• Published 19th Mar 2021
  • 570 Views, 43 Comments

The Runaway Bodyguard - scifipony



*COMPLETED* Starlight wants to learn magic. She runs away from 24/7 tutelage and falls in with gangs. Savaged, she learns to fight. When given the opportunity to protect the Doña, she sacrifices her principles and must choose between evil and death.

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PART FOUR: The Filly in Mare Horseshoes; Chapter 
58 — The Can't Refuse Offer

I blinked as the gong "doorbell" sounded. I felt watched. Probably by design. I knew the eyes of a security detail on the street were on me. I swallowed, then frowned at feeling intimidated.

I huffed. "How gauche."

I glanced right. I'd heard a change in hoof falls. The forest green unicorn now strolled back toward the house and I heard a pegasus wing above flutter.

Horseshoes clattered beyond the door. It opened, its hinges creaking. It looked heavy. The black-painted slab had to be clad in metal. The creaking sound was no different than the tinkle bells on a restaurant door, only less obvious.

An old grey fellow opened the door with his horn. He had a grey mane and was a piebald, wearing a butler's tailed livery and a white shirt with a black bow tie. Blue eyes regarded me; despite their color, they made him look colorless and ghostly in the gloomy vestibule.

"Madam awaits," he said in a deep sepulcher voice.

"Okay, cool," I said, stepping onto checkerboard of black and white marble. The echo-y walls were tiled in grey and black ceramic up to shoulder height in a distinctly foreign style. The top rail, floor and corner moldings were white and had been decorated with rose patterns in silver wire. The tin ceiling was a desaturated red that added a sanguineous blush to all those things that reflected it.

The tapestries on the upper walls lacked substantial color, though I could see they displayed views of a mountainous stark land with craggy peaks, wind gnarled trees, and waterfalls. Squinting at them, I made out dark-colored pegasi. I saw greyed reds and greens in the overall blue, grey, and white epic fabric.

The weavers had depicted a moonlit scene.

Looking down, I saw naught but a dark mahogany console and a hat and coat rack. Heavy doors closed off the hallway exits. A marble stair marched to a second floor with black marble treads and turned-mahogany balustrades.

The light came from behind, a window above the door. It cast dreary shadows everywhere.

A pony knocked into me, just behind the withers.

The spry butler jumped back with a whinny as I slid to my right with a surprised oof. I had not spun a spell up. Impolite, right? I nevertheless reflexively cast Levitate with naught but intuition to target. He was in contact with me, though, which made a complete guess accurate.

The midnight blue pegasus with an even darker blue mane careened off and landed on his knees, even as I pushed him away. He spun half around and his news-colt tweed hat fell off. He wore a dark jacket with lots of pockets and a black lining. He'd flown out of an open door with basement steps to right of the entrance, from the dark.

The kid, a foal no more than ten, grabbed his hat with a wing, which revealed a dipper cutie mark as the jacket accommodated his movement. He said, "Sorry, Ma'am. Bit clumsy. Name's Holly Lever. Nice ta meet ya." He nodded to the butler, "Leaves."

He shimmied out of my downward push like a trained prizefighter, lost traction with his blackened steel horseshoes, legs pumping, then launched into the air and flew to the second floor and shot down the hall to the right.

"What was that?" I asked, straightening my cloak and righting my akimbo saddlebags.

Leaves said, all starched composure again, "If you would be so kind?"

He pointed down the hall, past the stair. He walked around me and opened wide doors to the right. It lead into another high-ceilinged wide hall, this one paneled in blackened wood with dark grey carpeting. Light from a clearstory filtered down. A glance confirmed they were glass bricks, not windows. Gas lighting flickered at pony level from darkly patinaed brass, illuminating some chairs and two reclining sofas against the wall. I spared a hoof to feel the surface of one with my frog. Red velvet. In the general desaturated decor, it looked as red as blood.

