The Changeling of the Guard

by vdrake77

Guitars, Conductors, and Coda

I spat dirt from my mouth, trying to disentangle my legs. "Again."

"Sure!" came the cheerful response. I had ingratiated myself to the Element of Loyalty at some point in this exercise, oh great joy of joys. By the time I got to my hooves, the blur of color began again and this time I managed to get a hoof out- and I flipped over the length of my foreleg in yet another movement that I was only able to determine was vaguely different before I crashed face-first into the grass and had my legs bound.

"Rainbow Dash!"

"What?! He went for a grab, I just reacted!"

I stood up, sore but thankfully not dizzy. "It... is true. I attempted to interfere with the lesson and have received an education." Here I shook my foreleg, which had gone rather numb- and now hurt. "Specifically, 'do not do that'."

"Ain't much training if you can't tell what's going on. Slow down, RD."

"Hey, he's picking up on the basics, this is going great. It's what you expect when you learn takedowns from the best." Pride burned through the mare, and once again I steeled myself at the flow of ego. Her pride wasn't even completely unwarranted; she was taking down a guardspony without breaking a sweat. "Alright, here we go!"

I braced myself for the blur, and was shocked when the pegasus crashed to the ground with a loop of rope around her barrel, and watched in mute confusion as the apple farmer hauled her in with perhaps less speed but greater determination, tying her friend's legs with a few well-wrapped coils. Now that was a trick.

Rainbow Dash blinked, tried to wriggle free, and then had the grace to look abashed. "But I've learned from the very best?"

"Flattery ain't gettin' you untied," the farmer announced, finishing her loops with precision and care. "Y'all go getting too bold and somepony's gonna get hurt. He ain't learnin' nothin, you're just showin' off. And y'all need to understand that ain't nopony but Pinkie Pie catching up to Rainbow Dash." She finished, giving me a stern glare. "Ain't no shame in accepting you ain't meant for some things."

Grass-stained and thoroughly cowed at the prospect of keeping pace with the Pink Demon, I could only lower my head. I was a sight... and the Element of Honesty was absolutely right. Hoof to hoof, I could not hope to keep up with anypony as blindingly fast as the Element of Loyalty. But... a stunning spell to her smug face would have probably worked at any given time. I tamped down the thought. This had been educational. It was unlike me to be bitter.

I refused to think more on that emotion.

"C'mon, sugarcube. Promised you dinner and Ah intend to see you collect."

"What about me?" Rainbow wiggled, trying to loosen the ropes to little avail.

"Reckon you need to cool your head. If y'all need help, y'all can just ask."

From the scowl on Rainbow's face, I expected that would be a very cold day in Tartarus.

The library was surprisingly large for a small town. I had heard it was a tree, but I had not expected it to be quite so... unusual-looking. Various enormous knots had been turned into a windows, there was a balcony coming off of one, and it all looked rather lopsided. One exceptionally ugly branch stuck out past the foliage at the top, and somepony had mounted a telescope on it. I could not say it was well-designed, but at least it was being put to decent use.

I had to admit, there was something vaguely cannibalistic about using a living tree to hold books, however. Using the living body of a thing to preserve its dead relations. Order, that was a grim thought. I strove to move past it, and finished a delicious morsel of apple pie. It helped that the innards of the tree were far too bright and cozy to be a proper mausoleum.

Twilight didn't even appear to notice me, engrossed in some new book. Deeply engrossed, I realized; her lips were moving, a habit her brother shared when he was committing pages to memory. I was loathe to bother her, but this was part of Ponyville.

"Pardon me, but do you happen to have a copy of 'Diamond Buff's Guide to Perfect Polishes'?" I hoped she would. It was an old manual, but it was considered the most informative for creating one's own glazes.

"Sorry, we have four copies that have been in circulation for five years now, three of which are overdue and one of which had only half of a library card filled out, so it's just missing. I've put out notices for all of them but honestly, if they've been gone that long they're lost in someone's attic or their personal collection. If you fill out the form by the card catalog, I'll send a letter as soon as one makes its way back or I can get another copy on loan." She flipped a page. "It's probably out of print, so I'm afraid that isn't very likely."

I sighed and nodded. "I was afraid that would be the case."

