Feathered Hearts - Continuation and Chronicles

by Firesight

8: Expulsion or Asylum

It had been nearly three hours since the confrontation between Dana and Tara, yet it seemed to Gilda that they were no closer to determining their fate.

While Dana remained in the Marine infirmary with a severe concussion, some internal damage and a broken tooth—for which she was being treated by not just a Marine ‘Corpsman’, but also a Magus healer—they had finally pulled both Ambassadors out of the ongoing trade negotiations to discuss the incident and determine what to do with the two human women.

Goldberg and Strenus had seen the video Dana had taken by then. Watching it elicited an angry reaction from Strenus but a far more troubled and nervous one from Goldberg, who initially tried to blame Tara for the whole affair. He wanted to expel her instead of Dana, even suggesting he should also expel Marco for “being a bad influence” on her, blaming him for “inducing her to act irrationally” and worried “he might cause others to do the same.”

Gilda couldn’t believe he was trying to hold them responsible for the whole ugly affair when they’d been anything but the aggressors; in her mind, Tara had done nothing wrong by responding as a griffon would to Dana’s provocations.

Her opinion of the human ambassador dropped further by the minute as first Lieutenant Nantz, then Staff Sergeant Stafford, and finally Sergeant Reyes spoke up, each saying the same thing: that Dana had been nothing but trouble, and for the good of Marine morale as well as the success of the trade mission, she needed to be sent home.

And yet, Goldberg still refused to let go of the notion that Tara or Marco was at fault. He resorted to increasingly tortured logic to justify his position, to the evident exasperation of not just Strenus, but his own security force officers and soldiers.

Through it all, Gilda waited patiently for her chance to speak beside Fortrakt. He had arrived at Nantz’s office thirty minutes after she did, looking a little dazed but far more composed; his chest feathers and belly fur had clearly been hastily washed and groomed to judge by their matting and the smell of soap in the air. She’d greeted him with a sly smile when he arrived, causing him to flush again, if only briefly.

“So nice of you to come, Second Spear,” she told him under her breath in Aeric as Nantz interviewed Tara, watching Dana’s video a second time. “I was beginning to worry you’d fallen in love with your own talons.”

“By the loins of my Ancestors, I swear I’ll get you back for this,” he promised her in a whisper as they sat on the floor behind Tara, waiting to be called upon. “I’m starting to think you like to see me suffer.”

“If I did, you’d still be stuck in that corner. And how are you going to ‘get back’ at me, cub? By making me fall for a human, too?” she snickered. “Good luck.”

When the time finally came to offer up their perspectives, she and Fortrakt were in agreement—Dana needed to be expelled before she caused another human/griffon incident.

“She’s lucky Tara went after her before I did,” Gilda admitted to the Marine officer. “Consider this part of our cultural training, Lieutenant: you don’t insult a griffon to their face unless you fully intend to fight, and you don’t get to back out from that fight without losing all face and honor. Even then, the average griffon would be far more likely to thrash you then let you go.”

“I’ve learned that much, at least,” Nantz granted. “And yet, you did show restraint, Decurion, even in the face of Miss Carraway trying to provoke you. I don’t think she truly understood the danger she was putting herself in.”

“She doesn’t understand anything except her own entitlement,” Tara spoke up from her seat in front of Nantz’s desk; being the one civilian in the room, she didn’t wait to be called upon. “And sorry, but I’m not sorry for disabusing her of it.” She made a fist and wrapped her other set of digits around them to produce another crackling sound, causing Fortrakt’s face to flush slightly and wings to twitch again.

But this time, he’d relieved enough of his internal tension to not be in danger of uncontrollable arousal, leaving Gilda wondering how long he’d been pent up to react the way he had. Bet he’d been saving himself up for that Talon eagless… she guessed with another grin, intending to tease him further over it later.

The interview with Lieutenant Nantz concluded, they’d ended up having to wait for another hour before Goldberg and Strenus could pull themselves out of a meeting at the palace and return to the Inn, where the interrogation process started all over again. The same individuals were then interviewed in the same order, forcing Gilda and Fortrakt to wait their turn once more.

Finally, after another ninety interminable minutes had passed, Gilda was called upon. Instead of reciting the same events that everyone had already seen from the video, she explained things in terms of griffon culture, emphasizing that what Dana had done was very dangerous in the Kingdom.

That it was very likely to result in an attack regardless of the prohibition against fighting humans, which was designed to prevent challenges to them, but not challenges from them.

“… It is thus my recommendation that for the good of both sides and for the success of the ongoing trade negotiations, Miss Dana Carraway should be expelled from the Kingdom.” Gilda made her statement as wordy as she could, even though she hated the taste of such noncommittal and indirect terms on her tongue.

Speaking her mind had never been a problem, but putting it into properly polite diplomatic terms was; she could only begin to imagine what Rainbow would think if she could hear her now.

“As she has, from all reports, shown no respect to either her hosts or even her fellow guests, it is my considered opinion that the interests of neither side are served by her staying in the Kingdom, where she might potentially cause a far more dangerous diplomatic incident than this one.” In other words, she’s a crow-damned idiot who’s going to get herself or another human killed! Send her home, NOW! 

“I see. A very well-reasoned statement, Decurion. And your opinion, Second Spear Gletscher?” Strenus called on Fortrakt next.

“Nothing to add, sir, except that I do not feel that Tara Fields should face any punishment for this incident.”

“And why is that?” an obviously unhappy Goldberg asked as Tara sat quietly behind them.

“Because she responded as any griffon would to such a provocation. I don’t know the standards of human society, but by those of the Kingdom, no crime was committed,” he pointed out. “Miss Carraway insulted not just Miss Fields, but her friends. That would earn an automatic attack from any griffon.”

“He’s right,” Ambassador Strenus confirmed, still swathed in his formal attire of a maroon tunic with cape, though the latter was hourglass-shaped to ensure his wings weren’t covered. “No magistrate here would impose punishment for such a thing, as long as it didn’t escalate past a simple duel to submission.”

Goldberg stared at him. “So you’re saying that griffons can’t take an insult? I have to deal with them all the time back home.”

“We can take one just fine,” Fortrakt answered before Gilda could. “I insult the Decurion here all the time. The difference is, she knows I don’t mean it personally, and we griffons enjoy verbal sparring in order to sharpen our wits as well as our claws.”

