Oct 19th, 2018
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  1. "Everyday Life With Guardsmares"
  2. by The Man From Another Time
  5. Written for the Royal Guard Mare thread on /mlp/
  7. FAQ & Locations/Character List:
  8. Character art: (characters in order of appearance; possible spoiler warning)
  10. CHAPTER 4
  12. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you're not sure if this could be any more awkward.
  13. > It's Thursday morning, and you, and Glamerspear, and Sparkshower, and Ebonshield, are all sitting at a table in the mostly-empty servants' dining hall in Canterlot palace, finishing off breakfast before the Sergeant goes on shift.
  14. > ... Except that she's got last night's 'dessert' with her.
  15. > "Would you like another tortilla, mi pichoncito?"
  16. > The young colt -- a pale-blue unicorn wearing a novice wizard's grey cloak -- pats his barrel with one forehoof, smiling.
  17. > "Oh, no, Miss Purity, thank you, but I'm stuffed."
  18. > With a grin, she leans over and pats his barrel, too.
  19. > "Not as stuffed as somepony else was last niiiiight."
  20. > She giggles, he chuckles, and then her hoof wanders a little lower down and yeah that's enough looking in that direction for now.
  21. > Your only consolation (if you can really call it that), is that as much as this is awkward for you, it seems to be affecting Glamerspear and Sparkshower much, much more.
  22. > The cream pegasus isn't really cream any more -- she's beet-red, and trying her best to bite her tongue and look away from the public displays of affection without appearing rude to the Sergeant's 'guest'.
  23. > All while trying to finish her own second plate.
  24. > Meanwhile, the pink unicorn's snout is so scrunched up, the scullery mares could use the wrinkles as a washboard.
  25. > You're half worried her muzzle is just going to just implode inwards.
  26. > At the 'bring your foal to work day' part of the table, more kissy-kissy nonsense ensues, with Ebonshield nipping at the neck of the young lover who is less than half her age.
  27. > Daring another glance, you see him tremble a bit, his ears twitching as she continues to flirtatiously assault his nape.
  28. > It's questionable if that colt had ever laid hooves on a mare before last night -- or Monday night, if this was in fact the same colt who had invited Ebonshield to the frat party at the Schola Magia.
  30. > Ebonshield hadn't really taken the time to introduce him, so who knows.
  31. > His probable recent virginity redoubled the apparent awkwardness of the whole thing, but it also put your own frustrations in focus.
  32. > As bad as this breakfast was with its uninvited guest, last night's date with Castlerook had almost been worse.
  33. > You'd gone to the trouble of dressing up but then, just as on Sunday night, you lost your nerve somewhere along the way.
  34. > As a result, you wound up with an evening full of noncommittal pleasantries.
  35. > At least Castlerook stopped telling you stories of what was going on with your old friends in Fillydelphia -- which meant you stopped being tempted to drown out the memories with liquor.
  36. > And he also managed to subtly make it clear that he was looking forward to heading back there when this Gala-specific posting was done.
  37. > Back outside your quarters, even though it was obvious that, once again, nothing was going to happen, he'd also less-subtly made it clear that he wanted you to come with him.
  38. > That was the biggest can of worms he's opened so far.
  39. > One thing you'd been certain of for a while was that you never wanted to go back.
  40. > But lately, with how you'd been feeling, you'd started to waver on that point.
  41. > Either way, you hadn't committed.
  42. > And Castlerook hadn't insisted.
  43. > So it was another frustrating night, just you and your pillow, alone with your thoughts.
  44. > What *were* you doing with your life?
  45. > What *did* you want -- from Castlerook, or anypony else?
  46. > "... All right, mi chico y mi cuaternio. I can see that it is time for duty with the Engineer Royal..."
  47. > Oh, thank Celestia, it's just a few minutes to eight.
  48. > Ebonshield gets to her hooves and nods to everypony at the table, with a special muzzle-to-muzzle goodbye for her foal-toy.
  49. > "... Please do not stand up because of me. Enjoy the breakfast. I will see you all in the afternoon. And, chico, you have all your things, yes?"
  51. > The young unicorn nods.
  52. > "Yes, Miss Purity."
  53. > That earns him a reassuring hoof-pat on the back.
  54. > "Good. I look forward to our next encounter, mi amor."
  55. > As Ebonshield leaves the room, swishing her tail, Glamerspear leans over to stare, wide-eyed, in your direction.
  56. > With her snout still about to pop back into her head, she nods sharply in the direction of the enraptured colt.
  57. > Well, what does she want you to do?
  58. > Flush him out of here like a receding tide?
  59. > You nod right back at her half-eaten breakfast.
  60. "Finish your plate, Specialist."
  61. > She's got to learn to hold her damn temper.
  62. > It's just one little wizardling colt, what's he going to do?
  63. > "So, uh, about Miss Purity -- have you mares known her very long?"
  64. > Oh, Tartarus, he's going to try to chat you all up.
  65. > And after happening to swing into a mare who definitely does buck on the first date, he must think he's cock of the trot.
  66. > Glamerspear blinks at you, sucks her face in even more, and then silently gets back to her breakfast, barely stopping her eyes from popping out of her head.
  67. > Sparkshower is still far too rosy-cheeked at all the making out she's just witnessed to even think about replying.
  68. > That leaves you to answer the colt's question, which is still hanging in the air.
  69. "Only for a couple of weeks."
  70. > He lifts his eyebrows up, perhaps surprised by the answer.
  71. > "Ah."
  72. > Or maybe he just has no idea what to say next to a group of three mares.
  73. > You glance down at what's left of your own meal, pushing a couple of cherry tomatoes around with your muzzle.
  74. > Glamerspear had insisted that she take you out dress-shopping this morning, but what was even the point?
  75. > The Gala would be over almost as soon as it started, and nopony would notice the brown mare drinking in the corner, no matter what she was wearing.
  76. > Castlerook would be too busy on duty to hang out with you.
  77. > Was he ready to make a real move on you if he wasn't, though?
  79. > The Gala took up a lot of the palace rooms, but not so many that rumours didn't always swirl about couples disappearing for an hour or two.
  80. > "... And, uh, what are you guys, like a platoon or something? Palace security?"
  81. > Ebonshield's colt of the hour lets out another question.
  82. > You can see Glamerspear's eyes go even wider, and you can practically hear her teeth grinding against each other.
  83. > Sparkshower, at least, is returning to a normal colour, though she's still focusing on her own plate.
  84. > They'd been public just now, but last night Eb and this colt had *not* been quiet.
  85. > Much as you're glad to not be hung over this morning, a little booze might've actually allowed you to sleep through your own frustrations and your neighbour's noisy emanations.
  86. > Sparkshower shared the other wall with the Sergeant, so she must've heard every grunt and moan, too.
  87. > Maybe that's why she took off somewhere early this morning before anypony else woke up.
  88. > With one of the tomatoes in your mouth, you lift your head back up and look over at the colt.
  89. "We're VIP bodyguards for a palace dignitary."
  90. > He nods, happy to at least have an answer, however terse.
  91. > "Oh, that's pretty cool. Who is it?"
  92. > You shake your head.
  93. "Can't say."
  94. > Smirking as if he's in on the joke, he lifts a hoof and taps it on his muzzle.
  95. > "Ahh, heh, yeah, I get it, top secret stuff, heh."
  96. > Apparently pleased with your answer, he takes a moment to glance around the dining hall.
  97. > You leave him to his inspection and look down the row at Sparkshower.
  98. "Hey, Sparkshower..."
  99. > With just small patches of red left on her cheeks, she silently looks up, mouth full of omelette.
  100. "... Where did you scurry off to earlier this morning?"
  101. > Your question erases the final traces of scandalized shock and allows something resembling a smile to show itself.
  102. > "Oh, I went to the post office, Corporal. I wanted to catch the first mail delivery of the day."
  104. > She doesn't volunteer any more, so you just reply with a knowing nod.
  105. > Must've written another letter to her coltfriend.
  106. > She seems chipper enough about it, but maybe she's putting on an air.
  107. > If she really was happy, she's chatty enough to have gone on to talk about the letter a bit.
  108. > A few moments pass in relative silence, with just the background hum and buzz of a few dozen other palace servants and a couple of guards who, like your gang, were a little too sleepy-faced to make their way all the way over to the barracks mess hall, and had chosen to grab a quick breakfast closer by.
  109. > The place has a calming effect on you, which is a bit strange.
  110. > A regular pony would be excited.
  111. > New dress!
  112. > Big gala!
  113. > Getting back in the dating scene with an old flame!
  114. > Not you, though.
  115. > And it just doesn't feel *right*.
  116. > Nothing really seems to any more.
  117. > Except when you're on duty, that is.
  118. > The Royal Engineer was probably the strangest Very Important Pony who'd ever been served by the Royal Guard.
  119. > And he wasn't even a pony.
  120. > But, despite being almost completely focused on his own affairs, he was still a pretty surprisingly considerate employer.
  121. > It would even be fair to call him charming.
  122. > Who else would send flowers and apology to a guard after an argument that she started?
  123. > Or ask his retainers to do anything more than just stand around and look tough, or maybe intimidate some plebs on his behalf?
  124. > "Hey, so uh, heh, maybe this is a long shot, but..."
  125. > Ebonshield sure picked a talkative colt.
  126. > Didn't she say she liked it when they were noisy, though?
  127. > Last week during that drink-and-meet?
  128. > It's all a bit hazy.
  129. > With a dung-eating grin on his face, the novice wizard waggles his hooves out in front of him.
  130. > "... Do any of you mares *also* play Hyperspace Hyperwars?"
  132. > Before you can reflect on what that implies about Eb's activities at the frat party last night, Glamerspear bursts up in her seat.
  133. > "Oh for Celestia's sake! NO, we don't play Hyperspace Hyperwars, or Ogres & Oubliettes, or Dragons & Dragons, or Friendship: The Conclave, or any of that nerdy crap!"
  134. > Gritting her teeth and sitting up high, she looms maniacally over the shocked young colt.
  135. > "... You aren't mister magic-hooves with the mares, you're not our friend, you're not even supposed to be eating here in the servants' mess! You're a just our Sergeant's latest stud. And we don't wanna hear about it, okay?! So just lay off!"
  136. > After that rant, she takes a deep breath, and her snoot seems to finally unscrunch itself a little bit.
  137. > You lift an eyebrow and lean over.
  138. "You know, for someone who's not into 'nerdy crap', Glamerspear, you sure seem to know the terminology pretty well."
  139. > That gets you an incensed glare from the Specialist.
  140. > "I have *three* brothers. And they were all into that stuff when I was growing up..."
  141. > Shaking her head, she rolls her eyes up and stares at the ceiling.
  142. > ".. You would not be-lieeeve how often I got told to 'play nice' with them and join in whatever flavour-of-the-week nonsense game they were into."
  143. > Eb's colt-toy proceeds to say precisely the worst thing he possibly could say at this moment.
  144. > "So you *have* played Hyperspace Hyperwars? We actually run regular campaign sessions on Friday nights, and we have some free tables that could use a few more players, if you're interested..."
  145. > You swear you can see smoke starting to come out of Glamerspear's ears.
  146. > Forget awkward, this is hilarious.
  147. > "... If you don't have an army, I know Chad -- Chad Thunderhorn, he's graduating this year -- is looking to sell some of his collection. I think he's got-"
  148. > "SHUT UP, DWEEB!"
  150. > Cringing, Lily throws her hooves up to her head.
  151. > "... Just, stop talking already! Celestia, I've got a bad enough headache as it is from last night without you upgrading it to a migraine with your crap."
  152. > A headache from last night?
  153. > Her room's not adjacent Sergeant Ebonshield's, so she shouldn't have been too bothered.
  154. > Besides, if she really wanted to shut out the noise she probably knew a spell to shut out sound.
  155. > It was one of those common utility spells every unicorn seemed to pick up for when they needed a moment of peace, or some time to commiserate in private.
  156. "What happened last night?"
  157. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  158. > "Guh! What happened was me wracking my brains to try to figure out how that Ignacio guy pulled off his trick back in the you-know-where. You saw me with that 'De Magia Unicornis' book out, didn't you? I was up reading that thing until after midnight."
  159. > Oh, so that's what this is all about.
  160. > She's probably not actually that frustrated about Sergeant Ebonshield getting laid or having the Sarge's leftovers hanging around past their welcome.
  161. > Just like when she tried to power through the manaburn, it's not the personal, but the professional problem that's driving her up the wall.
  162. > Releasing her head, Glamerspear gestures in frustration with her forehooves.
  163. > "... It's infuriating! I've almost finished reading that thing from cover to cover, but I'm still coming up empty on how he managed that sorcery. Gah!"
  164. > You don't really know what to say; sure, you knew a bit about unicorn magic, but not enough to have any kind of real discussion on spells.
  165. > What the batpony 'Balladeer of Ghosts' had done was unlike anything the Royal Guard's unicorns performed, at least as far as you knew.
  166. > The other horny-pony at the table, apparently still not quite getting Specialist Glamerspear's unsubtle 'hint' to keep quiet, pipes up.
  167. > "Uh, what -- what was this sorcery?"
  169. > You've got to give the colt credit -- he's tenacious.
  170. > Probably explains why he was able to overlook "Miss Purity's" bat-wings, foreign accent, and alien grasp of Equestrian culture.
  171. > Then again, despite her age she was a good-looking mare and probably a pretty aggressive pick-up artist, too.
  172. > Glamerspear scrunches up her face, her horn glowing, and looks half ready to blast Eb's colt-toy out out of his chair.
  173. > "Grrr..."
  174. > Suddenly, her horn-light winks off, yet somehow it feels like things just got more dangerous.
  175. > "... OKAY, college colt, you wanna hear the details? Try this brain teaser on for size:"
  176. > She tries to put on a mean smirk through her angry-face, resulting in a really strange-looking grimace.
  177. > Wearing it all the same, she lays everything out for the colt who didn't know when to quit.
  178. > "... A blind sorcerer stands in front of a big sandpit in an arena. A creature, of a type and example that he's never encountered before, walks into the room, and within just a minute or two, the blind sorcerer magically sculpts a pile of sand to not just *look* like the creature, but to move gracefully just like they would. All without touching or speaking or interacting or even getting closer than a hundred hooves to the subject. How'd he do it?"
  179. > The young Schola student tilts his head sideways, frowning.
  180. > "Is the sand-pit magical in any way?"
  181. > Glamerspear shakes her head.
  182. > Somehow, restating the problem out loud for another mind seems to have brought down her temper a bit.
  183. > "No -- not as far as I could tell, anyways, and I'm pretty good at aura-sensing."
  184. > Grinning, she wiggles her eyebrows.
  185. > "... Oh, and not only has the blind-sorcerer never encountered the creature before, but the creature is just standing there the whole time -- the sorcerer makes his sand-pile move in ways that the creature *could*, but *hasn't*, know what I mean?"
  186. > Tapping a hoof against his chin, the colt nods.
  187. > "Yeah, yeah, I get it... This really happened?"
  189. > She *almost* manages a smile as she points at you and Sparkshower.
  190. > "Uh-huh. They were there, and so was 'Miss Purity', too. So what's your answer, mister college colt?"
  191. > After a few more moments of hemming and hawing, the young wizard lets out a sigh.
  192. > "I... I dunno. Building a golem that looks like a subject usually takes a lot of time and preparation, and requires the mage to examine the subject to be copied. To make it actually *behave* like a subject requires that the mage collect a piece of them, too -- usually a bit of hair or fur."
  193. > Shrugging his shoulders, he shakes his head.
  194. > "... I dunno, maybe there's some way even a blind mage could use magic to shape a copy of something. But when you say the golem 'moved' like the creature, what do you mean? Did it talk like the subject?"
  195. > "No, it just howled and groan. It was combat training -- 'Miss Purity' duelled with the sand-thing, and it moved and fought like the real one could have."
  196. > The colt narrows his eyes.
  197. > "'Could have', hmm... Almost sounds like Method Magic."
  198. > The what now?
  199. > Even Glamerspear seems confused.
  200. > "*What* magic?"
  201. > "Method Magic; they teach it in first year. It's the idea that magical spells should work 'as if' they were the real thing...."
  202. > Smiling, he continues.
  203. > "... You know, like how a magical fireworks spell behaves *as if* it was real fireworks going off."
  204. > Your unicorn squadmade scowls.
  205. > "Well, *duh*, it's a magical fireworks spell."
  206. > The colt shakes his head.
  207. > "Yeah, but it's more complicated than that. Look, I'm not really -- I did okay in that class, but I'm maybe not the best pony to explain it. In Constantine Gloriousson's 'The Method', a mage uses their own life experience to create spells. The goal is to recall real things similar to what they desire to create, and then mentally import that reality to craft the finished spell..."
  209. > Raising an eyebrow, he lays one hoof on the table.
  210. > "... So, even though your blind mage had never met this creature before, maybe they had encountered -- or just been described -- something similar enough to base the sand-copy on?"
  211. > Glamerspear thinks for a second, then dryly dismisses him.
  212. > "Except that the mage is *blind*. He didn't even really realize the creature was in the room -- we all entered as a group along with it -- and later, when the mage met the creature afterwards, he was surprised to realize its actual height."
  213. > There goes that theory, then, you suppose.
  214. > "Oh, hmm... Uh... Maybe he used Ray Casting, then? Though I'm not sure how..."
  215. > Glamerspear doesn't look optimistic.
  216. > "This another first-year-university abstract magical theorem? The sand-sculpting mage wasn't fresh out of the Schola, ya know."
  217. > Before she can shut him off, he protests.
  218. > "No, no! This is really interesting stuff! You haven't heard of Ray Casting? It's really cool!"
  219. > She scoffs back at him.
  220. > "What, like an elementalist's Scorching Ray? Kid, I'm in the Royal Guard. I might be a conjurer who never attended mage school, but I know how the Schools of Magic work -- and I've seen plenty of Scorching Rays get let off; even tried it once or twice myself."
  221. > That gets a chuckle out of the colt.
  222. > "No, it's not like that at all. Maybe it's not the best name, but Ray Casting, as described by Bearapple, is the idea that we can't observe anything directly; we can only observe stuff by bouncing something off of it..."
  223. > He taps his hoof on the dining table.
  224. > "... Like, when we look at this, we're not directly observing *the wooden table*, because the table isn't actually doing anything itself. His proposal was that we are really just seeing the *sunlight* coming in from the window and *bouncing* off of it."
  225. > That's an interesting concept.
  226. "Like an echo?"
  228. > Leaning over to look past Glamerspear at you, the colt smiles even more.
  229. > "Just like an echo! But with light in this case, instead of sound. Anyways, the idea is that if you want to make someone believe there's a table in front of them, you don't have to actually *make* a table, you just have to make something that 'reflects' light, echoes sound, and pushes back against pressure like a table would."
  230. > Glamerspear rolls her eyes.
  231. > "You're just using fancy words to describe what an illusionist does anytime they cast a spell. How'd the *blind* mage know how the creature 'reflected' light, if the mage couldn't *see*?"
  232. > And there goes the young wizard's smile.
  233. > "Oh, right..."
  234. > It seems that Glamerspear's puzzle probably won't be solved by a first-year Schola student with just a bunch of introductory classes under his saddle.
  235. > You can't really fault his trying, though.
  236. > Most ponies in the Royal Guard come out of 'shoe camp thinking they know everything and that they can fix anything if they put their mind to it, too.
  237. > Yourself included.
  238. > Scritching awkwardly at his crest, the colt shakes his head.
  239. > "... I guess... none of the things I can think of really work if he's blind. But, I mean, if *he's* blind, and didn't use magic to overcome that blindness, then maybe he got help from somepony... or some-*thing*, like a spirit... that *could* see the creature?"
  240. > In a final blow, Glamerspear shakes her head again.
  241. > "That still doesn't explain how he made the sand move without seeing the creature move."
  242. > The colt looks defeated.
  243. > "I... yeah. Even the spirit animating a golem needs a link to the original creature to make it act like the original. I guess I'm stumped, too. Sorry."
  245. > Glamerspear chuckles amiably.
  246. > You wonder if she didn't really just need somepony to talk to about this -- even if it was somepony who maybe knew even less than she did.
  247. > "Aw, don't whip yourself over it, kiddo. An old mage like that one has got a ton of tricks up his robes, ya know. You'll start picking up some tricks yourself, too, when you graduate.."
  248. > Taking a deep breath, she leans back in her chair.
  249. > "... Anyways, I need to get my mind off of that problem for a bit. Corporal, you all ready to go dress shopping? Stores'll be opening in an hour or two. Didya want to get your mane done up or anything first?"
  250. > Excuse you?
  251. "Something wrong with my hair, now?"
  252. > Smirking slyly, she squeezes her shoulders together.
  253. > "Well, not *wrong*, just, a braid is kinda plain. You've got all that mane, but you just keep it bundled up all the time. Don't you want to do something more extravagant for the big party? And if you do, then we should get a sampler done of it now so it'll be easier to pick a dress that goes with it."
  254. > You shake your head.
  255. "Just the dress and some makeup will do fine. I'm not looking to win a pageant."
  256. > She wiggles her eyebrows at you.
  257. > "Not with *that* attitude. I keep telling ya, Honour, a little effort'll go a long way. Look at Sparkshower, over there, *she's* gonna have her mane done up special and Canterlot-like even though her coltfriend's from country-town Berry."
  258. > The pegasus in question leans forward to look down the table with a smile on her face.
  259. > "Oh, no, Huckleberry Pudding won't be coming to the Gala after all."
  260. > What?
  261. > It's genuinely disturbing that she seems pleased to say that, after how upset she was about him not replying before.
  262. > What's going on?
  264. > Glamerspear frowns and turns around.
  265. > "Whaddya mean he's not coming? You invited him, didn't you? Did that lame-o turn down a ticket to the Gala?"
  266. > Still smiling, Sparkshower shakes her head.
  267. > "He didn't turn it down, no -- but I knew he would, so I told him he didn't have to worry about trying to figure out how to tell me 'no', and that I understood. That was what I mailed to him this morning!"
  268. > Awfully generous of her.
  269. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  270. > "Whaaa? But what about wanting to dance around the Grand Galloping Gala's Great Maypole, and stuff like that? You're just gonna let this chance slip you by, because your colt won't make the trip up to Canterlot?"
  271. > Sparkshower shakes her head again, *still* smiling.
  272. > "Of course not! I knew he wouldn't come, but I still wanted to do those things, so I asked somepony else!"
  273. > Uh-oh.
  274. > You have a bad feeling about this.
  275. > Beaming broadly and bouncing happily in her seat, Sparkshower drops the bomb.
  276. > "... I asked the Royal Engineer if he would like to dance the Maypole with me, and he agreed!"
  277. > Glamerspear's chin hits the table just as you slowly bring a hoof up to your forehead.
  278. > "... Isn't he a generous gentlecolt?"
  279. > Of course, after an awkward evening and an awkward night and an awkward breakfast, why not finish it off with an awkward social catastrophe.
  280. > Glamerspear is so shocked she actually goes quiet.
  281. > And Sparkshower is so completely unaware of what she's done, she doesn't even recognize the sudden silence as a possible clue that maybe she's made a mistake.
  282. > Looks like it's up to you.
  283. > Rubbing your forehead, you check the facts first.
  284. "Artemis. You asked the Royal Engineer to dance the Maypole with you, and when he accepted, wrote a letter telling your long-distance coltfriend that he didn't need to come because you found another dance-partner?"
  285. > You receive an eager nod in response.
  286. > "Yup! Everything's so much simpler this way, isn't it?"
  288. > No, you foalish young mare, everything's just become much more complicated.
  289. > Especially since it's too late to stop the seven-thirty mail from going out.
  290. "You do realize that the Maypole is normally danced by *lovers*, Sparkshower?"
  291. > The faintest hint of concern appears on her face.
  292. > "Yes, but... you said the Royal Engineer wasn't interested in that! And he didn't make a big deal out of it, either."
  293. > You look Sparkshower right in the eyes.
  294. "Did you *tell* him it's normally a dance for young couples?"
  295. > The smile disappears, and she licks her lips.
  296. > "Not... *exactly*. I told him it was a traditional Equestrian spring tradition. He was worried he would mess up the dance steps, but I told him that it was very easy and that they always began the dance slowly with instructions for first-time participants!"
  297. > She knows she bent the rules a bit, but she still doesn't see the real problem.
  298. "And did you tell your coltfriend you were going to be dancing the Maypole with your *VIP*?"
  299. > Sure enough, she nods.
  300. > "Yeah, of course!"
  301. > You really don't know what to do in the face of her incredible innocence.
  302. > Glamerspear picks up the slack, bursting out.
  303. > "SPARKS! You just sent a letter to your coltfriend telling him that you don't need him to come to Canterlot for the Gala, because you have a new lover now!"
  304. > The pegasus' brow drops, and she looks puzzled.
  305. > "I... no, I didn't write it like that, and Huckleberry won't think that -- I made it clear that Anonymous was a gentlecolt and-"
  306. > Glamerspear stands on her hind hooves and leans over across Ebonshield's colt-toy to get up in Sparkshower's muzzle.
  307. > "EVEN WORSE! Not only is he richer than your Huckleberry, more important than your Huckleberry, more *available* than your Huckleberry, he's also more *considerate* than your Huckleberry! Sparks, you just dumped your coltfriend by mail!"
  308. > You start to see tears form at the corner of Sparkshower's eyes.
  309. > "But... but..."
  311. > Glamerspear relents when she sees the pegasus start to turn, but, unfortunately, you can't leave it just at that.
  312. > There's an even bigger problem she's not seeing.
  313. "Sparkshower, the Royal Engineer may not be well-known *yet*, but he's still a member of the Blue Council, and the Grand Galloping Gala is heavily covered by the press. If he innocently gets you a ticket to the opera as a *partner* instead of making you stand in the hallway as a *guard* on a cheap Thursday night revival, nopony will really notice. If he gets you a ticket to attend the *Gala*, that's not really a big deal either since everypony will just think him eccentric or generous for having invited all of his guards..."
  314. > Her teary eyes go wide as you push the dagger in.
  315. "... But if you dance the *Maypole* with him, at the Gala, in full view of everypony else, then ponies *will* assume you're a committed couple."
  316. > Sparkshower's jaw starts to quiver, and you're forced to twist the dagger, too.
  317. > There can be no half-measures with something this serious.
  318. "... And what's worse, he won't even realize it, because you knowingly concealed the truth from him."
  319. > The waterworks start on schedule.
  320. > "BUHHAHWAAAAAAAAAaaaa! No-n-n-nooooo-I-I-I-Ididntmeaaannnitlikethat. I jus- I jus- I jus thought that- that- that- this wuh-wuh-waaayyy my Huckleberry wouldn-wouldn't have to- to-Oh, my Huckleberry! Buhwaaaaaa!"
  321. > Brusquely shoving Ebonshield's hapless colt-toy out of the way so hard that his chair falls backwards onto the floor, Glamerspear clambers over in a rush to comfort her pegasus comrade.
  322. > The pink unicorn gently pats Sparkshower's crest as she sobs away.
  323. > ".... I muh-muh-muh-miss hiim sooooo much an-an-an I jus- I jus- I jus- wanna make him haaaaaapppyyyyyy-wuhuhuhahaaaa..."
  324. > You'd go over and comfort, too, but you're too stunned by the sudden arrival back in the dining room of Sergeant Ebonshield.
  325. > The Tartarus?
  326. > It's quarter after eight!
  327. > She's supposed to be on duty right now.
  329. "Sarge? What are you doing here? Is something wrong?"
  330. > Surveying the scene of carnage before her -- overturned dining chair, young wizard colt sprawled on the ground not understanding what's going on, Sparkshower bawling against Glamerspear's tuft -- the Sergeant is momentarily at a loss for words.
  331. > "I... ah. I have just come from the office of the Engineer Royal..."
  332. > Everypony looks up at her -- even Sparkshower manages to hold back her tears for a moment.
  333. > "... He said he was actually hoping that the Specialist Glamerspear would be on shift this morning, as he would greatly value her advice in the selection of a fashionable calling-card design. And he hoped that the Corporal Bound would accompany him and provide advice as well."
  334. > That's actually not very surprising.
  335. > Glamerspear, having already served as the Royal Engineer's fashion consultant, should probably have considered that Anonymous' number-one priority would be the situation with Major-General Hoofstrong before swapping shifts with Ebonshield.
  336. > And you've been serving as the Royal Engineer's etiquette coach, too.
  337. > Still unsure of what exactly has just happened, the Sergeant continues.
  338. > "... I informed him that you two were planning to make purchases for the Gala today, and he was most appreciative of the need to properly outfit the Corporal Bound. But he wondered if he might accompany you so that the trips might be combined, provided you would not find it intrusive..."
  339. > Lifting her eyebrows, she looks at you.
  340. > "... This is what I have returned to inquire."
  341. > Well.
  342. > It seems 'awkward' is not quite done with you yet.
  344. Suggested interlude music: (Ariana Grande - 'Problem' [2014])
  349. > You are the Estelar Siete Pureza Ébanoscudo, and you are not quite sure what has just happened.
  350. > Your current lover, a young unicorn colt from the Schola Magia of Canterlot, has been knocked out of his chair and is only now recovering.
  351. > The Specialist Artemisa Sparkshower has been raining tears against the tuft of the Specialist Lirio Glamerspear.
  352. > And the Corporal Honouria Bound looks somewhat displeased at the Engineer Royal's suggestion of combining the shopping voyages.
  353. > That last one, at least, is perhaps understandable.
  354. > Honour turns to exchange silent glances with Glamerspear, so you attend to your poor bowled-over colt.
  355. "Are you alright, Gilberto? Do you need help?"
  356. > Sitting up, he brushes off his grey cloak.
  357. > "No thank-you, Miss Purity. I'm all right."
  358. > Such a polite young colt.
  359. > You have done well to pick this example out of the crowd at 'Earthquake'.
  360. > But now is really not the time to be thinking of play -- it is time to work.
  361. "Chico, have you finished your breakfast? Perhaps it would be best if you left us mares to our business now, yes? You can find your way in the palace, I think?"
  362. > He nods with a broad smile.
  363. > "Sure thing, Miss Purity... I'll see you around later?"
  364. > You smile back.
  365. "Of course, Gilberto Corazón-de-León. I am not finished with you quite yet..."
  366. > Oh, indeed.
  367. > There is much still that this young colt must be taught.
  368. > And these are things which the 'Schola Magia' will surely not have in its curriculum.
  369. "... I will be in touch."
  370. > With his head in the stars, he trots out of the breakfast hall of the servants, and you watch him go.
  371. > He does not have quite the fittest of plots, but he is clever and he does not lack for enthusiasm.
  372. > Good material with which to mold into a fabulous colt.
  373. > Fortunate and overjoyed indeed will be the mare who eventually takes that hoof after his time under your tutelage.
  375. > As you turn around again to face the quaternion, you find Glamerspear shaking her head at you.
  376. > "You have him call you 'Miss Purity'? Seriously?"
  377. > What names you and your pet give each other is really not worth talking about at this moment, so you merely bat your eyelids and smile.
  378. > Glamerspear rolls her eyes in response.
  379. > Artemisa, at least, has stopped crying and now releases herself from her comrade's grasp, whereupon the unicorn turns towards Honoria, waving her forehoof.
  380. > "... Anyways, it's your call, Corporal. You'll be the one trying stuff on for an audience."
  381. > Honour shakes her head, sighing.
  382. > "What choice do I have? If the Royal Engineer wants to come along, then he comes along."
  383. > This answer does not please the unicorn.
  384. > "Whaddya mean, 'what choice do I have'? You and I aren't on duty -- we're just backup, in case he needs the full squad to represent. It won't take long, either -- we can reply that we'll go calling-card-shopping with him in the afternoon."
  385. > Honour sighs again.
  386. > "It doesn't work that way, Glamerspear. When you're in the VIP service, what your VIP wants from you, they get."
  387. > There is a certain tone to her voice which suggests to you that Equestria of today has not entirely abandoned the hospitality ways of the times ancient.
  388. > However, Glamerspear is taken aback by the suggestion.
  389. > "Oh, come *ON*, Corporal! We're his *bodyguards*, not his *friends* or his *slaves*..."
  390. > It seems to you that you have been much more than mere bodyguards to the Engineer Royal.
  391. > Perhaps acknowledging this, Lily shrugs and softens her expression.
  392. > "... I mean, don't get me wrong, I like our VIP -- I like him a lot. He's the reason this job has been way more interesting than the snooze-fest I thought it would be! And I know he's the whole reason we're going out shopping, too, 'cause without him we wouldn't have Gala tickets at all! But that doesn't mean we have to let him stroll right into our private lives if we don't want to."
  394. > You decide that your present employer needs to have his intentions reiterated.
  395. "Corporal, the Engineer Royal will certainly understand if you decline. He was very humble in that he did not wish to be an 'inconvenience'."
  396. > Strangely, your attempt to make it easier for her to say 'no' seems only to have made her more upset.
  397. > "It's not like that, Sergeant. Just by having asked for this service, we're not technically allowed to honourably refuse him..."
  398. > She shakes her head again, more rapidly this time, and lightly bangs a forehoof on the table.
  399. > "... Damn it! This is like when he had the movers in without any of us around. He just doesn't *get* how Equestrian society works."
  400. > Sniffling back her final tears, the pegasus Sparkshower raises her head.
  401. > "Isn't that why he needs us in the first place?"
  402. > Glamerspear shrugs, but Corporal Bound fixes your young comrade in her gaze.
  403. > "Sparkshower. You need come up with a proper way to apologize and explain the Maypole situation to Anonymous..."
  404. > The Corporal gets out of her seat and stands on her four hooves, admonishing the Specialist.
  405. > "... *Deceiving* like that could get you thrown out of the VIP corps, and knocked down to Private on the way out, for Celestia's sake -- so you'd better get things cleared up before Temper Vi hears about it. That means this evening, during your next shift. I don't know what you were thinking."
  406. > Full of remorse, the pegasus sniffles again.
  407. > "I- I guess I wasn't."
  408. > Curious.
  409. > What exactly has she done?
  410. > Lied to Anonymous?
  411. > Or, perhaps, failed to tell him something?
  412. > And what is this Maypole?
  413. > Questions for later.
  414. > Honour sighs again.
  415. > "If Anonymous wants to come along while I buy a dress, then he may as well. It'll save us all some travel time, at least..."
  416. > She turns towards you.
  417. > "... Sergeant, you're relieved. Take Sparkshower back to our quarters, will you? Glamerspear and I will take this shift with the Royal Engineer."
  419. > She does not seem pleased with her decision.
  420. "Corporal, I do not understand -- you say with one face that you cannot refuse Anonymous despite his own wishes because of certain rules, and yet with the other you have admonished me for making certain proposals of service to him which you called archaic. What is the matter?"
  421. > She takes a deep breath.
  422. > "It's simple and complicated at the same time..."
  423. > Stepping close so that she doesn't have to speak up, she continues as she beckons you all to gather together.
  424. > Even Sparkshower and Glamerspear are paying attention.
  425. > "... You propositioned Anonymous, which, like I said before, is something that's not *done* in the Royal Guard VIP corps any more -- it hasn't been done in I don't know how long..."
  426. > She swallows.
  427. > "... *But*, *technically*, the way the rules are written in the supplementary contract that we all signed when we took this posting, if a VIP wanted that kind of 'service' -- or anything else -- we're obligated to give it to them."
  428. > Specialist Glamerspear interjects immediately.
  429. > "That's mino-shit, Honour. You know damn well nopony would get punished for refusing *sex* to a VIP..."
  430. > A curious attitude from one who deliberately desires to be the mistress of the rich and powerful.
  431. > Exactly the kind of Equestrians who are entitled to such a service as you are presently engaged.
  432. > The unicorn chuckles before continuing.
  433. > "... Not that *I'd* probably refuse, heh... And it's not like there'd be any real consequences if one of 'em tried to pressure a guard into it, either. But while Lieutenant Vi may be 'by the book', she's not *that* by the book. She knows the difference between rules that can and can't actually be enforced..."
  434. > Lifting her eyebrows, she laughs awkwardly.
  435. > "... You can't seriously be afraid of getting ninja-punched -- or even court-martialed! -- for turning down sex."
  437. > Honour is collected with her reply.
  438. > "Of course not. But what about something more innocent -- something like this?"
  439. > Glamerspear continues to be dismissive.
  440. > "Maybe if he reported it -- maybe. But he's the one asking politely if we wouldn't mind letting him tag along! Why would he complain to the L-T if you say no?"
  441. > Even though it is not how things are among the Children, what the Specialist says does make sense to you.
  442. > You are not intimately familiar with the laws of Equestria, but it is clear that there is a considerable divide between what is inked on paper and what is true.
  443. > A paper with words on it is only as binding as the wills of those who wish to enforce its truth -- and when those wills no longer care for it, it is as good as stricken.
  444. > Why, then, does the Corporal insist on following only what is written?
  445. > Your unicorn comrade shrugs her shoulders and waves her forehooves comically around her head.
  446. > "... What, d'you think he's gonna suddenly turn heel like some kind of pantomime villain? Slap on a big novelty moustache so he can twirl it with his hooves -- his hands, I mean?"
  447. > It is clear from how she looks away, deflated, that Honour has no strong answer to this.
  448. > "Maybe not, but he's not the only one watching."
  449. > Hmm...
  450. > It sounds to you like the Corporal Bound is afraid of the shadows; a common fear among young Children of the Stars -- and even many adults.
  451. > Except that perhaps for her, the shadows do not attend in the dark tunnels beneath the surface, but rather within the hearts of those around her.
  452. > Yes, the pieces begin to fall together for you now.
  453. > For such a pony, there is no convincing with words; experiences alone will allow them to trust again.
  455. > You decide to take a chance and force the issue while the others are too baffled by her response to say anything.
  456. "It seems to me that what the Corporal Bound says has merit. Specialist Glamerspear, you and the Corporal must without delay attend to the Engineer Royal so that a dress and calling-card both of excellent quality can be procured today..."
  457. > Turning towards Specialist Sparkshower, you extend a wing-tip to point.
  458. "... I will escort the Specialist Sparkshower back to our quarters and see that she prepares also an excellent apologia for her misdeeds. Mother willing, we may be forgiven the delay imposed by this discussion most frivolous."
  459. > You receive very strange looks from your three comrades, but you maintain your composure and eventually they all nod and agree to do as you said.
  460. > Though it is clear that for the Specialist Glamerspear, there were several things you have forced her to leave unsaid.
  461. > Despite this, she leaves with her Corporal in tow.
  462. > Which leaves only you and the Specialist Sparkshower now.
  463. > You step up beside her and extend a wing over her back as you lead her out of the dining hall after her other comrades.
  464. "... Now, then, Artemisa. What is this matter so serious which requires an apology to the Engineer Royal?"
  465. > She swallows, following along.
  466. > "I asked him to dance the Maypole with me, because I was afraid my Puddin' wasn't going to come to the Gala... and I didn't tell Anonymous that it's a dance for young ponies in love."
  467. > Ah!
  468. > It seems this is a day for the mending of hearts.
  469. > For the Specialist Glamerspear, perhaps something more immediate may be done.
  470. > For the Corporal Bound, you think, it will require more skillful work.
  471. > May the Mother of Stars bless your endeavours!
  476. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and thundershowers, hailstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes!
  477. > Somehow, none of the curse-words of the civilian Airborne Weather and Climate Service you commonly rely on can match the enormity of what you've done.
  478. > And what a stain on your old unit's honour, too!
  479. > Equestria's illustrious 1st Pegasus Division: 'No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great. Duty First'.
  480. > You certainly hadn't put 'duty first' last night.
  481. > And what about your particular group, the 4th Armoured Regiment?
  482. > 'Prepared and Loyal'
  483. > Loyalty!
  484. > To your own selfish desires, maybe!
  485. > Oh, blizzards!
  486. > How were you going to make this right?
  487. > *Could* you even make this right?
  488. > The grand corridors of Canterlot Palace seem to close in on you, like physical manifestations of your guilt.
  489. > Lavender-and-gold wainscoted walls, usually reassuring and mystical, now feel cold and stern.
  490. > Red-carpeted marble floors, opulent and serene, now carry whispers against you.
  491. > And the vaulted ceilings loom overhead like your conscience.
  492. > Sergeant Ebonshield's leathery bat-wing, draped reassuringly over your withers as she leads you along, does help a bit.
  493. > It lets you know that she's not just going to leave you out to soak in the torrential downpour you've caused.
  494. > But the setup must look a bit silly to anyone who watches you go by, with the batpony being an inch shorter than you in the shoulders, and considerably more slenderly-built.
  495. > Then again, isn't that how you look when you're comforting your big, strong, Huckleberry Pudding, extending your own wing to cover his grassy-green back and blue overalls as you help him deal with another one of life's problems?
  496. > His pumpkin-orange mane bobbing against your cream feathers as he brings his head up high with your support?
  497. > His legs finding solid hoofing and a steady stride in even the thickest mud?
  499. > His powerful croup bobbing up and down with -- Oh, my.
  500. > You're not supposed to be thinking about your *Puddin'* right now, Artemis!
  501. > You're *supposed* to be thinking of what you've done to your *VIP*!
  502. > Taking a breath, you open your eyes wide and try to turn your thoughts away from how empty your bed has felt without your big, green cuddle-Huckle in it.
  503. > "It has been some time since you have been with your lover, has it not?"
  504. > Sleet-storms, was Lily right about batponies after all!?
  505. > Can they actually read minds?
  506. > Or... maybe your feelings for your absentee coltfriend are simply that obvious?
  507. > You glumly nod your head, and feel the Sergeant readjust her wing to wrap even more around you.
  508. > "... Oh, mi pobre Artemisita, how you have suffered..."
  509. > Rubbing her cheek against your neck, she leads you up the final staircase to your quarters.
  510. > "... Come now, let us make correct the pieces which have fallen apart at your hooves."
  511. > You lift your eyebrows and look over at her.
  512. "Do you really think the Royal Engineer will accept an apology?"
  513. > She smiles and pats your flank with her wing-tip.
  514. > "Of course, jaca! So long as you give it sincerely and with contrition, he will accept -- of this, I have no doubt..."
  515. > Reaching the hallway door to your shared quarters, she depresses the handle and pushes it open with one forehoof.
  516. > "... It is not this problem which troubles me, Artemisa, but the source of your mistake, instead."
  517. > Still leading you with a wing over your back, she flaps her free one and in a single sift motion sweeps the door shut again.
  518. > "... Come now and sit on the sofa, yes? And tell to mamá Ébanoscudo the story of you and this colt."
  519. > Trowal!
  520. > After you were just kicking yourself for thinking of Huckleberry instead of Anonymous, here's the Sergeant dismissing the latter and insisting you concentrate on the former!
  522. > The Sergeant releases you from her wing just in front of the centre cushion of the three-pony sofa, and waits with a gentle smile while you hesitantly take a seat.
  523. > Then, she steps over to the sideboard, fills a pair of cups from the water-jug, and sets them on the coffee table before cozily curling up in the club chair herself.
  524. > Still wearing the smile, she nods and motions for you to begin.
  525. > You're still feeling too depressed and confused to know what to do.
  526. "Uhm... Where... where should I start?"
  527. > The Sergeant chuckles.
  528. > "Why, at the beginning, of course! This 'Huckleberry Pudding', he is your first and only lover, yes?"
  529. > You nod, your hooves in your lap and your shoulders rolled inwards.
  530. "Y-yes..."
  531. > "And where did you meet this colt, then? Did he live always in your village?"
  532. > Nodding again, you rub your hooves together awkwardly.
  533. "Uh-huh. We, uhm, attended classes together. In Miss Magnolia's one-room schoolhouse. He was two years older than me. He still is."
  534. > She rolls her eyebrows and nods knowingly.
  535. > What does she read into *that*?
  536. > "Ahh... And sometimes you played together also as children, yes?"
  537. > With a furrowed brow, you nod again.
  538. "Uh-huh."
  539. > Ebonshield licks her lips and pauses before asking her next question.
  540. > "And... when did you first see him as not just another child with which to play, hmm?"
  541. > Oh, rain-squalls...
  542. > Sitting here and answering the Sergeant's questions may wind up being more uncomfortable than sitting before Lieutenant Temper Violetta and explaining why you thought it appropriate to dance the Maypole with your VIP at the Grand Galloping Gala.
  543. > But, at least here the Sergeant has your best interests at heart.
  544. > You have to really think back to remember when you first saw Huckleberry as more than a school-room playmate.
  545. "Uhm... I think... I think it was the year after I had my last, uhm, 'growth spurt'..."
  546. > Swallowing, you try to relax a bit.
  547. > It's not easy.
  549. "... Heh, momma said I turned from a little cumulus into a big cumulonimbus over the summer break..."
  550. > You chuckle awkwardly.
  551. > She really had said that.
  552. > It was only a joke, but at the time, when you were already one of the tallest ponies in the class, and by far the tallest pegasus, it made you feel like a real odd pony out.
  553. "... I was kinda feeling awkward and big and a little bit strange, and I was getting teased by the other fillies who were my age but hadn't yet grown as I had, while the older mares thought I was too young & childish to play with them..."
  554. > It's hard to remember that far back.
  555. > Sucking in your lips, you pick out the little strands that do come to mind, and gather them together to form a coherent thread.
  556. "... Huckleberry Pudding was the tallest & biggest earth pony in the class, and he was a bit picked on by the colts for it, too, and I guess I kinda... I kinda saw him as a sort of kindred spirit, you know? And I guess he did, too. We started sticking together more and more..."
  557. > What happened after the school year, however, is more clear.
  558. "... That summer, I barely left his flank. I did everything he did and went everywhere with him..."
  559. > Remembering a poignant moment at a late-summer festival, you sigh.
  560. "... It was for a whole sky full of reasons. I liked him, and he made me feel small again because he was even bigger, and he didn't mind me hanging around, and he was kind and gentle, and I liked helping him in the fields, and his family was nice, too, and I think I did it also just because it drove my mom & pop a bit crazy me wanting to be only with him & his kin for the whole season..."
  562. > The second school-year together, however, was a step further.
  563. "... That fall, the second year, I learned how to let him go a bit, because I needed some time alone or in the sky to do my own things. But I still had him in my thoughts, even high up pushing the cirrus clouds around working on the weekends. And I think that's when I started to stick on him, too..."
  564. > You smile as you remember that year's Hearth's Warming.
  565. "... He saved his bits and got me an awful big present for Hearth's Warming Day -- a camera, a 'Little Ludwig' number 2, model D..."
  566. > Clasping your hooves together up in the air, you gush a bit.
  567. "... Thirty-five millimetre film, integrated viewfinder & rangefinder, screw-thread interchangeable lenses, with thirty-five and one-hundred-and-five millimetre ones in the box. Oh, I must've taken a thousand photos a month with it, and I spent every last bit I had on film & development supplies..."
  568. > He'd thoughtfully -- and bravely! -- asked your dad for a gift suggestion in September, you'd learned later.
  569. > Knowing that Huck wasn't from a wealthy family (not that yours was particularly rich, either), your dad had made several cheaper suggestions.
  570. > But your stubborn Puddin' had managed to scrape enough bits to get you the latest model, with all the important accessories.
  571. > There's a photograph of you and Huckleberry on his graduation day in your room.
  572. > Your father took it, using your camera, after you'd taught him how.
  573. > You developed the film and printed the photo yourself.
  574. > Huckleberry has a print of it as well, in a frame you bought for him.
  575. > That wasn't all that happened that year, though.
  576. > Still feeling the same exhilarated rush you felt when you first got your hooves on that camera, you try to relax a bit.
  577. "... And that summer... After he'd graduated..."
  579. > Your gulp.
  580. "... On a hot, muggy July evening... after he'd been working the whole day cutting & bailing hay in the fields... and I'd been up in the sky pushing around clouds for bits & taking aerial photographs for fun..."
  581. > Licking your lips, you take another breath.
  582. "... I saw him relaxing in the shade behind the barn, and swooped down to say hello..."
  583. > It's getting a little difficult to stay focused.
  584. "... And... uhm... He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him, and... uh..."
  585. > You stretch out your hind legs, swallowing again, and breathing heavily.
  586. "... Uh... and..."
  587. > Jeepers, it's hot in here for May.
  588. > Extending your wings, you fan yourself a bit.
  589. > Ought to crack open the windows in the bedrooms & bathroom.
  590. "... aaaand... Uhm, he, uh, he-he leaned in close, and he, uhm, he kissed me, and uh, I kissed back, and I hugged him... and he hugged back... and... and..."
  591. > Somehow, just thinking about that hot, steamy, sweaty day has caused the weather to manifest here in the common room.
  592. > And you're feeling just as awkward and aroused as you did on that day four years ago.
  593. "... And... And then... we took each others' virginity... With maybe a few, uhm... 'technical difficulties' along the way."
  594. > Whew.
  595. > You feel like a red-sun evening after an afternoon rainstorm.
  596. > Worn out and kind of clammy.
  597. > Sergeant Ebonshield has been sitting in the club chair this whole time, listening calmly, while you told the story of your first opposite-sex best-friend who turned into your crush who turned into your coltfriend who turned into your lover.
  598. > Feeling a bit spent from the ordeal, you look over and wonder what she's going to make of it all.
  599. "... Does that... answer your question, Sergeant?"
  600. > She nods.
  601. > "Oh, yes. It has given me a picture most clear of how your relationship began. And the next summer after this, when you yourself left school -- this is when you joined the Guardia Real?"
  603. > You nod.
  604. "Yes... I'd already been working part-time as a weather-pony in the AWACS, but I'd decided I wanted to do something more exciting. My dad had served a tour of duty in the Guard, and looked back on it fondly, so he supported me enlisting..."
  605. > Looking away, you remember some of the details of that process.
  606. > A lot of evenings spent poring over fliers, glossy brochures, testimonials, and contracts.
  607. > A lot of stories told of glory days in the Royal Guard.
  608. > A lot of mom crying tears of worry and a little bit of dad crying tears of pride, too.
  609. "... I enlisted to become an Armoured Scout because I was interested in it, and because there was a big bonus for pegasi -- they usually can't handle all the armour. But I had played offensive tackle in regional hoofball, the only pegasus on the fillies' team, and I won second place in the Hark County Aerial marathon the year I graduated & first place the year before, so I wasn't worried about bearing the weight or having to fly long distances..."
  610. > Taking a deep breath, you find yourself able to relax again.
  611. > Focusing on the job instead of your relationship problems does that to you.
  612. "... And the 4th Armoured Regiment has its headquarters just outside Cloudsdale, which is so close to Berry that I could fly home every weekend in just a couple of hours, if I hurried and if the wind was favourable. And I *did* get home every weekend, to see my family and my Huckleberry, whenever we weren't out on campaign."
  613. > Ebonshield bends over out of her comfy curled-up position to pick up her water-cup, and takes a sip.
  614. > That makes your throat feel pretty dry, too, so you do the same.
  615. > After a good long drink, you feel like you can finally relax a bit, so you slouch down a bit in the sofa, tucking your hind legs up behind you.
  616. > For servants' quarters furniture, it *is* pretty comfy.
  617. > "What made you wish to join the VIP service instead of remaining in the '1st Pegasus' which are so much closer to your home?"
  619. > That's an easy one to answer, at least.
  620. "The 4th Armoured Regiment HQ is just outside Cloudsdale, but it's still *in the clouds*, which means that it's not very accommodating for Earth Ponies. If we were married..."
  621. > It hurts a bit to say that word, wondering if it'll ever happen.
  622. "... then we'd have access to a small on-base house, but there wouldn't be a lot of work for him there. He'd have to get a lift to Cloudsdale or back down to the ground for his job. And there aren't a lot of opportunities for labourer Earth Ponies in Cloudsdale that aren't hazardous or back-breaking. Even just being an Earth Pony in the city can be dangerous; the clouds aren't always solid underhoof."
  623. > You were pretty sure Huckleberry Pudding was afraid of heights, too, but at least his objections to avoiding Cloudsdale you could understand -- it was his avoidance of your second choice that really confused & upset you.
  624. "... Canterlot is a lot easier. After serving the required time in my original regiment, I thought that taking a posting here would let us live together for whole weeks at a time, instead of just visiting on the weekends. And although it's a bit further, it's only a temporary posting. He was supposed to come and find a job and get comfortable with the city. Then I could try to transfer permanently to one of the regiments based here. There are armoured units in Canterlot, so it wouldn't be too hard. But it hasn't worked out..."
  625. > You trail off, not sure where to take the story next.
  626. > This is where the trouble really started.
  627. > The weekends back in Berry when you were in the 1st PD may have been inconsistently scheduled, their contents unplanned and spontaneous, but they worked.
  628. > It wasn't ideal, but you were happy.
  629. > He seemed happy, too.
  631. > This time, you came up with a plan and a way to satisfy all your needs, you'd thought.
  632. > Yours to stay in the Guard, a job which you genuinely enjoyed, and to be with your Puddin' at the same time.
  633. > His to have meaningful work in a safe, terrestrial environment and, you thought, to be with his 'Sparks'.
  634. > He'd agreed to the scheme, too -- or, at least, never expressed any doubts.
  635. > Surely not every mare had the same trouble with their own colt?
  636. > You look over at the batpony Sergeant First Class twice your age.
  637. "Did you ever have a problem like this with your... with *one* of your colts?"
  638. > Sighing, she glances away.
  639. > "Ah... No. I do not think so. But then again, for such relationships, there are great differences between those on the Moon and here in Equestria..."
  640. > Shaking her head, she continues.
  641. > "... Among the Rocks and the Dust, love of this kind is common, and among the Shadows even as well, but for the Stars and the Lunars, thought to be the finest examples of our race, love is more a matter of breeding..."
  642. > Ebonshield shrugs her eyebrows.
  643. > "... I have had many mates, and I have even loved a few of them, and sometimes been loved in return, despite the brevity of our encounters. But for the rest -- we were performing only our duty to our Houses and to the Children of the Stars as a whole. I have no regrets as to the results, but neither do I endorse the practice."
  644. > That sounds horrible!
  645. > Being *ordered* to mate with somepony -- somepony she maybe hadn't even met, or even heard about, and won't ever see again!
  646. > Is her reason for going out at night to find young colts half her age some kind of rebellion, then?
  647. > The same as when she defied her mother -- twice?
  648. > Or maybe she's just trying to have something she couldn't have before?
  649. "Is that why you do what you do, now? Go to Canterlot clubs to find young colts? To try and have a real relationship?"
  651. > Ebonshield laughs at your suggestion.
  652. > "Ohoho, no, no... 'Real' relationships, I should think, are built on strong foundations and take many months to construct..."
  653. > With a sly smile, she lifts her hind hooves up into the chair and turns sideways, curling herself up into a sort of ball, with her wings wrapped around her.
  654. > "... I am not completely past the age of physical breeding, but I am past the age where my House may demand my service, and anyways I have already given them plenty already. So, I am free to partner with whom I please..."
  655. > Bobbing her head sideways, she chuckles again.
  656. > "... And as for my selections, I think that because I am trying to be a *teacher* in the School of the Shining Stellar Dance, then I should also strive to be a teacher of all other subjects in which I am learned and proficient..."
  657. > Giggling, she rolls her shoulders and re-wraps herself in her wings.
  658. > "... Which includes those arts practiced in the bedroom. And who better to teach than the very inexperienced, that they find success later in life?"
  659. > She's picking up young colts just to teach them how to please mares in bed?
  660. > L-lewd...
  661. > Straining to keep your wings in check, you take another drink from your cup, then return the empty vessel to the coffee table.
  662. "So what do you think I should do? About my Puddin'?"
  663. > Emptying her own cup, she unfurls herself and places it down next to yours.
  664. > "Ah, what I think, Artemisa..."
  665. > With a smile, she gets up and trots over before sitting down beside you, taking your forehooves in hers.
  666. > "... What I think is that your love for this colt has endured for several years now, and it will survive a few weeks or months apart. Do not become discouraged. Do not give up. And do not *panic*. You are a soldier; you know that the greatest menaces on the battlefield are not the blades and the hooves of the enemy, but the fear and the panic within one's own ranks..."
  668. > That's true.
  669. > During the Battle of Newstirrup bridge, you were more afraid of what 'Joker' *might* do to you, than what he was actually able to do.
  670. > And in the end, when you overcame that fear, you defeated him.
  671. > Releasing your hooves, she looks you in the eyes, her muzzle directly in front of yours in her batpony fashion.
  672. > "... Therefore, prepare an apology and an explanation for the Engineer Royal, which you shall deliver tonight. And prepare also a letter to your querido saying that you shall not dance the dance of lovers without him, and that you wish very much for him to come to Canterlot, but otherwise you shall see him when your posting is complete, though your heart aches to say it..."
  673. > Lifting an eyebrow, she spreads one wing open away from you.
  674. > "... You have tried to reason with him, yes? And I wonder if you also have tried to cajole him, perhaps gently?"
  675. > You nod.
  676. > *Reasoning* was where you'd started.
  677. > *Cajoling* is where you've sort of arrived.
  678. > Although Glamerspear's suggestion that you deliberately broke up with Huckleberry was completely false, *Honour's* pointing out that ponies might take you and Anonymous for a couple hadn't completely escaped your mind when you'd sent the letter.
  679. > A part of you -- a mean, cruel, vengeful, part of you -- had *wanted* Huckleberry to read it that way, and to react accordingly.
  680. > That, more than anything else, had made you feel especially guilty about the whole affair.
  681. > Your head droops down with regret, but Sergeant Ebonshield brings her outstretched wing around and places its tip against your down-turned chin, lifting your snout back up.
  682. > "... What I wish for you to do, Artemisa, is try a new approach with your lover. I wish for you to try not for his mind, or for his jealousy, but instead to seize his *loins*..."
  683. > Uh...
  684. > "... I propose that in this letter, you must also inflame his passions, his desires, his *lust* for you. For he *does* lust after you, does he not? And you him?"
  686. > Hesitantly, not because it's untrue, but because it's awkward to admit, you nod your head.
  687. > She licks her lips and continues.
  688. > "... It is this emotional centre which you must attack; there, his defences will be weak, and his shield with break. You understand what I mean, yes?"
  689. > You *think* you do...
  690. "I *think* so..."
  691. > She narrows her eyes, sensing correctly that you actually don't.
  692. > "Chica. You will write to your lover a letter so provocative and salacious, so steamy with suggestion that the mail-ponies will have to deliver it with pliers lest it give them 'the little death' by its merest touch. ¿Comprende?"
  693. > L-lewd...
  694. > You nod your head, wondering what you're about to get into.
  695. > Ebonshield smiles broadly.
  696. > "... And I will help you with this, of course! The pillow-talk, you see, she is a speciality particular of mine."
  697. > Oh, my...
  699. Suggested interlude music: (Salma Hayek - 'Siente Mi Amor', as featured in 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico' [2003])
  704. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and finding a good dress for Corporal Bound is turning out to be harder than you thought.
  705. > It's not that there's a lack of availability -- there's still plenty of stock in the stores you're visiting.
  706. > And the prices aren't bad, either.
  707. > The Corporal hasn't actually balked at any of the digits on price tags so far.
  708. > No, the problem is... she's so *brown*.
  709. > Ponies usually wear colours that match their mane or their coat or at least their eyes.
  710. > But Honour is just brown, brown, brown, and nopony seems to make *brown* dresses!
  711. > Or at least, not nice ones.
  712. > But even if you *could* find a brown dress, you're worried it'd just blend right into her.
  713. > A number of perfectly good and reasonably priced dresses have been tried and rejected, and any of them would have worked for you, or Sparkshower, or Ebonshield, or just about anypony else with ordinary bright-coloured coat (well, bright *mane* in the case of Eb, though at least she's got some violet going on with her body).
  714. > But set against Honour's triple-brown combo, they just look... 'noisy'.
  715. > Like she's trying too hard to catch everypony's attention.
  716. > At least, in your opinion.
  717. > It's not even so much that the outfits look *bad*, it's just that, well, it's the *Gala*.
  718. > An outfit for the Grand Galloping Gala isn't just some clothes you put on, it should be a statement about who you are.
  719. > And about your place in Canterlot.
  720. > For example, take your little black cocktail dress from this year's Louis Valise summer catalogue, paid for by your wealthy benefactor, Captain Mailedhoof.
