As the duel between Gavian and Thunderbolt unfolded, Gilda was surprised by how rapt it held not just the attention of their human guests, but her own.
Given she’d already seen it once during her previous visit, she couldn’t fathom it would be that compelling to her. But as a five-year old cub, she hadn’t really been able to comprehend what was happening or what was said, other than that there was a pony and griffon fighting for reasons she didn’t understand, and that they spoke with funny words and accents.
It was also hard for her to follow, watched through the eyes of an eagless who’d temporarily turned herself into a pony as a means of disguise—something she had far too much pride to ever do, never mind the fact that polymorph potion was unavailable to the general public.
And that one time she and Rainbow had gotten hold of some by breaking into a Cloudsdale potion shop didn’t count, given they’d been sixteen and soused on stolen zap apple cider—a controlled substance in the Kingdom whose possession was illegal given its inhibition-shattering effects—at the time.
She could just barely remember that they’d found the potion in a secret compartment in the back, and then drunkenly decided to use it to switch races on a mutual dare. Unfortunately, she’d been so inebriated she couldn’t recall what they looked like or what it felt like after; only that they’d been discovered by the shop owner passed out in the backroom.
Worse, she’d been left very achy and sick for the next several days, suffering a severe hangover and magical withdrawal symptoms from the exotic cider and transformation potion after.
It had all earned her and Rainbow a three-day stay in the hospital followed by probation from a Cloudsdale Juvenile Magistrate for breaking and entering, as well as illicit magical substance possession. He sentenced them to community service at the Weather Factory cafeteria, which meant everything from peeling potatoes and carrots to cooking Cloud Creole and other lunches for the workers.
But such memories were quickly lost as the duel began. This time, she comprehended everything she couldn’t before, from an initially frightened Gavian’s appearance before a hostile crowd—she never dreamt she’d hear such vile invective hurled by ponies, even those from seven centuries past—to the pitched blade battle that followed between two incredibly overpowered opponents.
It was watched over by Captain Typhoon, the then-Commander of Celestia’s Royal Guard and a minor legend in his own right. But he did not take part in the duel, which was fought strictly between Gavian and Thunderbolt. They were both astonishing fighters, each moving at speeds and wielding abilities that would even put characters in certain Neighponese mangas she’d seen to shame.
While Thunderbolt came about his otherworldly abilities naturally, Gavian had them imparted by something odd the Captain did to him; the latter had delivered a series of sharp taps with his hooves and wingfeathers to Gavian’s body just before the duel began. Whatever it was, it instantly boosted Gavian’s combat abilities from merely elite to extraordinary, with the Captain boasting to a shocked Thunderbolt that all he’d done to the young tiercel was release his “full fighting potential!”
If it had been described that way to her before, she would have thought it way too corny even for one of those Neighponese comics. But to see it happen, it proved anything but. She also thought she wouldn’t identify that much with Gavian Ravenoff, who was a small pony-raised griffon who liked to paint—on the face of it, he sounded really dweeby, after all.
But she’d been wrong on all counts. It was an utterly surreal experience seeing it, and not just for watching it through pony eyes—the scene was darker than it would have been simply because pony night vision wasn’t as good as those of gryphons; the colors seemed a little off to her as well—but because she found herself doing something she never had before.
Actively identifying with and rooting for another griffon.
She knew the outcome, and yet her heart still raced and chest swelled with pride as she watched Gavian Ravenoff continually parry not just Thunderbolt’s blades, but his barbs. The duel quickly became as much of wits as of steel, and as the battle wore on, Gavian gradually turned both forms of attacks back on Thunderbolt. Before long, the larger stallion was visibly frustrated and uncertain, finding himself thwarted and even the crowd slowly turning against him as Gavian’s honor—Gryphon honor—shone through and won them over.
What got Gilda the most, though, wasn’t the stunning blade battles or even the war of wits that Gavian ultimately won, progressively shredding Thunderbolt’s tortured logic and goading him into his final, fateful attack—an attack in which he struck the larger stallion down mid-charge with a blindingly fast sword draw.
It was his painful past that struck a rare chord in her heart; she could hear the agony of being unloved and unwanted in his archaically-accented voice, as he explained how he’d been abandoned by his parents at age five for being too small.
For the simple crime of being unable to meet their standards for what a mighty griffon should be, they’d left him to fend for himself in a hostile world he was far too young to survive in. But survive he did, scavenging from trash piles and stealing to live until the ponies found him.
His abandonment was an utterly unthinkable act now, and yet, even as he hated the Empire for allowing it and sided with the ponies who finally gave him the acceptance and education he craved, he never renounced his race or heritage, standing fast as a proud gryphon in the duel.
In the end, Thunderbolt fell, but so did Gavian as his injuries overcame him and he collapsed to the cloud surface of the city, completely spent. She had no idea what the Captain of the Guard had done to him to enable him to fight at such a high level and great speed, but he’d done so. The playback ended with a voice narration explaining that he knew the pony Captain’s power-boosting technique could kill him even if Thunderbolt didn’t, but he went through it anyway for the sake of his race and own wounded spirit.
For as confused as she was over it as a cub, it was impossible not to be affected by it as an adult, leaving Gilda feeling a great swell of pride at the show of honor and impossible battle feat. As the memory projection faded and the firegems came back up, she found herself trembling as Fortrakt stood tall and proud beside her, staring at where the now-absent scene had been with fire in his eyes.
It was only then she thought to check on their human guests. “So, that was it! The greatest duel in gryphon history! What did you guys think of…?” Fortrakt trailed off as he looked back and saw their faces; his expression falling as he beheld theirs.
Far from awed, their audience had sat down heavily on a nearby bench intended for viewing it; Tara was shaking while Chris had to loosen his tie; his brow wet with sweat.
“Súsmaryosép!” was all Marco could say at first, making an odd crossing gesture across his chest. “Dude, that was fucking brutal!”
“And it was real…” Chris shivered, grasping Tara’s hand in what seemed like a gesture of reassurance. “It looked like something out of a movie, but it wasn’t. That really happened?” he had to ask again.
“It really did,” Gilda confirmed warily, then glanced over at Tara, who had buried her head in her other hand while Fortrakt watched her and worried. “What you saw were actual memories of the duel, pulled directly from the mind of the gryphon present—a rather invasive and unpleasant magical procedure, by the way, but one she acceded to for the sake of history.”
“Are you okay, Tara?” Fortrakt asked her, looking like he wanted to approach her but was afraid to; Gilda could well imagine he was worried that he’d accidentally upset her.
She took a shuddering breath before speaking, taking her hand back from Chris to wring it in her lap. “Yeah, just… I didn’t believe you, but Thunderbolt really was as bad as you said. Lord above, I never thought I’d hear such awful words coming from a pony. Let alone one who could toss lightning around like a fucking wizard!”
Fortrakt looked like he didn’t know what to say or do as she visibly shivered again; he moved up and extended his wing slightly like he wanted to drape it over her in what for griffons and pegasi would be a protective gesture. She was about to warn him not to, but he stopped before she could, realizing as she did that it might not be welcome. “Christ almighty, I’m not sure I wanted to see that. I’m afraid that’s going to be giving me nightmares for a while. And worse, even after all that hate and all those crimes he admitted to, Thunderbolt wasn’t killed?”
“No, but he should have been!” Fortrakt’s concern was instantly replaced with anger, his hackles raising and tail lashing. “Gavian spared him, like you saw, at the Pony Captain’s request. He recovered to fight in the newly-founded Bolt Knights, who later became the Wonderbolts.”
“So the Wonderbolts really did begin as a military force,” Marco mused; Gilda could only guess that they'd learned that during their time in Equestria but hadn't quite believed it. “To watch their performances, you’d never know it now.”
“Yes. We generally see the original Bolt Knights as not just worthy foes, but outright heroes for later helping the Kingdom in the Dragon Lord Diabla War. But for his innumerable crimes against our race, Thunderbolt is the only one of them who isn’t honored by us.”