“But there’s a difference between friendly banter, and attempts to wound,” Gilda picked up the chain of thought from there. “Miss Carraway clearly meant to wound. She was trying to provoke a reaction that she could then use as grounds to get her fellow civilians expelled. And all because she couldn’t stand that they got to see something before she did,” she added in utter contempt, her eyes narrowing.

Goldberg shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I admit her actions were ill-thought and unhelpful. But nevertheless, we do not equate words with attacks in our society.”

“Bullshit,” Nantz said under his breath, leaving Gilda wondering why humans had made cursewords out of so many different sources of excrement.

And this time, from a bull? What, do humans have Minotaurs in their world, too?

He didn’t speak quietly enough that Goldberg didn’t hear him, as the human ambassador turned to glare. “That will do, Lieutenant. Regardless of your feelings on the matter, I expect you to show due restraint, as should my entire security force.”

“With respect, Ambassador, we’ve already told you that she’s insulting my Marines, too,” Nantz replied shortly. “With great and infuriating regularity, according to my subordinates. And near as we can tell, she does so in front of others—including griffons—for no other reason than to show that she can.”

“Sticks and stones, Lieutenant Nantz,” Goldberg replied, leaving Gilda no idea what that particular idiom was supposed to mean. “Regardless of what she may have said, she has neither disrupted your duties nor these negotiations. Just because you don’t like her is not grounds to expel her.”

Gilda had the thought that he should apply that logic to his dislike of Marco, given how hard he tried to pressure her to recommend his expulsion earlier, but she held her tongue as the humans argued.

“It has nothing to do with me not liking her, sir,” Nantz said in strained patience, standing at bipedal attention before the Ambassadors. “It has everything to do with her attempting to cause trouble wherever she goes and believing herself above the rules. And as for not disrupting negotiations, I would think that insulting our griffon escorts would also be seen as an insult to our griffon hosts… sir.”

“The Lieutenant is correct,” Strenus spoke up. “An assault on our soldiers, whether verbal or overt, is taken as an assault on the Kingdom as a whole. And refusing to hold her to account would be taken as… what is the Equish phrase? Insult to injury. Our negotiations would not be able to proceed.”

Goldberg looked up at him in surprise. “You would seriously terminate our negotiations over one minor incident involving a single civilian observer? And just when we’re starting to make progress?”

“Yes. Because Miss Carraway has severely and repeatedly slandered not only her fellow civilians, but spoke contemptuously towards her griffon escorts. As the Second Spear has already said, insulting one’s appearance, standing and masculinity are fighting words and instant grounds for a duel in the Griffon Kingdom, Ambassador Goldberg,” Strenus explained patiently to his human counterpart.

“We do not look kindly on those who insult our soldiers or abuse our hospitality, and I am honestly surprised that you would not recognize this. Or make excuses for her behavior.”

Goldberg was clearly not happy at the bind he was being placed in, for which Gilda had no sympathy. “I understand your concerns, Ambassador. But please understand in return that her father has a certain… influence… with our current political leadership. If I send her back, they are very likely to recall me. And dismiss me.”

“And if she stays, she may well get your entire delegation expelled,” Strenus replied evenly. “How would that look to your leadership if you not only return with no treaty, but a newly hostile nation because you refused to hold your own to account?”

“That would be the end of your career as well, Ambassador,” Nantz reminded him. “But then again, if you dismiss Miss Carraway and then return with a trade agreement, perhaps that would allow you to withstand such pressure as her father could bring. Successfully negotiating the first trade agreement with a non-pony Tellusian race would be a nice feather in your cap, don’t you think?”

“Your opinion is duly noted, Lieutenant. But as you are a soldier and not a diplomat, you have no say in this matter,” Goldberg replied in irritation as he rubbed the sides of his forehead. “So I will thank you to not offer advice unless I ask for it.”

“Ambassador,” Nantz was starting to get angry. “As you say, I am merely the commander of your personal security detachment, so I have no authority over you, and you are free to ignore my advice. But I would also be remiss if I didn’t give it.

“So I’m telling you—again—that Miss Carraway is causing enough trouble that our mission is being put in jeopardy. None of my Marines like her, and you’re risking far worse incidents than what’s already occurred if she stays. She has amply demonstrated that she has no respect for anything, including our objectives here.”

Goldberg sighed and sat back in his chair heavily. Another minute passed before he spoke again. “Very well. It seems I have no choice—for both Miss Carraway and Miss Fields. As the latter assaulted the former, I’ll send her back as well to face charges and be tried under our laws,” he decided without looking up at Tara, making Gilda respect him even less for being unable to say it to her face.

“No!” Fortrakt spoke up sharply before Tara could. “By griffon standards, there was no crime committed! She responded as any griffon would to an assault on her honor and that of her friends!” he exclaimed, earning a surprised but grateful glance from Tara, who’d looked ready to explode at Goldberg’s statement.

“But she’s not a griffon. And there was no declared duel.” Goldberg pointed out weakly. “Aren’t their rules around that?”

“There are,” Gilda answered, speaking through a clenched beak as the human Ambassador’s arguments got ever more desperate and dweeby. “But she already ran afoul of them by making clear she was trying to avoid one. You don’t get a pass on duel-provoking behavior just because you can’t be made to fight one.”

“But in the eyes of my society, she wasn’t the aggressor—Miss Fields was!” Goldberg pointed directly at Tara, who’d been sitting silently but angrily to that point. “Enough! We’ve wasted far too much time on this, and my decision is final! Both will be expelled, with Miss Fields facing charges of assault.”

“In that case—Ambassador Strenus? I formally request asylum in the Griffon Kingdom,” Tara spoke up for the first time in twenty minutes, causing everyone to look back at her in surprise.

“What?” the human Ambassador’s normally pink cheeks turned very red.

“You heard me. I will not be punished for something no griffon would, especially since Dana was trying to provoke an attack! I simply obliged her, and I’m not sorry.” She crossed her arms and glared at Goldberg. “And you know, Ambassador, you really don’t seem to care about what happens to me as long as you can save your standing back home. But the Kingdom does,” Tara pointed out mildly over crossed arms. “Even my escorts care, so yes—I think I’d much rather stay with them, now.”

“I see…” Strenus considered the request with the barest hint of a smile. “Understand, Miss Fields, that I cannot grant asylum to you myself—only the Queen can. But I will certainly petition her on your behalf.”

“Ambassador! If it would help her case, then I volunteer to appear before the Queen to speak for Miss Fields!” Fortrakt offered eagerly, making Gilda stifle a grimace and then silence him with a glare. Turning to face him, she saw that Tara gave him another surprised look, followed by a slightly more askance one.

