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ChooseYourOwnSlaveventure (Part 2, update 2/22/17)

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Feb 22nd, 2017
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  1. > "Are all the work facilities like this? Enclosed, built in?"
  2. > "To some degree."
  3. > Anonymous nods.
  4. > "Cadance, are the spice farms still running?"
  5. > You perk up.
  6. "They should be. There may even be some of the Tenders still out there."
  7. > "We'll go over there. Those are much, much more open."
  8. > There are, as you had predicted, a few ponies still moving through the fields - their muzzles encircled by the white masks that protected them from the pungent odor of the plants that grew there.
  9. > Anonymous slips from his cart, walking to the edge of the field and reaching down to drag one of the roots from the ground.
  10. > "Wasabi. Pure, real wasabi - 140 dollars per kilogram produced. Nearly nine-hundred times the value per mass of corn. Eighty-five percent of farms growing it fail in a year; ninety-three percent by two years. It's fantastically hard to grow. Cadance, how many ponies work this field?"
  11. > Dredging the figures from your memories, you pause.
  12. "The Wasabi? No more than forty-eight, Master. Earth ponies all of them - Crocus runs this field, and she has six assistants with similar talents."
  13. > "How many fields have we lost?"
  14. "Two fields' worth. Out of sixteen. The spring we had that bad frost."
  15. > "There you go. Another example - simple talents, put to common use. Those with relevance can lead, the others support. The ones with talents in geology and engineering clear the fields and lay the pipes; those with plants grow the product - and so on."
  16. > Murmurs rise from the guests again, nodding as they begin to understand how he works.
  17. > "And the best part is, because of the independence I make use of - twenty-six ponies. No guards. You can look around and see yourself; there aren't any men walking around with guns keeping them in line. They work on their own."
  18. > There in fact is a guard, at the very far end of the field.
  19. > But not a human one, and in the fading light it is impossible to distinguish the pony's dress from the workers still walking among the plants.
  20. > He is more interested in the perimeter fence he walks along, though.
  21. > "That's the beauty of it all - their expertise in the field, my management. My coordination. They tell me what is possible for them to do, I lay the groundwork and coordination, and they put it in to practice."
  22. > Your heart sinks as the small convoy gets underway again, and you realize he is going to lead you right back through the living quarters.
  23. > Though the center of the camp.
  24. > Maybe-
  25. > You allow yourself the slightest tinge of hope.
  26. > -maybe nopony would have left dinner yet.
  27. > Subtly as you can, you try and squirm down into a lower position in the seat.
  28. > The convoy itself would be sure to attract the attention of any ponies passing by; all you could do was to lower your head and hope they did not see you.
  29. > ...that you are acting like a foal caught with their hoof in the cookie jar is not lost on you.
  30. > At least the streets were mostly empty, that one wish answered.
  31. > Seeing another single pony trotting ahead - their form concealed under a heavy cloak - you again drop your head.
  32. > Not fast enough, though.
  33. > They are still looking as you pass, and you are still quite able to see the familiar rounded eyeglasses, or the familiar splash of white around his muzzle.
  34. > Blue eyes lock with yours, and your heart skips decides to cancel its regular beat for several moments.
  35. > Instinctively you rear back, which also lifts your head up, which also reveals even more-
  36. > And then Sunburst has been whipped away, left behind by the convoy.
  37. > Your thoughts stay with him.
  38. > Sunburst.
  39. > Of all the ponies who needed you the most.
  40. > He'd almost been avoiding you since the punishment.
  41. > The times he faced you an obvious struggle.
  42. > To see you like this...
  43. > A - a gaudy plaything for Anonymous.
  44. > Every fear you'd held about the outfit, every spark of indignity that you'd squashed for the sake of the promised reward, come roaring back.
  45. > It is all you can do to keep your teeth merely gritted and not grinding.
  46. > He had never said anything about parading you around the camp like this...
  47. > Maybe you should have seen it coming.
  48. > Give him a hoofstep, he'd take a gallop.
  49. > But maybe a part of you had wanted to give in and accept the lie - believe that it was easier to go along with this.
  50. > ...that part of you had been so very wrong.
  51. > Agonizingly wrong.
  52. > You've stopped again.
  53. > In fact, you're already standing on your hooves again - Anonymous standing in front of the offices that stand in for your 'town hall'.
  54. > He's speaking, motioning about.
  55. > Presumably talking about how he lets you mostly govern yourselves.
  56. > Biting your tongue - literally, as well as figuratively - you struggle to force the thoughts out of your head and refocus on what he is saying.
  57. > " quarters we went past earlier, you can see that they are quite capable managing their own day to day lives. Most of that is done here."
  58. > "You let them run things away from your home?"
  59. "Most-"
  60. > You hadn't been invited to speak.
  61. > But you have to speak, or else your thoughts are going to slip away again.
  62. "-most of the decisions we make here are simple ones. Tallying basic supplies. Organizing what work needs to be done on the camp itself. No major decisions are made without my Master's input."
  63. > Anonymous' gaze subtly flicks in your direction, and you realize your error.
  64. > Not 'camp', he'd said.
  65. > "She's right. More importantly, putting their 'leaders' deep in the facilities like lets the ponies regard their actions as their own. It's good for their morale - improves their willingness to respect that leadership."
  66. > Improves, but not solidifies.
  67. > Motioning up to the sign above the building's entrance - an elaborately-painted "TOWN HALL" in flowing, calligraphic script that clearly shows the viewers
  68. "We do our best to... make it more than just a job."
  69. > Because without that, you would all fly to pieces.
  70. "If you would like to come in and see?"
  71. > "Yes, why don't you - Cadance, you can unlock it?"
  72. "Of course."
  73. > Thank Celestia the windows were darkened - nopony was there tonight.
  74. > Of course, with yourself and Mayor Mare out to play showpiece at this party, who would be?
  75. > Unlocking the door with a flick of low magic you step in and turn on the lights.
  76. > Immediately it becomes clear to those who follow you that there is now way Anonymous could be lying about how independent you were.
  77. > The entire suite is set up for ponies:
  78. > Desks subtly too low, meant for a head that hung over them instead of sitting behind.
  79. > Pens and pencils are equipped with rubbered grips for mouthwriting.
  80. > You turn to open the door to your office -
  81. > And with great, great effort resist the urge to slam it shut again.
  82. "...unfortunately, there isn't anypony working here tonight. If we could, I would show you what we are doing now."
  83. > Even as you talk, you also stay firmly planted in front of the office door.
  84. > No one could be allowed in there.
  85. > No one could see the smashed window, or the way somepony had burned huge letters into your desk's surface with their horn.
  86. > Despite seeing them upside down - they had been written so that you would face them when sitting in your chair - it was still quite clear what they spelled out.
  87. > TRAITOR
  88. > When Anonymous finally leads them out, it is to your considerable relief.
  89. > This night had already been a disaster.
  90. > If that had been seen as well...
  91. > The last place Anonymous leads the group is to the security station.
  92. > Their interest here is far less, although Thunderlane still leads them on a minor tour as well.
  93. > You hang back, eyes barely seeing or ears hearing as he introduces them to two of the other ponies who'd taken on the vacated guard positions.
  94. > Instead, the night's experiences roll through your mind.
  95. > The blackened letters, spelling out not just an insult but a challenge to you.
  96. > Sunburst's look of - of shock, horror, anger, you didn't really know - as he saw you ride past.
  97. > Soft hands on your coat, lips whispering friendly words into your ear until they made the offer that still sent a fearful ripple through your body.
  98. > Returning to the manor is something you have never been so thankful for.
  99. > Anonymous returns to his seat holding psuedo-court in the lounge.
  100. > Drinks flow freely now, and the guests form small knots of discussion among themselves.
  101. > Thankfully the tour's conclusion seems to have ended for a time for your direct involvement in the presentation.
  102. > Even so, half your mind is still far distant.
  103. > So far distant that you do not even see the elaborately-polished shoe until your hoof comes down on it.
  104. > The yell of surprise, though - that gets your attention.
  105. > Instantly what has to be done is all too clear.
  106. > Retreating a step, you drop your muzzle to the floor - wings half-spread, drooping to allow their tip-feathers to also brush against the ground.
  107. > Your mane pools in a multihued puddle littered by the golden chains hanging from the horn ring.
  108. "Forgive me, Sir. I was - There is no excuse. You have my greatest apologies for my clumsiness."
  109. > An eternity seems to pass as you stay like that, nose buried in a pool of mane and thick rug - a picture of abject submission, completely open to whatever may come your way.
  110. > All that comes of it is an annoyed grunt and the beginning of a phrase.
  111. > Even so, you know that voice.
  112. > Gregory - the huge man, the first to have questioned you during dinner.
  113. > The one with the hideously grating-
  114. > "Darling! I told you to stay away from that thing; it's clearly not tamed at all!"
  115. > If your ears were not already turned down, the harpy-screech of his wife would bring them so.
  116. > "And you - you! Stay far, far away from my husband! You clearly do not know your place at all."
  117. > If it would keep you away from her...
  118. > Spouting further apologies and backing away as quickly as you could, you quickly depart for a different section of the room.
  119. > How much you wish that you could take a few shots from one of the unimaginably expensive liquors floating around the room right now.
  120. > It would certainly ease the headache-
  121. > Just as you'd thought things were calming, another familiar voice splits the crowd.
  122. > "Oh, Anonymous! Anonymous, I heard the most startling thing earlier from your slave!"
  123. > An oath soundlessly flies from your lips.
  124. > Was nothing going to go right tonight?!
  125. > Catherine bullies her way through the group surrounding your owner, finding a spot vacated not so much by courtesy but by sheer shock of her sudden arrival.
  126. > "She says - I simply cannot believe this - she says that you have no plans to have her bred!"
  127. > One eyebrow cocking upwards, Anonymous tilts his head.
  128. > "I cannot say I do. She currently holds the very vital role of administrator. I can't have her distracted."
  129. > "But - but you know, if there's a chance she might give another alicorn foal..."
  130. > "Without - the Crystal Heart, I believe it was called?"
  131. > "Well, I certainly believe so. There's nothing that's stopped any other foals being born with their magic. But, you know, there's only one good way to find out."
  132. > "Hmm..."
  133. > ...oh, you do not like the way Anonymous is looking at you right now.
  134. > A predatory, yet pondering look.
  135. > "And even if she does not - well, an alicorn's offspring surely has considerable potential for leadership, even if not..."
  136. > Not one bit.
  137. > You need out.
  138. > Away from this.
  139. > A moment of silence to refocus.
  140. > Even the vial that Anonymous had given you wasn't enough now.
  141. > Desperately holding your poise until you are out of sight, you manage to strut from the room rather than flee.
  142. > But even so, there is no disguising what you are doing for yourself.
  143. > With the noise of discussion reduced to a distant buzz, you lean entirely against a cool wall - closing your eyes and trying to drain the pressure that was building inside your skull.
  144. > It was never going to be easy.
  145. > But now...
  146. > All of this...
  147. > It was too much.
  148. > Too-
  149. > Footsteps.
  150. > Polished shoes on hardwood floors.
  151. > Straightening up, you spin around - barely in time, as a man comes into view.
  152. > One of the first to arrive tonight, you thought.
  153. > The second he lays eyes on you, the man approaches.
  154. > He's -
  155. > Weathered, is the best way to describe him.
  156. > Skin that had surely started out lighter, acquiring a tan and some roughness along the way.
  157. > A face crossed by creases folded in the skin and split by a considerable mustache.
  158. > The moment he lays eyes on you, he lights up.
  159. > "Ah, there you are."
  160. "Yes - forgive me, I was looking in to something. Can I be of assistance, sir? Do you need something?"
  161. > "To talk with you, actually."
  162. > He half-squats, holding out a hand folded into a half-fist.
  163. > It takes you a moment to realize what the gesture intends, but you reach out and hoof-bump with his hand.
  164. > "Sam Weston. Investment banker."
  165. "Cadance, sir. Though, I'm sure you knew that by now."
  166. > "Yes."
  167. > He chuckles softly.
  168. > "Yes, I had. I wanted to talk to you, actually."
  169. > The mask slips back into place, a welcoming smile plastered onto your face.
  170. "What may I help you with, sir?"
  171. > "I wanted to ask you about the ringleaders of the escape. You said they're still here, but you had to punish them?"
  172. "...yes, sir."
  173. > Of all the topics to focus on, why this one?
  174. > "Your owner is a merciful man. You were forced to punish them, though - what happened?"
  175. "I... did, sir. Without question, and then took my own punishment."
  176. > "No, I mean - tell me what happened when you punished them. What did you do? How did they react?"
  177. > How did they react?
  178. > What kind of question...
  179. "They... it was thirty lashes, and to be separated from something or somepony they cared for. They were given the option to take sixty lashes at the beginning, though, instead of the separation."
  180. > "And?"
  181. "Three did not. Three of them...'
  182. > Don't think about Sunburst, don't think about Sunburst -
  183. "...chose to take it."
  184. > "And then?"
  185. "Then, sir? It was over. Those who chose the separation are still under that edict."
  186. > "But what happened then? You carried out the whipping, didn't you? How did they react? Did they scream?"
  187. > For the first time since the topic had come up you force yourself to look up and into his eyes.
  188. > What you see there sends your stomach churning and heart thudding away beneath the gauzy dress.
  189. > Fascination - and maybe even a bit of delight.
  190. "S-Some, sir. Some did. A few - a few of them. Not all."
  191. > "And tell me - how did that make you feel?"
  192. > Your heart is pounding so hard you're sure that you're almost certain it is about ready to burst from your chest.
  193. > "I need to know, Cadence."
  194. > Despite the emotional mask you'd pulled on, what you felt must have leaked out into your expression.
  195. > A hand settles on your withers - not a harsh touch, but a soft one.
  196. > "What I want to know if I'm going to be putting my money into this is just how much your master has a grip on you. So tell me, Cadance - how did it make you feel to do that?"
  197. > He was close now.
  198. > Close enough that you could smell the alcohol on his breath.
  199. > Not drunk enough to make it obvious, but certainly it is affecting his judgement...
  200. "It - it felt..."
  201. > You want to tell the truth.
  202. > Speak to how truly sickening holding the whip in your magic had felt.
  203. > How in some ways, the searing pain of the lashes on your back had not been a hundredth of the pain you felt when you'd wielded it on your ponies.
  204. > And yet - speak that truth, and who knew what you were costing Anonymous?
  205. > "Tell me, Cadance. I want to know."
  206. "It felt awful. Disgusting. Like a sickness eating away at my heart with every blow - because I knew I had to do it. I knew there wasn't going to be any other way."
  207. > Because you knew if you left it to Anonymous, it would be far, far worse.
  208. "I hated every second of it. Every scream - and some of them did scream - because I knew it was the result of my mistake."
  209. > Sam draws a soft breath, and this time your nervousness turns to outright disgust.
  210. > The look in his eyes - more than interest.
  211. > Excitement.
  212. > He was enjoying hearing this.
  213. "Do you understand what I am saying? My punishment - it wasn't my own turn under the whip. My punishment was to use it on them."
  214. > "I do."
  215. > His hand is petting your back, and your breath catches as each stroke brings it a little further back - a little closer to your dock.
  216. "S-Sir-"
  217. > "Shh. You're a good girl for your master, aren't you?"
  218. > One wing unfolds, settling over his arm.
  219. > Not stopping it, but a warning-
  220. "I - I'm sorry, Sir, my Master-"
  221. > "Shhhhh. I"m not going to hurt you, pony. But you're going to be a good girl and tell me the rest, aren't you? You don't want to disappoint your master-"
  222. > "Sam, you've got too much booze in you. Stop bothering the pony and go back to the party."
  223. > The voice makes both of you snap your heads around to face the new speaker.
  224. > Gregory stands in the door to the hallway, arms crossed.
  225. > "Piss off, trainer. I'm-"
  226. > "You're way, way too drunk for this."
  227. > "Aw, come off it. She's not obje-"
  228. "Sir, I am strongly objecting. And if you continue this I will be forced to alert my Master; he will not be pleased you attempted to assault his pony as she was trying to carry out his duties. Especially not me."
  229. > It was as if a spell had been broken.
  230. > Like you'd taken a step back and realized just what was happening.
  231. > His lips move in worldless anger, but eventually Sam seems to realize he was out-argued and outnumbered.
  232. > And Gregory does not merely tower over him, but loom.
  233. > Standing, Sam shoves past the larger man and vanishes with the sound of fading footsteps.
  234. > With his departure, you breath out - the emotions that had been building up streaming out as you let go of them.
  235. > "You apology is accepted, by the way."
  236. > Gregory was still there, leaning on the doorframe.
  237. "Apology, sir?"
  238. > You barely have enough focus to form the reply.
  239. > "For stepping on my foot. Accepted; this is obviously a rough night for you."
  240. "T-Thank you, sir. I'm sorry - I just need a moment."
  241. > "Take your time."
  242. > Moving closer, he opts to instead to lean against the wall nearer to you.
  243. > Eventually, you look up.
  244. "Is - is there something I can do for you, sir?"
  245. > You just want this night to be over, but right now he has to be seen to.
  246. > "No."
  247. > Grinning, Gregory shakes his head.
  248. > "No, I'm just waiting here because I got the feeling you need a moment... and I feel like I owe you a bit of an apology as well."
  249. "Apology, sir?"
  250. > "For Tiff, in part. My wife."
  251. "Ah-"
  252. > You lower your eyes, the shrieking voice echoing between your ears.
  253. > "Really. She's -"
  254. > He raises a hand to rub his forehead.
  255. > "-she's got a sweet heart, I swear. Just... doesn't get along with female - anything, really. Always a challenge."
  256. "A-Accepted, of course."
  257. > "Of course, but you don't really have a choice do you?"
  258. > Hesitating, you can't quite bring yourself to meet his eyes and dispute that.
  259. > Nodding, Gregory makes a soft 'hmm'.
  260. "And the other part, sir?"
  261. > "For me. I brushed you off earlier - figured Anonymous was keeping you as a fancy... pet for him. Especially when I saw his daughter and yours. Not true, though."
  262. > From tones laid on 'pet', it's exactly clear what he means.
  263. > Your wings shuffle nervously, the feeling of that hand nearing your dock not quite gone.
  264. ", sir. I'm not - that."
  265. > "Hmm."
  266. > Smiling the slightest touch, Gregory nods again in seeming approval.
  267. > "I have to say, I'm glad. Not just because it'd be rougher on you, but because honestly my opinion of him would be much, much lower right now if he had done that to you."
  268. "Sir?"
  269. > "I - did he tell you what I do?"
  270. "No, Sir. My primary responsibility was the presentation tonight."
  271. > "I train ponies, Cadance. Not break them - train them. Teach them skills, knowledge - things they can use. Things that make it less likely that they'll be used by someone for just simple labor... or just as pets."
  272. > Understanding of why he would be here tonight, why he would have questioned you so hard, slips into place.
  273. "Or for breeding."
  274. > The words slip out before you can stop them, a sign of how far this night has pressed you.
  275. > Some of Gregory's smile fades.
  276. > "Yes, I did see you ran into Catherine. I've heard of her too."
  277. > At some point you'd settled onto your haunches.
  278. > "Can I ask you something though, Cadance?"
  279. "...of course, sir."
  280. > A soft chuckle.
  281. > "Heh - well, I suppose you don't have that choice. Alright. Here's my question - and, I know it's going to be hard so let me be clear right now: You don't want to answer, you don't answer. Got it?"
  282. "Yes, sir."
  283. > "How much of what we're being fed tonight is true? Your master's presented himself in a very, very particular light - a very positive one. But I heard what you were telling him, and I still see how he's got you dressed up now. So, tell me - how much of that is true? If I start putting ponies in to this, what am I really getting in to?"
  284. > You... want to answer truthfully.
  285. > Here was the first guest tonight who, it seemed, looked on you as someone rather than something.
  286. > A being worth apologizing too, not just to be used.
  287. > And you want to confide in someone so very, very badly.
  288. > But...
  289. > Could you tell him everything Anonymous had done?
  290. > How he'd held Flurry's safety over your head?
  291. > What he'd done to Corona?
  292. > The predatory, hungry look in his eyes when Catherine had mentioned breeding to him earlier...?
  293. > Surely that had to just be the liquor getting to him...
  294. > And then again, Gregory had been kind to you - but he was still involved in trading slaves.
  295. > Undoubtedly profiting from his training too; you knew ponies with useful, applicable skills took top position at many sales.
  296. "He's... things have been tense here. Ever since the escape, it's not been completely calm."
  297. > You have Gregory's attention now, you can tell.
  298. "We've got a lot of new arrivals coming in, and some of the older ponies are still angry because - I'm sure you know, when ponies run like that not everypony comes back."
  299. > "I do."
  300. > It goes without saying that you aren't referring to the ponies who actually make it to freedom.
  301. "And then there was what happened with the guard. So no - things are not perfect. But I don't think my Master would punish me for saying hat."
  302. > "Really."
  303. "Yes, really."
  304. > Perhaps that came off more forceful than you'd meant it to, but you run with it anyhow.
  305. "He is trying, sir. He knows he's made mistakes, and I really think - I really do - that he is trying to do better. He's letting us take over more responsibility for ourselves - myself, but also the ponies in the guard."
  306. > "And how true is the story behind that?"
  307. "True. A guard went... out of control; my Master removed him and let us take over in their place. And it's more than that; he's let me move away from using the whip for minor things - putting ponies on extra shifts or making them clean up what they did instead of physical punishment."
  308. > " 'He's let you' - an interesting way to put it."
  309. > That, more than anything else, seems to have touched Gregory's interests.
  310. "He let me, yes. And if the money saved by letting us police ourselves adds up, he's agreed to put it towards something to let us relax. He is learning, sir. So are we, in many ways."
  311. > "Both of you, learning..."
  312. > Laughter echoes from the lounge.
  313. > "Yes, I suppose that's a good way of putting it."
  314. "It's the truth, sir. The escapes wouldn't have happened without me, but now - ever since he started actually working with me -"
  315. > You pause, hesitating with how to phrase this.
  316. "- this town, these ponies - they aren't something I'd trade away. I am responsible for them. Anonymous has let me be responsible for them, and in many ways I owe him deeply for that."
  317. > "Including your daughter, I imagine."
  318. "Including. She's - motivation too. With her so close, it's always a good reminder of exactly why I have to do my best to work with my Master, not against him."
  319. > Raising one eyebrow, Gregory tilts his head.
  320. > "You make it sound like she is being held hostage against you."
  321. "My Master has never once threatened to harm her."
  322. > It's the whitest of lies.
  323. > But still a lie, and he had asked for the truth.
  324. > Thankfully he doesn't seem to be as adept at reading ponies as Catherine is.
  325. "I know Flurry Heart's being here is a kind of leverage... but he has not harmed her, and I do not believe he will."
  326. > "Hmm. So, you'd say your working relationship is relatively solid.
  327. "Yes. We both, I think, understand that it will only go worse if we continue to butt heads."
  328. > "Mmm. It's strange, then."
  329. "Sir?"
  330. > "That he'd dress you - like this. Fooled me into thinking you were a toy for his whims, and certainly might have fooled the others."
  331. > Breath catching, you lower your head - tail flicking nervously and ears drooping.
  332. > "Point of conflict between the two of you?"
  333. > He'd asked for the truth.
  334. "I... I won't deny I'm not happy about this. It's... it's humiliating."
  335. > Lifting a hoof, you stare down at the thin band of metal encircling your fetlock and the gleaming chain that falls from it before rising up towards your horn-ring.
  336. "There's a constant humiliation associated with being a slave. With being someone's property, fit to be sold or owned at another's whims. But everypony learns to deafen it from day to day. I think that's why my Master's system works: When he gives us things like our own homes, or letting us set our own rules and police ourselves - and we don't have to try so hard to keep that anger out."
  337. > "I'm hearing another 'but' there."
  338. > You can't help the jerkiness of your nod.
  339. "Sometimes, though, it's so hard..."
  340. > Why are you telling him this?
  341. > It's certainly not part of your script for tonight.
  342. > "Sometimes it still hurts."
  343. "Yes. I don't have much pride left... but I was a princess. To be walking around like this... it does cut through the armor around my heart."
  344. > Dropping your hoof back down, you nervously scuff at the floor with its edge.
  345. "He's given his reasoning. Many of the guests here would want to see a mare so broken in that he can make them wear something like this. The ones who cared to see further - like you - they'd see through it. They'd listen to what I'm saying, not what I'm wearing."
  346. > More softly, you add:
  347. "I hope."
  348. > "And if he'd gone on touching you - if he'd tried to go further - would you have stopped him?"
  349. "My magic is suppressed, not severed. I have enough."
  350. > "Didn't ask about 'could', I asked would you - is something like that you would feel comfortable your master would not punish you for doing?"
  351. > This is a far easier question to answer.
  352. "Sir. When Thunderlane was the first pony to take up a guard position - to take on a position of authority - it was made clear to all of us: We shouldn't ever fear kicking back against that. Yes. I would have."
  353. > But you didn't.
  354. > Little liar 'princess' - you'd been frozen.
  355. > By what - fear, shock?
  356. > "Cadance."
  357. > He actually drops into a squat, holding out a hand towards you.
  358. > "Trust me. I've seen the worst that's done to your kind. I've seen the best, too. If what you've told me is all true-"
  359. "It is."
  360. > "- then you're right; there's not much of a good choice. But there is choice."
  361. "Not a real one. I work with him, or ponies suffer - suffer even more than we do just by slavery."
  362. > "The rewards are very real, though. I think - after tonight, after talking to you and him, I think this is something worth investing in too."
  363. > ...
  364. > Gradually the evening winds down.
  365. > Guests draw off, sedated by the alcohol that had been flowing for the past hour and a half.
  366. > Eventually the door closes one last time, leaving you alone with the staff.
  367. > They, despite the appearance of a few carefully-hidden yawns resulting from their long day, quickly begin to put away the remainders.
  368. > You move to aid them initially, but soon you're more of a hindrance than a help.
  369. > They're vastly more familiar and experienced with these tasks, after all.
  370. > Left on your own, you decide to seek out Anonymous.
  371. > It isn't hard to figure out where your Master has drifted off to, and carefully you crack open the door to Megan's room.
  372. > Anonymous lays sprawled the length of his daughter's bed.
  373. > One arm encircles the bed's proper owner, who - having changed into a less proper dress - is delightedly savoring what might have been a pastry of some kind.
  374. > A moon pie, maybe.
  375. > Curled against his far side with his arm around her barrel and the spread of a wing extended across his chest is Flurry Heart - eyes half-closed and breathing softly.
  376. > You'd only eased the door enough to put an eye in front of the opening and spot him, but Anonymous calls out before you can depart.
  377. > "Cadance, come on in."
  378. > Is that an order, or an option?
  379. > You aren't sure, but decide to interpret it as the former.
  380. > Slipping through the doorway, you motion with your muzzle towards the half-sleeping form of your daughter.
  381. "Is it okay...?"
  382. > "...yeeeeah, why not."
  383. > He grins happily, his own eyes half-closed.
  384. > "S'prised you haven't gone back yet..."
  385. "I wanted to see everything done for the evening before I asked to go."
  386. > "Heh, that's why I like you, Cadance. Always - always dut... dutiful."
  387. > One hand strokes through Flurry Heart's mane, yielding a soft coo from the filly.
  388. > Approaching her, you lean down and brush your muzzle against her cheek.
  389. "Hello there, Flurry."
  390. > "Hello, mama."
  391. > Yawning widely, Flurry shuffles her wings and peers up at you with sleepy eyes.
  392. > "Y'look pretty."
  393. > Pretty.
  394. > Thank Celestia that was all she knew to describe your current state as.
  395. "Thank you, little gem."
  396. > Nuzzling into her side as well, you're caught by surprise when Anonymous raises a single finger to tap the end of your nose.
  397. > "Boop."
  398. > You go mildly crosseyed with surprise, while Flurry Heart and Megan both break out in little fits of tired giggles.
  399. > Despite the stress of the evening, you can't help but crack a smile as well.
  400. > A moment of innocent fun, after everything you'd gone through.
  401. "Did you have a good evening, Flurry?"
  402. > "Uh-huh. All the people were funny. They asked me some things, but Master told them the answers I didn't know. But Mistress Megan got me some cookie dough, and then she let me have some of her dessert too when we got back!"
  403. > There's no fear, no hesitation or script-like narration in the way she talks about Anonymous' daughter.
  404. > She isn't being pressed to praise her; their relationship is truly a good one.
  405. > Raising your head, you cross around to the far side of the bed before dipping it into a bow.
  406. "Well, I suppose I must thank you for looking after my daughter so well."
  407. > Megan giggles again, reaching out a hand to pat your mane.
  408. > "She's nice. I like he-e-eeer."
  409. > That statement had been interrupted by a huge yawn, and it is Anonymous' turn to chuckle.
  410. "Come on up on the bed and take a rest, Cadance. We're all a little bit tired."
  411. > He is, you think, in an unusually good mood.
  412. > Unfortunately, good mood does not resolve the fact that the bed is already quite crowded with a full-grown human, a child, and a filly occupying it already.
  413. > There's little room to fit another full-size alicorn, unless-
  414. > "Come on, Cadance. You can come lay down next to Flurry."
  415. > Cheeks tinged with red, you clamber up onto the mattress - a task made harder by the chains still running from the bands on your fetlocks - and carefully settle on your belly sprawled across Anonymous' legs.
  416. > Quickly you busy yourself with preening preening Flurry Heart - the filly automatically extending a wing to let you nibble at the downy sheets of feathers covering it.
  417. > The chance to go back to an old, familiar comfort with your long-lost daughter is a gift in its own right, but more importantly it also lets you forget who, exactly, you were laying next to.
  418. > ...For that matter, if a chance to be with your daughter hadn't been on the table you'd probably have half a mind to completely snap at your owner.
  419. > Anonymous' actions tonight had left a deep, slow-burning anger in your belly.
  420. > You'd admitted to Gregory that you understood his reasoning, but that didn't mean you agreed with them for one moment.
  421. > He'd dressed you up in an embarrassing outfit, took you out for a trip through the camp with exactly zero warning where everypony could see you - what were you even going to do about Sunburst?! - and left you to fend for yourself among the guests.
  422. > You'd nearly been assaulted - assaulted; what would have happened if he had tried even more?! - and yet still pushed yourself to do everything you could to give him the presentation he had wanted...