“But… then how can the ponies possibly consider him a hero?” Tara asked incredulously.
“Because his war crimes were nothing compared to ours.” Gilda found she could stay silent no longer. “Because his good deeds outweigh his bad. Because he was far more than what you see here. And because he had every crow-damned reason in Tellus to hate us.”
Fortrakt looked up at her sharply; even the Paladins seemed to perk up and take notice of her statement. “What did you say?”
“You heard me,” Gilda said firmly, reflecting that she never thought she’d be in a position where she was defending ponies to other griffons. But she’d spent too much time in Cloudsdale to not know the story by heart.
“This exhibit ignores some important context. What it doesn’t tell you is that just three days before this duel happened, the War with Equestria began. On that day, Imperial forces launched a surprise attack, sending over two millennia—that’s two thousand—elite soldiers and assassins to strike Cloudsdale, where Thunderbolt had spent the last twelve years living in peace as a simple flight instructor for young pegasi.
“Their objective was to destroy the pony weather factory… and to kill all its civilian workers,” she emphasized, pinning Fortrakt with a stare. “You want to know how anypony could think that way, Tara? Well, the better question is, how could he not for what he witnessed just three days earlier—an Imperial massacre of unarmed pony civilians?”
Fortrakt stared at her in shock while the Paladins were frowning. “But—”
“But nothing, Fortrakt! You know what he did, but you don’t know why he did it!” She switched to Aeric and took on a scolding tone, not caring if Chris could understand her. “But I do. I lived in Cloudsdale for years and saw his statue every day in front of the entry hall at the Junior Speedsters camp!
“That’s how I know he was far more than the war criminal you claim—he’s there because he taught probably hundreds of pegasus foals to fly, and he later almost single-wingedly repulsed the Imperial attack on the weather factory, saving several centuries of civilian lives!
“And if that’s not enough, it may interest you to learn that even Gavian Ravenoff himself forgave him. Or did you not know there’s a series of pictures he painted of Thunderbolt in battle on the walls surrounding his monument at the Weather Factory?”
Fortrakt’s beak fell open and seemed to have trouble working for a moment. “But… that’s a lie!” he tried to claim. “You take that back!”
“What did you just say?” Her eyes narrowed dangerously—there were few things that could ruffle a griffon’s feathers faster than being accused of dishonesty. The Paladins knew it too, instantly turning their full attention on the pair. “I’ve seen them!”
“There will be no fighting here,” the eagless of the pair warned them ominously in Aeric. “If you wish to duel, take it outside.”
But Fortrakt ignored her. “You’re making that up! Or maybe your time in Equestria addled your mind as well as your sense of gryphon pride!”
“Okay, you are really asking for it, cub…” she warned him, her wings twitching hard.
“I could say the same to you, old crow!” He stepped closer, a desire to duel growing in his eyes. “Now take it back!”
“That will do!” the tiercel Paladin warned, thumping the back of his metal spear on the ground with a sharp sound that echoed through the antechamber. “Step back, both of you!”
“Enough,” Gilda said with a trilling growl, holding up a halting wing towards the Paladins even as she felt intense ire at somecreature other than Marco for the first time in several days. “Like he said, that will do, Second Spear. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re making a scene, so shut your beak and keep it closed. I’ll let it go only because of them, and because it’s clear you don’t know what in the crows you’re talking about.”
“What do you mean I don’t know? I know every word in this exhibit!” he tried to claim while to her relief, the Paladin pair held off at her gesture, granting her the chance to defuse the situation.
“Then you only know half the story! You say Thunderbolt was a war criminal? Well, if you tally it all up, he only inflicted a fraction of what he suffered! By the time of that duel, he had witnessed not one, but two gryphon-committed atrocities that resulted in several millennia of dead pony civilians! So I’ll say it again—as far as I’m concerned, he had every crow-damned reason in Tellus to hate us! And repay us!”
“But… but that was the Empire, not the Kingdom!” Fortrakt sputtered as the two Paladins glanced at each other again, this time in doubt and distaste over Gilda’s statement. “And that didn’t give him the right to—”
“I said but nothing! Never mind that there was no Kingdom then, put yourself in his wings, Fortrakt! Could you make that distinction between the Empire and griffons after seeing not one, but two griffon-committed slaughters of everything you loved and everypony you cherished?” she challenged, going nose to nose with him and tapping his chest with a talon.
“I know I couldn’t. And if you claim you could, then you’re either a liar or a far more forgiving gryphon than me!”
His wings and headfeathers flared indignantly; for a moment she saw a fresh desire to duel in his eyes. “Save it. We are not fighting here, and not in front of our guests. If you want to challenge me, then do it when we’re not around them and you’re thinking clearly. You are way out of line right now, so by my order, lower your hackles and stop acting like a stupid cub, Fortrakt! You’re attracting Paladin attention and scaring our guests.”
He looked up like he had just remembered where they were, seeing them staring back at him warily; the two earth griffon Paladins stationed in the room had already taken a step towards them, ready to arrest them both on the spot if they started to fight.
To her relief, the sight of them instantly chagrined him. “Yes, Decurion,” he replied, then forced his wings and tail to still as he bared his throat, switching back to Equish. “M-my apologies to everycreature here. I got a little too intense, there.”
“You think?” Gilda said derisively, turning to the Paladins to bare her throat. “My apologies to both of you as well. We’ll be leaving now.”
“I think that would be for the best,” the higher-ranked tiercel replied, still poised to intervene. “We don’t wish to arrest either of you, Decurion, or cause trouble with our honored guests. But our standing orders to prevent violence and damage to the exhibits supersede such concerns, and even your command chain.”
“Understood,” she said shortly. She then turned to Chris and spoke slowly, trying to make sure he could understand her ‘Latin’ speech. “Sorry about that. If you don’t mind, I would greatly prefer that you not repeat what I just said to your friends. As you can see, it’s still a sore point between our two races, even seven centuries later, and I don’t want too much known about my time in Equestria. Never mind why.”
It took him a few seconds to process her words; as she watched, he closed his eyes and carefully sounded out the sentences to make sure he understood her request.
In the end, he nodded once. “Intelligo,” he replied passably, then shook his head when asked by Marco to explain the conversation, saying only that they’d started speaking Latin because it was a private dressing-down. “Don’t worry, it didn’t involve us.”
“S-Sorry…” A trembling Fortrakt then apologized again, stepping forth to bare his throat hard, doubly so in Tara’s direction. “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just that I love that story and duel so much, but… I guess I didn’t think that you might not.” He slumped as he spoke.
“Hey, we get passionate about certain subjects, too,” Chris told him with a wan grin. “And it’s clear you love this one. Still, I think we’ve had enough,” he decided. “Speaking for myself, I’d like to leave now. You’ll understand that this has… been a lot to take in.”
“Leave now?” Fortrakt went crestfallen. “But there’s still so much more to see! You asked about Firefly before? She’s there!” He pointed out the door to the far end of the chamber, where Firefly and her sister Wind Whistler were displayed side-by-side in the line of champions.
“Fortrakt…” Gilda said warningly, regretting more than ever that she hadn’t stopped her junior partner from showing the humans the duel when she’d had the chance, or at least made far clearer what they were about to see first. “You heard them, and the Paladins. We’re done. If they feel up to it later, we can come back to finish the tour another time.”
“Thank you,” Tara told her, getting up to leave. “And Fortrakt?”
He froze. “Y-Yes?”
“Look, um… I don’t blame you for showing us this, but next time? Please make sure we know what we’re about to watch. Let us decide if we want to see it. Because this time… I don’t think I did.”
Every one of Fortrakt’s golden feathers drooped along with his tail. “Promise…”
The walk out of the Hall was made in silence and under the watchful gaze of the Paladins, as was their descent to the fifth level gate.