You’re such a dweeb, Fortrakt! You know, if she hadn’t figured it out already, she certainly knows you’re interested in her NOW! Gilda didn’t say out loud as she hastily stepped forward.

“My apologies to all present for speaking out of turn. What my junior partner is trying to say is that both he and myself have come to greatly respect Miss Fields. We would thus be willing to submit testimony in support of such a petition, whether that means a written statement or being brought before the Queen directly,” she quickly amended Fortrakt’s offer, just catching Tara’s amazed gaze falling upon her next before she turned back to face the Ambassadors.

Never thought a few years ago that I’d be the one to keep their head while another griffon nearly loses theirs! Or maybe it’s not THAT head that’s speaking for him… she stifled the passing thought.

“Noted, Decurion. You may certainly sign your names to her petition, but I do not think a personal appearance will be necessary,” Strenus said diplomatically despite the annoyance in his eyes, leaving Gilda guessing that he was thinking—as she did—that Fortrakt was not the best candidate to be brought into the Queen’s court.

“But… but she can’t ask for asylum! Do you know how that would look back home?” Goldberg sputtered despite his counterpart’s declaration.

“That is not my concern,” Strenus answered shortly; Gilda noted that even his patience seemed severely strained at that moment over his human counterpart’s intransigence. “I represent the interests of the Griffon Kingdom, and I expect you, in turn, to represent the interests of your nation—not a lesser official to your leadership, his daughter, or your own standing. So since you seem unable to do so, let me put it simply, Ambassador:

“If you wish our trade negotiations to not only proceed, but succeed, then you must remove Dana Carraway from the Kingdom forthwith while allowing Tara Fields to stay. If you are not willing to honor us by respecting our rules and reciprocating our hospitality—rules that Miss Fields did not break but Miss Carraway certainly did—then in the eyes of not just the Queen but the entire Griffon Kingdom, you will not be worth an agreement. Or an alliance.”

Goldberg sat back heavily again, his expression that of a caged and cornered animal. “This is not an easy choice…”

“Actually, it’s a very easy choice, Ambassador,” Nantz said mildly, crossing his arms. “So with all due respect, kindly grow a pair and send Miss Carraway home… sir.”

* * * * *

With those words, the two Ambassadors dismissed everyone to continue to talk privately, with Dana released to the custody of Gilda and Fortrakt pending the decision reached. They were told to keep her in her suite, though, where Tara exchanged hugs with her friends. She took pains to also thank Gilda and Fortrakt for speaking up so forcefully for her as well.

“I’d hug you both if I wasn’t afraid of touching something I shouldn’t,” she told them with a slightly anxious smile; Gilda wasn’t sure if she noticed the fierce blush erupting on Fortrakt’s cheeks again. She could tell how badly he wanted to accept the offer, but he declined, saying he wouldn’t celebrate or accept any thanks until it was certain she could stay.

Or did he turn it down because he’s afraid of getting turned on again if she touches him? Gilda wondered as they ate a light lunch of a few sausage slices and salad greens again, though she quickly found that everycreature was too nervous to eat much. In truth, Gilda wasn’t sure why she felt so anxious over Tara’s fate, given she didn’t have the emotional attachments to her that the others did.

Then again, maybe now I do? The more Gilda thought about it, the more she realized that after several days around the human female, she genuinely did like her, finding that Tara compared favorably to Rainbow’s best qualities but without her worst faults.

To her surprise, she felt an increasing affinity and even some feelings of friendship for her, conceding somewhat grudgingly that maybe Fortrakt had good taste in females after all.

At least in terms of personality and general character traits, she hastily amended her thought, uncertain how Fortrakt believed his interest could be returned by Tara given the obvious compatibility issues.

I mean, never mind a mating round, but how could he even rut her, given she seems to have such a fragile form...?

After another long but interminable wait, the decision came down mid-afternoon, delivered in person by an elated Lieutenant Nantz—Dana Carraway was leaving the Kingdom. Despite that, Gilda was somewhat disgusted to learn that Strenus gave Goldberg cover by getting him a signed and sealed expulsion order for Dana from Queen Molyneux herself, leaving him no choice but to act on it if he was to continue his trade mission.

Nor could Goldberg touch Tara, as the Queen also granted her asylum request “for acting as any honorable Gryphon would in defense of her friends and hosts,” meaning Tara was released from house arrest; free to come and go as she pleased. The Queen’s proclamation was then read by Nantz aloud to the off-duty Marines in their recreation room, who whooped and cheered loudly, exchanging what for ponies would have been a series of high-hooves.

Several then asked to shake Tara’s hand for ‘decking’ Dana, which she obliged; one low-ranked Marine even jokingly fell to one knee like she was royalty and asked her to marry him!

Gilda had to restrain Fortrakt from stepping forward in immediate challenge at the display, grabbing the rear of his pauldron straps to yank him back. “He’s joking,” she informed him in Aeric forcefully, and Tara’s unoffended reaction confirmed it.

“Sorry, Private, but I’m already wedded to my work,” she told him in amusement, then glanced over her shoulder at Gilda and Fortrakt. “And I’m starting to think I might have another suitor, anyway…” she added under her breath just loud enough for Gilda and Fortrakt to hear; whether she meant to be overheard or not, Gilda turned to see Fortrakt cringe and flush anew.

“So, is the round with that Talon eagless officially off?” Gilda asked him in Aeric with a sly smile as Tara accepted an offer to take pictures with the Marines.

“It just might be…” he admitted as he sat back heavily, his expression a mixture of hope and dread. But before Gilda could say anything else, the Marines invited them, Chris and Marco into the picture as well. They asked them to bracket Tara as her friends and escorts, instructing the two griffons to sit to either side of her in front.

Gilda noted with satisfaction that both Marco and the Marines actually gave her space, with the ones nearest her folding their arms to make sure they didn’t accidentally touch anything untoward. But that didn’t stop Tara from resting a hand on the back of her head as the camera flashed, safely above her flight muscles, and then dropping down to give her and Fortrakt each a sudden and simultaneous hug with her arms to the same area.

“Thank you both,” she told them again as the Marines laughed at their startled reactions; Marco looked equally surprised at the display while Chris just smirked at Fortrakt’s renewed blush. “I don’t know how, but I promise to repay you both for sticking up for me later…”

Tara’s release from custody was accompanied by a massive release of tension from her friends as well.

