“Ugh…” Gilda moaned as her gold eyes fluttered open, only to quickly snap shut again at the painful level of light in the room. She felt both chilled and feverish at the same time as a shiver of cold passed through her body, even under whatever blanket she lay beneath. “Where am I…?”
“Easy there, Decurion,” a male human voice speaking Equish broke into her thoughts—the Marine healer?—as she felt the blanket being pulled up further over her. “Just lie still. You’re going to be fine.”
“Fine?” Gilda echoed. She sensed something was wrong with her, but she wasn’t sure what; she tried to raise her head only for it to fall back to the pillow beneath it almost instantly, a series of aches and shivers suddenly shooting through her like she’d last felt when she was down hard with the feather flu. “What… happened?” She switched to Equish as well.
“A long story,” Gilda then recognized Tribune Narada’s voice, etched with a rare note of concern. “And one we were hoping you might yet be able to shed some light on. Welcome back, Decurion. You’ve been unconscious for nearly two days now.”
“Two… days?” Gilda said in disbelief through her very pasty beak, trying but failing to pull together her last memories as she struggled to focus her eyes and raise a foreleg. “But why am I…?”
She was finally able to see and immediately wished she couldn't, finding there was a long, thin tube running into her foreleg just above her talons, where her fur had been shaved from a small area. It was thin, clear and flexible, held to her bare skin with some kind of odd adhesive strips. And at the point it met her arm...
A wave of nausea shot through her as she realized what was happening—they were pouring fluid into her body… through a needle in her foreleg!
She had to stifle an abrupt urge to vomit and faint, suddenly feeling in danger of falling right off the low table. “Get… that… thing… out of me!” She tried to reach over to rip it out, only to be firmly restrained by a pair of human hands on her weakened foreleg and torso, which held them fast.
“Lie still!” she was ordered again by the human healer. “I’m sorry, Decurion, but for now, it has to stay. When we found you, you and the others were so badly dehydrated we had to get fluids into you quickly, and then leave them in to keep you hydrated afterwards while you were unconscious,” he explained shortly, not letting go.
“It’s not going to hurt you… unless you rip it out. It’s there for a good reason. If you don’t want to see it, I can hide it, at least.” He began to wrap the area with a soft bandage made of some form of stretchy fabric. “When you feel ready, we can try feeding you some soft foods and fluids, but until you can eat and drink on your own without throwing it back up, the tube stays.”
“Crows take it…” Gilda groused, realizing she was too weak to remove it anyway.
“I thank you for your care of my stricken soldiers, Staff Sergeant Cullen,” Narada acknowledged. “With your permission, I would like to speak with her privately now.”
“I’m afraid I can’t permit that, Tribune,” he replied apologetically. “Orders from the Captain. We are not to allow her or your other soldiers to be interviewed without him present.”
“Then please summon him,” she requested somewhat shortly, not used to having her wishes denied. But the Inn was what amounted to a foreign consulate, and thus, she had no jurisdiction over those inside it—not even her own Auxiliary Guard soldiers. “As well as the Ambassador and Senior Sparrow, if you would.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied to a startled look from Narada. The odd address also caused Gilda to blink as he nodded to a sentry, who pulled out some form of communication device and spoke into it.
Ma’am? Gilda repeated the Equish word, which as far as she knew, was a pony form of address used strictly for female teachers or managers. Never heard it used on a military officer! She could scarcely imagine Narada’s response to being called that by a griffon, imagining latrine duty would be the least of the punishments she would impose.
Several minutes later, Ambassador Strenus entered, followed by another Marine officer—a higher ranked one than Nantz, to judge by the two silver bars on the side of his immaculately creased uniform shirt lapels as opposed to the single silver bar the Lieutenant had. He was wearing the same kind of tool-equipped utility belt seen on the Marine sentries standing at the door of the makeshift infirmary, who were now in what she assumed was full battle armor, armed with the longer black tubes that the ones outside were equipped with.