Before I could sit in the obvious waiting room, a bell went ting. I spotted the servant-telegraph. Three black ribbons to the right of the double doors with silver bells that had intentionally never been polished so they were almost black.

I smiled. Had I been allowed to decorate the manor at Grin Having, I'd likely have done something very much like this. Very Gothic. Moody. Calming. The type of thing that made a pony contemplate her life and its meaning, and its fragility. Madam's tastes ran very much in the same vein as her Lady guest. As I admired what I saw, I also realized how totally amateurish my bedroom had looked in comparison.

I chuckled. Madam probably wouldn't like the goth colt-bands I'd collected records from, either. Looking back, I realized how much of a foal I'd been. I felt like a grown up, in comparison.

Leaves' blue magic opened the doors as he said, "If you would please?"

"Thank you, Leaves," I responded in a lady-like manner as I stepped into further gloom.

It looked like the space had previously served as a theatre. I walked down a gentle carpeted slope. It was red, of course. The dark wood showed no marring where seats might once have stood. Instead of further tapestries, thick curtains hung against the walls to either side and may have hid windows. Light escaped at the top and bottom. A couple of gold torchère floor lamps that looked like saplings, cut then gilt, gave off a warm if wane glow at the bottom of the slope. Black lampshades directed the light decidedly downward.

Beyond, I saw a "stage," and I use quotes here advisedly. I saw a huge desk and behind that a heavy, throne-like chair. Bookshelves loomed over them, as did cabinets, made of walnut considering the color. Light flooded down from a small skylight, but it had the effect of making the color blue and cold. I saw more tapestries like from the entry hall, but did not see anypony.

That was purposeful—an attempt at camouflage. Intuition said it was a throne room, veiled in curtains of shadow.

"Es step into the light," a mare said from somewhere up there.

I shuddered. The fur under my cloak stood and intensified my discomfort as a half-memory electrified my spine. Once again, like when I had remembered Carne Asada's name was associated with the "QUEENPIN ACQUITTED" headline in the Manehatten Times, I knew I was missing something.

I trotted forward until I stood below the black lampshades. My eyes had adjusted to the half-light, but now the room beyond the island of light became enshrouded in darkness.

I said, "In detective novels, this is where the copper interrogates the perpetrator."

The mare said, "She reads. Is refreshing, but I knew that or you would not be here."

"That's an Equidorian accent."

"Worldly, too. Very good. Not very polite, though. Very direct, I've heard. You have not yourself introduced."

I blinked for a moment, then self-consciously cut a reflex curtsy short as I said, "I'm—"

"Grimoire. Also, Gelding the Verb, and Princess Grim. She wrote on her race application es Starlight es Starbright, too. She used the first name alone when working for a grocery. What..., yes... Bite O'Kale?"

I narrowed my eyes in the direction of the voice. "Carne Asada, I presume. Shall I take off my clothes? You apparently prefer me naked."

She chuckled in a bizarrely approving tone. "I like to know who works under me. I had trouble tracing you back to Fillydelphia with a private investigator, but a lead led her to a hedge healer a few leagues outside the city."

Sweat formed under my collar. I wanted to spin up teleport, but worried what would happen were an aura to envelop my horn. I took a few moments to recall my steps into the theatre from the waiting room. I had stupidly not paid enough attention to the dimensions of the waiting room, so I wasn't going to teleport much beyond the entry into this space.

I was interviewing with a gangster princess. What had I been thinking?

Carne Asada said, and I was sure it was the Carne Asada, "Don't be nervous. The both of us have had bad things happen in our life. Tracing you to the hedge healer was far enough back. Most ponies address me as C.A., or Doña Asada. I would prefer that you address me as Carne Asada. We are going to become fabulosa friends."

The rolled Rs. The trouble with Ss. Definitely Equidorian.

Again, I found myself blinking in confusion. Friends? My stomach clenched. She had seen into my soul deeply enough to know that the F-word would push me off-kilter.

