Octavia's Eleven

by Tumbleweed

Chapter 7: Conspiracy

Drake Diamondback's messenger was the most terrifying dragon I'd ever seen, which is saying something. Wicked scars from untold battles covered his green scales, the most notable of which was the stump where his left arm should have been. He made up for it with his hugely muscled right arm, the tendons shifting beneath the scales like steel cables. The other dragons kept out of his way, no doubt on account of his angry, brow-furrowed glares and occasional snorts of flame. Diamondback's messenger carried his long, serpentine body in a loose 's' shaped curve, like a cobra poised to strike.

“Follow me.” The one-armed dragon growled, and stalked off down the street. Princess Twilight followed him, with Spike and myself following. The rest of the crew stayed with the Interlocutor, doing a booming business in ticket sales.

I tried (with some success) not to gawp too much at the bizarre sights Spitespire had to offer. It's one thing to find oneself in a new city, but it's another thing entirely when that city is populated by irate-looking saurians, some smaller than Spike himself, others as huge as houses. The vast discrepancies in size between the dragons led to some rather odd turns in architecture, with smaller dragons taking up residence in birdhouse-like structures attached to larger houses. I use the term 'house' loosely, of course-- most citizens of Spitespire lived in rough-hewn tunnels carved into the volcanic rock.

The largest of the tunnels was set into the base of the Spitespire itself. The one armed dragon led us through a cavernous tunnel, which finally led to a palace-sized chamber, lit hazily from a cratered hole in the ceiling. And in the center of it all was the second most terrifying dragon I'd ever seen.

Drake Diamondback was aptly named-- countless white gems were embedded into the scales along his back, twinkling away like he'd decided to start wearing a constellation. He sat atop the obligatory heap of gold and riches, his long body coiled around it, keeping every little coin and bauble in place.

“Hi! I'm Twilight Sparkle!” Princess Twilight said. “These are my friends Spike and Flash Sentry-- It's a pleasure to meet you, Mister Diamondback!”

“It is.” Diamondback said in a cool and cultured baritone. “I trust The Burninator* has treated you well?”

Princess Twilight blinked. “The what?”

“My assistant.” Diamondback rumbled, and nodded his long head over at the one-armed dragon who showed us in. “He doesn't come cheap, but there's no dragon who gets things done like he does. Even if he likes to get a little ... rough, from time to time.” Diamondback's lips pulled back, showing off his savagely sharp smile.

“Oh, uh. No. Everything went fine.” Princess Twilight said.

*Until now, The Burninator, a famed one-armed dragon warrior, had been thought to be legend, the sort of thing reserved for old dragon ballads and the like. Sentry's account here is the only confirmed non-fictional appearance of The Burninator figure. It's entirely possible that The Burninator seen here only modeled himself after previous legends, but Sentry's physical description (particularly the mention of only one arm) matches up with the surviving songs and graffiti doodles from the period.

“I see.” Diamondback drummed his claws upon a pile of gold ingots. “So tell me, what brings you all the way to Equestria?”

“I'm glad you asked!” Princess Twilight said. “Spike and I have actually come to the Dragon Lands on a Friendship Mission! We're just here to help!”

“Friendship.” Diamondback said. “I've heard of it. It's rather ... quaint.”

“Quaint?” Princess Twilight said, indignant.

“It's a very ... mammalian concept.” Diamondback grinned. “I'm afraid I can't see the appeal. I do not have friends, Princess. I have vassals.”

Behind us, the Burninator made a vaguely affirmative snort.

“That's terrible!” Princess Twilight said. “There's nothing 'mammalian' about friendship-- Spike here is living proof!”

“Yeah!” Spike said. “I'm friends with everybody! Even dragons! I was even Dragon Lord for like five minutes before I gave it to Princess Ember!”

And that set Diamondback to laughing, loud enough I could feel it reverberating through the rock floor of the cavern. “Oh. Oh. Thank you.” Diamondback wiped crocodile (dragon?) tears from the corner of his eye. “I haven't laughed that hard in a century.”

“Hey!” Spike said. “I was being serious!”

“Which is why it was so amusing.” Diamondback's neck stretched out like the swinging of a crane as he moved to peer at Spike and Princess Twilight (myself, I made it a point to stay at the fringes of his field of vision, in case I needed to make a speedy retreat). “I heard about the Gauntlet of Fire. But didn't you notice all the dragons who answered Torch's call were mere whelps like you?”

“I ... thought it was always like that?” Spike murmured, and fell back a step.

“You poor thing. Raised by mammals.” Diamondback said. Princess Twilight bristled at the derisive statement, but Drake ingored her. “You really don't understand. A Dragon Lord's rule is based on strength, not 'tradition.' Torch claimed to be Dragon Lord, but he's honestly a laughingstock to any dragon older than a few centuries. I could have crushed Torch ages ago-- or even Ember, now –and seized the title of Dragon Lord for myself. But.” Diamondback held up a pointed claw for emphasis. “I don't want to. I don't need to. Here, I have carved out a kingdom of my own-- and better yet, I've got plenty of vassal dragons to serve me, and to make me even richer.”