He was a tall human with fair features and a more weathered face than Nantz, with hair nearly as blonde as Tara’s. He looked a bit more trim in comparison to Nantz’s bulky arms, giving Gilda the impression that the difference between the two physically was somewhat akin to that between Earth and Sky Griffons—one being stronger and the other being swifter.
Her thoughts were cut short as he spotted Narada first and went up to her to introduce himself.
“Greetings, Tribune. I’m Captain Miles Moran, overall commanding officer of the Ambassador’s Marine security forces.” He gave her a human-style salute and then offered his hand for a forearm clasp. “I believe we met once before, on the day of our arrival.”
“Yes, I recall,” Narada replied as she returned the honor and the offered greeting. “I am truly sorry for the circumstances, Captain, though I do thank your soldiers for their professionalism in taking such good care of my griffons. As I’m sure you’re already aware, this is my subordinate, Decurion Grizelda Behertz.” She motioned to where Gilda lay, who turned over just enough to offer a shaky salute, wondering if she’d ever feel anything but weak again.
He returned the salute crisply with a straightened hand and talons held at an angle to his forehead. “A pleasure, Decurion. You have my sympathies and sincerest apologies for what happened. But now that I’m here, I can at least report that on one point, you are very much praiseworthy.”
“Oh?” Narada said with a glance up at him.
“Yes. You will be happy to know, Tribune, that even under the influence of whatever unholy magical cocktail she drank, she was conscientious of her duties, as she took great pains to write a report on… something she learned about us. We found her report scroll on a desk in the civilian suite, carefully rolled up and sealed, awaiting delivery to you.
“With apologies, we had to confiscate that report, as it contained not just some rather... lurid personal perspectives on the events of that night, but what we consider sensitive information.”
“I… did?” Gilda blinked. “Am I really… that dweeby…?”
“I see…” Narada said with the barest hint of a smile. “Well, I think that could be forgiven.”
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Decurion,” Ambassador Strenus greeted her next. “It may interest you to know that Second Spear Gletscher and the three civilian humans are in worse shape than you. You’re only the second to wake up, after First Spear Giraldi.”
“Giraldi?” Gilda blinked hard. “Why is he here?”
Strenus and Narada exchanged a glance. “You don’t remember?”
“No…” She grimaced again, finding the effort to recall the night’s events painful as well as unfruitful. “Should I?”
“Before I answer, what do you last remember?” Narada asked her carefully.
“Uh…” Gilda struggled for a second time to focus through the chills, pain and pastiness she felt, but to little avail. She could recall dinner, the keg of cider, some teasing of Fortrakt—had he gotten excited and accidentally exposed himself? Or had she just imagined it?—and the first part of some dweeby movie for human cubs. But after that…
“We had dinner and were going to watch a movie… wait. Did Giraldi come by?” she seemed to vaguely recall. “I think I remember seeing him… and Lieutenant Nantz…”
“And Merlina Marcus?” the Captain broke in with a sudden edge to his voice. “The Innkeeper’s daughter?”
“Uh…” Gilda’s eyes squinted painfully again, finding her headache worsening as she tried to focus through her pain and the foggy haze that surrounded that night. “I think so… she was with… Nantz?”
“You could say that.” The human officer visibly winced at the term she used. “Anything else?”
“No…” she admitted at some length, finding her memories simply disappeared into a deepening pink haze the further into the night she probed, as if gradually enveloped by a thick Loondon fog. “What… happened?”
“This happened,” the human healer replied, holding up what looked like a wooden barrel rib from a keg. “The cider you drank.”
“Cider?” Gilda echoed uncomprehendingly. “But it wasn’t—”
“It wasn’t alcoholic, no. But it was made from zap apples,” Strenus informed her, causing Gilda’s eyes to go wide. “I assume from your time in Equestria that you know its effects well.”
Gilda blinked and groaned as suddenly much became clear. “So that’s what the pink in my vision was…” she belatedly realized, then recalled its effects on everycreature. “Ancestors above, do I… want to know what I did?”
