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MLP: Everyday Life With Guardsmares (/RGM/)

ManFromAnotherTime Jun 10th, 2017 (edited) 5,640 Never
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  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  3. themanfromanothertime@gmail.com
  4.  
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  6.  
  7. FAQ & Locations/Character List: https://pastebin.com/QH8Mwutm
  8. Character art: http://imgur.com/a/IEcnJ (characters in order of appearance; possible spoiler warning)
  9.  
  10. CHAPTER 1
  11.  
  12. "Thank you for that update, Chancellor Strings and Engineer Anonymous."
  13. > You are Celestia, Princess of the Sun, and bowing before you are your little pony Chancellor of the Exchequer, Purse Strings, and your rather larger not-at-all-a-pony Royal Engineer, Anonymous, who together have just delivered their monthly report on Anonymous' efforts to industrialize Equestria.
  14. > The report being satisfactory, your give a gentle nod in acknowledgement.
  15. "... If there's nothing else, I would like a moment to speak with Anon."
  16. > "Nothing at this time, Your Highness. I take my leave."
  17. > With another bow, Purse Strings nods his head and closes his enormous ledger with a resounding thud, then somehow wrangles it into the large saddle-bag strapped to his back, and exits the small Presence Chamber reserved for intimate meetings with your most trusted ministers and advisers.
  18. > Anonymous, dressed in his black tailcoat and white shirt, with his elegant red Royal Engineer's sash visible, regards you with a questioning look on his face, still clutching the bundle of papers with his notes on them.
  19. "Anonymous. Your services to Equestria have not gone unnoticed. A growing number of members of the Court have come to appreciate your endeavours. As such, I have the privilege of bestowing on you one of the boons available to those who serve the Crown."
  20. > On cue, a guard pony in officer's regalia enters the room, with three more guard ponies marching in line abreast behind her.
  21. > You motion with your head, and Anon takes a step back to turn and regard the new arrivals.
  22.  
  23. > "ATTEN-SHUN!"
  24. > The officer clacks her hind hooves on the floor and salutes the two of you, and the three guards behind her do likewise.
  25. > "PREE-SENT!"
  26. > Another hoof-clack, and the three guards sit their hindquarters down and thrust their chests out.
  27. > A moment passes, and Anon turns his head to look back at you.
  28. "One of the privileges granted to Very Important Ponies is a personal detachment of Equestria's finest. You may now enjoy security and dignity wherever your work may take you."
  29. > Anon nods in thanks.
  30. > "Thank you very much, Your Highness."
  31. > He seems a little surprised by it all, however. You lean a little over and speak softly.
  32. "Is something wrong?"
  33. > "Well, I'm honoured, of course. But I didn't think there were any kind of safety problems in Canterlot serious enough to warrant *bodyguards*."
  34. > You gently smirk. His answer is typical of the pragmatic person you know him to be.
  35. "You might be surprised. But you're right: security is only part of the reason for being assigned guards. It is considered a mark of dignity and wealth for Courtiers in Canterlot to have a retinue of Bodyguards, whether needed or not. Normally, those who live outside the palace must hire their own. For guests of the Palace, such as yourself, as well as for recent arrivals who have not yet established themselves in the city, the Royal Guard provides a VIP honour guard service."
  36. > "I see. In olden times, we had similar customs where I'm from. Servants called Footmen were hired almost more as a display of wealth than any practical purpose."
  37. "Of course. But I trust you'll find my Royal Guard useful as well as decorative. Lieutenant Violetta, if you would kindly introduce us...?"
  38.  
  39. > The officer-guardsmare salutes again and regards the pony at the end of the line.
  40. > "Specialist Sparkshower, PRE-SENT!"
  41. > A young pegasus mare with a cream-coloured coat and a brilliant-blonde mane takes a step forward and salutes the two of you individually.
  42. > "Specialist Sparkshower, reporting for duty, Your Highness! Sir! By the honour of the Royal Guard, I pledge my life in the service of your protection!"
  43. > Lt. Violetta nods, satisfied.
  44. > "SPC Sparkshower has volunteered for VIP duty out of the 19D Armoured Scouts. A swifter, quieter, and more diligent scout you won't find in the entire division."
  45. > Anon nods in acknowledgement, and the Lieutenant moves on to the pony in the middle.
  46. > "Specialist Glamerspear, PRE-SENT!"
  47. > Another young guardsmare, this one a pink-coloured unicorn with a teal-and-cyan mane, steps forward, and repeats the ritual introduction, after which Lt. Violetta presents her resume.
  48. > "SPC Glamerspear comes to you from the 14E Air Defence Company, and brings best-in-class abilities with magical shielding and telekinetic anti-air projectiles."
  49. > As if to put an exclamation point on that statement, the unicorn's horn glows and, for a brief moment, a translucent green hemispherical defensive field flashes above her head.
  50.  
  51. > After Anon acknowledges the flashy display and the flashy mare who performed it, it's time for the final member of the trio, an earth pony with a brown coat and chocolate-brown mane.
  52. > "Corporal Bound, PRE-SENT!"
  53. > The non-commissioned officer steps forward, with an experienced soldier's steady step and stern gaze.
  54. > "CPL Bound is a veteran of the 11B Infantry, and has served all across Equestria, from the Celestial Sea to the Luna Ocean. There's not a single danger situation she hasn't been in, and as the NCO of your detachment, will provide leadership to the other Guards on duty."
  55. > All three guards having been presented, you speak up.
  56. "Well, Engineer Anonymous, what do you think?"
  57. > "I think Your Majesty has overburdened me with her generous gifts. If a portal to Tartarus opened up in my chambers, I feel as though I needn't so much as draw closed my robes."
  58. > Before you can answer, Lt. Violetta puffs her chest out and speaks up in a proud voice.
  59. > "That's the idea, Sir!"
  60. > Everybody seems to share in a bit of an internal chuckle at the Lieutenant's gung-ho enthusiasm.
  61. > Anon turns to you and lifts an eyebrow.
  62. > "A question, Your Majesty. I can't help but notice that all three Guards I've been assigned are mares. While in Court, you seem to constantly be surrounded by guard-stallions. Is there some significance to that?"
  63. > As astute as ever. Little wonder Purse Strings speaks so highly of Anon's attention to detail.
  64. "As a matter of fact, there is. As an escort of bodyguards is, as I've mentioned, as much for decoration as for security, it is the traditional custom for unattached VIPs to be escorted by guards of the opposite sex, the better to show off their... worthiness."
  65. > To avoid lingering on that obvious euphemism, and its implications, you continued on.
  66.  
  67. "Lieutenant Temper Violetta will be the officer in charge of your detachment, although she will reside in the main barracks. The members of your escort will be housed in the servants' quarters on the second floor, above your chamber."
  68. > "And am I to be escorted at all times?"
  69. > The Lieutenant pipes up.
  70. > "VIP Guard duty is performed for sixteen hours a day, from 0800 hours to 2400 hours, with a two-shift rotation. Three guards are assigned so as to accommodate regular Royal Guard duties and leave."
  71. "And if you have any more questions, you may direct them to the Lieutenant. She will also handle any scheduling or special requests you may have."
  72. > Recognizing this as a subtle cue that the presentation was now over, Anonymous turned to you and bowed once more.
  73. > "Your Majesty is overgenerous in her gifts. I shall redouble my efforts to bring scientific and industrial enlightenment to Equestria."
  74. > More zealous work from Anon wasn't what you'd had in mind by this ceremony. He was a well-adjusted, down-to-earth creature, who'd quickly recovered from the shock at being transported to a completely foreign land and launched himself into useful work.
  75. > But his frenetic pace was unsustainable without strong bonds to Equestria and its people. Eventually, unless he developed some lasting roots, he would burn himself out, and that would be a terrible waste.
  76. > The more you could get him involved in Court life, in Canterlot society, in Pony culture as a whole, the better it would be in the long run - even if it meant sacrificing his valuable time to frivolous pursuits.
  77.  
  78.  
  79.  
  80. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and this is the most exciting day of your life!
  81. > You mean, after the other most exciting days in your life, like when you'd finished horseshoe camp and joined the Royal Guard for real, or even when you'd first arrived in the huge capital city of Canterlot!
  82. > And now, you've been accepted as a Very Important Pony bodyguard!
  83. > Well, except that the target wasn't exactly a pony, but that was beside the point.
  84. > The point was - now you were finally going to get a taste of the high society that folks around here lived and breathed.
  85. > Your mind started to swirl with all different kinds of fancy hoity-toity events you'd get to attend.
  86. > Attend as just a bodyguard, but hey, gotta start somewhere, right?
  87. > You're going to go to Royal Balls...
  88. > You're going to attend Gala openings...
  89. > You're going to see Masquerades...
  90. > "Listen, sparks-for-brains, if you're gonna have your head in the clouds, you might as well get your butt up there as well, so you don't block the doorway for the rest of us!"
  91. > Aw, sunshowers.
  92. "Sorry!"
  93. > You quickly hustle out of the way, into the small shared living space alloted to you and your fellow guards.
  94. > Having been pulled down out of your daydream, you put down your bag and survey your new home.
  95. > Furniture consists of a sofa with a pair of club chairs, a little breakfast-table to seat four.
  96. > Five doors surround you; four of them lead to identical bedrooms, the last leads to a small washroom.
  97. > One of your new squadmares, Glamerspear, is already poking her head into one of the bedrooms. From what you can see, and assuming they're outfitted identically, you each get a wardrobe, dresser, writing desk, and twin bed.
  98. > "Nice digs. Sure beats the barracks."
  99. > "The one on the far left is mine."
  100. > That's your squad leader, Corporal Bound, entering shortly after you.
  101. "At ease!"
  102. > Glamerspear turns around and mimics your parade-rest form
  103. > CPL Bound shoots you a disinterested look
  104. > "Carry on."
  105. > Before the second word even escapes her mouth, Glamerspear is already back to poking around in the different bedrooms, apparently trying to figure out which of the identical ones is best.
  106. > "Specialist Sparkshower?"
  107. "Yes, Corporal!"
  108. > "First time out of your unit?"
  109. "Yes, Corporal!"
  110. > "First time bunking with anyone other than a bunch of other junior guards?"
  111. "Yes, Corporal!"
  112. > By now, Glamerspear has finished her inspection and is looking curiously at the two of you - but you keep your attention on the senior noncommissioned officer, just as you're supposed to.
  113. > "We're living together, Specialist. 'Parade Rest' is going to get old fast every time I need to use the mares' room."
  114. "Yes, Corporal!"
  115. > "Save it for when we're out of our quarters, Specialist. In here, we're all just guards. Understand?"
  116. "Yes, Corporal!"
  117. > CPL Bound just shakes her head and shrugs her shoulders, trundling off to her chosen bedroom, duffel bag in tow.
  118. > There's a chuckle from one of the middle bedroom doors.
  119. > "Geez, Sparks, you sure can take a hint."
  120. > You turn to face your squadmare. She looks a little older than you, but only a few years.
  121. "I'm just following the Military Customs and Courtesies. We're still in the Royal Guard."
  122. > Using her telekinetic magic, she tosses her duffel bag into the room, and you hear it land on the bed with a *poomf*.
  123. > "Pssht, sure we are."
  124. > You furrow your brow.
  125. "We still have to go to reveille each morning."
  126. > SPC Glamerspear starts to prowl around the living room, checking just how plush the sofa and chairs are.
  127. > "True."
  128. "We still have three drills a week."
  129. > "Also true."
  130. "So how are we not Guards, Specialist Glamerspear?"
  131. > "Because..."
  132. > In one swift move, she hops into the air and lands on her back, lying on the couch.
  133. > "... *We* get to be in *Society*"
  134.  
  135. > At that, your expression relaxes, and you grin as you start to think about all the great ponies you're going to get to meet. And the parties you'll get to attend!
  136. > And the stories you'll share with your new marefriends!
  137. "Yeah... Yeah we do."
  138. > Glamerspear waves a hoof at you.
  139. > "Aw, you're not so bad, Sparks. You can call me Glam, by the way."
  140. > Trotting over, you take her hoof and give it a shake, then hop up onto one of the chairs.
  141. > It's probably a far cry from anything a Lord or Lady gets to sit on, and it's no cloud, but it was way comfier than anything in the barracks.
  142. "Pleasure to meet you."
  143. > "So, what's your story, Sparks?"
  144. "Well, I'm from Berry -- that's a little town about two hours' train ride north of here."
  145. > "No offence, Sparks, but anybody can tell you're not from a big city. Or even a small city."
  146. > How did she know? Guess you still have some country traits to shake off. Especially if you want to fit in with high society in Canterlot!
  147. > "... But you're not from Cloudsdale? I thought that's where all the pegasi live."
  148. > At this, you start to beam with pride.
  149. "Most of them, sure. But my family's been living in Berry for generations. Us and the earth pony farmers who depend on us for the weather, we go way back, like one big team."
  150. > "*Swell*. And you've been in the Guard, what, like two-and-a-half years? Made Specialist recently?"
  151. > Another point of pride. Hopefully you're not getting too rosy-cheeked about all this.
  152. "Actually, I've only served for a year and a half! I got early promotion for outstanding work during that recent Crystal Empire Incident."
  153. > Despite her cynicism, your squadmare seems suitably impressed.
  154. > "Neat. They don't let just anybody get VIP duty, so I knew you must have had something going for you."
  155. > You're not entirely sure if that was a compliment or an insult
  156.  
  157. > "What about me, you ask? WELL, I've been earning top marks in my company - Air Defence, in case you forgot - ever since I left 'shoe camp. I've been at this for five years, you know."
  158. > Glam shoots you a grin
  159. > "... So if you need any tips, rookie, you just let me know, ho-kay?"
  160. "I will! Thanks."
  161. > There's a moment of silence when neither of you can quite figure out what to say next. It's all so much to take in at once.
  162. > Corporal Bound strolls out of her room. You manage to suppress the urge to shout 'At ease' once again.
  163. > "Sparkshower, you have first duty tomorrow. Glamerspear, you've got the afternoon. Until then, we've got the day off. I'm going to head over to the commissary to get some books and magazines. Either of you want anything?"
  164. "Oh! I'd love a copy of 'Canterlot Match'!"
  165. > Glamerspear tilts her head all the way back over the armrest to look upside-down at CPL Bound.
  166. > "I've got some bits in my duffel bag if you could get me the latest issue of 'Cosmoponitan'"
  167. > "Don't worry about the bits. It's my treat to get us all off on the right hoof."
  168. "Gee, thanks, Corporal!"
  169. > Corporal Bound gives you a defeated look.
  170. > "Call me 'Honour' when we're informal, Specialist. That's my first name."
  171. "Sure thing, Corporal Honour Bound! I mean... Honour."
  172. > "As you were."
  173. > The door is barely shut behind her when Glam speaks up again.
  174. > "There goes somemare who's been in the Guard for too long."
  175. > In the Guard too long? Was such a thing even possible?
  176. "Why do you think that?"
  177.  
  178. > "Well, duh, just look at her! And listen to how she talks! She's done everything already! There's nothing new under Celestia's sun for her."
  179. > It made sense, but it didn't seem like something very nice to be bringing up.
  180. > "... Well, if she wants something new and exciting, VIP duty is the right place, right, Sparks?"
  181. "Heh, yeah. Though if I'm being honest, just about everything is new and exciting to me around here."
  182. > "Aw, that's the spirit! And so what if we have to deal with a bit of a freakshow, right?"
  183. "Freakshow?!"
  184. > At your exclamation, Glamerspear dials back her enthusiasm quite a bit, and her ears go flat.
  185. > "Sorry. That was too harsh."
  186. > There's a pause
  187. > "I mean our charge, this Anon guy."
  188. > You recall the formal title when you were given your marching orders.
  189. "Anonymous, By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer."
  190. > "Yeah. Gotta admit it's a fancy title, though. And he may look a little weird, but if Princess Celestia puts up with him, he can't be all that bad."
  191. "I've only met the Princess once before, at graduation, but it seemed to me like she doesn't just 'put up with him'."
  192. > "Oh, you think so? Well, you're the Armoured Recon, I guess. Still, he's pretty funny-looking, right?"
  193. > Flipping over forwards onto her belly faster than seems possible, Glamerspear looks up at you with a grin
  194. > "Betcha you never saw anything that walks around on two legs like that growing up in 'Berry', am I right?"
  195. "Well... there was a minotaur who lived just outside the town, near the forest."
  196. > "Oooooh! Was he all scary and mysterious?"
  197. > You shake your head. This mare sure has an active imagination. And she thought *you* had your head in the clouds?
  198. "No, he was just an old bull. He used to pick mushrooms in the forest and bring them to market. And the earth ponies would sometimes ring him up when they needed help moving something real big."
  199.  
  200. > "Bo-ring! Now, *Changelings*, those things are creepy. Hey -- you know what the difference between a young Changeling and an old Changeling is?"
  201. "No, what?"
  202. > Glamerspear rolls over onto her back again and thrusts her forehooves up into the air
  203. > "You don't have to lead the old Changelings quite so much when you're shooting at 'em!"
  204. > She makes 'pew-pew' noises with her mouth and swings her forearms like she's hurling invisible spears up at the sky.
  205. > Which, to be fair, she's probably actually done.
  206. > Oh, thunderstorms, is this going to be an interesting assignment
  207. > Still, though.... Canterlot society! You're here at last!
  208.  
  209.  
  210.  
  211.  
  212. > You are Specialist Sparkshower, and it is about to be your first shift of VIP duty.
  213. > Time for a final check before you take up your post!
  214. > Armour: Polished to a shine, and securely fitted without being uncomfortable.
  215. > Helmet: Also polished to a shine and securely attached. Crest brush starched and firm.
  216. > Hoof-spats: Present, shiny, and well-fitted.
  217. > Wings: Preened.
  218. > Tail: Brushed.
  219. > Spear: In hoof.
  220. > Everything is a go!
  221. > With a deep breath, you reach up with your free hoof and firmly rap on the double doors to the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  222. > "Come in."
  223. > You push open the door into the Royal Engineer's chambers, and instinctively start to take in the details even as you introduce yourself.
  224. "Specialist Sparkshower reporting for duty, Sir!"
  225. > To your right, Anonymous is just getting up from where he was sitting at a dining table, wearing his suit pants and white shirt, with a napkin stuffed into his collar.
  226. > In front of him is a plate with a half-eaten bagel. Beside it, a glass of water, and a stack of papers.
  227. > The room is typical of the larger private chambers in the palace; in the right corner is the dining area with a table for six and a china cabinet.
  228. > In front of you, just inside the doors, is a living area with an elegant sofa, three sitting chairs, a coffee table, and a buffet server on each side, partitioning the area off.
  229. > To your left, an office or working area consists of a large bureau desk covered in papers and books, several wooden filing cabinets, a pair of glass-doored bookshelves full of books and scrolls, and a pair of smaller desks with writing chairs.
  230. > "Oh, excellent. Welcome, Specialist."
  231.  
  232. > You bow your head, still surveying the layout of the room.
  233. > The left wall is all windows, with heavy blue patterned curtains. Prench doors behind the bureau lead out to a twenty-foot-deep paved patio that follows the building wall all the way around the corner.
  234. > A short wall of decorated wooden partition pieces separates off what is obviously the sleeping area at the rear of the room, and a door on the right leads to the washroom.
  235. > "... So, do you normally stand outside, or...?"
  236. > You instantly recall your Very Important Pony bodyguard training.
  237. "Sir! Typically, the bodyguards are posted inside the doors to a VIP's chambers, but may be dismissed outside as needed, such as for privacy."
  238. > Anonymous seems to accept this, and sits back down.
  239. > "I see. Well, by all means, take up your post in here. I'm just finishing breakfast."
  240. > You nod and close the door behind you, then sit down in front of them. Meanwhile, Anonymous picks up a sheet of paper and continues to read it, munching on his bagel.
  241. > Having taken the coarse details of the room, you start to examine the finer details.
  242. > And what fine details they are! The classical luxury surrounding you is almost overwhelming.
  243. > The carpet is a rich red with an elaborate floral pattern. The furniture is mahogany wood, upholstered in blue with white embroidered check. Table tops are all marble. A stately lighthouse clock dominates the far side of the sitting area. A number of gas lamps are neatly arranged on side-tables around the room, all with beautiful bulbous glass shades.
  244. > Oh, and the ceiling. An elaborate trim around the edges serves as frame for a wonderful floral plaster pattern.
  245. > You could get lost in that ceiling.
  246.  
  247. > Still, it's all in keeping with the palace's general style. When you were accepted for VIP duty, you were received in the Marshal's palace chambers, and they were similarly decorated.
  248. > But that was just for a few minutes! You get to be in this beautiful room for eight full hours!
  249. > You don't get to sit on anything, sure, but just being in the presence of such opulence is exciting.
  250. > And there are so many little details about everything to notice!
  251. > Over in the dining area, the Royal Engineer stands up again, pulling his napkin off and placing it on the table, then gathering up some his papers.
  252. > Without a second thought, he crosses the room to the office area and is just about to sit down at the great desk, before he looks up at you.
  253. > "I'm afraid your shift today will be a bit dull, Specialist. I'm going to be working on this treatise all day, and I'm not expecting any visitors."
  254. > This, too, was covered by the training.
  255. "Not a problem, Sir. It's all part of the job. And I did volunteer for this position."
  256. > Your charge seems to accept this answer, and sits down.
  257. > He picks up one of his pen-quills, and is just about to dip it in the pot of ink, when he pauses and looks up at you again.
  258. > "Did anything particular make you want volunteer for this work?"
  259. > Okay, now you were getting a bit into uncharted territory. Training covered how to behave, but not how to answer personal questions. What should you say?
  260. > Before you can figure how to answer, Anonymous shakes his head and dips his pen.
  261. > "I apologize; that was a personal question and I shouldn't oblige you to answer it. Please forget I asked."
  262. > Part of you is relieved, but another part of you sort of wishes that he didn't drop it.
  263. > After all, conversation would pass the time. But you knew that it would be inappropriate to occupy your VIP's precious time.
  264.  
  265. > It was nice of him to be a gentlecolt about it, though.
  266. > You straighten your posture and lean your spear against your shoulder, adopting a pose you know you can comfortably keep for hours.
  267. > You are still Specialist Sparkshower, you are more than halfway through your shift.
  268. > Since Anonymous started working, the only noteworthy activity was one of the palace butlers, accompanied by a maid, arriving to clear away his breakfast.
  269. > Otherwise, it was just the Royal Engineer reading, writing, shuffling papers, flipping pages and occasionally standing up to get another book or bundle of papers.
  270. > Right now, your charge is standing and leaning over his desk, rearranging his documents.
  271. > By his manner, you can tell he's looking for something.
  272. > By the fact that he's scrabbling over the same areas again and again, you can tell he's getting frustrated at not finding it.
  273. > Anonymous mutters half under his breath.
  274. > "Where the devil did I put that book?"
  275. > Instantly, you recall an hour ago, when Anonymous got up to pour himself a glass of water from a carafe in the sitting area. He'd had a book in his hands, and he'd put it down on the coffee table, amidst a stack of sealed scrolls.
  276. > You clear your throat.
  277. "That book, Sir?"
  278. > Anonymous looks up, and you point at the item in question.
  279. > He strides over and picks it up, instantly flipping through it to a certain page.
  280. > Satisfied, he looks up at you.
  281. > "How did you know which one I was talking about?"
  282. "It's the only book in the room not in a case or on your desk, Sir."
  283. > He turns and takes the measure of the area, as if verifying your statement, then faces you again, clutching the book.
  284. > "Armoured Reconnaissance, wasn't it?"
  285. > Your lips curl up into a smile
  286. "Yes, Sir."
  287.  
  288. > The Royal Engineer shakes the book in acknowledgement.
  289. > "Sharp eyes. My thanks, Specialist Sparkshower."
  290. > He heads back over to his desk and continues to work
  291. > It's such a small thing, getting a compliment like that for so trivial a task, but inside you're swelling with pride.
  292. > You volunteered for guard duty in order to get to know Canterlot society.
  293. > You want a life in the Royal Guard, maybe even trying to become an officer, and that means dealing with the upper crust.
  294. > Even your commanding officer thought it was a good idea for you, though he regretted missing out on your abilities while you were on this assignment.
  295. > But if you can still put your talents to good use, even if it's just to help your VIP get their work done, that's all the better.
  296. > Even though it's only been five hours, you feel like this posting is going to work out just fine.
  297.  
  298.  
  299.  
  300.  
  301. > It's four o'clock in the afternoon. You are Specialist Glamerspear, and you are lookin' good.
  302. > You'd deliberately taken the long route from your quarters to get downstairs, the better to show off.
  303. > That's right, everypony! Take a good look, because *this* is no ordinary guardsmare!
  304. > If your special Telekinetic Specialist helmet, or the lightweight high-mobility banded armour instead of heavy solid plate, or the absence of a physical spear (as if you'd need one!), or elegant skirt for cushioning you when had to sit or lie down to hit targets way up there didn't make it clear enough, you made sure that your tail was impeccably groomed and your mane peeked just down low enough under your helmet to tease the fantastic hair underneath.
  305. > And, of course, one must show off the proper gait.
  306. > No slow shambling walk or "I'm late for duty" gallop for you.
  307. > Only the most prim and proper trot will do for showing off.
  308. > And just in case that didn't seal the deal, you'd even kept your magical 'umbrella' shield up at maintenance-level power the whole way, too.
  309. > Just as if you'd been in on alert.
  310. > That's right, colts. This unicorn isn't just gorgeous and well-heeled, she's knows exactly how to use every part of her body.
  311. > But you don't let your satisfaction show.
  312. > You don't even let it show that you noticed anypony at all on your way here.
  313. > Especially not that stud-muffin Captain Mailedhoof, with the handsome silver hair.
  314. > He's married, but that didn't stop him from checking you out, from mane to hooves.
  315. > Yeah, a few more trots by his post like that and he'll be extending an invitation to the Officers' Club.
  316. > Just as a friendly way of getting to know a fresh face in the palace, of course.
  317.  
  318. > That's what he'll tell everypony, anyways.
  319. > And maybe you won't even do anything with him...
  320. > After all, once you've gotten into the Officers' Club, then why settle for a Captain when you could find a salt-daddy Major or General with the means to really treat you right?
  321. > Ah, the challenging life of an aggressive saltine.
  322. > So many colts with sacks of bits burning holes in their pockets, looking for some fun to have on the side.
  323. > So hard to choose which one to make your new salt-lick.
  324. > With thoughts of Captain Mailedhoof in your mind (even if he's not too rich, at least he looks like he can buck real good; he could be worth a few trips around the quarter-mile, at least), you knock on the door. It's time for work.
  325. > "Who goes there?"
  326. "Specialist Glamerspear, reporting for guard duty."
  327. > Sparkshower opens the door for you, and you both salute and exchange the ritual greeting.
  328. "By the glory of the Morning Dawn, I hereby relieve you at this post."
  329. > "By the peace of the Evening Dusk, I stand relieved."
  330. > She starts to leave, but you quickly lean over and whisper in her ear.
  331. "Anything interesting happen?"
  332. > "Oh, no. The Royal Engineer is busy with paperwork today."
  333. > Over on your left, Anonymous doesn't so much as look up from his desk as you shut the door behind you.
  334. > Oh, well. More time to plan your 'infiltration' of the Royal Guard Officers' Club.
  335. > Heh. Soon, that won't be the only 'O Club' you'll be visiting.
  336.  
  337.  
  338.  
  339.  
  340. > You are still Specialist Glamerspear, and it's almost eight o'clock in the evening. Four hours to go until shift end.
  341. > Outside, it's drizzling rain.
  342. > The Royal Engineer has been working at his desk this entire time, like some kind of machine.
  343. > Well, isn't that the idea, from what you've heard? He's supposed to know about all machines and such, right?
  344. > It would be interesting if it weren't so boring.
  345. > To your left, Anonymous leans back in his chair and stretches his arms above his head, yawning.
  346. > Looks like he's putting away his quill for tonight. Part of you hopes that he's got dinner plans with someone important.
  347. > But from the looks of things, that's not likely. He's already removed his jacket and started to undo his tie.
  348. > He turns toward the window and scowls.
  349. > "Damn, when did it start to rain?"
  350. > You're not sure if that was directed at you, but then again, there's nobody else in the room.
  351. "It started about an hour ago, Sir."
  352. > "Oh, did it? Drat. I was hoping to take a constitutional outside."
  353. > So? Get an umbrella? It's only drizzling.
  354. > Some Royal Engineer he is, if he can't handle some water.
  355. > "Well, I suppose a little rain won't hurt."
  356. > He starts to unbutton his shirt, and walks over to the zig-zag hairpin-joint in the partition wall, entering the bedroom area.
  357. > "You won't mind getting wet, will you, Specialist Glamerspear?"
  358. > Heh. As if *you* allow yourself to get wet in rain.
  359. > Magical anti-missile shields: Necessary when angry griffons are hurling spears down like rain, but also useful against the regular, watery kind.
  360. "I don't get wet in the rain, Sir."
  361.  
  362. > Anonymous reappears, but he's dressed in just... his white undershirt and undershorts?
  363. > His arms and legs are completely exposed, and they're almost completely bare of fur, just like his face. Freaky!
  364. > He's sporting some fancy sneakers though.
  365. > Still, you CAN NOT be seen walking through Canterlot Palace with someone dressed like THAT, no matter WHO appointed them to WHAT.
  366. > The Royal Engineer regards you with a quizzical look.
  367. > "Would you care to explain that, Specialist? I'm not sure I understand."
  368. > As if it was the most trivial thing in Equestria (newsflash: it was, because you're the best at this), you instantly summon up your anti-missile shield, in the form of a translucent magenta hemisphere stretching from your horn to just an inch above the ground.
  369. > "Ah, yes, of course. Unicorn magic."
  370. > He walks over and picks up his glass of water, and with a swift jerk of his hand, sends the contents flying at you.
  371. > Of course, it splashes harmlessly against your shield.
  372. > "I don't suppose you can make that large enough for two, can you?"
  373. > Hah. That sounded like a cheesy come-on line you've heard before.
  374. "Sir, this soldier can indefinitely maintain an impenetrable shield over an area twenty-five metres in diameter."
  375. > He looks impressed.
  376.  
  377. > Well, he should be! Most of the unicorns the air-defence company can only manage half that.
  378. > "Impressive. If you'll oblige me, I think that'll be more than enough. Let's head out through the balcony, into the gardens."
  379. > Oh, thank Celestia you don't have to escort him through the palace halls dressed like that.
  380. > If Captain Mailedhoof was still on duty (unlikely, admittedly), being seen with a gangly bipedal monkey-creature wearing silly white undergarments would have completely scuttled your "O Club" operation.
  381. > Nobody else is likely to be out in the gardens at this time of evening, and in this weather, so your VIP can get his little walk in, and you won't even have to be seen with him.
  382. > Still, if this is going to be a regular occurrence, maybe you should see about trading shifts with Sparkshower.
  383. > After all, why take chances?
  384.  
  385.  
  386.  
  387.  
  388. > It's just after midnight, and you are Corporal Honour Bound.
  389. > It's late, and you should be asleep, but you figured you should stay up and see the end of both shifts.
  390. > You'd hoped nothing could go wrong on the first day, but with a naive young pegasus in one hoof, and a self-absorbed salt-licking unicorn in the other, anything was possible
  391. > Sitting almost sideways in one of the chairs of the living room, you're just finishing off an article in this week's 'The New Equestrian' magazine.
  392. > Over at the breakfast table, Specialist Sparkshower is also staying up late, working through the issue of 'Canterlot Match' you bought her, with a quill and paper by her side.
  393. > That rag is by far the gossipiest of all the gossip magazines in Equestria, but she's actually using it to make notes on the who's-who of Canterlot society.
  394. > You have to admire the effort. She's only recently arrived in the capital, after all, and in her own words, she wants to quickly get the grasp of the capital.
  395. > She's got the morning shift tomorrow, but she took a nap this afternoon to make up the sleep time in advance.
  396. > As you turn your magazine over to start the article on the other side, you can hear hoofsteps out in the carpeted hallway.
  397. > The steps stop outside the door to these quarters, and moments later Specialist Glamerspear slowly pushes the door open.
  398. > She's completely soaked; her coat is streaked with lathery white sweat deposits, and her mane is in desperate need of a blow-dry and brushing. And she's got her helmet and armour floating beside her in a magical field.
  399. > Sparkshower puts down her magazine, a confused expression on her face, but the Glamerspear is speechless, just panting there in the entryway, her head hung low.
  400.  
  401. > Looks like you might not be getting what you hoped for. How did a unicorn with her telekinetic abilities manage to get wet in the rain?
  402. > Finally, with what seems like a supreme effort, Glamerspear reaches over and closes the door behind her.
  403. > She takes a deep breath and lifts her head up to face you two.
  404. > "Did either of you know that humans can *gallop* for EIGHT STRAIGHT HOURS!?"
  405. > Sparkshower's jaw drops.
  406. > "Anonymous went galloping for your entire evening shift?!"
  407. > It's as if the act of getting into a conversation reinvigorates the social-butterfly unicorn.
  408. > "No! It was only for an hour, which was impressive enough, but when I asked him if he was a champion athlete, he just laughed and said that one hour at that pace -- which he called a 'jog' although I had to GALLOP to keep up -- was nothing, and that real human athletes can do it all day long without stopping! Can you believe that?!"
  409. > Hopping out of her chair, the pegasus darts over to her fellow guardsmare and holds her forehooves out beneath the floating armour pieces.
  410. > Glamerspear's horn stops glowing and the field holding her stuff up drops -- and the stuff along with it, right into the pegasus' waiting forelegs.
  411. > The relief from getting to shut off that final source of exertion has a palpable effect on the poor junior unicorn.
  412. > "... Thanks, I needed that."
  413. > "No problem. You go have a shower, I'll hang these up in your room."
  414. > "You're a real pal, Sparkshower. I owe you one."
  415.  
  416. > That's the first time she's actually addressed the pegasus by her full name. She must really mean it.
  417. > While Sparkshower flaps over into the unicorn's bedroom, Glamerspear trots over to the washroom.
  418. > In seconds, the curtain is drawn and the water is running full-blast, and you can hear a sigh of relief.
  419. > By the time Sparkshower's finished hanging up her comrade's armour and floated back out from the bedroom, the water's stopped again
  420. > And then there's the unmistakable deep-bass "shuuuuuuuuUUUUH-WOOOM!" of Glamerspear drying herself off with a WC-40 manoeuvre.
  421. > "What was that?!"
  422. > Clearly SPC Sparks hasn't been around many "'corn fields" - all-unicorn regiments.
  423. "WC-40. Low-intensity modulated telekinetic blast. Unicorns do it in the field for drying off in a hurry."
  424. > "Why's it called WC-40?"
  425. > It's a pretty old yarn. It's a little surprising she's never heard it. But then again, she is pretty green for a Specialist, and much of her time was spent actually deep in the field, rather than sharing tales back at barracks.
  426. "Because it takes practice. Get it wrong and you can wind up looking like a furball, or worse. Usually newbies practice it outside until they can do it even if they're hung over and exhausted. The story goes that one rookie thought they'd mastered it and went for a shower in Water Closet #40. They got it wrong, and blew the place up."
  427. > "At Fort Horseshoe Bend?! I remember using Water Closet #40, that's the one next to the chow hall!"
  428. "And it's a newer building than the rest."
  429. > The rookie looks aghast at the idea that the latrine building might have gone up from a careless unicorn at any time.
  430. "... That's how I heard it, anyways."
  431.  
  432. > Meanwhile, Glamerspear has emerged from the shower, coat fresh and dry and mane well-brushed.
  433. > "Ahh, that's better! If I hadn't had to keep up that umbrella shield while *also* galloping around the rose garden like a madmare, I might not have gotten so beat, but I just don't know how he managed to keep going so fast for so long."
  434. > Sparkshower hovers over toward her and puts a hoof to her chin
  435. > "Well, he's tall, so maybe for him it wasn't a gallop?"
  436. > Glamerspear waves her hoof dismissively.
  437. > "Oh, sure, I guess his 'jog' was more of a... canter. But even so, could you keep up a canter -- on hoof, mind you, not in the air -- for an hour, without breaks -- let alone eight hours?"
  438. > "No, but... He doesn't have any hair on his body, right?"
  439. > "Ugh, don't remind me. And let me tell you, he picked the WORST clothes to wear while exercising. Just these two pieces of plain white, baggy, short-sleeved cotton undergarments. I was lucky we weren't seen; it would have been *so* embarrassing!"
  440. > With a firm flap, Sparkshower hoists herself up into the air, almost touching the ceiling.
  441. > "Wait - if his skin is exposed, then he can *sweat* a lot easier than we can! And that means he doesn't overheat! So *that's* why he can keep going for so long."
  442. > The unicorn cocks an eye up at her.
  443. > "How do you figure that?"
  444. > Sparkshower drops from the air and lands with a satisfying thud.
  445. > "The non-pegasus ponies in Armoured Recon -- and even some of the pegasi, now that I think about it -- sometimes shave parts of their body when they know they need to do long-distance work on hot, humid days. It makes it easier to sweat and keep cool."
  446. > Glamerspear sticks out her tongue.
  447. > "Yech, gross! ...But I believe you. Still, you're not going to find ME shaving my flanks just to keep up with some hairless monkey!"
  448. > The pegasus shrugs her shoulders.
  449. > "Maybe you could get out of morning Pony Physical Training if Anonymous goes for a run every night?"
  450.  
  451. > Glamerspear smirks
  452. > "Oh, believe me, Sparks. I don't mind morning PPT. This flank doesn't keep itself toned, you know what I mean?"
  453. > Emphasizing the point, Glamerspear turns and taps her left buttock, adopting an exaggerated 'sexy pose' before relaxing into giggles.
  454. > Sparkshower starts giggling along too, and Glam saunters over to the couch, continuing.
  455. > "... And it's more interesting than just sitting in front of a pair of doors all day, right? But I *was* wondering if maybe you wanted to switch shifts? If he's going to make this a regular thing, anyways."
  456. > "Sure, I don't mind. But you said you cast a shield to block out the rain? What if it's raining tomorrow? I can't do anything for him like that."
  457. > Toppling backwards over the armrest, Glamerspear lies down on the sofa and brings a hoof up to her forehead.
  458. > "Ugghh, you're right. Now that he's gotten a taste of what The Glam can do for him, why would he settle for anything else?"
  459. > She drops her arm off to the side.
  460. > "... Maybe I could get him to go somewhere else to go for a 'constitutional' other than Princess Celestia's bucking rose garden? That's for pleasant tea parties or romantic evening strolls, not crazed hairless monkey galloping."
  461. > "But it is right outside his chambers. It's the closest open area outside."
  462. > "Ugh... Well, maybe I can *suggest* some better exercise fashion for him to wear. Something with a trim fit and maybe a pattern, at least."
  463. > You yawn and glance at the clock against the wall. It's half past midnight.
  464. > Far past time for this 'shoe-camp-tier silliness.
  465. "Okay, fillies. It's after midnight, let's put the lights out. Figure out your galloping problems in the morning."
  466. > Sparkshower gives you a quick salute from where she's standing.
  467. > "Yes, Corporal."
  468. > Glamerspear lazily slaps her hoof against her forehead, still lying on the couch.
  469. > "Yes, Corporal."
  470.  
  471. > You get up and turn off the main living room light.
  472. > Sparkshower stretches yawns and stretches her wings, then heads for the washroom.
  473. > "Hey Sparkshower, don't take too long in there, or else I'll fall asleep out here."
  474. > The pegasus already has her toothbrush in her mouth
  475. > "Uhhl buh dunn uhn uh munhut."
  476. > Putting the two junior Specialists out of your mind, you turn in for the night.
  477. > If a sweaty exhausted unicorn is the worst that this assignment can offer, it should turn out all right.
  478.  
  479.  
  480.  
  481.  
  482. "Specialist Glamerspear reporting for duty, sir."
  483. > It's the following morning, and you are Specialist Lilly Glamerspear.
  484. > Thank Celestia, Sparkshower agreed to switch shifts with you. She's such a sweetheart.
  485. > You definitely owe her for this, and for last night. Probably start by getting her the next issue of Canterlot Match at the commissary this afternoon.
  486. > "Oh, good morning, Specialist."
  487. > Anonymous, your Very Important Pony, Who Isn't Actually A Pony, briefly looks at you from where he's hunched over his large writing desk.
  488. > As you shut the door behind you, he dips his quill in his inkwell and resumes writing.
  489. > "...I thought Specialist Sparkshower was assigned to service me in the mornings?"
  490. > *Service* him? Heh. You didn't know Anonymous well enough to know if he *meant* that as a double-entendre, but it didn't sound like it.
  491. "I traded places with her, sir. The original assignments can be restored if you have any objections."
  492. > "No, no objections. I just hope I didn't wear you out last night."
  493. > OK, *that* must have been...
  494. > No, he's still completely absorbed by his writing. It's just his manner of speech.
  495. "Not at all, sir. I enjoy a good evening gallop through the garden."
  496. > Damn it, now he had *you* making Faustian slips. You had to suck in the last syllable when you realized what you were saying.
  497. > Anonymous sets his quill to one side and looks up at you, with one eye cocked.
  498. > "Your tone, Specialist, leads me to believe that you do not entirely approve of my evening exercise regimen. Is there a problem?"
  499. > Ah, crap. You bite your lip.
  500. "No, sir."
  501. > You try your best to get composed and in your position in front of the door, but he just blinks his eyes and continues to look at you.
  502.  
  503. > "Please speak freely, Specialist. This isn't my native land, and I'm not familiar with your customs. I've been on my best behaviour, but it would certainly be of benefit to me to hear if I have made a misstep."
  504. > That's fair, you suppose.
  505. > But you do know how your big mouth can get you into trouble...
  506. > Ugh, trying to hold this in is tearing you up!
  507. > You decide to take a chance.
  508. "Well, sir, if you'd like my personal opinion, I don't believe that Celestia's rose garden is an appropriate place for galloping about like that."
  509. > Anonymous sits up and puts his quill to one side
  510. > "I see. And is there somewhere else you would suggest?"
  511. > Luckily, Sparkshower had given you the answer for this, too. How did she manage to get the lay of the palace grounds so quickly?
  512. > Just pegasus things, you suppose.
  513. "Sir, Canterlot Palace's one-and-a-half-mile oval track is just behind the poplars lining the eastern boulevard."
  514. > "Really? Well, that will certainly do. Provided I'm allowed to use it, of course."
  515. "I can certainly make enquiries regarding that on your behalf, sir."
  516. > "Please do, Specialist Glamerspear. And thank-you."
  517. > He smiles and nods in your direction. Success!
  518. > You definitely owed Sparks more than a few copies of that gossip rag.
  519. > Anonymous reaches for his quill, and on a mad impulse you regret microseconds later, you take another leap of faith.
  520. "There *is* something else, I would care to suggest, sir, as a matter of decorum."
  521. > He pulls his hand back and leans back in his chair, elbows on his armrests and fingers clasped in front of me.
  522. > "If I had known that taking an evening jog could raise issues of decorum, I would have made more dedicated enquiries beforehand..."
  523. > Anonymous motions to you with an open hand
  524. > "... Pray continue, Specialist Glamerspear."
  525.  
  526. > He asked for feedback, but speaking honestly like this...
  527. > Well, it's not something that typically advances a pony in the VIP service.
  528. > VIP duty is supposed to be all about looking good and keeping your mouth shut, with maybe a little extra on the side, depending.
  529. > It's *not* supposed to be about awkwardly telling hairless monkeys that their exercise clothes are embarrassingly unfashionable - especially not if they're highly-placed members of Princess Celestia's court!
  530. > You swallow and stare straight ahead, avoiding his gaze.
  531. "There is the matter of your 'jogging' attire, sir."
  532. > Anonymous says nothing, and your words just hang in the air for a moment.
  533. > You lick your lips, and continue.
  534. "It is undignified for a gentlecolt of your stature in the court to be seen in public in such an outfit."
  535. > You hear the creak of his chair as he stands up.
  536. > "Would it interest you to know that I arrived in Equestria in those clothes? Unintentionally, of course."
  537. > Welp, so long cushy VIP posting. Back to boring standby duty at the barracks.
  538. > Hope you didn't just screw things up for Sparks & Honour. They don't deserve any backlash for your mis-step.
  539. > "...I just happened to be out on a jog when it happened. There was a thundershower in the forecast, but I thought I could get around the neighbourhood before it hit.
  540. > He's walking toward you. Going to make it personal, you guess.
  541. > "... I remember a bit of thunder, and quickening my pace. My home was just around the corner, you see. And then... All I remember is a clap of thunder, and a bright flash, and the feeling of my head hitting the dirt."
  542. > Jeez, he's really laying it in. You don't just get fired, you get his life story, too. It's like you've offended him, and his family, and his ancestors, and his people's gods, too.
  543.  
  544. > "... So I guess you could say putting that outfit on again reminds me of home, a bit."
  545. > He starts chuckling.
  546. > "... Frankly, I'm more surprised that it wasn't torn to shreds by whatever ripped me out of my reality and into this one."
  547. > Anonymous, Royal Engineer, is standing just in front of you, and practically looming over you.
  548. > "... Anyways, I suppose you're perfectly correct and my cotton joggers are completely unfit now that I've taken up residence in the equivalent of Buckingham Palace."
  549. > Did he just *curse*? Wait, did he just *agree* with you?
  550. > "... So what do you suggest I wear, instead?"
  551. > The Royal Engineer, bipedal hairless monkey creature, is looking at you with an easygoing smile.
  552. > Wow, arrow bucking dodged.
  553. "Uh, well... Something with a pattern, at least?"
  554. > His expression switches to confused amusement.
  555. > You let out the breath you've been holding in for about a minute now.
  556. "Listen, sir, your current outfit is very fashionable. Couldn't you get whoever made you that to make you some exercise wear as well? Something that's not quite so baggy-"
  557. > "It's just loose-fitting," he objects.
  558. "It's *baggy*, sir. And plain white simply won't do."
  559. > Anonymous pauses to get himself a glass of water from a carafe on the console table.
  560. > "Anything else?"
  561. "No, sir. And, I should say, sir, that if you exercise around the *outside* of the oval track, this soldier is more than capable of keeping pace with you using the inside lane."
  562. > He takes a drink and nods his head.
  563. > "Something to keep in mind for rainy days, certainly."
  564. > The Royal Engineer regards you with anticipation.
  565. "That's all, sir."
  566.  
  567. > Anonymous nods.
  568. > "Excellent. I appreciate your candour, Specialist Glamerspear. I would greatly appreciate it if you continued to be candid with me in these matters."
  569. > He's going to take your advice, and he wants more? Sweet!
  570. > Well, Princess Celestia didn't name him Royal Engineer for nothing, did she? Makes sense he's got a good head on his shoulders.
  571. > "As we're already speaking candidly, I was curious about a few elements of your training, if you would care to indulge me."
  572. > This should be good.
  573. "Of course, sir."
  574. > "In your capacity as an anti-aircraft soldier, I was wondering how you dealt with spotting targets that might be set against a bright sky, or far away? After all, you can only hit something you can see, correct?"
  575. > You allow yourself to make eye contact with the Royal Engineer, and give him a nod.
  576. "Yes, sir. It's funny you should ask that given that we've just been talking about clothing..."
  577. > You bring one hoof up to the side of your head and point at your helmet
  578. "... Perhaps you noticed that my helmet differed from those of Specialist Sparkshower and Corporal Bound? Besides the cut-out for my horn, of course?"
  579. > Anonymous leans in slightly to inspect your headgear, and you continue.
  580. "...This is a Martingale-Locksteed Mark III Air Defence Assisted Targeting helmet. With the push of a button,"
  581. > You depress the catch lever, and with a satisfying *snap*, two amber lenses slide out to cover your eyess from their housings on the sides of the helmet, just behind your temples.
  582. "... the operator can activate a variety of lenses, appropriate for various sky conditions, and providing a two-times optical magnification."
  583. > After giving Anonymous enough time to inspect the first set of amber lenses (good for bright overcast days), you press the catch lever again and again, swapping out magnified amber lenses, then pink (dusk and dawn), then magnified-pink, then grey (clear sunny days), then magnified-grey, and then back to nothing at all.
  584.  
  585. > The Royal Engineer seems impressed.
  586. > Well, he should be! This is some sweet gear, and it's the latest model, too.
  587. > Of course, only *you* were capable of making full use of it in the battalion. Two-times magnification was useless to the unicorns who couldn't get their shots to reach more than a hundred metres up in the air, anyways.
  588. > "Clever design."
  589. "Yes, sir. Furthermore, Air Defence soldiers never work alone, but are organized into batteries of three to five gunners and one spotter, equipped with a spotting telescope or pair of binoculars."
  590. > "Sensible. I'd love to see it in action."
  591. "Sir, firing exercises are held weekly at Fort Horseshoe Bend."
  592. > "I'll have to make the trip sometime."
  593. > He stands up straight once again, and grasps his hands to the breasts of his jacket.
  594. > "Well, Specialist Glamerspear, thank you for indulging my curiosity. And thank you again for the wardrobe advice; I'll see about placing an order for something more fashionable."
  595. > Looking him in the eyes, you give a salute.
  596. "It is a guard's duty to serve, sir."
  597. > The Royal Engineer gives you a small bow.
  598. > "And I appreciate your service, Specialist. Thank you."
  599. > With his water-cup in hand, Anonymous turns and walks back to his desk.
  600. > Well, how about that!
  601. > They told you when you signed up for this that VIPs are almost inevitably demanding, inconsiderate, stuck-up bucking assholes.
  602. > It didn't matter too much to you: the rewards were more than worth the potential suffering.
  603. > But assuming Anonymous follows through and wasn't just humouring you, it looks like you hit the jackpot!
  604. > Better ask Sparks to switch places again, because it looks like 'The Glam putting the moves on Captain Mailedhoof' is back on again.
  605. > After that brief roller-coaster of stress and relief, you settle in for a pleasant and likely uneventful eight-hour shift.
  606. > Oh, you're going to be my ticket straight to a Colonel or General, Mailedhoof.
  607. > Unf, and that croup of his...
  608.  
  609.  
  610.  
  611.  
  612. "Specialist Glamerspear, by the glory of the Morning Dawn, I hereby relieve you at this post."
  613. > It's the afternoon shift change, and you recite the ritual changing-of-the-guard call as Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, 19D Armoured Scout, Pegasus Wing
  614. > "Specialist Sparkshower, by the peace of the Evening Dusk, I stand relieved."
  615. > Before you, Specialist Glamerspear, 14E Air Defence, salutes you as she recites her half of the call-and-response.
  616. > Of course, no 19D has ever relieved a 14E in the field; this sort of exchange can only happen on by far the most unusual duty available to soldiers of any senior enlisted rank:
  617. > Serving as bodyguard to a Very Important Pony.
  618. > Your particular VIP (who doesn't look at all like a pony) is over to your left, sitting at his large bureau and scribbling furiously away with his quill.
  619. > It's exactly how he spent the majority of your first shift yesterday morning.
  620. > Besides bouts of walking around looking for books or documents, of course.
  621. > Royal Engineer Anonymous looks up at you from his desk.
  622. > "Good afternoon, Specialist Sparkshower."
  623. "Good afternoon, sir."
  624. > You shut the door behind you, and you can hear Glamerspear trotting off in the distance.
  625. > From the direction of the sound of her hoofsteps, she's taking the long way back upstairs to your quarters.
  626. > Probably planning to strut by Captain Mailedhoof again.
  627. > "I had a little discussion with Specialist Glamerspear this morning. Apparently, she found a few of my habits unbecoming of my station."
  628. > She brought it up with him? That was bold. Your instruction was clear: VIP bodyguards were supposed to be seen and not heard.
  629. > But then again, Glamerspear struck you as a pretty bold pony.
  630.  
  631. > "... I just wanted to mention that if you had any such similar advice, now or at any time later, I would be glad to hear it."
  632. "Yes, sir. Of course, sir."
  633. > Anonymous looks at you expectantly. You shoulder your spear.
  634. "Uhhh.... This soldier has no advice for you at this time, sir, as she has not yet witnessed anything she would consider unbecoming, sir."
  635. > Over at his desk, your charge chuckles
  636. > "I suppose you didn't see me do very much yesterday."
  637. > He pushes his chair away from his desk and stands up, walking over to the lighthouse clock in the centre of the room.
  638. > "I'm afraid today doesn't promise to be much different, although I am expecting a visitor in an hour or so."
  639. > The Royal Engineer turns and strides back over to his writing desk.
  640. > "... Which reminds me: Would delivering a written message be within your duties in my service?"
  641. "Yes, sir! Of course, sir! This soldier is more than capable of hoof-delivering any notes on your behalf."
  642. > Courier duty in the Guard as a whole was considered pretty 'low' work, being usually little more than shuttling notes from one snooty officer to another.
  643. > But *VIP* Courier duty, on the other hoof, promised a wealth of excitement!
  644. > Rushing important government documents to members of the Court!
  645. > Fetching great tomes from the depths of the most arcane libraries!
  646. > Rescuing your VIP from social situations with quick deliveries of important sundries!
  647. > Maybe even... delivering a romantic letter to someone your VIP admires?
  648. > Sealed with a kiss, of course!
  649. > Oooh, the idea of that last one gets you giddy like a brisk sun-shower.
  650. > The Royal Engineer's voice interrupts your thoughts before they can run home with that idea.
  651. > "Your comrade made some recommendations as to my exercise wardrobe. Would you deliver this note to the Bridle Path Clothiers, in Poole Street? They're the tailors who've supplied the rest of my wardrobe so far."
  652.  
  653. > While you were daydreaming of all the fancy kinds of letters you might deliver, Anonymous has somehow materialized in front of you with a folded piece of paper for you to deliver.
  654. > You take it and put it respectfully into a small saddle bag at your left hip, then turn and give a salute.
  655. "Shall I deliver this immediately, sir?"
  656. > "Yes, please do. I expect Purse Strings to be here soon to go over the ledger figures."
  657. "Of course, sir! And, since you asked, sir, I may say that it would be must unbecoming for you to receive him without your escort present, sir."
  658. > Anonymous arches his eyebrows at you.
  659. > "Oh, really? It seems there is more to your service than just protection and prestige."
  660. "Yes, sir! Once a VIP is known to be escorted by bodyguards, then for them to go un-escorted is a sign of informality and casualness. A courtly personage such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be offended you were becoming too familiar."
  661. > "Interesting."
  662. > You salute once more and reach for the door handle.
  663. > "... By the way, Specialist. 'Armoured Scout' is your formal job title, isn't it?"
  664. > You lower your hoof and turn back to your charge.
  665. "Yes, Sir! 19D Armoured Scout, Pegasus Wing!"
  666. > "I was curious, what distinguishes an 'Armoured' Scout from any other kind?"
  667. > Like a summer gale, that question came a bit out of nowhere.
  668. "Uhh... Well, sir, an *Armoured* Scout is armed and armoured more heavily than ordinary scout ponies."
  669. > Describing your ordinary military service was one of the things you'd been told to prepare for in VIP training
  670. > Apparently, VIPs sometimes like to hear of a soldier's particular training, or be regaled with stories of valorous combat.
  671.  
  672. > The classroom MOS training comes rushing back, and you find yourself reciting your instructor's description almost word-for-word.
  673. "Whereas ordinary scouts are expected to either infiltrate the enemy lines by avoiding contact, or to retreat in the face of anything more than enemy scouting parties, an *Armoured* Scout team is expected to be able to break through enemy lines by overwhelming forward screening elements. Armoured Scouts can put other Scout units to flight, force screens to retreat, work to disrupt communication lines, and make their way deep enough to reconnoitre the main enemy force."
  674. > You clang your left hoof into your chest in the 'clashing salute' of the armoured divisions of the Royal Guard.
  675. "Sir, you may have noticed that this soldier carries a bronze longspear, the heaviest and longest-reaching weapon in the Royal Arsenal. This soldier is also wearing a bronze cuirass in four pieces: backplate, breastplate, criniere, and croupiere. You may notice, sir, the epaulets built into the backplate to protect the base of the wings as well."
  676. > As you go over the parts of your panoply, you make sure to indicate them clearly to your VIP.
  677. > You also give him a moment to get a closer look, and the Royal Engineer seems genuinely interested.
  678. "Additionally, this soldier is equipped with a full-coverage bascinet helmet with visor and chain aventail which attaches to the criniere. Armoured Scouts are also outfitted with four bronze sabatons and four two-piece greaves covering both front and back of the shins."
  679. > Presenting your equipment like this reminded you of inspection time back in horseshoe camp.
  680. > Except there wasn't a Drill Sergeant neighing spittle all over your face for a speck of dirt on your sabatons.
  681. > Instead, you only had the Royal Engineer standing before you, holding his chin in one hand and his elbow with the other.
  682. > He really does have long legs. No wonder Glamerspear had trouble keeping up with him.
  683.  
  684. "Thusly equipped, an Armoured Scout such as this soldier is capable of fending off any light advance unit the enemy can field, and is on equal terms with the armoured main elements of the enemy force."
  685. > "Fascinating. But all that equipment must weigh quite a lot, no?"
  686. "Sir, this soldier's loadout weighs in at forty pounds dead weight, which almost doubles an ordinary guardspone's twenty-five-pound load. But with extensive training comes familiarity with the equipment, and the Armoured divisions are considered the heavy-fighting elite of the Royal Guard."
  687. > "I see. Thank you, Specialist, for that lesson in armour and tactics. Now, don't let me keep you from delivering that note any longer, lest I find myself without an escort when the Chancellor arrives."
  688. "Yes, sir! Although I should say, sir, that if you found yourself in such a situation, at least one of my comrades upstairs should normally be on standby duty for such service as well."
  689. > "Good to know, Specialist. See you back here soon."
  690. > You give another hearty salute, open the door, step outside, respectfully close the door behind you, and then spring into the air
  691. > Armoured courier message delivery, coming through! Traffic, step aside!
  692.  
  693.  
  694.  
  695.  
  696. > It's a little after 5 in the afternoon, and you are still Artemis Sparkshower.
  697. > To your left, Royal Engineer Anonymous is sitting at his desk, with Chancellor of the Exchequer Purse Strings sitting in front of him.
  698. > Since he arrived, they've just been reading numbers together; Anonymous will call out a numbered line...
  699. > "Okay, next, line three-hundred-and-twelve: one million, three hundred and forty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-eight"
  700. > ... and then Purse Strings will reply...
  701. > "Line three-hundred-and-twelve: one million, three hundred and forty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-eight. Correct."
  702. > This exchange has been going on for half an hour so far.
  703. > The Chancellor's guard has been at his charge's side the whole time, dressed in light armour and serving more as a valet, handing him various books and scrolls with numbers on them.
  704. > Since all the numbers have just been "line such-and-such", it's as clear as a black storm-cloud to you.
  705. > All you can make out is that it's some kind of accounting.
  706. > It reminds you of the kind of work the intelligence officers do with your scouting reports, but these numbers were on a whole other level.
  707. > Line thirty-three, whatever it was, was over ten *billion*.
  708. > Imagine having to count that many enemies in a field!
  709. > You don't think ten billion Changelings could even fit within your field of view.
  710. > And ten billion *dragons* could probably cover all of Equestria.
  711. > "Okay, last one: line three-hundred-and-thirteen: forty-six."
  712. > That was by far the *smallest* number the Royal Engineer has said since this had started.
  713. > "Line three-hundred-and-thirteen: forty-*seven*. I think you have last year's number there, Anon; there was a singular addition this year so far."
  714. > There's a shuffling of papers as the Royal Engineer flips over to another book.
  715.  
  716. > The Chancellor has been addressing him as "Anon".
  717. > So much for him possibly being offended at Anonymous appearing to be overly familiar!
  718. > "I wrote down that I got it from... last year's census. Okay, corrected: line three-hundred-and-thirteen is forty-seven. And that's that!"
  719. > With an exhausted whinny, Anonymous puts down his quill and rubs his eyes.
  720. > Purse Strings closes the book in front of him and, smirking, passes it back to his bodyguard.
  721. > "Nothing quite like some book-balancing to close out a week, eh?"
  722. > The Royal Engineer yawns and chuckles in reply.
  723. > "Not my idea of a relaxing Friday afternoon. Still, it had to be done."
  724. > The elder statespony lets out a roaring laugh.
  725. > "That's the spirit, my foal! But really, though, a young colt like you -- you ought to get out and *do* something on a fine night like this! Why, I don't believe you've left the castle since you were appointed to this position!"
  726. > Anonymous rolls his head to one side.
  727. > "That's not true. I visited you at your house. And I must've toured a hundred facilities around Equestria..."
  728. > Purse Strings tuts even as he helps his bodyguard pack up the rest of his papers and books.
  729. > "Oh, come now. You know I meant besides work. Go tour the waterfalls! Browse the shops! Go see a show!"
  730. > Turning, the Chancellor points a hoof at the Royal Engineer.
  731. > "... Why, I'll tell you right now, Mrs. Strings and I saw the latest production at the Sardinia Theatre last week, and we absolutely loved it! Another operatic comedy by that brilliant duo, Gallop & Stallion, called 'The Magician'. Fantastic show; spectacular, really."
  732. > Leaning back in his chair, Anonymous looks a little skeptical.
  733. > "A musical? But won't I have trouble getting tickets on short notice?"
  734. > Purse Strings shakes his head dismissively.
  735. > "Oh, hardly. It's been playing for weeks and weeks. They were still neighing in the streets for last-minute purchasers when the doors opened for seating."
  736.  
  737. > The Royal Engineer places his fingers together and looks over in your direction.
  738. > "Well, what do you think, Specialist? Would you care to comment on The Right Honourable Chancellor and Under-Treasurer of Their Majesties' Exchequer's recommendation?"
  739. > Before you can answer, Purse Strings glances over at you and speaks first.
  740. > "Ah, yes. I forgot you'd joined the little club of Very Important Ponies earlier this week. If you go, you'll want to try to get a box seat."