  721. > It said, 'Here is a well-kept mare with exquisite taste in both gentlecolts and in fashion; you can't afford me, darling, but look all you please.'
  723. > Your Silver Ram, if you chose to wear it -- it was traditional to wear those kinds of honours to the Gala, but you weren't sure if it would really 'go' with your outfit -- also said a thing or two about your *position* in society, too.
  724. > Meanwhile, Sparkshower's satin-and-tulle tea-length boat-neck dress in blush-pink from last year's fashions said, 'I am a modest mare of modest means, simple in wants and graceful because of it; I'm more than my dress.'
  725. > She didn't know it yet -- because you hadn't quite finished altering it to fit her brawny frame -- but she was going to be a knock-out at the Gala.
  726. > Heh, if she wasn't careful, she'd have young gentlecolts swarming all over her.
  727. > Maybe even more than'd be flocking to you!
  728. > After all, Captain Mailedhoof would be there with his wife.
  729. > Your role was to play the little piece of candy tempting him for an after-dinner snack.
  730. > You lick your lips as you wait for Honour to trot out in the next selection.
  731. > Bored, you glance over at the Royal Engineer, sitting quietly with one leg crossed over his knee.
  732. > Though you still consider his presence an intrusion, at least he wasn't getting in the way.
  733. > Anonymous was just wearing his 'everyday' suit with his red sash of office, but the one he ordered for the Gala said a thing or two about him as well, even though it followed the traditional three-piece pattern.
  734. > 'On the surface I am much like any other colt, but look closer and you'll see that I'm not; I have a fine eye for detail, a sharp sense of style, and a healthy respect for tradition.'
  735. > An excellent statement for a colt to make, particularly at an event like the Gala.
  736. > You'll help him pick out a suitable calling-card that will make a similar impression later today.
  737. > Just as soon as you can get Honour into something you like...
  738. > And that she likes as well, of course.
  740. > Over on the right, a brown hoof pulls back the dressing-room curtain, and the Corporal steps out wearing the latest selection.
  741. > It's a fairly simple number in gold satin, with a little bit of ruching at the back, a waistband, and then considerable ruching at the front to give it some texture and a nice dark/light sheen as she moves around.
  742. > Honour steps up onto the podium and looks herself over in the mirrors.
  743. > She doesn't look thrilled.
  744. > Not that she'd probably show it if she were.
  745. > But to be honest, you weren't particularly excited either.
  746. > It *works*, but, again, it doesn't quite seem special enough.
  747. > You decide to test the waters.
  748. "That's a good colour on you, Corporal. How do you like the design?"
  749. > Twisting her head sideways, she examines her flank in the mirror, stepping and stretching her back legs.
  750. > "I don't know... It fits all right, I suppose..."
  751. > Yeah, she doesn't like it.
  752. > Then again, maybe she does -- she seems to be having a little fun bobbing her backside to and fro, watching the material swish around.
  753. > And then she continues to twist and turn, looking it over.
  754. > Well, if she doesn't like it, at least she's paid it more attention than any of the others so far.
  755. > Or maybe she's just starting to have her anti-dressing-up defences worn down now.
  756. > Good thing you saved some of the better stuff for later.
  757. > Frowning, the Corporal looks back at the Royal Engineer, who so far has sat patiently through the whole series of dress-up & look-overs.
  758. > "... What do you think, sir?"
  759. > Surprised to be addressed after all this time, Anonymous lifts his eyebrows and uncrosses his legs.
  760. > "Me? You want *my* opinion, Corporal?"
  761. > Honour replies with a shrug, a neutral expression on her face.
  762. > Well, she might as well get a third opinion while she's up there.
  763. > Provided he doesn't screw this all up by saying something inappropriate!
  764. > Anonymous looks her over.
  765. > "... I-I don't really know what to say."
  767. > You chuckle and wave a hoof up at the Corporal.
  768. "It's not a trick question or anything, sir. Does she look good enough to walk into the Gala alongside a member of the Blue Chamber? After all, we're all going together, aren't we?"
  769. > He smiles.
  770. > "I suppose we are, but I don't know much about Equestrian fashion."
  771. > You scoff.
  772. "That's surprising to hear considering how you've got classical colts' style down pat..."
  773. > He gives you a confused look, so you continue on with a smile.
  774. "... I remember how you effortlessly rattled off that order for your very fashionable Gala outfit, sir. You must know more than you think."
  775. > Curiously, your statement seems to dampen his mood.
  776. > "That was a special case, Specialist. I've bought that exact suit before."
  777. > You furrow your brow.
  778. "Wha..? I thought this is your first Gala?"
  779. > He licks his lips and sits back in his chair, his mood darkening.
  780. > "It is. But that was my wedding suit. Back in my world."
  781. > Oh, crap.
  782. > Corporal Bound's jaw and shoulders drop, and she blurts out a reply.
  783. > "You were *married*, sir?"
  784. > Bucking Tartarus!
  785. > *She's* supposed to be the one to tell *you* to shut up when you've opened your mouth too wide!
  786. > And here she goes digging into Anonymous' past in another world!
  787. > You may not remember every single boring detail Lieutenant Temper Violetta said in her briefing about the Royal Engineer, but you sure as buck remember her admonition not to bring up this sort of thing!
  788. > Involuntary exiles in Equestria usually didn't like talking about their homelands much, especially when there wasn't much hope of them getting back -- and in Anonymous' case, the L-T had said there was practically none at all.
  789. > Surprisingly, the Royal Engineer shakes his head.
  790. > "No. I was only engaged."
  791. > He got zapped to another world before he could even get married?
  792. > Separated forever from his sweetheart?
  794. > Celestia's tears, that's tragic -- and you're not the mushy type, either.
  795. > Sparkshower would probably already be bawling if she were here for this.
  796. > The Corporal's eyes go wide.
  797. > "You left a *fiancée* behind?!"
  798. > Oh great, way to step deeper into it, Honour.
  799. > Really mash your hoof in there.
  800. > Anonymous swallows and adjusts himself in his seat.
  801. > "No. It didn't go through. I, uh..."
  802. > He smacks his lips and stares down at the ground for a moment, then continues.
  803. > "... I called it off."
  804. > Wow.
  805. > *That's* not the kind of thing that's very frequent around here.
  806. > And from the way he says it, it's obviously not frequent over *there*, either.
  807. > Much as it contradicts the Lieutenant's instructions, you're not sure your curiosity will let you go on without hearing the rest of *this* story.
  808. > And Honour, standing in utter shock, looks unable to continue as well.
  809. > Hesitantly, you see if the Royal Engineer is willing to part with the rest of the details.
  810. "What... happened, sir? If you don't mind us asking?"
  811. > Anonymous casts his eyes around the room, then shrugs.
  812. > "I don't mind. It was a couple of years ago, now..."
  813. > You get the sense that, even after two years and getting dumped on another world, he's not really completely over it yet.
  814. > Anonymous clears his throat, placing his hands together in front of him.
  815. > "... There was a breach of trust."
  816. > Honour takes a step forward, wearing a concerned look.
  817. > "She cheated on you?"
  818. > Your first thought as well, but Anonymous shakes his head.
  819. > "No. It was a different problem."
  820. > Now it's your turn to blurt something out.
  821. "Money."
  822. > Both the Royal Engineer and Corporal Bound look over at you quizzically.
  823. > And looking at his face, you know your guess was right.
  824. > You shrug.
  825. "... Infidelity or money; it's almost always one or the other that breaks up couples."
  826. > Anonymous nods.
  827. > "In this case I suppose you could say it was about money, yes..."
  829. > He pauses a moment to take a deep breath and clear his throat.
  830. > "... She was fairly heavily in debt when we first met. Student loans from school, credit bills from a spendthrift post-graduate life, that sort of thing. Myself, I'd been in the black for a while, living at home with my parents, but her debts didn't really bother me. She had a decent job and a good career ahead of her which would easily let her pay things off. And she was taking care to do just that..."
  831. > Dipping his head, he lifts one of his hands up in a dismissive gesture, then lets them both drop down onto his knees.
  832. > "... At least, that's what she always *said*. And when money ever came up, she acted like things were going well, too -- buying expensive things, like a brand-new pricey car instead of a used or simpler one, making it seem like her previous debt was down to almost nothing..."
  833. > Sucking on his lips, he lifts an eyebrow.
  834. > "... After a year and a half of dating, I proposed. She was thrilled. We were happy. She wanted a big, extravagant wedding. I decided I wanted a fancy bespoke tailcoat, so I did my research and came up with that wedding ensemble..."
  835. > A fleeting smile appears on his face, then disappears just as quickly.
  836. > "... About half a year before the wedding, the housing market was getting pretty hot in our city. I thought it would be a good idea if we tried to get in on some property sooner rather than later. A nice condo midtown, or maybe a house in the suburbs. We made an appointment to get a mortgage pre-approval at the bank; she still pretended like everything was going well and that her credit rating was doing fine..."
  837. > Shaking his head, he starts to look a bit depressed.
  838. > "... But when we got there, it became clear that it wasn't..."
  840. > Puffing his cheeks, Anonymous blows out a breath and looks down.
  841. > "... She didn't want to admit the truth. She said she was afraid I'd get upset. And in the end, I suppose I did. Not about the debt, which was bigger than she'd ever admitted, and being paid off far more slowly than she'd claimed..."
  842. > He looks up, fixing each of you in his gaze, one at a time.
  843. > "... I got upset about the *lies*. The constant claiming that her finances were completely under control. The attempts to cover things up by spending big, when small would've done fine, and when she couldn't really afford it. And how she didn't even say anything before the mortgage meeting.."
  844. > Anonymous looks wistfully off away from you again.
  845. > "... Face to face with a banker who knew everything about her financial situation, but couldn't spill the details in front of me without her permission, even then she couldn't bring herself to tell me the truth -- not until the car-ride home, where she broke down in tears..."
  846. > Finally, he shrugs.
  847. > "... What choice did I have? I couldn't trust her after such an extended, concerted deception, no matter her apology. Two years of fakery and lies. You can't marry someone you don't trust. So I called it off, and bid her farewell..."
  848. > The Royal Engineer slouches back in his chair.
  849. > "... I forfeited the deposit on my suit, but that wasn't important. It was the build up and let down of the whole thing; it took something out of me, something much more significant than just money..."
  850. > A sly smile creeps back onto his face.
  851. > "... You know the punchline, though? Half a year later, the bottom fell out of the property market. If we'd bought back then, our mortgage might've wound up uncomfortably underwater. As it was, I made a move and picked up a nice house in a good neighbourhood, all on my own..."
  852. > The smile disappears.
  853. > "... That was a few months before I wound up here."
  855. > Damn.
  856. > You don't really know what to say to all that, and from the look on her face, the Corporal doesn't, either.
  857. > There's a long, awkward, pause, broken only when the Royal Engineer claps his hands on his knees.
  858. > "Sorry. I hope I haven't knocked down the mood too much. Anyways, that's why I was able to 'rattle off' the order for that suit so easily, Specialist Glamerspear. I'd spent a considerable amount of time researching things and learning a lot about traditional suits..."
  859. > He chuckles.
  860. > "... Since I never wound up using or even getting the original incarnation, I'm looking forward to wearing it to the Gala here..."
  861. > Shrugging, he spreads his palms.
  862. > "... As for 'coltish fashion' in Equestria, I think I'm just fortunate it happens to be so much like the traditional formal menswear on my world. It's startling, really. But, when it comes to *female* attire... Well, I suppose there are a couple of similarities in techniques, but the styles are quite different. Equestria seems to prefer much more big, flamboyant outfits than were common where I come from..."
  863. > Smiling, he looks Corporal Bound up and down, and the Corporal stands stark, appearing almost embarrassed by the attention.
  864. > "... I think that dress looks good. The gold colour works well."
  865. > Interesting!
  866. > And what will Miss Bound do with this third opinion, now that she's finally gotten it?
  867. > Honour nods, then turns to look herself over in the mirror again.
  868. > "Let's... put it as a 'maybe', OK?"
  869. > Really?
  870. > That's the first 'maybe'!
  871. > You're still not one-hundred-percent satisfied, but it's growing on you a bit.
  872. > And a lot can be done with *accessories*, after all.
  873. > Honour glances back at you.
  874. > "... There's still a few more to try on."
  875. > You think quickly: if she liked this one, which one's the next best bet?
  876. > Something comes to mind.
  877. "Why don't you try on the red one? With the lace?"
  878. > With a nod, the Corporal trots off to the change-room, drawing the curtain shut.
  880. > You take the opportunity to lean over and whisper at your VIP.
  881. "Psst... Sir, can you do me a favour?"
  882. > Anonymous hunches over and down to your level and whispers back.
  883. > "Certainly. What is it?"
  884. > You nod towards where Honour's changing.
  885. "It's the Corporal, sir. I don't think she's got a lot of self-confidence about her looks, if you know what I mean? And I could use your help with that."
  886. > The Royal Engineer arches his eyebrows.
  887. > "What do you need me to do?"
  888. > You grin.
  889. "Just now, you complimented the outfit -- that's great, and I'm sure she appreciates it. But next time, if you like the way she looks, make sure to phrase it so it's about *her*, ya know?"
  890. > Waving a hoof around for emphasis, you continue.
  891. "... Like, instead of, 'That dress looks good', say, '*You* look good in that dress', get it?"
  892. > The Royal Engineer nods and sits back up.
  893. > "Sure, I'll do that."
  894. > Great!
  895. > Because that *red* thing is something special, and you really want Honour to like it.
  896. > Funny enough, she manages to strip off the gold one & get suited up in the red much faster than any of the previous costume changes.
  897. > The look on her face when she opens the curtains, and the way she opens them -- slowly, like she doesn't want to be seen -- tells you that you've got an uphill battle to get her into this particular outfit.
  898. > "I don't know about this one, Glamerspear."
  899. > For Celestia's sake!
  900. > She hasn't even stepped out of the change-room!
  901. > You roll your eyes.
  902. "What, did your 'drinks-with-just-a-friend' friend happen to walk into the store? Don't want to spoil next weekend's surprise in case he sees you in here?"
  903. > That garners you a nasty frown.
  904. > Touched a nerve with that one!
  905. > Guess Mister Mystery Colt still played it slow last night.
  906. > Regardless, she grumbles, finds some courage, and approaches the podium.
  908. > Now, this a pretty one.
  909. > The *red* colour, you feel, wouldn't really work on a lot of mares, though it definitely works on a brown one, now that you see the Corporal in it.
  910. > The fabric is very nice: a darker red floral lace on top of a lighter beige-translucent backing material.
  911. > That's all reasonable, but it's the cut that's probably making her the most uncomfortable.
  912. > The cut at the *back* to be specific.
  913. > Suspecting that Corporal Bound preferred more conservative choices in outfits, this was the only mini dress you picked out for her, but so far you liked what you saw.
  914. > Sleeveless, low-cut for a sizable amount of exposed tuft, and with a stiffened chest to form the body, the back ended in lacy frills that just barely covered the curvature of her plot below her tail.
  915. > The effect would be striking on any pony, but the red colour went perfectly with Honour's brown coat and mane 'n' tail -- the backing layer seemed to blend right into her body, so that only the lacy outer layer was really visible.
  916. > It's almost as if she were wearing the lace alone!
  917. > And that's part of what made it look great, in your mind.
  918. > Corporal Bound hesitantly looks herself over in the mirror.
  919. > "It's... pretty short back there. I don't know if this is really appropriate for the Gala."
  920. > You scoff.
  921. "Pfft, are you kidding me? Take a look at last year's Canterlot Match magazine; some mares wear dresses cut so short you can almost see everything they've got going on in the rear. You're well above that crass level."
  922. > What you said was absolutely true.
  923. > The Corporal doesn't look that convinced, though, so you keep going.
  924. "... Look, if you feel that uncomfortable, just wear some beige panties underneath it. They'll blend in with the underlayer fabric, the lace'll hide any panty lines, and you won't have to worry about any 'accidental reveals', ya know?"
  925. > That seems to have helped; she doesn't look quite so sceptical about it.
  927. > You decide to stand up and close the sale, stepping up behind her and watching her go over her reflection in the triple mirrors.
  928. > Like with the gold one, she bobs her plot around a bit -- except *this* dress has got a lot more bounce in the back, with the way the bottom splays out playfully.
  929. > And that extra bounce in the *fabric* seems to be encouraging her to let loose a bit more with her derrière.
  930. > She's even grooving with her shoulders, too!
  931. > Damn, maybe the Corporal wasn't always such a grim-faced killjoy.
  932. > If so, could this derby-downer brown mare still tear it up on the dance floor?
  933. > You're getting a bit curious to find out.
  934. > She's not quite ready to say 'yes' to the dress, though...
  935. > The Corporal looks up at the Royal Engineer's reflection in the mirror.
  936. > "What do you think about this one, sir? Compared to the gold one?"
  937. > C'mon, VIP, don't let your quaternion down.
  938. > Give Honour the final push over the edge!
  939. > Anonymous takes just the right amount of time to appear to be giving a measured response.
  940. > "I think you look good in it. The colour works well against yours, and the lace print has an attractive texture. It looks like you can dance in it, too -- there's dancing at the Gala, isn't there?"
  941. > He looks over at you as the authority on the G-G-G, and you grin.
  942. "Oh yeah. They start off with the old-fashioned stuff first, but once that's done the DJ lets loose with modern club tunes. The party goes aaaallllll night -- and sometimes night can go on a little longer than usual, too! 'Cause sometimes Her Majesty is a bit late in raising the sun the next day, ya know?"
  943. > He smiles.
  944. > "I think it'd work very well for high-energy dancing. But if you're worried about dressing too aggressively for the rest of the gala leading up to that, why not get something else to wear on top as a layer? Like a shawl or cape?"
  945. > Buck, that's a good idea.
  947. > You look slyly over at Honour, who's nodding -- with her usual frown on her face, but at least she's nodding.
  948. "I saw a few over in the accessories section, Corporal. Wanna trot over there and take a look?"
  949. > She nods.
  950. > "Yeah, okay."
  952. > As she heads out into the main room, you give an appreciative nod to the Royal Engineer.
  953. "We'll be right back, sir..."
  954. > Winking at him, you whisper as soon as Honour's out of earshot.
  955. "... And thanks for helping seal the deal."
  956. > Anonymous smiles.
  957. > "Any time, Specialist."
  958. > Yeah, any time *you* want, big colt.
  959. > Heh, maybe the batpony had the right idea about him after all..
  960. > You step out of the changing area after Honour.
  961. > Oh, this is gonna be the *best* gala ever.
  962. > Your VIP and the quat' are kitted out like a full-on *squaaad*.
  963. > Gonna kill it at the red carpet.
  964. > Anon in his sharp custom tailcoat.
  965. > Sparks in that cute little sweetheart dress.
  966. > Honour's dressing up to party hard.
  967. > You're rocking the LV badge with a black summer dress and some killer pumps.
  968. > And Eb...
  969. > Wait, what was the Sergeant planning to wear?
  970. > A question for later, after you're done with the Corporal.
  971. > After all, this is the military!
  972. > Things've gotta go up the chain of command properly, haha!
  974. Suggested interlude music: (Madonna - 'Vogue' [1990])
  979. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and it's been another long day.
  980. > By the time you and Glamerspear actually arrived back at your palace quarters, it was almost six o'clock.
  981. > Once again, Sparkshower had been left hanging, wondering when her shift was actually going to start.
  982. > Well, she can wait a few minutes longer while you put away your purchases.
  983. > You plan to escort her on-duty yourself.
  984. > Glamerspear can wait a bit downstairs, too, before she's relieved.
  985. > Picking out your dress, and the matching cape & fascinator, had taken the better part of three hours.
  986. > Pulling the set delicately out of your saddle-bag, you remove the purchases from their paper boxes and lay them out on your bed to look them over.
  987. > How Glamerspear had managed to get you to stuff yourself into that tiny little scrap of red fabric you honestly don't know.
  988. > It was the kind of thing a glittering pop star performing at a Los Pegasus casino in front of thousands of underage whinnying fans would wear.
  989. > Or maybe a riverside Manehattan street-trotter...
  990. > At least the cape provided some modesty, though it too was a bit 'saltine', as was the headgear.
  991. > The consequences of shopping with an ardent practitioner of the custom.
  992. > And you would *definitely* be wearing panties if you didn't want to just be waving your plot in everypony's face on the dance floor.
  993. > *If* you even decided to get up and dance.
  994. > You hadn't made your mind up about that quite yet.
  995. > Despite the time investment involved, the Royal Engineer had been polite and discreet about the whole dress-shopping thing.
  996. > He'd even taken you both out for lunch afterwards, at one of Canterlot's innumerable canal-side patio cafés.
  997. > It's a good thing, too, because as long as it had taken to pick out your dress, designing his calling card had taken even longer.
  999. > Although you had delivered and received plenty of them, you really had no idea how much work and thought could be put into the little paper things.
  1000. > Should the card be rectangular or oval?
  1001. > 'Fan-shapes' were also popular this season, he'd been told, and shown several examples before declining and settling on rectangular.
  1002. > That raised the question of the edges: should they be straight or scalloped?
  1003. > And would he like ribbon or thread sewn in?
  1004. > Should there be printed designs around the edges?
  1005. > Then it was time to look at the thousands of options for stock printed pictures of flowers or doves.
  1006. > Would the gentlecolt like his photograph on each card?
  1007. > And would sir like his name hoofwritten or in one of the standard typefaces (ligatures extra)?
  1008. > And of course that ink could be black, blue, red, silver, or gold...
  1009. > Even the paper itself was a thing to be carefully picked!
  1010. > The colour could be bright white, classic white, bone, ecru, eggshell, cream, ivory, sand -- and that was just the 'off-whites', never mind all the actual colour-colours.
  1011. > Meanwhile, the salespony had pushed the deluxe heavy-weight paper.
  1012. > 'Less prone to bending and turning up at the corners', he'd said.
  1013. > 'Easier to prominently emboss', he'd added, before also presenting the options for *that* little extra.
  1014. > Sweet Celestia, they'd even talked about watermarking!
  1015. > Glamerspear hadn't seem quite as prepared for the Royal Engineer's card-shopping as she'd been for your dress-shopping.
  1016. > She was knowledgeable, and provided some decent advice, as well as feedback, but mostly it had been the salespony and Anonymous going back and forth on various design options with the salespony and the card-company's in-house graphic designer.
  1017. > When asked, you had given some opinions as well, but frankly you felt completely out of your depth.
  1019. > You had almost wished instead you were being forced to drive the Royal Engineer's automobile at break-neck speeds down some narrow, winding, Canterlot alley.
  1020. > In the end, after two hours and the approval of both of his attendant guardsponies, he'd settled on a rectangular card, eighty-nine by sixty-four millimetre, with straight edges in the luxury three-hundred-gram eggshell cardstock.
  1021. > The corners were emphasized by border art in strong black ink: a curly design centred around three stylized rose blooms in the top-left, and the same curly design but with the rose-blooms replaced by cogwheels in the bottom-right.
  1022. > Offset slightly to the left in a retro 'Centaur' typeface was printed simply 'Anonymous, Royal Engineer of Equestria' with 'Canterlot Palace' beneath it.
  1023. > And to the right was embossed the Royal Seal of Equestria, a stylized sun with a crescent-and-star inside it, which he was entitled to use as a member of the government.
  1024. > It would take a few days to prepare the three hundred copies he'd ordered, but the printer rushed out a few quick proofs for him to use in the immediate future.
  1025. > And, of course, a true gentlecolt couldn't simply carry cards like this around in his pocket -- he also purchased a small silver case for them as well.
  1026. > At the end of it, the elated (but exhausted) salespony declared the design 'crisp, clean, and professional'.
  1027. > Glamerspear said she thought it was 'avant-garde' in its simplicity and use of firm pen lines instead of softer watercolours.
  1028. > As far as you could tell, it did what it needed to, and it got the point across.
  1029. > But even you were surprised by the stark black on white.
  1030. > Not a common combination in colourful Canterlot.
  1031. > You look over your very red outfit for the Gala.
  1032. > It was slinky, coquettish, and outgoing.
  1033. > All attributes which you'd resolutely divorced over two years ago, and yet here they are again.
  1035. > Maybe what Glamerspear had really succeeded in doing -- not this morning, but last night, with her speech about 'taking it slow' with Castlerook -- was convincing you that you could still have fun yourself even while being serious.
  1036. > With a sigh, you grab a hangar and gently put away next week's outfit.
  1037. > Even Anonymous, who'd suffered a heartbreak not unlike your own, yet worked a very serious job in a serious manner, managed to enjoy himself now and again.
  1038. > Including during combat training, of all times, but there *was* something invigorating about physical activity.
  1039. > Well, if he could let loose, then so could you.
  1040. > And if you couldn't, well, then that's what the Gala's open bar was for.
  1041. > Stepping out of your bedroom, you find Sparkshower waiting at the door like a puppy-dog anxious to be let out for a walk.
  1042. > "I'm ready for duty, Corporal! Are you finished with what you needed to take care of?"
  1043. > You nod, but when she reaches for the door-handle, you clear your throat.
  1044. "Hold up, Specialist..."
  1045. > She freezes in place, and you step up next to her.
  1046. "... Have you prepared your apology to the Royal Engineer?"
  1047. > Sparkshower nods.
  1048. > "Yes, Corporal. The Sergeant helped me sort everything out. I'm ready to set things right... and to take what punishment may be coming for me."
  1049. > You're really not sure what the Sergeant could have done to help Sparkshower give an appropriate Equestrian apology.
  1050. > Still, she seems contrite enough.
  1051. > With another nod, you bid her open the door and the two of you walk silently downstairs.
  1052. > You hope that Sparkshower's apology goes over well.
  1053. > It was true that the Royal Engineer had been extremely forgiving of your various mistakes -- the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge and your blow-up a few days later, for example -- and had even laughed Ebonshield off the hook when she tried to apologize for messing up the day in the Rookery.
  1054. > He'd been sympathetic to Glamerspear's mana poisoning injury, as well.
  1056. > But this was a different kind of situation.
  1057. > It wasn't just a professional mistake.
  1058. > She'd lied to him, and concealed the truth for her own selfish interests.
  1059. > And that really struck home for you.
  1060. > Anonymous, your Very Important Pony who wasn't actually a pony, had been through a romantic betrayal very much similar to your own.
  1061. > You had wondered if you should tell Sparkshower about his experience -- she hadn't been in the dress-shop to hear it earlier today -- but decided against it, at least until after she's given her apology.
  1062. > If she was nervous, it would only make her doubly so.
  1063. > And it shouldn't change what she needed to say.
  1064. > You sigh, internally.
  1065. > It was just up to you to step in if a disaster was about to unfold.
  1066. > The two of you come to a stop before the Royal Engineer's double chamber doors and Sparkshower looks over at you expectantly.
  1067. > You motion with your head for her to proceed, and she knocks, then exchanges the traditional Royal Guard refrain with Glamerspear on the inside.
  1068. > "By the glory of the Morning Dawn, I hereby relieve you at this post."
  1069. > "By the peace of the Evening Dusk, I stand relieved."
  1070. > However, although the armoured pegasus leaves, Glamerspear stays put, and you enter the room as well.
  1071. > You wanted everypony here to hear this, just in case.
  1072. > Ebonshield left a note saying she was making a quick trip to the Rookery, so she'd have to get the debriefing from someone else later.
  1073. > Anonymous is at his desk, reading over a sheet of handwritten paper.
  1074. > You clear your throat.
  1075. "Sir, could we have a moment of your time?"
  1076. > He looks up, then realizes there's three of you in the room, and lowers the paper onto his desk.
  1077. > "Certainly, Corporal. Is there something wrong?"
  1078. > You look over at the wayward pegasus.
  1079. "Specialist Sparkshower has something she needs to tell you, sir."
  1080. > The heavily-armoured pony steps forward.
  1081. > "Sir! I, wanted to apologize for something I did yesterday. I made a mistake..."
  1083. > Anonymous cocks an eyebrow but says nothing.
  1084. > You can't see Sparkshower's throat behind her gorget, but you do hear her swallow.
  1085. > "... When I asked you if you wanted to dance the Maypole with me at the Gala, which is something I shouldn't have done in the first place, I neglected to mention something very important, about the nature of that activity, which would probably have changed your answer..."
  1086. > She shrinks down in her helmet, her head almost disappearing beneath the bronze.
  1087. > "... It's actually a dance normally reserved for lovers, sir."
  1088. > Even recoiled inside her armour, you can still make out a pair of very rosy cheeks.
  1089. > Frowning, the Royal Engineer gets up out of his seat and walks around his desk, then leans back up against it, half sitting on it, his arms folded in front of him.
  1090. > He takes a moment to process what she's said, then, still looking confused, replies.
  1091. > "Are you saying that you were *propositioning* me last night, Specialist?"
  1092. > Glamerspear stifles back a snort.
  1093. > Well, it wouldn't have been the *first* time one of his bodyguards had done that.
  1094. > Sparkshower's face is now completely red.
  1095. > "Oh, goodness, no sir!"
  1096. > Realizing the impact of that phrasing, she starts to babble.
  1097. > "... I... I mean not that I *wouldn't*, sir, you understand, but that I *wasn't*. I didn't intend it that way. And that's why I shouldn't have asked..."
  1098. > She shakes her head, unable to look him in the eyes.
  1099. > "... I just wanted to be able to say that I'd once danced the Maypole at the Grand Galloping Gala."
  1100. > Anonymous walks over towards your group, stepping around the sofa to stand just a few hooves away from Sparkshower.
  1101. > You can hear her gulp again, but the Royal Engineer looks sad, not angry.
  1102. > "Specialist, I don't mean to pry, but you're still having some trouble with your long-distance coltfriend, aren't you?"
  1103. > She nods.
  1104. > "Yes, sir."
  1106. > The Royal Engineer casually slips his hands into his trouser pockets.
  1107. > "You were hoping to dance the Maypole with him, but he won't be attending the Gala."
  1108. > As she shakes her head, the bronze pieces of her head armour gently brush against each other.
  1109. > "No, sir, I don't think he will."
  1110. > Looking sympathetic, he sighs.
  1111. > "Well, for your sake, Specialist, I hope you can manage to sort things out on that front. Although, I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed..."
  1112. > With his hands still in his pockets, he nonchalantly brushes his leather-shoed foot back and forth on the carpet.
  1113. > Before he can go on, Sparkshower clatters forward and launches into an apology.
  1114. > "I know, sir. I'm ever so sorry to have let you down like this. And I know my personal troubles are no excuse for deceiving you, sir."
  1115. > Surprisingly, Anonymous shrugs.
  1116. > "Oh, no, I'm not really disappointed about *that*, Specialist. There's been no harm done -- it's only been a day, after all. I suppose this is one of those situations like the Opera? There may have been some gossip afterwards?"
  1117. > He looks expectantly past Sparkshower, over at you and Glamerspear, so you nod.
  1118. "There would have been talk, sir, yes."
  1119. > Anonymous nods.
  1120. > "Too bad... No, I'm disappointed because I was actually really looking forward to it."
  1121. > He was?
  1122. > Sparkshower lifts her head so quickly that her visor slips its catch and slams down in front of her face with a loud *clang*.
  1123. > "You were?!"
  1124. > The Royal Engineer shrugs and bobs his head sideways.
  1125. > "Sure. Maybe I've mentioned this before, but although I've been here for almost year, it feels like I've been living *at* Equestria rather than *in* it..."
  1127. > Pulling his hands out of his pockets, he casually gestures in front of him.
  1128. > "... I was a little excited about actually starting to immerse myself in the culture a bit. Get my feet wet. Start to understand Equestria as it is -- so that I can help build it into something better with the knowledge I have from my world..."
  1129. > Anonymous places one hand on his hip, holds the other up in the air, and playfully dance-steps around in a circle.
  1130. > A biped's steps for the Maypole, undoubtedly; Sparkshower must've already worked them out with him last night.
  1131. > "... A traditional folk dance seemed like an easy first step. But I wouldn't want to jeopardize your existing relationship..."
  1132. > Pausing, he narrows his eyes.
  1133. > "... You haven't *told* your coltfriend that we were to dance together, have you?"
  1134. > The armoured pegasus chuckles awkwardly as she squeakily lifts her bascinet visor back up.
  1135. > "I did, actually. But I'm going to send him another letter right away!"
  1136. > The Royal Engineer smiles.
  1137. > "Oh, good. Wouldn't want a jilted lover showing up at my doorstep, ha ha. No, I suppose I'll have to find something else."
  1138. > He wants an easy 'in' on Equestrian culture?
  1139. > You're not sure what to suggest.
  1140. > Glamerspear just shrugs when you look over at her, hoping for inspiration.
  1141. > Well, maybe you can figure out something later.
  1142. > At least the situation is resolved for now.
  1143. > You're about to take your leave when Sparkshower unexpectedly speaks up again.
  1144. > "Actually, sir, if you *really* wanted to dance, there is another one we could do. It's always played at the Gala. And it doesn't have any romantic implications any more, either!"
  1145. > Oh no, mare, what are you doing?
  1146. > Horrifyingly, the Royal Engineer perks up, apparently interested by whatever hackneyed plan she's come up with.
  1147. > "Really? Which one's this, then?"
  1148. > You wait to find out yourself, before you step in and shut down yet another foalish enterprise.
  1150. > "It's called the Lipizzaner Waltz! It's a beautiful and stately pairs' dance; it used to be scandalous but now it's considered a classical ballroom performance. It's got an easy basic step, too!"
  1151. > You know what a waltz looks like, though this particular one is unfamiliar.
  1152. > Clearing your throat, you look at Sparkshower and nod towards your VIP.
  1153. "Specialist, it might be a bit difficult for the Royal Engineer to actually dance *with* a pony owing to the height difference from walking on four legs versus two..."
  1154. > You glance back at Anonymous.
  1155. "... The Maypole is an exception because the dancers just circle around each other holding a ribbon."
  1156. > Before you can gauge his reaction, Sparkshower interjects.
  1157. > "But that's just it! The Lipizzaner Waltz is danced entirely on the *hind* legs! Even the bits where you have to let go of your partner for a few steps! That's what makes it so tricky to do right -- for a pony, anyways. But it's beautiful when executed properly, and I bet you could learn the steps in a snap, sir."
  1158. > Anonymous chuckles.
  1159. > "And you know them already, do you, Specialist Sparkshower?"
  1160. > The pegasus nods.
  1161. > "Yes, sir! I attended a Griffonese dance school in Canterlot during the two-month summer break three years ago!"
  1162. > That gets her a surprised look from everypony, and she goes rosy-cheeked again.
  1163. > "... It was my mom's idea. I think maybe she thought learning something dainty like dancing would discourage me from wanting to join the Royal Guard..."
  1164. > *Your* mother had a very different idea of 'discouragement'.
  1165. > And from the bewildered look on Glamerspear's face, you imagine her parents were the same.
  1166. > Just how the buck did a sweet, innocent mare with loving, caring parents wind up joining the Royal Guard?
  1167. > Believing the hype, probably.
  1168. > Or who knows, maybe it's somehow all completely different when you're a pegasus.
  1169. > Things could look a lot different from up in the air.
  1171. > Looking a bit embarrassed, Sparkshower concludes.
  1172. > "... But I think, if anything, learning under Mister Tanetsov helped get me ready for army life. He was a very strict instructor. And the Lipizzaner dance was always my favourite!"
  1173. > Over by the sofa, Anonymous nods.
  1174. > "All right, I'm game. But we've only got a week, Specialist -- and I'm going to need you to deliver my calling-card to Major-General Hoofstrong nice and early tomorrow morning so we can get things sorted out on that front..."
  1175. > Stepping back towards his desk, he grabs the sheet of paper he was holding earlier, and waves it around in the air.
  1176. > "... As soon as I've figured out exactly what to write on it and have you say to her representative, that is. Let's see if I can get this cleared up before it gets too dark, then you can show me this 'Lipizzaner Waltz' on the balcony, yes?"
  1177. > A heavy bronze sabot clangs into an equally heavy bronze helmet.
  1178. > "Yes, sir!"
  1179. > Your VIP smiles and starts back towards his chair, before pausing and turning to look at you.
  1180. > "Was there anything else, Corporal?"
  1181. > You feel like you've just dodged one spear only to catch three more heading your way.
  1182. > Still, though, Sparkshower was right, as far as you knew.
  1183. > Nopony was going to say anything about a known bachelor VIP having a single courtly dance with one of their guardsmares -- provided it wasn't around the Maypole with ribbons in their mouths.
  1184. > Worst-case, a photograph winds up in the gossip rags making some easily-dismissed suggestions.
  1185. > You shake your head at the Royal Engineer and wave a forehoof at Glamerspear to beckon her back upstairs.
  1186. "No, sir. We'll be upstairs if you need us."
  1187. > He nods.
  1188. > "Very good, Corporal. Although I may perhaps send up a draft of this letter with Specialist Sparkshower later tonight. I'd appreciate an honest opinion on it in the morning."
  1190. > Bodyguard, cultural guide, automobile-driver, sparring partner, and now proof-reader?
  1191. > If you wore any more hats on this assignment there wouldn't be any left for all the nobleponies at the Gala.
  1192. > You salute before exiting the room.
  1193. "Yes, sir. Good-night, sir."
  1195. Suggested viewing: ("Vienna's Famed Lipizzaner Stallions", by Viking River Cruises)
  1200. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you really aren't sure about this.
  1201. > It's just after breakfast, and on the card-table before you sits the final pencil-written draft of your letter to Huckleberry Pudding.
  1202. > Your follow-up letter, that is -- the one that's going to undo the mistakes of the one you sent off yesterday morning.
  1203. > If you post this one before noon today, it should arrive tomorrow or the day after.
  1204. > Plenty of time to solve the problem you created in Berry.
  1205. > But only if it works.
  1206. > And you weren't entirely certain it would.
  1207. > The washroom door opens, and Glamerspear emerges with a towel around her head and another one draped over her back, fresh from her shower after this morning's Pony Physical Training.
  1208. > She mustn't have been in the mood for one of those quick 'WC-40' unicorn-magic drying manoeuvres, you suppose.
  1209. > With a smile on her face, she settles down onto the sofa, lying on her back, and telekinetically picks up one of her Cosmoponitan magazines.
  1210. > Maybe a fresh set of eyes would settle things.
  1211. > You clear your throat.
  1212. "*cough* Ah, Lily? Could you lend me a hoof for a few minutes?"
  1213. > She turns her head around to face you.
  1214. > "Sure, Sparks, what's up?"
  1215. > You tap your hoof on the table and then slide the paper towards her.
  1216. "It's the letter to my coltfriend; the one that's supposed to set everything straight. Do you think you could look it over for me before I put it in ink?"
  1217. > Lily smiles and, as quickly as she puts the sleazy magazine back down on the coffee table, her teal magical aura moves to envelop your piece of foolscap instead, and she quickly spins around to sit up on the sofa.
  1218. > "Oh, are you already working on that? Why, what's the rush?"
  1219. > What's the rush?
  1220. > This is your relationship on the line, here!
  1221. "I just don't want to have this hanging overhead like a bad storm-cloud for too long."
  1223. > She shrugs.
  1224. > "Ho-kay. Personally, I would've let him simmer for a bit beforehoof. I mean, what's he gonna do? Come to Canterlot and confront you for having another dance partner? Pfft, fat chance if he wouldn't even come when you gave him a free ticket to the Gala. Anyways, let's see what you've got..."
  1225. > She pauses for a moment to re-wrap the towels around herself, then leans forward and begins to read.
  1226. > "... 'My dearest Pudding' -- really, Sparks? You're on a last-name basis with him in letters?"
  1227. > You protest.
  1228. "But I like his last name! It's cute! And he sometimes calls me his 'Little Lightning-Shower', too!"
  1229. > With a snort, she grins and continues reading.
  1230. > "... 'I'm so sorry for what I said in my previous letter. I had to apologize to the Royal Engineer as well when my friends pointed out what I had done. You know that I could never dance the Maypole with anyone else but you, and if you can't come to Canterlot for the Grand Galloping Gala, then I shan't dance it at all'..."
  1231. > Glamerspear shakes her head.
  1232. > "... There's gonna be a thousand handsome colts waiting at the Gala, Sparks. You sure you wanna put that commitment in writing?"
  1233. > You frown.
  1234. > Surely she's not suggesting you abandon your coltfriend now, in the middle of trying to undo damage you caused?
  1235. "Yes, I'm sure, Lily. I'm still committed to him, and you were the one who previously scolded me yesterday morning for breaking up with my colt by mail!"
  1236. > Lifting your head, you sit up straight in the chair.
  1237. "... If I ever do want to change anything between us, Celestia forbid, I'll do it in person like a proper gentlemare."
  1239. > She just shrugs in reply, still grinning.
  1240. > "Your choice. I'm just sayin', the field'll be wide open, and why not prepare him for the letdown when you find a real Stud Charming next weekend... Anyways, what else we got here... 'You must know how much I miss you, my Pudding.' -- Eh, it's all right, I'm still not sold on the last-name-talk, but whatever. 'The weeks we've spent apart have felt like an eternity to me, and I am desperate to see you again.' -- Wow, Sparks, melodramatic much? Or are you quoting a poem or something? -- 'I ache to be in your warm embrace once more, to feel our bodies pressed together against the cold of the world.' -- That's nice, but getting a bit clingy here, I'd say -- 'Oh, my Huckleberry, when next we meet, I need you..."
  1241. > She trails off, mouth dropping open.
  1242. > After a moment's pause, she lifts her eyebrows, licks her lips and restarts the aborted sentence.
  1243. > "... 'Oh, my Huckleberry, when next we meet, I need you to *buck me in half*.'"
  1244. > Eyes widening, she clears her throat and continues.
  1245. > You hang on every word, trying to gauge her reaction.
  1246. > "... *ahem* 'I want to ride you wildly from dusk to dawn, and then back to dusk again. We shall make the bugbear with two backs, my gossamer wings wrapped around your firm haunches, until you have so filled me with your seed that your stones ache and the hay is drenched in my liquid heat. Then you shall recline on fresh bedding and take your rest; I will lie at your hindquarters and devour your hot poker like the delicious lollipop it is...'"
  1247. > She breaks off and looks up at you, confused.
  1248. > "... Sparks, did you write this all by yourself?!"
  1249. > You eagerly shake your head.
  1250. "Oh, no! Sergeant Ebonshield helped me with this part yesterday."
  1251. > It really had been nice of her to lend a hoof.
  1252. > For someone whose first language wasn't Equestrian, the Sarge sure helped you put things in the right words.
  1254. > Glamerspear nods slowly, but your answer doesn't seem to have satisfied her.
  1255. > "Oooo-kayyy... '... I will lie at your hindquarters and devour your hot poker like the delicious lollipop it is, licking and sucking at it, and enveloping your walnuts in my feathers, until I have extracted every last savoury drop'..."
  1256. > As she reads, appearing more and more surprised with every word, you've got your hooves in your teeth, nervous.
  1257. > "... 'By then, I shall be so ravenous for dessert, but your loins will be so completely emptied, that you will have no choice but to hold me down with your mighty forehooves, press your snout against my alley and, with your long pink taster, delve into the ocean of my flower and give me the release I so desperately crave. If my shrieks of pleasure should inflame your passions once more, then I will not object even in the slightest if you flip me over and find yourself at my cellar-door. Knock stoutly and enter inside with rough abandon, my love, and I will greet your firmness with open-mouthed delight as I agonizingly welcome you into the cramped depths of my ecstasy.'"
  1258. > Glamerspear takes a deep breath before reading the final paragraph.
  1259. > "... 'Oh, Huckleberry, my sweet beloved, how wickedly and how gluttonously I crave you, how I wish to gorge myself and feel all of you inside me. Please, do not let me starve without your stout attentions for much longer. Let us rejoice in each others' company before my passions drive me mad. With the tender kisses, your dearest little Lightning-Shower.'"
  1260. > Well?
  1261. > Did she like it?
  1262. > The look of shock on her face tells you nothing, nor the way she slowly, almost reverently, floats the letter down onto the coffee-table before her.
  1263. > "... Wow. I think that was the filthiest love-letter I've ever read."
  1264. > Oh, no!
  1265. "So it's no good?"
  1266. > Glamerspear laughs.
  1267. > "Oh, it's good, all right. Tartarus, you had me buzzing at the horn a bit, and I'm not even the target audience..."
  1269. > She looks over at you.
  1270. > "... This thing is so sordid, Sparks, I can't believe you're not nursing at least a half-wingboner right now."
  1271. > Your wings are still comfortably folded against your body, and you shrug, almost embarrassed at not feeling aroused right now.
  1272. "I guess I've read and re-read it so many times it doesn't really have that effect on me any more."
  1273. > The pink unicorn chuckles.
  1274. > "Well, any colt'd have to be six hooves underground for it not to have an effect on 'em, but I mean, if you asked me how to prop up your long-distance-relationship, I woulda suggested something different..."
  1275. > She would have?
  1276. > Are you going about this all the wrong way?
  1277. > Was Sergeant Ebonshield mistaken when she said that a raunchy letter was the best way to patch things up with Huckleberry?
  1278. > "... I mean, don't get me wrong, the letter's great..."
  1279. > Oh, good!
  1280. > "... But colts are kinda... *visual*, you know? Words can evoke the kinda mental images they need to get their Jennets rustled, sure, but actual *pictures* can go a real quarter-mile further, ya know what I mean?"
  1281. > Pictures?
  1282. > Before you can ask for clarification, she throws off her body towel and scrambles over to where you're sitting, resting one foreleg down on the card-table as she leans over almost sideways in front of you, wearing a sinister smile.
  1283. > "... You know anypony who owns a *camera*, Sparks?"
  1284. > You're feeling a little confused.
  1285. "Sure... I know me, and I own a camera, a 'Little Ludwig' number 2, model D."
  1286. > Glamerspear's smile broadens.
  1287. > "Perfect. Take some photos, then."
  1288. > You furrow your brow and turn slightly away, unsure of what she's going to propose.
  1289. "What do you mean? What kind of photos?"
  1290. > Lily leans in close, almost muzzle-to-muzzle, just like Ebonshield does when she's talking seriously.
  1291. > "Photos of *you*, silly Sparksy."
  1293. > You're even more confused now than ever, and you recoil a little, if only to get away from her imposingly pointy snout.
  1294. "But... Huckleberry already has photos of me... and photos of *us*."
  1295. > She laughs.
  1296. > "Oh, sure! Photos of you in your Royal Guard parade dress, or together at the county fair, or at school graduation, or sitting down for dinner, things like that, in nice pretty frames hanging on the wall or propped up on his bedside table?"
  1297. > The laughter stops, and she shakes her head.
  1298. > "... I'm not talking about those kinds of photos, Sparks. I'm talking about the kind of hot pictures he'll keep hidden away at the bottom of his bedside table's drawer, underneath an old sock with a musty smell to it."
  1299. > That's uncanny!
  1300. > How could she know Huckleberry had one of those in there?
  1301. > Before you can ponder the question further, Glamerspear leans sharply in even closer, taking up the slack space you'd created.
  1302. > From the force of her movement, her towel head-wrap partially unravels itself and drapes down next to her cheek, waving side-to-side at the edge of your vision.
  1303. > "... I'm talking about you, Sparkshower, on your bed in there, facing away from the camera, muzzle down, plot up, tail to the side, wings spread, forelegs spread, *hind* legs spread, and wearing nothing but a smile."
  1304. > Oh, hurricanes!
  1305. > Your eyes go wide as Lily carries on.
  1306. > "... Or maybe lying on your side, from behind, with your back slightly arched and your wings splayed out, looking back at the camera with *smouldering* eyes."
  1307. > You feel a sudden heat in your cheeks, and there's a muffled thud as one of your wings bumps into the other card-table chair.
  1308. > "... Or on your back, everything completely wide open and your forehooves gathered up at your chest, with a look on your face that says, 'please be gentle' and a confidence that says, 'but not *too* gentle'."
  1309. > Tornadoes!
  1310. > It's all too much; you have to take a few deep breaths and shut your eyes for a moment.
  1312. > When you open them again, Glamerspear is sitting beside you at the table, with the letter lying back in front of you.
  1313. > "... *Those* are the kind of photos I'm talking about..."
  1314. > She taps a hoof on the paper.
  1315. > "... Include a few scandalous prints in the envelope with this, and I guarantee you that your colt'll come galloping to Canterlot with a package so stiff he won't be able to sit down on the Friendship Express without poking himself in the eye."
  1316. > Goodness!
  1317. > That's... actually... kind of exactly what you want.
  1318. "But... if I'm in the photos, then who'll operate the camera? The model D hasn't got a timer."
  1319. > You certainly couldn't ask your *father* to take photos like that!
  1320. > Or any colt at all, actually!
  1321. > Glamerspear waves a hoof dismissively in the air.
  1322. > "Oh, I'll help you out, marefriend. I've done this sort of stuff before."
  1323. > Really?
  1324. "Gosh, Lily, thanks a lot!"
  1325. > She grins.
  1326. > "No problem, Sparks. Why don'tcha trot into the shower and get yourself looking all nice and pretty while I finish towelling off."
  1327. "Okay!"
  1328. > You get up, nearly knocking over the empty chair with your wings before you force them to fold back up.
  1329. > As you head towards the washroom, however, the hallway door opens.
  1330. > Corporal Bound steps in and fixes you in her gaze.
  1331. > "Sparkshower. Get suited up in your armour, you're on deck..."
  1332. > Reaching into her saddle-bag, she pulls out a small envelope.
  1333. > "... This is the Royal Engineer's calling-card, along with some notes on what to say. You're going to deliver the card to Major-General Hoofstrong at the Canterlot Sector Air Defence Headquarters and set up the meeting to discuss his airspace needs."
  1334. > Snow-squalls!
  1335. > Looks like your photo session with Lily will have to wait a little longer...
  1340. > You are still Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, formerly 19D Armoured Scout, presently VIP bodyguard, and now on special assignment as an armoured message courier!
  1341. > ... You're not sure what service code that counts as.
  1342. > Maybe there isn't even one.
  1343. > Regardless, with the Royal Engineer's calling-card in your saddle-bag and his instructions memorized, you're in the air and on your way to the headquarters of the 1st Air Division.
  1344. > Unlike the Household Division that was based on the palace grounds, the 1st Air had its HQ out in the city proper.
  1345. > Their home was the tallest building in Canterlot, when measured in terms of elevation above the ground surrounding it.
  1346. > The Watchtower.
  1347. > Capped with a spartan 'helmet' dome instead of the more elaborate 'onion' style used for the Palace and so eagerly copied by other capital buildings, The Watchtower was a monumental fortress-spire at the outer rim of one of the city's middle tiers, with a commanding view not just of the entirety of the metropolis, but of Cloudsdale above and the surrounding countryside below.
  1348. > In effective vertical elevation, it was exceeded by several towers on the upper tier, most of them part of the Palace complex, but none of them exceeded it for sheer bulk.
  1349. > The Watchtower's colossal volume had room for two full regiments of two thousand pegasi each, plus the headquarters and support units of the 1st Air Division.
  1350. > And those stalwart defenders could take off at a moment's notice to defend the capital from the three great and five lesser landing platforms jutting out from the building, or sally forth from any of a dozen simpler portals.
  1351. > There were even arrow-slits for unicorn and earth pony defenders to fire missiles from, and the upper landing platform, facing away from the city, had been modernized to mount a battery of cannon as well.
  1353. > Nearly a thousand years old, The Watchtower was one of the few structures included in the city's original plan, though that was not to say it was still in its original state.
  1354. > Wars, treason, and disasters magical and mundane alike had all taken their toll on the old bastion.
  1355. > Even today, there were still patchwork bits of scaffolding around the spire, hosting crews still hard at work repairing the extensive damage The Watchtower had suffered during the Changeling Invasion.
  1356. > Only the Palace itself had been more thoroughly wrecked.
  1357. > You knew all this not just because you'd taken a flying tour of the city, and read about the illustrious 1st Air Division's history in the Royal Guard archives, and walked into the small visitor's centre on the ground floor in your civvies and taken photos of the mural depicting the fortress' many sieges.
  1358. > You knew all this because you'd thought that The Watchtower would eventually wind up being your home.
  1359. > Yes, you were in the VIP service now, and as thrilling and rewarding as it had been so far, you had never thought it would be a permanent assignment.
  1360. > Once you'd finished a tour of duty serving as a dutiful bodyguard to noble ponies, and even noble non-ponies like the Royal Engineer, and once you'd settled into Canterlot life with your faithful Huckleberry -- Oh, Huck! -- the 1st Air Division was where you would really be headed.
  1361. > Not that you'd say 'no' if the illustrious Household Division at the Palace accepted a request for transfer, of course!
  1362. > You were just setting realistic goals.
  1363. > Those being, a posting somewhere with solid ground underhoof and job opportunities for your partner.
  1364. > You'd miss Berry, but it was hardly so far away that you couldn't visit.
  1365. > The train ride was just a couple of hours, and ran twice a day!
  1366. > And besides, Canterlot's city life held so much promise, so much wonder and excitement!
  1368. > After that eye-opening class trip five years ago, you knew you eventually wanted to end up here, regardless of where you were first posted.
  1369. > Putting your personal thoughts at the back of your mind, you come in to land on the upper of the three great oval 'balconies' that served as the mustering grounds for Canterlot's stalwart defenders.
  1370. > And it was also the closest pad to the actual headquarters, which you knew was just two more stories upstairs.
  1371. > Four lookouts and a traffic coordinator barely take notice of you, but the two pegasi at the doorway into the tower stop you, and one of them steps forward.
  1372. > "Identification, ma'am?"
  1373. > You dig out your ID card from your saddle bag and hoof it over.
  1374. "Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, Canterlot Palace Military Office, VIP Section"
  1375. > Once the guard has looked it over, he lifts his head, still holding the card.
  1376. > "What's your business here today, Specialist?"
  1377. "Message delivery for Major-General Hoofstrong."
  1378. > The guard nods and hoofs you back your ID.
  1379. > "HQ is two floors up. Staircase is on your left once you step inside. Ask for Lieutenant Cloudhunter."
  1380. > Finally, he gives you a salute, and you return it before making your way in.
  1381. > Definitely a bit more order & regulation here with these 1AD pegasi than with those Diamond Dogs from the Princess-Cadenza's 'Peregrines' regiment!
  1382. > You don't need a repeat of that encounter at the gate...
  1383. > Or the mishap that had you speaking to the regimental commander instead of merely the Officer of the Watch!
  1384. > Stepping inside, you tread your way upstairs, your armour clattering the whole way.
  1385. > There really wasn't anything else to do for it -- the tight staircase winding around the outer edge of the tower was far too narrow to risk flying in, at least while dressed like this.
  1386. > And there was no taunting Griffon to follow in the hallway this time, either!
  1387. > Not that you were against a little fun, of course...
  1389. > But it *was* nice to see the Royal Guard at its most well-drilled and brightly polished.
  1390. > Then again...
  1391. > The 1st Air Wing was a part of the 1st Air Division.
  1392. > That means Lieutenant Kilfeather, and his crony Lieutenant Joker, if they weren't both still on medical leave, were somewhere within this tower.
  1393. > With that sobering thought in mind, you turn the corner onto the first landing up, only to bump almost straight into another soldier.
  1394. > "Oh, *good morning* to you *Specialist*!"
  1395. "Guh!"
  1396. > Thundershowers, it's an officer!
  1397. > A Captain, by the look of it.
  1398. > Quick, the greeting of the day!
  1399. > "Good to go, I guess I don't rate a salute either, huh!?"
  1400. > Too slow!
  1401. > You quickly try to snap a hoof up to attention.
  1402. "Uh, I'm sorry, sir, good day to you. It's just that I didn't see you coming around the corner."
  1403. > The officer just keeps walking, though, hiking a hind hoof back towards where he came -- and where you're going.
  1404. > "Carry on, Specialist! You're late enough already without fumbling for excuses!"
  1405. > Late?
  1406. > How can you be late if nopony knew you were even coming?
  1407. > Regardless, you break into a sharp hustle -- and it's so loud the Captain will still hear it even if he's already two floors down.
  1408. > Huffing and puffing, you wind your way around and up the second set of stairs.
  1409. > Hopefully there's no officers at the top of this one, waiting to ambush you with the requirement of a formal greeting and salute.
  1410. > You nervously clear the open doorway out of the staircase, then immediately dart across the hall to the open door labelled 'HEADQUARTERS, 1AD'.
  1411. > But you don't get two galloped steps inside before the glasses-wearing Sergeant sitting at the reception desk looks up from the papers he's reading and scowls at you.
  1412. > "You're daggon' late, Specialist! Get your bronze-coated-barrel in the briefing hall, stat!"
  1413. > Another pony claiming you're late!
  1414. > What was going on here!?
  1416. > Unwilling to argue the point further with an irate Sergeant -- and a Staff Sergeant, at that! -- you wave a hoof-salute in his direction as you take to the air, following his hoof-gesture.
  1417. > And you *don't* forget to give him the greeting of the day on your way past.
  1418. "Good morning, Staff Sergeant!"
  1419. > As you head towards the indicated briefing hall, you just barely hear him mutter angrily behind you.
  1420. > "Daggon' valks, ain't got no daggon' discipline or sense o' time..."
  1421. > Wait, what was that?
  1422. > You don't have time to figure it out, because by the time it fully registers in your mind, you've already reached the double doors labelled 'Briefing Room', and you find yourself automatically pushing one of them open.
  1423. > The scene inside, however, shocks you back to your senses.
  1424. > In a long, high-ceilinged rectangular room with wood-panelled walls, what seems like an entire battalion is seated, listening to an officer speak up on a raised stage.
  1425. > Suddenly self-conscious, you gingerly close the door behind you and sneak as quietly as you can up behind the final row and sit down on your haunches.
  1426. > The officer on stage -- a full Colonel, presumably the commanding officer of this battalion in particular -- continues as if they hadn't even noticed your late entry.
  1427. > "... And that concludes the assignments for this weekend's watch. Remember, soldiers, if everything goes smoothly, we'll be repeating the same thing next weekend for the Gala. Any problems with the enhanced duty roster are to be reported immediately to HQ, is that clear? Any questions?"
  1428. > There's a soft murmur among the crowd, and then a forehoof goes up near the front.
  1429. > "... Yes, Captain?"
  1430. > The inquisitive Captain stands up on their hind hooves.
  1431. > "Sir, do we have any real information about the nature of this supposed threat to the Gala?"
  1432. > That gets more murmur from the crowd.
  1433. > What's this about a threat to the Gala, though??
  1435. > The Colonel raises his forehooves, and the crowd goes silent.
  1436. > "Unfortunately, Captain, no we do not..."
  1437. > That gets some more murmurs going, but the Colonel speaks over them.
  1438. > "... That is why headquarters has come up with this plan to cover all our bases. And until we *do* get more specific details, that's how it's going to be."
  1439. > There's another buzz of conversation, but nopony else puts up a forehoof.
  1440. > "... If that's all, the Division Commander would like to say a few words to all of us. Ma'am?"
  1441. > A pegasus with a short white mane and a red coat gets up from the rightmost seat at the very front row of the audience, beating her wings once to reach the stage.
  1442. > So that's Major-General Hoofstrong.
  1443. > She certainly strikes a distinctive figure.
  1444. > Unlike the Colonel, who's in his armour but with a hat instead of his helmet, the Major-General is wearing her blue Air Service Dress jacket, sleeves down, with the standard lighter blue collared shirt underneath and a neat black tie sealing everything up.
  1445. > There are a *considerable* number of ribbons on her breast, too, all crammed in between the foreleg and the lapel, and framed with the air service badge at the top and the Air Service Cross medal, with oak-leaf clusters, beneath it.
  1446. > Sitting above all that, on top of her head is a blue uniform peaked cap with two rows of silver 'scrambled eggs' leaf embellishments on its black visor, and a row of silver lightning bolts around the band.
  1447. > The room goes quiet as the Major-General takes her spot on the stage.
  1448. > Behind her, the battalion Colonel calls out.
  1449. > "Ten...HUT!"
  1450. > The whole room snaps up to attention, the Major-General salutes, and from the left side of the room, a bugler plays an honour call.