“I’m afraid we can’t say,” Narada said shortly. “You and Fortrakt were seen leaving the human suite late that night by Marine sentries, who said you appeared quite inebriated and were ‘slobbering over each other’ like you were going to rut. We then found you late the next morning after failing to report for duty, passed out in a pile with each other in the Second Spear’s room.”
Gilda had to stifle a renewed urge to vomit up the nonexistent contents of her empty stomach, and not just from the needle in her arm. “Please don’t tell me I rutted Fortrakt! Ancestors above, he’s… way too dweeby for me…” She coughed hard at the end of her statement, to which the human healer offered her a bowl of cool water.
“Good to see the Gilda we know and love is still there, Decurion,” Narada said with a hint of a smile as Gilda tried to drink from the bowl. She managed a single sip of water with some difficulty, but found her stomach turning over from even that minor amount of liquid.
“We don’t know what happened between you two. But we do know what happened to you,” Strenus answered carefully after a glance at Narada. “The Council of Crows analyzed the cider you drank, and found it was not only made with zap apples, but also spiked with a potent Equestrian aphrodisiac potion the ponies call ‘Fruitful Fields’,” he informed her.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s a strictly regulated prescription magic used by pony herds to increase fertility and interest during estrus, to be used only by herds whose mares are having trouble bearing foals. It’s designed to be equally effective on both genders to facilitate mating for those who want to conceive, and it even works well on humans, it seems. It's available through the Kingdom’s pharmacies for limited use by the Caleponians.”
Gilda was aghast. “Chris, Tara and Marco… fed us that?”
“Don’t blame them. There’s no way they could have either obtained such a potion or added it to a sealed cider barrel themselves. So somecreature else must have done it,” Strenus replied angrily. “Typically, only small doses of that potion are prescribed, given its potency and highly addictive nature. But what all of you got was a lot more than small.”
“And worse, its effects were then redoubled by the zap apples, which are known to catalyze and boost all forms of magic, including spellcasting and alchemy,” Narada finished. “The effects in this instance… I’m sure you can well imagine.”
“I don’t have to imagine it. I’m living it!” Gilda could only groan again, wishing she could manage some more water, and worse, feeling a renewed craving for the cider itself; she was further stunned when she felt a sudden wish to be rutted as she lay fallow on the table before them, in what she guessed was an ongoing but very unwelcome aftereffect of the fertility potion. “Gah! Crows take it…”
“It would have been preferable if they did,” Narada replied dryly, even if she had no idea what Gilda was actually thinking. “The question before us now is, how did that spiked cider get inside the Kingdom’s borders, and to what end was it brought here? Even under diplomatic escort, it should have been confiscated upon arrival. Customs should have detected it as contraband magic.”
“But only if it was there when they arrived,” a new voice broke in, though this one was a far more unwelcome one. “Greetings, Decurion Behertz. How do you feel?” Senior Sparrow Tarseus asked as she entered the room, looking more than a little haggard and sleepless. She was greeted with a terse nod by Strenus and Narada, and narrowed eyes by Captain Moran, giving Gilda the impression they’d already met.
“Like I just fought a mating round with a Minotaur…” she groaned. “And I’m afraid I might have.”
“Well, I can at least assure you there were no Minotaurs present that night,” the Senior Sparrow offered a mild joke, only to receive an unamused glare back. “On the subject of how they got the cider, the short answer is—they didn’t.
“We’ve already contacted the ponies through the Equestrian Embassy. It would seem the mare who sold them the cider is a friend of Princess Twilight Sparkle, who investigated this matter personally in the presence of one of our embassy agents from Canterlot. She—and he—sent us a full accounting of their findings that I received not ten minutes ago.”
“Twilight Sparkle?” Moran broke in. “I met her in Equestria. Among other things, she seemed to be a very earnest and… thorough mare.”