  741. > "I will? Why?"
  742. > Purse Strings seems hesitant to reply, so you pipe up.
  743. "Sir! In theatres and at other such performances, it is customary for a VIP's escort to stand guard in the hallway or, if the subject is in the general seating, against the wall of the nearest aisle."
  744. > Anonymous raises his eyebrows and glances over at the Chancellor, who nods in agreement.
  745. ".. Except when attending in the company of numerous fellow VIPs with their own escorts, it is considered uncouth and undignified to have one's bodyguards present in the audience room."
  746. > The Royal Engineer leans forward in his chair and places his elbows on the desk, his hands clasped together and pointing at you.
  747. > "I'm attending a show, and you have to either stand far away at the edge of the room, or take up a post behind a curtain in the hallway where you won't even be able to see the performance?"
  748. > Everypony in the room nods back at him, yourself included.
  749. > Anonymous scoffs.
  750. > "I'm sorry, but that's just ridiculous. Even if I were genuinely threatened, it sounds like you might easily be too far away to intervene..."
  751. > He turns to the Chancellor and shrugs his shoulders, spreading his arms.
  752. > "... Can't I just buy two tickets and have Specialist Sparkshower sit next to me?"
  753. > Purse Strings' eyes go wide, and he stammers.
  754. > "Uh, err..."
  755. > His bodyguard noisily clears her throat, and the Chancellor regains his composure.
  756. > "... Well, I suppose you could, if the mare doesn't object..."
  757.  
  758. > You're a little confused about the awkwardness you just witnessed.
  759. > After all, the Royal Engineer's suggestion actually sounds like a neat idea!
  760. > Imagine, guards sitting next to their VIPs, ready to leap into action at a moment's notice!
  761. > Plus this way you would get to enjoy the show as well!
  762. > How considerate of the Royal Engineer!
  763. > And how fortunate for you to have such a generous charge!
  764. > You realize that Purse Strings is looking you up and down with a critical eye.
  765. > "... Of course, she can't be dressed like *that*. Theatre seats aren't built to accommodate *armour*, after all."
  766. "Oh, well, I have a dress I could put on instead! If The Royal Engineer was serious about the offer to see a musical performance, I mean!"
  767. > Anonymous looks pleased.
  768. > "See, Purse? You're making a treasury out of a change-bag."
  769. > Purse Strings opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but seems to reconsider, and just shakes his head as he heads toward the door.
  770. > The Royal Engineer gets to his feet and pulls his dinner jacket off of a coat-rack in the corner, and looks over at you.
  771. > "... Your break for supper is just about now, anyways, isn't it, Specialist? I'll order some food myself and expect you back here, ready to go to the theatre in, oh, say, an hour and a half?"
  772. > He *is* serious!
  773. > Hooray for clear skies and puffy clouds!
  774. "Yes, sir! One-and-a-half hours, absolutely, sir!"
  775. > You pull open the door for the Chancellor, and he turns around just before leaving and gives a short bow to the Royal Engineer, who also returns it with a smile on his face.
  776. > Closing the door after him, you're giddy with glee.
  777.  
  778. > Oh, just wait until you write back to Berry about this!
  779. > Seeing a fancy big Canterlot musical production in your own seat, how about that!
  780. > Anonymous tugs on the servants' bell-pull by the dining table, and a few moments later the butler arrives to take his order.
  781. > Once he's done, the Royal Engineer picks up his newspaper and gives you a nod of dismissal.
  782. > You respectfully bow and exit backwards out the door.
  783. > As soon as the door is closed, you book it upstairs with a huge smile on your face.
  784. > Just wait until Glamerspear and Honour hear about this!
  785.  
  786.  
  787.  
  788.  
  789. > You are still Specialist Sparkshower, and it's been a little over half an hour since you blew out of Anonymous' chambers like a summer gale.
  790. > Unfortunately, neither Specialist Glamerspeaer nor Corporal Honour Bound were upstairs in your quarters just then.
  791. > You didn't have time to wait around, so you'd bolted for the barracks' dining hall instead.
  792. > Besides, it was a fair bet that they would be there.
  793. > No dice, though. And you'd even flown up to the top of the hall to get a good look around!
  794. > You dined alone as a result, but you were so excited that you could barely taste the usually outstanding Friday evening grub.
  795. > Finally, after a return trip across the castle grounds, you were back at your quarters, just above the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  796. > Time to get dressed up for the big show!
  797. > Without coming to a stop, and certainly without touching your hooves down on the ground, you reached out and swiftly jerked the door handle even as you flew forwards, bowling your way into the room, and careening off the hallway wall.
  798. > (And probably leaving a nice set of hoof-prints on the wallpaper).
  799. > "WHOA!! Easy there, jeez!"
  800. > Looks like you've found one of your compatriots!
  801. > Glamerspear was so shocked by your dynamic entrance that she practically jumped off the sofa.
  802. > With a huge grin on your face, you come skidding to a touchdown in front of her.
  803. "Oh, hey Glamerspear! Guess what just happened!"
  804. > "Somepony dared you to drink a whole tray full of shots in the canteen? I don't know, why else are you bouncing off the wall like that?"
  805. > You shake your head vigorously.
  806. "Nope! Royal Engineer Anonymous is taking me out to see a musical at the Sardinia Theatre, and he's buying me a ticket to sit next to him!"
  807. > Glamerspear's eyes go wide.
  808. > "Whaaaaat! Seriously?!"
  809. > You nod your head, also vigorously.
  810. > She smiles and cocks a hoof at you.
  811. > "Oh my gosh, jea-lous!"
  812.  
  813. "Yeah, I'm going to wear a dress and everything!"
  814. > You immediately start for your room.
  815. "... We're leaving in less than an hour, so I've got to get ready!"
  816. > Glamerspear looks after you with a grin on her face.
  817. > "Wow, filly, you sure don't waste time! Way to bag yourself a hot ticket on short notice!"
  818. > 'Hot' ticket? Oh, she must mean the 'hot' *show* ticket.
  819. > Bounding into your room, you leave the door open as you rummage through your closet.
  820. "Yeah, isn't it great?"
  821. > You'd left the door open, and Glamerspear peeks in at you around the doorway.
  822. > "Well, you know, you're not the *only* one who struck gold today. I passed by Captain Mailedhoof again-"
  823. "I know! I heard you walk over there when I relieved you!"
  824. > Whoops, that wasn't too polite of you to interrupt her.
  825. > All this excitement is going to your head a bit. Better cool things off.
  826. > There's still plenty of time before the show, after all.
  827. > "... Right, and this time he actually came over and *spoke* to me! Said he'd seen me 'around' and wanted to say 'hello'. Heh, but you know what that means, don't you, fillyfriend?"
  828. > As you grab the hangar you were looking for, a question springs to mind, and you peek around the corner to speak face-to-face.
  829. "Oh, right - I was going to ask. Isn't Captain Mailedhoof *married*?"
  830. > Glamerspear just laughs.
  831. > "Oh, sure, he's married, but that won't stop him from 'saying hello', you know what I mean?"
  832. > You sure do know what she means!
  833. > Although she did kind of put a weird emphasis on 'saying hello' there.
  834. > Still, she must just mean that Captain Mailedhoof is one of those lucky colts whose mare isn't so suspicious of him that he can't say hello to a mare in the street!
  835. > Or in the castle, rather.
  836. > Aww, he must be a real swell guy.
  837. "Yeah, I do know! That's great for you!"
  838.  
  839. > Glamerspear takes a step forward and leans up back against the side wall of your closet.
  840. > "Aaaaaanyways, I'm thinking it won't be long before we can go get some drinks together in the Officers' club, and then, well, things'll come naturally, won't they?"
  841. > As she trails off, she raises one of her eyebrows and smirks at you.
  842. "Sure, I get it!"
  843. > You don't really get it.
  844. > So you change the subject instead.
  845. "I can't wait to get back after the show and write a letter to my coltfriend back in Berry about tonight!"
  846. > It looks like you've lost Glamerspear. Her nose is all scrunched up and her eyes have gone wide again.
  847. > She knows about coltfriends, right?
  848. > Well, iit doesn't matter, because you've found your dress!
  849. "And here's what I'm going to wear tonight, check this out!"
  850. > Grabbing the hangar hook in your mouth, you swoosh it out in front of you, taking to the air and spreading it out with your hooves.
  851. > Glamerspear seems to be struck speechless.
  852. "It's my cotillion ball dress from my last year in Berry before I joined the Royal Guard! And it still fits!"
  853. > Your roommate seems to be struggling for words.
  854. > She probably just hasn't seen traditional clothing this finely-made before!
  855. "Isn't it pretty? My grandma made it, and she's practically an alicorn with a sewing needle!"
  856.  
  857. > Finally, after getting back down on all fours, Glamerspear seems to find the words.
  858. > "It's got... puffed sleeves."
  859. > SHE NOTICED!
  860. "YEAH! Aren't they GORGEOUS? I was elected as Queen of the Ball! I got a tiara and everything!"
  861. > The unicorn's mouth hangs open, and she's got one hoof up like she wants to say something, but all that comes out is gibberish.
  862. > "Wow, uh... Err..."
  863. > Poor filly! She must be overwhelmed from all the excitement of a new friend in Captain Mailedhoof and your 'hot ticket' to the show tonight!
  864. "Anyways, even though I've got three-quarters of an hour, I want to make sure I look just right, so I'm going to jump in the shower, if you don't mind?"
  865. > She still seems unable to put together two words.
  866. > "O... kay... Su... Sure."
  867. > You lay the dress down on your bed and set to work on removing your armour.
  868. > Glamerspear backs slowly out of your room and closes the door.
  869. > Oooh, this is going to be so much fun!
  870.  
  871.  
  872.  
  873.  
  874. > It's quarter to seven, and you are Specialist Glamerspear, lying on the sofa and reading 'Cosmo'.
  875. > Sparkshower just went trotting daintily out the door on her way to Anonymous' chambers.
  876. > ...
  877. > You utter a silent prayer to Celestia that, for your comrade's sake, nobody important spots her and the Royal Engineer together.
  878. > At least not while she's wearing that horribly unfashionable dress.
  879. > PUFFED SLEEVES, are you bucking kidding me?!
  880. > Those went out of fashion DECADES ago!
  881. > And you couldn't say anything about it!
  882. > You might have a big mouth, but you're not going to light the fuse on a grenade full of trouble and drop it at your own hooves.
  883. > After all, you know what mares are like when they realize they don't have anything nice to wear right before a big event.
  884. > But you *definitely* need to take her out dress shopping if she manages to get Anonymous into her saddlebag.
  885. > After all, you don't want word getting around that you're working for a VIP with a taste for unfashionable mares!
  886. > And WHAT was that about having a coltfriend back in Berry?
  887. > And she's going to TELL him about her new salt-lick on the side?
  888. > Does he have some kind of cuckolding fetish?
  889. > Geez, country ponies sure are kinky weirdos...
  890. > Wait 'til Honour Bound gets back and you tell her about this.
  891. > It'll wipe that detached expression from her face for sure.
  892.  
  893.  
  894.  
  895. Interlude: Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Sorcerer" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=du2qUAiXgoI (script: http://web.mit.edu/gsp/www/Archive/1995fall_sorcerer/libretto1.html)
  896.  
  897. > Hanging on the wall of your shared living room, a plain round clock tick-tocked its way past midnight.
  898. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and since you have the morning shift tomorrow, you are up way past your bedtime.
  899. > But Glamerspear's story about Sparkshower getting taken out to a show by her newly-acquired salt-lick, the Royal Engineer, was beyond belief, and you needed to find out what was going on for yourself.
  900. > The pink gossip herself was up, too, lounging on the sofa and reading another fashion magazine, "Pride Bazaar".
  901. > She said she wanted to see if Sparkshower returned at all -- or if she was going to wind up spending the night with your VIP downstairs.
  902. > In her own faux-scandalized but obviously amused words, "If Sparks bagged the boss this quickly, maybe she's the kind of mare to buck on the first night, too!"
  903. > Sparkshower, however, didn't strike you as a typical saltine.
  904. > Not like Glamerspear, who seemed to fully embrace the role.
  905. > It takes one to know one, though, and Glamerspear certainly was convinced, but you wondered if the unicorn wasn't perhaps projecting onto the pegasus.
  906. > If it was true, then so be it; it didn't really concern you either way.
  907. > Based on the play schedule as published in the Thursday edition of the Canterlot Star, the Royal Engineer and his escort ought to be arriving back at the castle just around now.
  908. > Assuming he didn't take her for some kind of afters, of course.
  909. > "I'm telling you, Corporal, it'll be one in the morning and they won't be back yet, believe me."
  910.  
  911. > Glamerspear clearly has her own ideas about their schedule and itinerary.
  912. "Uh-huh."
  913. > You barely lift your eyes from the book in your hooves.
  914. > Your professed indifference does nothing to temper Glamerspear's insistent curiosity.
  915. > She lays her magazine down on her chest and puts one hoof up to her lips.
  916. > "I wonder if she had to lead him into it at all. I guess I've only met him twice, but I've got a good sense for these things, and I never got the sense that he was even interested in ponies that way."
  917. > You don't dignify that train of thought with an answer.
  918. > You just pray to Celestia that somepony comes to deliver you from the foolishness of young guardsmares.
  919. > Just then, you make out footsteps on the carpet outside.
  920. > Glamerspear must have heard them too, because she jerks her head towards the door, a look of excited anticipation on her face.
  921. > Slowly, the door-handle turns, and then the door opens inwards.
  922. > Specialist Sparkshower cautiously pokes her head into the room, and seems surprised to see you both there.
  923. > "Oh, hello! I wasn't sure if you might be asleep, so I didn't want to wake anybody up."
  924. > She abandons her attempt at stealth and steps right in, still dressed in her cotillion ball-gown with its puffed sleeves.
  925. > It is outdated, just as Glamerspear said, but not so far out of style that it would be embarrassing; certainly not at the theatre.
  926. > As soon as the pegasus shuts the door behind her, the unicorn launches right into the questions.
  927. > "So? How did it go?"
  928. > Patience was clearly not one of her virtues.
  929. > But the object of her questioning doesn't seem to mind her vice at all, because Sparkshower's face explodes into a smile like the fantasy is starting all over again.
  930. > "It was AMAZING! Oh, gosh, the costumes, the orchestra, singing, it was all fantastic! And the story was great!"
  931. > "Yeah? And how were the seats?"
  932. > "OH MY GOSH, THE SEATS!..."
  933.  
  934. > There's a kind of disturbing chain reaction of enthusiasm going over at the sofa.
  935. > "... When we got to the theatre, the colt in the box office said that the main floor and mezzanine were sold out; all they had left was the balcony and boxes, so Anonymous decided to get us BOX SEATS!"
  936. > Glamerspear pumps her hoof like she's working a cash register.
  937. > "Nice! Big spender, cha-ching! And did he take you out for dinner, too?"
  938. > Sparkshower covers her mouth and giggles like it's a silly question.
  939. > You're not yet convinced one way or the other about the nature of the evening's escapade, so the giggle could mean anything.
  940. > "Oh, no, I'd already had dinner when I ran into you here before I got dressed."
  941. > Glamerspear scrunches up her face as if the evening had just been ruined.
  942. > "Aw, he didn't buy you dinner? What a cheapskate!"
  943. > Sparkshower is still grinning with her mouth but her laugh in reply seems a bit forced.
  944. > Suddenly, Glamerspear's face lights up.
  945. > "... No, wait, that's BRILLIANT, Sparks! I see it now!"
  946. > She taps a hoof against her temple.
  947. > "... Colts can't tell you're thirsty if you don't let 'em lead you to water."
  948. > Sparkshower still looks like she's forcing the smile a bit.
  949. > "... You've really got this down pat, Sparks. I'm impressed. But we've gotta get you into a new outfit before your next evening out -- using Anonymous' bits, of course."
  950. > And now the forced smile is gone.
  951. > "What? Why would-- I mean, granted, he was very generous tonight buying me a box seat, but why would he buy me a new dress?"
  952. > Now it's Glamerspear's turn to laugh.
  953. > "Oh, Sparks, you poor, innocent, young mare..."
  954.  
  955. > She puts one hoof on Sparkshower's shoulder, but the pegasus looks bewildered.
  956. > "... The *game* isn't just about fancy nights out! Not for the ones you want to hold on to, at least. You're worth so much more -- and a proper colt should know how to treat a lady, after all."
  957. > Sparkshower shakes her head, brow furrowed.
  958. > "I'm--- I'm sorry, Glamerspear. You've lost me. I'm not sure what we're talking about any more."
  959. > Glamerspear removes her hoof and laughs even harder.
  960. > "Come on, Sparks! I'm talking about the game! You're a player, aren't you?"
  961. > It's gotten to the point where the mare in the dress is rubbing her own shoulder uncomfortably.
  962. > "I... I don't think so? What game?"
  963. > Your pink-and-cyan unicorn takes a step back, raising her voice and lifting up her forehooves in exasperation.
  964. > "*THE* Game! You know, some wealthy so-and-so has a partner but wants a little fun on the side, no strings attached. Or maybe a certain single VIP has needs they need serviced, but aren't looking for a commitment. So along comes a bodyguard, one of Equestria's finest, swishing their tail with that won't-ask-won't-tell attitude. So, the wealthy pony buys a few gifts for the guard, takes them out for dinner and a show, and they have some fun together, and mum's the word, wink-wink nudge-nudge."
  965. > Sparkshower looks horrified, but Glamerspear still seems to think that this must all be a joke, and she gets right in the pegasus' face about it.
  966. > "... Come on, you can't tell me you didn't know!"
  967. > Sparkshower's eyes dart left and right like she's looking for a way out, but there's no escaping reality.
  968. > "I... I didn't know! Oh, tornadoes and hurricanes..."
  969. > Glamerspear's just had her mind blown, and Sparkshower starts to pant uncomfortably.
  970.  
  971. > "You're serious!! You didn't know?! Why else do pretty young things like us even sign up for VIP duty in the first place! Except for the perk of being able to play the *game* -- whether with our assigned VIP or with any other high-placed pony else we happen to meet -- what is there even to this bum job? It's just a dumping ground for tired, old grumps who are fed up with the regular guard life!"
  972. > You took a little offence to that last pronouncement.
  973. > But, you had to admit that she wasn't wrong.
  974. > Meanwhile, Sparkshower seems to be on the verge of tears.
  975. > "I didn't know! I... I have a coltfriend in Berry!"
  976. > As Sparkshower covers her face with her hooves, Glamerspear arches her eyebrows and laughs off that last statement like it was the most ridiculous thing in Equestria.
  977. > "Mare, please! You're in the *game* now, filly, and you bagged a big one! The Royal Engineer has got bits for days! What more could you possibly want? You've hit the jackpot!"
  978. > No longer on the verge, Sparkshower really is actually crying.
  979. > In-between sniffles, she uncovers her face, looks up at Glamerspear with a miserable expression on her face, and defiantly shouts out a reply.
  980. > "I'm... I'm not some... SOME *WHORSE* FOR SALE LIKE YOU!"
  981.  
  982. > Oh, buck.
  983. > Glamerspear looks like she's just been slapped across the snout, hard.
  984. > But Sparkshower just sits down, puts her face in her hooves, and starts to bawl her eyes out right there.
  985. > Conversation over.
  986. > Speechless, the unicorn takes a step back, and, finding no words worth saying nor actions worth taking, furrows her brow and sulks off to her bedroom, walking right around the sobbing pegasus and closing the door behind her.
  987. > Moments later, Sparkshower, still blubbering, gets to her hooves and scurries into her own room.
  988. > In the brief seconds as she passes you by with her face uncovered, you can see that her eyes are shot red, and that the fur on her snout is soaked with tears.
  989. > Even with the door closed, you can still hear muffled lamentations.
  990. > With a sight, you replace your mark and shut the book in front of you, then place it on the side-table.
  991. > Time for some unpleasant work.
  992.  
  993. Suggested background music: "Sanctuary", by Jesper Kyd, from Assassin's Creed 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBYK2IvSNSM
  994.  
  995. > You're in front of Sparkshower's door, and behind it you can hear her uninhibited sobbing.
  996. > Lifting up one hoof to knock, you also place the other on the door handle.
  997. > There's a time for politeness.
  998. > This isn't that time.
  999. > You knock as you push down on the handle, swinging the door open inwards.
  1000. > Inside, Sparkshower is sitting on the floor in the middle of her room, leaning over onto her bed, her face in her hooves.
  1001. "At ease, Specialist."
  1002. > From the bed, the sobbing instantly stops with a gasp.
  1003. > But she still struggles up to assume 'parade rest'.
  1004. > You close the door behind you and walk up to the despondent pegasus.
  1005. > Her snout is smeared with mucous and tears, her mane is a complete mess, and it looks like she got two steps into unzipping her dress down the back before giving up.
  1006. > Now, it just hangs loosely off her shoulders.
  1007. > Although she's holding her mouth shut tight, you can see her trying to blink back tears, and her breathing is staccato and irregular.
  1008. > With another sigh, you sit down in front of her and spread your forehooves.
  1009. "Carry on."
  1010. > Almost before the words are out of your mouth, she collapses into your waiting embrace and resumes bawling.
  1011. > Giving her a moment to settle in, you start to gently pat her on the back.
  1012. > The tears show no sign of stopping anytime soon, so you look around the room.
  1013.  
  1014. > The bed's top blanket has a wet spot from where she'd buried her face, but it's probably dry underneath.
  1015. > Across from the bed, on the writing desk, you spy a hairbrush.
  1016. > Leaning over without losing your distressed specialist, you snag the hairbrush and slip your hoof into its strap.
  1017. > Then it's a matter of slowly manoeuvring Sparkshower over so that you can whip back the covers and hop up to sit on the bed, gently transferring the care of her head from your shoulder to your lap.
  1018. > And now, the waiting game.
  1019. > Holding her head in one hoof, you use the other to slowly brush her mane, teasing its tangles back into shape.
  1020. > As her coils are tamed, so too does her mood calm.
  1021. > Eventually, with her mane flowing freely, she's no longer crying.
  1022. > Just... breathing slowly, with a runny nose.
  1023. > There's a tissue-box on the nightstand, and you lean over to pluck a hoofull of them out of the dispenser, before offering them into the waiting hoof of your charge.
  1024. > Lifting her head from your lap, Sparkshower sits up and takes her time to completely clear her nose, even shuffling over and grabbing a few more tissues herself.
  1025. > At last, tears done and nose clear.
  1026. > A far cry from being done, but a good first step.
  1027. > You grab the edge of the covers and pull them back, and Sparkshower slowly clambers up to sit beside you, her wings folded and head hung low.
  1028. > There's a long wait while she just sits there staring at the floor, but, eventually, she opens her mouth.
  1029. > "Is... Is it true what she said?"
  1030. "Some of it, yes."
  1031. > Her lower lip starts to quiver, and you sense a retreat to more tears, so you put one hoof on Sparkshower's far shoulder, and draw her back to leaning on your shoulder.
  1032. "The 'game' is real."
  1033. > You feel her shake her head against you.
  1034. > "But how? How can... How can colts cheat on the pony that they love like that?"
  1035. > Glamerspear dropped a lot of knowledge on her in a short time, but it was incomplete.
  1036.  
  1037. "A lot of reasons. Maybe the love has gone. Maybe the relationship was a lie from the beginning. Maybe they're bored. But it's not just colts; mares can take partners on too."
  1038. > "They can?"
  1039. "It's about power and money, Sparkshower, not gender. It takes bits to afford a semi-permanent companion on the side."
  1040. > "Oh."
  1041. "There are even married couples here in Canterlot, public figures where both are seen in public more often with their 'saltine' of the month than with each other."
  1042. > No response to that; just more deep, slow breathing, so you continue on.
  1043. "... You can probably find a few in your 'Canterlot Match' magazine."
  1044. > "We never had anything like this in Berry."
  1045. > Now it's your turn to shake your head.
  1046. "Then maybe it's something only the big-city ponies get up to. Or maybe even in Berry there were a few who did it, but they kept it discreet. Here in Canterlot, it's so common that nopony bats an eye at it in public."
  1047. > She seems to press her head more heavily into your shoulder, so you give her mane another gentle brush.
  1048. "This isn't always the magical city it's made out to be."
  1049. > Sparkshower stares straight ahead, and you can see eye-to-eye in the small mirror that hangs on the opposite wall, above the writing-desk.
  1050. > "I always thought that friendship was magic."
  1051. > You sigh and pull her close.
  1052. "Maybe it is. But *love* is something else."
  1053. > You give her hair another brush-stroke.
  1054. > "But what about Anonymous? Do you... do you think he plays the 'game'?"
  1055. "I suppose that depends on what happened earlier tonight."
  1056.  
  1057. > Her mouth hangs open, like she can't believe what's just happened to her.
  1058. > "We went to the theatre, saw the musical, and then came home."
  1059. "Did you talk at all?"
  1060. > "Not really. We talked a bit on the way there. But he was quiet during the show. And we didn't talk much on the way home, either."
  1061. "What did you talk about?"
  1062. > "The best way to the theatre. The stuff in the playbill -- the history of the Sardinia, the actors and composers. After the show, the costumes and the best songs. He said it reminded him of a particular kind of show from his world."
  1063. "Did he talk about himself at all?"
  1064. > She shakes her head.
  1065. > "No."
  1066. "Did he talk about *you*?"
  1067. > Again she shakes her head.
  1068. > "No."
  1069. "He never commented on your mane, or your dress, or your tail, or your eyes, or anything like that?"
  1070. > She takes a moment to think, and licks her lips before answering.
  1071. > "Well, when I first went downstairs after getting ready, he asked 'Are you all set?', and I said, 'Yes, sir. Am I dressed well enough?', and then he answered, 'Looks good to me, Specialist.' I remember he smiled when he said it."
  1072. > She smiles, too. But then the smile disappears in the context of the greater worry.
  1073. > Time for the big question.
  1074. "Did he touch you?"
  1075. > Sparkshower scrunches up her eyebrows and looks up at you, like she almost doesn't understand the question.
  1076. > "Touch me?..."
  1077. > She starts to shake her head, and doesn't stop.
  1078. > "... No... No, he never touched me at all..."
  1079. > You can see tears start to well up in her eyes again.
  1080. > "...What does that mean?"
  1081.  
  1082. > Reaching out, you put your hooves on her shoulders and try to give her a reassuring smile.
  1083. "I think it means that he was a perfect gentlecolt tonight, and didn't think of your evening out together as anything other than him simply going to the theatre with his bodyguard by his side."
  1084. > She sniffles, and a tear escapes one eye, slowing winding its way down her face.
  1085. > You brush one hoof against her face to wipe it away.
  1086. "Remember: the Royal Engineer doesn't know how our society works. He isn't from Equestria. He isn't even from this world."
  1087. > Shrugging, you shake your head at her.
  1088. "... Maybe they don't do this on his world. Maybe love really is magic there, and lovers don't cheat on each other like they do here."
  1089. > You lift your hooves off her shoulders only to rest them firmly down again, looking her in the eyes.
  1090. "... So don't listen to what Glamerspear said about Anonymous. I don't think he meant your night out like that at all."
  1091. > Another sniffle, this one hopefully final.
  1092. > "Are you sure?"
  1093. > You keep your gaze fixed on her eyes.
  1094. "I could be wrong. But I don't think I am. If it makes you feel better, when I'm on duty tomorrow, if a convenient opportunity arises, I'll discretely ask him about last night."
  1095. > "If... If it's convenient, sure. And discreet."
  1096. > You nod, and she takes a deep breath, sitting up straighter as she does so.
  1097. > She's far from happy, but at least it looks like the crisis is over.
  1098. > Sparkshower brushes her hoof across her muzzle, wiping away the gunk around her mouth, and then licks her lips.
  1099. > "How did you learn about this... game?"
  1100. > Ah.
  1101. > And there's the question you'd hoped to avoid.
  1102.  
  1103. > Like an unwelcome guest, you can feel sour memories knocking at the back of your mind.
  1104. > The door is firmly shut, but they seep through cracks around the frame, like a chill wind in the dead of winter.
  1105. "I loved somepony very much. And I thought they loved me like I did them. Even though they could get angry, and mean, I thought it was just something we had to work through, as lovers do."
  1106. > Now it's your turn you swallow back a tear.
  1107. "... But it turned out they didn't love me like I thought they did. And the few bits I was earning and sharing all with him... were going to other mares that he was keeping on the side."
  1108. > Sparkshower's eyes go wide, but at this point she's had them scrunched up so much that they're barely back to their normal size.
  1109. > "I'm sorry."
  1110. > You remove one of your hooves from her shoulder.
  1111. "Don't be. You didn't make him behave that way."
  1112. > "But... I'm sorry it happens at all."
  1113. > And you remove the other hoof.
  1114. "You didn't make Equestria this way, either."
  1115. > You take a deep breath.
  1116. "... Just be thankful you learned about it like this, rather than by getting hurt."
  1117. > "What about Glamerspear? Does she... know she's hurting other ponies?"
  1118. "I'm sure she knows that ponies on the other side sometimes get hurt. But she doesn't think she's doing anything wrong."
  1119. > You shrug.
  1120. "... And maybe she isn't -- she isn't forcing anypony to do anything. She's not even initiating anything. All she does is make herself available."
  1121. > Sparkshower listens, but she looks like she's a hundred miles away.
  1122.  
  1123. > You pretty quickly figure out where that must be.
  1124. "Is it true you have a coltfriend in Berry?"
  1125. > She looks over at the writing-desk. There's a candle, a quill, a seal with a stick of wax, and a neat stack of blank writing paper and empty envelopes.
  1126. > But leaning up against the wall, there's a solitary pair of post-marked envelopes, their flaps cut open, with letters folded up inside.
  1127. > "I write to him every week. But he... he doesn't write back so often, or so regularly."
  1128. > Weakly, she motions towards the two opened letters.
  1129. > "... We talked about me taking the VIP assignment the last time I was on leave. He was supposed to come find work here when I was posted to Canterlot..."
  1130. > She trails off.
  1131. > Dealing with one problem has worn you out tonight.
  1132. > You don't have the energy to deal with another, probably bigger one -- like the trouble with a long-distance coltfriend.
  1133. > All you can do is offer platitudes.
  1134. "That's not very nice of him. But don't give up. Things could still turn around. And even if things go wrong, the last thing you're going to want is to be second-guessing whether it was your fault..."
  1135. > You get down from the bed and turn around to face her with a remorseful expression.
  1136. "... Believe me on that count, Specialist."
  1137. > She nods, and gives a weak smile.
  1138. > "Yes, Corporal."
  1139. > You head for the door, but before you open it, you look back over your shoulder at her.
  1140. > She's still staring at her letters.
  1141. "By the way, Sparkshower..."
  1142. > She looks up at you.
  1143. "... That was a very mean thing you called Glamerspear earlier. She doesn't trot the streets looking for a quick fix like that. You should do something about what you said, when you're feeling able."
  1144. > Sparkshower says nothing, but she watches as you leave.
  1145. > Closing her door, you head to the washroom to get ready for bed.
  1146.  
  1147. Suggested musical interlude: Major Lazer - Be Together (feat. Wild Belle) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1g4Uoqhhc8
  1148.  
  1149.  
  1150.  
  1151.  
  1152. > It's after midnight, and Corporal Honour Bound left your room a few minutes ago.
  1153. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and you have had a rude awakening to the reality of social life in Canterlot, and Equestria as a whole.
  1154. > The paltry few letters you've received from Huckleberry Pudding, your coltfriend, felt even paltrier than usual.
  1155. > You feel a compulsion to sit down at your desk and read them over one more time.
  1156. > But if you do that, you'll probably wind up working yourself into tears again.
  1157. > And the time for tears is past, because you have an apology to deliver.
  1158. > At least if you want to get a decent night's sleep tonight.
  1159. > With newfound purpose and energy, you get off the bed and finish removing your dress, gently laying it on the bed for now.
  1160. > You take a deep breath.
  1161. > Yes, you can do this.
  1162. > Quietly leaving your room, you walk two steps over to Glamerspear's door.
  1163. > You knock twice.
  1164. > Nothing happens.
  1165. > On the other side of the common room, you can hear the Honour Bound in the washroom, brushing her teeth.
  1166. > Moments pass, and then from inside Glamerspear's room you hear a loud metallic squeak that slowly trails off.
  1167. > "Come in."
  1168. > Her voice is flat and her speech slow.
  1169. > Pressing on the handle, you quietly push open the door.
  1170. > Glamerspear is sitting in a swivel chair in front of the writing-desk.
  1171. > Her head is hung low and she's slumped over in the chair, with a glum look on her face and her forehooves on the seat in front of her.
  1172. > Without glancing up at you, she reaches out one of her hind legs and pushes against the desk, sending her into a slow spin.
  1173. > The chair squeaks loudly as she turns around one more time.
  1174. > You shut the door behind you and take another step in.
  1175. "Is it okay if we talk?"
  1176.  
  1177. > She shrugs, and slowly kicks out her hoof again, spinning the chair one more time with another squeak.
  1178. "... I wanted to apologize for what I called you earlier."
  1179. > Again, the swivel chair slowly creaks to a stop.
  1180. > Glamerspear lifts her eyes up to look at you, although she keeps her head pointed down.
  1181. "... I'm sorry. You're not what I said you were."
  1182. > She takes a deep breath and looks back down at the ground.
  1183. > "Yeah, well..."
  1184. > You can see her roll her tongue around in her mouth, like she's chewing something over.
  1185. > "... I guess it's really my own fault in the first place."
  1186. > Finally, she lifts her head to look at you.
  1187. > "... I'm the one who made *you* feel like you were something you weren't, first. And I'm sorry about that, too."
  1188. > She straightens up a bit in the chair, and you take another step closer.
  1189. "Honour explained things to me a bit more."
  1190. > "Yeah..."
  1191. > She nods at the wall next to her bed.
  1192. > It's the one her room shares with yours.
  1193. > "... I couldn't make anything out, but, you know, I figured."
  1194. > Glamerspear turns her chair a quarter away from you and lays her forehooves out on the writing-desk.
  1195. > "... It didn't make sense the way I said it, really. But when you first told me, I just couldn't believe it was anything but that."
  1196. > She turns her head and looks up at you.
  1197. > "... VIPs don't treat us to anything unless they want something in return. That's just the way things are."
  1198. > Leaning forward, she lays her head on the desk and starts to scratch at its surface with a hoof.
  1199. > "... Except when they aren't, I guess."
  1200.  
  1201. > The wooden, scuffed-up writing-desk seems to have her complete attention, so you take a moment to look around her room.
  1202. > Her wardrobe is so stuffed that the doors don't close fully, and you make out several slips of expensive-looking fabric poking out below the left door.
  1203. > Piled on top of her dresser are two roughly-treated jewellery-boxes also full to bursting, drawers half open, leaking pearls and chains of gold and silver.
  1204. > Sitting between them is a jewellery-stand adorned with feathered fascinators and other small head-pieces.
  1205. > The bed is made, but the sheets are ruffled and loose.
  1206. > Pieces of her armour lie neatly on top of her foot-locker.
  1207. > Her desk is clear save for a single item.
  1208. > In an open box lined with dark blue silk, sits a silver medal attached to a white-and-blue ribbon.
  1209. > The medal depicts an ancient-style helmet, in silver and finely detailed, with a pair of large ram's horns curling out from the front.
  1210. > It's the badge of a member of the Order of the Ram, one of the Equestrian Royal Guard's highest awards for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
  1211. > That it's made of silver marks the bearer as a Centurion, the middle of the three ranks of the Order, and the highest available to an enlisted soldier.
  1212. > It's hard to reconcile the kind of bravery needed to earn that award with the dejected pony before you.
  1213. > Suddenly, as if she's at last come to some kind of realization, Glamerspear snaps back up in her chair and swivels it to face you again.
  1214. > "Let's make a deal, Sparkshower."
  1215.  
  1216. "A deal?"
  1217. > She motions for you to come over, so you step up to her chair.
  1218. > "It's simple: We each promise never again to make the other pony feel like they're something that they're not."
  1219. > Glamerspear holds out her hoof.
  1220. > "... What do you say?"
  1221. > You smile and reach out your own.
  1222. "Deal."
  1223. > Shaking hooves, she starts to smile again.
  1224. > "Great! Then we're friends again, okay?"
  1225. > That's good.
  1226. "Yeah."
  1227. > She nods, satisfied.
  1228. > "Cool. Since we're friends, I'm going to let you know that my first name is 'Lily', and you can use it all you want."
  1229. > You can't help but file a complete mental note about her.
  1230. > It's the recon training.
  1231. > Specialist Lilly Glamerspear, 14E Air Defence, Unicorn, Centurion of the Order of the Ram.
  1232. > French-pink coat. Teal-and-Cyan mane. Teal eyes.
  1233. > And now her cutie mark makes sense.
  1234. > It's a glittering green spear-tip with a lily-blossom at the base.
  1235. "Mine's Artemis."
  1236. > "Pleased to meet ya', Artemis. But I might still call you Sparks if that's okay with you?"
  1237. "Sure!"
  1238. > As you shake hooves on a first-name basis, the misery of the past hour washes away.
  1239. > Yet, something still nags at the back of your mind.
  1240. > A curiosity that you can't quite suppress.
  1241. "We can still talk about things, though? *These* kinds of things, I mean?"
  1242. > Glamerspear shrugs her shoulders and scrunches her mouth up into a wry expression.
  1243. > "As long as we don't break the deal, sure..."
  1244. > She pushes against the desk once more to spin her chair, but this time she hops out as it comes around full circle, winding up almost uncomfortably right in front of you.
  1245. > "... Why, you curious?"
  1246. "I guess a little bit. I mean, Honour filled in some of the gaps, but not everything."
  1247. > "Okay, but if we're going to go into that, I want to know how I got tonight so wrong. How about a little quid-pro-quo?"
  1248. > That's only fair.
  1249. > And sometimes you can learn more from questions than you can from answers...
  1250. "All right. You go first."
  1251.  
  1252. > Glamerspear smiles at you.
  1253. > "Aww, ain't you sweet, Sparks..."
  1254. > She playfully paws at your shoulder.
  1255. > "... Buck, I really read you wrong, didn't I? Anyways, tell me how Anonymous asked you to go to the theatre with him; was it just you and him?"
  1256. > You shake your head.
  1257. "No, the Chancellor was with him, and so was the Chancellor's bodyguard. Actually, going out was the Chancellor's idea. He accused Anonymous of not having left the castle since he became the Royal Engineer."
  1258. > Now it's Glamerspear's turn to scrunch up her face and shake her head.
  1259. > "Ah, see? That's a big tell right there. Your usual salt-lick type goes out every weekend at the very least, if not every night of the week! But, when did he ask you to wear a dress and sit next to him?"
  1260. > You instantly recall the details of the conversation.
  1261. "Well, the Chancellor brought up that he'd want to get a box so as not to appear overly ostentatious, then I explained to him a guardpony's place in a regular show, and he said that it was ridiculous for me to be so far away *and* not even get to enjoy the performance."
  1262. > The unicorn arches her eyebrows and you see her eyes darting left and right like she's having trouble seeing something run by her.
  1263. > "I mean, I guess he's not wrong. Sticking a guard in the hallway doesn't help anybody; it doesn't even show off. But being the only one in the audience with a guard at the wall makes you look like a pompous donkey; that's why nobody does it. The whole deal makes a lot more sense when it's a big gala and everypony's got their escorts lining the aisles."
  1264. > Suddenly, she snaps her head up and looks straight at you.
  1265. > "... Wait, the Chancellor was *there* when he asked you out? Wow, that must have been awkward."
  1266. > She forces out a laugh.
  1267. > "... I mean, picking up a new saltine is one thing, and taking them out is another, but I can tell you, filly, the picking up part is strictly done in private."
  1268. "Oh."
  1269.  
  1270. > That would explain why it felt like the Chancellor wanted to say something, but bit his tongue.
  1271. > Glamerspear sighs and shakes her head.
  1272. > Walking over to her bed, she casually bats the back of her chair, sending it squeakily spinning around and around.
  1273. > "If you'd told me all that..."
  1274. > She clambers up into bed and rolls out onto her back.
  1275. > "... Well, I might have still been pig-headed enough to say the same things, I guess."
  1276. > Reaching over, she grabs the other bed-pillow and tosses at the footboard, then nods you in its direction.
  1277. > "... Your turn now, Sparks. Whatcha wanna know?"
  1278. > You climb up and take your spot on the far end of the bed.
  1279. > What to ask?
  1280. > There's really just one question that matters.
  1281. "Why do you do it?"
  1282. > Glamerspear giggles.
  1283. > "Geez, straight to the big one, huh?"
  1284. > With another sigh, she looks aimlessly up at the wall behind her, pawing at it with a hoof.
  1285. > "... I mean, I like the attention, and I like the gifts, and I like getting to go places I couldn't normally go..."
  1286. > She looks back down at you and shrugs.
  1287. > "... but I guess I really I do it because I don't feel like settling down. And I don't mind knowing I'm the 'other' mare."
  1288. > You find it a little hard to understand how anypony could *not* want to find the love of their life and settle down forever...
  1289. > But if that's how she feels, well, you suppose what she does makes sense.
  1290. > Still, though.
  1291. "You've never... fallen in love?"
  1292. > She chuckles.
  1293. > "I've *thought* I was in love, but I usually turned out to be wrong. And if I find myself falling for my salt-lick, well, that's my cue to end it there. Wouldn't be fair to try to turn that relationship into the other kind -- not for any of the three ponies involved."
  1294.  
  1295. > The unicorn points a hoof at you.
  1296. > "... Which is not to say I don't *like* the colt I'm with, though. I mean, I gotta like them or else I won't let it happen, ya know? They don't just pick me, I pick them too."
  1297. "Like with Captain Mailedhoof?"
  1298. > "Sure. He's cute, and I figured him for a player when I first saw him at the swearing-in ceremony for the latest 'shoe-camp graduates assigned to the Castle. We'll see where it goes, though."
  1299. "Have you ever been with anybody... famous?"
  1300. > Now she really giggles.
  1301. > "Come on, Sparks! A mare doesn't kiss and tell!"
  1302. > Aw, you were hoping she had some interesting stories.
  1303. > Suddenly, she bursts into giggles.
  1304. > "... Kidding! 'Sisters before misters', right? OK, so this one time..."
  1305. > Yay, storytime!
  1306.  
  1307.  
  1308.  
  1309.  
  1310. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, tucked into bed and half-asleep.
  1311. > By the foalish giggles coming from three doors over, you don't have to worry that the other two members of your squad are going to have trouble reconciling this argument.
  1312. > One thing was certain, though: this was by far the most bizarre bodyguard assignment you'd ever had.
  1313. > By all accounts, the Royal Engineer spent most of his day doing paperwork.
  1314. > Yet on day one he'd sent home his unicorn drenched in sweat.
  1315. > And on day two his pegasus had collapsed in tears.
  1316. > What prospects did tomorrow hold for you, his earth pony?
  1317. > Only time would tell.
  1318.  
  1319.  
  1320.  
  1321.  
  1322. > It's just before eight o'clock in the morning, and you are Corporal Honour Bound.
  1323. > The other two soldiers in your little squad were still fast asleep when you'd gotten up this morning and trotted off for a quick breakfast in the chow hall.
  1324. > And they were still asleep when you returned and got dressed for duty as well.
  1325. > Glamerspear must have kept Sparkshower up pretty late telling stories about her various salt-licks.
  1326. > Maybe she'd even veered into war tales and shared how she'd earned herself the silver horns of the Order of the Ram.
  1327. > That medal had certainly caught your attention when you'd all moved in.
  1328. > There'd been all that grumbling and cussing coming from her room as she'd struggled to fit her sizable wardrobe into the meagre storage furniture of her bedroom.
  1329. > How had she even fit it all into her duffel bag in the first place? Unicorn magic?
  1330. > Whatever the reason, it took her almost an hour to unpack.
  1331. > By the time she'd finished, you were already back from the commissary and reading a magazine in the easy chair.
  1332. > But when things had finally calmed down, you'd looked over into her room and watched her place it on her writing-desk as the final piece.
  1333. > It was a little surprising that Lieutenant Vi hadn't mentioned it when she'd introduced the Specialist.
  1334. > Actually, the Lieutenant hadn't really mentioned any of your war records.
  1335. > Maybe she'd just decided to keep things simple for an alien Royal Engineer with little knowledge of Equestrian history.
  1336. > Or maybe Celestia had simply asked her to keep the ceremony brief.
  1337. > It had been an extremely short introduction, overall.
  1338. > Your typical VIP liked to hear the Lieutenant extol the virtues of each guard and relate every combat action they'd been in.
  1339. > The better for the VIP to know to have the guard themselves repeat the same stories for guests on command.
  1340.  
  1341. > The more decorated and veteran the guardspony, the greater the prestige for the socialite VIP who liked to show off.
  1342. > But so far, the Royal Engineer did not seem like that kind of VIP.
  1343. > A bit of a wasted opportunity for a Centurion of the Ram, upon reflection.
  1344. > Somepony else would have made better use of her history.
  1345. > You found yourself standing before Anonymous' door, and reached up to knock.
  1346. > Based on Glamerspear and Sparkshower's reports, you fully expected him to be in the middle of either breakfast or paperwork at this hour.
  1347. > "Enter!"
  1348. > The reply from within seems muffled, distant, and maybe even a bit curt.
  1349. > You worked the handle and push open the door.
  1350. "Corporal Bound, reporting for duty, ..."
  1351. > The Royal Engineer is nowhere to be seen.
  1352. "... Sir?"
  1353. > A half-eaten croissant and an unfolded newspaper sit on his dining-table.
  1354. > Anonymous calls out from the far side of the movable partition wall that divides off the private area of his chambers.
  1355. > "Don't get comfortable, Corporal! I'm just getting ready to go out."
  1356. > He sounds upset.
  1357. > You hope this has nothing to do with last night.
  1358. > Could Glamerspear's original read have been right after all?
  1359. > Anonymous strides out from behind the partition, wearing his dress pants and adjusting the cuffs of his shirt.
  1360. > "It's absolutely appalling, isn't it?"
  1361. > You allow yourself to blink in confusion.
  1362. > This can't be about the theatre, could it?
  1363. > The Royal Engineer sits down on the sofa and slips on his shoes, bending over to tie them.
  1364. "Sir?"
  1365.  
  1366. > He nods towards the newspaper.
  1367. > "Haven't read the news? Take a look for yourself."
  1368. > You step over to his dining table and peek at the front page.
  1369. > The headline reads, 'ALL CLEAR AFTER BITSMOUNT SCARE'
  1370. > Apparently, there was a tunnel collapse in the Bitsmount silver mine yesterday afternoon.
  1371. > But the story explains that the miners were trapped for less than three hours before a special Royal Guard emergency team got them out, safe and sound.
  1372. > So why does Anonymous sound so upset?
  1373. "I don't understand, sir."
  1374. > You turn around to face the Royal Engineer, who's already standing over at his desk, hurriedly scrabbling through his papers.
  1375. > "The mine collapse, Corporal. Doesn't it shock you?"
  1376. > You shake your head in confusion.
  1377. "Mines do sometimes collapse, sir. And the article says nopony was hurt."
  1378. > Anonymous continues to look down at his papers while he speaks to you.
  1379. > "There are forty-six active--"
  1380. > He abruptly stops and tilts his head, then reaches over and lifts up a paper on his desk, looking down at the leger-book underneath.
  1381. > "... forty-*seven* active mine shafts in Equestria. The five shafts in Bitsmount account for *half* of all mine collapses recorded in the past two years."
  1382. > He stops, as if that settles the issue, but you have no idea where he is going with this.
  1383. > You look back at the newspaper and try to read it for clues.
  1384. "The article mentions a tremor was felt just before the collapse. Isn't it just an unstable region?"
  1385. > Still going through his papers, the Royal Engineer answers you.
  1386. > "A reasonable assumption. But there are seven mineshafts just outside the town with different owners. They produce less valuable ores, probably due to tapping weaker veins, but none of them have had a single collapse since they opened."
  1387. > The Royal Engineer looks up at you with a stern expression.
  1388. > "... Bitsmount has had ten tunnels collapse in the past two years alone."
  1389.  
  1390. > You're still not quite sure where he's going with this.
  1391. > But his apparent willingness to indulge you curiosity is surprising and refreshing.
  1392. > Anonymous grabs a portfolio and stuffs the papers he's gathered into it.
  1393. > "Do you know what the greatest day-to-day operating expenses of a mine are?"
  1394. > He holds up one finger.
  1395. > "... The first, at least for a large mine, is wages."
  1396. > Putting down the portfolio, he turns around and grabs his suit-jacket from the coat-rack in the corner, slipping it over his arms.
  1397. > "... But the second-greatest is *timber*."
  1398. > Striding over to a mirror on the wall beside the door, he pulls a necktie out of his pocket, flips his collar up, and begins to tie it.
  1399. > "*Timber* is what shores up mineshafts against collapse. *Timber* is the first thing a mine-owner can skimp on to save costs, using weaker cuts of inferior wood, or instructing the workers to spread out the supports too thinly to be safe. And according to last year's public accounting records, the *timber* loads going into Bitsmount mine are out of all proportion with the amount of rock hauled out of there."
  1400. > His tie made, the Royal Engineer pauses and stares at himself in the mirror with a look of concern on his face.
  1401. > It's almost a scowl.
  1402. > "Here in Equestria, you have the luxury of unicorn magic to dig miners out of collapses before they can suffocate or die of thirst. But back in my world, greed and poor safety standards killed them by the hundreds."
  1403. > The Royal Engineer looks over at you.
  1404. > "... I've made it my goal to industrialize Equestria, and it will take a lot of sweat and hard work. But there are about to be a lot more mineshafts in Equestria, digging out coal and iron, and I won't let you ponies pay for that in blood."
  1405.  
  1406. > He's serious.
  1407. > You're a little impressed.
  1408. "If you think Bitsmount is skimping on supports, sir, then what are you going to do about it?"
  1409. > The Royal Engineer walks back to his desk and picks up his portfolio, then glances at the lighthouse clock in the middle of the room.
  1410. > "Day Court begins in an hour, but Celestia hears from members of her privy council from now until then. I'm going to ask her to issue me a warrant of inspection for the mine, and a summons for the mine's owner, Galloway Bitsmount, to appear for an inquest at Day Court."
  1411. > Brushing himself off, he makes final adjustments to his outfit.
  1412. > "Then we'll arrange transportation, get the mine plans from the archives, get the land survey and some tools from ordnance, visit a few other palace departments for some sundries, and with luck we'll be off there first thing to deliver the writ tomorrow morning."
  1413. > OK, now you're more than a little impressed.
  1414. > This is the sixth Very Important Pony you've been assigned to as a bodyguard since you decided to enter the service.
  1415. > You've escorted visiting dignitaries, barons and counts, accomplished magicians, even a retiring General of the Royal Guard.
  1416. > The rich and famous of Equestria and beyond.
  1417. > But it sounds like the Royal Engineer is the first one who won't be spending all his time idling around with his social equals, sipping bourbon and smoking pipes.
  1418. > He's forgotten something, though.
  1419. "It almost sounds a little dangerous, sir."
  1420. > Anonymous, Royal Engineer, looks at you and lifts a single eyebrow.
  1421. "... You'll want to arrange for all three of your bodyguards to accompany you tomorrow."
  1422. > He nods.
  1423. > "I'll contact the Lieutenant first thing after we speak to Celestia. Let's go."
  1424.  
  1425.  
  1426.  
  1427. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and holy buck, how is the chow hall so damn busy on a Saturday for lunch?
  1428. > Seriously, it's like the castle barracks doubled in population overnight.
  1429. > Why are all these ponies even here?
  1430. > Most of them should have Saturday off!
  1431. > It's a good thing you have a pegasus recon battle-buddy who can zoom up to the ceiling, spot the only free table left in the room, and then dive-bomb down to one of its chairs to reserve it for you.
  1432. > And it's a good thing for Sparkshower that *she* has a unicorn battle-buddy who can easily grab both plates while she's holding the seats.
  1433. > Flight-plus-telekinesis combo team for the win.
  1434. > Now your immediate problem is how to route through the crowds over to the far side of the room, where Sparks is eagerly awaiting her omelette.
  1435. > Scanning the room, you decide to try picking your way around the crowded outside edge, even though it skirts the busy buffet line.
  1436. > At least there's a bit of room to manoeuvre there.
  1437. > But before you can set off, you hear a soft colt's voice from behind you.
  1438. > "Attention on deck, Specialist."
  1439. > He's so close you can almost feel his breath against your ear, and the shock almost makes you drop the field that's holding the two lunch-trays up in the air.
  1440. > Or maybe it's not the shock from the proximity, but from recognizing the speaker.
  1441. > And he is an officer, so you snap to attention, staring straight ahead.
  1442. > You hear a chuckling in your ear.
  1443. > A white pegasus with a brilliant blue mane steps around in front of you with a grin on his face.
  1444. > "Hey, Lil'. Long time no see."
  1445. > Lieutenant Valiant Kilfeather, 11FX Air Superiority.
  1446. > Your ex.
  1447. > You don't say a word.
  1448. > Val cocks his head at you.
  1449. > "Aw, come on, Lil'. No love for ol' Val?"
  1450. > You answer immediately, toeing the line of proper conduct towards an officer.
  1451. "No, sir."
  1452.  
  1453. > "No? Shame. We used to have something together, Lil'. Whatever happened?"
  1454. > Keeping your magical concentration to balance the lunch trays is easy.
  1455. > It's keeping your composure in front of this bucking asshole that's hard.
  1456. "You ruined it, sir."
  1457. > The pegasus officer is unfazed by your pronouncement.
  1458. > He just looks at you with that smile of his.
  1459. > Friendly on the surface, you know it for the sneering smirk of superiority it really is.
  1460. > "So quick to lay the blame, Lil'. But I don't remember being the one who walked out on a good thing."
  1461. > So he wants to hear you spit it out?
  1462. > Fine, then!
  1463. "No, you're just the one who tried to force me into something I didn't want to do."
  1464. > Lieutenant Kilfeather feigns ignorance.
  1465. > "What, you mean that thing with the colts from the squadron? Oh, come on, Lil'. It's not like you wouldn't have enjoyed it..."
  1466. > His expression darkens and he leans in right in front of your face.
  1467. > "... Besides, the way I hear it, these days you'll spread 'em and wink for anypony with two bits to rub together."
  1468. > Bucking BASTARD!
  1469. > It takes everything you have to suppress jamming a telekinetic spear straight up his nose right then and there.
  1470. > Instead, you just your narrow your eyes and clench your teeth.
  1471. > Val just stares at you, watching you simmer.
  1472.  
  1473. > When he's had enough, he leans back and laughs.
  1474. > "Hahaha! Oh, *at ease*, soldier! Boy, I can still rile you up, huh? Maybe there's still something there, after all..."
  1475. > You relax your posture and permit yourself to actually look him in the eyes instead of staring straight ahead.
  1476. > "... But I'm not here to pine after bygones, babe."
  1477. > Almost through clenched teeth, you barely manage not to snarl at him.
  1478. "Why *are* you here, *sir*?"
  1479. > He arches his eyebrows and wobbles his head, not yet answering you, so you motion around the room with your head.
  1480. "...This is the *enlisted* mess hall, after all."
  1481. > Val beams a wide smile.
  1482. > "Oh, as for that, well, Lil', let me clue you in on something about the officers' mess."
  1483. > Drawing in close, he wraps a hoof around your shoulder.
  1484. > You suppress the urge to hurl.
  1485. > "... Friday lunch in the officers' club? Good."
  1486. > He leans over further, arching his eyebrows.
  1487. > "... Friday dinner? Great."
  1488. > The air fighter gets in even closer and speaks in a hushed, conspiratorial tone.
  1489. > "... Friday *after*-dinner? Fan-bucking-tastic, you dig?"
  1490. > Val lets go of your shoulder and stands up straight again.
  1491. > "... But as a result of that, Saturday breakfast is so under-attended that the staff don't even put in the effort. And Saturday lunch isn't much better."
  1492. > He looks around the room and waves a hoof.
  1493. > "... Why, I can see at least three dozen officers who were smash-bucking-drunk in the officers' club last night, and are now grabbing lunch -- probably breakfast, for them -- here in the enlisted chow hall, going incognito so as not to bother anypony."
  1494. > Stepping around back in front of you, he nods his head in the direction of a table full of other pegasi.
  1495. > "... That's why I'm here with the squadron..."
  1496. > Looking you up and down, he grins again.
  1497. > "... But that's not why I came over to say hello."
  1498. > This pony sure loves to hear the sound of his own voice.
  1499. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit then, sir?"
  1500.  
  1501. > Val takes a deep breath and tilts his head back, licking his teeth.
  1502. > "Well... I was just wondering about your cute little pegasus friend over there in the far corner."
  1503. > Oh, buck no.
  1504. > You have to shut this down as soon as possible.
  1505. "She's not your type, Sir."
  1506. > The lieutenant's face turns pouty.
  1507. > "C'mon, Lil. Why don't you *carry on* calling me 'Val'? Or 'Icepone' at least. Let's try to stay friends, huh?"
  1508. > The obvious emphasis is your cue to relax even your 'parade rest' position.
  1509. > But if he thinks allowing you to call him by his nickname or his call-sign is going to ingratiate him to you, he's dead wrong.
  1510. "I said she's not your type, *Val*."
  1511. > He licks his lips and turns sideways to be able to look over at Sparkshower.
  1512. > Through the crowds, you can see her sitting there with a contented look on her face, scanning the ponies around her like she's on a recon mission.
  1513. > "No? Soft, cream-coloured coat... Pretty hay-coloured hair... Big, beautiful blue eyes. Mmmm...."
  1514. > Val glances back at you.
  1515. > "... I do love the filly-next-door type."
  1516. > The thought of this pegasus taking advantage of your new best friend Sparkshower sends a chill down your spine.
  1517. "Whatever you want, I'm not doing it."
  1518. > Val puts a hoof up to your lips, and you scrunch up and recoil in disgust.
  1519. > "Sh-sh-shhh! Don't jump the gun on me, Lily..."
  1520. > You push his hoof out of your face, but he goes on talking.
  1521. > "... I'm not asking you to set up a date, or even introduce me. Nothing like that."
  1522. > He takes a step forward towards you.
  1523. > "... All I want you to do, is go bring her that omelette you've got floating around up there before it gets cold, and just... point me and the squadron out to her."
  1524. > Val rolls his head forwards and lifts his eyebrows at you.
  1525. > "... She's probably heard of us, you know. Just let her put the names to faces, that's all."
  1526. > You cannot believe he is seriously asking this.
  1527. "You want me to sell out my squadmate? That's pretty low, even for you, Val."
  1528.  
  1529. > He puts two hooves up and pouts his lips.
  1530. > "Whoa-whoa-whoa! 'Sell out'? C'mon, Lil'. I'm just asking you to let her know about some of Canterlot's finest air superiority fighters, that's all. She is new here, isn't she?..."
  1531. > Lowering his hooves, he raises his eyebrows.
  1532. > "... But since you mentioned 'selling', well, maybe I can make it worth your while..."
  1533. > He grins.
  1534. > "... Like, say, maybe an invitation to one of the aforementioned Fantastic Friday nights at the Officers' Club?"
  1535. > You're through listening to him.
  1536. "No, thanks, Val. I've got my own ticket."
  1537. > You set off to leave, only to hear him call out softly after you.
  1538. > "What, you mean Captain Mailedhoof?"
  1539. > Whipping around, you see Val sitting down and nonchalantly inspecting one of his hooves.
  1540. > "... Be a real shame if someone talked you down to him. He's very sensitive about his social appearance, you know."
  1541. > What the buck! This bucking bastard!
  1542. > You can barely stop yourself from loudly shouting back.
  1543. "You're blackmailing me?"
  1544. > Luckily, over the din of the chow hall nopony could have heard you even if you had yelled.
  1545. > Val shakes his head and smirks.
  1546. > "No, no, not blackmail. Black-*ball*, maybe."
  1547. > The smirk turns sinister.
  1548. > "... Or I guess *blue*-ball in your case."
  1549. > That's it! You've had enough!
  1550. > You turn around and leave him there, still grinning at you.
  1551.  
  1552. > Pushing through the crowd, you head straight for Sparkshower.
  1553. > Valiant's got you so riled up, you just plough through the gaps between the tables with a menacing scowl on your face.
  1554. > Somehow, you make it over to where your squadmate's saved a table without knocking anybody over.
  1555. > "Hey, Glam!"
  1556. > The little time it took to get over here hasn't dulled your anger any, but you inhale deeply, put a smile on your face, and try not to take it out on her.
  1557. "Hey, Sparks, order up!"
  1558. > You lower the two trays out of the air and gently place them on the table, then take your seat.
  1559. > Even with Val's words still ringing in your ears, the scent of a nice hot plate of the chow-hall's finest does much to soothe your anxieties.
  1560. > He wouldn't really trash-talk you to Captain Mailedhoof, would he?
  1561. > "Boy, it sure is busy in here, isn't it?"
  1562. > Across from you, Sparks is already digging in, still glancing around at all the new faces.
  1563. "Yeah."
  1564. > If he *does* start trying to wreck your chances with one salt-lick Captain, who's to say he won't start blabbering about you to everypony?
  1565. > Would he do that?
  1566. > He definitely had the capacity for it.
  1567. > But you doubt he would bother keeping it up for long.
  1568. > 'Icepone' was strictly interested in short-term advantage.
  1569. > "Do you think the crowd has anything to do with Day Court?"
  1570. > While you've been ruminating over your past and future, Sparkshower's managed to figure out the present.
  1571. > It takes you a second to comprehend her words, but when you do, you nod your head and grin.
  1572. "Aw, of course! I forgot that Day Court runs on Saturdays from now until the Gala."
  1573. > Turning around, you take in the crowd.
  1574. "... Yeah, they must need another two hundred guards on duty just to manage the line-up. Sometimes it can go all the way outside, ya know."
  1575.  