  1452. Suggested background music: (The United States Army Band - 'To the Color')
  1454. > A moment after the bugle is finished, Hoofstrong begins to speak.
  1455. > "At ease."
  1457. > There's a shuffle of bodies and armour as guardsponies settle back down again, then she continues.
  1458. > "... Guardsponies, there's some apprehension going around about what's going to happen next week. About who we're going to have to fight, and when, and where. I don't want any of you thinking about that garbage, because none of it matters. What matters is who *we* are, and what *we* do, and when *we* do it."
  1459. > She takes a moment to look around the room.
  1460. > "... You are here today for three reasons. First, because you are here to defend your homes and your loved ones. Second, you are here for your own self-respect, because you would not want to be anywhere else. Third, you are here because you are real Pegasi, and all real Pegasi like to fight."
  1461. > They do?
  1462. > *You* do?
  1463. > Well, maybe.
  1464. > "... When you were foals, you all admired the swiftest fliers, the best hoofball players, the big-league boffyball stars, the MXP champions. Pegasi love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Pegasi play to *win* all the time. That's why Equestria has never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to us Pegasi."
  1465. > It *was* true that Equestria had never lost a war.
  1466. > As valuable as the Guard had been, though, you'd always sort of pinned things on individual heroes -- famous soldiers & generals, powerful mages, that sort of pony.
  1467. > Her Majesty the Princess of the Sun being foremost among them.
  1468. > But, even growing up in an overwhelmingly Earth-Pony town like Berry, you had to admit that what Major-General said hit home for you.
  1469. > You'd always felt that way about sports and games, always looking up to the champions.
  1470. > Including *yourself* when *your* hoofball team had won the annual cup.
  1471. > Or when you'd come first in the Hark County Aerial Marathon!
  1473. > Up on stage, Hoofstrong continues.
  1474. > "... Now, we have the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best soldiers in the world. You know, by Tartarus, I actually pity any poor bastards who come up against us, by Tartarus I do."
  1475. > She cursed!
  1476. > Are officers allowed to curse?
  1477. > Maybe it's because she's a mustang?
  1478. > The Major-General takes a step forward.
  1479. > "... Whoever dares to strike at our nation's capital, we're not just going to spear the bastards, we're going to cut out their living guts and give 'em to the Earth Ponies to fertilize the fields. We're going to murder the bastards by the bushel, until it rains blood down on the soil below."
  1480. > Gosh, that's an awfully visceral image.
  1481. > Almost worse than the foul language earlier.
  1482. > "... Now, there's another thing I want you to remember: I don't want to get any messages sent to HQ saying that we are holding The Watchtower. The Watchtower has never, in the history of Equestria, fallen to an enemy force. You don't need to hold The Watchtower. Let the enemy try to do that; they'll fail. We are advancing through the city and through the sky and we're not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto them by their snouts and we're going to buck them in the plot. We're going to kick the Tartarus out of them all the time and we're going to go through them like crap through a goose."
  1483. > That last vulgar line gets a few chuckles from the audience.
  1484. > "... Some of you foals and fillies, I know, especially the ones who weren't around here last year, are wondering whether or not you'll Breezie out if a real invasion comes. I can assure you that you will all do your duty."
  1485. > 'Last year' would be referring to the Changeling Invasion...
  1486. > The 1st Air Division lost a lot of good soldiers that day; all of the units defending the Canterlot sector did.
  1487. > The Major-General had good reason to want to pump up the confidence of the fresh recruits who hadn't been tested in that epic battle.
  1489. > You yourself feel a moment of pride to have kept your head during the border skirmish that was your experience of the war.
  1490. > "... One day, thirty years from now -- you may thank Celestia for it, thirty years from now -- you're going to be sitting around your stable with your grandfoal by your flank, and they ask you, 'What did you do during the Battle of the Gala?', you won't have to say, 'Well, I shoved around clouds in Cloudsdale.'"
  1491. > You suppress a gasp.
  1492. > Was she putting down the Airborne Weather And Climate Service, the AWACS?
  1493. > That was every Pegasus' duty to perform!
  1494. > Swearing, grotesque imagery, and now outright sacrilege?
  1495. > This was not the kind of behaviour you'd expected from a modern Major-General!
  1496. > "... No, sir, you can look them straight in the eyes and say, 'Grandfoal, I flew with the great First Air Division and that foal-of-a-nag named Georgia Hoofstrong!"
  1497. > Foal-of-a-nag!
  1498. > Well, she said it, not you.
  1499. > The Major-General nods.
  1500. > "... All right, now, you foals-of-nags, you know how I feel. Oh... I will be proud to lead you wonderful foals & fillies into battle anytime, anywhere. That's all."
  1501. > With that, the Major-General gives another salute, and, as the Colonel calls the room to attention once more, she glides off the stage and, joined from behind by another pony who was sitting in the front row -- her Aide-de-Camp, most likely -- together they stride down the central aisle towards the rear doors.
  1502. > Oh, hurricanes!
  1503. > You can't be seen by them, or else it'll make delivering the message pretty awkward!
  1504. > Making sure to respectfully salute with your eyes forward and your chest puffed out, you inch your way forward to try to blend in with the soldiers in the row in front of you.
  1505. > Except it's not exactly ideal camouflage, because none of them are in heavy armour like you are.
  1506. > When the Major-General's sharp hoofsteps pass you by, you hold your breath.
  1507. > But when they continue and trot all the way to the door, you sigh in relief.
  1509. > Once she's out of the room, the Colonel dismisses the troop, and Guardsponies start to file out, the buzz of discussions filling the air.
  1510. > You let a bunch of soldiers pass ahead of you, then cluster up with a crowd of fellow heavily-armoured pegasi, the better to blend in.
  1511. > Trowal, delivering messages sure was complicated!
  1512. > Armoured Recon ponies were just supposed to skirmish along the front and drive off enemy scouts, not operate commando-style behind enemy lines like this!
  1513. > All this comes from having let an officer (and a desk Sergeant) boss you around.
  1514. > Which, to be fair, was their job, but they didn't have the faintest clue who you were or what you were doing!
  1515. > You didn't even *report* to them!
  1516. > As you head out the door at the back of a herd of similarly-attired guardsponies, you silently resolve not to let anypony else distract you until you had done your duty.
  1517. > If there's a complaint, they can take it up with Lieutenant Violetta and the CPMO!
  1518. > That's when you feel a pair of hooves clasp you on the shoulder.
  1519. > "That's far enough, soldier."
  1520. > Tornadoes!
  1521. > The Major-General's Aide-de-Camp, a Lieutenant, stands before you, with a gruff Sergeant holding you at your side.
  1522. > "... Come this way."
  1524. Suggested background music: (Basil Poledouris - 'Rasczak's Roughnecks', from 'Starship Troopers' [1997])
  1526. > The ADC turns on his heels and the Sergeant releases you, then brusquely motions for you to follow after the Lieutenant.
  1527. > The two pegasi lead you deeper into the headquarters office, away from the bulk of the Royal Guardsponies who are making for the stairs.
  1528. > You pass desk after desk full of weary-looking divisional staff, their tables covered with what seem to be personnel files.
  1529. > From what you've heard it's an awful lot of paperwork, managing a division properly.
  1531. > At the back, huge rows of cabinets flank a pair of double doors, which a private opens ahead of the Lieutenant, saluting as the ADC passes by.
  1532. > Hailstorms, what have you gotten yourself into?
  1533. > Past what was clearly the 1AD's Equine Resources department, you head into what is equally clearly the strategic planning office.
  1534. > The room is dominated by an enormous raised table on which sits a miniature representation of the Canterlot Air Sector.
  1535. > Gosh, it's even got Canterlot Mountain to scale!
  1536. > And Cloudsdale is hanging in the air, suspended by wires from the ceiling, too!
  1537. > You can think of more than a few Hyperspace HyperWars players back in Berry who would love to set their miniatures up on *this* board!
  1538. > Not that they'd get a chance, however -- dozens of pegasi in service uniforms were buzzing around the room like bees, moving markers and updating charts on the walls.
  1539. > With organization like this, it was little wonder that The Watchtower had never fallen...
  1540. > Unfortunately, you can't stop and watch -- the Lieutenant and his surly Sergeant lead you around the table and to another pair of double doors at the back.
  1541. > The Lieutenant pulls the door open himself, and inside you see a big, brown wooden desk.
  1542. > And behind it sits Major-General Hoofstrong herself.
  1543. > Well...
  1544. > This is *one* way to deliver a calling card, all right.
  1545. > Just probably not the *best* way.
  1546. > The Sergeant pulls the doors shut behind you, and you notice that there's another pony in the room as well.
  1547. > Unlike the others, she's not in a service uniform, but instead is armoured from head to hooves in heavy bronze plate almost identical to yours.
  1548. > With the notable exception that her helmet has a pair of decorative wings attached at the temples.
  1549. > Hurricanes, thunderstorms, and hailstorms!
  1550. > It's an actual Valkyrie!
  1551. > Hoofstrong glances at you, then looks at the Valkyrie.
  1552. > "Well, Growler, is this the one?"
  1554. > The armoured figure nods.
  1555. > "Yes, General; she snuck in at the end."
  1556. > That's not fair!
  1557. > Considering the noise your armour makes, you could hardly be said to have *snuck* in.
  1558. > The General looks in your direction again.
  1559. > "Stand at attention, soldier."
  1560. > You snap into a salute.
  1561. > Georgia Hoofstrong steps around her table to sit in front of it, crossing her forelegs in front of her chest.
  1562. > "... You're not one of my Valkyries. Who are you, and what were you doing in my briefing hall?"
  1563. "Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, Canterlot Palace Military Office, VIP section, ma'am! I'm here to deliver a message, and I was directed there by mistake."
  1564. > The Valkyrie scoffs, but goes silent when the Major-General shoots her a glance.
  1565. > Then she turns her eyes back on you again.
  1566. > "Are you making an accusation against a member of my staff, Specialist?"
  1567. > Oh, Celestia, you've got to be awfully careful about how you word this.
  1568. "No, ma'am, but... Given my attire, I believe the desk clerk may have mistaken me for a tardy Valkyrie late to the briefing. A Captain in the staircase just before that may have done so as well."
  1569. > One of the Major-General's white eyebrows lifts up.
  1570. > "A tardy Valkyrie? Now there's a thought. Who could possibly have cause to accuse a Valkyrie of *tardiness*?"
  1571. > There's a funny tone to her voice, but it's when the actual honest-to-Celestia Valkyrie in the room straightens up in her armour and opens her mouth to speak that you get the impression that Hoofstrong may have been speaking sarcastically.
  1572. > "Major-General, I-"
  1573. > The division commander lifts a hoof.
  1574. > "Don't interrupt, Growler; I'm asking the questions here. Now, why are you in heavy armour, Specialist? Was it your *intention* to be misidentified?"
  1575. > You shake your head.
  1576. "No, ma'am. This is my standard combat outfit; I'm a 19D Armoured Scout originally from the 3rd Pegasus Regiment."
  1577. > The General licks her lips and shakes her head, sighing.
  1578. > "All right, I've heard enough..."
  1580. > She nods at the Valkyrie, Growler.
  1581. > "... Major, take better care that your troops show up to meetings on-time and maybe random guardsmares in heavy armour won't be mistaken for one of them..."
  1582. > As the General turns back to you, Major Growler frowns, and you can tell the frown is directed your way as well.
  1583. > "... As for you, Specialist, go on and deliver your message. Sergeant, please direct the Specialist where she needs to go."
  1584. > She waves a hoof and then begins to step back behind her desk.
  1585. > Whew.
  1586. > But before the Sergeant moves forward to come up beside you, you speak up, maintaining your salute.
  1587. "Ma'am, with respect, the message I'm carrying is actually intended for you."
  1588. > Hoofstrong pauses and looks up, curious.
  1589. > "Oh, is it? And what does the CPMO VIP section want with the 1st A-D? No, no, don't tell me, let me guess..."
  1590. > She takes a deep breath and, stretching her wings out slightly, sits up in her chair, then leans forward, placing her forehooves together and her elbows on the table.
  1591. > "... This is about the unauthorized aerial training exercise on the palace grounds two days ago, isn't it?"
  1592. > Celestia, she's sharper than a January cold front.
  1593. > You nod.
  1594. "Yes, ma'am. The Royal Engineer of Equestria sends his apologies, and his calling-card."
  1595. > She nods, and you drop out of your salute to pull Anonymous' card out of the small letter-pocket in your saddle bag.
  1596. > You hoof it over to the Major-General, who pulls it forward across the desk with one hoof, then flips it over to look at the back.
  1597. "... He would like to arrange a meeting at your earliest convenience to present his apologies in person, and also to obtain an authorization to resume the aerial training exercise in question as soon as possible. He's available at your discretion."
  1599. > Hoofstrong leans back in her chair and exchanges an exhausted glance with her ADC.
  1600. > "Now? Really? The Royal Engineer wants to conduct live-fire exercises on the palace grounds a week before the Grand Galloping Gala?"
  1601. > You shake your head.
  1602. "With respect, ma'am, it wasn't live-fire. I was being shot at by practice rounds only."
  1603. > That raises eyebrows all around the room.
  1604. > Well, what?
  1605. > You were!
  1606. > The Valkyrie, Major Growler, grumbles out a question before anypony else.
  1607. > "You were serving as a living target *yourself*? You weren't just towing one in the air?"
  1608. "I was the target, ma'am. I was performing mock strafing runs against an armed mobile ground unit."
  1609. > Growler scrunches up her snout.
  1610. > "Armed? Armed with what, a cannon?"
  1611. "No, ma'am. An anti-air unicorn member of my quaternion; a Centurion of the Ram."
  1612. > Your answer just confuses the Valkyrie, and she goes silent.
  1613. > Major-General Hoofstrong leans forward again.
  1614. > "Specialist Sparkshower, what exactly were you testing out on Her Majesty's Royal Eastern Cottage racetrack?"
  1615. "The Royal Engineer's new Self-Propelled Air Defence Weapon, ma'am. It's an awfully clever machine."
  1616. > Your answer only seems to have confused the two-star general of the Royal Guard, so you press on.
  1617. "... I'm not too familiar with the workings of it, but I'm sure the Royal Engineer would be happy to tell you all about it himself, General. He says it's going to revolutionize Equestrian warfare."
  1618. > Hoofstrong frowns and looks back down at the calling-card for a moment, then begins to shake her head.
  1619. > "Specialist, I've got almost the entire 1st Air Division working double shifts patrolling the Canterlot airspace between now and the Gala, and my headquarters staff is waiting on the tips of their hooves for any new information about the supposed threat that Intelligence has signalled. It's really not the best time..."
  1621. > Sighing, she pulls the card off the edge of the table and into her hoof, holding it up.
  1622. > "... But, let me see if I find a spot in my calendar for your VIP. Return to the Royal Engineer and tell him I'll send a messenger of my own with the meeting time later today. Got that?"
  1623. > You salute once more.
  1624. "Yes, ma'am!"
  1625. > With a grin, she nods at the Valkyrie.
  1626. > "And if anypony else mistakes you for a tardy Valkyrie in the Watchtower, blow them off and tell them to bring it up with Major Growler, understand?"
  1627. "Yes, ma'am."
  1628. > "Right. Dismissed."
  1629. > With a final salute, you turn around and find the Sergeant's already opened the door for you.
  1630. > Well, sunshine and rainbows, that wasn't too hard in the end!
  1631. > Though it certainly looked stormy at the beginning...
  1632. > You hope the eventual meeting with the Royal Engineer goes as well...
  1634. Suggested watching: (Opening scene from 'Patton', 1970)
  1639. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you're looking forward to a nice, quiet day.
  1640. > No unpleasant surprises from the junior enlisted under your charge.
  1641. > No nearly-underage batpony coltfriend on display.
  1642. > No pressure to try on scandalously high-cut dresses for the Gala.
  1643. > Just you, and your armour, and your spear, on guard beside the Royal Engineer's doors.
  1644. > And the Royal Engineer himself, sitting on a stool at one of the recently-installed workbenches in his quarters, working on some mechanical thing or another.
  1645. > And Specialist Sparkshower on the other side of the doors, just in case anypony comes for a visit.
  1646. > She deserves the extra shift to make up her mistake -- to the Royal Engineer, for having deceived him, and to you, for having embarrassed the quaternion and given you a headache.
  1647. > Much as you know that Anonymous wants to get things sorted out for his 'Self-Propelled Air Defence Weapon' demonstration, you'd much prefer a nice, quiet day.
  1648. > Nothing but some tinkering with his tools, maybe a quick trip down to the carriage-house for some adjustments to the vehicle, possibly even yet another driving lesson -- which was stressful, but becoming less so, at least -- and then an easy hoof-off to Ebonshield for the night shift.
  1649. > Easy-keeper little-hay-eater.
  1650. > Provided Glamerspear hadn't somehow managed to start some utter nonsense upstairs, things might just wind up going that easily.
  1651. > You're just starting to feel relaxed when there's a knock at the door.
  1652. > This interruption, you hope, is just an expected delivery.
  1653. > Cracking open the door, you see a pair of brightly-coloured unicorn colts in dark grey frock coats, with brown waistcoats underneath, and matching bowler hats on top.
  1654. > They're a bit overdressed for a simple delivery.
  1655. "Yes?"
  1656. > The older colt's horn glows orange as he floats off his grey hat.
  1657. > "Mister Henry Fortstable to see the Lord Engineer, ma'am?"
  1659. > It's a surprise to hear the gentlecolt himself at the door.
  1660. > The Royal Engineer told you only that he was expecting a delivery from Henry Fortstable & Co., renowned Canterlot coach-builders, and not that *the* actual Henry Fortstable would be making the trip.
  1661. > From behind you, you hear the Royal Engineer call out before you can relay the greeting.
  1662. > "Did I hear Mr. Fortstable himself at the door, Corporal? Please show him in."
  1663. > It sounds like your employer is equally surprised.
  1664. > As you and Sparkshower pull the double doors open wide and allow the two unicorns to enter, you notice to your relief that the other colt is quite clearly an assistant, as he's got a pair of heavily-laden saddle-bags slung over his haunches.
  1665. > Since it was just a package delivery, you hadn't even thought to check on Mr. Fortstable's affinity.
  1666. > Anonymous puts down his tools and stands up, wiping his hands on his leather work-apron.
  1667. > "... Ah, Mister Fortstable, you really didn't need to attend to me personally like this. Surely your business must be bustling with the Gala coming up."
  1668. > The older colt smiles.
  1669. > "My Lord is too kind. But my faith in my employees is exceeded only by my desire to satisfy my most valuable customers."
  1670. > Anonymous chuckles.
  1671. > "I'm not sure how I managed to reach that lofty height with just two orders under my belt."
  1672. > Two orders?
  1673. > Henry Fortstable & Co. built the base chassis for the Royal Engineer's steam-powered 'automobile'.
  1674. > Had he ordered a second one already?
  1675. > Maybe so, but your VIP had said that today's delivery would be relatively small; just a few parts he was looking for.
  1676. > What could they possibly have brought?
  1677. > As if to answer your question, the younger assistant, at Henry Fortstable's beckoning, trots over to one of the workbenches and telekinetically hoists the bags off of his back.
  1679. > Then your Very Important Pony (who isn't actually a pony) grabs the floating bag and places it on the table, flipping open the cover to pull out...
  1680. > A large black metal coil?
  1681. > Fortstable watches as the Royal Engineer looks the thing over.
  1682. > "I hope it meets your specifications, m'lord."
  1683. > Anonymous squeezes the coil at its ends, squishing it almost flat, and then lets go with one hand.
  1684. > The coil expands itself back into place.
  1685. > It's some kind of spring?
  1686. > "Seems about the right stiffness. Sorry I couldn't be more precise in my instructions -- I assumed I'd have to do a bit of tweaking myself, possibly cutting it down to size. What did you make of my other proposal?"
  1687. > Now it's Fortstable's turn to pull something out, and his horn lights up as a folded-up piece of paper appears from underneath his coat.
  1688. > "I think I've grasped the concept, m'lord. Here's the design we've produced. With your approval, we can begin work as soon as the Gala is over. I'm afraid for this more involved task I can't spare the workers until then."
  1689. > Putting down the coil-spring, Anonymous unfolds the sheet and looks it over, then nods again.
  1690. > "Seems correct to me. And I understand perfectly about the timetable, of course..."
  1691. > He hands back the paper and picks up the spring once more.
  1692. > "... I'll use this for the accelerator for now, and if the brakes work out on your end, then we can hook them up as well. Here, let me show you what I've got in store..."
  1693. > Accelerator?
  1694. > Brakes?
  1695. > The carriage already had brakes, though the experience almost running over Lt. Vi at Royal Eastern racetrack had made it plainly obvious that they were both far to easy to accidentally leave on, what with the surprising puissance of Anonymous 'steam-engine', as well as difficult to reset in an actual emergency.
  1696. > 'Accelerator' also made you think of the awkward little screw valve used to adjust the engine's power.
  1697. > Maybe he was planning to rectify those problems?
  1699. > But how would *springs* help?
  1700. > All Anonymous had told you was that he was planning some enhancements to his 'automobile', and you, feeling a bit exhausted and overwhelmed this morning from everything that had happened up until now, declined to press him for the details.
  1701. > You knew he would freely tell you his ideas if you asked, and you probably would inquire about them later.
  1702. > But you were not really in the mood to ask, today.
  1703. > Today, you just wanted quiet.
  1704. > The Royal Engineer leads Fortstable and his assistant over to another workbench and unrolls a blueprint, and you shut their conversation out of your mind.
  1705. > There are already too many things galloping around up there already.
  1706. > Sparkshower's impropriety.
  1707. > Glamerspear's repeated outbursts
  1708. > Ebonshield's stand-out difference.
  1709. > The Gala.
  1710. > Your dress *for* the Gala.
  1711. > (How did Glamerspear manage to con you into that one, you'd thought, after looking yourself over in the mirror again later in the evening).
  1712. > Then there was Castlerook.
  1713. > And Castlerook's offer for you to return to Fillydelphia.
  1714. > The way he phrased it, in his usual easygoing style, it was something like a casual invitation.
  1715. > But something told you he intended to pursue it as a solid plan.
  1716. > Which meant at some point he'd stop leaving things at an awkward goodbye outside your door.
  1717. > You still weren't sure how to feel about that.
  1718. > And with that feeling came all the rest: your personal despair at having failed to achieve success in life, the ongoing exceptional experience of working for the Royal Engineer, the whole strange situation with the batponies, the embarrassing and exhausting training of your VIP in combat, Glamerspear's feud with Kilfeather, Anonymous' incredible *flowers* after your gaffe, Bitsmount somehow getting away with blaming everything on a subordinate, your alien employer's naivety about Equestrian society...
  1719. > There's another knock at the door.
  1720. > You pull it open a crack and peek out.
  1722. > It's another colt dressed in ordinary day wear -- a plain brown suit with a rough-looking bowler hat, but worn by a big earth pony, this time.
  1723. > Must be another one of Fortstable's employees, maybe come to check up on his master.
  1724. > Anonymous and him have been chattering away at his desk for quite a few minutes, now.
  1725. > The Royal Engineer's trying to explain something to him about springs and wheels and brakes and such, but you just don't have the concentration to follow along today.
  1726. > You nod at the new visitor.
  1727. "Yes?"
  1728. > He doesn't remove his hat.
  1729. > "I'm here for the Royal Engineer. It's a delivery."
  1730. > Must not be with Fortstable after all.
  1731. > Well, whatever.
  1732. > The Royal Engineer doesn't have to tell you about every *package* he's receiving.
  1733. > With that particular carriage-parts delivery, he must have suspected it could turn into a meeting.
  1734. > You clear your throat.
  1735. "Another delivery for you, sir."
  1736. > Anonymous barely looks up from where he's still discussing plans with the carriage-builder.
  1737. > "Sure, sure, let them in, Corporal."
  1738. > You nod at Sparkshower and you pull the doors open in unison.
  1739. > It's a bit annoying, having them open inwards.
  1740. > You always feel like your view of the visitors is always completely obscured until they step well into the room.
  1741. > Most noticeably with Her Majesty Princess Luna.
  1742. > You wonder when -- *if* -- she'll visit again.
  1743. > Will she want a debriefing on your quaternion's experiences with her batponies, her 'Children of the Stars'?
  1744. > Maybe an opinion or two on where to go next with integrating them into Equestrian society?
  1745. > Right now, all they seemed to have was a small colony underneath Canterlot and a little work guarding the palace walls at night.
  1746. > Though the minotaur smith, Bronzehorn, insinuated that he'd met some of them before, and his shop was all the way out in Newcastle-upon-Mare, so some of the batponies must have permission to roam a little more widely...
  1748. > Or maybe they *didn't*.
  1749. > That would be an interesting report to give.
  1750. > The big, young-looking green colt in the brown suit steps forward into the room and pauses a moment before clearing his throat.
  1751. > "Mister Anonymous? Royal Engineer of Equestria?"
  1752. > He mumbles the line a bit, the sign of an amateur delivery-pony.
  1753. > Same with failing to remove his hat -- not a polite thing to do.
  1754. > You also notice he doesn't have any saddle-bags.
  1755. > Must just be a letter-courier.
  1756. > Strange to see an earth pony working that gig instead of hauling heavy cargo, though.
  1757. > Then again, right before the Gala was the second-busiest period of the year for the postal service -- and for every private delivery company as well.
  1758. > Plenty of invites being sent out, plans being made, orders being placed, after-parties and before-parties being set up.
  1759. > No surprise a private firm would pull their big haulers off of low-profit bulk work to put them on higher-margin letter jobs.
  1760. > Anonymous looks up with a smile.
  1761. > "Yes, hello, that's me. Do you need me to sign for something?"
  1762. > The big colt shakes his head and sits down on his haunches, putting his forehooves together and fussing with them for a moment.
  1763. > "No, sir. To *answer* for something."
  1764. > In the blink of an eye, there's a sharp *PANG* noise as the visitor absolutely whips one of his horseshoes down at the carpeted floor between him and the Royal Engineer.
  1765. > The metal U-shape ricochets up in the air before falling back down just a few hooves in front of your VIP.
  1766. > Throwing down a horseshoe at the Royal Engineer?
  1767. > Now what in the violet Tartarus was this?
  1768. > You have your answer when there's a clattering of heavy bronze armour from the other side of the open door.
  1769. > "HUCKLEBERRY?!"
  1770. > Oh, buck.
  1771. > Reaching back for one of your javelins, you push your door closed and see Sparkshower stepping forward.
  1773. > Her previously-long-distance-but-now-uncomfortably-close-distance coltfriend doesn't so much as make a single glance in her direction, keeping the Royal Engineer fixed in his gaze.
  1774. > By now, Fortstable and his assistant have looked up and turned around as well.
  1775. > But while they're shocked by the interruption and the challenge, your VIP just looks perplexed, staring down at the iron horseshoe with a furrowed brow.
  1776. > He can't possibly have any idea of what's just happened.
  1777. > You hastily close the other door as Sparkshower approaches her apparently jilted lover.
  1778. > "... Huckleberry, what are you doing here?!"
  1779. > He just keeps on ignoring her, speaking to your VIP instead.
  1780. > "Well, mister Anonymous? This here's a matter of honour. Are you an honourable colt?"
  1781. > Sparkshower answers before the Royal Engineer can.
  1782. > "Huckleberry, speak to me! What's this all about? Why are you here?!"
  1783. > Finally, as you also step up behind him, he deigns to briefly look over at her.
  1784. > But he equally quickly snaps his eyes back up at your employer.
  1785. > With a loud sniff, he licks his lips before speaking again.
  1786. > "You know what this is about, mister Anonymous: you've taken somethin' that doesn't belong to you. I'm here for satisfaction -- that's what I want."
  1787. > There's some hesitation in his voice when he speaks the second line.
  1788. > No surprise somepony idiotic enough to issue a challenge like this may not have entirely thought things through.
  1789. > You sidestep the furniture and circle around to get closer to your employer.
  1790. > Formal challenge or no, you're not going to take any changes with this big colt.
  1791. > Sparkshower continues to harangue her beau.
  1792. > "What do you mean 'taken'? Is this about the Maypole? That was *my* mistake, Huckleberry. I asked the Royal Engineer to dance, and I didn't think through the consequences. But I changed my mind and was just about to write to tell you so."
  1794. > You see the green colt's jaw clench and unclench, but he maintains his firm stance, even as he finally addresses the pegasus in the room.
  1795. > "This don't concern you, Thunder. This is between me an' mister Anonymous here."
  1796. > Having thus been acknowledged, she steps out in front of him, interposing herself between her angry colt and her baffled employer.
  1797. > "What do you mean it don't concern me?! It's *about* me, isn't it?"
  1798. > She lets a bit of her country Berry accent slip out when she sends Huckleberry's words right back at him.
  1799. > "I said it's a matter of honour, Thunder. Mine, and mister Anonymous' here..."
  1800. > Standing up on all fours again, he lifts his head above hers and once again calls out to your VIP.
  1801. > "... Well, what's it going to be, mister?"
  1802. > But Sparkshower flaps her wings to get back up in front of his face.
  1803. > "Don't just dismiss me like that, Huckleberry! I'm not some piece of your personal property!"
  1804. > Instantly, he snaps back.
  1805. > "Oh, so it's true, then."
  1806. > She reverts to pleading her case.
  1807. > "No, it *isn't*, Huckleberry, but how can I explain it when you aren't listening to me?"
  1808. > He shakes his head.
  1809. > "You don't have to explain anything. You're free to make your choice; free as a bird, if you please."
  1810. > She throws her forehooves up, almost dropping her spear in the process.
  1811. > "But I *didn't* change anything! You didn't say you were coming and I made a mistake!"
  1812. > Huckleberry manages a halfhearted scowl, but it becomes grim when he peeks around his estranged marefriend in your direction.
  1813. > "Not as big a mistake as your new coltfriend just made. He accepted my challenge! And I got witnesses!"
  1814. > Oh, no, please Celestia please don't say that Anonymous picked up the horseshoe.
  1816. > You glance behind you and, sure enough, the Royal Engineer is holding up the curved piece of iron like a delicate flower -- albeit at a distance from himself, as if it were a particularly foul-smelling one.
  1817. > "I'm sorry, I think there's been a terrible misunderstanding here. Mister Huckleberry, is it? What's the meaning of this? What exactly are you accusing me of having done?"
  1818. > The colt replies plaintively, raising his voice even more.
  1819. > "You know what you did, you damn dirty mare-stealing ape! Otherwise, you wouldn't have picked up my horseshoe, would you? There's witnesses here, too! It's a challenge good and proper!"
  1820. > Sparkshower is too shocked by her coltfriend's name-calling to interject, and Huckleberry continues on.
  1821. > "... Come on, you there, mister unicorn, what's your name? This is a matter of Equestrian honour!"
  1822. > Fortstable steps forward, a weighty frown on his face and a pair of 'pince-museau' reading glasses on his muzzle.
  1823. > "My name's Henry Fortstable, foal. But I'm not witness to anything -- not anything legitimate at any rate."
  1824. > Huckleberry appears confused and infuriated.
  1825. > "What?! You were right here, mister Fortstable -- You heard me call him out and saw him pick it up! That means it's a duel!"
  1826. > Fortstable shakes his head.
  1827. > "Foal, I may disapprove heavily of the ancient barbaric tradition of duelling, but at least I know the rules for it..."
  1828. > He turns to Anonymous and nods.
  1829. > "... Lord Anonymous is a member of the Blue Chamber of Equestria. Celestia's privy council. I don't know your exact station in life but I'm guessing he's well above it, and therefore within his rights to dismiss your challenge out of hoof."
  1830. > Huckleberry stamps his four hooves on the ground angrily.
  1831. > "Yeah, maybe he can -- but he didn't! He picked it up anyways! Come on, mister Anonymous! Are you going to rob my honour and spit in my face at the same time?"
  1832. > For a green pony, he's getting pretty red in the face.
  1834. > This could easily escalate into a fight; you ready your javelin, but Sparkshower's on top of the big colt before you can do anything else.
  1835. > "Your honour! Your honour?! Is that all you care about now, Huckleberry? Your honour? Since when did you get so callous?"
  1836. > Huckleberry looks her straight in the eyes and deadpans his next words.
  1837. > "Since you came flying away here."
  1838. > The words pierce straight through Sparkshower's armour, and she drops out of the air down to her hooves with a loud metallic clatter.
  1839. > "I... I came to Canterlot *for you*, Huckleberry! I wanted to find somewhere we could both live and work and not be so far apart all the time! Somewhere safe for a pegasus and earth pony alike!"
  1840. > The colt's face is hardened, his jaw is clenched; he doesn't reply.
  1841. > "... Why won't you answer me?"
  1842. > Huckleberry looks down at Sparkshower, then up at Anonymous, then back and forth once more, before muttering to himself.
  1843. > "If that's the way it is, then that's the way it is..."
  1844. > Finally, breathing heavily, and with a sharp sniffle to begin, he addresses himself to the Royal Engineer -- but looks at his marefriend while speaking.
  1845. > "... Have a care with this one, mister Anonymous. My momma always told me not to fall in love with a pegasus, 'cause one day she'd surely fly away and break my heart. I guess she was right."
  1846. > You hear, rather than see, Sparkshower's jaw drop against the inside of her bassinet helmet.
  1847. > "You... You..."
  1848. > Her wings trembling, Sparkshower shouts up at her ex-lover.
  1849. > "... You came all the way to Canterlot to defend your supposed honour, when you wouldn't come for your marefriend or for a career or even a golden ticket to the Grand Galloping Gala itself!"
  1850. > Panting heavily and with tears streaming from her eyes, she continues.
  1851. > "... I send you letter after letter after letter pleading to see you again, and I get nothing in reply! And when I *do* see you again, you won't even say hello to me?"
  1853. > Even the large earth pony's imposing iron jaw seems to be softening from the withering verbal assault.
  1854. > "... And Lord Anonymous! He offered that Gala ticket to you and me both out of the kindness and generosity in his heart! He never treated me as anything other than a valued bodyguard -- never as a piece of property! And you come in here and throw your horseshoe down at his hooves just like that?"
  1855. > Gritting her teeth, Sparkshower launches herself up into the air, twirls her spear around in the air, then dives down and slams the butt loudly against the ground, before finally brandishing the weapon aggressively at the colt, hovering in place.
  1856. > "... Do you want a duel with the Royal Engineer that badly? Well, I'm one of his bodyguards, and, Mister Pudding, let me tell you that you may be a big colt, but I'm still a persimmon well above your huckleberry!"
  1857. > "But Thunder, he picked up my-"
  1858. > She instantly prods the spear closer towards his face.
  1859. > "Don't call me that when you're not acting like a friend should, Huckleberry! And don't make this about you and Anonymous when it's really about you an' *me*!"
  1860. > Still furious, she pauses her rant to wait for a reply.
  1861. > Huckleberry swallows and sniffs, but continues to scowl.
  1862. > "You can say what you want, Artemis, but ponies are talking back in Berry. I've been made the town fool 'cause of you an' him!"
  1863. > He points a forehoof at Anonymous, but all you can think is: 'wrong answer, buddy'.
  1864. > Sparkshower shakes her head, sniffling but still holding her spear steady.
  1865. > "Huckleberry Pudding, I don't know if I care to see you ever again."
  1866. > For once, her words seem to have the same effect on him as his words have had so far on her, and the green colt starts to lose some of his nerve.
  1868. > He loses a lot more of it when she nods her visor down across her eyes and pokes her spear towards his sternum.
  1869. > "... In the name of Anonymous, by Appointment to Their Majesties Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Royal Engineer of Equestria, I order you to vacate these premises immediately!"
  1870. > Finally, Huckleberry yields to the bronze armoured pegasus and backs up a few hooves, followed closely by Sparkshower, before turning to grab the door-handle.
  1871. > Facing the room one last time, he pauses for a moment as if to give some parting words, but either can't think of anything or decides, wisely, to keep his mouth shut.
  1872. > The latch clicks softly back in place behind the big colt.
  1873. > Sparkshower just floats down to the ground in front of the double doors.
  1874. > You glance back up at Anonymous, who nods knowingly in her direction.
  1875. > Replacing your javelin, you head over to Sparkshower.
  1876. > She's panting heavily and still holding her spear at the ready.
  1877. "Artemis? Are you all right?"
  1878. > There's a sniffle from within the helmet, and she raises a hoof to lift the visor.
  1879. > Her eyes are bloodshot and her muzzle is soaked with tears.
  1880. > "Permission to be relieved of duty, Corporal?"
  1881. > You nod.
  1882. "You're dismissed for today, Specialist. Report to the barracks."
  1883. > Sparkshower nods, then tries to wipe the tears from her face with a foreleg -- but bronze armour isn't exactly the most absorbent material, so all she manages to do is smear it around.
  1884. > Despite that, she leaps into the air with a surprising energy and spreads her wings, twirling her spear dramatically around above her head once again.
  1885. > Floating above your head, she spins around, rearing back to clang her off-hoof sabot into her visor, addressing your VIP.
  1886. > "Specialist Sparkshower retiring from duty, sir. I'll be upstairs if you need me."
  1887. > Anonymous nods.
  1888. > "I'm sorry about what happened, Specialist. Why don't you take it easy for a while?"
  1890. > You pull the door open for her, and she flaps her way out of the room without so much as another sniffle.
  1891. > For what *that* just was, she seemed to handle it pretty well.
  1892. > And despite lacking confidence at the beginning of the Battle of Newstirrup Bridge, Sparkshower was a pretty tough mare.
  1893. > She could make it through this rough break-up, you were certain.
  1895. Artemis Sparkshower's theme song: (Adele - Set Fire to the Rain [Thomas Gold Remix])
  1900. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and ordinarily, two spa days in a single week was a real luxury.
  1901. > But it didn't feel very luxurious, lying at the edge of Spa Dalecarlia's warm pool, dangling a forehoof down the side into the water, watching your heartbroken comrade float aimlessly on her back in the centre, as still as a corpse.
  1902. > Sparkshower had been quiet when she came upstairs earlier -- *too* quiet, heading straight to her room with barely a hello.
  1903. > Sulking in her room, you'd had to get the story out of Corporal Bound at lunchtime.
  1904. > Honour had agreed to allow you to haul your comatose comrade out of bed and to the spa -- provided you both stuck around until two o'clock to see if Major-General Hoofstrong would call a meeting for today.
  1905. > When the hour had come and no messenger had yet arrived, you gently barged into Sparkshower's room, spa membership card floating above your head, and ordered her to accompany you.
  1906. > She hadn't so much as uttered a peep in complaint.
  1907. > Or any peep at all.
  1908. > Is this even doing anything for her?
  1909. > She didn't want a massage or preening, she didn't want the hot tub or the sauna, she apparently just wanted to... float... in the pool.
  1910. > It's a bit concerning.
  1911. > If there was anypony else around, they might be worried, too.
  1912. > But it's a Friday, and the Gala's next weekend, and Celestia's still holding the weekend day court that pulls in the masses from across Equestria.
  1913. > As a result, anypony who *can* get out of Canterlot *has* gotten out of Canterlot, and anypony still in the city probably has something better to do than to sit at the spa in the early afternoon.
  1914. > Heck, on a day like this, even in the Canterlot Royal Guard, half the officers who didn't have duty on the weekend would already be out the door.
  1916. > The other half would tell their Sergeants after lunch to let everypony waiting on standby go for libo at four o'clock sharp, while they themselves promptly headed for the nearest family villa, private club, upscale saloon, or theatre-slash-bawdy-stable well before then.
  1917. > So, no surprise you were alone and private in the bath-halls of the public spa.
  1918. > Things were likely to pick up in an hour or two, though, when most ponies closed up their businesses for the evening -- or the weekend.
  1919. > Suddenly, there's a tiny splash from the pool, and you see Sparkshower lift one of her wings a few inches, then drop it down again.
  1920. > Well, it's a start.
  1921. "How you doing over there, Sparks?"
  1922. > No reply but a deep breath.
  1923. > That's a bit of a snub to you, but considering everything that happened, you can hardly blame her.
  1924. > First love and first break-up -- and what a break-up!
  1925. > Previously incommunicado coltfriend makes sudden unannounced arrival and challenges the Royal Engineer to a duel for Sparkshower's hoof!
  1926. > It'd almost be romantic if it wasn't so wrong-headed.
  1927. > And if, according to Honour, the colt hadn't seemed more intent on fighting than on winning back his marefriend's love.
  1928. > You swish your forehoof around in the pool.
  1929. "... You wanna talk about what happened at all?"
  1930. > Again, nothing but another deep breath in response.
  1931. > It was maybe a little more of a sigh, though, so you lift your head up a bit and carry on.
  1932. "... It can help to talk about it, if you want."
  1933. > Nothing from her, not even a pointed breath.
  1934. > You shrug and splash your hoof around some more, like a fishing cat.
  1935. "... But if you don't wanna quite yet, that's fine, too. I'm just sayin' I'm here for you, Sparks -- ya know what I mean?"
  1936. > There's a pause, but then you hear her speak -- though she doesn't move a single other muscle.
  1937. > "I know. And I'm glad you're here for me, Lily. But I don't want to talk about it yet..."
  1939. > Without making even the slightest ripple in the surface, she turns her head towards you.
  1940. > "... I'm still trying to come to terms with it myself."
  1941. > You nod.
  1942. "Sure, of course..."
  1943. > Sparkshower looks back up at the ceiling, again seeming to do so without disturbing the water at all.
  1944. > Semi-unintentionally, you find yourself thinking back to a long time ago...
  1945. > Well, it was actually just five years, but hey, that was almost a quarter of your life.
  1946. > You've done a lot since then, and it sure *feels* like that was a long time ago.
  1947. > But this particularly memory still stings on those occasions when it bubbles up to the surface.
  1948. "... The first break-up always hurts the most, I can tell you that."
  1949. > You hadn't been as deeply involved with your colt as Sparkshower had been with hers.
  1950. > Nor had your relationship gone on for nearly as long.
  1951. > But you didn't think those details really altered the pain very much.
  1952. > It was just the ending that hurt; the ending of something that could've lasted forever.
  1953. > The ending of innocence, maybe.
  1954. > There's a tiny splash from the water as Sparkshower pushes one of her hind hooves out slightly.
  1955. > Ah, so that's what she's doing.
  1956. > Looking up at the ceiling, she's using the patterns in the mosaic tile to align herself in the pool, keeping station in the absolute dead centre, regardless of the subtle flows of water from the recirculation pumps or from your aimless splashing.
  1957. > A kind of mind-clearing exercise, you suppose.
  1958. > Focusing on a simple task to forget about her troubles.
  1959. > Despite that meditative focus, however, she speaks up.
  1960. > "What was your first time like?"
  1961. > Well, painful awkward memory or no, you asked for this.
  1962. > Thankfully there's not much to tell.
  1963. "It was a high school crush. He was a senior, I was a junior. We started seeing each other in the fall..."
  1965. > You try to force out a chuckle, but it doesn't sound very authentic.
  1966. "... Heh. I was foalish, and I thought it meant more to him than just the kissing in-between classes, or the snuggles after school, or the trysts in Central Park -- at lunchtime, after supper, and almost every weekend."
  1967. > You shrug.
  1968. "... But it didn't -- or maybe it did, for a while, and he just changed his mind about it or about me. Either way, after a steamy fall and a tender winter, he chilled on me in the spring."
  1969. > Swinging your free forehoof back and forth, you send some more ripples Sparkshower's way.
  1970. > Give her something for her to think about other than just her own problems and your foalish first romance.
  1971. "... I thought it was just his nerves from prepping for the exams, and maybe it was a bit of that. But while he started increasingly cancelling our meet-ups, he also started hanging around the senior mares as well."
  1972. > Sure enough, your minute watery vibrations force Sparkshower to pick one of her own wings up and then drop it down again to compensate.
  1973. "... The exams came and went, but he got frostier than ever. Things finally came to a head when he told me a week before the senior prom that he'd be bringing somepony else."
  1974. > Perhaps sensing that this was the really juicy bit, which it was, she turns her head in your direction once more.
  1975. > You swallow and pull your forehoof up.
  1976. "... There was an ugly fight between us that night, and if I'm being honest, I did most of the fighting and most of the uglying."
  1977. > Smiling awkwardly, you snort.
  1978. "... He didn't wind up looking so good in his prom photos with that black eye that took two weeks to heal up... But I'm still the one who ran away in tears from him. And it took me the same two weeks to bring myself to show my muzzle around school and talk to just about anypony again."
  1979. > And thus began your long and exciting descent into a career in the Royal Guard!
  1981. > All because you managed to win a dirty high-school mage-duel -- well, mage-*brawl*, really -- against a unicorn colt a year older than you.
  1982. > Sparkshower's still looking in your direction.
  1983. > "Did your older brothers do anything?"
  1984. > Of course, she remembers your outburst yesterday morning.
  1985. > Good to know the break-up hasn't ruined her powers of observation and memory.
  1986. > You shake your head.
  1987. "No. My ex had suffered enough at my horn; they knew he didn't need more punishment, and anyways they weren't really into fighting like that..."
  1988. > You think back to how, before the breaking point, they'd kept pushing you to stay home and join in their stupid nerdy table games instead heading out to call on your love when he'd already told you he was busy and to stay away.
  1989. > It had seemed like obnoxious interference at the time, but in retrospect...
  1990. "... I think they saw the break-up coming, though. And they'd tried, in their own clumsy, ways, to make it so I'd get out easily."
  1991. > You chuckle, and this time, it's genuine.
  1992. "... Heh. It didn't really work, though. I don't think they quite realized until then what a Tartarean fury their little sister could be."
  1993. > Nodding, you continue.
  1994. "... But they respected my need for some private time, and they helped me out -- in the small, tender ways that tell you when somepony really cares for you."
  1995. > "What're those?"
  1996. > Ooh, that's a loaded question.
  1997. > You probably shouldn't have started to talk so much about your own family.
  1998. > Sparkshower didn't have any immediate siblings to lean on as you did -- well, not outside of her brothers & sisters in the Equestrian Royal Guard, anyways.
  1999. > Hopefully those'll do, though.
  2000. > You shrug.
  2001. "You know, little things. Bringing water and food when it wasn't even asked for. Taking care of my laundry and cleaning up my room when I was out -- again, without asking. Even showing up at my school and getting homework & notes from my teachers..."
  2003. > Sighing, you start to think fondly about those three dorky brothers of yours.
  2004. > You did love those freakin' dweebs.
  2005. > Oughtta take a trip back to Manehattan and visit them again soon...
  2006. "... Just... making sure I didn't fall completely apart, ya know? Making it so I could deal with my heartache without losing my place in the world."
  2007. > Once again, you chortle to yourself.
  2008. "... Heh, ya know... I know I'm not the most fastidious mare in Equestria at the best of times; I know my quarters aren't as neat as they could be, but mare, when I'm feeling down the dumps, you can really see it... and you can smell it a couple of days later, too!"
  2009. > That actually gets a little chuckle out of Sparkshower, too.
  2010. > It's good to hear her project a little emotion.
  2011. > You nod in her direction.
  2012. "... Some ponies, I know, are the opposite, though. Something bad happens that they don't want to deal with, they get all fussy about the little details as a way of coping. I knew a mare who rearranged all the furniture in her room *twelve times* in almost as many hours when she was going through a breakup..."
  2013. > Smirking, you drop your forehoof back down into the pool and send a splash Sparkshower's way.
  2014. "... Some of 'em stare up at the mosaic ceiling in Spa Dalecarlia's warm pool and count the number of tiles that're up there, even."
  2015. > She doesn't miss a beat in replying.
  2016. > "I lost count at ten thousand one hundred and fifty-three, and I didn't even get out of the main spiral. I didn't feel like restarting."
  2017. > Damn.
  2018. > No wonder this mare earned herself an early promotion.
  2019. > While everypony else was hollering about getting overrun by innumerable hordes of changelings, she probably managed to scout a whole swarm of them and report back with their exact number -- minus casualties inflicted, of course.
  2020. > You smile.
  2021. "It's okay. So long as you don't ask to come back again every day until you can manage the exact count."
  2023. > She snorts, and you chuckle, but then the sauna door at the back of the room swings open with a creak.
  2024. > Three pegasi mares step out and look like they're heading for the pools.
  2025. > Darn, and just when you were starting to manage a connection.
  2026. > Oh well, an interruption was bound to happen anyways.
  2027. > As the winged ponies step over to the shower alcoves to wash the sauna-induced sweat out of their coats, you can't help but notice one of them staring in your direction.
  2028. > She seems to discreetly point you out to her companions.
  2029. > Now what the buck was this?
  2030. > Friends of Lieutenant Kilfeather, on the lookout for you, maybe?
  2031. > Not that Valiant really had 'friends', but he *did* have a crew.
  2032. > And that included a pack of mares who were every bit as awful as he was.
  2033. > Whoever they were, you resolve to ignore them for now.
  2034. > If they wanted to start something in the baths, well, three pegasi against one unicorn with a shell-shocked comrade in the water wasn't exactly fair odds.
  2035. > But with low ceilings and slippery floors, nopony was going to get the drop on you.
  2036. > Still, the calm and friendly moment was ruined, for you at least.
  2037. > You tried to think of what to say to Sparkshower once the three gawkers finally got on with their own business.
  2038. > Would it be better to analyze the past, or focus on next steps first?
  2039. > Does she feel undesirable as a result of the breakup?
  2040. > You had sure felt that way five years ago, and it's partly what led you down the path of a saltine, but then her situation was different.
  2041. > Maybe take her out tomorrow night?
  2042. > See if Mailedhoof will help you get her into the Officer's Club as well, as a filly-friend?
  2043. > Eh... probably a bit too full of drunken officers.
  2044. > It could get uncomfortably hoofsy in there.
  2046. > Should you go see a show?
  2047. > It's not really your thing, but before the implications were explained to her -- and after it turned out there weren't actually any intended implications at all -- she said she'd had a good time with Anonymous at the Sardinia.
  2048. > A good comedy could help cheer her up.
  2049. > Ooh, or how about something a little more punchy and in-the-moment?
  2050. > Several music-halls and taverns did run little comedy revues in the evenings...
  2051. > Or did she want to think about next weekend, the Gala?
  2052. > You'd barely had any time to shop for accessories with her!
  2053. > Her dress just needed a teeny-tiny bit more adjusting before it was ready, which you could easily finish tonight and tomorrow morning, then you could take her out with it and find the last touches that would make your filly-friend a proper mare?
  2054. > Even if she didn't want to shop, you ought to finish her dress soon, though.
  2055. > "Pardon me for interrupting, but would you be Specialist Artemis Sparkshower of the Royal Guard?"
  2056. > Son of a three-headed Tartarean hound, it's those three pegasi from the sauna and the showers!
  2057. > They're all standing at the opposite edge of the pool; it was the oldest-looking one in the middle who had spoken, a mare in her mid-thirties, with a distinctly Canterlot accent.
  2058. > Sparkshower turns towards the newcomers, still floating in solitude.
  2059. > "Yes?"
  2060. > The speaker smiles pleasantly, while her companion on the left grins and nods, and the one on the right just stares at Sparkshower, looking her over like a butcher a piece of meat.
  2061. > "I do apologize, miss Sparkshower, but when Captain Goldenfoil pointed you out to me, I felt compelled to come over and speak to you. Could you possibly spare me a moment of your time?"
  2062. > *Captain* Goldenfoil?
  2063. > What are they, the ponice?
  2064. > Did Sparkshower's ex file charges of assault against her for how he'd been driven out at spear-point?
  2065. > You rise to your hooves, indignant.
  2066. "And just who are you supposed to be?"
  2068. > She gives you a slight bow, pressing a forehoof to her chest.
  2069. > "Major Lady Amberline Growler, commander of the Royal Guard 1st Air Division's 3rd Armoured Battalion, 'Valkyries'..."
  2070. > Rising up, she smiles down at Sparkshower, whose mouth has dropped open to match her wide eyes.
  2071. > "... I believe we met earlier today, miss Sparkshower."
  2072. > This time, there's no little splash, but a full tidal wave as your floating comrade instantly flips over and thrashes her way airborne out of the pool to render a mid-air hovering salute.
  2073. > "Major Growler, ma'am!"
  2074. > Sweet Sun-raising Celestia, Sparkshower, the Major's in civvies and this is a spa, not the Canterlot Palace parade grounds.
  2075. > Every pony you can take out of uniform, but some you can't take the uniform out *of*...
  2076. > Growler and her entourage politely return Sparkshower's salute, but then the Major smiles.
  2077. > "Please, Specialist, there's no need for formalities here. We're all civilians at the moment..."
  2078. > Lowering her salute, she waves a hoof towards the loungers.
  2079. > "... But, I would greatly appreciate it if you could grant me the privilege of a brief audience?"
  2080. > She's reached levels of politeness that shouldn't even be possible.
  2081. > A *Major* -- and a noble one, at that; she did say *Lady* Amberline -- requesting the *privilege* of an *audience* with a lowly *Specialist*?
  2082. > As Sparkshower flaps over to solid ground, you go and join her.
  2083. > "Uhm... Of course, Major. What can I do for you, ma'am?"
  2084. > Artemis seems to be just as confused as you are by the situation.
  2085. > Well, she met the mare earlier, didn't she?
  2086. > In the Watchtower, presumably?
  2087. > Did something weird happen there?
  2088. > Lady Growler bows her head again.
  2089. > "Miss Sparkshower, I have come to realize that this morning I did you a great disservice by accusing you of espionage. My plan was to send you an appropriate card expressing my regrets, but finding you here I thought I might render my apology in person, if you'll permit it."
  2091. > You blink and do a double-take.
  2092. > What kind of noblepony Major apologies to a Specialist?
  2093. > Sparkshower actually glances in your direction, but you don't have any answers for her.
  2094. > "Oh... There's really no need to apologize, Lady Growler. I completed my mission to deliver a message, after all. And I'm sorry for having intruded on the Major-General's briefing."
  2095. > Growler frowns amiably.
  2096. > "Nonsense, miss Sparkshower! A gentlemare always settles her debts. And, after I made some enquiries into your personnel file, I realized that I owe you rather considerably, as do my Valkyries."
  2097. > Things just get weirder and weirder.
  2098. > Sparkshower screws up her eyebrows.
  2099. > "Ma'am?"
  2100. > The noble Major continues with a smile.
  2101. > "Of course, I doubt you would have appreciated it at the time, but by defeating Lieutenant Kilfeather and his associates at Newstirrup Bridge, you all but guaranteed that my top squadron of Valkyries would be the shoo-in favourites to win this summer's MXP Games..."
  2102. > Ah, so *that's* what this all about.
  2103. > It's not an apology for a military mistake, but a noblepony's tribute to an ally.
  2104. > Those, at least, can cross social boundaries.
  2105. > Heck, it was the most common way for non-noble ponies to become officers in the Royal Guard, before the Royal Artillery School and, more significantly, the Royal Officer Academy was founded.
  2106. > Growler looks in your direction.
  2107. > "... May I take it that you, miss, are Specialist Lily Glamerspear?"
  2108. > You nod.
  2109. "That's me, ma'am."
  2110. > Sitting down, she extends her forehooves wide.
  2111. > "'Nemo nisi per Amicitiam cognoscitur', Centurion. Embrace me as your Tribune."
  2112. > 'No one learns except by Friendship', the motto of the Order of the Ram.
  2113. > And this old-fashioned noblemare was a Tribune, the next rank up from you -- reserved for nobleponies?
  2114. > Well, it was hardly a surprise that the commanding officer of the famed Valkyries would be a member.
  2116. > As required by the order's rules, you step forward and put your forelegs around her in a hug, retiring only when she releases you.
  2117. > "... Ah, Centurion. By plucking Kilfeather's wings you have tilted the golden scales of justice in our favour. I salute you."
  2118. > You knew that this was exactly how nobleponies behaved -- or were supposed to behave, at any rate.
  2119. > But it was still really, really, really weird to see it in person -- and in a public spa's pool-room, to boot.
  2120. "If you'll excuse my asking, Tribune... what are you doing in the Spa Dalecarlia?"
  2121. > Growler cocks an eyebrow.
  2122. > "You mean, as opposed to of one of Canterlot's more exclusive establishments?"
  2123. > Exchanging knowing glances with her associates, she continues.
  2124. > "... I'm afraid that as Equestria's grand capital city is run by the five-limbed variety of pony, facilities here often do not cater appropriately to those ponies with four or six."
  2125. > It was true that unicorns, the ponies with 'five limbs', basically ran Canterlot.
  2126. > But she surely couldn't be saying that no private club would refuse a 'six-limbed' pegasus, could she?
  2127. > You feel certain you'd have heard about it if it were true.
  2128. > She must have some other complaint.
  2129. > "... I have a membership with a private club in Cloudsdale, of course. And it provides me with associate access to its exclusive partner here in Canterlot. But the staff at these otherwise excellent establishments simply do *not* understand how to give proper massages to a pegasus, nor how to properly preen a client. Whereas here... Miss Sparkshower, I do hope you've engaged the services of the resident griffon masseuse, miss Pogranichovna?"
  2130. > OK, now, her presence made a lot more sense.
  2131. > Elite ponies being picky about the quality of their servants?
  2132. > Everyday occurrence in Equestria.
  2133. > The Major probably similarly pooh-poohed most restaurants here as well.
  2134. > Sparkshower nods her head.
  2135. > "Yes, I had a massage from Nina on my first visit. She's very skilled."
  2137. > The three pegasus mares nod almost in unison as Growler carries on theatrically.
  2138. > "And that's why you've come back, isn't it? The griffonese massage? Goodness, but she knows how to wring every last drop of exhaustion out of you, doesn't she? Having one's wings attended to by her expert claws and beak is akin to being in the tender loving embrace of the Sun-Princess herself, I imagine..."
  2139. > The Major composes herself, putting on a stern face.
  2140. > "... You know, miss Sparkshower, since the Valkyries were first founded, one rule has been kept above all others: 'Everypony fights. No-one quits. Anypony who breaks formation to flee will be speared by the commander herself.' I say this to you only to make it clear that I, too, require her attentions. Why, I recommend the Spa Dalecarlia to all of my soldiers -- officers and enlisted alike..."
  2141. > She gestures at the pony on her left with a wing.
  2142. > "... Otherwise, Sergeant-Major Treechopper wouldn't know about this place either, would you, Morgan?"
  2143. > The indicated pegasus shakes her head and answers in a heavy lower-class Cloudsdale accent.
  2144. > "Nae I wouldn't, Growler."
  2145. > With her intonation, it sounds a little more like 'Growl-Ah' when she says the Major's name.
  2146. > Turning back to Sparkshower, Growler pauses for a moment to look her over.
  2147. > It's strange -- you've never really seen Sparkshower in the company of several other pegasi without her armour on.
  2148. > The chow hall, literal zoo that it is, doesn't really count, because everypony's bustling around instead of standing still.
  2149. > Plus, you're mostly sitting down in there.
  2150. > But standing in before these three Valkyries, it becomes apparent once again just how tall your comrade is for a pegasus -- and how well-built she is, too.
  2151. > It'd been obvious when shopping for dresses, of course, but a mare being frustrated that sizes didn't fit right was hardly a novel experience.
  2152. > Sometimes it seemed like nopony made clothing that fit any mares at all.
  2154. > But seeing Sparkshower towering a full head over two of these pegasi, and half a head over the third, really put her dimensions in perspective.
  2155. > The Valkyries were, after all, some of the strongest pegasi in the Equestrian Royal Guard.
  2156. > A whole battalion of mares, all flying around in heavy bronze plate armour.
  2157. > Growler lifts an eyebrow and nods at Treechopper.
  2158. > "Well, Morgan, what do you think of miss Sparkshower now that you've had a look at her? I trust in your discerning eyes."
  2159. > Treechopper nods, looking up at your big pegasus comrade.
  2160. > "Absolute unit, Growler. I'm in awe at the size o' this mare."
  2161. > Sparkshower's cheeks go a bit red, and she seems to hunch down a bit to try to lower her height, but the noblepony doesn't seem to notice, and carries right on.
  2162. > "I wonder, miss Sparkshower. Why become a 19D Armoured Scout, instead of a 19K Armoured Infantry? And to have requested a posting in the 4th Armoured Regiment? We would have been pleased to have you swear the 'Immaculate Pledge' of the Valkyries, I should think."