For as unhappy as they’d been when they woke up, Chris, Tara and Marco were suddenly in far better spirits. Being informed that Tara would be allowed to stay had instantly brightened their mood and outlook, even more than learning of Dana’s ordered expulsion. After waiting for a short but sharp rain shower to pass, they set out again for the markets, seeking the ingredients for whatever their latest culinary concoction was.

But they went only with Fortrakt this time, as Gilda elected to stay behind and work on the notes she would be using to lecture the Marines and civilians during their upcoming cultural training session. For as much as I’ve teased him today, it wouldn’t be fair to deny Fortrakt some time around Tara, either!

She still had to hammer out the remaining details with Lieutenant Nantz, but it was looking like she would have to give the class no less than three times; once for each of their decade-sized ‘squads’ as they rotated off-duty. And possibly more times than that as different turma-sized ‘platoons’ were rotated into Arnau from their countryside camp.

Join the Auxiliary Guard! Be a proud gryphon and defender of the Kingdom! She recalled an enlistment scroll posted on the recruitment hut as she wrote, reflecting ruefully that it hadn’t mentioned anything about giving classes on basic gryphon societal rules to culturally backwards alien apes.

And on that point, she was starting to wonder if their ways were already starting to rub off on her.

Normally, I’d be angry at any griffon who touched or hugged me without permission like Tara did, tiercel or eagless, even if it wasn’t in a bad area. So why was it okay from Tara…? She still wasn’t sure. It wasn’t just the human female being superficially similar in temperament to Rainbow, who was even less keen on overt shows of affection than Gilda herself had been as a bad-tempered teenager.

Maybe it’s just that coming from Tara, it felt like genuine affection and didn’t seem like she was taking any sort of liberty? Guess she’s not actually into eaglesses, whether griffon or her own kind. Then again, neither am I! she nodded to herself, some minor experimentation with Rainbow years earlier notwithstanding.

Gilda grimaced at the sudden memory, which was unpleasant to recall on not just one, but two levels. Never mind that I don’t like being reminded of how close we once were, but trying to be intimate that one time just felt really weird and awkward, and neither of us knew what in the crows we were doing anyway. 

Maybe we were just too young and inexperienced, but it left a bad taste in our beaks—no pun intended—and the only other time I tried getting it on with an eagless was even worse, she further winced as she continued to write, recalling a rather forced and alcohol-fueled encounter with an eagless mail courier she’d met in Nova Ocelota not long after Rainbow had dumped her, when she was seeking solace from her pain and loneliness.

It had the exact opposite effect, and it was so awkward and unpleasant I had to skip town after. Can’t imagine that it’d be any different for me now, either!

Whatever the answer, by the time she finished her work and returned to the civilian suite close to evening, the three humans and Fortrakt had already returned to the Inn. They had bought an array of goods, most notably a trio of large upside down and freshly killed chickens—not her favorite bird, but one the humans were apparently used to—that Fortrakt and Marco immediately set about to plucking and prepping.

To his credit, Marco was apparently far less squeamish about butchering the birds than his two companions; he did so with gusto and with Chris’s blessing while the latter prepared a pair of what he termed ‘mixes’.

The first was to be a batter made of “flour, plus a little salt, pepper, garlic and paprika,” according to Chris himself, and one was a ‘marinade’ designed to impart flavor to the meat before cooking by soaking it for a set period of time; the pungent and not entirely pleasant odor of vinegar suddenly hung in the air as he prepared it.

“So how are you going to make fried chicken without buttermilk?” Tara asked him, looking over his shoulder with a mug of steaming tea in her hand. “Every recipe I know says you first soak the chicken pieces in it overnight.”

Soak meat… in butter and MILK? Gilda made a face, unable to fathom that such a thing would turn out well. Then again, I couldn’t fathom half of what I’ve seen or done the past few days...

“By going old school,” Chris replied as he uncorked a bottle of Thestral wine and added it to the flour mix, followed by a series of goose egg yolks. “This is an old 18th century recipe I learned from this guy on YouTube. And honestly, it’s some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.

“It still does require you to marinade the chicken for a couple hours in citrus juice, vinegar and spices, but we’ll get around that with smaller pieces and cutting into the meat. That’ll expose more surface area to the fluid and speed the absorption process,” he explained as he began to whisk it all together.

“Spoken like a true scientist,” Tara teased him. “Sure I can’t help?”

“Nope! You’re the guest of honor tonight, Tara. So you just sit back and let us take care of everything,” he instructed her with an affectionate clasp of her shoulder, briefly drawing Fortrakt’s envious eyes as he continued to help Marco.

Once Chris was done with it, he poured the rest of the thestral wine into bowls and mugs for everycreature to try. Gilda had personally never understood the allure of the non-sweet wines the bat-ponies brewed, though she granted they were surprisingly smooth and mellow, having just enough alcohol in them to have a calming effect on her while she waited for dinner to be served.

Still prefer pony cider to this, though… she didn’t voice the thought as she inspected the clear and slightly golden liquid in her bowl, eying the keg stamped with the seal of Sweet Apple Acres in a corner which they’d taken out of the closet earlier that afternoon.

Much as I hate to admit it, maybe my tastes still run towards sweet from all my years in Equestria? I blame you, Rainbow! she inwardly groused as she began making some small talk with Tara, finding that after the events of the past day, she wanted to learn more about her.

* * * * *

Though Marco had offered to show her and Fortrakt some additional ‘videos’ while they were waiting for dinner to be served, Gilda found that she was too interested in the unusual cooking process for the vinegar-and-citrus-soaked chicken pieces to be distracted.

While Fortrakt helped Marco make a pair of side dishes that seemed to involve boar meat, eggs, and some crispy noodles as well as an array of minor vegetables, she watched closely as Chris continued the chicken preparation.

After being chopped up and spending half an hour soaking in the ‘marinade’, as Chris called it, he melted an entire large block of lard into the cooking pan until it formed a clear and bubbling pool at its bottom. He checked the temperature of the melted fat repeatedly with an odd device, nodding in satisfaction when it reached his desired heat.

The chicken pieces were then removed from the first bowl of liquid, shaken off, and subsequently rolled through the second, which was the consistency and color of slightly thin cake batter and completely coated the meat. It did not look or smell particularly appetizing to her as it was then added to the oil in the pan, hitting with a very loud sizzle and large amount of spatter that caused those nearest to jerk back, including an over-curious Fortrakt.