“There's more to life than gold and jewels.” Princess Twilight said, full of her characteristically determined naivite.

“You're exactly right.” Diamondback said with a fangy grin. “It took me a long time to realize it, but eventually, realized that any idiot can dig gems out of the ground. That's when I started ... collecting. Eventually, I started enlisting the other dragons around the Spitespire to serve me. I give them gold, and they bring me treasures.”

With that, Diamondback slithered to the side, circling around the edge of the cavern. I couldn't help but notice maneuver put him neatly between me (and Spike and Princess Twilight, I suppose) and the exit. No doubt intentional on Diamondback's part-- though he looked more interested in showing off his loot instead of eating us.

Several cubbyholes had been cut into the wall opposite the doorway-- they'd been hidden by Diamondback's bulk when we first came in. Like an exhibit at a museum, each indent held some priceless treasure: as an ornate, pony-scaled crown of platinum wire, or Octavia's famed cello, or (most attention-grabbing to me), a sizable oak barrel bearing the Chateau de Cheval insignia painted on its side.

With a sinking sensation in my belly, I realized the hot, arid atmosphere of Drake Diamondback's volcanic lair must have been hell on the wine's aging (with all the tunneling the dragons did, you'd think someone would have the sense to build a proper wine cellar). Just another footnote on Diamondback's long list of crimes, I decided.

Princess Twilight, however, fixated on one of the less impressive looking items on display. She floated across the room, finally coming to hover in front of a battered and tarnished antique shield: the sort of thing you'd see hanging on the wall in some country squire's house. But Princess Twilight gawped at the old thing with the sort of fascination that she typically reserved for books (and occasionally yours truly).

She reached out a hoof to touch the shield, only to pull it back at the last moment. “Is that--”

“Netius, yes.” Diamondback said, smug. “It's held up quite well over the centuries, don't you think?”

“But ... how? I thought it was lost for years!”

“It was.” Diamondback's tail uncoiled, all the better to run its very tip across the pitted and tarnished surface of the shield. “It was lost in a shipwreck, some ages ago. But a sea searpent owed me a favor, and now it is mine.”

Even Princess Twilight was able to get the hint there, and she backed away from the shield. “Well, uh, you do have a very impressive collection, Mister Diamondback, but ... what if you didn't hide them here? I mean, if you put your collection in a museum, then everyone could see how impressive your treasures are? We could even put your name on a plaque somewhere for posterity?”

“Posterity.” Diamondback snorted, and the briefest puff of smoke wafted from his nostrils. “Another ... mammalian concept. 'Posterity' is just another of those vaguely useful concepts invented by shorter-lived creatures to make themselves feel better before they die. When you can measure your lifespan in centuries, it's much easier to be known in the present tense, instead of a name on a plaque somewhere. But you're of Celestia's ilk, aren't you?” The enormous dragon leaned his neck to the side in order to get a better look at Princess Twilight's wings. “You'll know what I'm talking about after the first century or two. If you last that long.”

“If I--” Princess Twilight sputtered. “Is that a threat?” She planted her hooves, and there was the faintest glimmer of her horn. How I didn't soil myself in panic, I couldn't say. Getting caught in a brawl between an ancient dragon and a dangerously brave demigoddess was one of the more terrifying scenarios that even my abundant cowardice couldn't have thought of until I found myself facing the possibility.

And yet, instead of spitting out flame or putting his serrated teeth to their intended use, Drake Diamondback just laughed.

This may have been worse.

“You're braver than I thought!” Diamondback said in a jovial bellow. “Good! You'll need it in the years ahead. But, you don't need to get yourself worked up, Princess.” The dragon waved one of his wagon-sized claws in an airy gesture. “Now that I've talked to you face to face, I can see you are entirely earnest about this thing you call 'friendship.' It's refreshing, really-- I had expected it was just a ruse to insert mammal spies into my domain, but it seems you really are here just to 'make friends,' and not using such trivial things as a pretext to spy on me. So you may go-- sing a song, give some 'hugs,' or whatever it is warmbloods do to amuse themselves. As long as it doesn't interfere with my ... ongoing concerns, I don't care what you say or do.”

Drake Diamondback slithered back into his preferred place around his hoard-- blocking access to the most valuable of his treasures, but opening the way to the exit.

“You know what, fine!” Princess Twilight sputtered. “Laugh it up now, but before you know it, I'm going to befriend you so hard you won't even know what hit you!”

“I quaver at the thought.” Diamondback settled his head down on his front claws and closed his eyes. “But for now, you may go. I'm sure you've got preparations to make before your little concert tonight. I'll look forward to seeing you there.”