  2163. > Awkwardly scratching at one foreleg with the other forehoof, Sparkshower replies.
  2164. > "Er, well... I enjoyed photography, and I didn't really know how I felt about being in heavy combat... and I wanted to be stationed closer to home... and the signing bonus was a lot bigger for a 19D."
  2165. > The Major nods approvingly.
  2166. > "Sensible, sensible... Of course, we have a few 19Ds in the Valkyries as well, but they're in such demand that we don't often get first crack at new recruits unless they specifically request to try for us..."
  2167. > Sighing, she collects herself.
  2168. > "... The reason I ask, besides my interest in the betterment of my battalion, is to ensure I repay my debt to you properly. It's a matter of honour, you see."
  2169. > Instantly, Sparkshower rolls her head and slumps her shoulders.
  2170. > "Not another matter of honour!"
  2172. > Her outburst shocks the three Valkyries, and while your comrade nearly crumples to the ground as the weight of this morning's events crash down on her, you step up to lend a hoof in pulling her back up.
  2173. "It's kinda a long story, Tribune. A personal thing came up this morning. Coltfriend problems, you understand?"
  2174. > Once Sparkshower's back on her hooves, albeit looking much less collected than before, Growler speaks up again, frowning.
  2175. > "Well, I certainly don't wish to pry into your personal affairs, miss Sparkshower. But I suspect I may know what may be ailing you. May I offer some words of advice, from a senior pony to a junior?"
  2176. > Swallowing deeply and still a bit shaky, Artemis nods, and Growler continues.
  2177. > "... It is often said among nobles -- by colts, of course, but by many mares as well -- that only colts have 'honour'. That this abstract attribute is exclusively masculine, and that although mares may also serve in the Royal Guard, only colts may gain honour by valorous behaviour on the field of battle and by proper behaviour in society, as they may lose it by cowardice and impropriety..."
  2178. > Sparkshower lifts her head a bit as the Major continues.
  2179. > "... Mares, by contrast, are said to have only 'shame' instead, a property which is given to them at birth and may never be increased but only reduced, either by the machinations of lechers or by their own supposedly sinful impulses. And it is a property which must be defended at all costs by those colts who do not wish to lose 'honour', whether they are linked to the mare by blood or merely by love..."
  2180. > Growler shakes her head.
  2181. > "... I suppose that perhaps your coltfriend subscribes to the same theorem, and this is why you recoiled at my mention of the word 'honour'. But, as the commander of one of the fiercest battalions in the Royal Guard, and as a member of the Cloudsdale noble House of Growlers, I say that it is utter, utter, nonsense..."
  2183. > Sneering, she looks around as if the targets of her scorn were present and heckling.
  2184. > "... Those who believe and promulgate such beliefs are the same ponies who, if asked to name Equestria's greatest mage, would reply immediately with 'Starswirl the Bearded', as if Her Majesty Princess Celestia, the immortal sovereign who has guided and watched over our great nation for over a thousand years, simply did not exist. It is sheer folly..."
  2185. > To be honest, you might've named Starswirl as well.
  2186. > Nothing against Princess Celestia, of course; and, upon reflection, her accomplishments were incredible.
  2187. > *Nopony* living in Equestria was as good a mage as she was.
  2188. > But it was hard to tell epic stories about somepony who was still *alive*.
  2189. > Starswirl, by contrast, was dead, and maybe that's why he was such a big name.
  2190. > Plus, the Princess wasn't just a great sorcerer -- she was also a great *ruler*!
  2191. > That made it hard to think of her as just a 'mage'.
  2192. > Though you can probably think of a few famous generals who might beat her out on a list of Equestria's greatest leaders, again from ancient history.
  2193. > On your left, Sparkshower seems to have regained her composure, and Growler looks her up and down.
  2194. > "... Do not allow others -- be they colts or mares -- to use prevailing customs to define you, Specialist. Rise above and meet their challenge. You are an honourable mare who deserves to be treated as such. Do you understand?"
  2195. > Sparkshower nods hesitantly, and Growler smiles knowingly at Captain Goldenfoil on her right.
  2196. > "... Well, now. This has been a pleasant conversation. Having rendered my apology and spoken with you a while, I now think I have some idea of how to make the remainder of my amends. You are billeted in Canterlot Palace, are you not?"
  2197. > Artemis licks her lips before replying.
  2198. > "Yes, Major Growler."
  2200. > The noblepony officer nods approvingly.
  2201. > "Capital, capital. May I ask if you have ever found a noblepony indebted to you on some prior occasion?"
  2202. > Sparkshower shakes her head, and Growler indicates Captain Goldenfoil with a wing.
  2203. > "... No? Then, as you are not noble-born, I shall ask the good Captain to explain some matters of etiquette to you, and take my leave. The three of us have prior appointments with Miss Pogranichovna, you see, and I should not wish to miss mine for all the clouds in the sky! Farewell, miss Sparkshower and miss Glamerspear."
  2204. > Sparkshower snaps to attention like it's still bucking 'shoe camp.
  2205. > "Major, ma'am!"
  2206. > You suppose you owe Growler a salute as a Centurion of the Order as well.
  2207. "Tribune."
  2208. > The Major gives a polite curtsy and, followed closely by her senior NCO, exits the pool-room, leaving only Captain Goldenfoil behind.
  2209. > She immediately launches into a hasty brief.
  2210. > "Specialist Sparkshower, Major Lady Growler has authorized me, as her chief of staff, to ensure that you receive a token of her appreciation. This gift will satisfy the debt of honour that Her Ladyship owes you. Such gifts are common among nobleponies when the deficit has been caused primarily by the receipt of a good deed rather than the giving of an offence, as with the present case. I will arrange for the Major's gift to be delivered to your quarters tonight..."
  2212. > The Captain lifts an eyebrow.
  2213. > "... You should know that this object was selected specifically for you, after I reviewed your file with the Major. It is of some considerable value, perhaps even in excess of the debt owed, but it is being given in the hope that you will repay the kindness by favouring the Major in the future. However, if you are discomfited by the magnitude of her Ladyship's beneficence, it would be proper to return the gift to her, via my office, within a reasonable time frame, on the order of a month or two, with your profoundest apologies and thanks. Beyond that point, you may return the gift only if you feel the Major has given offence or if her Ladyship's name brings shame upon your person; otherwise, you would cause offence yourself. These are the rules of correct behaviour. Do you understand what I've just said, Specialist Sparkshower?"
  2214. > Artemis nods, but speaks up.
  2215. > "Yes, but may I ask a question, Captain?"
  2216. > "Certainly."
  2217. > "Why *did* the Major have me arrested as a spy as soon as the briefing was over? I know I wasn't supposed to be in there, but it seemed to be a low-security meeting, with no guards at the doors, and I did have permission to be in the Watchtower."
  2218. > Goldenfoil flexes her wings and flares her nostrils, but it seems to be borne out of frustration rather than anger.
  2219. > "Because the Watchtower *has* been infiltrated, Specialist. We don't know who or how, but the reports of missing documents, suspicious personnel lurking in restricted areas, and unexplained noises & shadows are too numerous to be ignored. Somepony, or someponies, are sneaking in, and doing so with worrying regularly..."
  2220. > Sneering, she shakes her head.
  2221. > "... That's why the Major sent me to contact the General's ADC as soon as the meeting was over. And why you were hauled in as soon as you exited the room; we had guards watching you inside as well. With the Gala coming up, and with the unspecified threats to it, we weren't taking any chances."
  2223. > Sounds like somepony's playing pranks in the Watchtower to you.
  2224. > Maybe one of the all-unicorn 'corn-field' battalions stationed in the Watchtower decided to have some fun messing around with the 1st Air Division's pegasi.
  2225. > There were an awful lot of illusionists in Canterlot's anti-air gunnery brigades, and they were all mischief-making rascals, every last one of them.
  2226. > What's this about a threat to the Gala, though?
  2227. > Before you can think about it, Captain Goldenfoil turns to you.
  2228. > "... Centurion Glamerspear, the Major also authorized me to provide you with a small token of her appreciation as well. I am the executive coach for our MXP Games team, so the job you did on Lieutenant Kilfeather puts you in my good book too, and I insisted upon a reward when we saw you here with miss Sparkshower. However, we were at a loss to determine an appropriate recompense on such short notice. Her Ladyship the Major therefore requests that you consider her able to perform for you some small favour of your asking, at the time of your choosing. I have noted this in her records, and you may come to me directly if believe that your request will not require her personal attention. Is that understood?"
  2229. > Neat, a noblepony's get-out-of-trouble-free card.
  2230. > You'd always wanted one of those.
  2231. > Smiling, you salute the Captain.
  2232. "Yes, Captain. Thank-you."
  2233. > Goldenfoil smiles.
  2234. > "No, thank you both. With 'Icepone' and 'Joker' out of the way, the Valkyries will sweep the skies at the MXP Games. I'll make sure you have tickets to the event -- on top of the gift and the favour, of course..."
  2235. > Returning your salute, the Captain turns to leave, but then pauses and looks back at you and Sparkshower.
  2236. > "... Oh, and miss Sparkshower. Do take care with the Major's gift. It can have a temper of its own. Under no circumstances should you experiment with it inside Her Majesty's palace, is that understood?"
  2237. > "Yes, Captain!"
  2239. > You turn to Sparkshower once the Captain leaves, your comrade's final answer echoing around the tiled room.
  2240. "A temper of its own? And don't use it indoors? What the buck is she sending you, a barrel of gunpowder from the Watchtower's magazines?"
  2241. > Your comrade frowns.
  2242. > "I... I don't know. Unless..."
  2243. > Suddenly, her face brightens up.
  2244. > "... Oh, clear skies and sunshine... I think I *do* know. Let's get back as soon as we can! I want to be there when it arrives!"
  2249. > You are still Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you're pretty confused about what, exactly, Sparkshower's coping mechanisms were.
  2250. > At first, after the big break-up, she was comatose, arriving upstairs without a word, skipping lunch, and staying incredibly quiet even as you insisted on taking her out.
  2251. > Then, she seemed to lose herself in minutiae, counting the tiles in the mosaic ceiling above the Spa Dalecarlia's indoor pool.
  2252. > But, with the promise of some kind of gift from the pegasus noblemare, Major Lady Amberline Growler, commander of the Valkyries, she had swung completely over to the hyperactive side.
  2253. > She had hustled you out of the spa faster than anyone had ever been hustled out of a spa before.
  2254. > And then she'd immediately booked it back to the palace, alighting at every corner only just long enough for you to catch up before she bursted ahead again.
  2255. > By the time you arrived back at the complex of buildings you presently called 'home', you were more worn out than after one of Anonymous' late-night 'jogs'.
  2256. > Is this what Sparkshower could do when she wasn't burdened down with armour?
  2257. > Anyways, after all that double-quick marching to get back to her quarters before Major Growler's mysterious gift arrived, what does she do, your heartbroken pegasus fillyfriend?
  2258. > She declares that she's absolutely famished!
  2259. > No duh, Sparks, that's what happen when you fly around all morning, and then skip lunch, and then race back to the castle at warp speed!
  2260. > Before you even got to rest your plot for ten seconds on the sofa, it was another race to the chow-hall, which was surprisingly busy -- lots of guardsponies looking to get a quick early snack before leaving on libo.
  2261. > It wasn't so busy that you had to push or shove, but it still took a few minutes to find a table, even with a wildmare recon pegasus floating overhead.
  2263. > When you did finally seat yourself, relieving your aching hooves, your quaternion-mate sat down as well with a plate so full you could swear she just grabbed the whole buffet stand.
  2264. > And then she ate it all, too!
  2265. > A filly who can stuff all that down her gullet oughtta... well, never mind.
  2266. > Now was *definitely* not the right time for that kind of playful innuendo.
  2267. > You were following around your comrade in order to provide emotional support, after all.
  2268. > Finally, after the gallop to the palace, and the other gallop to the enlisted mess, and the metaphorical gallop to stuff her face with a meal, and the third actual real gallop out of the mess hall, you're finally, finally, back at your quarters.
  2269. > It's almost four o'clock, too; time for the shift change.
  2270. > Sparkshower blasts through the door so fast you don't even see her work the handle, and as the white-painted elegantly-decorated wooden slab clonks angrily into the rubber stop on the inside wall, you're half-worried she's knocked the thing completely off its hinges.
  2271. > You hustle up to catch her and step inside, finding the pegasus zipping around the common room.
  2272. > "Is it here? Did it come yet?"
  2273. > Before anypony can answer, she darts into her own bedroom, blowing through that second door like a hurricane.
  2274. > Seconds later, an unusually startled-looking Sergeant Ebonshield, dressed for duty, steps out of the washroom.
  2275. > "¿Qué? Is what here, Specialist?"
  2276. > She barely manages to get the last word out before Sparkshower comes screaming out of her room again like she's been lit on fire.
  2277. > "The package! The delivery! I'm expecting something very important from somepony just as important! Did anything come for me, Sergeant?"
  2278. > Ebonshield shakes her head, still confused.
  2279. > "No, nothing has come, and I have been here since just after mid-day."
  2281. > Defeated, Sparkshower finally starts to calm down from her frenzied pace, dropping to her hooves.
  2282. > "Oh, Trowal! I thought it'd certainly be here and we could go out and try it before the sun sets tonight... But I guess testing it may have to wait until tomorrow."
  2283. > You narrow your eyes.
  2284. "*Testing* it? Sparks, you don't even know what it *is*."
  2285. > Instantly, she brightens back up again.
  2286. > "Yes I do! Or, at least, I think I do!"
  2287. "Oh, yeah? What is it, then?"
  2288. > Sitting on her haunches, she taps her forehooves together.
  2289. > "Well, Major Lady Amberline Growler is the leader of the Valkyries, and she's from the Cloudsdale Growlers -- you know who they are, right?"
  2290. > You shake your head.
  2291. "Never heard of 'em. Though, I tend to pay more attention to Canterlot noble families than ones from Cloudsdale."
  2292. > Not that you had anything particularly against pegasus nobleponies, or even pegasi in general, but when it came to your choice in salt-licks, thrifty Cloudsdale colts couldn't compare to free-spending Canterlot elite or even the landed earth pony gentry.
  2293. > Besides, everypony knew Canterlot was the style and fashion capital of Equestria, with Manehattan coming in second.
  2294. > Cloudsdale barely even made the list.
  2295. > Sparkshower points a hoof at you.
  2296. > "You may not have heard the *family* name, Lily, but I bet you'd recognize their property; you served us some last Wednesday, when we got to know Sergeant Ebonshield over some bottles of 'Maestra Cazador'. The Growler family owns the Dragoon brewery in Cloudsdale -- as in Dragoon Pale Ale."
  2297. > You raise your eyebrows.
  2298. "Really? Huh. I wouldn't have figured Major Growler for a brewery heiress."
  2300. > Sparkshower nods.
  2301. > "That's because the Growler family is more famous for their soldiering; every generation of Growlers has served with distinction in the Royal Guard. The Dragoon brewery was founded by Barclay 'Blondie' Growler who was wounded and honourably discharged while serving in the Princess' Dragoons almost two hundred years ago, hence the beer's name."
  2302. > Hmm...
  2303. > That makes you wonder what *you* would name your drink if you retired and founded a brewery -- or a distillery, or maybe even a winery.
  2304. > You could do without the heroic injury, though.
  2305. > Just the heroism would be good enough for you.
  2306. "Okay, okay, so they're a big name. What does that have to do with Lady Amberline's gift to you?"
  2307. > Sergeant Ebonshield perks up a little bit upon hearing the reason for Sparkshower's excitement, but she doesn't interrupt, allowing the pegasus to answer you.
  2308. > "As a result of such a long history of service, the Growler family is also famous for having amassed a considerable collection of arms & armour. And it was a Growler -- Griselda 'Ginny' Growler -- who petitioned Princess Celestia to found the mares-only Valkyries battalion, donating some of the Growler family collection of weapons for use by the top soldiers..."
  2309. > Sitting up straight, she continues, a look of awe in her face.
  2310. > "... All the Valkyries of the elite 1st platoon of 'A' company, Major Amberline Growler included, are equipped with an heirloom ancestral spear and magic helmet."
  2311. "Spear and magic helmet?"
  2312. > "Spear and magic helmet!"
  2313. "*Magic* helmet?"
  2314. > "Yes, a *magic* helmet! And if that's what she's given me, I'll give you a sample! Valkyrie magic helmets are said to be able to control weather with the merest thought, or to ward off the most devastating blows, or even to suppress other spells around them..."
  2316. > Wings spread wide, she gestures with her forelegs.
  2317. > "... And the spears are no less impressive, either, said to be capable of shooting lightning, or of instantly returning to your hoof after being thrown, or are even capable of aiming themselves at targets and never missing..."
  2318. > She claps her forehooves together and inhales deeply, looking up reverently at the ceiling.
  2319. > "... That's what I think Major Growler is giving me, or else why make such a big deal about it like she and Captain Goldenfoil did? And that's why I'm so excited! Joining the Valkyries was a childhood fantasy. This'll be like being an honorary member..."
  2320. > Turning back to you, she quickly gets back down on all fours.
  2321. > "... Lily, do you know how to use a camera? If it's still light out when the gift arrives, I want to go outside to take some photos to send to my family!"
  2322. > You shrug.
  2323. "I mean... Sorta, yeah. Look in the window, make sure you're in it, push the button, and then twist the windy-thing, right?"
  2324. > Your answer seems to dismay her somewhat.
  2325. > "Well, it's more complicated than that, at least with a nice camera like I have. There's focus and aperture and shutter speed and... Oh, but I can set that all up for you ahead of time. Yes, all you'd need to do is just what you said! Let me go get it ready right now."
  2326. > Without waiting for a reply, she zips into her room and shuts the door.
  2327. > "... Nopony come in while I'm preparing! I'll be handling film, so I don't want any stray light!"
  2328. > How long is she gonna be this energetic for?
  2329. > You're not sure if you can keep up.
  2330. > Maybe Honour can tag you out if it keeps going late.
  2331. > Beside you, Ebonshield clears her throat.
  2332. > "Well, this is interesting. I am now curious about this gift, and the circumstances behind it. But it is time for me to go and relieve the Corporal Bound; I will have to find out tomorrow, or perhaps later tonight, if anyone is still awake when my duties are finished."
  2334. > Something about Valkyries and their magic hats and super spears makes you think back to the fantastic performance that the batpony 'Balladeer of Ghosts', Ignacio Blazon, gave you with his animated sand-creatures.
  2335. > How he did it was still a frustrating mystery to you, but maybe the Sergeant can give you a clue with that...
  2336. "Sarge, can I ask you a question before you go?"
  2337. > She stops and politely turns to face you, but -- thankfully -- doesn't get all up in your snout.
  2338. > "Of course. What is it?"
  2339. > You purse your eyebrows pleadingly.
  2340. "Do you know anything about the kind of magic that Ignacio used? He asked me to try to figure it out, but I'm kinda stumped."
  2341. > Ebonshield smirks.
  2342. > "Oh, you are? Interesting. I think it will amuse him to hear that you, a unicorn, could not comprehend his magic."
  2343. > You frown.
  2344. "Why's that? He's, like, twice my age; there's plenty of older unicorn mages trotting around Canterlot with tricks I'd have trouble figuring out on my own without some more experience under my yoke, or at least some clues."
  2345. > The batpony nods.
  2346. > "Yes, of course. But you must understand, although the Children of the Stars have been taught that our form is the most superior out of all the kinds of pony, we have also been taught to beware the unicorn magic most powerful. It is said that even the spells of our Eclipse can compete with the speed and the power of the unicorns only through the preparation most thorough."
  2347. > What?
  2348. "I don't get it. Batponies think they're the best pony, except they're not?"
  2349. > She shakes her head.
  2350. > "No, no, we do think ourselves best, but it is because of our *combination* of traits..."
  2351. > Extending a wing, she elaborates.
  2352. > "... We are not as swift as the pegasi, but we are agile, and we do not tire as easily -- though we cannot endure as long as the earth ponies, though against them we have the advantage of flight..."
  2354. > Ebonshield folds up her wings and looks up at your horn.
  2355. >" ... Against the unicorns, we are taught to pit our guile and cunning, to confuse and terrify and scare them away. But if one of the Children is caught by a unicorn out in the open, and this is not part of some greater plan of the Child, and the unicorn does not run from fear, then, even if that Child is of the Eclipse, the unicorn will almost certainly triumph. The rapidity of the magic, and the power brutish of it, we cannot match head-on."
  2356. > You nod.
  2357. "Okay, I guess that makes sense. Your average unicorn has been practising telekinesis for about as long as they've been able to walk, after all."
  2358. > She shrugs.
  2359. > "Yes, exactly... But as for explaining the magic of Ignacio to you, this I cannot do. Nopony understands the magic of the Eclipse besides the Eclipse themselves. What Ignacio said to you about his kind being held apart from the rest of the Children is true; they interact very little with the other Phases. I have never heard of them having ever shared this knowledge outside of their own circle."
  2360. > Damn.
  2361. > Looks like Ignacio was just yanking your reins when he asked you to try to figure it out.
  2362. > The Sergeant's right; that old coot'll probably get a real kick out of hearing you failed.
  2363. > Well, damn it, you weren't giving up yet!
  2364. > There were still books in the library you hadn't consulted yet, and still pages in the 'De Magia Unicornis' you hadn't studied!
  2365. > You would show that creepy old batpony that unicorn magic really was the best in Equestria!
  2366. > Perhaps seeing the frown on your face, Ebonshield speaks up.
  2367. > "... Specialist Glamerspear, I must say also that I do not think Ignacio set you this challenge in order to mock you..."
  2369. > Lifting her eyebrows, she grins and spreads her bat-wings.
  2370. > "... Like the rest of the Children, I am certain that he has heard many stories about the power fantastic of the unicorns. You are probably the first one he has ever met in person, and I think he simply wishes to know if the stories are true. Your curiosity inspired his own; if the challenge is impossible, do not take it as an insult."
  2371. > Hmm...
  2372. > Maybe.
  2373. > You nod.
  2374. > Ignacio *did* heal Ebonshield, and for a cranky old nag, he *had* been somewhat pleasant, if cryptic.
  2375. > Even the Sergeant had expressed surprise at his supposed 'good' manners when you'd all been down there.
  2376. > Squinting, you look your local batpony up and down.
  2377. "Say, what's the deal with you and Ignacio, anyways? He called you something strange in your language when he healed your wound."
  2378. > Ebonshield sighs.
  2379. > "He called me his 'little angel of death', yes..."
  2380. > Inhaling deeply, she glances anxiously at the clock.
  2381. > "... It is complicated, our relationship; too complicated to explain at this moment. Let me say only that between us there is a bond of admiration mutual..."
  2382. > Turning back to you, she pleads.
  2383. > "... Ask me this question again, when there is more time."
  2384. > What a weird answer.
  2385. > Well, whatever, it's two minutes to four, and now really wasn't the right time for more chit-chat anyways.
  2386. > You nod.
  2387. "Sure, Sarge. Talk to you later."
  2388. > "If you are not awake when I my shift is ended, then I bid you good-night, Specialist."
  2389. > Receiving a casual salute from you in response, the batpony Ebonshield heads out the door.
  2390. > With Sparkshower still fussing over her camera in her room, you profit from the moment of quiet to finally, finally, lay your back on the sofa.
  2391. > Ahhh...
  2392. > Damn mare has had you running around for almost two hours straight.
  2393. > Damn heartbroken mare.
  2394. > With a sigh, you look over at the enormous 'De Magia Unicornis' tome on the coffee table, and the skimpy pair of 'Cosmoponitan' magazines next to it.
  2396. > Mailedhoof hadn't sent you a note yet, which probably meant he didn't need -- or maybe 'want' -- you around tonight.
  2397. > Tomorrow, probably.
  2398. > He couldn't go a week without having a little of the Glam, you were certain.
  2399. > You could take it easy for tonight.
  2400. > Watch Sparkshower wave around her fancy new whatevermajig, snap some photos of it for her folks, maybe head to the commissary to pick up a 6-pack of 'Dragoon' Pale Ale in tribute to Her Ladyship, and then just relax on the sofa.
  2401. > Split the bill and share the booze with Honour & Artemis.
  2402. > As you dream of a simple evening, Corporal Bound steps into the common room.
  2403. > Pulling off her helmet, she gives you a nod.
  2404. > "How's she doing?"
  2405. > You jerk a forehoof in the direction of Sparkshower's door, speaking quietly.
  2406. "She's all excited. We ran into the commander of the Valkyries, of all ponies, at the spa. Apparently, us wrecking Kilfeather & company two weeks ago did them a big favour for the MXP Games, so she promised me a favour and Sparkshower a gift, which Sparks thinks is gonna be some ancient magic stick or hat from the Valkyries' collection, on account of her being warned not to use it indoors."
  2407. > Honour stops and screws up her snoot.
  2408. > "The buck? Just for winning the pas-de-sabots we didn't even really want to fight? And where's my favour or gift, then?"
  2409. > You shrug.
  2410. "Sorry, Corporal. Her Ladyship said I wasn't due to get anything more than a thank-you card, originally. Seeing me there changed things. But I guess she also had something to make up to Sparkshower this morning, too -- something about her being arrested for espionage?"
  2411. > Honour's snoot goes from 'scrunched' to 'mega-ultra-scrunched' in no time flat.
  2412. > "What? Arrested? She didn't say anything about that when she came back from delivering the calling-card."
  2414. > You shake your head and snort.
  2415. "Apparently they're paranoid about infiltration over there at the Watchtower. Misplacing papers and chasing shadows and thinking it's super-secret spies. It sounds like just a bunch of bored-but-creative illusionists to me, but it was enough for them to accuse Sparks of trying to impersonate a Valkyrie."
  2416. > The Corporal looks over at Sparkshower's door.
  2417. > "Whatever. I just hope it doesn't screw things up for us tomorrow. Major-General Hoofstrong sent her message -- she's invited the Royal Engineer to her office in the morning..."
  2418. > Honour looks down at you.
  2419. > "... We're on deck, you and me. Me, because I'm the senior member of the Quaternion, and you, because you're a decorated Centurion; we'll leave the batpony and the Valkyrie impersonator back here, got it?"
  2420. > You nod.
  2421. "Sure, Corporal. Makes sense to me..."
  2422. > Picking up your head, you peek over the back of the sofa at Sparkshower's door.
  2423. "... I'm still worried about Sparkshower, though. She hasn't... y'know... *cried* or anything. Wasn't she with this colt since, like, high school? She hasn't said one word about the breakup since she came upstairs. Heck, I barely got a little laugh out of her before Major Growler came and swept her off her hooves. You don't think it's unhealthy for her to hold it in?"
  2424. > Honour shakes her head and blows air out her cheeks.
  2425. > "Maybe, but don't bring it up unless she does. Let her handle it her way."
  2426. > Just then, there's a knock at the door.
  2427. > Before either you or Honour can answer it, Sparkshower whips her bedroom door open and launches herself towards the hallway passage, nearly knocking the sofa over in her wake.
  2428. > "Yes! Coming! I'm here!"
  2429. > The door slams open, shuddering against the rubber stopper, revealing a well-dressed unicorn deliverycolt levitating a small clipboard in front of him and a long box behind him.
  2430. > "Good afternoon, I have a delivery for Specialist Sp-"
  2432. > "Yesthat'smewheredoIsignisithereokaydonethereyougobringitrightinplease."
  2433. > Having yanked the clipboard out of the colt's telekinetic aura, she signs her name in a flash and thrusts the papers back towards his chest, eyes on her prize.
  2434. > Momentarily dazed by her speed, the unicorn takes a second to find his bearings, then steps inside and lays the package on the ground.
  2435. > From here, you can see that it's actually not just some shipping crate, but a glossy case with an elegant wood grain.
  2436. > "Have a good even-"
  2437. > "Yesthankyougoodevening."
  2438. > Once again, Sparkshower slams the door, this time narrowly avoiding the hapless deliverycolt's face.
  2439. > As she scrambles over towards the delivery, you place your forehooves down at your sides and push your back off the couch.
  2440. "Come on, Sparks, this isn't the barracks, don't go slamming Her Majesty's doors like that."
  2441. > Sparkshower pays no attention to you, and immediately proceeds to set her hooves opening the case's five latches -- only to be immediately stopped by Corporal Bound, who places a hoof down on top of hers, to the pegasus' shock and indignation.
  2442. > "Negatory on opening this up in here, Sparkshower. Whatever this is, you were told to play with it *outside*..."
  2443. > Before Artemis can protest, Honour looks over at you and continues.
  2444. > "... Come on, Glamerspear. Pick this thing up and let's take it to the drill field. At this hour, on a Friday, it'll be empty."
  2445. > That gets Sparkshower happy again.
  2446. > "I'll get my camera! Oh, this is going to be amazing! I can't wait to see what it is!"
  2448. > A little voice in your head tells you this won't be the quiet, relaxing evening you hoped for.
  2449. > Another little voice pipes up and says that thinking those kinds of thoughts was a sure sign you're getting older and wiser and, probably, slower.
  2450. > With Sparkshower loading her camera into a saddle-back and Honour looking wary and tired, but interested, you pick up the wooden case in your teal aura.
  2451. > And you tell both little voices to shut the buck up.
  2453. Suggested watching: (Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd - excerpt from "What's Opera, Doc?")
  2458. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you are so very, very excited right now!
  2459. > Yes, okay, Corporal Bound had made you wait while she wrote a note saying where the three of you would be, in case an emergency arose and the Royal Engineer needed any one of you.
  2460. > Or all of you.
  2461. > And then there was the moment, just as you'd all started to step out the door, when she pointed out that if you were going to be 'foaling around' with a 'probable weapon', then you and Glamerspear had better put on your combat armour.
  2462. > But golly, had you ever donned your barding quickly.
  2463. > Quicker even than Lily had put hers on, and she didn't even have as many pieces!
  2464. > Or need to rely solely on her hooves & teeth to suit up!
  2465. > Still, you could hardly accuse her of being laggardly.
  2466. > She seemed just as interested -- if, perhaps, not as excited -- as you were to learn what was in the very long box from Her Ladyship, Major Amberline Growler.
  2467. > You look up at the package, floating beside you in Glamerspear's teal telekinetic grasp as the three of you walk in the late afternoon sun to the palace barracks' firing grounds and drill field.
  2468. > Surely the gift couldn't be a Valkyrie helmet; the case was far too large for that.
  2469. > And yet it seemed too *short* to be a spear; shorter than your current longspear, at least, which was so big that it unscrewed into four pieces just to be able to fit on your back.
  2470. > Your current weapon, in fact, was twice as long as one of Honour's javelins or Lily's conjured ammunition.
  2471. > But the mysterious gift was scarcely longer than those short weapons -- far too small a weapon to wield in a pegasus' hooves.
  2472. > Could it perhaps be an accessory?
  2473. > An antique caparison blessed with some magical property?
  2474. > Or even something as simple as an ensorcelled banner to be affixed to your own spear?
  2475. > A Growler family version of the ancient Pegasus Aureaflamma war-banner?
  2477. > Perhaps it was an enchanted piece of armour?
  2478. > A well-sized banded criniere would fit in the case, if taken apart.
  2479. > "Sparks, you can stop staring up at the box, we're here."
  2480. > Oh, sunshine and rainbows, so you were!
  2481. > It looks like Corporal Bound was right, the place really was empty.
  2482. > The wide open square field, with the thirty-hoof-tall safety berms around three sides, was completely devoid of anypony else.
  2483. > Not even a sentry or range officer!
  2484. > It's not like there were any weapons about, though.
  2485. > Just the straw targets in the walled-in corner, shaped like bulls-eyes or pressed into bales for general use.
  2486. > "Why don't you set the case down there on the commander's podium, Glamerspear?"
  2487. > Honour points a forehoof at the small raised wooden platform which allows even an earth pony or unicorn to have a good clear view of the field.
  2488. > "Yeah, sure thing."
  2489. > Oooooh, it's aaaaalmost time to ooooopen iiiiit!
  2490. > You're as happy as an early duck in an advanced spring!
  2491. > Stepping up on the platform next to where you've landed, Corporal Bound fixes you in her gaze.
  2492. > "Okay, Sparkshower, crack it open and let's take a look -- but hooves off the merchandise until we figure out what it is."
  2493. > You barely hear her admonishment in the back of your head as you flip up one latch, then another, then the other three, and then slowly open the hinged case.
  2494. "Ooooohhhhhhh!"
  2495. > You're transfixed by the sight.
  2496. > It was like nothing you could have expected!
  2497. > It was like nothing you've ever seen!
  2498. > It was... what *was* it?
  2499. > "What the heck is this? It looks like some kind of antidequusian torture device."
  2500. > You doubted it was *that* old, but Glamerspear did have a point about recognizability.
  2501. > Before you, sitting in the folds of the plush dark burgundy satin that lined the box, and held in place by several boiled-leather hard straps, was a royal-blue thing that could perhaps be described as 'polearm-esque'.
  2503. > The front -- if it was actually the front -- of the supposed weapon was shaped like a jousting lance, with a narrow conical shape that tapered to a point, painted with a spiral blue-and-white pattern.
  2504. > But the 'rear' side of the cone, rather than of widening into an ordinary-sized hoofguard, instead flared out into an asymmetric shape.
  2505. > It was big and broad on one side, gently curving outwards and back, but on the other side the hoofguard came to a thin bar, curving back only slightly.
  2506. > The thin side was almost like some kind of hook.
  2507. > Maybe for driving it into the ground?
  2508. > Was this a magic-shooting lance, intended to be emplaced and fired?
  2509. > Beside you, Honour offers up her own opinion, her snoot scrunched up in confusion.
  2510. > "I've never seen anything like this. What's that thing on the left?"
  2511. > Behind the main guard, the pole was straight and thin, as would be expected of a jousting lance, but this regularity lasted for scarcely a single hoof-length before another confusing appendage stuck out.
  2512. > This time, it was a somewhat long leather strap with, of all things, an arched brass *stirrup* at the end.
  2513. > Not that you were going to say *that* word out loud!
  2514. > You'd been embarrassed enough when you'd half-drunkenly blurted out one detail of your actual private life.
  2515. > You weren't about to let out a fictional detail, now of all times.
  2516. > Anyways, the strap with the... 'hoof-rest', if it was a hoof-rest... extended a few hooves just to the left side of the box, where it was joined by yet *another* protrusion, this time in the form of some kind of 'rear crossguard' -- a short perpendicular bar placed at the butt of the pole, scarcely two hooves wide on either side.
  2517. > All in all, the lance-ish looking weapon was about four hooves of conical lance, and maybe two hooves of grip.
  2518. > Not only was it *short*, but it was extremely lopsided, too.
  2519. > You think you've learned about all you can from just staring at Her Ladyship's gift.
  2521. > Clearing your throat, you look over at Honour.
  2522. "Well, uh, Corporal, may I draw arms?"
  2523. > With a wary look on her face, she nods, and you lie down to set about unhooking the stiff leather straps holding the 'lance' firmly in the case.
  2524. > As you undo the first one, you notice there's a tiny bronze plaque, surrounded by satin, in the middle of the inside of the lid.
  2525. > Leaning in close, you can just make out the shallowly-engraved words...
  2526. > 'Bradamante Growler'
  2527. > That'll be the original owner, surely.
  2528. > It must've been made specifically for her, whoever she was -- and whatever *this* was.
  2529. > There's another couple of lines beneath it, in smaller text.
  2530. > 'A. Theolonicus'
  2531. > Instantly, you recoil back from the case in shock, falling onto your back, your mouth hanging agape.
  2532. "Holy hurricanes!!"
  2533. > Honour and Lily both stare down at you like you've lost your mind.
  2534. > You point a hoof at the plaque.
  2535. "... It's a Theolonicus!"
  2536. > The Corporal lifts her eyebrows knowingly and turns to squint at the plaque.
  2537. > Glamerspear, however, screws up her snout like you've just spoken in another language.
  2538. > "It's a *what*?"
  2539. > Getting back to your hooves, you explain.
  2540. "It's a Theolonicus! You know, as in made by Anthony Theolonicus? The famous unicorn armourer?"
  2541. > She shakes her head, lip curling up.
  2542. > "Who?"
  2543. > Honour lifts her head up from the case.
  2544. > "I thought you liked paying attention to the luxury market, Glamerspear. Theolonicus lived around three hundred years ago, and he's said to have been one of the finest armourers Equestria's ever seen. All of his works have a reputation for being just flat-out better than anything else around. Today, his most famous works can sell for literal boatloads of bits at auction."
  2545. > Glamerspear snorts.
  2546. > "I pay attention to luxury *fashion*, Corporal, not historical oddities and curiosities. And I *don't* mix business with pleasure..."
  2548. > Placing a hoof on her chest, she curls her shoulders inwards playfully.
  2549. > "... If my salt-lick wants to show off his latest painting or statue or whatever, I'll fawn over it, but I don't pretend like I know what the buck it's about or who the buck made it."
  2550. > Corporal Bound sighs and rolls her eyes, turning back to the weapon.
  2551. > You look down at the last line on the plaque.
  2552. > '712'
  2553. > Hurricanes!
  2554. > This was a two-hundred-and-ninety-year-old weapon!
  2555. > You try to suppress your exuberance as you explain things for your unicorn comrade's benefit.
  2556. "The plaque inside the case says Anthony Theolonicus made this two hundred and ninety years ago for a 'Bradamante Growler'..."
  2557. > Sitting up, you cross your forelegs and tap one forehoof on your chin.
  2558. "... Usually, Theolonicus weapons are named for their original owner, so I guess that makes this the 'Bradamante'. But I've never heard anything about that particular Growler; I guess they weren't very famous."
  2559. > Honour nods.
  2560. > "That would probably explain why Lady Growler was willing to part with it as a thank-you gift."
  2561. > You go back to undoing the leather straps -- more carefully and reverently, this time.
  2562. "I suppose so. But even the less-famous ones are still very valuable; it's a piece of Equestrian cultural history!"
  2563. > Bobbing your head left and right, you undo the final strap.
  2564. "... Captain Goldenfoil, her Aide-de-Camp, did mention that if I thought it was too great a present, then I was welcome to return it in a few weeks."
  2565. > You hear Corporal Bound mutter under her breath.
  2566. > "Where's my buckin' too-great-a-present..."
  2567. > Ignoring your superior's indignation, you flap your wings to hover in mid-air and gently try to pick up the strange weapon.
  2568. > It's heavier than your greatspear, which was heavy enough as it was, and hoisting the strange Theolonicus weapon into the air is made doubly awkward by the fact that it's so front-heavy -- the thing is *all lance* and no shaft.
  2570. > There's almost *nothing* to tuck under your torso and hind legs!
  2571. > And you can't just grab it higher up the point -- the strange lopsided hoofguard gets in the way of your... well, your everything.
  2572. > Glamerspear looks up at you.
  2573. > "Genius armourer, huh? He must've been having an off day when he made this one..."
  2574. > She smirks as you struggle to get a grip on the thing.
  2575. > "... Or maybe this 'Bradamante' was, like, missing a couple of hooves or something?"
  2576. > As you wrestle with the weapon, it starts to seem like your unicorn comrade might be right.
  2577. > Honour narrows her eyes and stares at the strange device.
  2578. > "How about you try putting your forehooves behind the lance-guard, and then put your hind hooves on that crossbar thing just behind it?"
  2579. > You frown as you consider her idea.
  2580. "If I do, though, my hooves'll all be pressed together. I won't have hardly any grip, and I won't be able to tuck it up against my body!"
  2581. > Regardless, you give it a try.
  2582. > It's awkward, but it does seem to be manageable.
  2583. > However, the weapon is utterly useless like this, unless it spits magical fire -- and even then, it's hardly ideal, because your grip is so loose that you're worried about dropping the antique.
  2584. > Also, you definitely don't have a firm enough grip to aim it very well.
  2585. > You're left just sort of hovering in the air with your back up vertical, struggling to support the lance's weight in your forehooves alone.
  2586. > Honour nods and points at your hind hooves.
  2587. > "What happens if you try to pull your hindlegs back?"
  2588. > Pull your legs back?
  2589. > There's nowhere to pull your legs back *to*.
  2590. "Okay, Corporal, but I don't want to damage what could be one of Lady Growler's priceless heirl-"
  2591. > *ka-CHONK*!
  2592. "-ooms... Oh."
  2593. > As soon as you applied firm pressure with your hind hooves while still holding the guard with your forehooves, the rest of the shaft -- which was apparently tucked up inside the lance-point -- came dropping out into place with an angry metallic crash.
  2595. > You now hold a lance of proper point-to-shaft proportions, with a haft long enough to tuck under you and a reasonably-sized 'business end'.
  2596. > It's still shorter than your great spear, however.
  2597. > *And* it's still bizarrely accessorized.
  2598. > Tucking it up underneath your body as you would any other polearm, you realize that the crossguard at the butt end of the shaft is now perfectly positioned as a rest for your hind-hooves.
  2599. > And the strangely-shaped front guard seems to be encouraging you to place *both* of your forehooves on the grip, with the wide flared part serving as a kind of built-in jousting shield on your weapon side, and the narrow spike-like protrusion acting as a bar to allow you to rest some of the weapon's weight on your crossed foreleg.
  2600. > After another moment or two of fiddling, you settle into a reasonably comfortable pose with the weapon.
  2601. > It still looks bizarre, and the need to use *all four* of your hooves to hold it is still very unusual -- and very limiting, too, as you don't think you could swing it around at all, not like your current great-spear.
  2602. > You're basically stuck in place like this; only your head and wings can move.
  2603. > But... with a little practice, you could see using the 'Bradamante' lance in a charge, at least.
  2604. > Not very versatile, and you imagine it would also *stick* in whatever you lanced, but still a weapon.
  2605. "Hmmm... I guess this is it, then. It doesn't seem very useful. Maybe it was a ceremonial weapon, for tournament jousts?"
  2606. > Glamerspear just shrugs, but Honour shakes her head.
  2607. > "Maybe, but that doesn't really make sense. I don't think anypony was running serious tilts even four hundred years ago, never mind only three. By the 700s, they would've just been for show, as they are now. Strange to order a custom weapon from Theolonicus merely for play-jousting. And why bother making it collapsible? That's something you'd want more on a weapon to carry into battle..."
  2609. > You don't have answers to those questions, but then Honour nods at the stirrup.
  2610. > "... And what's that thing, down there? A sling attachment, for carrying it casually? Is there a shoulder-strap still in the case?"
  2611. > She peeks into the box, but you know she won't find anything in there.
  2612. > That stirrup-on-a-strap could be only for one purpose -- holding one of your hind hooves.
  2613. > The only question was, why?
  2614. > What could the stirrup do that the crossguard hoofrest couldn't?
  2615. > You look down at the rear of the lance.
  2616. > Just slightly ahead of the rear crossguard, the stirrup was hanging neatly against the shaft.
  2617. > Funny enough, the strap holding it in place was actually held up against the shaft by a series of small brass hoops only slightly larger than the strap itself.
  2618. > And rather than being fixed to a stud, the cord appeared to actually go up *into* the body of the weapon through a small hole.
  2619. > What in Celestia's name could it all be for?
  2620. > You turn around in the air and nod at Glamerspear.
  2621. "Lily, can you tell if this weapon is *magical* at all?"
  2622. > Scrunching up her snout a bit, she shrugs.
  2623. > "I dunno. I don't *feel* anything, but, like, lots of magical stuff doesn't really radiate magic unless it's being actively used, ya know? It takes a certain skill to detect those kinds of dormant energies -- and I haven't got it. Sorry..."
  2624. > She lifts an eyebrow.
  2625. > "... Did this Theolonicus colt even make non-magical stuff? So wouldn't this one have to be enchanted, too, if it's not a knock-off?"
  2626. > There *were* plenty of Theolonicus imitations and fakes, but it seemed unlikely that the Growler family would have kept something non-genuine in their famed collection.
  2627. > You nod, feeling uncertain of just what you were supposed to *do* with this gift.
  2628. "Yes, all of Theolonicus' weapons are supposedly magical, but often the magic was just to keep the blade very sharp, or to make the weapon lighter than usual..."
  2630. > Feeling the lance's weight drag you down a bit, you adjust your grip and flap yourself a bit higher off the ground.
  2631. "... I think we can rule out that last one; it's *heavy*. But this, uh, 'sling attachment' seems just big enough to rest a hoof in. Let me see what happens if I take one of my hind hooves off of the crossbar and place it i-"
  2637. > You are still Specialist Artemis Sparkshower... you think.
  2638. > Whoever you are, you are now lying sideways on what you hazily presume is the drill yard's well-worn turf.
  2639. > Everything is a blur, except for the memory of a deafening noise, and a sudden jerk of movement, and then seeing sky-ground-sky-ground-sky-ground-sky-*GROUND*.
  2640. > The latter being accompanied by a spray of earth and another forceful blow.
  2641. > *CLONK-CLONGGGGGgg*
  2642. > Somewhere off in the distance, it sounds like a metal flagpole just toppled over.
  2645. > There are familiar voices off in another direction, but all you can think about is when you're going to take your next breath.
  2646. > Something earthy and grassy seems to be impeding your ability to breathe.
  2647. > Involuntarily, you convulse in a cough, and a mouthful of dirt and grass comes out.
  2648. > Oh, that'll be wh-
  2649. > Before you can think another thought, your lungs, aching for air, start you furiously retching and choking.
  2650. "*COUGH* *HURH* *KUH* *KUHUHUHHHR* huuuuuu-haaaaa huuuuu-haaaaa huuu-haaa"
  2651. > Regaining your breath, you scrape together enough concentration to bring a hoof up to your muzzle to clear away some of the muck that's encasing your face.
  2652. > "Sparkshower! Sparkshower! Talk to me!"
  2653. > As the haze lifts from your eyes and you spit out the last bits of earth from your mouth, you manage to turn your head slightly to see Corporal Bound standing over you, a worried look on her face.
  2654. "Uhnn... Hello, Corporal."
  2655. > Before answering you, Honour hollers back over her shoulder in the direction where Lily was still calling for help.
  2656. > "She's conscious! Glamerspear, get over here!"
  2657. > The Corporal looks down at you.
  2658. > "... Are you hurt? Can you see? I can't believe your helmet's still in one piece after that landing."
  2660. > Scrunching up your snout, you shut your eyes and brush a hoof around again to sweep more dirt away.
  2661. > There's the sound of galloping hooves nearby.
  2662. "I... I think I'm okay. What happened?"
  2663. > Glamerspear's face appears in your line of sight.
  2664. > "What happened? What happened was you took off like a buckin' firecracker! And I guess you weren't holding on too tight either, 'cause about a half-second later you let go and slammed into the ground!"
  2665. > You flex your legs and roll over -- slowly -- onto your front.
  2666. > "Take it easy there, Sparkshower. That thing launched you halfway across the drill field. You might've broken something."
  2667. "I *think* I'm okay. Nothing really hurts."
  2668. > Honour doesn't appear convinced by your statement, but you struggle to your hooves anyways, flexing your wings as you go.
  2669. > Glamerspear wears a big smile when she sees you stand up, apparently unharmed.
  2670. > "Sweet Celestia of Equestria, Sparks! If you'd shot off into the sky instead of hugging -- and then slamming into -- the ground, all of Canterlot would've thought the Gala was starting a week early. What'd you do, put all your weight in that hoof-sling? You've gotta take it easy your first time, filly."
  2671. > Now that you're upright and no longer eating dirt, you *do* start to recall some of the details.
  2672. > And, yes, you *do* remember being perhaps a bit heavy on that one hoof.
  2673. "I guess I might've stepped in it too hard, but... who knows if it even *has* multiple speeds, like the Royal Engineer's automobile? Maybe it only has 'go'?"
  2674. > Lily grins and laughs.
  2675. > "Well, if you actually manage to hold onto it next time you make it 'go', then we're gonna have to come up with a new MOS code for you..."
  2676. > Rearing up on her hind hooves, she spreads her forehooves wide.
  2677. > "... So long, Specialist Sparks, Armoured Scout -- Hello, Specialist Sparks-*ter*, Rocket Knight!"
  2679. > Honour steps up and looks you in the eyes.
  2680. > "That was a pretty big hit you took just now. Don't push yourself too hard; we can test your new toy some other time."
  2681. > Absolutely not!
  2682. > You were determined to figure out the 'Bradamante Lance' this evening.
  2683. "I'm okay, Corporal. I want to try it again... Where did it land, actually?"
  2684. > Glam jerks a forehoof in the direction where you'd heard the 'flagpole' fall over.
  2685. > Clearly, that was the lance itself, crashing back to the ground.
  2686. > "As soon as you let go, it tipped upwards and flew in the air for a little while longer before falling just at the edge of the berm. I can go and grab it, if you want."
  2687. > You nod.
  2688. "Sure, I'd appreciate that, Lily."
  2689. > As she trots off, she shouts back at you over her shoulder.
  2690. > "And this next time, I'll have the camera ready, too!"
  2691. > You look over at a frowning Corporal Bound.
  2692. "Am I cleared hot?"
  2693. > With a grumble, she nods.
  2694. > "Yeah, okay, you can try it again. But this time, climb to a higher elevation first, so you have enough time to recover under your own wingpower if you have to let go. Angle the lance upwards a little before triggering it, too, so you're not rocketing straight into the ground. And lower your visor this time, if you don't want another face-full of dirt..."
  2695. > She turns her head and looks around the drill grounds.
  2696. > "... Keep the first flight short; release the hoofrest as soon as you're comfortable doing so. Try to stay within the bounds of the practice area if you can, though I guess it'll be pretty difficult if that thing can sustain its speed for any length of time. Stick to the *barracks* boundaries at the very least -- we don't want to be raining Royal Guards *or* pointy heirloom Theolonicus weapons down over the civilian areas of the palace or city."
  2697. > You salute her respectfully.
  2698. "Yes, Corporal!"
  2700. > Honour rolls her eyes.
  2701. > "And knock that off. I want you paying attention and being careful, not sticking to protocol for protocol's sake. Launch that 'Bradamante Growler' lance -- with or without you attached -- at anypony who isn't wearing heavy armour, and I doubt they'll be getting back up again..."
  2702. > She gives you a final stern look as Glamerspear comes trotting back over, with both your camera and the lance in her telekinetic grasp.
  2703. > "... All I'm asking is that you treat that thing with the respect that a *very* dangerous and lethal weapon deserves."
  2704. > You nod.
  2705. "I will. Captain Goldenfoil did say that it had a 'temper'... I can't imagine what would've happened if I'd tried to use it indoors."
  2706. > "Canterlot Palace would've had a buncha new hallways drilled into it, that's what!"
  2707. > Glamerspear smirks as she lowers the lance in front of you.
  2708. > "... And I don't think Their Majesties would've been too pleased about you turning their palace into a block of Einsiedler cheese, either, ha!"
  2709. > You look at your Little Ludwig camera.
  2710. "Let me get things set up for the photograph first?"
  2711. > "Sure thing. You gonna pose before taking off, too?"
  2712. > Sitting on your haunches, you shake your head as she lowers the camera into your forehooves.
  2713. "No, let's do the portraits another day. My armour's all muddy from the failed test-firing, now. I'll set the camera for you to take a few 'action' photos."
  2714. > Should've brought one of your telephoto lenses in addition to the portrait 35mm, but it'll do if you can stay within the boundaries of the drill field.
  2715. > It's late afternoon, but there's still quite a lot of sun, so you set the focus to infinity, aperture to f/4, and shutter speed 1/500th of a second.
  2716. > That should be fast enough to capture a good snapshot of the lance -- and you -- in motion.
  2718. > You hoof the camera back to her.
  2719. "... Okay, here. Hold off if a cloud casts me in shadow, if I'm too small in the viewfinder, or when I'm closer than twenty hooves -- the photo will be either too dark or too blurry. Otherwise, it should be fine. There's a full roll of twenty-four shots in there, go ahead and use them all if you can."
  2720. > Glamerspear nods and telekinetically lifts the camera viewfinder up to her muzzle.
  2721. > "Sure thing, Sparks! I'll getcha, don't worry!"
  2722. > As you pick up the lance, Honour taps Glamerspear on the shoulder with a forehoof.
  2723. > "Come on, paparazzo, let's get behind the commander's podium before this rocket blasts off again."
  2724. > You lower your visor and take to the air while your comrades seek cover below.
  2725. > It's a bit of a struggle -- the 'Bradamante Lance' really *was* heavy.
  2726. > And this from somepony who flies around in thick plate armour nearly all the time!
  2727. > Hmmm... it'd be a lot easier to climb to a safe altitude if you used the lance *itself* to propel you upwards...
  2728. > Something to try later, lest you earn Corporal Bound's ire.
  2729. > Eventually, you reach what you consider to be a safe height, and Honour & Lily reach the relative safety of the sturdily-constructed wooden platform.
  2730. > Angling the weapon generously well above the horizon, you lift your right hind hoof off of the crossbar hoofrest and place it just above the activation stirrup.
  2731. > Here goes attempt number two -- may Bradamante Growler guide you in using her weapon!
  2732. > You gently flex your right hind leg back.
  2733. > There's an audible *CLICK* from inside the pole, and then-
  2736. Recommended video: (S-400 'Triumf' [NATO reporting name: SA-21 'Growler'] anti-aircraft missile launch)
  2738. > Holy Coriolis, Mother of Hurricanes!
  2739. > The deafening noise, the tremendous power, and the incredible rush of wind!
  2741. > Your wings are pressed tightly against your flanks from the force, and it's a real struggle just to keep your hooves in place.
  2742. > The hind hoof-rest 'cross-guard' now makes perfect sense not just as a way of expanding the weapon, but an essential requirement for riding while the 'Bradamante Lance' is thrusting forward.
  2743. > And the strange cross-foreguard is clearly not intended to help in holding the weapon, but again a necessary aid for simply holding *on*.
  2744. > You look down, and realize you've not just completely cleared the drilling ground, but are almost at the edge of the barracks complex itself.
  2745. > Bracing for the sudden deceleration, you lift your hoof out of the stirrup.
  2746. > *TSSSSSSsssssssss*
  2747. > An angry hiss accompanies the abrupt slowdown, and the front-heavy lance immediately tips downwards -- with you attached to it.
  2748. > You spread your wings to arrest the descent, then stop to hover in place.
  2749. > Incredible!
  2750. > Flying from the drill grounds to here would take you almost a full minute even *without* your heavy armour on.
  2751. > This thing flew you here, fully suited up, in a matter of a few seconds!
  2752. > How quickly could it take you all the way to the other side of the Canterlot Palace Barracks?
  2753. > Only one way to find out...
  2754. > Aiming yourself above the horizon at the opposite side of the barracks grounds, you move your right hindhoof just above the stirrup again.
  2755. > You'll really have to be quick on the release this next time, because while on your present side of the complex there's just another one of the palace's innumerable gardens -- Her Majesty's Tulip and Daffodil Nursery -- the other side of the barracks abuts the Palace itself.
  2756. > And you definitely don't want to be making a hole in Their Majesties' official residence.
  2758. > Tilting the lance up even higher than before, so that if you *do* release late, at least you'll clear the first few low buildings, you brace yourself and apply hoof to stirrup once more.
  2761. Suggested background music: (Yoko Kanno - 'Fly up in the air' [excerpt], from 'Macross Plus' [1995])
  2763. > On your third trip, the terror starts to diminish, and you find yourself wearing a smile on your face.
  2764. > Not that anypony could see it, with your visor down, but it was there.
  2765. > This thing was incredible!
  2766. > Lady Major Amberline Growler really had given you a wondrous gift.
  2767. > A fine example of Anthony Theolonicus's unparallelled abilities as a master armourer!
  2768. > And Bradamante Growler, the original purchaser & owner?
  2769. > Why, she must have been a ferocious warrior if she managed to make good use of it!
  2770. > You feel privileged to merely *touch* her lance.
  2771. > And now it's *yours*!
  2772. > Yours to keep, if you wanted it, though you imagined that Lady Growler would probably expect some favours in the future.
  2773. > But until then, the Bradamante Lance was propelling you across the sky so fast that even the Royal Guard's Wonderbolts stunt racing team might have trouble keeping up.
  2774. > Just another five seconds, and you'll let go to stop short of the palace proper...
  2775. > *TSSSSSsssssssssss*
  2776. > Wait, what?
  2777. > With your hoof still hard on the stirrup, the propulsion cuts out on its own.
  2778. > Reflexively, you spread your wings to arrest the fall, as you look down at the weapon couched under your body.
  2779. > Was that all the lance had to give before it ran out?
  2780. > Twenty or so seconds of thrust?
  2781. > It was twenty ferociously fast seconds, to be sure, but it didn't seem like a whole lot.
  2782. > You wouldn't be crossing Equestria with just the 'Bradamante Lance' alone, that's for certain.
  2783. > Still, though, it would be enough for one heck of a combat charge.
  2784. > Or a great emergency tactical withdrawal, too!
  2786. > Hmmm...
  2787. > But how were you supposed to know when the Lance was ready to-
  2788. > *CLICK*
  2790. > Buck!
  2791. > Jerking your hoof off the stirrup, you struggle to keep your wings open just enough to serve as control surfaces, rolling over to one side to pull away from a violet-painted bulbous onion-dome -- Canterlot Palace's Royal Library.
  2792. > *TSSSSSsssssssssss*
  2793. > Not ideal to be making big noises just outside of what was supposed to be a place for quiet study!
  2794. > You decide to proceed away from it under your own power for a little bit before engaging the 'Bradamante Lance' once again.
  2795. > *CLICK-AHHhhh*
  2796. > That noise was probably to let you know the Lance was fully charged again.
  2797. > Hmm, you *did* manage to open your wings for a little bit while the thing was running.
  2798. > It *must* be possible to perform some course corrections while under the Lance's power.
  2799. > Maybe if you only open your wings a tiny bit, leaving them swept back, you can have just enough surface to aim yourself properly.
  2800. > It's a theory worth testing out -- and, now that you're well clear of Her Majesty's book repository, you aim to do exactly that!
  2802. > Yes!
  2803. > It's incredibly tough to do, but with a little effort you can climb, dive, and even roll over to bank!
  2804. > Nopony will be confusing you for a member of the supremely agile 1st Air Wing, but with speed like this, who cares?
  2805. > By the time your target hears the ear-splitting howl of the 'Bradamante Lance', it'll be too late -- you'll be on them already.
  2806. > As you come up on the drill field, you release the stirrup, to the now-familiar *TSSSSSsssssssssss* noise, and prepare to line up for a run on one of the larger, elevated hay-bale bull's-eyes.
  2807. > Hitting things in the air was all good and well, but there were always going to be targets on the ground, too!
  2808. > Heck, Honour could chuck javelins up high if she wanted to, as well!
  2810. > And even Glamerspear could hurl her anti-aircraft spears at enemies on land!
  2811. > You spot the unicorn in question snapping photos of you as you fly over, dive down low, and then stop to hover at a comfortable twenty hooves above ground.
  2812. > *CLICK-AHhhh*
  2813. > Perfect, you'll be able to give it everything the Lance has got.
  2814. > You'll have to mind the shock when you slam into the target.
  2815. > The only question was, should you lift off the stirrup before impact, or ride it straight through like a hammerhead?
  2816. > You'd definitely have to pull off immediately afterwards, lest you crash into the berm fifty hooves behind it.
  2817. > Well, there was nopony here but your quaternion, and nothing behind the berm but another two hundred hooves of open field with nopony else there either.
  2818. > Heck, the barracks building opposite the field was probably half empty, according to Glamerspear, with most of the garrison away on weekend liberty.
  2819. > And you weren't injured, and you were wearing your armour.
  2820. > When else would you be able to push it to the limit like this?
  2821. > With a grin of glee on your armoured face, you slam your right hind hoof into the stirrup.
  2823. > Squinting your eyes against the strands of hay you're worried would poke through your visor's slits, you make only the slightest of corrections to stay on course.
  2824. > The big round target goes from small far-away circle to huge disc in almost no time flat, and you doubt if you even could have lifted off in time to avoid it.
  2825. > You barely feel the contact, as the light straw objective neatly splits in two, one half brushed aside by the large forward guard, and the other by your own shoulder armour.
  2826. > Releasing the stirrup to a satisfying hiss, you unfold your wings wide, making use of the forward momentum to launch yourself up high, then rolling off at the top to come around and glide back towards the commander's podium.
