Corona up to him."
  4690. > You begin a retort, but then the cart is pulling up - officers piling out.
  4691. > Gene, you notice, is not among them.
  4692. > "Damn, Thunder! This is the one?"
  4693. "Yes, I ran her down."
  4694. > Boots scuff on the ground as they circle around the two of you.
  4695. > Barely do you look up before you realize both of them have their weapons out - one a taser, his finger on the trigger, while the other holds a baton high and ready.
  4696. "Hey! No need for that stuff. She's not running now. I've got her."
  4698. > The hesitate, and you snap again - a bit more forcefully this time:
  4699. "I said put them away. She's not fleeing."
  4700. > One does, slipping the baton back into his belt and returning to the cart.
  4701. > The other, however, does not; it takes several seconds of fierce glare from you before he sets the taser into its holster.
  4702. > Even then, his hand remains firmly on said holster.
  4703. > Quickly a collar is brought and closed around Mellowheart's neck; hobbled shackles are set on her hindlegs.
  4704. "Alright, Mellowheart. I'm going to let go, and you're going to roll over slowly. Understood?"
  4705. > She jerks a nod, her voice soft and resigned.
  4706. > "Yes."
  4707. > Lifting your hoof from her belly at last allows her to get to her hooves.
  4708. > With short, careful steps she is lead to the cart; you take up a position behind her.
  4709. > Watching where you step up, you're suddenly drawn by a quick motion in one window.
  4710. > The shift of something just inside, too quick to be a natural movement.
  4711. > Somepony'd been watching, you realize with a sick feeling growing in your stomach.
  4712. > Maybe woken by the scream of your whistle, maybe earlier.
  4713. > Either way, they'd no doubt seen all of this.
  4714. > "Alright, pony. Your Earther buddy grounded a pegasus, but we're still missing the third. Go out and find 'em."
  4715. > That must've been Seismic Shift; he had found his quarry after all.
  4716. "No."
  4717. > Climbing up onto the cart after Mellowheart, you seat yourself firmly beside her and fix both guards with a fierce glare.
  4718. "i'm going to bring her over. She's my grab - this whole thing was my plan, and I'm seeing her in.
  4719. > Both seem surprised by your insistence, but one guard's face twists into a fierce scowl.
  4720. > "This bitch dragged us out in the middle of the God-damn night on a wild chase; you don't get to give her an easy, pampered ride-"
  4721. "The third is long since gone anyhow. The most I can do is see what was my plan in the first place through to the end."
  4722. > "Don't get lippy with me, pony. You do what Anonymous says you do-"
  4723. "And Anonymous says I hold the equivalent of a sergeant's authority, which is the reason I was allowed to plan this in the first place, and incidentally means I effectively outrank you."
  4724. > You look him dead in the eye - wings spread, ears flattened, and tail swishing.
  4725. "My. Catch. I'll deal with her; if you don't like it, you can go to Gene about it."
  4726. > That, at last, seems to quell any further argument.
  4727. > "Fine. But-"
  4728. > He jabs a finger in your direction.
  4729. > "-don't be getting to full of yourself, pony, because one day you'll fuck up, lose that 'rank', and I'll be there to beat your ass raw."
  4730. "Cadance will decide who'll get to do that - just like she'll decide what happens to her now."
  4731. > Even in the low, distant light you can see the guard's face turning red, but he does manage to hold himself back.
  4732. > Relaxing back into the seat, you look over to Mellowheart - seated in the back next to you - and find her looking at you with wide, surprised eyes.
  4733. > She turns away, of course, but not so quickly that you couldn't see the look on her face.
  4734. > The remainder of the trip is done in total silence, aside from the motor's low whine.
  4735. > Stepping into the security building - well lit and warm - feels like jumping into a different building.
  4736. > Looping Mellowheart's leash around one hoof, you look over as the two guards follow you in.
  4737. "I'll get her logged, but I'm taking her back to a cell first."
  4738. > "I'll get it done."
  4739. > You are moderately thankful for the more reasonable of the two guards.
  4740. > Buzzed through doors into the cell, you pass until an open one is found and lead Mellowheart into that.
  4741. > She ducks when you reach in to release the collar from her neck, eyes set firmly on the floor.
  4742. > Backing up, you settle to your haunches and stare softly at her.
  4743. "...I'll make sure they don't do anything to you before Cadance can hear about this, Mellowheart."
  4744. > "Thank you..."
  4745. > Her voice is low and soft.
  4746. > "I don't know how much good it'll do, but thank you."
  4747. "I will ask one thing. You're an earth pony, and they said Seismic caught a pegasus. Who was the unicorn with you?"
  4748. > Mellowheart says absolutely nothing, but the way she jerks up in surprise confirms to you that Gene's suspicion about a unicorn was right.
  4749. "...if you help us here, it'll make this all end easier, Mellow. I... I understand why it hurts, but this isn't the right way. Cadance will be as lenient as possible if you cooperate-"
  4750. > "As possible..."
  4751. > Snorting softly, Mellowheart lays herself down on her belly - head resting on crossed legs.
  4752. > "That's the catch, isn't it? You're all still bound by Anonymous' rules, no matter how much you want to do something."
  4753. "...not true at all."
  4754. > "Isn't it? You saw how they looked at you. At best, we're helpful when we work; the rest of the time, we're something... beneath them."
  4755. > Now you are the one who falters; Mellowheart gives a soft whuff at your lack of an answer.
  4756. > "Honestly, Thunderlane... I wish I could be you. I wish I could believe there's hope here, that we can just follow the rules and things get better."
  4757. "They can!"
  4758. > A sad, small little smile forms on her lips.
  4759. > "When you've seen every kind of injury from ponies forced to work, every little cruelty they inflict... things like that will never stop until we are free, and we'll never be free when things like what happened to Corona go forgotten. Anonymous wants us to forget - forget her, forget Equestria, forget everything."
  4760. "I never said you have to stop. But breaking windows-"
  4761. > "Teaches that we can't be suppressed."
  4762. > Rolling onto her side - facing away from you - Mellowheart sighs.
  4763. > "You're a good heart, Thunderlane, but I can't tell you who - who our unicorn is. They'll be safe."
  4764. > Standing, you turn for the cell door.
  4765. > "And Thunderlane?"
  4766. "Yes?"
  4767. > " 'Just follow the rules and everything will be okay again'... it won't stop him from lashing out again. Rumble remembers what it was like to be free. I wonder if you do?"
  4768. > Shivering softly, you step through the door and close it behind you.
  4769. > Suddenly the whole cell block seems much, much cooler.
  4770. > Shivering softly, you try and shake free the chills that suddenly run down your spine.
  4771. > Suddenly the one guard's word join Mellowheart's, echoing in your head.
  4772. > 'Your Earther buddy grounded a pegasus'...
  4773. > Rumble wouldn't have...
  4774. > ...would he?
  4775. > Suddenly you're galloping back down the hall, legs carrying you as fast as they could - looking for someone, anyone, who could tell you who that pony had been.
  4776. > Finding them turns out to be much trouble, for reasons that quickly become clear.
  4777. > Sliding around a corner, you nearly collide with Seismic Shift coming the other way.
  4778. > The big Earth stallion backs up, his eyes open wide in surprise, and you stumble and skid to a halt.
  4779. "Sorry - sorry! I'm just - oh, Seismic. Who - who was it you brought in? I heard you'd brought a pegasus-"
  4780. > "Don't know 'im. Some stallion I seen around th'camp a couple times. Never 'ad trouble with him before, but 'e sure did kick real good now."
  4781. > Overwhelming relief floods through you that at least it wasn't Rumble.
  4782. > So overwhelming that you don't immediately realize the importance of his latter statement.
  4783. > When it does click home, you take a good look at Seismic Shift and immediately realize he was covered in furrows and bruises.
  4784. "I - I'm sorry, Shift. I didn't even notice that you were-"
  4785. > "Y'were worried it was y'brother."
  4786. > Wordlessly you nod, eyes guiltily falling to the floor.
  4787. > Lifting a hoof to reassuringly tap you on the shoulder (and hissing softly in pain at the effort), Seismic shakes his head.
  4788. > "S'okay. Nothin' wrong with bein' worried."
  4789. "Yeah. The pony I brought in - she said he wouldn't ever give up resisting, and I thought-"
  4790. > You break off as a shudder runs through you, muzzle to tail.
  4791. > "Like I said, s'fine. You know if anyone got th'third?"
  4792. "No, the unicorn's still missing. I don't think they'll be out again tonight."
  4793. > Giving him another look-over, you tilt your head.
  4794. " bad were they?"
  4795. > "Mean. Fast. Mighta been an athlete o'some kind, Iunno."
  4796. "Still fighting when you brought them in?"
  4797. > "Every inch. Took me plus a couple o'the humans t'get 'im into the cell."
  4798. "Which cell?"
  4799. > "Three, in the temporary block."
  4800. > ...ironically not that far from where you'd dropped Mellowheart.
  4801. > Certainly close enough that you could keep an eye on both of them.
  4802. "Alright. You good to do a little walking?"
  4803. > "M'aching, but not real hurt."
  4804. "Then go find Zapper, if they haven't already brought him back, and tell him he doesn't need to keep hiding tonight. That unicorn's not going to be out again. After that, go and get some rest."
  4805. > A small grin forms on Seismic's face.
  4806. > "Thanks, Thunderlane. What're you doing?"
  4807. "I'll be staying here, I think. I want to make sure nobody decides to go after them."
  4808. > The smile fades as quickly as it had come.
  4809. > "Y'want me back in here?"
  4810. "No, I'm fine. It's just until morning - until Cadance can be told. The one I brought in..."
  4811. > Sighing, you hand your head.
  4812. " was Mellowheart, Seismic."
  4813. > "Mellowheart...?"
  4814. > He seems equally as confused as you'd been.
  4815. "I - I guess seeing all the things ponies suffer from in here was just too much for her. And, the worst part is -"
  4816. > You look around, then lower your voice.
  4817. "-the scariest part is, I can't entirely blame her for being angry. Not for doing this, but for just being angry...?"
  4818. > "Hmm."
  4819. > Sighing softly you shake your head.
  4820. "I'll be alright, Seismic. Get some rest."
  4821. > After seeing the stallion out, you settle down to scratch out a report on what had occurred.
  4822. > Half way through the laborious process (Anonymous had not, to your deep frustration, ever bothered acquiring pony-friendly computers) you're interrupted by a soft 'hey' from just behind you.
  4823. > Twisting in your seat, you find one of the officers that'd accompanied you earlier leaning against the doorframe.
  4824. "...hey. Can I help you?"
  4825. > "No. I'm going back out on watch for a little bit, but I wanted to talk to you again before I do."
  4826. "Ah-"
  4827. > With some effort from your wings, you're able to turn the chair around.
  4828. "-okay, what is it?"
  4829. > She gives a small, sad smile - pushing off the doorframe and taking a few steps closer.
  4830. > "Listen, Thunderlane - I just wanted to warn you, getting into a headbutting match with the other officers like that... It's a risky thing."
  4831. "I know."
  4832. > You droop in your seat, wings slumping to rest on the armrests.
  4833. > Her frown spreading further, the officer shakes her head.
  4834. > "I don't mean to harass you over it, but - look, I know you've officially got Anonymous' backing on this and all, but they can still make your life pretty shit."
  4835. "I've got Gene, too."
  4836. > She nods.
  4837. > "Gene's good people, and that's good for you too - but even so. Don't provoke them, Thunderlane. If you want to do - whatever it is that made you decide to do this, don't provoke them."
  4838. "...yeah."
  4839. > A hefty sigh rushes from your nostrils.
  4840. "Yeah, I know. But - I can't not, you know? I'm here because I want to keep violence from spreading - or if at all possible, at least deal with it myself."
  4841. > "Yeah, I can tell."
  4842. > She actually gives a small laugh.
  4843. > "You practically handled that whole grab yourself; by the time we showed up, there wasn't much left to do."
  4844. "But, that goes both ways... if I just stand aside when I see ponies at risk, I'm not doing my job either. Guarding goes both ways."
  4845. > "Good that you can think that way. Just - be careful with who you tick off, okay?"
  4846. "Yeah."
  4847. > Nodding sharply, you sit up more confidently.
  4848. "Yeah, I hear you. Thank you."
  4849. > Once the officer is gone and the reports on what you'd done filled out, you carry a chair down into the cell block and curl up on it.
  4850. > It's a cheap plastic thing - simultaneously all stiff angles and sagging worryingly under your weight, definitely not made for a pony - but still better than the floor.
  4851. > At first you fear that sleep might creep up on you, but quickly you realize it wasn't coming back tonight.
  4852. > Though Rumble had not been part of this, the fear-laden chill that had settled on you in the cell block had not lifted.
  4853. > There was a different twinge to it this time, though; if it had been ice forming in your gut, clear and cold, this was a general feeling of unease all around you.
  4854. > Of an awareness that what Mellowheart had articulated was something you were likely to hear again.
  4855. > How many more times would you have to do this, you wonder?
  4857. "...and it seems you both resisted the guards."
  4858. > "Yes, Miss Cadance."
  4859. > Mellowheart's murmur is almost inaudible.
  4860. "It says here that you claimed you weren't actually trying to hurt him, but just get away."
  4861. > "Yes, Miss Cadance."
  4862. "But you still fought with him. Bodily."
  4863. > "Yes, Miss Cadance."
  4864. > Setting down the papers held in your magic, you squeeze your eyes and drop your head with a groan.
  4865. > The graffiti was bad enough already, but now ponies were actually resisting the guards...
  4866. > ...bizarrely, a corner of your mind is at least thankful they hadn't seen fit to start criticizing you.
  4867. > That, at the minimum, still left you some room to respond.
  4868. > A minimum, but still something.
  4869. "And you felt this neccessary-"
  4870. > "Because we are the only ones trying to remember her, Miss Cadance. Nopony else is trying to, so somepony has to."
  4871. > A prickle runs down your horn.
  4872. > You're abundantly aware how much of a reversal this is - that a few weeks ago, you'd faced Anonymous in a strikingly similar moment.