I said, "Maybe this was a mistake—"

"It's Carne Asada. Please. You should use the name, and no 'mis-es-takes,' Hija mia!"

"Carne Asada—" I started.

"Please come closer. Take the es stair to the left."

My heart raced, and it was all I could do to keep from queuing spells. I told myself, of course this mare had to play mind games. She ran an organization that spanned the northeastern seaboard of Equestria. She had her ways of dominating any situation, as did Princess Celestia. She had to test me.

Besides, which... I'd been getting really good at what Broomhill Dare called quick-draw techniques. Sometimes, I could reflexively push away something with a spell quicker than I could react with a hoof.

I took a deep breath, then a second, and began shrugging out of my cloak.

"Hija. No need to disrobe. Trot on up."

That was strange. Nopony had checked me for weapons. Granted, I had a horn, but that didn't preclude...

I trotted to the stairs, where I stopped for the seconds it took for my eyes to adjust enough not to trip. No banister. Black and white marble treads made the steps obvious to anypony who was not used to the semi-darkness.

Once upstairs, the room felt like a throne room with the mote of light that stretched to curtained walls from whence I'd come. The area resembled an office, with deep blue curtains below the tapestries to soak up the light and sound. Her chair towered three pony heights and was straight backed. Obsidian spheres adorned its edges. Ponies of all the tribes had been carved into the ebony armrests and back. Ebony. The rarest wood, and as hard as concrete. Carved.

The heavy wood... The meticulous furniture... The stage and the audience hall... Somepony wanted everypony to understand she was powerful.

My eyes alighted on an architectural model. After what Safe had said, I recognized the center trestle section of the Fillydelphia Penrose Ave Plate Bridge. I had crossed it often entering the city. Arson had all but brought it down into the Hidden River. I had camped in the wildlife refuge outside Tincup Township. The light grey girders in the model were luminous in contrast to the muted colors on the desk, including the stacked black and brown folders.

The mare moved and drew my eyes.

She looked like an earth pony, and wore a conventional cloak suspended from a darkened silver torc around her neck. The midnight blue fabric looked like velvet; it was both stiff and light baffling, flowing across her back to where it was docked with a big black bow to her dark grey tail. Brown eyes regarded me for a moment. They glistened as they moved, before she hopped off her throne to regard me a few steps closer. That illuminated her slightly better. I realized the stacked ponies carved into the chair had served to confuse my eyes and make it harder to see her, but that was no longer the case.

She looked my size, below average for an earth pony and slightly plump. As my eyes adjusted further, I saw she was more mauve-furred than grey. Her mane and tail appeared dark grey because it was more of a desaturated magenta. I figured it out because she had purposely presented herself in a slight profile.

She had a droplet cutie mark. A red one. Saturated red. I had no doubt it was a drop of blood. Noticing the direction of my eyes, she swished her tail, causing her tail bow to wag also.

I said, "Why am I not surprised?"

"I am told you can es see how a pony will act by looking at her cutie mark. Es this true?"

Too personal. I changed the subject. "I am interviewing to become your bodyguard."

"Interviewing. Es yes. I was hoping for more." She reached her muzzle into a pocket on the cape. I spotted something off-white and silver before she flung it at me.

I caught it in my magic before it would have struck me where my throat dove behind my right shoulder bone. I brought it up and— "That's Mustang's jackknife!"

"What a disappointment for me, that estupida! I threw her many an opportunity, but she insisted on es stabbing me in the back. You helped me clean house and eliminate her."

"I didn't eliminate her."

Carne Asada gestured dismissively with a hoof. A deep purple princess-cut amethyst set in a dark silver hoof ring glittered. "Eliminate? It es as, how do you es say, a difference without distinction. Nice trophy. Be proud."

I felt my cheeks warm as I closed the jackknife with a click and I dropped it into my saddle bags. I realized two things. I had been pickpocketed by the colt with the dipper cutie mark.