The meat was fried in batches, first on one side and then the other, before being transferred to a plate with an old dishtowel to drain the fat. To her surprise, the smell of cooking chicken had been undeniably tempting despite the odd and unappetizing array of ingredients used.

They combined with the hot lard to produce an undeniably appealing aroma, and Fortrakt agreed, judging by the way he kept sniffing the air and hovering dangerously close to the pan. The finished product looked like no chicken or cooked meat she’d ever seen, with the batter turning golden brown and very crispy; nothing at all like the state it had initially entered the oil.

But even then, it wasn’t enough for Chris. As the chicken cooled, he then plucked some sprigs of parsley—an Equestrian garnish Gilda roundly detested for its pungent aroma, unpleasant flavor and ability to taint all that it touched—into the oil as well, frying it for several minutes more.

He then extracted it and crumpled the now-crispy leaves onto the chicken, giving it some greenish flecks, though he did leave a couple pieces clean of it at Gilda’s insistence.

Even the other two humans were skeptical at the treatment, but Chris was insistent that it worked as Marco finished his two side dishes. He used the same hot lard Chris had to fry some batter-dipped hard-boiled eggs, while he also tossed some form of noodles with cooked meat and vegetables—a strange hybrid salad which he then splashed with some form of improvised dressing.

“These are tokneneng and a pork pancit from my homeland. I promise you’ll like them,” Marco informed them with a grin as the plates were finally passed out, with each receiving a single fried goose egg and a serving of his noodle dish as well as two pieces of the strangely cooked bird.

“Cheers, everyone! To friends, old and new!” Chris raised his mug of thestral wine in toast.

The gesture was returned by bowl and mug, and then Gilda, though still very dubious, plucked a single piece of chicken in her talons. She sniffed at it several times before closing her eyes and biting into it with a surprisingly loud crunch.

She’d been prepared to have to force it down, but she paused as the taste and texture hit her, not in disgust but in surprise—it was superb! 

That’s the tastiest, juiciest meat I’ve ever HAD! And from FRYING? Gilda still couldn’t believe it as she quickly realized her reaction was shared by Fortrakt, who took a small bite, blinked, and then took a much larger one, staring at the piece he held in pure wonderment.

“By the Ancestors, that’s…” the rest went unspoken because his beak was shortly full and expression blissful as their human hosts laughed.

* * * * *

Half an hour later, Fortrakt sat back heavily, wearing an expression of pure contentment as he licked his talons clean of chicken-flavored cooking grease. “By the Ancestors, that was amazing! I never knew frying meat or eggs could taste so good…” he granted with an affectionate pat of his belly, only to abruptly belch out his beak. “Sorry…”

“Yeah, well, it’s good, but it’s also about the unhealthiest way you could cook something, so it’s just an occasional thing for us,” Chris told him with a grin as he cooked the last chicken in the remaining lard, which was reserved for an expected visit from Sergeant Reyes later. “Maybe we’ll try feeding you two a properly seared and seasoned steak next time. If we can find a good analog meat for it, anyway.”

“And for dessert… the best of both worlds!” Marco put a plate of varied griffon pastries followed by the cider keg on the table. He then yanked a protruding cloth tab from the keg bottom, causing a muffled splash and boiling sound. “This is what we’re promised is the ‘best dang cider in all Equestria!’” he affected a familiar accent that immediately gave Gilda a series of very unpleasant flashbacks.

“Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough alcohol,” Tara demurred as she patted her lips with a cloth napkin from beside Gilda. “I now stick to a strict two-drink limit, given what you may recall happened the last time I exceeded it?” She grimaced, and Gilda caught winces from Chris and Marco as well.

“It’s okay, Tara. This isn’t hard cider. You weren’t there, but the mare we got the keg from said this was their best non-alcoholic and ‘non-special’ brew—whatever the hell that last part means,” Marco said with a shrug as he picked it up to rotate it so the sealed tap was facing outwards.

“Not special? But the keg says that it’s their ‘special reserve’,” Tara pointed out with a soft talon aimed at the stylized Equish letters burned into the barrel.

“It does? Huh, I don’t remember seeing that before, but I guess I wasn’t looking, either.” Marco shrugged. “Chris and I initially wanted their hard cider. But when I told her where we were going to take it, she said that griffon customs wouldn’t let their alcoholic or ‘special’ cider into the Kingdom—something about an unfair trade advantage or running afoul of ‘really dumb rules about certain ingredients’.”

“She’s right,” Fortrakt confirmed. “The Kingdom tends to impose tariffs or outright bans of certain pony products, especially alcoholic ones, in order to protect local distilleries and Caleponian produce prices.

“The reason is that the ponies can generally make them much more cheaply and quickly than we can,” he further explained, leaving Gilda guessing that the reason he could recite that so easily was that his clan was heavily involved in cross-ocean trade with Equestria.

“Really? Had no idea. So anyway, she gave us this keg instead, which she promised was their best non-alcoholic brew.” Marco shrugged. “Seems stupid given we could spike it ourselves, but there you are. She also said to drink it hot, and that pulling the strip would activate a mulling crystal at the bottom of the keg, there. Said it would heat it up and really enhance the spices.”

Gilda thought about asking them about the mare, but then thought better of it as steam began to seep out around the seams of the barrel. If It’s who I think, then I REALLY don’t want to know…

“Well, it certainly smells good…” Fortrakt granted as his nose twitched, and even Gilda was surprised to find the aroma alluring. “Though it does seem a little pointless if there’s no alcohol.”

“Like I said, we could always spike it!” Marco suggested with a smile, holding up and waving his flask of buffalo whiskey, to which Fortrakt’s green eyes lit up. “You had trouble drinking this straight, but how about diluted?”

“Yes! Definitely!” Fortrakt nodded eagerly, waiting for Marco to break the seal on the keg tap. He did so with a flourish, sending a stream of brown liquid into Fortrakt’s drink bowl.

“Before adding any liquor, better try it first, Fortrakt. Make sure that mare didn’t lie just to sneak it through customs,” Gilda told him, as despite her pretensions of honesty, she didn’t trust any of Rainbow’s friends.

“Yes, sir,” he groused, but obeyed, taking a long sniff of the steaming liquid before dipping his beak in. “Whoa… I don’t taste any alcohol, but even straight from the tap, it’s really good! Some nice spices and bite, and whoever that mare was, she’s right—it’s better heated. Try some, Decurion!” he implored her.