  4873. > ...of course, that had been in the high-security cells and you'd been strung up by your forehooves, while Mellowheart rested on a bed with only her leash tied to it.
  4874. > And you weren't planning on threatening Mellowheart either.
  4875. > But Anonymous' threat - that was still very present.
  4876. " understand that I have to issue some punishment for this. For striking a guard, as well as the graffiti."
  4877. > "Or you could open your eyes to what we are doing and see that it is right."
  4878. > The spark in Mellowheart's eye, the ember that had fed the ever-so-brief fire in her voice, dies as soon as you meet it.
  4879. > She drops her eyes again, going back to murmuring:
  4880. > "Somepony must remember her."
  4881. "...I know."
  4882. > "Then why-"
  4883. "Because if we're 'remembering' her by random acts like this, then we're losing everything that makes us - us, as well.
  4884. > Mellowheart doesn't nod, or even respond at all.
  4885. > Eventually she just speaks again, in a voice that speaks of hopelessness and an empty future.
  4886. > "Or maybe you don't want her to be remembered. Maybe you don't want ponies to remember what you did."
  4887. "I know what I did. I know because it weighs on me every second of every day."
  4888. > To that, she doesn't respond.
  4889. > Eventually you simply turn and leave the cell.
  4890. > Thunderlane waits outside, his eyes bleary but attentive.
  4891. > "Any luck?"
  4892. "I'm afraid not, and she was the calmer of the two. Neither of them are telling about who their third was."
  4893. > Pausing, you stretch out one wing towards him.
  4894. "You look awful."
  4895. > "Stayed here all night, just in case there was any..."
  4896. > He glances towards the human guard at the end of the cell block, although said guard seems to be more interested in his cell phone than your conversation.
  4897. > "...additional justice. After the chase, staying up without any rest - I imagine I look like I just flew through a hurricane, yeah."
  4898. > Thunderlane shivers softly.
  4899. > "Honestly, though, I'm just glad Rumble wasn't part of this..."
  4900. "I can understand. Have you heard anything from him lately?"
  4901. > "Nothing that'd make me suspicious, no."
  4902. > He pauses, then adds quietly:
  4903. > "What will you do with them?"
  4904. "...I won't be using the whip."
  4905. > You shudder softly, the memory of the awful thing's crack as you wielded it echoing in your ears.
  4906. "Celestia above, I won't be using that if I have a choice in things."
  4907. > "What instead, then?"
  4908. "They'll admit what they did publicly, and then we'll have them on no days off for two months. Extra work hours instead - and they can start by cleaning up that graffiti. Also, if any of them have privileges in the camp, those are out too. But..."
  4909. > You frown, chewing on the inside of your cheek as you turn over ideas in your head.
  4910. > "But?"
  4911. "If that third pony turns him or herself in we can see about reducing the sentence. A - a display of understanding that what they did was wrong."
  4912. > "For just the one?"
  4913. "For all of them."
  4914. > You turn to give Thunderlane a hard look.
  4915. "We're not encouraging ponies to betray each other for their own good here. It has to be clear, this is for everypony's benefit."
  4916. > Nodding sluggishly, he tilts his head.
  4917. > "...I guess so."
  4918. > Softening your expression, you shoot him a small smile.
  4919. "Go back and get some rest, Thunderlane. You've been up all night. Your duty's done."
  4920. > "But the two-"
  4921. "They will be fine. I intend to speak with the guards now on my plans for them; I'll make it clear that anyone brutalizing them will be properly dealt with."
  4922. > He sags in relief, and your smile spreads a little wider.
  4923. "...though, your consideration for their safety is appreciated. I see I wasn't wrong in suggesting this role or you."
  4924. > "I'm not so sure about that."
  4925. > He'd meant it to be whispered, or perhaps not even spoken at all.
  4926. > But Thunderlane's words are quite loud enough for you to hear.
  4927. "I am."
  4928. > "One question, Your Highness."
  4929. > You'd half turned away towards the door, but now you look back.
  4930. > "What will you do if they refuse? I mean... both of them did struggle. Mellowheart less so, but they're angry. They're willing to fight."
  4931. > That case was something you had wished not to think about.
  4932. "...then we will have to take... other measures."
  4933. > "Harsher measures?"
  4934. "Yes. I do not think that will be needed, though."
  4935. > "I hope you are right."
  4936. > ...
  4937. > It did not take long to get things underway, and as the lunch-break tones sound across the camp you're walking out onto a temporary platform that had been set up in one of the camp's central squares.
  4938. > Not much of a square, honestly, but the ponies rushing about - some giving sidelong glances in your direction as you mount the platform - will be enough to spread the word.
  4939. "Everypony - everypony, I will be needing your attention for a moment. Just one moment."
  4940. > Those immediately passing through do stop, and the effect cascades; a significant crowd soon stands around the platform.
  4941. > Waiting for them to quiet, you again raise your voice and speak out:
  4942. "As I am sure many ponies have noticed, in the last few days there have been... messages, scrawled onto the our streets and walls with paint stolen from our supplies. Last night, as I am sure a few of you heard, two ponies who had volunteered for the guard staff - Thunderlane and Seismic Shift - were able to apprehend two of those responsible for this theft and vandalism. At this time, I will announce their sentences and one further thing."
  4943. > A few murmurs; you can see the nervousness beginning to ratchet up in the crowd - the appearance of the security officers with you combining with your topic to fuel their anxiety.
  4944. "Let me make one thing clear from the start: My preference will never be to use the whip, and it will not be my first choice here."
  4945. > In response to a wing-gesture, the two prisoners are brought up onto the platform.
  4946. > Mellowheart walks with only a leash, while her counterpart - who you'd come to know as Stormbreaker - scowled deeply at you as he made his way up with still-hobbled wings and hoofs.
  4948. "Both of you stand accused of, along with a third accomplice, stand accused of breaking and entering at least two storage areas, stealing paint from within, and using that paint to vandalize our homes. Do you deny this."
  4949. > They do not.
  4950. > Stormbreaker practically shoots the crowd a grin when he admits it, still showing a few bruises and furrows from the fight he'd put up during his capture.
  4951. "...then, my sentence is this: For a period of three months, you will have no days off; extra work hours will be extended in their place. Furthermore, any luxuries you may have earned will be removed and you are both transferred to a general barracks. Your work will begin with removing the graffiti you created."
  4952. > Your eyes are not on them, though - but rather on the crowd in front of you.
  4953. > As you had hoped, there are no angry voice.
  4954. > Only a low buzz as they talk among themselves.
  4955. "There is one last thing."
  4956. > Sweeping your gaze out across the crowd, you raise your voice even further:
  4957. "A third pony helped them in this, and now I speak directly to you. You have some control over your friends' sentences - six months in total, and six months it will be. If you turn yourself in, you will carry a third of that sentence - two months for all of you. You have until the beginning of curfew tomorrow."
  4958. > The hubbub that follows is abruptly cut off as Mellowheart steps up, raising her head up to you and speaking before anyone can stop her:
  4959. > "Do you mean to torment us, Miss Cadance?"
  4960. "Of course not! Torment is the exact opposite of what I mean to do!"
  4961. > "Then why - why do you sentence us to this?"
  4962. > Looking you straight in the eye, Mellowheart shakes her head.
  4963. > "We risked ourselves, believing whipping would be the lightest punishment we could hope for if we were caught, to make sure nopony would forget what happened. And now you want us to wipe that away? You want us to help you bury that memory?"
  4964. > Despite yourself, you flinch.
  4966. > That had not been what you'd intended, but it's clear that's how she sees it... and Stormbreaker is nodding as well.
  4967. > "You've sentenced us to literally wipe away the very thing we set out to do."
  4968. "I do not muzzle you, Mellowheart, or punish you for speaking."
  4969. > Though, you fear, Anonymous would not be so generous.
  4970. > "Don't you? Forgive me, Miss Cadance, but I think your own leash will become rather shorter if you allow ponies to openly speak these things."
  4971. > This isn't how it was supposed to happen.
  4972. > You weren't prepared for anypony to make a spectacle out of it.
  4973. > It hadn't happened when you'd been forced to handle the whipping, so why would it now for such a lesser punishment, right?
  4974. > Wrong - and stupid, stupid, stupid!
  4975. > You needed to take control of this situation again, wrest it back from her.
  4976. "We are not here to debate these questions. I have never ordered a pony to stop speaking their mind, as long as it is done in a peaceful and reasonable way. Breaking windows and throwing paint is not reasonable. And-"
  4977. > Pausing, you unthinkingly glance towards the manor.
  4978. "-and I miss Equestria as much as anypony here, miss what we have lost and continue to lose every day. So - no. I do not stop you from saying what you will, but violence is not acceptable."
  4979. > Looking up, you narrow your eyes at the two ponies - glaring at each of them.
  4980. "Is that clear enough for the both of you?"
  4981. > Neither responds immediately, perhaps surprised by the depth of emotion in your stricken response.
  4982. > Stormbreaker is the first to react, shaking his head and shooting you back a smirk.
  4983. > "Alright, 'your highness'. I'll do the work - but, you want to tell me I can say what I want, I'll hold you to it."
  4984. > There is some irony, you think, in his combative spirit saving you a bit of trouble now.
  4985. > Then again, you know for certain that there is going to be friction down the line - with a pony like him, it was all but inevitable.
  4986. "If that promise is broken, I will suffer for it too. Mellowheart?"
  4987. > Mellowheart shakes her head.
  4988. > "Every second I think about the wounds I've had to treat. Restricting us is as much like silencing us; more and more little rules, until we cannot speak at all."
  4989. "That is exactly what I'm trying to avoid!"
  4990. > "Then you are galloping away from your goal. I can't silence myself, Cadance, any more than I can silence the reality of what I have seen."
  4991. > Delightful.
  4992. > You genuinely hadn't thought of what would happen if one of them refused your solution - a mistake you will not be making twice.
  4993. > But it was made once, and now you have to deal with the fallout.
  4994. > Subtly, your eyes flick towards the manor again.
  4995. > He might not be looking at this exact moment, but you can feel the weight of Anonymous' eyes on you.
  4997. "We are not here to hold a debate, Mellowheart. The sentence is given, not negotiated."
  4998. > Pausing, you soften your tone - aware, in retrospect, of how harsh that sounded.
  4999. "...but I must remind you, that already this is far lighter than you had any reason to expect. Things have improved here; you yourself said you went out with the expectation that you would be whipped if caught - but you aren't. You aren't being punished for being out past curfew, because Anonymous agreed that it was wrong to use the whip in response to that as well. If you push, though - if you fight as though I am subjecting you to a beating every bit as vicious as you imagined - then that reality will come back."
  5000. > Stormbreaker's nostrils flare with a hostile huff but you can tell he is restraining himself from saying more.
  5001. > Nurse Mellowheart simply shakes her head.
  5002. > With a sigh, you motion to the guards with one wing.
  5003. "Return them to their cells. Their sentence begins tomorrow; if the accomplice has not returned by then, it will be carried out to the full length."
  5004. > The crowd starts to break up, muttering and murmuring, as the two culprits are lead away.
  5005. > You can only hope those murmurs are in your support.
  5006. > If not-
  5007. > "Do you think she'll work?"
  5008. > Turning aside, you find yourself facing a stallion of considerable bulk bearing numerous bruises.
  5009. "Seismic Shift, yes?"
  5010. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  5011. > Turning from his rumbled answer to look after the departing ponies, you sigh.
  5012. "I don't know. I have a suspicion she won't."
  5013. > "What will you do then."
  5014. > Your mouth curves into a bitter smile.
  5015. "I don't know that either. I don't know a lot, actually - some days I feel like I am making things up by the minute, just trying to keep everything afloat because if I stop for a minute we'll all drown."
  5016. > He hums, a deep bass sound with a pained undertone.
  5017. > "That feeling is a familiar one, yes. Thunderlane's gotta be feeling it to, being in charge of us."
  5018. "What would you do, if you were in my hooves and she refuses to clean up her work?"
  5019. > "If I had an answer to that - if everypony could give answers to that - we wouldn't have to be doing this."
  5020. > He pauses, then adds:
  5021. > "...or maybe it'd be worse, if their ideas didn't line up."
  5022. "I'm kind of afraid my idea won't line up with everypony else's."
  5023. > "I don't get the feeling you have much of a choice. Got to be a leader and all that."
  5024. "Don't I know it."
  5025. > ...
  5026. > You'd hoped to get in a good amount of work after handling that.
  5027. > Unfortunately, far to soon there's a tentative knock at your office door.
  5028. > "Miss Cadance?"
  5029. > That is a familiar voice behind it.
  5030. "Mocha Cream?"
  5031. > The door nudges open, and a nervous eye half-hidden behind strands of chocolate-toned mane peeks around its edge.
  5032. > "Yes, Miss Cadance. Can I come in?"
  5033. "Of course. What can I help you with?"
  5034. > "Um. Anonymous sent me down here to find you for Mister Backstitch. Anonymous says a, um, outfit is ready for you to test. That you're to have it fit for his dinner."
  5035. > Oh, yes.
  5036. > He had mentioned that.
  5037. "Well, I think I can put aside what I am doing now to come do my part in this."
  5038. > No, you can't.
  5039. > But that doesn't seem to be an option.
  5040. > When you arrive in the room you are directed to in his manor, you find an Earth Pony stallion puttering about amid his collection of tailoring materials.
  5041. > The moment he lays eyes on you however, his ears drop and tail clamps down over his haunches.
  5042. > Cocking one eyebrow, you slip the rest of the way through the door and close it behind you.
  5043. "Come now, Backstitch - it can't be that ugly."
  5044. > "Quite the opposite, Your Highness. Please, forgive me for subjecting you to this... thing."
  5045. > As he assembles the 'dress', your stomach increasingly plummets and anger rises.
  5046. > Soon you can't help but shift in place occasionally, an ear flicking to tail lashing in annoyance as the outfit's nature becomes increasingly clear.
  5047. > Your first impression was that someone - or somepony, with how well it was designed - had started by blending proper saddle tack and harness with a more formal dress.
  5048. > A bridle was set on your head, from which strips of gauzy fabric hung rein-like until they reached the straps circling your chest and saddle wrapping your barrel.