  423. > Burying your muzzle amid your daughter's wings, you try and push those thoughts away.
  424. > No point in obsessing over them now; Anonymous that he was obviously inebriated and not thinking clearly.
  425. > At least, you think as you quietly shut the door with a flick of your horn, nopony else would be likely to intrude on his daughter's room.
  426. > This wasn't something you needed word of spreading to other ponies.
  427. > Things were tense enough in the camp already.
  428. > ...and that brings your mind back to the message that had been carved into your desk, down in the town hall.
  429. > Sighing softly, you pull yourself closer - twisting your head to lay an ear against Flurry's side.
  430. > Listening to the little pit-pat of beats is calming.
  431. > Even if you cannot fall asleep, closing your eyes lets you slip back to an earlier, happier time.
  432. > To when she was a permanent fixture at your side, cooing and fumbling to grasp at your tail, nursing quietly at your belly, even to her surges.
  433. > Handling those seems like a breeze compared to the now...
  434. > The barest hint of a smile touches your lips as you snuggle down beside Flurry's head.
  435. > "Her heart's funny."
  436. > Lifting your head, you find that Megan had slipped from the bed and crossed around to Flurry's other side.
  437. > Now she had mimicked your action, laying an ear to Flurry's side.
  438. > "It's really, really slow. Like, against mine."
  439. "Really?"
  440. > "Uh-huh. My doctor showed me how to feel my own heart once."
  441. "I've heard our hearts beat more slowly when we are resting than yours do. Never checked it, though."
  442. > "Yep!"
  443. > Megan leans over to wrap her arms around your daughter's barrel, and one pink-on-purple wing extends to slip around her in turn - spreading across Megan's shoulders like a blanket.
  444. > A pang of supreme jealousy shoots through you at first; that action had once been reserved for family alone.
  445. > But then you reconsider.
  446. > For Flurry Heart to extend that to a human - to one who she served, no less...
  447. > They must have grown close, even this quickly.
  448. > And really, that was... good, for an alicorn.
  449. > You would not wish her to be put in your place, let alone whatever may have happened to your Sister-In-Law or Aunts.
  450. > Shifting aside, you open up a little space next to yourself and Flurry for her to take.
  451. "Would you like to come up here?"
  452. > Wordlessly, Megan scrambles up onto the bed - taking a seat in the open space and leaning against your side.
  453. > "'re big."
  454. > A soft chuckle escapes your throat.
  455. "Yes, I am. I'm an alicorn - we're all slightly larger than most ponies."
  456. > "Yeah."
  457. > Twisting around, she leans over on your side - head coming to rest around your shoulder, golden strands of hair mingling with the strips of your outfit's fabric.
  458. > After a moment you shift a wing over to cover her as well, eliciting a giggle from the girl.
  459. > "You're a good size to hug, too. M'sorry you'll have to go soon."
  460. > Ah, right.
  461. "...won't you need me to, though? You do have to sleep before school tomorrow."
  462. > "Nu-uh. Not now. I can stay up a little more, and Daddy's got to move as well."
  463. > Yes, you had forgotten about Anonymous.
  464. > It could be said that your little mission to drive thoughts of his... closeness from your head had succeeded.
  465. > Raising your head, you find that Anonymous, in fact, has slipped into a light doze himself.
  466. > "I'll go stick some fingers into his nose when it's time to get up."
  467. ""
  468. > "Not really!"
  469. > Megan bursts out into giggles, which Flurry Heart sleepily adds to.
  470. > Laying your head back down, you brush your muzzle through her mane.
  471. "Megan? Can I just - say something special to you?"
  472. > "Uh-huh?"
  473. "Thank you. For looking after my Flurry Heart. I still worry about her sometimes, but I'm can tell you're both very good friends."
  474. > There's a long silence after that.
  475. > Flurry is actually the first to speak up:
  476. > "Mistress Megan is a good friend."
  477. > It's a simple declaration, but a meaningful one.
  478. > Not a good owner, or a good master.
  479. > A good friend.
  480. > For her part, Megan just reaches out and scratches Flurry around the withers, eliciting another small coo from the filly.
  481. > "Sh'told me some of what happened to her... and I can figure it out. I'm old enough to understand."
  482. > The shiver that runs through your daughter's body is not, you are certain, a result of Megan's touch.
  483. > "...but all that means is that I'm never letting anyone else take her! Flurry's mine now, and I'm gonna take good care of her!"
  484. > Despite the positive intent of that declaration, a pang of anger runs through your heart.
  485. > Flurry Heart should not 'be hers' - she was your daughter; she should never belong to another living creature!
  486. > Quickly you seize ahold of that thought and suffocate it.
  487. > Right or wrong, Megan was the best possible thing you could hope for Flurry to have.
  488. > Someone who cared.
  489. "That's why I say thank you. Because I know you will keep her safe."
  490. > "You sound sad."
  491. > Sometimes you wondered if young ones - pony and human alike - were every bit as astute as adults, but only showed it when they knew it would hit the hardest.
  492. "I'm... when you're a bit older you'll understand more, but... when a mother has her child taken away, it hurts. A lot."
  493. > Reaching down, you brush your muzzle along Flurry's wings again.
  494. > How long had she sad in a cage, or chained to a pole, tormented not by cruelty but simple apathy?
  495. "It hurts even more when a mother finds out that her child was hurt while she was away."
  496. > And it hurts even more than that when a mother has to hurt other ponies to ensure her child isn't harmed again.
  497. > "But she's back now. And she's my friend."
  498. "I know, child."
  499. > A heavy sigh heaves your sides; your tail flicks nervously as your ears droop.
  500. "But wounds like that are slow to heal. It's no fault of yours; I just..."
  501. > You look back over yourself.
  502. > At the sheer strips of fabric that still cling to your form, at the saddle wrapping your barrel and gleaming chains laid out on the mattress, shifting at the turn of your head...
  503. > At Flurry Heart's best - very likely only - friend coming with the title 'mistress'.
  504. "...sometimes I still think about everything we've lost, and feel sa- oomph!"
  505. > Megan had launched herself up, arms circling around your neck.
  506. > "S'okay. I get it."
  507. > A pause, then:
  508. > "...okay, I don't get all of it... but I get why?"
  509. "That makes sense, little one."
  510. > Glancing back around, again you find Flurry Heart smiling warmly up at the two of you.
  511. > If not for Anonymous' arm that was still slipped around her, you rather suspect she would be joining in as well.
  512. > Nuzzling Megan's hair a small, happy nicker escapes your lips.
  513. "I'm... glad. Truly, truly glad that you are here for my daughter."
  514. > The dampness around your eyes, you swear, is merely the result of your exhaustion combined with the stimulant's effects.
  515. > Nothing else at all.
  516. > Honestly.
  517. > "Can y'tell me about it?"
  518. > Megan's muttering is only half-audible from where her face is still buried into your neck and mane.
  519. "You?"
  520. > "Miss Kennedy -"
  521. > One of her teachers, you presume; the name isn't familiar among Anonymous' human employees.
  522. > "-says that when you're upset about something, it never hurts to try and tell a friend about it."
  523. > Ah.
  524. > So that was the hidden question in there.
  525. > 'Am I a good enough friend to be told about what is upsetting you?'
  526. > "...and I wanna know how to do good. I - I'm supposed to be learning how to do all this, right?"
  527. > A soft sigh escapes your throat.
  528. > Lifting your head one last time, you check Anonymous - still very much asleep.
  529. > How much you want to just unload your fears, your worries and concerns onto her!
  530. > And here was, for once, a human that would listen to what you were saying and perhaps even hear it too.
  531. > At the same time, though...
  532. > Could you even tell her the most of what was troubling you?
  533. > Besmirch her father like that?
  534. [Choice]
  535. > Would she even understand why being a slave upset you, or would she - as young ones so often did - draw a line between "them" (bad) and "us" (good, obviously)?
  536. "Megan..."
  537. > You can't tell her everything that is troubling you.
  538. > Not now.
  539. > Not to someone so young.
  540. > But that doesn't mean you can't give her some idea of what troubles you.
  541. "...I was - away from my daughter - my family - for so long. And then I found out she was hurt, and it was my fault, and I still can't have her by my side..."
  542. > "But - you're here now..."
  543. > Nodding fractionally, you lean your head back against Megan.
  544. "I am. But this is special, and only because Anonymous let me. Normally... I'm still under a punishment, and can't see her often."
  545. > "Oh..."
  546. "I know it is a punishment I earned, but still... it hurts. A lot. To be away from the only family I can still find."
  547. > Megan nods, a gesture felt rather than seen, and you quietly remember that she, too, is away from part of her family.
  548. > Smiling softly, you nuzzle back into her shoulder and blow a soft puff of breath through her hair.
  549. "Especially -"
  550. > You pause, hesitating.
  551. "I know her old owners were bad people, that I couldn't have stopped what they did. But it feels like a little bit my fault too. That she was hurt then. That I couldn't be there for her. That I lost my Flurry for years, and now can't even be here to make up for anything too..."
  552. > Leaning forward again to nuzzle Flurry, you add:
  553. "And I know that if I had any hope of seeing her again, I would not have earned that punishment. That much is my doing."
  554. > Not, you insist to yourself, because it would have changed for a moment how you felt about slavery.
  555. > But the truth you must force yourself to admit is that if you'd known about Flurry's purchase, if that threat had been leveled against you earlier, you would never have gone ahead with the escape.
  556. > Not if you'd known...
  557. > "How'd it happen?"
  558. "Hmm?"
  559. > "How'd you get - uh, not with your family?"
  560. "We were... split up. Before we were made slaves. I was being hunted because I was a princess, you understand? So I thought that if I went somewhere else than where Flurry was, they wouldn't hunt for her anymore."
  561. > "Oh..."
  562. > It's a simple response - a one-word admission that she doesn't really understand everything, but accepts what you are saying.
  563. "If I could have known for sure that Flurry would be going to someone who cared for her as much as you do, I'd..."
  564. > Have what?
  565. > Given up before you did?
  566. > Turned over your daughter, to be owned as property by another?
  567. > "But - couldn't you work with them? Like you do with Daddy?"
  568. "Not everyone would be so willing. Some of those who owned me - they just wanted to own an alicorn. They didn't think about how I could work with them."
  569. > Not to mention, you weren't exactly the most cooperative at that point either...
  570. "One thought if he made me beat another pony, I would stop caring about everypony else. I'd be cold and heartless. Another put me in a big, golden cage in his house, so that he could show me off to everyone. It didn't have any walls, just bars. I lived in there for a long, long time without seeing another pony..."
  571. > That one had also thought that isolating you from any other ponies would be the key to breaking your care for them.
  572. > "You - lived in a cage? Like, all the time?"
  573. "Yes. It had a bed, and a little door for food to be put in, and a mirror for me to make myself pretty with..."
  574. > And a toilet.
  575. > No walls around that either.
  576. > Or anything else to do to pass the time.
  577. > After all, what else would a prize slave have need except for a way to show themselves off for their owner?
  578. > This night hadn't been the first night you'd worn gilded chains.
  579. "All that time, I worried about my Flurry. Even when I came here and started looking after your Father's other ponies, I still thought about her. And now she's here, but I don't have nearly enough time with her to - to make up for all the years I lost."
  580. > "I could tell Daddy-"
  581. "No, little one. Don't bother him with my troubles. I gave this punishment to myself, and I have to see it through."
  582. > A fearsome little pout develops on Megan's face, but you pull her back close against you.
  583. "I miss my daughter fiercely, and I miss my home as well. But your father made her safe, and I can't trouble him more."
  584. > "That's silly."
  585. "If he wants to reward me by letting me see her more, I am sure he will tell me."
  586. > Nuzzling against Megan's cheek one last time, you add:
  587. "Do you know what you can do, though? Keep being a good friend for Flurry Heart. Be kind, and caring, and my heart will be happier knowing you are doing that."
  588. > "I promise!"
  589. > Little arms squeeze you in a fierce hug.
  590. > "I promise, I promise! I won't let anyone hurt her!"
  591. "Thank you."
  592. > Nickering softly, you kiss her hair gently before looking around again at the still-sleeping Anonymous.
  593. "Come, though. We should get you to bed - and your father, too."
  594. > "Awww..."
  595. > The chorus of two young voices brings a little smile to your lips.
  596. > Pony or human, some things were all the same.
  597. "No, no 'awww'. We all need our sleep."
  598. > Extricating yourself from her arms, you slip from the bed and nudge at Anonymous' hand with your magic.
  599. "Master? Your daughter needs her bed back. Perhaps you should go to bed in your own room?"
  600. > A long groan is your response, and a hand slapped against his face to rub at his eyes.
  601. > "Yeeeeah. Yeah, I should. Alright..."
  602. > Busying your self waiting while he says goodnight to Megan, you exchange a last few quiet words with Flurry Heart when a cautious voice interrupts you:
  603. > "Um... Cadance? One last question?"
  604. "Yes, Mistress Megan?"
  605. > "You said you were separated from Flurry Heart before you were a slave. What about your, um -"
  606. > Her face screws up, searching for the word.
  607. > "What about her father?"
  608. > Your heart wrenches, a wound scabbed over but never fully healed re-opening.
  609. > Flurry, too, stiffens.
  610. > She must have so little memory of him...
  611. "I miss..."
  612. > You swallow, voice low and bitter.
  613. "...miss my Shining Armor too. I - I don't know where he is now. He was already gone when Flurry and I were fleeing."
  614. > "Oh..."
  615. > Judging from Megan's tone, she understands that was a uniquely painful question.
  616. > Walking to her side, you brush a cheek against Megan's.
  617. "...but that means it's even better that my daughter is with someone good now. Goodnight, Mistress Megan."
  618. > "Goodnight, Cadance."
  619. > You're slipped from the room then, fast enough to the damp shimmer on your eyes.
  620. > Anonymous is out a moment later - closing the door behind him and stretching with numerous pops and a loud groan.
  621. > "Had a bit of a conversation with my daughter?"
  622. "Yes, Sir. I - told her a little bit about how I was captured, and why I am glad that she is taking such good care of Flurry Heart."
  623. > From another pony, it might have sounded like gratuitous brown-nosing, but Anonymous already knew just how desperate you were to keep her safe.
  624. > "And your husband, I guess."
  625. "...and him, Sir."
  626. > The house is nearly empty now, most of the house slaves and staff having finished putting away the leftovers and rearranging furniture to its normal standards.
  627. > A few eyes turned to watch the two of you pass, but they are relatively few and far between.
  628. > Anonymous heads for his room, quickly snapping off his tie and leaving it along with his jacket hung on a waiting hook.
  629. > "You didn't tell her the entire truth, though."
  630. > Your muzzle dips, eyes falling to the floor.
  631. "Shining Armor is dead."
  632. > That gives Anonymous a pause, one shoe off and real surprise on his face.
  633. > "Really? I - hadn't known-"
  634. "I don't... know. I didn't see him die. But if he was still free, he would still be fighting to free others - and I would have heard. Your government would have interrogated me. If he is captured..."
  635. > Another hard swallow before you can go on.
  637. "...if you think I am... resistant, I'm nothing compared to him. Shining Armor was a bottomless well of emotional strength on which I could always draw. Whenever I faltered, he would be there to let me lean on him. His talent was to defend and protect others - it was his most basic nature. No whip or other cruelty could ever take that from him."
  638. > Anonymous' footsteps approach, but the seal is already broken now - emotions flowing out from a wound you had long ago learned to scab over but never actually healed.
  639. "He would not break, but fight tooth and hoof and horn for our justice. Shining Armor has either died defending those few ponies who still hold our Freedom, died under some bullheaded attempt to make him obedient. Even if his heart is still beating, there would be nothing left of the stallion I loved in it."
  640. > A hand on the back of your neck, fingers in your mane.
  641. "...and sometimes I've wished him a painless end. Not to be crushed bit by bit with one cruelty after another. And I hate myself for it all the sa-"
  642. > Abruptly you're cut off as gentle hands remove the ring from your horn and begin to unlock the bands around your fetlocks.
  643. > "Come on. Let's get this stuff off you."
  644. > Tail giving a little happy swish at finally being free from the miserable outfit, you're soon devoid of the last remnants.
  645. > Stretching fiercely, you give a shake - ears, mane, and tail flapping - and stretch, back popping in a staccato burst.
  646. > The saddle's weight finally absent from your barrel is definitely welcome feeling.
  647. > "So, he was already gone by the time you were caught. What happened with Flurry? Did you tell my daughter the truth of that, or..."
  648. "Only a little bit."
  649. > Sucking a deep breath, you nod.
  650. "If I can ask, sir... if we're going to have this discussion, may I have a drink first?"
  651. > "That difficult of a topic?"
  652. "And if I'm to sleep tonight. That stimulant you gave me was a strong one."
  653. > Although, admittedly, quieting your memories would help as well.
  654. > Anonymous nods, rising.
  655. > "Wait here, I'll have to get something."
  656. > When he returns there are two tumblers in his hand.
  657. > Settling on the edge of his bed, he beckons you closer.
  658. > When you approach to take yours, he reaches out with a free hand to continue gently stroking your mane.
  659. > "You did good tonight, Cadance. Better than I'd actually expected, what with me dragging you out into the camp."
  660. "...thank you..."
  661. > The murmured response only provokes Anonymous to go on:
  662. > "Gregory told me what happened... that's part of why I wanted you with me. If I'd been there for that asshole...."
  663. > Snarling lightly, he shakes his head.
  664. > "I need to reward you for this. Something real."
  665. > Tumbler at your lips, you speedily swallow the mouthful of smoky, burning liquid before it can induce a coughing fit.
  666. "Master?"
  667. > "S'not right. You gave me a pile of shit about it, but you buckled down and did it... did good."
  668. "Sir...?"
  669. > "Aside from the money adding up from the guards - I'm going to give you some funds. For... whatever. Working on the camp, extra supplies, your call."
  670. > Carefully stifling your surprise, you simple settle for a nod.
  671. "I appreciate it. Everypony will appreciate it."
  672. > "And - I could see about getting you off your suppressants too. This ought to be good enough evidence that you can keep yourself under control - follow orders no matter how much you dislike them."
  673. "It's a statement that I understand my actions affect everypony here, sir."
  674. > "Hmm."
  675. > Anonymous' glass, you notice, is rapidly emptying.
  676. > You'd meant to confront him at some point about how he treated you - to ask whether he really thought of you as a partner or merely property.
  677. > Would now be a good moment?
  678. > Certainly he seemed to be in more tolerant spirits.
  679. "Master..."
  680. > Staring down into the glass and watching the ripples bouncing from its sides, you swallow the lump in your throat and summon the courage for the next words.
  681. > Mere exhaustion was not the only reason you'd requested this drink.
  682. "Anonymous - what am I to you? Please, give me the absolute truth - am I really your partner? Or - if not, what am I? Just property? Something to be used? Where do we actually stand, with each other?"
  683. > He doesn't respond immediately, and in another time that might have frightened you - brought on the expectation that you'd somehow displeased him and a punishment is forthcoming.
  684. > But after this evening...
  685. "I have to know. What I should expect -"
  686. > You search for the right word.
  687. "- us to be. If I'm just being rewarded because it benefits you, or because we're real partners in this?"
  688. > Anonymous takes another sip of his glass.
  689. > "'ve suddenly discovered a bit of a fight. Maybe I shouldn't have given you alcohol after all."
  690. > He doesn't move to take it from you, though.
  691. "Frankly, Master, this doesn't have anything to do with that. I might be a bit more cautious asking this, but it'd still be on my mind."
  692. > Another stretch of pointed silence drives you to go on:
  693. "It's - I just want to know. Am I just a tool, or am I really a partner here? Am I even a pony - a person - in your eyes? Or am I just a thing for generating money? Was I lying to them twice back there - once when I showed them a broken pet, and once when I told them I was an independent partner?"
  694. > Still nothing, and a bit of real anger does flicker into existence in the back of your mind.
  695. > If he was really that hesitant-
  696. > "I don't know."
  697. > That answer, and the tone it is delivered with, catch you by surprise.
  698. > He hadn't been ignoring your pleas, but ruminating on them.
  699. > And his answer was that he-
  701. > "Let me be straight about one thing: We aren't equal. Even if I said you were, a slave isn't ever equal and I don't feel like pretending. They're my ponies in the end, and you're my pony too."
  702. > The glass slams all the way back before he continues.
  703. > "But on the other hand... yeah. You're not just a worker. Not even just a good worker. It's more than that I can rely on you to see sense and shit... you've got a dog in this fight too. It wouldn't work without you, and you wouldn't have anything without it."
  704. > There is, as much as you hate to admit it, a point there.
  705. > Having ponies to govern had given you a purpose again.
  706. > But...
  707. "May I speak freely, Master?"
  708. > "Have I ever stopped you from saying whatever the hell you wanted to?"
  709. > Putting that point side, you continue:
  710. "Nothing about this night felt like I was actually a partner - your aide, and not just your property. You wanted me at your side so you could keep any grabby guests off of me, but if you hadn't dressed me like that they wouldn't have been so keen to in the first place. You put me out there on that tour with no warning, while I was desperately trying to keep them from seeing any imperfection. And you didn't say no when Catherine asked you -."
  711. > Breaking off, a shudder runs down your from nose to rump - tail flicking unhappily.
  712. > In a softer voice, you resume:
  713. "I want to know - what should I expect from you? Am I an ally, or a tool? Because if I am just property - well, I've never denied that. Just, for the love of Celestia don't string me along pretending I'm your friend."
  714. > When you look up, he is peering down at you - an introspective look on his face.
  715. > "This is really bugging you, isn't it? Not just old stuff you've tried to tamp down coming back up again."
  716. "Some of it is. I told your daughter a little bit - of what'd happened to me in the past. About being put in a literal golden cage, being made a showpiece with no hope, no goal, no company, even no privacy."
  717. > You glance over to where the outfit had been laid out - saddle and chains and bridle and horn-ring.
  718. > Despite being off of you it still held an aura of threat about it, as if reading to leap up and wrestle itself back on to you again.
  719. "I don't know how I survived then - mostly slept a lot, I think. I've been put in solitary confinement away from all contact - just me and my regrets - in their hope that I'd come out a broken mare. I've been 'just property' before."
  720. > "You think I'd do that to you?"
  721. "There wasn't any 'no' to the idea of having me bred - mounted, rutted, and forced to carry a foal by another's order for your benefit. And what scares me, Anonymous? If you held these ponies hostage, I would do it."
  722. > The words are accompanied by a bitter, foul taste in your mouth and an imaginary stench in your nostrils.
  723. "I would lift my tail and present myself if it meant keeping these ponies - and my daughter - safe. If that's going to happen, if I'm going to be 'just property', then I don't think I can be their leader too, much less your ally."
  724. > Anonymous squeezes his hands into fists, then stands.
  725. > "I'll be right back."
  726. > When he returns, the entire bottle of golden is clutched in his hand and both glasses are quickly refilled.
  727. > "For this kind of talk... we're both going to need more."
  728. > This makes your stomach fall at his answer, but still you sip at the whiskey.
  729. > Taking his own glass, Anonymous wanders over to a window.
  730. > "So, first of all: Catherine can go screw herself. So you can put that worry out of your mind."
  731. > You utter a small sigh of relief - but the moment your eyes close you see the way he'd looked at you when Catherine had suggested it.
  732. > The face of a predator who'd just spotted prime prey.
  733. "...that is a - a huge relief."
  734. > "As for the rest of it..."
  735. > He goes quiet, looking out over the camp's distant lights.
  736. > It was well and darkened now, only a few streetlamps to be seen.
  737. > A memory bubbles up, of the night after the escape.
  739. > You'd stood by Anonymous' side, at a window with a glass in your magic then as well - but wearing chains, and with him issuing orders rather than assurances.
  740. > "I haven't been totally fair to you, and in that much I'll do what I can to make it up. Because you are more than just property to me - certainly more than just a thing to be showing off."
  741. "Thank you..."
  742. > "S'the truth. You're the biggest pain in my ass and thorn in my side, but also the linchpin that holds this place together. And frankly, I think you're a good pony when you're not blinding yourself with that pride."
  743. > Not sure if the sum total of that comment worked out to a complement or not, you simply settle on your haunches and remain listening.
  744. > "But part of it's also simply how things are. Like I said, even if I pretended we were equal there's no way we actually would be. There'd still be times you're going to have to lower yourself for me. Nothing as big as this, but still... times."
  745. "I... understand."
  746. > "Mmm."
  747. > A nod, and another sip which you echo with your own glass.
  748. > It's been some time since you had this much alcohol, and your thoughts might be coming somewhat slower.
  749. > But it's a relief, in some ways, this openness of conversation - and you're not eager to let it go.
  750. "If I had lashed out at Sam - the one who tried to assault me - what would you have done?"
  751. > "Uh-uh. You asked your question. If I answer now, you give me an answer to a question too."
  752. "...go ahead."
  753. > "If I'd been there, I'd have told him to go fuck himself. Very politely, but very clearly."
  754. > You snort gently, having heard a great variety of polite ways of phrasing that sentiment in your time on the throne.
  755. > "Either way you look at it, it's bad. A man who walks in as a guest and thinks he can just do something like that - he's going to be the kind of person who doesn't give a fuck about you, and that's not how I work here."
  756. "It's a hard choice between defending myself properly and letting you take him on."
  758. > "I'm half inclined to let you push him off just to watch his shock. Just don't put him into the wall like you did last time."
  759. "Right. And your question?"
  760. > "How did you and Flurry Heart get separated?"
  761. > Your heart freezes in your chest.
  762. > Ice, burning and frigid, seems to spread from it to the very air in your lungs.
  763. > You had agreed.
  764. > And maybe it needed to be aired.
  765. "I..."
  766. > This time, it is you who floats over the bottle and refills both your glasses.
  767. > Anonymous notes it with a raised eyebrow, but doesn't protest.
  768. "We were... fleeing. Shining was already - away, trying to keep up the defense, and I was trying to just move ponies to safety."
  769. > Even the burning liquid in your throat does little to force back the ice that seems to be sending tendrils through your chest.
  770. > A feeling as frigid as the winds that battered you in your memories...
  771. "It wasn't safe to stay in one place, but having to keep on the move... we were hiding in the Crystal Mountains, and Flurry Heart was still a foal. Temperatures were dropping; we couldn't stay."
  772. > The words stick in your throat, memories bubbling up from around the seal you'd long ago buried them away beneath.
  773. > Of cold, hunger, and ponies huddled in cloaks that did little to hold the little warmth they had.
  774. > Your husband no longer even at your side to keep you warm.
  775. > Or keep you calm.
  776. "Especially because of me. A princess - they wouldn't let me go so easily."
  777. > "You did something."
  778. "I split us up. Small groups, fast moving. Less of a chance to be spotted."
  779. > Another swallow.
  780. > Part of your mind wonders why you're drinking, since it didn't seem to be helping the icy feeling.
  781. "I took the largest group. Loyal friends, advisers, the few guards... but not Flurry Heart. I knew they couldn't ignore us, but a few ponies with a filly... I hoped. I really, really hoped."
  782. > There's dampness on your eyes again.
  783. > It's surprising there isn't more.
  784. > "You didn't make it."
  785. > You shake your head.
  786. "By the time I got to the rendezvous location, there were only a few of us left."
  787. > The pursuers, traps, and simple cold and exhaustion had seen to the rest.
  788. "When we got there they had... something. Somepony. They sounded just like my Flurry. I don't know, maybe they'd found somepony who knew what she sounded like. I didn't-"
  789. > Another hiccup in your voice.
  790. > The tearing at your heart when the voice echoed from the loudspeaker, begging for your surrender, seems as fresh as ever.
  791. "I gave up, of course. The ones who'd followed me went on - slipped past the trap. I only figured out they didn't have her when they started interrogating me about where she was..."
  792. > "Did you tell?"
  793. > Your head-shake is so violent that your mane whips about.
  794. "Never. I never knew - but when they told me the others with me had gotten away - if she'd been with me, I could have escaped too - I could have kept her free -"
  795. > At last you go silent, the strength to force any more words from your throat expiring at last.
  796. > Silence settles instead, draping itself across your withers like a heavy, sodden blanket.
  797. > And then, unexpectedly, Anonymous' hand on your back.
  798. > "M'sorry. Didn't know it happened like... that."
  799. "If I'd known there would be someone like you - someone who'd care for my Flurry... If somepony had sworn to me that she would be safe, I'd..."
  800. > You'd have what?
  801. > Given up?
  802. > Turned your daughter over to be property, owned by another being?
  803. > Another quiet heave wracks your body.
  804. > As cruel a choice as it had been, would things have been any better if you'd surrendered yourself and Flurry early on?
  805. > Would her fate - starving, sick, and emotionally deadened by the neglect - have been any different?
  806. > The nightmare-image of Flurry's starving, diseased, empty-eyed appearance dancing before your eyes.
  807. > You'd survived telling yourself that there wasn't any choice.
  808. > That in the end, you didn't have any power to affect the fate of ponies at large.
  809. > But that...
  810. > Flurry Heart's fate had been the result of your decision.
  811. > Her freedom could have been in your power.
  812. > "So the first you heard of her was when I showed you that picture..."
  813. > Unable to speak, you just nod.
  814. > Anonymous doesn't seem to have an immediate answer either.
  815. > Eventually, he pulls a chair up to the window next to you and sits down in it.
  816. > Motion draws your eyes up; he has unbuttoned one sleeve, and is rolling it up.
  817. > "Look."
  818. > Holding out his forearm, you quickly spot where a red line straddled by dimples in his flesh - the remnants of a gash and the stitches that closed them.
  819. "That's where - Corona -"
  820. > "Yeah."
  821. > The hand flexes a few times, muscles shifting in the arm.
  822. > "We've both screwed some things up pretty hard. I can't even begin to make it up to her, 'cause fuck knows where she is now. If you can even make up for that kind of thing. The way I see it, that puts you a step ahead of me."
  823. "You could have stopped. Any time you wanted. Nobody was holding your daughter hostage to make you torture an innocent pony."
  824. > He looks away, and belatedly you remember his first reaction to what he'd done and realize he probably knew that already.
  825. > "Yeah, I could've. Too fucking late. Still, though - what it means is that the now, and the future, is what matters. Making sure this shit doesn't happen again."
  826. "I..."