  1576. > Just then, you catch a glimpse of Val at his table with his little entourage of pegasi air fighters.
  1577. > As if sensing your attention, Val looks in your direction, grins, and nods his head.
  1578. > Suddenly it feels a bit warmer in the room.
  1579. > It must just be the press of all these ponies.
  1580. > Returning to your plate, you immerse yourself in your lunch once more.
  1581. > A thought occurs to you.
  1582. "You know what this means, right?"
  1583. > Sparkshower shakes her head at you.
  1584. "... It means every single noblepony will be avoiding the palace like the plague. Heck, when Day Court runs like this, lots of 'em get out Friday afternoon and don't come back until Monday."
  1585. > Jamming a fork in your food again, you take another bite.
  1586. "... They don't want to be around a huge crowd of 'common' ponies if they can avoid it."
  1587. > "Wow."
  1588. > Driven by some compulsion, you glance sideways towards Val's table again.
  1589. > He's still there. This time he doesn't turn to look at you.
  1590. > One of his cronies must have just told a roaring joke, because everypony at the table suddenly bursts into laughter.
  1591. > They manage to be so loud that you can actually make them out over here.
  1592. > Looks like there's at least five of them together.
  1593. > "Who's that you keep looking at over there?"
  1594. > Buck, busted!
  1595. > Now it really feels like someone's got the heat on.
  1596. > You turn back to look at Sparkshower, feeling guilty.
  1597. > She's got that inquisitive, bright-eyed look her face again.
  1598. > ...'Big beautiful blue eyes'...
  1599. > You shudder.
  1600. > And then you decide.
  1601. "That table of pegasi over there has the 1st Canterlot Air Wing sitting at it."
  1602. > Sparkshower's eyes go wide, and her mouth drops open.
  1603.  
  1604. > You pause to let it sink in for a moment.
  1605. > Your comrade looks like she's just had Celestia personally show up to her birthday.
  1606. > "Holy thundershowers! Are you serious!?"
  1607. > You nod your head.
  1608. > "... Wow! The 1st Air Wing... Those are the finest fliers in the Guard!"
  1609. > Suddenly, she looks a little embarrassed.
  1610. > "... I mean, besides the Wonderbolts. But Wonderbolts aren't regular fighters like them!"
  1611. > An idea comes to mind, and you lean in, looking over at the table and pointing with one hoof.
  1612. "Yeah, well, don't let it get out, but... I used to hang with them a bit."
  1613. > Sparkshower only barely contains her excitement enough to take another bite of her omelette.
  1614. > "Cool!!"
  1615. "You see the one in the middle with the brilliant blue mane? That's Val 'Icepone' Kilfeather, the wing commander. He used to be my coltfriend."
  1616. > And the omelette almost comes right back out of her mouth.
  1617. > "REALLY!? Wow! What's he like?"
  1618. > Bingo. Time to reel her in.
  1619. "Well, he's clever, well-dressed, likes to be the centre of attention, knows how to party..."
  1620. > You turn to her with a deadpan look.
  1621. ".. And he's about fifteen pounds of armour and twenty pounds of charm, wrapped around a hundred pounds of pure, full-strength, unadulterated, psychopathic *creep*."
  1622.  
  1623. > The words take a half-second to register, but when they do, Sparkshower furrows her brow and quickly looks back at you.
  1624. > You reach up and forcefully turn her head back towards Val.
  1625. "Keep smiling like everything's fine, Sparks..."
  1626. > It takes her another half-second, but she starts smiling towards the table.
  1627. "... Because everything *is* fine as long as everybody around him does exactly what he tells them to. And his ability to have fun and live the high life is part of what made me want to play 'the game'..."
  1628. > Leaning in even more, you turn to face your ex with a smile on your face.
  1629. "... But the minute anybody turns him down, things get ugly. He made me do some things I regret, and when I refused to do something that I would have *really* regretted, he got violent."
  1630. > Val glances in your direction, and smiles when he sees both of you looking back.
  1631. "... He doesn't give a buck about anypony but himself. So, unless you're looking for a quick gallop in the garden-"
  1632. > You sit back up.
  1633. "-Actually, no, even if that's all you wanted, you can do way better, Artemis. So please, keep smiling, turn away, and then promise me you'll stay away from him?"
  1634. > She does as you ask.
  1635. > You sigh.
  1636. "... Now let's just finish our lunch and get out of here."
  1637. > "Sparkshower! Glamerspear!"
  1638. > What the...
  1639.  
  1640. > Lieutenant Temper Violetta trots up from behind you.
  1641. > Instantly, Sparkshower has a hoof up in salute.
  1642. > You raise your own hoof and turn around in your seat.
  1643. > She's carrying her own lunch-tray as well.
  1644. > "Carry on, Specialists! Sorry to interrupt you gentlemares at chow-time, but I figured you'd want to know."
  1645. > Both of you lower your hooves and relax again.
  1646. "Know what, Ma'am?"
  1647. > "New orders for tomorrow! The Royal Engineer is undertaking a mission to Bitsmount. All three of you will accompany him for the entirety of the voyage, under Corporal Bound's leadership."
  1648. > Now what was going on?
  1649. > "... You'll be taking a coach first thing at dawn. Understood?"
  1650. > The two of you spoke in unison.
  1651. "Yes, Ma'am"
  1652. > "Yes, Ma'am."
  1653. > "Good. Now I've got to find a seat somewhere in this zoo."
  1654. > Sparkshower cocks an eyebrow.
  1655. > "Uh, Ma'am, why *are* you eating in the enlisted mess hall, anyways?"
  1656. > Temper Vi scrunches up her face as she looks around for a seat.
  1657. > "Because Saturday breakfast & lunch in the Officer's mess is just reheated Friday dinner."
  1658. > Your commanding officer shakes her head in confusion.
  1659. > "... No idea why. Friday dinner's a good meal before a pony turns in, but I'm not looking to see the same food when I wake up first thing on a glorious Saturday morning, I can tell you that."
  1660. > She resumes her usual stern demeanour.
  1661. > "... Be team players and don't tell anypony about me being in here, would you? Wouldn't want to cause a scandal."
  1662. "No, ma'am."
  1663. > "No, ma'am."
  1664.  
  1665. > The lieutenant gives a curt nod and then trots off to find a free seat.
  1666. > Huh, guess Val wasn't lying about the food situation over at the officers' mess.
  1667. > Does that mean he wasn't lying about the threat to your social life?
  1668. > Well, either way, there's nothing more to do on that front, now. You've made your choice.
  1669. > You're growing confident it was the right one as you get back to your lunch.
  1670. "Come on, let's hurry up and finish so we can get out of this over-packed barn."
  1671. > Sparkshower nods as she digs back in.
  1672.  
  1673.  
  1674.  
  1675.  
  1676. > "She trashed-talked you, Ice."
  1677. > The lunch rush is over and you are Val 'Icepone' Kilfeather.
  1678. > A blond-maned pegasus with a moustache saunters over to your table and sits down.
  1679. > Callsign 'Applewood', he's one of the Lieutenant Junior Grades under your command.
  1680. "She trash-talked me, huh?"
  1681. > After you'd seen that cream-coloured young beauty walk in with Lily Glamerspear, you were interested.
  1682. > When she dive-bombed one of the few remaining tables, you sent him over to grab as close a seat as he could, intending him to hold it for you.
  1683. > Just in case the talk with Glamerspear went better than you expected.
  1684. > Applewood smiles softly.
  1685. > "Yeah, Val. I guess she didn't want to leave bygones be bygones."
  1686. > You shrug.
  1687. "Ah, well, what are you gonna do."
  1688. > Over on your right, 'Duck', another junior Lieutenant on your squadron, speaks up.
  1689. > "Whaddya mean, 'what are you gonna do'? I thought you were gonna talk to Captain Mailedhoof about that mare?"
  1690. > Across the table, Lt. 'Joker', your second-in-command, laughs.
  1691. > "Have you *met* Mailedhoof, Duck?"
  1692. > It's a little quieter in the lunch room, so he leans in a bit, and everypony else leans in with him.
  1693. > "... That colt's so eager for salt, you could tell him a mare's coming over to chop off his dick, and he'll get all excited and ask if she's cute."
  1694. > Everypony starts giggling, and Joker keeps going, a huge grin on his face.
  1695. > "... I'm serious, that dude can't keep it in his sheath. Drives his wife nuts."
  1696. > You shake your head and take a sip from your drink.
  1697. "Yeah, sorry, Duck, I'm afraid that was a bluff so big it belongs on a damn map."
  1698. > You look over at Applewood.
  1699. "... Hear anything else interesting?"
  1700.  
  1701. > He shrugs.
  1702. > "A little. They're under Violetta, working bodyguard duty for the Royal Engineer."
  1703. > Duck furrows his brow and pipes up.
  1704. > "Wait, that hairless monkey colt? I heard about him."
  1705. > You look over.
  1706. "Yeah, what've you heard?"
  1707. > Duck just stares back.
  1708. > "Uh... that he's, uh... Y'know, the Royal Engineer?"
  1709. > Joker starts giggling and just shakes his head.
  1710. > After a long silence, Applewood continues.
  1711. > "Well, I also heard Violetta say they're all heading over to Bitsmount tomorrow at dawn."
  1712. > Your ears perk up.
  1713. "Bitsmount, huh?"
  1714. > "Yeah. Must be going to inspect the place after that tunnel collapse, I guess."
  1715. > The tactical air defence map of Canterlot materializes in your mind's eye.
  1716. "The only way to Bitsmount is over the Hobble river..."
  1717. > You lick your lips.
  1718. "... And the closest way over the Hobble river is Newstirrup bridge."
  1719. > Everypony else at the table is looking over quietly at you.
  1720. > You ignore them while you put the pieces together in your head.
  1721. > Newstirrup bridge, the only way up to Bitsmount.
  1722. > And the Royal Engineer was a member of the privy council.
  1723. > That means, hairless monkey or not, he was technically a member of the noble class.
  1724. > Yeah.
  1725. > Yeah, it could work.
  1726. > You put a hoof on the table and start to grin.
  1727. "Gentlecolts, if you've got a clear schedule for Sunday, what with us all being on libo, I have a plan that'll get us some fun, some glory, some action..."
  1728. > You bob your head to the side.
  1729. "... And maybe something extra for your fearless leader."
  1730. > Around the table, everypony looks interested.
  1731. > You put your hoof in the centre of the table.
  1732. "... All I need to know is, are you with me?"
  1733. > Without much delay, the whole squadron's got their hooves on top of yours.
  1734. > Joker looks at you with a big grin on his face.
  1735. > "Ice, we're your wingponies, anytime."
  1736. > You smile right back.
  1737. > The best part of this plan is that it's going to work out great even if it doesn't get you exactly what you want.
  1738. > That's the best kind.
  1739.  
  1740. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhF6dpY5E3A AC/DC - Let Me Put My Love Into You
  1741.  
  1742.  
  1743.  
  1744.  
  1745. > It's almost seven o'clock, and you are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower.
  1746. > You've been waiting, fully armed and armoured, for almost three hours now.
  1747. > Where had Corporal Bound gotten off to with the Royal Engineer?
  1748. > His chambers had been empty when you'd come down to report in for your shift at four.
  1749. > Glamerspear had no idea what was going on, and not even Lieutenant Violetta could unearth their location after you'd gone to her.
  1750. > With the crush of public visitors to the palace for the seasonal weekend Day Court, keeping track of people was almost impossible.
  1751. > The only thing anypony seemed to be able to figure out was that they hadn't checked out of the palace, and that they'd been visiting various palace departments throughout the day.
  1752. > It seemed likely they were probably still off in some deep library or store-room, since Anonymous was supposedly on some kind of scavenger hunt for various items.
  1753. > After six o'clock had come around, Lieutenant Vi had told you to just wait around in the upstairs quarters for Corporal Bound to relieve you.
  1754. > And so you'd just been here, waiting, ready to leap into action once your team leader returned.
  1755. > The door's open, and you hear more hoofsteps approaching.
  1756. > It was probably just some other servant making their way somewhere.
  1757. > You were starting to go a little bit crazy from all the various other ponies walking by.
  1758. > Suddenly, Corporal Honour Bound walks in, still in her armour, with her collapsible short-spear holstered on her back.
  1759. "Corporal! Is the Royal Engineer downstairs? I'll report in for duty right away!"
  1760. > Honour closes the door behind her.
  1761. > "Don't bother, Sparkshower. Evening shift is cancelled for today. We've got an early morning tomorrow."
  1762. > Your Shift is cancelled?
  1763. > You're almost a little disappointed.
  1764. "Okay. Lieutenant Vi told us about the field day tomorrow."
  1765. > Honour walks into the washroom and gets herself a glass of water.
  1766.  
  1767. > You see her paw at the straps of her helmet to lift it up off her brow.
  1768. > There's a lot of sweat underneath there.
  1769. > Refilling her cup, she takes another drink.
  1770. > She must be tired.
  1771. "Where were you, Corporal? I was supposed to relieve you three hours ago."
  1772. > Corporal Bound scratches behind her neck.
  1773. > Looking over at you, you can see a contented smile on her face.
  1774. > That's something you haven't seen before.
  1775. > "Sorry for dropping out of contact, Sparkshower. The Royal Engineer was galloping all over the palace, and rather than try to coordinate tagging you in, I decided just to stick with him."
  1776. > Is she smiling at the satisfaction of a job well-done?
  1777. > You can understand that.
  1778. > Honour takes a deep breath.
  1779. > "... I haven't even had anything to eat since before my shift started."
  1780. > What?! She didn't even get a lunch break?
  1781. > That's one of the three most important meals of the day!
  1782. "He didn't even invite you take lunch with him?!"
  1783. > She laughs.
  1784. > That's another new one.
  1785. > "No, he never stopped for lunch himself."
  1786. > An eleven-hour shift, with no lunch break.
  1787. > And she's smiling and laughing about it?
  1788. > Earth pony magic, you suppose.
  1789. > Endurance and strength are the natural qualities of that species of pony.
  1790. > She starts to undo the straps around her criniere.
  1791. > "... He's a real workaholic. No wonder he managed to wear out Glamerspear."
  1792.  
  1793. > You shake your head.
  1794. > The creaking of your helmet visor reminds you that you still have your armour on.
  1795. > You don't need that any more, so you start to pull it off as well.
  1796. "What did you even do that whole time?"
  1797. > Corporal Bound leaves the washroom and stops in the common room, disrobing alongside you.
  1798. > "Mostly visiting various departments and ministries, getting documents and tools for tomorrow's mission. What with Day Court today, there were a lot of lineups to deal with."
  1799. > Midway through removing her flanchard, she furrows her brow.
  1800. > "-Especially over at the supply depot. Seemed like somepony was putting together a last-minute field operation for a whole platoon, and they were going all-out on requisitions."
  1801. > Honour shrugs.
  1802. > "... Anyways, it's got nothing to do with us. Where's Glamerspear?"
  1803. "She got tired of waiting for you to get back about half an hour ago, and left to go flirt with Captain Mailedhoof and then get dinner. She's probably at the mess hall by now."
  1804. > "Let me just hop in the shower and then we'll join her."
  1805. > You nod.
  1806. "Here, I'll put away your gear, Corporal."
  1807. > "Thanks, Sparkshower."
  1808. > Honour gives you a smile and heads back into the washroom.
  1809. > Gathering up her armour pieces, you open the door to her apartment and hang everything up on the little wooden armour-rack she's got set up in the corner.
  1810. > Then you head to your room to stow your armour as well.
  1811.  
  1812. > Returning to the common area, you sit on the sofa and pick up Glamerspear's copy of Cosmoponitan.
  1813. > The cover features a slinky photograph of Sapphire Shores.
  1814. > 'Catching Up With The Princess of Pop'
  1815. > Wow, those striped socks really do something for her flanks.
  1816. > 'What to Do When Your Colt Gets All Quiet'
  1817. > That one hits a little too close to home.
  1818. > 'The Best Workout For Your Teats'
  1819. > What?!
  1820. > That's a thing?
  1821. > 'Clop Tips So Hot You'll Get Turned On Just Reading Them'
  1822. > Oh, my.
  1823. > These big-city magazines sure are scandalous.
  1824. > Even your 'Canterlot Match' magazine had some racy articles in it.
  1825. > ... Maybe you'll ask Glamerspear to borrow this later.
  1826. > As you put the magazine back down on the coffee table, you hear Corporal Bound turn off the shower and get out.
  1827. > Waiting for her to dry off, you mind starts to wander to Glamerspear's pronouncements yesterday.
  1828. > There's still something that Honour never really explained to you.
  1829. "Corporal? Can I ask you a personal question?"
  1830. > She opens the door, still towelling off her head, a friendly look on her face.
  1831. > "Sure, Sparkshower, what's on your mind?"
  1832.  
  1833. > You lick your lips.
  1834. "What Glamerspear said yesterday, about why most guardponies sign up for VIP duty... is it true?"
  1835. > The smile disappears.
  1836. > "About them all being players or, how did she put it..."
  1837. > The words come instantly to mind.
  1838. "'Old grumps who are fed up with the regular guard life'."
  1839. > Honour pauses for a moment.
  1840. "... Sorry."
  1841. > She shakes her head at you.
  1842. > "Never apologize for providing accurate intelligence, soldier."
  1843. "Yes, Corporal."
  1844. > Walking back inside the washroom, she hangs up her towel on the rack.
  1845. > "But to answer your question... She's not completely right, but she's not far from wrong, either. I wouldn't say her two reasons are even the majority, but it's true that many veterans who are tired of the do-nothing routine of the Royal Guard sign up for VIP duty hoping to get eventually hired out as private bodyguards."
  1846. > Returning to the common area with a bundle of hair-ties, she sits down next to you and starts to bundle up her mane.
  1847. > "... Myself included."
  1848. "Oh."
  1849. > "The truth is, I've been bored of the Guard since shortly after leaving 'hoof camp. I joined the VIP service a year and a half ago because I wanted to get out into the private service."
  1850. > Her mane finished, she sets to work on her tail as well.
  1851. > "... But from my experiences so far, being a private bodyguard is probably just as bad, if not worse. You get treated like dirt, you mostly stand around doing nothing or trotting around looking impressive for airheaded nobles, and you have to keep your personal life a complete secret from your employer -- they want to think, and they want everypony else to think, that you're some hot single at their beck and call."
  1852. > You shake your head.
  1853. "That doesn't sound very fun at all."
  1854.  
  1855. > "No. But I have to admit, today wasn't like that. Galloping around with the Royal Engineer, actually doing things, gave me some hope that maybe there are some good postings out there."
  1856. > Pausing in her work, you see her smile again.
  1857. > "... He clearly doesn't think of us as 'decorations' like most VIPs. He told me what he was doing. He asked me for advice. He gave me actual work to do. It felt like we were actually working on something important *together*."
  1858. > She lifts her eyebrows and looks up at you.
  1859. > "... And you should have heard the way he talked with the Princess -- you can tell they really respect each other."
  1860. > Bending back over, she finishes tying up her mane.
  1861. > When it's done, she hops off the couch with an energy that you haven't seen in her since you first met three days ago.
  1862. > "... Now come on, let's hit the chow hall. I'm starving."
  1863. > Yay, dinner!
  1864. "Okay!"
  1865. > As you leave your quarters together, you look over at the leader of your detachment.
  1866. > It really seems like her day, though tiring, cheered her up.
  1867. > If *one* pony could have a good time trotting around the palace doing actual work with Anonymous, what's it going to be like tomorrow when all three of you are helping him out?
  1868. > Think of the things you'll accomplish together!
  1869. > Dinner first, then bed, and then out into the field.
  1870. > The recruitment slogans are starting to come true after all.
  1871. > Equestrian Royal Guard: It's Not Just a Job, It's An Adventure!
  1872.  
  1873. Suggested interlude video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sut-QJLfm4g (US Navy TV advertisement from 1981, "Navy. It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure")
  1874.  
  1875.  
  1876.  
  1877.  
  1878. > It's an hour after dawn, and you are Corporal Honour Bound.
  1879. > The royal carriage you're in has been trundling along since daybreak, pulled by two earth ponies.
  1880. > From their quiet idle chatter to each other, they seemed to be enjoying themselves in the brisk spring morning air.
  1881. > Right now you're on a country road in the low farmlands just to the East of Canterlot.
  1882. > Beside you sits Anonymous, the Royal Engineer.
  1883. > Despite the sway of the carriage, he's somehow managing to keep his concentration reading a book about land surveying.
  1884. > Yesterday, Princess Celestia offered to allow him to make use of one of the royal *flying* carriages.
  1885. > He'd politely turned it down, suggesting that it would be better to show up in a more 'standard' carriage, rather than make it obvious that this trip was by the direct authorization of Her Royal Highness.
  1886. > You had to agree.
  1887. > A flying carriage pulled by two or four pegasi was something which would cause a stir anywhere outside of Canterlot.
  1888. > Or Cloudsdale, you supposed.
  1889. > As Anonymous had explained to you, the idea was to start with the mine inspection, under the pretext of examining the damage, and to only deliver the summons if there really was evidence of Galloway Bitsmount's criminal thrift.
  1890. > But as a result of that decision, plus the dearth of train service on Sunday, you had to deal with the somewhat nauseating rocking motion of the carriage.
  1891. > "Ugggghn."
  1892. > Specialist Glamerspear, riding outside of the coach on the rear box seat, was clearly having the worst of it.
  1893. > She was mostly managing to keep it under her helmet, despite the occasional audible moan or groan.
  1894. > For now, it was worth suffering since the two earth ponies were hustling you all along at a healthy clip.
  1895. > Once you reached the foothills just before Bitsmount, however, it would probably be faster and more comfortable for her to just get off and walk.
  1896.  
  1897. > The third member of your detachment was somewhere up above, high in the sky.
  1898. > Upon reflection, it was pretty incredible how long she could stay up there with all that armour on.
  1899. > You hadn't really had the opportunity to work with too many pegasi from the armoured corps.
  1900. > Earth ponies made up by far the bulk of that group in the Royal Guard, and even unicorns were more common than pegasi.
  1901. > With a loud *clap*, Anonymous shuts the book in his lap, and sighs, closing his eyes.
  1902. "Everything all right, sir?"
  1903. > He folds his hands on top of the book.
  1904. > "Just second-guessing myself, Corporal. If I'm wrong about what's going on, this trip could wind up being a waste."
  1905. > This was a change.
  1906. > Yesterday he'd seemed so certain.
  1907. "Even if it's not corruption, sir, surely after a collapse, an inspection is warranted?"
  1908. > "Oh, there's no doubt it's warranted. I'm just concerned that I've projected the greed and deceit of my world onto this one.."
  1909. > The Royal Engineer opens his eyes and turns to look out the window at fields going by.
  1910. > "... Equestria seems like such a friendly and honest place by comparison."
  1911. > You couldn't be sure if his assessment was made because he simply didn't know about the hidden flaws of Equestrian society, or if his home-world really was that bad.
  1912. > Either way it wasn't very encouraging.
  1913. > You wondered if you should say something.
  1914. > Before you could make a decision, however, there was a flutter of wings above, and Sparkshower appeared next to you in the window, gliding along your side of the carriage, her bronze armour glinting in the morning sun.
  1915. > "Corporal! There's some unexpected activity going on at the bridge up ahead."
  1916. > Activity? On a Sunday?
  1917. "What kind of activity, Specialist?"
  1918.  
  1919. > "I counted six pegasi and eight earth ponies milling about the bridge area. Two of the earth ponies were on the road, barring the bridge with spears. Eight camp and two large pavilion tents have also been set up in the neighbouring field. They've got three large wagons as well. Everything's flying Equestrian Royal Guard colours, Corporal."
  1920. > The Royal Guard? Conducting operations on a weekend, so close to Canterlot?
  1921. > Could something bad have happened?
  1922. "They're barring the way across Newstirrup bridge?"
  1923. > "It seems that way, Corporal, or at least they're controlling it."
  1924. > Anonymous leans over.
  1925. > "Should we find another way across the river, Corporal?"
  1926. "Sir, Oldstirrup bridge is about an hour's ride further East, and we'll have to double back to get on the road to Bitsmount. I wouldn't advise it."
  1927. > He shrugs.
  1928. > "Well, maybe they're just securing it against some other threat, and we'll be allowed across anyways."
  1929. "That would be my guess, sir."
  1930. > You turn back to Sparkshower.
  1931. "How far are we from the bridge?"
  1932. > "It's just over the next hill, Corporal Bound. Should I get back in the air?"
  1933. "Yes, but stay within earshot."
  1934. > She salutes noisily, clanging her sabot into her helmet, before flapping herself up and out of sight.
  1935. > As the carriage pitches back to climb the hill, you lean ahead to get a better view out the front window.
  1936. > All you see is dirt at first, but then the carriage dips forward as it crests the rise, and you can make out the subjects of Sparkshower's report.
  1937. "They're flying Equestrian Royal Guard banners, all right. And a lot of them, too. It even looks like they've decorated the sides of the road with ribbons and pennants."
  1938. > The Royal Engineer pulls back the side curtain and leans up against the side of the carriage wall to peer ahead out the window.
  1939. > "Sounds like somepony's throwing a party."
  1940. > The carriage rolls along undisturbed, passing the decorations and coming alongside the tents.
  1941.  
  1942. > Eventually, though, it draws to a stop as the draft-ponies find the way still barred by two guards.
  1943. > You can hear some kind of discussion going on outside, but it's too faint to make out.
  1944. "Excuse me a moment, sir."
  1945. > Anonymous nods, and you open the door and quietly exit the coach.
  1946. > What was a discussion seems to have gotten a bit heated.
  1947. > "Look, buddy, we've got a carriage to pull, here! What do you care who's inside? This is a public road, fer Celestia's sakes!"
  1948. > The guardpony shakes his head and stands his ground.
  1949. > "Sorry, sir. I have my orders. Nopony passes without identifying themselves. No exceptions."
  1950. > You clear your throat, and both spearponies turn to size you up.
  1951. "In the name of Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, clear the way for the Royal Engineer of Equestria."
  1952. > The two guardscolts look at each other.
  1953. > "The Royal Engineer?"
  1954. > "Better go get the L-T."
  1955. > After a quick nod, the one on the right nods, then dashes off towards the tents and pavilions in the nearby field.
  1956. > "Just a moment, while we clear your passage with our commanding officer."
  1957. > Your carriage-pullers don't seem very impressed.
  1958. > "Now you goofballs are gonna get it!"
  1959. > "Yeah, barring the way for a member of the Royal Court, geez!"
  1960. > But the guardspony stands resolute, spear still barring the way.
  1961. > There's a loud fluttering of wings accompanied by a hurried gallop.
  1962.  
  1963. > Six pegasi, dressed in light Equestrian Royal Guard armour, quickly land on the road before your carriage, accompanied by the spearpony on hoof.
  1964. > One of them, a white pegasus with a brilliant blue mane, speaks up loud enough for everyone to hear.
  1965. > "My name is Lieutenant Kilfeather, and I'm in charge of the situation here. If the Royal Engineer wishes to cross Newstirrup bridge, let him stand forth!"
  1966. > Your eyes narrow.
  1967. > The uniforms appear genuine.
  1968. > And you feel like you've heard the name 'Kilfeather' before.
  1969. > Behind you, you hear the carriage door open, and Anonymous climbs out and steps up beside you.
  1970. > "By Appointment To Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, I am Anonymous, Royal Engineer of the Court of Equestria."
  1971. > Lieutenant Kilfeather smiles.
  1972. > "It gives me great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sir..."
  1973. > He steps forward, looking Anonymous in the eyes.
  1974. > "... But you shall not pass Newstirrup bridge without either giving battle or rendering up a token of your cowardice...."
  1975. > Instantly, you reach for your spear, pulling its two pieces out of the holster on your flank and snapping them together in one clean motion.
  1976. > Kilfeather completely disregards your move to arm yourself, and returns back to his assembled group of pegasi, who now hunch down into an aggressive posture.
  1977. > Even the spearponies turn their weapons on you.
  1978. > "... For *this* is a 'Pas de Sabots' -- a 'Passage of Hooves', Sir -- and no noblepony may pass without honouring the ancient rites of this hastilude!"
  1979.  
  1980. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kg1IjbIBXZQ (Hans Zimmer - 'Show Me Your Firetruck', from 'Backdraft' [1991])
  1981.  
  1982. Suggested reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pas_d%27armes (Wikipedia - Pas D'armes)
  1983.  
  1984.  
  1985.  
  1986.  
  1987. > The Royal Engineer folds his arms in front of his chest.
  1988. > "I'm afraid I haven't been introduced to this particular custom. Would you care to elaborate?"
  1989. > Lieutenant Kilfeather places one hoof on his chest and gives a shallow bow.
  1990. > "Certainly, Sir, I will happily rectify your ignorance of this topic..."
  1991. > Anonymous allows the insult to pass unchallenged, the expression on his face impassive, almost stern.
  1992. > "... The 'Pas de Sabots' is an old custom of the warrior nobility, one of the ritual combats allowed even in peacetime, along with the more familiar Tournament. In a 'Pas de Sabots', a group of honourable warriors take it upon themselves to size an important bottleneck on the road -- such as a bridge, city gate, or mountain pass. Commoners are permitted free travel, but any noblepony wishing to go by must first challenge the holders to combat. A victory over the pass-holders ends the event in a triumph and allows the noble to go on their way; otherwise, the pass holds, often piling up with battered soldiers ready for a second round when more of their fellows arrive. A feudal noble who declines the challenge is compelled to leave behind a token of their cowardice, to be recovered later by someone with a greater sense of chivalric honour than themselves."
  1993. > The pegasus nods to his entourage, who relax from their battle stance.
  1994. > Even the two spear-wielding guards lift their weapons up out of the way.
  1995. > "... Besides that, the rules of combat are up to the challenger; we are honour-bound to accept any reasonable proposal. As the 'tenants' of this pass, we must also provide armaments to any noble who would challenge us but happens to find themselves without weapons. And we will freely share our supplies of food and water with any brave enough to take up the sabot that we have thrown down."
  1996. > Kilfeather sits down in front of his squadron, wearing a haughty smile.
  1997.  
  1998. > Beside you, the Royal Engineer shuffles his feet and considers his response carefully.
  1999. > In the back, you can hear Glamerspear start to clamber off of her seat to join you.
  2000. > Sparkshower must surely be about to land, as well.
  2001. > Anonymous unfolds his arms, placing one hand on his hips and showing the other to the bridge-holders as an open palm.
  2002. > "Thank you for the explanation, Lieutenant. It sounds like you have undertaken a magnificent enterprise, and I wish you luck. However, I am compelled to point out the fact that I am not a member of the warrior feudal nobility of Equestria. I therefore ask that you allow me to pass unmolested."
  2003. > The Lieutenant grins.
  2004. > "Not a member of the feudal nobility? No, sir, I think that you are..."
  2005. > He points a hoof at the Royal Engineer.
  2006. > "... You are a member of Princess Celestia's *privy council*, sir, which by ancient custom must consist exclusively of trusted nobility. When Her Majesty the Princess appointed you to the position, did she not declare you 'Lord Anonymous, Royal Engineer', before the Day Court?"
  2007. > Anonymous places his other hand on his hips.
  2008. > "I believe that she did, yes. I was told it was an ancient title, and would not be used in normal circumstances."
  2009. > Kilfeather spreads his forearms.
  2010. > "See? Though an honorific, the time is not long since past when we would be compelled to address you as 'Lord Engineer', and likewise 'Lord Chancellor', et cetera."
  2011. > You see the Royal Engineer smile.
  2012. > "Well, if I am a noble, sir, then I must point out that I am no *warrior*-lord. And I think the same could also be said of the Chancellor, since you brought him up."
  2013. > One of the pegasi giggles at that little joke, before getting a stern glance from Kilfeather.
  2014. > "If he were here, sir, we would challenge the good Chancellor as well. But if you are not a warrior-lord, then why do you travel with soldiers under your command?"
  2015.  
  2016. > Glamerspear slowly walks up on your other side, and you hear the beating of wings as Sparkshower starts to hover on the far side of the draft-ponies.
  2017. > "... It would seem, sir, that Her Royal Highness has not only ennobled you, but provided you the retainers that a noble of your station rightfully deserves. And if you feel unable to fight in person, then there would be no shame in sending your house-warriors to do battle in your name."
  2018. > The Royal Engineer inhales deeply, apparently considering how to reply.
  2019. > As the seconds wear on, Glamerspear shakes her head and loses her patience.
  2020. > "This is such a load! What's your game, Valiant? Nobody's staged a 'Pas de Sabots' in a century or more!"
  2021. > Valiant Kilfeather.
  2022. > Now you remember where you'd read his name.
  2023. > It was on the front page of the Royal Guard Times less than a year ago, and given your current situation, it's not an encouraging memory.
  2024. > "Ah, there you are, Glamerspear. You're right -- the 'Pas de la Fleur Fanée', the last one on record, was a hundred and thirty-seven years ago..."
  2025. > Before she can retort with 'See?!', he continues talking right over her.
  2026. > "... But the laws to permit such chivalrous acts are still on the books."
  2027. > Glamerspear growls and points an angry hoof at the tents and pavilions.
  2028. > "Laws shmaws! You must've had to pull some pretty big strings to get this all thrown together in such a hurry!"
  2029. > Valiant smiles and shakes his head.
  2030. > "Oh, no, not at all. You'd be surprised how eager the supply depot officers were to help out. During this period when Celestia holds Day Court on weekends, every noble pony who can get out of Canterlot does so, to avoid the influx of plebeians into their 'sacred' city..."
  2031.  
  2032. > Turning around, he gestures at the bridge.
  2033. > "... Newstirrup bridge happens to be the fastest way to and from a number of noble estates. So I found some *very* receptive ears when I suggested that a 'Pas de Sabots' timed for 'society' returning to Canterlot would humiliate a number of high-and-mighty gentleponies who thought themselves too good to mingle with the peasantry..."
  2034. > He turns his head up and looks at Anonymous.
  2035. > "... Absolutely all of our papers are in order, sir. You're welcome to inspect them, if you wish. And this event has the full sanction of Major-General Hoofstrong herself."
  2036. > The Royal Engineer glances down at you.
  2037. > You can see him rolling his fingers against his palm in thought.
  2038. > "As it happens, Lieutenant Kilfeather, I happen to be pressed for time and on urgent business. If you will not allow me to pass without satisfying your ritual, then I must ask what the price for my 'cowardice' would be."
  2039. > Kilfeather puts on a friendly smile.
  2040. > "Oh, sir, well... First of all, let me say that I doubt very much if you will suffer any social consequences for a surrender. After all, nopony would expect your small VIP detail to fight against Canterlot's finest air defence squadron. But as for tokens of surrender, let me think..."
  2041. > He puts his hoof up to his chin and feigns as if he's considering something new.
  2042. > It's so obviously an act that you almost wonder why he even bothers with it.
  2043. > Perhaps he just likes to hear himself talk.
  2044. > "... Well, traditionally the tokens are something martial, but not essential for personal defence. So, for your cowardly refusal to face us, we will take..."
  2045. > He points at Glamerspear.
  2046. > "... Her fancy helmet..."
  2047. > She growls.
  2048. > He swings his hoof to point at Anonymous.
  2049. > "... One of your fine white gloves, sir..."
  2050. > And then he swings his hoof all the way over to point at Sparkshower.
  2051. > "... And *her*."
  2052.  
  2053. > Sparkshower gasps.
  2054. > "Me?!"
  2055. > Before anypony can say anything else, Glamerspear explodes next to you.
  2056. > "HER?! Why you low-life, dirty-dealing, foal-of-a-b*"
  2057. > Anonymous looks down at you and shakes his head with a stern expression, so you elbow her in the flank.
  2058. > She takes the hint and shuts up.
  2059. > The Royal Engineer clears his throat.
  2060. > "I'm sorry, I must have misheard you. Are you proposing to take a *hostage* in exchange for my submission?"
  2061. > There's the briefest flash of a grin on Valiant's face, directed at Glamerspear, but then he composes himself again.
  2062. > "Hardly a hostage, sir. We have established ourselves quite comfortably here, and she will stay as an honoured guest among her own kind -- valorous pegasus warriors, just like her. Over the next few days, she will bear witness first-hoof to our courageous fight to hold the bridge against all comers..."
  2063. > He places one hoof on his chest, his voice dripping with sincerity.
  2064. > "... She will share in our triumphs and our revels as if a member of my own squadron; after all, it was not *her* who declined our challenge..."
  2065. > Lowering the hoof, Valiant regards the Royal Engineer with disdain.
  2066. > "... And clearly, a cowardly lord afraid of battle has no need for such a large retinue of bodyguards, and can do without one of them for a few days."
  2067. > Again, Anonymous pauses to consider his options.
  2068. > As he does so, an earth pony trots up from the tents, holding a large stick in his mouth.
  2069. > Valiant steps aside and directs him to plant it in front of the bridge.
  2070. > It takes the pony a bit of struggling to drive it in, but he manages to get it set up like some sort of a fence-post.
  2071. > Something about that staff looks familiar.
  2072.  
  2073. > The haft is extremely thick, and decorated with red and white ribbons.
  2074. > A half-circle plume of bushy red hair sits at the peak, above a golden medallion.
  2075. > You can't quite make out the design on the golden disk at this distance.
  2076. > Glamerspear recognizes it before you do.
  2077. > "Hey! That looks like one of the totems from the MXP Games!"
  2078. > Valiant raises an eyebrow.
  2079. > "That's because it *is* one of the totems from the MXP Games. We've taken the liberty of borrowing it."
  2080. > His answer only sets Glamerspear off again.
  2081. > "Oh, so conning the ponies at the supply depot wasn't enough, now you're stealing magical artifacts right out of the Champions' Hall?"
  2082. > "Not at all..."
  2083. > He nods his head at the pegasi behind him, and they all gather around the totem.
  2084. > "... You're looking at the winners of last year's Grand Mêlée."
  2085. > They adopt the same pose as that front-page Royal Guard Times photograph you remembered earlier.
  2086. > 'KILFEATHER SQUADRON DOMINATES THE SKIES AT MXP GAMES!'
  2087. > It was one of the more dominant victories of the whole tournament.
  2088. > And at the Grand Mêlée, the final and most important event of them all, no less.
  2089. > Anonymous sighs.
  2090. > "I beg your pardon, Lieutenant, but I feel I'm missing something again. 'MXP Games'? Is that anything like the 'Equestria Games'?"
  2091. > Valiant strokes the totem adoringly.
  2092. > "A little, sir. Where the Equestria Games involve tests of athletic and acrobatic skill, the MXP Games are a test of *martial* prowess."
  2093. > He continues to faun over the magical staff, so you speak up.
  2094. "Totems like that one are used at the Games to make sure nopony gets seriously injured. It projects a magical protective field onto the competitors."
  2095.  
  2096. > The Lieutenant nods at you, then turns to your VIP.
  2097. > "Thank you, Corporal. You see, sir? We're not barbarians. You may challenge us without fear that anypony will even get hurt..."
  2098. > He tilts down his head to look at you all from underneath his brow.
  2099. > "... Though if you do, then you'll certainly be walking away in pain and with quite a lot of bruises."
  2100. > The Royal Engineer looks like he's had enough.
  2101. > "I see. You've made your point, Lieutenant. I will confer with my escort."
  2102. > By the tone of his voice, it wasn't a request.
  2103. > Anonymous waves Sparkshower over, and you all walk away from the bridge, passing the carriage as you go.
  2104. > It doesn't take Glamerspear long to pipe up again.
  2105. > "You *can't* hand over Sparks to these *goons*, sir! This is all about her, you understand? Valiant, that scumbag, tried yesterday to get me to set her up with him!"
  2106. > The Royal Engineer cocks an eyebrow.
  2107. > "Oh?"
  2108. > "Yeah, and when I turned him down, he tried to *blackmail* me into doing it!"
  2109. > "Interesting. I was *going* to suggest that I try to bargain him down for our surrender, but if what you say is true, then it sounds like we won't be able to leave here without giving up Specialist Sparkshower."
  2110. > Glamerspear just grumbles an acknowledgement.
  2111. > Still floating in the air, Sparkshower pipes up.
  2112. > "But... is that so bad?"
  2113. > Once again, your unicorn squad-member goes ballistic.
  2114. > "WHAT?! SPARKS, you have no idea what that bastard is capable of!"
  2115. > There's got to be a reason for this anger of hers.
  2116. > Not to mention her familiarity with the Lieutenant.
  2117. "So why don't you tell us?"
  2118.  
  2119. > She shoots you a fiery glance, then relaxes her expression, looking sheepish.
  2120. > "We used to date. And like I told Sparkshower yesterday, when I didn't want to do something he wanted -- which was *crazy* and *disgusting*, by the way, and would have *actually* reduced me to a you-know-what that I got called two nights ago -- he got violent and tried to force me into it!"
  2121. > The Royal Engineer squints at her.
  2122. > He doesn't even have the full details to know exactly what she's talking about, but he looks properly concerned about it.
  2123. > "... And yesterday he tells me Sparkshower's caught his eye? I'm not letting that happen to somepony else!"
  2124. > Sparkshower speaks up for herself.
  2125. > "But, Glamerspear, that can't possibly happen *here*! There's all these witnesses, and the whole thing is supposed to be a 'noble endeavour'! If it came out that they took a hostage and then abused her, it would ruin their reputation. What's the worst that they could do?"
  2126. > The unicorn shakes her head.
  2127. > "You don't want to know the worst, Sparks..."
  2128. > Taking a deep breath, she concedes Glamerspear's point.
  2129. > "... But you might be right that they won't try anything here and now. We'd been going out for a while before he pulled anything crazy on me. I still say we fight, though!"
  2130. > Anonymous stops and leans over.
  2131. > "Can we win, though?"
  2132. > Glamerspear sits down and pounds one of her forehooves into the other.
  2133. > "You bet we can, sir! I can swat those pegasi like flies."
  2134. > Sparkshower also lands down.
  2135. > "I don't know..."
  2136. > "WHAT?! Sparks, you-"
  2137. "Come on, Glamerspear, let her speak her mind before you shout her down."
  2138.  
  2139. > That nets you a grumble and a dirty look from the unicorn.
  2140. > But Sparkshower looks genuinely concerned.
  2141. > "The 1st Canterlot are the best air superiority fighters in the whole guard... They can fly faster and turn tighter than anypony else..."
  2142. > The base of her spear rests firmly on the ground, but the hoof that's holding it is hesitating, and up in the air past Anonymous' head, you can see the tip wobble with uncertainty.
  2143. > Looks like Lieutenant Kilfeather's intimidation tactics worked.
  2144. > She's genuinely afraid.
  2145. > "... I think I'd rather just go with them than waste everypony's time with a fight we can't win. At least that way I become their hostage without any bumps or scratches."
  2146. > Glamerspear closes her eyes and shakes her head like she can't believe what she's hearing.
  2147. > You sigh.
  2148. "You're in charge here, sir. What's your decision?"
  2149. > Anonymous pulls off his hat and sits down cross-legged on the ground.
  2150. > The difference in height is actually startling.
  2151. > If he walked on all fours, would he really be that much taller than any of you?
  2152. > Regardless, it's strange having to actually look down at his face for a change.
  2153. > "I hear one vote for 'fight' and one vote for 'surrender', Corporal. But I haven't heard your vote, yet."
  2154. > You shrug.
  2155. "I'm a non-commissioned officer, sir. You give the orders, I see them carried out."
  2156. > "Well, I'm not a soldier at all, Corporal. I've never even *seen* a pony fight, let alone sparred with one of your kind. Maybe I'd actually be a reasonable opponent for them, but I doubt they have any weapons or armour that would fit me, and I don't want to show up to Bitsmount with injuries. So let me tell you how I see the situation, and then you, with your experience in these matters, will give me your decision on what we are going to do."
  2157. > He places his top-hat in his lap.
  2158.  
  2159. > "We can fight, surrender, or *turn around*. All things considered, I would rather not leave Specialist Sparkshower in the hands of these unscrupulous ponies. But I can't afford the two-hour detour each way if we take another road to Bitsmount; it will cut short the inspection of the mine, and the carriage and several of the very valuable pieces of equipment I've borrowed are due back today. To keep them overnight would be a public embarrassment and a betrayal of several important ponies' trust."
  2160. > Brushing some of the trail-dust off of the felt, he continues.
  2161. > "... But on the other hand, if we have to leave Specialist Sparkshower here, then, as she says, better to do it without whatever injuries that 'totem' will allow her to sustain."
  2162. > The Royal Engineer looks up at you.
  2163. > "... As I see it, it all comes down to one thing, Corporal. Can you think of a way to beat them?"
  2164. > He's gotten to the heart of the matter, that's for sure.
  2165. > *Is* there a way to beat them?
  2166. > You look at Glamerspear.
  2167. > She's ready to explode with anger.
  2168. > You're almost surprised her horn isn't already glowing, ready to project her magic at the first sign of trouble.
  2169. > A measure of her self-restraint, you suppose.
  2170. > Then you turn your eyes to Sparkshower.
  2171. > She's encased in almost fifty pounds of armour, but mentally you can tell she's not quite ready.
  2172. > Her experience with combat so far has probably been in engaging weak screening units or avoiding action entirely.
  2173. > Not in duelling a foe explicitly trained to dominate the skies.
  2174. > And then you lean back out of your little huddle-circle, and look over at the bridge.
  2175. > The six cocksure pegasus colts.
  2176. > The elite of the air defence force.
  2177. > The champions of what was once called the Grand Tournament of Equestria.
  2178. > But they're boisterous, boastful, and maybe they can be lured into doing something foolish.
  2179. > And the terms of the challenge are: anything reasonable, they have to accept.
  2180.  
  2181. > So can you come up with something reasonable that you can *win*?
  2182. > You close your eyes and think for a few moments.
  2183. > When you open them again, you find that Anonymous hasn't lifted his gaze from you.
  2184. > It's a powerful, penetrating look, that speaks to the intensity of his convictions.
  2185. "I've made my decision, sir..."
  2186. > Glamerspear perks up, and you hear Sparkshower suppress a gasp of anticipation.
  2187. > You turn to each of your subordinates in turn, and try to project the Royal Engineer's own aura of command.
  2188. "... We will *fight* them."
  2189.  
  2190. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siwpn14IE7E (Kenny Loggins - 'Danger Zone', from 'Top Gun' [1986])
  2191.  
  2192.  
  2193.  
  2194.  
  2195. > Glamerspear pumps her hoof in the air.
  2196. > "Awright! Let's get 'em!"
  2197. > Before you, Anonymous leans back and seems to relax his expression a bit.
  2198. > "What's the plan of attack, Corporal?"
  2199. "We'll challenge them to three one-on-one duels, best two-out-of-three..."
  2200. > You look over at Sparkshower.
  2201. "... That way only *two* of us need to win a fight."
  2202. > The colour seems to have drained from her face.
  2203. > That's not good.
  2204. > Turning to Glamerspear, you raise an eyebrow.
  2205. "We'll take them on all at once so there's no pressure from momentum. Glamerspear, you're an anti-air defence specialist; challenge them to a duel in service equipment with no restrictions."
  2206. > Your unicorn teammate grins.
  2207. > "Oh, I am going to *sweep* them from the air!"
  2208. > Lifting your hooves, you play with one of your light brass sabots.
  2209. "I'll demand a duel without the use of any equipment at all. They'll think they have the advantage because of their wings, but I'll profit more from their lack of armour."
  2210. > Back to Sparkshower, she's not looking any better.
  2211. "Sparkshower, you'll ask for a fight in the air with service equipment..."
  2212. > You lean over and put a hoof on her shoulder.
  2213. > She's actually shivering in her armour.
  2214. > That's really not good.
  2215. "... All you have to do is fly as high and as far as you can. They can out-turn you and fly faster than you, but they'll tire more quickly. Play the long game..."
  2216. > Sparkshower is facing you, but it feels like she's looking straight through you.
  2217. > You bring your head closer and try to get her attention.
  2218. > That's when you notice that there are actually tears coming from her eyes.
  2219. > Better try to shut this down fast.
  2220.  
  2221. "... Soldier! Trust in your equipment and you will be victorious, do you understand?"
  2222. > The shivering doesn't stop.
  2223. > "Y-Y-Y-Yes, Corporal!"
  2224. > You squint at her.
  2225. "I didn't catch that, Specialist?"
  2226. > "YES, CORPORAL!"
  2227. > That was *not* a confident, or even a composed response.
  2228. > It was almost a terrified scream.
  2229. > And now she's shivering so hard you can all hear her armour rattling like a box full of empty tin cans.
  2230. > You shoot a worried glance at Glamerspear.
  2231. > She just looks concerned and shrugs her eyebrows, in a 'What do you want *me* to do?' kind of look.
  2232. > Sparkshower clearly hasn't seen real combat.
  2233. > There isn't enough time to solve her confidence issues, and anyways it doesn't matter.
  2234. > Glamerspear should win easily, and you've got an excellent shot.
  2235. > Sparkshower can lose, though you'd prefer if she doesn't get hurt.
  2236. > Anonymous gets on his feet but stays low, squatting down with the rest of the group.
  2237. > "Specialist Sparkshower, I apologize for the interruption, but something has just piqued my imagination. May I ask you a question about general tactics in the Equestrian Royal Guard?"
  2238. > The fresh and apparently-unrelated line of conversation seems to calm her down a bit, and she stops chattering quite so hard.
  2239. > "Sir?"
  2240. > The Royal Engineer affects a theatrical air and gestures up at the sky.
  2241. > "Tell me, Specialist: If an enormous dragon were to attack Canterlot right now..."
  2242. > He points over at Kilfeather's squadron.
  2243. > "... Is *that* the force the Guard would send up to defeat it?"
  2244. > With some hesitation, Sparkshower looks over towards her feared enemies.
  2245. > "No, sir."
  2246.  
  2247. > "No? Could you explain to me why not?"
  2248. > The heavily-armoured pegasus swallows, and you can tell it's to hold back actual crying.
  2249. > Her nose is running, too.
  2250. > "Well, sir, as an air-superiority squadron, they're focused on high-energy turning fights against comparably-sized enemies. They're lightly armed and lightly armoured so as not to compromise their air handling. Without heavier equipment, against a big dragon..."
  2251. > She turns back to Anonymous.
  2252. > "... they'd only be useful as harassment."
  2253. > The Royal Engineer leans in almost awkwardly close to your nervous pegasus.
  2254. > "Specialist Sparkshower..."
  2255. > She inhales sharply, holding her breath.
  2256. > Anonymous loudly and forcefully bangs his knuckles against her enormous brass breastplate, twice, leaving them pressed against her armour when he's done.
  2257. > He clearly enunciates every word of what comes next.
  2258. > "... *be* the dragon."
  2259. > There's a long delay while Sparkshower just looks down at the fist held against her plate.
  2260. > Her eyes dart from the fist, to Anonymous' face, to the fist, and then back again.
  2261. > "Be the dragon... Yes, sir. Thank you, sir!"
  2262. > That's sounding a little better.
  2263. > Not much, but a little.
  2264. > Anonymous just nods, then removes his fist and stands up.
  2265. > You watch her eyes nervously follow him up.
  2266. > Seems like this is as good as it's going to get.
  2267. "Okay, let's get back in there."
  2268. > Everypony starts back towards the bridge.
  2269.  
  2270. > On your right, Glamerspear is wearing a smirk like she's going to enjoy this.
  2271. > Just ahead of you, the Royal Engineer dusts his trousers and jacket off, then dons his top hat once more.
  2272. > He even pulls on the white gloves he had hanging out of his jacket-pocket.
  2273. > And on your left, you can hear Sparkshower repeatedly muttering under her breath.
  2274. > "Be the dragon... Be the dragon... Be the dragon..."
  2275. > If a mantra helps get her through this, then all the better.
  2276. > The bridge is less than fifty yards away, and the walk back goes quickly.
  2277. > Lieutenant Kilfeather is still posing with his squadron, blocking the bridge a few yards beyond the 'borrowed' MXP totem.
  2278. > "Well, *Lord* Anonymous, what shall it be?"
  2279. > Anonymous raises his hands and adjusts his gloves, pulling them on tightly and then balling his hands up in to fists.
  2280. > There's a disturbing cracking noise as he squeezes his knuckles.
  2281. > An intimidation tactic of his own?
  2282. > There's no visible reaction from the air-superiority pegasi with the obvious air of superiority.
  2283. > "My bodyguards shall challenge three of your number to one-on-one duels; two victories out of the three shall carry the day."
  2284. > Kilfeather nods in approval, grinning.
  2285. > "Excellent! I accept, with one condition: If you do not sweep us in all three matches, we will consider ourselves entitled to continue our 'Pas de Sabots'."
  2286. > Unlike earlier, Anonymous' reply is instantaneous.
  2287. > Clearly, he's had the time to think this through.
  2288. > "I accept your condition with one clarification: If we win without a sweep, you shall allow us to pass unhindered upon our return voyage today."
  2289. > The Lieutenant laughs, and a few of his crew chuckle along with him.
  2290. > "Ah, clever! So perhaps you are a *warrior*-lord, after all!"
  2291. > Turning to the ponies behind him, he pumps his hoof in the air repeatedly, and the little crowd starts to cheer, clap, snarl, and roar with excitement.
  2292. > He spins around back to face the four of you.
  2293.  
  2294. > "... Yes, We accept! Carriage-bearers, retire yourselves to our tents, and Royal Engineer, let your bodyguards step forth and issue their challenges!"
  2295. > Your two carriage-pullers shoot each other a glance, then slowly walk the coach back and take the side-path off of the road, into the fallow field with the squadron's colourful tents.
  2296. > You pause to consider your squad.
  2297. > On your right, Glamerspear looks ready to shoot every one of the pegasi down, if given the chance.
  2298. > To your left, even Sparkshower has found her nerves again and wears the proper steady gaze of a soldier.
  2299. > You make the first move, stepping up past Anonymous, to just in front of the totem.
  2300. > With an air of disdain, you look over Kilfeather's squadron before uttering your curt pronouncement.
  2301. "Hooves only, no armour, first submission."
  2302. > Most of the squadron-members arch their eyebrows and look at each other with amused expressions, saying 'Ooooh!', which then devolves into general excited hooting and hollering.
  2303. > One of them steps forward and sways his shoulders with a grin on his face.
  2304. > "Well, all right! Cool foxy filly wants to turn this mêlée into a real brawl, huh?!"
  2305. > He's a young colt; but big for a pegasus; huge, even.
  2306. > His coat is light red, and his blond mane is cut high-and-tight.
  2307. > Coming right up in front of your snout, he almost towers over you.
  2308. > "... Little fox, I'm gonna smash you good."
  2309. > You just give him a cold stare, as you reach down and start to pull off your sabots.
  2310. > That just sets his companions off again, with cat-calls mixed in with the hooting.
  2311. > He turns and gives them a confident grin, but starts to undo his armour as well.
  2312. > Lieutenant Kilfeather's laugh rings out.
  2313. > "All right, who's next?"
  2314. > Behind you, Glamerspear shouts out as she charges up to the challenge line that you've established.
  2315. > "That'll be *ME*! Fight in service equipment, with no holds barred!"
  2316.  
  2317. > She hunches down, swivelling her neck left and right like a snake looking to strike.
  2318. > "... Come on, which of you airborne pests is ready to get turned into an ugly smear on the ground?!"
  2319. > Again, laughter from the assembled pegasi.
  2320. > Kilfeather's roar rings louder than the rest.
  2321. > "Oh, so Miss Air-Defence thinks Canterlot's finest are easy targets, does she?"
  2322. > Glamerspear just snarls right back.
  2323. > "Yeah! Changelings, Griffons, or Pegasi; you're all just bugs to be squashed, to me -- and I've got a fly-swatter bigger than even your ego, Val!"
  2324. > He laughs it off, and, in the blink of an eye, dashes forward with one quick pump of his wings.
  2325. > If the move impressed Glamerspear, she doesn't show it.
  2326. > "Your fly-swatter's got nothing on my moves, Lil'. So I'll take your challenge, and that's two!"
  2327. > Now it's all on Sparkshower.
  2328. > Eschewing Glamerspear's quick entrance or your steady walk, she takes to the air and slowly flaps her way forward.
  2329. > Reaching the totem, she doesn't land.
  2330. > "I proclaim a clash of storm-fronts... in service equipment."
  2331. > She sounds confident as she issues the traditional pegasus challenge for a duel.
  2332. > But she doesn't try any of the emotional theatrics like Glamerspear.
  2333. > Or like you, if you're being honest.
  2334. > After all, your cold stare is a calculated move, too.
  2335. > The lack of excitement from Sparkshower seems to carry over to the opposing side as well.
  2336. > Just one pegasus makes any noise at all, chuckling loudly.
  2337. > "Oh-hoo-hoo! A 'clash of storms', eh? Like it's a rainy day in Cloudsdale? Big talk for a little pegasus!"
  2338.  
  2339. > A purple-coloured pony with slicked-back green hair takes to the air and flies up slowly to meet her.
  2340. > "... Or maybe it's just a big joke? I'm laughing, after all!"
  2341. > Amused with his own words, he continues to giggle to himself.
  2342. > By now, you've removed all your equipment, and so has your oversized opponent.
  2343. > Kilfeather looks down the line and speaks up.
  2344. > "Very well; the challenges have been made, and met! Competitors, touch the totem together and identify yourselves to receive its protective blessings, then retreat twenty paces until the Lord Anonymous does us the honour of declaring the start!"
  2345. > You reach out at the same time as your foe, but he speaks first, leaning in over the invisible line that divides the two teams.
  2346. > "The only name you need, little foxy filly, is my call-sign: 'Duck'. Which is what you oughtta do when I come flapping for you, by the way."
  2347. > Your voice is flat as you reply.
  2348. "Corporal Honour Bound."
  2349. > There's an almost musical hum from the golden medallion, and the red-coloured hairs at the totem's peak suddenly wave as if by a gust of wind.
  2350. > You can feel a kind of electrical energy envelop you, making your hair -- body and mane -- briefly stand up on end.
  2351. > Duck's short mane scarcely moves, although his puffed-up coat makes him look even larger.
  2352. > As you both retire, Glamerspear and Kilfeather step up.
  2353. > Once again, the air-superiority team-member speaks first.
  2354. > "Lieutenant Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather, wing commander, First Canterlot Air Defence Wing, and Leader of Kilfeather Squadron, Winners of the MXP Games Grand Mêlée."
  2355. > Glamerspear leans in close, baring her teeth.
  2356. > "Specialist Lily Glamerspear, Centurion of the Order of the *bucking* Ram!"
  2357. > That's a visible shock to Kilfeather, but he takes it with a smile.
  2358. > "Well, well... Went and became a war hero, did you, Lily?"
  2359. > "That's right, Val. Want to give up now before I do to you what I did to the Changelings?"
  2360. > He licks his lips.
  2361.  
  2362. > "Mmmm, 'fraid not, Lil'. You're about to get a harsh lesson in tracking hard targets."
  2363. > Their exchange complete, both of them retire to the start lines, and it's the turn of Sparkshower and her still-giggling opponent.
  2364. > Almost simultaneously, pegasi reach out and touch the staff.
  2365. > But both remain silent.
  2366. > All anypony can hear is the beating of their wings.
  2367. > It's a somewhat disturbing contrast.
  2368. > Sparkshower, with an armour load of more than three times that of the lightly-equipped air-superiority pony, not to mention carrying a long and very bronze spear versus just his sabots, almost appears to be struggling to stay in place.
  2369. > Each beat of her wings lifts her several hooves up into the air.
  2370. > And in-between those intervals, she drops like a stone back down again.
  2371. > By comparison, the purple pegasus before her almost seems to be effortlessly soaring in place, barely flapping his wings at all.
  2372. > After several moments in silent challenge, at last, he leans forward.
  2373. > "Well? Aren't you going to tell me your name, little filly?"
  2374. > Sparkshower just stays silent, staring him in the eyes.
  2375. > He starts to giggle again.
  2376. > "... Come on, bold and brassy! Speak up!"
  2377. > Again, she says nothing.
  2378. > He blows a raspberry, annoyed.
  2379. > "... Thhbbbbt! Oh, fine then, I'll go first, party-pooper. You can call me 'Joker', and I'm the Lieutenant second-in-command of this bunch of fun-loving colts, hee-hee-hee!"
  2380. > And he's back to the obnoxious giggles again.
  2381. > Sparkshower still stays quiet.
  2382.  
  2383. > Only when he's laughed himself silent again, does she speak up.
  2384. > "I'm the *dragon*."
  2385. > Before he can react, she quickly jerks her head forward in a nod, and the visor of her bascinet-helmet snaps down to cover her face with a resounding 'clang'.
  2386. > That sets the non-participating pegasus crowd off again, amused by her display of defiance.
  2387. > But 'Joker' doesn't seem to be laughing any more.
  2388. > "The 'dragon', huh? I'll get your real name by the time I'm done with you, don't you worry, filly-girl."
  2389. > He leans forward like he's trying to peer behind the eye-slits of her full-face helmet, but you doubt he can see anything.
  2390. > Perhaps out of frustration, he spins his hind legs forward and uses them to kick off the totem, quickly pushing back the required distance.
  2391. > Sparkshower just slowly backs up, flap by flap, until she's level with you and Glamerspear.
  2392. > Both lines of battle are now drawn.
  2393. > Behind you, you can hear the Royal Engineer's boots against gravel as he adjusts his position to clear the way
  2394. > Then you hear him clear his throat.
  2395. > "Gentleponies, conquer your fears and you will conquer the enemy..."
  2396. > That's a good line.
  2397. > Especially for Sparkshower.
  2398. > "... Remember: No interfering with the other duels. Spread yourselves out at the earliest opportunity. We will go on the count of 'three'. One... Two... Three!"
  2399. > As soon as the count is spoken, 'Duck' comes thundering at you, hooves held forward.
  2400. > You immediately roll to your left, letting him fly by.
  2401. > While he circles around for another pass, you take a measure of the starting positions.
  2402.  