  5049. > There they originated again, drifting back to teasingly cover your croup and hindquarters while others ran down to circle your legs.
  5050. > It's not that the outfit isn't well-tailored.
  5051. > On the contrary, the fabric it was woven from is thin enough to highlight the rises and swells of your form yet not so sheer as to be transparent.
  5052. > It is extremely well-fitting for your slender physique - and quite flattering.
  5053. > Too flattering for your liking, in fact, in fact; especially with the elements adopted from a harness blended into it, this does not feel like a proper dress for a formal appearance.
  5054. > As each element is added on your frustration grows deeper and the flame of anger burns a little higher.
  5055. > The final straw is when what you'd taken to be merely booted slippers not unlike your old shoes are secured to your ankles by locking bands of metal.
  5056. > Thin, gleaming chains fell from a ring that was to be slid onto your horn down to the bands, the two that went to your rear legs passing close to your chest and between your forelegs.
  5057. > There is no need for another glance in the mirror to know how it looks.
  5058. > You are barely able to contain your fury, entire body shaking at the thought of what he has done to you.
  5059. > Backstitch shuffles nervously, averting his eyes.
  5060. > "I - I think it is prepared to the best of my ability, Miss Cadance. As I said, forgive-"
  5061. > But you are no longer listening.
  5062. > Face burning with indignity, you sweep past him and out the door.
  5063. > "Wait! Your Highness, the dress-"
  5064. > Backstitch's panicked cry doesn't even phase you.
  5066. > If the drugs had not already been suppressing your magic the ring on your horn would certainly have made it harder to cast; a teleport is far out of each.
  5067. > Unfortunately, this means you have to take the long way up to Anonymous' study... while still in the dress.
  5068. > If any eyes are on you, they don't register either; not until you approach the door to his study - already cracked open - do you pause at voices drifting out from within.
  5069. > One is Anonymous', but the other is Mocha Cream.
  5070. > "...refused to punish them?"
  5071. > "Miss Cadance, refused to whip them, sir. She assigned them extra work hours in their time off, and to remove the graffiti they made."
  5072. > "Hrmm."
  5073. > Slipping up to the door, your anger momentarily forgotten, you peer in through the narrow crack with one eye.
  5074. > Anonymous is seated at his chair again, rubbing his chin.
  5075. > Mocha Cream, seated on her haunches, shuffles nervously at the foot of the desk.
  5076. > "I-Is there a message you'd like me to deliver to Miss Cadance about-"
  5077. > "No, just wondering what her limit is going to be. She's going to have to bend sooner or later, or she'll snap - and the results of that will be messy."
  5078. > "Messy, sir?"
  5079. > "Already happened once. With that asshole in the guard - now I'm wondering when she's going to snap in the opposite direction."
  5080. > He stands, walking to the shelves - and, unfortunately, out of your line of sight.
  5081. > You can still hear him rifling through papers, though, until he evidently finds the file he was looking for and returns to the desk with it.
  5082. > Snapping it open, he begins to leaf through the pages; as one flips over, you catch a glimpse of your own face, staring back from a picture.
  5083. > "...I'd hoped she'd be the most agreeable of the Equestrian leaders out there. Costlier than some of the others, but an alicorn is an investment."
  5084. > "And her daughter, Sir?"
  5085. > "A way to reinforce her mother's behavior, for one. Giving my own daughter some early experience, for another. Also, if my operations continue to expand, it might become necessary to-"
  5086. > Looking up suddenly, Anonymous shoots Mocha a wry grin.
  5087. > "Since when were you so good at getting me to answer questions, hrm?"
  5088. > Shuffling nervously under his gaze, Mocha hangs her head.
  5089. > "Forgive me, Master. I've just been wondering..."
  5090. > "Eh, you've a right I suppose. You are teaching with her, after all."
  5091. > Anonymous scratches his cheek and shrugs.
  5092. > "But - I wasn't lying. Their relationship will be good for both of them, and sooner or later Megan was going to have to get some experience managing a pony if she's going to have a share in this business anyhow."
  5093. > From her spot beside the desk, Mocha stares at him for a moment before quickly shifting her gaze to the ground.
  5094. > " have something to say about that, Mocha?"
  5095. > "It's... not my place, Sir."
  5096. > "Well, now it is."
  5097. > Turning his seat Anonymous reaches out to lightly stroke Mocha's Mane; she squeaks softly, hiding her face as his hand runs over the rich brown strands.
  5098. > "Come on. I'm curious."
  5099. > "You... said something else, before. About, um, expanding."
  5100. > "Yes, well. If it becomes necessary - and it'll be quite some time, I think - it might be beneficial to have another alicorn running my second site. You lot do look up to Cadance, after all; her heir ought to be able to invoke the same."
  5101. > Nodding with renewed certainty, as if that was the answer she had been waiting for, Mocha speaks up again:
  5102. > "Master... Flurry Heart is more than able to follow orders. But... I don't think she is ready to be a leader. She is a foal, Master, and-"
  5103. > Seeming to choke on her own words, she halts abruptly.
  5104. > "It's okay, Mocha. Go ahead."
  5105. > "She... adores you, Master. Not just accepts you as her Master, but she - practically worships you."
  5106. > His head cocks slightly, prompting her to go on.
  5107. > "Flurry Heart thinks of you first - always. Even your daughter... they are growing close, but only because of her relationship to you."
  5108. > "Hmm. I suppose that time she snuck in at night should have been a hint of that-"
  5109. > "It was only the beginning, sir."
  5110. > That she interrupted her owner doesn't even seem to register for Mocha.
  5111. > "She is constantly thinking about pleasing you. And - while I realize you wish us to follow your orders, she thinks ONLY about pleasing you. If, um. If that makes sense, Sir."
  5112. > "No, it does. I understand; she's not thinking like a leader, she's thinking like..."
  5113. > "A slave, Sir."
  5114. > Mocha's voice is low and subdued.
  5115. > "Yes."
  5116. > He nods slowly.
  5117. > "Thinking like a slave. It's understandable that Flurry Heart would be... focused, let's say, after what she went through."
  5118. > "I..."
  5119. > Eyes again falling to the floor, Mocha sighs.
  5120. > "I couldn't say, sir."
  5121. > "You seemed to be saying just a minute ago."
  5122. > She draws a sharp and unsteady breath, and Anonymous frowns.
  5123. > "Do try and relax, Mocha. I'm not going to be beating you for giving me your thoughts."
  5124. > "...I think she can. With time. But if you try and force her into a being a leader for you before she is ready-"
  5125. > "Relax, Mocha. It's going to be years before I try anything like that. A decade, even. She has time to learn."
  5126. > Sinking down as if she had finally released some great and awful weight from her shoulders, the mare nods.
  5127. > "Though I do have to ask: Why the sudden forcefulness about her position?"
  5128. > And just like that, she is tensed up again - eyes locked firmly on the carpet in front of her.
  5129. > "...I... I was only a year or two older than she is now when I was taken, Sir. I didn't have the benefit of time to learn, and what you are thinking of having her do is much more than I've ever done."
  5130. > "So you want to protect her, or...?"
  5131. > "I don't want her to be crushed under the weight of her orders like I was. Not after what her last owner did to her."
  5132. > "Why, Mocha Cream."
  5133. > A grin cracks Anonymous' face as he reaches out to scratch around the mare's ears.
  5134. > "You're sounding positively motherly."
  5135. > For her part, Mocha squeaks and colors her cheeks to the point that it is obvious even through her coffee-colored coat, muttering into the carpeting:
  5136. > "I j-just want her foalhood to end up better than mine was."
  5137. > "Well, the thought about what will happen on my end if she's pushed too deep in too quickly is appreciated as well."
  5138. > "T-Thank you, Sir."
  5139. > "Right now, it's Cadance I'm more concerned about that Flurry Heart. Sooner or later she's going to snap again, and with this dinner upcoming-"
  5140. > The dinner.
  5141. > The whole reason he'd gotten this awful, miserable thing for you to 'wear'.
  5142. > Mere mention of it reignites the anger in your chest.
  5143. > Shoving the door open, you trot inside - eyes narrowed and burning with fierce indignation.
  5144. "Actually, why don't we get that out of the way right now."
  5145. > Mocha Cream squeaks nervously, looking between you and Anonymous - and then looking again, her cheeks flushing as she takes in your appearance.
  5146. "Anonymous, please tell me this... thing is your idea of a sick joke."
  5147. > Staring flatly, Anonymous cocks his head.
  5148. > "Cadance. You're looking good."
  5149. "Looking good? Is that all you can say? I look - look like a - a - a whore! A chained whore!"
  5150. > Snorting softly, he rises to circle you.
  5151. > "You look extremely elegant, which is the point. My guests will have to see that not only am I invested in this project, but that you are as well. That is what I am demonstrating, after all."
  5152. > Your mouth is half-open to snap a response when Backstitch appears in the doorway, face red and puffing.
  5153. > "Anonymous, Sir! Please forgive me, she ran away before-"
  5154. > "It's quite alright, Backstitch. You did excellent work, really."
  5155. > The poor stallion doesn't seem to quite know how to respond to that, unable to balance Anonymous' praise and your rapidly-darkening expression.
  5156. "No, Anonymous. It is not 'excellent work'. It is not one bit acceptable-"
  5157. > "And since when did you decide what is 'acceptable', Cadance? Don't get too full of yourself; remember that, in the end, you are still my property."
  5158. > He circles you again, a thoughtful look on his face.
  5159. > "Hrm. Have to find a way to keep your tail up, and - don't give me that look, Cadance; you'll be covered up, if that's suddenly so important to you."
  5160. > Ignoring his frank looks of approval at the way it highlights your form, you lay your ears back down flat and huff.
  5161. "What is important to me is that I not am not displayed like a dolled-up whore for your guests."
  5162. > Shaking your head - the chains dangling from the horn ring clinking softly - you snarl:
  5163. "Is this how you want to show me? Your little pet princess, bound up in chains and a harness?"
  5164. > "And here I'd heard Equestria's fashion used to include bridles and saddles."
  5165. "...and your fashion includes leggings. There is a difference between those worn to look good or keep warm, and those worn to make you look like a whore."
  5166. > Sighing softly, Anonymous collapses back into his seat.
  5167. > "Mocha, Backstitch, you're dismissed. I think we can discuss this between each other."
  5168. "No, actually, why don't the two of you stay right here and hear what he has to say."
  5169. > Stepping up, you half-spread your wings - an old instinct, making yourself appear larger in an argument - and growl out:
  5170. "Today I have tried my utmost best to solve a delicate situation that is the direct result of your mistake. Now I find that not only do you think I am not doing enough, but that you intend to trot me out as a - a prize at best, and a tidbit meant to draw dirty gazes at worse? You talk as if I and my daughter were important to you as leaders. But I don't see myself being presented as a leader here. So I would really like to know just where you see me!"
  5171. > Anonymous' eyes narrow as well, now.
  5172. > They focus on Mocha Cream and Backstich in turn; each wilts under the attention and - tails limp and dragging - turn for the door.
  5173. > Mocha, at least, has the kindness to whisper an apology to you as she departs.
  5174. > After the door closes, Anonymous speaks up again:; unfortunately, it is not an answer for your question.
  5175. > "I really did think you were more mature than to throw a tantrum in front of your ponies for the sake of getting your way."
  5176. "If this is what you see as throwing a tantrum, then we have a lot more to discuss."
  5177. > "Hmm."
  5178. > He beckons you closer, and despite your anger you find yourself approaching his seat.
  5179. > "Well, the honest truth is that it is a bit of both. You will have ample time to explain exactly how it is we have been working together for both of our good. But yes, they expect to see more than just that. They expect to see that I have control you, and that will be important to show as well."
  5180. "So you pretty me up like a filly trying to make her stallion drop from his sheath on date night? Why don't you just trot me out in shackles and a steel collar; at least then it'd be clear what I am."
  5181. > It takes Anonymous a moment to compute the meaning of your question.
  5182. > When he does, his nose wrinkles.
  5183. > "You know, Cadance, I am very much trying to resist the urge to do that. But you are making it very tempting to put you in chains right now to remind you of your proper place."
  5184. "I think it would be better than this... monstrosity I am wearing."
  5185. > "Evidently you have forgotten what I told you about a leader needing to make difficult choices."
  5186. "This is not about leading. My wearing this - thing has no bearing on how I govern them. This is about humiliation. You don't have to show your friends that you control me; you're showing them that you can humiliate me and I won't fight back."
  5187. > "And if it is? Then what?"
  5188. > You pause.
  5189. > Then what indeed?
  5190. "You really want me to wear this?"
  5191. > Raising your head, you stare him in the eye - one of the chains hanging from the horn ring dancing in your vision.
  5192. "Fine. I'll wear it. I'll humiliate myself for your pleasure if you think it will help this meeting - and this meeting will help the ponies - because that is what a good leader would do."
  5193. > Strutting - almost stalking - up to him, you draw yourself up as tall and proud as you could and pour every bit of your fury into a glare.
  5194. "I'll be not just a slave but a pet, a plaything, your chained whore. Does that satisfy you, Master? Or should I raise my tail and present myself for your guests-"
  5195. > Your head snaps to the side, cheek stinging from the slap that had just been driven into it.
  5196. > Twisting it back to face him again you set your jaw fiercely and lock it into place.
  5197. "Is there anything else, Master?"
  5198. > Though your words may have been placating, your mocking tone put a sour twist on them.
  5199. > Anonymous hisses back with a soft, dangerous voice.
  5200. > "If you're looking to spend another night in chains, Cadance, you're doing an excellent job of getting yourself there."
  5201. "Why should I care? It looks like I'm going to be wearing chains anyhow."
  5202. > Another resounding slap, and your head snaps to the opposite side as he delivers another stinging blow.
  5203. > Breathing a bit heavily now, you still come back to meet his gaze.
  5204. "At least this way it's clear what I actually am to you."
  5205. > His hand raises and you brace for a third blow, but at the peak of its rise he hesitates - fist clenching and then slowly dropping again.