  827. > You swallow hard, suddenly aware of the depth of what you want to say.
  828. > Seeming to sense this, Anonymous replaces his hand on your withers.
  829. > "Talk. We've both said a lot of shit tonight. More isn't going to be any worse."
  830. "I want to hate you. I want to hate your entire species. I want to hate you with every drop of life in me. I want to hate for the bondage you keep us in, for every crime and cruelty you've forced me to inflict on them, for not being able to go to sleep with even a glimmer of hope that tomorrow we'll be free."
  831. > By now you're nearly babbling, but still you go on.
  832. "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm the Princess of fucking Love, and I just can't hate anyone no matter how much they deserve it. Maybe you're just not even worth hating."
  833. > "You're pissed."
  834. "I've a right to be. I was ripped from my home, lost my husband, sent my own daughter into neglect, and made a slave."
  835. > It's the only right you have left, in a way.
  836. > Everything else, taken by the slavery.
  837. > "Hey, Cadance?"
  838. "What?"
  839. > The bitterness in your voice can't be hid.
  840. > "Remember how y'said - about how if I held y'kid, you'd turn around and spread your le-"
  841. "Yes."
  842. > Unfortunately.
  843. > "Y'want t'know my weakness?"
  844. > I takes a few moments for the offer to percolate thorugh your alcohol-addled mind.
  845. > He was offering... to tell you his weakness?
  846. "S'this going to cost me anything?"
  847. > Anonymous snorts.
  848. > "Well - there's Megan, of course. But - but y'don't seem like the kind t'threaten a girl. More than that, My weakness s'you."
  849. ""
  850. > "Yeah, you."
  851. > Anonymous takes another long drink, hunched forward in his seat - seemingly making himself smaller, curled in, and still apparently unable to look at you.
  852. > " 'cause, y'see, here's the thing. You - you're a leader. They care about you, and you care about them."
  853. "But you-"
  854. > "Own y'lot. Yeah, I do. But that doesn't make me a leader. I'm always one fucking step away from a revolt - hell, some of 'em are probably revolting anyway - and part of me wants to hate all of you lot because no one's thinking about what it could be like without me."
  855. > You doubted he meant without the slavery in the first place.
  856. > "And maybe I deserve some o'that. Whatever it is or isn't, you're the one holding this place together. I give the orders, but you see them done. So yeah - you're my strength like that, but you're my weakness too."
  857. > It slowly emerges through your alcohol-haze that he is telling you how he to put the pressure on him.
  858. > How to really turn the hoof-screws and make him squirm.
  859. > To make him vulnerable.
  860. > "I'm... not a leader. I'm a guy who had a couple of real smart ideas, got into buying your kind early and has been coasting on that ever since. You... you command them, 'princess'. I own you lot, but this place - it really belongs to you, and all you want to do is burn it to the ground. And when I'm too old to command you and it's Megan's turn and she can't-"
  861. > There's a long quiet after that, at some point during which your wing extends to touch his shoulder.
  862. > Eventually his hand settles on your withers again, between the muscled ridges of your wing bases, and stays there.
  863. > Silence joins the two of you, the house still except for the two souls staring out into the night watching the moon's rise.
  864. > ...
  865. > Morning comes with a distinctly agonizing revelation:
  866. > The sun is a tool of unique torture, an agonizing lance which sears through your eyes the second you make the mistake of cracking them open to scour your skull with a blistering bolt of light.
  867. > Yelping as you bury your head back beneath the covers reveals another two unwanted discoveries:
  868. > Your mouth is as dry as the Palomino Desert in summertime, and even that minor shift of your head awakens a stomach-clenching dizziness that had lain in wait for your first movement.
  869. > Something also smells rather off, you're reasonably certain that you're unwashed, and the itchy sense of unpreened feathers lines both your wings.
  870. > Clawing forth towards something resembling consciousness, you after great deliberation you conclude that there had, in fact, been had far too much to drink.
  871. > Despite your ascension you had never truly shared that legendary Earth Pony resilience, instead always holding the flighty pegasus metabolism that assured alcohol would be soon and hard felt.
  872. > It also meant that there would be a quick end to this once you did something about it, though.
  873. > The only problem was, this demanded rising in the first place.
  874. > And rising was currently prohibited by the heavy mass pinning you to the-
  875. > Eyes fly open in sudden fear, only to jam back a second later with a quiet moan.
  876. > Analyzing the situation without that particular sense, you come to the unavoidable conclusion:
  877. > You were huddled against somepony, or - with a sinking feeling of rising certainty - someone.
  878. > Sluggishly tracing through your memories - a process akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a hay-stack while sinking up to your belly in mud - you conclude that although you could remember the beginning of last night, you could not remember the end nearly as clearly.
  879. > There'd been quite a lot of talking, that much you were sure of.
  880. > But after that?
  881. > Where it had concluded?
  882. > That was a fog at best.
  883. > Which meant you would have to investigate again.
  884. > Carefully peeling one eye open the absolute minimum necessary, you deliver another pained moan.
  885. > This time, on account of what that investigation revealed:
  886. > The room you were in was absolutely, definitely, one-hundred percent not a pony's room.
  887. > And thus, that you could no longer deny that the limbs circling you, one tucked beneath your neck while another fell around your barrel and under a wing to rest on your belly, definitely did not belong to a pony either.
  888. > Anonymous - your owner, your captor and tormentor - lay with his chest and belly pressed to your back, one leg swung forward to pin your tail in place.
  889. > You could even feel his breath tickling the edge of one ear, prompting it to flick.
  890. > At the very least you could still deny that right up until the moment that truth had become unavoidable, you had been resting quite soundly (and by implication, the presence of another at your side).
  891. > Now, though - oh, if only you were skilled enough to teleport!
  892. > (Let alone teleporting while hung over.)
  893. > With that option out, you figure you only have limited time before Anonymous' own hangover also drags him to consciousness.
  894. [Choice]
  895. > A sudden horrifying thought strikes you.
  896. > The end of last night being a blur, you couldn't have -
  897. > Quickly you curl your head down, sniffing for any particular scents.
  898. > One leg is lifted too, feeling for the telltale sensation of matted hair around your hindquarters.
  899. > To your unimaginable relief, you are devoid of both.
  900. > Though you frankly reek of alcohol and - to your deep shame - your owner's own scents, it is an even greater weight lifted from your back that you clearly had not lifted your tail for him.
  901. > ...the utterly foul taste in your mouth is more attributable to the alcohol you'd imbibed than anything else.
  902. > Which still, unfortunately, leaves you with a still starkly embarrassing situation.
  903. > Particularly because Anonymous had at some point exchanged his proper evening clothing for a short-sleeved shirt and shorts.
  904. > The shirt, on closer examination, has never even made it properly on; one arm had been slipped through a head-hole, but nothing beyond that.
  905. > It simply hung loosely around the arm, the rest of him bare.
  906. > Which brings you back to the main point:
  907. > You had slept wi- alongside the man who owned you.
  908. > Not slept particularly poorly, for that matter.
  909. > His bed, for one, was infinitely more comfortable than the mattress and blankets afforded to you.
  910. > (Briefly you wonder if you were focusing on that because it was the least-humiliating reason you might have slept soundly.)
  911. > After a moment's pondering you slump back down and light your horn to subtly lift the covers back over your head.
  912. > The return to a dark, warm environment is a pleasant one, and a few minutes more would not make this situation any worse than it already had been.
  913. > Instead you run back over the limited memories you have of the prior night.
  914. > You remember speaking to him about Flurry Heart - admitting your shame of what had happened to her.
  915. > He'd told you some secrets too.
  916. > At some point the 'conversation' had devolved into telling stories of raising young daughters.
  917. > Of the troubles and chaos they produced.
  918. > You remembered far less of that, though somehow you have brief flickers of laughing at the same time your cheeks dampened with tears.
  919. > What was clear in your mind was how... off he'd sounded.
  920. > Not just when he'd admitted mistreating you, but also when he'd spat out his admission of... what?
  921. > Jealousy, at the faith ponies put in you?
  922. > Disappointment?
  923. > You still weren't entirely sure.
  924. > Hopefully he wouldn't be angry when he woke - or worse, go back on his promise to reward you.
  925. > The thought occurs that you could use this as leverage - warn him that if he held out on you, the camp's ponies would find out he'd plied you with liquor until you fell asleep with him.
  926. > But that idea is just as quickly dismissed.
  927. > It would only start a war, and there was no need to make the first strike in that conflict.
  928. > Centering in on your own emotions instead, you try and force down the nauseating sense of shame and betrayal still eating away at your heart.
  929. > The why was obvious:
  930. > You'd joined another in bed and betrayed the vows you'd taken with Shining Armor, but also betrayed the cause you'd set out for yourself from the first day here:
  931. > Never to forget what the slavers had done, never to become overly-familiar with them.
  932. > To always remember that they were not your friends, but your captors.
  933. > ...and you just gone to bed with one of them, unbound by any shackle or chain.
  934. > It's not the same, you try and tell yourself.
  935. > He'd plied you with alcohol.
  936. > You clearly hadn't been in anything approaching your right mind.
  937. > Shining Armor was - a fresh bolt of agony rips through your heart - almost certainly gone.
  938. > For all you knew, Anonymous had ordered you.
  939. > But in that 'almost' your shame lives on, eating away at your heart.
  940. > Whatever the caveats you added to it, you'd quite clearly crossed a line that couldn't ever be un-crossed.
  941. > ...and Anonymous isn't waking.
  942. > Squirming around in his humiliatingly intimate grip, you find that rolling out of his grasp is quite impossible.
  943. > Celestia help you...
  944. > Leaning your head back, you try and brush the back of your head against his chin.
  945. > You're forced to swallow twice before the cottony feeling in your mouth is suppressed enough to allow talking.
  946. "Anonymous..."
  947. > Your voice is little more than a whisper.
  948. > Any louder, and it feels as though it'd echo like a scream in the mansion.
  949. "Master...?"
  950. > With a rough groan, he shifts - mimicking your own action of burying his head beneath the covers.
  951. > No doubt he was suffering every bit of the hangover you were as well.
  952. > At last, though, a coherent answer is mumbled out:
  953. > "Cadance...? Y'smell good..."
  954. > Cheeks flushing, your trapped tail attempts a protesting flick at his statement.
  955. "Anonymous... we need to get up. I... need to be going."
  956. > It's another moment before he replies.
  957. > "M'head 'urts..."
  958. > As does yours.
  959. > "...why're y'still here? Was expectin' you t'sneak ou' earlier..."
  960. "I... should I, sir? I only just woke up a few minutes ago."
  961. > There's a moment's pause, and then a shake of his head.
  962. > "No. S'no good t'go runnin' out now... I don't know wha' I was thinkin', you're obviously no shape t'be up early."
  963. > He still hasn't let go of you.
  964. "May I get up, Sir...?"
  965. > "...yeah."
  966. > Anonymous almost sounds reluctant, but rolls over onto his back to let you slip from the bed.
  967. > At first you try slowing yourself down so as not to seem too eager to get away from him, but barely are you halfway out of the bed before dizziness rears its head again and reminds you why pacing yourself was also a good idea.
  968. > Stumbling, lurching you way forward you manage to reach the bathroom and relieve yourself.
  969. > On the way out your quickly locate two glasses and fill them with cold water.
  970. > One you quickly down; the other goes to Anonymous.
  971. > Taking it with one arm, he drinks cautiously and shades his eyes against the light with the other.
  972. > "Thanks... y'need a shower?"
  973. "I should. Otherwise I'm going to carry your... scent for everypony."
  974. > Much more than a passing touch would have brought on you.
  975. > "Go 'head. Mocha won' be here for a little bit, y'got some time. Jus' shut th'blinds b'fore y'go."
  976. > Just in case, you also lock the bedroom's door before returning to the bathroom.
  977. > On conclusion of your shower you feel something closer to actually alive - awake would have to wait a little while longer.
  978. > Mane still damp and hanging limply from your neck you emerge back into the bedroom to find Anonymous had sat up in bed, but drawn up the covers around himself.
  979. > Sipping at the water in his glass, he stares at you with a look that tells you he also still feels only fractionally less awful than you do.
  980. > Refilling his glass, you return and hop up onto the bed.
  981. "So, about last night..."
  982. > "Yeah..."
  983. > Your cheeks are burning again, and your muzzle falling towards the floor.
  984. "We... will not talk about this, I presume?"
  985. > "You didn't do anything... out of line."
  986. "Please."
  987. > "Fine. Not in public, anyhow."
  988. > The slightest touch of a smile graces your lips, and you settle on your haunches.
  989. > "It was good that we could be that open with each other, though. Maybe next time we don't wait until copious amounts of alcohol are involved, though."
  990. "Maybe."
  991. > "I'm serious, Cadance."
  992. > There's a hand on your cheek now, surprisingly soft and gentle.
  993. > You try and forget how that same hand had delivered stinging blows to the very same cheek.
  994. > "I know I'm not exactly your favorite person in the world. But the more open we are with each other, the better it is for the both of us."
  995. > ...oh.
  996. > He wasn't talking about the part where you happily climbed into bed with person you had decidedly mixed feelings about.
  997. > "I'm serious. There's no shame in admitting our failings."
  998. "So, what you said about a reward-"
  999. > "I wasn't even drunk then, Cadance. It'll still come."
  1000. > The little smile on your face grows wider, and he begins to smile too.
  1001. "Thank y-"
  1002. > "And Cadance? There's no shame in taking a bit of a moment to relax with someone either. Especially if it came with a much-deserved rest as well."
  1003. > Cheeks raging with heat, you try to make a furious noise that ends up sounding more like a squeak and paw unhappily at the covers with one hoof.
  1004. > Laughing softly - though he winces and goes to hold his head anyhow - Anonymous shakes his head.
  1005. > "I mean it, Cadance. I imagine you feel alone at times, but I am not your enemy.
  1006. "Y-Yes, Sir. If I can get-started on my duties this morning, Sir?
  1007. > He points towards the bedroom door.
  1008. > "Head down to my library and open one of the big windows. If anyone asks any questions, you were exhausted and stayed the night in the library."
  1009. "...thank you, Master."
  1011. "Hey, Thunderlane!"
  1012. > The cry comes from somewhere behind you, and you try and spin in place on all four hooves to face the caller.
  1013. > Unfortunately, it turns into more of a stumble as you trip over all four hooves.
  1014. > At least you manage to avoid planting face-first into the ground.
  1015. > Catching up, Vapor Trail looks at you with a frown and distinctly concerned expression on her face.
  1016. > "Are you alright, Thunderlane? You look like you just flew a lap through Tartarus itself."
  1017. "I'm exhausted. Didn't get to bed last night - was kept out at Anonymous' event."
  1018. > "A rough time?"
  1019. "Yes. It was a very late night, and I hate putting on the good-little-guard pony act - especially when they all seem to be asking about the same kinds of questions."
  1020. > How many ponies have you had to 'arrest'?
  1021. > What happens to them?
  1022. > Are other ponies keen to join the guards?
  1023. > Have you ever had to whip another pony?
  1024. > Not one of them actually seemed interested in why ponies would want to guard themselves, beyond 'their owner told them to'.
  1025. > Seeming to get your meaning, Vapor Trail's frown deepens.
  1026. > "Yeah. I heard about it too."
  1027. > Voice lowered, she adds:
  1028. > "Is it true that they paraded Princess Cadance around dressed up like a - a -"
  1029. "She was... very unhappy about her dress."
  1030. > You bite your lip, sucking on it as you try to think on what to add to that.
  1031. > It wasn't exactly unexpected that rumors would already be trickling out in the aftermath of the prior night, but that it'd gotten so far already...
  1032. "It... didn't stop her from being a good leader, though. Honestly, I'm thankful she was there - her support got me through that night."
  1033. > Nodding, Vapor Trail seems to deflate slightly.
  1034. > "I guess. It's not right, though. That they can do that to her, and there isn't anything she can do..."
  1035. "I know. But for one night..."
  1036. > Shaking your head, you decide a topic change is in order.
  1037. "But - have they started you on working yet?"
  1038. > Her face darkens, and instantly you realize your mistake.
  1039. > "...yes. They got me a 'job' running supplies around for the kitchens and helping them cook."
  1040. "Vapor - it's not to be ashamed of, if you're helping other ponies-"
  1041. > "I know. And I think Mayor Mare knows too, and what's why she gave me a job working in the kitchens. It's not exactly my talent, after all..."
  1042. > She pauses, sighs, and adds more softly:
  1043. > "She said that I'd probably be training Pegasi on the cloud teams 'as soon as it was safe for me to'. But I'm not that far along yet, I think she's doing me a favor..."
  1044. > You nod; during the last weeks of her pregnancy, any kind of hard labor would be off the table for her.
  1045. "Like I told you - we look out for each other here."
  1046. > "Yeah, I know."
  1047. > On a whim, you lean in and nuzzle her gently.
  1048. > Vapor Trail gives a soft, surprised nicker, and quickly you pull back.
  1049. "I - I'm sorry. You just looked so down-"
  1050. > "No, I appreciate it."
  1051. "Thanks. I've... got a lot on my mind, and I just want to see somepony made happy..."
  1052. > "I'll be really, truly happy when I'm free... but this is good."
  1053. > Her head tilts questioningly.
  1054. > "What's on your mind, though?"
  1055. "I'm worried about my little brother. He's... well, I'm sure you heard about the escape-"
  1056. > "Yes."
  1057. "I was looking out for him after that. Trying to get him away from doing anything else foolish that'd just get him hurt again. But ever since I took this position..."
  1058. > She nods.
  1059. > "You've no time."
  1060. "No time, and frankly I think he might be avoiding me now. I mean, I kind of understand why... but I'm still his brother."
  1061. > Vapor Trail frowns, muzzle turning down to face the ground.
  1062. > "We don't have much here. Family really matters."
  1063. "Exactly why I'm concerned."
  1064. > At some point, you realize, both of you had begun to walk - or more accurately, Vapor Trail had begun to walk and you had begun to follow.
  1065. "Heading in for breakfast?"
  1066. > "Yes. Before I have to head off to... work."
  1067. "I'll join you. Been up for a while already, but I could use some breakfast."
  1068. > Vapor Trail's eyebrows rise.
  1069. > "Don't you normally come to breakfast?"
  1070. "Sometimes. A lot of the time I'm - busy."
  1071. > A frown touches her face.
  1072. > "That's... not good. I mean, I know you're a good pony - you really tried to help me. But not everypony else does..."
  1073. "Yeah..."
  1074. > Head hanging and tail flicking nervously, you sigh.
  1075. "Yeah. I'm trying real hard not to be 'the bad stallion', you know? That's not what I signed up for this to do, but..."
  1076. > "I get it. Cadance asked you to?"
  1077. > Your head snaps up again.
  1078. "How'd you guess?"
  1079. > Smiling softly, Vapor Trail shrugs.
  1080. > "She convinced me too. Sat me down one night and explained why it wouldn't be so bad for me to stay here w-with the foal."
  1081. > Again you nod, and wish you hadn't heard the little stutter in her voice or the way she had looked away from you when it came.
  1082. > Vapor Trail is hiding something.
  1083. > She doesn't trust you, and for some reason that makes your chest ache in a way you'd long forgotten.
  1084. "Yes. She... explained it to me too. But I wasn't counting on Rumble cutting me off."
  1085. > "Maybe..."
  1086. > Chewing on her cheek, Vapor Trail pauses.
  1087. > "Would you want me to talk to him...?"
  1088. > It's a tempting offer.
  1089. > ...given how upset Rumble seems, you're not sure you want to put her around him, though.
  1090. > The last thing you need is him recruiting more poor ponies into escape plans, especially right after Cadance put in all that work to keep Vapor Trail from fleeing.
  1091. "I'll think about it, alright? I'm going to try and talk to him myself before I ask you to fly into this mess."
  1092. > "Yeah, I understand."
  1093. "Don't get me wrong - I appreciate the offer. It's just..."
  1094. > You lift a wing to rub at your bristly mane awkwardly, and Vapor Trail shoots a soft smile.
  1095. > "It's okay. I get it."
  1096. > Laughing softly as the thick fog of awkwardness breaks, you head for the breakfast line.
  1097. > More than a few other ponies are queued up as well, and soon you find yourself talking with them.
  1098. > Some of them, anyhow - a few seem standoffish.
  1099. > Worried.
  1100. > That again puts a little twinge through your heart, but not as strong as before.
  1101. > Partly because others are more than willing to engage with you.
  1102. > Just after you seat yourself down at the table, a stallion on the far end leans over and whispers, a frown on his face:
  1103. > "So, Thunderlane - you were there last night. Is it true, that they had the Princess prancing around all dressed up like a who-"
  1104. > "Barley!"
  1105. > The mare at this side jabs a hind-hoof into his haunch.
  1106. > "That's no way to talk about her!"
  1107. "They tried."
  1108. > You cut off any further argument by providing an answer - and sticking your muzzle into the thick of it, from the way eyes suddenly land on you.
  1109. "Cadance's dress... it wasn't really a, uh - a whore's dress. But it certainly wasn't proper for royalty either."
  1110. > Neglecting, of course, that nothing on two legs in that house had seen her as remotely royal.
  1111. > A few seats down, one pegasus nudges an earth pony and whispers:
  1112. > "I told you I knew what I saw!"
  1113. "I think it was more about showing her as, uh - as broken. Like she was just there to follow orders. A low-ranker, a grunt."
  1114. > "So what happened? Did any of them-"
  1115. > With a fierce shake of your head, you again cut them off.
  1116. "She didn't let them. She held herself up, even if they were trying to see her that way. Kept talking about how she was doing things for us, for our benefit, not for Anonymous. And how it was being done on our own, too."
  1117. > It wasn't one-hundred percent true.
  1118. > But it wasn't so far out anyone could object.
  1119. "And I could see she wasn't happy about it, but she kept going anyway."
  1120. > "You think they believed her?"
  1121. "Anonymous was telling them some of it too, so I don't see why not..."
  1122. > A heavy snort from the far end of the table interrupts you - from a grey-coated, brown-maned unicorn stallion.
  1123. > "That bastard has Tirek's own tongue in his mouth. If he wanted to tell them that she's a free pony, he wouldn't have a reason to humiliate her too."
  1124. "Trust me, I don't understand it either. But then I don't understand how they can see us as just slaves either."
  1125. > "Or how Cadance let them!"
  1126. > That came from another pegasus, closer to your side.
  1127. > "If she was really on our side, she wouldn't be letting him to any of that - and she especially wouldn't have spoken up for him!"
  1128. "She has even less choice than we do."
  1129. > "You say that, but I heard that her daughter was there. She's selling us all out to get her kid a comfy spot with the house slaves after she promised to not even see her!"
  1130. > "That true, Thunderlane?"
  1131. > All eyes turn to at the grey stallion's question, and you frown.
  1132. "Her daughter was there alright, but I don't think they had a second together. Flurry Heart pretty much showed up for Anonymous to show her off alongside his own filly - er, daughter? Yeah, daughter - and that was that."
  1133. > Said stallion looks around.
  1134. > "See? It's not her that's the problem, it's Anonymous."
  1135. "Don't think I got your name, though. Obviously you know mine, but..."
  1136. > "Granite Cleave."
  1137. > Reaching a hoof across the table to which you extend your own to tap in greeting.
  1138. > Drawing his leg back, Granite Cleave looks around.
  1139. > "But really, it's not the Princess we all need to be angry at."
  1140. > From beside him comes a snort.
  1141. > "She's not exactly helping!"
  1142. > "Uh-huh. It's one thing to bow to keep the whip off your back, but she's best buddies with Anonymous now."
  1143. "Not helping - have you missed how much better things have gotten? How there hasn't been any whippings since she took over, that we have extra money coming in now?"
  1144. > That forces a heavy silence over the table, until one mare slaps her hoof down on her empty breakfast tray.
  1145. > "I'd rather we had less and remembered who our friends and who our enemies are, for Celestia's sake! Our tribes united in the coldest winter. If we get fat and happy here, we'll forget what they took from us!"
  1146. > "And I still heard that she got to stay with her filly after it was done."
  1147. > Another pony rolls her eyes.
  1148. > "Oh yeah? And who told you that, one of the other house slaves? Probably just bragging to make it seem like they've got it comfy."
  1149. > "Well they do, compared to us!"
  1150. > "I don't know how being near Anonymous can ever be considered 'comfy'."
  1151. > Two hooves pound into the table as a pony stands up to loom over it.
  1152. > "Oh, shove off! They get the best of everything."
  1153. "That's enough, everyone. Discussion I won't ding you on, but this is turning into an argument."
  1154. > Grumbles echo from several seats' occupants, but no more arguments follow.
  1155. > Soon enough breakfast breaks up, ponies wandering off to turn their trays in.
  1156. > You're halfway to the door when a roar echoes through the dining hall:
  1157. > "You take that back!"
  1158. > Ponies are already scattering, which makes it easy for you to reach the edge of the encounter.
  1159. > Granite Cleave stands nearly forhead-to-forehead with a pegasus stallion - ears pinned, bodies ramrod straight, and heads lowered as if to charge.
  1160. > Even as you watch he scuffs at the ground with a hoof and blows a breath through flared nostrils; the opposing stallion matches him with an angry toss of his head.
  1161. > "What're you going to do about it, pinhead? Put me down? Get yourself whipped? I'm allowed to have an opinion."
  1162. > Eyes never leaving his opponent, Granite snarls back:
  1163. > "You're allowed to have an opinion, but don't you dare put down the ponies I served with."
  1164. > "I said it before, and I'll say it again: The Royal Guard left us to this, and they're as useless as our traitor 'princess'."
  1165. > Leaning in, the pegasus grins.
  1166. > "Unless you want to put on some chains and prance around for the slavers like she did?"
  1167. > Granite's eyes drop to pinpricks, and you're pretty sure somepony is going to get hurt if you don't step in immediately.
  1168. "ENOUGH!"
  1169. > Leaping into the air, you beat your wings once - just enough to carry you on a long arc to come slamming down between the two of them, hooves echoing off the hard floor.
  1170. "Both of you, back off!"
  1171. > Both, in fact, do - perhaps out of surprise as much as anything else.
  1172. > Each still seems ready to fight, though, and the situation is far from resolved.
  1173. > So you use the opportunity take another step forward, stretching out both your wings and putting one across each stallions' chest.
  1174. "If the two of you really can't find anything better to do than get in fights, you're welcome to - in a shared cell. I will drag both of you in to cool your heads if this is the way you want to do it."
  1175. > "You're not involved in this. Get-"
  1176. "I damn well am. Not because it's my job, but because I really don't want to lock either of you up. You are both better ponies than this."
  1177. > Turning to Granite Cleave first, you lift one hoof to jab him in the chest.
  1178. "You - you of all ponies, I'd expect to know better than this. Not only should you know the rules, if you really did serve with the Royal Guard then you should be the level-headed one here! You know that your actions are an example to everypony around; don't jump at the first bait somepony dangles in your face like a colt showing off for the mares!"
  1179. > To your surprise, what you're saying actually seems to click in his mind.
  1180. > Granite's ears go from pinned back to merely drooping, his tail falling still and stance softening - head drooping into a more subdued position.
  1181. > There's still an angry glint in his eyes, but if you had to guess he's as angry with himself now as he is with his opponent.
  1182. > Convinced that one of the two is suitably pacified, you round on the other stallion and snarl at him:
  1183. "And you - you may be allowed to say what you want, but if you think starting a fight is the way to prove your point then you're wrong."
  1184. > He opens his mouth to speak, but you cut him off before that can happen:
  1185. "It's better to stick together! We didn't survive the Founding by blindly kicking at the Windigos - we did it by sharing our friendship, even when it was hard. If we start fighting with each other, we're as good as handing victory to the slavers. Think about that!"
  1186. > "I want to stick together! Cadance is the one that's sold us-"
  1187. "If you think anyone here is 'happy' with what's going on, you're completely deluded. We all want freedom, including Cadance. But right now fighting is only daring them to squeeze us harder; she's doing what she knows will make life easier for us - even if she has to humiliate herself to get it!"
  1188. > Your point made, you back up - keeping a steady eye on both stallions.
  1189. > Granite Cleave is the first to speak up, head still slightly bowed.
  1190. > "You're right, Thunderlane. I shouldn't be this thin-coated."
  1191. > Nodding an affirmative, you look to the other stallion.
  1192. > He glares for a moment before turning away with an almost saddened shake of his head.
  1193. > Not until his tail vanishes through the door do you actually relax, blowing out a long-held breath.
  1194. > Stepping up beside you, Granite murmur softly:
  1195. > "Thank you. I don't even know what got into me. You're absolutely right - I should have been far more mature about it."
  1196. > A cross between a sigh and an angry hiss is blown through his teeth.
  1197. > "I don't know. I guess - I guess I felt like my ponies weren't here, so I had to."
  1198. > You nod in understanding.
  1199. "...if you ever wonder why I let Cadance talk me in to doing this - it's because I'd rather yell at a hundred ponies and have them hate me than see somepony thrown in a cell or whipped for doing something stupid."
  1200. > "Would I have been? Whipped, for getting into a fight?"
  1201. "Probably not. Depends on how far it went."
  1202. > Giving a soft 'hmm', Granite nods.
  1203. "And that's nothing I'd wish on anypony. Even someone like that."
  1204. > "You've had to do it?"
  1205. "I've been whipped here myself. More than just a couple blows."
  1206. > His eyebrows shoot up, nostrils flaring again.
  1207. > Granite's gaze flicks to your back, and you realize he is looking for signs of the scourging.
  1208. > Most of the welts had faded with time, and what lingered blended well - camouflaged by your coal-toned coat.
  1209. > But to a searching eye, the signs are still there.
  1210. > Sixty lashes does not go without any scars.
  1211. > "How...?"
  1212. "It's a long story. I was sticking up for my little brother."
  1213. > Eyebrows knitting, Granite frowns - but holds a thoughtful expression.
  1214. > " you stepped up so nopony else would have to go through that."
  1215. "Sort of. What happened there... it'd have come down even if I was a guard then. Maybe even worse. But if I can stop it before it gets to that point... it's like fighting a storm. Once a storm turns into a monster, you can't do anything. So you break it up before it gets that bad."
  1216. > This draws a chuckle from Granite.
  1217. > He lifts a hoof to his horn, grinning slightly.
  1218. > "Afraid I can't personally relate to the analogy, but I get what you mean."