“Seeing me-- what?” Princess Twilight sputtered. Before she could voice any more questions or protests, The Burninator pointedly cleared his throught behind us. I, being the most cowardly (and therefore most sensible) pony there, picked up on the cue and immediately started nudging Princess Twilight and Spike towards the exit. The two of them went along with it, at least, and a short bit later The Burninator showed us out.

“So, that went well?” I said, once we were some distance away from Diamondback's lair.

“How?” Princess Twilight hung her head low. “Diamondback just laughed at us!”

“But he didn't eat us. And you didn't cause an international incident, either.” I said.

“He's got a point.” Spike chimed in.

Princess Twilight sighed dejectedly, but she at least turned to offer me a weak smile. “Thanks for looking at the silver lining. But it's going to be impossible to get the dragons to be, well, friendly. Especially if Drake Diamondback is any indication.”

“Maybe that's why your glowy table sent you?” I said. “I mean, in my experience, whenever somepony sends you off to do something impossible, it's only because they have a high opinion of you.”

“We kinda do impossible stuff a lot.” Spike said.

“You're right.” And Princess Twilight's smile grew more genuine-- dazzling, even. “When something is really hard, that just means you've got to buckle down and try even harder! Thanks for reminding me! Now, come on, we've got some friends to make!”

A surprisingly large crowd of surprisingly large dragons gathered around the Interlocutor's stage for the sake of the concert. After talking to Diamondback, I figured they were more interested in Octavia's Stal than in the music coming out of it. Princess Twilight tried to make small talk with the various reptiles, with little success. At least, there were no sudden teary embraces or confessions of friendship. Personally, I was just happy none of the dragons tried to eat us. That's about as close as I get to optimism. Even still, I steered the good Princess clear of the larger and meaner-looking reptiles-- Drake Diamondback chief among them.

Princess Twilight gave up on trying to connect with the audience once the curtains parted. The two of us flew back to the Interlocutor and found a spot to watch from the upper deck. The shadow of the Interlocutor's airbag concealed us from view, and we were positioned at just the right angle to see little glimpses of goings-on backstage.

Three spotlights flared to life, one each for Lyra, Octavia, and Carrot Top. Bearing instruments and bow-ties, they looked more prepared for Carneighy Hall than for the Dragon Lands. There was a little grumbling and muttering from the dragons themselves, but they shut up after the first couple of notes.

Music soothes the savage beast, as the saying goes. But, having faced far, far too many savage beasts over the years, I'd much rather have a loaded crossbow or at least a heavy rock in lieu of an instrument. (Unless, I suppose, it was something solid enough to be used as an impromptu club-- a bassoon, perhaps?).

And yet, Octavia and Lyra (and whatever recording Vinyl Scratch used to 'help' Carrot Top perform) were able to keep the very definition of a 'tough crowd' interested as they went through one classical Equestrian song after another. And, perhaps more impressively, they got my attention to boot.

As a proper gentlecolt, I'd visited any number of operas and symphonies back in Canterlot. Of course, as a proper gentlecolt, I was usually more interested in partaking of the open bar and/or canoodling with whatever particular sweetheart I'd brought along with me. But, there on the Interlocutor, there wasn't any liquor immediately at hoof (throwing the brandy into a dragon's mouth likely didn't help), and I certainly didn't have any intention to canoodle Princess Twilight Sparkle, lest I find myself freezing my pinfeathers off in Yakyakistan.

And so, I leaned against the railing, and watched Carrot Top play.

Carrot Top's musicianship was about as authentic as my heroism, which made it all the more impressive. I mean, any fool can practice for years and years to master a skill, but it takes a particular kind of talent to just brazenly fake it. I smiled to myself, and added the performance to an increasingly lengthy list of secrets that only Carrot Top and I were privy to. And, of course, on a purely aesthetic level, her performance was quite a lovely thing to watch.

The spotlights turned Carrot Top's frizzy orange mane to a blazing gold, and, even at a distance I could see the subtle curvature of her tense muscles as she worked her bow back and forth across the strings of her violin. I let my gaze travel down the length of Carrot Top's side, noting just how statuesque her figure was, so long as one was paying attention ...

“Flash?” Princess Twilight nudged my shoulder, snapping me out of my reverie. “Are you even listening?”

“Oh! Er, yes?” I lied, by reflex. “But ... only partly. I was distracted. By the music. You know.”

“Well, as I was saying--” Princess Twilight drew herself up with all the gravity of an indignant teenager. “I noticed you were staring at Carrot Top.”

“You did?” My mouth went instantly dry.

“It was kind of obvious.”

“It was?”

“I just thought you should know I'm thinking the same thing.”