  5206. > The sleeve, you notice, is swollen from the bandage beneath.
  5207. > That was the arm that Corona had sunk her teeth into.
  5208. > " No, I'm not going to beat you, Cadance, because that wouldn't teach you anything."
  5209. > Almost rearing back in surprise, you tilt your head.
  5210. > "You're not thinking right. Anger has a hold of you, and once you calm down a bit you'll understand why you're wrong."
  5211. > Now your gaze finally drops, wings shuffling embarrassedly.
  5212. > He was, in a way, right.
  5213. > The anger that filled you was deserved, but it was pushing you to do things that were wrong.
  5214. "...perhaps we both lost our tempers some."
  5215. > Anonymous snorts.
  5216. > "Perhaps I should have given you a few other public appearances before this, to get you used to it."
  5217. > How about not.
  5218. "It's not being in public that is a problem. I can deal with that. It is this... debasing appearance I'm forced to put on."
  5219. > "...then maybe I should have reminded you more often what you actually are."
  5220. > How about doubly not.
  5221. "May I at least take this... dress off, Master?"
  5222. > After a moment, Anonymous gives a tentative nod.
  5223. > "Take it down to Backstitch. Ask him if there is anything else he needs to do to it."
  5224. > You do, slipping quickly from the room to quickly head for the basement.
  5225. > As you pass down the stairs, a distant burst of laughter reaches your ears.
  5226. > His daughter?
  5227. > No, she would probably be away at school at this point.
  5228. > ...your daughter?
  5229. > The thought of Flurry Heart laying eyes on you wearing this monstrosity is enough to send a shudder down your spine.
  5230. > Ducking into a nearby dining room, you quickly strip the dress off as carefully as you can and opt to carry it in a ball of magic alongside you instead.
  5231. > Backstitch, fortunately, did not need to do any further work on it.
  5232. > He simply stores it away again, ears flat and barely able to look at you.
  5233. > Under any other circumstance you would have reassured him that it wasn't his fault, but right now there are other emotions to focus on.
  5234. > Back up in Anonymous' study, he has moved to a seat nearby the window.
  5235. > There's a glass of something golden in his hand.
  5236. > Cautiously you close the door behind you; Anonymous doesn't react initially, but he eventually raises a hand to beckon you over.
  5237. > "What now, Cadance?"
  5238. > He sounds more tired than anything else.
  5239. "I... I wanted to know. When the party occurs, will - will my daughter see me in that outfit?"
  5240. > Anonymous seems to think on that for a few moments before answering.
  5241. > "She's much too young to understand what she is seeing. Megan too, so you don't have to worry about that either."
  5242. > Your stomach turns.
  5243. "Flurry Heart is old enough to understand humiliation."
  5244. > "Then don't let her see you humiliated by what you are."
  5245. > Gritting your teeth, you growl out:
  5246. "At least tell me she won't be wearing anything similar."
  5247. > "God, no! I'm not going to draw their eyes to a child like that."
  5248. > That, at least, is one bit of relief.
  5249. "More than my pride is at risk by forcing me to wear that though, Master. If the others get the idea that I'm your compliant plaything, they might very well get the idea that I'm not looking out for them..."
  5250. > "You aren't. You are, first and foremost, mine. Remember that, Cadance."
  5251. "There's a difference between 'first and foremost' and 'not at all'. The point at which they might turn an ear towards somepony more... aggressive is in that difference."
  5252. > "And what is a 'more aggressive' pony going to do? Get more killed? More returned for punishment?"
  5253. "I don't know. And that's why I'm afraid of it too - because if it gets to that point, I don't know what would happen."
  5254. > Abruptly Anonymous leans over in his seat, brushing the back of his hand along your cheek.
  5255. > It's a surprisingly tender gesture.
  5256. > Especially since that hand had not to long ago been delivering stinging blows to that very cheek.
  5257. > "Cadance, I sometimes really wonder about you... you're obviously smart enough to know what is see where rebelling leads; what you just said proves that."
  5258. "There's a difference between rebelling with a violent hoof and resisting the pit that despair is."
  5259. > His fingers brush along your cheek again, this time drifting back around to rest just behind your ear.
  5260. > Said ear flicks at the sensation, but you give no further reaction to the touch - even when he starts to scratch just behind your ear.
  5261. > Instead, you speak softly:
  5262. "Do you actually think I am going to... snap?"
  5263. > "You just did, though not as loudly as I was worried about."
  5264. "At another pony, though. Enough to hurt them."
  5265. > "Do you think that who it is matters, Cadance?"
  5266. > No.
  5267. > It doesn't.
  5268. > Your silence is answer enough,
  5269. > "You've put yourself in a lonely position, Cadance. By your own choice, for that matter."
  5270. "I know. I barely have anypony I can call a friend. The ponies I trust the most are as lonely as I am. I go 'home' and sleep in an empty bed every night."
  5271. > "That could change."
  5272. > You nearly stop breathing, eyes widening and nostrils flaring.
  5273. > Even your tail lays flat down against the floor.
  5274. > Suddenly his hand resting on your head feels ten times heavier, pressing down on you.
  5275. > Surely he didn't mean-
  5276. > "Stop playing at this ridiculous business of equating 'leader' to be distant from everyone."
  5277. > ...oh.
  5278. > He hadn't meant the bed after all.
  5279. "I have to. It's-"
  5280. > "Why isn't relevant. What matters is that you are."
  5281. "And what do you think I should do otherwise?"
  5282. > The weight of his hand on the back of your head is distracting, never mind his gentle scratching.
  5283. > "For starters, stop thinking of me as your enemy. Believe me when I have very good reasons for giving you the orders I do."
  5284. "I don't doubt that. I just think those orders sometimes aren't in our best interests."
  5285. > Anonymous heaves a sigh, his head shaking once more.
  5286. "We aren't going to simply... forget what was. I told you that after the escape, and I will keep telling you that."
  5287. > "You should."
  5288. "Could you forget about your daughter, Sir?"
  5289. > His hand jerks to a sudden halt.
  5290. > "...that was a low blow."
  5291. "We can't just let go of what's been taken from us any more than you could let go of Megan."
  5292. > "Cadance..."
  5293. > Abruptly his hand slips beneath your chin, lifting it until your eyes are on his again.
  5294. > What he is thinking, you cannot quite tell - whether due to the amber liquid in the glass he holds or something else.
  5295. > "Cadance, you impressed me with how you've handled yourself so far. So don't make me fight you - raise an objection if you want, if you think you know better. But please don't make me fight you."
  5296. "And if I do?"
  5297. > "I'm not afraid to punish you if that is what is called for. You know that."
  5298. "I'm not afraid of the whip."
  5299. > "What, then?"
  5300. "I'm afraid of what ponies will do if they see that."
  5301. > His face quirks into a bitter expression, with just a hint of a questioning smile.
  5302. > "So, they shouldn't see you obeying me, but they shouldn't see you disobeying me either... tell me, Cadance. What the are they supposed to see us doing, hrm?"
  5303. "In two words, Sir? Hope and cooperation. Hope to show us that it is worth staying here - that freedom, even if accompanied by terror, persecution, and even death isn't better than staying here. Cooperation gives us that hope - show us that you're working with us, talking to us, and not just delivering orders."
  5304. > He flatly stares at you.
  5305. > "Cadance, has it possibly slipped your mind that you are a slave?"
  5306. > You're on thin ice, that tone says.
  5307. "No, Master."
  5308. > Submissively dipping your head, you lay your ears flat and scuff at the carpet with one hoof.
  5309. > No matter how much you want to snap that it wasn't remotely possible for you to forget what has been done to you, this is not the time.
  5310. > Anger already cost you two blows and very nearly even further punishment.
  5311. > Despite the frustration that bubbles beneath your coat, now isn't the time to snap back.
  5312. > Anonymous controlled his anger; you can at least match him in that respect.
  5313. "No, I have not forgotten that I am a slave. But that does not change what I am suggesting: Being a slave does not erase that we want to have hope that our colts and fillies - will have a better future. And their foals too. You can give us that by listening to what we're saying."
  5314. > "Hmm."
  5315. "Vapor Trail - you remember her? It's the same thing. She's afraid that her foal has nothing to look forward to but following orders under the threat of the lash for their entire life. Showing that you are willing to move would go a long way to reducing that."
  5316. > "And what about what I have been giving you? What about putting ponies into the guard, instead of just hiring more that would look at you as merely slaves?"
  5317. "They - they see that, Master."
  5318. > Grunting, Anonymous' gaze turns back out the window.
  5319. > "You'll wear the Goddamn dress, Cadance. One way or another, you'll wear it because the money their investments might bring in will make real opportunities for this place."
  5320. "Yes, Master."
  5321. > Seemingly mollified by your passive tone, he goes on:
  5322. > "Now. After that - after we get this business over and done with - we can talk about cooperation. But one way or another you're going to have to accept that there are some things which aren't going to be negotiable."
  5323. > You hope so.
  5324. > Even if ponies understand how much you hate what you're going to have to do at this dinner, a worrying voice at the back of your mind whispers that there will be another time.
  5325. > Another indignity, another little cruelty to suffer.
  5326. > And sooner or later the straw that broke the pony's back is going to-
  5327. > You're pulled from your thoughts by his hand slipping around your cheek again - both hands, in fact, cupping your head between them.
  5328. > Anonymous is turned in his seat, leaning over to bring his face close to yours.
  5329. > "You're not doing badly, Cadance. You got a bit too big for your britches and I had to discipline you a bit, but that doesn't mean you're failing altogether."
  5330. > Almost instinctively you drop your eyes, coat prickling at the touch.
  5331. > "Cadance, look at me."
  5332. > You do, bringing your eyes back up to meet his.
  5333. > Searching them, you scour for any sign of malign intentions or cruelty.
  5334. > It is not the first time you've searched your owner - him and his actions - for any sign of true evil.
  5335. > But, as before, there are none.
  5336. > He truly believes what he is saying.
  5337. > How...?
  5338. > How could someone possibly do this without evil in their hearts?
  5339. "Master - if I am... why don't you show me? Why don't you show us?"
  5340. > A frown crosses face, and for a moment you fear that you have gone too far.
  5341. > "I thought I did, Cadance. I really thought I did."
  5342. "Not with the money, or the guards..."
  5343. > If not for his order to look at him, there was no way you would be able to keep your eyes locked.
  5344. "It's not that. They need to see you, personally, rewarding us. Not just through me. They need to see that you are understanding what they doing for you as well."
  5345. > "Hmm."
  5346. > He's making that noise a lot.
  5347. > You're starting to worry it means he is hearing you but not really listening.
  5348. > Brushing his thumb over your cheek a few more times, Anonymous releases you at last.
  5349. > "I'll think about how I can do that. For now, though-"
  5350. "For now I'll wear the dress."
  5351. > "Without making a scene."
  5352. "Without making a scene."
  5353. > Though not without protest.
  5354. > "Fine. Why you couldn't have said that before..."
  5355. > He sighs, shaking his head.
  5356. > "I'm glad we got this resolved, but Cadance? If you snap at me like that again I'm not going to hold myself back. Do you understand me?"
  5357. > Turning your head away now that he's let go, you dip your muzzle in a small nod.
  5358. "I do."
  5360. > "I'll ask her if she would like to see you."
  5361. "Thank you."
  5362. > The nurse is back within minutes, motioning to the room she'd just
  5363. > "Go on in, Thunderlane."
  5364. > Sweeping past her, you do - carefully closing the door behind you with one wing.
  5365. > Vapor Trail, curled by a chair in the window, looks over as you do - offering a small, thin smile in greeting.
  5366. > "Hello..."
  5367. "Hey, Vapor."
  5368. > Quickly moving to her side, you briefly nuzzle against the mare's cheek and try to avoid noticing at how obvious the way she is curled makes the growing swell of her belly.
  5369. > It doesn't work.
  5370. > Vapor giggles, a nervous and pained sound.
  5371. > "I'm getting big and fat already, aren't I?"
  5372. "I..."
  5373. > Cheeks growing red, you draw back.
  5374. > "It's okay. You don't have to be embarrassed."
  5375. "I can't help it..."
  5376. > Your muttered reply is quickly followed by a more direct question:
  5377. "Are they going to let you out of here soon?"
  5378. > "Yes. As soon as they finish one last test on..."
  5379. > Her head falls.
  5380. > " know."
  5381. > Internally, you grimace.
  5382. > So much for taking her attention away from that topic.
  5383. "Um, good. It's... not good for pegasi to be trapped up inside such a tiny place for so long."
  5384. > "Thunderlane? Why are you so... interested? You brought me over to see Cadance, and now you're coming back to check up on me?"
  5385. "Isn't a stallion allowed to worry about somepony who's feeling down?"
  5386. > She doesn't respond, and you drop your earlier joking tone.
  5387. "All seriousness, Vapor Trail. I - I guess I do kind of feel for you. I mean - I think I saw you back in the Junior Wonderbolts' ranks, right?"
  5388. > The way her face lights up lifts some of the weight from your system.
  5389. > "You remember! Were you there too?"
  5390. > Giving an awkward little grin, you lift a wing to rub at the back of your mohawk-mane in embarrassment.
  5391. "Yeah. I - I wasn't the best. Good enough to get in, but not really enough to compete at the top levels. Straight-up racing isn't my talent."
  5392. > "O-Oh. I'm sorry."
  5393. "Don't be. It was still an amazing experience to go through."
  5394. > "S-So, you saw me there, and...?"
  5395. "I guess - well, when you came back in, I kind of felt sympathetic, you know? One junior racer to another, one pegasus to another... I understood how you felt. And, I guess I'm just... trying to be friendly, since I get how you're feeling."
  5396. > "Oh!"
  5397. > Instantly she is relaxed; managing another smile, Vapor Trail motions to the nearest cot in the room.
  5398. > "I'm sorry there's only one chair here, but if you'd like to sit down..."
  5399. > Climbing up onto the bed and dropping to your belly with a relieved sigh, you nod.
  5400. "Thanks. My sleep schedule's been out of whack."
  5401. > Her head cants, tilting in a pegasus gesture of curiosity.
  5402. > "Oh? Why?"