  1219. "...ooh. Yeah. Sorry - I was a weatherpony before... all this."
  1220. > "I figured. With your mark..."
  1221. "Yeah."
  1222. > An awkward pause, then:
  1223. > "But I understand. Still can't say I'm sold on liking the idea of ponies being actual guards... but at least your reason is solid."
  1224. "Trust me, if I thought I'd be actually being a slave-driver I'd have told Cadance and Anonymous both to go bite a thundercloud."
  1225. > Granite looks about ready to argue that point, but pauses and shuts his mouth instead.
  1226. > Your opinion of him ticks up slightly; evidently he'd taken your comments to heart.
  1227. "Well, that's it for breakfast for me."
  1228. > "...yeah."
  1229. > With that single word - and a sense that many more remain unsaid - he trots off.
  1230. > You do too, beginning your rounds for the day.
  1231. > But it's with a sense that you haven't heard the last of this sort of argument either.
  1232. > Indeed, while lunch is a decidedly less violent affair there is still a low buzz of the previous night's events.
  1233. > More than a few glances are thrown in your direction, and you wonder if the morning's events had discouraged them from confronting you.
  1234. > Soon after lunch, you encounter another sign:
  1235. > Somepony - clearly something of an artist - had tacked up a piece of paper bearing a rendition of the previous night's events, including a reasonably accurate depiction of Cadance's outfit.
  1236. > Except that instead of riding in a motorized cart, Anonymous rode on the Princess' back.
  1237. > And in turn was stepping on-
  1238. > You peer more closely in, frown deepening.
  1239. > Yes, she was trampling a line of ponies laid out beneath her.
  1240. > 'Traitor' was written in huge letters at the bottom of the sheet, but had at some point another pony had apparently added in smaller letters 'who drew this is a' before it.
  1241. > Somepony else had drawn a line through that, and drawn an arrow from the word 'traitor' to Cadance, as if it wasn't clear who it mean.
  1242. > Rolling your eyes, you simply do the reasonable thing:
  1243. > Grabbing the entire sheet in your mouth and hurling it into the nearest trash can - stomping it down for good measure.
  1244. > What was it about these emotions that made everypony act like colts butting heads?
  1245. > Continuing on your rounds, you let your mind wander slightly even as you patrol.
  1246. > When you got off of this patrol, you were definitely going to have to see about nipping this in the bud before it could get any worse than one angry stallion.
  1247. > ...and you know just the pony to talk to, too.
  1248. > Bon Bon might not exactly like you, but she seemed to have a bit of understanding of why you did what you had the last time you spoke to her.
  1249. > Now would be a good time to speak to her again.
  1250. > If anyone still held influence among the ponies willing to plan an active resistance, it would be her.
  1251. > You'd convinced her before, and now it seemed might be the time to try again.
  1252. > On the other hoof.
  1253. > Rumble had been away from you for far too long.
  1254. [Choice]
  1255. > This was exactly the kind of thing you'd promised wouldn't happen - you wouldn't let yourself start putting work for Anonymous before him.
  1256. > He was the reason you'd gotten into this in the first place, after all.
  1257. > But if you didn't stop this anger from breaking out into something bigger, then he'd just launch himself into another crusade anyhow.
  1258. > Bon Bon, you decide, could wait.
  1259. > She was far less likely to leap to make some rash, impulsive choice; her actions had been wrong, yes, but also careful and deliberate.
  1260. > Rumble, though...
  1261. > You snort softly, reminding yourself that you were once that age as well:
  1262. > An aggressive, bucking colt ready to snap at the slightest provocation.
  1263. > ...and what a provocation this had been, to apparently reduce half the camp's population to a similar state.
  1264. > When the buzzer goes for the end of the dinner cycle, you are waiting near the dining hall nearest to his work - hidden in a nearby doorway from the worst of the winter's bite.
  1265. > Ponies are streaming out, a torrent of exhausted and lined faces bundled against the chill.
  1266. > Your eyes sweep over them, searching back and forth until-
  1267. > There!
  1268. > The crowd parts to let you through, your face recognized even without the telltale uniform.
  1269. > Rumble walks with four other ponies - two colts, two fillies, all roughly the same age.
  1270. > They chat and laugh among themselves, faces clearly showing their tiredness yet still buoyed by their youthful spirit.
  1271. > One of the others is first to spot you; she nudges Rumble, pointing with a wing.
  1272. > He nods, apparently saying goodbye before splitting from them to approach you.
  1273. > "...hey, bro."
  1274. "Hey."
  1275. > Abruptly your composure cracks; you lean down and nuzzle Rumble.
  1276. > "Ack! Hey, bro! Not in public!"
  1277. > Rumble backs off, but there's laughter in his voice.
  1278. "Sorry, but embarrassing little brothers is a big brother's duty."
  1279. > Ruffling his mane a bit more, you step back.
  1280. "Come on. You got some free time before lights-out and curfew?"
  1281. > "A bit, I guess."
  1282. > You put on a small grin.
  1283. "Then come on. I miss my little bro."
  1284. > He smiles back, and your own smile turns genuine rather than enforced.
  1285. > Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
  1286. > The walk back to his room - by unspoken decision, his had been chosen - was silent.
  1287. > Mostly because yours was so far away.
  1288. > Stepping in and shrugging off the coat, you look around.
  1289. > Rumble's room had not changed much since the last time you had been in here:
  1290. > He had reinforced the skylight he had put in at some point, probably to support the weight of the winter snows.
  1291. > The light bulb, previously dead, had been replaced.
  1292. > Though it was still bare, casting a harsh light throughout the room.
  1293. > In fact Rumble winces when you first turn it on, sighing.
  1294. > "Yeah. I've been meaning to get a new one for a little while now, but there's not exactly a lot scrip coming out of my new position."
  1295. > You nod, understanding.
  1296. > Though you'd taken the punishment for him, Rumble had still been effectively demoted down to a newcomer at best in terms of his work position.
  1297. "It's alright. The light's not too bad."
  1298. > He climbs up on his bed, shifting over to make some room for you to join him.
  1299. > The aging mattress creaks under the weight of a stallion plus another near-grown one.
  1300. > In the noise's wake settles a silence that grows from initially comfortable to increasingly awkward.
  1301. > You swallow, realizing that ultimately you had neglected - perhaps by unconscious procrastination and avoidance - to think about exactly how you were going to address this.
  1302. "So-"
  1303. > "So-"
  1304. > Both of you speak at the same instant, immediately retreating back into another brief period of awkward silence.
  1305. "You first."
  1306. > "Your... back's looking a lot better."
  1307. > True.
  1308. > The last time you'd seen him had been not to long after the escape.
  1309. "Yeah, well, you know how good those ponies down in the medical ward are. They're practically miracle workers."
  1310. > "Heh, yeah."
  1311. > Even so, it was a good thing you'd been wearing a 'uniform' the prior evening.
  1312. > It wouldn't be good for the vaunted head of security to be seen wandering around with whip scars, after all.
  1313. > Looking around, you struggle for another topic to broach the tension.
  1314. > Sniffing, you let a new grin cross your face.
  1315. "So, seems you've still got your marefriend coming over..."
  1316. > "Y-Yeah-"
  1317. "She a good squeeze?"
  1318. > "Bro!"
  1319. > Rumble's tail lashes and eyes narrow, but it's not an angry appearance - his ears stay up.
  1320. > Snickering, you drop a wing over Rumble's withers and nuzzle into his main.
  1321. > "Oh, come on - you know I hate it when you do this!"
  1322. "Shhh. It's not like anyone's here to see me humiliate you."
  1323. > "Yeah, but still..."
  1324. "And I don't have many chances to do this anymore."
  1325. > Something in your voice must have caught Rumble's attention, as he stops squirming and instead peers up at you.
  1326. "I... miss you. I miss a lot of things like this, honestly. Just being able to spend some time, to goof around with you..."
  1327. > You trail off, lost in your own thoughts - in memories of all the things that have vanished since you took Cadance up on her offer and became a security officer.
  1328. > Abruptly something tickles your chest, and you look down to find Rumble nuzzling you back.
  1329. > "You alright?"
  1330. "I'm..."
  1331. > Your head droops, falling to rest on top of Rumble's head.
  1332. "...last night was miserable."
  1333. > "I heard."
  1334. > So you'd expected.
  1335. > It seems to be spreading just as fast as you'd feared.
  1336. "I'm worried, Rumble. Worried about everything that's going on, and what it means for all of us."
  1337. > "Because of Anonymous?"
  1338. "Because of what ponies might do, with all these rumors running around the camp. I've seen graffiti and ponies talking angrily already - where's it going to go?!"
  1339. > He doesn't answer; you simply roll to your side, laying your head down on the mattress.
  1340. "I don't want to hurt anypony. I didn't do this because I wanted to be swinging a damn club around, smacking ponies for saying bad words. I wanted to make things better for us. Cadance does, too.
  1341. > "Is it true? The rumors?"
  1342. "Depends what you'd heard, but..."
  1343. > The repetition is something you've said before, and expect to have to say many more times again.
  1344. > Cadance had not allowed herself to be humiliated without response.
  1345. > She - and you - had stood up for every pony in the camp.
  1346. > That she had absolutely not broken her own punishment, her promise not to see her daughter yet.
  1347. > And while Anonymous had not been kind to her, he had not been pointlessly cruel either.
  1348. > Rumble had gone quiet while you talked.
  1349. > When you're done, he lays down with his head facing you.
  1350. > "I'm worried too, Thunderlane."
  1351. "What's on your mind?"
  1352. > "I... he keeps squeezing us. Anonymous talks like he's making nice with us, but then he heaps something else on our backs... puts some new storm right in our path."
  1353. > There's anger in Rumble's voice, yes, but it's mixed with many other things.
  1354. > "Cadance... I want to believe she knows best for us. I really do. But when she gets dressed up like that for him, put ponies on extra hours for just reminding us of what Anonymous did to that mare-"
  1355. "They got put on extra hours for stealing and vandalizing, Rumble."
  1356. > "And you think he'd let us put up reminders? Let us remind ponies what he's done, that we're still just slaves-"
  1357. > He spits out the word, as if its presence on his tongue made him nauseous.
  1358. > "- and can't do anything about it except fight back?"
  1359. > A long silence follows that.
  1360. > When Rumble speaks again, his voice is back down to a lower volume.
  1361. > "Maybe she does care. Maybe she didn't. I don't know. But I know she went and had a fancy party with him, told them all about how we're all good ponies, and meanwhile we're still slaving away day after day after day with no end in sight."
  1362. > His nostrils flare, puffs of breath running across your muzzle.
  1363. > "You remember what we used to tell ponies? You and I, when we were on the watch? That little thing we'd have them repeat?"
  1364. "Never give up hope. Without hope, the wind'll drop you straight down. Nopony ever flew without hope."
  1365. > "Uh-huh. Well, right now... she can say things are getting better, and maybe they kinda are. But I don't know that we're ever going to be free. I don't know that he's ever going to stop squeezing us. And really, I don't know that she's on our side."
  1366. > A response does not come to you.
  1367. > Rumble seems to shrink back a bit, misinterpreting your silence.
  1368. > "I'm sorry. I know you've gotta be pretty close with her-"
  1369. "Not angry at you, little bro. Guess I'm just scared too. Scared somepony's going to do something big and stupid."
  1370. > "Scared I'm going to do something stupid."
  1371. > You nod as much as you can with your chin on the sheets.
  1372. > Shifting forward, Rumble presses his nose and forehead to yours.
  1373. > Both of you breathe softly, and Rumble lets out a small, contented nicker.
  1374. "I'm just worried about you."
  1375. > "Bro... if Anonymous - or Cadance - told you to arrest me because I was talking to ponies, waking them up to what they do - would you?"
  1376. "I didn't arrest them because-"
  1377. > "I'm not talking about breaking into and stealing stuff! I'm saying... just talk. Just reminding ponies."
  1378. "No. Just for talking? I wouldn't arrest you. I definitely wouldn't punish you. I took this job, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten who I am or what's right."
  1379. > Rumble brushes his nose against yours.
  1380. > "Thanks, bro. I... guess I just get scared sometimes. When I see you out there, being an - an officer for Anonymous-"
  1381. "No. I'm being an officer for us. Not for him."
  1382. > Another small nod.
  1383. > "...yeah."
  1384. "When you're looking at me, remember that. I don't lift a hoof for him alone. I'm here for us."
  1385. > A pause, and then you add:
  1386. "And - Cadance too. I know it must seem like it, but she hasn't gone over to his side. She's doing this for us. I don't think she would order me to stop you. She knows that the independence she's been fighting for doesn't mean anything if we can't speak freely."
  1387. > Rumble shifts, but doesn't say anything.
  1388. "I mean it, bro. She won't stop us from talking, and even if she said so I won't stop follow that order. But - don't be stupid, okay?"
  1389. > "Stupid?"
  1390. "Don't... push ponies to do stupid things. Don't let anypony get comfortable in their chains or forget Corona. But don't egg them on to actions that'll just get them trouble either. I won't punish you, but I won't be able to save you either."
  1391. > His eyes flick to the side - to your back - and Rumble nods.
  1392. > "Yeah, I understand."
  1393. "Thanks."
  1394. > A wing extends to settle across your little brother's back.
  1395. "There is hope, Rumble. For all of us. But we have to stick together. That means protecting each other, and also keeping each other from stepping out where they can't be protected."
  1396. > "You don't buck a storm apart alone. Need a wingpony."
  1397. > Grinning, you manage a small but honest laugh.
  1398. "Yes. Exactly like that. We have more wingpower together than we do apart. And that means Cadance too."
  1399. > ...
  1400. > When you step out into the night, the smile quickly fades.
  1401. > Trotting through the empty streets, thoughts roar through your head like a river swollen by a storm.
  1403. > Rumble, you thought, was safe.
  1404. > But what about other ponies?
  1405. > What would be said tomorrow?
  1406. > How soon would angry graffiti and muttered comments turn into something worse?
  1407. > You need to see Cadance.
  1408. > Putting some additional speed into your trot, you hurry towards the 'town hall'.
  1409. > Technically she should have turned in for the night, but there were more than enough stories of the alicorn putting in excessive late-night hours.
  1410. > ...ironically, you can't help but feeling a bit nervous yourself - expecting a security officer to come swooping out of the shadows and drag you in for being out after curfew.
  1411. > Nevermind that you outrank most of them now and could simply order them not to.
  1412. > As you turn the corner towards the town hall, however, your choice is rewarded:
  1413. > Though most of the building's lights off, a few still shine from one particular set of windows.
  1414. > The door is locked, but you have your guard's master key.
  1415. > Cadance is, as you expected, seated in her office.
  1416. > She looks up when you rap lightly on the doorframe and immediately you're struck by how tired she looks, ears, wings, even mane seeming to droop.
  1417. "Your Highness. Mind if I step in?"
  1418. > "No. Please do; I could use a friendly face today."
  1419. > Your ears fall.
  1420. "That bad?"
  1421. > "Just long."
  1422. "Didn't have enough sleep?"
  1423. > There are bags under her eyes, after all.
  1424. > "Too well, in fact."
  1425. > Cadance's voice drops to a murmur before rising again.
  1426. > "But - please, come in. Have a seat?"
  1427. > You do, though not before quietly closing the door behind you.
  1428. > Settling back into her own, Cadance rests her forehooves on the table and gives you a weary but warm smile.
  1429. > "So, what brings you here, Thunderlane?"
  1430. "Your Highness..."
  1431. > Sucking in a breath, you consider how to say this.
  1432. "...I don't mean to put more pressure on you - Celestia knows, you've already got a lot on your withers-"
  1433. > "It's okay, Thunderlane. I'd rather you told me than we both go skirting around the edges. And 'Cadance', between us here."
  1434. > Alright then.
  1435. "Cadance - you need to give them something. I know it's not your fault what happened yesterday, but not enough ponies see that. They're restless."
  1436. > Once you start, it's like a spigot has been knocked free and emotions are able to just pour out.
  1437. "You need to show them something to - to prove that what you did was meaningful, not just to Anonymous but for ponies too. Otherwise - we're both going to be caught in the middle. I've already had to shoot down rumors that you were taking time with your daughter."
  1438. > That makes her flinch, and shame echoes through you at having to use that tool in your arsenal.
  1439. > But it drives the point home, you hope, of just how bad it is that you are willing to anyhow.
  1440. > Head drooping, she nods.
  1441. > "I know. It's not just last night."
  1442. "But that certainly made it a whole lot -"
  1443. > Lifting the contents of her desk into the air in a hazy field of magic, Cadance sweeps the cloth covering - a covering you hadn't even noticed until now - aside.
  1444. > Six letters stare out at you - 'traitor', in all capitals, burned into the desk's wood.
  1445. > Written so that the one at the desk would be able to read them.
  1446. > "No, Thunderlane. Trust me, I know."
  1447. "Oh..."
  1448. > You don't have anything more to say.
  1449. > The fire that has pushed you this far gutters out.
  1450. > She did indeed know, and now you'd just yelled at her about it again.
  1451. "When?"
  1452. > "Some time before our little excursion yesterday. I don't know if by somepony who saw me in - that outfit -"
  1453. > The way she spits it out implies a special level of distaste.
  1454. > "-or angry over how I sentenced the vandals."
  1455. > You just nod, not knowing what else to say.
  1456. > "But I do, in fact, have something to give them."
  1457. "You do?"
  1458. > "Anonymous says he has granted us extra funds to be used as I see fit. I'll be opening a discussion on what everypony wants to see them used as - we will vote, after a submission period."
  1459. "Putting choice into their hooves. A smart choice."
  1460. > Cadance gives a thin, sad smile.
  1461. > "But not enough to silence the voices raised against me, I suspect. They'll just call it 'being paid off by the slaver' - and I certainly can't silence them."
  1462. "Actions will speak more loudly than their words."
  1463. > "I hope so. Sometimes I wish I could just shut them up, since I can't entirely disagree with them."
  1464. "You're not a traitor, Cadance."
  1465. > "Aren't I?"
  1466. "No. You've least of any of us forgotten that we're slaves, and that 'party' certainly didn't count as breaking your decision not to see Flurry-"
  1467. > Again Cadance flinches, breaking your gaze and turning her head to the floor - guilt seeming to almost physically weigh her body down.
  1468. > "...but I did."
  1469. > You pause.
  1470. > "After - after everypony left. She was there, along with Anonymous and Megan. In Megan's room. I couldn't resist spending a little time..."
  1471. "But - Anonymous was there. It wasn't really a visit, was it?"
  1472. > "Yes."
  1473. > But you are grasping at straws, and Cadance knows it too.
  1474. "Do you think they know?"
  1475. > "No. Nopony else came in. And I didn't stay the night. But..."
  1476. > A wing extended points to the word burned into the desk's top.
  1477. > "...I don't think anypony will care."
  1478. > Getting out of your seat, you walk around to her side of the table.
  1479. "If you are tearing your feathers out this hard over it, I doubt I am in any place to criticize you."
  1480. > "A vote of confidence I appreciate, but one is not enough. And it's only going to become worse."
  1481. > Her head turns towards the office's windows, and you notice that one is boarded over.
  1482. > "Thunderlane... if you thought a close friend of yours - Rumble, even - had been doing something wrong... how would you confront him?"
  1483. "What are you asking?"
  1484. > "I think I know who is responsible for - this."
  1485. > One wing sweeps over her desk; the other points to the window.
  1486. > "Possibly the third pony from the other vandals too. But they're so... close, I don't know how I can ask them."
  1487. "Who?"
  1488. > Cadance shakes her head, and instantly yours fills with faces of ponies.
  1489. > Who?
  1490. > Which pony would she be so afraid of confronting?
  1491. > Mayor Mare?
  1492. > No - this was a unicorn's work, unless the Mayor had suddenly learned how to sneak around and operate a blowtorch.
  1493. "I don't know if I can help you without knowing who..."
  1494. > "You aren't to arrest them. Not yet."
  1495. "Yes, Your Highness."
  1496. > "Sunburst."
  1497. > Your throat tightens.
  1498. > He'd been far closer to Cadance before the escape and her meting out the punishment for it.
  1499. > Now, the young unicorn stallion had become a rather rarer sight.
  1500. "Why?"
  1501. > "He was out last night in a heavy cloak that covered his head when we went riding around. And he saw me riding with Anonymous, dressed up like that."
  1502. "Does he know about Flurry-"
  1503. > "I don't know."
  1504. > Settling on your haunches, you turn the thought over in your mind.
  1505. > What would you do?
  1506. > Not an arrest - you'd given Cadance that - but just talk.
  1507. > Investigate.
  1508. > Certainly you could approach him yourself - take the painful matter out of Cadance's hooves.
  1509. > But maybe he would respond better to her than to you.
  1510. > Having him brought into the security station was also an option.
  1511. "I think..."
  1512. > You sigh softly.
  1513. "...I'm sorry, Your Highness. It's not really appropriate, but... I think you need to speak to him. I did the same with my brother right up until this made me worry that he'd done something stupid too."
  1514. > "Had he?"
  1515. "No, thank Celestia. But don't let it go that far. Don't wait until he feels neglected."
  1516. > Cadance eyes you quietly, and for a moment you fear that the suggestion has gone too far.
  1517. > But then she sighs.
  1518. > "You are right. I should have done this some time ago."
  1519. "I can go with you, if you like. Not... as this."
  1520. > You lift a hoof to gesture to your uniform.
  1521. "But as somepony who's afraid of what will happen if things go on like this. Someone who... stood up there on that stage and suffered the same punishment he did, so he can know I'm not just blowing him off."
  1522. > If Cadance is hurt by your reminder of what she'd done to the two of you, it doesn't show.
  1523. > Maybe she is mollified by the reminder that the very same thing had been done to her.
  1524. > ...or maybe she is just already hurting so badly that no more can be added to it.
  1525. > "Thank you. I - think that'd be a good idea. He looks up to me, but having a pony he doesn't know there will be good."
  1526. "You're welcome. Should I approach him?"
  1527. > "I think that'd be best. You can take your uniform off, but I'm always an alicorn."
  1528. > Something in her tone makes you suspect there are times where she dearly wishes she was somepony else.
  1529. > Beyond merely just not a leader, but not even the same pony she is now.
  1530. > You aren't sure how to feel about that.
  1531. > Sympathetic, yes; nopony should have to bear the weight she does now.
  1532. > But also scared.
  1533. > If she was cracking under the strain of her position... who else could hold it?
  1534. "I'll do that then, Your Highness."
  1535. > You're halfway turned out when she speaks up again, in a low voice.
  1536. > "Thunderlane?"
  1537. "Your Highness?"
  1538. > Cadance has turned too, looking out the window.
  1539. > Her expression is rendered hazy by the mottled glass, but you can tell it is not a happy one.
  1540. > "You - you do all of this for your brother's sake, yes?"
  1541. "Yes. For Rumble - the promise I made him when we were first taken. He was my family, and I would always do the most for him."
  1542. > For some reason this drives a flinch through her body.
  1543. > "What would you do if you'd betrayed him?"
  1544. > Your mind boggles at the question.
  1545. > Betrayed?
  1546. > Rumble?
  1547. > How could you ever...?
  1548. > At the same time, an undercurrent of fear ripples through you as well.
  1549. > She couldn't have discovered that you had been spying for Anonymous, that you'd turned in the escape attempt.
  1550. > ...could she?
  1551. > No.
  1552. > Cadance was as distraught by this as you were.
  1553. > Whatever it was, it was not about that.
  1554. > Which brings you back to square one.
  1555. > How could you ever betray that which you cared about most?
  1556. "Your Highness, I-"
  1557. > Seeming to predict your objection, Cadance shakes her head.
  1558. > "Imagine you did, Thunderlane. Imagine - what would you do with yourself then?"
  1559. > ...had she somehow betrayed somepony?
  1560. > Who could she care about most here?
  1561. > Flurry Heart?
  1562. > Had her time spent with her daughter provoked some kind of punishment from Anonymous?
  1563. > Swallowing hard, you choose your next words carefully.
  1564. "I like to think that no relationship is permanently destroyed, Your Highness. Princess Celestia brought back her sister, no matter what it cost her."
  1565. > A feat soured by how few years they had together before everything had come tumbling down again.
  1566. > Who knew where they were now.
  1567. > But the point still stands, albeit shakily.
  1568. "Whoever you've hurt... you can make it up to them. You can undo whatever damage you've done, and earn back their trust."
  1569. > Cadance nods, but does not look back from the window.
  1570. > "I appreciate it, Thunderlane."
  1571. "You're welcome, Your Highness."
  1572. > Trotting out of her office, you are still turning over the perplexing question of who, exactly, she could have betrayed so badly.
  1573. > Whoever it was, you hope she can mend fences with them soon.
  1574. > Looking up as you step out onto the street, you flinch as something frigid touches down on your nose.
  1575. > It was snowing.
  1577. > "Master?"
  1578. "Yes, Mocha?"
  1579. > The little maid pony stands at your side, an envelope dancing in her magic.
  1580. > "Letter for you, Master."
  1581. > A glance at the return address and you snort fiercely.
  1582. > Dealing with that right now was not on your list of priorities.
  1583. "Put it away in my in-box, Mocha. I'll deal with it later."
  1584. > "I'm sorry, Master."
  1585. "Sorry?"
  1586. > You chuckle softly, reaching down to lightly rub her cheek - being careful not to disrupt her elaborately-done mane or uniform.
  1587. "It's hardly your fault. You just brought it in."
  1588. > She leans into your touch, but lets out a nervous little nicker as well.
  1589. > "S-Still, Master."
  1590. "Actually... you and the entire house staff did well last night. I realize little of that company must have been particularly pleasant for you-"
  1591. > A subtle nod, but she does not dare interrupt you.
  1592. "-but you all managed excellently. I can't complain about anything, and it really was an excellent display of service."
  1593. > "Thank you, Master."
  1594. "Really, you've all been doing very well... so I'd like to reward the lot of you. Do something special, since you all held yourselves up so well."
  1595. > "A-All of us?"
  1596. "The house staff, yes."
  1597. > "I-I'd have to ask them, Master. I don't know-"
  1598. > Looking down at her hooves, Mocha scuffs at the carpeting.
  1599. "Ah, ah - careful there, Mocha. I've warned you about damaging the carpet."
  1600. > With a squeak and a little stomp, she halts her hoof.
  1601. > "Sorry!"
  1602. "No worries. But - do talk to the rest of the staff if you have the time."
  1603. > "I will, sir. I'm just... not sure what you could give us. We already live well-"
  1604. > For ponies, she seems to silently say.
  1605. > "-and, um... well, time off would be... well, most ponies don't really hang out with us."
  1606. > Hmm.
  1607. > The inevitable divisions of class, you suppose.
  1608. > Even among slaves.
  1609. > It certainly wasn't fair, but you weren't sure what you could do about it.
  1610. "True. But I don't want to leave you unrewarded for what you did either."
  1611. > Giving her cheek one final scratch, you sit back up again.
  1612. "And besides. A little time off would still be somewhat helpful... so, ask the others when you can. Ask Cadance as well - she might have some ideas."
  1613. > "Yes, Master. I..."
  1614. > She hesitates.
  1615. > "...nevermind, Master."
  1616. "Alright, Mocha. Head on out, then."
  1617. > And she does - trotting with a little extra spring in her step.
  1618. > Hopefully the promise of a reward would have that same effect on the other house ponies.
  1619. > For that matter, what could you do better for the other ponies?
  1620. > Cadance had her reward, and there was no doubt she would put the funds you were releasing for her to good use in the camp.
  1621. > But maybe... maybe it would be good to give the rest of the camp something else as well?
  1622. > Time off for all of them would put strain on your balance-books, especially as you had not quite made up the losses resulting from the escape.
  1623. > Much more so than any one-time gift of funds could have.
  1624. > ...something less, then?
  1625. > Even just going down into the camp, checking in on them?
  1626. > You knew that some ponies there simply did not like you - could never see past their grievances to recognize everything you'd given them.
  1627. > But what about some of the others?
  1628. > Would they see?
  1629. > Would they feel your honest appreciation?
  1630. > Certaily Mocha had - becoming much more warm towards you since you'd actually started paying attention to her.
  1631. > Two years she'd been here, and only now...
  1632. > But Mocha Cream was not everyone, and you couldn't afford to forget that.
  1633. > Scratching your cheek, you consider - and a thought comes to mind.
  1634. > What if you could... give them a way to talk to you?
  1635. > A way to let them vent their grievances?
  1636. > Giving Thunderlane as a guard they could actually talk to had apparently done wonders for rooting out the rot in your security force.
  1637. > What if you did the same for talking to you?
  1638. > There'd have to be a filter of some kind - you rather suspected there'd be at least a few 'go fuck your mother' type letters in the first lot - but if word could get through at all...
  1639. > You'd have to bring it up to Cadance the next time you see her.
  1640. > Or, hell, have one of the maids do it; they handled your mail already.
  1641. > The thought settles your mind enough that you're quite able to get back to work.
  1642. > Which, in turn, quickly seems to bleed away the rest of the day - soon enough the sun is sinking towards the horizon.
  1643. > Standing to stretch with a ripple of pops coming from your back, you turn and make your way downstairs.
  1644. > Barely have you reached the bottom step when you're ambushed from the side:
  1645. > One weight slams into your side, long arms wrapping around your hips to try and pinion your legs together.
  1646. > Another set of hoofed legs settle across your shoulders, a broad wall of feathers circling your head to cover your eyes.
  1647. > "Hug attack!"
  1648. > Two voices giggle out in unison.
  1649. > Laughing yourself, you stumble in circles a few times before finding a wall to slump down against.
  1650. "Oh, no! I've been wounded - terribly wounded! I'm at your mercy!"
  1651. > Megan throws herself across you, straddling your lap.
  1652. > "We want - cookies!"
  1653. > Judging by the intense giggling going on just behind your left ear, Flurry Heart has draped herself across your shoulders cat-like.
  1654. > Peeling her wing off your face, you glare down imperiously at your daughter.
  1655. "And do you know what happens to little girls - and fillies - that eat to many cookies?"
  1656. > "They get mo-"
  1657. "They get fat!"
  1658. > You're on her in an instant, fingers moving to furiously tickle Megan's ribs.
  1659. > She is defenseless - collapsing in a ball of tearful laughter and pleas.