“Fine, whatever,” Gilda said a little more shortly than she meant to, not wanting to give any credit to a friend of Rainbow. But once a second bowl was poured for her, she took a sip and blinked. “Huh. Not what I was expecting.”

“That’s Gilda-speak for ‘I like it’,” Fortrakt teased, earning a glower.

“Well, if even Miss-Call-Me-Decurion likes it...” Marco rejoined with a grin as he filled a mug for himself, taking his first sip and then staring down at it in surprise.

“Grabe! That mare wasn’t lying. I think that’s the best cider I’ve ever had, hard or otherwise. I’m not sure what’s in it, but it’s got enough flavor and crispness that I don’t think it needs anything else!” He decided as he put his flask away, pouring out mugs for Tara and Chris as well.

“Cheers, folks.” He said as he served them. Chris tried his mug first, sniffing at it with his prominent nose before taking a long draw on it.

“You’re right. That’s damned good,” he granted as he put the mug to the side to continue cleaning. “Okay, we’ve had our dinner, and now we have our dessert and cider. So, what are we going to do for a movie tonight?” he wondered aloud as he started on the final set of dishes.

Marco downed his entire mug and began to refill it before answering; Gilda wasn’t sure in the light of the still-flickering cooking fire given his darker skin, but it looked like there was a slight flush to his cheeks.

“Well, we could do another action flick with swordplay, like was suggested yesterday. But you know what? I think Dana’s expulsion calls for a very special celebration. Since it’s only us adults here, I could always show our guests some very hot X-rated action! Maybe even some high-quality hentai!” he suggested with a lopsided grin.

Tara looked up at him sharply from where she’d been eating a pastry, her cider mug still untouched. “Are you crazy? We are not showing them porn, Marco!”

“Porn?” Fortrakt echoed in some confusion, looking up from his bowl. “You used that word before. What does it—?”

“He means he could show you and Gilda movies centered around humans having sex.” Tara rolled her eyes, causing Fortrakt’s to go wide in turn. “Just take my advice—don’t. I don’t know what stuff he has, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.”

“Hey, come on girl! If you’re worried about quality, I don’t do skanky! I’ll have you know that my stuff is nothing but the finest of filth!” Marco announced grandly, tapping on the lower half of his device as Tara just rolled her eyes again.

“Knowing some of what you like, that doesn’t exactly fill me with faith, Marco,” she said dryly as she picked up her own mug for the first time and took a large gulp, blinking once. “Wow. You guys weren’t kidding. That’s really good…”

Chris turned to Gilda from the sink, caught her eye and winked. “Well, I think it’s a good idea, Tara—since we’re receiving cultural training from our hosts, it’s only fair that they get some in return! I’m sure it would be very educational to them!

“No doubt a strapping young soldier like Fortrakt here wouldn’t mind seeing what a naked human female looks like, or the many ways they can mate!” he suggested with a second wink at Gilda, who gave him an evil grin back.

“Uh…” Fortrakt blushed hard and nearly dropped his bowl, earning a stifled snicker from Gilda and a facepalm from Tara. “Th-thanks, but I’ll pass. I really don’t think I’d be comfortable with that,” he explained awkwardly, fidgeting slightly as he gave another furtive glance towards Tara, followed by a far more pleading look towards Gilda.

Her smile grew at his reaction. She was sorely tempted to announce they would watch whatever ‘porn’ the brown-skinned human had, just to see her junior partner squirm and perhaps even be forced to hide his hindquarters again. But that would mean she would have to watch it as well, and she couldn’t fathom that she would find the sight of furless apes rutting even remotely titillating. Or anything other than incredibly uncomfortable to outright nauseating.

Thus, she gave the response that Fortrakt was praying for. “All joking aside, I’ll pass as well,” Gilda confirmed. “With apologies, you’ll understand that there are certain things I really don’t care to see.”

“Well said, girlfriend.” Tara smiled and offered her a fistbump with her blunt talons. Gilda smiled back and returned the gesture, recognizing the odd title as a term of endearment. “The more I know you, the more I like you.” The human woman tipped her mug to Gilda in respect, and then brought it up to her mouth.

“Likewise, Tara. It’s good to know somecreature—er, somebody—does,” she quickly corrected her sentence to the preferred human usage; her thoughts going back to Rainbow yet again as she dipped her beak into her bowl a second time. Tara, Gilda had already noted before, had some characteristics in common with her former friend, including a take-no-guff attitude as well as a certain assertiveness she very much respected.

But unlike Rainbow, she stood by her friends through calm and gale, even when they screwed up. By her own statement, she’d taken it upon herself to beat up Dana to make sure that her friends wouldn’t bear any blame for it—to make sure that only she would get punished, and not them.

Huh. You know, I guess I really do understand Fortrakt’s attraction to her, Gilda granted with her thoughts as her tongue licked out to clean the cider from her beak. She’s not only got the mindset of an eagless, but she’s the kind of friend that Rainbow SHOULD have been… “For what it’s worth, Tara, I think you’d make a very good griffon.”

“So I’m now an honorary eagless? I’m flattered,” she said with a smile and a nod of respect. “Wait—does that mean I have to walk on all fours now?”

“And be naked, too,” Marco reminded her with a wink, earning a return look from Tara that was, to Gilda’s eyes, equal parts annoyed and amused. “Come on, Tara—you’ve been granted asylum in the Kingdom, remember? Well, since you’re now an honorary griffon, it’s time to start acting like one!”

Though Gilda would have taken offense, Tara’s reaction was far more tolerant. “So now you want live porn? Then you’re going to have to offer me something a lot stronger than cider, Marco,” she informed him as she took another long draw on her mug. “And quite frankly, I don’t think the Decurion here cares to see it.”

“You got that right,” Gilda confirmed with a roll of her eyes as she took another drink of her own. She glanced over to Fortrakt, noting he was now listening to the conversation with very keen interest; she gave him a glare to make sure he didn’t speak whatever heady thoughts he was suddenly having.

“So that’s a no to human porn from you, too? It hardly seems fair, Gilda,” Marco addressed her as he finished off his second mug of cider. “I mean, we get to see you guys naked all the time, but you still haven’t seen us unclothed!”

“Then feel free to strip down right here, Marco.” Tara instantly turned the tease back on him before Gilda could think of a retort, holding up her smaller rectangle to record him as Dana had done earlier that morning. “Go on. I’m sure all our friends back home could use a good laugh! By the time we go back through the portal, we’ll have an entire playlist of your escapades in Equestria… and now here!”