  5403. "I spent three nights in a closet waiting for somepony to break in, then got in a chase and a fight."
  5404. > Groaning, you drop your head.
  5405. "Anyway. You were saying?"
  5406. > "Um. Well, I guess I kind of was worried..."
  5407. > Her head falls, looking at the floor.
  5408. > "'s not really fair to you."
  5409. "Vapor - nothing you say could say would insult me. I promise, I've been called worse here."
  5410. > Cheeks coloring a pale pink easily spotting on her light coat, she mutters out:
  5411. > "I was worried you were trying to get into bed with me. Some stallions have - racer's body and all, you know..."
  5412. > Now it is your turn for your cheeks to color.
  5413. "I - no - I wasn't - I mean, it's not that you're not pretty-"
  5414. > Vapor trail laughs - actually laughs - at your sputtered response.
  5415. > "Smooth, mister racer. Don't worry, I understand what you're saying. And, um - honestly, I'm actually glad to hear it. I mean -"
  5416. > Her head falls, eyes tracking out to the window.
  5417. > Nervously she shifts in her seat.
  5418. > "...if anything, I'm the bad pony. I was the one who assumed you were just trying to get into bed with me, when you've been nothing but kind to me."
  5419. "Hey. Don't be like that; this - this slavery has a way of turning ponies against each other. We stay ourselves by watching each others' flanks and being there when we're needed."
  5420. > Even as the words roll off your tongue they fill your mouth with bitterness.
  5421. > Hadn't you been the pony who'd turned the most, spying for your owner?
  5422. > "I - I guess. But I still shouldn't have projected that on to you."
  5423. > Maybe.
  5424. > If you could keep this mare safe, spare her the pain she was so desperately trying to avoid, it would help close the gaping wound still rent in your soul.
  5425. "Vapor, I..."
  5426. > "I guess... right now, I'm so focused on trying to give..."
  5427. > She laughs an awkward, little broken laugh.
  5428. > "I don't even know if the foal is a he or a her. But I know what I want for them, and I'm afraid of seeing threats everywhere."
  5429. "Hey, Vapor?"
  5430. > "Huh?"
  5431. > You draw in a heavy breath.
  5432. > Did you really want to do this?
  5433. > Looking after Rumble was tricky enough; was another pony really what you wanted to be dealing with right now?
  5434. "Listen, there's - there's an open dorm room nearby mine It was going to be assigned, but isn't filled in yet. If you'd like-"
  5435. > Her head is tilted, looking questioningly at you.
  5436. > She isn't sure yet, but doesn't look like she's rejecting your offer quite yet.
  5437. "I'm not going to try and be looking over your withers every second or two, but if you want to be nearby a friendly face... I mean, my door would be close and open."
  5438. > "I..."
  5439. > She looks down, and for the briefest moment there's a flicker of pain across her face.
  5440. > "That might be nice, but..."
  5441. "...but?"
  5442. > "Nevermind. It's close, you said?"
  5443. "Yes. Six doors down - close enough, but not like I'd be asking you to share my dorm or something. You'd have your room - as much room as anypony has, anyhow; you'd probably have a roommate or two."
  5444. > "No, that'd be fine. I understand."
  5445. > Vapor Trail shoots you a soft, gentle smile.
  5446. > "It's more than welcome. I - I'm glad that anypony here is, like you put it, looking at each others' flanks."
  5447. "Well, it's how we survive. I've a younger brother here as well, and we've kept each other in good shape."
  5448. > "Oh? A brother?"
  5449. "Yes, Rumble."
  5450. > You smile fondly, though not without a touch of melancholy.
  5451. "He's a good colt - actually, just about a stallion now. Still a bit hot-headed, but - well, you know how we pegasi get at that age."
  5452. > Snorting, Vapor trail rolls her eyes.
  5453. > "Stallions."
  5454. "Hey, hey! Mares get like that too!"
  5455. > "Not as much - but you're right. I understand how it feels to be the pony looking after another friend."
  5456. > Her tone turns unexpectedly morose as she finishes the sentence, muzzle again dropping towards the floor.
  5457. "...somepony you knew?"
  5458. > "Another Wonderbolt trainee. Sky Stinger. We were... very close. I never found out what happened to him, but - he was a determined pony. I'm sure he is surviving."
  5459. > For a moment you wonder if he'd been the mysteriously absent father to her colt, but the way she is talking - no, it didn't sound like it.
  5460. > He wasn't the only one either. I've - I've always looked out for ponies. Even when they came for us, and then even after."
  5461. > Shifting on the bed, you extend one wing out towards her.
  5462. > Vapor Trail does the same, tip-feathers of her wing meshing with your own.
  5463. "It's okay to let someone look out for you too, Vapor. It's not a one-way wind."
  5464. > She actually cracks a smile again, nodding with eyes warm.
  5465. > "Alright, Thunderlane. You've convinced me. I'll take you up on your offer, once I'm out of here."
  5466. > Your own expression brightens as well.
  5467. "Excellent!"
  5468. > "If you're sure it's not too much trouble?"
  5469. "No. Trust me, the trouble's about a week out. Anonymous is hosting some kind of dinner thing for some of the humans he does business with. I'm not looking forward to being a part of that."
  5471. > Drawing a deep, steadying breath you peer into the mirror and adjust the bowtie on your neck.
  5472. > Despite how many times you'd worn it, the suit feels heavy on your shoulders and tight in the chest.
  5473. > That was the weight of nervousness, you knew, not the real weight of cloth and stitch.
  5474. "Mocha. No issues with the preparation?"
  5475. > "No, Master."
  5476. > Standing just behind you, Mocha Cream shuffles nervously.
  5477. > Her own dress, a far more practical option for a pony who would be working this evening, is nonetheless a bit beyond her typical wear.
  5478. > "The hors d'oeuvres are all set out, the table is set, and the rooms are of course prepared. And, Miss Cadance arrived half an hour ago to get into her dress."
  5479. "Excellent!"
  5480. > Reaching down, you resist the urge to tousle her mane - there'd be no time for her to re-do it - and instead slip finger and thumb around her ear, scratching lightly.
  5481. > Mocha Cream makes a tiny, pleased nickering, a slight flush forming on her muzzle.
  5482. "You've been doing well. I know you've been busy all day, and it can't be easy at this point."
  5483. > "It's not as hard as you t-think, Master."
  5484. > Her voice has a slightly distant tone to it, and you chuckle.
  5485. "No, but it's still good. Now, go on downstairs and check up to make sure the kitchen is on-point, would you?"
  5486. > "Of course, Sir!"
  5487. > She is out the door in a blur of hooves and dress.
  5488. > A few minutes later, far more cautious hoofsteps enter behind you.
  5489. "Hello, Cadance."
  5490. > Without even turning to look, you know who it is.
  5491. > That's not to say you don't turn; on the contrary, you do - eyeing her hoof to horn before nodding in approval.
  5492. > Her mane had been styled in replication of the way she once wore it as a ruler, but the glittering lengths of chain that fell from her horn ring were what truly caught the eye.
  5493. > They sparkled, swaying with every movement she made, tracing the edge of her muzzle before dropping down to fall beneath her chest and down to her fetlocks.
  5494. > Along with the bridle and sheer strips circling her, she definitely cut an eye-catching figure.
  5495. > Stepping close, you put a hand to her cheek - feeling the sleek softness of her coat and the hard straps circling it.
  5496. "You're looking excellent."
  5497. > "Thank you, Master."
  5498. > It's mumbled perfunctorily, though, and there's no real feeling in her thanks.
  5499. > Not to mention her eyes aren't anywhere on you when she says it.
  5500. "You don't have to start lying to me yet, Cadance. That mask doesn't go on until the first guests begin to arrive."
  5501. > Immediately you can see her relax.
  5502. > This time when she speaks there is real emotion in her voice.
  5503. > "Then thank you for that, master."
  5504. "Hmm. You know your part for tonight?"
  5505. > "Yes, Master. I will greet arriving guests, direct them to you, remain at your side during dinner and I have memorized the parts you gave me to explain in about the camp and other ponies who will be present."
  5506. "About the holdings. Good. There'll be not attitude, I hope."
  5507. > Pausing, Cadance dips her head.
  5508. > ", Sir. I understand what I'm supposed to say. Truth or lies, I'll say it."
  5509. "Good. This is all about impressions right now, Cadance. You want to argue with me, we can argue later. Tonight, there's no room for imperfection."
  5510. > "Yes, Master."
  5511. "I'm sure you'll be good, though."
  5512. > "I-If I may... is there a chance I could see my daughter before things begin tonight?"
  5513. "Here I thought you didn't want her laying eyes on you in that dress."
  5514. > "N-No, Sir. I don't, but you made it clear she would be anyhow."
  5515. > Smart girl.
  5516. "Well. Not right now, I'm afraid; you're still on probation with regards to her and I can't be playing favorites in this delicate moment."
  5517. > "...yes, sir."
  5518. > There's no hiding her disappointment, but you crack a small grin.
  5519. "Do well tonight, though, and we'll see what we can do. Now, then - just keep your mind on track, head down, and that sense of righteousness in check and we'll be fine."
  5520. > Wandering back to your dresser, you take out the vial you'd bought for tonight and set it on the dresser.
  5521. "Now, then. I'm going to go downstairs and make sure there's nothing falling behind, because I might go mad if I don't. If you think it will help you keep form, use some of this. Just put it back when you're done, either way."
  5522. > Getting downstairs is the process of repeatedly dodging staff rushing through the halls on far more important matters.
  5523. > Mostly ponies, though a few of the hired types you had brought in as well.
  5524. > Strictly speaking the first class should have been dodging you, but there was no point in interrupting them when they were aware hard at their duties.
  5525. > Pausing, you spot Mocha Cream in deep discussion with two other ponies and hail her over.
  5526. "Have you seen my daughter about?"
  5527. > "Ah, yes sir. Miss Megan is -"
  5528. > A devious, girlish laugh issues from somewhere in the kitchen, accompanied by an angry 'Hey!'
  5529. > "-was in her room."
  5530. "...I'll go see to her."
  5531. > Barely have you reached the kitchen when a golden-haired blur shoots out, closely followed by an apron-clad unicorn surrounded by a halo of spoons, forks, and a spatula.
  5532. > "Hi Dad! Bye Dad!
  5533. > "...back here this minute! I'll not have my tail at risk if we're short on desert because of - ah - hello, Sir..."
  5534. "Hello, Canele. My daughter the hellion, I presume."
  5535. > The unicorn humphs heavily, jabbing a pair of tongs in the direction of the fading footsteps.
  5536. > "Yes; she had her fingers in the dough for the deserts..."
  5537. > Rolling your eyes but unable to resist a touch of a grin, you nod.
  5538. "I'll go see to her. You're at no fault; back to work."
  5539. > "Yes, sir."
  5540. > Finding Megan isn't much of a problem.
  5541. > She'd forgotten to make sure the door to her room is shut, and the soft voices from within are easy to home in on.
  5542. > Peering in reveals Megan and Flurry Heart curled up on a seat together - the latter in the dress for that evening.
  5543. > Judging from the way they are licking their lips, it's not hard to guess what they were just up to.
  5544. > When you open the door fully, Megan promptly jams her hands into her jeans pockets.
  5545. > Flurry Heart - her muzzle spattered with a bits of dough - just adopts and almost painfully adorable guilty look.
  5546. > "...hey, Dad..."
  5547. "Hey there, sweetie."
  5548. > Wandering over, you kneel down in front of her.
  5549. "You've been getting into a bit of trouble, haven't you?"
  5550. > "...was jus' getting a cookie f'me and Flurry..."
  5551. "Cookies are fine to get - after they're done, and when Canele isn't cooking. And you've made a mess of Flurry, too."
  5552. > The filly in question tries to lick her muzzle clean, but only succeeds in smearing the dough further into her coat.
  5553. > "I - I can get myself cleaned up, Master."
  5554. "No, Flurry. Megan, go get all that cookie dough out of her muzzle. And be careful not to get her dress wet."
  5555. > "Awww..."
  5556. "Don't 'awww' me. You made the mess, so you have to clean it up."
  5557. > Ruffling Megan's hair finally gets her moving.
  5558. > "Alrigh'. C'mon, Flurry, I'll wash your face off."
  5559. "Good girl."
  5560. > Following Megan into the bathroom, you stand behind her arms folded and watch her work.
  5561. > "Daddy? Do I hafta stay in my room tonight...?"
  5562. > Gently you lay a hand on her shoulder.
  5563. "Afraid so, Megan. Besides, it's just going to be a bunch of us adults sitting around and talking. You'd be all, 'this is boooorrrrring'."
  5564. > "Daddy! I do not talk like that!"
  5565. > "Yes you do. All the time!"
  5566. > Megan sticks her tongue out at Flurry Heart.
  5567. > "Traitor!"
  5568. > Laughing, you pick up Flurry Heart; she squeaks and lets you, going limp in your arms.
  5569. "No, she's not a traitor. And besides, she isn't the one sneaking into the kitchen to steal dough."
  5570. > "I'm sorry, Master-"
  5571. "Don't be. You're hardly the one at fault here."
  5572. > Carrying Flurry back out into the room, you set her down on the bed and seat yourself beside her.
  5573. > Megan joins you on the opposite side, a slight frown on her face.
  5574. > "Well - if I gotta stay here, can Flurry at least stay too? I don' wanna be alone all evening..."
  5575. > Glancing between the two of them - pony and daughter - you consider the question.
  5576. > Flurry had been meant to be a bonus for tonight, not part of the main display.
  5577. > That didn't diminish that she was an incredible feather in your cap to show off, though.
  5578. > Her dedication to you was proof that there was benefit to a softer hand in dealing with ponies.
  5579. > But then again, this was your daughter who wanted her here...
  5580. > Instead, a different thought pops into your head.
  5581. "Well, actually - Megan, do you really want to go out there and see what I'm up to tonight?"
  5582. > "Um. If it's not going to be too boring..."
  5583. "You'd have to meet a few men, shake their hands and say hello, then let them say hello to Flurry. And be on your absolute best behavior... but after that you'd be free to go get your own dinner."