“I suppose that’s one word for it,” the Senior Sparrow said shortly. “Her reports and articles are usually drowned in irrelevant details, but that’s unimportant right now. According to both her and our agent, the mare in question swore ‘on the graves of her parents’ that she didn’t sell the human civilians zap apple cider, and her receipts seem to confirm it,” she conceded grudgingly.
“Receipts can be faked. Can this mare be trusted?” Captain Moran asked.
“Princess Twilight promised us she can. The mare also gave our agent an earful when he suggested that she deliberately gave them the wrong cider so she could slip it through customs, in hopes that griffons might gain a taste for it.
“She took particular offense at the notion that they’d spiked it with some ‘danged dangler dandelion’”—that was a pony term for a naturally occurring aphrodisiac they had, Gilda recalled—“claiming that ‘our cider don’t need no help’ and ‘anypony who thinks I’d foist that on somecreature I just met in hopes of making them get it on with a griffie don’t know me at all!” she quoted directly from the report, even managing a passable Gnashvillian accent.
“Such refreshing bluntness from an Equestrian pony? I like her already,” Narada approved with a grin.
If it’s the mare I’m thinking, then I’m surprised she didn’t buck whatever griffon accused her of lying clear into the next pony province! Gilda had to stifle a smile of her own despite her aches and chills. She didn’t care much for Rainbow’s friends, but at least that one had the muscle to back up her muzzle.
“I’m glad you did, because she definitely didn’t like our agent. When pressed further, she informed us that she could find out who the keg in our possession was really sold to. She said that each keg had a serial number on it—in not one, but two places.
“It turned out whoever procured the keg doctored the number on the outside to the one she’d originally sold them, but not the one on the inside,” the Senior Sparrow further explained. “That’s cleverer than the ponies usually are, so we broke apart the keg to get the real serial number, which was burned into the wood on the inner bottom of the empty barrel, and sent it to her.”
“And…?” the Ambassador prompted again, to which she unfurled another report scroll.
“It turns out that keg was sold just two weeks ago… to a Saddle Arabian trade merchant and information broker who does business with multiple intelligence services, including ours.
“Zap Apple Cider is considered halal and thus legal in Saddle Arabia, so whoever hired him knew he could purchase and transport it. We tracked him down in Loondon, and—once we paid his fee—he said he was contracted by a zebra stallion to purchase and then deliver it to a certain secluded point in the city, where it was picked up by unknown agents.”
“And he agreed to this… why?” Moran wanted to know, tapping his fingers on the tray beside Gilda as he listened to the report.
“Because he’s a merchant who is frequently paid to make purchases for others without asking questions. It makes him valuable to all sides but disposable to none, for to kill him would be to instantly alert other factions that some business he did was dangerous and cause it to be uncovered,” she explained with a shrug.
“Sounds like a real piece of work. I don’t suppose you asked him why he thought he was buying it?”
For the first time, the Senior Sparrow looked annoyed. “Hard as it may be to believe, we in the Council of Crows do know our business, Captain. He says he wasn’t told what it was for, which is hardly surprising, but he assumed it was for simple smuggling of Equestrian contraband to underground Zebrican alchemy rings in the city—not an unlikely assumption, given such smuggling is not that rare an occurrence.
“Unfortunately, we could trace it no further than the drop point, though it now seems clear this was intended from the start to find its way here.”
“To what end?” Ambassador Strenus wondered aloud.
“We cannot say. Perhaps—”
“Theft of human technology, and an attempt to thwart an alliance between humans and griffons,” Moran answered instantly. “Hard as it may be to believe, we in the American military know our business as well, Senior Sparrow. It’s clear that this was a deliberate attack on my people… and yours.”
“Attack? There was no attack!” the Senior Sparrow replied.
“No, but there could have been, and there was certainly a security breach,” Strenus pointed out angrily. “Zap apple overdose typically results in one of two outcomes among griffons—sex or violence, depending on what their mood and internal urges are at the time. This could have been an attempt to cause griffon soldiers to attack, rape or even slay their human civilian charges,” he noted, turning troubled. “The consequences of which could have been disastrous.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Captain Moran replied as Gilda listened quietly, increasingly uneasy.