After they had retrieved their picture-taking items from the gatekeepers—she was at least pleased to see that the Paladins had obeyed her orders, as the box they were in was still magically sealed when it was brought out—they started to perk up again, at least slightly as they walked through the high-end residential district of the fourth level, with Marco asking if such sword skills as Gavian Ravenoff demonstrated were common among modern griffons.
“Nope. Never swung a sword in my life—unless you count being a cub and pretending a stick was one,” Fortrakt admitted, his tone wistful again. His earlier despondency and dark mood had vanished quickly once they exited the Hall into the late afternoon sun, though Gilda noted he was carefully keeping his distance from both her and Tara. She didn’t blame him for that, given she didn’t want to be around him just then, either.
“Believe me, I’d love to learn, but short of joining the Wind Knights, I’d have to set aside a couple of years to train, to say nothing of a few thousand Aureus to buy a proper scimitar from a professional ‘blackbird’—that’s our term for metalworkers,” he added as an aside. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll find the time when I retire as Auxiliary Guard Praetor with a full pension.” He closed his eyes and smiled.
“Sure you will. Right after I get appointed Prelate.” Gilda rolled her eyes. “To answer your question, Marco, the Kingdom doesn’t generally train soldiers in sword arts any longer outside of elite units. The reason is that although our scimitars are quite powerful, they take too much time to master.
“The average soldier fledgling can be taught to use spears, shields, and steel claws much quicker. That was actually one of the reforms Prelate Gaius implemented during the war with the ponies,” she further noted, going on to say that only the Wind Knights still generally used them, along with—it was rumored—the modern Ravens.
“And who are the ‘Ravens’?” Chris asked. “That… memory video? The inscription said we would be watching the duel through the eyes of one.” He made a face as he voiced his initial sentence, making her think he found the term very strange to say.
She and Fortrakt exchanged a look before answering. “The Ravens are a secret millennia-old griffon warrior society,” Gilda answered carefully, regretting the slip.
“Warrior? Try assassin!” Fortrakt corrected despite her warning look. “Nogryphon—or excuse me, nobody knows who they are, but it’s said they act to protect the Kingdom from the shadows, taking care of internal and external threats to the griffon race that conventional means cannot defeat. They’re supposed to be expert spies and masters of stealth and swordplay.”
“So… they’re basically sword-wielding assassins? You make them sound like griffon ninjas,” Marco mused, a smile on his face that suggested he liked the idea.
“Ninjas?” Fortrakt blinked.
“From all reports, they basically are.” Gilda recognized the term from some Neighponese comics she’d perused in the past, even as she was surprised that the humans also knew it—and then she wondered in turn why she was even surprised anymore. “Believe it or not, it’s said the ponies used to have such a group, too.”
“Sounds right out of a video game series we know. Okay, so are we considered a threat?” Chris suddenly worried as they descended the steps to the third level, to which Gilda gave him a look.
“Don’t practice dark magic, plot to assassinate the Queen, plan to release some all-consuming curse or organize a cabal to try to overthrow the Kingdom from within, and you won’t have to worry about them,” she answered with a smirk. “That’s the kind of thing they deal with.”
“I never thought I’d hear the words ‘dark magic’ or ‘curse’ spoken unironically,” Chris gave another shiver. “And what about alien visitors? Are the Ravens watching us now?” He looked around nervously.
“Even if they are, you’d never know,” Fortrakt said with a smile. “It’s not worth worrying about, Chris. But getting back to the original question, the point is that even though it’s not generally practiced any longer, swordsgryphonship is still a revered art.” He wisely changed the subject. “There are plenty of combat schools that teach it, and sometimes formal duels are still fought with scimitars. Hey, do humans have sword arts?”
“Yes. Of many different kinds from many historical cultures, but they’re no longer that useful and few practice them now,” Chris said simply, though his tone remained subdued. “Old swords tend to be collector’s items and go for big money. Hey, Marco, do you have any movies involving swordplay?”
Marco gave a chuckle. “Maybe one or two… dozen,” he finally said. “I can think of a couple our friends might like. Maybe we’ll watch one tonight. How about The Princess Bride? It has swordplay and I think we could all use some lighter fare after how intense that show was.”
“Think I’ll pass,” Tara said dully; unlike the others, she hadn’t perked up at all. “It’s a good movie, but I don’t think I’ll be in the mood for anything tonight, including company. In all honesty, I just want to go back to my room and be alone for a bit.”
“Seconded,” Chris said as they started their next descent. “Sorry, guys. Like Tara said, we don’t blame you for showing us that, but… we just weren’t ready for it and it’s going to take us a while to absorb. What about you, Marco?”
“Me? I’m fine, but if you guys aren’t…” He nodded slowly. “Guess I’ll just hang out with Reyes and the off-duty Marines tonight. You’re welcome to hang out with us if you want, Fortrakt. And you too, Decurion,” he hastily added.
“Thanks,” Fortrakt said, his tail having gone low again as he blamed himself anew for showing them the duel. “I’d like the chance to meet them more informally. And if you have another movie, I’ll watch it. What about you, Decurion?” he asked warily.
“I’ll pass,” she replied in clipped tones, planning to take the chance to strip off her tight and itchy dress uniform and soak in the tub her room at the Inn offered, giving herself a proper preening before writing her next report over a private meal. She also decided it would probably be best to keep her distance from Fortrakt for the time being, lest their tempers flare again over their earlier confrontation.
“Enjoy yourself, but remember your duty, Second Spear,” she admonished, reminding him to keep observing and spare enough attention to be able to write his own report.
“Right,” Fortrakt said shortly as they descended to the third level on their way back towards the Inn. They stopped just long enough at a convenient market stall to grab some barbecued boar and fresh hot rolls from one griffon-run stand, followed by roasted potatoes with other vegetables from a Caleponian one since none of them were in the mood to make dinner.
As they reached the Inn, the Marines started to crack some jokes at Marco’s expense again, only to stop short as they saw the dazed looks on their collective faces. The sentries then asked if anything was wrong or they needed help, to which they only shook their heads and continued inside without another word or glance.
As they reached the third floor and parted to go to their respective rooms, the last thing Gilda saw of the humans or Fortrakt was the latter giving her a glower before he followed them into their suite.
Early the next morning, Gilda and Fortrakt stood at attention in their regular uniforms in Tribune Narada’s office, in the presence of her and Ambassador Strenus again.
They had come to review their latest reports, submitted as they entered, though this time, the aides of the Tribune and Ambassador were not present. In their place was a new figure; an earth griffon eagless Gilda had never seen before, dressed in such finery that marked her as a member of a Senator’s staff.
“At ease,” Tribune Narada invited after they entered and saluted. They both relaxed, but only fractionally. “Greetings again to both of you. Just two days into your task, you have already obtained an exceptional amount of interesting information on our visitors—far more than I honestly thought possible. To this point, you have not only proven yourself worthy of your new ranks and assignment, but you have done yourselves and the Kingdom proud—a minor incident at the Hall of Heroes yesterday notwithstanding.” She raised an eyeridge at them.
“Thank you, sir,” Gilda and Fortrakt chorused; the former sensing and awaiting the inevitable but.
It was not long in coming as Strenus spoke next, even if it wasn’t over the subject she thought. “But still more is needed, and that is why our guest is here. Decurion Behertz and Second Spear Gletscher, this is Talia Tarseus, chief Succursum to Senator Pilius, who you may recall is head of the Senate’s Ipsum for Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs.”
“A pleasure,” Gilda offered a greeting and foreleg clasp on behalf of both of them—the other eagless wasn’t in the military, so she didn’t rate a salute regardless of how highly ranked a civilian she was—sensing that it shortly wasn’t going to be any pleasure at all. So, we’re being greeted in private by a Senatorial aide? There is no way in either the pony or griffon underworlds that this ends well...