  5584. > "That's it?"
  5585. > She almost sounds a little disbelieving.
  5586. "Well, maybe some of them might ask you a little bit about Flurry Heart, or about the ponies here in general. But really, yes - that's it."
  5587. > "Do I hafta stay for dinner too?"
  5588. > Giving her an apologetic smile, you nod.
  5589. "At least some of it, yes. That's the toll for coming out tonight... but I'll tell you what: If you're a good girl not only can Flurry Heart go with you when you leave, but I'll have some desert set aside for you and make sure to stay extra-long with you before you have to go to bed tonight."
  5590. > Megan seems to take a considerable amount of time to think this over.
  5591. > "...does that mean I can go t'bed later if y'aren't back at my bedtime?"
  5592. > Well, if nothing else she was well on her way to being a good lawyer.
  5593. "Let's say a little bit later. Not too late, because you've still got school tomorrow."
  5594. > "Well, I guess so then."
  5595. "Excellent!"
  5596. > You clap your hands together.
  5597. "Flurry, go find Mocha. Tell her to hand off whatever she is doing to someone else, I need her right now to make a dress ready for my daughter!"
  5598. > "Yes, Master!"
  5599. > The alicorn filly is out of the room in an instant, leaving your daughter beside you to blow a raspberry.
  5600. > "Y'didn't say I had t'wear a dress."
  5601. "Sorry, honey."
  5602. > You chuckle softly, wrapping an arm around her.
  5603. "Comes with the territory."
  5604. > Before she can respond, a proud-looking Flurry prances back into the bedroom followed by an equally flustered-looking Mocha Cream.
  5605. > "You called for me, sir?"
  5606. "Ah, yes - Mocha, plans have abruptly changed. I need a dress made up for my daughter; she's going to be appearing at the dinner. Not for long, though, so nothing too fancy."
  5607. > "I'll do my best, sir."
  5608. "I'm sure you-"
  5609. > The doorbell chimes below - not from a guest pushing it, but from the pony you'd stationed at the front door signalling that the first guests were pulling up.
  5610. "...ah, well. I think that's my cue."
  5611. > "You promise about the desert?"
  5612. "Of course, sweetheart."
  5613. > Leaning over, you plant a kiss on Megan's head.
  5614. > She hugs you - but doesn't let go when you begin to pull back.
  5615. > "You gotta bring some desert for Flurry Heart too."
  5616. > The filly in question makes a happy sound and quickly joins in on the hug.
  5617. > Grinning slightly, you nod.
  5618. "Desert for Flurry Heart too. Got it!"
  5619. > Standing, you adjust your coat and make your way to the lobby.
  5620. > Cadance's voice trickles out from ahead of you; clearly she'd gotten to the door first.
  5621. > With her greeting guests, you quickly divert to the lounge - finding a prime seat to settle in and put on the appearance of having waited patiently for them to arrive rather than frantically changing plans at the last moment.
  5622. > Tonight, after all, appearances would be everything.
  5624. > As soon as Anonymous is gone you turn and look about the room.
  5625. > It was, in truth, the first time you'd been alone in his study for some time.
  5626. > Usually he threw you out when he was done talking to you.
  5627. > Now, except for the distant muted sounds of other ponies moving around the house, it was all still and silent.
  5628. > You take the moment to wander to the case that held your peytral and tiara.
  5629. > How much you wished those were what he'd had you wear tonight instead of this piece of misery incarnate!
  5630. > Even apparently the idea of having an Equestrian princess in her proper regalia serving at the table had not been enough to shift him.
  5631. > Sighing, you lean forward - the tip of your horn brushing against the case.
  5632. > Not today, apparently.
  5633. > Returning to his dresser, you open the vial he had left behind and take a fierce whiff.
  5634. > Instantly your nostrils are assaulted by the fierce, burning scent of ginger.
  5635. > Ginger oil?
  5636. > How would that help your keep form-
  5637. > Half-heard rumors of practices inflicted on some 'show ponies' bubble up from the darkest depths of your memories.
  5638. > Your tail slams down over your haunches even before that thought was complete.
  5639. > No.
  5640. > Agreeing to wear this so-called dress was bad enough, you would not-
  5641. > Reigning back your anger, you instead read the vial's label.
  5642. > The name is meaningless to you, but the ingredients less so - these, you were familiar with.
  5643. > A concoction used by some ponies, your sister-in-law among them, to boost their focus and energy during moments of stress.
  5644. > In your case not only would it do that, but you imagined to some degree help cut through the mental wet blanket that the anti-magic drugs had been throwing over your mind.
  5645. > He obviously wanted you well-focused and on-target for the evening's events, perhaps even able to put on a display of your powers.
  5646. > very 'fortunate' that with a limited supply, there was no risk of your being addicted.
  5647. > Another whiff of the vial, and again you balk.
  5648. > Putting yet another set of drugs into your body wasn't something you were pleased to consider.
  5649. > But in some ways, it was less harmful than the outfit he'd arranged.
  5650. > Tilting your head back, you try and drain the vial directly into your throat.
  5651. > Even so, some of it hits your tongue - the harsh, burning taste of ginger inflicting itself on your taste buds.
  5652. > Grimacing, you put the vial back away and slap your lips.
  5653. > Hopefully the taste will not stay with you for long.
  5654. > With your business done here, you slip back downstairs.
  5655. > Going back into the thick of the preparations is not entirely welcome either.
  5656. > Ponies and human staff alike cannot help but cast looks in your direction - the most thoughtful among them discreet glances, while others can't help but boggle.
  5657. > A touch of red heats your cheeks.
  5658. > Knowing that it would be this shameful did not make it any less so.
  5659. > Instead you find a quiet corner to seek shelter in, out of the way of both traffic and prying eyes.
  5660. > A last few moments of relative privacy before the guests arrived and the worst stares began.
  5661. > "You going to be alright, Your Highness?"
  5662. > Thunderlane's whispered question jerks you back to reality.
  5663. "I... no. I am not alright, but I suppose I will be eventually."
  5664. > The stallion is dressed far more properly than you are, a crisp outfit that resembles the old EUP Guard dress uniforms and probably was lifted directly from their designs.
  5665. > "For what it is worth, Your Highness... I know you had no choice. I'm not judging you for it, and I don't think anypony else is either."
  5666. "Even if you are right, that still doesn't make being dressed like a high-class whore any easier."
  5667. > You laugh bitterly.
  5668. "I just wanted to be a leader. Somehow I've ended up being dressed like something even less than-"
  5669. > "And I'm here to show how good I am at keeping everypony in bondage."
  5670. > Thunderlane sighs, nodding.
  5671. > "I know. Yeah. Just - just remember that we know the truth, even if they don't."
  5672. "The same to you. If you need strength, look to me and remember that I know why you do this."
  5673. > For some reason that makes him flinch.
  5674. > Before it can be inquired on, though, the doorbell rings - a pre-arranged signal that the first guests are nearing.
  5675. "...thunder and hail, here we go."
  5676. > Your mild swear brings a touch of a grin to Thunderlane's face, his ears and wings both perking up.
  5677. > "Indeed."
  5678. > Striding to the front door, you wait until voices can be heard approaching before swinging it open and promptly dropping your head into a deep bow.
  5679. "Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the home of my Master, Anonymous. Please, come in - I will take your coats, if you wish, and direct you to him."
  5680. > With that, you take a step aside from the door in a practiced, smooth movement to allow the first three guests to enter.
  5681. > She is thin - almost the thinnest human you have ever seen, her limbs stick-like and face angular; he seems to be, by your limited judgement, a relatively heavyset man with a fearsome mustache.
  5682. > You can practically feel the surprise radiating off of them; fortunately, it forestalls any comments as coats are removed and put away.
  5683. > Though, not a moment longer.
  5684. > The second your back is turned, you distinctly catch a whisper from behind your back:
  5685. > "Well, she certainly knows her place."
  5686. > It takes a considerable struggle to keep your ear from swiveling about and signalling that you'd heard the comment.
  5687. > Instead, you simply gesture out with one wing:
  5688. "If you could please follow, Master Anonymous is waiting."
  5689. > They do follow, and you stand aside at the door - head still bowed - as Anonymous rises an welcomes them in.
  5690. > "Mr. Weston, Ms. Leibo - hello, welcome! Please, come sit down. Will you have a drink while we wait for the others?"
  5691. > Returning to your post beside the door as quickly as possible, you're able to gain a few minutes by yourself.
  5692. > Soon, however, footsteps approach again.
  5693. > This time, there is no waiting for you to turn around before the comment begins.
  5694. > They don't even wait for you to introduce yourself, in fact; the moment the door is open someone yells out:
  5695. > "Holy shit, it's an alicorn!"
  5696. > Yes.
  5697. > 'It' is.
  5698. > Good of her to notice.
  5699. > "Yes, Tiffany, it's an alicorn. Good on you."
  5700. > Coughing softly, you try to introduce yourself again:
  5701. "...ah, yes, I am indeed. And, welcome to the home of my Master, Anonymous. Please, come in-"
  5702. > The statement is not even finished before a large - not heavy, but rather enormous - man pushes his way in through the door.
  5703. > He is followed by a thinning woman whose eyes never leave you.
  5704. > "Is it safe? I've heard of what they can do with their magic, those alicorns."
  5705. > "Don't be stupid, Tiffany."
  5706. "My Master trusts me with his family; however, if it should make you feel better, I am on suppressants that restrict my magic somewhat."
  5707. > No need to tell them about the vial Anonymous had left for you.
  5708. > "I wasn't speaking to you, pony."
  5709. > The woman peers over at you, wide-eyed, and then abruptly reaches out - one hand wrapping around your horn as another pulls your eyelid back.
  5710. > It is sheer shock that keeps you from moving away from her touch.
  5711. > "I don't believe her, Greg. She doesn't have the shaky eyes from the suppressants. Are you lying to me, pony?"
  5712. > "Tiff, I said not to be stupid. Now c'mon, I want to go have a drink."
  5713. > They seem to be following the first voices, or perhaps know the way, and so thankfully you are able to follow behind them and out of their attention.
  5714. > Next to appear, however, is an older woman - her hair a mess of greyed curls and hands festooned with the lines of someone who'd once worked them hard.
  5715. > She, too cuts off your introduction - but to rest a soft hand on your mane.
  5716. > "Oh, don't bother with that silliness, poor thing. I can see you're not enjoying it."
  5717. > It takes you a moment to formulate a response to that.
  5718. "...thank you, Ma'am."
  5719. > "My name is Catherine, dear."
  5720. > Her voice is warm, full of emotion - and a welcome relif.
  5721. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Catherine; I am Cadance. If I may take your coat?"
  5722. > She does give your her coat, but also shoots a frown in your direction.
  5723. > "Yes, dear, I know who you are. Please tell me he has not reduced you to taking coats and bowing at the door?"
  5724. > Not having to hide the relief in your voice is itself a mercy.
  5725. "Not at all, Miss Catherine. I assist him in running his holdings here. I am assisting here at the door for tonight alone."
  5726. > "Well, then at the very least he could have not dressed you like a toy for a rich playboy."
  5727. "I..."
  5728. > "Don't worry, I won't tell him. It's not that hard to tell that you hate that ridiculousness."
  5729. > Was it really that easy to tell?
  5730. > Your cheeks flush once more; with a complete lack of emotion in your voice, you reply:
  5731. "My master's decision is not my place to comment on."
  5732. > Silence holds for just a minute before Catherine's face cracks into a grin and she snorts.
  5733. > You're unable to hold back a grin as well, and she outright laughs.
  5734. > "You must have fought wearing it very hard. Don't worry about walking me in, Cadance, I can find my own way and I am quite sure you could use a moment to yourself."
  5735. "Thank you, Miss Catherine."
  5736. > The emotion in your voice and the bow of your head is anything but a false gesture, and you know she can tell.
  5737. > Perhaps, you think as she walks away, perhaps this night would be tolerable, if more of the guests were like her.
  5738. > And then the fourth arrivals appear, a pair of men whose eyes linger on your hindsection far, far too long for your liking and whose inaudible whispers and chuckles do little to hide what they are discussing.
  5739. > Perhaps not so tolerable after all.
  5740. > Altogether, twenty-one guests arrive.
  5741. > Eighteen of his prospective investors, and three of their accompanyment.
  5742. > Mostly they come in groups of twos or threes, although some arrive alone.
  5743. > Perhaps the greatest shock was when two of them arrived with ponies in tow.
  5744. > One a near-silent unicorn who had made a point of ignoring you for reasons you could not discern.
  5745. > The other, a young rumor pegasus barely out of fillyhood who actually steered her owner with a sort of harness and handle.
  5746. > It took you an embarrassingly-long moment to realize her owner was completely blind.
  5747. > At least the pegasus - whose name you discerned from their conversation to be Posey - had been reasonably friendly, if a bit overawed at your presence.
  5748. > She seemed to be at ease with her owner, though, and he introduced himself as Randall before allowing Posey to lead him on.
  5749. > With all the guests gathered in the lounge - and the liquor having begun to freely flow, along with the appetizers - you move to Anonymous' side.
  5750. > Strange as it might seem given your conflict with him, your master was at least a known quantity.
  5751. > You could trust him to act in certain ways.
  5752. "Everyone is here, Sir."
  5753. > "So I see."
  5754. > Anonymous' murmured response is accompanied by his standing, raising a hand until the room's conversation dies to a last couple of whispers.
  5755. > "Good evening, everyone. Thank you for coming, first of all, and although you have already been welcomed -"
  5756. > Here he motions to you, a hand settling to drift down one of the rein-like strips that hung from your bridle.
  5757. > "- let me also welcome to you to my home and business."
  5758. > Pausing while a small round of hellos are returned - other house ponies flitting through the group to deliver refills of alcohol or refreshments to various guests.
  5759. > "...well. I realize that my ascent in these particular matters was rather rapid, and that among certain circles I might still be considered a bit of an upstart-"
  5760. > Nervous chuckles from all, though by your guess no one here would ever admit to speaking about him like that.
  5761. > "-but I think it is fair to say that I can claim a degree of success in growing an operation of considerable size in only a very few years. But - despite the incredible good fortune I have experienced, I think there is room for more."