Dipper cutie mark. Naturally.

Second, she'd shaken me enough that I'd forgotten about queuing spells and had just lost an excuse to keep a spell in-horn.

"Have been looking for an especial enforcer for what es seems like years. Have been grooming you for that position."

"Grooming?"

"Training." She shrugged. "Been your patrona. Look how well you have done. You have trained under an es series of my lieutenants. Impeccable work, but you made sure they knew who was boss. With what I learned about the hedge healer, I realized rode two of them."

"Three," I blurted before better sense prevailed over the shock of her words.

"The mare? Es sneaky, hija. The two of you."

"Consensual."

"Legal definitions and prosecutors might disagree. The mare. Huh?"

"Skin and nerves. They all function the same." I shrugged. "It's meaningless. Occasionally, I have an urge to pee, too."

She gave a quick snort. "Good at getting what she wants."

"Good at handling situations," I corrected. That was all it had been. Tactical. Effective.

"Granted. And can fight. Cyclone Beaujangles—"

"You?"

She had sat. She used both hooves to gesture in the air when she said, "What? You see my cutie mark, yes?" She pointed at the drop of blood on her flank for emphasis.

"I don't like to hurt ponies."

"What you did to him both times was an es sight to behold. You ensured it hurt."

"He attacked me, both times."

She smiled, showing bright white teeth. Surprisingly, they looked sharp. Wait! She had canines, very small ones. Two pair of fangs like a wolf beside otherwise normal pony dentition.

She persisted, "But you enjoyed hurting him? Both times."

"Fighting, yes. Hurting... not really."

That merited me a smirk, but then a nod. "Lack of brains in an es stallion is an abomination. Beaujangles needed to be put down. Brains in a mare, your brains, they are especial. You would not go around breaking the equipment for the thrill of it. Es so useful in an enforcer. You would be es so good at it."

I shook my head. "I think I understand what you mean by an enforcer, but when I fight I'd rather protect ponies. If you don't want a bodyguard..."

Silence continued between us for a palpable half-minute. For my part, I wondered if she would really let me go if I refused her offer.

Then I thought... Did it matter?

If she decided to press me, it would be my biggest challenge, yet. I'd gotten reasonably good with Force, and I was pretty certain I knew the proper vectors to get me somewhere in the waiting room without incidentally targeting a sofa, a wall, or high in the air, any of which would cause the spell to fail.

"She es smi-ling," she pointed out in a sing-song voice that caused my ears dip back.

She scared me. I flattened my expression and narrowed my eyes.

She added, "I really want you."

My heart raced in response.

"If you want to be a bodyguard, I will es settle for that. Es since that day you made a foal of Trigger, failed to knock horse es sense into Mustang, and supplied me an inroad into the Pommel Gang, I've been es seeing you've gotten every opportunity. I am not going to waste effort by insisting on making you to do es something you will not do."

"That... That's generous of you." Was I getting the job?

"¡Por supuesto! Es so, what do I call you?"

"Grimoire, when I am working."

"When not? Gelding? I haven't the huevos for that verb to have meaning. Let us es see? Es Starlight es Starbright, it is a foal's name, yes?"

"Hey."

"Es verdad. Ah, look how her eyes would es sparkle in the moonlight. How about es Starlight Glimmer?"

"Let's stick with Grimoire," I shot back.

"One day you will be comfortable with me and my teasing, but, yes. Another concession, Grimoire, hija."

She reached into her pocket again and I flinched.

She didn't face me, but continued speaking around something she held in her lips. "A concession for a concession. Answer me this: What kind of pony, neigh, what kind of unicorn who can learn to teleport joins an es syndicate when she owns an infinite, how you say, honeypot like this?"

A bronze and copper rectangle glittered at the right edge of her mouth. The rune noticed my gaze and a green spark ran the length of the crossed H shape.

My command card.