  2828. > Lily and Honour step up out of their cover when they see you coming in to land.
  2829. > You pick your hind hooves up off the crossbar and tilt the lance up above your head to free your hooves for the ground, but with a neat *shrrr-CLACK* the haft automatically retracts itself into the lance-point.
  2830. > That leaves one forehoof free to lift your visor up so your quaternion-comrades can see just how happy you are.
  2831. > Glamerspear is all smiles when you land.
  2832. > "Nice going, Sparks! I think I got a good one or two of that attack run you made!"
  2833. > You're still breathing heavily from the thrill of it all.
  2834. "Thanks, Lily. Did you use the whole roll?"
  2835. > She nods.
  2836. > "Yeah... I'm not so sure about some of the early ones, though. You zoomed by so fast overhead I think all I managed to do is get a blurry spec at the edge of the shot. Sorry."
  2837. > You shrug.
  2838. "That's okay. I can always get more film. And we can always come out again and take some more."
  2839. > Honour steps up.
  2840. > "Don't be too sure about that. I'm starting to wonder if we haven't just hurt the Royal Engineer's prospects for talking to Major-General Hoofstrong tomorrow with all this loud flying around. At least you stayed entirely within palace grounds and didn't fly too high up; so hopefully nopony from the 1AD's Canterlot Air Patrol noticed. Hopefully nopony calls in to complain about the noise, either..."
  2841. > She nods at the Bradamante Lance in your hooves.
  2842. > "... I suppose the fact that it was a gift from Major Growler will help, as will the fact the exercise had nothing to do with the Royal Engineer himself. In any case, it's something to be aware of when you're there with me tomorrow morning, Glamerspear."
  2843. > You sit down to strap the lance back in its case, and Glamerspear floats your camera over.
  2844. > "Sure thing, Corporal. And here's your Ludwig, Sparks. You gonna send these pictures back home to your folks?"
  2846. Strongly recommended background music: (The New Queen's Hall Orchestra - 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis', as featured in 'Master and Commander' [2003])
  2848. > Your folks?
  2849. > It'd been a little while since you'd actually *written* to your parents.
  2850. > You normally saw them often enough, taking your weekend leave back to Berry.
  2851. > Being in the VIP section changed that, though -- no weekend leave meant they hadn't heard from you in over two weeks.
  2852. > Three, actually, since you didn't get the weekend off beforehoof.
  2853. > A lot's happened.
  2854. > You've got a lot to tell them.
  2855. > About the Royal Engineer, and about everything else that came with him.
  2856. > Seeing that wonderful musical at the Sardinia theatre, fighting the battle of Newstirrup Bridge, meeting the batpony Ebonshield -- no, that'll get censored by the Royal Guard, you'll have to skip over it.
  2857. > Meeting Princess Luna, making the trip to Fort Newcastle-Upon-Mare and placing an order the minotaur blacksmith Bronzehorn...
  2858. > The trip under Canterlot Mountain to the Rookery will have to be left out, again due to DADT.
  2859. > After that, there was experiencing the Royal Engineer's new steam-powered automobile, discovering the Spa Dalecarlia, buying dresses with your new best friend Lily...
  2860. > And then there was Huckleberry.
  2861. > How were you going to explain Huckleberry?
  2862. > What are you going to tell your parents?
  2863. > Your friends back in Berry?
  2864. > Not that you had a lot of them...
  2865. > You look at the lance, running a hoof reverently down the striped tip.
  2866. > Where would you be now, if it wasn't for Huckleberry?
  2867. > "You okay down there, Sparks? All that flying around wear you out?"
  2868. > Glamerspear is beside you, still waiting for you to finish so she can trade your your camera for the lance-case.
  2869. "I'm all right. Just... thinking."
  2871. > "'Bout the weapon? It's a real wonder, all right -- and a wonder you didn't hurt yourself trying it out. I guess she wasn't going to dole it out to anyone who didn't wear heavy armour. If you decide to keep it, I'm sure Lady Growler will have some expectations that you'll do her more favours, intentionally or not..."
  2872. > She shrugs.
  2873. > "... At the very least, I'd expect her to make another push for you to join the Valkyries, probably with the promise of getting one of those magic helmets to go along with the lance."
  2874. > You remember looking over all the possibilities when you got your Equestrian Services Vocational Aptitude Battery scores back.
  2875. > There were a lot of offers that you'd had to rule out because of Huck.
  2876. > Including the Valkyries.
  2877. > Shaking your head, you speak aloud to nopony in particular.
  2878. "I couldn't. There was too much travel."
  2879. > Glamerspear nods.
  2880. > "Yeah, I guess the Valkyries do travel a lot, what with every other unit needing heavily-armoured fliers to play OPFOR for their training exercises."
  2881. > Turning away from the priceless heirloom that had been so casually given to you by someone for whom it was merely saddlebag change, you look off at the setting sun, dumbstruck, muttering aimlessly.
  2882. "I did it all for him."
  2883. > Glamerspear lifts an eyebrow.
  2884. > "Huh? Did it all for-hey!"
  2885. > Honour steps over and elbows the unicorn in the shoulder, just underneath her armour.
  2886. > "Shut up for a minute, Glamerspear."
  2887. > You take a deep breath, just watching the sun play among the clouds on its way down to the earth.
  2888. "With my ESVAB and fitness scores, I could've gone straight into the Valkyries, or any of the armoured units... Maybe even the Hussars or the Household Cavalry..."
  2889. > You take another breath.
  2890. "... But it would've meant being away from him, immediately. Long train rides to Berry making for little time at home, or long flights and I'd arrive too tired for us to enjoy the time. So I went with the 1st Infantry Division, 4th Armoured Regiment..."
  2892. > A cloud passes in front of the sun, becoming shadowed and dark, while orange rays splay out in all directions from behind it.
  2893. "... I took the Armoured Scout MOS, because the signing bonus would make our down payment on a stable almost anywhere we might've wanted to live..."
  2894. > You sigh, lifting your eyebrows.
  2895. "... And I visited him every weekend, and I fought for him to get a raise at the Strawberries' farm, and I pushed away the bullies in Berry who teased him and called him names, and I tried to help him every way I could... And then I realized maybe Berry was the problem, so I paid for him to visit Canterlot with me, thinking it'd do him good to try another life..."
  2896. > Something's blurring your vision, collecting in your eyes.
  2897. "... When I was promoted, I transferred to the VIP service, figuring it would be the easiest way we could try Canterlot out together. A short service period, with not much travel, and easy liberty off-duty..."
  2898. > Instinctively, you put one hoof up to your muzzle to wipe the clear fluid away.
  2899. "... I didn't... I didn't come here to be invited to the Grand Galloping Gala, or to be taken to musical shows, or to learn about secrets under Canterlot mountain, or to have nobleponies lavish gifts on me..."
  2900. > You find your breathing becoming irregular, erratic.
  2901. > Something dribbles out of your nose, and you try to sniffle it back up.
  2902. "... *sniff*... I did everything for him..."
  2903. > Your jaw starts to quiver.
  2904. "... And... And now he's gone... And... I'm the one who told him to leave..."
  2905. > You bring your other forehoof up to your muzzle, as if it'll stop the impending flood.
  2906. > But it's like trying to plug a dam that's sprung a leak with just a few stray leaves and twigs.
  2907. > Inevitably, it bursts.
  2908. > Tears pouring out of your eyes collect in the base of your bascinet-helm and dribble out the breathing holes whenever you jerk your head forward, falling onto the wooden platform and into the Bradamante Lance's silk-lined box.
  2910. > You feel a pair of forelegs wrap around your torso just underneath your shoulders, and a metal-clad chest scrape against your own.
  2911. > Corporal Bound holds you up, as you bawl your misery out on her shoulder.
  2912. > The Lance, the Spa, the sitting awake in the bed trying not to *think* about what had happened.
  2913. > You'd thrown every available distraction up like a bulkwark against this morning's meeting.
  2914. > None of it could compete with the years of memories that all come pouring in.
  2915. > After a while, your eyes and cheeks drenched, you lift your head up again and look into Honour's calm, knowing face.
  2916. "... Do... Do you think I'll ever see him again?"
  2917. > She shakes her head.
  2918. > "I don't know, Artemis... Do you *want* to?"
  2919. > You feel emptied, and you look away from Honour, off towards the setting sun once more.
  2920. "I don't know. But... I just don't know what to do without him."
  2921. > She nods.
  2922. > "You start by taking it one day at a time, Artemis. One day at a time... until the day when you find yourself again."
  2923. > Your lips quivering, another flood on the way, you try to hold it back by swallowing and taking a deepb reath.
  2924. > Then you ask the question you dread to hear her answer.
  2925. "How long will it take?"
  2926. > Honour blows out, puffing her cheeks, and gently shakes her head.
  2927. > "I don't know. But you'll make it."
  2928. > You collapse in tears onto her shoulder again.
  2933. > Your eyes snap open in the darkness, and you are the Sergeant Purity Ebonshield.
  2934. > It is still night outside.
  2935. > Good.
  2936. > You creep stealthily out of your bed -- leaving it empty, alas.
  2937. > Your Leónito, that young stallion full of life, you had to refuse company for tonight.
  2938. > Because tonight was not a night for pleasure.
  2939. > Tonight, you were going to work.
  2940. > Pulling open your bedroom door slowly, you peek out and glance up at the clock on the wall in the common room.
  2941. > One-thirty in the morning.
  2942. > Bueno.
  2943. > You have slept the ninety minutes as you planned.
  2944. > Without pausing, you shut the door silently, cross your room, throw on your cloak, and open your window.
  2945. > Then you take to the air and push the window closed, leaving only a fluttering of leathery wings barely audible against the gentle mountain breeze blowing across Canterlot.
  2946. > It takes you only a few minutes to arrive at the orchard garden-shed which serves as border post run by the Royal Undermountain Constabulary, the Military Ponice who guarded the secret gates between Equestria and the ponies of the Moon.
  2947. > Your favourite RUC Lieutenant, the handsome young Rounds Rapid, had just arrived on duty, and he quickly cleared you for transit into the undermountain as he had done so many times before.
  2948. > However, as he floats over your papers in his unicorn-grasp, he looks up with an air of curiosity.
  2949. > "By the way, is it business or personal this evening, Sergeant Ebonshield?"
  2950. > You take the Royal Warrant which grants you full and complete access to both the surface and subterranean worlds and place it back in one of the small concealed pockets sewn into the inside of your cloak.
  2951. "Tonight, señor Rápido, it is business."
  2952. > The unicorn appears concerned, and tenses up in his chair.
  2953. > "Business for your VIP, I trust?"
  2954. > Your other kind of business, you know that he did not endorse.
  2955. > And he was certainly not alone in this.
  2957. "Yes, it is for the Royal Engineer. I am conducting some diplomacy on his behalf."
  2958. > 'Diplomacy' was a word which could mean a great deal many things.
  2959. > Either the Lieutenant had not yet learned this, or else he trusts you perhaps too much, for your answer appears to reassure him.
  2960. > You see him relax, his back slouching almost imperceptibly.
  2961. > "Very well. Good-night, Sergeant."
  2962. > Bowing, you back away towards the Rookery entrance.
  2963. "Buenas noches, teniente. I will return shortly, I hope."
  2964. > He nods, and the other RUC guards pull open the doors to let you in.
  2965. > Unsurprisingly, you do not encounter any checkpoint on the other side.
  2966. > Which was not to say that there were no guards -- you spotted two Righteous Hatchets, lurking in the stalactites just before the Cave of Pillars, carrying on idle conversation by whispers.
  2967. > They saw you too, but far too late, when you had already flown them by.
  2968. > Slothful, slothful, slothful!
  2969. > Still, nopony would have expected an incursion into the Rookery at *night*.
  2970. > Without torches or lights, or even the sound of hoofsteps.
  2971. > The Hatchets were more vigilant during the day, and when the Night Guard shifts changed.
  2972. > But at almost two in the morning, long after the Night Guard midnight meal?
  2973. > No, the guardians were as sleepy as the rest of the Rookery would be.
  2974. > After coasting around the waterfall, soaring through the Cave of Pillars, and then flapping your way to the bazaar, you are unsurprised to see the caverns almost completely empty of any Children.
  2975. > Many of the stalls were even closed for the after-midnight, to reopen in the evening when the contingent of Night Guard returned for supper -- their most valued customers, paying in Equestrian bits and often covertly smuggling in Equestrian goods.
  2976. > However, after flying past a few sleepy rows, you can see that your destination is still open, to a degree.
  2977. > You land silently just in front of the store-front counter.
  2979. > Behind it, sitting on a stool with his back slouching against the wall, his head propped up in his hooves, and his wings wrapped around himself, the middle-aged proprietor of this establishment was snoring gently.
  2980. > You address him in your native tongue.
  2981. «Good after-midnight, Joseph.»
  2982. > With a startle and a snort, José wakes up, looks at you, glances around to see that you are alone, then coughs twice as he gets off his stool.
  2983. > «Good after-midnight, Madam Star-Phase. Welcome to Horchateria Joseph. What may I serve you tonight?»
  2984. > You slither up one of the raised chairs at the counter and look the square-jawed batpony colt in the eyes.
  2985. «What dost thou have?»
  2986. > José licks his black-moustached lips and reaches down for a rag, then proceeds to idly wipe the counter, shaking his head.
  2987. > «The horchata is made fresh this evening, with tiger nuts delivered only yesterday. I also have some small breads and pastries left-over from breakfast.»
  2988. > You nod amiably.
  2989. «Then I shall have a small horchata to begin with.»
  2990. > The proprietor turns around towards the drink-jar, picking up a ladle in his hoof, his heavy black mane brushing against the top of his red-embroidered black vest.
  2991. > «Certainly, madam.»
  2992. > As he returns to face you, placing a small glass of the thick drink on the counter with a cork coaster underneath, José looks you warily in the eyes.
  2993. > Looking him right back, you pick up the glass and take a tiny sip of the cool, refreshing beverage.
  2994. > You lick your lips and place it back down on its little saucer, withdrawing your forehooves into your cloak.
  2995. > «... Is it to Madam's liking?»
  2996. > Frowning playfully, you tilt your head back.
  2997. «It requires some accompaniment, I think.»
  2998. > José rolls his head to the side slightly.
  2999. > «Would Madam care for a pastry? Or a biscuit to dip in it, perhaps?»
  3000. > You shake your head, lowering it down again.
  3001. «No... But I understand that conversation goes well with drink.»
  3003. > The black-maned colt sits back on his stool, folding his forelegs in front of him and his wings behind him.
  3004. > «Ah. And about what subject would it please madam to converse?»
  3005. > You sit back in your seat, placing one forehoof confidently on the counter.
  3006. «I think, perhaps, I should enjoy it if we could speak on history.»
  3007. > His eyes narrow.
  3008. > «If Madam Star-Phase is curious of history, then she should seek out a Lunar. Rocks such as myself are not permitted authority in these things outside of our own professions.»
  3009. > You take another sip from your glass.
  3010. «This is true. Yet I believe thou art an expert in the particular item of interest to me this night.»
  3011. > José licks his lips.
  3012. > «And what item might that be?»
  3013. > You fix him in your gaze.
  3014. «The Reconquest.»
  3015. > There is a long pause before he answers.
  3016. > Doubtless, he wonders why you have come today to ask this question.
  3017. > Is it your motive which concerns him?
  3018. > Or, perhaps he is merely considering how to answer you while keeping his obligation to his Phase.
  3019. > José shakes his head.
  3020. > «This is a very old subject, Madam. She is not a very current event.»
  3021. > An evasive answer; you press on.
  3022. «Dost thou deny having familiarity with her?»
  3023. > His obligations to his own Rock Phase required him not to speak with authority on the subject of historical events.
  3024. > But his obligations to Phases above his required that he be obedient to his betters.
  3025. > The horchateria-tender chooses to fly with his wings held close to his chest.
  3026. > «This is a horchateria, Madam. I serve horchata, baked goods, and omelettes. Not lessons in history.»
  3027. > You lean in to force the confrontation, placing your brow close enough for him to easily butt it, if he dared to.
  3028. «I have questions about the Reconquest, Joseph. And I am not leaving here until thou answerst them.»
  3029. > José meets your brow, but does not challenge you.
  3031. > Instead, he glances down at your half-empty cup.
  3032. > «In that case, I fear madam will be drinking rather a lot of horchata tonight.»
  3033. > Ay!
  3034. > The reputation of this colt as stubborn and witty was well-deserved.
  3035. > Picking up your glass, you take another small sip and then put your forehooves down on the table quickly and with some force, so that your blades clatter against the counter.
  3036. > A cheap tactic to draw attention, but José does not even bother to look down at your weapons.
  3037. > He only shakes his head, his brow inches from yours.
  3038. > «... I know nothing worth somepony paying for my name to appear in your famous book, Madam of the Shining Stellar Dance.»
  3039. > You raise your eyebrows.
  3040. «Do you not? Why else art thou kept around here, then, Joseph?»
  3041. > Your insult garners you a swallow and the beginning of a frown.
  3042. > «Madam would have to consult with the Reverend Mother for the answer to this question...»
  3043. > With a grumble, he leans away from you, then gets off his stool and steps out from behind the bar, heading to one of the tables behind you with a cleaning-rag in his wing-arms.
  3044. > «... If madam will excuse me a moment, I must prepare for the afternoon business.»
  3045. > Surprised, you turn and watch him go.
  3046. > Just like that, he backed out of your challenge?
  3047. > It was certainly his right, as a Rock engaged by a Star.
  3048. > However, it was not in keeping with his previous reputation.
  3049. > Not that you had ever known him personally, but it was disappointing to see how far he had fallen.
  3050. > You decide to try a compliment to offset your earlier insult.
  3051. «I do believe that the Engineer Royal enjoyed thy hospitality on Wednesnight.»
  3052. > In the middle of wiping down a wooden chair, José nods.
  3053. > «Then madam may convey to him my deepest thanks for his generous business.»
  3054. > Frustrated, you take another drink of the horchata, emptying the glass but still holding it in your hooves.
  3056. > You may as well get some other business out of the way while you are here -- and while he continues to block your efforts.
  3057. «Wouldst thou be willing to host another conference between him and the ferriers?»
  3058. > «Certainly, Madam. Though, a little advance notice would be appreciated.»
  3059. > All right, then, good.
  3060. > Now, enough games.
  3061. «Joseph, I want to know what happened to thee during the Reconquest.»
  3062. > He does not even lift his head up from his work cleaning a table and setting its chairs.
  3063. > «That story is known to the public already.»
  3064. > Pawing over the empty glass in your hooves, you swing around one of your wings and bat it up in to the air behind you.
  3065. > It lands on the counter, rolling on its base before settling down.
  3066. «There are certain details which have been kept private.»
  3067. > A degree of anger creeps into his voice -- or is it merely frustration?
  3068. > «Those details are now the property of the Mother Superior. Seek her out if you wish them.»
  3069. > That would be an interesting conversation, to say the least.
  3070. > You shake your head, grinning, though he is still turned away from you.
  3071. «I fear that I am not on good terms with the Reverend Mother any more.»
  3072. > That comment, more than anything else you have said so far, seems to give him pause, and he stops cleaning tables for a moment.
  3073. > José squints and looks you up and down, then nods.
  3074. > «That is surprising, considering the debt Her Reverence owes you.»
  3075. > So, he thinks that Carmen owes you for what you did?
  3076. > Or, perhaps he thinks you are still her stooge?
  3077. «Names are written in the Book only with payment -- and this payment, he was received long ago...»
  3078. > With nopony about, you decide to relax and speak freely.
  3079. > After all, such free speaking is no less than you are asking from him.
  3080. «... To the Reverend Mother, the Temple of the Shining Stellar Dance is a tool to be used like any other -- and to be discarded when the tool no longer serves her purpose.»
  3082. > José narrows his eyes further, and frowns with his heavy black eyebrows, stepping closer.
  3083. > «Such words are not what I would have expected to hear from the daughter who is most responsible for the present position of her mother.»
  3084. > In his admission you see an opening to further shatter his expectations.
  3085. «Neither is thy misunderstanding of the situation what I would have expected from a Colonel of the Howling Wolves.»
  3086. > His eyes open wide again, and you can see the fire-red colour which was once so famous and so widely admired.
  3087. > With a brief ferocity, he takes a strident step towards you, then stops and glances, with a certain bitterness, at the cleaning-rag on the table.
  3088. > *His* cleaning-rag.
  3089. > And *his* table.
  3090. > «Madam has perhaps forgotten that her humble servant is a Colonel of the Wolves no longer.»
  3091. > Curious, accusing you of doing what he himself has just done.
  3092. > Still, he clearly holds misconceptions that must be dispelled if you are to have your answers.
  3093. «And has demotion of rank and Phase diminished also thy intelligence? Dost thou think I am sworn in allegiance and servitude to the Reverend Mother Carmen, because of blood and milk, and because also that my Temple once provided her a service?»
  3094. > José grits his teeth.
  3095. > «That was a service considerable.»
  3096. > You hop off your chair and step forward, nodding.
  3097. «And the cost to the House of Vapours was equally considerable; I understand that the Lunar treasury is still empty, the debts to the Rocks still being repaid.»
  3098. > He marches forward, his thick black mane bobbing against his neck.
  3099. > You meet him, and stand, muzzle-to-muzzle and brow-to-brow.
  3100. > Facing each other as two Stars should.
  3101. > José growls.
  3102. > «You are still her daughter.»
  3103. > The argument is so ridiculous it is almost insulting.
  3105. > Unlike the laconic soldier, the obedient dog who was sworn to howl upon command for his Great Mother, you have no attachment to brevity, and pour out your own defences against him.
  3106. «Do such ties truly matter to the Children? Did you obey your parents? Do your own progeny obey you? And this accusation, after I disobeyed her in front of the Great Mother! While my brother cries against me from the bottom of every crater since!»
  3107. > The heat of passion in his red eyes smolders.
  3108. > «You disobeyed her? How?»
  3109. > You inhale, flexing your wings.
  3110. «The Great Mother wanted a Star to serve as bodyguard to the Engineer Royal. Carmen demanded we force her to choose a Lunar. I chose one Mother over the other.»
  3111. > José has no answer to this, though you can see the little hooves of thought galloping away behind his eyes.
  3112. > You press your final attack in his confusion.
  3113. «... I do not serve the Reverend Mother Carmen, Joseph, not any more, not since I have come to know her heart. She has forced me to chose to serve the Mother-of-Stars alone...»
  3114. > Finally, you take a step back, deliberately ceding ground before him.
  3115. «... I do not require that thou bowest to me or even that thou 'you'-est to me, but I do need to know what happened to Colonel Alcazar and his Howling Wolves on the night when the Mother-of-Stars returned to her Children.»
  3116. > José Alcazar, former Colonel of the Howling Wolves, demoted to Rock Phase for his failure on the night of the Reconquest, takes a deep breath, before neighing it out softly.
  3117. > «What dost thy wish to know?»
  3118. > Finally.
  3119. > You had not participated in the Reconquest; you had remained on the moon.
  3120. > With the great defeat, the nature of the batpony assault on Equestria was known only to Princess Luna, the inner circle of Lunar councillors who had advised her, and the Star-soldiers themselves.
  3121. > And most of *those* had been killed in the invasion.
  3122. > Before you was one of the only survivors.
  3124. > And of them, the only one who had not been banished to the Shadows darkest and deepest by the Reverend Mother Superior, your mother.
  3125. «Where, exactly, did your Howling Wolves strike on that night? How did you fail? And what happened afterwards?»
  3126. > Sighing, he nods at one of the chairs.
  3127. > «Take a seat, and I will tell thee.»
  3132. > It is just before ten in the morning, and you are still the Sergeant Purity Ebonshield.
  3133. > You have woken late; you planned to be up an hour ago.
  3134. > Are you too tardy to deliver your message?
  3135. > Charging down the hallway, you stop before the doors of your Royal Engineer, and knock.
  3136. > The Corporal Bound answers within moments.
  3137. > "Sergeant? What are you doing here? We didn't need you for the trip to the Watchtower."
  3138. > Somewhat short of breath, you speak quickly.
  3139. "I have a message urgent to deliver to the Engineer Royal before he leaves."
  3140. > Frowning, she recoils her head back in confusion, then nods and opens the door.
  3141. > "Sergeant Ebonshield, sir. She's got something to report."
  3142. > You step inside, and see your VIP is standing just inside the door, putting the finishing touches on his necktie in front of his mirror.
  3143. > Ay, you have cut things very close indeed.
  3144. > Behind him sits the Specialist Glamerspear, looking confused as well.
  3145. > The tall biped looks down at you.
  3146. > "What is it, Sergeant?"
  3147. > You sit on your haunches and fold your wings.
  3148. "Great Lord, it is imperative that, during your meeting with the General Hoofstrong, you make no mention of your plans to work with the batponies."
  3149. > Anonymous shoots a confused glance at Corporal Bound, then back at you.
  3150. > "To be honest, I wasn't planning on bringing them up. Wouldn't she be subject to this 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' rule, anyways?"
  3152. > You shake your head.
  3153. "Not with you, Great Lord, for you are not in the Guard Royal. She will undoubtedly know that you have a batpony in your quaternion. So she may ask you about me, or the rest of the children. You must not admit to having visited the Rookery, or to having learned of their past, or to having had any dealings with them at all besides me, and even with me you must not mention your training in the arts martial. To do otherwise may cause you difficulties in your negotiations."
  3154. > His tie half-done, he lowers his hands to his sides.
  3155. > "Why? I gather that batponies may not be well-liked, but your people are still trusted to guard Canterlot palace half the time, aren't they? The Night Guard?"
  3156. > You nod.
  3157. "Yes, but this trust is most fragile; it is only by the will of the Princesses that the Royal Guard allow this sharing of duties."
  3158. > The Engineer Royal shrugs.
  3159. > "All right. So what's the problem with Hoofstrong, then?"
  3160. > You take a deep breath.
  3161. > What you are about to say may exceed even the openness desired by the Great Mother.
  3162. "The reason there is the 'D-A-D-T', Great Lord, is because when Princess Luna returned to Equestria as Nightmare Moon, she was accompanied by batpony soldiers. And while our then-leader sought to neutralize the Elements of Harmony which had beaten her before, her Stars assaulted the Royal Guard. On that night, between ponies there was a violence without compare..."
  3163. > He looks suitably concerned, and you continue.
  3164. "... But after Nightmare Moon was defeated and Princess Luna took her place, it was decided that the only way to begin reconciliation between the two races was to make secret all the horrors of that assault. So the combatants were sworn not to speak of the night, and the casualties concealed, and the battlefield cleansed of any evidence..."
  3166. > You point your hoof at the door through which your VIP intends to step momentarily, unaware of this latest danger which opposes him.
  3167. "... But that battlefield, he was The Watchtower of Canterlot. And the commandant who led the defence of that place, the Equestrian who defeated the attacking batponies but lost so many of her soldiers in the doing, she was the Major-General Hoofstrong."
  3169. Suggested interlude music: (Denez Prigent - 'Gortoz A Ran', as featured in 'Black Hawk Down' [2001])
  3174. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and you are feeling pretty winded right now.
  3175. > Not even hikes up Canterlot Mountain could hold a candle to the effort required to scale the capital's impregnable bastion, The Watchtower.
  3176. > Thirty stories tall and designed to house pegasi almost exclusively, it had no elevators, no cranes, and an arcane block against magical teleportation.
  3177. > In brief, there was no quick way up or down unless you could fly.
  3178. > And what *was* provided for those ponies whose only means of locomotion was hooves -- or non-ponies with feet -- had been built with security first and foremost, and ease of access absolutely dead last.
  3179. > Each single-storey staircase traced half the circumference of the great tower itself, but getting to the next set up involved crossing, at each floor, a mini-labyrinth full of blind corners and easy ambush spots.
  3180. > The Watchtower had never fallen in the history of Canterlot, and it wasn't for lack of trying.
  3181. > Even the batponies had made a go at it, according to Ebonshield -- and they'd failed despite having wings.
  3182. > As you reach the twenty-fourth floor, you're starting to really pant.
  3183. > Glamerspear, on your left, has been doing that for the last ten floors and already has some sweat-foam accumulation around her collar and hips.
  3184. > Her horn is lit up, and a teal aura under her barrel tells you she's cheating a bit, using her telekinesis to remove some of the load on her legs.
  3185. > You still haven't pointed out to her that she's not in an all-unicorn regiment any more and that she ought to share her utility spells.
  3186. > Things got a little busy after the last time, in the Rookery; it slipped your mind.
  3187. > But if this was Pony Physical Training, that mini-levitation cantrip she was using would get her a sharp rebuke from the Sergeant in charge of the exercise.
  3189. > Since it *wasn't, though, you were just satisfied she'd found a way to not completely collapse when you reached your destination.
  3190. > By several hooves, both of you trail the Royal Engineer, who started off with a fast walk, and kept it up the whole way.
  3191. > Of course, a fast walk for him as a tall biped was a racing trot for you two ponies.
  3192. > The relatively cool air temperature inside the keep was probably the only reason he didn't appear to be sweating up a storm under his black wool suit.
  3193. > That same cool air plus your earth pony lineage was also the only reason you weren't doing as poorly as Glamerspear.
  3194. > As you make your way to the second-to-last staircase on the way up to the Major-General's twenty-sixth-floor office, you pass by the fortress's uppermost landing pad.
  3195. > You pause for just a moment to look it over.
  3196. > For all the terrors it held, Her Majesty's Flying carriage *would* have gotten you up here a lot faster...
  3197. > "Don't say it!"
  3198. > Glamerspear shakes her head angrily at you as you resume your march.
  3199. "What?"
  3200. > Leaning in, she hisses angrily.
  3201. > "You were thinking about how much less tired we'd be if we'd ridden that death-trap up to that platform. Well, no ma'am. You couldn't *pay* me to get in there again, Corporal!"
  3202. > You raise an eyebrow.
  3203. "The Royal Guard *is* paying you, Glamerspear. Or are you having problems with Finance?"
  3204. > Squinting at you, she pulls back.
  3205. > "You know what I mean. I'll take anything over over Her Majesty's Flying *Terror*-iage any day of the week -- even  this mountain climbing expedition and the Royal Engineer's land carriage with you at the tiller!"
  3206. > You lift your eyebrows.
  3207. "Got a complaint about my driving, Specialist?"
  3208. > Glamerspear scoffs.
  3209. > "Oh, your driving's fine, Corporal. Managed to get us here without running into or over anything you weren't supposed to..."
  3210. > With a wry grin, she chuckles.
  3211. > "... It's the look of dread always plastered over your muzzle while you're at the helm that gives me the creeps."
  3213. > It was true that you didn't exactly enjoy being in the driver's seat.
  3214. > You weren't afraid, just... tense.
  3215. > Controlling Anonymous' 'automobile' was a real hoof-full, and one that, even after all the drilling and practice you'd done with it, you still didn't feel ready for.
  3216. > Especially not on a busy Saturday morning in Canterlot.
  3217. > *Particularly* when it's the last shopping weekend before the Grand Galloping Gala.
  3218. > Ponies walking around everywhere and carriages darting to and fro made the city's grand boulevards seem like tight alleys.
  3219. > It could only have been by the will of Princess Celestia herself that you avoided hitting anypony.
  3220. > "Here we are, twenty-fifth floor. Just one more to go. Whew, quite a climb!"
  3221. > Oh, thank the blesssed sun.
  3222. > At the top of the staircase, your Very Important Pony, who wasn't a actually a pony and who had so far made the climb with barely even a grunt of effort, at last pauses and pulls a handkerchief out of his trousers pocket, wiping sweat from his forehead.
  3223. > "... Maybe I should have asked to borrow the Royal Flying Carriage again, as when we travelled to Newcastle-upon-Mare..."
  3224. > You exchange a glance with Glamerspear, who appears absolutely horrified at the suggestion.
  3225. > With a smile, the Royal Engineer turns around to look back at his two somewhat laggardly guards.
  3226. >" ... Then again, maybe not unless the garage can also lend us some parachutes."
  3227. > Your unicorn comrade sighs with relief, and you take the opportunity to give your legs a quick break.
  3228. "That'd make me feel a lot better about climbing into it, sir. But I think we're better off sticking to solid ground."
  3229. > "For now, I agree. But you may change your mind if I can put a good aeroplane together later..."
  3230. > This was not the moment to ask what an 'aeroplane' was, so you stay silent.
  3232. > Folding up the cotton square, Anonymous puts it away, then tugs at the chain of his pocket-watch and pulls it from his vest.
  3233. > "... Fifteen minutes to climb up; looks like we'll be right on time. Okay, let's get this last staircase done with; I don't want to keep the Major-General waiting."
  3234. > The Royal Engineer takes off and you and Glamerspear follow right after him.
  3235. > It's only been fifteen minutes?
  3236. > Fifteen minutes of a steep and steady ascent, though.
  3237. > The only thing on your mind most of the way was what your VIP was going to do or say when pressed by the Major-General.
  3238. > First there was the whole issue of his request -- a series of training-fire exercises on the palace grounds less than a week before the biggest annual event in Canterlot, attended by nobleponies from across the nation.
  3239. > Then there was the mistake of having failed to ask permission for that first test, when Glamerspear got the hang of pulling lead on a target while you started to get a better feel for how the carriage handled at speed.
  3240. > Beyond those, there was politics and optics.
  3241. > Politics, in how Lieutenant Violetta had sent a complaint, at the Royal Engineer's request, regarding Kilfeather's behaviour during his 'Pas de Sabots' at Newstirrup bridge.
  3242. > An event that Major-General Hoofstrong herself had orchestrated to further her political aims.
  3243. > Best-case, she did it without knowing about Kilfeather's personal proclivities and is (or will be) disappointed to hear what he tried to pull.
  3244. > That'll lend some sympathy to the court-martial case.
  3245. > Worst-case, Hoofstrong doesn't care if the Lieutenant is a bastard, and doesn't like the resulting interference in her objectives.
  3246. > Bigger questions might be raised about whether the Royal Engineer was perhaps an obstacle in her goal of eliminating the purchase of commissions.
  3247. > He was, after all, a noble himself, though not a hereditary one.
  3248. > But then again, the Major was nobility as well.
  3249. > What was her position, really?
  3251. > Lt. Vi's report on Hoofstrong's history, as well as Sparkshower's story of her brief encounter in delivering the calling-card, didn't give very much to go on.
  3252. > It painted the picture of a professional warrior, but did that mean she would be politically ruthless?
  3253. > Giving a speech to the troops about Pegasi always being ready for a fight didn't sound very diplomatic, but it was the kind of booster speech to be expected from a General.
  3254. > Then there was the batpony problem.
  3255. > Of course Ebonshield wasn't a part of this visit, but the Major-General might know about her regardless.
  3256. > Her air patrol might've spotted the Sergeant sitting in the stands during that first exercise, perhaps.
  3257. > Or maybe she heard about the lunar character from Lieutenant Kilfeather himself; he did meet her, briefly, when he came to demand the return of his scrap-metal helmet.
  3258. > Would Hoofstrong then also know that the Royal Engineer had been inside the Rookery?
  3259. > The setup at the orchard shed was pretty covert, and it was run by a special unit of Military Ponice.
  3260. > But the pony in charge of the general air defence of Canterlot would probably know all about batpony operations in the area.
  3261. > She might even have a source of intelligence in the 'Royal Undermountain Constabulary' service.
  3262. > Or if, as Sergeant Ebonshield had suggested, she was bitter about having had to fight the batponies who were now nominally allies, if not full Equestrian citizens, then she might even have operators of her own watching the entrances and keeping track of comings and goings.
  3263. > The powers at the disposal of the Major-General of the First Air Division were considerable; in the absence of an actual ongoing conflict, she was effectively Canterlot's chief Air Marshal, reporting only to the Grand Marshal of Equestria.
  3264. > And the Grand Marshal only reported to two ponies: Her Majesty's Secretary of Defence, and Her Majesty Princess Celestia herself.
  3266. > Your VIP was, by virtue of being a member of the Blue Chamber, just under Her Majesty as well; two steps above the Major-General.
  3267. > And he wasn't even a pony.
  3268. > If Hoofstrong resented him for that, it could make things very complicated.
  3269. > "Lord Anonymous, sir! Good morning, and welcome to the Watchtower!"
  3270. > In the time you've been reflecting, the three of you had reached the twenty-sixth floor of Canterlot's ancient defensive bastion, and the headquarters of its premier defenders.
  3271. > Behind the reception-desk, a Sergeant-Major stands up and snaps to attention, as do a dozen other functionaries and clerks in the front office.
  3272. > The guards at the entrance hadn't bothered to give you a military escort; after all, the Royal Engineer already had one.
  3273. > They'd just pointed up and told you her she was on the twenty-sixth floor.
  3274. > Anonymous politely removes his top hat, now that you're all no longer in the bastion's corridors.
  3275. > "Thank you. I'm here to see Major-General Hoofstrong, please."
  3276. > The sergeant lowers his salute.
  3277. > "Of course, sir. She asked that your Lordship be shown right in; if you'll please follow me."
  3278. > To a nod from the Royal Engineer, the Sergeant-Major steps out from behind his desk, which is almost immediately re-occupied by another one of the staff so as to not leave the reception vacant.
  3279. > A private pulls open the small fence-door that separates the reception area from the office proper, saluting in the process, and the three of you follow the Sergeant-Major into the depths of the First Air Division's headquarters.
  3280. > It doesn't escape your notice that the rest of the pegasi in the office maintain their salute until your VIP is well through the double doors at the back of the room.
  3281. > You don't see them get back to work, but you do hear the din of paperwork abruptly resume.
  3283. > The next area, past all the filing cabinets and work-desks, is the map room, with an enormous to-scale terrain map of the surrounding areas on a table, complete with miniature buildings for Canterlot and Cloudsdale as well as the villages of the surrounding counties.
  3284. > Pegasi flit through the air and trot around on the floor, adjusting small figures and markers representing Royal Guard forces and who-knows what else.
  3285. > You try to get a close look at Canterlot Mountain; it seems like it might be hollow and open, but only on the far side, the Eastern side, opposite of where the Sergeant-Major is leading you.
  3286. > Without seeing it from over there, you can't know for sure what the 1st A.D. knows about the Rookery and the ponies in it.
  3287. > Glamerspear leans in and whispers to you out the side of her mouth.
  3288. > "Mare, what my brothers wouldn't give to be able to play Hyperspace Hyperwars on that thing... It'd blow their nerdy little minds."
  3289. > Probably true.
  3290. > However, now's not the time to be making snide comments.
  3291. "Cut the chatter until we're back in the carriage, Glamerspear. I don't want us to be responsible for this going wrong."
  3292. > She nods, somewhat insincerely.
  3293. > "Yeah, I know. I wasn't going to say anything in front of Hoofstrong."
  3294. > You tap a forehoof on your helmet, by your ear.
  3295. "This her HQ; we're as good as in front of her right now."
  3296. > Glamerspear doesn't say anything, but after a moment, she nods, more knowingly and appreciatively.
  3297. > The Sergeant-Major knocks at a set of double doors to the left of the main map area, and from within you can hear a reply.
  3298. > "Enter."
  3299. > Pushing open the doors, he steps aside and allows your party to pass.
  3300. > "Major-General Hoofstrong, ma'am... His Lordship Anonymous, Royal Engineer of Equestria."
  3301. > Behind a large wooden bureau, in a large high-backed chair sits a pegasus mare with a scarlet-red coat and stark white mane cut conservatively short in the front and on top, though hanging a little longer at her withers.
  3303. > She's wearing the full Air Service Dress uniform, with dark blue jacket, lighter blue shirt, and black tie.
  3304. > There are two silver stars on each of her shoulders, and her hat with two more is on the desk, just off to the side.
  3305. > As the Royal Engineer enters the room, she spreads her wings and gets to her hind hooves, extending a forehoof across the desk to gesture at the chair opposite hers.
  3306. > "A pleasure to meet you, sir. Won't you be seated?"
  3307. > "Thank you, Major-General. The pleasure is all mine."
  3308. > As you take up positions flanking the door, Anonymous politely sits down, and one of the Major-General's aides flutters over and takes his hat and white gloves, placing them delicately on a sideboard.
  3309. > Once everypony's all settled in, Hoofstrong sits herself back down and looks calmly across her desk at your VIP.
  3310. > "What can I do for you today, sir?"
  3311. > Anonymous adjusts himself in his chair, then opens as you'd discussed, with thanks and a mea culpa.
  3312. > "Well, General Hoofstrong, first I would to thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice, and secondly I would like to apologize for the disturbance I caused earlier this week. In my eager haste to get my work done, I failed to properly investigate the rules around that sort of exercise. I'm sorry for any disturbance caused to your division's normal operations."
  3313. > It's difficult to read anything in the Major-General's reserved, sky-blue eyes, or in her flat, almost deadpan voice.
  3314. > "There's no need to apologize for that, sir. Handling disturbances *is* part of First Air Division's normal operations. And I wouldn't have expected somepony with your background to be aware of Canterlot air control rules..."
  3316. > She glances over at you and Glamerspear, pausing a moment to look at the Corporal's epaulets on your shoulders and the Silver Ram around Glamerspear's neck.
  3317. > "... You're not in Royal Guard or even from Equestria, after all. The rules ought to have been made clear to you by your Royal Guard escort, instead."
  3318. > You didn't actually *know* the Canterlot air control rules; it certainly wasn't something they taught in the VIP Section training course, which dealt entirely with etiquette, and you'd never had to worry about something like 'do not fire rounds up into the sky' given that you couldn't *do* that.
  3319. > Glamerspear, however, admitted after the training exercise that she *had* known.
  3320. > You see your unicorn comrade tense up slightly, but Anonymous speaks up before anypony else can.
  3321. > "I take responsibility for that failure, Major-General. I pressured them to conduct the exercise before they even had the opportunity to consider the rules."
  3322. > *That* wasn't in the script you'd discussed this morning.
  3323. > In fact, *you* had volunteered to take the blame if this sort of question had come up.
  3324. > What made him change his mind?
  3325. > Hoofstrong takes his statement without showing any emotion.
  3326. > "I see. And now that you've given your thanks and your apologies for having conducted exercises without authorization, I suppose you'd like to obtain permission to continue those same exercises?"
  3327. > Very matter-of-fact and to-the-point.
  3328. > Anonymous folds his hands in his lap.
  3329. > "Yes, General. I'd very much like to resume those tests as soon as possible."
  3330. > The Major-General pauses, then nods.
  3331. > "Would your Lordship be able to explain the details with me? The reports I received were inconclusive as to what, exactly, you were trying to accomplish."
  3333. > Smiling, the Royal Engineer unfolds his hands.
  3334. > "Certainly, General. I was conducting tests of my new Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Weapon platform. This consists of a steam-propelled carriage, piloted by Corporal Bound, with Specialist Glamerspear as the actual weapon, and myself as supervisor. Specialist Sparkshower, who delivered my calling-card yesterday, was serving as target..."
  3335. > Tilting his head sideways, he gestures towards the door.
  3336. > "... The vehicle itself is parked outside at ground level, actually; we drove it here to the meeting. I'd be happy to demonstrate it for you."
  3337. > That gets a raised eyebrow from the Major-General, her first visible reaction.
  3338. > "Thank-you, but perhaps another time..."
  3339. > Glancing at her aide-de-camp sitting to her left at the long end of the desk, she remarks.
  3340. > "... It must be pretty fast, though. I received a report that you had left Canterlot Palace only moments before being notified that you had arrived at the Watchtower's front gate."
  3341. > So she *was* watching you.
  3342. > That didn't really mean anything, though; it was almost literally her job.
  3343. > Anonymous smiles and leans back in his chair.
  3344. > "It'll make sixty kilometres per hour without a fuss, Major-General, and in spite of its present rather primitive controls, Corporal Bound has become quite skilled at manoeuvring it. I'm actually a bit anxious to see what she can do after some improvements I've got planned."
  3345. > You feel a bit flush in your cheeks.
  3346. > He hadn't mentioned giving you a glowing endorsement in front of a two-star General this morning, either.
  3347. > Hoofstrong looks over at you, and even Glamerspear shoots a quick glance in your direction.
  3348. > You feel the flushness getting a bit more intense under the sudden scrutiny.
  3349. > "Interesting. And what provoked your creation of this speedy armed vehicle?"
  3350. > An uncomfortable question.
  3352. > Anonymous gestures at Glamerspear as he deflects the answer.
  3353. > "I had the opportunity to witness Specialist Glamerspear in solo combat..."
  3354. > As the Royal Engineer continues on, the Major-General's gaze shifts to your unicorn comrade.
  3355. > "... It seemed to me that her greatest vulnerabilities were her immobility and her need to switch spells between defence and offence. I was already planning to build a self-propelled vehicle as a demonstration of the power of scientific engineering; combining the two requirements was only natural."
  3356. > Hoofstrong looks back at your VIP.
  3357. > "And this demonstration you're planning... it's for who, exactly?"
  3358. > Anonymous licks his lips.
  3359. > "Her Majesty Princess Celestia, of course."
  3360. > With a frown, the Major-General leans back in her chair, her forehooves crossed in front of her chest.
  3361. > "Just to summarize, sir. You want to conduct manoeuvres involving a Royal Guard infantry NCO driving a carriage around at high speed, with a Royal Guard Air Defence Specialist firing training rounds up at a Royal Guard Armoured Scout. And you want to do these on Her Majesty's Royal Royal Eastern Cottage racetrack, on the Palace grounds, less than a week before the Grand Galloping Gala, with the city full of nobleponies, the palace full of labourers, and security on high alert..."
  3362. > She uncrosses her forehooves and places them on her desk.
  3363. > "... You understand, of course, that I have some concerns."
  3364. > Anonymous nods, slowly.
  3365. > "I do. But I'm trying to capitalize on a time-sensitive opportunity with the completion of my book, and I'm not aware of any other suitable venue."
  3366. > Hoof and carriage racing weren't hugely popular in Canterlot; Lieutenant Violetta had pointed that out when the possibility of relocating had come up.
  3367. > The next closest public track was halfway to Ponyville.
  3369. > But when Canterlot was founded, Princess Celestia wanted the capital palace of Equestria to be welcoming to all ponies and to promote all of their cultures, even if it was in a city of unicorns, so the Eastern Cottage track was put in.
  3370. > To Her Majesty's credit, it saw regular use, with a race most weekends in the summer and fall.
  3371. > The Major-General loudly breathes in and out, staring at the Royal Engineer.
  3372. > Finally, she seems to make up her mind.
  3373. > "You have me in an uncomfortable position, sir. I have enough load on my wings managing the city and the Gala that I don't want to have to worry about something else. But if I say 'no', you have the power to take it over my mane. You sit in the Blue Chamber; you could talk to Grand Marshal and have the order sent down from on high..."
  3374. > Raising her hooves up, she places them together, resting her elbows on the table.
  3375. > "... The question is, would that be worth your time to do, and how long would it take, and how long would I then need to *stall* to push it past the Gala, and what would it cost me?"
  3376. > Raising an eyebrow, she continues.
  3377. > "... Or is this so important to you that if you fail to get approval, you'll do it anyways and deal with the consequences later?"
  3378. > Anonymous doesn't have an immediate reply, and even you're flabbergasted by the directness of Major-General Hoofstrong's question -- or was it more of an accusation?
  3379. > She all but said flat out that she expected him to disobey rules to get his way, and that she would disobey a direct order to have her way, too.
  3380. > What kind of reply was she looking for with a statement like this?
  3381. > The Royal Engineer clasps his hands together, meshing his fingers into each other with a tight grip.
  3382. > "Major-General, shortly after arriving here I made it my mission to bring scientific advancement to Equestria. I know from my own world's history that it will inevitably involve ruffling a few feathers and stepping on a few hooves..."
  3384. > Relaxing his wrists, he lowers his hands slightly, still coupled.
  3385. > "... But I'm not going to run roughshod over Equestrian institutions and regulations without serious cause. I'm still a visitor here and I won't offend my hosts' hospitality. If I have to leave your office disappointed, then I'll just find something else to do for the next week."
  3386. > Hoofstrong pushes her chair sideways.
  3387. > "Maybe there is a way, if you could do something for me."
  3388. > Ah, now you're back on track.
  3389. > After the blunt impasse, here comes the political request.
  3390. > "I'd be happy to, Major-General. What would that be?"
  3391. > This is the part where she asks for the charges against Lieutenant Valiant Kilfeather to be dropped.
  3392. > Lt. Vi had already drawn up the paperwork if that was the price Anonymous was willing to pay.
  3393. > He hadn't been enthusiastic about it.
  3394. > "I want observers at your exercises, and an invitation for myself and for anyponies of my choosing to attend the final demonstration."
  3395. > What?
  3396. > Glamerspear scoffs out in surprise a little too loudly, attracting the attention of the two-star General.
  3397. > "... Is something wrong, Specialist?"
  3398. > Quickly resuming a formal posture, your unicorn comrade salutes.
  3399. > "No, ma'am! Sorry for the disturbance, ma'am!"
  3400. > Ignoring Anonymous, the Major-General continues to look down her muzzle at Glamerspear.
  3401. > "Nothing wrong, really? Nothing wrong with my request? Were you expecting a different one, maybe?"
  3402. > Lily goes wide-eyed, like she's just gotten stuck on the tracks with the Friendship Express hurtling towards her.
  3403. > "... Like dropping the court-martial challenge against Lieutenant Kilfeather, for example?"
  3404. > You're dumbstruck by the forcefulness of her questions, and the Royal Engineer is completely lost as well.
  3405. > Glamerspear is completely on her own.
  3406. > "... Maybe I ought to file up my court-martial challenge for the piece of work you did to my star Air Superiority pegasus' wings. What would you say to that, Specialist?"
  3408. > Flummoxed, the unicorn doesn't know what to say.
  3409. > Hoofstrong sneers, speaking sharply.
  3410. > "... Well? Where's your answer? You weren't so tight-lipped about your actions back when you were speaking at the Canterlot Palace Officers' Club last weekend, were you, Centurion?"
  3411. > Oh, buck.
  3412. > Did this just get personal?
  3413. > Glamerspear finally manages to find her voice, though it's a bit lacking.
  3414. > "I... Ma'am, if you... If you..."
  3415. > The officer instantly snaps back.
  3416. > "If I'd *what*, Specialist? Stuttered like an epileptic nag?"
  3417. > Glamerspear almost growls in reply.
  3418. > "No, ma'am. If you knew what Lieutenant Kilfeather was capable of, and if you had heard what he'd said that morning about Specialist Sparkshower, my comrade and my *friend*, and if you knew what he had *planned* to do with her if we'd agreed to his 'Pas-de-sabots' surrender demands, then you would've done *exactly* what I did, ma'am. I don't regret grounding him until his next molting one bit, Major-General, ma'am. You can court-martial me if you want, ma'am, but I'll fight it step of the way."
  3419. > By the end of her rant, Glamerspear is panting and her horn is glowing.
  3420. > To everypony's surprise, Hoofstrong leans back in her chair.
  3421. > "Good. I won't tolerate a coward in the Order of the Ram..."
  3422. > Tilting her head back, she brushes a hoof against the side of her mane.
  3423. > "... But you should still be more careful when you speak about an action you knew was political in nature. Giving Captain Mailedhoof and his high-society friends a good laugh is all well, but be mindful who's the real butt of the joke..."
  3424. > Nodding, she concludes.
  3425. > "... Because in this case, it was *me*."
  3426. > Glamerspear, thus diminished, salutes.
  3427. > "Yes, Major-General."
  3428. > Tilting her head, Hoofstrong looks over at the Royal Engineer.
  3429. > "I'm surprised you let her fight Kilfeather in the first place.  You allow your bodyguards a lot more freedom of action than most Canterlot VIPs ever do, mister Anonymous."
  3431. > He shrugs.
  3432. > "Who am I to tell them how to handle a social situation? They're the experts here, not me. Kilfeather's demands were outrageous, and maybe even criminal."
  3433. > She nods.
  3434. > "That'll be up to the Judge-Advocate General to decide..."
  3435. > Rolling her head sideways, she smirks.
  3436. > "... I don't actually care that your bodyguard trashed my premier Air Superiority fighter's wings. He achieved the political goal of humiliating Equestria's idle nobility, despite any subsequent mockery at his defeat..."
  3437. > Lifting her eyebrows, the smirk turns into a somewhat creepy smile.
  3438. > "... I don't even care that you have a batpony bodyguard, or that you were seen entering their Rookery on multiple occasions, despite my personal history with them."
  3439. > Now it's your turn to blurt out in surprise.
  3440. "You don't? Ma'am?"
  3441. > Major-General Hoofstrong shrugs, relaxing her expression.
  3442. > "No, I don't, Corporal, because even though I personally don't like them and don't personally trust them, I know that your VIP had no say in the assignment. Also, since you went to the trouble of politely asking for a meeting instead of just going straight over my head, I assume you have good reason to go visiting them under the mountain..."
  3443. > She turns to Anonymous.
  3444. > "... You *do* have a good reason, don't you?"
  3445. > Anonymous rubs his hands on his knees.
  3446. > "The first time, it maybe wasn't the best reason, General, though I think Princess Luna wanted it to be done. But since then, I've had very good reasons to go, and to continue to go."
  3447. > The Major-General nods, and you finally feel like you can start to read the emotions in her eyes.
  3448. > Despite the little theatrics, she's been calm the whole time.
  3449. > "I appreciate your honesty, sir, I really do..."
  3451. > Yawing her chair to and fro, she lifts an eyebrow.
  3452. > "... I also appreciate how you hauled in Lord Bitsmount on charges he should have faced years ago. If I'm sorry about anything related to Kilfeather, it's that he interfered with that operation. It's a shame Bitsmount managed to shake things off onto his underling; I hope you haven't given up on pursuing him."
  3453. > Anonymous sighs.
  3454. > "No, but I can't do much without any direct evidence."
  3455. > She nods.
  3456. > "Of course. And that's another honest answer that I appreciate as well..."
  3457. > Licking her lips, the Major-General leans forward again, looking almost eager.
  3458. > "... Okay. You want to run your drills on a racetrack which sees little use this time of year at the outer edge of the Canterlot Palace grounds. Doing it now means a bigger headache for me and my staff, but you're pressed for time; okay, fine. It's a prototype of military hardware, so I want to have some involvement -- observationally, at least..."
  3459. > Turning her chair sideways, she taps a forehoof on the table.
  3460. > "... You're talking about a device for shooting down flying things, and I run a division with twice as many wings as brains, so I think you'll agree that I have a vested interest in the matter."
  3461. > Anonymous chuckles at her joke.
  3462. > "Of course. It was never my intention to keep it a complete secret. I just didn't know who to invite. If you know who will be interested, then by all means bring them along; I'd be happy to have them see the demonstration."
  3463. > Hoofstrong smiles, turning her chair straight again.
  3464. > "Be careful what you wish for, Lord Anonymous. If I bring along everypony who might want a look at it, then even if your Centurion over there manages to shoot the stars themselves out of the sky while your driver dodges lightning bolts from the heavens and jets of flame from the earth, you'll have twenty contradictory opinions on how you ought to improve it."
  3466. > Your VIP laughs again.
  3467. > "Heh. To be honest, though, the demonstration is more about proving that engineering *can* do wondrous things, rather than necessarily leading to the construction of that exact device..."
  3468. > She looks a bit confused, so Anonymous continues.
  3469. > "... It's about convincing Princess Celestia to begin the important investments in manufacturing as soon as possible. There's so much more I can do with access to better materials."
  3470. > The Major-General licks her lips.
  3471. > "I see. That brings up one more question I have. I've already signed your authorization papers; Lieutenant Cloudhunter will hoof them to you at the front desk. But since you've been honest with me so far, I'd appreciate it if you could be honest with me one more time."
  3472. > She already knows about the batponies, about the Rookery, about Kilfeather, about Bitsmount...
  3473. > Even about Glamerspear blabbing to all the nobleponies in the Canterlot Palace Officers' Club in order to score herself a rich salt-lick in Captain Mailedhoof!
  3474. > What else could she possibly want to know?
  3475. > Anonymous folds his fingers together again.
  3476. > "What's the question?"
  3477. > Hoofstrong leans back in her chair, lowering one foreleg onto the leg-rest.
  3478. > "Why does Her Majesty Princess Celestia trust you so much?"
  3479. > What?
  3480. > What kind of a question was that?
  3481. > As if to answer you, she elaborates.
  3482. > "... You're a creature of a kind nopony had ever seen before, and you hadn't been in Equestria for more than two months before Princess Celestia and Her Majesty's Privy Council created a new station and elevated you to the second-highest political group in the land: Lord of the Blue Chamber. Why?"
  3483. > Anonymous takes a moment to reflect, then slowly shakes his head.
  3484. > "I don't know, and that's the honest answer."
  3485. > Hoofstrong isn't quite finished with him, however.
  3486. > "Did you show off some other engineering invention? Or was it something you said?"
  3488. > The Royal Engineer shrugs.
  3489. > "I didn't have anything to show off; I arrived with barely even any clothes on my back. All I had was just what I knew: my world, its wonders, its history, its culture. All I did was talk; to both of Their Majesties, and to experts they selected as well. I'm glad they believed me, and I'm honoured by what they gave me, but I was surprised when they told me where they wanted to put me..."
  3490. > He frowns.
  3491. > "...Why does it matter to you, General?"
  3492. > She shakes her head.
  3493. > "I suppose it doesn't. I just like to know who I'm dealing with..."
  3494. > Getting to her hind hooves, she extends a forehoof.
  3495. > "... That's all from me, sir. Everything will cleared for your exercises. Notify the CPMO at least two hours before you begin; they'll pass the word on to my division so I can have somepony there to observe, if I can spare them."
  3496. > Anonymous stands up and shakes the proffered hoof.
  3497. > "Thank-you, Major-General. I appreciate it."
  3502. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you haven't been dressed-down that badly by anypony since...
  3503. > Well, not since your mom caught you out on the street stumbling home blind drunk after a party in high school.
  3504. > She'd trotted you right up the apartment stairs to the third floor, sat you down on the sofa, woken up the whole family (maybe even the whole building), and then proceeded to give you the business.
  3505. > All in front of your four older brothers, who kept quiet, and your hungover dad, who didn't.
  3506. > The bucking hypocrite.
  3507. > In the end, mom failed to scare you straight off of booze, though the experience of that night -- her shouting, plus the voluminous amounts of vomiting you later underwent in the washroom -- did lead to a change in your behaviour, and you never again left a party so completely hammered.
  3508. > At least, not while your mom was working day shifts at the hospital.
  3509. > When she was rotated to the night shift, on the other hoof...
  3510. > Well, even then.
  3511. > Your brothers got the hint when she'd laid into them for failing to keep watch over you, and they stepped up their supervision, though they mostly kept it subtle and hooves-off.
  3512. > For a pack of dorks, they could be pretty sneaky when they needed to.
  3513. > That was almost five years ago, and nopony's berated you quite so severely since, though that fight with Sparkshower over the Gala ticket came close.
  3514. > And, sure, the 'shoe camp drill sergeants could shout pretty loud, but that didn't count either.
  3515. > They were SUPPOSED to ride everypony rough in order to break in the foals and turn 'em into warriors.
  3516. > Even if the perfect soldier stepped in through the paddock gates, they'd still find something to complain about, and 'shoe camp drill-sergeant insults bordered on rear-up comedy.
  3517. > No, Major-General Hoofstrong's criticism had stung, and it was for the same reason your mother's words had stung, too.
  3519. > Both of those old mares were right, and you knew it.
  3520. > It wasn't proper for a teenage filly to be blundering into Manehattan trashcans, staggering around in a stupor at three in the morning.
  3521. > And it was a dirty deed to gloat about shredding Kilfeather's wings to a room full of noblepony officers, too.
  3522. > Though it certainly had achieved your short-term objectives: access to Captain Mailedhoof's loins, and through them, his wallet as well.
  3523. > But it sure put your Very Important Pony, who wasn't actually a pony, in a bit of a tight spot with the Major-General.
  3524. > She was trying to put a horseshoe to nobleponies just like Mailedhoof, who bought their way into the fashionable palace guard and pretended to serve their country, all while slacking at their duties with the knowledge that their regiments were seldom called upon for anything beyond pomp and circumstance.