  5762. > Another pause, while he looks around the room.
  5763. > "Enough of that for now, though. Let's sit down and have a proper meal before bringing up such serious matters."
  5764. > Moving ahead of Anonymous, you get in line at the entrance to the dining room - waiting until the first guest enters to drop your head.
  5765. "If you could follow me to your seat, sir...?"
  5766. > They do follow, and other house-ponies follow your example while yet others begin bringing out the plates of the first course.
  5767. > The dining room is, in my respects, a monument to the rapacious fate suffered by ponies and the use of their talents to Anonymous' benefit.
  5768. > It is positively littered with items produced by pony hooves:
  5769. > Chairs' seat cushions, filled with cloudstuff gathered by pegasi for a uniquely comfortable rest.
  5770. > Bowls enchanted by unicorns to keep their contents hot or cold.
  5771. > Food grown by earth pony magic, served on elaborate glassware wrought by their delicate and talented hooves.
  5772. > When all are settled, you return to Anonymous' side - seating yourself on your haunches, keeping your head down, and simply listening to the low conversation.
  5773. > None directed at you, of course.
  5774. > Nor do you happen to get a plate.
  5775. > Slaves do not eat with their masters, after all; even Posey is kept on the floor well-behind her owner.
  5776. > That's not say you don't eat.
  5777. > More than once you slip away into the kitchen, fielding requests from guests, and always you grab small bites to sustain yourself.
  5778. > At last, with the main course done, Anonymous stands and claps his hands together.
  5779. > "Now - now, that we have our bellies full - if I can say a few words."
  5780. > Again the conversation drops away, and begins to speak again.
  5781. > "Now. To pick up where I left off - success. If I am to be honest, I think the tenets on which my success is based are simple - strikingly simple - yet when correctly implemented are fundamentally responsible for my success. One:"
  5782. > A finger is brought up.
  5783. > "One, I move to support ponies' talents where I can. Some others are doing this - I am sure some of you have heard the USGS is beginning a program for ponies with geological talents, and some may have seen the articles about the former Wonderbolts' captain and her owner. But none on the scale I have - none sorting ponies by their talents, adapting business to ensure they end up doing work that not only are they good at, but keen to work on too."
  5784. > A second finger rises to join the first.
  5785. > "Two. Ponies can manage themselves. Not entirely, of course-"
  5786. > His dismissive tone, as if actually ruling yourselves was somehow beyond your capability, lights a small ember at the back of your mind.
  5787. > Quickly you snuff it, the extra focus afforded by from the drugs flooding your system proving useful.
  5788. > There was no time to be angry now.
  5789. > "-not entirely, but to a much greater degree than many give them credit for. The facilities here, which I am sure you noticed on your way in, are entirely built, upkept, and operated by the ponies."
  5790. > "That's what you have the alicorn for."
  5791. > Nodding despite the interruption, Anonymous goes on.
  5792. > You file away the location of the interrupter, one eye remaining watchfully on him.
  5793. > "Yes. In my respects, Acquiring Cadance here has been my second stroke of luck - and a cost of a small fortune. She has been a considerable boon to me. Cadance?"
  5794. > Your cue.
  5795. > Rather than drop your head, you lift it - keeping it high and proud.
  5796. > 'If you did not want them to see a broken, humiliated pony', he had said, 'then don't let them see one.'
  5797. > So you do not.
  5799. "As my Master has said, we manage significant day-to-day portions of the operations here on our own. I have been granted a leadership position to assist with this, to act as a liason between my Master and the other ponies here."
  5800. > "Almost sounds like he's treating you as an equal."
  5801. > Keeping your tone level, you shake your head.
  5802. "No, sir. There is never a day here when I forget what I am. But his method of letting us manage ourselves has brought great benefit to both of us, I will not deny."
  5803. > "The fact is, many believe that ponies cannot be trusted to work unless given immediate coercion - unless the whip is at their back and the carrot at their muzzle. I disagree."
  5804. > Your master shrugs.
  5805. > "Or, perhaps, I simply offer a different carrot and whip. They have proven that not only can they work on their own, but that granted some autonomy will do so willingly. As proof of this, the newest demonstration of my theory:"
  5806. > A hand rises, and Thunderlane - who you had barely noticed enter - steps forward to speak.
  5807. > "Good evening, everyone. My name is Thunderlane. I work as a guard for Master Anonymous - patrolling the camp to enforce his rules, handle misbehavior, and deal with troublemakers."
  5808. > "What sets Thunderlane aside from your average enforcer, is again, the degree of autonomy..."
  5809. > As Anonymous continues to talk, you steal a glance over to the pegasus in question.
  5810. > He is more shaken by this than you realize.
  5811. > Maybe they do not notice - maybe, though you aren't sure given the ease with which Catherine read your own emotions before - but you can certainly see the signs:
  5812. > A trembling wingtip here, a lowered tail there - all add up towards a clear indication:
  5813. > He is deeply uncomfortable being shown off like this.
  5814. > Moreso than yourself, or maybe he just doesn't have the poise your princess-dom has afforded you.
  5815. > It's not easy to try and subtly catch his attention, but the next time Anonymous is speaking you shuffle your wings abruptly.
  5816. > To your immense relief, Thunderlane does notice - turning to look and catching your reassuring gaze.
  5817. > He offers a thin, tired-looking smile in return.
  5818. > It isn't much, but the message is clear:
  5819. > A note of reassurance, and a thanks in reply.
  5820. > "...but at the end of the day, believe my tenets will not only survive a considerable expansion, but their benefits grow even more clear: I have done away with much of the costly management and even some guard positions by allowing the ponies to carry out my orders as they see best, while producing even more profit from my working stock."
  5821. > Anonymous is speaking again, and you refocus on him.
  5822. > "But, I am increasingly found that I am reaching my own limits of how quickly I can afford to expand. This is why I have asked you all here tonight - you, all of you, hold the means with which I can further grow this. Some of you manage funds; others, businesses that can potentially take a share in my operations. Some of you manage ponies."
  5823. > A confident smile curls his lips as Anonymous claps his hands together again.
  5824. > "My ponies will give each of you a folder laying out the difficulties and successes of my business, and the specific opportunities available to each of you if you wish to join in my ventures. Additionally, Cadance, Thunderlane, Mayor Mare, and any of my staff here tonight are now available during desert to answer questions you may have as well."
  5825. > Immediately a woman stands - the same thin woman who'd entered with the first group.
  5826. > "Mister Anonymous. I do hate to bring up poor thoughts, but I must ask: In my business - in investment - risk management is life, risk blindness is death. You say you have been successful, that autonomy is key - but did you not have a significant incident of rebellion not too long ago? Can we be certain such risks are not false?"
  5827. "Master, if I may?"
  5828. > Anonymous shoots you a smile.
  5829. > "Of course, Cadance."
  5830. "The event to which you are referring did, of course, occur. It was, in my respects, my own fault."
  5831. > Her eyebrows rise, but you go on.
  5832. "I had... become mistaken about how Master Anonymous thought of us, and how much he cared for me in particular. In this state, I allowed six of my advisors - my friends - to plan and lead an escape."
  5833. > Ducking your head submissively, you put on an appropriately apologetic tone.
  5834. "It was my mistake, and I rectified it - leading the ponies here in overtime hours to make up for lost work, punishing those who lead the rebellion, and then Anonymous punishing me."
  5835. > "He whip you, Cadance?"
  5836. > The grunted question from the huge, bearlike man who'd entered earlier - Gregory, you thought his name was - leads to an affirmative nod.
  5837. "He did, I insisted I not escape punishment by blaming my subordinates alone. I punished them, and he punished me in turn."
  5838. > There's a small murmur of surprise at your admission, and Anonymous steps in.
  5839. > "What the point is, is that the event was - a single instance of Cadance becoming mistaken and six others fomenting a rebellion. She has been corrected now, though, and continues to carry out punishments when it is called on. We have not had any further escapes since then. I have even greater faith in her than before that she understands her place and role, Ms. Leibo."
  5840. > The angular, thin woman seats herself, apparently mollified.
  5841. > Another man stands, his face unfamiliar.
  5842. > "How many new pones can you just not find a profitable use for, and where do they go?"
  5843. > "A good question! Of those who come in and I cannot find immediate skilled work for, I move most of them into support roles - either working in more simple tasks under the leadership of those with relevant talents, or maintaining the camp itself."
  5844. > "I thought it was a 'core tenet' of your operation to find work which matches their talents?"
  5845. > "It is. Some talents, though, represent work simply to great to get into. I have one stallion here who worked as a railroad engineer; my holdings here are not yet quite that large to require a personalized railroad, thankfully."
  5846. > Polite chuckles all around.
  5847. > "But it, that reserve of talents is simply another reason to grow. Should I ever find myself able to expand into a new position, I will have a pony available to take the lead in that role.
  5848. > "But you don't simply sell them back."
  5849. > "Not at all. It is a powerful motivator not just for themselves but for those I would hold on to anyhow to perform to the best of their ability.
  5850. > Anonymous had not, you noticed, answered the first part of the question.
  5851. > As another question begins, you glance about again and catch the eye of another guest - the bear of a man who'd accompanied his (unfortunately aggressive) wife in.
  5852. > Your gazes lock, and he motions you towards him.
  5853. > Even though Anonymous was right there and would surely step in if that Tartarus-beast he called his wife laid hands on you again, you still shoot a nervous glance in your master's direction as you head over.
  5854. > A few heads turn as you approach, the man - Gregory, you thought his name was - turns in his seat to lay a questioning eye on you.
  5855. > "Alright, Cadance. I want to hear this one from you, not your master."
  5856. "I will answer anything I can, sir."
  5857. > "Why were his ponies plotting escape in the first place? From everything he's been sending us, it sounds like he's put a priority on making them want to be here - or, is there something he hasn't told us?"
  5858. > Ah.
  5859. > Now you understand.
  5860. > He is looking to see if he can get you to speak poorly of Anonymous, while the man himself is distracted with other questions.
  5861. > Suddenly you're infinitely more aware of the other eyes on you.
  5862. "There will always be some ponies who feel the need to act on their anger, Sir - regardless of what it costs them, or the ponies around them."
  5863. > "And why would they be angry?"
  5864. "Good reasons... and bad. A guard was discovered engaging in his own...enjoyment of one of my Master's ponies. Later we discovered this had been occurring for some time."
  5865. > "Enjoyment?"
  5866. > The interruption comes from another guest, and you nod.
  5867. "Yes, sir. It - my Master does not tolerate that kind of cruelty. He does not hesitate to dispense punishment to correct us, but he is also fair with us."
  5868. > "So, one of the guards was having a bit of fun on the side. There wasn't anyone else to tell about that? No other way for you to signal?"
  5869. "My error, sir. And the reason I took punishment without protest or question when it came my turn. It was my fault for being hostile to my Master - for being too stubborn to see that he could help us."
  5870. > And, in part, you almost convince yourself of the lies rolling off your lips.
  5871. > If you hadn't been so hostile to Anonymous, if you hadn't publicly resisted him - there would surely have been ways to warn him for what was happening.
  5872. > Surely, Cotton Cloudy would not have been so afraid to speak up?
  5873. > And yet...
  5874. > If Anonymous had not held Flurry Heart's wellbeing over your head like a guillotine waiting to fall, would you have ever stopped fighting?
  5875. > He may have proved more pliable, but the slavery that still trapped everypony here was as ironclad as ever.
  5876. > Were your own flesh and blood not at stake, would you still have the bravery to tell him exactly what you thought of that slavery?
  5877. "That reticence - my reticence - cost ponies their lives, sir."
  5878. > "And yet he seems to trust you now."
  5879. "I've worked to prove myself, Sir. To show that I am not merely afraid of the lash, but want to work with him."
  5880. > Because you are still afraid of something far more vicious than the lash:
  5881. > The shadow over your daughter's life.
  5882. > "S'pose that explains the the ponies being used as guards..."
  5883. "Yes, sir."
  5884. > "So, you don't think there could be another escape."
  5885. > You're almost ready to answer a quick yes, but catch the trap hidden in the question.
  5886. "...there will always be ponies who are angry - angry enough to act poorly, no matter what it costs them or the ponies who they rope in to their impulsive ideas."
  5887. > Thoughts flicker back to Redheart and Stormwalker.
  5888. > They were angry, yes.
  5889. > But you doubted they would have acted out without their unknown unicorn provocateur.
  5890. "You undoubtedly could find a pony who wants to escape. But a plan as large, as complicated, as driven as what happened? No, sir. I do not believe it could happen again."
  5891. > "Hmm."
  5892. > Gregory rubs his chin with one enormous hand.
  5893. > Your ear swivels back towards Anonymous, just as he is taking another question:
  5894. > "...second generation slaves born here better or worse?"
  5895. > "It is, simply, too early to tell. I can tell you the schooling program I have set up for the children here are not reporting any particular signs of trouble-"
  5896. > Except, you think, for the time their teacher lead an escape method because she couldn't tolerate the lies she was forced to shove down their throats.
  5897. > "-and there is no reason to expect any reason they cannot begin entering my work-force when able. Ah, yes - you, go ahead?"
  5898. > This time, it is someone surprisingly close to your own position who stands.
  5899. > "It is obvious that you will need more specialized ponies for the kind of expansion you are talking about - at least three quarters of your present population. But if you are asking us to put money in a project of this size, some input in your operations will be necessary as well - our own say in where our money is going. Perhaps even our own employees, or own ponies integrated into your processes?"
  5900. > "Ah..."
  5901. > Anonymous hesitates for what seems like the first real time.
  5902. > "I will, of course, be open to discussing the possibility of advisers and input on the decision-making process. Some of you are here tonight because I seek your companies' advisers and services in making this expansion happen."
  5903. > He leans forward, resting his palms on the table.
  5904. > "I would like to make one thing clear, however: My success has been predicated on the tenet that to micro-manage the ponies is to lose money on them. And so I simply will not tolerate that - because the ultimate cost in bleeding profit trying to rule their every move will be so much more costly than any initial investment could be."