I did not need the card. I did not need her line of questioning, either. Frankly, it spooked me back to my senses. I began casting Teleport.

A pony tackled me from the left. Feathers slapped me in the face, poking me in the eyes as forelegs wound around my withers, hooking my right foreleg.

Tears blurring my vision, I took advantage of the momentum of the shove. I rolled right, intentionally kneeling, using his attempt at compensation to throw the pegasus before landing on his rib cage. (Grape had eventually forgiven me and given me some very personal tutoring.) The pegasus coughed the air out of his lungs as we slid toward the edge of the stage. I cast Push to keep from being raked by his rear hooves. He ought to have been more protective of his wings—

Another pony piled on before I could poke the first's wing joint with my horn. This stallion had barreled in from a hiding place in the curtains from my left. I managed to punch a hoof into his stallion parts, then kick him off when he curled up with a strangled whinny.

The pony conducting this violent orchestra jumped back. "Don't leave, yet, hija."

I flopped like a fish that had inadvertently jumped onto a boat, banging the persistent pegasus against the floor again and again, getting him to release me as I tried to stand, but a third pony galloped from behind my prospective employer. This mare had had time to evaluate my actions. Though I Pushed at her, she flattened herself and slid as I got my hooves under me. With the pegasus stallion swatting my flank with a wing, the mare dove underneath me, sweeping my legs, upending me and throwing me forward.

I was no gymnast. I transformed Push to a blue-green Shield across the floor just in time as I fell. My knees and my jaw bounded off the magic cushion.

I sprang back up, straining my shoulder muscles as a fourth pony landed on my back. I tried to buck, but the pegasus tackled me again and the mare had turned around and grabbed my flank.

Two earth ponies weigh a lot. Still whimpering, the unlucky stallion joined the pony calzone with me as the lavender aubergine filling and immobilized me, standing. I squirmed to no avail.

In desperation, I switched to Teleport.

"Really, I thought better of you," the mare in charge said, approaching me despite my glowing horn. "I am planning to let you choose whether to work for me or not, so there's no need for you to leave before I make my proposal."

I grunted trying to push a pony, any pony, off. I kept casting, but the numbers failed to keep spinning, the wish predicate kept addressing a non-temporal reality, and the equations kept sliding out of balance. I got a spray of sparkles from my horn.

"I know enough about Teleport to know you cannot cast if you have to teleport everypony hugging you." She touched my horn with the pink frog of her hoof. The shock of the soft pad caused me to lose all my prep. "I gave the es spell to White Towel to give to you, after all. I had to learn Old Ponish to understand it. And I can do analytic calculus."

From another pocket, she extracted with a hoof a small pamphlet bound by slats held together by rings of filigreed silver. I accepted the sacred thing in my magic. By the light of my aura, I saw an aged relic covered with runic lettering. Had my Old Ponish been better, I might have been able to decipher the cover. The original shellac had worn off or disintegrated, replaced by the polish of centuries of dust, hooves, and lips. The parchment inside looked considerably newer, but Marlin the author wouldn't have been born for at least a century.

I recognized the copied pages.

Our eyes met. The irises in her brown eyes looked enormous, then they pulsed and for an instant flattened vertically. Was stress making me see things?

I blinked and noticed she held out an upturned hoof. I sighed as I gave the pamphlet back and she tucked it away.

I relaxed. Commensurately, the other ponies stopped pressing at me, but remained in contact. Somepony knew how to incapacitate a unicorn without badly hurting her.

She waved her muzzle at me, with the command card in her lips.

"Take it," she said, meaning me. She trusted me again to grab it in my magic and I did.

She spat before adding, "Leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The White Windigo of Canterlot Mountain crafted that object, and she gave it to you. Why?"

"Windigo?"

"A creature that leaves destruction and despair in her wake. She has had enough blood on her hooves throughout her history and that of my tribe that she should be called the Red Windigo."

"Celestia?"