  2403. > To your left, Sparkshower has immediately taken off into the air away from you, pursued by 'Joker', who overshot her initial position.
  2404. > On your right, Glamerspear already has her defensive shield up and his galloping back and to the right, trying to put herself in the centre of the largest open area around.
  2405. > Kilfeather is climbing straight into the air, opting to gain altitude right off the bat.
  2406. > Good.
  2407. > That just leaves you with 'Duck'.
  2408. > Time for you to show him your moves.
  2409.  
  2410. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAXJ7jek5-4 (Christopher Gorden - 'The Battle', from 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' [2003])
  2411.  
  2412.  
  2413.  
  2414.  
  2415. > You barely have time to get back on your hooves, before Duck comes around for another pass.
  2416. > Again he charges straight at you, hooves held out in front of him.
  2417. > You turn to face your enemy, hunched down, presenting the smallest target while also staying ready on your hooves.
  2418. > At the last second, you once again roll out of the way of the attack, your shoulder connecting with the hard packed earth and mixed gravel of the road.
  2419. > One thing is for sure: You're not going to look like a pristine Canterlot VIP's bodyguard when this is over.
  2420. > "C'mon, get her, Duck!"
  2421. > "Yeah, end it quick, Ducky-o!"
  2422. > Over by the bridge, the rest of Kilfeather's squad starts to cheer on their closest champion.
  2423. > Said champion immediately takes a break from making charging passes at you to acknowledge the crowd.
  2424. > "Ha-ha! First I gotta warm her up, guys!"
  2425. > It's a welcome breather for you.
  2426. > You take a few steps towards the left side of the road, glancing over at the ditch.
  2427. > It's a nice, soft shoulder down into some tall grasses, and then up again into a fresh field of alfalfa sprouts.
  2428. > That'll do perfectly.
  2429. > "... Heads-up, foxy filly!"
  2430. > This time, Duck comes in at you in the middle of a ninety-degree banked turn, his belly towards you so as to kick out with all four of his hooves.
  2431. > Since his lower wing needs room to to extend, he comes in to high up, and so you don't have to do much more than crouch down to avoid his attack.
  2432. > "... Yeah, get down in that dirt, you filthy nag!"
  2433. > That sends the bridge-guards into another bout of laughter.
  2434. > "Hey, Duck, you big stud, you better take that mare before she gets too dusted-up!"
  2435. > "Nah, Reiner, Ducky-o likes 'em down 'n' dirty, ha-ha!"
  2436. > Your opponent climbs up into the air for what is probably going to be a power-dive down.
  2437.  
  2438. > Still not what you need him to do.
  2439. > Kicking over, he completes his loop and comes hurtling down at you as if a pendulum in full swing.
  2440. > But another tricky last-minute roll seems you clear out of his way.
  2441. > Duck climbs up again for another looped-pass.
  2442. > Come on, you jerk -- get down and rush me on my level.
  2443. > Watching the pegasus climb, you wonder how things are going for your two comrades.
  2444.  
  2445.  
  2446.  
  2447.  
  2448. "GET SOME! GET SOME! GET SOME!"
  2449. > You are Lily Glamerspear, and holy moley, is shooting at your abusive ex-coltfriend ever cathartic.
  2450. > It would be even better if he would come down close enough for a solid hit, but this is pretty good already.
  2451. > Presently, you're just taking pot-shots at Val while you canter around in the fallow field East of the road, trying to find the perfect vantage point on the rolling hills.
  2452. > Somewhere with a nice commanding view of the area, and no nearby bushes or trees to interfere with either your line-of-sight or your line-of-fire.
  2453. > 'Icepone' is way up in the sky already, and he's a receding target.
  2454. > When you'd seen him start climbing, you shut off your shield and started conjuring the magical spear-tips, sending them hurling towards him in bursts of three.
  2455. > As your ex recedes from view, you stop firing and bring your shield back up with a personal radius and moderate strength.
  2456. > Can't let him get the drop on you while you're still setting up, after all.
  2457. > And can't waste all of your energy on shielding -- you won't win anything that way.
  2458. > Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a 'perfect' spot in the area; everything's either too close to thick cover or on the downslope of one of the larger terrain features.
  2459. > You'll just have to settle for staying in the middle of the open field, relocating as necessary to obtain a good shot.
  2460. > Speaking of good shots, you give a quick double-tap on the side of your helmet to extend the high-magnification sunglass shades.
  2461. > Now, where's the damn spotter with the targeting info?
  2462.  
  2463. > Oh, right.
  2464. > You're not part of a battery this time.
  2465. > OK, time to reacquire your own quarry.
  2466. > There are quite a few clouds in the sky, which is both bad and good.
  2467. > Good, because the sun will occasionally be shaded, making it easier to look up.
  2468. > Bad, because that gives Val something to hide behind and circle around with.
  2469. > Your shield doesn't help, either, giving everything a purple tint.
  2470. > Double-tapping on your helmet a few more times, you cycle through the filter modes, trying them all to find an appropriate one.
  2471. > Ugh, this is the worst part of your job.
  2472. > Where did that bastard get to?
  2473. > Suddenly, there's a crackling noise behind you, and you can feel your shield shudder as something crashes into it.
  2474. > Except it's not some-*thing*, it's some-*pony*.
  2475. > "Heads-up, Centurion!"
  2476. > Val's somehow managed to sneak up on you, ramming his hooves straight into your shield-bubble.
  2477. > Pfft, as if that's going to do anything.
  2478. > He gives one final swipe at your protective field with an armoured horehoof.
  2479. > "... Tag, you're it!"
  2480. > With that, he shoots up into the sky again.
  2481. > You drop your shield and prepare to fire.
  2482. > But the bastard heads straight for the sun, barrel-rolling as he goes.
  2483. > The best you can do is squint and send a few more barely-aimed harpoons his way.
  2484. > If he's going to keep using that trick, better keep your helmet in magnified darkest-tint mode.
  2485. > And there's no sense in staying in one place so he knows exactly where you are all the time.
  2486. > With a quick double-check that he's still climbing, you quickly gallop across the field, setting yourself up against a large thicket.
  2487. > Once you back up against it, you bring your shield up once more.
  2488. > Maybe a little cover will help you out after all.
  2489.  
  2490. > "I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with 'L'!"
  2491. > Searching the sky, you can hear him, but you can't see him.
  2492. > "... Loser!"
  2493. > Suddenly, Val pops out from around the bush, crashing his hooves into your shield once more as he flies by at tremendous speed.
  2494. > Damn, you actually felt the impact that time. He must really have been going fast before he struck.
  2495. > This time he doesn't climb up, but instead turns to your right, following the terrain.
  2496. > Instantly, you lower your shield and send a dozen more telekinetic spear-shots his way.
  2497. > But, firing at full flank, your shots either crash into the earth or wink out of existence a hundred metres past your target as all of them miss.
  2498. > Damn it, the magnified optics are too zoomed-in for you to draw a steady bead on the bastard!
  2499. > Better switch back to just unmagnified tinted, as soon as this volley is done.
  2500. > Val cuts through one of the dividing rows of poplar trees, passing beyond your sight once more.
  2501. > Oh, right, better bring your shield back up!
  2502. > And relocate again... Damn it.
  2503. > As you scurry to your next sniping-post, to await Val's next move, your thoughts turn to your companions.
  2504. > Hopefully, Sparkshower is doing okay.
  2505. > Sending her up against Icepone's wingpony?
  2506. > Talk about a trial by fire.
  2507. > Or, by ice, you suppose.
  2508.  
  2509.  
  2510.  
  2511.  
  2512. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and right now, all you can think about is the sound of your own breathing.
  2513. > Visor down, legs clenched tight up against your body, spear held close.
  2514. > You just have one target: the cloud cover.
  2515.  
  2516. > "Heeeeeeeeeeeeere filly-filly-filly-filly-filly!"
  2517. > 'Joker' crashes his hooves into your flank armour once again, and it's all you can do not to shriek out in terror.
  2518. > You're rattled around inside your plate, but a second later he's gone again, zooming off to your other side.
  2519. > Just gotta keep flapping and heading up.
  2520. > Once you get to the clouds, he'll have trouble finding you, and you can relax a bit.
  2521. > "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaanypony at home in that tin can?"
  2522. > Another loud metallic 'klank' against your side-plate, and you feel the wind pulled from underneath your wings as Joker not only strikes your armour, but pushes you down with his legs.
  2523. > "If you're not going to answer, maybe I should just keep knocking, whaddya say, huh?"
  2524. > He kicks again, and you can feel him lay his forehooves on your shoulders.
  2525. > No! That's not good at all!
  2526. > Rolling over onto your back, you lash out with two of your own hooves, only to catch nothing but air as he extends his wings and uses them like air-brakes to fall back behind you.
  2527. > "Oh, so there *is* somepony at home after all! Well, hidey-ho, neighbour, ha-ha-ha!"
  2528. > You roll back upright and continue heading to what you hope will be your safety zone.
  2529. > Halfway there, now.
  2530. > "Ah-ah-ah! Get your head out of the clouds, little filly!"
  2531. > This time, Joker doesn't attack your flank, but comes crashing down straight onto your back, sending your wings upright as the air goes whistling by.
  2532. > You dare a glance down, and see the ground getting closer with horrifying speed.
  2533. > He's got his hooves on your backplate and is just pushing straight down!
  2534. > You've got to do something!
  2535. > For a few seconds, all you can do is just breathe.
  2536. > Then you remember that you've got a spear.
  2537.  
  2538. > Kicking its length forward with your hind legs so that you're holding firmly in your forehooves, you once again roll over to strike your tormentor.
  2539. > This time, just air-braking isn't enough, as the extra reach from your spear catches the purple pegasus' green-coloured tail, slicing a healthy chunk of it clean off.
  2540. > "Whoaa! Close shave, hoo-hoo!"
  2541. > Joker hovers in place and twists his head to see his missing lengths of hair flutter their way down to ground.
  2542. > Bringing the spear back under your control, you complete the roll and resume your upward course.
  2543. > "... Ah, well, I needed a haircut, anyways, hee-hee!"
  2544. > You can't let him get a drop on you like that again!
  2545. > As much as you want to head straight for the clouds, ignoring everything around you, you can't.
  2546. > He can out-climb and out-turn you, and he can even over-power your own wings if he puts his mind to it.
  2547. > You've got to keep your wits and use your spear to keep him from taking advantage of you too much.
  2548. > Although they were terrifying, his initial 'boom-and-zoom' hoof-slashes, didn't much alter your course or hurt you.
  2549. > It's when he thought you wouldn't hit back at all that he started to get work in.
  2550. > So you need to make him think he can't get away with that.
  2551. > But if you're going to be swinging your spear as a preventative measure, you're going to need to be able to see him.
  2552. > That means coming out of your safe shell, and raising your visor.
  2553. > It's a scary thought, but upon reflection, he can't get at your face without you seeing him anyways, and you can always snap it back down again.
  2554. > With some trepidation, you reach a hoof up and quickly move it out of the way.
  2555. > And then you turn your head to look behind you.
  2556. > Joker is hot on your tail.
  2557. > He grins when he sees your face.
  2558. > "Hey, there, neighbour! Dropped the veil, did ya? Ooh, lucky me! Lucky-lucky-lucky!"
  2559. > Should you make another sweep with your spear?
  2560. > He seems to be keeping his distance for now.
  2561. > And you don't have the agility to swing while still climbing.
  2562. > Better to just stay the course for now.
  2563. > But you keep your eye on him.
  2564. > What you've had so far was just a warm-up.
  2565. > Hopefully, Glamerspear and Honour can win their fights so that this battle doesn't even matter.
  2566.  
  2567.  
  2568.  
  2569.  
  2570. > You are Corporal Honour Bound.
  2571. > Covered in dust, with two aching shoulders.
  2572. > And your legs are starting to get a bit tired, too.
  2573. > "Geez, this is like watching mares mud-wrestling."
  2574. > "Yeah, except there's just one, and boy is she really getting into it."
  2575. > "Anypony else have a hard-on?"
  2576. > "Don't tease me, Applewood."
  2577. > The laugh squad over at the bridge is still enjoying the show.
  2578.  
  2579. > But, as you get to your hooves once more, all you care about right now is getting Duck to make just the right pass at you.
  2580. > He *has* to be getting tired of these high-climbing loops by now.
  2581. > He should at least be getting dizzy.
  2582. > "Wooo! I'm startin' to feel a little high-and-dry from all this nothin' I'm gettin'. Ya keep blue-ballin' me down there, foxy-filly!"
  2583. > Oh, thank Celestia.
  2584. > "... How about we try something fresh for a change?"
  2585. > Sweeping into a banked descent, Duck comes down to skim the ground, circling around wide to size you up.
  2586. > Come at me across the road, you big idiot, come on...
  2587. > "... How about some alfalfa to go with all that gravel you've been eating?"
  2588. > Finally.
  2589. > With you on the West side of the road, up against the embankment and the ditch, Duck comes charging at you from across the Eastern field.
  2590. > He's even got his hind legs kicked out behind him, rather than tucked up under his body.
  2591. > This is it -- you're not going to get a better shot at him than this.
  2592. > "Smash her right into that mud, Duck!"
  2593. > "Yeah, c'mon, get her in the ditch!"
  2594. > The cheers only steady his aim right at you.
  2595. > Once again, you turn to face him head on, but this time, you're crouched down as low as possible on your forehooves.
  2596. > You can see him adjust even further down so that he'll be level with the road when he strikes.
  2597. > In the blink of an eye, he's almost on you, and you spring your trap.
  2598.  
  2599. > Shoving with your forelegs, you flip yourself into the air and over onto your back.
  2600. > As your butt connects with the edge of the road and you start to roll backwards down the embankment, you can feel his approach carried on the wind before him.
  2601. > That's when you kick out with your hind legs as hard as you can, your hips still just barely resting on the elevated roadway.
  2602. > Just as his head peeks over the edge of the road at you, you feel your hind legs connect with his lower torso.
  2603. > You push in as deep as possible into what feels like soft flesh, not hard ribs.
  2604. > Nor the hard armour that *would* have normally been there, had he not taken it off as part of the challenge.
  2605. > The transferred momentum from his charge sends you careening down into the wet ditch.
  2606. > Dizzied and with a few bull rushes blocking your view, all you can do is pray to Celestia you got him.
  2607. > Luckily, the bridge chorus clues you in almost immediately.
  2608. > "OOOOOOOOOOOOOH!"
  2609. > "Oh, BUCK, man!"
  2610. > "Holy mother of Faust!"
  2611. > "DAAAAAAAMN!"
  2612. > Struggling to your feet, you see that they've all got one hoof up to their mouth in shock.
  2613. > The other is clutching their own groin in sympathy.
  2614. > You turn around.
  2615. > 'Duck' is lying on his side among the alfalfa plants, moaning loudly and clutching his privates with both forehooves.
  2616. > "Ugnnnnnnnnnn... Ohhhhhhhhhhh.... My baaaaaaaaalllllssssss... Buuuuuuuuuckkkkkk...."
  2617. > You take a deep breath to settle yourself, then walk over to the injured pegasus.
  2618. > He's actually crying.
  2619. > Looks like you nearly blew right through the protective field.
  2620. > His coat still looks a little electrified, though.
  2621.  
  2622. > Between tears, he groans in pain.
  2623. > "Buckin'.... crazy cheap-shottin' mare.... Damn' beast outta Tartarus..."
  2624. > Reaching down, you forcefully turn him over on his back, exposing his belly and face.
  2625. > You raise one hoof high into the air.
  2626. "Hey..."
  2627. > At the sound of your voice, he opens his eyes.
  2628. > You swipe down at his right temple.
  2629. "... Duck!"
  2630. > He doesn't even have time to blink; the instant you connect, the lights go out cold.
  2631. > There's a crackle in the air, and you feel the totem's protective field drop around yourself.
  2632. > Over at the bridge, Kilfeather's goons are shaking their heads in disbelief, muttering amongst themselves.
  2633. > You just head straight over to your armour and start to put it back on.
  2634. > Standing just where he'd been when the fight started, Anonymous tips his hat to you, a sly smile on his face.
  2635. > "Nicely done, Corporal."
  2636. "Thank you, sir."
  2637. > Turning, he faces the fallow field to the East, where Glamerspear has fired off another noisy barrage that failed to connect.
  2638. > "Now, let's see if we can make it *two*."
  2639.  
  2640.  
  2641.  
  2642.  
  2643. > You are Lily Glamerspear, and this is the most frustrating fight you've ever been in.
  2644. > Every time you relocate, Val seems to find a new way to ambush you.
  2645. > Sit in the middle of the field?
  2646. > He breaks your line of sight by climbing up into the clouds, or diving behind a hill, or circling around one of the wooded areas.
  2647. > Then, while you're going crazy trying to re-acquire, he seems to find the perfect direction to break cover and ambush you again.
  2648. > If you take up a position at the edge of the field, next to the tree-line, hoping to isolate his approach vectors?
  2649. > Well, then he manages to cut through the forest itself, dodging trees to slam into your shield from behind.
  2650. > If a bunch of trees won't stop him, how about using a thicket of bushes as cover?
  2651. > He can't blow through those, but he still finds a way to sneak above or around them and strike.
  2652. > Regardless of where you take up a firing position, the pattern remains the same.
  2653. > He strikes and then retreats.
  2654. > You drop shields and launch a volley.
  2655. > He dodges the volley and breaks your line-of-sight.
  2656. > You grumble, raise shields, and relocate.
  2657. > He manages to figure out exactly where you are, and figures out a new way to sneak up on you.
  2658. > Wash, rinse, repeat.
  2659. > Not even the Changeling invasion was this infuriating!
  2660.  
  2661. > Mind you, the Changelings were a lot more dangerous.
  2662. > There were enough of them that it was actually a serious threat to your shield.
  2663. > With just Val banging on your projected force field, he was clearly playing the long game, hoping to wear it out slowly.
  2664. > Or hoping you would make a mistake, like forgetting to raise it, allowing him to clobber you.
  2665. > It's true that all the shooting and shield-swapping had taken a toll.
  2666. > Your reserves of mana were considerable, after all, but not unlimited.
  2667. > But it was mental frustration, not magical exhaustion, that was really wearing on you now.
  2668. > "C'mon, Ice, she's sitting under that tree like a rotten apple full of worms!"
  2669. > And Val's goon squad wasn't helping.
  2670. > The only solace you had at the moment was the fact that Honour Bound had clearly won her fight.
  2671. > There'd been a burst of gasps and horrified hooting from the spectator squadron, and then you'd seen Honour Bound stand up without her opponent anywhere in sight.
  2672. > Running these battles simultaneously was still a good idea, but it looked like momentum had a role to play anyways.
  2673. > If you can get even one or two rounds to connect with 'Icepone', things would look even better!
  2674. > "Wakey-wakey, sleepy-head!"
  2675. > Damn it!
  2676. > You feel two hooves connect with the top of your shield, which now has the consistency less of a solid brick wall and more of a firm bouncy bubble.
  2677. > A *tough* bouncy bubble, but still.
  2678. > The bastard actually dove straight down towards the lone tree, and found a path through its branches to strike at you from the one direction you had thought safe!
  2679. > Aha, but he's made a mistake!
  2680.  
  2681. > You're so low to the ground that he couldn't translate that vertical descent into horizontal speed after his attack.
  2682. > He's accelerating away from you, but he started from almost a complete stop.
  2683. > This is the perfect time to strike.
  2684. > You take your time to line up the shot, then fire a satisfyingly long eight-round burst!
  2685. > Keeping him in sight, you watch your bolts travel towards him.
  2686. > Time seems to slow down as they hurtle forwards.
  2687. > Come on, come on...
  2688. > It doesn't even look like he'll be able to dodge them!
  2689. > Suddenly he rolls his body towards you and swipes out with his right forehoof.
  2690. > Your jaw drops.
  2691. > He batted the spear-tips away with his sabot!
  2692. > The ultimate humiliation.
  2693. > Val gives you a cheeky salute.
  2694. > "You tossing garbage my way, Lily-baby? Try harder next time!"
  2695. > HOW!?
  2696. > Oh, buck, you forgot to drop your shield before firing!
  2697. > Bucking thing interfered with your own shots, slowing them down so that he didn't even *have* to dodge!
  2698. > That bucked-up bucking bucker bucked your bucking bullets!
  2699. > Seething, you look for a new hiding-place.
  2700.  
  2701. > You've got to get your head screwed-on straight again, or else you'll keep making mistakes like that.
  2702. > And then he'll really have you.
  2703. > Which'll put everything on Sparkshower.
  2704. > Not saying she couldn't do it, but you'd rather not get her in that position.
  2705. > Besides, these bucking bastards deserve to be cleanly-swept by your crew!
  2706.  
  2707.  
  2708.  
  2709.  
  2710. > You are Artemis Sparkshower, and right now, all you can feel is the sound of your own heart pounding.
  2711. > Calculating that you were going to limit your counter-attacks, Joker had started to repeatedly attack you from above.
  2712. > Never quite striking long enough or hard enough that he would be forced to stay in your reach.
  2713. > Still, you couldn't let his attacks go unchallenged.
  2714. > And since you didn't know when, if ever, he was going to come in long enough to give you the chance to counter-strike, you had decided to be proactive.
  2715. > That meant using alternating banked turns to climb, and working your longspear for all it was worth, thrusting and slicing whenever Joker approached.
  2716. > You were keeping him at bay, and you'd nearly reached the cloud cover, but the effort was exhausting.
  2717. > "Ooh, we're getting awfully close to those nasty-looking clouds now, aren't we? But don't worry, I'll make sure we don't reach them!"
  2718. > At least dodging the considerable reach of your weapon had kept him mostly quiet until now.
  2719. > Besides the inevitable laughter and giggles every time he got a blow in or narrowly avoided your own, of course.
  2720. > Twisting your head around as you change tack to a left bank, you crane your neck back to see what's coming next.
  2721. > This time, he's opting to attack from outside your bank.
  2722. > You ready your spear against his charge.
  2723.  
  2724. > But instead of striking your armour and tasting your spear, he dives low underneath you.
  2725. > It's all you can do to just relax your muscles as he blows through your lower wing, dislodging a few feathers as he goes.
  2726. > All his strike really accomplished is interrupting your banked turn and dropping you a few hooves down.
  2727. > But attacking a fellow pegasus' wing, in a formal duel?
  2728. > That's beyond the pale, especially for a distinguished member of the Royal Guard!
  2729. > Or, perhaps it was just an honest mistake?
  2730. > Maybe he dived only to avoid your spear at the last moment?
  2731. > "What's the matter, filly? Everypony knows that dragons don't have feathers, ha-ha-hee!"
  2732. > He's serious!
  2733. > After all the terror he's caused you, is this fight just one big joke to him?
  2734. > As he circles around, you bank over again to the right, keeping your thickly-armoured back to him.
  2735. > In Cloudsdale, deliberately attacking a wing is grounds to immediately halt a duel with a loss to the instigator.
  2736. > But you're so far up and away from everypony on the ground it's doubtful any of them would have seen that.
  2737. > Except maybe Glamerspear, with her fancy magnifying optics.
  2738. > If she was even looking this way.
  2739. > Which she probably wasn't.
  2740. > No, it was just you all alone up here with this... this... this miserable, dishonourable, shameful excuse for a Guardspony!
  2741. > You find that your fear of facing a formidable foe has been replaced with something else:
  2742. > Righteous anger.
  2743.  
  2744. > Glamerspear was right!
  2745. > Valiant and his squadron *were* just a bunch of uncivilized thugs!
  2746. > Well, you knew just how to deal with that!
  2747. > It would mean taking even longer to reach the cloud cover, but by making sure to hold your wings lightly when he moved in to strike, you could avoid him doing any serious damage.
  2748. > Tucking them in would be even better, but Joker moved so quickly that it would be risky proposition.
  2749. > If you tucked them in too early, you'd lose more altitude.
  2750. > If you tucked them in too late, your muscles would still be taught when he struck, and he might actually injure you.
  2751. > No, keeping them loose was the best way to approach this engagement.
  2752. > And although Joker was sinking to despicable means, perhaps this was a good sign, after all.
  2753. > After all, it's just as Drill Sergeant Mareline Tandem taught you, way back in Pegasus Individual Armour Training:
  2754. > 'When an enemy decides to attack your wings, it's because they have given up trying to penetrate your armour.'
  2755. > Does that mean Joker is starting to give up?
  2756. > You sure hope so.
  2757.  
  2758.  
  2759.  
  2760.  
  2761. > "What's wrong, Corporal?"
  2762. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and right now you are watching Specialist Glamerspear fail.
  2763. > You shake your head.
  2764. "It's Glamerspear, sir. I should have known this would happen."
  2765. > Beside you, the Royal Engineer is watching the air-versus-anti-air duel with concern.
  2766. > "I can see that things don't seem to be going her way, but could you explain to me why?"
  2767. > You turn up to face him.
  2768. "Specialist Glamerspear is used to working in a *battery*, sir. Her helmet doesn't have the magnification needed to keep track of Lieutenant Kilfeather beyond her maximum firing range."
  2769. > There's more shouting from in front of you, so you look away from your VIP.
  2770. "... And all that galloping around she's doing is pointless, though I can see why she thinks she has to do it."
  2771. > Out in the field, Glamerspear sends another failed volley after a retreating 'Icepone'.
  2772. "... She needs somepony who can keep eyes on target, to call it out, and to tell her when to shield and when to fire."
  2773. > Over at the bridge, the peanut gallery chimes in on the latest exchange.
  2774. > "Glam keeps throwing out the spam!"
  2775. > "Yeah, except this meat's gone rotten, haw-haw!"
  2776. > "Go, Ice! Dodge that trash!"
  2777. > Squinting as you watch Lieutenant Kilfeather make his way off into the distance once more, you barely notice Anonymous' footsteps as he walks away from you.
  2778. > In ten seconds, the pegasus is completely beyond visual range.
  2779. > It's almost impressive that Glamerspear has been holding it together so far.
  2780. > In her place, you would probably be going nuts by now.
  2781. > "Excuse me, gentlecolts!"
  2782.  
  2783. > Over by the bridge, Anonymous speaks out loudly, and the remainder of Valiant's squadron all turn to face him.
  2784. > You hope he's not about to provoke something foolish.
  2785. > "... May I take it from your behaviour that providing verbal support to the duellists is within the rules?"
  2786. > Most of the pegasi, and both earth ponies, look like they barely understood what he meant.
  2787. > The rest wear a look of disgust.
  2788. > 'Applewood', the one with a moustache, shoots a glance to his compatriots before speaking up.
  2789. > "Yeah, sure, 'm'lord'. You go ahead and provide all the 'verbal support' you want."
  2790. > Anonymous tips his top hat.
  2791. > "Capital, gentlecolts; my thanks."
  2792. > He's walking back your way.
  2793. > Strange. Does the Royal Engineer expect you two to form a two-pony rival cheerleading team for Glamerspear?
  2794. > More distracting voices is probably the last thing she needs right now.
  2795. > Anonymous points at you as he gingerly makes his way down the embankment, heading towards the tents.
  2796. > "Corporal, tell Glamerspear to set up a firing position as close as possible to the road here, and order her to *stay put*."
  2797. > That's when you realize that he's not heading for the tents, he's headed for the *carriage*.
  2798. > Maybe he's got something back there to help out.
  2799. > Glamerspear's got her shield back up again and is looking around for a new place to set up.
  2800. "Specialist! Hey, Specialist!"
  2801. > Can she not hear you under that fancy helmet of hers?
  2802. "SPECIALIST GLAMERSPEAR!"
  2803. > Her head swivels around to you, and she starts trotting your way.
  2804. > Pointing one hoof at the nearest little peak in the fallow farmer's field, you cup the other one to your mouth.
  2805. "Set up on that hill and await further instructions!"
  2806. > She nods, and breaks into a gallop towards the indicated position.
  2807. > OK, so that's step one.
  2808.  
  2809. > Over at the carriage, Anonymous is hunched over the luggage-box at the back of the coach, digging through the various surveying equipment for which the two of you had hunted almost all day yesterday.
  2810. > As Glamerspear takes up her post, her shield raised, she looks over at you, expectantly.
  2811. > It's all you can do but to hold up a hoof as a sign for her to wait.
  2812. > At last, you can see Anonymous trotting back towards you, a large, heavy-looking metal object slung over his shoulder.
  2813. > It's a pair of enormously large, strange-looking brass binoculars.
  2814. > You remember that; it was one of the most troublesome items to acquire yesterday.
  2815. > What was it called again?
  2816. > Something about 'range'.
  2817. > A 'Coincidence Rangefinder', that's what it was.
  2818. > Some kind of device for determining how far any object was, even if its size wasn't known.
  2819. > All you really knew was that the Royal Engineer had spotted it in a supply catalogue, he had insisted that a pair be lent to him.
  2820. > The palace depot commander tried to stonewall him, saying it was an extremely precious piece of equipment, normally used only on boats, and anyways they didn't stock such items in the palace.
  2821. > Your VIP hadn't relented, looming over the commander and waving Celestia's writ.
  2822. > In the end, two of the depot underlings had wound up having to gallop halfway out of the city, all the way down to the riverside naval depot, to get it for him.
  2823. > At the time, you hadn't asked what it was for, since Anonymous had sent you to collect a few items from the palace warehouse shelves personally.
  2824. > Right now, all you can tell is that it looks very, very heavy.
  2825. > Anonymous struggles up the hill to come up beside you.
  2826. "Wasn't there a tripod with that, sir?"
  2827. > "Yes, but I'm too tall for it, and anyways the mount was designed for naval gunnery and won't allow me to look straight up."
  2828.  
  2829. > Hefting the huge thing off of his shoulder, he gently places it down on the ground and crouches down to get a solid grip.
  2830. > "... Let me know if you see him before me, Corporal."
  2831. > Both of you start to scan the sky, searching for Lieutenant Kilfeather.
  2832. > And Glamerspear is out there searching for him, too.
  2833. > His last two strikes were from down low, and he escaped from down low last time as well.
  2834. > Something tells you that this time he'll be using the cloud cover.
  2835. > That's when you spot him.
  2836. "There, sir, two o'clock, very high!"
  2837. > He follows your hoof to where Icepone is coming in for another attack run.
  2838. > At this distance, he's on Glamerspear in seconds, crashing into her shield while she was looking completely the other way.
  2839. > Anonymous stands up again with the enormous device in his hands.
  2840. > He has to swing his arms just to bring it up to his eyes, and you see him lean back from the weight of it.
  2841. > You doubt he'll be able to hold it very steady, or for very long.
  2842. > There's a ticking noise while he twists a ring on the right barrel, following Kilfeather's retreat up into the sky.
  2843. > Eventually, the pegasus is completely out of your sight, although Anonymous still seems to be following him.
  2844. > Seconds stretch out as you wait for the next step.
  2845. > That's when Anonymous bellows out a command in a voice louder than all the drill sergeants at Fort Horseshoe Bend put together.
  2846.  
  2847. > "3, TARGET *PEGASUS*, SEVEN O'CLOCK HIGH, RANGE: FIFTEEN HUNDRED METRES, STEADY LEFT!"
  2848. > Glamerspear turns to face you both, and the look on her face is one of utter confusion.
  2849.  
  2850. Suggested background music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgHATY3SDg0 (Jan Dusek and Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer - 'This is War', from 'ArmA 3: Malden' [2017])
  2851.  
  2852. > You shoot her an angry glare and point out North with one hoof, then sweep out seven o'clock with the second.
  2853. > She seems to get it, reorienting her body with the polar axis and scanning the sky behind her for her target.
  2854. > "TARGET: SIX O'CLOCK HIGH, RANGE: THIRTEEN HUNDRED METRES, APPROACHING LEFT!"
  2855. > He's still way beyond visual range, but Glamerspear still has her shield up.
  2856. "Sir, you'll want her to lower her shields until he gets too close."
  2857. > "SHIELDS DOWN!"
  2858. > Out in the field, the unicorn's shield instantly drops.
  2859. > "FIVE O'CLOCK MEDIUM, TWELVE HUNDRED METRES, DESCENDING APPROACHING LEFT!"
  2860. > You hear the Royal Engineer grunt as he takes a step to rotate in place.
  2861. > He rolls his shoulders and tries to brace himself.
  2862. > "FOUR O'CLOCK MEDIUM, RANGE ELEVEN HUNDRED, DESCENDING STEADY LEFT!"
  2863. > "Naw, naw, EIGHT O'CLOCK, yeah! EIGHT O'CLOCK, RANGE: YOUR BUTT!"
  2864. > "Six o'clock!"
  2865. > "Twelve o'clock!"
  2866. > Over on at the bridge, the rest of Kilfeather's squadron have cottoned on to what the Royal Engineer is doing, and are trying to run interference.
  2867. > They're loud, but even if they all worked together as a chorus, you doubt they could match the lungs of the Royal Engineer.
  2868. > "THREE O'CLOCK LOW, RANGE ONE THOUSAND, ASCENDING APPROACHING LEFT!"
  2869. > This must be it; he's on the deck at a thousand metres and popping up to gain some elevation before the final dive.
  2870.  
  2871. > As loud as Anonymous is, there's no way Kilfeather should have any idea he's been spotted.
  2872. > When he gets a little closer, maybe he'll even think he's hit the jackpot, what with Glamerspear's shield being down.
  2873. > "TWO O'CLOCK MEDIUM, RANGE NINE HUNDRED, APPROACHING LEFT!"
  2874. > That announcement is followed by another groan.
  2875. > Anonymous' arms are starting to shake under the weight.
  2876. > But it looks like Glamerspear's spotted her target.
  2877. > There's something funny going on above her head, though.
  2878. > Where there should be three or four waiting magical spear-tips, you can see twenty.
  2879. > And more are popping in to join them.
  2880. > Is she all right?
  2881.  
  2882.  
  2883.  
  2884.  
  2885. > "ONE O'CLOCK MEDIUM, RANGE EIGHT HUNDRED, APPROACHING LEFT!"
  2886. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and how in Equestria can one creature be so loud?
  2887. > You're not so much hearing the Royal Engineer as you are feeling his voice somehow echo inside your skull.
  2888. > Some kind of magic?
  2889. > Either way, thanks to him and those goofy big binoculars, you're finally drawing a bead on Kilfeather on his way in.
  2890. > At this range, he's still little more than a spec, but it's a spec that's getting bigger by the second.
  2891. > This is it, he's trying for a medium entry into a dive, circling around where he thinks you don't see him.
  2892. > A three-round burst won't be enough.
  2893. > Four rounds won't do.
  2894. > Even five is just too few.
  2895. > There won't be any targets after this one, so you break the normal rules of engagement and pour every drop of energy you've got left into this volley.
  2896. > It's got to be one, single, glorious alpha strike to end the fight in one fell blow.
  2897.  
  2898. > "TWO O'CLOCK MEDIUM, RANGE SEVEN HUNDRED, APPROACHING RIGHT!"
  2899. > Five hundred metres is your maximum effective range.
  2900. > Should you fire when he hits the limit?
  2901. > Or take a chance and wait until he's closer and it'll be even harder for him to dodge?
  2902. > He can close a hundred metres in the blink of an eye.
  2903. > You settle on four hundred -- at that range, he'll just barely have gotten a decent look at you, while he'll be a decent target in your optics.
  2904. > Meanwhile, for ammunition, all you can think is 'more, more, more', loading up spear after spear.
  2905. > You don't even want to look up; there are probably thirty or more rounds up there ready to go.
  2906. > "THREE O'CLOCK MEDIUM, RANGE SIX HUNDRED, APPROACHING STRAIGHT!"
  2907. > Any second now...
  2908. > Your breathing becomes laboured and your vision starts to blur.
  2909. > You blink rapidly to clear the haze, but it doesn't go away.
  2910. > And the haze is... purple!
  2911. > Oh, buck, are you manaburning yourself?
  2912. > "FIVE-FIFTY!!"
  2913. > Wait... just how many rounds did you load?
  2914. > You don't dare break eye contact with your target for even a second.
  2915. > But you start to feel a crushing weight on your back.
  2916. > "FIVE HUNDRED!"
  2917. > The physical consequences of severely overloading your horn don't matter right now.
  2918. > You'll deal with the manaburn blowback after you get this shot off.
  2919.  
  2920. > "FOUR HUNDRED!"
  2921. "FEEL THE WRATH OF A CENTURION OF THE RAM!"
  2922.  
  2923. Required watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFPxbZ7lLc4&t=40s (Centurion C-RAM engages mortar on test range; go full-screen and fast-forward to 0:40)
  2924.  
  2925. > In your magnified targeting view, you watch what must be *thousands* of spear-tips go hurling towards Kilfeather.
  2926. > You're completely deafened by the effect, and you can feel your stomach turning from the manaburn recoil.
  2927. > Oh, you are going to feel bad in a second or two.
  2928. > But not as bad as Valiant probably feels right now.
  2929. > Hundreds of rounds fly around him, but hundreds more thunder home, crashing into his body and armour.
  2930. > In the blink of an eye, his sabots are pounded straight off of his hooves.
  2931. > He can barely get his forelegs up in time to cover his face, before his criniere is shredded and his helmet goes tumbling off.
  2932. > Meanwhile, what were a glorious pair of feathered wings have been replaced with nothing more than two fleshy stalks and a white puff of smoke.
  2933. > More telekinetic rounds slice up the straps of his pectoral piece and send it hurtling off behind him.
  2934. > Now it's the sheer weight of all those spear-tips, blunted by the protective field of the MXP totem, as he's involuntarily spun sideways by their cumulative impacts.
  2935. > And the tail end of the biggest anti-air barrage Equestria's ever seen slams into his left flank, utterly destroying his flanchard armour.
  2936. > Something desperately wants to escape from your insides.
  2937. > You swallow it back down to see things out.
  2938. > It only takes a few seconds for Valiant 'Icepone' Kilfeather to drop to the ground, and he goes down hard.
  2939. > What little remained of his armour plating goes careening off as he tumbles sideways through the field, like a barrel flung from Canterlot's highest peak.
  2940. > Finally, he comes to a stop, and he doesn't get up.
  2941.  
  2942. > YES!! Got you, you sucker!
  2943. > Uh-oh, your friend from down below starts knocking again, and you keel over forwards.
  2944.  
  2945.  
  2946.  
  2947.  
  2948. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and, with your hooves held to your ears, you are watching your victorious unicorn comrade puke her very guts out.
  2949. > Holy Celestia, how can one pony even have that much inside them?
  2950. > Did she eat the *entire* buffet at breakfast this morning?
  2951. > But at least she's still standing.
  2952. > Mostly.
  2953. > What's more important, that enormous volley, which was probably loud enough to be heard all the way back in Canterlot, seems to have utterly annihilated Lieutenant Kilfeather.
  2954. > The humour squad over at the bridge all collectively have their jaws on the ground in shock.
  2955. > To your left, Anonymous is flat on his back, knocked over by the report of Glamerspear's incredible attack.
  2956. > Cradling the immense coincidence-rangefinder binoculars, he struggles to his feet, then slings them over his shoulder.
  2957. > The Royal Engineer takes a moment to survey the scene of carnage and sickness before him.
  2958. > "Corporal, are you absolutely certain that 'totem' is protecting everypony?"
  2959. > You nod.
  2960. "Believe me, sir, things get just as brutal during the MXP Games, and nopony winds up away with anything worse than aches and pains. Although, I've never seen a unicorn suffer third-degree acute mana poisoning under its effects before..."
  2961. > You keep your eyes on Glamerspear, making sure she's okay.
  2962. > After throwing up more than enough to fill up what would surely be Equestria's most disgusting swimming pool, you watch her finally catch her breath.
  2963. "... It must be working, because under normal circumstances, she'd be in so much pain that she wouldn't be able to stand up."
  2964. > Taking a deep breath of exasperation, Anonymous lifts his hat and wipes his brow.
  2965. > "Well, that's two. Let's see if Sparkshower can make it three. In the meantime, I'm going to put these bloody things away before I damage them."
  2966.  
  2967. > Slowly, he trudges off towards the edge of the road.
  2968. "Sir, you might as well call the carriage back. We've earned the right to continue on our way, at least."
  2969. > "Good idea, Corporal."
  2970. > Hefting the heavy weight up further on his shoulder, he puts two fingers up to his mouth and blows a sharp whistle.
  2971. > Down by the tents, your two carriage-pullers look up, see him beckoning them back, and then start to hitch themselves back up to the coach.
  2972. > Out in the field, you see Glamerspear wipe her mouth with a hoof scarcely cleaner than what she was wiping.
  2973. > Well, that's two of you covered in muck, now.
  2974. > All things considered, you came out light with just some bruises, dust, and mud.
  2975. > Glamerspear's going to need to park herself in the Hobble river for a good long time to get rid of that.
  2976. > Now that she's done, though, she doesn't head for the shore.
  2977. > Instead, she goes galloping straight towards the tip of the enormous, smouldering gash that the defeated Lieutenant Kilfeather has torn in the ground.
  2978. > Looks like she took off too fast and too soon, because she hunches over again and gives a little encore performance.
  2979. > And then she's off again, paying no heed to what her body is trying to tell her.
  2980. > Once she reaches Kilfeather, you see her horn light up.
  2981. > That's an extraordinarily risky manoeuvre after what has just happened, but it seems she's all out of sick for now.
  2982. > And besides, all she does with it is pick up some piece of his armour that landed a few metres away.
  2983. > It's his helmet -- completely wrecked, and twisted into an almost unrecognizable form, but the little remaining bit of the decorative brush gives it away.
  2984. > Glamerspear slowly walks back towards the road, holding her prize.
  2985. > For a pony whose face, neck, chest, and hooves are covered in barf, she looks unbelievably pleased with herself.
  2986.  
  2987. > You turn to look at Anonymous, who is looking up at the Western sky as he waits for the coach to return.
  2988. > Just how far up there did Sparkshower and Joker get?
  2989. > Will you even be able to see them from down here?
  2990.  
  2991.  
  2992.  
  2993.  
  2994. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are so close to the clouds you can already feel the mist.
  2995. > But as a result, Joker has redoubled his efforts to stop you.
  2996. > Trying to smash your feathers wasn't enough; now he was attacking your wing-arms themselves.
  2997. > But even as he managed to evade your counter-attacks, the fight was not going his way.
  2998. > When he struck at the outer edge of your wings, your relaxed posture meant that he did no damage.
  2999. > When he struck at the base at your wing-shoulders, all he got was a hoof-full of your armoured epaulets.
  3000. > "Golly-gee, little-filly. We're almost in the clouds, how about that?"
  3001. > Another slam attack from below is easily deflected by the thick greaves on your forelegs, and Joker goes darting off to the side as you poke your spear in his direction.
  3002. > "... You'd better spit out your name before we get up in there, or else how are we going to play hide-and-seek?"
  3003. > Joker's frustration was obvious from his voice.
  3004. > And from the manner of his flight, too.
  3005. > Gone were the big boom-and-zoom attacks.
  3006. > Now he was using short controlled flaps to dodge your spear attacks and get inside your guard.
  3007. > But once he got there, his strikes, no longer backed up by much momentum, were even more ineffective than before.
  3008. > And, though it certainly startled you at first, you were through being terrified by this miscreant scum.
  3009. > As Joker darted in, and then ducked away from your spear once again, backing off to find a new angle, a loose puff floats by and gives you pause.
  3010. > If he's no longer a threat, do you even need to hide in the clouds?
  3011. > Wouldn't it be better to invite him to keep up his pointless attacks, and tire him out more quickly?
  3012. > True, there's the threat to your wings, but so what?
  3013.  
  3014. > Your position in the Royal Guard required you to maintain class 'A' flight skill with a minimum of a level 7 endurance rating, and at your last examination you beat that and scored a 10!
  3015. > And an A-10 like you was supposed to be able to make it back to base on just half a wing.
  3016. > What good was Joker's required AAA flight skill doing him now? And his MOS only required level 5 endurance rating.
  3017. > You were tired and terrified in the start, trying to gain altitude as quickly as possible, but now, taking things more slowly had left your wing-muscles feeling far more comfortable, despite the sting from the earlier effort.
  3018. > Meanwhile, Joker was looking pretty ragged.
  3019. > He could still turn on a ten-bit-piece, but only at slow speeds.
  3020. > Joker circle-strafes around in front of you, sizing you up.
  3021. > Even as you watch him warily, spear held close, something else catches your eye behind him.
  3022. > Something big, and dark, and very puffy.
  3023. > And wet!
  3024. > That pillar-shaped cumulonimbus cloud was raining, over there!
  3025. > You wouldn't mind a little shower to cool down right now.
  3026. > As brisk as the air was at this altitude, you had taken off your caparison to avoid damaging it in the fight, and the sun, when it shone through the clouds, really warmed up your armour.
  3027. > But maybe there's somepony up here with you who could use a taste of what that cloud had to offer as well.
  3028. > Joker seems to have given up on his rapid-fire-hits tactics for now; he's just continuing to circle you threateningly.
  3029. > Is he worn out, or just waiting for a moment to strike?
  3030. > You decide to check which it is, and make a move towards the rain-cloud.
  3031.  
  3032. > Looking over your shoulder, you can see him following behind you, but it doesn't look like he's ready for another attack quite yet.
  3033. > Maybe this is really it?
  3034. > Is he actually tired?
  3035. > "Oh, are we turning it into a race now, little filly? Alright, I'm game!"
  3036. > Not so tired that he won't stop talking, apparently.
  3037. > Well, maybe that's enough, though!
  3038. > Pumping your wings, you raise the stakes, and your speed.
  3039. > Time for this nightmare to end!
  3040.  
  3041. Suggested background music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-4XsDQYDi4 (Cheap Trick - 'Mighty Wings', from 'Top Gun' [1985])
  3042.  
  3043. > Holding your spear close, tip forwards, you accelerate towards the towering column before you.
  3044. > Behind you, Joker is close on your tail, wearing a grin.
  3045. > Is he enjoying the thrill of the chase?
  3046. > Good!
  3047. > Get in close, 'Joker', because it's time to show you what a real airborne warrior can do!
  3048.  
  3049. > There's a mighty rumble from the cloud before you, like a groan of anticipation.
  3050. > Perhaps sensing that something's not right, Joker starts to hang back.
  3051. > Is he afraid to dive into a storm?
  3052. > Some pegasus!
  3053. > Did he never even serve with AWACS, the Airborne Weather And Climate Service?
  3054. > Either way, having him stay back won't suit your plans at all!
  3055. > You call back over your shoulder.
  3056. "You want my name, 'Joker'?..."
  3057. > Flapping your tail like a lure, you hold your spear up high.
  3058. "... Well, come and get it! ..."
  3059. > Lowering your weapon again, you power towards the cloud.
  3060. "... Or are you all build-up and no punch-line?"
  3061. > That certainly got his attention.
  3062. > He grits his teeth and powers forward after you.
  3063. > "Oh, I'm going to get your name, little filly!"
  3064. > In just a few seconds, he's right behind you again.
  3065. > "... You want to get to that cloud? Alright, let's go!"
  3066. > Perhaps as an intimidation tactic, he bats at your tail.
  3067. > "... In there, nopony will be able to see what I'm going to do to you, ha-ha-ha!"
  3068. > Just keep coming, buster, and you'll get what's coming to you.
  3069. > The pillar of thunderous rain looms closer.
  3070. > It won't be long now.
  3071.  
  3072. > Everything depends on making the perfect turn.
  3073. > You grip your spear tightly and tuck your legs in, reducing your moment of inertia.
  3074. > Another grumble from the storm-cloud, and this time it's deafeningly close.
  3075. > But this time, Joker pays the warning signs no heed, enraged by your taunt.
  3076. > As the first stray puffs of misty clouds start to pass you by, you tuck your wings in, reducing your speed.
  3077. > Your pursuer matches your move, holding back rather than overshooting you.
  3078. > Is it a lingering fear of the storm-cloud?
  3079. > Or is it because he knows he can't do a darn thing to your armour?
  3080. > Either way, after you fly through another big poof-ball cloud, breaking his line-of-sight, you suddenly power forward again.
  3081. > All you need is to get a little bit ahead of him...
  3082. > As soon as he passes through the cloud, he sees the distance you've opened up.
  3083. > "Oh, so it's stop-and-go tricks in the clouds? I'm gonna come over there and make you scream your name for me!"
  3084. > Now!
  3085. > You splay your wings wide and bank over into a sharp 180-degree turn to face him.
  3086. "My name..."
  3087. > Seeing his chance to strike at your unprotected face, Joker lunges forwards.
  3088.  
  3089. > As you come about, you thrust your spear at him.
  3090. > At the apex of your swing, you let go.
  3091. > Instantly reacting, he swings one of his forehooves to bat away the now-unattended weapon.
  3092. > But just before his sabot connects, he notices that you *also* kicked out behind you.
  3093. > And his eyes go wide, his face turning to horror.
  3094. "... is ARTEMIS SPARKSHOWER!"
  3095. > As your hoof connects with the cloud behind you, his sabot connects with your spear.
  3096. > -- The spear whose metal shaft is still poking a solid five hooves into the storm-cloud proper.
  3097. > Agitated by your kick, the towering column of water and electricity lashes out in anger.
  3098. > And the closest conduit is none other than Joker, thanks to your metal lightning-rod of a weapon.
  3099. > Sparks crackle below you, and you shut your eyes, anticipating what's to come.
  3100. > There's a furious crash and a deafening thunderclap, both accompanied by a blinding flash of light.
  3101. > When you unclench your eyes, Joker is rocketing backwards away from you, hurtling towards the ground in a flaming fireball.
  3102. > Yeah, take that!
  3103. > Before it can fall too far, you duck down and grab hold of your weapon once more.
  3104. > Holy thundershowers, did you just win?!
  3105. "Woooooo!"
  3106.  
  3107.  
  3108.  
  3109.  
  3110. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and there's a fireball headed for the alfalfa field in front of you.
  3111. > Oh, you pray that isn't Sparkshower.
  3112. > Just before it crashes into the ground, the flames burn themselves out, and you catch a glimpse of purple.
  3113. > That's not Sparkshower.
  3114. > Coming in at a forty-five-degree angle, the smouldering remains of Kilfeather's second-in-command slam into the field before you with a gritty thud, throwing up an enormous plume of dirt, gravel, and greenery.
  3115. > "That's three for three."
  3116. > Beside you, the Royal Engineer has traded the massive naval-issue coincidence-rangefinder gunnery binoculars for a simple pair of light reconnaissance ones, and he saw the whole thing in close-up view.
  3117. > He turns up to the sky, where something golden and shiny is descending after Joker.
  3118. > "... And here comes Specialist Sparkshower. She appears to be unharmed."
  3119. > "Awright, nice one, Sparks!"
  3120. > Behind you, Glamerspear pumps a soggy hoof in the air, and crams another saltine cracker in her mouth.
  3121. > After taking Icepone's helmet as her personal trophy, she'd dived into the Hobble river for a bath, and then raided the supply tents for salty snacks to replenish her electrolytes.
  3122.  
  3123. > Anonymous walks away from the carriage, towards the bridge, and the two of you follow after in a right echelon, leaving Sparkshower's original spot in the 'V' open.
  3124. > By the time you're standing before the totem, and what remains of the air-defence squadron, Sparkshower's returned with a huge grin on her face, taking up her airborne position.
  3125. > "Well, gentlecolts, I must say, for my part it's been an honour and a privilege to participate in this ancient Equestrian martial tradition..."
  3126. > Sullen and shell-shocked faces stare back at him.
  3127. > "... I'm sure that my retainers feel the same way."
  3128. > You don't say anything, but behind you on your right, Glamerspear spits out a cracker and pipes up.
  3129. > "Yeah! We were in it to win it! By Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer *LORD* Anonymous and his Equestrian Life Guards!"
  3130. > Sparkshower chimes in right after her.
  3131. > "Special butt-kicking platoon!"
  3132. > "Buck yeah! Hoof me, Sparks!"
  3133. > You hear the clanging noise of an armoured high-hoof.
  3134. > Followed almost immediately by a muffled 'Ow!' from Glamerspear.
  3135. > Looks like she forgot the first rule of high-hoofing:
  3136. > Never high-hoof somepony wearing heavier sabots than you.
  3137. > "Now, gentlecolts, I regret to inform you that as much as I'd love to stay and feast the dignified end of this noble hastilude, I'm afraid I have urgent business in Bitsmount, and must bid you adieu. Kindly evacuate the bridge, please."
  3138. > With glum looks exchanged between them, the still-standing members of the Canterlot 1st Air Superiority Wing break into two groups and head towards their fallen comrades.
  3139. > One of the earth ponies grabs the totem and drags it out of the way, while the other takes up position at the side of the bridge, raising his spear and his hoof in salute.
  3140. > Anonymous turns to you.
  3141. > "Corporal Bound, my congratulations and thanks for what you and your squad have accomplished..."
  3142. > Then he starts towards the coach.
  3143. > "... But we've wasted enough time here; let's get on with our mission."
  3144. "Yes, sir."
  3145. > Sparkshower and Glamerspear are both beaming.
  3146. "Well, specialists? Back to your posts!"
  3147. > The two of them snap into a salute.
  3148. > "Yes, Corporal!"
  3149. > "Yes, Corporal!"
  3150. > Bowing to the majesty of the moment, you pause to give a proper, respectful salute to each one in turn.
  3151. > Exchange complete, Sparkshower takes back to the air, and Glamerspear scrambles up to her box seat, cracker-box in her mouth and trophy-helmet still floating beside her.
  3152. > Anonymous climbs up into the carriage, and you follow up after him, calling out to your draft-ponies as you shut the door.
  3153. "Gee-up!"
  3154. > Although you're still dusty and bruised, Glamerspear is soaking wet, and Anonymous' trousers are stained with mud, the carriage seems to pull forward with a dignified grace that it didn't quite have earlier in the morning.
  3155. > Out the window, you see the spear-pony guard still in salute.
  3156. > One thing was for sure.
  3157. > After running a gauntlet like this, Bitsmount should be a push-over.
  3158.  
  3159.  
  3160.  
  3161.  
  3162. "Reporting back for duty, sir."
  3163. > "Hello again, Corporal. Enjoy your lunch?"
  3164. "Yes, sir."
  3165. > Shutting the door as you take up your appointed position in front of it, you are Corporal Honour Bound, bodyguard to the Very Important Pony (who isn't actually a pony), Anonymous, By Appointment To Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer of Equestria.
  3166. > It's a little after one o'clock on Sunday, and you've just returned from your lunch break.
  3167. > Anonymous is sitting in the sofa, his back to the door, with a glass of water in one hand and today's newspaper in the other.
  3168. > And there's something that's been gnawing at your mind ever since the battle at Newstirrup Bridge yesterday.
  3169. "Could I have a moment of your time, sir?"
  3170. > Your VIP twists around again to face you.
  3171. > "Yes, Corporal? Is there a problem?"
  3172. > You take a deep breath.
  3173. "I wanted to apologize for my actions yesterday..."
  3174. > Anonymous lifts an eyebrow as you go on.
  3175. "... You relied on me to make the correct decision regarding the 'Pas de Sabots', and I let you down by making the wrong choice. I want to apologize for the incident; it won't happen again."
  3176. > Anonymous lets the paper drop into his lap and turns around even more, draping his arm on the back of the sofa.
  3177. > "Are you second-guessing yourself, Corporal, just as I was doing yesterday? That's a slippery slope to fall down."
  3178. > You shake your head.
  3179. "It's not a guess, sir. Opting to fight was the wrong decision. Without your intervention, we would have lost the battle."
  3180. > "What makes you so certain?"
  3181. "My own observations during the fight. Both Specialist Sparkshower and Specialist Glamerspear have said so as well."
  3182. > "I see. I take it there was some discussion that occurred upstairs, after we returned to the palace last night?"
  3183.  
  3184. > 'Some discussion' was a technically correct summary of, 'Sparkshower and Glamerspear yammering away at each other about the battle until the early hours of the morning'.
  3185. "There was, sir."
  3186. > "Well, Corporal, I'm afraid I can't accept your apology..."
  3187. > The Royal Engineer puts his drink down and stands up, facing you.
  3188. > Shrugging his shoulders, he casually slips his hands into the pockets of his trousers.
  3189. > "... Because I don't understand what you're apologizing for. You won, just like you said you would. Where's the failure?"
  3190. > It doesn't come as a surprise to you that the Royal Engineer would want to dig into the root of the matter.
  3191. "Sir, I made the decision to fight without taking into account the fact that Sparkshower had no experience in one-on-one aerial duels, or the fact that Glamerspear was not trained as a solo anti-aircraft unit."
  3192. > Anonymous steps around from behind the couch and walks up in front of you.
  3193. > "When you made the decision, did you even *know* those facts, Corporal?"
  3194. "I did not, sir. I realized them only afterwards."
  3195. > Your VIP shrugs his shoulders again and shakes his head.
  3196. > "Then what are you apologizing for? You made a decision with incomplete information; it's only natural that the decision might have been wrong."
  3197. "As the leader of your bodyguard detail, sir, it's my job to know the abilities of the soldiers under my leadership. I failed you in that duty."
  3198. > "You've known Glamerspear and Sparkshower a long time, then?"
  3199. "No, sir. We met just before Lieutenant Violetta presented us all to you."
  3200. > Your mind drifts back to less than a week ago when this assignment started.
  3201. > It was just supposed to involve guarding a colt who sits in his office and does paperwork all day.
  3202. > Not squaring off against Equestria's finest air duellists.
  3203.  
  3204. > "That doesn't seem to me like very long at all, but if you think you should have known, then I'll accept your apology for that."
  3205. "I would, sir, thank you."
  3206. > Anonymous nods.
  3207. > "All right, then it's settled. Apology accepted."
  3208. > You nod back in thanks, and the Royal Engineer steps away from you, over to the wall mirror beside the doors, leaning in to inspect himself.
  3209. > Brushing some crumbs off of his cuffs, he adjusts his cravat.
  3210. > "I should apologize as well, Corporal Bound..."
  3211. > Satisfied with his appearance, he glances over at you.
  3212. > "... Perhaps I made it seem like your choice was between fighting or handing over a hostage. But if you'd said 'no' to battle, my next question was going to be whether you thought Sparkshower would be safe. And if you'd answered 'no' once again, we would have simply turned around and come back..."
  3213. > The Royal Engineer turns and looks over at the large lighthouse clock in the centre of the room.
  3214. > Inside its glass bell, it's marking the time as a quarter after two.
  3215. > "... I wasn't going to hoof over one pony for abuse, while trying to investigate another for corruption."
  3216. > He turns to face you once more.
  3217. > "... If I made you think otherwise, then I apologize, and shall endeavour to be clearer in the future."
  3218. "That's good to hear, sir. Thank you."
  3219. > As he walks back towards the sofa, there's a quiet knock on the door behind you.
  3220. > You turn and pull open one of the doors just a crack.
  3221. > A colt dressed in an elegant red jacket and wearing a stern expression stands facing you on the other side.
  3222. > "Mister Mustang is here to see the Royal Engineer."
  3223. > You nod, and shut the door to address your VIP.
  3224. "Sir? Mr. Mustang is here to see you."
  3225. > Anonymous, halfway into sitting back down, stands up again.
  3226. > "Ah, good; please let him in."
  3227. > Back to the door, you depress the handles and allow both doors to swing open wide.
  3228.  
  3229. > The same colt comes walking in, accompanied by two mares and another colt, all wearing the same uniforms that made them look like bellhops at a fancy hotel.
  3230. > But their heavy sabots and the soft clinking off metal bands sewn into their clothing made it clear they were the bodyguards of somepony *very* important.
  3231. > Not unlike yesterday, you get the feeling like you've just been ambushed by this imposing force.
  3232. > Wait... 'Mr. Mustang'?
  3233. > "Ah, Anonymous, it is good to see you again!"
  3234. > "Mr. Mustang, it's been too long!"
  3235. > The bodyguards part to allow in a large, well-dressed colt with a big moustache hanging under a large nose that supports a pair of pince-nez glasses.
  3236. > "Come now, since you're our 'Royal Engineer', I told you to call me 'JP'."
  3237. > The Royal Engineer walks up and bends over to casually shake the hoof of one of Equestria's richest citizens.
  3238. > JP Mustang.
  3239. > Financier, investor, property magnate, and more.
  3240. > "Sorry, JP. Old habits die hard."
  3241. > "They certainly do. But that's why you're here, after all: to kill off some old habits."
  3242. > Anonymous smiles and beckons towards the pair of club chairs next to each other, and the two of them step away from the doorway.
  3243. > Without even looking in your direction, JP Mustang's escort close the doors and impose themselves in front of and beside them.
  3244. > You're forced to take a position further off to one side.
  3245. > "I prefer to think of it as introducing new ones, JP."
  3246. > "Call it as you please, Anon. Either way it's an exciting prospect for the future."
  3247. > Pouring it himself from the carafe, Anonymous offers a glass of water to the pony who owns a sizable chunk of the whole country.
  3248. > 'JP' takes it with a smile, sits down in the left chair, then pulls out a cigar from a vest pocket and places it in his mouth.
  3249. > As Anonymous sits down beside him, the financier starts to fish around in his pocket for some matches, before stopping, embarrassed.
  3250. > "Oh, I forgot; you asked me not to smoke in here, didn't you."
  3251.  
  3252. > "I don't want to deny you your creature comforts, JP, but I'd appreciate it."
  3253. > JP grins with his teeth and bats a hoof in the air.
  3254. > "Ah, well, it tastes fine unlit, and anyways I'm just stopping in for a quick visit, so you won't be denying me for very long, ha-ha!"
  3255. > His laugh is quick and brusque, more of a 'huh-huh' than a 'ha-ha'.
  3256. > Anonymous just smiles and leans back in the chair, folding his hands.
  3257. > "So, what business brings you to Canterlot this weekend?"
  3258. > The colt chews on the cigar a bit; having it in his mouth makes his Manehattan straight accent sound more like an Appleloosa drawl.
  3259. > "Business itself, that's all. There's deals to be made and papers to be signed that can't be done over in Manehattan. Sometimes you just have to go to the head of matters..."