  1660. > "No! No! Nooooo!"
  1661. "And when they get all round and soft and sloooooow, then -"
  1662. > You're leaning over, 'biting' at her neck with fierce snarling noises.
  1663. "- they get all eaten up!"
  1664. > Wings lightly batter your head, Flurry Heart unable to contain her laughter even when she speaks.
  1665. > "Run away, Mistress! Get safe! I'll stay!"
  1666. > "No, Flurry!"
  1667. > "Go! I'll sas- saci - sacrifi- just go!"
  1668. > She does, little socked feet pitter-pattering away down the hall.
  1669. > Distantly, you can hear another bit of laughter at the exchange - probably another house pony.
  1670. > After another moment, Flurry Heart speaks more softly:
  1671. > "Master? It wasn't too much was it?"
  1672. "Not at all, Flurry."
  1673. > Reaching up, you carefully unwind her from your neck and settle her into your arms - resting on her back and peering up at you with legs folded.
  1674. > Flurry squirms slightly as she is held child-like, but ultimately snuggles down into your arms.
  1675. > "Oh. I was afraid I'd upset you-"
  1676. "Not one bit."
  1677. > In fact, you'd been quite pleased that she dared to take part in the "ambush".
  1678. > Your daughter's vivacious attitude had clearly begun to rub off on her - a deep improvement from the shattered personality she'd displayed when you first brought her in.
  1679. > Damaged Flurry Heart may have been, but apparently resilient as well.
  1680. > And it said good things about Megan that she had influence Flurry to this point.
  1681. "I don't mind you playing with my daughter at all. But-"
  1682. > You lay a finger on her nose, pressing softly.
  1683. > Flurry goes crosseyed, forehooves pedaling in the air at your hand.
  1684. "No cookies. You just had all that cake last night, and both of you do have to watch your sugar."
  1685. > "Yes, Master."
  1686. "Good girl."
  1687. > Looking up, you spot a pair of ponies watching you from a distance.
  1688. > Raising one hand, you give them a small wave; after a moment of uncertainty, Flurry Heart joins in with one hoof.
  1689. > Both smile back - slowly at first, but with increasing warmth.
  1690. > Chuckling softly, you slowly climb back to your feet; Flurry Heart is replaced in her perch across your shoulders.
  1691. "And, there is one more thing we have to do."
  1692. > "Yes, Master?"
  1693. "Now we go find Megan."
  1695. > Despite Thunderlane's words, it'd taken you another two days to visit Sunburst.
  1696. > Part of that was simply waiting until Thunderlane was off-duty, but you knew he would drop everything and come if you had really asked him.
  1697. > Things cannot be ignored forever, though, and soon enough you find yourself approaching his office's door.
  1698. > He would be in there, you know.
  1699. > Sunburst... didn't have much of a social life, to say the least.
  1700. > The bookish unicorn had dedicated his life to working for you - both on-duty and off - and that had little changed after you had been forced to whip him.
  1701. > Gently your hoof taps on the door.
  1702. > "Who is it?"
  1703. "It's Cadance, Sunburst."
  1704. > A long, long silence follows.
  1705. > Were it not for Thunderlane standing at your flank, you would probably have bowed out right then and there.
  1706. > "...come in."
  1707. > You do - opening the door and peering cautiously around the room.
  1708. > It is, in a word, messy.
  1709. > A brilliant scholar of magic Sunburst may have been, but organization had always been something that eluded him.
  1710. > Even when Twilight Sparkle had tried-
  1711. > That line of thought is culled before it can go any further.
  1712. > Stepping into the room - and over the tomes and folders littering the floor - you make room for Thunderlane to enter behind you.
  1713. > Sunburst's eyes widen when he sees the other stallion, but Thunderlane is out of uniform.
  1714. "Hello, Sunburst."
  1715. > "Your Highness."
  1716. > His voice is low, almost whispered, and he drops into a small bow.
  1717. "I..."
  1718. > What do you say?
  1719. > 'Sorry I ignored you, oh and by the way did you happen to be trying to get ponies beaten with this graffiti?'
  1720. > Extending a wing, Thunderlane touches your side.
  1721. > Right.
  1722. "I am - worried about you, Sunburst."
  1723. > "Worried, Your Highness?"
  1724. "Yes, Sunburst. I..."
  1725. > Head drooping, you take another cautious step closer to his desk.
  1726. "You saw me that night. When I was out there with all the guests."
  1727. > "Yes."
  1728. > The monotone response sends another bolt through your heart.
  1729. "When we were out that night, Sunburst... somepony broke into my office in the town hall. They used magic to burn a word into my desk."
  1730. > "Oh?"
  1731. > It's impossible to tell if he knows or not.
  1732. > "What was it?"
  1733. "Traitor."
  1734. > He flinches.
  1735. > You open your mouth to go on, but no more words come.
  1736. > Celestia above, how do you say this?
  1737. > Thankfully, Thunderlane takes the lead.
  1738. > "Sunburst. Princess Cadances is - she's scared. Very, very scared that you did something-"
  1739. > "Did something?"
  1740. > There's still no real emotion in his voice, but somehow you know - really know - that he is hurt by this.
  1741. "It's not just that. The two ponies who were caught stealing paint - they said there was a third with them, a unicorn."
  1742. > "And she saw you out, covering yourself with a cloak."
  1743. > At last, Sunburst raises his eyes to you.
  1744. > The pain in them is sufficient to make you take a full step back.
  1745. > "Your Highness... please tell me. What did I do to deserve this? Why are you punishing me-"
  1746. "Punishing?!"
  1747. > "A-Aren't you?"
  1748. "No! How would I-"
  1749. > "You - you shut me out. You blocked me off. I thought - I thought I'd done something to displease you. Because I made you give me the extra lashes. I don't-"
  1750. > He swallows, motioning to Thunderlane.
  1751. > "I thought he was here, because you were going to - punish me more."
  1752. > "No."
  1753. > Stepping up to match your position, Thunderlane emphatically shakes his head.
  1755. > "No, I am not. I'm here because Cadance is scared, and she needs somepony by her side. And I'm here because I went through the same thing you did too."
  1756. > That finally seems to get through to Sunburst.
  1757. > "I'm sorry..."
  1758. "No. I am... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have cut you off like that. It was my mistake. I certainly shouldn't have accused you without a shred of evidence."
  1759. > Settling on your haunches, you reach out to spread a wing across his back.
  1760. > He sighs softly, nodding.
  1761. > "Thank you, Your Highness. I..."
  1762. > His eyes flick up towards Thunderlane.
  1763. > "I'm sorry, but... is he - safe?"
  1764. "Safe?"
  1765. > "Can we talk - safely?"
  1766. > Thunderlane shows no reaction, but then he is probably used to it by now.
  1767. "Yes. Thunderlane joined the Security force with my urging. He has my confidence."
  1768. > For the first time since you'd entered Sunburst smiles.
  1769. > "Good. I wouldn't ever attack you, Your Highness. I know Anonymous is holding your daughter hostage - that you didn't have any choice."
  1770. "...thank you, Sunburst."
  1771. > Taking off his glasses, he sets them the desk and laughs softly.
  1772. > "Besides, I remembered what we did before. Petty insults don't mean anything; what I've been trying to do is much bigger."
  1773. > Your mind comes screeching to a halt, and judging by Thunderlane's expression he is experiencing something similar.
  1774. "W-What do you mean?"
  1775. > "Well, there's no point in riling the security up. Especially now that we have somepony on the inside. But, we have larger goals, right? That's what I've been working towards."
  1776. > In the long silence that follows, Sunburst finally seems to realize something is wrong.
  1777. > He looks between the two of you, suddenly uncertain.
  1778. > "I thought... if I could prepare something bigger, you'd appreciate that. I thought you would stop punishing me..."
  1779. "Sunburst...."
  1780. > Every word is chosen carefully, picked with the delicateness of a chess-master playing a world tournament.
  1781. "...nothing I've ever done has been meant to punish you. It was my mistake entirely to not come to you sooner."
  1782. > How much more true it is now - if you hadn't been so weak, hadn't allowed your fear to drive you away from him, it would never have gotten to this point.
  1783. > But it had, and now a bomb had just been dropped into your hooves with the fuse lit.
  1784. "I wish I'd been a better friend for you, Sunburst, but this wasn't your fault."
  1785. > "Yes. Um, well. I..."
  1786. > It's his turn to look abashed, rubbing at the tuft of hair hanging from his chin.
  1787. > "I didn't exactly help either. I just assumed you meant to punish me."
  1788. "Nothing could be more wrong."
  1789. > Putting a hoof on his shoulder, you shake your head.
  1790. "What I had to do to you... hurt me, Sunburst. I mean it. It's why I took lashes as well - I couldn't stand myself if I did that to you and didn't take something similar."
  1791. > His smile spreads again, becoming warmer.
  1792. > "Yes. Um, okay then. Well-"
  1793. "But, Sunburst. I... I hope you'll understand then - I don't need you to plan anything big to win my approval. In fact..."
  1794. > Please, don't let him break down.
  1795. " fact, I don't need you to plan any big acts of resistance."
  1796. > "O-Oh."
  1797. > The look of absolute despair on his face threatens to close your throat.
  1798. > "I'm sorry. I should've - should've figured you would have your own plans. I mean, now that you have a pony on the inside with the guards and all..."
  1799. "It's not that, Sunburst. There isn't any big plan right now."
  1800. > He stares up in, seemingly barely able to understand what you're suggesting.
  1801. > "We're not planning another big escape, Sunburst."
  1802. > Thunderlane sighs, settling down on his haunches and looking towards a wall as if wishing he could appear a window into it to look out.
  1803. > "That was tried. It didn't work out too well... got a lot of ponies hurt."
  1804. > "I don't understand."
  1805. > Looking between the two of your with desperate eyes, Sunburst seems to be reaching out for any purchase to grab on to.
  1806. > "Your Highness - you used to talk to us all about how we had to preserve our dignity, our freedom because we couldn't ever get it as slaves."
  1807. > You can feel Thunderlane's gaze settling on your back.
  1808. > Not surprising; he alone among the ponies you'd had to whip hadn't been part of the original plan.
  1809. > Hadn't taken part in those hushed meetings in quiet corners and darkened rooms.
  1810. "I did, Sunburst. And... it's still not right. Won't ever be right that we are held like property. I know that as much as anypony..."
  1811. > An idea jumps into your head.
  1812. "You saw me that night, carted around like a prize while being dressed up as a broken, obedient prize for Anonymous. And while I understand why he had me do that, I still hated it. No system that makes it logical to do that to somepony will ever be right."
  1813. > The unicorn nods, eyes having fallen to stare at his desk again.
  1814. > "We don't have to know what you're planning, Sunburst. In fact, in some ways I'd prefer I didn't know so I don't feel like I should be looking out for it. But riling up ponies to act now... we've just barely been able to head off Anonymous' tightening down on everypony now. If something new crops up..."
  1815. > Sunburst sniffs slightly, nodding.
  1816. > "I... I'm sorry. I just don't understand. I thought - I thought you hadn't started anything new because you were afraid of what he'd do to Flurry, Princess Cadance."
  1817. > Oh.
  1818. > Of course.
  1819. > He'd actually known Flurry is a foal as well - had a hoof in raising her, too.
  1820. > You shake your head softly.
  1821. "However bad it is in here... provoking another reaction cannot happen now. Anonymous is, at least, trying to make our lives better - showing us some trust. Trying to make our lives easier."
  1822. > The words had come to your lips almost automatically, repeated verbatim from the speeches you'd given so many times now.
  1823. "Even though nopony should forget we're captives, that doesn't mean we have to constantly fight him either."
  1824. > Even as they do come, however, you feel your heart growing heavier.
  1825. > Why were you saying this to him?
  1826. > Wasn't what Sunburst had said the truth?
  1827. > You had been ready to spit in Anonymous' eye, until he had mentioned his purchase of Flurry Heart.
  1828. > And while it was true that your captor had begun trying to make your lives easier... did that really change that he still held your daughter - indirectly - hostage to ensure your good behavior?
  1829. > ...did he?
  1830. > You pause, considering.
  1831. > Anonymous had plans for Flurry Heart now - he'd said as much.
  1832. > All his grooming to become a leader for his other slaves like you were wouldn't mean a thing if she was sold off.
  1833. > Nor did it strike you as entirely spur-of-the-moment.
  1834. > ...had he always had those plans for her?
  1835. > Had he played you?
  1836. > Relied on your willingness to scrape and bow and do his bidding, even if his threat was hollow?
  1837. > "Princess Cadance?"
  1838. "Wha - oh. Oh... sorry. I... just thought of something important, but it can wait."
  1839. > "Oh..."
  1840. > Sunburst goes back staring dimly at his desk, and your heart wrenches again.
  1841. > Here was a stallion who'd practically dedicated his life to you - to the one pony who he could really look up to.
  1842. > And then you'd not only convinced him that you were punishing him with the silent treatment, but then dropped in to tell him that his efforts had been in vain and the ideals you'd reinforced in him were meaningless.
  1843. > No wonder he seemed empty.
  1844. "Sunburst... we just don't want anypony to get hurt. Trust me; my dedication to seeing everypony here free one day hasn't dropped by one bid."
  1845. > "Same. Even though I'm a guard now, the only reason I can get up in the morning is because I know I'm keeping ponies from being hurt worse."
  1846. > You nod to Thunerlane in thanks for his support.
  1847. > "O-Okay."
  1848. > He looks up, peering between the two of you.
  1849. > "Am I... are you going to have to actually punish me again? Uh, Thunderlane, are you going to have to, uh, arrest me?"
  1850. "No. Thunderlane isn't going to arrest you, and I am certainly not going to punish you for this."
  1851. > "Do you need to know what I was planning? Um, to keep everypony safe?"
  1852. "We..."
  1853. > You look to Thunderlane, conscious of what he'd said earlier.
  1854. > He lifts a hoof to run it throw his mohawk-mane, but manages a smile back.
  1855. > "I'll... go wait outside, okay? Tell Princess Cadance, Sunburst. If she thinks it is serious enough, she can tell me."
  1856. > A small frown touches your lips.
  1857. > That was cruel of him, to put the decision on your wings - leaving the weight of whether it was right or wrong on your head.
  1858. > The weight of being a leader, you suppose.
  1859. "Understood."
  1860. > When the door is closed behind Thunderlane, you look back to Sunburst.
  1861. "Go ahead?"
  1862. > "Going under, with the tunnels, took too long to just get away from the camp. We can't dig our way out again..."
  1863. "How? The pegasus detectors keep us-"
  1864. > "Haycartes' Method."
  1865. > The name rings a bell - something Twilight had mentioned once - but you can't place it.
  1866. > Seeing your confusion, Sunburst helpfully adds:
  1867. > "A way to enchant a pony to temporarily - inhabit a book."
  1868. > Understanding dawns in your mind.
  1869. "There wouldn't be any signs of an escape, because ponies wouldn't be leaving as ponies."
  1870. > "Yes. My magic isn't strong enough to do it, but there are some other here."
  1871. > Head hanging, he adds:
  1872. > "They've been good students..."
  1873. "And - to get out of the camp?"
  1874. > "We had - a few plans to get over the fence itself. Some of the Pegasi were talking about gliders. Too small for a pony, so they wouldn't raise Anonymous' suspicion."
  1875. > But not too small for... what?
  1876. > A book, a few books?
  1877. > Enough to carry so many ponies away...
  1878. > "It's not the only way. One mare swears she has written to a sympathizer who would let us mail ourselves. Another thinks we should hide in Anonymous' shipments - let him send us out."
  1879. "How many are involved."
  1880. > "Not too many. No more than two dozen now, I think. Many fewer than it took to dig the tunnels, I think."
  1881. "You think?"
  1882. > Sunburst flinches, and you wince.
  1883. > That came out harder than it needed to.
  1884. > "We... tried to keep it all separated. Nopony could have too much information, in case they were t-tortured."
  1885. > Celestia above, they really were assuming the worst...
  1886. > "We knew we had to keep it small, though."
  1887. "Because of the risk of discovery."
  1888. > "Because you would have to punish whoever was involved."
  1889. > You turn over the situation in your head.
  1890. > A few, highly motivated ponies...
  1891. > In some ways, that was worse.
  1892. "Sunburst, you know this can't go ahead."
  1893. > "Yes, Your Highness..."
  1894. > He hesitates.
  1895. > "I... can ask them to stop. I don't know if they will."
  1896. "And you don't know who all of them are either."
  1897. > "Not all."
  1898. "Okay."
  1899. > Turning this over in your head, you take a deep breath.
  1900. > This was... much more complex than you had ever imagined.
  1901. > It wasn't going to be so easy to simply shut down.
  1902. "This is... impressive, Sunburst. I can't ask you to just throw away all this work."
  1903. > He perks up, actualy looking pleased.
  1904. > That only makes your heart fall further; you were only realizing just now how profoundly broken Sunburst had been by the experience of slavery.
  1905. "But the thing is, we can't do it now. Not just because the time isn't right - because Anonymous seems to be actually loosening his grip on us - but because it isn't ready as a plan yet. We have to make one-hundred percent sure it's absolutely safe."
  1906. > "It is, Your Highness. The literature on Haycartes' Method is very clear, and we've been able to work around the deficiencies to keep anypony who tries it-"
  1907. "I don't just mean the spell itself, Sunburst. I mean what happens after that? How do we keep ponies safe once they are out of the camp? What happens if they reappear in the middle of a street? Where are they going next? If we're trying to mail them-"
  1908. > The idea of mailing a pony still seems strange in your mind.
  1909. > Perhaps a bit too close to how the slave markets moved ponies around without any care for them beyond preserving their sale value.
  1910. "-then we have to make sure where they arrive is safe. If it's too someone, we have to make sure they just don't want vulnerable slaves delivered straight to them."
  1911. > "Oh..."
  1912. > Sunburst's head begins to hang again, and you lean over to nuzzle him."
  1913. "I just want to be sure of everypony's safety, Sunburst. The last time... not everypony who wasn't brought back to the camp escaped. Some got out of the camp, but died going further."
  1914. > "You... knew them?"
  1915. "Not well. I know names. Merribelle. She died because there was no plan beyond 'just get out'."
  1916. > Corona's accusing voice taunts you in your head.
  1917. > Squeezing your eyes shut, you shake your head.
  1918. "At the same time... we can't be all-trusting. Anonymous may be trying to help now, but we don't know what the future will bring. Having one final shot at escaping if that day comes will be invaluable."
  1919. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  1920. "So, here's what you're going to do. You go back to your friends, and tell them this has my blessing but now is not the right time to act. Instead, they're to keep refining this plan. Most importantly, figure out where ponies are going and how they should get there after getting out of the camp. But they aren't to risk anything major, and they aren't to provoke anything."
  1921. > "I understand, Princess."
  1922. "You've done well, Sunburst. We just can't afford to start anything before it becomes absolutely necessary. Because I guarantee you - the second Anonymous finds out about this, we'll all of us be drugged and have limiters on our magic. There won't be a second shot."
  1923. > Not to mention, it would be the end of any chance ever see you daughter ever again.
  1924. > "O-Okay. What about..."
  1925. > He motions towards the closed door.
  1926. "I trust Thunderlane. If anything, he can help keep this under control - stop anything before it endangers more ponies."
  1927. > It isn't about doing Anonymous' bidding, you swear to yourself.
  1928. > It's about protecting ponies' wellbeing.
  1929. > That you even had this shot speaks to the degree of trust Anonymous put in you.
  1930. > Preserving that trust is critical.
  1931. > Pausing, you lean over and gently nuzzle Sunburst.
  1932. "I'm sorry. I should've been with you since the beginning..."
  1933. > "I'm... just glad to know you're still you, Princess."
  1934. "Still me?"
  1935. > "I was... afraid. When I saw you out in that cart like that..."
  1936. > Your heart falls again.
  1937. > If even Sunburst had been worried, how many others would lose faith in you?
  1938. > Seeing your expression, Sunburst shakes his head.
  1939. > "No, no! I didn't mean-"
  1940. "It's okay, Sunburst. I'm not upset. I understand why ponies would... think that way. You've done well, though."
  1941. > Hesitating, you ask more softly:
  1942. "I don't know if it can... but if you can keep this under control, I can see about asking if you can visit Flurry Heart?"
  1943. > "I..."
  1944. > His eyes go wide, pupils shrinking.
  1945. > "I could..."
  1946. "I don't know for sure. He will have to approve it."
  1947. > And Anonymous would have good reason to hesitate, given that Sunburst had already lead one breakout.
  1948. > "Please, Princess... I'd love to see her. Is she doing okay?"
  1949. "Well..."
  1950. > ...
  1951. > When you step out of Sunburst's office, Thunderlane is waiting just beyond.
  1952. > Rising from his belly as you approach, he cocks his head.
  1953. > "Well?"
  1954. "Their plan isn't actually the worst I've heard. Far better than the time it was suggested we just try to steal trucks and drive through the fence."
  1955. > "That one was particularly stupid."
  1956. "Yes; this time, they want to use a particular spell to sneak ponies out inside of books."
  1957. > His eyebrows rise.
  1958. > "No offense, Your Highness, but that sounds... stupidly risky. I'm sure Sunburst knows his magic, but I've never quite trusted unicorn spells that far..."
  1959. "Apparently they've tested it, but even so I told them not to try anything. I just hope it reaches everypony, though. He says they've started splitting groups up so they can't all be found at once."
  1960. > And, for that matter, you hope they will listen to you once they are told.
  1961. > "Smart."
  1962. > Frowning, Thunderlane shakes his head.
  1963. > "So, what do you want me to do?"
  1964. "Don't move in on any of them now. I'm going to give them a chance; these ones seem like a more reasonable group of ponies."
  1965. > "Not the kind who are throwing up graffiti or breaking in and stealing things."
  1966. "Exactly. I'm going to give them a chance to prove that. We stand up for ourselves without being impulsive and getting ponies hurt."
  1967. > "Alright."
  1968. > He takes a deep breath, nodding.
  1969. > "I can do that."
  1970. "By the same measure, Thunderlane, if somepony does something foolish and gets in trouble... don't hesitate to do what you have to do."
  1971. > Settling on your haunches, you sigh.
  1973. "It's a delicate balance between each side. If I seem to be backing Anonymous' position only, everypony will lose faith in me. There'll be something tried, and he will clamp down, and it'll all be lost. But if I don't give him something, he cuts me off and the same happens..."
  1974. > "And you lose your daughter."
  1975. > Thunderlane is watching you from the corner of his eye.
  1976. > "Trust me, Princess Cadance. I understand what you mean by balances."
  1977. "Yes..."
  1978. > You shoot him a soft smile.
  1979. "My apologies. I do sometimes forget that I'm not the only perched on this precarious balance."
  1980. > "Not a problem, Your Highness."
  1981. "Still. Thank you for coming to this. Even if you did step out, you were right. It was something I needed to do."
  1983. > Despite the time you'd spent waiting for the princess, you still felt the cold the moment you stepped out into it.
  1984. > Your jacket - sensibly - identified yourself as a member of the guard, though, so wearing it to meet with the skittish stallion hadn't been a possibility.
  1985. > Putting on some speed to work warmth back into your bones, you decide to head back to the guard post before turning in for the night.
  1986. > It gave you time to think, if nothing else.
  1987. > Balance...
  1988. > Cadance didn't know the half of it.
  1989. > If Anonymous found out you'd been alerted to a new escape plan taking shape and hadn't brought it to his attention, there was still a fair chance he'd come down on you - on Rumble - harder than the worst thunderstorm.
  1990. > He had, after all, made it clear that he considered your previous private agreement with him the de facto state of affairs now.
  1991. > There wasn't any way for you to worm out of this.
  1992. > ...except to just not tell him.
  1993. > To take that risk, and hope to Celestia, Harmony, even Discord that he never discovered it.
  1994. > Shivering a bit more than just from the cold, you turn down the street towards the security station -
  1995. > Just in time to see a cloaked pony slip across the street from it and down a street further on.
  1996. > In an instant you're at a full-out gallop, then with wings spread launching yourself down the street towards them.
  1997. > But by the time you're remotely close enough to the figure has already vanished down a side street.
  1998. > Cursing, you instead circle the security building - trying to figure out what they were doing.
  1999. > To your surprise, though, there's no sign of any graffiti, damage, or anything else suspect.
  2000. > Casing the position, then?
  2001. > Maybe.
  2002. > Heading for the door, you're almost caught on the nose by its opening.
  2003. > A security officer, steps out - Lana, a familiar face, one you'd worked with before, but clearly surprised.
  2004. > "Oh! Thunderlane, I hadn't expected you to be back tonight."
  2005. "I was just checking in, but - did you see sompony around just now? They ran off before I could see who they were."
  2006. > Her face goes pale.
  2007. > "Another pony? Around here? No, we didn't have anyone in here."
  2008. "Damn - listen, are you still on duty?"
  2009. > "No, I was just about to go home."
  2010. "Can you help me just to a quick look around? I couldn't see anything, but I want to be sure..."
  2011. > "Ah..."
  2012. > She hesitates.
  2013. > "If you really need to. I was I think we would have noticed if there was anything wrong, though."
  2014. > Lana isn't just brushing you off, you know.
  2015. > She'd been open and helpful before despite you being a pony - not one of the guards who held your acquisition of your rank against you.
  2016. [Choice]
  2017. "...okay, look. I realize you're not on duty, but this is pretty serious. If you could come in and just help me take a look around-"
  2018. > "Yeah."
  2019. > She sighs, seeming to realize you weren't going to let this go so easily.
  2020. > "Alright, we can do a sweep around."
  2021. "Thank you."
  2022. > Stepping back inside - into the warmth - you shiver as you realize just how frigid it had been outside.
  2023. > Giving you a sympathetic look, Lana frowns.
  2024. > "You don't have a coat?"
  2025. "I do. Just - not with me. We pegasi aren't too upset by the cold, though."
  2026. > Your nose twitches as you glance over towards her - that perfume was strong!
  2027. > "Hmm. So, what exactly did you see?"
  2028. "One pony - couldn't see what tribe, although they fled on hoof so it's probably not a pegasus. I was wondering if it was our missing unicorn perp from the break-ins-"
  2029. > Perp?
  2030. > You really were becoming familiar with their slang.
  2031. "-but I didn't get a chance to see what they were doing."
  2032. > "So, just take a quick sweep around and check for anything obvious?"
  2033. "Yes. Any signs of attempted break-in, anything out of place, that sort of thing."
  2034. > "Best to do the rooms facing the outside, then."
  2035. "Agreed."
  2036. > Moving down the hall, you begin to sweep the outer rooms.
  2037. > Windows are few and far between, mostly mounted higher up; the wire reinforcing in them casts strange patterns in the light filtering through.
  2038. > While much of the camp was cast in darkness during the late-night hours, the security station was always lit by streetlamps.
  2039. > Tile floors, empty desks, racks of files and gently flashing computer carts - all are cast in a pale, patterned glow.
  2040. > On the third room, Lana speaks up again.
  2041. > "They'd have to be a complete idiot to try and break into the security office."
  2042. "I wouldn't actually be that surprised."
  2043. > Glancing over, you notice that she's begun to sweat.
  2044. > It might just be the heavy coat, but...
  2045. "Are you alright?"
  2046. > "Yeah, just... nervous."
  2047. "Nervous? Do I worry you that much?"
  2048. > The attempt at humor doesn't quite crash as it never gets off the ground in the first place.
  2049. > Lana rolls her eyes, playing her flashlight over the next empty room.
  2050. > "Maybe I'm just a bit nervous because we're chasing a pony who's got every reason to snap if we find them? Or what if they left a bomb?"
  2051. "Fortunately I don't think anypony is that crazy yet."
  2052. > "Good..."
  2053. > She pulls her coat around herself, leaving you wondering.
  2054. > This sort of nervousness... she hadn't shown anything like it before.
  2055. > In fact, she'd always been pretty comfortable around you.
  2056. > Peering into the next room, you propel yourself up to check the upper window before glancing back to your partner.
  2057. > She was peering down the hall, as if checking to see if someone might be there.
  2058. > A curious worry begins to stick in the back of your mind:
  2059. > Sunburst had seemed pleased that Cadance had somepony 'on the inside' with the guard now.
  2060. > Did that mean he had somepony of his own?
  2061. > Or else - someone?
  2062. > After all, his entire plan seemed to focus on getting past the camp's boundaries.
  2063. > Having an ally within the security staff would definitely help there...
  2064. > "Hey, Thunderlane? This room alright?"
  2065. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry. Just thinking."
  2066. > Grinning - although still with a hint of trepidation - Lana shakes her head.
  2067. > "Keep it focused, officer. I'd still like to get home."
  2068. "Yeah. Sorry."
  2069. > Stepping out into the hall, you fall in behind her.
  2070. "You know... listen, Lana. I just wanted to say thank you too. For looking out for me."
  2071. > "Looking out?"
  2072. "Well, you've gone out of your way to try and help me do my job here. Which, I get doesn't sound like much, but considering how some others have made it clear they don't like having me on security, much less an officer..."
  2073. > She is quiet after that, playing her flashlight around a small closet at the end of the hall.
  2074. > Closing that door, she turns around to face you and folds her arms.
  2075. > "Look, I guess... this is a job for me, right? I'm not in it because I like kicking ponies or something. I know you're not like, dumb animals or anything. You in particular - well, you've got a lot weighing on you."
  2076. "You can say that again."
  2077. > "So, I guess I just, eh..."
  2078. > Reaching up, she scratches her hair.
  2079. > The hat she wore had disappeared some time after you'd both gone in.
  2080. > " guys are alright. For what you're going through, you've also been a lot friendlier than you had to be, y'know?"
  2081. > Sympathy - but did that equate to sympathy for resistance?
  2082. "Yeah. Especially with the tensions going up in the camp since then."
  2083. > "We've seen it too."
  2084. > She isn't making this easy.
  2085. > Time to throw caution to the wind and fly straight into the storm.
  2086. "You know, I've even heard some rumors ponies might be trying another escape attempt."
  2087. > "Really?"
  2088. > Head shaking, Lana turns and heads for the exit again - brushing past with another whiff of her strong perfume.
  2089. > "I wish some more of them listened to you. Don't have to like it, but violence is just going to screw us all."
  2090. "...yeah."
  2091. > "Well, everything looks clear so I'm heading out. Goodnight, Thunderlane."