“That’s her official position. But unofficially,” Narada spoke up somewhat unhappily, “she is a Senior Sparrow for the Council of Crows, charged with compiling information on humanity for use by the Queen and her advisors in negotiations with the humans.”
Despite their attention stances, Gilda looked sharply at the new eagless for a moment—the Council of Crows was the Kingdom’s intelligence service, whose agents were called Sparrows. Though their title was not that of a particularly large or powerful bird, it was meant to convey that they were outwardly ordinary and unassuming griffons who others would not notice. And for her to reveal herself…
Then SHE’S the dweeb who set this whole spying ball into motion? Gilda guessed, keeping her features carefully composed. Crows take it. The only reason she’d be here is if she wants more from us...
“Indeed I am. It is my pleasure to meet you as well, Decurion Behertz and Second Spear Gletcher. My apologies for not introducing myself sooner, but we wanted to test your dedication to duty and the quality of your data first,” she explained as she read through their latest reports with a practiced eye.
Her presence, while not physically intimidating, was still unsettling to Gilda. Her expression didn’t convey any outward emotion whatsoever; if anything, her lowered and slightly hooded eyes as well as her nonchalant posture gave her the appearance of an out-of-place accountant. And yet, her deliberate, even didactic manner of speech, to say nothing of the intensity with which she studied the documents, gave Gilda the impression this eagless was not one to be trifled with. And that a griffon crossed her at their peril.
“On the latter, at least, we have been quite pleased. Your information thus far has been most helpful to our efforts to compile information on the humans, if still incomplete. It is regrettable you have not yet been able to obtain any information on their strange weapons, but perhaps it is a little much to ask after only two days.”
The eagless was just messing with her now, Gilda was certain. Of course she’d have expected her and Fortrakt to go above and beyond for such a vital mission! As such, her pointing out the difficulty of the task was little more than a backtaloned insult, her dry delivery and emotionless manner of speech notwithstanding.
“Still, I am given some pause to wonder if your reports and efforts are being colored by… personal feelings,” she continued with a glance at Fortrakt as she scanned his latest report, who kept his face carefully composed. “Your latest offering seems a little too enthusiastic, Second Spear.”
“Well, I admit I had a good time last night, but I still related what I learned,” he answered carefully, his eyes looking slightly tired, leaving Gilda wondering how late he’d been up the night before hanging out with Marco and the Marines. “If I conveyed the first part along with the second, I’m sorry, but it’s still all there.”
“Forming personal bonds with an intelligence target is a dangerous sentiment for a field operative,” she admonished him, though she never rose to the level of showing anger. “That minor matter aside, we congratulate you both on your skill in obtaining this intelligence. Especially you, Decurion. Your analyses are refreshingly insightful and thorough—in fact, far better than most of my Sparrows in the field.
“But I fear I cannot fully praise you, given your rather glaring error in judgement yesterday.” She betrayed her first hint of emotion by waggling a disapproving foretalon at Gilda; her head shifting fractionally to one side, and then the other.
Gilda blinked. “My error?” She quickly reviewed her actions in her mind, but found no issues—aside from almost getting arrested over her near-duel with Fortrakt, that was. She looked up at Strenus and Narada, their unhappy expressions leaving her wondering if she and Fortrakt were yet going to be in trouble over it.
“If this is about what happened in the Hall of Heroes, I take full responsibility,” Fortrakt spoke up, clearly thinking the same thing.
“It is not,” she replied immediately. “That is between you and the Tribune, and not something the Council of Crows cares about. Simply put, Decurion, your order to the Paladins to secure and not allow the human recording devices to be touched while they were in the Hall of Heroes was a mistake. It was a golden opportunity for us to examine those items more closely while they were away from them, but you denied us the chance,” she explained while Gilda frowned.
“As your order bore the weight of your diplomatic command chain, it meant that the Paladins would not surrender them to us without a direct order from the Queen or a senior enough Legatus, neither of whom could be reached in enough time.”
Understanding dawned on Gilda, but despite the other eagless’s unnerving gaze, it came with no regret. “Sorry, but not sorry,” she replied, her eyes narrowing at the realization that the instructions to the Paladins to deny recording hadn’t only been a security measure—it had been at least in part designed to separate the three humans from their magical devices to allow for their covert analysis by the Council of Crows.
“My instructions were intended to preserve their trust with us, and their entire delegation’s trust with the Kingdom. Never mind that I find such tactics dishonorable, but you could have easily damaged their devices, in which case they would know that we lied to them! And they would never trust us again after that.”
“Let us worry about that,” Tarseus said in some strained patience. “And we thus ask that you rectify that error by helping us to get our talons on those devices. We wish to pass them to our magic labs and arcane theorists for analysis, so make some excuse for the humans to leave them behind again on your next trip into the city.”
“No,” Gilda replied emphatically, putting some growl in her voice. “It’s bad enough that you’re asking me to spy for you, but now you’re asking me to break their confidence and trick them? I will not do that, and if you insist, I will refuse the assignment. Even resign if I must.”
“She speaks for me as well!” Fortrakt added heatedly. “Sorry, but I can’t help it if I like them, Senior Sparrow. Regardless of our differences in cultures, they’re open and friendly and they trust us. And besides, between the amiability of their soldiers and the… reaction of their civilians to seeing the recorded duel in the Hall, they’re anything but bloodthirsty,” he recalled with a pained grimace. “So, with apologies, I just don’t see them as a threat to us.”
The spymaster looked at Gilda and Fortrakt as if they’d lost their minds, all pretense of disdainful detachment suddenly cast to the crows. “Then you are a fool, blinded by what I can only see as your wonder at their technological toys. Tell me, has it occurred to either of you that such things could be turned to more military ends?”
“It has,” Fortrakt answered evenly before Gilda could, though a single lash of his tail betrayed his growing annoyance, “and it’s also occurred to me just standing here now that the Council of Crows seeks less to protect ourselves from this new race, than use their ‘toys’ to gain an advantage over our neighbors.”
“Toys which could all be acquired through trade anyway,” Gilda finished before the Senior Sparrow could retort, giving her junior partner credit for a far larger pair of ‘balls’, as humans called them, than she had previously. She then turned to Strenus and Narada, pointedly speaking past Tarseus.
“With respect, Tribune and Ambassador, you gave me this rank and command chain telling me that it was to help the Kingdom, and I accepted them on that basis despite my severe reservations at taking this assignment. If you will not allow me to use them honorably and in the ultimate spirit of furthering an eventual alliance with this new race, then I will return them to you right now!” She raised her talons to her neck to remove it.
“Hold, Decurion,” Narada spoke up, raising a halting wing before Gilda did something she couldn’t take back. “In my view, Senior Sparrow Tarseus, her points are well-taken. And in any event, they are my soldiers, not yours to command. I will not direct them to do such a thing, and I know them both well enough by now to realize they would not obey such an order, anyway.”
“Nor will I,” Strenus spoke up, his eyes angry. “I cannot help but note, Senior Sparrow, that you did not come to me seeking an order to override the Decurion’s—I assume because you believed I would not give it, so you instead tried to go over my wings. In that, at least, you were correct—I would not. I am perfectly willing to gather information about the humans to help further the safety and security of the Kingdom, but such interests are not served by antagonizing them or giving them good cause to distrust us.
“And I must concur with the Second Spear’s assertion as well—it is starting to sound to me like the Council of Crows is concerned less about forming a new friendship with the humans than taking advantage of them!”
“Friendship.” Tarseus rolled her eyes at the word. “You really have been hanging around the ponies too long.”
“Which has taught me of its strength,” Strenus replied immediately and cooly. “I have also been around the humans for far longer than you, so believe me when I say we want them as friends, not enemies. Accordingly, I must side with the Decurion and Second Spear in this matter.
“As lead negotiator and Ambassador of this effort, I will not approve of any actions that potentially undermine our ongoing negotiations with the humans. And as the Decurion says, attempting to steal their technology when they might conceivably give it to us following successful diplomacy would certainly qualify.”