  3525. > You had to respect a mare like that; especially one who, despite her own noble heritage, had enlisted as a common soldier first, then prestiged as a mustang into the officer corps.
  3526. > Much like you had to respect your own mother, who worked long, awkward hours at a tough job to put hay on the table and help four of her foals through college, and all while saddled down by a roving, alcoholic, miscreant tramp of a husband.
  3527. > It was something to ponder, all right, as you telekinetically open the Royal Engineer's chamber-doors ahead of him.
  3528. > What was next for today, though?
  3529. > More exercises, as he'd wanted?
  3530. > You were game to put some more rounds into the sky, and into Artemis' shields.
  3531. > Whether she'd be up to receive them in her current miserable state, however...
  3532. > "I think that went rather well, don't you?"
  3533. > Anonymous speaks up for the first time since the meeting with Hoofstrong ended, besides the little guidance he gave Corporal Bound on manoeuvring his automobile through traffic.
  3534. > "Yes, sir."
  3535. > Honour had been pretty quiet, too, though that was hardly out of character for her.
  3537. > As you and the Corporal take up your places astride the double doors, he turns to face you, his hands on his hips.
  3538. > "What do you think, Specialist?"
  3539. > What, Honour's answer wasn't good enough for him?
  3540. > You shrug.
  3541. "Yeah, it went well. You got what you wanted, didn't you, sir?"
  3542. > He nods.
  3543. > "I did, didn't I? More than I wanted, even..."
  3544. > Suddenly energetic, he smiles and loosens his tie.
  3545. > "... I think I'm still a little shocked by how easy it was, after all the dire warnings there'd been. I was almost hoping one of you would point out that it had actually gone badly after all."
  3546. > He laughs, unbuttoning his collar and cuffs.
  3547. > You chuckle along, but it's Honour who speaks up, furrowing her brow.
  3548. > "Actually, I was thinking about that on the way back, sir..."
  3549. > Anonymous grins.
  3550. > "Daydreaming while driving, Corporal? You must really be getting comfortable behind the tiller."
  3551. > She swallows.
  3552. > "Yes, sir. A little. But, as to Major-General Hoofstrong... Divisional appointments are subject to Her Majesty's approval. In Equestria's history, plenty of aspiring field commanders have been shunted into desk jobs in the Great General Staff instead -- not that that's a bad place to be, of course, but Princess Celestia is often said to have had a hoof in it."
  3553. > The Royal Engineer cocks an eyebrow as he hangs up his jacket.
  3554. > "What are you saying, Corporal?"
  3555. > Sucking on her lips, she shakes her head.
  3556. > "I don't know exactly, sir. Maybe we should have recognized that Her Majesty wouldn't have put Hoofstrong in command of the First Air Division if she didn't think the Major-General wasn't good at handling ponies, both those under her command and those outside of it. Like the nobles of the city, or yourself, for example."
  3557. > She wasn't spouting crazy talk.
  3558. > As much as Celestia was held up as a sort of all-loving mother-figure of Equestria, she was also often considered to be kinda... eccentric.
  3560. > Her obsession with cake, for one, often made the gossip news, though it was rarely scandalous, and the Princess always laughed off anypony who approached her about it.
  3561. > A couple of times a year 'Canterlot Match' would manage to snap a photo of her halfway into some unbecomingly enormous mouthful of cake, for example.
  3562. > 'Princess Celestia spotted gobbling down thick chocolate roll', that sort of thing.
  3563. > But the interesting stuff came from ponies who regularly attended Day Court, where Celestia had a reputation of being 'playfully cryptic', in the words of Canterlot Match's political correspondent.
  3564. > Exerting a little influence like selecting General Staff versus Field officers based on sociability would be just the kind of decision she might make.
  3565. > Rolling up his sleeves, Anonymous nods his head.
  3566. > "In other words, if she really was obstinate and hard to deal with, Her Majesty wouldn't have allowed the appointment. I suppose it's possible, though I certainly don't know Equestria's sun-sovereign well enough to say for sure."
  3567. > That brings to mind something else Hoofstrong said during the meeting.
  3568. "Is it really true what you told the Major-General, sir? About your appointment?"
  3569. > The Royal Engineer looks over at you, suddenly no longer quite so energetic, as you continue.
  3570. "... You really don't know why Princess Celestia appointed you to this post?"
  3571. > It was a bit hard to believe that somepony appointed to the Blue Council wouldn't know why.
  3572. > You felt certain Hoofstrong knew why Celestia agreed to her appointment as commander of the 1st Air Division.
  3573. > Anonymous turns his head sideways and licks his lips.
  3574. > "I really don't, Specialist."
  3575. > You cock an eyebrow.
  3576. "And you never asked why?"
  3577. > He shakes his head.
  3578. > "No. It was so much of a shock to me at the time that I didn't think to question it. Since then, it's still been a bit of a mystery, but not enough for me to feel it was worth bringing up..."
  3580. > Shrugging, he slips his hands into his trousers pockets.
  3581. > "... I suppose I could ask the next time I see Her Majesty, but it almost feels like I'd be questioning the trust she placed in me if I did."
  3582. > You look over at the Corporal, hoping for a little backup from Ms. Understands-the-Inner-Workings-of-the-Officer-Corps, but she appears lost in thought.
  3583. > Guess it's just you and your rumours courtesy of the Officers' Club and the 'Canterlot Match' gossip pages.
  3584. "I mean... I doubt Her Majesty would be offended. I've never heard of her being offended about anything, actually -- and believe me, she's had to deal with some real bozos at Day Court."
  3585. > Your eyes bulge open when you put a few numbers together.
  3586. "... Probably a *lotta* bozos, when she's been holding Court for over a thousand years."
  3587. > It's kind of a weak argument, and Anonymous' disbelieving expression tells you as much, but the Corporal sends some supporting fire your way.
  3588. > "Her Majesty also runs a private school for gifted unicorns here in Canterlot; the classes are mostly taught by other ponies, but Princess Celestia takes a personal hoof in tutoring particular students and even in teaching one or two of the courses..."
  3589. > With the Royal Engineer's attention, she continues.
  3590. > "... Some of Equestria's best mages graduate from that school, and they almost universally praise Her Majesty for opening their eyes to questioning everything around them."
  3591. > Anonymous nods.
  3592. > "All right, I'll think about it. But the next time I see Princess Celestia, I want first and foremost to impress her with our little demonstration. It's crucial that I show her what I can do with just bronze and brass while I talk about what I *could* do with steel."
  3593. > He looks you in the eye, and you beam a smile.
  3594. "I'm game for another exercise this afternoon, sir."
  3595. > Honour manages a thin-lipped equivalent when he turns his attention towards her.
  3596. > "I'm good, sir. I'm not so sure about Specialist Sparkshower, though."
  3598. > The Royal Engineer takes a seat on a stool in front of his workbenches.
  3599. > "Yes, I'm not surprised that she needs a little more time to recover. That was quite a break-up; give her my best when you break for lunch, won't you?"
  3600. > "Yes, sir."
  3601. > Picking up one of the random brass gizmos from the table, he turns it over in his hands.
  3602. > "To be honest, I was actually thinking of working some more on the mechanicals of the car today. I've got some changes that should make you happier in the driver's seat, Corporal."
  3603. > To his surprise, she interrupts him.
  3604. > "Like a steering wheel, or brake and accelerator pedals, sir?"
  3605. > Anonymous' shock turns to delight, and he laughs.
  3606. > "Ha! You *have* been reading my book, Corporal. Yes, exactly that; the delivery yesterday was springs, pedals, and linkage for a system of inboard brakes that won't be so easily left on by accident -- or cooked off if they are. The steering wheel needs gearing, which is a bit complicated, so I'm leaving it for later. You're not having difficulty with the tiller, are you? I figured that stopping & going was the more pressing problem."
  3607. > Corporal Bound's thin smile turns into something a little more legitimate.
  3608. > "I'm managing the tiller just fine, sir. But I would certainly appreciate more control over acceleration and deceleration."
  3609. > He nods.
  3610. > "You'll get it. The only other thing on my mind is, after a day spent underneath the wheels of that carriage, I'm going to want to stretch my legs and get some exercise in the evening. I was hoping we could maybe visit the Rookery again tonight, try some more moves in the Grand Hall of Stars..."
  3611. > Oh, buck.
  3612. > You didn't have anything against sparring with the Royal Engineer; it was tiring, sure, but he was an entertaining target.
  3613. > And you *were* looking forward to speaking with Ignacio, the 'Balladeer of Ghosts', again.
  3614. > The problem was you'd gotten a calling-card from Captain Mailedhoof this morning.
  3616. > He wanted to meet for dinner & cocktails, and you knew what would happen afterwards.
  3617. > You didn't want to disappoint your wealthy benefactor -- not until you'd picked up your Gala dress from Louis Valise, at least!
  3618. > Waving a hand, Anonymous continues.
  3619. > "... But then I realized what day it is and decided against it."
  3620. > Oh, thank Celestia.
  3621. > "What do you mean 'what day it is', sir?"
  3622. > Damnit, Honour!
  3623. > Don't buck this up!
  3624. > You needed Mailedhoof's saddle-purse, and to be honest, you appreciated the flank it was attached to, as well.
  3625. > For a blue-blooded noblepony who'd been born to a silver trough endlessly full of hay, the Captain sure knew how to plough your fields.
  3626. > Unf, you're getting a bit hot under the collar just thinking about his mighty stroke...
  3627. > Anonymous puts on a wry smile.
  3628. > "It's Saturday, Corporal. I may not have much of a social life going on right now, but I do remember what it's like. I'm not going to steal away your Saturday evening just so I can have some fun swinging wooden swords in the sand..."
  3629. > Wow.
  3630. > You really did luck out on the lottery with this Very Important Pony.
  3631. > And he wasn't even a pony!
  3632. > Corporal Bound shakes her head.
  3633. > "Sir, you really shouldn't be-"
  3634. > DAMNIT HONOUR!
  3635. > Anonymous just holds up a hand.
  3636. > "I've already made my decision, Corporal. I'll work on the car today, jog around in the evening, then tomorrow we can all sleep in, conduct another exercise in the early afternoon, and visit the Rookery later at night. Makes sense?"
  3637. > With a rueful look, she nods.
  3638. > "Yes, sir."
  3639. > Passing the gadget from one hand to the other and back again, the Royal Engineer glances between the two of you.
  3640. > "Two young Royal Guardsmares in the capital city, in early spring? Don't tell me neither of you can get a date on a Saturday night."
  3641. > You puff out your tuft a little bit.
  3642. "There's a calling-card upstairs from a gentlecolt inviting me out later, sir."
  3644. > He looks over at Honour, who sheepishly fesses up as well.
  3645. > "I've... got a dinner date tonight, too."
  3646. > AHA!
  3647. > Wait, was she so nervous about seeing her slow-playing coltfriend again that she *wanted* your VIP to override her plans?
  3648. > This mare, you swear.
  3649. > Her view's so screwed up she needs a good eye-crossing rutting just to straighten her out again.
  3650. > "Well, I hope he's a gentlecolt, too, Corporal. Now, who's on the evening shift today?"
  3651. > Honour takes a deep breath, settling back down after her embarrassing revelation.
  3652. > "Sergeant Ebonshield, sir."
  3653. > Anonymous holds his hands up, palms forward.
  3654. > "Just an idea, Corporal, but... I wonder if it would be good for Specialist Sparkshower to instead assist me in working on the automobile tonight. Maybe it's just me, but I find that simple physical work helps me refocus when I'm stressed..."
  3655. > He chuckles awkwardly.
  3656. > "... You should've seen how quickly I finished changing all eight damn spark plugs in my Mustang after my break-up, when I'd been angrily sitting on fixing the thing for most of the summer after breaking two of them off in the engine..."
  3657. > A *what* plug?
  3658. > For a *Mustang*?!
  3659. > It sounded like some kind of bizarrely personalized pony sexual accessory...
  3660. > Shrugging and waving one hand dismissively, he continues.
  3661. > "... Anyways, she's also a good jogging partner, so that works out well, too. See if she's interested, maybe? But only if you think it's a good idea for her, Corporal. It doesn't really matter either way if it's her or Ebonshield helping me wrench in the evening; I just need somepony to pass me tools and help me check alignments. Simple work."
  3662. > Honour nods.
  3663. > "Yes, sir. I think it might be good for her, but I'll check first... Which reminds me, sir, I wanted to ask you something else about the meeting..."
  3664. > The Royal Engineer drops his hands to his sides.
  3665. > "You too? Sure."
  3666. > *Now* what mustard's gotten up her snout?
  3668. > "Sir, how come you took the blame for failing to look up regulations? That was my duty, and we agreed I'd admit responsibility for it."
  3669. > Anonymous sighs.
  3670. > "I know we talked about it before leaving, Corporal, and I did remember the discussion. It was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision; after our talk, I decided that I ought to try to be more answerable for my actions here. I can't go on playing the 'newly-arrived-alien' card forever, and I do still feel responsible for rushing into the exercise without considering things. You certainly couldn't drive around a racetrack firing rounds up into the air in *my* world without jumping through some legal hoops first..."
  3671. > Standing up, he puts the metal doohickey back down.
  3672. > "... The way Hoofstrong seemed to be eyeing the two of you also put me on the defensive; I don't really know why. But I thought taking responsibility for ignorance of the rules would cost me nothing on top of what I'd already said, anyways."
  3673. > It makes sense to you, but you know exactly what Corporal Bound is gonna say.
  3674. > 'We're your guards, sir, you're not supposed to cover for us, we're supposed to cover for you.'
  3675. > "But we're your guards, sir. You're not supposed to protect us, we're supposed to protect *you*."
  3676. > Damn, Glam, you should've seriously considered a career in telepathy.
  3677. > The signing bonus for enlisting as a 35PSY was huge.
  3678. > You're sure you could could only do personal interrogations, though; one-on-one, up-close and personal.
  3679. > Maybe with a little bit of conjured physical persuasion for uncooperative subjects, heh.
  3680. > You'd definitely never survive sitting in one of those sensory-deprivation chambers they used for long-range empathic scanning, that's for sure.
  3681. > Ah, who are you kidding, you could never be a 35PSY or any other Pony Other than Grunt.
  3682. > 14E Air Defence all the way; screw those fat-plot POG jobs.
  3684. > The Royal Engineer raises his hands.
  3685. > "Yes, Corporal, I know, but I'm not going to make you take a hit that wouldn't so much as scratch me. Admitting responsibility cost me nothing -- in fact, it may have even put Hoofstrong more on my side, given how pleased she was with my honest approach overall. I'm sorry I went back on our agreement, but I won't apologize for my snap decision. It was the right call in the end."
  3686. > Jeez.
  3687. > He almost sounds a bit upset.
  3688. > Honour must've pressed him on this kind of stuff before, and he's tired of hearing it.
  3689. > Well, he's the boss.
  3690. > Corporal Bound is appropriately contrite.
  3691. > "Yes, sir."
  3692. > Taking a deep breath, Anonymous looks around his room.
  3693. > "Okay, then. Let's break for lunch; I'm going to change into my coveralls, gather up my tools and parts, and call for a porter to haul everything to the carriage-house. See you after lunch, Corporal. And have a good afternoon, Specialist."
  3694. "Yes, sir."
  3695. > You pull open the door and salute as Corporal Bound leaves the room.
  3696. > Still saluting towards the Royal Engineer, you back out and shut the door behind you.
  3697. > Honour has already started walking down the hall, and you scurry up after her.
  3698. "Hey, Corporal?"
  3699. > Appearing frustrated, she doesn't looking your direction.
  3700. > "Yes, Specialist?"
  3701. "How many times have you given him that whole the-guard-dies-and-does-not-surrender spiel?"
  3702. > That gets you a sharp glare.
  3703. > Then she inhales sharply and looks forward again.
  3704. > "A few."
  3705. > You trot up so you can look back at her.
  3706. "Yeah? And how many more times you gonna give it before he finally tells you to shove it up your plot?"
  3707. > Ooh, foal, the look she's giving you right now -- smouldering!
  3708. > "Until he understands that we're supposed to be disposable, and he isn't, Glamerspear."
  3709. > You laugh.
  3710. > This mare is crazy, all right.
  3711. "Come the buck on, Corporal! You want to fall on your spear so badly -- why? Just to prove that you can?"
  3713. > She just stares silently at you, so you continue.
  3714. "... Look, I know you've been a VIP bodyguard for a while, now-"
  3715. > "Yes, I have, Glamerspear."
  3716. > Yeah, okay, sure, mare, just buckin'... *listen* for once.
  3717. "... Yeah, but I don't get how you don't see that we're just supposed to be *window dressing* for VIPs like the Royal Engineer. And if he wants to hang us up one way, then who are we to say no?"
  3718. > This time, she stops.
  3719. > "We are *not* window-dressing, Glamerspear. Disposable, yes, but window-dressing, no..."
  3720. > Before you can fully screw up your eyebrows, she prods a hoof into your chest armour.
  3721. > "... While you were outside gunning down Changelings, I spent the invasion piling furniture in front of windows and doors and fending off bug scouts while my terrified VIP cowered in their palace chamber's washroom..."
  3722. > She stamps that same hoof down on the carpeted floor.
  3723. > "... And the Royal Engineer is doing *good* work for Equestria. *Important* work. If you'd read that book of his or listened to him talk about his inventions, you'd know that he deserves every bit of protection we can give him, even if he doesn't want it."
  3724. > Sitting down on your haunches, you plead with your stubborn Corporal -- was there any other kind?
  3725. "Okay, sure, yes, I like him and his automobile is pretty cool and if he needs somepony's muzzle caved in with a conjured spear or two all he's gotta do is point and tell me 'go'; I get it. But when it's a minor detail like this business of apologizing to Hoofstrong, why are you going after him like this? It's as if you're trying to pick a fight! Is this what happened when you told him off for having his furniture moved around without a bodyguard escort, too?"
  3726. > She doesn't answer, so you chuckle.
  3727. "... I mean, what, are you one of those mares who starts an argument just for the make-up bouquet of flowers afterwards?"
  3728. > "Buck off, Glamerspear."
  3729. > Ha!
  3730. > Touched a nerve, there!
  3731. "Well, what is it, then?"
  3733. > She just shakes her head.
  3734. > "I don't owe you an explanation for my actions any more than I've already given you, Glamerspear. If you don't like it, you just sit there with your mouth closed the next time it happens. But I'm sure as buck not trying to start an argument for argument's sake..."
  3735. > Resuming her walk toward the stairs, she grumbles.
  3736. > "... Now, drop it and let's go grab Sparkshower for lunch, see how she's doing..."
  3737. > Sighing, she turns the corner with you at her side.
  3738. > "... You want to talk about a personal problem, forget the one you're imagining I have, and instead focus on the quaternion-member who's just broken up with the only coltfriend they've ever had, in just about the roughest way it's possible to have broken up."
  3739. > Well, she's right about that.
  3740. > Hopefully, Sparkshower takes to light work with the Royal Engineer like... like the Royal Engineer took to spark plugs on a mustang?
  3741. > It still sounds dirty to you.
  3746. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you're not one-hundred-percent certain you understand what's going on.
  3747. > "Okay, I've marked it off. Now, we'll cut it down..."
  3748. > The Royal Engineer *does* understand, though, and he's giving you a play-by-play report that makes things a little less muddled, at least.
  3749. > His car is raised up on stands a good seven hooves up in the air, and you were hovering in place beside him underneath it, helping hold up a long brass pole that he's just marked off with chalk.
  3750. > But now he takes the pole all by himself and steps over to his workbench, laying it in a heavy iron vise.
  3751. > "... Could you hand -- uh, hoof -- me the hacksaw over there?"
  3752. > He points at a toolbox on the ground, and you flutter over to grab the tool in question while he clamps the pole in place.
  3753. > Returning to your Very Important Pony, you hover to watch him put on his safety goggles and then begin to work.
  3755. > Cutting metal sure is noisy!
  3756. > And slow, too -- four full strokes and he's barely made a small notch in the brass pole.
  3757. > Anonymous pauses for a second to wipe his brow on his sleeve.
  3758. > It's been a long couple of hours, working in the garage.
  3759. > So far, he had drilled holes in the carriage near the driver's seat, measured several brass poles by test-fitting them underneath, cut those same poles down, and then threaded the ends with a die so that they can be bolted together.
  3760. > You're sweating a bit yourself, and you weren't even doing most of the work, just helping out by lifting and holding things.
  3761. > The garage was poorly ventilated, not really being designed for this kind of major undertaking.
  3762. > It had been a very warm spring day today, too.
  3764. > You'd be sweating a lot more if the Royal Engineer hadn't insisted that you leave your armour behind.
  3765. > "... Damn these bars are tough. Or maybe it's the saw that's weak. You know, I probably should've ordered a *hollow* tube for lightness, but I didn't want to take a chance on it bending or breaking..."
  3766. > Exhaling forcefully, he pulls off his work gloves and begins to unbutton his denim overalls.
  3767. > "... This rod is going to be controlling the brakes, after all. Can't have those failing while we're driving about."
  3768. > Tearing his shoulders and arms out of the heavy work clothes, he slips his gloves back on.
  3769. > Now all he's got covering his skin up top is a simple white sleeveless shirt, his legs still in the overalls.
  3770. > "... Ahh, that's better. It's hot in here..."
  3771. > With a satisfied sigh, he continues to saw, sending little shavings of metal showering down on the floor.
  3773. > Eyes down on the work, he talks in-between huffs and puffs of air.
  3774. > "... By the way, Specialist, is that a different weapon you've got with you today?"
  3775. > Despite being ordered to leave your armour upstairs, you hadn't come *completely* unprepared for a fight.
  3776. > After all, that was your primary duty!
  3777. "Yes, sir. It's a magic weapon: the 'Bradamante' lance, made by Anthony Theolonicus almost three hundred years ago. Major Lady Growler, the commander of the Valkyries, gave it to me yesterday after we ran into her at the Spa Dalecarlia."
  3778. > You pull the item in question off of your back and present it with your forehooves, still in its 'compact' form.
  3780. > "It sounds impressive; that was very generous of her. Was there a particular motivation for the gift?"
  3782. > You shrug, a little embarrassed.
  3783. "Lady Growler said it was an apology for having accused me of spying at the Watchtower, sir. And a reward for having helped to beat Kilfeather; apparently, her Valkyries had a rivalry at the MXP games with his Air Superiority Wing."
  3785. > "Interesting. And it's magic, you say? Is that what the stirrup's for?"
  3786. "Yes, sir, it activates-"
  3787. > Wait.
  3788. > He *knows* what a *stirrup* is?
  3789. > Surely not.
  3790. > You must have misheard.
  3791. "... Sorry, you said 'stirrup', sir?"
  3792. > Anonymous pauses and glances up from his work, then points at the device.
  3793. > "Yes, a stirrup. As on a saddle? That's what that is, dangling from that strap, isn't it?"
  3794. > He...
  3795. > He knows what a *saddle* is, too?
  3796. > How was that even possible!?
  3797. > Your Very Important Pony wasn't from this world, and he wasn't even a pony!
  3798. > How could he possibly know about stirrups and saddles...
  3799. > As you watch the tall, strong, swift, smart, and amiable alien saw away, arms glistening with sweat in the light from the magical torches, you start to feel a bit light-headed.
  3800. > You... you have to land right now.
  3801. > Swallowing, you alight on one of the tall stools nearby, but your wings refuse to fold up.
  3802. > Hopefully, he doesn't notice.
  3803. > You lower your voice to almost a whisper, even though the garage is empty inside but for the two of you.
  3804. "... Uhm... You... You know what a saddle is, sir?"
  3805. > Anonymous chuckles as if you'd said something silly.
  3806. > "Heh. Of course I do, Specialist. We have them in my world, too..."
  3807. > He does!
  3808. > And they do!?
  3810. > With a smile, he returns to his sawing.
  3812. > "... You could even say I'd used one, though that might be pushing things. It was at a tourist ranch, just a little pleasure ride for about an hour. I didn't fall off or anything like that, but I didn't really feel like I was in control of anything with the reins."
  3815. > *WHAT* was going on right now?!
  3816. > Was it a prank?
  3817. > Did Lily or Purity or maybe even Honour put him up to this?
  3818. > But how did they even *know* that you were into-
  3820. > "... It was fun, but all things being equal, I think I prefer riding my Mustang."
  3821. > Okay, now that last one there doesn't make really any sense at all to you.
  3822. > Unless Anonymous had a formerly-enlisted-Royal-Guardspony-who-became-an-officer-later locked away in a secret room somewhere...
  3823. > Locked away, maybe, with a bit in their mouth, a bridle around their muzzle, a saddle on their back...
  3824. > Waiting to be ridden...
  3825. > Longing... to be ridden...
  3826. > ...maybe even with a crop...
  3827. > You find your mouth growing dry; you're panting heavily.
  3828. > No, no!
  3829. > The Royal Engineer wasn't that kind of pony, he couldn't be!
  3830. > ... Except he wasn't a pony, at all.
  3831. > Oh, hurricanes!
  3832. > It was all so overwhelming.
  3833. > Here you are, a day after...
  3834. > Well, you don't even want to *think* about what day this is after; not yet.
  3835. > Anyways, here you are, and you find out that the colt you are assigned to guard, the colt who took you out to the theatre as a friend rather than a servant, the colt who offered you a free ticket to the Grand Galloping Gala as a full guest, the colt who had never been anything less than a pure-hearted and soft-spoken gentlepony...
  3836. > *That* colt had experimented with... *tackplay*.
  3838. > And he spoke freely about it!
  3839. > Which is what was truly remarkable.
  3840. > Was it simply the confidence that came from experience?
  3841. > Or was he so confident and assured of his position that he didn't fear any potential social embarrassment?
  3842. > Or, since he seemed to be speaking of an event that happened before arriving in Equestria, maybe his society was just more open-minded about this sort of thing.
  3844. > "... Anyways, I'm losing my focus. You can show me the lance tomorrow, when we go down into the Rookery. Let's get these connecting rods bolted into place before I'm too worn out to go for a jog afterwards."
  3845. > Seeing the Royal Engineer in a new light, albeit a confusing one, you watch your VIP saw through the brass pole.
  3846. > Maybe...
  3847. > You take a deep breath.
  3848. > Maybe when you're feeling a little more level-headed about your situation, and when you're private again, you could ask him a little more about his experience at the 'tourist ranch'.
  3853. Suggested background music: (The Rascals - 'Mustang Sally' [1966])
  3856. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and this is the squeakiest bed you've been in since 'shoe camp.
  3857. > But that really shouldn't be foremost on your mind right now.
  3858. "Ahhh!"
  3859. > Another electrifyingly pleasurable shock courses through your spine as the colt on top of you rams home another bullseye.
  3860. > "Yeah, who's your sire?"
  3861. > You hadn't realized Mailedhoof was a talker.
  3862. > He didn't say much last time, but then again, you didn't give him much to talk about, and you didn't really pay attention after you'd done your duty with the 'amuse-bouche' appetizer.
  3863. > This time, he'd gone straight for the main course.
  3864. > The talking wasn't really doing much for you, for no particular reason, but you played along for his enjoyment.
  3865. "Ooh, you are, Monty, you are."
  3867. > *SLAP*
  3868. > A forehoof swiftly slaps your plot, just behind your cutie mark, and you bite your lower lip as the sudden contact triggers an echo of the earlier sensation.
  3869. "...Mmfff!"
  3870. > On top of you, Montgomery Mailedhoof leans into your ear and growls as he thrusts in again.
  3871. > "That's no way to address a superior officer."
  3872. > Pushing back as best you can, you turn your head and moan in a breathy voice.
  3873. "Ohhhmmm... You are, Captain, you are... *sir*."
  3874. > You can feel your eyes roll back into your head as he ploughs deeper inside, stimulating areas that have been neglected for far too long.
  3875. > "Yes, I am..."
  3877. > Another grunt, and another hip-on-hip contact that makes you momentarily lose control of your neck muscles, your head collapsing against the bedspread.
  3879. > No wonder you barely remembered the first encounter except for the explosions going off in your head.
  3880. > Captain Montgomery Mailedhoof was dynamite between the sheets, and the colt knew it, too.
  3881. > "... Now, tell me you want it."
  3882. > Buck, do you ever.
  3883. "I want it."
  3884. > Mailedhoof scratches your itch like no other colt you've been with.
  3886. > And from oral your experience last week, it wasn't so much the length as that he *knew* just the right angle to-
  3887. "*MMMMFFff!*"
  3888. > -Yeah, just the right angle to get it where you needed it most.
  3889. > "How badly do you want it, Specialist?"
  3890. > Oh so now you're using ranks?
  3891. > He *must* have a thing for enlisted ponies; maybe subordinate officers, too.
  3892. "I want it, sir..."
  3893. > That gets you another pleasing thrust, though it's not quite a-
  3894. "Ahhh!"
  3895. > And there's the electric-pulse spot touched off again.
  3896. > When you recover your senses, you give the follow-up phrase you know he's expecting.
  3898. "... Ooooh, I want it bad."
  3899. > Another slap, on the other side of your plot.
  3900. > Another hind-hoof-kickingly-delightful echo.
  3901. > "You need it, don't you, you dirty little grunt."
  3902. > Buck, and to think Honour almost cucked you out of tonight with her stupid hang-ups about duty and service.
  3903. "Gnnnnhhh."
  3904. > Your body convulses backwards involuntarily, like a reflex for seeking out pleasure.
  3905. > Not that you were going to order it to do anything different.
  3906. "... Yes, mmmmhh, I need it, Captain..."
  3907. > Did he want you to beg?
  3908. > Some colts liked that.
  3909. > "I don't believe you. Convince me."
  3910. > Yeah, he wanted you to beg.
  3912. "... I need it, Captain, oh, I need it... NGHHnn-Aahahhh! Yes!"
  3913. > For a moment, you touched ecstasy -- but just for a moment.
  3914. > Mailedhoof isn't done having his way with you quite yet.
  3916. > "Have you ever had anypony as good as me?"
  3917. > Celestia, the only thing dwarfing the bed skills of this colt was his ego.
  3918. > You could put up with that, particularly given that his purse wasn't too much smaller, either.
  3920. > Lowering your forehooves to angle your rear up even higher, you shake your head.
  3921. "No, never, sir. You're -- Oooooohhh! -- You're the best, sir."
  3922. > One of your eyes refuses to stay completely shut, fluttering open and closed like you're having a stroke.
  3923. > You *really* needed this.
  3924. > Tartarus, you *deserved* this after all the hard work you put in this week!
  3925. > VIP duty was supposed to be eight hours of standing around a day, nights out on the town, with or without the Very Important Pony in question.
  3927. > You mean, despite having Captain Mailedhoof in your sights, you wouldn't have said 'no' if the Royal Engineer had asked for a little 'private service', too.
  3928. > Okay, maybe not initially -- not when you still thought he was a weird hairless too-tall monkey-creature.
  3929. > "Who's the best, Specialist?"
  3930. > Panting heavily, you stop to swallow and brush the drool from your mouth.
  3932. "Ah-huh... Ahh... You're the best, Captain Mailedhoof. You're the best."
  3933. > From the open-mouthed grunt you receive in reply, you can tell he's close to finishing.
  3934. > He's not going to leave you hanging, is he?
  3935. > After the railing he gave you last week, you sure hope not...
  3936. > "Say it again, grunt!"
  3938. > Despite being ready to burst, he doesn't let up his pace even for an instant.
  3939. "You're the best, Captain Mailedhoof! You're the best and... and I need it... And I need it..."
  3940. > He'd better slow down or else-
  3942. > "Gnnnnngggghhhhh!"
  3943. > There's a burst of energy as he explodes inside you, but it's not enough to throw you over the edge.
  3944. > Damn -- and you were so close, too.
  3945. > Your eyes open and you whimper as you feel the noblecolt body suddenly grow heavy on your back.
  3946. > After moment without motion, there's another slap on your plot.
  3947. "Ahh!"
  3948. > It sends shivers down your legs and up your back, but it's a cruel tease, as the Captain pulls his boat out of your harbour.
  3950. > You hear hooves touch the floor as the bed creaks one last time, and the wastebasket rattles as something's thrown into it.
  3951. > "... Clean yourself up and you can see yourself out. My family is back, so evenings are off until after the Gala; I'll call if something else opens up during the day."
  3952. > Hoofsteps, and then the door to Captain Mailedhoof's palace-chamber's 'extra guest room' opens and closes without any further ceremony.
  3953. > Buck, what an asshole.
  3954. > Well, you didn't go after him for his personality.
  3955. > Rolling onto your back, you stare up at the ceiling, still half breathless.
  3956. > You're still so wound up, you're tempted to give yourself a quick finish right here.
  3957. > At least it's more private than trying to do it in the quarters above the Royal Engineer's chambers.
  3958. > Well, why not?
  3959. > Only, you can't think about Montgomery Mailedhoof -- not after how he just discarded you like he did the used leather protective sheath.
  3960. > The Royal Engineer would never treat his mare that way, you were certain...
  3961. > Hmmm...
  3962. > The way he'd energetically rolled around in the sand with Sergeant Ebonshield; that stamina, that strength, that drive.
  3963. > Your shut your eyes and lower your forehooves as your mind drifts back to the manaburn-induced fever dreams you'd had about him.
  3964. > And that contour-tracing halter shirt...
  3965. > And those tight shorts...
  3966. > And that revealing swimsuit...
  3967. > With the bulge that left just enough to your imagination.
  3969. "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm...ohh ohh ohhhhhh... ahhhhhhhh."
  3970. > It's a quiet one, but it's no less satisfying.
  3971. > A tingling sensation pulses through your body, and then a fainter echo, and then another even fainter echo...
  3972. > You take a deep breath and feel ready to pass out.
  3973. > But then you remember you're not in your own room and you've already been 'invited' to leave, so, with a grumble, you roll off the bed and onto your hooves.
  3974. > All the looks you'll get from wearing that Louis Valise dress to the Gala will make this all worth it.
  3975. > Who knows?
  3976. > Maybe even from your tall VIP...
  3981. Suggested background music: (Howard Mostrom - 'UEF Battle 4', from 'Supreme Commander 2' [2010])
  3983. > You are the 'Arconte' Pureza Ébanoscudo, and you are on the cusp of victory.
  3984. > And, even better, your opponent does not realize it.
  3985. > "Okay, so I'll have this squad of Solis Militibus troopers advance ten centimetres and seize objective 'C'..."
  3986. > With his telekinesis, Gilberto Corazón-de-León lifts the small painted metal miniatures of ponies clad in heavy armour of gold, and then lays them down around the small white gazebo which indicated the objective in question.
  3987. > Thus wandering blindly into your trap.
  3988. > "... That's one victory point for me. And..."
  3989. > With a small tape, he measures the distance from them to your closest unit, which you know already to be too far for his weapons to reach.
  3990. > "... And they can't attack anybody this round, so they'll just sit there for now. My 'Solis Militibus' forces control one victory point as do your 'Tenebrequum', with one still up for grabs. Round three begins. Your turn, Miss Purity."
  3991. > ¡Bueno!
  3992. > With the flick of a forehoof, you flip over one of the three face-down 'Artis Secretum' cards in front of you.
  3993. "I will begin by using this card magical, 'Avarus Ollam', which allows me to move two of my troops out of the reserve and onto the board..."
  3994. > Using your wing-tip fingers, you delicately pluck eight models out of your sideboard, laying them out one-by-one onto the play area in two groups of four.
  3995. > Though they are not yet painted, their appearance is unmistakable -- they are batponies, posed in writhing forms and armed with twisted blades.
  3996. > And they are exactly within shooting range of the gazebo.
  3997. "... These 'Maleficari' will immediately open fire upon your 'Solis Militibus'-"
  3998. > Gilberto, his brow furrowed, cries out.
  3999. > "Wait a minute! That card lets you place them both on the board, but you can only activate one group per turn!"
  4001. > You put on an air of disappointment, and he grins.
  4002. > "... Nice try, though, Miss Purity. Two squads of Maleficari would've done some real damage."
  4003. > That is when you flip over the other 'Artis Secretum' card.
  4004. "... Ah yes, I have forgotten, I play also this card, 'Saggitarius', which allows one squadron to shoot in support of the unit which is active."
  4005. > The face of Gilberto turns from smug relief to concerned horror.
  4006. "... These 'Maleficari' shall use their poison bolts for this attack, which means..."
  4007. > You have to glance over at the notes you took.
  4008. > There are quite a lot of numbers and figures and rules to remember!
  4009. > But it is such an unusual thing, a game, a toy for children, which teaches them war.
  4010. > And the artistry of the figures was wonderful as well!
  4011. > If only the Children had known that Equestria could combine arts and warfare in such a manner, perhaps they would never have dreamed of attempting La Reconquista...
  4012. "... That I may re-roll a single time any die which comes up as '1'."
  4013. > You scoop up eight of the six-sided-dice in one wing.
  4014. > These, at least, are familiar.
  4015. > Gambling had its adherents on the Moon, and although you had no particular affinity for the sport, as it was a popular pastime among Rocks and Stars, you were forced by your profession to know it well enough.
  4016. > Tossing the dice onto a free area of the map, you count up the first attack.
  4017. "There are here five dice which show a number of four or greater, the number to wound your 'Solis Militibus' troopers, yes? And now I shall re-roll the single '1'..."
  4018. > Again using your wing tip, you flick the die into the air and watch it land, conveniently on the '6'.
  4019. "... That is now six wounds. Now you must roll for your armour, yes?"
  4020. > Gilberto warily picks up six of the dice in his telekinetic aura and rolls them nearer his side of the table.
  4021. > The result does not please him.
  4022. > "Only one save... Okay, so five troopers fall..."
  4024. > Removing the figures back to his sideboard, he stares down at the gazebo which has become so soaked with blood.
  4025. > "... I guess I have to charge your 'Maleficari' if I don't want to eat another attack like that, since they outrange me. But even with half a squad, I can probably still beat you in melee."
  4026. > You shake your head.
  4027. "I am sorry, poor Gilberto, but... Do you not now need to roll for the fear?"
  4028. > His eyes go wide.
  4029. > "Oh... Yeah, they're down to fifty percent of their number. That's a morale check..."
  4030. > He picks up a single die, and swallows deeply.
  4031. > "... at minus-one because they lost that fifty percent in one round... Uhhh..."
  4032. > Taking a deep breath, he shakes his head and laughs, sitting up straight, waving a forehoof, and putting strong energy into his voice.
  4033. > "... But these are the Empress' finest! The 'Solis Militibus' know no fear! They will survive to crush your vile 'Tenebrequum' under the banners of the Divine Alicorn! Provided they roll no less than '4'..."
  4034. > He flings the die into the air, and it lands back on the table, rolling towards the gazebo only to stop at '3'.
  4035. > "... Crap. Okay, so they run..."
  4036. > He rolls again, and gets '5'.
  4037. > "... ten centimetres. And since there's no friendly troops in range for them to run to, they have to run directly away from the attack..."
  4038. > Now, at last, the understanding dawns upon him.
  4039. > You did not waste two of your precious 'Artis Secretum' cards merely to kill five of his troops and force the other five to flee.
  4040. > You spent them in a wager that he would be forced to flee exactly towards your main force of 'Tenebrequum' warriors, where they will be torn to shreds.
  4041. > "... Uhhhh. Huh. I'm about to lose this whole squad, aren't I?"
  4043. > With enthusiasm, you nod.
  4044. "Sí, mi chico. And this objective, this gazebo, he will now remain mine using only one group of the 'Maleificari' inexpensive for the rest of the match; your 'Sol Militum' troops will be too slow to make their way there if they are tied down with my main force, as they shortly shall be. And I will hold the objective central since I hold it already..."
  4045. > Sitting up straight, you extend your wings to cast a shadow over the entire play area.
  4046. "... The question, mi amor, is will you be capable of defeating my main force at that objective *and* also of dislodging my stubborn warriors who even now dig in at the objective 'A' as well? Before the die speaks that the game is ended?"
  4047. > Gilberto taps one forehoof on the table, nodding his head as he surveys the battlefield.
  4048. > "Very sneaky, Miss Purity. I've still got two of my 'Secretum' cards to your one, but it's going to be a tough fight. You sure you never played 'Hyperspace Hyperwars' before?"
  4049. > You shake your head.
  4050. "No, never. Though I have made some efforts to study it since I saw you play it with your Brotherhood of the 'Rho Gamma Mu'. And this strategy of war, she is familiar to me, of course. So, please do not be upset if you lose."
  4051. > Gilberto crosses his forehooves in front of him.
  4052. > He is trying to appear friendly, but you can tell that he is a little upset.
  4053. > "Oh, yeah? Well, you know, strictly speaking by official rules you're not supposed to play with unpainted miniatures. You already lost the second you pulled them out."
  4054. > Really?
  4055. > But painting was so difficult!
  4056. > You look down at the three 'Tenebrequum' warriors which you attempted to paint.
  4057. > Rather than looking menacing and dark, as these twisted and hedonistic villains fictional were portrayed in the rulebook, they instead resembled things which had wandered accidentally into the market stall of a merchant of the spices and the dyes.
  4059. > You will have to try again; you had fine controls over your wing-fingers and your hooves, but the art of the blade was clearly quite different from the art of the paintbrush.
  4060. > Purchasing the rule-book and some of the figures had been simple enough, using the bits which were your surface-salary.
  4061. > Perhaps one of the Rocks would accept some tobacco or avocados in trade...
  4062. > That was a matter for another night, however.
  4063. > You survey the table, happy with the success of your plan but disappointed to have missed a more important rule.
  4064. "Ah... Then the game is ended, yes?"
  4065. > Gilberto nods.
  4066. > "I mean, yeah. If you want to play by official rules, yeah. Sorry."
  4067. > You perk immediately up.
  4068. "¡Bueno! Then it is time to move on!"
  4069. > Hopping off your seat, you quickly round the table towards your current beau, pressing yourself up against him, chest to chest.
  4070. "... Now, having taught you a lesson in the strategy clever here on this table, I shall now teach you things in another subject in which I am proficient."
  4071. > Gilberto licks his lips, nervously.
  4072. > "Uh... What's that, Miss Purity?"
  4073. > You grin as you push your muzzle up against his neck.
  4074. "Tonight, mi amore, I will teach you a skill most essential for the amorous colt, a skill which is both mental and physical, but when mastered, grants the potency supreme..."
  4075. > Extending your tongue, you lick gently his ear, watching it flick with excitement.
  4076. "... The art of self-control."
  4077. > You had not planned on giving this lesson particular tonight, but, since he is being stubborn, and since the 'Tenebrequum' are in 'Hyperspace Hyperwars' the masters of all things painful and pleasurable...
  4078. > Since you are the 'Arconte' of the 'Tenebrequum', why not a lesson which combines both?
  4083. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and the impossible has happened.
  4084. > You're with Sergeant Alexander Castlerook, on a date, and you feel *comfortable*.
  4085. > Relaxed, even.
  4086. > The fact that he made Sergeant before you isn't bothering you at all.
  4087. > And the uncomfortable Fillydelphia memories that previously accompanied him aren't showing up either.
  4088. > You aren't even half-drunkedly upset he hasn't put a move on you yet.
  4089. > Although you *are* definitely half-drunk.
  4090. > It's been a couple of hours since dinner, but the drinks kept coming.
  4091. > Coming *slowly*, sure, but still coming.
  4092. > Placing his beer glass back down on the table, Alexander -- Alex -- looks at you with those warm green eyes.
  4093. > "So, I've been thinkin', Honour..."
  4094. > You watch as he glances away and licks his lips.
  4095. > "... When the Gala's over, an' me an' the 186th march back to Filly'..."
  4096. > He looks at you again, and you notice the barest hint of creases that have started to form above his cheeks, around his eyes.
  4097. > They don't make him look old, though; they make him look dignified.
  4098. > Alex leans in over his drink, but you don't feel the urge to tense up -- which was itself a relief.
  4099. > "... I'd like it an awful lot if you'd come back with me."
  4100. > There it was, in no uncertain terms.
  4101. > Castlerook *had* been the other colt -- all through your youth and then your disaster of a marriage.
  4102. > And it didn't scare you at all to hear him say it.
  4103. > You sigh out loud -- you! sighing like some little filly on her first date!
  4104. > But that doesn't bother you, either.
  4105. > Everything is just too relaxed, too calm.
  4106. > Nodding, you answer him.
  4107. "I think I'd like that too, Alex..."
  4108. > The nod turns to a head-shake.
  4109. "... But I can't leave here in a week. Not until this assignment is over."
  4111. > Alex bobs his head sideways and picks up his beer in a hoof.
  4112. > "You wouldn't be the first pony to bow out of a VIP assignment. It won't mean anything in the 186th; everypony's heard the horror stories out of the Palace."
  4113. > You continue shaking your head, and you laugh.
  4114. "Believe me, Alex, I was probably telling half of them myself..."
  4115. > Taking a deep breath, you sit up in the comfortable club chair and look over at your date across the lounge's stylish black-glass table.
  4116. "... But this assignment's different, Alex. I don't think there's ever been a Very Important Pony like this one -- and he's not even a pony!..."
  4117. > Castlerook lifts an eyebrow as he takes a sip of his beer.
  4118. > You shrug and shake your head once more.
  4119. "... He's considerate, he's smart, he's kind -- and he's working on something that's genuinely important to Equestria..."
  4120. > Pointing a hoof, you lean forward slightly.
  4121. "... *And* he's got the four of us in his quat' helping him out. I can't abandon him..."
  4122. > Laughing, you shrug again.
  4123. "... I mean, buck, *I'm* the test driver for his new self-propelled carriage."
  4124. > That gets you another eyebrow raise -- a double, this time -- but eventually, after some consideration and another sip of beer, Alex nods his head.
  4125. > "Okay..."
  4126. > With a smile, he shrugs.
  4127. > "... Okay. I guess, since I waited a year to make m'self known, I can wait a couple more months, if that's what you need..."
  4128. > Alex's green eyes run you up and down.
  4129. > You feel your cheeks start to flush.
  4130. > Part of you wishes you really *could* leave with him -- not even next week, but right now.
  4131. > "... I *do* want you to see you again, Honour. If not in Filly', then..."
  4132. > He scoffs and turns his head sideways, shaking it.
  4133. > "... Then I dunno. I ain't no good at figurin' out plans for the future like that."
  4134. > You furrow your brow and lean forward, extending a sympathetic hoof.
  4135. "That's not true, Alex. If you weren't, they would've never made you Sergeant."
  4137. > Looking rueful and more than half-drunk, he whinnies, but he takes your hoof in his own.
  4138. > "Yeah, well... If I was a better planner, maybe I would'a figured out what to say before you got fed up with everythin' an' left."
  4139. > Inhaling deeply, you suck in your lips and pat his hoof.
  4140. "I don't know if anything could've stopped me going. A year and a half ago, I'd had my fill of Filly'..."
  4141. > Sitting back again, you keep your hoof with his.
  4142. "... I guess that's why I never answered any letters or wrote any of my own."
  4143. > Castlerook's sheepish face turns back into that gentle smile you like so much.
  4144. > "Yeah..."
  4145. > Then he takes a deep breath and pushes his forehoof a little more into yours.
  4146. > "... I do have some news on that front I should share, though it'll prob'ly spoil the mood."
  4147. > You're so calm and relaxed you really doubt any news from Fillydelphia could upset you right now.
  4148. > Alex coughs awkwardly.
  4149. > "... We got new marching orders yesterday. Until the day of the Gala itself, we're helping to patrol the docks down at the river..."
  4150. > You scrunch your face up a little.
  4151. "Weird. What's going on there?"
  4152. > Alex inhales sharply through his nose.
  4153. > "Wellll... It turns out this year marks the two-hun'red-an'-fiftieth anniversary of the Equestrian Merchant Marine. So, as a result, a coupl'a months ago they held a big ol' lottery..."
  4154. > He nods his head.
  4155. > "... Somethin' like one in every hun'red civilian cargo ships in Equestria got invited to the Gala, wholesale -- captain, officers, an' crew. That's over sixty lucky boats, an' they're showin' up now, packin' into the harbour tight as sardines."
  4156. > You raise your eyebrows.
  4157. "No wonder they need the extra help down there. Three times as many boats as usually come in to dock? Canterlot wharf ponice must be swamped."
  4159. > Alex nods, but he licks his lips and looks you in the eyes, and you know he hasn't said everything quite yet.
  4160. > "Yeah... An' there's a coupla' ships from Filly', too. Names you'd recognize, even..."
  4161. > From the way he's talking, you know he's still holding something back.
  4162. "So?"
  4163. > Castlerook swallows.
  4164. > "Honour, the 'Tambermane' is one of 'em..."
  4165. > Oh, buck.
  4166. > He looks down at his drink and sighs.
  4167. > "... An' Leeward is aboard her."
  4168. > You close your eyes.
  4169. > "... He's the bos'n, now. I met him yesterday, an' he's got one of those golden tickets just like everypony else."
  4170. > Buck.
  4171. > In your entire life, you *never* thought that you would *ever* attend the Grand Galloping Gala.
  4172. > It was such a far-away possibility that you had disregarded it entirely.
  4173. > But now it was happening, and just this once you've got a ticket to Equestria's greatest annual social event.
  4174. > And as a full guest, too, not as some bodyguard shunted into a separate wardroom.
  4175. > Even though you had never really desired it, you knew it was something special, and something worth treasuring.
  4176. > Unlike Glamerspear, you didn't care who saw you.
  4177. > Unlike Sparkshower, you didn't care whom you saw.
  4178. > Just *being* there would be like having a dream come true.
  4179. > A childish dream, sure; an infantile fantasy that you'd long since pushed completely out of your mind.
  4180. > And now, here it was: reality.
  4181. > Except *he* was going to be there too.
  4182. > Buck.
  4187. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear, and you have a headache.
  4188. > And it's all your own fault.
  4189. > Here you are, back in your quaternion's quarters on the second floor of Canterlot Palace.
  4190. > You'd drunk until you were blued at the officers' canteen -- on Captain Mailedhoof's dime, of course.
  4191. > Then that same colt blue-beaned you with his quick pump-and-dump in his 'guest room'.
  4192. > And what do you decide to do after you unhappily & unsoberly half-stagger your way back home?
  4193. > Why, to sit down at the card-table and pull open 'De Magia Unicornis' to wrack what few brain cells were left still functional in order to try to figure out -- yet again -- how the batpony 'Balladeer of Ghosts' had managed his trick at the sand pit.
  4194. > It was like trying to cram for an exam at the literal last minute, but you didn't have anything better to do.
  4195. > Besides, you'd probably run into Ignacio on tomorrow night's planned expedition.
  4196. > And you didn't like the idea of showing up empty-hoofed, with no answer to his puzzle.
  4197. > So, 'De Magia Unicornis' it was.
  4198. "Guh."
  4199. > You express your frustration aloud to no-one in particular.
  4200. > Your brothers, who were in a position to know, all called this book 'the only textbook a university-bound unicorn would ever need', and you'd even had some exposure to it beforehoof.
  4201. > Back when you were too young to even know what a good party *was*, let alone sneak out to get blind drunk at one, you did use to -- ugh -- hang out with your brothers.
  4203. > Lupin, the oldest, liked to give nightly 'lectures' from 'De Magia Unicornis'; picking a section and then explaining the basics.
  4204. > He wasn't in university yet, but he'd practically slept with the tome ever since mom had scraped together the bits to buy it for his 14th birthday.
  4205. > Given how familiar the sections felt to you now, a decade later, he must have done a good job.
  4206. > Flipping the pages aimlessly, scraping your hooves and your mind to try to find an answer, you find yourself staring at a familiar section title.
  4207. > 'On the Debilitating Effects Caused by the Overuse of Magic'.
  4208. > Bored, you read over the symptoms that had afflicted you just a week ago.
  4209. > 'Nausea and vomiting'
  4210. > That had come immediately after firing off that enormous burst.
  4211. > 'Diarrhoea'
  4212. > This had taken a little while to come in, and -- thank Celestia -- it hadn't been too bad.
  4213. > 'Headache'
  4214. > For sure.
  4215. > 'Fever'
  4216. > Yeah, and fever-*dreams* too.
  4217. > 'Dizziness and disorientation'.
  4218. > Yep.
  4219. > 'Cognitive impairment'
  4220. > Oh yeah.
  4221. > Every single symptom -- you'd had it.
  4222. > With a sigh, you absentmindedly keep reading.
  4223. > 'Effects Upon the Unborn Childe'
  4224. "Eww, ick."
  4225. > But you keep morbidly reading anyways.
  4226. > 'If the mother should overuse magic while a foal is still within her wombe, then that childe will be borne suffering from effects both severe and permanent. The childe may suffer blindness of the eyes...'
  4227. "Oh, come on! 'Blindness of the *eyes*' -- where else are they gonna *be* blind, old colt who wrote this thing?"
  4228. > You shake your head.
  4229. > Bad enough you had to deal with 'Ye Archaic Languagee', to have to deal with crappy formatting and awful grammar, too.
  4230. > Did they pay by the word back then or something?
  4231. > '... or they may suffer from limbes twisted and gnarled as if from leprosy...'
  4232. "Gross!"
  4233. > '... and in all cases it is assured that the childe shall be sterile.'
  4234. > You scrunch up your snout for that one.
  4236. > So if mom gets hopped up on mana while she's pregnant, baby pops out blind, sterile, and deformed?
  4237. > That sure buckin' sucks.
  4238. > You stare at the page for a few more moments, the letters blending into each other.
  4239. > Wait a minute...
  4240. > In the haze brought on by six griffonese vodka shooters and one abortive orgasm, you think back to the batpony mage, who said that any batpony born during an eclipse would become one of their sorcerers...
  4241. > ... and be cursed with blindness, sterility, and crippled limbs.
  4242. "Foal of a b-"
  4243. > You drop your outburst when the hallway door suddenly opens.
  4244. > In steps Honour, wearing her mess dress, the top buttons undone.
  4245. > She doesn't look too happy.
  4246. > You glance at the clock -- it's barely nine-thirty.
  4247. "You're back early, Corporal."
  4248. > Honour stops and shoots you a tired, dismissive glance.
  4249. > "Something wrong with my arrival time, Specialist?"
  4250. > Oh, that's right, you're dealing with extra-grumpy Honour today.
  4251. > Sheeesh, you'd have thought a date would have cheered her up.
  4252. > You just shrug.
  4253. "No, but weren't you out with Mister Slow-Play tonight? What is this, date number five? Or six? Talk about not bucking on the first date..."
  4254. > Her only answer is to grumble and look away, so you carry on.
  4255. "... I thought you liked him? When's he gonna make a move on you? Or you on him?"
  4256. > The Corporal takes a deep breath, then fixes you in her gaze.
  4257. > "Not that it's any of your business, but as a matter of fact, he *did* make a move on me tonight."
  4258. > Buckin' finally!
  4259. "That's good to hear. So why are you here instead of bonking each other in a hotel bedroom?"
  4260. > She rolls her eyes.
  4261. > "Believe it or not, Glamerspear, I like colts for more than just what they've got slung below their saddles. It wasn't that kind of proposal."
  4262. > Now there's an interesting word to use.
  4263. "Oh? What kind of 'proposal' was it?"
  4264. > Honour lifts her eyebrows.
  4265. > "He asked me to come live with him. Back in Fillydelphia."
  4267. > Now it's your turn to lift your own brow up.
  4268. "Really? You like this colt, right? I mean, really like?"
  4269. > She nods.
  4270. > "Yeah, I've known him for years. He's a good colt, and a good friend. A good soldier, too."
  4271. > You lean over a bit.
  4272. "So you said 'yes'?"
  4273. > She nods again.
  4274. > "I did."
  4275. > You smile and lean over some more.
  4276. "Great... So why aren't you bonking him right now?"
  4277. > As she rolls her eyes, you find yourself leaning dangerously far over, and have to stamp a hoof down on the table just to keep your balance.
  4278. "... I'm just sayin', if a colt I liked, I mean *really* liked, popped the big question on a Saturday night, I sure wouldn't be walking back to barracks all depressed-looking at nine-bucking-thirty..."
  4279. > With a chuckle, you struggle a bit to sit back up straight again.
  4280. "... I'd be spending the night trying to suck his brains out through his loins, and getting bucked so hard my grandma'd feel it. I'm talking put-quintuplet-foals-in-me levels of deep."
  4281. > Honour scrunches up her snout at you.
  4282. > "You're drunk, Glamerspear."
  4283. > You giggle.
  4284. "Yeah, a little. Gotta have some booze in me to look over this damn thing."
  4285. > You gesture your forehooves at the book spread open before you.
  4286. > She nods at the text.
  4287. > "Still trying to figure out the batpony's spell?"
  4288. > Turning to the tome, you nod along with her.
  4289. "Yeah... Think I figured somethin' else out. Buck if I can see the use of it, though..."
  4290. > You look back in her direction, hooking a foreleg over the back of your chair.
  4291. "... That 'Balladeer of Ghosts' colt, he's got all the symptoms of his mom having had acute mana poisoning. Maybe it's got to do with being born under the eclipse, I dunno. Doesn't really help me understand his magic, anyways."
  4293. > Flipping the cover closed, you throw your free foreleg up in the air.
  4294. "... And as for why *I'm* back here already, I guess you could say that after just one week of 'dating', I seem to have already exhausted the good manners of his Lordship, the honourable Captain Montgomery Mailedhoof."
  4295. > You shrug.
  4296. "... By which I mean he got his and then told me to scram. All after having showed me off in the canteen to his well-heeled friends, of course."
  4297. > Pushing the book away, you slouch down in your chair, feeling deflated.
  4298. "... I'm a bit drunk and more than a bit unsatisfied. I was just wondering if you'd suffered a similar fate, that's all... Sorry if it was crass, Corporal."
  4299. > Honour sits down on her haunches and runs a forehoof back and forth over her chin and under her muzzle.
  4300. > "Yeah... Okay..."
  4301. > Then she nods at the cup in front of you on the table.
  4302. > "... What are you drinking, there?"
  4303. > You glance down at it.
  4304. "Just water."
  4305. > Standing up again, she steps over to the table and pulls back one of the empty chairs.
  4306. > "Pour me some, would you?"
  4307. > In the time it takes you to brusquely levitate over another one of the copper cups and fill it with the water-jug -- spilling only a little bit! -- she gets herself situated in the chair to your left.
  4308. > Honour lifts up the cup in her forehoof as if making a toast, so you follow along.
  4309. > "To colts, Specialist -- and to the problems they cause."
  4310. > Weird toast, but okay.
  4311. "To colts, Corporal."
  4312. > You tip your cup back and take a good mouthful, but Honour drains the whole tumbler in one go.
  4313. > Almost slamming the empty vessel down on the table, she motions with one forehoof for you to pour her another.
  4314. > It's just *water*, Corporal.
  4315. > Celestia, she must be as hammered as you are.
  4316. > Maybe even more.
  4318. > You seize up the jug in your aura and take your time tipping it over.
  4319. > Don't want to waste any more from spillage, because if she's still thirsty when it's empty, you know exactly who she'll send to fill it up again.
  4320. > And you're not sure you want to stagger around in Her Majesty's palace corridors any more tonight.
  4321. > "Why do you do it, Lily?"
  4322. > The sudden question disturbs your gentle telekinetic grip, and a bit of water sloshes out onto the table.
  4323. "Huh?"
  4324. > "The whole saltine-and-salt-lick arrangement. Why do you hook up with jerkwad noblecolts? Is it just for the money?"
  4325. > Geez, she must *really* be smashed.
  4326. > She used your first name, too!
  4327. "The money, sure, a little. Then there's the gifts -- the fancy clothes, the nice jewellery-"
  4328. > Honour interrupts before you can continue, jerking a forehoof behind her at your door.
  4329. > "Mino-dung. Have you seen your wardrobe? The doors don't close and the drawers don't either -- the thing is full to bursting. The jewellery-boxes, too. If I thought the Royal Engineer was ever coming up here for an inspection, I'd have made you throw half that stuff out -- or tucked it away in a chest in the palace cellar, at least. You don't need some noblepony giving you any more..."
  4330. > Picking up her water, she takes a sip before continuing.