  2092. > And then she departs - leaving you thoroughly confused.
  2093. > She hadn't seemed fearful at the prospect of a new resistance movement cropping up.
  2094. > If anything, angry.
  2095. > So if she wasn't backing them... what had all that nervousness been about?
  2097. > "Your Highness?"
  2098. > Looking up from the papers currently at your desk, you find the elaborately-dressed form of Mocha Cream dipping into a bow before you.
  2099. "Ah, yes, Mocha - what can I do for you?"
  2100. > "I'm sorry to interrupt you, Your Highness. Anonymous had a message he wanted me to bring to you."
  2101. "Oh? Let me see..."
  2102. > Reading over the paper she presents, you can feel your eyebrows rising steadily.
  2103. > The ideas it laid out were certainly an impressive step forward - and would lend credence to your claims that things really were improving.
  2104. > But first they would have to be implemented.
  2105. "So, he wants this - complaints box to be set up in the camp proper, and sorted through by one of us first?"
  2106. > "Yes, Your Highness. To, uh, iigure out which ones are most important and - uh, to 'sort out the shitposters'. His words, Your Highness."
  2107. > That did sound like the way he'd put it, yes.
  2108. "Well, I certainly think it's a step in the right direction."
  2109. > Mocha Cream's cheeks color slightly.
  2110. " you want to do this, Mocha?"
  2111. > "I... think it needs to happen, Your Highness? I mean, I know it feels much better that Anonymous has started to listen to me."
  2112. "I do hear a 'but' there."
  2113. > Head hanging, Mocha drops her gaze.
  2114. > "But - am I the right pony to do this? I'm... not really a mare. I mean, I'm fifteen and that's not exactly a filly anymore but I don't know if I'm ready to be balancing everypony's needs and figuring out which of them-"
  2115. > You halt her with a gentle touch of your hoof to her snout.
  2116. "It's okay, Mocha. I certainly understand. Maybe we could work through these together?"
  2117. > "Yes. Um, that does sound good..."
  2118. > The moment your hoof is gone, her gaze drops back down - but not before you see the little smile settled on her face.
  2119. > "I'm sorry. I just... I'm not sure I feel ready to do this on my own, and I know you have to be a very busy pony-"
  2120. "Not too busy to help a pony."
  2121. > "And... I'm not sure if anypony would want me looking at their wishes."
  2122. > Her hoof scuffs the floor.
  2123. > "You know... house pony and all..."
  2124. "I actually think this might be a very good thing to help ponies look at your more reasonably."
  2125. > "Hope so..."
  2126. > Lifting her eyes again, Mocha tilts her head.
  2127. > "But at least I'll have some time to help."
  2128. "Oh?"
  2129. > "Well, um... Master Anonymous is going to give us some time off. For, uh, doing good with the, uh... party."
  2130. "...don't you want to spend your time off on... yourself?"
  2131. > "I... don't know what I would do. And this seems like a good thing."
  2132. > Despite how many times you have heard similar stories, your heart still twists.
  2133. > A pony as young as she is, not knowing what to really do with a real vacation...
  2134. "Well, if you change your mind that will be fine."
  2135. > Slipping the paper back, you sigh.
  2136. "Tell Anonymous I'll be going forward on this... and also, about the money he put aside for me plus the funds from the replacement guards' salaries..."
  2137. > "Yes, Your Highness?"
  2138. "I've decided what we are going to be doing with them."
  2139. [Choice]
  2140. "I've decided I can't make this choice on my own. I know he gave me authority over the money, but the reality is I can't do that. Not - as a leader."
  2141. > And that was what he'd wanted you to be.
  2142. > Now, more than ever, it seemed you needed to give your ponies some measure of choice - some way to express themselves.
  2143. "Tell him we'll make use of this idea to allow submissions on how to use the money. Then hold a vote, and I'll bring the winning idea to him."
  2144. > "O-Oh. Okay."
  2145. "You'll still have a place in this, of course - somepony will have to sort through them initially. And, in fact, there's one other thing I'd like you to do..."
  2146. > ...
  2147. > In fact, you decide to have this done the very next day.
  2148. > Cardboard boxes with a slit cut in the top weren't exactly fancy or permanent, but they could be made in a hurry - even faster, now that Anonymous no longer had you taking the magic suppressants.
  2149. > Standing up amid the next day's dinner break, you tap the microphone twice to produce a loud popping through the camp's PA system.
  2150. > Although you couldn't be at all the dining halls, you'd decided to take the largest one and let your voice be carried to the others.
  2151. "Good evening, everypony. If I can have everypony's attention for a moment, I have an important announcement to make."
  2152. > Discussion quickly begins to die down, heads and ears turning to look up at the podium at which you stood.
  2153. "Thank you. Now, I think we have all been aware that as of late there has been an - outbreak, of violent acts in this camp. Of anger boiling over, and words of protest turning to insults and words of spite. A great many of this relates to certain - acts I was ordered to put on during an event Anonymous held-"
  2154. > There's an audible ripple of murmuring that runs through the crowd.
  2155. > A few voices seem harder than others, but few words stand out.
  2156. "-and an allegation that this suggests that I have somehow become 'his pony'. Nothing could be further from the truth - I am your leader, first and foremost, and your concerns are my concerns."
  2157. > Thank Celestia they did not know 'their leader' had spent that night sound asleep in the arms of their captor...
  2158. "To make this clear, I am announcing a new option for all of you: In each of the dining halls, you will find a box for suggestions and ideas. I encourage everypony to lay out their concerns, their hopes, their desires for what I should do - what we should do - in these boxes."
  2159. > Extending a wing, you motion towards your side.
  2160. > Mocha Cream hesitantly steps out from the table she'd half-hidden herself behind.
  2161. > She'd divested herself of her typical maid garments, but a few ponies recognize her and soon murmurs are sweeping the crowd again.
  2162. > Shrinking into herself - the lack of her typical maid outfit seemed to leave Mocha Cream almost vulnerable, as if it was a suit of armor and not a symbol of her duties as a slave - she nonetheless manages to hold at your side.
  2163. "With me is Mocha Cream. She will be helping me sort and respond to the submissions and carrying them to Anonymous.
  2164. > Instantly the voices take on a new level; giving them a moment to talk, you eventually speak up again:
  2165. "Everypony - everypony, please."
  2166. > When it is quiet enough, you go on again:
  2167. "Naturally, somepony will say that this is... merely a distraction. That we aren't actually listening to everypony. My answer is this: For the event at which there was so much discussion, Anonymous released some funds to my control. I, however, think that it would be better if everypony would decide how they are used. Submissions placed in the boxes will be listed for voting on, and the winning ideas will be brought to Anonymous for implementation."
  2168. > The conversation is rising again; you won't be able to control this much longer and it's almost certainly the same in the other dining halls.
  2169. "Mayor Mare will also assist me in this endeavor. There are sheets of paper and pens near the submission boxes. Please, take some time over this weekend to let your thoughts be heard."
  2170. > And with that, you set the microphone down.
  2171. > Even before it touches the podium, ponies are practically swarming the suggestion box.
  2172. > Sheets of paper and pens are snatched in mouths, magic field, and wingholds; more than a few pegasi leap to the air to escape the melee.
  2173. > A few roost on the ceiling beams, scribbling furiously.
  2174. > There's the flash of a half-erected shield from some unicorn before it collapses on itself.
  2175. > A couple of guards are managing to keep the crowd mostly in line, and when they seem to need help you move to wait just behind the table - moving ponies with gestures from your wings and fierce glares alone.
  2176. > Eventually the rush begins to subside; already the cardboard submission boxes are well-laden with scraps of paper.
  2177. > As you watch a less few ponies trickle in, a scratchy voice catches your attention:
  2178. > "You think he's actually going to listen to you, Miss Cadance?"
  2179. > Rumble stood just in front of the table, frowning.
  2180. > That surprises you; you hadn't seen much of the colt since the day you'd had to take a whip to his older brother.
  2181. "I can't say he will give everything we ask for... but this, yes. He and I had a long talk the night after that... event, and I really think he was listening to me."
  2182. > "Hope so. Thunderlane told me a bit, a few day ago, and I want to trust that things'll get better..."
  2183. > Stepping a bit closer to you, Rumble drops his voice.
  2184. > "Between you and me, Miss Cadance... a lot of ponies are going to be looking for a way to test you. See if you're really on our side or what."
  2185. "It's nothing new to me, Rumble. I know - and honestly, I'm not too offended."
  2186. > "Huh."
  2187. > He pauses, peering at the nearly-filled boxes.
  2188. > Before you can reply, another soft voice comes from your opposite side.
  2189. > "Is that all of them, Miss cadance?
  2190. > Mocha Cream had again detached herself from her corner forward, having hastily retreated during the initial rush.
  2191. > She staring with slightly widened eyes at the sheer volume of submissions.
  2192. > "I didn't realize everypony would be so... in to this."
  2193. "It's good. I expect some of them will be complaints, but this means enough ponies have hope too."
  2194. > "Should I take them back to the manor?"
  2195. > "Wait, you're a house pony?!"
  2196. > Rumble's unexpected outburst catches everypony by surprise - a few heads turn, and Mocha Cream shrinks down onto herself again.
  2197. > "I, uh... y-yes. I'm, uh, An-"
  2198. "She's helped me in dealing with Anonymous a great deal."
  2199. > You meet Rumble's gaze evenly - not trying to be the overbearing princess, but merely another pony.
  2200. "If there is anypony who is best to help present these ideas to him, it is her."
  2201. > "I-It's true."
  2202. > Speaking up (and yet again surprising you), Mocha Cream motions to the box.
  2203. > "I, um. I speak to him a lot. So, it'd be better if he was speaking to you, but... um. Yeah, I can bring these to him."
  2204. > Your eyebrows rise, and after a moment Rumble nods.
  2205. > "I guess..."
  2206. "First, though, we have to have these sorted."
  2207. > "You, uh... want some help with that?"
  2208. > Pausing, you glance over at Rumble.
  2209. > He'd been skeptical, but if he was wanting to take part in this now...
  2210. > Well, it couldn't really hurt, could it?
  2211. > Probably would keep him out of trouble, and Thunderlane said he hadn't gotten mixed up in any particular rebellious stuff yet.
  2212. "Are you sure you want to? I don't think I can get you any time off your actual duties, so it would be entirely in your free time..."
  2213. > "If it means that Tirek-spawn sitting up in his manor actually hears what we've got to say, I'll deliver it right to his face."
  2214. > Beside you, Mocha Cream shuffles nervously at the reference to Anonymous, her eyes again turning downcast.
  2215. > She seems ready to say something - mouth open, even - but halts herself at the last moment.
  2216. > ...hopefully there wouldn't be any further friction between the two of them.
  2217. [Choice]
  2218. "I think you'd be very welcome, Rumble."
  2219. > A voice to balance out Mocha Cream's submissiveness - verging, sometimes, on devotion - to Anonymous would be welcome.
  2220. > ...and maybe just would help the mare open up a bit more, and Rumble to her in turn.
  2221. > Certainly it would all be for the better if the ponies who served in the manor weren't regarded with such hostility.
  2222. "Okay then. Each pony take a box, and let's head back to the town hall. We'll begin sorting them tomorrow."
  2223. >...
  2224. > Ten boxes' worth came in that night.
  2225. > Three more arrived the next day.
  2226. > Actual sorting doesn't really begin until Sunday, when you're able to sit down with Rumble and Mocha Cream to begin cracking open the boxes.
  2227. > By midday, your faith in Ponykind is severely rattled.
  2228. > At least half the 'submissions' in these boxes are invective-laden examples of abuse, sometimes with an alarming amount of work put into the exact poetry of the assaults described in their words.
  2229. > Sometimes being the important part.
  2230. > Most are infinite repetitions of the same basic assaults - some ponies seem to have an unhealthy fascination with Anonymous' mother - and a part of you wonders if the sheer volume was the result of a smaller number of ponies stuffing the boxes with numerous entries.
  2231. "Mocha, do you think there's few enough you could bring in another box?"
  2232. > When no response comes, you look up from the slips you were reading.
  2233. > Mocha Cream is stock-still, ears laid flat and tail clamped to her haunches, eyes reduced to pinpricks and nostrils flared in absolute horror.
  2234. > Sighing, you stand - walking to her side and pulling the paper from her magic grasp.
  2235. > It wasn't the first time you'd found her in such a state of shocked paralysis; apparently the contents of some of the notes was a bit much for her.
  2236. "It's alright, Mocha. I'll deal with this lot; why don't you to take a look at some others?"
  2237. > "...thank you, Your Highness."
  2238. > Her mumbled answer as she stumbles from the room doesn't really reassure you.
  2239. > Nor does Rumble's muted snicker the moment she is out of earshot.
  2240. "I really don't think it's appropriate to laugh at her, Rumble."
  2241. > "Y-yeah, but what - what did she think she was going to find in here? Ponies kissing up to Anonymous' shoe like she do-"
  2242. > A fierce glare, one once perfected by hours of study with your aunt, quickly silences him.
  2243. "Perhaps she clings to him because nopony here gives he a fair shake of the tail before writing her off?"
  2244. > His gaze drops, but Rumble doesn't apologize when Mocha Cream reenters - another box at her side.
  2245. > This one, too, is torn open and she quickly begins to stoically sort through the suggestion slips within.
  2246. > Perhaps a third pony, a balance between the two of them, would have been a good idea as well.
  2247. > Too late now, however; you can only hope things don't boil over between them entirely.
  2248. > Looking down at the slip you'd taken, you glance over the words scrawled on it:
  2249. > The suggestion, in brief, was an elaborately descriptive proposal that Anonymous present himself naked for violation by all the camp's stallions and then-
  2250. > Abruptly the paper crumples in your magic, imploding down to a tiny ball no larger than a grape.
  2251. > Whatever he might have done, Megan deserved no part of the anger delivered towards him.
  2252. > It was good that the papers had been submitted without names, as you don't think you would have dealt lightly with whoever wrote this.
  2253. > Stretching out a wing over Mocha's back, you let it gently rest on her withers.
  2254. "You're doing well, Mocha. If you need to go, though, it's okay."
  2255. > "N-No. I'm okay."
  2256. > Another small sigh escapes your lips as you go back to sorting through the box before you.
  2257. > Soon enough, however, you become aware that once again sounds have halted from her.
  2258. > Looking up, you find that yes, Mocha has halted again.
  2259. > Catching you looking, she sighs - holding up the sheet.
  2260. > "This pony... they're asking if they can be moved out of the barracks and into their own room. They say that they can't sleep at night with the other ponies around them, and it's affecting how they work..."
  2261. > Her head falls, a fan of brown-and-white-streaked mane falling over her eyes as she realizes the attention she's brought on herself.
  2262. > "They. Um. They say they've already been caught sleeping on the job. But, um, they can't earn a room of their own because they're too tired to work well, so they can't sleep, and..."
  2263. > Vicious cycle.
  2264. > Your own ears fall and tail flicks.
  2265. > This was the other problem:
  2266. > Many ponies seemed to take the suggestions box as a means to make personal requests and pleas.
  2267. > Those ponies did usually leave their names on their papers.
  2268. > The problem is, if you answered one another hundred would follow and a thousand after that.
  2269. > Despite Mocha's pleading look, you can only shake your head.
  2270. "I... don't know if we can take that one to Anonymous, Mocha-"
  2271. > "But he could fix it!"
  2272. > He could.
  2273. > But what he would do is see the same catch you do.
  2274. > "He could. But he won't, 'cause he doesn't really care about-"
  2275. > Surprisingly Rumble has stopped even before your harsh gaze falls on him again.
  2276. > "...sorry. Didn't mean to... yeah. But... that's how things are down here, Mocha. We don't all get fancy beds in nice rooms. There aren't even enough small rooms for everypony; that's why some are still in the barracks."
  2277. > "I'd give her my bed."
  2278. > "Huh?"
  2279. > Her eyes firmly planted on the box in front of her, Mocha repeats herself:
  2280. > "I'd give her my bed. I can sleep somewhere else. There's, um, two other ponies in my room and we have to get up early - but it's got to be better than a barracks."
  2281. > Rumble doesn't seem to know how to respond to this quite yet.
  2282. > It's as if the idea that a house slave could care - let alone would care - about a random pony in the camp had only just occurred to him.
  2283. > "Why...?"
  2284. > "Because... it's not right."
  2286. "And because we stick together. It's what we have to do - everypony sticks together."
  2287. > After that they both go quiet for a while.
  2288. > Mocha Cream, you notice, had set that particular slip of paper aside rather than adding it to the discard pile.
  2289. > It wouldn't help, but you don't take it away.
  2290. > "Hey P- uh, Your Highness? Can we put this one in?"
  2291. > Rumble walks up to you, a slip carefully held between his teeth.
  2292. > Taking it, you consider the option scrawled on it:
  2293. "A... museum to Equestria?"
  2294. > "Yeah. So, um..."
  2295. > Rumble rubs his mane, looking at the floor.
  2296. > "...look, a lot of ponies - we're afraid he's going to try and convince us all that Equestria wasn't a good place. I mean... you remember how Miss Cheerilee was..."
  2297. > You do.
  2298. > And still agree with her assessment of Anonymous' lesson plans.
  2299. > "I think it'd do a lot of good if we... made a place for ponies to put their memories. Make ponies not so... worried-"
  2300. > Hostile, he means.
  2301. > "-if they knew it wasn't all going to slip away, you know? I mean... we shouldn't even have to ask that fucking mule for 'permission' to remember who we are, but still."
  2302. > In the moment of thought that follows, you're unexpectedly interrupted by Mocha Cream instead:
  2303. > "I like it."
  2304. "Mocha?"
  2305. > "I mean... I remember a lot. But not everything, since I was so young-"
  2306. > "Wait, how old are you?"
  2307. > Again Mocha droops her head, hiding her face before a curtain of coffee-toned mane in reaction to Rumble's question.
  2308. > "Just fifteen..."
  2309. > Once more Rumble seems surprised, and truthfully so are you.
  2310. > She'd always struck you as a more mature pony than that; you'd been prepared to write off her slim frame and still slightly fillyish proportions as simply how she was.
  2311. > But fifteen...
  2312. "And the two of you aren't the youngest ponies in the camp either. This could do some good, yes."
  2313. > As long as it didn't provoke ponies to further action.
  2314. > "Yeah. That's, um. That's why I like it. I don't want to let go of my memories... my family."
  2315. > Rumble's nod is slow and surprised.
  2316. > "I like it a lot more than some of the other options. Like time off; that's no use to me 'cause we're already getting free days-"
  2317. > Too late Mocha realizes her mistake.
  2318. > "Wait, Anonymous gave you time off?!"
  2319. > Hiding her face with a squeak, Mocha cries out:
  2320. > "I'm sorry! I - I forgot. I didn't mean - yes! He gave us a few days off. 'C-Cause of the party. He l-liked how we did, and-"
  2321. "Wait."
  2322. > A thought occurs to you, one that should have a long time ago.
  2323. "Mocha Cream, you're Anonymous' personal maid, aren't you? All this work - are you here now on your own time?"
  2324. > Wordlessly she nods, and Rumble crumples.
  2325. > "You... came out here to do this on your free time?"
  2326. > "Yeah..."
  2327. > "Why?"
  2328. > "B-Because I want to help. I d-don't want ponies to hate me j-just because I work in the house."
  2329. > In the long silence that follows, Rumble steps up to Mocha Cream and reaches out a wing to lightly touch her neck.
  2330. > "I, uh... thanks. And... m'sorry for yelling."
  2331. > With the caution of a mouse peering from its hole to see if the cat is gone, Mocha slowly raises her eyes to look at him.
  2332. > Then she smiles, and so does he, and so do you.
  2333. > Friendship, you thought, could still be magic - even in slavery.
  2334. >...
  2335. "Well, we've sorted out all the submissions that were meaningless or... pointlessly antagonistic, put the remainder to a vote, and put the rest to a series of votes."
  2336. > Anonymous nods, though one eyebrow rises.
  2337. > "Pointlessly antagonistic?"
  2338. "Yes, Master."
  2339. > "Were there that many?"
  2340. "...yes."
  2341. > Please don't ask what was in them...
  2342. > It's the last thing you need.
  2343. > "Hmm. well."
  2344. > Shrugging, Anonymous lets off a small chuckle.
  2345. > "Suppose there were bound to be a few who don't like me. Not a concern; let them vent. Long as nothing serious happens I don't care."
  2346. > A small relief.
  2347. "With that done, we've resolved everything down to a top few responses."
  2348. > "Alright. Hit me."
  2349. > You pass the slip-laden envelope to Anonymous and he pops it open -- working through each in turn.
  2350. > "New housing... well, that was in the cards already if expansion was going to happen. You're probably going to want to hold on that one. Expand the general store's stock... that's a doable one, though you'll have to tell me exactly what you want..."
  2351. > You glance askew as he works, taking peeks at the expressions of the two other ponies who'd joined you for this.
  2352. > Mocha Cream was as much here as Anonymous' servant, but truthfully you were glad to have her part in this as well.
  2353. > Mayor Mare, on the other hand, seemed decidedly nervous.
  2354. > She hadn't had as many direct dealings with Anonymous, but her administrative skills practically demanded she be a part of this.
  2355. > Rumble had preemptively bowed out of joining you - accurately (and to your private relief) admitting that being in Anonymous' presence wouldn't be good for him.
  2356. > "A party?"
  2357. "Finding a proper date might be appropriate, but a celebration of some kind to help ponies... let go of everything for a while."
  2358. > "Noted."
  2359. > Flipping to the next card, both Anonymous' eyebrows shoot up.
  2360. > "Well now, Cadance, I didn't expect this one."
  2361. "Sir?"
  2362. > Flipping the slip around to show you, he tilts his head.
  2363. > "I mean, I understand there are many couples in the camp but - 'sex dungeon'?"
  2364. > Blushing furiously, you practically rip the card from his hand to float it before your eyes - as if to confirm that yes, it did indeed have those two words written on it.
  2365. "That - that was not a voted choice. It must've... slipped in by accident."
  2366. > "Of course."
  2367. > But you could hear the laughter in his tone, and it only deepened the flush on your cheeks.
  2368. > "Now, let's see... an outside camp? What's this about, Cadance?"
  2369. "Master - for better and for worse, this camp is basically our world. Except for trips to hospitals for more serious injuries and the occasional off-site job, we basically never leave."
  2370. > "And you think that getting out would actually ease tensions?"
  2371. "Yes, Master. A - A secondary camp, or even just an apartment or cabin - someplace else to go, get out for a while."
  2372. > It was hard to hide the anticipation that was leaking into even your own voice.
  2373. "There's another suggestion in there for just putting the funds to allow some days to be taken off work, so you can see this is a thing that ponies want."
  2374. > "Alright."
  2375. > Folding his hands together, Anonymous meets your gaze evenly.
  2376. > "I'm going to be honest: You don't have enough funds there to both build - or buy - someplace else, cover the costs of ponies taking off work to go there, and have guards on-station."
  2377. > Your ears fall, but he goes on:
  2378. > "Now, I'm not against it... but it means that you're going to have to accept further costs down the line to meet it. Whether that means working harder, or just putting any rewards you earn down the line towards this too - but you're going to be locked into it."
  2379. "I... understand, Sir. I was hoping to rotate ponies out over time to minimize the costs."
  2380. > "It'll help, but won't replace. So, if you pick it just be aware of that."
  2381. > Folding the next card over, he goes on:
  2382. > " 'Museum of Equestria'?"
  2383. "Ponies are worried about losing who were are - as a culture, a nation, and about ponies who've been lost in slavery being forgotten. Putting somewhere aside where we could store mementos, memories, tokens of our past to make sure it isn't forgotten-"
  2384. > "Absolutely not."
  2385. > Shaking his head, former smile now absent entirely, Anonymous folds his arms.
  2386. > "That's the exact kind of thing that will keep pushing rebellion. The longer you keep pining for something that will never come back, the longer you will take to accept that this is how things are now."
  2387. "You can't stop ponies wishing for the past!"
  2388. > "No. But I don't have to encourage it either."
  2389. > You aren't even sure why this in particular incensed you so much.
  2390. > It certainly wasn't the first time you'd been subjected to some indignity, and not the only time you'd been told to let go of Equestria either.
  2391. > But something about this - the way he just brushed you off and seemed unwilling to hear even a basic argument.
  2392. > Forcing your anger down, you take a deep breath and try again:
  2393. "Master. There's no intent to drive rebellion here; in fact, I think it would reduce tensions to - to make a show of allowing them to express themselves."
  2394. > "Possibly, in the short term."
  2395. > Your heart rises, but just as quickly falls as he goes on:
  2396. > "In the long term, though? In the long term it'll only drive desire to try and seek that out. Maybe your ponies are right - maybe it would be better if it were forgotten entirely."
  2397. > Taking the slip out, he pointedly tears it in half and then again.
  2398. > A little voice in the back of your head reminds you that he doesn't mean to be insulting.
  2399. > Even so your teeth lock together to keep something bitter and unfortunate from slipping from your lips.
  2400. > Mayor Mare, picking up that you are in no state to continue, coughs softly.
  2401. > "Perhaps... we should continue?"
  2402. > Bless that mare.
  2403. > Anonymous nods, seemingly content to let the matter go as well.
  2404. > "Next one... let's see. A - 'break room'?"
  2405. > "Or recreation hall. Games room. Something for ponies to do in their time, go blow off steam. It'd generate good will, and give everypony something to do better than paint graffiti and break windows."
  2406. > Rubbing his chin, Anonymous nods.
  2407. > "I see sense in that. Low footprint and reasonably cheap as well - this could definitely be done with your current funds. Improved on, with later ones. It's definitely an option."
  2408. > Folding over to the last card, he tilts his head.
  2409. > "Off-site vacation... yeah, you did mention that would be coming up-"
  2410. > This directed to you.
  2411. > "-and if we're not talking about having anything set up for them off-site, just visits..."
  2412. > He scratches his chin.
  2413. > It'd be hard. Maybe even harder than building or renting some place for them to go. At least security is easy to manage in a limited area..."
  2414. "They wouldn't be out as long this way, then."
  2415. > Finally having managed to unlock your teeth, go back to work trying to convince him on at least this much.
  2416. "It'd just mean a bit of time away, instead of too long-"
  2417. > "I know. I was already figuring on it."
  2418. > Leaning back in his chair, he frowns.
  2419. "You're not against it, though."
  2420. > "Not automatically. It can be done... it'll just take a bit of planning. You'll have to figure out how will be chosen."
  2421. > "That's easily doable."
  2422. > Mayor Mare pipes up.
  2423. > "A straight schedule is probably best. That way we can make sure nopony's absence is too disruptive."
  2424. > Again, Celestia bless that mare; she was more than you felt you deserved sometimes.
  2425. > Nodding, Anonymous crosses his legs.
  2426. > "Alright, Cadance: I'm going to lay it out for you: I can definitely get a second site set up away from the camp for them, but it's going to cost you - a lot. You're going to be paying it back for a while, maybe even some extra shifts to make it happen. An on-site rec center or something is much, much more doable. But if you want a chance at running vacations... well, it'll happen over time and take a bit of planning, but it'll be easier to fund. Especially since we can do it as a once-off thing."
  2427. [Choice]
  2429. > Cadance sighs.
  2430. > "I think we'll start smaller - with something that ponies can appreciate in the moment, and understand what their work is earning them."
  2431. "The rec room, then."
  2432. > "Yes, Master. We'll put together a list of exactly what we want for it, but I actually think it'd be better if the actual construction and decoration was left to us."
  2433. "Build your own reward, take a bit of pride in it - makes sense."
  2434. > She smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes.
  2435. > Mayor Mare's eyes flick between the two of you, and privately you wonder if the earth pony had been brought along because she was effectively the camp's second-in-command organizer or to keep Cadance in check.
  2436. > Perhaps both.
  2437. > "Is there... anything else?"
  2438. "No, Mayor. I think you had best finish your planning and then present me the full details. I'll have this worked on.
  2439. > "Understood, sir."
  2440. > "I'll go back and give the announcement, then."
  2441. > Cadance stands, and soon after Mayor Mare joins her.
  2442. > Both bow their heads in a suitable display of acquiescence, and you lightly wave.
  2443. "Alright. You're dismissed. I'll be looking forward to seeing what you come up with."
  2444. > All three ponies turn for the exit, Mocha Cream moving to see the other two out.
  2445. > Just as they reach the door, however, a thought pops into your mind.
  2446. > "Master, actually could I-"
  2447. "Cadance, why don't you-"
  2448. > The alicorn has spoken at the same moment you did.
  2449. > In the silence that follows, she turns back around - nudging the door shut with a flicker of her horn and returning to seat herself on her haunches in front of you.
  2450. "Well - you wished to speak, I think?"
  2451. > "Yes, Master."
  2452. > Head drooping, she pauses to find words before speaking.
  2453. > "I'd... I want to request that you reconsider your ruling on the 'museum', Master."
  2454. "Why."
  2455. > She hesitates, but forges ahead:
  2456. > "Ponies are scared, sir. Right now, they're afraid to speak freely."
  2457. "What about your suggestions box?"
  2458. > "Even with that. Their input is still dependent on your approval. That's why there's been graffiti and vandalism in the camp - they feel like they can't speak openly, but have to speak. If you shut this down, you're only confirming your fares."
  2459. "So instead you suggest that I just go ahead and let them reignite the resistance by encouraging pining for a dead country."
  2460. > "With all due respect, sir... you don't know our culture."
  2461. > One of your eyebrows rises, but you do not interrupt her.
  2462. > "Equestria was built on harmony and friendship. Literally - the union of the three tribes brought it into existence. If you deny that, if you let disharmony and hatred slip in, it'll burn you just like it almost froze us. If you encourage us to forget it... I can be their leader, but not if they break apart. If hatred divides them, you lose too."
  2463. "Equestria was built on it, but it can exist without Equestria."
  2464. > "Not if you keep gagging us. Fear is driving them now - fear of forgetting their home, fear that they themselves will not be remembered when they pass... if you validate that fear, it'll only grow in them."
  2465. "I see what you're saying, Cadance... but look at things from my end: You're not asking me to accept unity and harmony among your ranks - by all means, push that if you want! You're asking me to promote the memory of a dead nation. A nation that doesn't exist anymore, but which'll be held up as something - 'better', whether or not it actually would be! Can you honestly say that if ponies are given that memory, they're not going to decide it's worth fighting for?"