“Et tu, Tara?” Marco made a show of putting on a pouting look, causing Gilda to blink again at the casual use of an Aeric phrase. “Mocking me again! Are you sure you’re not secretly Dana in disguise?” He raised a foreleg to his head in a manner reminiscent of one of Rainbow’s only slightly-less-dweeby friends.

In response, she gave him a level look over her second mug of hot cider; to Gilda’s eyes, there seemed to be a beginning of a flush on her pale cheeks as well. “I’ll put it this way, Marco—I know Dana was wrong about your ‘flip-boy dick’ being unable to satisfy.” Her arched eyeridge quickly gave way to a sultry gleam. “I may not remember much else about that night, but I do remember that. So, feel free to show us all.”

“Don’t tempt me, girl,” Marco motioned with a hand down his body, turning as if to present himself in offering. “Or tempt yourself!”

“Uh, do you two need a room?” Chris asked mildly, though there was also a sudden edge to his voice. “Or just a lot of liquor again? You may not remember everything that happened that night, but I sure do! I had to clean up after both of you when you got sick, and then get you over the hangovers after!”

“No,” they both answered with a sudden chagrined air and an accompanying grimace. “We learned our lesson, Chris.” Tara added.

“I should hope so,” he replied mildly. “Because that was nearly the end of our team and our friendships.”

“Wait—Tara? You mean… you and Marco?” Fortrakt reached the same uncomfortable conclusion that Gilda did, with the latter instantly lowering her opinion of the two humans by several notches.

I thought Tara had taste. But to be with HIM? She wasn’t sure why she felt a sudden sense of envy to go along with her disdain.

“Trust me, my griffon friend, we’re not proud,” Marco replied ruefully.

“It was a drunken fling nearly a year ago, following a celebration over Marco getting his citizenship,” Tara said shortly, rubbing her forehead at the memory. “It should never have happened, but one thing led to another—or more correctly, one drink led to another—and we both deeply regretted it the next day.”

“Why? He wasn’t any good?” Gilda wasn’t sure why she had voiced her guess out loud.

“Gilda!” Fortrakt exclaimed, but Tara answered anyway.

“He was fine, at least from what I can remember. I know I enjoyed it while it happened. But I did not enjoy what came after.” She rubbed her eyes again, taking another long draw on her cider as if to fortify herself.

“You said it. The physical hangover from all the liquor we had was bad enough. The emotional hangover was worse,” Marco confirmed ruefully, taking another hard swallow of his own. “No joke—it felt like a knife to the stomach after. We couldn’t be around each other for the next week, and it was hard to even look at each other for the next month. We nearly had to stop seeing each other entirely after that.”

“That bad, huh…?” Fortrakt asked; Gilda recognized that he was trying very hard to sound casual.

“Like Chris says, it nearly cost us our friendship, and it took time to overcome. We eventually just decided to treat it as a one-time thing, and to never do it again,” Tara explained. “We may still tease each other over it, but that’s more to say we’re okay with it now rather than that we want to do it again. Believe me, we learned our lesson. In the end, we—by which I mean all three of us—make much better friends than lovers.”

“You said it,” Marco agreed, clicking his mug gently to hers like a fistbump. “Though in fairness, I haven’t been with anyone else since then… well, except my porn,” he mused, and this time, it was definite to Gilda—he was getting a flush on his cheeks.

“TMI, Marco,” Tara said with another roll of her eyes. “Why did we start talking about this again?”

“Because you said my ‘flip-boy dick’ was good enough for you,” an unrepentant Marco reminded her with a twinkle. “You started it, girl.”

“Then I’m finishing it,” she replied coolly, though there was a slightly odd gleam in her eye as well. “I think we’re making our guests and Chris uncomfortable, so let’s stop talking about it.”

“Yes. Let’s,” Chris said shortly before Gilda could, throwing back the remainder of his mug as well. “You two at least have some pleasant memories of that night. For what you put me through, I don’t have any.”

“No, it’s okay…” Fortrakt was processing all he heard with some difficulty, struck speechless by the revelation.

Watching him carefully as he hurriedly gulped down the contents of his bowl and then went for a refill, Gilda found she was relieved that he was so dweeby. For a more aggressive tiercel might have issued an immediate challenge upon learning that a friend had bedded an eagless he now desired, whether there was a prohibition against fighting humans or not.

“One question, though, and I’m sorry if it’s a stupid one—what does ‘flip-boy’ mean? I mean, it seems like everybody keeps calling you that, Marco…” Fortrakt then asked, surprising Gilda when he got the usage of everybody right the first time.

All three humans exchanged glances again before Marco answered. “It loosely means ‘Filipino boy’—I’m a Filipino, as I come from an island nation called the Philippines.”

“The Philippines…” Fortrakt repeated, while Gilda tried to remember why the name was vaguely familiar. “That’s near where the portal to your world opened, right?” she was instantly reminded.

“Yes. But the point is, there are certain… connotations to that term that aren’t nice. Understand, I don’t mind hearing it from the Marines or Tara here, because from them, it’s meant affectionately. But coming from Dana… it was a slur,” he explained through narrowed eyes; Gilda had the distinct impression that if he had a tail, it would have lashed.

“A slur? Like some ponies calling us ‘chickenhawks’?” Fortrakt guessed as he started into his second bowl of cider.

“Yeah. And if you want to know what she meant by ‘flip-boy dick’, there’s a certain stereotype about people from my region having a small… you know.” He growled, motioning down his body again.

“Which he doesn’t,” Tara replied emphatically, leaning back against a wall.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Gilda replied evenly, quickly recovering her respect for the human eagless. In truth, she was amazed that Tara had not only remained friends with him after all that, but even felt compelled to defend his masculinity.

She also found that upon reflection, she couldn’t really hold it against them anyway. If she was being fair, such circumstances as they described weren’t unknown in the Kingdom; many were the tales told of rounds and rutting sessions between griffons of much different ranks or stations that would never have happened, at least not without a great deal of inebriation.

Rounds and rutting sessions that tended to be, just like Marco and Tara, deeply regretted after. Crows know I had the same thing happen to me with that Nova Ocelota eagless. What was her name again? Owlia Accipiter…? she recalled with a fresh grimace, suddenly remembering keenly the uncomfortable look on the other female’s face as she realized how inebriated—and utterly inexperienced and emotionally needy—Gilda truly was.