  4331. > "... Besides, you know how to get good stuff for a bargain. You found Gala dresses for Artemis and me both, with accessories and within the budget of a couple of Equestria's enlisted mooks. Is it worth going through all this just for some jewels and silk?"
  4332. > This is getting a bit personal.
  4333. > Well, those who live by the gossip...
  4334. "There's the society, too. The fancy clubs, the gourmet restaurants, the opening-night shows... Places I would never be able to go otherwise."
  4336. > The Corporal narrows her eyes.
  4337. > "Griffon-guano! You've got good looks, Lily. You're wasting it on these temporary arrangements. Why don't you find a real colt who's actually interested in you? You've got talent -- you're a bucking war hero, for Celestia's sake. And if you can read that thing and understand it-"
  4338. > She gestures at 'De Magia Unicornis'.
  4339. > "-then you could probably read anything else you put your mind to, too! Why the buck did you enlist in the Guard? How come you didn't go to University? You could almost be commissioning as a lieutenant by now."
  4340. > You scoff.
  4341. "Because I didn't want to, that's all. I wanted the glamour, and I didn't want the responsibility or that kind of workload. And if we're gonna talk about reading big books, I think you've got me beat -- I'm just trying to figure out one or two puzzles. You're the pony who's sucking straight from the Royal Engineer's brain-hose with that 'Theory of Science & Industry' book of his."
  4342. > Slouching in her chair, she grumbles.
  4343. > "It's written in modern, easy to read Equestrian. He wanted it to be accessible to the everypony. Not like your archaic treatise on magic."
  4344. > You lean an elbow on the table and point a hoof at her.
  4345. "Yeah, but you've got it so memorized you buckin' know what he's gonna do to his carriage before he announces it! Come the buck on, if you can memorize random crap like that, *you're* the one who oughtta be an officer, not me!"
  4346. > After a moment in silence, you reactivate your telekinesis and lift the jug up to fill her cup.
  4347. "... Anyways, if you just accepted a colt's proposal, then we should be celebrating, shouldn't we? I still have some leftover liquor from last week, if you want."
  4348. > Honour shakes her head.
  4349. > "No. No more liquor for me tonight. I've had enough."
  4350. > You shrug.
  4351. "So what's the problem between you and him? You think I oughtta settle down, why don't you tell me how come you can't, first?"
  4353. > Honour takes a deep breath and slouches even more in her chair.
  4354. > "There's nothing wrong between us. I probably *would* be sleeping with him right now -- if he hadn't also given me some news that spoiled the mood. That's all."
  4355. "What kinda news?"
  4356. > She shakes her head again.
  4357. > "The kind where the less said, the better. Nothing to do with him, either. It'll blow over after the Gala is done with, anyways."
  4358. > Strange attitude to have, but whatever.
  4359. > Must be some kinda weird news from home.
  4360. > You try to stare down at the cover of 'De Magia Unicornis', but the cover's a bit blurry.
  4361. > Lowering your snout, you rub your eyes with your forehooves.
  4362. > Damn, did somepony steal half your liver or something?
  4363. > Six drinks used to mean nothing; you used to be able to slam them back and be ready for six more, with zero hangover the next day.
  4364. > Honour glances over at the wall clock.
  4365. > "I guess we won't be seeing Ebonshield tonight."
  4366. > Lowering your hooves, you snort.
  4367. "Yeah, she said she was going to play 'Hyperspace Hyperwars' with that university-frat dweebling she's got tucked in her saddlebag..."
  4368. > You grin.
  4369. "... You wanna talk about settling down, Honour, talk to 'Miss Purity' over there, preying on colts young enough to be her foals."
  4370. > That gets you an affirmative snort, then the Corporal twists her head towards Sparkshower's room, where the door is open.
  4371. > "Did Artemis go out for a late-night snack? Working in the carriage-house with Anonymous tire her out?"
  4372. > You shrug.
  4373. "Beats me, Corporal. I haven't seen her, and I've been here since eight-thirty."
  4374. > Honour frowns, and you try to focus on the wall clock yourself.
  4375. > Buck off, it's almost ten.
  4376. > Sparks had the metabolism of a pegasus, all right, eating three times as much as you did, but she also had the appetite of a bucking timber-wolf, gobbling up her enormous meals before you'd barely gotten halfway through yours.
  4377. > So there was no way she spent two hours at the canteen after her shift.
  4379. "Maybe they're still in the carriage-house?"
  4380. > Honour scrunches up her snout.
  4381. > "This late? Even the Royal Engineer needs his sleep. And after he insisted on not spoiling our evening plans with a trip to the Rookery, it'd be weird of him to keep Sparkshower working this late."
  4382. > A thought enters your mind, and you shrug your eyebrows.
  4383. "Maybe they're not *working*."
  4384. > The Corporal slowly turns her head to face yours, her eyes narrow like slits.
  4385. > "What do you mean, 'not working'? What else could they be doing?"
  4386. > You snort.
  4387. "Gee, Honour, I dunno -- a rich, attractive, successful VIP stud and his sweet, young, tragically-recently-separated guardsmare..."
  4388. > As her jaw starts to open, revealing grimacing teeth, you continue on.
  4389. "... Sweating in the carriage-house all afternoon, her without her armour, him peeling down to his underwear, panting and heaving as they labour together..."
  4390. > Lifting a hoof to your chin, you roll your eyes.
  4391. "... What-EVER could they possibly doing with each other at nighttime?"
  4392. > You're interrupted by a sudden hoof-poke to your barrel.
  4393. > "That's not funny, Glamerspear. She's your comrade."
  4394. > You wave a forehoof dismissively.
  4395. "Ah, come off it, Corporal. I'm only joking because they might be doing what I wish we were both doing. I mean, probably they ain't, but if they are, well, the Royal Engineer's all right, and I can imagine worse colts to have scored her on the rebound -- a lot worse."
  4396. > Honour snorts dismissively.
  4397. > "They're not even the same species, Glamerspear."
  4398. > You blow a lip bubble right back.
  4399. "Pfffft, like that matters. Every couple of months 'Canterlot Match' breaks a scandal where some depraved unicorn noblepony turns out to be banging a griffon servant, or maybe a dragon, or even a diamond dog..."
  4401. > Smirking, you continue.
  4402. "... Heck, there's ponies out there who think unicorns 'n' pegasi 'n' earth-ponies shouldn't mix. I bet they'd have something to say to Sparkshower's ancestors, with all the earth-blood she must have in her -- and they'd probably be shocked to see what Ebonshield was up to right now, too."
  4403. > Honour grumbles.
  4404. > "Well how come you're all for the Royal Engineer, now? You didn't think so much of him when you first met him."
  4405. > You shrug.
  4406. "I changed my mind. We've been through a lot together, haven't we? I mean, I still think the no-fur thing is pretty weird -- that thin little patch of hair on his chest doesn't make up for all the bare skin -- but, y'know, when you've seen what that body can *do*, it ain't so unattractive..."
  4407. > Chuckling, you shrug again.
  4408. "... And I guess I've kinda got a thing for colts who know how to take command of a situation, y'know? Like he did at Newstirrup, or just today with Hoofstrong. That's probably why I like licking officer-colt salt the best, hee-hee-hee."
  4409. > Honour snorts and shakes her head, joining in your chuckle with one of her own.
  4410. > "Sweet Celestia of Equestria, Glamerspear, ha-ha-ha..."
  4411. > The two of you, half-drunk and clam-jammed both, giggle like school-fillies as the hallway door swings open and in walks Sparkshower.
  4412. > Instantly, you burst out, barely managing to get the words out in-between laughs.
  4413. "Ha-ha! Sparks! Where the buck have you been! The Corporal and I have been worried sick!"
  4414. > Corporal Bound, teary-eyed and still chuckling, joins in admonishing her.
  4415. > "Specialist! You'd better have an bucking good explanation for being late!"
  4416. > Wide-eyed like she's just been caught violating curfew by her own mother, your pegasus comrade barely manages to push the door close before freezing in place.
  4417. > "I... uh..."
  4418. > Honour doubles over laughing in her chair, slumping her head onto the table and pounding it with a hoof.
  4419. > "Oh, buck me, Glamerspear, you were right."
  4421. > You extend a comforting foreleg over your Corporal's shoulder.
  4422. "Now, now, I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for this..."
  4423. > Barely managing to stop yourself from cracking up, you try to put on a stern expression for Sparkshower.
  4424. "... Isn't there, *Specialist*? Explain yourself to Corporal Bound this instant!"
  4425. > "Uhm... Well, you see the thing is, Corporal..."
  4426. > Honour wearily lifts her head from the table, and you both stare as the pegasus stammers out an answer.
  4427. > "... When we put down our tools for dinner at around seven, the Royal Engineer asked if he could offer me a meal and some advice in his chambers, and I said 'yes', and we got to talking about relationships -- he told me all about his engagement and his break-up back in his world..."
  4428. > The laughter stops, and you find yourself staring in disbelief along with Honour.
  4429. > "... And he said a few things about that, and I asked him some questions, and then he asked if it would be alright if he asked a few questions about Huckleberry 'n' me, and I said 'yes' again, so we kept talking about relationships and life and stuff..."
  4430. > You sit, transfixed in place, waiting with your foreleg over your Corporal for the other horseshoe to drop.
  4431. > Sparkshower sheepishly shrugs and shakes her head.
  4432. > "... And I guess we sorta lost track of time, is all. Sorry for keeping you up, Corporal, but Anonymous told me that you and Lily both had dates tonight so we shouldn't worry about disturbing you."
  4433. > It's a strange mixture of relief and disappointment you're feeling right now.
  4434. "Sparks, are you telling us he took you back to his chambers, and you two *talked* for three hours straight?"
  4435. > The pegasus nods her head.
  4436. > "Yes."
  4437. > Beneath your foreleg, you feel the Corporal breathe a heavy sigh of relief.
  4438. > "Phew. And he didn't try to make a move on you at all?"
  4439. > The recently-heartbroken pegasus glumly rubs one forehoof against the other foreleg and looks down at the ground.
  4440. > "No, I'm afraid he didn't..."
  4442. > You feel Honour sigh again, and whisper.
  4443. > "Thank Celestia..."
  4444. > Then, all of a sudden, she jolts her head up, flinging your foreleg away as she cries out.
  4445. > "... Wait, what do you mean, you're *afraid* he didn't?!"
  4446. > Buck!
  4447. > You clench your teeth and raise your forehooves defensively.
  4448. "Honour! He's *right* below us, for buck's sake!"
  4449. > And the floor was thin enough that your manaburn-induced shouting match with Sparkshower last week managed to go through loud and clear, according to Ebonshield.
  4450. > Looking terrified, the Corporal apologizes.
  4451. > "Sorry..."
  4452. > Then she turns to Sparkshower, teeth clenched.
  4453. > "... Specialist, what do you mean you're *afraid* he didn't try to make a move on you?"
  4454. > Licking her lips, the pegasus awkwardly wraps her wings around her barrel.
  4455. > "I... kinda... stuck my tuft out at him."
  4456. > You blink and tilt your head in disbelief.
  4457. "You *kinda* stuck your tuft out at him?"
  4458. > Artemis steps forward, refolding her wings and performing the act in question.
  4459. > Holy Celestia, she's got a lot going on out front.
  4460. > The mare is completely stacked; she could hide a whole other pony in there.
  4461. > Does she keep *all* that fluff hidden under her armour the other ninety-nine percent of the time?
  4462. > "Okay, so I *did* stick my tuft out at him, after dinner..."
  4463. > You hear Honour's jaw hit the table, and you feel yours about to slam into place right beside it as well.
  4464. > The pegasus lightly stamps a hind hoof down behind her and sits.
  4465. > "... But he didn't pay any attention to it at all! The whole time I had my tussock on display, his eyes stayed right *up here*!"
  4466. > She points both forehooves at her own baby-blue orbs, and she almost seems angry doing it.
  4467. > But that anger quickly shifts to anguish, and those same forehooves move to cup her muzzle.
  4468. > "... How am I going to find somepony if I can't even get another colt to *look* down at my tuft even for a moment!? My life is ruined!! Oh, Huckleberry..."
  4470. > Sparkshower is about to burst into tears, so, ignoring your own advice about volume, you cry out before the showers can start.
  4471. "Sparks! The Royal Engineer *isn't* a bucking *colt*!"
  4472. > She lowers her forehooves and stares at you for a moment.
  4473. > "Anonymous is a *mare*?!?"
  4474. > Buck!
  4475. > Corporal Bound grumbles beside you, clonking her head repeatedly into the table.
  4476. > "Sweet Celestia, Sparkshower..."
  4477. > Ignoring the exhausted earth pony, you thrust your forehooves down on the table and bark down at the idiot pegasus.
  4478. "Bucking *NO*, Sparks! He's a *male*, yes, but he's not a *colt*, you understand?"
  4479. > Glancing around in confusion, she screws her face up.
  4480. > "He's a *gelding*?!"
  4481. > Forehoof, meet brow.
  4482. > You take a deep breath, but before you can lay things out, Corporal Bound recovers from her stupor.
  4483. > "Sparkshower, what Glamerspear is trying to say is that the Royal Engineer is an *alien* male -- not a *pony* male. His species could have completely different standards of beauty, and he may not have paid any attention to your tuft simply because females of his species don't *have* tufts to look at. A stuck-out tuft maybe doesn't mean anything at all to him, no matter how impressive it would normally be in Equestria. How many other colts have you showed your bush to?"
  4484. > Sparkshower shrugs.
  4485. > "Just him, I guess."
  4486. > Honour waves a hoof dismissively.
  4487. > "Then, for buck's sake, don't go drawing conclusions yet. You've got a wonderful tuft, okay? You show it to an actual *pony* colt and they'll look, believe me. Tell her, Glamerspear."
  4488. > As she elbows you, you tilt your head sideways and chortle.
  4489. "You've got a bangin' tuft, filly. You could give griffons a run for their feathers with that thing; I wouldn't mind borrowing some of it myself from time to time."
  4490. > That brightens the young pegasus up again.
  4491. > "Really? Oh, good..."
  4493. > With an excited sigh, she refolds her wings.
  4494. > "... Is it okay if I take a shower now? I'm still kinda sweaty from working in the carriage-house with the Royal Engineer."
  4495. > Honour nods, and Sparkshower heads for the washroom door.
  4496. > Once it shuts, the two of you breathe a deep sigh.
  4497. > You look over at the Corporal.
  4498. > You think you're starting to understand her general attitude to her underlings.
  4499. "I'm not *that* bad, am I, Corporal?"
  4500. > Honour looks at you with tired eyes.
  4501. > "You can be, Lily, you can be."
  4502. > She starts to laugh, and you laugh along with her.
  4503. > Corporal Bound shakes her head.
  4504. > "... I have to herd two horseshoes and batpony, along with an alien VIP, and I told Alexander that I wanted to see this assignment through to the end... I must be crazy."
  4505. > Now it's your turn to shake back, bringing up a forehoof in mock salute.
  4506. "Buck you, Corporal."
  4507. > She gets to her hind hooves and gives you the same mock salute.
  4508. > "Buck you, Specialist. And good bucking night. I'm going to go try to sleep off all this friggin' nonsense."
  4513. > You are the Sergeant Purity Ebonshield, and you are enjoying the show.
  4514. > "GET SOME! GET SOME! GET SOME!!"
  4515. > Shouting at the top of her lungs while the carriage self-propelled of the Engineer Royal cruises around the racetrack of the Princess of the Sun, the Specialist Glamerspear conjures practice-spear after practice-spear and propels them with force up towards the pegasus Specialist Sparkshower.
  4517. > However, that same pegasus, propelled by the power fantastic of her magic lance, roars across the sky far too quickly for any of those spears to connect.
  4518. > "... BUCK!"
  4519. > Clearly, the missing is not pleasurable to the unicorn.
  4520. > From your vantage point in the grandstands, you can see everything that happens on the field below.
  4521. > And on today, the wind has chosen not to blow strongly, so, with your ears swivelled forwards, there is much you can *hear*, as well.
  4522. > The carriage rounds the corner and arrives once again on the final straight channel of grass and mud.
  4523. > At the controls sits the Corporal Bound, and beside her, the Engineer Royal.
  4524. > The bronze-armoured human lifts up his hand.
  4525. > "Okay, that's enough of that. Corporal, bring us up at the start line. We're done."
  4526. > With the order to halt, Glamerspear protests immediately.
  4527. > "But *sir*!"
  4528. > The Corporal Bound presses a pedal with her hind hoof, and the carriage lurches to a stop not far from where you are seated.
  4529. > You get to your hooves and head down to greet the rest of your quaternion and your VIP.
  4530. > Sliding down the side of the vehicle, Anonymous lifts up his helmet, resting it on his brow.
  4531. > "Specialist Glamerspear, Sparkshower's new toy is very impressive, but I'm trying to show off the *self-propelled carriage*, not your ability to target a briefly-supersonic pegasus."
  4533. > The unicorn removes her helmet as well, levitating it just above her as she grumbles.
  4534. > "Aw, mare... Sparks is never gonna let me hear the end of this."
  4535. > The Corporal Bound sits in the driving-seat, her hind hoof on the pedal for stopping, and speaks down to her junior soldier while leaning on a lever.
  4536. > "Don't exaggerate, Glamerspear. You know Sparkshower's not the kind to boast."
  4537. > The unicorn grumbles again.
  4538. > "Yeah, okay... But *I* won't be able to live it down, either. A decorated anti-air unicorn getting dodged out by a pegasus riding a fancy rod now, and almost losing to Kilfeather two weeks ago. It isn't right."
  4539. > Honour smiles.
  4540. > "Guess you'll just have to up your game, then."
  4541. > Stopping, the unicorn throws her forehooves up.
  4542. > "With what?! I can't chuck spears that fast! And she manoeuvred well enough to avoid my attempt to box her in with shots, too."
  4543. > The Engineer Royal, who until now was bent over the underside controls around his wondrous 'engine of steam', stands up and nods to Honour.
  4544. > "Okay, Corporal, it's shut down..."
  4545. > Then he turns to face up at the sky, waving both of his arms back and forth at the Specialist Sparkshower.
  4547. > By the Mother, what a tremendous voice!
  4548. > Your ears instinctively flatten against your head, as do also the ears of the Corporal Bound and the Specialist Glamerspear.
  4549. > Up in the sky, you see the Specialist Sparkshower in her bronze armour descending towards the earth.
  4550. > Loud, but certainly effective.
  4551. > Lowering his arms, the Engineer Royal turns to face you as you arrive at the carriage.
  4552. > "... Sergeant Ebonshield, I hope you enjoyed the performance just now."
  4553. > Coming to a stop, you bow with respect.
  4554. "Yes, Great Lord. Your vehicle is most impressive."
  4555. > He nods.
  4556. > "You were paying attention the whole time, I hope?"
  4558. > Rising from your first bow, you repeat the movement once again.
  4559. "Sí, of course, Great Lord. And also the previous time, when we were interrupted by the Lieutenant Violetta."
  4560. > "Good. Because I think I've got a favour to ask of you..."
  4561. > Oh?
  4562. > "... But let's wait for everybody to get settled first."
  4563. > Ah.
  4564. "Certainly, Great Lord."
  4565. > The Corporal Bound dismounts the carriage with a short leap, while the Specialist Glamerspear conjures for herself a small staircase to descend.
  4566. > There is a fluttering of feathered wings, and then a clattering of metal as the Specialist Sparkshower arrives as well, clutching her magical weapon in its collapsed form.
  4567. > "Wooo! I told you that you wouldn't be able to hit the wielder of the 'Bradamante Lance', Lily!"
  4568. > The unicorn frowns and bites her lip as the pegasus carries on, smiling and happy but also out of breath.
  4569. > "... I've got to look Bradamante Growler up in the archives later! With this lance, she must have been *BUCKING INVINCIBLE*!"
  4570. > The Corporal Bound clears her throat.
  4571. > "Ahem. At ease, Sparkshower."
  4572. > And the pegasus suddenly remembers that she is a soldier in the presence of a Great Lord, whom she is sworn to serve.
  4573. > Instantly, she snaps to attention and raises up the visor of her helmet.
  4574. > "OH! Sorry, sir!"
  4575. > Anonymous merely chuckles.
  4576. > "It's all right. I suppose I'd be pretty enthusiastic, too, if I could rocket around like that..."
  4577. > You hear Glamerspear grumble once more, but the Great Lord merely wipes his hands and regards the four of you, sitting in a circle before him.
  4578. > "... Let's have a quick debriefing first. How do we feel about everything so far? Corporal? How do you like the new pedals?"
  4579. > The earth pony nods her head.
  4580. > "Much easier to use than the valves, sir."
  4581. > The Engineer Royal tilts his head.
  4582. > "Do you feel comfortable in the driver's seat? Ready to give a performance for Her Majesty and the General Staff?"
  4584. > You see Honour swallow with nervousness.
  4585. > "Around this track, and on a calm, dry day like today -- yes, sir, I'm ready."
  4586. > She is too humble!
  4587. > And perhaps also too fearful.
  4588. > You have seen her drive with skill, and heard of how she navigated the roads busy and full yesterday as well.
  4589. > Anonymous nods.
  4590. > "Good. How about you, Specialist Glamerspear? Disregarding the part where Sparkshower opened up the taps on her little rocket-ship, I mean -- that was just for fun; we won't be including it in the real demonstration."
  4591. > With yet another small grumble, the unicorn also nods.
  4592. > "I'm ready, sir. I was hitting her *most* of the time before she went to warp speed, ya know."
  4593. > The human points a black-bronze-armoured finger at her.
  4594. > "How do you feel about your seat? Do you feel you can focus on your gunnery without worrying too much about the motion of the carriage? Ideally, I'd want to get you strapped into some kind of a swivel chair, but I'm not sure how easy that will be to do."
  4595. > Glamerspear looks around, her head swaying slightly.
  4596. > "I think a swivel chair would help, sir, but I managed. To be honest, after going around Her Majesty's Royal Eastern Cottage racetrack's three left turns ump-teen-hundred times each, it feels like the whole world is still trying to turn right."
  4597. > Anonymous nods.
  4598. > "Understood; I'm feeling a little dizzy myself, and I wasn't looking up at the sky the whole time as you were. The real demonstration won't be nearly so long..."
  4599. > Extending a hand towards the final member of the performance troupe, he continues.
  4600. > "... And you, Specialist Sparkshower? You're holding up well under Glamerspear's barrage?"
  4601. > The armoured pegasus nods with enthusiasm.
  4602. > "Oh, yes, I'm doing just fine, sir! The practice rounds don't hurt at all!"
  4603. > You see the Specialist Glamerspear scrunch her snout up a little more, as if this were an insult against the abilities of which she is so proud.
  4604. > "Okay, good. So now here's where things get complicated..."
  4606. > Your VIP has the full attention of his quaternion.
  4607. > "... When we next practice this, and when we perform it live for an audience, I can't sit in the commander's chair, directing things..."
  4608. > He lifts up a finger.
  4609. > "... The whole point of this demonstration is to get the audience excited about the the power of industry -- to get them excited about steam power, and steel, and electricity, and all the things I wrote about in my book. And although I personally think it's a good show on its own, it needs a narrator and a 'Master of Ceremonies' to pump up the audience and make it clear *why* they should be interested in it..."
  4610. > That same finger turns to point at his chest.
  4611. > "... And that MC has to be me. Which means somepony else has to be in command of making sure everything goes well -- inside the vehicle, and out."
  4612. > The Corporal Bound raises a forehoof in salute.
  4613. > "Sir, I'm more than-"
  4614. > Instantly, Anonymous waves her off.
  4615. > "No, Corporal. I know it's a track with only three turns, but believe me when I say that from the experience of my world, it's a terrible idea to multi-task driving with anything else, even on a simple route like this and for a relatively simple job..."
  4616. > He gestures at the carriage behind him.
  4617. > "... The *worst* thing that could happen is that you crash the carriage. It doesn't matter if Glamerspear actually hits Sparkshower, or if Sparkshower flies in an unrealistically simple pattern. Their interaction isn't the point of the show, though it certainly helps and should impress soldiers like Major-General Hoofstrong. Tell me -- how many ponies would you need to pull a carriage like this, with Specialist Glamerspear sitting on top of it, around for an hour or two on a battlefield?"
  4618. > The brown earth pony furrows her brow and thinks for a moment, then answers.
  4619. > "Four at the very least. Maybe even six, since they'd get tired otherwise. Plus you'd still need somepony to command them."
  4621. > Anonymous nods.
  4622. > "And they'd also have to be well-trained to trot all in unison in order to make the turns that this carriage can make, wouldn't they?"
  4623. > Honour nods, so he continues.
  4624. > "... *That's* the point of the demonstration. Yes, it takes time to build a machine like this, but once it's built -- suddenly you need six less ponies, because you have a machine that doesn't get tired and doesn't need as much physical coordination..."
  4625. > Smiling, he gestures with enthusiasm.
  4626. > "... Six less ponies who can be doing something else more useful -- like piloting more of these vehicles, armed with crossbows or unicorns of their own. Automation is a *force multiplier*, whether it's on a battlefield or on a farm or in a factory. That's what I need to drive home during the demonstration..."
  4627. > Calming himself, he extends his hands towards the two Specialists.
  4628. > "... And even though your aerobatics, Specialist Sparkshower, and your gunnery, Specialist Glamerspear, are really only the sideshow, they're still an impressive piece of the whole demonstration, so they need to be coordinated for maximum effect..."
  4629. > Then your VIP points at *you*.
  4630. > "... That's why Sergeant Ebonshield will have to take my place on the carriage as commander."
  4631. > Instantly, three voices burst out in unison.
  4632. > "She will?"
  4633. > "She will?"
  4634. > "She will?"
  4635. > Four sets of eyes look at you, so you bow graciously.
  4636. "If the Great Lord wishes it, it shall be done."
  4637. > When you raise your head again, you see expressions ranging from confidence to surprise to confusion to concern.
  4638. > It is the wise earth pony with the concerned brown eyes who speaks first.
  4639. > "Sir, with respect to Sergeant Ebonshield, you're the only one who understands what you've built here. Ordering around Sparkshower and Glamerspear, I can understand, but if anything goes wrong with the controls or the machine itself-"
  4641. > Anonymous interrupts her.
  4642. > "If anything goes wrong, you stop the vehicle, that's all. A halt is better than a disaster. You know where the brakes and the main power valve are, Corporal. Keep your hooves on the tiller and ask Ebonshield to shut off the power if the pedals don't respond; we'll show her how at the next practice session. She's in charge of coordinating the demonstration, but you're responsible for the carriage itself..."
  4643. > Your VIP faces you.
  4644. > "... Sergeant, you've seen what Corporal Bound, and the carriage, and Sparkshower and Glamerspear can do. All you really need to do is to watch for my directions, to act as Glamerspear's spotter and direct her fire, and send signals up to Sparkshower to ensure she flies in the right pattern. Like a conductor of an orchestra -- or an *officer* in the military..."
  4645. > He lifts his eyebrows.
  4646. > "... You said you were the second-from-the-top rank in your school of the 'Shining Stellar Dance'. Surely that means you've been in command of other 'dancers' before, haven't you? You must work together sometimes on larger operations, right?"
  4647. > You bow slightly.
  4648. "We do work in groups on occasion, Great Lord, and I have been in command of such groups."
  4649. > He returns to face the Corporal Bound.
  4650. > "... So, there you go. We'll have a practice or two with her in the command chair before the big show. Any other concerns?"
  4651. > The Specialist Glamerspear scoffs.
  4652. > "Yeah, I've got one. I mean, I know we've already trotted all around Canterlot, and all the way to Newcastle, with the Sergeant in tow but, uh..."
  4653. > She laughs awkwardly, looking at you.
  4654. > "... Heh, but she's still a *batpony*, sir. And there's gonna be ponies at your demo who'll still be subject to Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell, won't there? You asked Hoofstrong to invite anypony else she wanted, after all."
  4656. > At this, the Engineer Royal frowns.
  4657. > "Hmmm. You're right. I hadn't thought of that. Do you think it'll really be a problem? Nobody's seemed particularly shocked to see her so far."
  4658. > Glamerspear spreads her forehooves wide.
  4659. > "That's 'cause we've been to, like, high-end stores and stuff, sir. Even if anypony *was* shocked, they'd be too polite to say anything. But this'll be different."
  4660. > You extend a conciliatory forehoof.
  4661. "Fear not, Great Lord. If it is required that I do not appear as one of the Children, then I shall appear otherwise..."
  4662. > You see confusion in the face of your master and your comrades, so you continue.
  4663. "... To hide plainly in the sight of the enemy is one of the arts of the Shining Stellar Dance. I will costume myself so that your audience shall never know my true nature."
  4664. > It takes a moment, but eventually the Engineer Royal nods in agreement.
  4665. > "OK, you'll put on a disguise. It shouldn't be too hard, I suppose -- I won't have you come up and speak to the audience, and you'll mostly be at a distance, so whatever you do won't have to hold up to the closest scrutiny, though some of the guests may bring binoculars or the like. I imagine Lieutenant Violetta can get you a suit of Royal Guard armour; I'll trust you'll take care of the details."
  4666. > You bow again.
  4667. "I will not disappoint you, Great Lord."
  4668. > To your left, the Specialist Glamerspear has raised a forehoof as if in anticipation.
  4669. > Anonymous points at her.
  4670. > "Specialist, what now?"
  4671. > The unicorn lowers her hoof only to point at the carriage.
  4672. > "Just one more question, sir -- what are we *calling* this thing?..."
  4673. > Everypony turns to look at the vehicle in question, and she continues.
  4674. > "... I mean, I know you said we're supposed to be a Self-Propelled Air Defence system, but that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, if you know what I mean..."
  4676. > As the Engineer Royal turns back to her, she shrugs.
  4677. > "... Plus, I mean, it just *looks* like an ordinary dog-cart carriage right now. Can't we, like, paint it or put some shiny armour on it or something? Chances are, you're gonna be addressing a crowd of nobleponies with memories of the grandest event in all Equestria still fresh in their minds."
  4678. > It was true that the appearance and name of a thing could have a great impact.
  4679. > The Rocks knew this all too well; even the Stars used intimidating names and bold dress when appropriate.
  4680. > What was a Star's black cloak but a tool to cow their enemies?
  4681. > The Engineer Royal puffs out his cheeks.
  4682. > "Well... I did think about slapping some armour on it, but I think it'd have to be just a few planks of wood -- I don't trust this suspension to handle anything too heavy. I guess we could paint those up in some kind of military colours. As for a name, I don't know. 'SPAD' is the *type* of vehicle it is, but in my world, particular models of vehicles -- military or civilian -- were named for all sorts of things: people, places, mythological figures..."
  4683. > He puts one hand up to his chin.
  4684. > "... I suppose in its current state it's really a sort of war-chariot -- with Corporal Bound as the driver, you as the archer, and myself as the shield-bearer and commander. Did Equestria ever use war-chariots? Maybe there's a famous one with some names we could borrow."
  4685. > Nopony has any answer, and neither do you.
  4686. > The Children, who fly, and who also fight only rarely on the surface itself, have certainly never used such things.
  4687. > The Specialist Glamerspear shrugs.
  4688. > "If we did, ages ago, they'd probably be depicted in the Champions' Hall -- along with that linen armour Gunther Bronzehorn gave you for underwear but claimed ancient Equestrians used all the time in battle."
  4689. > Sparkshower shakes her head also.
  4690. > "The only chariot I can think of is the one Epona Iomaghaoth pulls, and I don't know if it's supposed to have a name..."
  4692. > This person is not familiar to you.
  4693. > Anonymous speaks up.
  4694. > "Epona Iomaghaoth? Who's that?"
  4695. > The pegasus expresses surprise.
  4696. > "Oh? You never learned about-- Oh, of course. Sorry, sir..."
  4697. > She laughs awkwardly.
  4698. > "... You fit in so well that it's easy to forget that you're not from around here..."
  4699. > With a gentle smile, she continues.
  4700. > "... Epona Iomaghaoth is the First Pegasus, in the legends of the pegasi. It's said that she pulls a great chariot tethered to the sky, and in so doing creates the winds and the weather. Pegasi across the world serve in her image by moving individual clouds around as well."
  4701. > The Engineer Royal nods appreciatively.
  4702. > "Interesting. Maybe we can reference it somehow? Care to tell the tale?"
  4703. > Sparkshower takes a deep breath.
  4704. > "I can tell it, sure. The legend goes that the Mother of Creation, Llamrei, had already made the world and the heavens and all of the creatures in it, and finally needed to manage the sky, whose thousand cords were lashed to a single great, blue chariot..."
  4705. > The pegasus extends one wing to the right.
  4706. > "... First, Llamrei harnessed a dragon to the Azure Chariot, believing that strength was what mattered to pull such a heavy load, but the dragon was lazy and irritable, so half the time, when it rested, the world was scorched from lack of rain, and the other half, when it was angry, the world was flooded and wracked by terrifying hurricanes, with scarcely any middle ground..."
  4707. > Closing that wing, she extends her left wing.
  4708. > "... Thinking that it was a mistake to choose such a great beast, Llamrei instead harnessed a gust of breezies. They pulled the chariot slowly, but steadily, and were able to bring some rain as needed, but they didn't have enough power for real speed and real wind, so the trees complained that their leaves stayed on in the autumn, while the plants complained that their seeds would never be sown..."
  4710. > She closes both wings.
  4711. > "... Llamrei then harnessed a hive of flash bees, but magic of their stingers caused thunder and lightning to follow behind them, and the creatures of the world complained to Llamrei that they were always afraid of being struck..."
  4712. > She shrugs.
  4713. > "... Llamrei hitched up a roc next, mighty and steady, but since they can fly almost endlessly without becoming tired, the bees complained that on account of the constant winds they could never land on flowers, while spiders complained that they could never rest in their webs..."
  4714. > With a frustrated look on her face, she clears her throat.
  4715. > "... There's... a lot of other races Llamrei tried, too. I don't remember all of them. Whoever's telling the story usually comes up with flying creature after flying creature and a reason why they weren't quite right. Anyways, what happens in the end is that after trying it with every other winged creature in the world, Llamrei finally decides that a new species must be made in order to pull the chariot of the sky -- one that will bring the rain and the wind and even the thunder, but in just the right amount..."
  4716. > Turning her chin up proudly, Sparkshower finishes her tale.
  4717. > "... And so, Llamrei created Epona, the first pegasus, and when Epona pulled the chariot across the sky for an entire day, and then an entire month, and then an entire season, and then an entire year -- without any of the other creatures complaining that the weather was completely unsuitable, Llamrei dubbed her 'Epona an Iomaghaoth', Epona the Whirlwind. With that final creature tending to the sky, the world was complete, and at last Llamrei could rest."
  4718. > It is a curious thing, to think that the Equestrian ponies have only legends of their beginnings, while the origin of the Children could not be more clear.
  4720. > Though it was also true that, technically, the Equestrians of a thousand years ago were also the ancestors of the Children of the Stars.
  4721. > In a sense, this legend of the pegasi was also your history as well.
  4722. > Before you can reflect further, the Engineer Royal claps his hands.
  4723. > "How about 'Whirlwind'? As a name for the vehicle."
  4724. > He looks into the faces of each of his four guards -- yourself included -- and sees no objections.
  4725. > The Specialist Glamerspear nods.
  4726. > "I like it, sir. Gives the impression of blowing things right out of the sky."
  4727. > Sparkshower nods also.
  4728. > "Yes, that's true! And I'm sure any pegasi present will get the connection immediately. Especially if we decorate it with Epona's triskelion -- it's three pegasus-wings, in a circle."
  4729. > Glamerspear looks around the group.
  4730. > "Anypony good at painting? Or know somepony good at it?"
  4731. > It is only shrugs and shaking heads all around.
  4732. "I have no skill with the brush..."
  4733. > Then you nod sideways, remembering last night's activities.
  4734. "... Although, I have been considering engaging the services of the Rocks for some painting of my own. There are several gifted artists in the Rookery. Perhaps we could investigate this further tonight, before or after the sparring?"
  4735. > The Engineer Royal nods.
  4736. > "Sure. I'll measure out the boards we'll use to make an 'armoured box' around the upper carriage so we have an idea of how big the canvas will be..."
  4737. > Clapping his hands together, he smiles.
  4738. > "... Whirlwind! All right, now I'm really excited for tonight. Let's put the carriage back in the garage, have lunch, and then get some rest before heading to the Rookery..."
  4739. > Everypony nods in agreement, and while Anonymous busies himself re-lighting the engine, you all mount the vehicle in your own ways.
  4741. > Moments later, the machine 'pffsht-pffsht-pffshts' to life and your VIP climbs up as well, then turns in his seat to look back at you.
  4742. > "... By the way, Sergeant, if you don't mind me asking -- what were you going to have painted yourself?"
  4743. > You smile awkwardly, a little embarrassed.
  4744. "Oh, it is nothing, Great Lord. Some small figurines used in a game that I am playing with my paramour. It is called 'Hyperspace Hyperwars', and they represent warriors."
  4745. > There is a groan from the Specialist Glamerspear beside you, but Anonymous does not seem to notice.
  4746. > "Ah, I see. Hmm, painted figurines of soldiers? We had games like that on my world... Wouldn't mind seeing that game, when we have a little more time."
  4747. > A second groan, more pained this time, is emitted from the unicorn.
  4748. > It is ignored also.
  4749. "I am sure that my Gilberto would be more than pleased to present to the Engineer Royal the details of the game. I could not yet claim myself sufficiently experienced to introduce it to somepony else."
  4750. > Anonymous nods.
  4751. > "Sometime later, sure. Let's start with the real combat first..."
  4752. > Turning back to the Corporal, he points the way ahead.
  4753. > "... Okay, Corporal, take us back to the garage."
  4754. > The Corporal seizes the tiller and places her hind hooves on the pedals.
  4755. > "Yes, sir."
  4756. > Ah!
  4757. > How interesting the coming days will be.
  4758. > You must find a painter, teach your VIP the art of combat, learn to command his 'Whirlwind'...
  4759. > *And* to steal for yourself an item particular not from the unwatched pantry of the Palace of Canterlot, but instead from the well-guarded armoury of the Children of the Stars.
  4760. > After all, your VIP deserves only the best from you, and you must not disappoint him.
  4762. > When you perform for the audience of Her Majesty the Princess of the Sun herself, with the aid of that item particular, perhaps even She will be deceived, and see sitting in the 'Whirlwind' only three of Her Little Ponies!
  4764. Suggested reading: (Flakpanzer IV 'Wirbelwind')
  4769. > You are Corporal Honour Bound, and this certainly is *different*.
  4770. > The first time down in the Rookery, it almost felt like you were sneaking around.
  4771. > Aside from being accosted by a few guards in the cave full of stalagmites and stalactites, almost everypony had been asleep.
  4772. > The second time had felt quiet as well, arriving early in the evening with the Royal Engineer in his dress suit and most of the batponies just barely waking up.
  4773. > His conversation with the Rookery's metalworkers went on so long that the streets were quiet again by the time you left, as well.
  4774. > But now, having passed the Royal Undermountain Constabulary's orchard gatepost at almost the stroke of midnight, it was like walking into a completely different world.
  4775. > And you understood perfectly why Sergeant Ebonshield had arranged for that first visit completely outside the normal waking hours of the batponies, and the second one skirting the edge.
  4776. > There were, quite simply, batponies everywhere.
  4777. > In the 'Cave of Pillars', that strange hall full of what your VIP had said were natural hexagonal rock formations, there was a small lineup of the leather-winged creatures gathering water from the underground river, all flapping about and chattering to each other amiably.
  4778. > Of course, that chattering had ceased the second that Ebonshield had put her hooves down on the small iron bridge leading into the Rookery, and the fluttering ponies dropped like stones to the ground to bow at her passing.
  4779. > The Sergeant, for her part, had walked past them as if they simply didn't exist, and so had the rest of you.
  4780. > The way she had explained it before, class differences among the 'Children of the Stars' were extremely sharp, and all must bow in respect to a member of a higher 'phase'.
  4782. > Which had included all of you on that first visit, when the Reverend Mother Superior arrived to interrupt the training to welcome Anonymous and to sternly admonish the Sergeant herself.
  4783. > Of course, it only came out later that those words might not have just been between a member of a higher 'phase' and a lower one, but also between a disapproving mother and her disobedient daughter.
  4784. > *That* was a pretty hefty omission on the part of your batpony Sergeant.
  4785. > As was the fact that she was no ordinary soldier!
  4786. > The black-cloaked, forty-three-year-old batpony presently leading you towards the main 'marketplace' section of the Rookery was in fact the number-two ranked batpony *assassin*.
  4787. > How many other secrets was she hiding?
  4788. > And how many other secrets was the Rookery hiding, as well?
  4789. > You look behind you at Glamerspear, who had been apprehensive about once again meeting the batpony sorcerer, Ignacio Blazon.
  4790. > The existence of nocturnal bat-winged ponies was something of an open secret among the guards in Canterlot Palace, with the infamous Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell rule only leading to an abundance of rumours and speculations.
  4791. > But most of those same rumours -- besides idiotic 'shoe ideas about blood-sucking supernatural creatures -- speculated that the batponies were little more than just pegasi of the night.
  4792. > The idea that any of them had any kind of actual *sorcerous* powers was a real shock, and of your group, nopony had been more shocked to find out than the chief rumour-monger herself, Specialist Glamerspear.
  4793. > It was almost worrying the way she said she couldn't understand how he accomplished summoning those shadowy-sand enemies for Ebonshield to fight.
  4794. > Worrying, too, was how Glamerspear mentioned that even the healing spell Ignacio used on the injured Sergeant was impressive in its own right.
  4796. > Ebonshield claimed that the batpony mages were outclassed by unicorns, and in fact *knew* that they were outclassed, but you still had to wonder -- if the 'Children of the Stars' had not just martial power but magical backup as well, how had they failed to take the Watchtower?
  4797. > Was it simply a stubborn defence which went on so long that when Nightmare Moon was herself defeated, the attacking batponies simply gave up?
  4798. > Since Sergeant Ebonshield knew about the Watchtower being under the command of Major-General Hoofstrong during that Nightmare Night, maybe it's something you can ask her about later.
  4799. > For now, the Rookery's marketplace has your full attention.
  4800. > In contrast to the shuttered windows, folded-down awnings, and near-empty streets of before, tonight there was a vibrant, colourful, noisy scene before you.
  4801. > Hundreds of batponies in civilian dress walked or flew around the great domed cavern, stopping at stalls that displayed all manner of wares.
  4802. > From one simple wooden shack up ahead labelled 'Herrero', you hear the working of a bellows and the banging of hammers on metal.
  4803. > Passing by, you glance in the window, and see arranged inside rows of shining metal items on angled display tables -- horseshoes on pegs, nails in boxes, hinges piled up, and all manner of tools, from axes and picks to knives and spears.
  4804. > Ah, so it's a *blacksmith's shop*.
  4805. > The smell of smoke and flame wafts out as well.
  4806. > Wait -- if there's a smelter and a forge down here, not to mention fires for cooking or other uses, how do they avoid the cavern filling with smoke?
  4807. > You glance up, but even with the reasonable amount of lighting illuminating the marketplace, you can't make out any details in the cavern ceiling.
  4808. > Except maybe the ventilation isn't in the ceiling at all; as you pass by the shop and enter an open square, you feel a steady soft breeze coming from your left.
  4810. > Some kind of forced ventilation, maybe like the gadget powering the pools and hot tubs in the Spa Dalecarlia?
  4811. > You suppose it doesn't really matter -- the batponies have been living under here for almost two years.
  4812. > If they were going to choke on their own smoke, they'd have done it already.
  4813. > Glancing around, you see that the bowing has hardly let up.
  4814. > Everypony in a fifty-hoof radius who catches even a glimpse of the Sergeant stops whatever they're doing and bows their head, though they keep their eyes on her.
  4815. > And then on the rest of you as well, staying bowed as you walk along behind her.
  4816. > Hmmm...
  4817. > To your right, you hear Anonymous clear his throat.
  4818. > "Sergeant, I get the sense that tonight these people seem to be bowing not just to you, but to *me* as well, or to our whole group."
  4819. > The batpony assassin turns her hooded head sideways, allowing you to see her mouth and only a sliver of her eye.
  4820. > "The Great Lord is most perceptive. Yes, they bow to all of us now. By the proclamation of the Reverend Mother Superior, all of your quaternion are to be treated as full members of the Star Phase, and you yourself a member of the Lunar Phase..."
  4821. > Facing forward again, her hood bobs too and fro as she glances both ways down an intersection, then leads you straight through.
  4822. > "... Therefore, the Great Lord need no longer bow to anypony here in the Rookery, save the Reverend Mother herself."
  4823. > Huh.
  4824. > Good to know.
  4825. > And that certainly explains the extended bowing -- something you yourself were wondering about as well.
  4826. > It feels a bit one-sided, though.
  4827. > Even during Day Court, Princess Celestia acknowledges bows from Equestrian citizens with polite nods of her own.
  4828. > Your VIP seems to still have questions about the practice, as well.
  4829. > "Am I supposed to do anything in return, Sergeant? Nod or wave?"
  4831. > At this, Ebonshield brings your small marching column to a halt, and turns fully to face her VIP and you, with Glamerspear and Sparkshower peeking around from the rear.
  4832. > The Sergeant gives a small bow of her own, acknowledging your VIP's elevated status.
  4833. > "If the Great Lord wishes, he may nod in return. Most of the Children here in the marketplace are of the Rock or Dust phase, and therefore such a reply would be an unusual honour. I suggest that it be reserved for the individuals of distinction, or with whom there is already relationship particular."
  4834. > Anonymous gives a brief nod back.
  4835. > "I understand. Let's carry on."
  4836. > So, the batponies aren't really so dissimilar from the ponies of Equestria after all...
  4837. > Just a little stricter about some things than you are.
  4838. > Or a lot stricter, in some cases.
  4839. > The Sergeant leads you on, and besides the four of you non-batponies looking around at every sight, listening to every sound, and sniffing at every smell, nothing of particular note occurs.
  4840. > If anything, the constant bowing makes it impossible to get a sense of the place or to try to pick up on the batpony language -- all activity and conversation ceases when you pass by.
  4841. > You're sure you spotted somepony haggling with a merchant in front of a selection of ceramic wares, and you were almost eager to try to pick out the words they used -- there was something about a 'burro', and you caught 'ka-brone' being said repeatedly, before the buyer and seller stop what they're doing when they catch a glimpse of Ebonshield's black cloak.
  4842. > Which brings up another point -- for all the association with the night-time and darkness that the batponies had in your mind, there was an awful lot of colour down here.
  4844. > Where the Reverend Mother Superior and her entourage were dressed in all white, from their tall pointed hoods to the caparisons that extended down past their hooves, and Sergeant Ebonshield and her star-phase warrior kin seemed to dress exclusively in black open-faced hooded cloaks, the ordinary batponies around you had no such fashion rules.
  4845. > Instead, matching the brightly-painted stalls and dazzlingly-patterned awnings, the batpony civilians were dressed in all manner of colours, from scarlet-red, to earthy brown, golden-yellow and navy-blue.
  4846. > Even when a pony was wearing something predominantly white or black, it was always accented with another colour.
  4847. > Although, perhaps that was as much to avoid confusion as anything else.
  4848. > And what was also surprising was the *amount* of clothing they wore, too.
  4849. > Your average market square in Fillydelphia saw merchants in colourful hats, maybe, while longshorepones favoured heavy coats as protection against the wind and the spray of water, to say nothing of the rain, but for the most part Equestrians didn't dress up much unless it was a special occasion or they were particularly well-to-do.
  4850. > After all, nopony wants to sweat doubly from their clothes as from their labours.
  4851. > Meanwhile, here were hundreds of batponies wearing colourful, elaborate costumes that wouldn't look out of place at a smaller village's Maypole festival.
  4852. > An older mare to your left gives a broad bow and curtsy in a red dress, and you see three layers of fancy white ruffles around her legs.
  4853. > Maybe she's somepony big herself -- or married to somepony big, at least.
  4854. > Either way, it puts what passes for market-day dress upstairs to shame.
  4855. > And it emphasizes just how narrow of a view you'd had of the batponies on your first visit.
  4856. > Your second visit, you might've picked up on some more, if you hadn't been quite so bored and exhausted.
  4857. > For an ordinarily quiet colt, the Royal Engineer sure could talk up a storm when he wanted to...
  4859. > There is still something bugging you, though.
  4860. > As you exit the marketplace and enter the far emptier corridors which you assume to be the residences of the 'star phase' warriors of the batponies -- most of whom would now be on night duty topside -- you clear your throat.
  4861. "Sergeant, why didn't you mention the Reverend Mother's proclamation earlier?"
  4862. > Once again, she keeps walking as she answers you.
  4863. > "Such an elevation carries only as much weight as the individuals may respect it, Corporal. I wished for the Great Lord and for the rest of you to continue to treat the soldiers down here with great caution. It is true that the Rocks and Dust do bow, of course, but I think that any Stars whom we encounter will not be so accommodating."
  4864. "That sounds dangerous."
  4865. > "Indeed. With this proclamation, visiting the Rookery, while free from petty hassles at the border, is perhaps more dangerous than before."
  4866. > Anonymous pipes up beside you.
  4867. > "Are we likely to encounter many Stars at this time of day? Aren't they all on the surface, guarding the Palace?"
  4868. > "Most of them, yes, Great Lord. But there are still enough Stars in the Rookery to cause trouble if they should so wish. And I doubt that the Grand Hall will be unoccupied completely..."
  4869. > She trails off as you round the final corner.
  4870. > Ahead of you stretches the final long corridor with its rows of sleeping cubicles going down the length, and at the end, the batpony emblem -- an upwards-facing crescent moon, just like the one on Princess Luna, with seven small eight-pointed stars beneath, and a single larger star above in the shadow of the surface.
  4871. > This time, there's no soft drone of snoring coming from the small curtained chambers -- it's eerily quiet.
  4872. > But there is some noise, emanating from the end of the hall...
  4874. > Behind you, Sparkshower pipes up in a whisper.
  4875. > "I hear drums! And something else -- castanets, I think? Somepony's playing music up ahead!"
  4876. > As you get closer to the Grand Hall, you can make it out as well.
  4878. Recommended background music: (Gregory Alper & Jeehun Hwang - 'Kill or Be Killed / Golden Spade', from 'Mechwarrior 2' [1995])
  4880. > As you pass to the right of the batpony logo and enter into the Grand Hall proper, an alien scene awaits you.
  4881. > There are dozens of batponies gathered around the inner edge of the gallery, looking down on the sandpit.
  4882. > And it's what's down there that's truly surprising.
  4883. > Two batponies, in their black cloaks and leathers, dance in the air some distance away from each other in the circular pit, brandishing steel-tipped long spears that cross in the centre.
  4884. > The rest of the quaternion enters the Grand Hall behind you, and there's a sudden flash of excitement from the sandpit.
  4885. > "KI-YAAH!"
  4886. > "RYAAAAH!"
  4887. > *cling-a-cling-a-cling*-*CLANG*!
  4888. > Faster than your eye can quite follow, the two batponies screeched and then clashed excitedly with their weapons.
  4889. > But after a moment or two they both retreat back to a guarded stance, each one toying with their weapon and testing it against the other.
  4890. > *SkrrtttCHhh*
  4891. > And they're using real weapons, too, because you can hear the metal blades scrape against each other.
  4892. > What a strange way to fight, and a dangerous way to train -- if it even *was* training...
  4893. > Instead of descending straight into the pit, this time Ebonshield leads you around the outer edge, apparently heading to one of the open and unoccupied areas in the raised gallery.
  4894. > Some things in the room are familiar, at least.
  4895. > Tonino and the other musicians are still dressed in their colourful clothes and seated in what must be their usual spot, next to Ignacio's little pulpit, though they have different instruments out.
  4897. > And the cranky old batpony sorcerer himself is there, too, though he sits in silence, wearing his black blindfold-mask with its distinctive red fringe.
  4898. > Curiously, he appeared as much as anypony to be intently watching the scene with his blind eyes.
  4899. > As you approach the edge and get a better look at the fight going on down below, a few of the other spectators turn to notice your arrival.
  4900. > You don't *hear* any whispers or murmurs when they turn around again, but from the expressions they shot you, you can tell that your group's arrival has already caused a stir.
  4901. > Ebonshield comes to a halt at the edge, and turns to wave you all forward with one forehoof.
  4902. > There's enough space for you all to spread out -- Sparkshower on the left, then yourself, then Anonymous, followed by Ebonshield, and finally Glamerspear.
  4903. > All of you are seated except for Anonymous, who isn't really built to sit on his haunches.
  4904. > Instead, he stands quietly, his 'Twenty-blows-mace' head-down on the floor, and his hands resting on top of the handle.
  4905. > The batpony Sergeant puts one hoof up to her muzzle and looks both ways, being sure to make eye contact with everypony.
  4906. > She doesn't need to say anything to make it clear that you're all supposed to keep quiet.
  4907. > Down in the sandpit, the combat continues.
  4908. > "RYAAH!"
  4909. > "KIIIYAAAAAAAH!"
  4910. > *clang-clang-skrrrrtch-clang-THWACK*!
  4911. > It's really unlike anything you've seen in the Royal Guard.
  4912. > Equestrian Royal Guardsponies drilled to fight in teams or at least in pairs.
  4913. > On the ground, earth ponies would assemble into lines or squares to dominate the battlefield.
  4914. > Up in the air, pegasi would fly in wedge formations before breaking up into furious tail-to-muzzle pursuits.
  4915. > Even all-unicorn platoons used formations to make it clear who was supposed to be casting what.
  4916. > But this solo one-on-one, floating in the air, testing the enemy, then sudden lunging and striking with blinding speed were totally unlike Royal Guard training.
  4918. > In fact, it resembled more than anything a kind of duel.
  4919. > *skrrtch-clink*
  4920. > Again, the two batponies flap around slowly in circles, testing their spears against each other, occasionally lightly batting their opponent's blade away.
  4921. > And then, in the blink of an eye, the furious assault begins again.
  4924. > *clink-a-clink-a-clank-a-thock-a-clink-a-shrrkt-a-SKRUTCH*!
  4925. > "HuuurGHHHaaa!"
  4926. > Your entire section gasps as one black-clad batpony drives their spear home, piercing the other one's shoulder, causing the victim to drop their spear, and spattering the sand with red blood.
  4927. > On the other side of the gallery, one of the cloaked figures shouts down.
  4928. > "¡Alto!"
  4929. > The music stops, and so does the fight.
  4930. > To the approving stomp of dozens of audience hooves, the victorious competitor bows first to that master of ceremonies, then to the musicians, and finally to the rest of the audience.
  4931. > On the other side of you, Glamerspear pipes up.
  4932. > "Those were *real* weapons? And now what, are they just going to let the loser bleed out on the sand?"
  4933. > Ebonshield's answer comes in a sharp whisper, staying strategically quieter than the applause.
  4934. > "Yes, we often train with real weapons. And no, Ignacio will see to the wounded shortly, once their Master asks it."
  4935. > The clopping noise dies down, to be replaced with murmurs in a language you don't understand.
  4936. > In his little raised box, Ignacio shifts on his hooves, possibly waiting for a signal, while the losing batpony shivers in agony on the sandpit floor.
  4937. > "¡Silencio!"
  4938. > The same cloaked figure on the far side of the gallery puts an end to the muttering, and then the colt throws back his hood and points an angry old hoof towards your group.
  4939. > "... Hhwhat ees de meaning of this intrrusion? Estelar Siete Pureza Ébanoscudo, the Grrrand Hall of Starrrs ees a place suitable only for the Childrren of the League of Stars..."
  4941. > That same hoof slashes sideways dismissively.
  4942. > "... Not for theese... surrface-born Prisioneros de la Sol."
  4943. > Prisoners... of the sun, you guess?
  4944. > You recall Sparkshower mentioning something about that being a batpony insult.
  4945. > 'Surface-born' is probably another one.
  4946. > On the moon, batponies must be born exclusively underground.
  4947. > Ebonshield looks about ready to reply, when another voice calls out from one of the closer sections.
  4948. > "Oyé, do not prretend that jou forget already the proclamation, Alfonso."
  4949. > Alfonso, the Master of the combat that has just come to a brutal end, cries back.
  4950. > "Ay forrget nothing, Ramon. Eet is *hwee* who habe forrgotten what eet means to be the Childrren of the Grreat League of Starrs!"
  4951. > Ramon snorts.
  4952. > "¡Oscuridad! Jou cerrtainly habe forrgotten about jour soldier in the sandpit, cabrón. Forr how long will jou harangue us with jour retórica while her insides spill out onto the sand?"
  4953. > That gets chuckles from around the audience, although Ebonshield stays silent.
  4954. > Alfonso grumbles, but ultimately refrains from replying, and instead turns towards Ignacio in his pulpit, cupping his forehooves together in reverence -- but keeping his head held high.
  4955. > "Een the name of the Moon, Balladero de Phantasmas, will jou bless the Starrs with jour probidence and restore our fallen Champion, that she may live to fight ourr enemies once more?"
  4956. > Ignacio nods his head, and you hear his familiar voice echo through the chamber.
  4957. > "¡Sí, and it is past time! Any longer, and it is for the Shadows we should have to send, instead."
  4958. > There's a look of relief on the face of the injured combatant, though her neck is covered with sweat-foam, and the tip of her opponent's long spear is still stuck deep in her shoulder, the wound weeping blood.
  4959. > You hear the scraping of metal on metal as Sparkshower turns her head away, having trouble bearing the gruesome sight.
  4961. > But then Ignacio picks up his oboe-like instrument and puts it to his lips, bringing a strange melody to a room that is utterly silent but for the strained panting of the losing fighter.
  4962. > It's an eerie tune, and it's pointedly *not* what he sung to heal Ebonshield.
  4963. > Though in that case, he also had descended into the pit to see to her personally.
  4964. > After playing for a few moments, he points down into the sand-pit.
  4965. > "... Remove the weapon."
  4966. > The victor flaps slowly up, wraps their forehooves on the spear, and then gives a sharp tug to pull it out.
  4967. > To her credit, the loser takes the ordeal with little more than a muffled grunt.
  4968. > "Oh, merciful skies..."
  4969. > Sparkshower is clearly still watching -- and is shocked by what she sees.
  4970. > Ignacio begins to play again, still unaccompanied.
  4971. > You squint, but you can't make out any visible sign of magic on the loser's shoulder.
  4972. > There's no glow, no aura, no noise, nothing.
  4973. > Is he even doing anything at all?
  4974. > With the spear removed, the wound must be bleeding faster than ever.
  4975. > The music stops, and you see Ignacio lower his instrument.
  4976. > "Apply the sand."
  4977. > Sand in a wound?
  4978. > That's no way to treat an injury.
  4979. > If anything, the sand will just have to be cleaned out later before the injury will heal properly.
  4980. > Nonetheless, the victorious soldier approaches their victim and brushes some sand onto the wound with a hoof.
  4981. > Then, Ignacio begins to intone a low, guttural moan -- and this time, you *do* see some signs of magic.
  4982. > The light in the Grand Hall, reasonably bright to begin with for an underground cave, dims noticeably, and the poor injured batpony on the sandpit seems to be swallowed up by the new shadows.
  4983. > As the Balladeer of Ghosts continues his solo note, the darkness passes, and when he warbles the tone with an outstretched hoof, the illumination returns back to normal.
  4984. > And so, too, is the injured batpony, who gets to her hooves almost as if nothing has happened.
  4986. > Stepping over to her weapon, she floats into the air and picks it up with her hooves, then turns to face the magician who healed her.
  4987. > Now silent, Ignacio blindly receives her forehooves clasped in thanks.
  4988. > "Thank-you, O Balladeer of Ghosts."
  4989. > He nods her towards her master, Alfonso.
  4990. > "Go now, and rrrejoin jour Stars..."
  4991. > Thus dismissed, the two combatants -- winner and loser -- take flight and swoop out of the sand pit into the trench surrounding it, then darting up the closest staircase to head back to their Master.
  4992. > Strange that they didn't simply fly straight up.
  4993. > Maybe there's an unseen barrier between the gallery and the combat floor.
  4994. > With the blindfold still covering his useless eyes, Ignacio turns his head to and fro as if surveying the gallery.