Ancestors above—he’s right! If I had still been mad at Marco… she didn’t want to think as Moran went on.
“If that happened, my Marines might have been forced to kill said griffons to protect the civilians, and at an extreme, a battle might have then erupted between our two sides,” Moran echoed Gilda’s worried thought. “That would be the end of any potential alliance or trade agreement. And in the ensuing chaos it could have caused, it would also provide excellent cover to steal some of our technology and weapons—which, no thanks to your Council of Crows, has already happened.”
“What do you mean?” Tribune Narada asked.
“I mean that we have just discovered there were intruders present in the Inn that night, and we’re certain they took several sensitive items from us.”
The Senior Sparrow’s sleepless eyes narrowed. “With all due respect, there is no evidence of intruders, Captain.”
“No evidence?” Narada gave the derisive reply that Gilda wished to before she or the human Captain could. “Then how in the name of our Ancestors did the keg get switched without a break-in?”
“We don’t know when the switch of the keg was made,” Tarseus answered in some exasperation. “It could easily have happened before they arrived here, in transit.”
“So they just plucked it out of their air carriage in flight?” Narada pointed out dryly.
“Or at the point it was loaded or unloaded, or when the baggage was delivered to the Inn,” she replied in strained patience. “Trust me, it’s my job to think of these things.”
“We trusted you already, and you’re amply proving right now that we were wrong to do so,” Moran replied acidly. “I am not suggesting to you but outright telling you that there were magically shrouded intruders present in the Inn that night.”
She stared at him like he was crazy. “Captain Moran, I would remind you that you are not familiar with Tellusian concealment and illusion spells, but we are. We know how to detect and counter them, and I promise you that the Council of Crows has applied that knowledge to keep the Inn under surveillance and prevent intrusions the entire time you have been here.”
“Oh, really?” the human Captain asked in a contemptuous tone, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Yes, really. So no matter what else you may think of me, be assured that nocreature could enter the Inn without us knowing, magical shrouds or no.”
Moran stared at her before replying, the anger on his face growing. “And be assured, Senior Sparrow, that we did not rely entirely on your Council of Crows or the Kingdom’s military in securing our Inn from such intrusions. We did our homework before coming here, including regarding what illusion and concealment spells were available. They’re good but not perfect, and we found a gap in them we could exploit.”
“Exploit?” Gilda was certain Tarseus thought the human officer was bluffing.
“Yes,” the Captain growled. “Understand, Senior Sparrow, that we are less than pleased to discover that you were actively spying on us, and worse, using your own military liaisons to do so. I will be discussing this with Ambassador Goldberg later, and the only reason I am sharing information with you now is that we need your help.
“We know that the culprits behind this attempt on the lives of our civilians succeeded in breaking in and stealing some of our technology and weaponry, as I have reports of multiple missing items from the platoon stationed at the Inn following their presence. We want you and the Council of Crows to get them back, immediately.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I do not take orders from—"
“Your anger is understandable, Captain. And I’m sure the Senior Sparrow will exert every effort to recover them.” Strenus cut Tarseus off sharply and gave her a warning look. “Especially after I deliver my report to the Queen. I’m sure she will be most interested to hear that the Council of Crows prioritized espionage over the safety and security of our guests, and the soldiers who so faithfully guarded them.”
“Indeed we will,” she said shortly, her beak tight; Gilda couldn’t help but smile despite her continuing weakness and withdrawal symptoms, glad that somecreature was putting the arrogant eagless in her place. “Though it would help, Captain, if you would tell us exactly what items they took, and why they are so dangerous.”
The Captain’s eyes narrowed; even in her mentally weakened state, Gilda could spot the clumsy attempt to gain intelligence. “We will give you true-size pictures of the items, but that is all. Get them back, and do not attempt to analyze them first,” he warned. “The items are dangerous to those untrained in their use. And be assured, we will know if they have been examined or tampered with.”