In the end, Gilda was certain Owlia had gone through with it more out of politeness and pity than anything else, with neither of them enjoying it and each making a flimsy excuse to part quickly the following morning.

But that had been in civilian life. When it happened between soldiers in the same chain of command in the griffon military, it often led to both parties being severely disciplined. They were typically docked rank and pay for violating the Kingdom’s strict policies against soldier fraternization, followed by one or both offenders being transferred out for their corrosive effect on morale and obedience to orders.

So I guess I can’t begrudge it, given it happened to me and my reaction was to leave town entirely. Even now, I can only imagine how I’d feel if I woke up in bed with, say, Fortrakt after a drunken roll in the bed straw, let alone with a human. Let alone with MARCO! she could scarcely imagine. Even if he does smell nice, is well-endowed, can cook, and honorably defends his friends…

Gilda blinked hard, startled by the unexpected swing in her thoughts. “So, about this movie you wanted to show us…?” She decided it was best to change the subject, not wanting to think about human mating in general or Marco’s malehood in particular any more than she had to. How did we get on these topics again? she wondered as she finished off her first bowl of cider and passed it to Tara to refill.

“Oh, right! You said you had movies with swordplay, Marco? Well, I’d like to see one!” a relieved Fortrakt requested eagerly, apparently satisfied that Marco was no threat to his interest in Tara.

Marco looked only too happy to oblige him. “Your wish is my command, my griffon friend! So, let’s see… swordplay…” he mused mostly to himself as he sat down at the desk in front of his glowing window, beginning to make a series of swiping motions with a finger against the surface.

“Well, as previously offered, there’s The Princess Bride, though that’s as much a comedy as an adventure. There’s also the Lord of the Rings series, which has tons of sword battles, and then there’s Gladiator, Braveheart, The Last Samurai, The 13th Warrior, 300… or for a more modern look, maybe the Kill Bill movies?”

“Scratch Samurai, and Kill Bill,” Chris spoke up immediately as he finished cleaning up and closed the cabinet on the scrubbed and dried dishes. “We can’t show them those.”

“We can’t? What do you mean we—?” Marco trailed off as Chris made an odd gesture with a hand, curling most of it into a fist except for his opposable talon and the one next to it, which he kept extended and pointed forward as he raised it to point at Marco, then twitched it sharply upwards. Understanding then dawned on the brown-skinned human’s face. “Oh, right. The rules.”

“Rules?” Fortrakt said in confusion, having no more idea what the gesture meant than Gilda.

Marco, Chris and Tara all looked at each other. It was the latter who spoke first. “There are certain things we’re not allowed to show you,” she explained carefully. “Not by our choice, but it was one of the conditions we agreed to in order to come here. To be honest, they would probably have banned Marco from bringing his movie collection if they knew what was in it. And looking back, we were skirting the rules just by showing you Warrior.

“I don’t see why. I mean, they didn’t actually—"

“Marco!” Chris and Tara snapped before he could complete his sentence, causing him to blink.

“Right. Sorry. Guess I’m not thinking clearly.”

“There’s a first,” Tara teased, earning a snicker and fistbump from Gilda.

“Fuck you too, Tara,” Marco rejoined in a far more playful tone than Dana had used when speaking that phrase; Gilda had guessed by then that fuck was a rather severe human oath involving a very coarse and vulgar term for rutting. “Oh, wait—I already did!”

He gave her the same suggestive thrust of his hips he had when Gilda first saw him outside the air carriage the day of their arrival—had that really been nearly a week ago? It seemed like a small eternity since then—but this time, she found herself at least somewhat less offended by it, now that she knew him and the circumstances behind it better.

“Down, boy,” Tara replied with a waggle of an extended blunt talon. “Don’t make me get out the squirt bottle.”

“Squirt bottle? With the way this conversation’s been going, we need a fire hose!” Chris replied acidly. “What is with you two? Will you please get off it? I am not going through that again!” he downed the remaining half of his cider mug and then pointedly stepped between them to refill it.

“Seconded,” Gilda quickly concurred. “As amusing as this has been, I think Fortrakt and I have heard enough.”

“Right,” Tara agreed, sitting down on a low lounge sofa beside a discomfited Fortrakt. “Sorry, guys. Not sure where all that came from.”

Despite the latest exchange, which resulted in a renewed flush on Fortrakt’s cheeks, Gilda’s interest was piqued—from what they were saying, there were things the humans didn’t want griffons to see?

But what would those be? Less desirable parts of their society? Then she remembered that Fortrakt had said the Marines told him they weren’t allowed to discuss their weapons with him. Could this restriction have something to do with that?

If so, it could only mean there would be something in the mentioned movies that might indicate what those weapons actually were, and how they worked. But why bother if they’re just blunt weapons like we guessed? Unless…

She realized two things at that moment as she took another swallow of cider. First, that there was really only one possible reason for it—a reason that would likely upend all their earlier assumptions—and second, that the humans were likely playing the same spying game with the Kingdom as the Council of Crows was doing with them.

Guess I didn’t give them enough credit, and neither did the Kingdom. They’re definitely not as dweeby as they first seem… she somewhat grudgingly conceded as she licked her beak clean again after her latest dip into her cider bowl, wondering only in passing why the edges of her vision seemed to be turning pink.

It would all be in her next report, but until then, she lounged out and settled into a floor pillow as the projector was readied again. Tara sat to her right, while Fortrakt—once he determined where she was sitting—put Gilda between him and her, sitting to her left. Which Gilda didn’t actually mind, given that he gave her separation from Marco in turn.

“Let’s watch The Princess Bride,” Tara said as the question was posed of which remaining movie to watch. “I think Marco was right when he suggested it yesterday. After how intense the last couple days have been, we could all use some lighter fare. And some serious downtime.”

“Sold,” Chris said as he prepared some popcorn over the embers of the dying fire they’d also imported from Equestria. Once it was ready, he drizzled it with melted butter and salted it before passing it out to everycreature, splitting it into several large bowls to share between them. “Now we’re ready. Marco, will you do the honors?”

“My pleasure,” he said as the firegems were lowered to nearly no illumination. He then made a series of additional taps and motions on the bottom of his clamshell portal device, causing the projector to begin to glow and project an image of what looked like a title page, accompanied by the sound of a coughing cub.

“Enjoy, folks! It’s a family-friendly fantasy adventure with a strong measure of both swordplay and humor. And Chris, could you pour me another mug of cider…?”