  3260. > Leaning back, he pulls the cigar out of his mouth and licks his lips.
  3261. > "... But there is something I wanted to bring up with you. It's about Galloway Bitsmount."
  3262. > He pauses briefly, watching Anonymous' reaction.
  3263. > "... I understand you paid him a little visit yesterday."
  3264. > The Royal Engineer unfolds his hands.
  3265. > "When I heard about the mine collapse, I decided to make an inspection, yes."
  3266. > JP puts the cigar back in his mouth.
  3267. > "Don't mince words with me, son. You did more than just inspect."
  3268. > Your VIP rubs his hands together, his elbows on his knees.
  3269. > "Well, when I determined he wasn't following standards for safe mine operation, I served him with a warrant to show himself at Day Court."
  3270. > There's a long pause.
  3271. > JP Mustang turns the cigar over, moving it to the other side of his mouth.
  3272. > Finally, he takes a deep breath.
  3273. > "It is a real shame, you know. Risking pony lives trying to save some bits on timber. These young fellows sometimes..."
  3274. > JP Mustang closes his eyes and shakes his head, leaning forward.
  3275. > "... They think money amounts to everything in life. But it is the loss of life that counts. It is that frightful death."
  3276. > He opens his eyes.
  3277.  
  3278. > Anonymous says nothing, so the colt settles back into his chair again.
  3279. > "... I'm not here to tell you he is innocent. But he *is* a friend of mine, and since you are, too, I'm here to ask you to give him a second chance."
  3280. > Anonymous rubs his chin.
  3281. > "JP, he's been treating the Equestrian Rescue 'Wonderbirds' as his private clean-up squad for so long, they considered stationing a permanent detachment in Bitsmount town. And he could have gotten somepony *killed* with his bit-pinching."
  3282. > The financier raises his eyebrows and pulls the cigar out of his mouth to point at Anonymous with it.
  3283. > "I know that. And he knows it, too..."
  3284. > Replacing the cigar, he composes himself once more.
  3285. > "... Believe me, you got to him right and proper when you served him with that warrant. He wrote me a letter that sounded like he was going to burst into tears. So I'm not here to get him off the hook, Anon; I'm here to ask you to hoof over his correction to *me*."
  3286. > JP puts one hoof to his chest.
  3287. > "... You know I don't care much for the public stage. Well, he's the same way, and I can appreciate what it means to him. If you can keep him out of the day court, then I'll make sure there's never another incident at Bitsmount mine."
  3288. > Anonymous sighs and shakes his head.
  3289. > "I can't, JP. That warrant really did come from directly from Her Majesty. If he doesn't show up, then she'll ask me if his mines all right after all, and what will I tell Her Royal Highness, then?"
  3290. > The colt raises his eyebrows and his voice.
  3291. > "I'm not suggesting that you *lie* to Equestria's divine ruler, Anonymous. Go ahead and tell Her Royal Highness that Bitsmount is a scoundrel. I'm just asking that you do it in private, rather than let him be dragged through the mud. Believe me, I am going to put some very tight reins on him for a long time. He'll be chomping at the bit."
  3292.  
  3293. > The Royal Engineer gestures with his hands.
  3294. > "But it's not just about punishment, JP. It's about sending a message -- he's not the only mine-owner who was doing this, he's just the one who was doing it the most fragrantly. Putting his misdeed out there in public tells anypony else trying to trade safety for bits that they'll be facing real consequences. When we start getting steel production up, there are going to be hundreds of mines opening up across Equestria; hundreds of would-be-Galloway-Bitsmounts thinking about cutting corners in order to cut out their competition. We've got to stamp it early and hard."
  3295. > Staring at the Royal Engineer, JP Mustang licks his lips and shifts his cigar around, chewing on it for a few tense moments.
  3296. > "You're set on this, then, are you?"
  3297. > Anonymous looks apologetic.
  3298. > "You know I owe you my position, JP. You're the reason I'm here doing this work. I can appreciate you want to do a favour for a friend, and I want to do you a favour as well, but I just think this has to be done."
  3299. > The financier pulls the cigar out of his mouth and stares at it, turning it over in his hoof.
  3300. > "Well..."
  3301. > Sighing, he puts it back in and chews on it some more.
  3302. > "... I suppose you are right. An example has to be made. I just wish it was somepony else."
  3303. > Anonymous reaches for his own water-glass and picks it up.
  3304. > "I'm sorry, JP. I want to help you out, but I can't betray Celestia's trust."
  3305. > After the Royal Engineer takes a sip of water, JP waves dismissively with one hoof.
  3306. > "Don't apologize for following your conscience, son. The first thing in business is character; before money or anything else. Celestia's not the only one who trusts you to do the right thing."
  3307. > "Thank you, Mr. Mustang."
  3308.  
  3309. > That regression to formality seems to amuse the millionaire.
  3310. > "Oh, so now it's 'Mr. Mustang' again, hmm? Alright, I suppose it's deserved..."
  3311. > Slowly getting to his hooves, he nods at his bodyguards, who instantly form up and open the doors for him.
  3312. > "... Well, as I said, I'm in Canterlot for some unrelated business, and just wanted to stop in quickly to say hello."
  3313. > Anonymous stands up with him.
  3314. > "My doors are always open for you, JP."
  3315. > JP Mustang smiles, and they shake once again.
  3316. > "Likewise, son."
  3317. > Yawning, the financier heads for the door.
  3318. > "... Excuse me. It's been a long train ride from Manehattan, and I came to you straight from the station. I'll take my leave and let you get back to your work."
  3319. > "Of course. It was my pleasure."
  3320. > With a final nod, JP Mustang leaves the room, his escort preceding him.
  3321. > After they've left, Anonymous sits back down in his chair and puts one hand up to his chin.
  3322. > His visitors' hoofsteps echo down the hallway as you quietly shut the double doors.
  3323. > That was a strange encounter.
  3324. > The Royal Engineer seems to be deep in thought.
  3325. > Even though it seemed to end amiably, JP Mustang obviously did not get what he wanted.
  3326. > And saying 'no' to a millionaire could have consequences...
  3327. > Finally, Anonymous snaps out of his reflection and gets to his feet, so you pipe up.
  3328. "Sir?"
  3329. > "Yes, Corporal?"
  3330. "Did you know that Mr. Mustang would be visiting you this afternoon?"
  3331. > The Royal Engineer reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small piece of white card-stock.
  3332. > "Yes, he had his calling-card sent to me just after you left for lunch."
  3333. > So it wasn't just an ambush.
  3334. "In the future, sir, you should appraise you bodyguard detail of any such major visits."
  3335. > "I should? Why, are you worried something might go wrong?"
  3336. "No, sir. Something *did* go wrong..."
  3337. > Now you have his full attention.
  3338. "... You allowed yourself to be outnumbered."
  3339.  
  3340. > Anonymous seems confusingly amused by your suggestion.
  3341. > "Outnumbered? Corporal, it was a one-on-one conversation."
  3342. > You want to express frustration with his ignorance, but you keep your proper place.
  3343. > You're Anonymous' bodyguard, after all, not his fussy aunt.
  3344. "I'm referring to his escort, sir. He brought *four* bodyguards to this meeting. You only had one. That's a breach of social contract."
  3345. > Turning the calling card over in his hands, Anonymous furrows his brow and looks it over, then glances up at you.
  3346. > "Could you elaborate on that, Corporal? My knowledge of Equestrian social customs is limited."
  3347. > That much was obvious.
  3348. > Since this was likely to come up repeatedly during your term of service, you decide to give him the big picture.
  3349. "The right to a retinue of bodyguards, and the size of that retinue, is tied to a pony's social standing. A VIP with fleeting fame or a minor accomplishment under their hat, like a champion of the Games, a moderately successful artist, a general or war hero, or a wealthy patrician such as Mr. Bitsmount, is permitted to have one guard at a time. More notable VIPs are granted two or three; most members of the Court have at least three. Four at a time is the maximum escort size for anypony not wearing an actual crown..."
  3350. > The Royal Engineer listens attentively as you lay it all out.
  3351. "... A pony may employ more than that number, of course, in order for their retinue to keep reasonable shifts, and they may have as many as they like serving in their own household, but when in public or with another member of society, those are the limits."
  3352.  
  3353. > You nod your head back at the door.
  3354. "... Mr. Mustang isn't a member of the Court, but he's wealthy and recognized enough to have earned the right to the full complement of four bodyguards, referred to as a 'quaternion'. But you're a member of the highest advisory court to the Crowns -- the privy council. Despite Mr. Mustang's accomplishments, you therefore outrank him in society, and it is considered improper for you two to meet except on equal terms, or with you holding the advantage."
  3355. > Anonymous holds up the calling-card.
  3356. > "But how would we know the size of his escort on a given day? There's nothing on this but his name and the requested time of the meeting."
  3357. > You shrug.
  3358. "The exact number doesn't matter. The important thing is to show up with either your full retinue or at least as many as he *could* have. You may then dismiss your bodyguard detail, as desired, after he arrives. Lieutenant Violetta will be able to find out how many somepony is permitted; allocations are done in formal ceremonies and written records are kept by the Heralds of the College of Arms."
  3359. > The Royal Engineer smiles at you.
  3360. > "All right, I understand. But then there's another problem: even if I'd called you all down here for the meeting, there are only *three* of you."
  3361. > You tilt your head slightly.
  3362. "Yes, sir, there are. Yet you should be eligible for four; even the guards' quarters upstairs is set up for a full quaternion."
  3363. > You shrug.
  3364. "... To be honest, sir, I don't know why you were only allocated three of us. Perhaps whoever made that decision didn't think you would be conducting private meetings with the elite of Equestrian society."
  3365.  
  3366. > Anonymous sighs and walks over to a small card-cabinet beside his set of large bookshelves.
  3367. > "Up until now, I suppose they would have been right. But that's all going to be changing with the first book entering publication."
  3368. > This statement piques your curiosity, and you crane your head to the left to follow him into his office-area.
  3369. "Sir?"
  3370. > The Royal Engineer quickly files away the calling-card, then leans back to look over at you.
  3371. > "Oh, I thought you knew? Well, come over and I'll show you."
  3372. > Stepping away from your post, you join Anonymous at the angled reading-table in front of and perpendicular to his main bureau.
  3373. > He gestures at an enormous cursive-script manuscript sits open on it, its binding loose.
  3374. > "... This is it, Corporal Bound: the first major step in bringing about an industrial revolution to Equestria, and the sum total of my accomplishments here so far."
  3375. > At his invitation, you lean forward and skim the text.
  3376. > It seems to be describing something referred to as a "steam injector", with a number of mathematical formulae describing its properties.
  3377. > A diagram on the opposite page shows some kind of strange plumbing apparatus.
  3378. "I'm not sure what I'm looking at, sir."
  3379. > Your VIP chuckles amiably.
  3380. > "Well, it's a lot easier if you start from the beginning..."
  3381. > Standing next to you, the Royal Engineer delicately flips back through a few hundred sheets of paper to get to the title page.
  3382. > 'SCIENCE & INDUSTRY, PART 1: THEORY'
  3383.  
  3384. > "... I assure you, I've written the text such that anypony should be able to understand it if they really put their mind to the job. What you see before you is the handwritten manuscript I produced; the accepted final draft is at the publishers', being printed and duplicated. By summer, there'll be two dozen available at the Canterlot Royal Library for whoever wants them."
  3385. > You look up at Anonymous as he continues.
  3386. > "... This is what I've been doing for the last eight months: writing down every single scrap I know about scientific and industrial advancements in my world. It was my business back where I come from, but there's gaps in what I can recall, and the theory alone isn't enough: we need to start building the devices described in these pages, validating the theories and establishing the rules of engineering for each of them."
  3387. > You turn back to the book, feeling a little more reverence for its contents.
  3388. > The book is easily over a thousand pages long -- and large pages at that, with what must be hundreds of diagrams accompanying considerable amounts of text.
  3389. > "... So, yes, for the most part I've been secluded in these chambers, meeting with others only occasionally. It's only in the last month, going back and forth with the publishing house and dealing with edits and revisions that can take days to be prepared, that I've found the time to start socializing more. I suppose that was the impetus for assigning me an escort in the first place."
  3390. > Anonymous turns around and steps over to one of his bookshelves.
  3391. > "... Here, it looks much nicer in real binding."
  3392. > He reaches down an enormous tome and lays it on the reading-desk beside the manuscript.
  3393. > "... This is last week's pre-production draft; there were only a few minor typesetting errors, which I've noted in the margins."
  3394.  
  3395. > Printed on thicker paper and properly case-bound, with a stiff elegantly-decorated leather cover wrap, it doesn't just look nicer, it looks even more impressive than the already-mighty manuscript alone.
  3396. > And this is just 'part 1'?
  3397. > The librarians at Royal Library must have balked at trying to find space for two dozen copies on their shelves.
  3398. "I had no idea, sir. It looks fascinating."
  3399. > "Well, if you're interested, by all means take it with you at the end of your shift. Subject to a few rules for safety, everything in here is being published publicly for the benefit of all Equestrians, after all."
  3400. "Thank you, sir. I'd like to give it a try, at least..."
  3401. > You reach up and open the cover, seeing the same title-page inside, accompanied with a signed note from the Royal Engineer.
  3402. > 'Reviewed March 22. See corrections pp. 83, 201, 204, 232, 253, 297, 302, 382, 787, 858, 923, 933, 1063, 1064, 1172'
  3403. > Closing it again, you look back up at your VIP.
  3404. "... And as for your social situation, sir, I'm sure if you asked Lieutenant Violetta for a full quaternion, pointing out today's meeting, then one will be provided for you."
  3405. > The Royal Engineer shoots a glance towards the lighthouse clock in the middle of the room.
  3406. > "Well, perhaps we might get the ball rolling immediately, then. It's not even three o'clock yet, and the Lieutenant told me she keeps office hours on Sundays until three-thirty."
  3407. "Yes, sir."
  3408. > Nodding, you make your way back over to the door.
  3409. > After quickly checking himself in the mirror and finishing his glass of water, he walks over.
  3410. > You open the door, allow him through, shut the door behind him, and then quickly trot up so as to walk slightly in front of and to the side of your charge.
  3411. > As you both proceed down the carpeted corridor, towards the barracks, there's just one question in your mind:
  3412.  
  3413. > Who will Lieutenant Vi assign as the fourth member of your quaternion?
  3414. > So far, you have a hyperactive war-hero unicorn anti-air cannon, an armoured pegasus with plenty of skill but still a bit wet behind the ears, and yourself: a veteran soldier who was feeling disenchanted with the Royal Guard as a career choice.
  3415. > But you had to admit, that disenchantment had been seriously challenged these last two days.
  3416. > And it seems you won't be protecting a paper-pushing bureaucrat after all.
  3417. > Hopefully, the fourth member will have plenty of experience with formal society.
  3418. > You could really use somepony who could help discreetly guide your fish-out-of-water VIP through Equestrian customs.
  3419. > Right now it was really just you and Glamerspear who understood Canterlot society.
  3420. > Sparkshower was a fast learner, but she just didn't know what was going on.
  3421. > A soldier from a respectable Canterlot family, with good breeding and an effortless grace in public society: that's what Anonymous needed.
  3422. > You'll send a message to Lt. Vi after your shift to make sure it happened.
  3423. > Then the next meeting with JP Mustang won't see you being metaphorically shoved aside by the tycoon's armoured bellhops.
  3424.  
  3425.  
  3426.  
  3427.  
  3428. > "After all that, he refused to do anything? Some help you were, you old goat!"
  3429. > You are George Zerofear, bodyguard to Mr. J. P. Mustang, and you, along with three of your compatriots, are watching Galloway Bitsmount's lone escort sweat heavily.
  3430. > Probably because she's worried Mr. Mustang is going to slap her idiot charge right in the muzzle.
  3431. > After delivering his latest insult, the brash young wastrel turns around and crosses in front of Mr. Mustang's desk once more.
  3432. > Your boss just leans back in his desk-chair, puffing calmly away at his cigar.
  3433. > "... Well? Are you just going to sit there, JP? Or are you going to pull on the reigns of this 'friend' of yours?"
  3434. > Slowly, Mr. Mustang pulls the cigar out of his mouth and gently rolls its tip against the inside edge of his ashtray.
  3435. > "Your grandfather called me JP when I was a young colt, because my father financed the opening of his first shaft in Bitsmount..."
  3436. > The charred end neatly pops off the end and slides into the curved base.
  3437. > "... and your father called me JP when *I* financed the expansion that turned it into the most productive silver mine in Equestria..."
  3438. > He replaces the cigar in his mouth, takes a slow puff, then pulls it back out again.
  3439. > You remember how he instructed you in proper cigar etiquette, as he gave a box of his favourite brand to each of his bodyguards on Hearth's Warming Day.
  3440. > 'Pull it out of your mouth between puffs. If the cap becomes wet then it'll get bitter.'
  3441. > Looking the younger colt right in the eye, Mr. Mustang makes his pronouncement.
  3442. > "... You've done nothing."
  3443.  
  3444. > That's obviously not just an indictment of Galloway's business acumen.
  3445. > Everypony knows he spends all his time throwing wild parties at his villa.
  3446. > The scandalous photos from said events practically had their own section in 'Canterlot Match'.
  3447. > Galloway Bitsmount sneers like a wet cigar-cap, but he keeps his gob shut.
  3448. > Beside you, his bodyguard sneaks up a hoof to wipe the sweat from her brow.
  3449. > She's got a nice flank, though.
  3450. > And Galloway's got her in a get-up that's like a cross between a pirate wench and a Prench maid's uniform.
  3451. > Really shows off her plot-lines.
  3452. > Maybe if Mr. Mustang doesn't go ballistic on this upstart, you can take her out for a drink afterwards.
  3453. > You bet she has some stories to tell about his parties.
  3454. > Maybe she's even the partying type herself.
  3455. > Heck, if Mr. Mustang *does* go ballistic and things go South, then she'll really need a shot of cider afterwards, heh.
  3456. > Finally, Bitsmount stops his pacing in front of the financier's desk, grits his teeth, and tosses himself into a chair.
  3457. > Your boss just sits silently, smoking his cigar and waiting for the younger colt to burn out his embers.
  3458. > Galloway looks around the luxurious study in the Royal Suite of the Triumph Hotel, as if the paintings on the walls or the gold-trimmed book-cases are going to tell him what to do.
  3459. > Maybe they do, because he catches his breath, licks his lips, and brushes one hoof through his mane.
  3460. > When he opens his mouth, he speaks slowly and respectfully, but his self-restraint is obviously stretched to the limit.
  3461. > "Mr. Mustang, I do apologize, but this 'Royal Engineer' is dragging my name through the mud!"
  3462. > "You dragged it yourself, Galloway. He's just pointing out the tracks for everyone else."
  3463.  
  3464. > Yowch.
  3465. > Talk about keeping a hoof-slap in your pocket.
  3466. > You shoot a glance over at Gustav, your drinking-buddy standing by the grandfather clock.
  3467. > He manages to sneak out a smirk to you.
  3468. > Mr. Mustang puts the cigar back in his mouth and opens the top-left drawer of his desk, revealing a card-file.
  3469. > "... But since you are a friend of my family, and since I still have investments in your mine, I'll tell you what you're gonna do..."
  3470. > Pulling out a business card, he hoofs it over to Galloway Bitsmount.
  3471. > "... You're going to visit my lawyer, give him the writ, and hire him to represent you at Court. And while he's using every trick in his book to get you off the hook, you're going to go speak to the one pony in Equestria who can get you out of this, and convince them to help you."
  3472. > Bitsmount scrunches up his face.
  3473. > "You want me to talk to Princess Celestia?"
  3474. > Mr. Mustang arches his eyebrows and blinks.
  3475. > "Is that a joke, son? If you had the persuasive skills to sweet-talk Princess Celestia, then you probably wouldn't be in this mess in the first place."
  3476. > Having learned his lesson from earlier, Galloway takes the insult quietly, though he rolls his head and gnashes his teeth.
  3477. > "... You're going to go talk to the Royal Engineer, of course."
  3478. > That's too much for him.
  3479. > "The Royal Engineer? Is *that* a joke? Why would *he* help *me*?"
  3480. > Mr. Mustang takes a puff and dismissively exhales the smoke through his nostrils.
  3481. > "Because you're going to convince him that you're just an ignorant fool who wasn't paying attention to the goings-on at his mine, rather than a scoundrel who deliberately put his workponies in danger for his own profit."
  3482. > Bitsmount flings one hoof in the air, dismissively.
  3483. > "And how am I going to do that?"
  3484. > His cigar finished, your boss puts it out in the ashtray.
  3485.  
  3486. > Beside you, Bitsmount's battle-maid discreetly tugs down on where her uniform was riding up her plot a little too high for decency.
  3487. > Did she catch you reading the inside of her dust-cover?
  3488. > "Maybe you've been spending too much time hosting parties up at your father's mansion, that you've forgotten how things worked around here..."
  3489. > Placing his hooves together on the desk and leaning in for emphasis, your boss seems to loom over the smaller pony.
  3490. > "... You made a mistake, but nopony died or even got seriously hurt. In today's Equestria, those sorts of mistakes get resolved with some mutual tears, a big group hug, and maybe a song about how sorry you are, how your eyes are open now, and how you won't do it ever again..."
  3491. > Leaning back again, he puts one hoof up to his moustache, brushing it softly.
  3492. > "... All you have to do is show contrition. The Royal Engineer wants to make an example out of you; well, a remorseful example is better than a defiant one. So, give him what he wants and you can get back to your banqueting and carousing."
  3493. > Bitsmount growls.
  3494. > "Can't you just get rid of him? Didn't you help put that hairless monkey into this position?"
  3495. > Mr. Mustang licks the inside of his lips, like he's still savouring the last cigar -- and probably considering lighting up another one.
  3496. > "I helped, yes; but I can't get him kicked out now, even if I wanted to. Do you know why Princess Celestia made him Royal Engineer?"
  3497. > Galloway gives a quick shake of his head, still sneering and staring at his financier.
  3498. > "No."
  3499. > "That's because nopony does, outside of just the eight ponies and one 'hairless monkey' who sat down in the Blue Chamber almost nine months ago. And as much as I hear about what the Privy Council discusses, I've never had a satisfactory answer to that question."
  3500.  
  3501. > Galloway Bitsmount springs back to his hooves, rearing his forehooves up in the air in anger.
  3502. > "That's absurd! We raised some alien to a high position just like that, no questions asked?"
  3503. > Despite the outburst, your boss remains calm and collected.
  3504. > Ducking over to one side, he opens a drawer and pulls out a fresh cigar, giving it a long sniff while Bitsmount just stands there like an idiot.
  3505. > You glance down at Galloway's guardsmare.
  3506. > She's not sweating quite so much any more.
  3507. > But there is a rosy tint on her teal cheeks.
  3508. > You start to grin as your boss continues his lecture.
  3509. > "Questions *were* asked. When Anonymous was first presented at Day Court, he gave a brief summary of what he'd like to bring to Equestria, seeing as how he found himself here with no way home. Princess Celestia asked him a few questions, and she must have liked what she heard, because she asked him to come back in a few days with a longer presentation for a formal assembly to judge."
  3510. > Sitting upright, he dips the cigar-cap in a small glass snifter of brandy to moisten it.
  3511. > "... He came back and impressed everypony, myself included. She'd asked me to come, since I make investments in the sort of things he was talking about."
  3512. > Bending forwards, Mr. Mustang puts the head of his cigar in the end of a small gold-plated guillotine on the desk, and presses down to chop it off with a quiet 'snick'.
  3513. > "... Her Royal Highness kept peppering him with questions, and you could tell he was a bit nervous, but he held up. Her Highness asked me what I thought, and I said I was convinced enough to want to invest in him. So she asked him to take another week and come back with another presentation going into even more detail, but this time it would just be to herself, Princess Luna, and the rest of the Privy Council."
  3514.  
  3515. > Bitsmount lays his forehooves on the desk, bending over forwards.
  3516. > "She even dragged her sister out of bed for that ape?!"
  3517. > Your boss pays no attention to him and casually lights his cigar with a bulbous marble-bodied table-lighter.
  3518. > You're not even sure why Bitsmount even bothered asking that question.
  3519. > Whenever Princess Celestia asked Princess Luna to be present for something during day court, the exact same rumours would go flying around.
  3520. > The most common was that she's just trying to get Princess Luna more involved in the day-to-day workings of the Court, so that maybe Celestia can take a day off now and then.
  3521. > More conspiratorially, some suggest that she's asked her sister to read somepony's dreams and then act as a truth-sayer.
  3522. > The last is that she just wants a second opinion, and she has deep trust in her sister.
  3523. > It doesn't matter what the situation is; it's the same three rumours every time.
  3524. > But as far as anypony actually knew, it might as well be all three.
  3525. > The same rumours even set tongues wagging all the way over in Manehattan, where Mr. Mustang normally resided.
  3526. > "They spent all day locked up in the Blue Chamber, in private without any guards. I know that Princess Celestia spent a lot of time asking questions, and Anonymous must have given Her Royal Highness some good answers, because at the end of it they all came out proclaiming that a new seat would be added to the Blue Chamber, and that he would be Equestria's new Royal Engineer."
  3527. > Bitsmount's guard glances up at you and makes the slightest bump motion from her hips, as if she was just adjusting her posture.
  3528. > But all it really does is jiggle her plot around.
  3529. > Oh, this little paperback is giving you naughty-eye, alright.
  3530. > Mr. Mustang pulls the cigar out of his mouth, blowing smoke up towards the ceiling.
  3531.  
  3532. > "... So, no. If I wanted him removed, which I don't particularly want at the moment, it would take quite a lot of work. Which means you've got to go to him, act respectful, apologize, beg his forgiveness, and take every scrap of advice he offers you like it's the very word of Her Majesty Herself."
  3533. > Bitsmount turns around with a laugh, and starts to pace in a circle around his chair.
  3534. > "Hah! Take his advice like I took it yesterday?"
  3535. > Stopping behind his chair, he hooks his hooves on the back.
  3536. > "... That bastard 'suggested' that I avoid Newstirrup bridge on my way in to Canterlot today. So I had my driver take an extra hour and divert to Oldstirrup bridge, only to find what?"
  3537. > He flings one hoof to the side.
  3538. > "... Some bloody guardsponies had declared a 'Pas de Sabots' and were holding up anypony with noble credentials. So of course, I had to turn around *again*, and wasted another hour for my trouble. I think he did it on purpose, sending me to Oldstirrup bridge to get ambushed! Maybe he even had a deal going on with those guards to humiliate me even more!"
  3539. > Behind the desk, Mr. Mustang is enjoying his second cigar of the evening far too much to give two clops about this 'Pas de Sabots' nonsense Galloway was spewing.
  3540. > Heh, and speaking of clop, you take a moment to enjoy the sight of Galloway's bodyguard once more.
  3541. > "I don't know what that was about, Galloway, but I suggest you put it behind you. You asked for my help, and I've done what I can for now."
  3542. > Bitsmount nods his head sarcastically.
  3543. > "And what a fat lot of good it does me. Well, thanks 'Mr. Mustang', but from over here it sure looks like I'm on my own for this one."
  3544. > Still in a snit, he turns around and makes for the door.
  3545. > With his cigar back in his mouth, your boss calls out after him.
  3546. > "Don't do anything foolish, Galloway, or you'll just make things worse for yourself. Get a lawyer and do what they tell you to -- it'll be the same things I just said."
  3547.  
  3548. > Bitsmount just waves a hoof dismissively as he storms your way.
  3549. > Instantly, you push open one of the double-doors while his own guardsmare opens the other.
  3550. > The wealthy young spendthrift just brushes straight past and makes for the coat-rack and hat-stand by the entry doors.
  3551. > As the two of you go to follow after him, she leans over and whispers.
  3552. > "I get off at ten."
  3553. > Straight to the point; you liked that.
  3554. > Names could always come later.
  3555. > With a smile on your face, you whisper back.
  3556. "Servant's entrance at ten-fifteen."
  3557. > She gives a flirtatious smile and then trots off to escort her employer back to his own suite, leaving you to close the doors behind them.
  3558. > It was always a good time when Mr. Mustang travelled to Canterlot.
  3559. > The mares around here really did run loose in their tack.
  3560.  
  3561.  
  3562.  
  3563.  
  3564. > "Ugh, I hate Monday reveille..."
  3565. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and boy, could you, Specialist Glamerspear, and Corporal Bound use the regular kind of shower right about now.
  3566. > "... And who exactly gave Staff Sergeant the idea that we should do the morning PPT hike in battle armour?"
  3567. > Returning to your quarters from the break-of-dawn Pony Physical Training hike up Canterlot's winding mountain paths, Glamerspear has been vocally venting her frustration.
  3568. > There's nothing really to be done, though.
  3569. > Sarge says you hike up the mountain on hoof and in armour, you hike up the mountain on hoof and in armour.
  3570. > As long as it wasn't every time, you didn't mind.
  3571. > "... Can I go in first? I've got to get ready to go on duty in half an hour."
  3572. > Nopony objects, so Glamerspear makes a break for the washroom.
  3573. > She's already got half of her equipment telekinetically pulled off before she even gets there.
  3574. > Meanwhile, the Corporal and yourself head for your respective bedrooms to pull off your sweaty armour.
  3575. > Sitting in your room, you barely get your greaves and croupiere off when there's a loud knock at the main door.
  3576. > Poking your head out of your own room, you see Corporal Bound step out into the common area, already fully disrobed.
  3577. > "Come in!"
  3578. > At her invitation, the door swings open, but before your unidentified caller steps in, you hear them say something in a quiet voice.
  3579. > "Wait out here a moment, Sergeant; let me make sure they're presentable."
  3580. > With that, Lieutenant Temper Violetta strolls in and shuts the door behind her.
  3581. "Attention!"
  3582. > As you throw your own hoof up in salute, Corporal Bound stops and does the same.
  3583. > "At ease, gentlemares. Where's Specialist Glamerspear?"
  3584.  
  3585. > From the washroom, the hissing noise from the shower stops, and there's the low 'shuuuu-WOOM!' as Lily executes a WC-40 cleaning & drying manoeuvre.
  3586. > Before Lt. Violetta can even turn her head towards the bathroom door, Glamerspear is already pushing it open, her armour pieces floating beside her.
  3587. > "Ugh, and now I've gotta get these clean bef--Attention!"
  3588. > When she realizes the Lieutenant is standing in the room, she snaps to her hooves as well.
  3589. > "At ease, Specialist. All of you, fall in here at the entrance..."
  3590. > Glamerspear shoots you a concerned look, but all you can do is shrug your armoured shoulders as you fall into line.
  3591. > Lieutenant Vi wears her usual stern stare as you all form up into a sort of receiving line next to the door, and she addresses the three of you in an unusually quiet voice.
  3592. > "... Now, gentlemares, I don't want to hear any complaints about this. I'll have you know that these orders come straight from the top; if you don't like them, you can take them up with the Joint Chiefs. Understood?"
  3593. > To your right, Glamerspear looks completely lost.
  3594. > Past her, Corporal Bound's eyes narrow almost imperceptibly.
  3595. > But both of them stay silent.
  3596. > Well, if no-one's going to say anything, then you will.
  3597. "Ma'am? Pardon me, but what are you talking about?"
  3598. > Violetta fixes you in her stare.
  3599. > "You'll find out in a moment, Specialist. Just know that I don't like it any more than you do, but I have my orders, and now you do too, understood?"
  3600. > With some hesitation, all three of you give quiet 'Yes, ma'ams'.
  3601. > "Good..."
  3602.  
  3603. > Now she raises her voice loud enough that whoever's outside ought to be able to hear her.
  3604. > "... Come in, Sergeant."
  3605.  
  3606. Suggested background music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABl0KW3CI30 (Justin Bell - 'Kyros', from 'Tyranny' [2016])
  3607.  
  3608. > Although you're all supposed to be staring straight forward, none of you can resist watching the door on your right swing open inwards.
  3609. > A shadow seems to fall over the room, as the light from the hall is drowned out by the pony standing in the doorway.
  3610. > Glamerspear barely stifles a gasp.
  3611. > When you realize what you're looking at, there's a clunking noise from in front of you as your jaw drops open so wide, it smacks into the lower piece of your bascinet helmet.
  3612. > Into your common-room steps a tall mare with a violet coat so dark it almost looks black.
  3613. > Her pale two-tone lavender mane is back-combed and brushed upright, standing tall above her head in an almost zebra-esque fashion.
  3614. > Underneath it, two purple eyes with vertical-slit pupils stand out against the shadow.
  3615. > And a pair of leathery wings sit folded against her flanks.
  3616. > A batpony!
  3617. > "... Gentlemares, let me present to you the fourth member of Lord Anonymous' bodyguard detail:"
  3618. > As the dark creature steps up in front of your line, Lieutenant Violetta indicates her with a hoof.
  3619. > "... Sergeant First Class Ebonshield... of the Equestrian Night Guard."
  3620.  
  3621. > There's a long moment while the three of you behold the Sergeant in silent stillness, and she likewise regards you, her thin pupils jumping left and right as she looks you over.
  3622. > At last, the Sergeant stiffens her back and raises a hoof up in salute.
  3623. > The three of you mirror her move, holding the pose, waiting for the Sergeant to drop her own hoof.
  3624. > Seconds pass, until Lieutenant Violetta noisily clears her throat.
  3625. > "*Ahem*. Sergeant, let me introduce you to the rest of the quaternion..."
  3626. > As the Lieutenant starts to speak, the Sergeant lowers her hoof, and the three of you follow suit.
  3627. > "... Specialist Sparkshower, 19D Armoured Scout..."
  3628. > You start to lift your hoof in order to shake the Sergeant's, but she remains completely still even as you've got it stretched out before you, so you hesitantly lower it again.
  3629. > Instead, she just stares at you for a few seconds, until Lieutenant Vi decides to continue on.
  3630. > The Lieutenant points at Glamerspear.
  3631. > "... Specialist Glamerspear, 14E Air Defence..."
  3632. > Glamerspear doesn't make the mistake of trying to shake hooves.
  3633. > But she does have all of her sweaty armour pieces floating in the air just behind her, which gets her a strange look from the new Sergeant.
  3634. > Finally, Violetta steps over to Honour.
  3635. > "... And Corporal Bound, 11B Infantry."
  3636. > This time, Sergeant Ebonshield does something other than stare almost menacingly from a few hooves away.
  3637. > Stepping forward, she gets right up in front of Corporal Bound's face before proceeding with her icy stare.
  3638. > Your Corporal doesn't seem intimidated even in the slightest, and holds steady.
  3639. > Lieutenant Vi's eyes dart worriedly between the two non-commissioned officers.
  3640. > "... Corporal Bound, although Sergeant First Class Ebonshield outranks you, you'll be in charge of the quaternion until the Sergeant has completed the VIP-service training program."
  3641.  
  3642. > Corporal Bound doesn't flinch, answering with the Sergeant's muzzle still almost touching her own.
  3643. > "Yes, Ma'am."
  3644. > Her lack of reaction seems to amuse the Sergeant, and there's the hint of a grin as she opens her mouth.
  3645. > "Corporal, are you comfortable with giving orders to a superior?"
  3646. > Sergeant Ebonshield's mature voice is low and dusky, with a steady pitch and a feline purr.
  3647. > There's a hint of an accent as well, but you can't place it.
  3648. > "Yes, Sergeant."
  3649. > "Good. I would not wish you to feel uncomfortable."
  3650. > With that, Ebonshield takes a step back.
  3651. > Violetta looks exhausted already.
  3652. > "All right, then, gentlemares, carry on. Sergeant, take a few minutes to stow your gear and make yourself presentable to the Royal Engineer, and then when Glamerspear goes on duty I'll take you downstairs to present you to your charge. Now that there's four of you, I'll have to draw up a new duty calendar."
  3653. > The Sergeant nods, and steps back into the hallway to grab her duffel bag.
  3654. > Nopony lifts a hoof as she drags it to the last empty bedroom and shuts the door behind her.
  3655. > Corporal Bound shoots a telling glance at the Lieutenant, who instantly shuts her down in a quiet voice.
  3656. > "Don't say a word, Corporal. I heard what you said yesterday about the Royal Engineer needing somepony to guide him through Canterlot society, and I noted it in the request form, but I don't get to pick the soldiers, I just get to command them."
  3657. > Honour licks her lips.
  3658. > "She hasn't even been trained for VIP service?"
  3659. > "No, and I was overruled when I made the same objection after seeing her file. Somepony on the night shift must have gone through the personnel-requisition box in the evening and got this taken up to the very top. If you ask me, she's here because the Joint Chiefs are pushing for tighter integration between the two services, and that means 'diversity hire'."
  3660.  
  3661. > The Corporal looks like she's about to say something else, but Lieutenant Vi just shakes her head.
  3662. > "... Whatever you want to say, save it for later. I'm going to wait in the hallway. Send her and Glamerspear out when they're ready to go downstairs."
  3663. > As she leaves the room, Honour grumbles and shakes her head, then heads into the washroom to take her shower.
  3664. > Glamerspear steps over to you, telekinetically using a towel to wipe off her armour pieces, and whispers as you both stare at Sergeant Ebonshield's bedroom door.
  3665. > "A batpony! Can you believe this, Sparkshower! They're sticking us with a blood-sucking batpony!"
  3666. > Wait, what?
  3667. "Blood-sucking?"
  3668. > Your comrade leans in further and whispers even more loudly.
  3669. > "Don't tell me you haven't heard the stories! I tell you, you'd better wear your criniere to bed if you don't want to wake up with two holes in your neck and blood-trail leading back to the new Sergeant's room!"
  3670. > You've never met a batpony before today, but those old campfire stories couldn't be true, could they?
  3671. > Glamerspear certainly seems to be treating them as such.
  3672. > "... Come on, didn't you see her fangs?"
  3673. > Actually, you had pointedly *not* seen fangs, and you know that for sure because you'd been looking for them the moment she opened her mouth.
  3674. "She doesn't have fangs, Glamerspear; I saw her teeth."
  3675. > Glamerspear just brushes off your denial.
  3676. > "Yeah, well, I've heard they're just regular teeth during the day, but at night when it's time for them to feast on pony blood, they grow twice as long!"
  3677. > You had to admit that that was spooky, but plausible.
  3678. > "... And you saw how she didn't want to shake hooves! It's because she didn't want us to notice that hers have the cold touch of the grave!"
  3679. > That seemed... less likely.
  3680. > "... Just wait until you hear her shrieking at night; they say it's shrill enough to curdle milk and piercing enough to shatter glass!
  3681. > Okay now that was just unreasonable.
  3682.  
  3683. "Isn't there a detachment of Night Guard here in Canterlot? Wouldn't ponies be complaining about that if it were true?"
  3684. > Having finished wiping off most of her armour, Glamerspear lowers her helmet and straps it on.
  3685. > "It's because they keep them holed up in the caves all day, since they're all afraid of the sun..."
  3686. > You scrunch up your face in disbelief.
  3687. > "... Don't tell me you didn't see her dark coat and pale mane, at least! Well, that's what happens when you spend your life in the darkness, isn't it?"
  3688. > As Glamerspear continues to suit up, you consider the bundle of old nag's tales she's sharing with you.
  3689. > *Maybe* some of it was true, but surely not *all* of it.
  3690. > "... I bet you she's in there right now, staring dumbfounded at her lack of reflection in the dressing-table mirror."
  3691. "That's ridiculous, Lily, command wouldn't--"
  3692. > As soon as you say her first name, Glamerspear hisses you quiet.
  3693. > "Shhhhh! Don't call me that! First names are how they cast their wicked, mind-affecting spells! Are you trying to get me turned into a batspawn zombie?"
  3694. > Seriously, now, did she believe every single story about batponies that was ever told?
  3695. > You knew them too, but you didn't believe them.
  3696. > Well, *most* of them, anyways.
  3697. > One of the stories was certainly false: they weren't supposed to cast shadows.
  3698. "The Sergeant *did* cast a shadow, though."
  3699. > "Of course she did! I'm half-surprised the creatures of the night didn't come crawling in with her! Check your bed for creepy-crawlies tonight; I know I will."
  3700. > It looks like there is just no stopping Hurricane Glam right now.
  3701. > You'd better just drop the subject for the moment.
  3702.  
  3703. > As she finishes suiting up, the bedroom door opens and Sergeant Ebonshield emerges.
  3704. > Beside you, Glamerspear tenses up, but somehow this entrance isn't as shocking to you as the first.
  3705. > She still cuts an imposing figure, especially now that she's armoured.
  3706. > A dark black helmet covers her head, with her crested hairstyle emerging through a raised slot above it.
  3707. > Her chest is covered by a dull black pectoral piece, that wraps around to guard her flanks.
  3708. > It's reminiscent of the light armour of the Air Superiority ponies you fought two days ago, but obviously darkened for stealthier use at night.
  3709. > More interestingly, she wears sabots that have paired strips of blackened metal running up the sides of her legs.
  3710. > Are those... blades?
  3711. > You'll have to find out later, because she immediately walks right up to you and Glamerspear.
  3712. > "Are you ready, Specialist? I do not wish to keep the Lord Engineer waiting."
  3713. > "Yes, Sergeant, I'm ready."
  3714. > "Then let us be off."
  3715. > Glamerspear gives a salute and trots off towards the door, holding it open for Sergeant Ebonshield.
  3716. > Outside, you can hear Lieutenant Violetta joining them as they all head downstairs.
  3717. > You're left alone in the common-room, and there's just one thought on your mind:
  3718. > When is Corporal Bound going to be done in the shower so you wash all this sweat-foam off of you?
  3719.  
  3720.  
  3721.  
  3722.  
  3723. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and so help you Celestia, if this blood-sucking abomination puts even one hoof wrong, you're going to do to her what you did to Valiant Kilfeather two days ago.
  3724. > Even if you manaburn so hard the effort makes you vomit, gives you seizures, and puts you into a coma, it'll be worth it to reduce her to a fine purée...
  3725. > ... or ash.
  3726. > Do batponies turn to ash when they're killed?
  3727. > You'll soon be finding out!
  3728. > Gritting your teeth, you wish you could have your shield up and a magazine of telekinetic spears ready to fly.
  3729. > But Lieutenant Violetta is walking with you, and she expects you to play nice with this beast.
  3730. > Friends with a mutant creature of the night, yeah right!
  3731. > And 'Sergeant' Ebonshield is just walking casually alongside, as if she has every right to parade her filth around Canterlot Palace.
  3732. > Well, she's about to get a rude awakening.
  3733. > If his ability to serve as your spotter during the duel with Kilfeather was any indication, Anonymous, the Royal Engineer, had a keen eye.
  3734. > He'll pierce through this civilized facade she wears and see the beast within.
  3735. > Then she'll be kicked out of the quaternion.
  3736. > And straight into a dungeon cell.
  3737. > Secure in the knowledge that the foul creature beside you will be banished in short order, your angry stare mollifies into more of a smug eyeballing.
  3738.  
  3739. > Reaching the Royal Engineer's chamber door, Temper Violetta pauses a moment to make sure you and the 'Sergeant' are still with her, then reaches up and knocks.
  3740. > "Come in."
  3741. > Pushing open the door, this time she doesn't instruct the batpony to wait outside.
  3742. > "Good morning, sir. I'm here with a 'delivery', of sorts."
  3743. > "Oh, good morning Lieutenant Violetta."
  3744. > Focused on the 'Sergeant', you only barely register that Anonymous is sitting in one of the club chairs, reading the newspaper while facing the door.
  3745. > You barely even look in his direction as you give a salute and take up position beside the door.
  3746. "Specialist Glamerspear reporting for duty, Sir!"
  3747. > Anonymous nods in your direction.
  3748. > "Good morning, Specialist."
  3749. > Sergeant Ebonshield walks in past you.
  3750. > Perfect, her back's exposed.
  3751. > You make sure to position yourself so as to keep Anonymous out of the line of fire.
  3752. > But Lieutenant Vi walks behind Ebonshield, meaning that if your fire over-penetrates, she could get hit.
  3753. > Eh, she's wearing armour.
  3754. > If you have to frag Ebonshield with her standing there, she'll be fine.
  3755. > "Sir, in response to your request yesterday for a full quaternion escort, I have the pleasure to inform you that your request has been granted."
  3756. > Anonymous folds the paper under his arm and gets to his feet.
  3757. > "Really? Goodness, that was quick, Lieutenant."
  3758. > Putting one hoof to her chest, Temper Vi takes the undeserved compliment with pompous dignity.
  3759. > "Well, sir, in the Royal Guard, we do aim for efficiency and efficacy..."
  3760. > You internally eyeroll.
  3761. > Yeah, you're not so worried about accidentally hitting the Lieutenant.
  3762.  
  3763. > "... And allow me to introduce the fourth member of your retinue: Sergeant First Class Ebonshield, a batpony of the Equestrian Night Guard."
  3764. > The target of your rage, and your nearly-summoned telekinetic projectiles, steps up to your your VIP, and doesn't even give him the honour of a bow.
  3765. > So she's not just rude to fellow soldiers!
  3766. > "Great Lord, from the deepest shadow to the brightest star, by your will alone I set my blood in motion."
  3767. > An oath sworn on blood.
  3768. > Well, that just bucking seals the deal, doesn't it?
  3769. > Perhaps delaying his inevitable dismissal of this vile fiend in order to learn more about her, Anonymous merely gives a nod of acknowledgement.
  3770. > "Please excuse my ignorance, Sergeant, but I don't believe I've met any ponies of your kind before."
  3771. > Yeah, and after we get rid of this one, you hopefully won't see any of them again.
  3772. > "Great Lord, that is doubtless because there are only a few hundred of us here in Canterlot, and we generally keep to our rookery inside the mountain, at least during the day."
  3773. > You want to gasp, but it's stifled by blind rage.
  3774. > A NEST OF VAMPIRES!
  3775. > RIGHT HERE IN CANTERLOT!!
  3776. > Oh, you're going to need every Anti-Air unicorn from your old battery in order to clean them out.
  3777. > With a slight smile on his face, Anonymous looks expectantly over at Lieutenant Vi.
  3778. > "I see... Lieutenant?"
  3779. > "Sir?"
  3780. > Your commanding officer just looks confused, which seems to disappoint the Royal Engineer.
  3781. > "Don't you have something interesting to say about the Sergeant's past service, as you did with the others?"
  3782. > The Lieutenant licks her lips uncomfortably.
  3783. > "Ah... I'm afraid not, sir. Unfortunately, I received only a very thin file about Sergeant Ebonshield. No doubt in the haste to fill the position, her previous commanding officer in the Night Guard accidentally misplaced some of her paperwork."
  3784.  
  3785. > Before she can go on, the batpony scum interrupts her.
  3786. > "I doubt that, Lieutenant. We do not keep paperwork of that kind. However, it was determined that '18B Special Weapons Sergeant' and 'Sergeant First Class' were the closest equivalent Royal Guard service identifier and rank for my position in the Night Guard..."
  3787. > Turning to the Royal Engineer, she concludes.
  3788. > "... Great Lord, I apologize profoundly for the failure to supply your majordomo with that information, rendering her unable to properly introduce your newest servant."
  3789. > With her accent, 'majordomo' sounds more like 'mayordomo', but that's not really what strikes you the most.
  3790. > The revelation that the Night Guard didn't use standard service identifiers or ranks, and worse, didn't keep well-regimented files on their soldiers, seems to shock Temper Vi to her very core, and she just stands there, dumbfounded.
  3791. > But Anonymous still wears an amiable smile.
  3792. > "Well, perhaps you could simply introduce yourself, Sergeant. I'm curious as to the name of your position in the Night Guard?"
  3793. > Looks like he's going to draw this one out all the way.
  3794. > Come on, come on, let's just get to the batpony-slaying already!
  3795. > "Great Lord, I have the unparallelled honour of entering your service as a Seventh Rank of the School of the Shining Stellar Dance, or 'Stellar Seven'."
  3796. > Wow, talk about an over-embellished title.
  3797. > Sounds like the kind of thing a pony dreams up when they want to say they've been studying war since the day they were born.
  3798. > You can just picture her monologuing before your fight.
  3799. > 'While you were still suckling at your mother's teat, I studied the blade.'
  3800. > 'While you were learning pathetic unicorn magic, I mastered flight.'
  3801. > 'While you were courting salt-licks, I cultivated inner strength.'
  3802. > Yadda-yadda.
  3803. > The sense of smug emanating from her 'Stellar Seven' title just has you aching ever harder to shove a dozen telekinetic spears into her neck.
  3804.  
  3805. > On the other hand, it looks like the Royal Engineer is keeping his cool.
  3806. > "That's a very impressive-sounding title, Sergeant. Out of curiosity, how many ranks are there in that school?"
  3807. > "There are seven, Great Lord. Only Master Draxon sits above the ranks."
  3808. > "Indeed? It sounds like we could have used your help earlier, on Sunday..."
  3809. > No, wait, he's not just keeping his cool...
  3810. > He's slow-playing her!
  3811. > Pumping her for all the information about batponies that the Royal Guard will need to wipe them out -- all of them!
  3812. > Clever.
  3813. > Anonymous turns to face you.
  3814. > "... And speaking of Sunday, by the way, Specialist, our friend Lieutenant Kilfeather has made today's papers."
  3815. > Amplified by your thirst for battle, you grin heartily.
  3816. "Oh really, sir? I imagine it's an interview from the Canterlot Hospital Intensive Cuddle Unit."
  3817. > "I'm afraid not. Apparently, after you, the Corporal, and Specialist Sparkshower brushed aside their 'Pas de Sabots' at Newstirrup bridge, the 1st Canterlot Air Superiority Wing took it upon themselves to set up downriver at Oldstirrup bridge, instead."
  3818. > Forgetting your rage at the abomination standing before you, your thought turns to the bucking bastard from two days ago, and your blood instantly boils over.
  3819. "WHAT?!"
  3820. > Lieutenant Vi shoots you a horrified glare for your uncivilized outburst.
  3821. > But your lapse in manners doesn't seem to faze the Royal Engineer at all; he merely unfolds the paper and holds it up to read it.
  3822. > "Oh, yes, it's all here in this article. 'HEROIC LIEUTENANT BINDS WINGS AND REMOVES ARMOUR TO LEVEL PLAYING FIELD IN PAS DE SABOTS OF OLDSTIRRUP BRIDGE'. Apparently, he's passing off his injuries and missing armour as chivalric charity."
  3823. > Brushing aside the Tartarean Sergeant, you march up to your VIP, who gladly hands the paper into your waiting telekinetic embrace.
  3824.  
  3825. > As you scan the article, growing more furious by the word, the Lieutenant turns to Anonymous.
  3826. > "A 'Pas de Sabots', sir? There hasn't been one of those in over a hundred years."
  3827. > "One hundred and thirty-seven years, according to Lieutenant Kilfeather. But I assure you, he did set up at Newstirrup bridge and accost us on Sunday morning. I might not have minded except that he demanded Specialist Sparkshower in hostage as his price for crossing the bridge."
  3828. > "A hostage?! That's unbelievable, sir. The 1st Canterlot Air Superiority wing is one of the most decorated units in the Royal Guard."
  3829. > "I assure you it's completely true. Answering their challenge to me, Corporal Bound proposed three individual duels, and I'm proud to say your soldiers carried the day. In fact, despite their use of an 'MXP Games Totem' to keep the fighting safe, the Lieutenant was rather savagely thrashed by Specialist Glamerspear."
  3830. > Keeping it enveloped in your telekinetic aura, you fold the newspaper move it out of the way.
  3831. "You can say that again, sir! I even took the mangled helmet off his shattered corpse as a trophy!"
  3832. > You turn to Temper Violetta.
  3833. "... Lieutenant, ma'am, you can't let them get away with this! As if demanding Sparkshower as a hostage wasn't bad enough, even if they got approval for a 'Pas de Sabots' at Newstirrup bridge, there's no way they got approval to just pack up and move downriver if they happened to get beaten!"
  3834. > Your commanding officer, still uncertain about this whole situation, looks uncomfortable with the prospect of investigating the matter.
  3835. > Well, she'd better suck it up, or else Lord Anonymous will know how to cause a real scandal!
  3836. > "I'll... have to bring this up with the Captain, I suppose. And then it'll have to go up from there to whoever authorized it."
  3837. "According to Kilfeather himself, it was Major-General Hoofstrong."
  3838. > That's another shock to her.
  3839.  
  3840. > Major-General Georgia Hoofstrong commanded the entire First Air Division, which had squadrons covering the central region of Equestria: Cloudsdale, Canterlot, Ponyville, and the rest.
  3841. > Over 10,000 pegasi soldiers serving in the defence of ponykind.
  3842. > The Lieutenant balks at the idea of confronting one of the nation's most distinguished commanders.
  3843. > "The *Major-General* authorized it? Digging into this could take some doing, then..."
  3844. > "Well, there's no rush, Lieutenant. Perhaps it doesn't even really matter, but based on his ongoing successes at Oldstirrup bridge, I'm sure you'll find that there will shortly be a number of irate nobleponies who will be very eager to hear that they were the subject of an unauthorized hastilude."
  3845. > Oh, right.
  3846. > The nobles.
  3847. > Lieutenant Violetta goes pale when she realizes that punishing Lieutenant Kilfeather may involve humbling the Royal Guard before the landed gentry of Equestria.
  3848. > 'Icepone' deserved every inch of punishment that could come to him, but you had to admit that you didn't want to see the Guard's reputation tarnished just to satisfy a bunch of wealthy, idle nobleponies.
  3849. > Ugh... Val's played his cards well with this one.
  3850. > You retire back to your firing position by the doorway.
  3851. > "I'll... look into it, sir. With due caution."
  3852. > "As I said, Lieutenant, there's no hurry. In the meantime, you have my thanks for swiftly filling out the ranks of my escort so that I don't make any more social gaffes..."
  3853. > The Royal Engineer turns to you with a smile on his face.
  3854. > "... And speaking of social gaffes, Specialist Glamerspear, I've received word that my new athletic ensembles are ready to pick up from the tailors this morning."
  3855. > So he *did* take your advice.
  3856. > Nice.
  3857. > Now it's time to address the blood-sucking bat-winged undead elephant in the room.
  3858.  
  3859. > Lieutenant Temper Violetta pipes up.
  3860. > "Well, sir, if you have no need for the Sergeant or myself at the moment, then we shall take our leave."
  3861. > "Certainly, Lieutenant. Thank you for the introduction. I look forward to receiving your service, Sergeant."
  3862. > What!
  3863. > No batpony-slaying?
  3864. > As Violetta and Ebonshield make for the door, Anonymous suddenly interrupts them.
  3865. > "... Oh, actually, there was one thing..."
  3866. > Yesssssssss...
  3867. > They turn away from you to face the Royal Engineer once more, and you warm up a special delivery for 'Sergeant Ebonshield'.
  3868. > "... I wonder if you happened to be free this morning, Sergeant? Perhaps you'd care to tag along as a second escort, and give me a second opinion on my new couture?"
  3869. > WHAT.
  3870. > THE.
  3871. > BUCK.
  3872.  
  3873. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCQ14aLKC88 (Wojciech Kilar - "Vampire Hunters", from "Bram Stoker's Dracula" [1992])
  3874.  
  3875. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you literally can't believe what you are witnessing right now.
  3876. > Instead of purging the unclean and ordering you to kill the vile mutant batpony who stands before you, Anonymous, Royal Engineer to the Twin Princesses, has done practically the exact opposite:
  3877. > He's invited the beast to come clothing-shopping with him.
  3878. > And the violet monster smiles back at him!
  3879. > "If the Great Lord wishes it, I would follow them into Tartarus itself."
  3880. > Your purple VIP laughs in response.
  3881. > "Hah, I've heard about 'dying for fashion', but I don't think we need to go that far for a decent wardrobe."
  3882. > Wait, purple?
  3883. > Anonymous isn't supposed to be purple.
  3884. > Squeezing your eyes shut to clear them has no effect; when you open them again, he still looks purple to you.
  3885. > Blinking repeatedly, you look out the window.
  3886. > The sky is purple, and so are the clouds.
  3887. > You turn back to the room before you.
  3888. > Everything and everyone has a purple tint.
  3889. > You're manaburning!
  3890.  
  3891. > That's the only explanation that fits, although it still doesn't make much sense.
  3892. > As eager as you've been for a fight, you haven't done more than keep your horn at an elevated standby level.
  3893. > And the trickle of mana that requires shouldn't be doing this to you.
  3894. > While you ponder the problem, you have the passing awareness of Lieutenant Violetta giving a salute and heading towards the door.
  3895. > Without thinking, you straighten up and pull it open for her, rendering a detached salute as she exits the room.
  3896. > Meanwhile, Anonymous heads behind the partition wall that divides off his bed & dressing area, and you hear him shut the door to his washroom.
  3897. > As you close the door, Sergeant Ebonshield looks over in your direction.
  3898. > And the instant she does, you feel your blood boil over again.
  3899. > She's going to try to do something monstrous now that the Lieutenant is gone, you're sure of it!
  3900. > The urge to strike first is almost overwhelming.
  3901. > But if you really are manaburning, then you've got to shut everything down or else it'll just get worse for you.
  3902. > You'll just have to take the chance that the batpony doesn't realize your weakness.
  3903. > Reluctantly, you relinquish your grasp on the arcane flows.
  3904. > Like a sledgehammer to your brain after a late night drinking binge, you're instantly struck by a throbbing headache.
  3905. > Oh yes, you were definitely manaburning all right.
  3906. > And now you're suffering withdrawal.
  3907. > The pain is so intense that you can't help but let out a quiet moan and put one hoof up to your brow, wiping away the sweat that's already started to form.
  3908. > "Are you unwell, Specialist Glamerspear?"
  3909. > Buck, she noticed!
  3910. > Act casual.
  3911. "I'm fine, Sergeant."
  3912.  
  3913. > She doesn't seem to buy it, and walks up to you, putting her face right in front of yours, just as she did with Corporal Bound.
  3914. > It's like she's a foal trying to get a reaction out of a pony on silent & still guard duty at the palace gates.
  3915. > "If you are unwell, I can accompany the Great Lord to retrieve his clothes alone."
  3916. > As if!
  3917. > Instead of lying to her again, you decide to try turning the tables.
  3918. "Why do you keep calling him 'Great Lord'? Nopony else calls him that."
  3919. > Sergeant bloodsucker blinks her eyes and withdraws her head slightly.
  3920. > "The Royal Engineer sits on the greatest council of Lords in Equestria. Does that not make him a Great Lord? Or have I been misinformed?"
  3921. > Wow, she just has no clue about how society works these days.
  3922. > Well, that's what you get for sleeping in a coffin for hundreds of years.
  3923. > If you can't lay the smackdown with magical spears, you might as well drop some knowledge bombs on her instead.
  3924. "You're right, but nopony uses the term 'Great Lord' any more. Even referring to him as 'Lord' is stretching etiquette in the modern era. Ponies in positional lordships like his are addressed by their job title, like Chancellor or Royal Engineer, not their noble rank. Or you can just say 'Sir' or 'Ma'am'."
  3925. > "I see..."
  3926. > Your eyes go wide as you watch her *bow* her head to you.
  3927. > What the buck!
  3928. > What kind of Sergeant First Class bows to a Specialist?!
  3929. > "... Thank you for correcting me on current Equestrian customs, Specialist Glamerspear."
  3930. > Corporal Bound was right!
  3931. > Not only was this vile creature of the night lacking in the essential training of how to handle Very Important Ponies, she didn't have a clue about how to behave in polite society!
  3932. > It's going to take everything you've got to keep her from embarrassing the three of you once you step outside the castle.
  3933.  
  3934. > As she takes up a position flanking the other side of the door, you find yourself overcome with anxiety over what should just be a simple visit to a shop in town.
  3935. > What if she says something appalling to one of the other guards on the way there?
  3936. > What if she does that weird get-right-up-in-your-muzzle-to-talk-to-you thing to somepony not under orders to just take it, and a fight breaks out?
  3937. > What kind of scandal will she cause just walking outside into public!
  3938. > You vividly picture terrified Canterlot citizens fleeing in panic before your group.
  3939. > Buck, what if she trips up in front of everypony in the tailor shop and they kick Anonymous out before he can even get his stuff?
  3940. > Wait...
  3941. > A minute ago you wanted to turn her into a bloody smear on the carpet.
  3942. > Now you're desperately worried about social gaffes?
  3943. > What is going on with your mood swings today?
  3944. > Taking a deep breath, you shut your eyes.
  3945. > You recall the symptoms of acute mana poisoning, in order of severity, as they were drilled into you:
  3946. > Blurred vision, purple haze, exhaustion, headaches, emotional instability, nausea & vomiting, seizures, coma, and finally, sudden death.
  3947. > 'Emotional instability'!
  3948. > Even though your horn has been cold for a full minute now, you're still manaburning.
  3949. > Today you've done little more than levitate a few things and maintain high magical readiness for half an hour.
  3950. > Yesterday, you barely used any magic at all, although you remember drawing on a steady trickle to help with a general feeling of exhaustion.
  3951. > Two days ago, of course, there was the massive over-expenditure during the fight with Kilfeather.
  3952. > But that was supposed to have been abated by the MXP Games totem.
  3953. > Then again, unicorns didn't usually didn't go overboard with magic during the Games.
  3954. > Maybe its protective effects don't work on mana poisoning?
  3955.  
  3956. > Behind the partition wall, you hear Anonymous' washroom door open again.
  3957. > It won't be long now until he's ready to go.
  3958. > You rack your brain trying to figure this out, and then it hits you.
  3959. > At the reception after the ceremony when you'd been inducted into the Order of the Ram, you remembered chatting up a colt with a cute jawline who had been a hero of the Games.
  3960. > He described taking what should have been a fatal blow during a match, and then having a constant, dull, pain for days afterwards.
  3961. > As if instead of receiving one deadly blow, he'd received hundreds of merely painful ones, spread out over time.
  3962. > Did the totems just... draw out an injury, instead of suppressing it?
  3963. > So instead of seizures, coma, or death, you're just going to have to deal with the lesser symptoms for a few days?