“You are?” I said in a very, very small voice. The baser, more creative parts of my brain immediately launched into any number of indecent (and unlikely) scenarios. Thankfully, my well-developed sense of self preservation kept me from mentioning any of them.

“I am.” Princess Twilight nodded, and turned to look down at Carrot Top. “She's not really playing violin. Look-- Vinyl Scratch turns a knob or flicks a switch every time Carrot Top starts a solo. Don't you think that's suspicious?”

“Oh.” I said. “Yes. That.” I pulled my wings close against my sides before Princess Twilight could figure out what I was actually thinking about. “I ... had some suspicions, but I didn't want to say anything.”

“Mmmhm.” Princess Twilight rubbed at her chin. “You're not from Ponyville, so you don't know Carrot Top as well as I do, Flash.” I managed not to break into laughter. Barely. The Princess went on. “I've never seen her play violin-- much less on the level of Lyra or Octavia-- something doesn't quite add up here ... “

“Maybe it's ... stage fright?” I offered, and forced a smile despite the sinking sensation in my stomach. “I mean, she probably didn't expect her first big gig to be for a bunch of angry dragons, and ... well, there you go. Better to fake a performance than to get eaten, right?”

“Maaaaybe.” Princess Twilight said. “I just wish Carrot Top would have told us, maybe there's something we could do to help? I should talk to her once this is done.”

“Honestly, I think talking to her might make things worse.” I said, just a hair too quickly. But then, serendipity; I picked out a few choice notes from the stage below. “Whether or not Carrot Top's a master musician ... she's playing our song, Princess.”

“She's-- oh!” Princess Twilight said. “Is that the Winged Waltz?”

“It is.” I hit Princess Twilight with my most charming, most practiced smile. She didn't stand a chance. And that was before I held out a gallant hoof. “Shall we?”

“I ... I guess it couldn't hurt.” Princess Twilight blushed and looked away coyly, all of her sleuthing forgotten.

“It certainly couldn't.” I said, and swept Princess Twilight off her hooves. Literally.

Wings extended, the two of us wafted upon the warm air, more or less in time with the music below. I made it a point to keep the both of us hidden behind the shadow of the Interlocutor's balloon-- last thing I needed was the whole of the Dragon Lands gossiping about which pony Princess Twilight was smitten with. Hell, with my luck, some overly ambitious dragon would kidnap Princess Twilight (dragons did like to abscond with various princesses back to their castles, I vaguely remembered from somewhere) and then I'd be expected to rescue her. And so, in the shadows, it was just the two of us-- one of my front hooves at the small of Princess Twilight's back, the other entwined with hers. Her body was pressed close enough to mine that I could feel her racing heartbeat-- which grew even faster as she slid of hoof of her own over my shoulder--

“Wait! Stop!” Princess Twilight said.

Quick as a crossbow bolt, I flapped my wings and disentangled myself from Princess Twilight. Coward, scoundrel, and cad I may be, I'll be damned if I've ever overstepped my bounds with a lady. Much less a royal lady with a long, long line of big brothers and immortal mentors who'd have my hide if I so much as thought of anything untoward.

“Sorry!” I blurted. “I didn't mean to get, ah, familiar--”

“Not that!” Princess Twilight said. “Look!” And with that, she seized me in a somewhat familiar fashion, and whirled me about. She pointed downward with one hoof-- where, sure enough, in a shadowy alleyway, Flim and Flam were having a clandestine conversation with a dragon. And not just any dragon, mind you: even in the shadows, the one-armed silhouette of The Burninator was unmistakable. With everyone else distracted by the performance, it was the perfect place for a secretive meeting-- so long as there weren't any ponies with wings and vague notions of romance about.

“Shh!” Princess Twilight said into my ear, and yanked me along as she went to investigate. I kept quiet, and soon the two of us alighted on a chunk of rock within listening distance of the pair.

“I'm sure you'll find our offer more than reasonable.” Flim (or was it Flam?) said. I peeked over the edge of our boulder, just enough to see one of the unicorns pull an envelope from beneath his boater hat and pass it over to The Burninator.

The one armed dragon somehow got the envelope open with just his one hand-- and, after a moment to read the note, he incinerated it with a single snort of flame. As ash tumbled to the ground, Flam (or was it Flim?) held out a hoof.

“I'll take that as a yes, then?”

The Burninator just grunted.

“Wonderful! Send your employer our regards.”

And with that, the two unicorns turned and headed in one direction, while The Burninator stalked off in the other.

Princess, Twilight, in the meanwhile, could only watch in rapt horror.

“I knew it!” She gasped, and pulled me closer against her side. “The Flimflams are up to something! I don't know just what they're after yet, but I'm sure it isn't any good. If those two are left to their own devices in the Dragon Lands, it could mean an international incident ... or worse.” She shook her head, and then turned to look me dead in the eye. “We've got to stop them, Flash-- even if it's the last thing we do!”