"Her name es like poison to those ponies of my land who properly learned the history of the es sacred mountain that she es stole. Why do you have this? Why have you not used it?"

I glanced at the red earth pony and green pegasus stallion to either side of me in the gloom.

Carne Asada waved them off me. "I trust she is not leaving." She did this while I still held the command card in my magic.

That didn't mean I didn't begin targeting Teleport.

I said, "The alicorn wants her tools. It wasn't the first time she tried to make me one of them."

"Yes, I can es see why." Her brown eyes flicked pointedly at my horn, implying Teleport.

"She was casting on Castle Way and her magic fascinated me so thoroughly, I started emulating it. She noticed. Luckily, she had to fly off to Mount Aris—"

"Ah, yes. Some yeti es stallion who es styled himself es Storm King failed a naval assault on the Hippogriffs thanks to her. Pity. Es sold him keels from the Baltimare es ship yards. Arranged es spears from a Hooflyn supplier for the Hippogriffs. I try not to take es sides, yes?"

"There are details I don't want to know."

"Es good. Plausible deniability. I understand well."

"Is that what it's called?"

"Why do you have—?"

"A royal guard insisted on giving it to me. It wasn't her. I haven't—" I was going to say used it, but I had with Miss Maple. "—cashed it in because I don't want to be her tool."

"Makes es sense. Especially considering what it es says."

"You know? How? You couldn't have had it for more than a minute or two—" I growled and rapped my forehead with a hoof. "You've been through my things before!"

Carne Asada nodded. "It is es simple spell to read it. Graduates from the Windigo's Gifted Unicorns school do work for me. Hearing her voice gave me chills. She said—"

"Don't!"

"Don't?" She tilted her head. "I-I-It esss es very interesting."

"Not. Interested. That artifact reminds me of the power she holds and that none of it can capture me," I said, and I dropped the piece of metal into my saddlebags. "I don't want her filthy words in my head."

I used the word filthy. That was the type of word you used with somepony who empathized with what you thought. This mare of all the ponies in the world understood me.

"You come well recommended by her—"

I narrowed my eyes.

"But, es so be it. We don't like the White Windigo, yes?"

I nodded, but glanced around me. Her bodyguards had retreated from my peripheral vision. When she didn't react, I moved my neck, cracking it. We stood alone.

Of course, I didn't believe we were truly alone for a moment. I smelled a medicine-y tea scent on her breath, she was was that close. I could lead with a right jab and clean her clock before she could dodge.

I remembered what Safe had said. Blew up a bridge and framed her brother-in-law. She liked to scare ponies. In one word: Crazy.

"Hija—"

I mimicked her word. "'Eee-juh,' what does 'Eee-juh' even mean?"

"Girl, filly, my daughter. A familiar nickname. Hija—Grimoire, before I offer you a job as my bodyguard, I want you to know something."

"I'm listening."

She touched her chest. "For years I've wanted one unobtainable thing. If that's the only thing I win from you today, it will be enough. Since I took control of the es syndicate, I've offered unicorns that showed magical potential the Teleport spell I showed you. You see, the White Windigo for all her power and glory is es still a pony. She eats, she sleeps, she mates, she breathes, and performs all the bodily functions all ponies do. She and only she can cast this es spell today. Grimoire, I want to know how it feels."

"Are you asking me to teleport you?"

"You teleported Safe. I am es so envious I could k—"

"Don't say it."

"Es still envious. Please." She actually batted her eyelashes. Not the best look on a middle-aged mare that looked undefinably foreign and physically scary. She added, "I watched you. You measured each step, keeping track of the entrance, the height of the stage. Already prepared for a quick exit, yes? Please, take me with you."

My gut told me this would be the first and last time any pony, save perhaps a lover or her aged mother, would hear the word "please" pass her lips.

I wasn't against it. A glance would confirm the length of the waiting room and things like whether it was actually an L-shape. From that, I could re-vector and cast, hitting the cobbled street at a full gallop.