  3964. > Made worse whenever you use magic yourself.
  3965. > Ugh.
  3966. > The throbbing in your head kicks into high gear, as if to confirm your conclusion.
  3967. > In the span of an hour you've had a roller-coaster of excessive fear, paranoia, hatred, and anxiety.
  3968. > At least now that you were aware of the problem, maybe you could deal with it.
  3969. > "Well, I'm ready to go. How about the two of you?"
  3970. > The Royal Engineer steps out from behind the partition, now fully dressed and ready for public.
  3971. > "Your escort is assembled, Great Lord."
  3972. > So much for Sergeant fang-tooth over there taking your advice.
  3973. > "I hope it's appropriate for me to have asked you to join us, Sergeant. I must admit, I'm still not entirely used to the idea of having retainers at my beck and call like this."
  3974. > "It is the privilege granted to your Lordship, sir."
  3975. > Oh, so now she uses the correct term? Whatever.
  3976.  
  3977. > But her answer doesn't seem to quite be sufficient, and Anonymous looks expectantly in your direction.
  3978. > "Specialist? I'd appreciate some more of your candour."
  3979. > That gets you a strange glance from the Sergeant, which you ignore.
  3980. > You take a moment to collect yourself, and for once, there's no overriding emotion imposing itself on your thoughts.
  3981. "Sir, most of the time, one or two of us will be scheduled to be on standby duty upstairs, waiting for your call. Otherwise, we're never more than half an hour away, occupied in other light duties..."
  3982. > You shrug.
  3983. "... To be perfectly honest, sir, if you're going out into the city, you'd often be doing us a favour sending upstairs for the rest of your escort. Speaking for myself, I'd rather be out working with my VIP, than idling back at the palace."
  3984. > Crossing over to pick up his hat and walking-stick from the rack by the door, Anonymous seems pleased by your answer.
  3985. > "Really? Now you have me curious to find out what the others think. But for now, I think two escorts should be enough. Let's go."
  3986. > And with that, you and the Sergeant both pull open the doors and head out.
  3987.  
  3988.  
  3989.  
  3990.  
  3991. > You are still holding it together as Specialist Lily Glamerspear, but only barely.
  3992. > The moment of emotional calm as you left the Royal Engineer's chambers had been all too brief.
  3993. > It had started creeping up as you were walking the halls of the palace itself.
  3994. > With Anonymous in tow and Sergeant Ebonshield beside you, you'd felt them.
  3995. > Eyes.
  3996. > Eyes all over you.
  3997. > Ordinarily you enjoyed being centre of attention, but this wasn't like that at all.
  3998. > These were judging, questioning, cruel eyes.
  3999. > Every side hallway seemed to have a group of guards eyeballing you and whispering dark things amongst themselves.
  4000. > It wasn't true, you told yourself.
  4001. > It was just the manaburn blow-back screwing with your mental state.
  4002. > But actively trying to disbelieve what your own sick mind was trying to tell you could only get you so far.
  4003. > Worse still, knowing that the paranoia you were experiencing was just a symptom of an illness made you want to take up the Sergeant's offer and report to medical.
  4004. > And that just fuelled delusions of dire consequences for your career if you did so, or for your VIP if you left him alone with the vampiric creature.
  4005. > Exiting the palace had brought the merciful end to side corridors and random groups of guards, and, therefore, a gradual relaxation of the feeling of being watched.
  4006. > It was still early enough in the day that few ponies were out and about in the streets of Canterlot.
  4007. > Those who were, generally had their muzzles to the ground, more interested in getting to where they needed to be than to paying attention to a unicorn, batpony, and tall hairless monkey making their way to Canterlot's fashion district, Poole Street.
  4008. > Still, being in public brought its own emotional horrors.
  4009. > Instead of the madness of being watched by everypony, you had to deal with the terror of being spotted.
  4010.  
  4011. > Visions danced in your head of just one or two of those citizens lifting their heads for just a moment and crying out once they noticed your group.
  4012. > Ruckus, rabble, and embarrassment followed.
  4013. > It made you want to kick your heels and burst into a gallop.
  4014. > But it also made you want to slink in the shadows, hug the walls, and glance nervously around every corner before turning it.
  4015. > The conflicting pulls made your headache even worse, but they were a bit easier to ignore that way.
  4016. > Finally, you'd made it to the store; Bridle Path Clothiers, in Poole Street.
  4017. > Despite the presence of a monster in your group, the salespony had been unflappably obsequious, welcoming Anonymous back like a dear friend.
  4018. > "Ah, Sir Anonymous, it is most excellent to see you again! I hope you will be able to spare a moment for a glimpse at our latest fashions this morning?"
  4019. > And so on and so on, paying absolutely no attention to yourself or Sergeant Ebonshield.
  4020. > Treating you like most VIPs treated their guardsponies, to be honest.
  4021. > But in your current state of mind, that suited you just fine, and soon enough the Royal Engineer was in the change-room with a few neat bundles of freshly-tailored clothes.
  4022. > In the reserved, quiet confines of a colt's clothing shop, you found some tranquil relief from the mana poisoning that had been driving you crazy this morning.
  4023. > The two salesponies on duty busied themselves with adjusting displays and re-arranging clothes, one of them softly humming to himself as he worked.
  4024. > The windows were full of displays and decorations that gave dignified privacy to the mirrored fitting area.
  4025. > The musk of old wood and strong coltish cologne mixed together to form a comfortable, reassuring aroma.
  4026. > Even Sergeant Ebonshield seemed thoroughly unthreatening at the moment.
  4027. > Feeling able to relax, you took the liberty of hopping up onto one of the guest sofas.
  4028. > Deep breaths.
  4029. > It'll all be over soon.
  4030.  
  4031. > You can get through today, and you can get through tomorrow, and you can get through as many days as it takes for this to all wear off.
  4032. > And then maybe, having consciously experienced the whole 'magical overload' thing from end-to-end, even if spread out by the totem's power, you could bring yourself to actually wear your Centurion's badge.
  4033. > That would be nice.
  4034. > As you find yourself reaching a zenith of calm and blissful optimism for the future, the Royal Engineer emerges from the change-room.
  4035. > Instead of his black three-piece suit, he's wearing a pair of white trousers with a colourful pair of red stripes on the sides that continue up into a white long-sleeved T-shirt.
  4036. > It's a considerable upgrade from the ratty grey jogging clothes he claimed to have arrived in.
  4037. > "Well, how's this for cool-weather wear?"
  4038. > Turning his back to you, Anonymous stands before the mirrors and looks himself over, adopting a few simple poses to check the fit.
  4039. > It's a good fit.
  4040. > A very good fit.
  4041. > A very, *very* good fit.
  4042. > You have to snap yourself out of it when the Royal Engineer looks over his shoulder at you, and you realize you've been staring at his plot this whole time.
  4043. "Uh, looks good, sir. Much more fashionable than what you had before."
  4044. > "Excellent! Sergeant, any comments?"
  4045. > Sergeant Ebonshield says something but it just goes in one ear and out the other, as you're back to gawking at your VIP.
  4046. > His new pants tightly wrap the shapely contour of his buttocks; every time he moves to adopt a new pose, you can see his taut cheeks flex and sway.
  4047. > It's hypnotic.
  4048. > Even his shirt hugs the form of his body, and you can make out the ripples of muscle around his broad shoulders and in the small of his back.
  4049. > When he turns to face you, you can make out a firm but flat chest that undulates as he takes deep breaths.
  4050. > Wow.
  4051.  
  4052. > Your admiration for this upright hairless monkey's physical form is briefly interrupted when he dons a hooked pullover handed to him by the salespony.
  4053. > For colder weather, apparently.
  4054. > After pulling it on adjusting it properly, you get another fantastic view of his plot as he does a little jogging in place to feel how it all fits together.
  4055. > "I don't know, it almost feels like it ought to be let out a bit."
  4056. "NO!"
  4057. > Buck, did you just say that out loud?
  4058. > You resist the urge to slap an embarrassed hoof to your face.
  4059. > Anonymous lifts an eyebrow and turn around to look at you, and even the Sergeant narrows her dark eyes slightly.
  4060. "... It looks great as it is, sir. Baggy clothes are extremely unfashionable."
  4061. > There's nothing for it but to continue as if you were being sincere.
  4062. > Rather than making your foalish attraction obvious.
  4063. > The salespony nods and speaks something in agreement with you, but you barely pay any attention.
  4064. > Struggling to regain control, you try to look at anything else -- the other clothes on the racks, the salespony, the Sergeant a few paces away.
  4065. > But with anonymous standing in the fitting area, even the slightest motion he makes is mirrored six times over, and it's impossible to keep your eyes from snapping over to the movement.
  4066. > Unf, you could bounce quarter-bit coins off of that plot of his...
  4067. > You start to feel sweaty and disoriented again, like when you first realized what was going on.
  4068. > Mercifully, just as the heat starts to get too intense to manage, the Royal Engineer heads back into the change-room.
  4069. > However, the removal of the visual stimulus doesn't grant you much of a reprieve from the 'emotional instability' ride.
  4070. > If anything, it makes it worse.
  4071. > Because now your imagination take what you saw, and goes wild.
  4072. > At first, it starts tame, with just the Royal Engineer jogging along in that incredibly well-fitted outfit, and you galloping by his side.
  4073.  
  4074. > But it's warm out, and you're panting.
  4075. > Beside you, the hairless ape with the fantastic plot is breathing heavily as well, his forehead glistening with sweat.
  4076. > With whatever magical ability he has that lets him keep going for so long, you soon find yourself falling behind, unable to go on.
  4077. > You stop, lowering your head to the ground, your neck and chest covered in foamy sweat.
  4078. > That's when you feel powerful arms wrap around your barrel.
  4079. > 'Come with me, Lily', he says, even though you're not on a first-name basis.
  4080. > With an enthusiastic masculine grunt, the alien colt brusquely lifts you up and puts you over his shoulder, as if you're just a sack of oats to him.
  4081. > Sitting in the sofa in the coltswear store, you can almost feel Anonymous' hands supporting your croup and plot.
  4082. > You shift your posture in the seat, but it doesn't change anything.
  4083. > Those nimble fingers of his are dangerously close to some very sensitive parts, and you can swear you can make out every single one of them on you, even though the only thing beneath you in reality is just plushly-upholstered furniture.
  4084. > Then your imaginary Anonymous resumes his jog, at first slowly, and then more vigorously, until you can feel yourself bobbing up and down, riding on his broad shoulders.
  4085. > Closing your eyes, you put a hoof up to your forehead.
  4086. > This isn't real, dammit!
  4087. > You're just sitting on a couch in a clothing store!
  4088. > You're not being carried away on the shoulders of a tall, strong, sweaty beast with a plot that just won't quit.
  4089. > Unf...
  4090.  
  4091. > No, wait!
  4092. > Even if you *WERE* there, at best the Royal Engineer is just helpfully getting you back to the palace.
  4093. > He'll put you down once you've had a chance to catch your breath.
  4094. > It's not like he's going to jog right up the steps to the patio behind his office, sneaking you back into the palace with him where nopony will see you together.
  4095. > And even if *did* do that, it's just because it's the fastest way *inside*.
  4096. > *BACK* inside! The *CASTLE*!
  4097. > It's not like he's going to passionately pull you off of his shoulder, kiss you deeply, lay you down on his bed, and-
  4098. > No, no, no, dammit, stop going there!
  4099. > Just then, the Royal Engineer -- the real one, not your foalish manaburn-induced-fever-dream colt -- emerges from the change-room once more, and your heart skips a beat.
  4100. > Dressed in what the appallingly excellent tailors at the Bridle Path Clothiers have determined would be appropriate hot-weather exercise wear, Anonymous' second outfit leaves almost nothing to the imagination.
  4101. > A halter shirt exposes every inch of the broad, well-muscled shoulders of your dream.
  4102. > Tight, stretchy shorts expose even more of his strong, firm hips and plot.
  4103. > And a large, ample bulge at the front sends your delusion roaring back into the foreground.
  4104. > Now you're on his bed, muzzle down, plot up.
  4105. > You bite your lip in reality as his illusory fingers spread themselves across your flanks, running through the short hair of your sides and belly.
  4106. > He's bent over forwards, his taught abdomen pressing against your back.
  4107. > His hot breath brushes against your neck as he nibbles playfully at your ears.
  4108. > You hear yourself moan, and it takes every ounce of concentration you have left not to make that part of the fantasy a reality.
  4109. > His left hand slowly slips back, and instinctively, you feel yourself lifting your tail to let him in.
  4110. > "Now this is something, isn't it?"
  4111.  
  4112. > Opening your eyes to reality again, the real Royal Engineer is admiring himself in the mirrors, pleased with the way he looks.
  4113. > You find yourself gulping for air in the brief reprieve afforded to you.
  4114. > Over on your left, Sergeant Ebonshield has either become aware of your incapacity for rational thought right now, or decided to simply speak her mind first.
  4115. > "It is very fetching, sir. I think the Great Lord will turn many heads exercising in this."
  4116. > "I didn't really have that effect in mind, but it's certainly very comfortable."
  4117. > Anonymous begins to pose again in the mirrors, performing a few squats, thrusts, and lunges, and the conversation drowns out into a blur.
  4118. > You're back in bed with him, and this time there's no question of innuendo or foreplay any more.
  4119. > One hand grips your shoulder, and the other your hip, as your fantasy-colt passionately gives you the most indescribably orgasmic pounding of your life.
  4120. > Your breath catches in your throat, both in reality and in the fantasy, as he continues inexhaustibly, sweat dripping from his chest onto your back.
  4121. > On the sofa, you bite your lower lip, as on the bed, he lowers his lips and kisses your neck.
  4122. > Over on the fitting-room podium, the Royal Engineer says something to the salespony, but in bed you just hear him moan and grunt with coltish passion.
  4123. > You feel him stop inside of you, in all the way to his hilt, and his hands squeeze you firmly.
  4124. > Unable to contain the figment any longer, you close your eyes in ecstasy.
  4125. > But at the very moment when he squeezes you tightly and achieves his blissful release, something snaps you back to reality.
  4126. > "And would Sir like to be fitted for his Gala suit this morning? Our availability is filling up quickly."
  4127. > Your eyes snap open and the reverie disappears in a flash.
  4128. > The Gala!
  4129. > The Royal Engineer will be invited to the Gala, and that means you might be able to go with him!
  4130. > Bucking awesome!
  4131.  
  4132.  
  4133.  
  4134.  
  4135. > You are still Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and, by the grace of Celestia, you're have managed to avoid making an embarrassing hot mess on the customer sofa in this fancy Canterlot coltswear store.
  4136. > Or maybe not so much by the grace of Celestia herself, as by the fantastic prospect of being able to attend Her Majesty's biggest party in the world.
  4137. > "Gala? What Gala?"
  4138. > Unfortunately, it appears that your VIP is sadly ignorant about this aspect of Equestrian culture.
  4139. > With a genteel grace, the salescolt clues him in.
  4140. > "The Grand Galloping Gala, sir. The most important event in the Canterlot society season."
  4141. > "Oh, really? I haven't received any invitation, however."
  4142. > Bowing his head slightly, the salespony gives a small smile.
  4143. > "As a member of the Blue Chamber, sir will doubtlessly be invited. Her Majesty Princess Celestia issues the tickets personally, and ponies started to receive them a week ago. Invitations to members of the Court are sent last."
  4144. > "I see. And I take it that my everyday outfit is insufficiently ostentatious?"
  4145. > The salespony clears his throat.
  4146. > "Ahem. As the premier Season event, I would say that it is not, Sir."
  4147. > "What do you suggest?"
  4148. > Pulling a white puffed shirt off the rack, the colt draws out its arm to show the style.
  4149. > "Ruffles are considered very stylish this year, sir."
  4150. > Ugh, ruffles.
  4151. "Sure, if you want to look like an old nag."
  4152.  
  4153. > That one you *did* mean to say out loud.
  4154. > It still gets you a look from the Royal Engineer, and a pair of pursed lips accompanied by a raised eyebrow from the salescolt.
  4155. > Time to make good on your interjection.
  4156. > You hop off the sofa and trot over to the small platform where your VIP is still standing before the mirrors.
  4157. > And still dressed in that extremely revealing, skimpy outfit of his.
  4158. > But you've managed to overcome your most recent magically induced mood-swing, so it doesn't bother you any more.
  4159. "... The Grand Galloping Gala isn't just a party, sir, it's *the* party. It starts early in the afternoon and goes *all night*."
  4160. > You point a hoof at your Very Important Pony for emphasis.
  4161. "... Dressing up for the Gala is dressing up for all Equestria to see you. There'll be mares there with hats taller than you stand, or trains dragging behind them like they're getting married. Colts dress to the nines, too, with all styles and colours depending on their race, background, and profession. And ponies who can afford it change dress halfway through so that they can show off twice!"
  4162. > Looking in the mirror, you try to visualize the kinds of clothes that would suit your hairless monkey.
  4163. > It's not easy.
  4164. "... Dignitaries from other nations get invited as well -- griffons, minotaurs, dragons, and more -- and they all put their best hoof, foot, or paw forwards too. I've never been, but the press publishes thousands of photos each year. So, you need a look that projects who you are and what you represent to the rest of the world."
  4165. > You start to think of something, but then mentally put it on hold when you remember what the Gala evening holds.
  4166. "... And there's lots of dancing, too. You do dance, don't you, sir?"
  4167.  
  4168. > Anonymous faces your reflection in the mirror.
  4169. > "I haven't since I arrived, but I was known to dabble in it previously."
  4170. "Well, then, you'll want something you can dance in comfortably."
  4171. > Your vision for Anon starts to form again.
  4172. "... Your normal dress is neutral and matte, which is fine for looking respectable, but doesn't attract attention like a proper Gala suit should. You need bolder colours or shinier clothes, or maybe both."
  4173. > Leaning back, you shoot a glance at the salespony.
  4174. "... Could you bring out some fabric swatches?"
  4175. > He nods, and walks towards the counter.
  4176. > "Hold on..."
  4177. > Everypony looks up, and the Royal Engineer seems deep in thought.
  4178. > "... Shiny, bold, suitable for dancing, and projects what I represent... A White-Tie full dress."
  4179. > Anonymous gestures at the salespony, who quickly pulls out a quill and pad.
  4180. > "... An evening tailcoat, non-closing, in black worsted barathea wool with matching pleated trousers cut for a high waistline, to be held up with shoulder-suspenders. Black silk lapel facings, with a boutonnière-hole on the left side and stem holder behind. Three ornamental black buttons on each breast, four on each sleeve, and two at the back, in the same material. Lapelless waistcoat in white piqué, cut to line up with the tailcoat while covering the trousers waistband. Three buttonholes for three black studs. Stiff-front shirt in the same fabric with removable collar, and trouser tabs to fasten it to the waistband. Buttonholes for mother-of-pearl studs. White bow tie in the same fabric, with Prench cuffs. Patent leather lace-up shoes, wholecut, with inner quilting for comfort while dancing. Black silk socks. Two pairs of white kidskin gloves. To be accessorized with my red Royal Engineer's sash beneath the tailcoat for some colour, and my badge of office in the boutonnière for ostentation. I'll send over some sketches of the ensemble by the end of the day."
  4181. > The salespony scribbles enthusiastically as Anonymous rattles off his list.
  4182.  
  4183. > He details an outfit that sounds like it could work with such confidence that you're actually a little impressed.
  4184. > A colt with a firm idea of fashion?
  4185. > That's kind of hot.
  4186. > Previous unintentional speculatory sofa session notwithstanding.
  4187. > Behind you, even Sergeant Ebonshield seems surprised, blurting out a soft "Hunh!"
  4188. > This doesn't go unnoticed by your VIP, however.
  4189. > "Something on your mind, Sergeant?"
  4190. > The dark pony of the night instantly bows her head.
  4191. > "I apologize, Great Lord. I did not mean to interrupt."
  4192. > Waving his hand, Anonymous beckons her back up.
  4193. > "No, no, by all means, Sergeant, if you've something to say about the proposal, then please speak up. As I've previously told your comrades such as Specialist Glamerspear here, I'm not familiar with Equestrian society, so I appreciate any candid feedback."
  4194. > As if a batpony is going to know anything about society!
  4195. > For once, she seems flustered, and it takes a moment to reply.
  4196. > "It is simply that... It is so very rare to see a colt who can take the advice of his mare, but still make up his own mind. I find it quite refreshing."
  4197. > Apparently, she shares your opinion on this.
  4198. > Batpony mares must have the same problems with their colts as regular-pony mares do.
  4199. > Wait, are there even batpony colts?
  4200. > Or do they just go around stealing regular-pony colts?
  4201. > Hold on...
  4202. > '*his* mare'...?!
  4203. > Does she think you and Anonymous are... ?
  4204. > "Ah, my thanks. Now, perhaps, I'll dress for the street once more, eh?"
  4205.  
  4206. > Receiving a sincere nod of agreement from the salescolt, he heads into the change-room.
  4207. > Leaving you alone with Ebonshield, the salespony hustles over to the main counter and begins to discuss his notes with his coworker.
  4208. > You eyeball the batpony and approach her.
  4209. "I'm *not* the Royal Engineer's marefriend, Sarge."
  4210. > Ebonshield lifts an eyebrow.
  4211. > "No? You could have fooled me..."
  4212. > She turns and glances back at the sofa.
  4213. > Foal of a bitch, she noticed!
  4214. > There's no evidence of your misadventure, though.
  4215. > Taking that last uncomfortable step forwards as she does, the Sergeant looks you in the eyes with your noses almost touching.
  4216. > "... But if you are not, then who is?"
  4217. > Really?
  4218. > She had to get all in your muzzle just for that question?
  4219. > You can't be bothered to step back to regain some personal space, and with a look of disgust, you shrug your shoulders.
  4220. "I don't know. Nopony, I suppose."
  4221. > "I see."
  4222. > There's something really weird about the way she says that.
  4223. > You can't figure out what, though, and, after a moment's pause where nopony says anything, Ebonshield turns away from you and starts to look around the store, leaving you confused.
  4224. > If Anonymous wanted a marefriend, he's just got to get out there and get one.
  4225. > And if Sergeant Ebonshield wants to hit on him, well, that's her prerogative.
  4226. > She'll be disappointed, though.
  4227. > You watch as she prowls around the store like a fox in a chicken coop.
  4228. > After this latest demonstration, it's clear that your VIP is far too clever for her Tartarean machinations.
  4229. > And if she tries anything, well, you'll be there to put her down, sure, but you get the feeling that Anonymous could handle her all by himself.
  4230. > Hopefully, when he dismisses her after this excursion, Sparkshower and Bound don't have any trouble with her, either.
  4231. > Filled with confidence, there's just one question in your mind.
  4232.  
  4233. > In her new schedule, who will Lieutenant Violetta put on duty the day of the Gala?
  4234. > And if it's not you, how will you get your hooves on that posting?
  4235.  
  4236.  
  4237.  
  4238.  
  4239. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are feeling a little confused about everything right now.
  4240. > Glamerspear and Lieutenant Violetta went downstairs to introduce the new Sergeant, the batpony Ebonshield, but they've been gone for over an hour.
  4241. > Do introductions really take that long?
  4242. > Did something bad happen?
  4243. > Or maybe nothing's wrong, and your new Sergeant just had somewhere else to go afterwards.
  4244. > Whatever the case, Corporal Bound had stormed off to the library with a large book, saying she didn't want to wait any longer for Ebonshield to get back.
  4245. > Her frustration with the new team-member was obvious, which was surprising.
  4246. > You've barely known her a week, but you can tell that she doesn't normally wear her heart on her sleeve.
  4247. > So, for her to so publicly broadcast her annoyance must mean she's really upset.
  4248. > And she wasn't the only one.
  4249. > Glamerspear had thrown out every single batpony legend and rumour, and it really seemed like she believed them, in spite of any evidence to the contrary.
  4250. > On the one hoof, you think she took prejudice too far.
  4251. > You'd only just met one of their kind for the first time, after all.
  4252. > But on the other hoof...
  4253. > You have to admit you're a little concerned, too.
  4254. > There were a lot of stories told about the strange nocturnal pony creatures, and most of them were pretty horrible.
  4255. > What if even a few of them were real?
  4256.  
  4257. > And anyways, what was any good Royal Guardspony supposed to think?
  4258. > Nopony had said anything about batponies.
  4259. > They had just sort of appeared, shortly after Princess Luna's return.
  4260. > The official word from Command was that if you didn't already know about batponies, then you weren't supposed to ask.
  4261. > And if you *did* know, then you weren't supposed to tell.
  4262. > When it came to Night Guard, the only things that any regular working pony in the Guard could be sure of was the things they didn't do.
  4263. > They didn't train with Royal Guard.
  4264. > They didn't conduct joint missions.
  4265. > They didn't sleep in the barracks.
  4266. > And they certainly didn't eat in the dining hall.
  4267. > Despite supposedly serving Equestria just as the Royal Guard did, the Night Guard was a completely separate army.
  4268. > There was a whole detachment of them here in Canterlot, but until today you could have counted the number of batponies you'd ever seen on two hooves.
  4269. > So, two, in other words.
  4270. > And those were just glimpses during a large ceremony.
  4271. > Probably nopony else in the crowd even noticed them besides you.
  4272. > Heck, at the time, you weren't even sure that you'd seen actual *bat*-ponies.
  4273. > Only now, after having gotten a good, close-up look at one, could you be certain.
  4274. > But there's nothing else to be done at the moment.
  4275. > It was a big mystery, and it was going to stay a mystery for the time being.
  4276. > And so, you've been sitting on the sofa in the common area of your four-bedroom guard quarters, churning things over in your head, too concerned to just relax and read a magazine or book, but frustrated by the absence of information.
  4277. > It's like... getting a glimpse of an army, but then being held at bay by an invisible force field, unable to go deeper to get a look at the main force.
  4278. > All you can do is report back that you saw the enemy, but unable to provide anything better than wild estimates.
  4279.  
  4280. > You're in the middle of another fruitless round of going over the evidence in your head when the door opens.
  4281. > Sergeant Ebonshield of the Night Guard, and the object of most of your current thoughts, walks into the room.
  4282. > "Ah, Specialist Sparkshower, you are here. Where is Corporal Bound, if you please?"
  4283. > You barely paid attention to it earlier, but she's got an accent.
  4284. > Most obviously, she rolls every 'r'.
  4285. > She also puts stress on almost every syllable, making words that should be short too long, and sharply clipping others down when they should trail off.
  4286. > Her 'if' also sounds more like 'eef'.
  4287. > It's not something you've ever heard before, although it reminds you vaguely of a griffon accent.
  4288. "She went to the library, Sergeant."
  4289. > Remembering that it was only Corporal Bound who insisted on informality in your quarters, you get to your hooves and give Ebonshield a salute.
  4290. > You do refrain from calling the room to attention, though.
  4291. > Mostly because it's just you and her in the room.
  4292. > She properly returns your salute, although she doesn't seem very enthusiastic about it.
  4293. > "That is very inconvenient. But perhaps you can help me instead."
  4294. > Her 'v's come out more like a 'b's, and she overemphasizes the 'h' in 'help'.
  4295. > You watch her carefully as she walks over to her bedroom door, and pushes it open.
  4296. > "... You have something that I want, Specialist."
  4297. > 'something'?
  4298. > Ulp...
  4299. > Maybe some of the legends are true.
  4300.  
  4301. > Looking at her in her room, you see her pull off her sabots; they still have those strange blades running up the sides of them.
  4302. > "... Although I outrank you, since I am not in charge of this quaternion, I cannot order you to give this thing to me."
  4303. > Her weapons removed, she pulls off her helmet and armour as well.
  4304. > It's then that you realize she has a cutie mark.
  4305. > You had completely failed to notice it, earlier.
  4306. > If batponies had cutie marks, then they couldn't be all bad, could they?
  4307. > The image on her flank is a black heater shield surrounded by a pale white glow.
  4308. > As you fail to make out any other features in the dark design, she brushes her tall, pale mane and then returns to the common area, stepping right up in front of you.
  4309. > Sergeant Ebonshield's muzzle almost touches yours, just as she did with Corporal Bound.
  4310. > She's awfully close.
  4311. > How quickly could she just lean over, extend her fangs -- assuming that she actually *has* fangs -- and dig into your neck?
  4312. > Would it even be worth struggling?
  4313. > Maybe she just needs a quick sip?
  4314. > "... So you understand that you are under no obligation..."
  4315. > Oh, phew.
  4316. > That's a stormcloud off your back.
  4317. > "... but I will consider myself in your debt if you agree."
  4318. > Uh...
  4319. > Is... is blood some kind of currency amongst bat-ponies?
  4320. > Just how much is drinking from your arteries worth to her?
  4321. > A few bits like at the blood bank, or...?
  4322. > Wait, what if the batponies RUN the blood bank?
  4323.  
  4324. > You feel yourself start to slip into Glamerspear's paranoia, and decide you need to ground yourself.
  4325. "Er, just to be clear, Sergeant, what are we talking about, exactly?"
  4326. > Without withdrawing even an inch, so that you can feel every breath of her words on your face, she smiles and replies.
  4327. > "I wish to hear about the fight your quaternion got into at Newstirrup Bridge. I understand a 'Lieutenant Kilfeather' was involved?"
  4328. > OH!
  4329. > Ohhhhhhhh!
  4330. > Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
  4331. "Oh! Of course, Sergeant, I can tell you about that. It's not a secret or anything."
  4332. > "Thank you, Specialist."
  4333. > With a smile, she gives you a bow, which you find yourself hesitantly returning.
  4334. > Then she backs away from you and takes a seat in the chair, and you likewise do the same on the couch, before launching into a full account of the battle -- starting with the encounter in the lunch room the day before.
  4335. > All through it, you can't quite get away from the questions that were bothering you before she walked back in.
  4336. > You're not quite sure if you really busted any myths just now.
  4337. > But you certainly didn't confirm any.
  4338. > That's a decent first step, at least.
  4339.  
  4340.  
  4341.  
  4342.  
  4343. > You are still Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you have been having a grand old time with your new comrade, Sergeant Ebonshield.
  4344. > Barring a quick break to go grab some lunch, you have spent the past hours swapping stories about life in the Guard.
  4345. > Well, not so much "swapping"...
  4346. > More like, "you telling every one of your stories".
  4347. > The batpony doesn't share any stories of her own.
  4348. > And you don't ask her to.
  4349. > 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', is the rule, after all.
  4350. > It's a shame, because you're sure that she must have some good ones.
  4351. > She's an older mare, at least in her 30s, and she did admit that she's been a soldier all her life.
  4352. > In spite of her silence, it doesn't feel like she's really holding back the conversation, because she's still engaged in it.
  4353. > Ebonshield congratulates you on your successes, and laughs along with the funny moments, and expresses sympathy for the times when things got tough.
  4354. > And, though she doesn't venture into her own history, she provides some good advice and has a few interesting questions about Equestrian society.
  4355. > She does still occasionally lean in awfully close, though, which can be unsettling.
  4356. > But you have such a good time sharing that you go right through the regular lunch hour, and it's only once you're both feeling a bit worn out that you go to grab a quick bite.
  4357. > Alone, unfortunately.
  4358. > She declines your invitation to the barracks dining room, saying she has some private arrangements in the palace.
  4359. > It's not really a surprise.
  4360. > You can just imagine the stir she would cause walking into the mess hall.
  4361. > Still, it's a disappointment.
  4362.  
  4363. > Back in your quarters after a late lunch, Ebonshield is nowhere to be found.
  4364. > Maybe her lunch ran late, or maybe she had another appointment in the afternoon.
  4365. > Though she didn't mention anything like that.
  4366. > Part of you still wonders if her 'private arrangements' for lunch were more... sanguine... than anything the Royal Guard kitchen could serve up.
  4367. > It's not that the hours of pleasant conversation hadn't convinced you that she was a friendly pony who could be an cordial participant in a polite conversation.
  4368. > They had!
  4369. > But still, the mysteries surrounding her race were still there, and so the questions lingered around half-answered, like unconfirmed scouting reports.
  4370. > Without even anypony to talk to about it, you found yourself slipping back into the same, semi-frustrated, semi-confused, slightly-afraid fugue state as in the morning.
  4371. > It was a quarter past three when Corporal Bound finally returned from the library to get ready for her shift.
  4372. > Trotting in with the huge book slung over her back, she gives you little more than a polite nod as she walks towards her door.
  4373. > "Sparkshower."
  4374. "Hello, Corporal! How did your reading go?"
  4375. > As she passes you behind the sofa, you can see that her eyes have a sort of glazed-over look, like somepony hitting the books hard to study for an exam.
  4376. > "It went."
  4377. > Gosh, that was a brisk wind just now.
  4378. > You try to clear the clouds to let some sunshine in.
  4379. "I had a good, long talk with Sergeant Ebonshield this morning..."
  4380. > Corporal Bound's eyes don't perk up, although she does stop and turn to face you.
  4381. "... She was asking questions about the Royal Engineer, the things we'd done, the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge, that sort of stuff. Then we got more into my own stories, I guess."
  4382. > She just eyes you with that tired, detached stare of hers.
  4383. > It's actually not far from what Sergeant Ebonshield did when she first was introduced, you have to admit.
  4384.  
  4385. > Maybe a little news will perk her up?
  4386. "... Oh! Did you hear that Lieutenant Kilfeather and his squadron packed up and moved their 'Pas de Sabots' to Oldstirrup bridge after we beat them?"
  4387. > Still nothing.
  4388. > Starting to feel a bit awkward here, like one pegasus struggling against a whole hurricane.
  4389. > You force an awkward smile.
  4390. "... What a piece of work, huh?"
  4391. > Corporal Bound stares at you for a good long time.
  4392. > Then, at last, she sighs.
  4393. > "I'm not really surprised, Specialist. Colts like him don't know how to take a 'no' or accept a loss when they don't have to. Glamerspear was right; 'Icepone' didn't get to be the top Air Superiority Fighter in Equestria without being *dangerous*."
  4394. "Yeah..."
  4395. > She picks up her shoulders and continues to her room, but there's still something else nagging at your mind.
  4396. "... So, what do you think of our new team-member?"
  4397. > Honour stops where she is, staring at her door.
  4398. > "You don't want to know what I think of her, Sparkshower..."
  4399. > Still stopped, she looks over her shoulder at you.
  4400. > "... Especially not if you've been hitting it off with her all day."
  4401. > The Corporal couldn't possibly believe the same awful stories about batponies that Glamerspear did, could she?
  4402. > Most of that stuff was just rumours and myths, you were sure of it.
  4403. > And wasn't Honour supposed to be the sensible, level-headed leader of your group?
  4404. > Furrowing your brow, you give a little confused wave of your head.
  4405. "I don't understand, Corporal. What's wrong?"
  4406. > Sighing again, she puts down her book and walks back over to the sofa.
  4407. > "Did she tell you *why* she was here, Sparkshower?"
  4408. > You shake your head.
  4409. "She didn't talk about herself very much."
  4410. > Honour curls part of her mouth up into a scowl.
  4411. > "I figured. Same DADT crap."
  4412.  
  4413. > The Royal Guard's policy on batponies was frustrating, to be sure.
  4414. > What time you hadn't spent hiking up the mountain in the morning or chatting with the new Sergeant during the day, you'd spent trying to piece together the answers to unanswerable questions about batponies.
  4415. > But that didn't make you *dislike* Ebonshield.
  4416. > So why is the Corporal so upset?
  4417. > Clearing her throat and sighing again, she steps over to you.
  4418. > "... I don't like the Sergeant because it's *politics* that got her assigned to this squad."
  4419. > What?
  4420. > Surely the Sergeant didn't have any family in the Guard who could have landed her a (relatively) cushy job like VIP service.
  4421. "I'm not sure I follow you, Corporal."
  4422. > "Listen, Sparkshower, have you ever heard of a Night Guard serving in a Royal Guard squad, or vice versa?"
  4423. "No. We barely even conduct joint operations with them."
  4424. > "That's right, we don't. And can you imagine a batpony being assigned as a VIP bodyguard for anypony other than an alien visitor to our world? Somepony who never grew up to fear Nightmare Moon, or who looked worriedly up at the sky on Nightmare Night? Somepony who never heard hushed stories around a campfire or in a tavern about horrible bat-winged creatures coming to snatch away good ponies in the darkness?"
  4425. > She makes a good point.
  4426. > The Royal Engineer took Sergeant Ebonshield with him to a coltswear store to see his new sportswear.
  4427. > One of the few stories she shared with you.
  4428. > You simply can't imagine any normal kind of Very Important Pony wanting anything to do with her kind.
  4429. > Most of them would be just as horrified as Glamerspear was, or as shocked as you'd been, and probably dismiss her immediately.
  4430.  
  4431. > Only Anonymous, ignorant of the prejudice against her race, would treat her like he does any other kind of pony.
  4432. > And from what you've seen, he's a courteous and friendly colt.
  4433. > Little wonder that Sergeant Ebonshield said she thought he was very pleasant, and admitted she was happy to have him as her VIP.
  4434. > Corporal Bound circles a hoof up in the air.
  4435. > "You see what I'm saying, don't you, Specialist? Somepony up in Command wants to make the first moves to integrate the Royal Guard and the Night Guard. And when they see that the Royal Engineer needs a fourth member for his quaternion, they jump at the chance to put their plan into motion. They don't think that maybe an alien new to our world could use somepony with social experience. They ignore the note I asked Lieutenant Violetta to put in the requisition form on that very topic. And they don't consider the impact that an alien creature walking around with a batpony is going to have on everypony else. Anonymous meets with big names in society: members of the Court, wealthy financiers like JP Mustang, even Galloway Bitsmount is a known name."
  4436. > Lowering her hoof, she shakes her head.
  4437. > "... They don't even bother to arrange any kind of official introductions or joint training so that we can actually get to know each other. Instead, it's 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' as usual, and they just throw Ebonshield in here, without her even having completed the VIP-service training."
  4438. > Honour leans in close, almost whispering in your ear.
  4439. > "... It's *bullshit*, Sparkshower. And a VIP like the Royal Engineer deserves better than to be the victim of a political experiment."
  4440. > The swear word is a shock.
  4441. > She really is upset about this.
  4442. > Turning over what she's said, you can only think of one reply.
  4443. "But what if the experiment works, Corporal?"
  4444.  
  4445. > Honour just shakes her head.
  4446. > "It's still a bad way to do things. I told Anonymous the same thing yesterday when I apologized for making the wrong choice at Newstirrup Bridge."
  4447. > What!?
  4448. "The wrong choice? But, Corporal, we swept them from the skies!"
  4449. > "It was still the wrong decision. I barely won. Glamerspear wouldn't have won without the Royal Engineer bending the rules to act as her spotter. And you..."
  4450. > Softening her tone, she lowers her haunches, pausing.
  4451. > You remember how afraid you'd been, and even though 'Joker' doesn't scare you even one bit now, you start to close up as you remember how close you'd come to losing.
  4452. "I know. If he hadn't given me that pep talk, I might not have won, either."
  4453. > Honour nods.
  4454. > "And that's what made it the wrong choice. I didn't know what we were all capable of. I made a decision based on missing information that I should have known."
  4455. > You can't explain it, but deep inside you feel that she must be wrong.
  4456. > It's frustratingly hard to put into words, though.
  4457. > Your vexation comes out as you lift your head and raise your voice.
  4458. "No, I don't agree, Corporal! Maybe you made a mistake by not doing enough reconnaissance, but even though I was the one who said we should just give up, I'm *glad* you chose to fight!"
  4459. > Almost instinctively, you spread your wings and with a single, powerful, flap, you take to the air.
  4460. > Without your armour to weigh you down, however, you come close to crashing into the ceiling.
  4461. > As if it was all deliberate, you spread your feathers out as far as they can go, as much to stop the upwards motion as it is to hold you in the air.
  4462. "'A good soldier is compelled to evaluate what's happened, so they can apply what they've learned. But when we're out in the field, we have to *push* it.'"
  4463. > It's your favourite quote from your favourite book on the Commandant's Reading List, 'Top Pony'.
  4464.  
  4465. > As you float back down to the ground, you pound one hoof into the other and then point at Honour.
  4466. "... You *pushed* it out there, Corporal. And you pushed *us* out there, too. Now that I've fought against a nimble flyer like 'Joker' and not only survived, but won, I'm not going to be afraid like that again! And I bet you even Glamerspear learned something about how her own magic works, too!"
  4467. > Taking a bit of a reckless chance, you jab one hoof into your stone-faced leader's chest.
  4468. "... And *you* must have learned something, as well. At the very least, you learned what the guardsponies you lead can do; and you learned that your VIP knows a thing or two about leadership and resourcefulness."
  4469. > Wearing a confident stare, you look up into the steady, emotionless eyes of the leader of your quaternion.
  4470. > Leader for now, anyways.
  4471. > Her expression doesn't shift, but she does nod her head ever so slightly.
  4472. > "Maybe you're right, Sparkshower..."
  4473. > Looking off to the side, her nostrils flare as she inhales sharply through them.
  4474. > "... I'll think about what you said."
  4475. > She turns back to face you.
  4476. > "... But I stand by my words about Ebonshield. Whoever is pulling the strings on this, is doing it without a good plan. And I'm sure she *knows* why she's here, too, but she refuses to break DADT even though it's a nonsense rule in this scenario."
  4477. "But what if she's a good soldier?"
  4478. > "Then she's a good soldier, and she'll be useful in a fight. But I still wanted the Guard to do better for Anonymous, because I think he deserves it."
  4479. > There's nothing really you can say for that.
  4480. > Of course you want the best for your VIP, too.
  4481. > At the very least, from your experience in talking with her, Honour is right that Ebonshield is *not* the one to guide the Royal Engineer through Equestrian society.
  4482. > That doesn't mean she can't help.
  4483. > Maybe she has some other talent he can use.
  4484.  
  4485. > Honour interrupts your thought train before it can leave the station.
  4486. > "I've got to get ready for my shift. We can talk about this more, later, if you want."
  4487. "Sure, Corporal. Thanks."
  4488. > Before she walks back to her door, Honour licks her lips and looks up at the ceiling.
  4489. > "And... maybe I'm wrong about Ebonshield, too. Maybe things are going to sort themselves out on that front as well."
  4490. > That brings a smile to your face.
  4491. "I hope so, Corporal."
  4492.  
  4493. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAcMsF2Jbzk (Justin Bell - 'Binder of Fate', from 'Tyranny' [2016])
  4494.  
  4495.  
  4496.  
  4497.  
  4498. > You are Lily Glamerspear, and you are mentally and physically exhausted.
  4499. > It's almost six-thirty in the evening, and your eight-hour shift ended over two hours ago.
  4500. > Eight hours of mostly sitting in front of the Royal Engineer's doors, trying not to go insane as you kept lurching from one emotion to the next.
  4501. > So much for hanging on once you ditched the batpony and the public.
  4502. > You'd thought it would be impossible for your mind to overstimulate itself in a well-appointed palace chamber with your VIP just scribbling away at his desk.
  4503. > But you were wrong.
  4504. > With nothing to seize on, the flushes of emotion got stranger and more random.
  4505. > And it somehow got even worse when he sent you back to Bridle Path Clothiers with his sketches for the outfit.
  4506. > You snuck a glance at his surprisingly detailed drawings.
  4507. > Yeah, your VIP was definitely going to rock the Gala with that sharp outfit.
  4508. > That sent you down a rerun of your earlier sofa nightmare, and ended with you being terrified that you wouldn't get to go with him.
  4509. > Now, after having waited an hour and a half at the infirmary to see a medic, you're sobered up thanks to an antimagic elixir.
  4510. > It put a damper on your horn, but it also suppressed the manaburn blowback.
  4511. > And you've got another twelve once-every-four-hour doses in a saddlebag case, too.
  4512.  
  4513. > In your present lucidity, you realize what a long shot being invited to the Gala would be, anyways.
  4514. > The Grand Galloping Gala was, mostly, a polite event for the members of high society.
  4515. > And like a hat or cloak, a VIP's retinue of guards normally got checked at the door.
  4516. > The small area reserved for retainers was supposed to be a party and a half on its own, but you had your eyes on the bigger prize: full and unfettered access.
  4517. > Your only hope for that was that Anonymous would be both blissfully unaware of tradition, which so far he had proven to be.
  4518. > And that, being unattached, he would simply bring whoever happened to be on duty in as his "plus-one".
  4519. > Considering how he bought a ticket for Sparkshower to sit with him at the Sardinia Theatre, that was a pretty safe bet, too.
  4520. > So long as nopony spilled the beans to him about what those kinds of gestures usually meant.
  4521. > As you approach the door to your quarters, you hope that Sparkshower's there.
  4522. > She's a pal, and the sick-leave chit in your other bag demanded that somepony fill in your shift tomorrow.
  4523. > You push open the door.
  4524. "Hey, anypony home?"
  4525. > "Lily! Where have you been?!"
  4526. > Artemis Sparkshower, bless her heart for being concerned about you, is sitting on the sofa.
  4527. > "... Corporal Bound went down to relieve you over two hours ago! I've been waiting for you to get back so we could go to dinner together!"
  4528. > Aw, that was sweet of her.
  4529. "Sorry. I had to report to medical."
  4530. > Unable to use your telekinesis, and feeling the weight of your armour after all this time in it, you get on your hind legs and lean back to shut the door behind you.
  4531. > Sparkshower hustles over towards you.
  4532. > "Oh, no! What's wrong?"
  4533. > You wave her off with a hoof.
  4534.  
  4535. "It's nothing too serious. Apparently, I'm still suffering manaburn blowback from the fight at Newstirrup."
  4536. > "But that was two days ago!"
  4537. "Yeah, apparently the totem just spreads out the pain instead of neutralizing it. I bet Bound still has a few aches and pains, too. I'll be fine in a few days..."
  4538. > Grinning, you grab one of the potion-vials out of your saddlebag.
  4539. "... the doc's got me hopped up on horn juice."
  4540. > Sparkshower scrunches up her face.
  4541. > "Horn... juice?"
  4542. > Right, she's not a unicorn.
  4543. "Sorry, slang term. Mana suppressant. Temporarily makes it impossible for me to channel magic through my horn. Also eliminates the side-effects of manaburn..."
  4544. > Putting the vial away, you raise your eyebrows at her.
  4545. "... Gets used all the time in 'shoe camp with newbies who don't know how to control their magic and go overboard."
  4546. > Sparkshower looks worriedly at you, and you sigh.
  4547. "... I guess what I did to Kilfeather makes me a newbie again, heh."
  4548. > What should have been a self-deprecating joke just makes her look even more worried.
  4549. > "You don't regret fighting, do you?"
  4550. > She watches you intently as you stagger forwards towards the sofa, then toss yourself into it.
  4551. "No, I don't regret it. But I do feel a bit put in my place, that's all."
  4552. > Collapsing on the sofa, you start to strip off your armour pieces -- manually.
  4553. > Your reassurance brings the smile back to her face.
  4554. > "Oh, good. So what happens now?"
  4555. "Now, I take a couple of days off at least. Which means I need one or you guys to cover my shifts."
  4556. > "I can take your shift tomorrow morning, Lily. You don't have to worry about that."
  4557. > You were hoping she'd say that.
  4558. > She's a good friend, and a good soldier, too.
  4559. "Thanks, Sparks. You're a real pal."
  4560. > She smiles at your compliment.
  4561. > Well, she deserves it!
  4562. > When you think of all the incompetent, mean, or just plain dumb soldiers you've had as squadmates before...
  4563.  
  4564. > Scratching your head now that you're not wearing your armour any more, you look around the room.
  4565. "... Captain Mailedhoof invited me for drinks tonight. I feel a little bad going while on medical leave, though."
  4566. > Sparkshower picks up your helmet and holds out her hooves for more.
  4567. > "You should go! As..."
  4568. > Her expression turns more to worry.
  4569. > "... As long as it's just drinks, right? And alcohol doesn't interfere with the potion?"
  4570. > Leaning back on the sofa, you yank off your sabots.
  4571. "It's just drinks. This is just our first 'date', effectively. We'll just sit and chat in the Officer's Club for a little bit. He'll show me off as a 'friend' of his, at first."
  4572. > You roll your head over to look at your younger comrade.
  4573. "... That's how this usually goes. So I'm afraid you're on your own for dinner, tonight. I've got to have a shower and get changed."
  4574. > She shrugs.
  4575. > "It's OK. I guess it's just one of those days. I had to eat lunch alone, too."
  4576. > That sucks.
  4577. > And who knows how many other creepos like Lieutenant Kilfeather are out there, trying to mack on your number one best buddy?
  4578. > She needs you around to help drive them off!
  4579. > You get to your hooves and, with her help, walk your armour into your room and put it in a neat-enough pile.
  4580. "I promise you we'll do dinner together tomorrow night, Artemis."
  4581. > Giving her a friendly smile, you start to dig into your wardrobe.
  4582. "... Now, where's the dress I was going to wear tonight? Ah, here it is!"
  4583. > You pull out a light, latte-coloured, mid-length camisole cocktail dress, with a 'bodycon' fit.
  4584. > Draping it over one foreleg to show it off, you turn back to Sparkshower.
  4585. "What do you think of this?"
  4586. > Her eyes light up, and it's hard to tell if she's impressed or scandalized.
  4587. > "Holy moley! That's really pretty! But isn't it a bit... revealing?"
  4588. > So it's both, then.
  4589.  
  4590. > You wave a hoof dismissively.
  4591. "That's the point, Sparks. There's no sense wearing a dress with ten layers or a big hoop skirt to hide my shape, when a pretty big reason I'm there is to show off my body, right?"
  4592. > Eyeing her up and down, you put the same hoof up to your chin.
  4593. "... You'd look good in something like this, believe me. Betcha you'd get your long-distance coltfriend galloping out to Canterlot if you send him a photograph of you in one, that's for sure."
  4594. > Now she's a combination of *interested* and scandalized.
  4595. > That's a delicious blend that sets your mind in motion, and you start to imagine how you'd dress up your comrade to kill it at a nightclub.
  4596. "... Hmmm, but this isn't the right colour for you. You'd want a bold primary, like green -- or blue, to match your eyes. We can go shopping someday when we're both off, I'll set you right, don't worry!"
  4597. > Sparkshower nods her head enthusiastically.
  4598. > "Yeah, I'd like that!"
  4599. > Turning around, you push your wardrobe doors shut.
  4600. > As shut as they can go with all the stuff you've got crammed in there, at least.
  4601. "Anyways, I'm going to hop in the shower and get made up."
  4602. > With Sparkshower leading the way, you step back out into the common area, still holding your dress.
  4603. > It's weird to not be using your horn to hold it up, but you'll manage.
  4604. > For some reason, the washroom door is closed, and the light is on inside.
  4605. > Sparkshower notices you heading for it and pipes up.
  4606. > "Oh, Eb -- Sergeant Ebonshield, I mean; she said to call her 'Eb' for short -- is still in there. She's going out tonight, too."
  4607. > Your eyes narrow.
  4608. > The batpony is going out to find somepony's neck to suck on, no doubt.
  4609. > Suddenly, there's a clicking noise and the door opens.
  4610. > And your jaw drops for the second time today.
  4611.  
  4612. > Sergeant Ebonshield emerges from the washroom, her hair styled up even further, and held in place with slightly glittery product.
  4613. > She's put the same product in her tail, which is lusciously bushy but controlled.
  4614. > Her coat is clean and well-brushed.
  4615. > As she blinks, you catch a glimpse of glittery eye shadow, applied sparingly enough that it's still tasteful.
  4616. > And she's wearing a sequined, plum-coloured backless bodycon dress that barely covers her backside.
  4617. > AND she looks *fantastic* in it.
  4618. > Looking her up and down, you can't help but blurt out in shock.
  4619. "What the hay is this??"
  4620. > The batpony lifts a well-trimmed eyebrow up and looks you up and down in turn.
  4621. > "It is a cocktail dress..."
  4622. > She glances at the clothes you're holding, and nods her head at them.
  4623. > "... Like that?"
  4624. > Still in shock, you can't think of a coherent reply.
  4625. > So she just steps over to Sparkshower and, with a smile on her face, blows her a pair of kisses on each cheek.
  4626. > "Now, Artemis darling, don't wait up for me if I'm back late."
  4627. > Sparkshower smiles back.
  4628. > "I won't, Eb! Have a good time out!"
  4629. > Finally, your brain is able to put together some words.
  4630. "Where are you going in that??"
  4631. > She's fiddling with a small matching hoofbag slung over one shoulder, and she looks up at you, incredulous.
  4632. > "I am going out clubbing. Where are *you* going?"
  4633. > You barely stammer out a reply.
  4634. "I'm... I'm going on a date."
  4635. > Sergeant Ebonshield, still staring at you like the idiot you at least temporarily are, shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head.
  4636. > "Have a good time, then. I will see you both tomorrow."
  4637. > Before you can figure out anything else to say, she trots over to the door, waves a hoof goodbye, and leaves.
  4638. > What the buck just happened here.
  4639.  
  4640. "What the buck just happened here, Sparks?"
  4641. > Now even Sparkshower gives you a strange look.
  4642. > "Sergeant Ebonshield dressed up for a night out? I don't understand what's wrong?"
  4643. > You fail to reply, so she continues.
  4644. > "... She's a super nice pony, by the way. She couldn't talk about herself too much, because, you know, DADT, but I had a fun time today telling her some of my stories."
  4645. > Sparkshower was swapping battle-tales with the batpony!
  4646. > The batpony who, apparently, can pull off a bodycon dress better than you can.
  4647. > And they're already on a first-name basis!
  4648. > Bucking maverick Ginny-come-lately dark-horse tenderfoot sleeper-hit batpony stealing both your friend and your look!
  4649. > Buck!
  4650.  
  4651. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KSOMA3QBU0 (Katy Perry - 'Dark Horse' [2013])
  4652.  
  4653.  
  4654.  
  4655. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and today is a great day.
  4656. > It's not because you made a new friend yesterday in the form of Sergeant Ebonshield, your new squadmate.
  4657. > It's not because you get to substitute in for your friend and comrade Specialist Lily Glamerspear, while she recuperates from acute mana poisoning.
  4658. > (Which is a lot more interesting than sitting around the quarters or doing boring training exercises!)
  4659. > It's not even because the forecast calls for sunny skies and warm spring weather.
  4660. > It's a great day, because today you got another letter from your Puddin'.
  4661. > Huckleberry Pudding, your coltfriend back in Berry, after having failed to write you since you last saw him a month and a half ago, at last found time to put quill to paper and send you a dispatch.
  4662. > And in it, he gave heartfelt apologies for how long it had taken him to write, how he'd failed to come visit you, and how he was sorry that he hadn't figured out a plan to move to Canterlot.
  4663. > All good stuff that made you tear up with joy when you first read it.
  4664. > But the contents of the letter honestly didn't matter that much to you.
  4665. > It was enough just to hear from him, to see his signature at the bottom, and to smell the faintest hint his musk on the paper.
  4666. > That's all it takes to send you up to the stratosphere.
  4667. > You're going to write him back tonight, as soon as your shift is up.
  4668. > Maybe you can get some leave to go visit him!
  4669. > Hmmm... Or maybe you should see about doing as Glamerspear suggested, and send him a photograph of yourself in something... risqué?
  4670. > You'd have to think about that one.
  4671. > Your Puddin' was a traditional colt for Berry, and Berry was as traditional a town as they came.
  4672. > You might set tongues wagging in your hometown if you sent your colt a picture of you in a piece of high-cut Canterlot fashion!
  4673.  
  4674. > After all, what Glamerspear and Ebonshield had been wearing last night left basically nothing to the imagination!
  4675. > They might as well have gone around without anything on at all!
  4676. > Which they did all the time, you supposed.
  4677. > But still, a dress without a bustle!
  4678. > Scandalous.
  4679. > And they'd come back scandalously late, too.
  4680. > You were a light sleeper, so you'd heard them all come in.
  4681. > First was Corporal Bound, just after midnight when her shift was over.
  4682. > No surprise or ignominy there.
  4683. > Then Glamerspear staggered in at around one o'clock, her hoofsteps heavy on the floor.
  4684. > She might've had a little too much to drink with Captain Mailedhoof.
  4685. > The antimagic pills surely didn't help, either.
  4686. > Finally Sergeant Ebonshield had come in, quiet as a mouse, at almost four in the morning.
  4687. > You'd barely even heard her -- there was just the quiet fluttering of leathery wings.
  4688. > She was noisier than a pegasus trying their best to be silent, but not by much.
  4689. > Plenty of your kind made a lot more noise flapping about.
  4690. > Anyways, she clearly must have had a good time to have stayed out so long and so late.
  4691. > Hopefully you can bring Glamerspear around to liking her soon.
  4692. > It wouldn't be good to serve as the in-between friend for too long, considering you all had to work together.
  4693. > Clearly, they had some interests in common you could bring up.
  4694. > You didn't think clubbing was for you, but you bet they'd have a lot of fun doing it together!
  4695. > Maybe the next time Glamerspear was in-between 'salt-licks'?
  4696. > Thoughts for later.
  4697. > Still happy and full of energy from this morning's mail slipped under the door, you eagerly knock on the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  4698. > "Come in."
  4699. > Happily pushing your way in to your VIP's room, you sound off.
  4700. "Specialist Sparkshower reporting for duty, sir!"
  4701.  
  4702. > Anonymous is standing in the middle of the room wearing an outfit you haven't seen before, but which looks exactly like his new athletic clothes, as Eb described them.
  4703. > He's doing some kind of stretching, his legs splayed out wide as he bends over to one side to touch his feet.
  4704. > "Good morning, Specialist. You seem to be in a good mood today."
  4705. "Yes, sir, I am!"
  4706. > As you eagerly shut the door behind you, he gets up, and then bends over the other way.
  4707. > "Would I be intruding if I asked why?"
  4708. > Aww, your VIP cares about your happiness!
  4709. > That's nice of him.
  4710. > You feel yourself blushing a little bit.
  4711. "No, sir. I received a letter from my coltfriend this morning."
  4712. > Standing up again and placing his hands on his hips, he gives you a knowing nod.
  4713. > "Ah, I see. I take it he's not in Canterlot?"
  4714. "No, sir, he isn't."
  4715. > He spreads his arms and rotates his torso completely to one side, stretching at the waist.
  4716. > "I hope everything's going well for you two. Long-distance relationships can sometimes be difficult."
  4717. "They're going well, sir. Thank you, sir."
  4718. > The Royal Engineer swivels his shoulders around in the other direction.
  4719. > "I must confess that I was expecting Specialist Glamerspear this morning. I was hoping to make use of my new exercise wear in order to get her final approval. Wasn't she still scheduled on morning duty?"
  4720. "She is, sir, but I'm replacing her while she's on medical leave. Apparently, the MXP Games totem didn't completely protect her from the mana poisoning she gave herself when she took down 'Icepone'. She's suffering headaches and other effects."
  4721. > Your charge stops his exercises.
  4722. > "Oh, no! She should have said something yesterday. I had no visitors, so I could have easily dismissed her to go see a doctor. Is she all right?"
  4723. > In service training, you were told to rarely expect sympathy from a VIP.
  4724. > VIPs were demanding and self-interested to a fault.
  4725. > Anonymous was full of compassion, though.
  4726. > You really lucked out.
  4727.  
  4728. > And Ebonshield was right to have taken a liking to him!
  4729. > The old stories about batponies being miserable villains couldn't possibly be true.
  4730. > No scoundrel could so quickly take a shining to so charitable a pony as the Royal Engineer!
  4731. "She'll be fine, sir. But she's on medication that makes it impossible for her to serve as your bodyguard for the time being."
  4732. > "Well, do give her my best wishes this afternoon. In the meantime, would you care to escort me on a jog around the garden?"
  4733. > Asking you politely, as if you had a choice!
  4734. > It really is a good day to be Artemis Sparkshower.
  4735. "Absolutely, sir!"
  4736. > As your VIP beckons you over and you both head towards the patio door behind his bureau, he pauses and holds up a finger.
  4737. > "You've just reminded me of a question I had earlier, Specialist. What does the 'MXP' stand for in 'MXP Games'?"
  4738. > You almost wince.
  4739. > Even growing up in the simple countryside, this was awkward.
  4740. "Er, it's a little embarrassing, to be honest. The old name for the 'MXP Games' is the 'Grand Tournament of Canterlot', and some ponies still call it that, because every few years somepony in the Royal Guard decides it needs a 'hip', 'cool' new name..."
  4741. > Anonymous raises an eyebrow at you as he unlocks the glass door.
  4742. "... The latest such re-branding has it as the 'Most Extreme Pony Challenge'."
  4743. > With the door open, you take to the air, clutching your spear with one forehoof as you awkwardly scratch your shoulder with the other.
  4744. "... It's generally considered so cringey that everypony always uses the 'MXP' acronym instead."
  4745. > The Royal Engineer snorts, and then begins to laugh.
  4746. > "Ahaha, I know exactly what that's like. We sometimes had the same problem in my world with such things, as well..."
  4747.  
  4748. > As he shuts the door behind you both, he kicks up his heels and heads off.
  4749. > "... But I wouldn't mind hearing a little about the Games, if you're able to talk and fly at the same time."
  4750. > Pfft, as if any pegasus couldn't do that!
  4751. "Sure thing, sir!"
  4752. > You take up a position beside and very slightly above him, and begin to explain to your alien VIP the intricacies of the Royal Guard's annual martial games.
  4753. > The air is cool, but the sun shines down on your wings, filling you warmth.
  4754. > There's a nice breeze in the air, too, sending the tails of your white guardspony's caparison fluttering.
  4755. > It really is nice out.
  4756. > Flying off, with your VIP, you're filled with eager anticipation to see what pleasures the rest of the day holds for you.
  4757. > And, Celestia willing, you'll see your dear Puddin' again soon.
  4758.  
  4759. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IP9h40z0sk (Aretha Franklin - 'Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive' [1962])
  4760.  
  4761.  
  4762.  
  4763.  
  4764. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this sucks.
  4765. > You've got no magic due to mana suppressants, so you have to do everything with your hooves.