“Friendship does not defend the Kingdom, nor empty promises of peacefully acquiring vital technology in the vaguely distant future. Especially against those threats we cannot foresee,” Tarseus replied, dropping her veneer of civility.
“But since you seem to believe my motives are selfish and lacking in honor, I am authorized to say that the Crows have heard rumblings of a growing danger to the Kingdom. We believe there is an internal threat we cannot yet identify. There have been too many disappearances and odd but fleeting magical signatures that coincided with humanity’s arrival here,” she detailed. “And thus, we believe they might have something to do with it.”
“So in other words, the Council of Crows is jumping at shadows again?” Narada rolled her eyes. “Like I haven’t heard that once or twice. Or a couple dozen times before.”
Tarseus pinned her with a stare. “The Ravens are investigating it as well,” she replied, causing the Tribune to fall silent. “And I remind you that they don’t involve themselves unless they think a threat is real.”
“Be that as it may,” Strenus said with a flick of his tail, “and regardless of the timing, I fail to see how humanity would be involved. Or that even if we got our talons on their technology, that we could decipher and turn it to our ends in enough time for it to matter. So, you’ll forgive me if I’m thinking that this talk of a potential threat to the Kingdom is much more an excuse than the reason.”
“Agreed,” Tribune Narada said as Gilda couldn’t help but smile, instantly upping her estimation of the Ambassador by several levels. “Like Behertz, I agreed to this arrangement because I thought the motives behind it were both sensible and honorable. Based on what I have heard here, I am no longer certain that is the case.
“I am willing to allow the Decurion and Second Spear to continue this assignment in its intended spirit, but only if we receive assurances that they will not be ordered to act against their honor and the mutual interests of our races. And only if they agree to continue, knowing what they now do.”
Gilda and Fortrakt glanced at each other, each asking the same question. When the former saw the same answer on his face as her own, she voiced it. “If we can have the same assurances… then we will. But make no mistake—the moment I am ordered to violate the trust of our guests is the moment I quit and tell them everything. Good luck getting any information or exchange of technology from them after that.”
“The Decurion speaks for me as well!” Fortrakt spoke up forcefully, leaving Gilda wondering if he’d resolved his anger at her the previous night. “And with regards to my ‘emotional attachment,’ Maybe I do like their ‘toys’. Maybe I even like them. But that doesn’t change the fact the humans have become my friends, and I will not dishonor myself and the Kingdom by taking advantage of that friendship.”
“I see…” Tarseus glared at them. “You are correct that I do not have the authority to command you on this matter, but be assured that others do. We Sparrows remain ever vigilant and dedicated to the defense of the Kingdom. So be assured, this isn’t over yet.”
“It is for now,” Narada replied coolly, “and I expect you to tell your masters that my soldiers are not theirs to order about as they see fit. Now leave my office, Senior Sparrow Tarseus, before I summon my sentries and have you thrown out.”
The flight back from the Tribune’s office was spent in silence between Fortrakt and Gilda.
So was their landing on the third level and walking to the Inn’s entrance, and their subsequent return to their quarters for some minor grooming before beginning their latest day with the humans.
Gilda had initially greeted him with nothing more than a mutually terse nod and tail flick before going into the Tribune’s office, noting his emotions were still as raw as hers over their near-duel the previous day. They had set it aside to deal with the intelligence agent, but they were now alone with each other—and their unresolved anger—again.
After the Senior Sparrow had been escorted out, they’d had a long talk with Tribune Narada about the incident at the Hall of Heroes, which had been reported by the Paladins. They’d both apologized for their role in it, if not necessarily to each other, and though Gilda could tell the Tribune wasn’t fully convinced, she’d let it pass.
But only after a severe reprimand. “I can only let this go because it did not result in your arrest. But if it happens again, I won’t be able to brush it under the bed straw,” Narada warned them both. “You are soldiers of the Kingdom who were given a great and grave responsibility, so kindly act like it!
“You will keep your trivial personal disputes to yourselves, and you will not let them affect the performance of your duties again,” she ordered them through narrowed eyes. “Mind your tongues and your tempers at all times, especially in front of our guests. We need to present a united front to the humans, and such needs are not served when they see our soldiers squabble.”
“Yes, sir,” they both accepted her sharp rebuke, leaving Gilda feeling like she’d just been scolded by her sire. Except she respected Narada far more than her father, so the admonition stung far worse.
The Tribune’s words were still ringing in her ears as she exited her quarters again to find Fortrakt waiting for her. Well, one of us has to say something, she finally decided, and it may as well be me. I kept waiting for Rainbow to make the first move, and never once considered that maybe I should be the one to do so. In that case…
Mentally steeling herself, she opened her beak to speak. “Second Spear? About yesterday—do you still want to challenge me?” she asked him. “Because if you insist on it, I’m sure we can arrange it through the Tribune later, away from our guests.
He stopped short at her question, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before exhaling it slowly. “No,” he finally said. “I’ve thought about it, and you were right—I was way out of line yesterday. I called you a liar to your face for no other reason than that you said something I didn’t want to hear.
“Never mind the fact I nearly got us both arrested, I scared our guests, and worse, I may have hurt them, so you had every crow-begotten reason to chew me out over it. If I dueled you over that, then I really would be just a stupid cub. So instead…”
He stood up straight before Gilda and saluted her crisply, beginning to speak formally. “I fully and unreservedly apologize, Decurion. My behavior was inexcusable yesterday, and I know it. On my honor as your subordinate and a soldier of the Kingdom, I will accept any punishment you impose.”
“That’s very mature of you, Second Spear,” Gilda said approvingly. “Apology accepted, and don’t worry—I won’t punish you. There’s no point, because I know that seeing our new friends hurt was punishment enough,” she told him, to which he closed his eyes tightly for a moment. “You saw you were wrong and said you were sorry, so that’s good enough for me.” See how easy that was, Rainbow?
“Thank you, Decurion.” Fortrakt relaxed in relief. They then turned to each other and clasped forelegs before stepping back and saluting each other again, not as subordinate to superior, but as two soldiers and longtime partners rediscovering their mutual respect.
“It’s Gilda when we’re alone,” she told him, inviting him to address her informally again to indicate it was okay to resume their usual back-and-forth banter. “So… what happened with the humans last night? Did you ‘hang out’ with them like Marco invited?” she asked as they began to walk down the hall towards the human civilian suite.
“Sure did,” he said, his beak breaking out into a smile at the memory. “I went with Marco and we found a bunch of their Marines off-duty and out of uniform in one of the meeting halls. They were doing everything from reading to playing card games to betting money and various duties on wrestling matches—not unlike our duel rings, now that I think about it.
“Their matches were actually pretty rough—they even invited me to join in, but I declined because of the prohibition against fighting humans. And did you know they even have games they can play with each other on their devices? But I couldn’t play them because my talons don’t seem to work on their magic windows, and their quill-like ‘stylus’ you could use on them was too small for me to grip without dropping.” He shook his head in disappointment.
“Huh,” Gilda said, wondering what kind of game you could play on a window. “That’s weird.”
“I thought so too, but the games looked really fun! They also used their windows to show me some ‘videos’ they liked—I asked to see some more fighting matches like in that Warrior movie, so they showed me a few real ones, and it turns out that the film wasn’t far off in depicting them. And you won’t believe the variety of music they have!” he recalled, his tone turning wistful. “I really liked some of their ‘metal’, which was the name for this one genre that was popular. Neither we nor the ponies have anything close to it.”
“I’m so glad you had a good time.” Gilda rolled her eyes. “I don’t suppose it occurred to you to take the chance to ask about their gear? Or weapons?”
“Actually, it did,” he replied easily. “But they told me they weren’t allowed to say anything about them. I dropped the subject because I didn’t want to make them suspicious and ruin their company. But they did show me their combat knives!” he recalled, perking up again.