"Feel free to browse~!" the purple protege cheerfully offered. "We do have a copy of Platinum Sheen's 'Gold Gilding Guide for Spectacular Ceramics'."

My interest piqued. The only copy of that we had in Canterlot had been, unfortunately, dropped in molten gold. I was to understand that contents were fine, saved by spell of preservation at the last moment, but now the book itself was considered a work of art and thus, not available to the public. I had always been interested...

"I believe I will. Thank you, Twilight."


I turned, recognizing the voice of her sibling immediately. "Ah, Spike. How are you finding Ponyville?"

"Me? Great, but what are you doing here? Is..." the dragonling cut his eyes at Twilight, then motioned me down close. " know who, visiting?"

I would not have considered this tactful, but the Royal Messenger was as happily oblivious as ever with a new book. "Not immediately, no, but she does have vested interest in her apprentice. I am simply visiting to ensure everything is settled after the last incident."

Spike made an odd clicking noise with his tongue, flashed me a claw-sign that he'd picked up from some griffin ambassador. "Gotcha. Everypony's cool. I mean, the ursa didn't cause that much trouble."

"There was an ursa? In town?"

"Oh, yeah, Snips and Snails woke up a baby ursa- wait, you meant the thing with the dragon smoking out town?"

"I was actually talking about Zecora-"

Spike started snickering, eyes lighting with mirth. "You should have seen it. Twilight's horn was all floppy, Rarity's coat was out of control, and Flutterguy...! Applejack was so small you could put her in a bucket-"

"Spii-iiike, we're in a library-!" came Twilight's gentle admonishment from her desk.

"Sorry Twilight!" he cleared his throat, continuing in a quieter voice. "Zecora fixed everyone up, but it was pretty funny. Wish I could have gotten photos..."

"I... see. And what do you think of Ponyville so far?"

"Oh, it's great. Tons of stuff to do, I hang out with the Cutie Mark Crusaders sometimes-"

"Trying to keep them out of trouble, I assume?" Applejack had regaled me with several tales of the Crusaders' escapades, and it astounded me that the fillies, and the town, remained largely unharmed.

"Oh yeah, sure, all the time-" the youngster eagerly lied. "And then there's all of Twilight's friends... and then there's Rarity..."

I was quite taken aback by this sudden outpouring of emotion. Why, the young dragon was thoroughly smitten, but... "Rarity... the dressmaker? The unicorn?"

"Yeahhh..." Spike confirmed, dreamily. It was a wonder the little dragon didn't float off.

"...The one your sister's age," I clarified.

That knocked him out of it, and he scowled with all the fierceness he could muster. "Hey, don't make this weird, dude. There's only one Rarity, I mean. It's in the name!"

Bemused, I ducked my head. "My apologies, Spike. The young lady is fortunate indeed to have caught your eye."

"Well. I mean. She's amazing, but... I haven't, you know... told her."

Order forbid, he was half her age. At worst, that revelation would lead to a broken heart, and at best a wounded one. A few more years to harden his scales, though... I ruffled his headscales, and the dragon swatted my hoof away by reflex. "She seems to be a smart mare. She'll figure it out." And, hopefully, given time, so would young Spike.

In truth, I could hardly believe that Ponyville even had a spa. Certainly, Manehattan had them in abundance, and Canterlot had a few, but I'd never really seen the point. If I wanted a hot bath, I simply took one. But... it was supposed to be good for stress, somehow. And, if there was one thing I had acquired in abundance on this trip, it was stress. It would not do to bring it home with me.

The bell tinkled merrily upon my entry, and the proprietors cheerfully welcomed me in what I assumed to be a reasonable facsimile of a Prench accent, but without the nasal intonation typically used for all such pronunciation in Canterlot. Still, it was much less grating on the ears, and I was not about to correct them.

"Bonjour, 'allo~! Welcome to ze La~ Te~ Da~! Ponyville's premier day spa! We guarantee~ you'll be stress free~!" the pink-coated one with a blue mane sang, while the blue-coated one with a pink mane only gave me a weak smile and an abashed shrug.

"How are we to help you today, sir? I am Lotus, and this is my... musical... sister, Aloe. If you are here for ze first time, may we recommend one of our service packages?" She motioned to a list, and I eyed them curiously.

One grabbed my attention almost immediately. "The Royal Treatment?"