"Okay. You won't like it, though."

"Let me judge that."

"It feels impossibly cold and is black as a Windigo's soul. If you open your mouth or try to breathe in-between, you'll cough the air from your lungs and feel strangled."

The mare nodded.

"Okay, then. Really, it's very unpleasant."

She tilted her head and gave me a half-lidded frown.

I looked to the exit door, finding it in the gloom. I saw the pegasus' perch where stage lighting would hang and said, "I don't want to be mobbed after you reappear."

"Nopony will mob you," she said, then louder, "right?"

Somepony directly behind me in the curtains said, "No mobbing, promise."

I snorted and caught myself. With the weight of four ponies gone, my equations quickly balanced. I kissed the wish predicate and let the Celestia codicils simplify my numbers. A whirling rainbow of digits orbited me brightly, becoming streaking afterimages, making it hard for me to see at all.

Could a pony looking into my eyes see a bright light leaking out?

"We have to be in contact," I said as I reached out to touch her. I decided it was more polite to touch her cape instead of her bare fur.

What I felt at her withers wasn't muscle.

I felt a wing joint.

I almost gasped, but caught myself. As a pegasus, she was a large pegasus. She would be hollow boned, which would mean I would have miscalculated our barycenter and pulled more splendors from my reserves than necessary to power the spell (Broomhill Dare had taught me that). We would overshoot by a pony length. Each hoof length discrepancy would equate to a centi-Celestial of mass.

Science.

"Here goes," I whispered. I'd tuned the vectors beyond my usual crafts-pony care and felt reality become impatient as the physical laws of nature warped and our coefficient of mass went infinite all along an arrow line.

The world shifted five degrees to the right like a gear in a clock.

Time slowed and I saw Carne Asada's eyes widen very slowly. A blue-green supersonic shockwave crept out from our (indeed offset) barycenter like a bubble emerging from the surface of a pot of warming honey. Lightning spidered across the apparitional surface as it grew beyond our sequestered mass and the mathematics went irrational.

Absolute darkness.

Frigid cold.

The feel of a pony beneath the frog of my hoof. A sense of companionship.

Bang!

We reappeared in the waiting room.

Carne Asada flung herself away with a squee of amazement. "Aaeeeiii!" she cried, suddenly prancing about like a pony my age might. "Fabulosa!"

At the same time, another pony shrieked so loudly that my heart almost stopped.

I spun around. I found Broomhill Dare having flung herself off one of the reclining sofas and in the process of knocking aside one of the chairs. A reflexive orange Shield formed in front of her as her glasses landed somewhere behind her

Carne Asada couldn't care less about the commotion. Frost steamed off her fur and mane, and I could see her half flapping sequestered wings. Her couture cape had been hemmed to contain and hide them, but at any moment I expected a feathered appendage to rip free.

The purple pegasus guard burst out of the auditorium first, followed by a green earth pony whose entrance shoved the pegasus forward and flat on his stomach.

The butler opened the door and peered in.

All eyes were on Carne Asada.

Perhaps it was the sheer pressure of so many gazes that did it, but she suddenly sobered. Her smile remained beatific.

"Again!" she said when she met my eyes with her sparking brown ones. She pointed a hoof to Broomhill Dare and said, "You, follow us inside. Leaves, ask our other guest in."

"Yes, My Lady."

"Grimoire?"

I nodded, but looked where I'd landed and gauged the overshoot. The obvious pegasus weighed about 20% less than I did, even with extra appendages. I glanced at the room, noting it was both L-shaped and narrowed toward the audience hall. I had my calculation if I needed to effect a 1-2 escape later.

"Ready."

"As you Es-questrians es say, I was born ready."

We popped out slightly closer to her desk. The exit pop barely echoed, and the entrance pop followed at the speed of sound. Again, Carne Asada pranced about, her tail high, clearly thrilled as frost steam rose above her. I shuddered. I didn't mind teleporting. It had its uses, but finding it fun ranked at the bottom.