“Oh? And how were those?”
“Very nice! They let me hold one. It seemed very sleek and well-made, with good balance and several different cutting surfaces. It wasn’t a perfect grip for my talons, but I could manage. I asked if I could have one, but they said they’d have to get permission first.” He shrugged. “They also asked to see one of ours, so I said I’d bring a couple of mine by later.”
“Not bad,” she conceded, wondering if the Council of Crows might relent if they could at least examine a human blade. “And did they ask you anything?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact. They were curious about our history and some of the things they’d heard—like if it was true that we’d once gone to war with the ponies or that we fought before rutting. Then they asked to see me take flight close-up, so I did—I think they were honestly amazed that I could not only fly, but hover,” he recalled with a chuckle.
“Later on, they asked a little more about me, about the Kingdom, and about how our society worked. One even asked me if I had a ‘girlfriend’.” He blushed slightly but smiled at the odd term, whose meaning was obvious enough. “I told them no, but that I had my eye on one, and hopefully a round with an eagless on my next day off. When I said that, they whistled and congratulated me on having a ‘hot date’.”
Her grin broadened. “Nice way to split feathers, cub. Did you tell them that the one you had your eye on wasn’t the eagless?” she teased, delighting in his fierce blush.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but no. And don’t worry—I didn’t say anything sensitive.” He quickly changed the subject. “It was all about our basic history, society and anatomy.”
“Anatomy?” Gilda echoed, and then snickered. “What, did you offer them to show them yours if they showed you theirs? Didn’t think you were into that, Fortrakt!” she offered with a lopsided grin.
“Decurion!” he exclaimed with an intensified blush. “Of course not! They just wanted to know what was off-limits for eaglesses after what you did to Marco! I didn’t ask to see them unclothed! Though Marco might have offered to show me some pictures of naked human females…” he recalled with a suddenly nervous air.
She gave him an askance look, not sure if she felt more distaste or some mildly morbid curiosity at the offer. “And did you take it?”
He blushed hard but answered. “No, because they started teasing me. I was also afraid that if I did, I might start thinking of Tara and…” the rest went unspoken except for his fierce flush.
“Right.” She rolled her eyes again, but then smirked. “Because there’s nothing more exciting to a twenty-year old tiercel than seeing some wingless female ape with chest-mounted teats.”
“Oh, go soak your head in a piss bucket,” he casually insulted her, which Gilda took to mean they were friends again. “Or are you just feeling left out? Next time, I’ll try to arrange it so you’re there when we really do compare our equipment!” he offered evilly, earning a laugh. “Just be sure to keep your wings down and eager eagless eyes off us then!”
“I’ll try to contain my excitement,” she snickered as they reached the door of the human civilian suite and knocked.
* * * * *
They were invited in immediately. But when they entered, they found Chris, Tara and Marco silent and slightly hollow-eyed while nursing mugs of coffee around the cooking fire, the three having barely touched their breakfast.
If Fortrakt had been hoping that Chris and Tara were better after a night’s rest, he was quickly and sorely disappointed. “Uh… are you three all right?” he asked in concern.
“Fine,” Chris mumbled, not looking up at them.
“None of us slept well,” Tara admitted, her glassy gaze fixed on the fire. “I was having nightmares all night. That duel we saw… I couldn’t stop seeing it. Seeing him.”
“Him? Him who?” Fortrakt asked, staring at her in concern.
“I mean, I kept dreaming about Thunderbolt,” Tara shivered and wrung her hands as all of Fortrakt’s golden feathers drooped. “Kept hearing all those awful things he said. Kept seeing him try to kill that poor cub. And when I told him to stop, he turned on me!” she shivered. “He started firing lightning at me, and then…” she trailed off, her eyes going distant.
“I… I don’t know,” she finally said, clutching her head for a moment. “It’s all a blur and I can’t remember. But something happened and then the dreams stopped. That’s the only reason I got any sleep at all.”
“I wasn’t much better,” Chris replied. “I kept having nightmares of Ravens and ‘dark magic’. Dreamt I was being interrogated by griffons, who yanked my most embarrassing memories out of my mind and proceeded to play them before an audience. Then they put them all on display in the Hall of Heroes as an example of humanity’s depravity!”
“Sounds awful, but I’d still prefer that to mine,” Marco mumbled as he picked at his food. “I kept dreaming about the statues in the Hall of Heroes coming to life...”
Tara stared at him. “Well, that doesn’t sound so—”
“And coming after me when I wouldn’t stop touching them,” he cringed to admit, as Gilda watched, his hand began to shake as it held his mug. “I couldn’t help it—no matter how many times I was told not to, I kept touching their wings, their shoulders—all the stuff I shouldn’t!
“And then that big tiercel sculpture you stopped me from touching yesterday finally had enough. So he grabbed me by the head, pushed me down and told me if I was going to keep touching him there, then I could just go ahead and—” he caught himself. “Never mind. Let’s just say the pucker factor was high.” He pulled out his flask and took a long draw on it.
Before they could answer Fortrakt’s confused question, the door to the suite opened in back of them without so much as a knock. They heard human footfalls, and it wasn’t Reyes, Gilda immediately realized, since the gait was shorter and the steps were lighter.
She had just enough time to register them before Dana appeared out of the short hallway and strode up to them, not waiting for an invitation to do so.
“Well, look who it is,” the dark-haired female smirked, standing before them, holding up one of the human recording devices, this one with a gray case. “The Three Stooges, making undeserved friends and causing enough trouble that you should all have been thrown back through the portal days ago.”
“Get out of our quarters, Dana,” Chris said shortly. “We’ve had a rough couple days, and we’re really not in the mood.”
“Can I help you?” Gilda asked politely, even as she sensed that politeness was not going to be effective against this second human woman. “I don’t know what the rules are in your world, but in ours, you don’t come inside an abode unless invited.”
“I’ll go wherever I please, griffie,” Dana said disdainfully, causing Gilda’s eyes to narrow. “Unlike these three, I’m a VIP and I don’t need permission for anything. I get an entourage of guards wherever I go, and doors get opened up for me instantly.”
“V-I-what?” Fortrakt asked.
“Very Important Person,” Marco all but growled. “Though right now I’m thinking more of a Very Insulting Pussy.”
Dana glared at him. “Fuck you too, Marco.”
“In your dreams, Dana,” he replied sullenly. “Whiskey Tangos like you don’t turn my head. Now kindly get out of our room. And preferably out of our lives.”
“Or you’ll what, ‘Flip-boy?’” she stood in front of them with her recording device raised, her use of the term causing Marco’s jaw to clench. “I don’t know what ‘whiskey tango’ means, but if you lay a finger on me, I’ll have you hauled back to Earth and thrown in prison so fast your heads will spin. Chris there can only barely justify his presence, but you and Tara shouldn’t even be here!”
“Back at you, Dana,” Chris said as Marco’s hand clenched harder on his coffee mug. “They at least have some usable skills other than acting like an entitled brat and badmouthing folks on Twitter. You’re only here because of your Daddy.”
“I’m here as a personal observer to a Senator, who just happens to be my Daddy,” she said smugly. “And trust me, I’ll have a few things to say when I get back. I hear you three went to the Hall of Heroes yesterday. I hadn’t been there yet, and I can’t believe you were given a tour before I was!
“So wherever you’re going, I’m just going to invite myself along this time,” she announced like she was an entitled griffon noble, making Gilda take an immediate and intense disliking to her. “Just hope you don’t embarrass us again, Marco, or lash out at a VIP like me. Because that’ll be three strikes, and you’re out.”
The tone of her voice made clear to Gilda that she was fully planning to provoke him until he did, and a glance at Fortrakt told her he’d reached the same conclusion. And worse, she thought for a moment that Dana had succeeded when Marco clenched his fists and started to stand up, only to be stilled by a hand on his arm.