"But of course," Lotus agreed. "A full steam, hooficure, massage, and your choice of facial or clay bath."

I had no idea what a clay bath even was. But, I realized, if I intended to recommend a place for the princess to relax, I would have to find out. And a good roll in some mud would be rather relaxing, I decided. It had been entirely too long since I had been covered in dirt.

The clay was not what I had expected, but honestly not bad at all. Nowhere near as thick as what I traditionally worked with for pottery, but with a pleasing scent to it that left me feeling relaxed and comfortably warm, as though I were in a changeling stew. I refused to let the concept ruin this for me, but there had been too much in my head for me to truly relax. The steams were pleasant enough, but one could only sit in a hot, humid room for so long, and when it had been time for a hooficure, I had been told my hooves were almost pristine, gotten the briefest of polishes, and a somewhat embarrassed Lotus had suggested I enjoy the clays while her sister prepared for the massage. I took a deep breath and sank into the muddy embrace of the clay soup, briefly allowing my pony shape to falter and feeling the heated clay-water soak into my changeling joints, through the holes in my legs, and around my wings.

This, I decided, might actually be better than a cocoon.

Luckily, I maintained presence of mind to assume my normal form as soon as Aloe came to inform me that I could receive my massage 'whenever', though the flame of transformation had the side effect of creating a thin shell of 'changeling' out of dried clay. I took care to crush and return the clay to the bath as soon as possible, thankful it had not been noticed.

The massage, unfortunately, did nothing for me.

"Monsieur, please, you must... relax," the pink earth pony grunted, shoving her hooves into my shoulders. "This much stress, non, it is unheard of. It should not... be!" She took a deep breath and jabbed both hooves into my upper back, trying to work what she had to think were bunched muscles.

"I have been rather relaxed," I informed her, a bit testily. This had been going on for fifteen minutes, and frankly I was beginning to think 'massage' was some pony insanity. The mare was compressing my shell under my disguise, and it did not feel particularly pleasant or unpleasant, simply... a thing that was happening. Her focus on my back made breathing difficult, and I did not like it.

"Hup!" she responded, and I found the spa pony trodding upon my back with all fours. Again, not an improvement. "I do not understand, zis is... you are so tense, it is frightening."

I should have never relaxed my shifted shape in the baths. Foolish, really. And I was feeding upon her stress, which was, if anything, making me stressed, which I was sure was only making her more stressed. Finally, I sighed. "I can think of something that may help."

"At zis point, I shall do anything," Aloe swore, and I finally smiled.

"Oui! Oui! Right 'zere, is magnifique~!"

"Aloe! What in Celestia's name!?"

The spa pony froze "Lotus! Zis... zis is not what it looks like! Ooh, s'il vous plaƮt, do not stop!" Her body arched.

I obliged, continuing to focus on the pony's back. This was very informative. I was pushing at one section of her spine, felt a hint of pain, followed by vast relief as she slumped back into the table. I made a note of it, through an almost drunken haze. This was far better than receiving a massage.

This only served to outrage her sibling further. "You are getting a massage from one of our clients!" She sputtered, face reddening. Her accent seemed to have slipped slightly. Her voice was very pretty, regardless.

"'e has magic hooves!" Aloe announced. "And it is like 'e can find every tense muscle and hurt, and with just a bit of instruction, it goes away~ my hocks have never felt so good."

The pastel blue mare shook her head in open-mouthed despair. "But... Mr. Hooves, I deeply apologize, this is absolutely unprofessional of her-"

"I disagree. I find I do not much enjoy being on the receiving end of this." I placed my hooves to Aloe's shoulders, twisting gently until there was a soft pop and a gasp. Excellent. "But I have always been at my most relaxed when working with my hooves. I found this to be wonderful."

"But... but...!"

"But... I believe my time to be over. This was an experience I am not likely to forget, and I thank you both for it." I bowed to the blue mare, gave the pink one a pat, and began trotting out. Still, I caught a faint words as the door closed.

"Sister... sister... we must hire a stallion. A big strapping one, mares will pay for this, I promise you-"

Ponyville Spa was receiving a thorough recommendation. I couldn't remember the last time I had felt this good. I would return to Canterlot thoroughly physically refreshed. I imagined Celestia would greatly enjoy it.

I could not wait to get back to work.