Broomhill Dare entered the throne room, but stood there with her ears flattened sideways and her head crouched, adjusting and readjusting the black frames on her muzzle as if she could hide behind them. She stood there until Safe trotted in behind her. The orange pony's ears went back when she turned and saw him. I clearly heard a growl. They gave each other an unhappy look.

Safe trotted into the light of the torchère lamp, Broomhill Dare hesitantly following. Carne Asada stood beside me and did not invite the ponies up.

As she inhaled to speak, I interrupted. "Do I get the job?"

Her eyes met mine. She had a toothy smile that warned me that the gears were moving rapidly inside her head.

She sidled closer to me and said, "My little caballita, you need to learn to read me better." Before I could more than flinch, she had leg over my withers and she hugged me to her side. She was warm and I could feel her bound wing. It felt very bony as if it lacked plumage, which might explain why she kept it hidden.

She faced her supplicants. "Mi hijita, Starlight Glitter, es my new point bodyguard."

I was so shocked, I almost blurted Glimmer. Neither were good. Didn't like the familiarity of her words—or her, despite getting the job. I sensed challenges ahead on many levels, but I didn't push her away. Why? Was I startled? Intimidated?

Carne Asada continued, "When I travel, she goes with me. Safe?"

"Yes, Doña," ears forward.

"Four ponies pinned her. That is not acceptable. You need to train her more, and train her team to keep her free es so she can look after me. Understood?"

His ears flicked as he nodded.

"As for my most creative enforcer—"

Broomhill Dare's ears flattened back and she stepped back, tail swishing worriedly. Barely audibly, she said, "I am not an enforcer."

"Who pays your tuition at that pricey university?"

"You do, C.A."

"It takes an es certain type of magic to convince a pony to fall off a building."

"I didn't convince—"

To me, Carne Asada said, "So modest, that mare. A stallion from the Pommel Gang hijacked an—let us es say—expensive agricultural es shipment. He laid low in Prancetown."

"Please don't—" she begged.

"My little witchy pony bought him extra cider at the bar and later gave the wobbly foal a broom ride to the roof of a high building."

Broomhill Dare sat hard, head down so her poofy mane hid her face. Her glasses clattered to the floor. Safe looked down at her, his ears flicking as he tilted his head. For that matter, I tilted my head, too. I'd met Safe at a restaurant that Broomhill Dare had recommended. The Red Noodle. I'd noticed recently poured cement entering, and had seen the impression of broomstick with hooves centered over it. My landlady had said her former tenant had fallen off a building.

Without thinking, I said, "My flat?"

Broomhill Dare nodded with a low moan.

There was that enmity she and Safe had shown that day I'd pulled the wagon with him on it into Prancetown. I added, "You're married, aren't you?"

"Not really," the pair stated practically in unison, then glared at each other.

Carne Asada said, "Except when convenient, like last weekend. All of you," she nudged my shoulder, "remember: no foals. It's the rule. That es said, Dare, I know you want to es study, and I need you to get better, so that's okay."

"Our agreement."

"Schooling for doing jobs. Simple, yes? You'll make a great enforcer one day, since mi hijita has refused to fill the position. In the meantime, she needs to learn how to reflect those heat beams you unicorns can launch. Shield Mirror, right? When I travel, Glitter and I travel; you attend us. Es see what she is doing wrong. Correct her. She is especial to me. Understood?"

"Yes, C.A."

"Hija. Go find your team. Tell everypony they are promoted to senior positions. More bits for everypony, you too, Dare, Safe. Yes? Understood?"

Carne Asada stepped back to her desk and my cloak fluttered loudly in the silent theatre as it fell into place. Like that; interview over; dismissed.

An awkward reunion followed in the waiting room afterward.

Author's Note:

Next: While fixing up personal problems with her team, Starlight realizes why she hates Celestia so much.

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