Tarseus clearly did not like the corner she was being backed into, for which Gilda had no sympathy. “We will make every effort to find those responsible, and to get your property back.”
“Oh? And just how do you plan to do that?” he asked in a tone suggesting to Gilda that he was waiting for the Senior Sparrow to flail her wings just a little more.
“We have our ways,” she said shortly, then switched to Aeric. “Know, Ambassador, that we are already in contact with the Ravens, who are attempting to pick up the trail of the miscreants.
“But as there are many potential suspects from foreign intelligence agents to simple petty thieves hoping to sell such exotic items on underground markets, the scent is rather thin. It would help if we had a starting point, which I doubt our guests can provide,” she mocked them openly, to which Moran looked at her, eyes narrowed.
He then spoke to her in perfect Aeric, causing her to start. “Then let me relieve you of that doubt, Senior Sparrow. We can give you a starting point. We know there were intruders present that night because we captured an image of the culprits right through their magical shrouds.”
Tarseus looked up in surprise, which quickly turned to sneering doubt. “Very well, I’ll humor you, Commander. How?”
“It’s Captain. And as to how…” He pulled out one of the human portal devices. “We have had the hallways where our soldiers and civilians are billeted under constant camera surveillance, in addition to our armed sentries. Not long before sunrise, those sentries saw Second Spear Gletscher and the Decurion here walking down the hall from the civilian suite in a drunken manner.”
“And what of it?” Tarseus asked impatiently.
“This is what our visible cameras saw,” he said, showing them a playback of Gilda and Fortrakt walking armorless down the hallway, rubbing wings lewdly and laughing; even exchanging a series of lover’s licks as Fortrakt only half-jokingly mounted her at one point, causing a red-cheeked and giggling Gilda to push back against him as the Marines in the picture looked on in some distaste.
Watching it, Gilda’s cheeks flushed as red as they were in the image. “That can’t be me…” she was certain, wanting to kill whoever depicted her like a total dweeb slobbering over her own subordinate. “I don’t care how drunk on that crow-cursed cider I was, I would not have gotten it on with him!” she further protested, wishing she could also lose her memory of seeing herself like that.
To her surprise, the human officer turned sympathetic. “It wasn’t you,” he assured her. “I know because that was just a visible image. Which brings me to the subject of the flaw in your illusion and concealment spells, and how we know that’s not real. For you see, we have a second set of cameras that can see not light, but the very heat of living bodies—something those spells do not mask.”
“Body heat? You mean like dragons?” Tarseus spoke up. When he stared at her for a moment uncomprehendingly, she explained: “They can see heat, too.”
“I don’t know about that. But now look at this video from a heat-seeing camera down the same hall, recorded during the same time as the first.”
With another few motions of his fingers, a new video was placed side by side with the original, causing everycreature present to blink and stare. Not just at the second playback itself, which clearly depicted heat in terms of a spectrum of colors with blues being cold and reds to yellows being hot, but at the markedly different scene it showed.
The two images were slightly offset, as if taken from the opposite hallway ceiling edge at the same distance. Gilda might have been more amazed by the exotic technology and image, but for the fact that the heat-based picture did not show two figures walking down the hall.
It showed four!
The two in back, which did not appear in the visible images, appeared to be griffons, even if only their rough outlines could be made out—herself and Fortrakt?—suspended in the air by what had to be a magical aura and being carried along behind the lead pair of creatures. They were in the same locations and stances as her and Fortrakt were in the eyesight-based picture, but they took decidedly different forms.
The two magically disguised imposters were four-legged quadrupeds like her and Fortrakt, but they were otherwise anything but griffon. Their stocky outlines showed them to be wingless ungulates slightly larger than the average pony, but with a longer snout and two long, back-curved antlers on their heads. The latter shone brightly to the heat-sensing camera, which was to be expected as magical nexuses like horns and staves tended to warm up when large amounts of magic were being cast.