“Marco… don’t,” Tara warned. “She isn’t worth it. Don’t rise to the bait. She’s recording this because she’s just trying to get you in trouble.”
“Listen to your girlfriend, Marco,” Dana said with a smug grin. “Even if your Flip-boy dick’s too small to do anything for her.”
Marco gave a very griffon-like snarl and stood up; Gilda guessed from the context that Dana had just insulted his stature—something that would earn an immediate reprisal from any self-respecting tiercel.
“Enough,” Gilda spoke up again, stepping between them to forestall an attack. “With respect, Miss Dana—you’ll forgive me if I don’t know your last name—you cannot give them orders, or us. We are their escorts, and we will decide who and what we see. Now I will ask you politely to leave.”
“And that’s where you’re wrong, griffie. I can go wherever I please. And I’d advise you not to do anything except exactly what I say. Like that blond bitch says, I’m recording this, you feathered freak!”
Gilda flared her headcrest and gave a very feline hiss. It was the first time she had encountered a human who deliberately tried to insult her, and she didn’t appreciate it at all. “If you were a griffon, or I wasn’t forbidden to fight humans, you’d be facing a duel right now,” she warned, knowing that just a year earlier, that wouldn’t have stopped her.
“Too bad I’m not one. I’m the daughter of a human Senator with diplomatic immunity, and you can’t touch me, griffie. None of you can! If you do, that’s the end of your stay and careers. Trust me, I’ve made a habit of ending them back home.”
Though she had no idea what the human female meant by that, Gilda sensed her smoldering temper threatening to surge into white-hot rage, her feathers ruffling hard and wings starting to flare in ire. “Fortrakt, get the human sentries,” she instructed as she lowered her head and allowed her crestfeathers to flare in warning. “Get them now, before I do something we will all regret,” she instructed in very strained tones.
“Gilda…” He warned her, watching her warily.
“Heia!” she ordered him again in Aeric, but Dana moved to block the entire entryway, ensuring Fortrakt couldn’t push past her without having to shove her aside.
“Don’t touch me, griffie,” she warned with a smirk. “If you do, I’ll claim assault. That’ll be three incidents between griffons and human guests, and I’ll demand you get your flank thrown in prison. Or the mines, I think it is here. You can’t do a damned thing to me without causing a ‘diplomatic incident’,” she said as Gilda could only grind the two halves of her beak together, feeling trapped.
“You know what, Dana? You’re right. They can’t,” Tara agreed as she slowly stood up from her seat, rubbed her face, and then walked right up to the other human eagless, getting in her space. “But I can. Final warning: Get the fuck out, or else.”
“Or else what, blondie?” Dana challenged with a sneer, turning her recording device on the other female.
Tara’s blue eyes flashed. “This!” She curled her talons into a fist and socked Dana right in the mouth with it in a blow that would have done the fighters in Warrior proud, sending her sprawling and her device flying away.
“Ecce!” Fortrakt exclaimed in Aeric as Gilda and the others stayed still, frozen in momentary shock.
Her smugness instantly gone, Dana suddenly looked on the verge of crying as she found herself on the ground, her eyes unfocused. “You… you fucking hit me?” She raised a trembling hand to her bloodied mouth, her eyes going wide as she saw it come back red. “Do you know what my father will do to you? You’re gonna spend the rest of your life in prison for this!”
Far from afraid, Tara hauled Dana back up and punched her hard in the stomach, causing her to double over. It might have stopped there, but Tara continued her assault, next throwing Dana against a wall and pinning her with her weight, bending her arm backwards behind her in a very painful-looking lock. She shrieked like a cub and called for help, only to be silenced when Tara banged her head sharply into the wall.
“Sorry, little girl, but your daddy isn’t here now—he’s an entire dimension away, and he can’t help you! So you listen to me, you entitled little twat—don’t you ever threaten my friends like that again! Chris and Marco are way too nice to hit you, while Gilda and Fortrakt are too professional to! But sorry, bitch—I’m not.”
Tara then grabbed her by the shirt collar and dragged her to the entrance, bodily throwing her out the open door into the hallway with enough momentum that she hit the opposite wall and bounced back.
“So, still think you’re untouchable, Dana?” Tara mocked her, making a show of rubbing her hands together with a series of loud slaps, standing over her fallen opponent triumphantly. “Too bad being a twitter terror doesn’t count for shit here!”
“You… bitch…” Dana got out, still clutching at her stomach as her lip bled heavily onto her shirt front. “I’ll get you expelled and jailed for this!”
“Yeah. Me and only me!” Tara proclaimed as she pulled Dana up one final time and head-butted her directly on the crown of her head, knocking her cold. She then released her limp form, letting her slump unconscious to the floor as the human sentries came running up, attracted by the noise of fighting. “Damn, that felt good…” she said, her eyes glittering as she rubbed the growing bruise on her forehead.
Gilda didn’t know what they’d been expecting, but the sight of Tara standing over a fallen Dana was probably low on the list as they stared at her crumpled form in surprise. “Is there a problem, boys?” Tara challenged them as they lowered whatever weapons they were holding.
“If you want to know what happened, Miss Entitlement here barged in, insulted all of us, and deliberately tried to get us to attack her so she could get us expelled—even our griffon guests. Here’s your evidence.” She retrieved and passed them Dana’s device, whose face was now cracked.
Despite that, it still worked. They played back the recording she’d been making, and though Gilda couldn’t see it, she once again heard their voices replayed. The two sentries glanced at each other as Reyes came up. They showed him the recording as well, causing the Sergeant to look up at Tara in surprise, and what Gilda recognized was no small amount of respect. They called back to Lieutenant Nantz for instructions, asking Tara to wait there as he detailed two more sentries to carry Dana to their makeshift infirmary.
“Holy fuck, Tara. Where’d you learn to do that?” an awestruck Marco asked her after they’d departed.
“I grew up in a family with three older boys,” she said shortly, making an odd motion with one set of talons over an enclosed fist that resulted in a sharp crackling sound. “So I had to learn to roughhouse. And then I had to deal with drunk and handsy patrons as a bartender while I was putting myself through school. It was a pretty seedy pub, and sometimes they didn’t get the message until you smashed their fingers by slamming a full drink mug on them or decked them. And if that didn’t work…”
She made a motion like she was grabbing something big at her feet. Rising back up, she held her arms like she was holding something at an angle in her talons and made an odd motion with the upper set of them, like a rapid pump. “So yeah, I have a low tolerance for that crap. She’s lucky I didn’t do it earlier. I might not have done it here, but I guess I was on edge after all my bad dreams last night, and her taunting us pushed me over the edge.” She rubbed her temples, the bump on her forehead growing.
“And if they decide to return you to Earth on grounds of assaulting her?” Chris asked. “Dana wasn’t lying. She could get you thrown in prison.”
“Then I’ll just request asylum with the Kingdom,” she said easily. “At this point, I think I’ve decided they’re more my speed anyway.”
“Wow…” Fortrakt stared up at her in awe. “You’d really do that?”
“Would I really stay with a race that doesn’t put up with such stupid bullshit? That allows me to smack anybody who insults me and my friends like that without being hauled off in handcuffs? Hell yes, I would!” her eyes flashed and she smacked one fist into the palm of her other hand.
While Fortrakt watched the scene and her subsequent declaration unfold, his surprise gave way to an expression of pure worship, watching as Tara simply stood with her arms crossed and her head held high with a very satisfied expression on her face as Dana was carried off.
And then Gilda heard him take a surprised and ragged breath.
Turning, she saw his cheeks flush and eyes go panicked for a moment, darting about and scanning frantically for an unblocked open door. Not finding one—Chris and Marco were standing in the entryway to theirs—he hurriedly backed up, his wings and tail twitching as he pushed his hindquarters into a convenient corner.
Gilda wasn’t initially sure what that was about, but his actions went unnoticed by Chris and Marco. “I think we all would!” Chris said with a broad grin, clapping Tara’s shoulder affectionately. “Girl, we owe you one.”