  2466. > "We didn't fight in the past. We won by coming together in peace and working together."
  2467. > But Cadance is grasping at straws, and she knows it.
  2468. "To what end, though? There are ponies in that camp who are so eager to see me as the enemy that they'll twist talk of Equestria to act as if I personally took it away from you."
  2469. > Head turning away with an expression of pain on her face, she takes a moment to answer.
  2470. > "Ponies are being hurt by this, Anonymous. Here. Now. If you don't give them something, they'll turn anyhow."
  2471. "If you can name me one pony who's-"
  2472. > "Mocha Cream."
  2473. > You pause.
  2474. > Hesitate.
  2475. > And Cadance sees the opening, immediately leaping at it.
  2476. > "She's young, Anonymous. She was barely into her life when she was taken... but even she wanted this. Not to rebel, but to have a place for the memories of the parents she was taken from, before they fade away entirely.
  2477. > Your finger taps lightly on an armrest.
  2478. > Mocha...
  2479. "That... was a low blow, Cadance."
  2480. > "It's the truth."
  2481. > The mare had found a bit of a spot in your heart, you must admit.
  2482. > It would be so easy to say yes.
  2483. > But...
  2484. "If I do that, Cadance, where do I set the line? Go ahead, remember Equestria - but don't talk about how you were taken? Because you know what some would-be Spartacus is going to make the leap from 'remembering' to 'trying to resurrect'. And it didn't end well for him either."
  2485. > From the expression she makes, you get the feeling Cadance doesn't quite know that reference.
  2486. > That's alright; your point is made.
  2487. "If I allow 'memorials', do I ban talking about how you were taken? The omission would be as pointed as if I just straight-up allowed it."
  2488. > "I..."
  2489. "Even for Mocha... so I let her talk about her parents, but what - she can't say anything about how she was separated from them? It's ridiculous. Infeasible."
  2490. > "At least give us something! Let us properly celebrate Hearth's Warming, put on a real pageant again-"
  2491. "A pageant celebrating how Equestria was founded?"
  2492. > "Celebrating ponies giving up fighting and actually giving the effort to work together!"
  2493. "Do you really think they'll see it that way? Hell, I'd half-expect to see me playing the villain!"
  2494. > "If you keep muzzling them, you always will be!"
  2495. > Cadance flinches, eye closed and cheek turned in avoidance - a wing half-raised in a suppressed instinct to shield herself.
  2496. > ...when had your hand risen like that, palm open and ready to deliver a blow?
  2497. > When had you stood up?
  2498. > Deep breaths, Anonymous.
  2499. > Long, careful breaths.
  2500. > Hands clenching and unclenching, you force yourself back down into the seat.
  2501. > You wouldn't hit her.
  2502. > Not for this.
  2503. > Then you really would be the villain.
  2504. "I'm sorry, Cadance. Sometimes my anger... runs away on me."
  2505. > She, too, is only just relaxing.
  2506. > Wing folding back down, eye opening again, and head turning to look at you again.
  2507. > And, to your surprise, she does not hang back but instead rises to approach you until she is standing just in front of the chair - those large, liquid purpose eyes meeting yours.
  2508. > Showing she has no fear of you.
  2509. > "You stopped yourself, though. That's what matters."
  2510. > A small smile creeps onto your face.
  2511. "...yes. I did."
  2512. > "It is possible to stop anger once it's gotten started, Anonymous. You know it - you just showed it."
  2513. "You really want this, don't you?"
  2514. > Seeming to see what you are thinking, Cadance raises a hoof to gently set it on your knee.
  2515. > "Yes. Master... you want me to lead them because I'm an alicorn. Because they respect me. That's tied to old Equestria, though. If you make that tie vanish... I'm nothing but a sell-out to them. And they'd be right, too."
  2516. > Again your hand rises, this time to cup her cheek lightly and brush back through the light fuzz covering it.
  2517. > Every bit of logic you had said not to do this.
  2518. > That it could only end poorly.
  2519. > If you do give her this and it turns out badly, who knows where it will end?
  2520. > And yet, you could.
  2521. > Not give her any more money, but give permission for a... memorial of some kind.
  2522. > A chance.
  2523. > A trial.
  2524. > Would it really satisfy them?
  2525. > No.
  2526. > But it might help settle Mocha Cream's mind.
  2527. [Choice]
  2528. "Alright, Cadance."
  2529. > Resting your elbows on your thighs, you cup your face in both hands and massage your eyes.
  2530. "I didn't plan on this and frankly I have a suspicion I'm going to deeply regret it. But you've sold me on trying it."
  2531. > Practically exuding joy, she dips her head into a bow that can't quite hide the smile forming on her face or the sparkle in her eyes.
  2532. > "Thank you, Anonymous! Thank you!"
  2533. > You're unable to resist her infectious happiness, and reach out to give her a little scratch behind one ear.
  2534. "You'd better understand what you're asking for here, Cadance."
  2535. > "I do. I think this really will help everypony trust in you - work with you, not against you."
  2536. "I hope so."
  2537. > Slipping your hand under her chin, you tilt her head back up to face you:
  2538. "Because I want to make this abundantly clear: If this goes bad, it will be on your head. You will be responsible for tearing it down, and you will be responsible for any disorder that comes out of this. So I hope you're really sure of this."
  2539. > "I am."
  2540. "Then you've my permission to try a 'museum', a 'memorial'. Just remember, though - I don't want to see anything that could actually drive rebellion. You're welcome to preserve Equestria's history... but be careful."
  2541. > "Yes, Master."
  2542. > Her voice is little more than a murmur, yet you can still hear the joy in it.
  2543. "Cadance."
  2544. > Lifting both hands, you cup her cheeks again - locking her in to facing you.
  2545. "I mean it, Cadance. No matter how cruel it seems, my primary concern here making sure there's no need for any punishment. Not for you to punish some other pony who gets out of line, and certainly not for me to punish you."
  2546. > A wing extends forward, curving around to gently rest the tips of a few feathers over your hand.
  2547. > "I know. But please, consider how this looks for us-"
  2548. "That's why I'm allowing you to try it, Cadance."
  2549. > Her smile spreads ever so slightly further before she pulls away.
  2550. > "If I can be excused, then?"
  2551. "Go ahead and tell Mayor Mare too. Split the funds between the rec room and 'memorial' as you see fit."
  2552. > You smile softly as Cadance's tail vanishes through the doorway, though it fades with time.
  2553. > God, you hoped you wouldn't regret this.
  2555. > "Hey, Thunderlane?"
  2556. "What's up, Seismic?"
  2557. > "There's a stallion watching us. Uh, third building on the left, up on the roof."
  2558. > Following his eyes, you find a familiar horned head watching you from the top of a nearby building.
  2559. "Ah, that's Granite."
  2560. > Raising a wing in greeting yields a bob of the distant stallion's head.
  2561. > "Y'know him?"
  2562. "Yeah. Was in the Guard back in Equestria, seems to feel pretty strongly about the princess."
  2563. > Almost conspiratorially, you lean in towards the big Earth Pony who walks alongside you.
  2564. "Truth be told, I've been angling to get him on the security team if I can. He's a good pony."
  2565. > "And we can always use another competent unicorn."
  2566. "Heh, yeah."
  2567. > Your laugh is meant to be easy, but comes out forced.
  2568. > Granite rolls his eyes, nostrils flaring as he snorts.
  2569. > "Don't tell me you're not thinking it, Thunderlane. With the way things are heading up now..."
  2570. "...yeah, I know."
  2571. > Drooping slightly as you walk on, you nod.
  2572. > "I respect the Princess for what she's trying to do, but she's got to be ready for the idea that it might eventually come to needing more guards."
  2573. "Hey, don't get started on her. More and more ponies have been coming out in her favor since she started accepting ideas for the rec room and memorial!"
  2574. > "More graffiti, too."
  2575. > Eyeing you sideways even as he keeps his head pointed forward, Seismic Shift pauses before adding more softly:
  2576. > "And you're awful quick to jump to defend her. Thunderlane. Careful you don't come off as biased in her favor; that could come off as a whole new line of problems."
  2577. "She did kind of convince me to do this in the first place."
  2578. > "Still. If you're seen as just enforcing her rules-"
  2579. "Yeah, I get it."
  2580. > Grimacing, you nod.
  2582. "I just... don't want to see it come to another open rebellion. I don't want anypony else to go through what I did. I am on her side about that."
  2583. > "Hah."
  2584. > You hold your silence for a long while after that, mind roiling in quiet turmoil.
  2585. > There was, of course, the other reason you were so keen to see Cadance's plan succeed:
  2586. > Despite the agreement you'd clearly made with Anonymous, you hadn't revealed Sunburst's scheme to him yet.
  2587. > Why?
  2588. > That's hard to say.
  2589. > Maybe you were privately hoping it would never come to pass, that everypony could find some measure of happiness even in this miserable bondage.
  2590. > ...or maybe you were a coward, running from the reality of your duty.
  2591. > "Hey! Hey, Thunderlane!"
  2592. > As if fate just happened to know what was on your mind, a familiar voice turns your ear.
  2593. > Trotting towards you was Vapor Trail - a bit heavier on her hooves, the pregnancy finally beginning to show itself in her belly.
  2594. "Hey, Vapor."
  2595. > Smiling - thinly, but still a smile - you call a halt to your march as she reaches you.
  2596. > "I wanted to ask - did you donate that big Wonderbolts Academy poster for the memorial? I asked and somepony said you did-"
  2597. "Yeeesss? Its not original though; I repainted it from memory and I'm not really that good of an artist."
  2598. > "It's great!"
  2599. > She smiles widely, eyes sparkling.
  2600. "Really? I just made it for my quarters originally - something from home..."
  2601. > "I was so surprised to see it, and - and it made me real sad at first. But then I thought, the Wonderbolts were always about inspiring ponies, right? So actually, I think it's really nice to have a reminder of what we can be inspired to be."
  2602. "I... you're welcome?"
  2603. > Laughter - light and flowing - as she shakes her head.
  2604. > "It's not just me thanking you, Thunderlane. Everypony will."
  2605. > Leaning in, she brushes her cheek along yours - nuzzling you gently.
  2606. > "I'm glad I listened to you when you came to look out for me."
  2607. "...I, ah..."
  2608. > Still smiling, she turns and trots off with a wave.
  2609. > You aren't quite sure of what to make of that for a few moments.
  2610. > Then Seismic snickers.
  2611. > " 'Laney's got a mare friend..."
  2612. > Rolling your eyes at his singsong taunt, you roll your eyes deeply.
  2613. "Shove it, Seismic. What are you, sixteen again?"
  2614. > He does indeed quiet down, although you can still feel the stallion smirking even when you aren't looking at him.
  2615. "...fine. She's nice, alright? But I don't know if I'd call her my marefriend, exactly..."
  2616. > "Eh?"
  2617. "We've both got... pasts. With other ponies. I mean, hers is obvious, but I miss Cloudchaser too..."
  2618. > "No shame in it, Thunderlane. There are plenty of us here who've lost special someponies. And I'd say she's pretty open to you."
  2619. "Are you seriously giving me dating advice?"
  2620. > "I'm just saying, don't just reject something without a thought. You never know who you can find something with."
  2621. "I guess."
  2622. > He doesn't realize the other reason for your hesitation.
  2623. > Sooner or later, Vapor Trail's hopes of escape with her child would be dashed.
  2624. > What would happen when they were?
  2625. > Again your thoughts wander back to Sunburst's scheme.
  2626. > If Anonymous found out about that from anypony else, or even one of the human guards...
  2627. > Well, you doubted there would be any chance for them to use it to help Vapor Trail.
  2628. > Then again, if he heard it from you he might demand you root out and turn in the plotters anyhow.
  2629. "Hey, Seismic?"
  2630. > "Yeah?"
  2631. > Were you really going to ask him about this?
  2632. > Have to be careful...
  2633. "If... you found out about somepony doing something stupid, but you thought there was a chance they'd be better off if you let them be instead of turning them in... would you?"
  2634. > In the following silence, you can all but feel sweat trickling down your neck despite the chill winter air.
  2635. > "Is this a something theoretically stupid, or...?"
  2636. "In all honesty... no. Not entirely theoretical."
  2637. > "Is it Vapor Trail?"
  2638. > Despite his gentle tone you nearly stumble.
  2639. "Celestia above, no! She's been alright since Cadance, Anonymous, and I talked to her."
  2640. > "Somepony I know?"
  2641. "I don't really think so."
  2642. > "Anypony else going to get hurt?"
  2643. "Don't know. It's a risk. If I turn them in, someponies definitely will."
  2644. > "Hmmm."
  2645. > The Earth stallion's grunt gives you pause.
  2646. > "I... you're gonna have to make that call, Thunderlane. But remember: Ultimately, we all agreed to be guards so we could do the dirty work and Anonymous' guards wouldn't have to."
  2647. "Yeah. I just don't want to break that trust ponies have in us."
  2648. > "It's not an easy thing."
  2649. "You don't know the half of it."
  2650. > "Don't be so sure."
  2651. > Tilting your head and blinking you pause.
  2652. "...what's that mean?"
  2653. > "Just... there're things I'm struggling to tell about too."
  2654. "Anypony going to get hurt?"
  2655. > In a change from when he'd asked the question, Seismic shakes his head - shaggy mane flopping.
  2656. > "No. S'just... trust. Like you said. Trust. It's lonely enough in this job when they still do trust you."
  2657. > For a second a bolt of fear runs through your heart.
  2658. > He couldn't know about your betrayal... could he?
  2659. > No.
  2660. > Seismic isn't watching you for a response.
  2661. > You're in the safe...
  2662. > ...are you?
  2663. > Sooner or later, you were going to have to make a call on whether to cue Anonymous to the slumbering escape plan.
  2664. > Because Celestia herself wouldn't be able to save you - or Rumble - if he found out you were hiding something from him.
  2665. "What about you, Seismic?"
  2666. > Grinning, you give the stallion a nudge.
  2667. "You got yourself somepony nice and soft to squeeze?"
  2668. > "I'm, uh... not... interested right now."
  2669. "Oh, come on. Not even some filly you've got your eyes on?"
  2670. > "Hah, hah."
  2671. > After a moment, however, he doesn't go on and you begin to realize that maybe he was entirely serious about not being interested.
  2672. "Hey, uh, Seismic, if you lost somepony and I just-"
  2673. > "No, nothing like that Thunderlane."
  2674. > He actually manages a smile - an honest, real smile - and you relax.
  2675. > "S'appreciated, though. Thinking of me."
  2676. "Phew. Was worried I'd ticked you off."
  2677. > "If you actually annoyed me, you'd know it. I'm not some mare who's going to stand around waiting for you to guess what's wrong."
  2678. "Good. Prefer it that way."
  2679. > But then the silence returns, creeping back up between the two of you.
  2680. "If I can, ask, though... if it's not 'cause you lost someone, why-"
  2681. > "Sorry. It's... a private thing."
  2682. > That pulls a little frown from you.
  2683. > Was there something else about it that was bothering him...?
  2684. > "...want to go take a look at it?"
  2685. "Huh?"
  2686. > Your thoughts had apparently drifted so far as to completely detach you from the conversation.
  2687. > "The memorial. Museum. Whatever they're calling it now - want to go take a look after our patrol is up?"
  2688. "Yeah, unless they can figure out something else to drag us off to do."
  2689. > Lacking a proper location as of yet - the final rec building was only just in the planning stages - a former warehouse had hastily been cleaned out and quickly refurbished to meet the need.
  2690. > It's still a very obviously temporary measure - the cavernous structure and utilitarian lighting still lend the space a rough air - but already ponies were hard at work making it more appealing.
  2691. > Off to one side, separated by a partition that is little more than temporary drywall mounts held together with a variety of lumber assembled by skilled hooves, is the 'memorial'.
  2692. > By far the most impressive outpouring of support to the new project was the sheer number of things that had been donated for it.
  2693. > Most - like your Wonderbolts' mural - were carefully reconstructed from memories carried in the exile from Equestria.
  2694. > Images, texts, no less than three recreations of the Equestrian flag, memories of important events and locations carefully laid out on whatever paper ponies could find...
  2695. > But a shocking number of true relics of the lost land had come out of hiding as well.
  2696. > Closely kept mementos shepherded by careful effort and small miracle until they reached this point:
  2697. > A genuine Apple Family Cider bottle - its contents long since drained, a necklace made in the image of the lost Element of Magic, a certificate - charred but legible - signed by Celestia herself...
  2698. > They'd come in boxes still damp from the earth they'd been concealed in, tucked in the layers of a book, and stitched into a foal's blanket and carried by the pony who'd once been that foal himself.
  2699. > They had-
  2700. > Your ears cock as you approach the museum, voices rising in anger from within:
  2701. > "...a real part of Equestria, you know! If you pretend we didn't have-"
  2702. > "We're not pretending. But we have to be very, very careful about what we add, especially at first."
  2703. > "You mean we have to bow to Anonymous' decisions. What's the point of this if we're leaving out how strong we were?"
  2704. > Both you and Seismic eye each other, then move in towards the entrance.
  2705. > Before you can reach it, however, another stallion sweeps out - head held high and hooves thudding into the concrete floor with considerable force.
  2706. > Catching sight of you, he snorts - but avoid a confrontation, opting to go around you.
  2707. > "...guard dogs."
  2708. > Ignoring his muttered comment, you opt to simply let the stallion until he vanishes back out the door.
  2709. > Only then do you actually step through into the museum.
  2710. > Some of the interior 'walls' are no more than a sheet hung up over several standing bars, but the sheer volume of donations means they are already cluttered with hung-up objects.
  2711. > A low whistle escapes your lips as you look about, eyebrows rising.
  2712. "...impressive."
  2713. > "I don't think - oh. Thunderlane."
  2714. "Cheerilee... hello."
  2715. > Poking her head out of an adjoining room, she was now paused with one hoof raised.
  2716. > You'd had a few other awkward moments before, but this ranked pretty far up them...
  2717. > "You didn't have to come around just for him."
  2718. "We, uh, didn't."
  2719. > "Oh."
  2720. > The frown already worked onto her face deepens, eyes darkening.
  2721. > "Come to check up and make sure we're not encouraging sedition or something, then?"
  2722. > "Not that either. We just... want to see."
  2723. > "...ah."
  2724. > Cheerilee blinks, as if not quite expecting that.
  2725. > "I, uh... come in?"
  2726. > Taking her up on the offer, you follow her back in to the gestating museum.
  2727. > "Sorry about snapping at you. Things've been pretty... hectic."
  2728. "I figured. Sorry - I think I might've contributed to that a bit."
  2729. > When Cheerilee gives you a questioning look, you add:
  2730. "The Wonderbolts poster?"
  2731. > "Ah, the big one."
  2732. > Her grimace fades, actually melting into a proper smile.
  2733. > "That's one's actually pretty welcome."
  2734. "Oh?"
  2735. > "Well, we don't have a lot of... organizations from Equestria that we can put up, you know. The Royal Guard is of course not going to be shown here, but the Wonderbolts... they're just safe enough."
  2736. > Eyes askance, you shoot a glance at Cheerilee's back.
  2737. > Like you she still bore a few scars of her whipping at Cadance's hooves, but she had only take half the lashes and so they were considerably fewer and less severe.
  2738. "You're willing to take that risk?"
  2739. > "You donated it. Aren't you?"
  2740. "Absolutely."
  2741. > Cheerilee nods, her smile growing ever so slightly bigger.
  2742. > "Well, there you go."
  2743. > It only lasts a moment, though, before fading back down again.
  2744. > "It's good that somepony understands. I've already had to turn away too many."
  2745. "Like that one who just walked out?"
  2746. > Another nod - this one more sharply jerked than the last.
  2747. > "He had a photograph - his brother's graduating class of officers in the Royal Guard. Smuggled it along in a 'bandage' for an old injury in his leg. It must've meant the world to him, and..."
  2748. > She goes silent, eyes drooping.
  2749. > Beside you, Seismic Shift stirs.
  2750. > "Surprised you're willing to do that, Miss Cheerilee. Way I heard it, you were pretty clear about wanting to teach ponies the truth..."
  2751. > "I'm not... happy. But somepony has to do this, and at least now..."
  2752. "At least now you're not lying completely."
  2753. > "Yes. Don't have to pretend that we didn't have modern medicine, or that we lived in constant fear of monster attacks, or that our princesses and government weren't anything more than a hive of corruption and nepotism... all those lies are gone. At least now I can tell the truth, if even not all of it."
  2754. "Have there been other ponies like him? The one who brought the photo, I mean-"
  2755. > "Others? A whole lot of others. Whole, whole lot of others. A lot of ponies want this to be a way to - to strike back at him. To defy him."
  2756. "You don't want that?"
  2757. > "Of course I do. But I'm a realist, too... I don't have to lie anymore, and that's enough for me."
  2758. > She turns back to the displays, head tilted.
  2759. > "Something we have to teach every foal: You can't always get everything you want all at once."
  2760. "Don't I know it..."
  2761. > "I'm afraid, though... if enough of them get turned away, then what?"
  2762. > Silence follows that, during which you shuffle uncomfortably.
  2763. "Cheerillee-"
  2764. > "Thunderlane. Listen to me... you probably know already, not everypony has given up on pushing back."
  2765. "Who?"
  2766. > "No names. I'm not ready to give that yet... but ponies are willing to push. Me? I'm... not sure. I was, but now... we can use this. Fighting isn't needed; fleeing, or even just ensuring we are remembered..."
  2767. "And they don't see it that way?"
  2768. > "Some ponies aren't so discerning about what we're teaching here. Total freedom, or it's nothing at all."
  2769. > You have to admit to yourself that they have something of a point:
  2770. > Even if Anonymous had allowed this, there would be still be a great deal that could not be said.
  2771. > Important things - fighting back against his lies.
  2772. > But...
  2773. "Do you know what they're going to do?"
  2774. > "No. But I have some suspicions."
  2775. > She doesn't elaborate, though, and after a few moments you realize hoping for that much may have been too much as well.
  2776. "I'll, uh... go, then. And-"
  2777. > "They're build their own 'museum', holding what they want to see. Trying to teach ponies to fight, not just to remember or even to run away."
  2778. "How do you know?"
  2779. > "How?"
  2780. > At last Cheerilee turns to face you again, a bitter expression on her face.
  2781. > "I've seen how plenty of angry colts and fillies act - looking for any excuse to pick a fight. It doesn't matter who gets an ear bitten or hoof twisted in the process."
  2782. > You nod, and she turns back - returning to her work.
  2783. > " got a plan to deal with this, Thunderlane?"
  2784. > Grimacing at Seismic's question, you nod.
  2785. "I'll have to do a bit of planning with Gene again, but I think..."
  2786. [Choice]
  2787. "...I think some additional patrols would be a good idea, but I don't want to push on anypony until we have proof. We start acting like that, everything they said about us being Anonymous' attack dogs will be true."
  2788. > "Good."
  2789. "But at the very least, we should be staking out the security building. I almost caught somepony sneaking around in there a couple nights ago."
  2790. > Seismic's eyes widen noticeably.
  2791. > " 'round the security building? Y'see who it was?"
  2792. "Not a unicorn, that's for sure. But beyond that... no. Couldn't figure out what they were doing either."
  2793. > "Hmm."
  2794. "You think it'll work?"
  2795. > "I really don't know."
  2796. "Well, it's worth a try at least. Right now, it's the only lead we really have."
  2797. > ...
  2798. "I swear it wasn't a unicorn Seismic."
  2799. > "Hrmm."
  2800. "And even if it was, unicorn's aren't just telepathic."
  2801. > "Mmmm."
  2802. "And I really doubt we could have-"
  2803. > "I didn't say anything, Thunderlane."
  2804. > Shuffling in the jacket and leg-warmers that represented a desperate attempt to keep the cold at bay, you hunker back down under the window and glare out over the square in front of the security building.
  2805. "Sorry, I'm just... I swear I saw somepony sneaking around here. Since we didn't find any evidence, I was sure they'd be back."
  2806. > "Doesn't always happen the way you like it."
  2807. "Yeah, but I've gotta have something for two weeks of standing out in the freezing cold while I ought to be in bed, nice and warm under the covers..."
  2808. > Hissing softly as he shifts himself around to try and keep blood from being cut off to his legs, Seismic settles down into a new position and lays his eyes out.
  2809. > "Anonymous ain't judging us on how many ponies we bring in, an' I don' think the Princess is either."
  2810. "I'm judging me, though."
  2811. > "Hmm."
  2812. > Seismic goes back to watching, but you can see something is still bothering him - his ears flick, and occasionally his tail twitches with a burst of nervous energy.
  2813. "...go ahead, Seismic. Tell me up front, I want to know."
  2814. > "Not to bash your intuition on what is right... I really don't think we're going to find anypony out here. We'd be better off lookin' somewhere else."
  2815. > Despite his gentle tone and softer words, you can't help but feel a little pang in your heart.
  2816. > The last time you'd tried a stakeout like this, it'd brought the perp right to you.
  2817. > This time, however, there was apparently no such luck.
  2818. "I'm not saying you're wrong... but where would you suggest?"
  2819. > "If anything? Just patrolling the camp. Checking typical hiding spots. Or maybe they're not even out at night now; that didn't work so well for those other two."
  2820. "And the unicorn vandal that escaped might have wised up and warned his friends... yeah, I see it."
  2821. > Standing from the window you were watching from - the upper floor of small work building, surrounded by boxes of products waiting to be shipped out of the camp - you stretch out, unfurling all four legs and then one wing after another.
  2822. > As painful as it is to admit, Seismic may very well be on to something here.
  2823. "Alright. We'll give it up for now."
  2824. > Entering the security building, you head for the front office to let them know that you're turning in.
  2825. "You can wait here, Seismic. It's nothing major."
  2826. > It's little more than a perfunctory conversation, a simple notification - even if you weren't holding a technically superior rank in the security staff, this wasn't exactly in your normal hours.
  2827. > Heading back to the exit, however, familiar voices from up ahead fill your ears.
  2828. > "...sorry Ma'am, but I really can't... on duty? We were, but - no Ma'am, nothing yet, but we really can't be just -"
  2829. > Seismic?
  2830. > The other voice you can't quite identify.
  2831. > They're both of them being quite quiet - if you didn't happen to have the pony advantage in hearing, there's no way you could have heard it from this far away.
  2832. > You take another few cautious steps further, each one careful to silence your hoof-falls.
  2833. > When the second voice does become clear, you feel your coat ripple with shock.
  2834. > Lana?
  2835. > What was she doing in there?
  2836. > "Don't give me that, Seismic. It's been far, far too long with you always taken away by these 'stakeouts', and I know you always have a few minutes for me-"
  2837. > That tone of voice sets your coat prickling.
  2838. > It was not a tone of voice usually used between mere co-workers.
  2839. > "No - it's... Thunderlane."
  2840. > A long silence, followed by Lana's voice again:
  2841. > "He knows about us?"
  2842. > "N-No, but he's going to-"
  2843. > "I know."
  2844. > Soft laughter, amused.
  2845. > "He almost smelled our little fun on me the other night. If I hadn't cleaned up and masked it with enough perfume..."
  2846. > "And what if he does now?"
  2847. > "I'll make it clear to him where we stand if he does find out, don't you worry."
  2848. > "It's not you I'm worried about, Lana, it's me! What happens to me?"
  2849. > Another pause.
  2850. > " you think you can just run away?"
  2851. > "I just - not tonight, Lana! I have to go, he's going to be back any moment-"
  2852. > The sound of fast footsteps - though not as fast as your heart is beating.
  2853. > "You aren't going to push past me, are you?"
  2854. > "Ma'am - "
  2855. > "You wouldn't lay a hoof on me, Seismic. You know it, I know it. You couldn't bring yourself too; that's why I love having you in me. This time, we do things my way."
  2856. > Oh, Tartarus no.
  2857. > Her?
  2858. > Of all people, her?
  2859. > Your ears lay back and breath quickens, coming in rapid snorts.
  2860. > A woman ought to have understood why you couldn't tolerate this!
  2861. > You all but crash through the closed door; the room beyond was technically a bedroom, but in reality little more than the slaves' typical sleeping quarters - occasionally used by human staff if an emergency demanded they stay overnight.
  2862. > And, apparently, for other uses as well.
  2863. > Lana had, you guess, been half-turned to react to the sound of your pounding hooves when the door flew open - but she was also far too close to it.
  2864. > Stumbling in shock from the blow, she's completely off balance as your loft yourself into a leap and tackle her to the floor - going down in a tumble of hooves and arms.
  2865. > More importantly, she wasn't wearing her guard body armor either - allowing you to quickly and easily pin her with a hoof planted in a vulnerable stomach.
  2866. > Seismic bursts out with a neigh that quickly turns to a scream as both you and Lana tumble together.
  2867. "You - you sick little tick! I thought I'd torn all you bastards out of the guard, but I guess there's one more -"
  2868. > "Thunderlane!"
  2869. > "Get off of me-"
  2870. "No, Seismic - it's alright."
  2871. > You jab a hoof down on Lana's stomach again, just to make your point.
  2872. "I've dealt with this sort of shit before. Tartarus' teats - it's the reason I was willing to put on this uniform!"
  2873. > "Not..."
  2874. > Lana gurgles softly, gripping the hoof you were pressing to her throat - not hard enough to crush it, but certainly enough to make her think twice about moving suddenly.
  2875. > "...need to talk..."
  2876. "There is absolutely nothing you could say to me that could convince me not to throw you out of this camp right this second. I report to Anonymous, do you get that? No threat, no promise -"
  2877. > Actually managing a small shake of her head, she wheezes:
  2878. > "...explain..."
  2879. "Explain? Explain what? That this is somehow 'right'? That you enjoy it, that it doesn't matter because we're 'property', that he enjoys it-"
  2880. > "Yes."
  2881. "That's complete and utter-"
  2882. > Wait.
  2883. > Lana hadn't said that.
  2884. > Almost drifting, your head turns to let you look at Seismic Shift - his own eyes cast the floor, the hefty earth pony stallion seeming diminished - somehow physically shrunken - by the sheer look of shame on his face.
  2885. > Your eyes drop back to Lana, examining her face.
  2886. > There isn't anger there, no hatred or disgust.
  2887. > But fear.
  2888. > How...?