Their clothes, coats and facial features could not be made out in a purely heat-based image, but even depicted as they were, their race was instantly obvious to Gilda and every other griffon present; she felt an intense rage building within her even despite her continuing withdrawal symptoms as Captain Moran tapped the screen once to freeze the playback, showing their true forms clearly.
“Ibexians!” Gilda spat out the word, then coughed hard even as her temper flared into white-hot fury. “They did this to us!” she managed before another coughing fit erupted and she had to fall silent again.
Originally an alpine-dwelling race whose birthplace was rumored to be the rugged terrain of the Pearl Mountains, the Ibexians were a flightless but physically powerful and magically adept race. Their cloven hooves gave them uncanny climbing abilities that meant they could easily scale even the sheerest cliffs, enabling them to seize whatever high ground was available, as well as granting them a sharp striking surface they could use in combat to good effect.
And that was to say nothing of an array of powerful magics wielded by their twin horns, especially the much larger ones on the male of the pair; it was rumored that they were in fact a distantly related race of the Elder Rams, who had nearly not just defeated but annihilated the Gryphon Empire two decades before the War with Equestria.
“So, are you still going to claim your security was perfect and you kept out intruders, Senior Sparrow?” Moran inquired dryly. “Because it certainly looks to me like your nation’s biggest adversary just pulled off a successful infiltration and heist!”
“So it would seem…” Tarseus admitted wanly, starting to squirm under the angry gazes of all present as it became clear how grave her failure of duty had been. “We knew the Ibexian Ascendency had taken an interest in the arrival of humans, but I was told we had all their agents under surveillance and would know if they tried anything.”
“Then you were told wrong,” the Captain said in a prize understatement. “And now it appears they escaped cleanly with some of our technology, using the night’s events as a distraction—events they no doubt caused to give themselves cover! So just what do you plan to do about it, Senior Sparrow?”
As Gilda watched, the visibly flustered Tarseus had to pause long enough to gather herself. “We will find them, of course. Only the highly-trained ‘Capricorn’ adepts of their state security service, the Конклав Козерога, would have the skill and resources to carry out such an audacious operation.
“Thank you for supplying us with such surprising intelligence, and I must congratulate you on successfully analyzing magical strengths and weaknesses despite your unfamiliarity with such arts. We have much to do if we are to catch them, so If you would be so kind as to leave this image with us…” She reached for the portal device.
He yanked it away and gave her a printed copy of the image instead, all but shoving it at her along with several images of the missing items—one of their black hip-mounted L-shaped weapons, several larger and smaller portal devices, and what appeared to be a detached, crescent-shaped metallic object with a quill pen beside it to provide scale.
“You have your starting point, Senior Sparrow. You get one chance to make this right—find those fucking mountain goats and get our items back intact, or I will recommend to Ambassador Goldberg that this trade mission be abandoned as it seems your Council of Crows was less concerned about securing us than spying on us,” he warned her over crossed arms. “We trusted you. And you betrayed that trust.”
The Senior Sparrow’s tail lashed once before it stilled again. “Your anger is noted. But your attitude is unhelpful, commander. In ordering your surveillance, I was acting in the interests of the Kingdom, not my own.”
“I told you already, it’s Captain. And my attitude is that three of my civilians and two of my Marines lie gravely ill in what I can only consider an attempt to manipulate their minds with various illicit substances, in hopes of causing a rape or murder attempt that would in turn cause a battle to break out between my Marines and griffon soldiers!
“My attitude is that all this was both foreseeable and preventable if you just did your crow-damned jobs!” he told her in Aeric again, impressing Gilda with his use of the griffon invective.
“He’s right, Senior Sparrow.” Strenus spoke up again, his tone dark. “And you may be assured I will be saying as much to the Queen.”