  4766. > Which you can manage, sure -- you're no tenderhoof unicorn, unable to do anything without telekinesis -- but it's still not ideal.
  4767. > You've got no interesting activities with Anonymous or even basic training today due to medical leave, so you're stuck upstairs, bored.
  4768. > And the next issue of Cosmoponitan doesn't come out for another two weeks.
  4769. > You've got no best-buddy Sparkshower to chat with, since she's on duty.
  4770. > Instead, you just have tight-lipped Corporal Bound over at the card-table, with her snout buried in a book.
  4771. > And Sergeant Ebonshield is *still* asleep, somehow.
  4772. > At what time did she get back last night??
  4773. > Sparkshower probably knew, but she was already on duty by the time you woke up.
  4774. > You won't find out what she knows until she goes off-duty for lunch.
  4775. > And you won't even be able to enjoy lunch, just like you weren't able to enjoy breakfast, because the mana suppressants blunt the taste of everything so it tastes like sandpaper!
  4776. > GAH!
  4777. > At least last night with Captain Mailedhoof had gone well.
  4778. > It wasn't too busy in the Offcier's Club, so you got to relax a bit after the exhausting day.
  4779. > And Mailedhoof was all smiles & charm, though you could tell he really wanted to move on to the next steps ASAP.
  4780. > Poor colt would've taken you right then and there, if you'd let him.
  4781. > But you had standards.
  4782. > Drinks only got him an icebreaker.
  4783. > Dinner would get him a first taste.
  4784. > After that, it's salt bits for salt licks.
  4785. > And he looked like he had some good licks in him.
  4786. > Ughn.
  4787. > You put a hoof up to your forehead.
  4788. > Thinking about sex gives you a headache right now.
  4789. > Another potential side-effect of the 'horn juice', according to the medical slip.
  4790.  
  4791. > So with all those restrictions, here you were, lying down on the sofa, reading 'De Magia Unicornis': 'On Unicorn Magic'.
  4792. > A classical tome -- and it is a tome, from the size of the thing -- you borrowed from the palace library this morning after breakfast.
  4793. > Sure, it was old and some of the sections were a little outdated.
  4794. > The chapter recommending the consumption of certain herbs, the inhalation of strange alchemical mixtures, and the performing of certain exercises said to increase the size and girth of one's horn were particularly laughable.
  4795. > Besides, everypony knows it's what you do with your horn that counts, not how big it is.
  4796. > But when it came to basic theory and practice of channelling magic through a unicorn horn, it was still hard to beat.
  4797. > And since this was the second time you'd manaburned yourself into what should have been unconsciousness, you figured it was worth a good read.
  4798. > Newbie unicorns can manaburn themselves just opening a door with inefficient technique.
  4799. > It says something about you that you've done it in the course of accomplishing extraordinary feats.
  4800. > Maybe with some practice and a closer examination of your capabilities, you could get closer to being able to repeat them without almost killing yourself.
  4801. > That's a goal worth dealing with the archaic language and excessive word count of the old treatise.
  4802. > Suddenly, there's a knock at the door, interrupting both you and the Corporal.
  4803. > Without waiting for an answer, Lieutenant Temper Violetta walks in.
  4804. > "Good morning, guardsmares. Don't bother getting up. I'm just dropping off your new duty roster."
  4805. > Oh, nice.
  4806. > Now you'll be able to figure out who you have to trade with to get some Grand Galloping Gala action.
  4807. > Lieutenant Vi looks around the common area.
  4808. > "... Where's Sergeant Ebonshield?"
  4809. > You nod at her bedroom door.
  4810. "Still asleep, Lieutenant."
  4811. > This answer does not please the Lieutenant.
  4812. > You smirk internally.
  4813.  
  4814. > "Still asleep at ten-thirty in the morning? ..."
  4815. > She furrows her brow and shakes her head.
  4816. > "... What kind of soldiers are they training over there in the Night Guard?"
  4817. > Composing herself, she snorts dismissively, then walks over to the old duty calendar hanging on the wall.
  4818. > In a quick motion, the Lieutenant pulls the new calendar out of her saddle bag and swaps it for the old one.
  4819. > Then she turns to face Honour.
  4820. > "... Whatever the case, Corporal, I want you to see that she's up and ready for service after lunch. She's on deck for the evening shift."
  4821. > Honour nods, and the Lieutenant continues, muttering under her breath.
  4822. > "... We'll soon see what this 'bat-pony' is made out of."
  4823. > With a quick salute, returned by both you and the Corporal, Lieutenant Vi exits the room and closes the door behind her.
  4824. > You look over at Honour.
  4825. > She's still entirely absorbed by that enormous book she's got in front of her.
  4826. > Whatever it is, that thing dwarfs even your ancient tome.
  4827. > Figuring that there's no time like the present, you get up and head over to check out the calendar.
  4828. > Looks like the Lieutenant has pulled you out of the rotation for the next few days due to your medical leave.
  4829. > Instead, Corporal Bound is back on first-shift duty.
  4830. > Didn't she just get *off* duty?
  4831. > You turn your head to look back at her.
  4832. "Looks like you're up for tomorrow morning, Corporal."
  4833. > She doesn't even lift her head from the book.
  4834. > "I know. I asked for it."
  4835. > You watch as she calmly turns the page.
  4836. > Weird.
  4837. "Didn't you just come off the rotation, though?"
  4838. > "Yes, but I'm not going to let Ebonshield get the day shift until I'm sure she can handle it."
  4839. > Looks like the Corporal didn't trust the Sergeant any more than you did.
  4840. > Good.
  4841. > I mean, really.
  4842. > Sequins on a cocktail dress?
  4843. > What is this, last year?
  4844. > And going out clubbing on a *Monday*?
  4845.  
  4846. > Returning to the calendar, you lift up the page to get into the next month, and find the day of the Gala, thankfully unmarked.
  4847. > It's got Honour scheduled for the day shift and Sparkshower for the evening.
  4848. > Damn!
  4849. > Hesitating a bit, you let the page drop -- casually, so as not to arouse suspicion.
  4850. > Nopony must know that you're interested in a particular date.
  4851. > Otherwise it won't take much for them to figure out why.
  4852. > Returning to your place on the sofa, you position yourself back in front of your book.
  4853. > But your eyes just skip the words, and you aimlessly lift your hoof to turn a page you haven't really read.
  4854. > You've got to get your hooves on the evening shift!
  4855. > That's when all the drinking and dancing will happen, and when the party will really open up!
  4856. > Hmm....
  4857. > Sparkshower does like mingling with high society.
  4858. > But she doesn't seem like the kind of mare to really be into that sort of night-spot activity.
  4859. > After seeing her in that dress, you figure her idea of a cool nightclub probably involves a square dance and a bluegrass band.
  4860. > And you seriously doubt that Corporal Bound cares two clops for a big social event like the Gala.
  4861. > So, in theory, you could take the evening shift from Sparkshower in order to get in on the party at night.
  4862. > And Sparkshower could take the morning shift from Honour in order to get in on the society hobnobbing during the day.
  4863. > The only question was, how should you approach this with Sparks?
  4864.  
  4865. > Sweat starts to form on your brow as you consider the alternatives.
  4866. > Should you come clean from the start?
  4867. > What if she says 'no', though?
  4868. > This could be your only chance!
  4869. > Hardly anypony brings their saltine to an event like the Gala.
  4870. > But if you lie to her and cheat her out of her shift, what will she do if she finds out?
  4871. > How quickly can you convince her to trade with Honour instead of being angry with you?
  4872. > Will you feel good about yourself afterwards?
  4873. > Either way, you have to make the move as soon as possible.
  4874. > Today, even.
  4875. > Any later and the Gala will be wagging on everypony's tongue across Canterlot, and even the morose Corporal might cling to her shift.
  4876. > Amidst all of these questions, you don't even notice that you aimlessly turn the next page using your horn's telekinesis alone.
  4877. > What are you going to do?
  4878.  
  4879.  
  4880.  
  4881.  
  4882. > You are Sergeant Ebonshield of the Night Guard, and it's time to go to work.
  4883. > Yesterday's excursion to the luxury coltswear store had merely been a pleasant diversion.
  4884. > And last night's sampling of Canterlot's nightlife was a payment you hadn't yet earned.
  4885. > You had been hoping that the Majordomo wouldn't slot you in until next week, giving you free reign to fully discover the city, but that was perhaps asking too much of fate.
  4886. > At least she's put you on the evening shift, allowing you to continue with your nocturnal activities.
  4887. > All you had to do was just push them back an hour or two, until after your job was done.
  4888. > And what fun it was to at last get out of the stifling rookery!
  4889. > Unfettered and un-escorted access to Canterlot, at any time of day, without any need for special permission or a specific mission assignment.
  4890. > That had been your demand when the request came in to the Duskwatch for a volunteer to immediately join three Royal Guards on VIP bodyguard duty.
  4891. > Nopony else had stepped up, despite the origin of that call-to-arms.
  4892. > Since you were the sole candidate, you'd felt entitled to dictate a few terms.
  4893. > It was a little surprising how quickly they'd been accepted, but then again, your demand had been easy to rationalize.
  4894. > After all, an escort was expected to occasionally also serve as a courier.
  4895. > In any case, the decision to confine your kind to the caves was so far proving to be unnecessary over-protectiveness.
  4896. > The salesponies in the coltswear store hadn't blinked an eye at the batpony in their midst.
  4897. > Although perhaps that had been because you were escorting a large and even more alien-looking creature.
  4898. > Yet your experiences last night had gone the same way.
  4899. > You hadn't provoked a riot just trotting into a club.
  4900. > Sure, there was the feeling that some ponies were avoiding your general area.
  4901. > And you certainly turned some heads.
  4902.  
  4903. > But there was no drought of company on the dance floor or at the bar.
  4904. > Anyways, everypony gawks at a new face, dress, mane, tail, or pair of wings in a nightclub.
  4905. > What a shame that none of the colts had really caught your eye last night.
  4906. > Ah, well.
  4907. > Going clubbing on a Monday was bound to result in slim pickings.
  4908. > Things would doubtless pick up towards the end of the week.
  4909. > You'll have plenty of time to think about it for the next eight hours.
  4910. > Arriving downstairs at the chamber doors of the Great Lord Anonymous, Royal Engineer, you knock on the door.
  4911. > Specialist Sparkshower immediately opens it wide, obviously expecting to be relieved at this time.
  4912. > But, since your new patron had taken lunch in the city for a meeting, she hadn't been informed of the change of schedule.
  4913. > And she's a little shocked to see you as a result.
  4914. > You look her properly in the eyes.
  4915. "Specialist Sparkshower, I hereby relieve you."
  4916. > "By the pea-Oh, uh... I stand relieved, Sergeant."
  4917. > Strange.
  4918. > Looking a little confused, she slaps one of her hooves to her forehead in salutation.
  4919. > You return the gesture, though it still feels unnatural to do.
  4920. > Did she expect you to say something different?
  4921. > Perhaps there is some special ritual phrase the Royal Guard uses for a changing of shifts?
  4922. > No matter.
  4923. > You can ask her about it later.
  4924. > After the salute, she trots out past you, allowing you in.
  4925. > The Royal Engineer's room is as you saw it yesterday.
  4926. > Except now the Great Lord himself is sitting at his writing desk, scribbling away with a quill.
  4927. > Holding the handle down so as to avoid the latch making any noise, you take up your position and silently close the door behind you.
  4928. > Now comes the boring part of this new assignment.
  4929. > No less boring than standing around in the rookery all day, though.
  4930. > And with the promise of far more exciting rewards.
  4931.  
  4932. > Over at the bureau, the Royal Engineer glances up from his papers.
  4933. > "Good evening, Sergeant. I didn't realize the Lieutenant was going to put you into the rotation so soon."
  4934. "Great Lord, with Specialist Glamerspear on temporary medical leave, your majordomo doubtless felt it best to assign me so as to avoid overworking the rest of the *cuaternio*."
  4935. > That was the formal word for a group of four bodyguards in your native language, but you couldn't remember the correct translation.
  4936. > It was probably similar in enough in both tongues to be understood, though.
  4937. > "Ah, I see. Carry on, then. I'm just going over some marketing materials that the publisher has sent over."
  4938. > The publisher?
  4939. > The publisher for what?
  4940. > You're not here to pepper the Great Lord with questions that you ought to be able to answer yourself, so you'll just have to ask one of the other guardsmares about it later.
  4941. > Remembering what Glamerspear told you about addressing the Royal Engineer, you answer as if everything he said made perfect sense.
  4942. "Yes, sir."
  4943. > Anonymous pauses in his quill-work and looks up at you in earnest.
  4944. > "I suppose you may have heard this from the others, or gathered it from what I said to you yesterday, but please feel free to speak up - in private, of course - if you ever believe that I need some education in Equestrian customs."
  4945. > It was not very likely that you would be able to help him much on that front.
  4946. > Still, after having heard the whole story from Specialist Sparkshower yesterday, you did already have some ideas.
  4947. > Turning on your hooves to face him, you bow your head.
  4948. "If the Great Lord wishes, I have two things that might be said, based on what I have heard of his experiences so far."
  4949. > The Royal Engineer raises an eyebrow and puts down his quill.
  4950. > "Oh, really? I'm all ears, Sergeant."
  4951.  
  4952. > You lift your head again.
  4953. "The first one is more of a suggestion than a lesson, sir. I understand that the Great Lord considered participating in the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge when his group was accosted by bandoleros..."
  4954. > Anonymous puts one hand up to his chin, giving you his full attention, so you feel entitled to address him directly.
  4955. "... However, according to Specialist Sparkshower, you chose not to fight because you had never been trained in combat. I suggest therefore that you undertake such training as soon as possible, in case you are ever accosted in such a manner again."
  4956. > Your VIP shakes his head and waves one of his hands in a gesture of dismissal.
  4957. > "I'm an engineer, not a soldier, Sergeant. I'm not here to fight with anyone. And anyways, surely, with your comrades having so soundly beaten Lieutenant Kilfeather's squadron, nopony will challenge them, or us, again."
  4958. > If he thinks that, then the Royal Engineer definitely is as he says -- not a warrior.
  4959. "With respect, Great Lord, I find that it is typically the opposite. I understand that the First Canterlot Air Superiority wing was regarded as being a most potent force, with many great victories on their record. Now that the retinue of the Great Lord has overcome such a group thought to be 'the best', this will merely invite new challengers seeking to obtain such a title for themselves. The Lieutenant may also try for a re-match, and it would be wise to have new tactics prepared."
  4960. > Leaning back in his chair, he indicates you.
  4961. > "I suppose that does makes sense. But as for new tricks, I do have a fourth soldier, now. Which brings a question to mind, actually. I'm curious, how do batponies fight?"
  4962. > It's the wrong question to ask, and almost a little offensive.
  4963. > But you anticipated it, and anyways, the Royal Engineer couldn't be expected to know anything about your kind.
  4964.  
  4965. > You bow your head again.
  4966. "We fight in many manners, Great Lord, just as the other members of your retinue cannot all be said to fight similarly..."
  4967. > Lifting your head, you look him in the eyes and decide to go for a little cheek.
  4968. > Based on what you've seen of him so far, you think he'll appreciate it.
  4969. "... But if the Great Lord meant to ask how his newest servant fights, perhaps that would best be demonstrated directly, on the training field."
  4970. > The Royal Engineer chuckles, and you feel satisfied to have read him correctly.
  4971. > "Hah, all right. I'll think about it, Sergeant. I suppose I could treat it as exercise, at least."
  4972. > You nod respectfully.
  4973. "I trust the Great Lord will make the correct decision in this matter."
  4974. > Gathering up a few papers and then pounding their edges on the desk to arrange them neatly, your charge clears off the space in front of him.
  4975. > "There was a second thing you wanted to say, as well?"
  4976. > Ah, now for the more sensitive matter.
  4977. "It is more of a question for the Great Lord, based on what I have heard."
  4978. > As you speak, he turns his chair and pours himself a glass of water from the jug on a small sideboard up against the window behind him.
  4979. > "A question? A question about what?"
  4980. > Having a sense of humour was one thing.
  4981. > The other was knowing if this creature was as prudish as so many of Equestria's ponies seemed to be.
  4982. > Specialist Glamerspear yesterday, for example.
  4983. > She so obviously fantasized about the Royal Engineer, yet she pointedly denied being his marefriend.
  4984. > If that was the way she felt about him, then why didn't she do something about it?
  4985. > Perhaps she was merely under the effects of this 'manaburn' illness afflicting her at present.
  4986. > That would be a convenient excuse.
  4987. "I am simply wondering when the Great Lord will make his selection from the guardsmares which have been given to him."
  4988.  
  4989. > Turning back around, your VIP has a glass of water in one hand and a detached look on his face.
  4990. > "And what am I supposed to be selecting?"
  4991. > As you answer, he takes a drink.
  4992. "Which of the mares to *bed*, sir."
  4993. > The Great Lord Anonymous, Royal Engineer of Equestria, jolts forward in his chair and sprays the mouthful of water he'd taken all over his neatly-stacked pile of papers.
  4994. > Wiping his mouth, he looks up at you, incredulous.
  4995. > "I beg your pardon??"
  4996. > It appears that you may have misjudged.
  4997. > ¡Ay, sombras malditas!
  4998.  
  4999.  
  5000.  
  5001.  
  5002. > Despite expectorating all over his paperwork, and the look of shock on his face, your VIP doesn't appear to be angry.
  5003. > Your question clearly jarred him, but he's not about to throw you out for it.
  5004. > Maybe you haven't made that big of a mistake.
  5005. > You just need to explain yourself.
  5006. "I apologize if my question has offended you, sir..."
  5007. > The Royal Engineer is still sitting there, stupefied, and you take a few steps closer to his desk so that you aren't talking to him from across the room.
  5008. > Did he really have no idea?
  5009. > You hadn't expected this.
  5010. "... I assumed that you were aware of the history of this tradition -- of assigning guards to single VIPs."
  5011. > Anonymous puts down the half-empty glass and places his hands on the desk.
  5012. > "Her Majesty told me it was a boon, to ensure my 'security and dignity'."
  5013. > Is that what the ancient custom has devolved to, here in Equestria?
  5014. > Or is that just what the Princess of the Sun told him, knowing it was still more than that?
  5015. > Maybe it would have been a good idea to undergo the VIP service training first, after all, to get a handle on the social differences.
  5016. "I'm sure it is for this as well. But originally, it's a form of hospitality. An unmarried dignitary arrives at court without an entourage. Custom obliges the host to provide their guest with all the creature comforts they require... Including companionship."
  5017. > Mouth still agape, he squints at you.
  5018. > "Are you saying *that's* the reason why I've only been assigned mares?"
  5019. "For a colt, yes. Unless it is known that they have other preferences."
  5020. > If he did, your assignment was likely to be very short.
  5021.  
  5022. > Oh, well. At least you got out for one night.
  5023. > Your VIP puts a hand up to his forehead.
  5024. > "I'm sorry, Sergeant, but this is the first I've heard of such a tradition, and it's a bit of a shock. Are you absolutely certain of what you're saying?"
  5025. > A good question.
  5026. > Do you dare expose your ignorance in this matter?
  5027. "It is an ancient custom, but one that my people still follow..."
  5028. > You leave that ambiguous statement hanging for a few seconds, before deciding to come clean while still clinging to your original statement.
  5029. "... The Court of Canterlot may see things differently now, but there is always gossip about VIPs engaging in dalliances with their retainers. And you have been assigned four eligible mares-"
  5030. > The Royal Engineer interrupts before you can continue.
  5031. > "Eligible?! Sparkshower was just telling me this morning about her coltfriend!"
  5032. > Hah, as if having a coltfriend stopped anypony before.
  5033. "But you took her out to the theatre with a ticket, Great Lord. If she accepted, she must have had some idea of the significance of such an act."
  5034. > With hands balled up in fists on the table, your VIP quickly snaps out a follow-up question.
  5035. > "And what is that significance?"
  5036. > Really?
  5037. > He doesn't know this, either?
  5038. > His ignorance is almost amusing, and you can't help but sway your shoulders playfully.
  5039. "It means that you consider her a partner, rather than merely a bodyguard."
  5040. > What was growing anger dissipates in a flash as your VIP hunches forward and puts his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes.
  5041. > "Oh, bloody hell..."
  5042.  
  5043. > He holds that position for a little while, breathing deeply.
  5044. > Having apparently recovered, he leans back in his chair and spreads his hands on the desk.
  5045. > "... I suppose that would explain the rather odd look I received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when I suggested that she sit beside me."
  5046. > Sparkshower hadn't mentioned that the proposal had happened right in front of somepony else.
  5047. > In fact, her description of the event had been, compared to the rest of her stories, unusually terse.
  5048. > Doubtless she was simply being modest about her side relationship with her VIP.
  5049. "Yes. The custom is generally kept private."
  5050. > The Royal Engineer waves a finger in the air, shaking his head.
  5051. > "No, I'm sorry, Sergeant, but I disagree. The Chancellor may have been embarrassed by my proposal, but I made my intentions for that evening very clear, and nothing more came of it. Specialist Sparkshower has not behaved as if we have any kind of special relationship, and neither have I."
  5052. > It's a strange feeling, to have him push back against your suggestion without becoming upset.
  5053. > By now, any other colt would have chased you out with shouts and blows.
  5054. > Perhaps, as you hoped, he's not a prude.
  5055. > But it is obvious that he is woefully innocent.
  5056. > You take a few more steps closer for good measure.
  5057. "Well, what about Specialist Glamerspear, then, sir?"
  5058. > "What *about* Specialist Glamerspear?"
  5059. "She made fashion recommendations for the Great Lord; that is a sign of some intimacy."
  5060. > He scoffs.
  5061. > "She made fashion recommendations because she was *embarrassed* to be seen with me in my old jogging clothes. And while I thought they were still perfectly serviceable, I understood her sentiment."
  5062. "Certainly, sir. But yesterday I thought she was being very familiar you; she was almost about to design you an outfit for the Gala herself."
  5063.  
  5064. > The Royal Engineer waggles a finger in the air.
  5065. > "There's nothing provocative about that. It's perfectly ordinary for a fashionable mare to make such suggestions."
  5066. > And still this colt pushes back!
  5067. > Time to yank secrets out from underneath the shadows and expose them to the light.
  5068. > Tilting your head back, you try to suppress a sly grin.
  5069. "The Great Lord is perhaps unaware of her reactions to seeing him in his new exercise outfits. She was very appreciative of the physique of the Great Lord."
  5070. > The Royal Engineer furrows his brow for a moment, then opens his eyes wide when he realizes what you mean.
  5071. > But he smiles and shakes his head again.
  5072. > "If she thinks I'm a good-looking colt, well, then, I'm flattered, but that doesn't mean anything either, Sergeant. I believe she's interested in her own social standing and appearances, and simply wants to make sure she's seen guarding a fashionable colt. It's in my own self-interest to oblige her."
  5073. > This is turning into a parlour guessing-game.
  5074. > You're out of actual evidence, so you turn to questions instead.
  5075. "Then what about Corporal Bound, sir? Has she made no attempt at intimacy?"
  5076. > "Certainly not. The Corporal has been unfailingly professional."
  5077. "She has never shown an interest in the activities of the Great Lord, outside of what is required for her duties?"
  5078. > The Royal Engineer looks around aimlessly, then shrugs his shoulders.
  5079. > "Well... There's my book, I suppose. The culmination of my work here in Equestria so far. I gave her a copy to read two days ago."
  5080. > Ah, so that's where she got it!
  5081. "This would be rather large volume that she has been studying intently upstairs all day, yes? I understand she spent most of yesterday reading it in the library, as well."
  5082. > This does seem to fluster him.
  5083. > "I... It is fairly lengthy, yes. And it needs to be read seriously to be understood."
  5084.  
  5085. > It certainly sounds to you like she's interested in him.
  5086. > But you're growing a little tired of always being the one to force the argument, so instead you simply shrug suggestively.
  5087. "If the Great Lord says it is so, then it must be."
  5088. > Like a proper hot-blooded colt, he picks up on your false acquiescence.
  5089. > "I'm not sure I appreciate your tone, Sergeant. What's your interest in this?"
  5090. > As you reply, you take the final few steps forward, until you're standing just in front of his sizable desk.
  5091. "My interest is in serving the Great Lord to the fullest of my abilities. And, as I am most enthusiastic about this assignment, the Great Lord will perhaps, in his mercy, forgive my eagerness to find out if certain of my abilities will be required."
  5092. > Pursing his lips, the Royal Engineer looks you over.
  5093. > "I have the distinct impression that you aren't referring to your combat skills, Sergeant."
  5094. > Matching sarcasm with obsequiousness, you give a bow.
  5095. "The Great Lord is most perceptive. And, may I say, that I look forward to the opportunity..."
  5096. > That gets you nothing more than an arched eyebrow, so you continue.
  5097. "... I understand that the Great Lord has been in Equestria for many months now, without any form of companionship. Doubtless a colt of his stature has certain appetites which have gone unsatisfied in this time..."
  5098. > The Royal Engineer continues to look slightly askance at you.
  5099. "... If the Great Lord wishes, it would be my privilege to sate them."
  5100. > Without trying to force it too hard, you put on an inviting look.
  5101. > As much as you were surprised at Specialist Glamerspear for fantasizing in public, you had to admit that the thought of coupling with this colt was a bit exciting.
  5102. > Who knows; as naive as he was about social customs, perhaps this alien would make for an interesting lover.
  5103. > "I don't want to offend any social customs, Sergeant, but-"
  5104. > You stop him right there.
  5105. "It is no offence if you decline, sir. But I think you should reconsider."
  5106.  
  5107. > "And why is that?"
  5108. "Because the Princesses - both of them, or else I would not be here - have bestowed this boon upon you for a good reason. I am not privy to their intentions, but traditionally it has been to make visitors feel welcome."
  5109. > Taking a sip of what little water remains in his glass, the Royal Engineer dismisses your remark.
  5110. > "That's ridiculous. I've never felt anything less than welcome here."
  5111. "I will not dare to suggest that the Princesses are unaware of your feelings, so it must have been for another reason, and it was not simply concern for your carnal desires."
  5112. > He puts down the glass and cocks an eye at you.
  5113. > "But you just said-"
  5114. "I am merely suggesting, Great Lord, that such companionship is simply a means to an end."
  5115. > Having said your peace, you feel a bit drained.
  5116. > Arguing with colts can be so tiring, sometimes.
  5117. > At least this one is civil.
  5118. > The Royal Engineer exhales sharply, puffing his cheeks.
  5119. > "Frankly, Sergeant, you're suggesting things that I would never have considered possible in Equestrian society. But I can't help but notice that you say 'my people' as if they are distinct from the rest of the nation."
  5120. "That is because they are, Great Lord. The 'batponies', as we are called, are not yet integrated into Equestrian society. My presence here is doubtless an attempt to improve on that situation."
  5121. > Waving a wing and a hoof towards the door, you indicate the rest of the castle.
  5122. "... To everypony else, we are as alien as you are, and worse, because we are known to them in their stories as heathens, barbarians, and even monsters."
  5123. > You grin.
  5124. "... And being such, this is why we still honour such 'barbaric' traditions as the one I have just described."
  5125. > "I see..."
  5126.  
  5127. > The Royal Engineer rubs the bridge of his nose.
  5128. > "... This is rather a lot to take in at once, Sergeant. Let's hold off discussing this further until later."
  5129. "Of course, Great Lord. It was not my intention to upset you in this manner."
  5130. > "I think it might also be wise if you would confirm the truth of this 'tradition' with the others."
  5131. > You cock your eye at him.
  5132. "Does the truth of it matter any more now, Great Lord?"
  5133. > Before he can interject, you continue.
  5134. "... If one, or several, of your retinue has caught your eye, then I see no reason why, tradition or no, you should not feel entitled to respectfully court them. Or likewise, for you to accept or refuse any of their advances, either."
  5135. > Wearing a sly grin, you shrug your shoulders.
  5136. "... I have already made my proposal, after all. And the offer remains open."
  5137. > Sucking on his lips, the Royal Engineer nods.
  5138. > After a moment, he smacks his lips and gives a thin smile.
  5139. > "How about we start with the combat training first, Sergeant."
  5140. > Ah, the classical diplomatic response.
  5141. > You are indeed blessed with a most dignified VIP.
  5142. > This promises to be a very interesting assignment.
  5143. > Bowing your head, you retreat back to your post at the door.
  5144. "Of course, Great Lord. I shall make the necessary arrangements."
  5145.  
  5146. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=619kpa_xms8 (Tchaikovsky - 'Danse Espagnole' [Spanish Dance], from 'Swan Lake')
  5147.  
  5148.  
  5149.  
  5150.  
  5151. Recommended background music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrGmuInMc0o (Rik Schafer - 'Disturbed and Twisted', from 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' [2004])
  5152.  
  5153. "Hey Sparks, do you think you could trade me a shift next month?"
  5154. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this is the most difficult thing you've ever done.
  5155. > The cream-coloured pegasus looks up at you from the other end of the sofa.
  5156. > "Sure, what day?"
  5157. > Maybe it's just the horn juice screwing with you, or maybe it's lingering effects of the manaburn, but you feel like you're sweating buckets.
  5158. > The sofa's going to be soaked when you get up.
  5159. "The fourteenth. It's a Saturday, I know. I've, uh, got kind of a private engagement that evening. Maybe you have a weekend I can trade for it afterwards?"
  5160. > You knew full well that she did.
  5161. > As if you're embarrassed to even ask, you grin and awkwardly rub your shoulder.
  5162. > With a smile and a nod, Sparkshower gets up from the sofa.
  5163. > Over at the card-table, Honour was still buried deep in that huge book of hers.
  5164. > It's even worse having her in the room, but what else can you do?
  5165. > You've got to get this done now, before it's too late.
  5166. > Your comrade walks over to the calendar.
  5167. > She hadn't come back upstairs at lunchtime; the Royal Engineer had taken her out for lunch instead.
  5168. > Apparently they'd 'jogged' halfway around the city before realizing it was lunch-time.
  5169. > Time seems to stand still as Sparkshower lifts up the current page to examine the duty roster for April.
  5170. > Come on, come on, come on...
  5171. > You glance, almost angrily, over at Honour.
  5172. > She's still deep in that book.
  5173. > Well, she'd better stay that way!
  5174. > Nosey mare ought to keep her snout out of your business.
  5175.  
  5176. > Over at the calendar wall, Sparkshower lets go of this month's page, and it seems to crash down back into the wall with a heavy thud, like thunder in the distance.
  5177. > She turns around incredibly slowly.
  5178. > And her head somehow precedes her body, staring at you even as her torso and neck are still facing away.
  5179. > You picture her furious, her teeth bared, wings extended -- except they're leathery bat wings, instead of pretty feathered ones.
  5180. > She opens her mouth, and suddenly fire shoots from it.
  5181. > The flames reach across the room to lick at your body, and you can feel the heat from them.
  5182. > But you're frozen in place, your muscles locked up, and your eyes fixed into her gaze.
  5183. > Sparkshower speaks in an unnaturally low voice, and you the whole palace rumbles with each syllable.
  5184. > "It looks like I'm on for the twenty-first in the evening, same as you the week before..."
  5185. > The words come out so slowly that you struggle to make out each one.
  5186. > And all the while, far end of the room seems to twist itself into a spiral.
  5187. > Since when was the washroom door in the ceiling?
  5188. > "...Sure, I can do that no problem!"
  5189. > You blink, and she's standing immediately in front of you now.
  5190. > She's smiling at you, but then her eyelids open wider and wider, stretch back across her brow and over across her head.
  5191. > You try to gasp, but before you can make a sound, she's peeled herself right open.
  5192. > What the buck!?
  5193. > Somepony, make it stop!
  5194. > In spite of the horror of what you're witnessing, you feel yourself smile and hear yourself speak.
  5195. "Thanks, Sparks. You're a pal."
  5196. > There's a sharp pain at your left temple all of a sudden.
  5197. > You lift up a hoof to rub it, only to find there's something there.
  5198. > Glancing over sideways, you realize it's a whole spear, sticking out of your head.
  5199. > It's glowing, and it's translucent, and it's teal.
  5200. > One of yours!
  5201.  
  5202. > And there's something at the far end of it.
  5203. > The shaft stretches out past the couch, almost reaching the far wall, which has moved itself a hundred yards away.
  5204. > You don't dare move your head an inch, lest you knock it into something.
  5205. > You've just got to reach up, and reel it in to find out what's at the end.
  5206. > The spear turns to rope in your hooves, and you tug it closer and closer, bringing the far wall with you.
  5207. > It's something white and fluffy-looking.
  5208. > What is it?
  5209. > Just when you've almost got it close enough to take a good look, there's an unearthly crack from beside you.
  5210. > Corporal Bound's twisted her neck three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around, and bent it over backwards away from her book.
  5211. > She looks at you with two eyes, and then over at Sparkshower with another pair.
  5212. > There's a pulsing, pumping noise coming from somewhere, like the bellows of a forge.
  5213. > Even with a spear sticking out of your head and two comrades that seem to have suddenly taken calisthenics to a new extreme, somehow this sound is even more horrifying.
  5214. > It's so regular, rushing in and out in heavy throbs.
  5215. > The whole room seems to beat along with it; everything gets close when it pushes out, and then backs off when it draws in.
  5216. > You can't even think, it's so loud.
  5217. > But when Corporal Bound opens her mouth, it suddenly stops.
  5218. > "You know, Sparkshower..."
  5219. > No, no no...
  5220. > "... that's the day..."
  5221. > NO, NO, NO!
  5222. > "... of the Grand..."
  5223. > Why is it suddenly so hard to breathe?
  5224. > "... Galloping..."
  5225. > youcantbreatheyoucantbreatheyoucantbreatheyoucantbreatheyoucantbreatheyoucantbreatheyoucantbreatheyoucantbreathe
  5226. > "... Gala."
  5227. > Gasping for air as if you'd been held underwater, you draw in a huge breath.
  5228. > The mana suppressants!
  5229. > You need another dose, right the buck now!
  5230.  
  5231. > Scrambling forwards, you flail your hooves at the potion-satchel sitting on the coffee table.
  5232. > In the blink of an eye, you snatch up one of the vials, pop the cork, and throw it back like a cheap shot.
  5233. > The cold fluid drips down your throat, and the pain -- and the spear -- seem to disappear.
  5234. > The room untwists itself, and Corporal Bound turns her head back the right way again.
  5235. > Even Sparkshower has her body the right side out now, but she's giving you a look.
  5236. > A very angry look.
  5237. > "IT IS?!"
  5238. > Buck.
  5239.  
  5240.  
  5241.  
  5242.  
  5243. > You are Sergeant Ebonshield, and so far this first shift has been quite enjoyable.
  5244. > After your little discussion with the Great Lord Anonymous, you were feeling excited.
  5245. > It was hard to actually say what particular thing excited you the most.
  5246. > The prospect of further nights enjoying the life of metropolitan Canterlot probably ranked the highest.
  5247. > But you had to admit that your were also eager to see what new prospects awaited you in the service of the Royal Engineer.
  5248. > Who knows? Perhaps he would even prove to be a reasonable fighter?
  5249. > It would be nice to have a new sparring partner, at least.
  5250. > Hmmm...
  5251. > You should discuss the possibility of training with the other members of the 'cuaternio'.
  5252. > No, the *quaternion* -- that was the word in the common tongue, you remembered it, now.
  5253. > Either way, it would be a good idea for you all to train together at least once or twice a month.
  5254. > Artemis did say that Corporal Bound had regretted that before the Battle at Newstirrup Bridge.
  5255. > But why hadn't she done anything about it yet?
  5256. > Didn't the Royal Guard expect their VIP serviceponies to conduct some manoeuvres with each other?
  5257. > How else were they going to fight together to defend their Lord or Lady?
  5258. > Questions for later, you supposed, though they might have been answered had you attended at least one or two sessions of the VIP training.
  5259. > Actually finishing the course was, of course, out of the question.
  5260. > If not for other reasons, then at least because you had better things to do.
  5261. > Like, for example, to try out another nightclub tonight.
  5262.  
  5263. > Somepony last night had recommended a place called 'The Stables', in Thin Street, near Pachyderm & Palace Square.
  5264. > Reportedly, it attracted a livelier crowd than the one you'd tried last night, called 'Tapestry'.
  5265. > 'Tapestry' was probably a perfectly enjoyable place on a Friday or Saturday night.
  5266. > But you still needed a home after sunset for the other five nights of the week.
  5267. > And, since the Royal Engineer didn't seem to have taken any real offence at your suggestions, you were going to have the opportunity to find one.
  5268. > You can already hear the music pumping in your ears, smell the cider and the sweat, and feel the wonderful warm heat of so many bodies pressed together.
  5269. > And always the tantalizing thought that one of those bodies out there might belong to you, that night.
  5270. > Ahhhh...
  5271. > But for now, though, things were quiet.
  5272. > Your charge was at his desk, hunched over a stack of papers, one hand on his forehead, and the other scribbling furiously away with a quill.
  5273. > Even here over by the door, you can hear him muttering numbers under his breath.
  5274. > It must be very important.
  5275. > Every now and then, he has to reach over to grab another sheet to refer to.
  5276. > No books, though -- just papers.
  5277. > And some of them were quite large, folded up like maps.
  5278. > He's deep in thought when there's suddenly a loud thud coming from the floor above.
  5279. > Instinctively, your head pivots up to try to suss out the source, but it's indistinct.
  5280. > It's not like anything crashed through the ceiling.
  5281. > Somepony must have just tripped and fallen down in the hallway upstairs, or perhaps accidentally knocked over a piece of furniture.
  5282. > You're about to dismiss it and settle back in, when there's another boom -- and what sounds like a heavy hoofsteps.
  5283. > Squinting, you stare up once more, swivelling your ears around forwards.
  5284. > Perhaps if you flew up, you could get a better sense for what's going on...
  5285. > But that would probably disturb the Great Lord's in his work.
  5286.  
  5287. > Not to mention, violate his privacy -- the movable partition wall that divided the chambers in two separated off his bed chambers, but it was only about eight hooves high, whereas the ceiling must be thirty or forty.
  5288. > As you're pondering how to investigate, you can hear voices.
  5289. > Two of them, it sounds like...
  5290. > No, three, and they're shouting at quite loudly, though still not loud enough for you to make anything out.
  5291. > "Hmm. Sounds like somepony's having an argument..."
  5292. > Over at his desk, the Royal Engineer has paused in his writing.
  5293. > He gestures up at the source of the disruption.
  5294. > "... What's up there, actually? I've never been upstairs."
  5295. > As a recent immigrant to the palace, with its winding passages and sometimes confusing layout, you have to think about that question for a moment.
  5296. > The answer, when it comes, has you feeling enveloped in a cold shadow.
  5297. "They are the rooms housing the members of your quaternion, Great Lord."
  5298. > Anonymous frowns.
  5299. > "Really? You're lodged directly above this room?"
  5300. "Yes, Great Lord."
  5301. > "I hope nothing is wrong."
  5302. > So do you.
  5303. > Just then, there's another boom -- accompanied by a crash.
  5304. > You knicker, and are about to say something, when there's a shout from upstairs which *is* loud enough to be understood, even though the ceiling.
  5305. > ~"... AT LEAST I'M NOT MAKING FRIENDS WITH THE *BAT*-PONY!"~
  5306. > Inhaling deeply, you rudely fail to look your Lord in the eyes even as you address him.
  5307. "If the Great Lord would permit my absence for but a moment, I will investigate this disturbance."
  5308. > In the corner of your eye, you see Anonymous nod and lick his lips, then lay his quill on a pad.
  5309. > As you quickly pull open the door, still watching the ceiling, he leans back in his chair and picks up a small pen-knife.
  5310. > Gracefully exiting the room and shutting the door behind you, you break into a silent but rapid flight, going straight for the staircase.
  5311. > Somepony upstairs will answer for this.
  5312.  
  5313. > With the room behind you, you don't see the Royal Engineer pick his quill back up and sharpen it with the knife.
  5314. > And as you make for the stairs, you're too far away to hear the rest of the argument.
  5315. > You don't, for example, hear shouted reply that comes after a few more heated, but relatively quiet lines.
  5316. > ~"... BUT YOU DON'T EVEN *LIKE* ANONYMOUS! ... "~
  5317. > You certainly don't see Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria, put down his quill and knife, look up at the ceiling, furrow his brow, and then get to his feet.
  5318.  
  5319.  
  5320.  
  5321.  
  5322. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you can't believe the scene of destruction before you.
  5323. > The sofa has been flipped over backwards, its cushions strewn about the edges of the room after having been used as projectiles.
  5324. > Both club chairs have been toppled, one of them winding up wedged halfway inside the bathroom.
  5325. > A decorative metal buckler on the wall has been knocked off its nail by the force of an errant pillow.
  5326. > The room's copper water-jug and set of cups on the side-table are spilled all over the floor in a wet puddle, knocked down by the buckler as it went.
  5327. > And, standing on their hind legs amidst this carnage, panting heavily, are your two Specialists, one of them with wings flared and the other with a glowing horn.
  5328. > When the fight broke out, it was all you could do to shield Anonymous' book before things started flying.
  5329. > Now that both mares are catching their breath, it's time to put your hoof down.
  5330. "Specialist Sparkshower! Specialist Glamerspear! That's enough!"
  5331. > As if suddenly aware of the mess they've made, both of them glance around the room, then turn to face you.
  5332. > Stern, you hold their gazes just long enough for their angry expressions to turn sheepish.
  5333. > Then you shake your head, staring at them in turn.
  5334. "... Sparkshower, look at the mess you've caused!"
  5335. > Instantly, the cream-coloured pegasus gets off her hind hooves and drops down to sit on the ground, meekly lowering her head and flatting her ears.
  5336. > As bad as her contribution was, though, you know who really instigated this.
  5337. > And you give Glamerspear a firm point with your right forehoof.
  5338. "... And Glamerspear, I can't believe you'd try cheat a comrade and a friend!"
  5339. > Instead of sitting down, your unicorn squaddie brings her hooves up to her face, her lip quivering.
  5340. > Oh, don't you go and-
  5341. > "BAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWHHHH!!!..."
  5342. > Too late, she's bawling her eyes out.
  5343.  
  5344. > With red eyes and a face like she'd just been forced to eat a whole bucket of rotten lemons, Specialist Glamerspear holds her hooves out to Specialist Sparkshower in supplication.
  5345. > "... I AM *SO* SORRY, SPARKSHOWER!!! I don't know what came over me! I can't believe I did that to you!. Buhuhuhuhhuuhwwwuuunnn..."
  5346. > Her convulsive blubbering seems to be infectious, because you see Sparkshower's lower lip start to shudder as well.
  5347. > "... Ca-ca-ca-ca-can you forgive me, Sparks? Please, I'm so sorry, boohoohuhhuhuhahwaaaaaaa..."
  5348. > Just when it appears that the unicorn is about to fall forwards onto all four hooves, you see her aggrieved squad-mate rush forward to prop her up.
  5349. > And now they're sobbing loudly in each others' hooves.
  5350. > "buhuhuhuhahuhh-I FORGIVE YOU, LILY!-buuuhuhohuuu"
  5351. > "huhuhuhuhaaaaa-THANKS, ARTEMIS, I DON'T DESERVE YOU!-bahuhuhuhhhhhnnn"
  5352. > Celestia on a stick, these two!
  5353. > At least they've stopped fighting, though.
  5354. > You can spare them a few minutes to get it all out of their system before you make them clean up the results of their mayhem.
  5355. > For now, you just shake your head at the unbelievable antics of these two tenderhooves.
  5356. > When the tears finally dry up and they're done snivelling, they back off from their mutual lamentation clinch.
  5357. > That's when the door to the quarters swings open.
  5358. > All three of you turn to look.
  5359. > It's Sergeant Ebonshield, her nose turned up and a look of displeasure on her face.
  5360. > "You have interrupted the meditations of the Great Lord..."
  5361. > She makes her declaration slowly, her eyes jumping between each of you.
  5362. > Before you can reply, she steps up in front of you, getting her snout right up in your face.
  5363. > "... Corporal, I will have an explanation for this disturbance."
  5364.  
  5365. > Even though you can feel her fur against your nose, you don't budge an inch.
  5366. > While you're still in charge of the quaternion, disciplining the juniors was your responsibility, not hers.
  5367. > Her place was downstairs with the Royal Engineer, even if the noise had upset him.
  5368. > And, frankly, it hadn't been that long or that loud, so you doubt it had.
  5369. > But she still was a Sergeant, and you a Corporal.
  5370. > Even if it was a made-up rank, said to match whatever her real title was in the Night Guard, it still meant you owed her an answer.
  5371. > Without backing up one bit, you reply calmly, but firmly.
  5372. "Sergeant, Specialists Glamerspear and Sparkshower had a disagreement just now. It's over, and they are reconciled."
  5373. > The batpony's eyes narrow, the slit pupils expanding horizontally to compensate as she squints vertically with her eyelids.
  5374. > "A disagreement? A disagreement about what, exactly?"
  5375. > You ponder how much to tell her.
  5376. > She doesn't need to know anything, and you don't doubt that Lieutenant Violetta will back you up if there's any question about who's in charge of the quaternion.
  5377. > But as much as you dislike what she *represents*, you have to admit that you don't have that much to dislike about her personally.
  5378. > Until now, you hadn't even said three words to her since she was first introduced.
  5379. > But Sparkshower, admittedly the happy-go-lucky optimist of the squad, claims to have made fast friends with her.
  5380. > And burying your nose in Anonymous' book had been your way of avoiding having to interact with her.
  5381. > So maybe stonewalling her would just be setting your working relationship up for failure.
  5382. > That wouldn't be fair to her, and although not much in the Royal Guard or life in general *was* fair, you certainly didn't want to have a hoof in screwing over somepony, especially if you'd only just met them.
  5383.  
  5384. "Specialist Glamerspear tried to trade shifts with Specialist Sparkshower under a false pretext, in order to ensure she would be accompanying Anonymous on the evening of the Grand Galloping Gala. Since I have the morning duty that day, I pointed out the significance of the date, and when Specialist Sparkshower confronted Specialist Glamerspear with this fact, the latter suggested that Sparkshower trade shifts with me, which I refused. An argument erupted which quickly boiled over into the hurling of both insults and furniture..."
  5385. > You shoot a telling glance over at the two wet-cheeked Specialists.
  5386. "... both of which actions the Specialists now sincerely regret, don't they?"
  5387. > As Sergeant Ebonshield turns her gaze away from you and over towards them, they both snap to attention and salute her.
  5388. > "Yes, Sergeant!"
  5389. > "Yes, Sergeant!"
  5390. > The purple batpony inhales sharply.
  5391. > "I see..."
  5392. > Stepping away from you, she approaches the argumentative pair.
  5393. > "... I am very disappointed. I was told that to enter the VIP Service was a great honour, and a great privilege, and that many guardsponies are turned away because they do not meet the high expectations for a personal bodyguard..."
  5394. > Turning her head left and right to survey the room, she makes a final pronouncement.
  5395. > "... You are not meeting my expectations."
  5396.  
  5397. > There's a glum sniffle from Sparkshower, and you're worried the waterworks are going to start again.
  5398. > Ebonshield isn't done with them, though, and she starts to circle the unicorn.
  5399. > "... Specialist Glamerspear, do you think that you are *entitled* to be in the presence of the Great Lord at the events of your choosing?"
  5400. > Her reply comes immediately.
  5401. > "No, Sergeant!"
  5402. > "Do you think that assisting the Great Lord in the selection of his outfit for the Grand Galloping Gala merits you a place at his side?"
  5403. > Again, there's no hesitation in her response, but you can see the gears that thought about saying 'yes' turn haltingly in her head.
  5404. > "No, Sergeant!"
  5405. > "Then perhaps you think that you will be better able than Specialist Sparkshower to assist the Great Lord at such a social event?"
  5406. > The gears are spinning freely now, and she doesn't answer, instead glancing over at Sparkshower.
  5407. > Sergeant Ebonshield stops in front of her, nose held high.
  5408. > "... Well?"
  5409. > Glamerspear locks her gaze forward once again.
  5410. > "Er... Maybe?"
  5411. > The moment a coherent word comes out of Glamerspear's mouth, the Sergeant shoves her face forward, right up against the unicorn's snout.
  5412. > "You are not empowered to make that decision, Specialist Glamerspear! The privilege of deciding which guard is best suited for what task lies with the soldier in charge of your unit, Corporal Bound, and the Majordomo in command of the mission, Lieutenant Violetta, and, if need be, the Great Lord Anonymous himself!"
  5413.  
  5414. > Maintaining her uncomfortably close posture for several seconds as if to emphasize the point, Sergeant Ebonshield eventually draws back.
  5415. > "... What was the reason for which you tried to usurp the authority of the Corporal Bound?"
  5416. > She turns her head slightly, looking in your direction as if to acknowledge you.
  5417. > "... I am asking this question on the behalf of the Corporal because, as she is a veteran warrior, I do not doubt that in this moment her fury burns brighter than all the stars in the sky, and such a fire would consume any lesser creature who happened to be found in her presence. A lesser creature such as you, Specialist!"
  5418. > Glamerspear is caught off-guard by the strange poetic metaphor, and you have to admit that even you are feeling a bit confused.
  5419. > Was that a backhanded insult for the fact that you didn't leap into intense questioning the two guardsponies?
  5420. > Or was she, in her alien ways, genuinely paying you a compliment and trying to serve as your second?
  5421. > Either way, it merited some closer attention.
  5422. > Specialist Glamerspear clears her throat.
  5423. > "Sergeant, I, uh..."
  5424. > "Yes, Specialist?"
  5425. > Having attracted the Sergeant's attention once more, and no doubt feeling like she was back in horseshoe camp, Glamerspear shifts back into 'Yes, drill sergeant!' mode.
  5426. > "Sergeant, this guardspony did greedily see an opportunity of a lifetime to attend the most important social event in Canterlot, and proceeded to villainously try and cheat her way into it at the expense of her comrades."
  5427. > That gets her a sniff and a raised eyebrow from the Sergeant.
  5428. > "'Opportunity of a lifetime', Specialist? Yes, indeed, if you keep behaving like this! I have no patience for dishonourable guardsponies, and neither does the VIP Service nor, indeed, the Royal Guard!"
  5429. > She leans in close again, almost touching snouts.
  5430. > "... And am I also to understand that you find some fault in your comrade for being overly welcoming to the Great Lord's newest servant?"
  5431. > Glamerspear gulps.
  5432.  
  5433. > "Sergeant, this guardspony did, in the course of the disagreement, say and do a number of things which she now thoroughly regrets and did not, in good conscience, intend."
  5434. > Again there's the pause for effect from the Sergeant.
  5435. > Even though she's doing what should be your job, and at the expense of her assigned posting downstairs, you have to admit, she's doing a decent job of it.
  5436. > And she must have asked Anonymous to excuse her for a few minutes before leaving him alone.
  5437. > "I see, Specialist. Very well..."
  5438. > Apparently finished with dressing-down Glamerspear, Ebonshield turns her attentions to Sparkshower.
  5439. > "... And what have you got to say for yourself, Specialist Sparkshower? This elegantly-furnished room, so generously provided for your use by the custodians of the castle, even though a guardspony is satisfied with a bedroll in a dungeon oubliette -- why is he in this state so miserable?"
  5440. > She seems to slip into her native alien grammar during her tirade, with a strange word order, and referring to the room as a 'he'.
  5441. > But it has the intended effect on Specialist Sparkshower.
  5442. > "Sergeant! This guardspony did, during the course of the disagreement with Specialist Glamerspear, carelessly abuse the generously-provided furnishings in her fury!"
  5443. > Once more, the nose-shove.
  5444. > Not even the drill sergeants at 'shoe camp could get right up in your snout like that.
  5445. > It takes some real skill to get in so close, so consistently, without winding up in an accidental boop.
  5446. > Which would just ruin the whole intimidation effect, to be honest.
  5447. > Ebonshield must have had some serious practice with this.
  5448. > Maybe she'd been a drill instructor in the Night Guard?
  5449. > "Yes, very careless indeed, Specialist Sparkshower! I hope for your sake that nothing has been permanently damaged!"
  5450. > She pauses for emphasis, narrowing her eyes.
  5451. > "... And I am given to understand that you believe Specialist Glamerspear is not sufficiently invested in the subject of this operation?"
  5452.  
  5453. > Referring to the comment about Glamerspear not liking Anonymous, no doubt.
  5454. > Well, if those were the only two lines that they'd heard downstairs, that wasn't too bad, you supposed.
  5455. > Those were the most biting accusations, sure, but at least they didn't hear all the profanity.
  5456. > You suspected Glamerspear of knowing some foul language, but Sparkshower really surprised you.
  5457. > Country ponies had a strange ability to string otherwise-incoherent insults together into something really nasty, and despite her usual cheery demeanour, apparently she was no exception.
  5458. > "Sergeant! This guardspony did make such a baseless accusation during the disagreement in an attempt to discredit her fellow guardspony, Specialist Glamerspear."
  5459. > That would probably be the end of this little inquest of hers.
  5460. > She'd covered everything, and the two former belligerents were now both thoroughly chastised.
  5461. > After another few seconds' pause, you are proven right, as Sergeant Ebonshield steps back from the Specialists, turns around to face you, and bows.
  5462. > "Corporal, is there anything else I may address for you at this time?
  5463. "No, Sergeant."
  5464. > After you answer, she raises her head again.
  5465. > "I shall therefore return to my post. But if I may make one last parting statement?"
  5466. > You nod, and Ebonshield addresses herself to the junior soldiers.
  5467. > "... Gentlemares, you seem to be labouring under the assumption that you are in control of your own destinies while on duty. I assure you that this is not the case. While you are on duty, there is only one who controls the question of your fate..."
  5468. > She lifts a hoof for emphasis.
  5469. > "... That one is the Great Lord Anonymous, Royal Engineer of Equestria, and this question, only he can decide!
  5470. > The door to the quarters is still wide open, but somepony knocks at it anyways.
  5471. > "Only I can decide what?"
  5472.  
  5473. > Four sets of eyes go wide.
  5474. > The Royal Engineer stands in the doorway, in his trousers and shirt but without his jacket, his hands hanging at his sides.
  5475. > "Great Lord!"
  5476. > Ebonshield bows, but you're fixated on your charge and patron.
  5477. > He's got an expression unlike any you've seen him wear before.
  5478. > It almost looks like he's... hesitant?
  5479. > "I'm sorry for intruding in your quarters, but I heard my name mentioned..."
  5480. > Sparkshower goes pale, and Glamerspear was on the verge of hyperventilating.
  5481. > "Great Lord, I apologize for the disturbance. Corporal Bound has already seen to its end. Please, allow me to escort you back downstairs, that you may continue your work."
  5482. > The Royal Engineer of Equestria fidgets with his hands.
  5483. > "Oh... All right, I suppose. I just wondered if, er, if I could be of any help here. That's all."
  5484. > What's gotten into him?
  5485. > This is not the confident VIP you know.
  5486. > Did Sparkshower's accusation unbalance him that much?
  5487. > Or did Ebonshield say something to discomfit him earlier in her shift?
  5488. > Either way, seeing him like this is a bit of a shock to you.
  5489. > "No help is required here, Great Lord. I apologize for the state in which you find these chambers. There was a disagreement, but it has been resolved."
  5490. > "Um, what was the disagreement about?"
  5491. > Although she's been speaking to the Royal Engineer on her own, as if she's in charge here, Ebonshield glances over at you, obviously asking your permission to continue.
  5492. > Well, to be fair, she's the pony on duty right now.
  5493. > It only makes sense for her to be addressing herself to Anonymous under the circumstances.
  5494. > You shrug your eyebrows at her.
  5495. > Might as well tell him the truth if he wants to hear it.
  5496.  
  5497. > She appears to understand your gesture, bowing her head to him slightly before she speaks.
  5498. > "Great Lord, the disagreement between Specialist Glamerspear and Specialist Sparkshower was over the question of which of your retinue would have the privilege of escorting you to the Grand Galloping Gala next month."
  5499. > Bizarrely, there's some red in his cheeks, all of a sudden.
  5500. > He looks tellingly over at Sparkshower and Glamerspear, who both seemed ready to die of embarrassment.
  5501. > Which would damn well serve them right.
  5502. > "Oh... If that's the problem... Am I only allowed to bring one guard to the Gala?"
  5503. > Now that's an interesting question.
  5504. > You didn't know anything about guard rules at the Gala, having never given the event any serious thought.
  5505. > Here's exactly the kind of situation where a socialite Royal Guardspony from a minor noble house would have been of great benefit to have as the fourth member of the quaternion.
  5506. > Instead of an alien batpony.
  5507. > But in this particular case, Glamerspear, having taken initiative with her scam attempt, probably knew all the details.
  5508. > You lift an eyebrow and give her a nod.
  5509. > She clears her throat before speaking, getting a stern glare from Sergeant Ebonshield.
  5510. > "Uh, strictly speaking, guests aren't allowed to bring *any* guards into the Gala proper..."
  5511. > With everyone's attention on her, she picks up a bit.
  5512. > "... It's considered that all guests are under the protection of Their Majesties, so any escorts are left at the door and sent to their own little 'party room'."
  5513. > Glamerspear dips her head meekly.
  5514. > "... But since you're bound to be issued *two* tickets, I figured you'd probably just take whoever happened to be on duty in as a guest rather than a guard."
  5515. > The Royal Engineer licks his lips.
  5516. > "And you both wanted that?"
  5517. > They nod, and Sparkshower pipes up.
  5518. > "Even Corporal Bound was interested!"
  5519.  
  5520. > You could hoof-slap your forehead right about now.
  5521. > Way to go, Sparkshower.
  5522. > Make a mess on the floor, and then show it proudly to the VIP.
  5523. > The room is silent as the Royal Engineer looks down at you, and around at everypony else.
  5524. > Then he just shrugs.
  5525. > "Well, er, is there any reason I wouldn't be able to get my hands on two extra tickets?"
  5526. > Glamerspear's eyes go wide and her jaw drops like she's just been told she won the Equestrian State Lottery.
  5527. > "Uh... Sure... If you asked for a couple more, I don't think anypony would say 'no'. I just... never considered that you'd do such a thing."
  5528. > Anonymous slips his hands into his pockets.
  5529. > "I mean, if it means that much to the three of you, I don't see why not. You too, Sergeant, if you're interested."
  5530. > Rather than bowing, she just smiles and nods her head, blinking slowly.
  5531. > "I would consider it a privilege and an honour, Great Lord."
  5532. > That seems to cheer him up a bit, and you see the smile creep back onto his face and the confidence come back into his voice.
  5533. > "So it's settled, then. I'll ask for five tickets in total."
  5534. > "Uh..."
  5535. > Piping up, Sparkshower awkwardly scratches one foreleg with the other.
  5536. > "... Could you make it six, sir?"
  5537. > She smiles, blushing so heavily she can't even bring herself to look the Royal Engineer in the eyes.
  5538. > "... I'd... I'd really like to be able to invite my coltfriend to come."
  5539. > Lifting an eyebrow, Anonymous grins and gives a friendly laugh.
  5540. > Now he's back in proper form.
  5541. > "Hah, all right, six tickets it is..."
  5542. > He jerks his head towards the staircase at the end of the hall.
  5543. > "... Now, I've intruded up here on the servants' floor enough for one day. Let's head back downstairs, Sergeant, so the clean-up operation can begin."
  5544. > Stepping out of the doorway, he departs, and Ebonshield follows after him, shutting the door behind her.
  5545.  
  5546. > You turn to the two idiot Specialists in your charge.
  5547. > If Equestria could be powered by smiles, Sparkshower's would fuel the nation for a hundred years.
  5548. > "Wow! Did you hear that, Lily? We ALL get to go! Huckleberry too! Ooh, I can't wait to write to him tonight!"
  5549. > Glamerspear tries to smile, but she just looks tired.
  5550. > "Yeah. Hey, Sparks, can you do me a favour?"
  5551. > That sets Sparkshower on guard again a little bit, given the current context.
  5552. > "Um, maybe?"
  5553. > Well, at least she's learning.
  5554. > Glamerspear chuckles weakly, then steps over to the coffee table to grab her medicine pouch.
  5555. > You furrow your brow.
  5556. "Didn't you just take one of those before the fight?"
  5557. > Before you've even finished, she's popped another one of the mana suppressants.
  5558. > "Yeah, I did, Corporal. And I was still using my horn during the fight..."
  5559. > She looks over at Sparkshower, putting a hoof up to her horn and groaning in pain.
  5560. > "... Can you do your jerk-ass friend a favour and help me drag my sorry butt to medical, Sparks?"
  5561. > Glamerspear looks down at the empty vial.
  5562. > "... I've been taking double doses of this stuff since last night, and I still feel awful."
  5563. > The pegasus pony approaches with a regretful smile on her face.
  5564. > "Of course I'll help you there, Lily."
  5565. > As they make for the door, you clear your throat.
  5566. > The two 'shoes stop to look at you, and you nod at the awful mess they're leaving behind.
  5567. > There's a gulp and a groan.
  5568. > Ugh.
  5569. > Rolling your eyes and shaking your head, you point at the door.
  5570. "Get out of here, and don't forget that you both owe me for this."
  5571. > "Thanks, Corporal."
  5572. > "Thanks, Corporal."
  5573. > As they leave, you start to put the room back in order.
  5574. > In every squad, there's always one troublemaker.
  5575. > Lucky you.
  5576. > You've got two.
  5577.  
  5578.  
  5579.  
  5580.  
  5581. Suggested background music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P0nOoetWjM (Austin Wintory - 'Everyone has a Price', from 'Assasin's Creed: Syndicate' [2015])
  5582.  
  5583. > "That's it. That's all you've got to do, Songwell. Think you can manage it?"
  5584. > You are Phillip Songwell, Foremost Teamster of Bitsmount Silver Mine, and you're not sure that you can.
  5585. "I don't know, Mister Bitsmount. It sounds simple, but what if we're found out?"