  4995. > "... The pit is empty. Eighth of the Ashen Eagles, from among jour group are there more who shall trrain today?"
  4996. > You hear an angry whinny from Alfonso, the elder batpony.
  4997. > "My Eagles do not trrain een the prresence of unworrthy outsiders."
  4998. > The students surrounding him emit murmurs of approval as their Master gathers them to leave, but Ignacio only grumbles.
  4999. > "Well, then, if the Eagles will not fly, perhaps the Vipers shall slither? Eh, Ramon?"
  5000. > You see the one who dared challenge Alfonso's outburst turn and confer with his own students.
  5001. > Ebonshield leans over and whispers to your group.
  5002. > "That is Master Ramon, Eighth Rank of the Iron Vipers. They fight with blades attached to the hooves, similar in some ways to the style of the Stellar Dance."
  5003. > Anonymous mutters back.
  5004. > "This 'Ramon' seems to be on our side, as well."
  5005. > The Sergeant shakes her head.
  5006. > "No. He is unopposed, at best. But the Iron Vipers and the Ashen Eagles have a famous and long-flying feud. It is a matter of dogma -- whether it is better to fight up close, like a viper, or to soar slowly only to swoop in for the kill, like an eagle..."
  5008. > She nods towards the group of Vipers.
  5009. > "... Watch. He will not do us the honour of bearing witness to our training. He will find some excuse to leave as well."
  5010. > Anonymous shuffles his feet and bends over slightly.
  5011. > "Do your Stellar Dancers have no friends here in the Rookery?"
  5012. > Ebonshield sighs.
  5013. > "It is a situation most complicated. As we are not soldiers ordinary, we are not well-liked by the other Stars..."
  5014. > She looks up at your VIP.
  5015. > "... Until recently, however, we enjoyed the protection absolute of the Lunars. That protection is now less certain."
  5016. > You feel a lump in your throat.
  5017. > For all the similarities, it really is different down here.
  5018. > And in a dangerous way, too.
  5019. > Never mind all your foalish hangups about moving to Filly' with Castlerook -- down here, there were blood oaths, and duels to the death, and training with lethal weapons, and all sorts of factional politics.
  5020. > The Generals and Admirals upstairs competing for a few extra bits here or there for their pet project, or vying for the MXP Games trophy, were laughably low-stakes by comparison.
  5021. > Only Anonymous' grand project to forever change life in Equestria seemed to be as great in your mind, though it lacked the severe brutality of the life led by Ebonshield and her kin.
  5022. > Ramon and the rest of the Iron Vipers turn back to face the sand pit, and the Balladeer of Ghosts.
  5023. > "We habe finished our trraining forr today, and shall rretire."
  5024. > With that, the only other remaining group of batpony soldiers turn and head, themselves, for the exit.
  5025. > Leaving you shortly all alone with your quaternion, your VIP, the musicians, and the Balladeer of Ghosts in the Grand Hall of Stars.
  5026. > From his pulpit, Ignacio whinnies.
  5027. > "¡Caramba! What a pack of spineless Shadow-spawned maggots. How happy it makes me to hear the beating of their wings and the clopping of their hooves receding in the distance, like the dissipation of a foul odour."
  5029. > Ebonshield clears her throat.
  5030. > "It is good to see you as well, O Balladeer of Ghosts."
  5031. > Ignacio licks his lips and turns in her direction.
  5032. > "Ahh... And jou are back once again, mi murciélagita? Shall we put on another show for jour Equestrians, hmm?"
  5033. > She shakes her head.
  5034. > "We are here only to spar in the pit -- we should have no need for your music tonight."
  5035. > The Balladeer grunts dismissively.
  5036. > "¡Hunh! Then I shall rest my voice, for now."
  5037. > Turning, he disappears behind the curtains that enclose his pulpit.
  5038. > Sergeant Ebonshield turns to you.
  5039. > "Corporal, I wish for you to take the lead in sparring with the Engineer Royal tonight."
  5040. > What?
  5041. > *She's* the bucking second-rank assassin, not you!
  5042. > What are you going to teach him?
  5043. > How to lamely chuck a spear or to weakly buck a target with his hind legs?
  5044. "Me? Sergeant, I don't understand."
  5045. > From underneath her cloak, the batpony points a wing-tip at you.
  5046. > "The Great Lord last time expressed a desire to grapple, and it was with such a manoeuvre that he eventually won against me."
  5047. > Anonymous chuckles.
  5048. > "Heh. I still can't believe that worked."
  5049. > Turning to him, the Sergeant smiles.
  5050. > "I admit that it was to me a move quite original and unexpected..."
  5051. > Then she looks back over at you.
  5052. > "... Which is why I wish to study your repertoire of such attacks against the Corporal Bound, that I may devise for you a plan to use them more capably. And as she is a member of the Royal Guard, she will have been well-trained in the art of escaping such holds."
  5053. > It *was* true that part of 'shoe camp involved grappling -- with other ponies, and with real and simulated creatures that had claws or hands.
  5054. > But that was *years* ago.
  5055. > You were going to be rusty as all buck...
  5057. > Anonymous lowers the shaft of his mace down to lie flat on the ground, then rubs his hands together and flexes his neck.
  5058. > "I guess I won't be needing this to start. What do you think, Corporal? Ready to get up close and personal in the ring? I'm no professional when it comes to wrestling, but don't hold back just because I'm your VIP. Let's give the Sergeant here a good show."
  5059. > You take a deep breath and look down at the sand pit, then back up at the colt you were sworn to guard with your life.
  5060. > Well, one thing was for sure:
  5061. > Training exercise or no, you were still going to give him everything you'd got.
  5062. "Let's go, sir."
  5064. Suggested interlude music: (Kenny Loggins - 'Playing with the Boys' [1986], as featured in Top Gun [1986])
  5069. > You are Specialist Lily Glamerspear and this is actually kinda hot.
  5070. > "HRAAAGH!"
  5071. > "GRNNFH!"
  5072. > With a diving attack, the Royal Engineer gets his long, powerful arms wrapped around Corporal Bound's barrel, and the two of them go tumbling down into the sand.
  5073. > The brown pony then proceeds to buck and thrash like a wild weasel, even as the larger biped clambers partially on top of her.
  5074. > "...HNnnnnfggh!"
  5075. > "Hurhhh!"
  5076. > The struggle continues, accompanied by yet more animalistic grunts on both sides.
  5077. > Meanwhile, Ebonshield clops her hooves together from the sidelines.
  5078. > "Yes, good! Shout with force! The shout will focus your energy, and also ensure that you breathe properly while fighting!"
  5079. > Somehow, Honour manages to get her torso free, and kicks herself up back onto all fours, leaving Anonymous in the sand.
  5080. > "HUP!"
  5081. > ... Only to flop right back down when he grabs her left hind leg at the last second.
  5082. > "... GRRrrr! Foal-of-a-bitch!"
  5083. > It's nice to see the Corporal on the verge of losing her temper for a change.
  5084. > To be fair, though, your Very Important Pony, who quite obviously wasn't a pony at all, was one slippery customer in the sandpit.
  5085. > Even burdened down by that bronze armour, he was fast on his hooves -- his feet, rather -- and he had a long reach, too.
  5086. > And when he *did* grab something, he had enough strength to hold on pretty good, too.
  5087. > Which is not to say that the Corporal was letting him off easy.
  5088. > Behind the T-shaped slit in his helmet, you can hear Anonymous panting heavily, and the exposed parts of his body are absolutely glistening with sweat.
  5089. > It's so slick that he has to remember to wipe his hands in the sand every now and then to regain his grip.
  5090. > "... Buck! Off! HRRAH!"
  5091. > With three ferocious kick, the fearless leader of your quaternion lashes out at the Royal Engineer's blackened-bronze armour, knocking the wind out of him and escaping his grasp yet again.
  5093. > Shaking his head, Anonymous pauses a moment on one knee to regain his breath.
  5094. > A few hooves away, the brown earth pony, her chest heaving, her neck covered with sweat-foam, waits for the next attempt on her physical liberty.
  5095. > After almost twenty minutes, Anonymous still hasn't managed to completely wrestle her into submission.
  5096. > And that's what was kinda hot about this whole setup.
  5097. > You had the thrill of combat and challenge.
  5098. > The impressive display of power, agility, and speed.
  5099. > And the animalistic grunts, moans, and shouts.
  5100. > The whole thing was semi-sexual, but the tension over wondering who would break first was what really pushed it over the edge.
  5101. > Would Corporal Bound end up in his grasp, immobilized under his firm, muscular body?
  5102. > Or would the savage predator finally wear from the hunt?
  5103. > You had to admit you were nursing a bit of a horn ante-glow from the whole thing.
  5104. > And it wasn't just because of those manaburn-induced fever dreams you'd had about your VIP!
  5105. > Though they certainly didn't help.
  5106. > Neither did remembering just how much he could fill out a pair of swim shorts.
  5107. > As Anonymous gets to his feet, rolls his shoulders, dusts his hands with sand, and then flexes his arms impressively to ready himself for the next round, you unf internally.
  5108. "Unf."
  5109. > And maybe a little externally, too.
  5110. > Well, at least you were being a little more subtle than Miss Rocketfeathers next to you.
  5111. > "Ooooh!"
  5112. > Sparkshower had her wings out at full mast, and even through her bascinet-helm visor you can hear her heavy breathing.
  5113. > You swear you can even see some of her ample tuft peeking out between the joints of her bronze full plate.
  5114. > Cripes, next thing you know this mare is going to have her tongue wagging out like a dog.
  5115. > You decide to lean in and try to settle her down.
  5117. > After all, even though Anonymous and Honour were currently occupied with each other, and Ebonshield was focused on the combat, there was still the chance that somepony would notice her over here!
  5118. > The musicians of the Grand Hall of Stars' little orchestra were taking coffee and chatting amongst themselves, but they were watching the fight, too.
  5119. > And Ignacio...
  5120. > Well, he said he was going to take a nap, but that old goat seemed to be able to 'see' a whole lot for a blind bat!
  5121. "Psst... Sparks, you wanna settle down a bit?"
  5122. > "Huh? Oh..."
  5123. > She lifts her visor, and you see just how wide this poor, broken-hearted, thirsty mare's irises have grown.
  5124. > "... Uhm... Sorry. They've got a mind of their own sometimes."
  5125. > Yeah, 'mind of their own', sure thing, mare.
  5126. > You roll your eyes.
  5127. "Well, at least try not to blurt out your excitement too much, you know what I mean?"
  5128. > It's at that moment that Anonymous decides to make an energetic lunge at Corporal Bound, who had been circling around away from him.
  5129. > "HRAAAAAAHH!"
  5130. > "HUUUU!"
  5131. > He manages to get his left hand on her left-flank armour, and you drop your conversation with Sparkshower to watch the grapple unfold.
  5132. > "...Raaaah!"
  5133. > Honour shouts and tries to scramble forward away from him, but he manages to swing his other hand around and *slap* it noisily into her right flank.
  5134. "Mmmf!"
  5135. > You bite your lower lip, while Sparkshower swoons.
  5136. > "OOOoohhh!"
  5137. > As Honour bucks and kicks, Anonymous' fingers struggle to find a piece of armour to grab onto, but in the meantime you've got the vision -- and the sound! -- of that tantalizing little flank-clap to think about.
  5138. > Yeah, you wouldn't say 'no' to receiving something a like that while a colt was mounting you -- maybe not quite so hard, though.
  5139. > Your fantasy is interrupted by the scraping of oiled bronze on oiled bronze as Sparkshower leans over towards you.
  5140. > "You know you're showing a bit at the horn too, don't you, Lily?"
  5141. > Damn, was it actually visible?
  5143. > You glance upwards and yeah, there's a little bit of glistening teal light at the top of your horn.
  5144. > Probably not enough for anypony who isn't sitting right next to you to notice.
  5145. > You nod.
  5146. "Thanks, Sparks. But it's got a mind of its own sometimes, too, ya know?"
  5147. > She chuckles a little awkwardly.
  5148. > "Yeah..."
  5149. > Licking her lips, she looks back towards the combat.
  5150. > "... They're really going at it, aren't they?"
  5151. > As she says that, Anonymous manages to get one of his hands on Honour's *back* armour, and with a ferocious shout, he pulls and flips her over into the air.
  5152. "They sure are."
  5153. > However, that impressive manoeuvre comes at a cost, when the impact of her body into the sand causes him to let go with both of his hands, and Honour scrambles away from him once more.
  5154. > Sparkshower takes a deep breath and then whispers even more quietly.
  5155. > "You know... Anonymous is actually into... *tackplay*."
  5156. > You were a bit too busy watching admiringly as the Royal Engineer gets to his feet facing away from you.
  5157. > Yeah... got a good look underneath when his armoured kilt flared open just now.
  5158. > There was the same bulge you remember from the Spa Dalecarlia.
  5159. > And filly, did he ever have some muscles on those thighs...
  5160. > Colt like that could buck you right in half.
  5161. > Wait, did Sparkshower say something?
  5162. "Sorry, Sparks, what'd you say?"
  5163. > Breathing heavily, she repeats herself, staring at the spectacular hairless ape in the sandpit before you.
  5164. > "He's into tackplay. He told me yesterday."
  5165. > What's this now?
  5166. "Huh? 'Tackplay'?"
  5167. > Licking her lips again, she explains breathlessly.
  5168. > "You know... tackplay. Saddles, stirrups, bits and bridles, that sort of thing?"
  5169. > You have no idea what she's talking about.
  5170. "You've lost me, Sparks."
  5171. > Sparkshower sighs as the Royal Engineer stars running after Honour, waiting for a moment to strike, shadowing her whenever she jukes and dodges.
  5172. > Yeah c'mon colt, get your big arms around that brown flank again...
  5174. > "I mean, when you wear a saddle and stuff... in, uhm, the bedroom."
  5175. > The buck she just say?
  5176. > A *saddle* in the *bedroom*?
  5177. > You shake your head in confusion, forced to look away from Anonymous and Honour.
  5178. "What?"
  5179. > Sparkshower stamps one forehoof awkwardly, shrugging her shoulders in frustration.
  5180. > "Come on, Lily, you... you don't know about tackplay? I know it's not exactly mainstream, but I thought you would know about it. With what you *do* and all. As a saltine, I mean."
  5181. > What in the buck is she on about?
  5182. > Furrowing your brow, you shake your head.
  5183. "Mare, I don't know what you think I do with my salt-lick colts, but it sure doesn't involve whatever you're talking about."
  5184. > She shrugs her shoulders again.
  5185. > "Haven't any of them ever, y'know, worn any tackle? Or asked you to?"
  5186. > You shake your head again, still confused.
  5187. > Tackle is for hitching up and pulling a cart; shouldn't a country mare know that, even if she's an airborne pegasus?
  5188. > Looking embarrassed, Sparkshower scrapes one armoured forehoof against the other armoured foreleg.
  5189. > "... No? None of them ever asked you to, uh... To call them 'master' or maybe to treat them as a... uh... a slave? Just in the bedroom, I mean?"
  5190. > You shake your head again, slowly this time.
  5191. "Listen, Sparkshower, when I'm rolling in the hay with a colt, it's about his long, stiff, you-know-what and getting that meaty thing into one of the two available places in me..."
  5192. > You tilt your head a bit.
  5193. "... Maybe three, if it's a special occasion..."
  5194. > Rolling your eyes, you wiggle your butt involuntarily as uncomfortable memories come to mind.
  5195. "... Some colts get pushy about wanting that one, on account of how it feels for them, but I prefer to be able to stand up and walk around afterwards, ya know?"
  5196. > Now it's your armoured pegasister's turn to furrow her brow.
  5197. > "Really? It hurts that much?"
  5199. > You answer as you turn your attention attention back to the fight -- nothing's happened yet, but you're sure it's about to, and you don't want to miss it.
  5200. "If the colt is big, yeah. And I'm not really into it much myself..."
  5201. > A sly grin creeps across your face, and you glance sideways up at Sparkshower.
  5202. "... Your old Huckleberry never tried to get in through your backdoor?"
  5203. > She shakes her head.
  5204. > "No. He never really tried to get in at all. I had to start things, guide him. I mean..."
  5205. > With another sigh, she shrugs.
  5206. > "... It didn't bother me; not really. I had fantasies, you know? And I would have loved to see them come true, but I was happy with him even if they didn't."
  5207. > Geez.
  5208. > Feather Fally over there is kinda killing your ante-glow vibe from all this sweaty, grunty, close-combat violence.
  5209. > You try to switch her back onto some different tracks.
  5210. "And this 'tackplay' stuff, it's one fantasy?"
  5211. > That brightens the pegasus up, and you see her eyes open up wide again.
  5212. > "Yeah. You really don't know about it?"
  5213. > When you shake your head, she continues.
  5214. > "... Tackplay is when you use harnesses and saddles and stuff in the bedroom. One partner wears the tack, or maybe even both, and then it's like... one of the partners is more in charge than the other, you know what I mean? And they use the tackle to control the submissive one."
  5215. > She starts to get breathy, her irises dilating and her wings spreading further.
  5216. > "... I always fantasized about being strapped up, with a bit and bridle, saddle and stirrups, and, uhm..."
  5217. > Sparkshower licks her lips before continuing.
  5218. > "... *Forced* to do what my colt wanted."
  5219. > What the buck?
  5220. > You scrunch up your snout.
  5221. "You want to be *raped*?!"
  5222. > Instantly, her armour clatters as she waves her forehooves dismissively in front of her.
  5223. > "No, no! It's not like that, Lily. It's..."
  5224. > She swallows deeply.
  5225. > "... It's like *acting*, you know? Everything gets agreed on beforehoof. It's just playing out a fantasy."
  5227. > You semi-unscrunch your snout, but you still have one eyebrow cocked in confusion.
  5228. "And your fantasy is to be bound up with cart-tackle, and have the colt pretend to... force himself on you?"
  5229. > As you try to regurgitate what she's telling you in your own words, a look of satisfaction creeps onto her face.
  5230. > "Yeah..."
  5231. > With another breathless sigh, she stares as Anonymous lunges, unfortunately ineffectively, at the Corporal.
  5232. > "... I want to feel small, and maybe even helpless. I want to feel like my colt is so big and so strong and so *dominant* that he's completely in control and I couldn't resist him even if I wanted to -- not that I want to, I mean."
  5233. > Sparkshower slowly heaves her shoulders up and down as the Royal Engineer lets out another animal roar and recovers from his failed lunge into another just-barely-missed grab at Honour's hind leg.
  5234. > "... And... I want to be told I'm a bad filly and that I have to be *punished* for being bad."
  5235. > Okay now this is a whole new flavour of weird.
  5236. "You? A bad filly? You're the most upstanding pony I've ever met, Artemis."
  5237. > Sparkshower droops her head down a little bit and raises her eyebrows pleadingly.
  5238. > "I know! I always look both ways before crossing the cold front, and I always say 'please' and 'thank-you', and I always salute officers in the hallways..."
  5239. > Then she firms up and the supplicating expression turns into a dark grin.
  5240. > "... But what if I *wasn't*? What if I was actually a bad pony, not just for disobeying the rules of society -- but for disobeying my *colt*? My *master*?"
  5242. > The grin turns into a smile you've seen before -- usually plastered across a colt's face as you looked up from taking your first eager slurp of their meat.
  5243. > "... And he'd have to *correct* my bad behaviour. By pulling on my reins, or spanking my flank, or switching my plot, or even climbing on my saddle and riding me around. And then I wouldn't feel like such a big, strong, invincible heavily-armoured Royal Guard pegasus any more."
  5244. > She heaves a sigh so big you even can see her breastplate move.
  5245. > You really don't get it.
  5246. "Sparks, you're scaring me a bit here. After all the excitement you got from being 'bucking invincible' with your fancy new lance and heavy armour, now you say you want to feel the *exact opposite* when you're with a colt?"
  5247. > Your poor, heartbroken, confused filly-friend just shakes her head and shrugs.
  5248. > "Yeah. I guess it sounds pretty strange when you put it that way."
  5249. > Now it's your turn to shrug.
  5250. "Eh, I dunno... I guess I've heard of weirder stuff..."
  5251. > Your attention turns back to Anonymous, who's hunched down with his arms spread wide, having backed the Corporal up against the edge of the ring.
  5252. "... And you say *Anonymous* is into it?"
  5253. > She licks her lips again.
  5254. > "Well, I mean... I don't know how much, but he said yesterday he had experimented with saddle-play before he came here, at a 'tourist ranch'."
  5255. > What?
  5256. > Sounds like the kind of depraved thing you'd find on the outskirts of Las Pegasus.
  5257. "Hunh. I guess that makes the fight look a bit different to you, then."
  5258. > Sparkshower nods, and replies in a breathy voice.
  5259. > "Yeah. Just imagine..."
  5260. > There's the sound of scraping metal as she tilts her head sideways.
  5261. > "... What if Honour was actually attracted to Anonymous, and she actually *wanted* to be captured, and that the chase was all a game they played, and that once she was good and caught, struggling helplessly but immobilized, that he'd mount her and..."
  5262. > Okay, yeah, there's your anteglow going again.
  5264. > You think you understand where she's coming from, now, but Sparkshower trails off and bites her lip, so you speak up and finish the fantasy the way you'd want it to end.
  5265. "... And after satisfying himself, and pleasing her, too, they'd lie exhausted together, cuddling in silence, as lovers do?"
  5266. > Artemis licks her lips and sighs.
  5267. > "Yeah..."
  5268. > Nice.
  5269. > Just then, Honour breaks to the left, and Anonymous lunges at her with outstretched hands.
  5270. > He gets one arm around her torso, and manges to lock the other one together with it, and the Corporal goes down into the sand.
  5271. > She's kicking and bucking furiously, but the Royal Engineer manages to maintain his grip, enduring the blows to his chest all while tightening his bear-hug.
  5272. > Buck, is he actually going to do it this time?
  5273. > You and Sparkshower are both on the edge of your hooves watching the scene unfold, when suddenly there's an outburst from above.
  5274. > "Enough! I cannot take any more of this!"
  5275. > Everypony -- including the previously idle musicians, to the clatter of coffee cups -- looks up to see Ignacio, the blind Balladeer of Ghosts, shouting down from between the curtains of his pulpit.
  5276. > "... It is as if there is a hive full of ten thousand bees all living inside of my head! Sleep is impossible with that incessant *buzzing* jou are making!"
  5277. > He angrily thrusts out his forehoof, and it's pointing straight at *you*.
  5278. > Oh, buck, you forgot.
  5279. > The blind old bat can somehow 'hear' when you've got your horn ready to go.
  5280. > And now everypony is looking over at you, and your lit-up horn.
  5281. > Anonymous has even let go of Honour and is getting to his feet, dusting the sand off of his armour.
  5282. > He looks around and sees Sergeant Ebonshield looking just as confused as anypony else, while Honour is still regaining her breath, so he nods in your direction.
  5283. > "Is something wrong, Specialist?"
  5284. > Hoo-foal.
  5285. > This is almost as bad as being caught in your bedroom with a conveniently shaped cucumber.
  5286. > Except it's by your studly employer, instead of your own mother.
  5288. "Uhm. No, nothing's wrong, sir."
  5289. > The Royal Engineer shrugs.
  5290. > "Well, what's the meaning of Ignacio's complaint, then? Why is your horn lit up? Were you influencing the fight with magic?"
  5291. > Wow.
  5292. > Okay, he must not know about unicorn-horns.
  5293. > You shake your head.
  5294. "No, sir, I wasn't influencing the fight. Uh... my horn's lit up for the same reason that Sparkshower's wings are outstretched, ya know?"
  5295. > The cream-coloured pegasus in question goes beet red.
  5296. > But she still doesn't quite have the willpower to lower her wings.
  5297. > Corporal Bound, having regained her hoofing, looks between you, Sparkshower, and a still-confused Anonymous, then grumbles and shakes her head.
  5298. > "He doesn't know what that means either, Glamerspear. He's not from here, remember?"
  5299. > Buck, that's right.
  5300. > He doesn't know about tuft, or pegasus wingboners, or unicorn anteglows.
  5301. > Ebonshield cocks an eyebrow, and you get the sense that she's cottoned on to the situation.
  5302. > She still stays quiet, though -- which means the spotlight is still on you and Sparkshower.
  5303. "Uhm, sorry, sir. It's just that, uh --"
  5304. > Oh, Celestia, how can you put this in a not-too-embarrassing-for-anypony way?
  5305. "... It's just that your, ah, wrestling match, with the Corporal has been pretty *stimulating*, you know what I mean?"
  5306. > He doesn't look like he does.
  5307. > Before you can think of a new phrasing, Sparkshower speaks up.
  5308. > "Sir, you're a very powerful and handsome colt, and watching you chase the athletic and attractive Corporal, and try to grab her and wrestle her to the ground, with all the grunting and panting and sweating you're both making--"
  5309. > She sighs, her wings outstretched bobbing up and down as she does.
  5310. > "... It's really very provocatively arousing, sir. Which is why my wings are outstretched and Lily's horn is lit up. It's an involuntary reaction, sir, but you should take it as a compliment."
  5312. > There's the subtle way of explaining it, and there's the blunt way of explaining it, and then there's this 'bucking-invincible'-with-a-two-ton-bronze-hammer blunt way of explaining it.
  5313. > Anonymous doesn't say anything, and you can't read anything into his reaction other than maybe shock.
  5314. > Honour, meanwhile, has actually started to blush underneath her frown.
  5315. > Ebonshield just looks faintly amused.
  5316. > The musicians seem to just be shrugging and going back to their coffee.
  5317. > Thank Celestia their Equestrian isn't so good.
  5318. > You may as well wrap it all up now, then.
  5319. > Swallowing, you turn up towards the blind batpony who called you out.
  5320. "Sorry to have disturbed your sleep, Mister Blazon, sir."
  5321. > Ignacio whinnies and lowers his forehoof.
  5322. > "Hunh. All this magic, radiated for no purpose other than to show that the loins are excited?"
  5323. > He shakes his head, and the red tassels on his black face-mask jangle to and fro.
  5324. > "... Jou fascinate me, unicornio. Wake me when jou are all done, and we shall speak together."
  5325. > With a dismissive wave, he retires behind his curtain.
  5326. > And yet you still feel like you've got that cucumber half inside of you with your mother staring down, aghast.
  5327. > Anonymous clears his throat and dispels the silence.
  5328. > "*cough* Maybe we should take a little break."
  5329. > On cue, the Sergeant strides out into the sandpit.
  5330. > "An idea most excellent, Great Lord! This has been a display most invigorating and enlightening. I believe now that I may be able to teach you certain tricks additional to improve your technique..."
  5331. > When she reaches them, she gives a small bow.
  5332. > "... But for now, yes, let us rest. It is clear to me that you were close to catching the Corporal Bound by exhaustion alone, if nothing else."
  5333. > Anonymous shuffles his feet uncomfortably, looking down at Honour, who is still pretty red-faced from Sparkshower's blatant admission and adulation.
  5334. > "I don't know... You weren't giving me a lot of openings, Corporal, even just now before the interruption. I was running out of steam."
  5336. > Honour swallows and shakes her head.
  5337. > "No, sir -- but the Sergeant is right. You pretty much had me at the end."
  5338. > Ebonshield smiles.
  5339. > "Of course, of course. But I shall also give you some advice as well, Cabo Honoria, privately -- so that the next time, even if our Great Lord has learned new tricks, you will be able to match him still. It is not a contest true unless the scales are balanced evenly!"
  5340. > Still grinning, she waves a leathery wing out from underneath her black cloak in the direction of you and Sparkshower.
  5341. > "... And perhaps afterwards, is there some other technique with which you wish to experiment? Possibly with one of your other attendants? I am open to teaching *whatever* skills the Great Lord desires..."
  5342. > There's a pretty explicit innuendo there that serves just to embarrass you and Sparkshower further.
  5343. > But, mercifully, the Royal Engineer either misses it or ignores it completely.
  5344. > "To be honest, I had a lot of fun fighting with daggers last time we were down here. The 'Icosapligi' mace that Bronzehorn made for me is very impressive, and I doubt I would need even close to all twenty of its blows to beat someone, but it is quite heavy for me -- and I think it would be good to have a backup weapon."
  5345. > Ebonshield beams, gesturing excitedly with her wings.
  5346. > "Yes, certainly! And the art of plunging something into the heart of another is one which I am most intimately familiar. I shall solicit Toledo on your behalf for your own pair of blades -- or a brace, even, for you could easily throw them also."
  5347. > She glances in your direction, and the enthusiasm suddenly drains from her face.
  5348. > When it's replaced with a stern look, you realize she's not looking quite *at* you, but rather *above* you.
  5349. > And above and behind you would be the main staircase for descending into the fighting pit.
  5350. > Anonymous and Honour follow her gaze as well, and Sparkshower and you both turn around to see what has your Sergeant's attention.
  5352. > You realize it's a *who*, not a *what*, when a hooded figure at the top of the stairs speaks out.
  5353. > "Pureza. First you deeshonourr yourrself, then you deeshonourr yourr house, now you deeshonourr the Gran Salón, and then you prropose to deeshonourr even los Rocas."
  5354. > It's almost impossible to make out one black-cloaked batpony from another, but you'd recognize that voice anywhere, and instantly you light up your horn -- for real, this time.
  5355. > Sergeant Ebonshield calmly speaks her brother's name.
  5356. > "Marcos..."
  5357. > Throwing her hood back, she steps out, interposing herself between the Royal Engineer and the new arrival.
  5358. > Then, with a sneer, she kicks up a shower of sand.
  5359. > "... If you have something to say to me, Marcos, come down into the pit and say it to my muzzle."
  5360. > The new challenger throws back his hood as well, and there's a soft clattering of hoofsteps as a dozen more of his black-cloaked kin spread out from behind him, taking up positions in the gallery.
  5361. > Marcos nods.
  5362. > "Sí, Pureza. Ay theenk that ay shall."
  5363. > Oh, buck.
  5365. Suggested interlude music: (Bill Elm & Woody Jackson - 'El Club de los Cuerpos', from 'Red Dead Redemption' [2010])
  5370. > You are Specialist Artemis Sparkshower, and you don't like the look of this storm one bit.
  5371. > Like dark clouds gathering on the horizon, the twelve black-cloaked batpony soldiers surround you, waiting at the edges of the viewing gallery above the combat arena.
  5372. > They're barely forty hooves away from where you now stand, gathered up with your quaternion in the middle of the sand-pit, surrounding the Royal Engineer for his safety -- Eb in front, you and Honour on flanks, and Glam in the rear.
  5373. > What really puts your ears up is the singular big black storm-cloud still standing at the top of the main entrance staircase, almost eighty hooves away.
  5374. > Marcos, your Sergeant's brother, is exactly the kind of cyclonic depression that Equestria AWACS Command would send a whole brigade of weather-ponies to break up before it could cause any real damage.
  5375. > Unfortunately, right now it was just your quaternion plus your VIP.
  5376. > And the menacing batponies had you outnumbered twelve-to-five.
  5377. > To say nothing of them commanding the high ground!
  5378. > Marcos' great black cloak slowly lifts up at the sides, and then with one lightning-quick wing-pump he shoots up into the air like an arrow, arcing towards the apex of the domed ceiling in the Grand Hall of Stars, over a hundred hooves up.
  5379. > You make to ready your lance in case he dives down, but before you've barely even laid a hoof on it the batpony disappears in a blur, and you flinch involuntarily when there's a sudden blast of sand before you.
  5380. > Glamerspear, Honour, and even the Royal Engineer all turn away and throw up forelegs or arms to shield their eyes, but your bascinet-helm visor saves you from most of the spray.
  5381. > And when the dusty sand-cloud dissipates, you're stunned by what you see.
  5384. Suggested background music: (Paul Ruskay - 'Captain Soban', from 'Homeworld 2' [2003])
  5386. > Marcos is standing in a shallow hole right in front of Purity, surrounded by a small raised rim of sand.
  5387. > Whoa, h-he's fast!
  5388. > Behind and slightly to the side of the Royal Engineer, Glamerspear gasps out in shock.
  5389. > "What?!"
  5390. > Despite her outburst, Marcos pays no attention to the rest of you, staying focused on his sister before him.
  5391. > Surprisingly, it's the Sergeant who speaks first, stepping back closer to the rest of you, allowing Marcos room to emerge from his small impact crater and face her on an equal footing.
  5392. > "There is no need for theatrics, Marcos. I know well the techniques of the Swarming Meteors..."
  5393. > As he approaches to meet her, muzzle-to-muzzle, she continues.
  5394. > "... And I know you are more than worthy to be a Sixth, my brother."
  5395. > Marcos stops and regards his sister straight in the eyes for a long time.
  5396. > Still without so much as glancing away from her, he opens his mouth, speaking slowly.
  5397. > "Thees deymonstrration... Thees 'tee-atrrics', as you say... Eet was not for yourr ayes dat I do thees..."
  5398. > Throwing back his hood with a single sharp backwards head-shake, you see his nostrils flare as he takes a deep breath.
  5399. > "... Eet was sso that yourr 'battle-siblings' would know also hwhat they face..."
  5400. > Then he nods in the Royal Engineer's direction.
  5401. > "... Tell heem."
  5402. > With her attention fixed on her brother, Ebonshield speaks up, addressing the rest of you while facing away.
  5403. > "This is my younger brother, Marcos Ébanoscudo. He is a Sixth of the Temple of the Swarming Meteors, a school which focuses on the dives sudden and violent, as you have seen..."
  5404. > Delicately licking her lips, she continues more quietly.
  5405. > "... And he has said very many rude things about me, and also about all of you."
  5407. > With what almost feels like a shrug, you see her bob her head slightly.
  5408. > "... I threatened to kill him the last time he confronted me with these insults. It appears that this message has not been understood."
  5409. > At that, Marcos smiles.
  5410. > "No, Pureza, eet has been underrstood. Thhat ees why ay am heerre with battle-siblings of my own."
  5411. > Sergeant Ebonshield whinnies.
  5412. > "You needed such a large escort just to hurl more insults at me, Marcos?"
  5413. > He shakes his head in reply.
  5414. > "To insult, no. The tayme to dissuade you frrom deeshonourring yourrself weeth tallk ees ober..."
  5415. > Then inhales sharply before finishing.
  5416. > "... Now, eet ees time to errase yourr shayme."
  5417. > To your surprise, Ebonshield growls.
  5418. > You haven't heard her do that since she had to face the Royal Engineer's shadowy sand-clone almost a week ago in this very pit.
  5419. > And that had seemed like a real battle of life and death.
  5420. > "My shame! My shame! Your foolish and outdated ideas have no place anymore, especially not on this world, Marcos!"
  5421. > Snarling, she spatters his muzzle with spittle as she carries on.
  5422. > "... Everything I have done, I have done at the will of the Mother-of-Stars herself, commanded in Her presence by Her very flesh and blood!"
  5423. > But the darker-coloured batpony standing in front of her doesn't so much as flinch or move to wipe his face.
  5424. > Instead, he waits, breathing slowly, a drop of spit running down his leather chanfron.
  5425. > Then, at last, he opens his mouth, and speaks words full of loathing.
  5426. > "That surrface-dwelling abomeenation ees not ourr Grreat Motherr..."
  5427. > Inhaling deeply, he narrows his eyes almost lazily.
  5428. > "... No trrue Child of the Starrs hwould eber follow that eempostorr."
  5429. > You're almost shocked that the Sergeant hasn't given him a head-butt as she did when he first showed up in your quarters.
  5430. > Back then, he was just insulting the three of you, her quaternion-mates.
  5431. > But now he's disparaging Her Majesty Princess Luna!
  5433. > Glamerspear whispers from behind.
  5434. > "Bastard."
  5435. > Glancing behind you, you see her horn is fully lit up, and there's a teal outline of a spear, half-materialized above her head.
  5436. > Then Honour turns around as well, and gives the zealous unicorn a stern head-shake.
  5437. > With a barely-audible grumble, the partially conjured spear disappears, but Lily's horn stays lit.
  5438. > After all, there was de-escalating a situation, and then there was letting your guard down!
  5439. > Wanting to avoid violence or not, you weren't going to let these 'Swarming Meteors' get the drop on your group.
  5440. > In front of you, you see Ebonshield swallow.
  5441. > "Had it not been for the Edict of Blood, I would have slaughtered you..."
  5442. > She leans in closer, almost pressing her brow against his.
  5443. > "... Instead, I must pity you, Marcos..."
  5444. > With a sigh, she raises her eyebrows, staring into his dark eyes.
  5445. > "... You have never felt Her presence. You have never seen Her open up the heavens above, raining down the stars like Her tears. You have never felt them envelop you, filling you with Her warmth..."
  5446. > For a moment, Ebonshield closes her eyes and revels in the memory of Princess Luna's powerful presence.
  5447. > It had been an incredible experience, and you're reminded of the beautiful scene yourself.
  5448. > But what a risk to take with her murderous brother standing right there!
  5449. > "... You have never accepted Her star-dust, bathed in Her spirit, breathed in Her passion..."
  5450. > Opening her eyes again, she meets Marcos' impassive gaze with a kind of tenderness.
  5451. > "... If you had, you would never speak such blasphemy."
  5452. > Marcos barely shows any emotion.
  5453. > "Eet ees no blasphemee to rreject a false God."
  5454. > The Sergeant pulls her head back slightly, relaxing her stare.
  5455. > "Our own mother has affirmed also the Edict of Blood."
  5456. > He just shakes his head.
  5457. > "Worrds spoken by a false God rremain always false, no matter who rrepeats them. Eet ees ourr duty to deesobey."
  5459. > Ebonshield snorts.
  5460. > "Carmen *will* be upset nonetheless."
  5461. > "Ay weell endurre herr temperr..."
  5462. > Marcos curls his lip up into a sneer.
  5463. > "... Een the end, eet will be worth eben her angerr to errase the stain you habe mayde."
  5464. > It seems like there's just no stopping this storm with words.
  5465. > Is this going to come to blows after all?
  5466. > Purity surveys the forces ranked against you in the gallery.
  5467. > "Thirteen Swarming Meteors against the five of us. These are odds quite slim, Marcos. Are you so certain of victory?"
  5468. > Marcos tilts his head slightly.
  5469. > "No. Not thirrteen against fibe, Pureza. Thirrteen against *one*..."
  5470. > What?
  5471. > Is he suggesting that you won't fight alongside your quaternion's Sergeant?
  5472. > As if that was going to happen!
  5473. > But Marcos only nods towards the Royal Engineer.
  5474. > "... You arre sworrn to prrotect heem with yourr life, Pureza. Eef he fights weeth you, he dies weeth you. But eef you fight alone..."
  5475. > The menacing batpony looks to one side.
  5476. > "... Then he may leabe herre, alibe."
  5477. > Ebonshield stiffens.
  5478. > "And the others?"
  5479. > "Tweested as you arre, you arre still hwan of the Childrren, one of *us*. And they..."
  5480. > He nods towards your general group.
  5481. > "... They will neverr assept you, neber lobe as we deed, Pureza. Thees ees your mistake, to habe forrgotten yourr true Motherr, and to habe shunned yourr people for these surrface-born..."
  5482. > Marcos licks his lips.
  5483. > "... Fayce us alone, and they may all deparrt alibe."
  5484. > Glamerspear has had enough, and angrily stamps her hind hooves on the ground, swaying her neck left and right.
  5485. > "Buster, if you think for one instant that we're going to abandon our Sergeant and hoof her over to be executed, just because she's a batpony, you've got another thing coming."
  5486. > Your helmet rattles as you give a sharp nod.
  5487. "That's right! Equestria is the land of 'From many ponies, one', and we don't give up our own!"
  5489. > Looking to your Corporal for reassurance, you see her hesitate for a moment, but then she forcefully stamps a forehoof down as well.
  5490. > "You won't take the Sergeant without fighting all of us."
  5491. > That'll show him!
  5492. > Sure enough, Ebonshield smiles as she glances back.
  5493. > "I am glad to hear your support, mi cuaternion. Never have I been made to feel unwelcome among you..."
  5494. > The smile turns into a menacing grin when she faces her brother once more.
  5495. > "... Do you begin to see how mistaken you are, Marcos? You are wrong about the Equestrians, you are wrong about the Mother-of-Stars, you are wrong about me, and you are wrong to think that you can win. There is still the time to reconsider."
  5496. > But it doesn't seem your show of solidarity has impressed her brother very much.
  5497. > "Thees chaynges nathing. Eben with the many treeks and applayances that yourr school so lobes, you will not ween. Thirrteen against fourr..."
  5498. > He shakes his head dismissively, and you had to admit, the numbers were *not* in your favour.
  5499. > But if you worked together, after what you saw of her last week, you had no doubt that Sergeant Ebonshield could eliminate these aggressors all by herself -- provided you let kept the others at bay long enough for her to face them one or two at a time.
  5500. > Even Lily could probably shoot most of them down, if you only held them off her long enough to manage it.
  5501. > It was just a matter of coordination...
  5502. > "... Surrenderr and sparre yourr compañeros, my seester. Thees ees more than thrree against wone."
  5503. > You hear a voice from above and beside you.
  5504. > "Not when there's five of us fighting you."
  5505. > Peeking out the side of your visor, you see the Royal Engineer menacingly pound his right mailed fist into his open left gauntlet.
  5506. > Instantly, Honour looks up at him.
  5507. > "Sir, this isn't your fight. We're the soldiers, let us take care of it."
  5509. > Pulling his helmet down to cover his face, Anonymous shakes his head.
  5510. > "I'm not going to stand by and watch others fight to the death on my behalf, just because I wanted to do some combat training."
  5511. > That's not really fair!
  5512. > He wanted to learn to fight, sure -- but it was the Sergeant who chose to hold the training down here.
  5513. > Not that you're blaming her, of course, but if it wasn't for that decision, then you wouldn't be in this situation.
  5514. > Although, her brother would probably still be trying to kill her...
  5515. > But at least the Royal Engineer wouldn't be involved.
  5516. > Corporal Bound pleads with your VIP.
  5517. > "You can't blame yourself for this situation, sir. And we're sworn to defend *you*, not the other way around."
  5518. > Even Ebonshield dares to look away from her brother to speak back at the Royal Engineer.
  5519. > "The Caporal is correct in this; we are here because I thought to use this Grand Hall. Your concern is appreciated, but you have no responsibility to join us in this fight."
  5520. > To your surprise, Marcos chuckles.
  5521. > "Heh. And eben eef you join, hwhat can you do weethout yourr club and yourr sheeld?"
  5522. > He nods up towards the section of the gallery where the Royal Engineer's equipment still lies from before you began this exercise, watched over by one of his Swarming Meteors.
  5523. > It hadn't seemed like an unsafe place at the time, but now they were dangerously out of reach.
  5524. > Even powered by the thundering speed of Bradamante Lance, you doubted you could grab them and bring them back before the fight began in earnest.
  5525. > It probably wouldn't be worth trying, not until at least a number of the attackers had already been dealt with.
  5526. > Anonymous bangs both of his armoured fists against his blackened-bronze breastplate with a loud *CLUNG*.
  5527. > "You and your 'Swarming Meteors' don't scare me, Marcos..."
  5529. > He points a menacing finger at the batpony.
  5530. > "... This doesn't have to end in violence, but if it does, I've got everything I need to fight you right here. And you'll be thirteen smashed meteorites lying in pieces on the ground if you think otherwise."
  5531. > Then he clenches his hand back into a fist, and lets out a growl
  5532. > All you can see in the shadow of the T-shaped slit of his helm are the whites of his eyes and his big sharp teeth.
  5533. > Gosh, that's a little unnerving.
  5534. > Who knew your VIP could be so intimidating?
  5535. > From the back row, Glamerspear laughs.
  5536. > "Bucking right! You want to go up against Their Majesties' Royal Engineer and his quaternion, you'd better bring a whole buckin' army!"
  5537. > As Marcos sneers disdainfully, Ebonshield gets up in his face again.
  5538. > "You see? You should have brought more Meteors, Marcos. Or could you find only twelve who were willing to violate their oath to protect the Palace at night?"
  5539. > He angrily barks back his reply.
  5540. > "Ay found morre than enough who werre weelling to do hwhat needed to be done!"
  5541. > You hear hoofsteps coming from the outside hallway, and Marcos' anger turns back into a sinister grin.
  5542. > "... And ay have not brrought only twelbe... Ay have brrought *fourteen*..."
  5543. > Two black-cloaked batponies, indistinguishable from the other twelve already in the room, enter through the doorway and, after a brief pause to nod to each other, they fan out to join their comrades in the gallery above and around you.
  5544. > "... Theese two arribe late only because they werre mayking cerrtain that yourr *other* students would not interferre weeth us."
  5545. > He doesn't mean that little foal and filly who helped rake the sandpit and set up the targets last time, does he?
  5546. > Ebonshield looks sharply at the two newcomers.
  5547. > "What have you done with them?"
  5549. > Her brother settles back into his detached stance.
  5550. > "You Estellares habe too many treeks and secrrets; eet would be too easy for them to eenterrupt and spoil ourr plans. My Meteors deed what needed to be done, queek and payneless."
  5551. > Your heart sinks when Ebonshield rears her head back, her eyes wide with shock.
  5552. > "They were *children*, Marcos! Initiates! Not even of the first rank! Shadows take you, murderer."
  5553. > But her brother just looks down his muzzle at her.
  5554. > "Theirr blood ees on yourr hooves, Pureza, not mine. You filled theirr heads with blasphemies, and you filled their hearrts with corruption. Ay am merrely cleaning up yourr mess."
  5555. > Oh, no.
  5556. > Your batpony Sergeant, who has been such a good friend as well as a good soldier ever since you met her, stands aghast, speechless.
  5557. > Then her expression hardens, and she lowers her head once more, meeting her brother brow-to-brow once more.
  5558. > "I will avenge their deaths, Marcos."
  5559. > He gives a slight nod.
  5560. > "Then ay weell die, but ay weell have done my duty to the Cheeldrren..."
  5561. > Marcos tilts his head slightly, still looking into the Sergeant's eyes.
  5562. > "... Eef yourr conscience botherrs you, then choose to fayt us alone instead. My offerr to let these others leabe still stands. Ees that not what yourr Maestro Romà de Balj prreached as his 'Trruth Stellarr'? That therre was no goal higherr than to die forr the Grreat Motherr?"
  5563. > Taking a step back, he uses one wing to brusquely fling his cloak aside, revealing that he, too, has blades on his wing-arms.
  5564. > But unlike Purity's ensemble, his outfit actually has normal-looking metal sabots, with no complex spring-loaded blades strapped to his legs.
  5565. > He had a metal peytral, too, styled not unlike those worn by ordinary Royal Guard.
  5566. > Now that you can see him without cloak or hood, you see that his chanfron head armouring is heavier, too, with blackened metal plates riveted to the leather strips, though it's still not up to Royal Guard standards.
  5568. > No doubt the heavier armouring is required for the 'Swarming Meteors' to endure their diving attacks.
  5569. > That's something to keep in mind in a few moments, when you have to fight the rest of them as well.
  5570. > Still stepping away, Marcos calls out.
  5571. > "... Die forr the Grreat Motherr, Estellar Siete Pureza Ébanoscudo, mi hermana, eef that ees who you trruly believe the wone who walks on the surrface to be. Yourr temple weell rememberr yourr sacrrifice fondly, meesguided as eet ees."
  5573. Suggested background music: (BenDanProductions - 'Battlefield Theme, Acoustic Cover (Mariachi Style)' [1993], original composition by Joel Eriksson)
  5575. > As Ebonshield stands there, shocked, you look over at Corporal Bound.
  5576. > She won't let Marcos' final words change things, will she?
  5577. > Honour exchanges glances with you and Glamerspear, then whispers.
  5578. > "Everypony, protect Glamerspear and the Royal Engineer. Glam, get ready to gun them down, but watch out for Eb in the crossfire."
  5579. > Glamerspear's grin grows twice as large, and she taps the side of her helmet to lower the visor with a close-range targeting reticle.
  5580. > "'Bout buckin' time."
  5581. > As Honour pulls a javelin off her back and snaps it together and Anonymous raises his fists up in a fighting stance, you turn your body to face outwards from your VIP and your Anti-Air unicorn, eyes darting between the six cloaked batponies in front and above of you.
  5582. > Your armour was heavier than theirs, you were certain, and their diving attacks should be unable to penetrate it.
  5583. > It was just a matter of making sure they didn't bludgeon you anywhere important, like your head.
  5584. > They couldn't possibly know what the 'Bradamante Lance' was capable of, so that was an advantage as well.
  5586. > Expanding the weapon with a loud *ka-CHONK*, and partially mounting it with your hooves on the ground, you resolve to let them make the first move, then harpoon them once they had given up their mobility by landing in the sandpit.
  5587. > Ideally, you should be able to spear one and body-check another in the first charge, if you can line them up properly.
  5588. > To your right, you see the musicians finally decide they want no part of what's about to happen, and they scramble to take refuge at the outer edge of the gallery.
  5589. > You hope Ignacio will be okay, sleeping up in his wooden pulpit...
  5590. > If he was even still asleep.
  5591. > Honour should maybe have told Lily to watch out for him, too.
  5592. > To your left, you see Marcos pull back the other side of his cloak, exposing both of his wings, and the shining 'steel' blades on them.
  5593. > He and Ebonshield both raise their wings up, and you can hear the scratching of metal on metal as the blades slowly extend.
  5594. > It must be some kind of batpony ritual way of starting a duel...
  5595. > You don't think she's going to be tackling any of the other batponies until she's dealt with her own brother.
  5596. > In the galleries around you, the other Swarming Meteors all start to lift their cloaks up with their wings, preparing for their ballistic ascent and subsequent dynamic entry into the sandpit.
  5597. > Any moment now...
  5599. Suggested background music: (John Barry - 'Inflight Fight', from 'The Living Daylights' [1987])
  5601. > Suddenly, two foalish voices shout in unison from above, ahead and behind.
  5602. > "¡Gran Madre!"
  5603. > "¡Gran Madre!"
  5604. > In the blink of an eye, one of the batponies located in the middle of the group -- one of the two foal-killers to have arrived late -- whips a forehoof out from underneath their cloak.
  5605. > To the shock and surprise of the other Swarming Meteors, the batpony -- whom you now notice has two *bed-pillows* strapped to their flanks -- slams the same forehoof back down on the stone floor.
  5607. > *BANG*-*BANG*-*POOOOOFFF*
  5608. > There's a pair of deafening blasts from in front and from your back, accompanied by a blinding flash of light.
  5609. > Momentarily stunned, you only hear Marcos cry out to your left.
  5610. > "¡Trampa! ¡Mata unicornio primero!"
  5611. > Shaking your head, you clear the haze from your eyes, only to see the gallery level and the ceiling above you completely engulfed in thick black smoke.
  5612. > You hear coughing and choking noises coming from where the Swarming Meteors had been standing, but you can see nothing through the impenetrably dark cloud.
  5613. > Then, a moment later, the same shouting batpony tumbles out from the darkness and opens her wings to coast towards your group, letting out another battle cry.
  5614. > "¡Estelaaaaaareeeees!"
  5615. > Wait, isn't that 'Stellar' in the batpony language?
  5616. > Just when you put it together, you hear Glamerspear shout out one of her own in reply.
  5618. > Still facing forward, you throw out a preventative foreleg towards your overeager comrade.
  5619. "Wait, Lily, they're on our side!"
  5620. > Glamerspear scrunches up her snout in confusion, and you turn to see the same scene repeated on the other side, including the arrival of another small-looking batpony.
  5621. > Both new arrivals throw off their cloaks and land, revealing the rest of their outfits.
  5622. > Standing somewhat awkwardly on sabots that have been padded with what look like bedsheets, they've got bed-pillows strapped to their sides to bulk up their bodies, and although you're no expert in batpony wing-blades, you're certain the ones they're wearing are several sizes too large.
  5623. > Once they discard those clumsy devices and kick off their padded sabots, you recognize the two newcomers as 'Carto' and 'Águila', the foal and filly students of Ebonshield.
  5624. > Oh, thank Celestia -- they must have overcome their original attackers and then decided to impersonate them!
  5626. > As the two enterprising students bound their way towards your group, no longer disguised, Carto, the foal in front of you, speaks up.
  5627. > "Today these Meteoros Idiotas taste two smoke-bombs of the Estellares! Her fumes shall strangle them to sleep, but a few may escape, so we must guard!"
  5628. > Honour nods in acknowledgement, and you and her both expand the defensive formation to admit the two extra participants.
  5629. > "Okay, Glam, you heard them -- strafe the gallery."
  5630. > Anonymous interrupts the increasingly-agitated unicorn before she can start firing.
  5631. > "Wait! We can do this without bloodshed -- Specialist, shoot up the place, but use your training rounds instead. We'll aim to knock-out anyone who resists the smoke."
  5632. > With nobody else objecting, and with an enthusiastic shout, she starts to step around in a small circle, rotating in place as she lets fly spear after spear without further delay.
  5634. > From inside the cloud, you hear some of the dull-headed training rounds impact on flesh or armour instead of rock, accompanied by grunts of pain -- and all overlaid over the continuing sounds of coughing and choking.
  5635. > "¡Uf!"
  5636. > "¡Ay!-*COUGH*"
  5638. > "¡OH!"
  5639. > Keeping your ears up and facing forwards, you wait anxiously for any sign of movement inside the obscuring gas.
  5641. > "¡*Yaa-Aaaa*!"
  5642. > With a high-pitched scream and glimmering green spear ricocheting off his helmet, one of the hostile batponies tumbles in confusion over the gallery-edge, collapsing into the trench around the raised sandpit.
  5644. > To your surprise, Carto immediately runs forward and leaps into the trench, heading for the rack of wooden weapons, and seconds later, you hear the sounds of somepony getting thoroughly thrashed with a wooden stick.
  5645. > *SMACK* *WHACK* *SLAP*
  5648. > "¡Ayaaa!"
  5649. > One of the Swarming Meteors come flying out of the cloud, screeching with rage, eyes shut but forehooves held out in front of him and wing-blades extended to the sides.
  5651. > Glamerspear is busy shooting up the other side of gallery, so it looks like this one's up to you, and you line up the target with the guard-side of the Bradamante Lance before stomping a hind hoof into its stirrup.
  5653. > In a split second, you slam the lance's hoofguard right into the blind charger, and you brace for the inevitable impact with him against the wall-
  5655. > -Only to be completely dizzied when immediately after flattening your target into the wall, instead of crashing right into him afterwards, there's a flash of blue light all around you, and you suddenly find yourself hurtling at full speed in almost the exact opposite direction.
  5656. > Releasing the stirrup and flipping your visor up, you dry heave from the nauseating experience.
  5657. > *TSSSSSSsssssssss*
  5658. > Accompanied by the now-familiar noise of the deactivated Lance, you struggle to regain your senses.
  5659. > What just happened?
  5660. > One moment, you were about to slam into stone at full speed, the next, you're heading for the exact opposite side of the ring.
  5661. > Slowly turning your head, you see your target behind you, still plastered against the vertical slab of rock.
  5662. > After a moment, they slowly slide down it and crumple into the trench.
  5664. > Glamerspear is still filling the gallery with spears, and you resolve to figure out just what happened some other time.
  5665. > Surveying the scene, you see another two knocked-out batponies down in the circular ditch, with Águila, the other initiate of the Stellar Dance, floating over them, gleefully rapping their wing-arms, knees, and shins with a stick held in her forehooves, to a small duet of moans and groans.
  5668. > You look over towards the main body of your group, and see that there's another batpony still standing, currently struggling to bring his wing-blades to bear on Corporal Bound, who's holding him at bay with one of her javelins.
  5669. > But while the cloaked attacker is occupied with Honour, you watch the Royal Engineer dodge around behind him.
  5671. > Before the Swarming Meteor can react to being swarmed himself, Anonymous fearlessly seizes the batpony's right bladed wing-arm in his left gauntlet, and then delivers a punishing body-blow punch to the exposed flank with the other.
  5672. > "¡Huuf!"
  5673. > With the wind completely knocked out of him, the batpony collapses to the ground, and the Royal Engineer jumps on top, wrapping a left arm around the wheezing pony's neck.
  5675. > From within the now-clearing smoke, you hear a gasping cry from a collapsed Meteor in the gallery.
  5676. > "¡Rendimos! ¡Rendimos! Wee surrender! Wee surrender!"
  5678. > Whether she can't hear the cry of surrender, or whether she doesn't care about it, Glamerspear continues to fill the gallery with shimmering teal blunt-nosed DPICM training rounds, laughing maniacally the whole time.
  5679. > Anonymous delivers one forceful knock-out punch to the back of the Swarming Meteor's head, and then another, and you see the batpony's limbs go completely limp.
  5681. > Finally, Honour calls Glamerspear off.
  5682. > "Cease fire! Cease fire! They're half dead and giving up, Glamerspear!"
  5683. > -CHUKA-CHUKA!
  5684. > Panting with excitement, Lily finally lets up her barrage.
  5685. > Floating back down to the sandpit, still feeling disoriented from whatever just happened with the 'Bradamante Lance' and that wall, you turn to look over at Sergeant Ebonshield.
  5686. > You're quickly joined by Honour, Lily, the Royal Engineer, and the two Stellar initiates as well.
  5688. > Twenty hooves ahead of you, Marcos is lying on his back, with Ebonshield on top of him, their wings and legs locked together in a clash.
  5689. > While the Swarming Meteor tries to twist the blades inwards to strike his sister, Purity struggles to bring one of her forehooves up to his face.
  5690. > "You have *lost* Marcos! Your Meteors have surrendered or been defeated! Give up!"
  5691. > Marcos answers in a snarl.
  5692. > "Ay am not yet een the shadow! Geeving up ees how we lost our trrue Motherr!"
  5693. > The struggle continues, but while the wings barely move, Ebonshield has managed to get her forehoof almost to his neck.
  5694. > "My blade is soon at your throat -- give up!"
  5695. > He only growls in reply, but that quickly changes when the rest of your group surrounds the pair.
  5696. > With his limbs tangled up in the Sergeant's own, Marcos soon finds Honour's spear levelled down at his head, followed quickly by your own lance.
  5697. > Even the two initiates take to hovering in the air, their two training sticks raised high.
  5698. > Then Glamerspear summons a trio of spears -- real ones, with glittering sharp tips -- even higher up above him, and pointing straight down.
  5699. > Faced with weapons on all sides, you see the fight drain right out of him.
  5700. > When he lets up with his wings, Ebonshield quickly slams them aside, pinning them with her hind hooves as she stands menacingly over him.
  5701. > Marcos looks wordlessly up at his sister, who remains furious.
  5702. > "You were my brother, Marcos! I loved you, as family should!"
  5703. > He doesn't reply, and she snarls down.
  5704. > "... Curse you to the Shadows for breaking your oaths to the Great Mother, and curse you twice again more for making me wish to break my own!"
  5705. > The defeated Meteor only swallows.
  5706. > "Leabing me alibe weel end nathing..."
  5707. > Gritting his teeth, he raises his neck.
  5708. > "... Do hwhat must be done."
  5709. > "Never!"
  5710. > In a flash, Ebonshield slams her brow down into his muzzle.
  5712. > When she lifts it up again, you see a trickle of red running down her face.
  5713. > Marcos speaks, his mouth full of blood as he spits fury and a few loosened teeth up at her.
  5714. > "Do eet! Eet es *our* way! The only way!"
  5715. > Ebonshield lifts her right forehoof, and with a sharp jerk, extends the blade attached to it.
  5716. > She's not *really* going to kill him, is she?
  5717. > After everypony else has already surrendered or been knocked-out?
  5718. > With barely a scratch on any of you!
  5719. > The Sergeant shakes her head.
  5720. > "No, Marcos, I obey the Edict of Blood -- I will not kill another of the Children, here in the Rookery..."
  5721. > She grits her teeth and nods, slowly.
  5722. > "... But I *will* make sure you cannot threaten us again."
  5723. > Jerking the foreleg forward, Purity Ebonshield jams her blade into Marcos' left eye, then slashes outwards in a savage attack.
  5724. > Like a lightning bolt against a dark sky, bright red blood sprays across the sandpit, accompanied by a thundering scream from the victim.
  5726. Suggsted interlude music: (Klaus Doldinger - 'Inferno', from 'Das Boot' [1985])
  5728. (Continued in Chapter 5)
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