  5905. > The fierceness with which he delivers that point earns a fair few nods.
  5906. > Another hand shoots up.
  5907. > "What about the other alicorn? What have you been looking to acquire another one for?"
  5908. > "Other alicorn, sir?"
  5909. > "What do you mean?"
  5910. > "You hadn't heard?"
  5911. > "One of the Sisters? I thought the government-"
  5912. > "No, it couldn't be."
  5913. > "But the purple one - everyone's heard about how rebellious-"
  5914. > Immediately the room bursts into a small commotion; it seemed that half of them had not heard of your daughter's... arrival, while others had been aware of it and just waiting for the right moment to break it.
  5915. > Anonymous waits a few moments before raising a hand.
  5916. > "Well. Well, it does seem that my ability to keep a secret is somewhat limited."
  5917. > "You can't make inquiries like that without someone noticing, Mr. Anonymous."
  5918. > Grinning, your master nods in acceptance of that point.
  5919. > "Fair enough. Megan, come in please?"
  5920. > A moment, presumably while his daughter is sent in, and then she is scurrying from a doorway to her father's side.
  5921. > And there, at her heels-
  5922. > You can't help it.
  5923. > Vision goes slightly blurry as your eyes grow damp.
  5924. > Flurry Heart looks beautiful.
  5925. > She is clearly well-tended to, mane styled and wearing a frilled dress that shows none of the... less welcome aspects yours does.
  5926. > Her eyes are bright and attentive, even as Anonymous reaches down and lifts her up - a visible and audible ripple running through the crowd as she spreads her wings over the arm holding her.
  5927. > And in that moment, you cannot help but be a little thankful that he has kept his word regarding her, even if she did have to see you in this moment of humiliation.
  5928. > Wide, innocent eyes regard them and you thank Harmony itself your daughter is not yet aware of what this group gathered here represents - a meeting of the profiteers and carrion-feeders that had benefited from her kind's misery.
  5929. > Beside you, Gregory spins in his chair again.
  5930. > "You knew about this."
  5931. > It isn't a question, but even so you whisper back:
  5932. "Yes..."
  5933. > "Well, why didn't you mention it, you wretched thing? Just because it's your daughter doesn't meant you can hide it-"
  5934. > "Tiff... stop. She was probably ordered."
  5935. > Gregory's response to his wife carries the tones of one who has been through this experience a million times before.
  5936. > "Dear! Don't you know what it means to have two of those... things together again? How dangerous it is? You heard that one before; she's already on suppressants-"
  5937. > Back up at the head of the table, Anonymous is speaking again.
  5938. > "My daughter, Megan, who I am very proud of, and of course Flurry Heart. These two, I am sure, will make a team that will ensure the future of my business a decade down the line. I already have them working together - learning to work with each other, so that they know each other well and can work with each other well just as Cadance and I have learned to."
  5939. > Setting Flurry back down, he goes on:
  5940. > "This - this is the security on my investment. Just as Cadance has been the capstone to my operation here, my daughter and Flurry Heart will see to it that your investment does not evaporate a decade or more down the line."
  5941. > A slight grin cracks his face.
  5942. > "She has also been, I admit, a bit of a drain on my accounts to acquire. I hope, though, that the effort and funds expended there make it clear just how dedicated I am to the future of this business."
  5943. > The crowd is still restless, conversations drifting back and forth.
  5944. > Even those who had known - clearly they hadn't been aware that Flurry Heart was already here.
  5945. > Perhaps recognizing that now is not the time to speak further himself, Anonymous motions back towards the lounge.
  5946. > "Desert has been served; why don't we enjoy ourselves while we all talk this over?"
  5947. > He is the first two go, and guests soon follow after him - in twos and threes, fierce conversations running between them as they walk.
  5948. > As before, you hang back and wait until they are all out.
  5949. > Flurry had left at Anonymous' heels, along with Megan.
  5950. > If only you could have gone with her...
  5951. > "You must miss her a great deal, dear."
  5952. > The familiar voice pulls you from your reverie.
  5953. > Turning, you find Catherine stepping out from behind you.
  5954. "I... I suppose I should not be surprised that you noticed, Ma'am."
  5955. > "You were staring after her from the moment she walked out."
  5956. > In the presence of this woman and her warm, kind grin. you cannot help but feel at ease.
  5957. "His... dedication is more than to just his business, Ma'am. Anonymous... has won my trust by being fair with my daughter. Trusting her with his own."
  5958. > "I would imagine, dear. He is doing the right thing, though."
  5959. "The right thing, Ma'am?"
  5960. > "By pairing her with his daughter. It's a good decision - I have found it is very good to get colts and fillies comfortable with humans as soon as possible. I would think that the same would be true for any boy or girl who plans to run them."
  5961. "Oh? Forgive me - you work with fillies and colts?"
  5962. > "Oh, absolutely."
  5963. > She starts towards the lounge as well, and you follow close behind.
  5964. > "Absolutely the sweetest things. I couldn't believe the rotten things some do to them! There is no excuse for hurting a colt or filly; it is simply inexcusable!"
  5965. > You must have flinched - nostrils flared, ears dropped, tail gone splayed out or some other hint, because immediately her attention is on you.
  5966. > "Oh, no. No, dear - please don't tell me he-"
  5967. "Not - not him, Ma'am. Not Anonymous. No."
  5968. > Looking down, you study the chains hanging from your horn ring as they dangle towards the floor.
  5969. "Before - her last owner. They... I don't know if they tortured her. I don't know if I can even ask. But they absolutely neglected her; she was three months in my Master's medical care before I even saw her."
  5970. > "Oh, my..."
  5971. > A gentle hand strokes along your mane, falling to /that spot/ just behind your ear that makes your eyes close slightly.
  5972. > "I simply cannot imagine how that must have felt. I know very, very well how a mare feels for her foal... it must have been so hard."
  5973. > Perhaps she had rescued foals herself?
  5974. "More than - more than I could believe."
  5975. > "But so very good that Anonymous has kept her well. I wouldn't have known it if you had not told me, she looked so well."
  5976. "It is a very large part of why I know I can trust him."
  5977. > "I would imagine. Tell me, has he thought about having you bred at all yet? If he has not, have the most magnificent stallion stud - a truly excellent pegasus, quite virile..."
  5978. > Your coat stands on end, and for the briefest moment you are abundantly thankful for even the tiny but of coverage the outfit gave you.
  5979. > ...not that it would stop Catherine from being acutely aware of just how uncomfortable that thought made you, with how adept she'd proven at reading your emotions.
  5980. "Ma'am, I..."
  5981. > "Oh, dear - my terrible apologies, Cadance. You must have thought I meant I am having them... forced. No, no - you needn't apologies, dear - like I said, I know the awful, awful things some people will do to their ponies."
  5982. > Her hand is still on the back of your head.
  5983. > Soft, gentle, and only just paused from the affectionate touch that you had not pulled back from.
  5984. > She was not having her ponies raped, you were certain, because her eyes sparkled with real warmth and entire demeanor towards you was of someone who was helping calm a pony at a moment when she was most vulnerable.
  5985. > Not having them held down and entered, not reduced to the bruised and battered form that Cotton Cloudy had been when you were lead to her.
  5986. > Not that.
  5987. > But how many mares, you wonder, would not struggle - because the difference between lifting their tails and presenting and not was to be away from a woman who gave them real affection and care when others saw them simply as... things?
  5988. > Because the implied 'if' was worse than the real 'is'.
  5989. > How many stallions would she be able to find who could blind themselves to what they were doing, if it meant they had to do no more than little tasks and rutting the mares they were directed towards?
  5990. > Swallowing - hard - you dip your head to pull from her touch at last.
  5991. > Gather enough willpower to keep your voice calm, keep the emotions running wild within you out of it.
  5992. "Forigve me, Ma'am. I did misunderstand. But.. in truth, my Master hasn't considered having me... bred."
  5993. > "Oh? Really? Why on Earth not?"
  5994. "Directing his facilities here takes a considerable amount of time and focus. To have me subject to the... imbalances that come with carrying a foal, and the exhaustion - it would be too much. Especially at this critical moment."
  5995. > "But you are an alicorn, dear, are you not? You surely don't get tired that easily."
  5996. > Not physically, perhaps.
  5997. > But emotionally...
  5998. "He believes not, and - I agree, Ma'am. I must do my best at the task my Master has given me, and with the planned expansion - things are only going to get busier."
  5999. > "Hmm!"
  6000. > The noise isn't one of anger, but more of confusion.
  6001. > "Well, I shall simply have to have a talk with him..."
  6002. "Y-Yes, Ma'am. Although, he will not tell you anything I have not already."
  6003. > "Oh, don't you worry yourself about that."
  6004. "If I may be excused then, Ma'am - I have to go see to the other guests."
  6005. > "Of course, dear. Please, don't let me keep you."
  6006. > It's the sheer kindness and honesty in her voice that puts a shiver down your back now.
  6007. "Thank you, Ma'am."
  6008. > Trotting on into the lounge, you take a careful glance around in the corner.
  6009. > There was Thunderlane, wings out and speaking to one of the guests - presumably about his duties.
  6010. > Anonymous had taken a center seat on a quite large chair; Megan kept a smaller seat to the side, Flurry Heart sitting attentively in her lap.
  6011. > Too long your eyes linger on her, and she looks to you in return - mouth opening in a wide smile, one voluminous wing subtly half-extending in a quiet pegasus equivalent to a wave.
  6012. > Something learned from your own habits showing through, no doubt; you'd never really been able to get them out of your system after your ascension.
  6013. > How you wish she was seeing at any moment but now!
  6014. > The bridle you wear seems to constrict - pressing, squeezing, choking - as you half-extend a wing in return.
  6015. > But Anonymous had said not to let her see you a broken mare, and so you do not - holding your head up high and proud for as long as you can before you must break her gaze.
  6016. > And then the questioning begins.
  6017. > Interrogation after interrogation, face after face - they soon begin to blur together, as the questions are often very similar.
  6018. > "Just how much does he have you manage?"
  6019. > "What expansion does have planned already?"
  6020. > "How quickly can new ponies be integrated?"
  6021. > "How often are they removed from the workforce for misbehavior?"
  6022. > Those were the easy ones.
  6023. > The others...
  6024. > A few dare to speak their more personal questions out loud.
  6025. > "Does your master often have you wear clothes?"
  6026. > Many more more subtly make their feelings known - eyes tracing your flanks, falling to the golden bands circling your fetlocks and the gleaming chains run from them.
  6027. > Asking what he had done to "tame" you, as if you were a wild animal who might have snapped at any moment before he brought you to heel.
  6028. > When the first bottles of liquor appear, you know it is only going to get worse.
  6029. > "Anonymous!"
  6030. > Someone's voice is raised.
  6031. > "Anonymous, we've all heard what you're telling us - what you're pitching for us. But, why don't you show us? Give us a little tour of what is going on?"
  6032. > Your head snaps around, the weight of the little humiliations multiplying by the second.
  6033. > If you were to go traipsing around the camp like this...
  6034. > Pondering for a moment, Anonymous nods.
  6035. > He leans over, whispering something in Megan's ear.
  6036. > Eagerly nodding, she leaps from her seat - Flurry Heart close on her heels.
  6037. > More than a few eyes track them as they leave the room.
  6038. > "I think it's a fair request to see exactly what I'm asking you to invest in. Come, Cadance."
  6039. > With a sick feeling in your stomach you move to his side.
  6040. > Cool air was usually a good treatment for nausea - something you'd discovered when carrying Flurry Heart - but stepping out the front door into the night air did nothing but make you feel even worse.
  6041. "Master..."
  6042. > You speaks softly to Anonymous.
  6043. "Master, they'll already have gone off-shift for the night. Gone in to dinner. There won't be much work to show..."
  6044. > At least you could make this as brief as possible.
  6045. > Maybe even get back inside before dinner started to break up.
  6046. > "I know, Cadance, but I'm sure we can give them something. Maybe even let them talk with a few of my ponies."
  6047. > Celestia preserve you.
  6048. > That was the last thing you needed...
  6049. > But Anonymous' mind is made up, and out you go.
  6050. > Not even walking, but riding in a small herd of the little electric carts that the security used.
  6051. > As if actually making use of their feet, potentially touching the ground with their perfectly-shined and polished shoes would cripple them for life.
  6052. > Touches of bitterness reach up from your throat as the group rides into the camp.
  6053. > The streets are relatively empty, but not by any means entirely so.
  6054. > With every moment that you pass further in to the camp, another pony looks up to watch your pasting.
  6055. > Lays eyes on your humiliation.
  6056. > Don't let them see you a broken mare.
  6057. > But every pony has their limit, and the your eyes grow damp despite every drop of willpower going in to crushing those emotions.
  6058. > Eventually the carts come to a halt in front of one of the major workshops - a cloudstuff packing facility.
  6059. > Some of the day's work still lingers there, a semimorphous cloud tied to one of the building's open ends to be torn apart and packed into specially-prepared pillows and mattresses within.
  6060. > Two pegasi still buzz around the cloud, securing it until it could be used tomorrow.
  6061. > Anonymous stands, stepping out of his cart and motioning to the facility.
  6062. > "Most of my products are worked in relatively small facilities like this one, making use of the ponies' unique abilities. This also protects me to some degree from individual markets crashing."
  6063. > Someone in the car with you stirs.
  6064. > "Doesn't he have trouble finding ponies who can work on that level...?"
  6065. "No, Sir."
  6066. > You shake your head, glad to have something - anything - to pull your mind away from other thoughts.
  6067. "In our - in the past many unorganized areas had weather patrols, small groups of local ponies who handled the weather in their local area. Most pegasi got, at the very least, a basic training in how to move and form clouds properly."
  6068. > "And now they're passing that on here."
  6069. "Yes, Sir. It's the same thing with Unicorn and Earth Pony skills - we have a few ponies who know those skills, and can transfer them to new arrivals."
  6070. > "Isn't that risky? Can't they sabotage the product - make lightning from those?"
  6071. "No more than you can sabotage shoveling earth. It is a very, very basic skill... and we have not had any instances of sabotage."
  6072. > Yet.
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