“If this was back home, we’d buy you drinks!” Marco added. “Just wish I could be there when Nantz and the Ambassador see that video she took. Talk about digging your own grave!”
At that moment, Reyes came back and told Tara that Lieutenant Nantz wanted to see her in his office immediately, along with Gilda and Fortrakt. “He’s probably gonna have to go to the Ambassador with this one,” the Sergeant said apologetically. “Understand, ma’am, that I’m not even remotely angry at you for hitting her—she’s been calling the Marines ‘pigs’ among other choice terms—but I don’t get to make the call on what happens to you.”
“I understand,” an unrepentant and still immensely satisfied Tara said. “Lead the way, Sergeant.”
“My pleasure,” he said with a respectful nod, instructing her to go with two more sentries.
“Be sure and tell us how it all went,” Chris told her. “We’ll have lunch ready when you return.”
“Deal,” she said, hugging them both. “Thanks for your support. All of you,” she added with a nod of acknowledgement at Gilda and a slightly huddled Fortrakt.
“N-no problem…” he answered easily, though Gilda could hear a strong note of tension in his voice.
With things happening so quickly, she wasn’t sure what was causing it, but didn’t have time to consider it just then. “Well, duty calls. The Lieutenant asked to see us, too. So let’s go, Fortrakt!” Gilda instructed.
“I, uh…” Despite her order, Fortrakt didn’t move; his eyes darting from Gilda to the humans and back. Sensing his distress, she looked at him more closely, taking in everything from the flush on his cheeks to his pleading expression to the way he had backed himself into a corner, using the walls to pin his slightly flared wings and frantically twitching tail. “Yeah, sure. In a minute.”
Understanding dawned on her, along with a knowing grin. Though taking pity on him, she also decided she’d have some fun with him; for just a moment, she found herself wishing Rainbow was there so they could taunt him together, trying to one-up each other with an endless series of innuendos.
And best of all, griffons had some puns on the subject that the humans weren’t likely to know.
“So, what’s the holdup, Second Spear? I know your feathers were ruffled and you now need some serious preening—” that was a griffon euphemism for foreplay that flew right over the heads of the humans but caused Fortrakt to visibly flinch—“but your wings will have to wait since we need to present our side of this to the Lieutenant first. And who knows? Since she thanked you, maybe you can teach Tara to properly groom them later,” she further suggested with a deliberately casual air.
“But th-that’s… I…” Fortrakt’s wings flared another two inches at the idea of her hands roaming his feathers and flight muscles.
But Gilda didn’t relent, having way too much fun, and in too good a mood after seeing Dana given some very griffon-like justice. “Look, you want to help Tara, right? Well, the sooner we get this cleared up, the sooner you can take her somewhere you’d like,” she suggested easily to another shuddering breath, leaving her wondering what means of mating Tara her words had made him fantasize about.
“Maybe you can go out to the markets with her, Chris and Marco. I’m sure you can find something special for her to taste—you know, some thick and meaty griffon treat?”
His eyes began to glaze as his mind settled firmly into the fantasy before he blinked and shook his head sharply. “S-stop it...” he begged in Aeric, starting to shake and sweat right through his fur and feathers.
She could all but see him vividly imagining it no matter how hard he tried not to. “Stop what? I’m sure Tara would greatly appreciate you coming for her. I mean, it’s not hard—” she paused long enough to make sure he heard the emphasis on the two words and whimpered, leaving her trying very hard not to laugh as she finally went for the kill.
“After all, you’ll just have to stand directly in front of her as you testify to the Lieutenant. Let her see for herself just how professional and honorable a griffon you are!” she finished with no little relish. “I’m sure she’d be very impressed by what you show her!”
“Decurion…” he all but hissed out the word, flushing harder and shrinking back further even as his wings spread wider against the not-quite constraining walls, threatening to go fully erect right in front of the confused humans. He switched to Aeric and spoke quickly, probably hoping he was saying the words too fast for Chris to understand them.
“Will you please stop teasing me? You know why I can’t go with you!” He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, giving her the distinct impression that between her endless innuendoes and the lurid fantasies of Tara they fed, his loins were all but ready to burst. “By all the crows of the Kingdom and for the love of our Ancestors, stop cracking jokes and get me out of this!”
She considered continuing the torment despite his plea—this was, after all, an enormously rare opportunity; one she and Rainbow would have never let go! But as much as she enjoyed teasing him, she didn’t want to humiliate him. And besides, she would have endless opportunities to tweak him further over it later, once they were alone.
“Fine,” she relented, still speaking in Equish. “We’ll go on ahead. Take care of your business, and then report to the Lieutenant’s office to testify on Miss Fields’ behalf.”
“Y-yes, s-sir…” he all but squeaked, giving her a grateful look as she led the group away. Once they turned the corner and he was out of sight, they heard him race off. Unable to fly because his wings were too stiff, she heard several thumps as he half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall towards his quarters; his increasingly flared wings audibly scraping the sides of the corridor as he sprinted.
“Okay, so what was his problem?” Reyes asked once the sounds had receded, ending with what sounded like a distant tumble; it brought yet another smile to Gilda's face as she imagined how stiff and stilted his movements were in his state.
“Oh, he just had to use the latrine. Very urgently,” Gilda covered, though she never lost her smile. “Poor timing, but it happens. Sorry about teasing him over it. I like him, but he’s way too fun not to embarrass occasionally.”
“Latrine…” Marco muttered, throwing an odd look back over his shoulders in the direction Fortrakt had gone. “From the way he was acting, I half-thought that… never mind. Okay, so once we’ve got Tara back, what are we doing this afternoon?” he wondered aloud to Chris.
“I don’t know.” Chris shrugged, but then he grinned. “Or maybe I do. As a celebration for Tara smacking down Dana and as an apology to our hosts for allowing themselves to be insulted while putting up with all our alien idiocy, we should treat these two to something special.
“Fortrakt said he wanted to try more of our cooking, so how about we head for the markets like Gilda suggested? Get what we need to do up some fried chicken and trimmings for them? I’ve been kind of wanting to try their rum, too.”
“Oh, I am so up for that!” Marco agreed with a broad grin as they continued down the hall. “That’d be perfect for dinner and a movie! Just hope we can find something to use as frying oil…”
“I noticed the meat markets had some kind of lard for sale,” Chris pointed out. “That should do nicely, and we don’t need a full fryer, just enough to put a couple inches of oil at the bottom of the pan. So, I’ll handle the bird, and you do the side dishes.”
“You got it!” Marco’s eyes lit up. “See if I can improvise some Kilawin. Or since we’ll have the cooking oil, maybe some Lumpia…” He mused aloud, turning thoughtful as they continued to walk down the hall.
“Well, if you guys are gonna make all that, then I might just have to check on you a couple times tonight. Gotta make sure there are no lingering troubles after the catfight, after all,” Reyes remarked with a twinkle, leaving Gilda with another odd term to catalog. She might have asked about it but was still savoring her assault of innuendoes on Fortrakt, wondering how big a mess he was about to make of his own fur and feathers in his room.
“Of course, Sergeant,” Marco agreed with a conspiratorial grin as they walked on. “We’ll save some pieces for you.”
While they were talking, Chris turned to Gilda and spoke in a low voice. “Uh, Decurion? About Fortrakt…” He paused for a moment, like he was rehearsing something in his head. “Uh… Erat ille... excitatur?” He at least tried to trill the vowels more.
“Sic,” she answered with a broad grin, then spoke slowly so he could understand each word. “Ipse est magnopere cordi eius.”
“Really? Wow…” Chris answered once his mind had caught up with the translation. “This is gonna be interesting.”
“That’s one word for it,” she agreed, even as she snickered. You’re such a dweeb, Fortrakt. You’ll never see ME creaming myself over some upright walking ape!