  2889. > "Thunderlane, it's..."
  2890. > He searches for the word.
  2891. > "...consensual. I'm not - being forced."
  2892. > Stumbling back, you fall to your haunches.
  2893. "Explain. Now."
  2894. > "We're..."
  2895. > Seismic Shift stumbles, not able to answer.
  2896. > Lana, on the floor, props herself on one elbow.
  2897. > "...we're sleeping together, yes. We're fucking."
  2898. > The delay in your response is, for the most part, simply due to how long it takes to process that statement.
  2899. > Those two are...?
  2900. > With a cautious step forward, Seismic gives a soft snort-nicker:
  2901. > "Thunderlane... I swear to you, it's not forced. We're just... together."
  2902. "So you have a roll in the hay in the guard building, of all places?"
  2903. > "It's... heavily built. Sound doesn't carry, and I can let Seismic in so no one else knows."
  2904. "Then that night I caught you coming out...?"
  2905. > "Yeah..."
  2906. > Seismic huffs softly again.
  2907. > "That pony you saw was me. Lana, uh, couldn't stay that night so we both left early - I went back to my quarters."
  2908. > Huffing softly at both their answers - mostly because they made actual sense - you look between the two of them.
  2909. "So I've been out there in the frigid cold for two weeks, chasing my own patrol partner."
  2910. > Wordless with shame, Seismic nods; Lana just looks surprised.
  2911. "Celestia damn it! Couldn't you have told me?! We wasted all that! You -"
  2912. > A hoof jabbed at Lana again.
  2913. "- I actually understand, but Seismic - couldn't you have told me?"
  2914. > "I..."
  2915. > His eyes fall again, tail swishing.
  2916. > "Thunderlane... if anypony found out what I was doing, do you think I'd ever be trusted as a guard again? I'd always be 'that one pony who fucked a human guard' - I'd be a traitor."
  2917. > "We had - had to keep it quiet. For both of us. I'd lose my job if word got around I was with a slave..."
  2918. "...I still don't buy it. You said Seismic wouldn't dare touch you!"
  2919. > Skin turning an impressive crimson that you aren't sure is healthy in human, Lana pushes herself upright and nods.
  2920. > "It's, um... It's one of the reasons I like him. That kind of strength, real strength... I can feel it in him when we're together. But he's always so gentle..."
  2921. > Head dropped in a gesture of submission, he nods.
  2922. > "Don' like fighting or pushing around. But I will if I gotta - s'one reason I joined the guard. Stop real fighting. And... for her."
  2923. > Here his head is tossed towards Lana.
  2924. > Well, shit.
  2925. > You really stepped in this one.
  2926. > "Thunder..."
  2927. > Breaking the silence, Seismic Shift drops to his haunches in front of you.
  2928. > " gonna tell Gene? Tell Anonymous?"
  2929. > You... don't know.
  2930. > "Please. I know I screwed up real good on this, but if you do... at least don't have Lana fired. This's my fault, not hers."
  2931. > "Seismic!"
  2932. > "S'true!"
  2933. [Choice]
  2934. "You know, I'm probably going to regret this completely later when it comes back around and bites me in the flank, but..."
  2935. > Blowing a hefty blast of air from both nostrils, you shake your head.
  2936. "...I'm not reporting you. Either of you - Seismic, you've convinced me that this really is on the level and despite how pissed I am that you just lead me on a wild goose chase for two weeks, if I bring this to Anonymous' attention even the best-case scenario is an ugly one."
  2937. > Seismic takes a step closer and thenh hesitates, his expression suggesting that he wants to smile but is so overwhelmed with emotion he doesn't quite know how to.
  2938. > "I'll make it up to you, Thunderlane. Somehow. I'll do it."
  2939. "Yeah, you will. For one, next time we do a stakeout you're sitting in the cold."
  2940. > He grimaces, but nods again.
  2941. > Turning to Lana, you let your own ears fall somewhat and reach out with one hoof extended.
  2942. "Lana, I'm sorry I tackled you. Should've... not leapt in like that, but gone in and asked first."
  2943. > "Forgiven."
  2944. > She takes you hoof, grinning with a hefty wince.
  2945. > "This is gonna bruise something real good, but I get that you're... kind of touchy about people hurting ponies like that. For good reason."
  2946. > Letting out a breath you'd been holding yourself, you nod.
  2947. "I can't say I understand what you too have here... but, for one we need to focus on making friends in our situation and not breaking up relationships; for two, I understand giving second chances."
  2948. > Lana tilts her head, and you chuckle.
  2949. "Let's just say my decision to take this position in the guard was something of a given second chance too."
  2950. > "Ah."
  2951. > Plus, a darker corner of your mind whispers, it would be leverage over a guard - a human guard - if it ever came to that.
  2952. > In a moment of desperation, you could try and blackmail her into aiding you.
  2953. > But that voice is quickly shoved far into the back of your head.
  2954. "Yes. So... no harm, no foul."
  2955. > Seismic turns for the door, but before he can leave you drop your hoof to the floor with a cracking stomp.
  2956. "But - a warning to you. Not from me, but just in general: Be. Careful. I already once almost stumbled into this, and someone else could too. If they do, it's going to bite you hard."
  2957. > And yourself too, if it comes out you knew.
  2958. > For that matter, you still haven't informed Anonymous about Sunburst's little circle.
  2959. > Part of you tries to rationalize that they weren't actually making any escapes yet, but the truth you knew is that to some degree you're simply sick of turning in and taking down ponies.
  2960. > Sick of being a traitor to ponykind, even if there's a solid reason for what you're doing.
  2961. > ...but the entire point of this was ultimately to protect Rumble; was letting a potentially dramatic and successful escape plan run by beneath his nose really the right choice there?
  2962. > That thought too is shoved into the back of your head, down and away where you don't have to think about it.
  2963. "So - anyway - just... be very, very careful. It's not an order, but figure out a better way to do this or take it to Gene or Anonymous yourselves, because right now it's just a matter of time until it breaks out."
  2964. > Both of them look at each other, and then Lana looks back to you.
  2965. > "Thank you, Thunderlane. We'll keep it in mind."
  2966. "You'd better. For your own sake."
  2968. > "Alright."
  2969. > Looking around the table, Anonymous nods to the last of his six advisors arriving to seat herself at it.
  2970. > They were a varied bunch - lawyer, analysts, bookkeeper, security officer, and of course yourself, pony.
  2971. > There were, however, three more present that you had not expected.
  2972. > Two were familiar to you - a man, his eyes covered in opaque glasses whose name you recalled from the dinner's awful night to be Randall Cooper, and beside him a young pegasus wearing a harness and bar-like lead rising up towards his hand.
  2973. > He was, you remember, blind and relied on her - Posey - for guidance.
  2974. > The third, however, seated on Randal's opposite side, was not:
  2975. > A unicorn of considerable grace, all long legs and slim barrel, eyes you through hooded eyes.
  2976. > On her neck sits a collar covered in elaborate lacework, while the crimson sweeps of her mane and tail were both smooth and gleaming.
  2977. > Though she held herself upright and statuesque, you could see the intelligence in her expression.
  2978. > Coughing politely, Anonymous smiles.
  2979. > "Let's start with our updates. Gene?"
  2980. > His security chief folds his hands, grunting out:
  2981. > "No major problems, a few fighting ponies here and there but nothing serious. Thunderlane has had his ponies out on extra patrols since you made your announcements, but they have not found anything yet."
  2982. > His eyes slide sideways, landing on you for a fraction of a second.
  2983. > "My men have not found anything either. And they let Cadance deal with troublemakers."
  2984. > "Cadance?"
  2985. "Just what he said, Master. A few ponies letting their anger boil over here and there, but nothing that requires more than stern words and some extra hours."
  2986. > "Good. We'll keep things that way - this kind of self-management is exactly what I'm looking for. Cadance, how do things sit in general right now."
  2987. "The suggestions box and the rec center are both drawing everypony's focus right now. There've been a few more incidents of graffiti, which we have dealt with on our own, but for now they seem to be improving."
  2988. > "Hrm."
  2989. > Your eyes shift to glance out the window, where a patch of scaffolding and framing was rising amid a previously-empty paved lot in the camp.
  2990. "I have to also thank you for letting us build this on our own, Master. It's drawing efforts from everypony, to build it and to make games and other things for it."
  2991. > "Exactly what I'd been hoping for. Alright, Amanda - numbers; how are our funds now?"
  2992. > "This winter hasn't been as cold as expected, so our heat charms aren't selling as well. But that also means people are buying other things, so our profits haven't taken too hard a hit."
  2993. "Would you say we're relatively safe."
  2994. > "Absolutely. Gross average is only..."
  2995. > You let the talks fade out, only coming back when your name is called for some minor input.
  2996. > The rest of the time, your attention is on the unicorn crouched at Randall's side.
  2997. > She has barely moved, yet you think she has spent a fair amount of time studying every person seated at the table.
  2998. > Finally satisfied, Anonymous leans back and folds his arms.
  2999. > "Alright, everyone - the reason for this meeting is that the dinner I held is now bearing the fruit of new relationships. We have received suitable bonding agreements for an expansion of our facilities here, an increase in our existing operations and an expansion into new opportunities."
  3000. > Motioning to Randall, he goes on:
  3001. > "Mr. Cooper here is a business management executive who will be brought onboard as an adviser to satisfy our investors that everything is being accomplished as best as can reasonably be expected."
  3002. > Greetings are murmured from around the table, including your own.
  3003. > "Now that our preliminary conditions are out of the way, we will have a brief break for refreshments before we get underway again. Say... ten minutes?"
  3004. > Two trays of light snacks had been near-silently brought into the room while they worked, and now the entire table breaks up to circle them.
  3005. > Randall, for his part, simply taps Posey on the back; she rears up to let him murmur something in his ear before she turns to head for the tables as well - guide-handle bobbing along like a signal flag.
  3006. > The unicorn, however, does not move.
  3007. > Seeing your chance, you slip from the table as well and approach the pink-maned earth pony from behind.
  3008. "Excuse me - Posey, yes?"
  3009. > "Oh!"
  3010. > She jumps lightly, shying back but then dropping into a bow.
  3011. > "Um. Pr- Miss Cadance. Hello."
  3012. > Leaning down to brush her cheek with your nose, you smile.
  3013. "Please, don't be scared. I'm sorry for interrupting you."
  3014. > "It's, um, not a problem. I'm just getting some snacks for my Master and Miss Glamour."
  3015. "Ah, let me help you with that..."
  3016. > Easily moving the snacks she points out to her plate, you take the opportunity to strike:
  3017. "So, Miss Glamour... is that the unicorn with him?"
  3018. > "Yes. Her name is Haute Glamour; she's his assistant."
  3019. "Ah - you are not?"
  3020. > "Oh, no. I'm not nearly that important. I'm just his guide-pony and fetcher. Miss Glamour is much more important."
  3021. > Posey's voice seemed naturally soft, but even so they took on an extra note when speaking of the other pony.
  3022. "I see. Thank you, Posey."
  3023. > Her cheeks color, and she seems to try and duck behind her mane.
  3024. > "'re welcome, Miss Cadance."
  3025. > Soon enough the meeting resumes again, and now you watch the unicorn - Haute Glamour - with a new light:
  3026. > Eventually come the words that you had been increasingly expecting from Anonymous, and to a degree begun to become concerned about:
  3027. > "...and, Cadance, you will be working with - your name is Haute Glamour, yes? - with her as well as Mr. Cooper is working with me."
  3028. > "I look forward to every moment we spend working together."
  3029. > Glamour's voice is everything you'd expected it to be - smooth like velvet, but rich in tone.
  3030. "The same, Miss Glamour."
  3031. > "In fact, I think we're done with everything but the technical details here... why don't you take her down into the facilities and show her around."
  3032. > Teeth gritted internally, you put on a delighted smile and nod.
  3033. "Of course, Master. Miss Glamour, would you please follow me."
  3034. > She does, padding quietly alongside you until you are far distant from the meeting room.
  3035. > "I must say, I am most impressed, and apologize for intruding on you."
  3036. "Excuse me?"
  3037. > Smiling up at you, Haute Glamour laughs - a rich noise that nonetheless sets your spine prickling.
  3038. > "You do not wish to have me tagging along. I saw it in the false smile you put on to them - but do not worry; I am not offended."
  3039. "Ah, well..."
  3040. > You hesitate, wings shuffling.
  3041. "'s only that I'm afraid I've had no time to prepare."
  3042. > "It is not your fault; I believe Randall brought me along with little warning to Anonymous. But even so, I remain impressed."
  3043. "Oh?"
  3044. > "You have quite the impressive 'poker smile', as it is... and I can tell that you are deft in your actions. You knew my name before we were introduced. Posey, I suppose."
  3045. "Yes, we spoke briefly."
  3046. > "Mmm-hmm."
  3047. > And somehow you are of the suspicion that somehow Glamour was not pleased by this revelation.
  3048. > Together you exit from the manor, being waved back through the fencing into the camp.
  3049. > Once inside, you begin leading her towards the town hall - if she is to be Randall's agent in the camp, you suppose introducing her to the other administrators would be the best first choice.
  3050. > "Though, if half of what I have heard is true, it is far more impressive what you have accomplished here. Is it true that there are ponies guarding ponies here?"
  3051. "Yes, though admittedly not many. I convinced the first it would be a safer "
  3052. > "Still, an impressive success. You have both Anonymous and the ponies here following your lead."
  3053. "At times. There are still... points of friction, but I believe they are solvable."
  3054. > "No, it is an impressive feat."
  3055. > She sighs dramatically, shaking her head in a toss of crimson mane.
  3056. > You cannot help notice that she has put a bit of a sway into her flanks as well, drawing more than a few stallions' - and a hooffull of mares' - gazes as she struts alongside you.
  3057. > "I have Randall's ponies firmly in line, but they are few compared to this and require constant supervision. If I could have found a suitable subordinate among them as you have..."
  3058. > Randall's ponies?
  3059. > Somehow, the way she phrased that it sounded like she excluded herself from them.
  3060. "...well, this is the town hall here. I carry out most of my administrative duties from here. Let's see -"
  3061. > You step inside, and find that it is unfortunately empty.
  3062. "- ah, it seems that Mayor Mare is not in. We'll have to meet her later. Come, let's sit into my office."
  3063. > Haute Glamour's gaze roams through the room as you shut the office door behind her - seeming to be searching for something, or perhaps critically examining the room.
  3064. > The heavy door draws a look of approval from her, though.
  3065. > "Ah, good to be able to talk freely."
  3066. > Seating herself at your desk, she now smiles warmly.
  3067. > "It is a please to meet someone who is able to manage them so well. I was afraid this would be a task, but it seems you have such things already well in your favor."
  3068. "It's not my favor. I'm just trying to make things run smoothly here."
  3069. > "Cadance, dear..."
  3070. > Another of those rich, deep laughs.
  3071. > "Cadance please, you do not need to fear I'll carry your words back to Randall or Anonymous. I understand that we have to climb to the top of these wretched heaps if we're to secure our own comfort in... these conditions."
  3072. > A cream-coated hoof is raised to gesture out the window.
  3073. > "You have truly done well here; Anonymous relies on you for advice, and these simple ponies eat so deeply out of your hoof that they manage and even guard their own bondage. Anonymous may call you a slave, but truly you are still a ruler."
  3074. > Ruler?
  3075. > Is that how she saw you, just ruling over everypony else here for your own benefit?
  3076. > "It will be easiest for us if we both work together. Randall's interests are simply seeing this job done quickly, and I see no reason to... shake the throne which you have built and seated yourself on."
  3077. [Choice]
  3078. "...I'm glad you see things that way."
  3079. > Celestia had taught you that a lie was a damaging thing.
  3080. > But sometimes, when there was no other recourse, they were necessary.
  3081. > One tool in the repertoire of a successful leader - to be used sparingly, but not rejected altogether.
  3082. > Merely held in reserve for the moments when such tools would be necessary.
  3083. > And the more you consider the way Haute Glamour is watching you, the more you realize this might be the time to marshal every drop of politicking skill you have.
  3084. > This pony was not merely out for herself, but outright dangerous to you.
  3085. > Because despite her promise not to 'shake the throne', you highly doubted she would hesitate to sell you out if it came to that.
  3086. > Quickly you run through what you know of her owner.
  3087. > Randall Cooper, a business adviser and manager - you'd only seen him with two ponies now, Posey and now Glamour.
  3088. > The former seemed to be his personal assistant and guide, the one he sent for little tasks; the latter...
  3089. > Adviser herself?
  3090. > Spy?
  3091. > Was she something like a partner to him, as you were with Anonymous?
  3092. > You weren't sure.
  3093. > The more you think on it, the more you realize you need to talk to Posey.
  3094. > Glamour was not trustworthy, and Randall himself you would have to figure out on your own.
  3095. > But Posey could help you.
  3096. "With any luck, we will be able to get this done quickly, and with a minimum of friction or distractions."
  3097. > Was that too blunt?
  3098. > Glamour had seen through your act for the sake of the meeting.
  3099. > Would she see through this?
  3100. > If she does, she shows no sign of it.
  3101. > "And I think, then, that we can both agree there is no need to... excessively bring either of them into this."
  3102. > Anonymous and Randall, you presume she means.
  3103. "I thought that was the entire purpose of your being here - to ensure that they do not have to become involved.
  3104. > Glamour only cracks a small grin, and you nod in understanding.
  3105. > Another test.
  3106. > "Randall is blind in more ways than one. He relies on us not merely to guide him as he walks, but to be his eyes and ears... but in that, we are valuable and in that value power."
  3107. "His other ponies?"
  3108. > "He fawns over us all, yes. That made things so much more simple - I merely had to make myself the most available, the most helpful to him and it was smooth-sailing from there."
  3109. > So she had galloped roughshod over the other ponies in the pursuit of her own comfort.
  3110. > It takes a decent amount of effort to keep your teeth from grinding, but you manage.
  3111. "It is... not so simple here. There are certain demands placed on us, so we have to show some measure of improvement or he will start making his own checks. And - how many are you?"
  3112. > "Nearly a dozen of them. Mostly to help him around the house - being blind as a bat, you know. A couple of them help him with his management, although they're mostly doing rote work. Calculating numbers, producing graphs, very simple things."
  3113. > Again, 'them'.
  3114. > She clearly doesn't feel herself to be part of Randall's 'herd'.
  3115. Another difference, I'm afraid - the population is too high to control everypony directly."
  3116. > "Hence your use of some ponies as guards, I see."
  3117. > Or, if you'd have said it, why simply stepping on everypony on your way up wouldn't work.
  3118. "And that I've had to establish a hierarchy with more than two tiers in this camp."
  3119. > "Oh? You think that way of managing ponies is necessary?"
  3120. > If your danger senses were signalling any louder, they would be deafening.
  3121. "Not at all... you've done an impressive job yourself. You obviously figured out who he was attached to and that you couldn't replace his most critical ponies directly, so you focused on an alternative path to success."
  3122. > "Well yes - and, of course, who'd want to do something so simple as just leading him around?"
  3123. > With a toss of her mane, Glamour gives a small laugh.
  3124. > "Those ponies are far better suited for base tasks like that. It's no mistake that I was the most successful from among them."
  3125. "Some ponies do find that they are called to be leaders, yes. Even in, as you put it, these conditions."
  3126. > Leaders, you remind yourself.
  3127. > Not rulers.
  3128. > You were nothing like this pony.
  3129. > "Though, if you were interested, I would not mind... taking a role in your operation. A little bit of hooves-on learning in how to manage a larger group of ponies."
  3130. > Eyes snapping to Glamour, you try to parse that offer:
  3131. > Was she trying to weasel her way into your favor?
  3132. > Or just securing a place for herself?
  3133. > Seeming to realize that she'd overstepped herself, Haute Glamour drops her eyes submissively.
  3134. "...I think it's best not to try any... drastic changes while we are already undergoing a significant expansion, yes?"
  3135. > "Of course, of course..."
  3136. "Though I would be happy to give you a few pointers, at this time our primary focus should be - as you said - on ensuring that both Randall and Anonymous are pleased with us."
  3137. > "Well, then, we shouldn't wast any time in ensuring there aren't any problems that might disturb that. Let's begin."
  3138. > ...
  3139. > When Haute Glamour finally excuses herself from your office, Mayor Mare has long since returned to her own desk.
  3140. > You do not direct Glamour to her position, however, as right now there was far, far more on your mind.
  3141. > Only when the door is shut and you'd watched her walk far out of earshot back towards the manor does the older Earth Pony join you at the window.
  3142. > "Who was that?"
  3143. "The greatest threat to peace and stability in this camp I have seen in some time... and that is saying something."
  3144. > Mayor Mare cocks her head.
  3145. > "She likes to be in control. To have everypony coming to her, reminding her of just how important she is... maybe even so she can just dismiss them."
  3146. > Spotting your questioning look, she shrugs.
  3147. > "It's how she walks. I was a young mare once as well, Your Highness - I know what kind of pony walks like that. One who wants to feel... in charge. Important."
  3148. "If my estimation is right, she's only done so by running roughshod over every other pony she works with."
  3149. > Did Haute have magic, you wonder?
  3150. > You couldn't have asked her directly, but she wasn't wearing a limiter and the few times you'd seen her light her horn there didn't appear to be any obvious stress in it.
  3151. > That didn't mean she wasn't - a limiter could set a bar far above mere simple telekinesis, no matter how deft - but from the way she spoke it didn't sound like Randall had any limits on her.
  3152. "So, the question then becomes 'how do we fight this'."
  3153. > "No."
  3154. > Looking up at you, Mayor Mare sadly shakes her head.
  3155. > "Now the question becomes, 'how little damage can be done when she inevitably clashes with you'. It's how things always go with a pony like her."
  3156. "I hope to be more optimistic than that... but I am afraid you are correct."
  3157. > "Your Highness... if something does go wrong while she is around..."
  3158. "You don't have to tell me. I know - it could go very bad, very quickly. Right now she feels she's an equal to me, but if she senses weakness..."
  3159. > "Like Timberwolves to a lame pony."
  3160. > Nodding, you reflect on that at least everypony here suffered more or less equally in bondage under Anonymous; there were no power struggles or hierarchies.
  3161. > The ponies who ran various sections in the camp had little to show for it except, perhaps, individual bedrooms and bathrooms - and many hours of sleep lost to their duties.
  3162. > Perhaps the most starkly worrying specter to you is if somepony discovered that they could, possibly, find a comfortable spot on top of the pile instead of being a part of it.
  3163. > It's a thought that puts a shiver through your coat; up until now, you'd been more worried about ponies resisting than ponies collaborating.
  3164. > If that changed...
  3165. "Mayor, do you think you can manage any surprises coming up in the next few hours?"
  3166. > "I suppose. Why, what are you going to do?"
  3167. "I have a bad feeling that Haute Glamour is going to set things in motion sooner rather than later, and there are things that I need to do before it gets to that point."
  3168. > "I'll deal with everything I can, Your Highness."
  3169. "Thank you, Mayor."
  3170. [Choice]
  3171. > Slipping back into the manor at this point is a significant risk on its own.
  3172. > If Haute Glamour caught you doing that...
  3173. > Still, you know the house better than she does at this point - and the danger of not doing anything far exceeds this danger.
  3174. > You wish you could teleport, but in truth your skills in that particular art, along with many of the unicorn's arts, had always been shaky at best.
  3175. > So you slip in, quieting your hoofsteps and keeping both ears pricked at attention for a hint of the intruder's voice.
  3176. > Most of the house staff simply nod to you in quiet greeting, by now used to your visits (and occasional nervous demeanor during them).
  3177. > No eyebrows rise even when you lay an ear to the dining room door, voices within discussing arcane measures of numbers and trends proving that the meeting is still going on.
  3178. > Hailing one of the house staff over with a gesture from your wings, you drop your voice to a whisper:
  3179. "Excuse me, but - do you happen to have an idea of how soon Anonymous is likely to be finishing with this...?"
  3180. > "Oh, he's already out. Left maybe an hour ago."
  3181. > He had?
  3182. "Ah..."
  3183. > "F'your looking for him, go grab him now 'fore he steps back in."
  3184. "Thank you."
  3185. > A sudden thought comes to you, and move to follow the stallion before he can leave:
  3186. "One other thing, actually. Have you seen a new pony around here - name of Haute Glamour, unicorn-"
  3187. > "-blood red mane, cream flanks, struts around like she's owning a stage? Yeah, I've seen 'er."
  3188. > He looks ready to spit, and you nod.
  3189. "She's been poking around here?"
  3190. > "Oh, yeah. Grabbin' one o'us here and there, askin' little questions... kinda pony you know somethin's wrong but y'don't know what, an' she's big stuff - something to do with all the important types in that room."
  3191. "Yes. Don't refuse her questions if she asks them, but... be wary. You're right - there's something wrong."
  3192. > "I hear ya, Miss Cadance."
  3193. "In fact... if you could keep an eye on her, and send word to me if anything... significant happens, that would be even better. Tell the others, too."
  3194. > "...woah, now."
  3195. > The stallion gives you a wary eye as well, tail flicking.
  3196. > "What's this, some kind of plotting? We don't need more trouble - ponies hate us enough already just for being in here."
  3197. "If nopony does anything, it's going to get a lot worse. You said it yourself - there's something... off about her."
  3198. > He hesitates a moment, then nods.
  3199. > "Fair enough. We'll keep an ear up for her... but if trouble starts-"
  3200. "Then I'll be caught in it as much as you."
  3201. > Turning to split off, you leave the stallion feeling just slightly more confident.
  3202. > If Haute Glamour was going to go snooping around the camp, there wasn't any reason you couldn't have eyes and ears of your own.
  3203. > Now for Anonymous...
  3204. > You find him in his study, the door open and engrossed in his computer screens.
  3205. > He looks up when you tap on the door, motioning you in.
  3206. > "Cadance - how'd your half of the meeting go?"
  3207. "...not - awfully. I need to talk about Haute Glamour, though."
  3208. > "Yeah. She's apparently a very adept manager, according to Randall. Keeps everything and everyone in line for him."
  3209. "That is - exactly what I am concerned about, Master."
  3210. > Now Anonymous raises an eyebrow.
  3211. > "Oh?"
  3212. > You're unable to keep the anger - even disgust - from your voice.
  3213. "She's a manipulator and a bully. A queen bitch, I think the phrase is?"
  3214. > "...I take it the two of you really didn't get off on the right foot. Hoof. Whatever."
  3215. "It's more than that. She keeps Randall's ponies in line with intimidation and manipulation. She holds herself above them - and I'm concerned about what happens if she tries that here."
  3216. > Anonymous snorts softly.
  3217. > "I thought you said your half of the meeting went well."
  3218. "In as much as I don't think she suspects how sickening I find her? Yes, it was. Your plans are safe for the moment - but only just."
  3219. > "Well..."
  3220. > Anonymous scratches his chin, pondering.
  3221. > "What exactly do you plan on doing about it?"
  3222. "I need to know what exactly her role in this is going to be. How much authority she actually has."
  3223. > "Alright, so - Randall's purpose for being here is basically to get my investors' at ease and assure them that I'm not going to squander their funds. He has a say in how things go, which I am legally obliged to consider... but he doesn't hold any actual position of authority."
  3224. "So he's an adviser. Nothing more."
  3225. > "Yes. That said, I've looked into him and he's a veteran with a long record of successes - and I don't have to remind you, I'm a relative rookie in this who caught one good idea. So I'll be damn well listening when he talks."
  3226. "And that extends to Haute Glamour as well, I suppose."
  3227. > You're unable to keep the frustration from your voice, and Anonymous notices.
  3228. > "Yes... and no. She's no authority and no order she gives is actually binding. But if she does have as strong a grip as you say..."
  3229. > Apparently the look on your face said enough, as Anonymous beckons you closer.
  3230. > When you drop to your haunches in front of him he reaches out to lightly scratch around your ears.
  3231. > The touch is not entirely unpleasant, but not what you are looking for at this time and so your ears flatten away from his fingers.
  3232. > "You're really concerned about this."
  3233. "I'm terrified. You know everything I've done, I've done for the sake of keeping the majority of ponies here safe."
  3234. > "You think Haute Glamour has the potential to reverse that?"
  3235. "You only need one bad egg."
  3236. > After a second, you add:
  3237. "Ordinarily, Anonymous, I wouldn't be concerned about this. Some little cliquishness, some little pettiness... those things are normal for ponies. I saw enough of that as a Princess - we lived in harmony, not utopia; those were things to be worked out, not feared. But now we're slaves; you've seen how positively ponies have reacted to having some little degree of control and power."
  3238. > "I didn't invite you in to debate the rights and wrongs of slavery with me, Cadance."
  3239. "I'm not debating. I'm saying with that many ponies confined without power, if they get it into their heads that the kind of petty cruelty and control Haute Glamour pedals is attractive, desirable-"
  3240. > "Yeah, I remember what High School was like."
  3241. > You don't quite get the reference, but it seems to have suitably made the point judging by the contemplative look on Anonymous' face.
  3242. > "You know, I think there's a personal component in this too."
  3243. "Personal?"
  3244. > "It's not just that you're worried about what she might do. You just don't like her either."
  3245. > Your muzzle dips a bit, tail flicking with emotions long contained.
  3246. "I... can't say 'no'. I do personally dislike her - she holds herself above ponies, thinks she's somehow not just better off but actually better than them."
  3247. > "A far call from what you used to do as a Princess, I suppose."
  3248. "Yes. We were rulers, yes, but we ruled for the benefit of our subjects. Independence and self-improvement was to be encouraged, not beaten down."
  3249. > From the look on his face, he'd already thought of that and was presumably looking for something else in your answer.
  3250. > "Alright, Cadance, you've given me a solid argument - if only because you've proven yourself so far and it's pretty clear the two of you are of differing opinions."
  3251. > Leaning out of his seat, Anonymous clasps his hands between his legs and brings his face closer to your muzzle.
  3252. > "But not told me what you want to do about this - or think I should do."
  3253. > Was he offering a dare there, or a warning not to try and instruct him on his own affairs?
  3254. > Much as you found her disgusting, Haute Glamour had a point in that you'd made yourself valuable to him, and could thus get away with certain things.
  3255. > Then again, an argument with Anonymous right now might not be what you really needed...
  3256. > But then again, again it might be better to argue now than later.
  3257. [Choice]
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