  5586. > Across from you, your boss, Galloway Bitsmount, sniffs his cognac and then takes a sip.
  5587. > "We won't be found out, Songwell -- not if you stick to the script. Do I have to go over it again?"
  5588. > Swirling the expensive liquor in its fancy glass around with one hoof, he puts the other on the table.
  5589. > "... We'll go in front of Celestia, and you'll tell her it was *your* idea to reduce the timber allotment. You did it because you were under a lot of pressure to improve the productivity of the mine..."
  5590. > Mr. Bitsmount holds the glass up to the window high up in the ceiling, admiring the colour of his drink in what little light percolates through the stained-glass window into this basement tavern.
  5591. > "... You didn't realize that somepony could have gotten hurt. You didn't realize that that's why there's been so many mine collapses. You're ashamed to know that your decision could have caused disaster. You have trouble sleeping at night now that it's been made clear to you what you've done."
  5592. > The young mine-owner cocks an eye at you.
  5593. > "... Lay on the emotions thick and heavy, Songwell."
  5594. > With a frown, you paw at your mug of ale.
  5595. "Is that really all it's going to take?"
  5596. > He guffaws.
  5597. > "Pfft! You shed a few tears, Songwell, and watch Her Majesty lap them up. She loves serving as a confessor, hearing ponies regret all the misdeeds they've done. And she loves forgiving them even more. It's not just ponies, either..."
  5598.  
  5599. > Another long sniff, then a quick sip from your boss.
  5600. > "... How d'you think Discord keeps getting out? She even goes and forgives him, whatever-the-Tartarus he is, instead of keeping him locked up."
  5601. "I s'pose that's true."
  5602. > Lifting the sizable mug, you take a gulp of the Ploughpony's Brown Ale.
  5603. > The cool, malty flavour does much to assuage your nerves about this whole affair.
  5604. > Lying in open court to Her Majesty the Princess!
  5605. > It was almost treasonable.
  5606. > You get a bit hot under the collar just thinking about it.
  5607. > Hopefully, nopony notices.
  5608. > "Take another drink, Songwell. You look like you're steaming up over there, and the dense air in this cellar can't be helping."
  5609. > Obliging your boss, you do as you're told.
  5610. > What the Tartarus, he's paying for it anyways.
  5611. > And a lot more, too, if he comes out clean at the end of this inquest.
  5612. > "Anyways, after you've confessed and, ideally, broken down in tears while proclaiming your intention to resign post-haste, I'll rush to your side and, reassuring you that forgiveness is the root of all charity, or some other such drivel, ask, nay, demand to be punished in your stead."
  5613. > It does seem like it would make a striking scene.
  5614. > You can just picture the headlines on the evening papers.
  5615. > 'BITSMOUNT THROWS SELF ON MERCY OF COURT TO SPARE TRUSTED TEAMSTER FROM DONJON'
  5616. > Likely to set a lot of ponies talking about-and-about what a good chap Galloway Bitsmount the Younger has turned out to be after all, in spite of all those stories of wild and debauched parties coming from his mansion.
  5617. > The prospect of attending -or, Celestia forbid!- perhaps even hosting an event of your own with the paycheque Bitsmount has offered you for this does lubricate things quite a bit.
  5618. > You nod.
  5619. "It does sound a right solid plan, sir. I'll manage it."
  5620.  
  5621. > That puts a smile on your opposite's face, his starched collar brushing against his coat as he straightens his neck.
  5622. > "Of course it is, Songwell. Oldest one in the book. Cheers."
  5623. > With your boss' prompting, you both take another drink, he of his hundred-bits-a-glass cognac, you of your five-bits-a-mug Ploughpony's.
  5624. > He'd turned his nose up when you'd asked for it, but ol'Ploughpony had never let you down.
  5625. > And, anyways, in times of stress, it weren't hardly uncommon for a pony to turn to a familiar brook.
  5626. > There was still one doubt lingering in your mind, though.
  5627. "The way I hear it, though, Mister Bitsmount, it ain't 'er Majesty Princess Celestia we've got to worry about..."
  5628. > Unwilling to speak such dark words in any degree of openness, even though the pub was half-empty and any sound would have been dampened by the fiddle-player in the far corner, you lean in conspiratorially.
  5629. "... It's the sister who serves as Her Majesty's truth-sayer we've got to worry about, what with 'er strange ways peerin' into dreams an' all."
  5630. > Galloway Bitsmount, twenty years your junior, sneers.
  5631. > "Ah, yes, the bloody blue baby witch..."
  5632. > Horrified by his use of such a term, even though you might have thought it yourself, you glance around to make sure nopony heard.
  5633. > Bitsmount waves you off your nervous inspection.
  5634. > "... Why do you think we're meeting in this veritable dive of a tavern, down in the under-tiers near the wharf?"
  5635. > The Cackling Cormorant was perhaps a bit too nautical for your tastes, but it seemed a perfectly serviceable establishment.
  5636. > It was clean, and reasonably lively, and, despite being in a basement, the air was not so smoky as to be chokesome and it was bright enough to see across the table, at least.
  5637. > But then again, Galloway Bitsmount was a pony of far more refined tastes than you.
  5638. "Why *are* we meeting here, sir?"
  5639. > Now it's your employer's turn to lean in close.
  5640. > "I know a pony."
  5641.  
  5642. > He scrunches up his upper lip and nods his head to one side.
  5643. > "... Well, I know a pony who *knows* a pony... who came to one of my little parties, who happens to be friends with a pony who's had dealings with a pony who has conducted business with a pony who knows a certain pony avowed of special skills..."
  5644. > Leaning back, he taps his snout with his free hoof.
  5645. > "... skills that can help us with that particular problem."
  5646. > Bitsmount surveys the drinking-room out of the corner of his eyes.
  5647. > "... And their representative is supposed to be meeting us here this afternoon."
  5648. "I see."
  5649. > You're not particularly eager to meet anypony who claims to be able to thwart an alicorn's powers.
  5650. > About the only ones who could had already gone down in history as the worst villains Equestria had seen so far.
  5651. > Discord, The Bitch-Queen of the Changelings, that madcolt from the Crystal Kingdom...
  5652. > Well, this was perhaps less along the lines of challenging the Princess' rule directly, and more along the lines of simply subverting one of her strange sister's powers.
  5653. > There's a small clatter from the doorway, and you peer back around the edge of the booth to see a group of four rowdy-looking dockworkers stroll in with their afternoon pay, laughing and barking orders at the innkeeper, who hastens to put himself at their disposal.
  5654. > As he escorts them to a large booth in the far corner of the room, you see an old mare trundle in after them.
  5655. > She looks ancient, with a grey mane, wrinkled lips, and a little white cane in one hoof.
  5656. > What's most striking, though, is the poor cut of her cloth.
  5657. > Your employer is well-dressed in a crisp suit with a starched collar and neat cuffs.
  5658. > Across from him, you've got on your nice wool suit with matching waistcoat, and a blue neckerchief for a bit of colour.
  5659. > Even those four longshoreponies, fresh from unloading a boat no doubt, manage to look proper in their striped caps and neat vests.
  5660.  
  5661. > But the old mare, freshly arrived, has clothing that is far beneath even the modest standards of this pub.
  5662. > As she appears to be heading for a booth nearby, you get a good look at what must have once been elegant finery.
  5663. > There's deep tears in the shoulders of her patterned coat, and from beneath it poke white laced cuffs torn almost to tatters.
  5664. > Slung around her neck is a collar of fox-fur which is matted and riddled with mange.
  5665. > She's even got a fascinator pinned to her mane, but its feathers have all withered away to the bone.
  5666. > Across from you, Bitsmount almost instinctively sneers at the display of abject poverty.
  5667. > Even you can't help but bury your snout in your beer, lest you appear to be staring.
  5668. > Hoisting your mug, you take a deep draught as she passes by.
  5669. > Only to almost spit it out in shock as she casually seats herself next to your employer!
  5670. > Galloway Bitsmount looks so repelled by the creature sitting next to him that he can't even find the words to express his disgust.
  5671. > And now that she's in front of you, you see, to your shock, that her eyes are white -- all white!
  5672. > Poor old mare must be blind as a bat!
  5673. > With your employer mute, you clear your throat.
  5674. "Ahem. Ma'am, I think you've made-"
  5675. > "Shhht! Hold your tongue!"
  5676. > The crone's cackling low whisper makes you feel like spiders are crawling up your legs.
  5677. > But all she does otherwise is simply sit and stare forwards with her blind eyes.
  5678. > You exchange a telling glance with the noblepony across from you.
  5679. > Could this be the 'representative' he was talking about?
  5680. > Licking his lips, Bitsmount opens his mouth.
  5681. > "Are you here from... the Fami-"
  5682. > "Quiet!"
  5683. > Again the biting whisper that seems to thicken the air.
  5684. > This was just confusing.
  5685. > She was sitting there, head awkwardly held at strange angles which made it obvious she couldn't see a single thing.
  5686. > This mute shusher couldn't possibly who you were waiting for.
  5687. > "Oh, there you are, Granny!"
  5688.  
  5689. > From behind the bar, you hear the innekeeper bellow at your table.
  5690. > "Yes, here I is, and I've been waiting to be served now for several-a-minute, chucker-out!"
  5691. > Trotting over, the barcolt is all smiles despite the insult.
  5692. > "Now, Granny, you seem to have mistaken these fine gentlecolts' booth for the bar, and their bench for a stool. Come now, your usual seat is this way."
  5693. > He holds out a hoof and tries to guide her away.
  5694. > "What? Rubbish! Rubbish!"
  5695. > Despite her protestations, she gets to her hooves, but once freed from the seat, she turns around and squints at you and Bitsmount.
  5696. > Her friendly greeting, accompanied by a toothless grin and a withered-hoof wave, just confuses the two of you even more, but, again smiling, the barkeep escorts her gently off to her perch at the brass rail, getting her settled in with a drink, before leaving the bar once again to approach your table.
  5697. > "... Why... It's Eustace! And Horace! Oh, but we haven't time to talk now, have we? We'll meet tomorrow evening for cribbage behind the old mill in Mitre Street."
  5698. > "Dreadfully sorry for that interruption, gentlecolts. Please accept my apologies."
  5699. > Your employer seems to be either deep in thought or deep in his cognac, so you answer.
  5700. "It's no trouble. But who was that?"
  5701. > He shrugs his shoulders.
  5702. > "A long-time local patron. Everypony 'round these parts just calls her 'Granny', though a few will call her 'Granny Nag' behind her back, on account of her age. Don't worry, she's no trouble at all."
  5703. "As you say, then."
  5704. > Dismissing him with a nod, you receive a bow in exchange.
  5705. > Bitsmount is still huddled up with his drink, squinting at 'Granny Nag'.
  5706. "Shouldn't we keep our eyes open for the contact, Mister Bitsmount?"
  5707. > He stares up at you.
  5708. > "That *was* the contact, Songwell."
  5709.  
  5710. > You scrunch up your snout in confusion.
  5711. "Beg pardon, sir?"
  5712. > "Tomorrow, behind the old mill in Mitre Street. Come now, Songwell, you can't have missed that."
  5713. > It seemed to you like nothing more than the ranting of an old crone, but Bitsmount seemed to be taking it serious, for he downs the rest of his pricey cognac in a single gulp.
  5714. > Pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his mouth, he nods at you.
  5715. > "... Finish your swill, Songwell, and then let's go. We'll meet up tomorrow afternoon."
  5716. > Taking a long sip of your ale, you peer into the smoke at the strange messenger mare.
  5717. > Sitting by herself, she appears to be carrying on a conversation with the empty seat next to her.
  5718. > Well, if this was how Bitsmount's contact did business, things were likely to get stranger by the end of it.
  5719. > But there was going to be a bag of bits in it for you at the end, at least.
  5720.  
  5721.  
  5722.  
  5723.  
  5724. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and there a lot of worries and concerns juggling around in your head right now.
  5725. > Foremost among these was the unknown condition of your friend and comrade, Specialist Lily Glamerspear.
  5726. > You'd helped her over to the barracks medical ward last night, but once her condition had been assessed, the doctors had whisked her away from you, condemning you to the waiting-room.
  5727. > After lingering around for hours, they finally ordered you to return to your quarters; she was going to be kept overnight.
  5728. > They'd answered no questions in the meantime, except to say that 'her situation was under control', which just left you worried about what was actually going on.
  5729. > You wanted to go visit the infirmary again this morning to check up on her, but with Glamerspear laid up, and Sergeant Ebonshield still asleep, you were the only back-up pony Corporal Bound had right now, should the Royal Engineer need a second escort.
  5730. > And speaking of Ebonshield, there was something funny about the way she'd come home last night.
  5731. > That one wasn't so important, though.
  5732. > What was starting to feel really important was the letter you were trying to write to your Puddin'.
  5733. > How best to word his invitation to the Gala?
  5734. > It was a tricky matter; he was just a simple country pony, and big news like this would be quite a shock.
  5735. > But he was *your* simple country pony, and you didn't want to give him a heart attack or anything!
  5736. > Now that you think about it, if Huckleberry Pudding was going to take you to the ball, he'd definitely need a trip to the Bridle Path, or somewhere similar, for a new suit.
  5737. > Gosh, and what about *you*?
  5738. > You couldn't wear that same ball-gown you'd already worn around Canterlot to the Gala!
  5739. > You hadn't even thought about how you'd dress.
  5740. > Add another worry to juggle around in the air.
  5741.  
  5742. > As you stare, frustrated, at the blank sheet of paper before you, quill in hoof, you feel the worry-balls start to drop one by one.
  5743. > Just at the moment when they all crash down to the ground, the front door opens.
  5744. > Turning sideways in the chair, you look up and are overjoyed to see Glamerspear walk into the common-room of your shared quarters, looking a bit tired.
  5745. > But *what* is that contraption on her head?
  5746. > "Hey, Sparks."
  5747. > Your normally energetic unicorn sister-in-arms shuts the door, walks over to the sofa, and clambers up into it.
  5748. > Too dumbstruck by the casual entrance and strange new headwear she's sporting, you can't do much more than stare.
  5749. "Um... Good morning, Lily."
  5750. > With an awkward grin, she points both hooves at the grey metal cone surrounding her horn, its narrow end at her head, and flaring outwards and upwards into the air, almost like a large collar.
  5751. > "Like my new hat?"
  5752. > Frowning, you shake your head.
  5753. "What *is* it?"
  5754. > Glamerspear laughs.
  5755. > "This is just an E-collar, Sparks -- an energy collar, made of lead to block any residual magical radiation. The real show is inside -- look!"
  5756. > Saying that, she tilts her head downwards and slightly to the side, giving you a good look inside the cone.
  5757. > Her horn is still there -- thank Celestia! -- but there's a pair of black metal rings, joined by a chain, placed around its tip and base.
  5758. > Glamerspear jiggles her head around a bit, jostling the chain -- but the clamps hold fast.
  5759. > Three screws around the periphery seem to be what's securing each of the shackles to the horn underneath.
  5760. "I don't understand what I'm looking at."
  5761. > She lifts her head again to look you in the eyes.
  5762.  
  5763. > "I've been spellbound. Doctor's orders. The iron fetters, properly tuned and placed at opposite ends of a unicorn's horn, completely suppress all magical energy output. The E-collar is there just as a safety net in case anything still leaks out, to keep it from messing with my head..."
  5764. > She shrugs.
  5765. > "... Apparently, that MXP Totem was keeping me just at the edge of serious mana-burn levels this whole time, so even *thinking* about casting a spell was enough to push things over into the danger zone. And the mana suppressant potions weren't designed to hold against sustained mana-toxicity levels like that -- so, I get spellbound. Normally they only do this to unicorns who go cuckoo or turn criminal."
  5766. > Taking a deep breath, she paws at the sofa cushion beside her with a hoof.
  5767. > "... They had to call in some experts from the Schola Magia, apparently. Nopony's seen a case quite like this before."
  5768. > Rolling her eyebrows, Glamerspear sucks in her lips, then pops them with a smack.
  5769. > "... Guess I'm gonna wind up in some medical textbook in a few years."
  5770. > She sounds really embarrassed.
  5771. "I wish I could have been there for you, Lily. They chased me away and told me I couldn't come in."
  5772. > Glamerspear lets out a sharp laugh.
  5773. > "Hah! Thanks, Sparks, but I'm not really upset about all this..."
  5774. > She gestures at all the metal contraptions on her head.
  5775. > "... It is what it is: treatment. I'll be going back every evening for them to take measurements to see if it's time to pull it off."
  5776. > Shrugging again, she lifts her eyebrows and looks around awkwardly.
  5777. > "... I just feel kinda... useless... without any magic, ya know?"
  5778. > You smile sympathetically.
  5779. "Well, you've got to get better, or else who will Anonymous turn to when he needs somepony swatted from the sky, right?"
  5780. > Your unicorn pal just nods her head, and you can hear the spellbinder chain rattle away inside her E-collar cone.
  5781. > "Sure, sure..."
  5782.  
  5783. > Casting a glance around the room, probably surprised by how Corporal Bound managed to get everything back in order, she takes a deep breath and looks back up at you.
  5784. > "... So, anything happen while I was gone?"
  5785. > She's only been out of your sight for at most twelve hours.
  5786. > But you suppose there *has* been some news.
  5787. "Well..."
  5788. > Leaning over sideways to get closer to her, you lower your voice, staring at your newest comrade's bedroom door.
  5789. "... I don't think Sergeant Ebonshield came home *alone* last night."
  5790. > Glamerspear's eyes go wide, and her mouth drops open.
  5791. > Then she scrambles over to the end of the sofa closest to you and leans over, whispering.
  5792. > "What?!"
  5793. > You shrug.
  5794. "I heard four pairs of hoofsteps come in last night. Although it was kinda hard to tell, since they weren't walking very steady."
  5795. > Your comrade scrunches up her nose.
  5796. > "She's bringing her coltfriend into our dormitory for conjugal visits? As if having one batpony around wasn't enough!"
  5797. > That was uncalled-for, but before you can either scold her or she can continue, there's a creaking noise from the far side of the room.
  5798. > Both of you gasp, and Glamerspear peeks her head just barely around the edge of the sofa to covertly spy at the Sergeant's bedroom door.
  5799. > It's not actually very stealthy, what with the huge metal cone sticking out from her head.
  5800. > The door into the blackened room opens, and out steps...
  5801. > A young, pastel-blue earth pony with a messy black mane, dressed in a black suit-jacket on top of a wrinkled green shirt, with his top buttons undone, and an untied necktie slung over his shoulders.
  5802. > This can't possibly be her coltfriend.
  5803. > What was he doing in her room?
  5804. > The obvious answer has you growing rosy in the cheeks.
  5805. > After carefully closing the door, he turns around, revealing his baggy, bloodshot eyes.
  5806. > And then he suddenly realizes he's not alone in the common room.
  5807. > "Oh... uh, hi. Um... she's still, like, asleep? So, uh, you know... *shhhh*"
  5808.  
  5809. > Glamerspear shoots you a glance like she can't believe what she's seeing.
  5810. > Heedless to her reaction, the colt starts to tip-hoof his way towards the main door.
  5811. > Before he reaches it, Sergeant Ebonshield's door opens once again.
  5812. > And the Sarge herself stands in the doorway, wearing a slinky, translucent pink negligee, and looking just as ruffled and hung-over as the colt, with last night's make-up still on her face.
  5813. > Wow, that's quite the outfit.
  5814. > You feel the rosiness in your cheeks intensify.
  5815. > Ebonshield shoots a smile at the two of you.
  5816. > "Good morning, Specialists..."
  5817. > Then she stands up on her hind legs, facing the door-frame and stretching up her hooves into its upper corner, looking over sideways at the colt.
  5818. > "... and buenos días, mi amor."
  5819. > You swear you can hear him say something like 'duck', but then he turns around with a fake-looking grin on his face.
  5820. > "Hey, uh, good morning, um, uh, er..."
  5821. > That's the Sergeant's cue to spread her bat-like wings, staring at him seductively with darkly-pancaked violet orbs.
  5822. > "Ebonshield, cariño."
  5823. > You see his eyes bulge as he stares at her wings, and there's a bead of sweat on his scruffy brow.
  5824. > "Right, Ebonshield, yeah... I'm, uh, Charles Ironrail, hi."
  5825. > She takes the opportunity to shift sideways, exposing her front towards him, and dropping one hoof casually by her hips, while the other is held up high.
  5826. > "Sí, I remember your name, Carlos. Aren't you going to stay for breakfast?"
  5827. > She starts to run the same hoof slowly up her front, slowly batting her mascara-thickened eyelashes at him.
  5828. > That's... that's definitely something.
  5829. > Trying again to force a smile, the colt nervously backs up towards the door.
  5830. > "Uh, hah, uh... no, you know, uh it's super late, and I had a great time last night, and I'm really sorry about this, but I've really got to, uh, bail..."
  5831.  
  5832. > Grasping the door with one hoof, even as she licks her lips, he spurts out the rest in a single breath.
  5833. > "... You know, babe, uh, what with the uh, *bat* wings and all, which I didn't really notice in the club, and uh, I think I'm a bit out of your age range, anduhyeahbye!"
  5834. > With that, he ducks out the door, and you hear him gallop full-tilt away down the hallway.
  5835. > He didn't even fully close it behind him; how rude.
  5836. > Sighing, the Sergeant gets back down on all fours, stretches out and yawns, then walks over to gently push the door shut.
  5837. > "Ah, well. They may not always be gentlecolts in the morning."
  5838. > Glamerspear stands up in her seat, exploding into emotion as she leans on the back of the sofa.
  5839. > "Are you kidding?! That pump-and-dump-chump just called you an old mare!"
  5840. > Shrugging, Ebonshield walks over to the washroom.
  5841. > "So? I have already obtained what I wanted out of him -- even if I was hoping for a little more in the morning."
  5842. > Oh, my... Well, that just confirms it.
  5843. > You feel your blushing reach maximum levels.
  5844. > Surprisingly, Glamerspear doesn't seem to be falling into the accusation that your batpony associate was actually interested in that young colt's *blood*.
  5845. > But she is still gawking in disbelief at the Sergeant's casual handling of everything.
  5846. > "You don't *care* that your one-night-stand just trashed you like that?"
  5847. > With a smile, the Eb raises an amused eyebrow.
  5848. > "No? What does it matter? I went to the club last night looking for some companionship. I found some, if admittedly in the bottom of a bottle of cider at the end of the night. I know it is foolish of me to even wonder if there is still attraction in the morning, but it does not hurt to check -- unless you let it hurt you, which certainly I do not. Clearly that niño does not know what a real mare can do for him."
  5849. > That just sets Glamerspear sitting back down again, flabbergasted.
  5850.  
  5851. > "... I apologize if my 'date' disturbed you gentlemares. It would be best if I take a shower, now. I am sure the combination of smells on me does not make for a pleasant odour."
  5852. > As she enters the washroom and shuts the door, you covertly sniff the air.
  5853. > There was indeed more than a whiff of cider in the air, mixed with body sweat, and another smell you can't quite place...
  5854. > Until you *do*, and then you push your cheeks past their previous zenith of rosiness.
  5855. > You can hear the shower turn on, even as the gears start to spin in your head.
  5856. > This would explain all that flapping and shaking you'd heard last night.
  5857. > And the grunts.
  5858. > And the hissing.
  5859. > And the moans.
  5860. > Whooo, is it hot in here or is it just you?
  5861. > You stare blankly down at the empty sheet of paper on the table.
  5862. > It's impossible to write your letter to Huckleberry Pudding now.
  5863. > Even if you could, instead of the Gala invitation, all you can think of is that pretty red barn of his.
  5864. > And him taking you out back behind it.
  5865. > And him roughly tossing you backwards into the hay pile, your forehooves drawn up on your chest, your wings erect.
  5866. > Then he flings off his straw hat, spits out the long blade of grass in his mouth, tears off his blue overalls, and leaps in on top of you, his brown hair rubbing against your brow as you hook your forelegs over his shoulders, his taut, muscled farmer's chest rubbing against your chest tuft as you lock your hind legs around his firm, slim hips, and then...
  5867. > "Sparks, for Celestia's sake, would you get your damn wing-boner out of my face?"
  5868. > Oh, hailstorms!
  5869.  
  5870. > Glamerspear is sitting on the sofa, frowning at you, hooves crossed in front of her, and your primary feathers pressing into her snout.
  5871. > Wow. You didn't realize your wings could extend that far.
  5872. > It actually takes a concerted effort to fold everything up once more.
  5873. > You feel a bit of pain in your shoulders from the extreme extension.
  5874. "Sorry, Lily."
  5875. > Uncrossing her hooves, your comrade sighs, blinks, and then stares dumbly forwards at the coffee table, like she's trying to puzzle something out.
  5876. "... Is something else wrong?"
  5877. > She nods her head repeatedly, then turns up to look at you, still nodding.
  5878. > "I think I *agree* with Ebonshield, Sparks."
  5879. > You furrow your brow.
  5880. "Is that a problem?"
  5881. > Her nods turn into shakes.
  5882. > "I don't know. I just can't believe that I'm taking sides with a batpony..."
  5883. > She shrugs.
  5884. > "... I mean, *I* would have beat his ass for saying something like that, casual encounter or no, but I kinda admire her laissez-faire handling of it, y'know?"
  5885. "Is that what that's called? A 'casual encounter'?"
  5886. > Glamerspear smiles.
  5887. > "Sure, a casual encounter. A one-night stand. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. Dine 'n' dash. Meet 'n' greet. Hump 'n' dump. Buck 'n' Duck. There's plenty of slang terms for it..."
  5888. > She lifts an eyebrow and her smile turns into a smirk.
  5889. > "... Why, you interested? Want to go out clubbing tonight?"
  5890. > Before you can open your mouth, she waves a hoof.
  5891. > "... I'm just teasing, Sparks. I know you're joined at the hip to your country colt. Besides, I'm not gonna be making any moves, in a nightclub or otherwise, with all this junk stuck on my head."
  5892. > There's a knock at the main door, and Glamerspear sighs.
  5893. > "... I bet that's Mister Congeniality himself again. He's probably forgotten something in his haste to leave."
  5894. > She looks up at you.
  5895. > "... You'd better answer it, Sparks; I'd just sock him in the teeth for what he said."
  5896.  
  5897. > Getting to your hooves, you walk over to the door.
  5898. > Expecting the same dishevelled young stud, you open the door wide, barely paying attention.
  5899. > Two piercing yellow slits stare out from the darkness before you.
  5900. > You stifle a gasp, reeling backwards in shock.
  5901. > There's a steamy snort from a pair of nostrils, and then you see a flash of white teeth.
  5902. > It actually takes a second for your eyes to adjust to make out the shadowy figure at the door.
  5903. > Underneath pitch-black leather armour that tightly wraps around his eyes and snout, and covered by an equally black cloak that shrouds his head and drapes down to envelop the carpet, and, indeed, the whole doorway in shadow, the imposingly rigid black colt that stands before you is, unmistakably, one thing you absolutely did not expect to find knocking at the door just now:
  5904. > Another batpony!
  5905. > Showing his ivory teeth again, he speaks with a heavy accent, like Ebonshield's, but far thicker, and emphasized by his deep, rich voice.
  5906. > "Ay yam Marcos, and ay yam herrre to see Sargento Ébanoscudo - Serrrgeant Ebonshield."
  5907.  
  5908. Suggested interlude music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1_zEGmwGK0 (Cliff Eidelman - 'Guess Who's Coming', from 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' [1991])
  5909.  
  5910.  
  5911.  
  5912.  
  5913. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and so far, there hasn't been any noise from upstairs.
  5914. > No further embarrassments appear to be on the schedule.
  5915. > With Sparkshower having arrived back late, and Glamerspear still out this morning, you'd stopped by the infirmary to check in on your unicorn squad-member.
  5916. > The nurse had told you she'd be discharged when she woke up; she was ordered to stay spellbound until her mana levels subsided to normal.
  5917. > That would definitely put her completely off any kind of real duty for a few more days, but at least the prognosis for her was positive.
  5918. > Yours, however, was still tenuous.
  5919. > Now your misjudgement at the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge gnawed at you ever harder.
  5920. > Glamerspear had, for all intents and purposes, manaburned herself to death trying to recklessly gun down Kilfeather.
  5921. > Only Anonymous' rule-bending intervention had allowed her to triumph.
  5922. > And only the potent force of the ancient MXP Totem had spared her.
  5923. > Despite Sparkshower's strident defence of your decision, you felt more than ever that your decision to apologize to the Royal Engineer was the correct one.
  5924. > If only you had put the effort in to make studied research beforehand, this mess could have been avoided.
  5925. > Over at his large bureau, the Royal Engineer is furiously scribbling away.
  5926. > You have to admire his work ethic; after being whisked away from his native land to a world so alien to his own, he's been almost exiled in this same room, day after day, working first on that theory book of his, and now on some new project, unknown to you.
  5927. > Whereas here you were, bitter and sardonic after four half-hearted years, just because the Royal Guard hadn't turned out to be all it was cracked up to be.
  5928. > Or was it just that he was doing something he really enjoyed, while you, with the possible exception of the past week-and-a-half, mostly weren't?
  5929. > It was hard to tell.
  5930.  
  5931. > You hear a cracking noise from your left and look over at your charge.
  5932. > He's put down his quill and is flexing his fingers and neck.
  5933. > Running one hand through his hair, he picks up the sheet sitting before him in the other, and stands up to look it over, holding it up to the morning sunlight streaking in through the glass wall behind him.
  5934. > From here, it looks like a blueprint of sorts, though not for anything that looks like a building as far as you could tell.
  5935. > After a few paces back and forth, you see him nod to himself and fold the large paper up neatly.
  5936. > Then he bends over to grab a manila envelope from a desk drawer, stuffs the document into it, along with a few others, and sets to work sealing and addressing it.
  5937. > You may be about to head out to do some messenger work.
  5938. > His package ready for delivery, the Royal Engineer stands up and walks towards you.
  5939. > "I could use a little walk, Corporal. Care to accompany me to the mail room?"
  5940. "Of course, sir."
  5941. > You step to one side, in order to open the way for him.
  5942. > Before reaching the door, he stops in front of the mirror beside it to adjust his outfit.
  5943. > He tightens his tie and corrects its slant, brushes, some lint off of his shoulders, then dons his jacket off of its hook.
  5944. > Finding nothing else to fix, he stares at his reflection for a moment.
  5945. > "Oh, by the way, did you have the chance to start on that book of mine, Corporal?"
  5946. > You probably shouldn't mention that you've been tearing through it every free moment you've had, despite the considerable headache some of the sections had given you.
  5947. > Still, a bit of detail would be better than a bland 'Yessir'.
  5948. "Yes, sir. I was just reading about steam boilers yesterday."
  5949. > A smile materializes on your VIP's face.
  5950. > It's kind of heartwarming to know he takes pride in his work.
  5951. > Well, this assignment is all about pleasing the Very Important Pony, after all, and a little honesty goes a long way.
  5952. > "And how are you finding the going, so far?"
  5953.  
  5954. > You suppose that a little *more* honesty won't kill anypony.
  5955. "Some sections are tougher than others, sir."
  5956. > That gets you a smart nod.
  5957. > "To be expected. Let me know if you need any help; I'm sure I'll be publicly fielding questions and issuing clarifications on it for some time to come."
  5958. > Straightening up, he turns away from the mirror, and you're just about to open the door to let him out before you, when there's a knock at it.
  5959. > You cock an eyebrow at the coincidence, and even the Royal Engineer looks a bit surprised, but he motions for you to answer it.
  5960. > Pulling on the handle, you crack it open to reveal a palace messenger, impeccably dressed in his brass-buttoned red jacket and matching forage cap.
  5961. > "A calling card for the Royal Engineer, Ma'am, begging an audience in half an hour. I'm to await his Lordship's reply."
  5962. > He passes you a hoof-sized rectangle of stiff card-stock with a small embossed floral print, and, nodding as you close the door, you flip it over to examine its writing.
  5963. > Now that's interesting.
  5964. > You look up at the Royal Engineer.
  5965. "Sir. Would you accept a distinguished caller in half an hour?"
  5966. > "I don't see why not. Rules of society being what they are, will we need your compatriots upstairs here for it?"
  5967. "Yes, sir, I think we will."
  5968. > You hold the card out for your VIP to take it, making sure that the face bearing the caller's name is visible.
  5969. > Before he even grasps it, you see his eyebrows go up, and he nods.
  5970. > "Well... I suppose we'll save the mail run for later."
  5971. > He gives you a nod, and you open the door again, giving his acknowledgement to the messenger as you head upstairs to gather the quaternion.
  5972.  
  5973.  
  5974.  
  5975.  
  5976. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are trying your best not to stare at the cloaked batpony colt standing just inside the door into your shared quarters.
  5977. > Ebonshield really ought to have asked him to wait outside.
  5978. > Or to come back in a few minutes.
  5979. > But she hadn't.
  5980. > When you'd knocked on the washroom door and told her about her caller, she'd asked you to let him in, saying she wouldn't be long.
  5981. > Now he's just sanding there, still as a statue, still shrouded in his long black robes.
  5982. > He had, however, thrown back his hood.
  5983. > That didn't really reveal anything, though, since he still had on the leather chanfron, which covered almost his entire head, save for his eyes and chin.
  5984. > About all you could tell was that his coat was extremely dark; maybe not black, but dark enough so as to be indistinguishable.
  5985. > There was the hint of a short shock of white hair out the back of his head-armour, as well.
  5986. > But besides that and his slow, steady breathing, he might as well have been a statue, for all the movement or noise he made, standing there.
  5987. > You were sitting in front of your blank sheet again, trying to think of how to write your letter to Huckleberry.
  5988. > No, that's not true.
  5989. > You were using the letter as a pretext to steal glances at the strange visitor.
  5990. > Over on the sofa, Glamerspear was lounging on her back, pretending to read a magazine.
  5991. > In reality, she was staring even more unabashedly at the batpony who called himself 'Marcos'.
  5992. > Eb had seemed to recognize the name, though.
  5993. > At last, the shower stops running.
  5994. > She should be out too soon, and then this strange tension can be dispelled.
  5995. > Her visitor seems to sense this, too, and you see him straighten his neck.
  5996. > Was he scowling?
  5997.  
  5998. > It was difficult to read his face, with his eyebrows obscured by the helmet.
  5999. > Against the black leather, only his yellow irises and white teeth stood out.
  6000. > Moments pass in more silence, then you can hear Ebonshield brushing her hair.
  6001. > Was that the final step, or was she going to put on some make-up as well?
  6002. > The answer was clearly 'no', because the door opens and your recently-added batpony Sergeant emerges.
  6003. > She doesn't delay one second, and neither does he, for they both lock eyes and walk straight at each other.
  6004. > You swear they are going to collide, but they somehow stop so that their snouts are just bare millimetres from touching.
  6005. > Huh.
  6006. > Maybe the whole 'get right in your face' thing is actually a batpony custom for Eb, rather than a 'drill Sergeant' one.
  6007. > After inspecting -- maybe even sniffing? -- each other for a few seconds, Ebonshield speaks up, her lips almost touching the colt's.
  6008. > "Marcos."
  6009. > He inhales sharply, flaring his nostrils underneath the leather mask.
  6010. > "Pureza. ¡Así que te encuentro aq-"
  6011. > Without budging an inch, she interrupts him before he can continue on.
  6012. > "Don't be rude, Marcos. We are in the presence of those who do not speak our language. Use the common tongue of Equestria."
  6013. > He squints, and his head moves a tiny fraction in your direction, as if he only just now acknowledges the existence of Glamerspear and yourself.
  6014. > Returning to his snout-to-snout pose, he replies, again in his thick batpony accent.
  6015. > "Then perrrhaps we ssould take thees conbersation in prribate?"
  6016. > It's clear that speaking Equestrian is a major struggle for him; his deep baritone voice trips on almost every single word.
  6017. > Ebonshield blinks slowly, in a move that could only be deliberate.
  6018. > "No. These are my Battle-Siblings here, Marcos. Anything you wish to say to me, you may say in front of them."
  6019. > Again, he shoots a glance in your direction, and you can almost feel the daggers flying out from his eyes.
  6020.  
  6021. > You feel a sudden need to duck under the table, out of sight.
  6022. > At least Glamerspear has a magazine to cower behind!
  6023. > Not that she's doing it, though -- even with her horn shackled up and encased in a lead cone, she's boldly watching the scene unfold before her.
  6024. > Like you, she's far too intrigued to dare to look away.
  6025. > Marcos shifts his jaw around and takes a deep breath.
  6026. > "So. Thees ees hhow eet ees. Hhow you haff fallen, I hhad to see it forr myself. You deeshonourr yourrself by leabing the rrookerry. You betrray your ancestorrs by bolunteering for this pointless assignment. You brring grreat ssame upon yourr house by caborting arround Canterrlot dens of the night..."
  6027. > As her counterpart lays into her, Ebonshield's face is completely unreadable.
  6028. > But you can still feel the stinging points driving into her.
  6029. > Actually, he might even actually have real daggers under that cloak of his!
  6030. > And here you are without your usual sixteenth-of-an-inch of bronze plate to protect you.
  6031. > Glamerspear has no magic either, and even the Sergeant is completely naked of any weapons.
  6032. > You suddenly feel very vulnerable.
  6033. > "... You abase yourr cast by mating with that spec of *dust* I saw leabe here before I arribed. And, eef this was not all, now you darre to name as Battle-Siblings thees *Prreesonnerrs* of the *Su-"
  6034. > Before he can finish his sentence, Sergeant First Class Ebonshield whips her head forward, slamming her naked forehead into his leather-armoured one.
  6035. > As she connects with a loud *CRACK*, both you and Glamerspear gasp and jump in your seats.
  6036. > Despite his protection, the force is enough to stagger Marcos down to his elbows, and he takes several seconds to recover.
  6037. > Lily scrambles to her hooves, taking up a ready position beside you -- but there's no follow-up.
  6038.  
  6039. > Instead of initiating a fight, Marcos just stands up on all fours again, resuming his same position in front of Ebonshield.
  6040. > Ebonshield, who now has a streak of blood running down her brow, dribbling down her cheeks.
  6041. > "By the accursed shadows, Marcos, if you speak that way about my comrades-in-arms again, I will feed you my wings with the blessings of the Mother-of-Stars!"
  6042. > What in the name of Celestia did that mean?
  6043. > Across the room, just in front of Ebonshield, Marcos is breathing deeply.
  6044. > "Eef you are set on this path of self-destrruction, then my brreath is wasted on a ssadow, and I ssall leef."
  6045. > "¡Vete!"
  6046. > Snarling, Marcos backs away from Sergeant Ebonshield, towards the door.
  6047. > Before he turns around, you catch a glimpse of red on his chin, too.
  6048. > Looks like, in spite of his armour, your Sergeant gave as good as she got.
  6049. > With a final dagger-filled glare at everypony in the room, the furious batpony colt exits your common room as silently as he entered it.
  6050. > As the door closes behind him, you feel yourself able to breathe again.
  6051. > Glamerspear casually clambers back onto the sofa and picks up her magazine.
  6052. > Ebonshield is still posed like a statue, staring intently at the door, and Lily noisily nods her horn-cone in its direction.
  6053. > "Jilted ex-coltfriend?"
  6054. > It takes a second, but eventually, you see the Sergeant relax her shoulders and slacken her posture.
  6055. > In that brief moment, despite her athletic body, she looks a lot older to you.
  6056. > Stepping away from the impromptu field of battle, Ebonshield chuckles.
  6057. > "Marcos, an ex-coltfriend? Hah, no..."
  6058. > With a smile on her face, your batpony comrade sits down on the sofa, not far away from the unicorn who bore her so much hatred just two days ago.
  6059. > "... This was my brother."
  6060. > What!
  6061.  
  6062. "You just head-butted your *brother*??"
  6063. > Eb shrugs.
  6064. > "Yes? He was being unspeakably rude. What would you have done instead?"
  6065. > You draw in a deep breath, not sure of how to answer.
  6066. > But Lily pipes up for you.
  6067. > "Me, I would have given him a hoof to the face."
  6068. > At that, the Sergeant starts to laugh awkwardly.
  6069. > "Shadows below! I didn't wish to *kill* him! He is still my brother."
  6070. > Glamerspear narrows her eyes.
  6071. > "What, are you hooves registered deadly weapons or something? I'm talking about a simple back-hoof slap."
  6072. > She smiles back.
  6073. > "Oh, of course, of course. It is not the blow itself I am referring to..."
  6074. > With a sigh, Ebonshield taps the inside of her right foreleg with her left forehoof.
  6075. > "... Amongst members of my kind, the forelegs often bear a hidden blade. To bring up a hoof in anger is to signal a fight to the death, as surely as if we had both stepped back and drawn knives."
  6076. > This is getting really confusing!
  6077. "So you butt *heads* instead? Wait..."
  6078. > You think you just figured something out.
  6079. "... Is that why you always stand so close when speaking with us? So you can head-butt us if we say something you don't like?"
  6080. > Glamerspear appears in awe of your powers of deduction.
  6081. > But Ebonshield looks aghast.
  6082. > "Shadows, no! That would be appallingly rude!"
  6083. > Aw, shucks.
  6084. > It made sense to you, at least.
  6085. > "... I stand close so that *you* can head-butt *me* if *I* say something out of the line."
  6086. > What?
  6087. "What?"
  6088. > "What?"
  6089. > Even Glamerspear voices her confusion on that one.
  6090.  
  6091. > But Sergeant Ebonshield just shakes her head, suddenly appearing very tired, as she waves a hoof in the air before her.
  6092. > "Gentlemares, we are tip-hoofing very close to 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' rules here -- and the Night Guard is sworn not to tell, just as you are sworn not to ask."
  6093. > She sighs.
  6094. > "... I apologize if we do not understand each others' customs, but it is me who should learn yours, not the other way around. You should not have to deal with any more of my kind, after all. We are the outsiders, here."
  6095. > There's a moment where that pronouncement hangs in the air, the weight of it not quite yet realized.
  6096. > 'We are the outsiders, here'
  6097. > What did that even mean?
  6098. > Weren't the batponies a part of Equestria, even if they were still a bit of an unspoken secret?
  6099. > But how could they be a part of it if they feel like outsiders?
  6100. > It didn't make any sense.
  6101. > All of a sudden, Glamerspear sits up, energetic.
  6102. > "No, buck that, Sarge! This isn't DADT -- DADT is us getting a glimpse of a bat-wing down in the catacombs, or spreading rumours about blood-sucking ponies around a campfire -- not having a live one serving in our crew! You're here as a full member of our quaternion, right Sparks?"
  6103. > She turns to you, and you give her a firm, crisp nod.
  6104. "Right."
  6105. > Returning back to Ebonshield, she carries on.
  6106. > "Right! So, I'm not saying you owe us anything, Sergeant, but don't try to hide behind rules that don't apply any more! Sparks, and Honour, and me -- we've got to deal with you, one way or another, same as we do each other, and the only way we can do that and not go nuts is with some friggin' honesty, damn the bucking rules."
  6107. > Now this is the aggressively friendly Glamerspear you remember from your first meeting, and you eagerly nod your head in agreement.
  6108.  
  6109. > She points a hoof at the Sergeant.
  6110. > "... And anyways, by DADT, you sure as buck wouldn't be allowed to go out clubbing two nights in a row, let a lone bring an earth-pony stud back home as a booty prize!"
  6111. > Sergeant Ebonshield, so recently victorious in a battle of foreheads, and so recently deflated from your social misunderstandings, takes a breath and seems to recover.
  6112. > "This is true, I suppose. All right; to the shadows with the rules, then. At least, a few more questions about social customs will not break any state secrets..."
  6113. > Running a hoof through her tall mane, she leans back in the sofa, crossing her hind legs in front of her.
  6114. > "... What else do you want to know?"
  6115. > Glamerspear turns back to you.
  6116. > "I know you remembered every word of her argument with Marcos, Sparks, so why don't you fire away?"
  6117. > You blush.
  6118. > Aww, go on, you.
  6119. "Hah, not *every* word..."
  6120. > Like, ninety-eight percent.
  6121. > Ninety-nine, maybe.
  6122. > What? You're a good recon guardspony, after all.
  6123. "... Maybe we'll come back to the head-butting thing later..."
  6124. > Ebonshield bobs her head.
  6125. > "It is a little complicated, I admit."
  6126. > What was the most confusing about what just happened?
  6127. > Her brother came and scolded her for leaving her post in the Night Guard, for taking this position, for going out and night and for bringing home a 'casual encounter'; that much was clear.
  6128. > But there were layers of meaning in what he'd said, and it was hard to know what was significant and what was maybe just a poor or unusual choice of words.
  6129.  
  6130. > Maybe it would be best to focus on the obvious stuff, first.
  6131. "... How about 'shadows'? Both of you seemed to use it as a curse-word."
  6132. > "It is. 'Darkness' is also such a word."
  6133. > Glamerspear shakes her head.
  6134. > "But you're *bat*-ponies. Don't you come out at night, when it's dark anyways?"
  6135. > Eb tilts her head upwards.
  6136. > "The night, full of the stars and sometimes also the moon, is only dark if you have lived your whole life in the sun."
  6137. > That's... okay, that makes sense, you suppose.
  6138. > If 'darkness' and 'shadows' could be curse words to them, though, then who knows what any other word could mean?
  6139. "Before you knocked into him, Marcos was going to call us Prisoners of the something...?"
  6140. > She leans back.
  6141. > "He was going to say, 'Prisoners of the Sun'. A *very* offensive term for all non-batponies."
  6142. > Your snarky unicorn pal pipes up again.
  6143. > "I'm not a prisoner of anything."
  6144. > Eb leans over and looks her in the eyes.
  6145. > "I did not say that you were..."
  6146. > Then, with a playful smile, she tilts up to look at Glam's horn.
  6147. > "... although the chains around your horn might speak otherwise. But this is nonetheless one of our insults."
  6148. "And it's so bad that you not only felt you had to clobber him, you also threatened to 'feed' him your wings?"
  6149. > She smirks.
  6150. > "Oh, that is merely a poetic way of saying I would rip out his throat."
  6151. > Uh.
  6152. > Glamerspear looks varying degrees of shocked and disturbed, and you exchange glances.
  6153.  
  6154. > Moving right along.
  6155. "The only other really confusing phrase I can think of was when you said you'd do it with the 'blessings' of the 'Mother-of-Stars'. Who's that?"
  6156. > Now it's Ebonshield's turn to look shocked.
  6157. > "Oh. Did I say that? I should not have said that..."
  6158. > She actually turns away from you both, embarrassed.
  6159. > "... This is a bad one for me to have used. Err... Explaining it is going to maybe break some rules."
  6160. > Aw, darn.
  6161. "I mean, if it's that big of a deal, I suppose..."
  6162. > Even Glamerspear seems to agree
  6163. > "Yeah, yeah, Sarge, if it really bugs you..."
  6164. > Honesty is all well and good, but you don't want to get into trouble.
  6165. > Well, not *too* much trouble, at any rate.
  6166. > Out of nowhere, Ebonshield leans forward and loudly taps her forehoof on the coffee table.
  6167. > "No. You were correct, Specialist Glamerspear. We cannot function together if we do not understand each other..."
  6168. > Leaning back, she composes herself again.
  6169. > "... Some things we are sworn not to speak, but my brother upset me greatly, and in my anger to chide him, I broke the rules..."
  6170. > Ebonshield looks at each of you in turn.
  6171. > "... You are not to repeat what I say now, do you understand? 'Mother-of-Stars'..."
  6172. > She takes a deep breath.
  6173. > "... This is our name for Princess Luna."
  6174. > Princess Luna?
  6175. "Princess Luna?"
  6176. > "Princess Luna?"
  6177. > Just then, there's a knock at the door.
  6178. > Before anypony can get up to answer it, Corporal Bound pushes it open and walks in, still holding the handle.
  6179. > "Oh, good, you're all here. I need everypony -- including you, Glamerspear -- suited up and ready downstairs in the Royal Engineer's chambers, on the double. He's receiving an important visitor in less than half an hour, and we all need to be there."
  6180. > Aw, but you had so many more questions to ask!
  6181. > And it seems like very short notice.
  6182. "Who is he receiving?"
  6183. > Honour shoots a telling glance at Eb.
  6184. > "Her Majesty Princess Luna."
  6185.  
  6186.  
  6187.  
  6188.  
  6189. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and for a last-minute, late-morning meeting in the Royal Engineer's chambers, this was going to be quite the event.
  6190. > Beside you sits a stone-faced Royal Guard of the Household Division, in his gleaming armour and bearing a short, gilt bronze spear.
  6191. > His identical twin, at least by the looks of him, sits beside Specialist Sparkshower, on the other side of Anonymous' double doors, equally imposing.
  6192. > Despite his size, Sparkshower manages to look larger and more impressive in her heavy armour and freshly-cleaned blue caparison.
  6193. > And her longspear is easily twice the size of his shorter weapon.
  6194. > On the other side of the sitting area, Specialist Glamerspear and Sergeant First Class Ebonshield sit at attention, guarding the blind-corner gap in the panel partition wall that leads to your VIP's sleeping and dressing area.
  6195. > Their counterparts from the Household Division stand not directly beside them, but further down the walls, as if marking out the corners of the living area.
  6196. > Two more of their kin, unaccompanied, are posted at the glass entrance to the patio.
  6197. > There's yet another two at the opposite wall, behind the dining table.
  6198. > Not to mention the other four guards just behind you, on the other side of the double doors.
  6199. > Ten guards in total, and the Princess wasn't even here yet!
  6200. > And you were certainly looking forward to Her Majesty's arrival.
  6201. > You'd met her before, of course; every pony who passes through horseshoe camp in the Royal Guard gets to shake hooves with both of Equestria's monarchs on graduation day.
  6202. > And you had escorted VIPs to both day and night court before, too.
  6203. > But from what you'd heard, meeting her in private was a different thing altogether.
  6204. > Because the Princesses -- both of them -- had a *presence*.
  6205.  
  6206. > It was hard to describe; everypony who experienced it told it differently, in letters, books, songs, and poems going back centuries.
  6207. > Some said that it was as if all the colours of the world somehow became brighter and more brilliant while in the company of one of the Princesses.
  6208. > Others, that sounds became rich and crisp, accompanied by deep echo that seemed to come from the very earth.
  6209. > A few told that ordinary smells were made strange and intense, with a hint of incense and perfume impossible to place, let alone reproduce.
  6210. > Still others argued that it was not so much a thing seen, heard, or smelled, but rather *tasted* -- like a refreshing nectar, soothing and sweet to drink.
  6211. > Whatever the way, all agreed that it could be both entrancing and terrifying at the same time.
  6212. > Was it all just their imagination?
  6213. > A product of their own excitement at being in an intimate setting with one of the immortal rulers of Equestria?
  6214. > Or was it perhaps a knock-on-effect of the Princess' supreme sorcerous abilities; little more than the background radiation of magical energies by beings powerful enough to move the very heavens?
  6215. > Whatever it was, all agreed that the Majesty of the two Princesses went beyond a mere style of address; it was a part of them, like something in their blood.
  6216. > And Princess Celestia, after a thousand years of caring for her little ponies, knew how to disarm visitors by turning hers off.
  6217. > Princess Luna, it was said, did not.
  6218. > She rarely saw visitors alone, and the power was known to be lessened in larger gatherings; it was only when in private company did the fantastic effect become manifest.
  6219. > Anonymous, the Royal Engineer of Equestria, stands in the middle of his living-room, dressed in his morning coat, his hands folded behind his back.
  6220. > Did he know what he was going to face?
  6221. > Should you have told him?
  6222.  
  6223. > You hadn't thought of it then, and anyways he'd been in the presence of the Royal Sisters before; in small company, too, in the Blue Chamber of the Privy Council.
  6224. > But was that enough to trigger the effect?
  6225. > The Privy Council members certainly never spoke of feeling anything strange, but they were sworn to secrecy.
  6226. > Had he ever had to face one of the Princesses by himself?
  6227. > And if so, had he experienced the awe and entrancement that other ponies did?
  6228. > Had he ever misstepped and upset one of them, and felt faintest pinch of what only the most wretched ponies, few as they were, had described as a dread gaze of disapproval?
  6229. > Did he feel the *pull* one was said to experience upon receiving a Royal Summons?
  6230. > Would Luna's delicate floral-print calling card even count as such?
  6231. > In truth, did their powers even affect him at all?
  6232. > A non-pony?
  6233. > An alien not of this world?
  6234. > When he slept, could Luna step into his dreams as she effortlessly did any other's?
  6235. > Questions race through your mind even as the Royal Engineer's lighthouse clock ticks away the seconds.
  6236. > Glancing around the room at your comrades and Her Majesty's escorts, you inhale deeply, straightening your neck as you hear hoofsteps behind you.
  6237. > This might just be the most exciting thing you'd ever experienced.
  6238. > Maybe even that you'll ever know.
  6239. > One of the great mysteries of the world; one of the great magics of a magical land.
  6240. > It's not an accomplishment, really, but it is an honour, and it is a privilege.
  6241. > You don't normally get this worked up about matters like this.
  6242. > But the opportunity to serve Equestria's immortal rulers, the closest equivalents to living Gods...
  6243. > Well, it may seem a bit like silly spirituality to some, but it is one of the things that drew you into service in the Royal Guard in the first place.
  6244.  
  6245. > There's a clicking noise behind you, and the door-handles flap down, worked from the outside.
  6246. > A moment later, both double doors gracefully swing open.
  6247. > You snap to a salute, as does your Household pair in the gilt armour.
  6248. > All you can see beside you is the solid slab of white-painted oak, divided by raised mouldings into six rectangular panels.
  6249. > In front of you, you see the Royal Engineer drop his hands to his sides to bow, and three of the four guards along the back wall -- Glamerspear and the two Household Division sentries -- all give a firm salute, while Ebonshield bows her head completely to the floor.
  6250. > You'd suspected that this meeting had something to do with her, and so far she was proving you right.
  6251. > Everypony knew, regardless of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell', that batponies and the Princess of the Moon were linked, somehow.
  6252. > Beside you, the hoofsteps stop, just outside of your sight, their owner still obscured behind the large door.
  6253. > You don't feel anything yet.
  6254. > "Announcing Her Majesty, Princess Luna of Equestria."
  6255. > Apparently, that was just her herald, who steps into the room and off to one side after making her announcement.
  6256. > Wearing no armour, she instead has a caparison of deep blue, embroidered on both sides with a large white, upturned, half-moon crescent -- Luna's cutie mark.
  6257. > There's another set of hoofsteps.
  6258. > Slower, and more deliberate.
  6259. > Made by somepony with longer legs.
  6260. > On the floor beneath you, your eyes catch a faint flicker of light peeking between the bottom of the door and the rug beneath.
  6261. > It flickers and dances subtly, and it's tinted with blue.
  6262. > The hoofsteps stop, although the light-play continues, but now the room seems even quieter than it was before.
  6263.  
  6264. > Beyond the coffee table, the sofas, the easy chairs, and the lighthouse clock, which all seem a little bit further away than they had been moments ago, you look for a reaction in Glamerspear's face.
  6265. > She's still saluting, eyes level, face impassive.
  6266. > To conceal her spellbinders, she's wrapped her horn in a silky white ribbon, with a bow at the base for good measure.
  6267. > It's still pretty obvious that there's something going on, but at least it stops the chains jangling whenever she moves her head.
  6268. > And is that the Silver Ram around her neck, on its white-and-blue ribbon?
  6269. > You hadn't noticed that she'd put on her ceremonial medal, earlier.
  6270. > This was certainly as good a time as any for her to display that.
  6271. > Had she met the Princesses in private upon joining the Order of the Ram?
  6272. > Perhaps this meeting will be nothing new to her.
  6273. > "Your Majesty."
  6274. > Still bowed over, Anonymous welcomes her.
  6275. > When her reply comes, her voice is gentle and soft, a far cry from when she had first returned and spoken only in shouts.
  6276. > "We bid thee good morning, Anonymous, and beseech thee to stand."
  6277. > The Royal Engineer rises up straight again, wearing a pleasant smile on his face.
  6278. > Gesturing at the sofas, he beckons her in.
  6279. > "Thank you, Ma'am. May I invite Your Majesty to join me in the sitting-room for coffee and biscuits?"
  6280. > You hear a lighthearted chuckle from behind the door, and the blue glow moves forward.
  6281. > "Hah! Thou art as well-mannered as our sister makes thee out to be, Anonymous. We shall join thee, indeed."
  6282. > You see Luna's herald salute as her sovereign steps into the room, preceded by her flowing, rippling, blue mane.
  6283. > It's a bright, sunny day outside, and the Royal Engineer's chambers are amply lit by the wall full of windows on one side, but somehow, in spite of its dark colour, Princess Luna's mane appears brighter still, glimmering in the light.
  6284.  
  6285. > And then the Princess herself appears from behind the open door, stepping forwards with enthusiasm, and with a strange, unearthly grace.
  6286. > She's beautiful and entrancing, but you're still waiting for the other horseshoe to drop -- and the magical presence to kick in.
  6287. > As she makes her way to one of the sofas, her herald bows in greeting.
  6288. > That's the cue for you, the rest of your quaternion, and the Household Division cavalry to all end your collective salute, and there's a slight clattering of arms and armour just as the Princess takes her seat.
  6289. > With a nod from the sovereign, the herald backs away towards the doors, exiting the room.
  6290. > Then the guardspony beside you claps his hooves against the floor in place, strides forward, presumably encounters his opposite from the far side of the doors, and both of them back out of the room as well, shutting the double doors behind them.
  6291. > You no longer have an obstructed view.
  6292. > Six Household guardsponies, plus your quaternion, remain as retainers in the large two-story chamber.
  6293. > As the sovereign of the night passes the coffee table, you get the measure of her.
  6294. > Anonymous stands a full head taller, but her mane and tail alone make her seem to impose upon more space than your alien VIP.
  6295. > There's a difference in their appearances, too.
  6296. > The Royal Engineer looks contained and controlled, his movements precise, like the clock at the rear of the sitting area; what little whimsy he allows is constrained to his facial expressions.
  6297. > Her Majesty, on the other hand, seems to flow like a river, graceful but ever-shifting and ever-moving.
  6298. > Even though they both wear smiles that seem genuine, there's an inherent tension of forms between them.
  6299. > Princess Luna seats herself, lounging on one of the long sofas.
  6300. > Her mane and tail continue to float ephemerally in the air around her, as if she was actually underwater.
  6301.  
  6302. > Even though she was certainly capable of doing it herself with telekinesis, Anonymous fastidiously busies himself with pouring her a cup of coffee, arranging a spoon, a pair of biscuits and two cubes of sugar around the edge of the saucer, then holding it in one hand as he picks up the creamer with the other.
  6303. > Stepping around the table, he bends to present it to her, and she takes it in her magical grasp, dispensing the cream, adding the sugar, and stirring to suit, before returning the creamer into his hands, whereupon he returns it to the silver tray on the table.
  6304. > It's a kind of bizarre ballet, full of needless actions by Anonymous, as if he refuses to allow the Princess to serve herself.
  6305. > And strangely, considering her well-known fiercely independent streak, Luna seems to allow it.
  6306. > As the Royal Engineer serves himself as well, you hazard a glance around the room.
  6307. > All six of the Household Division guards are still as statues, eyes staring straight forwards and appearing to look at nothing, even though they probably see everything.
  6308. > Nearby, Sparkshower is holding up well, a surprisingly grim and determined look on her face.
  6309. > She's taking this seriously.
  6310. > That's good, because in spite of the elaborate coffee ceremony you just witnessed, it is serious.
  6311. > The Princesses don't call privately upon their councillors, even members of the Blue Chamber, unless there's something which requires their personal attention.
  6312. > Otherwise, it's a waste of their extraordinarily valuable time.
  6313. > Across the room, Glamerspear is doing her best to appear detached and a part of the scenery, but you know she's watching everything carefully, and anyways nopony puts on a war medal in order to not be seen.
  6314. > Your recent-arrival Sergeant seems to be avoiding looking at Luna, as if laying eyes upon the Princess was a cardinal sin.
  6315. > Given the rumours you'd heard about batponies and their relationship with Her Majesty, it might just be.
  6316.  
  6317. > At last, the Royal Engineer takes a seat, and, with a brief nod of acknowledgement between them, your VIP slurps coffee with one the most important and powerful ponies in the whole world.
  6318. > After taking a sip, Luna lowers her cup back on the saucer, and then looks down at the coffee table.
  6319. > Almost like she's avoiding the Royal Engineer's gaze.
  6320. > But that would be ridiculous, wouldn't it?
  6321. > Against the silence, Anonymous forces a smile and leans forward slightly in his seat.
  6322. > "I hope the coffee is to Your Majesty's liking."
  6323. > "It is; very much so."
  6324. > She looked up at him to reply, but then almost immediately lowered her gaze once more.
  6325. > Unbelievable.
  6326. > Is it your VIP who is intimidating one of the rulers of Equestria, and not the other way around?
  6327. > Where is her Majesty, her Royal Presence?
  6328. > If you don't feel anything, does Anonymous?
  6329. > The royal Engineer takes another slurp of his coffee, betraying no emotions, nor any sense that Luna's behaviour is unusual in any way.
  6330. > But then again, he's met her far more times than you have.
  6331. > Maybe this is normal for her.
  6332. > Maybe she really can 'turn off' her magical aura.
  6333. > A few more moments pass in silence, and then he politely prompts her once again.
  6334. > "To what do I owe the pleasure of Your Majesty's visit?"
  6335. > Her Majesty, Princess Luna of Equestria, swallows, sighs, and puts down her cup on the table before her.
  6336. > Raising her neck up, she at last looks the Royal Engineer in the eyes.
  6337. > "Thou hast suffered an inconvenience and a discomfiture because of our actions. We have come this morning to apologize and to make amends."
  6338. > Frowning, you blink, disbelieving what you'd just heard.
  6339. > What in Tartarus is this, now?
  6340.  
  6341. (continued in chapter 2)
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