“I am in agreement. And you may also add three of my finest soldiers to the casualty list,” Narada added angrily as at the Captain’s command, the Senior Sparrow was then escorted by a Marine sentry to the door. “I share your ire, Captain.”
Despite her sympathy, he looked at her coolly. “I am sorry for your soldiers as well, but I am also less than pleased that you allowed your liaisons to spy on us, Tribune. We can discuss that later, but for now, I expect your troops to protect the Inn properly, and to keep the skies above it clear.
“This is an embassy, so I want it secured as such—I will not have any more spying through skylights, or griffons landing on balconies. As of this moment, I want no unauthorized griffons or any other airborne race approaching within one hundred wing paces of the roof. Understood?”
“It will be done,” she replied with a bared throat. “I will be more than happy to meet you at your convenience, Captain. I do request, however, that you first allow me the chance to speak to the Decurion privately.”
His eyes narrowed. “In hopes that she recalls what she reported on?”
To her credit, Narada didn’t flinch from his accusing tone. “So that I may inform her of all that we know happened to her—which, you will understand, might be rather embarrassing to be shared before others—and then ask her if she wishes to continue in her assignment.”
“That choice will be mine, Tribune,” he reminded her. “I will leave, but your conversation will be recorded, and as you have already learned, I speak your language fluently.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go offer my personal apologies to the Inn’s owner. And hopefully convince him not to demand a duel with Lieutenant Nantz for deflowering his daughter!” he all but snarled as he stalked out of the room, leaving the pair behind under the watchful gaze of the well-armed Marine sentries.
Gilda noted they were now wearing odd reflective goggles over their eyes that hid them. There was also some kind of secondary tube mounted to the bottom of their weapons at the ends, emitting a strange purplish light.
Maybe something that allows them to see heat like those cameras? So they can spot any more disguised Ibexians? Gilda guessed as she watched him leave, but lacking answers or the ability to think about it too deeply, she turned her head back towards Narada.
* * * * *
“Their Captain is my kind of commander. Direct and to the point,” Narada admitted after Captain Moran had departed.
“He tolerates no doublespeak and spotted the Senior Sparrow’s ploys quickly, letting her trap herself with her own claims before he brought his war hammer down and crushed her defenses. In truth, I rather like him. He is not only refreshingly open in his opinions, but he seems a cunning warrior who only reveals his true strength at an opportune moment—the perfect military leader. I do believe he would make a very good griffon.”
“I would too, if I didn’t feel so awful…” Gilda replied. “I’m sorry if I don’t get up, Tribune, but I can’t stop shivering and everything aches. And worse, I think I was… taken. Somewhere I would not have chosen!” she felt a sudden puckering sensation beneath her tail, loathing the slight but strangely pleasant tingling that accompanied it.
The Tribune grimaced, but offered at least a weak chance that Gilda was mistaken. “It might just be the withdrawal symptoms from the potion and cider. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s very similar in effect to the feather flu—body aches and chills, as well as a low fever. Just be grateful I quickly realized something was amiss, or you might have died of dehydration and withdrawal symptoms.”
“Believe me, I am… but how did you know?” Gilda asked.
The Tribune gave a wry smile. “When you and Fortrakt didn’t show up to give your daily reports and receive a briefing, I inquired with the Inn as to where you were. I was then told the two of you had been seen by the human soldiers walking drunkenly down the hallway acting like you were ‘in love’—by which they meant acting like newly bonded Uxor,” she clarified as Gilda made a nauseated face.
“As I could not fathom such a thing taking place between you two, even under the influence of alcohol, I was certain something was wrong. That’s when I advised the humans to break into the rooms. From what I was told, they found both of you severely ill and immediately rushed you to their healers. So be sure you thank them as well as me. I do not envy you that tube, but there is no denying it saved your life. It is how they are able to both nourish you while stepping down the dose of the fertility drug and cider gradually—by feeding it all to you through it.”
“I’d thank them if it wasn’t for this crow-damned needle in my arm!” Gilda answered with another round of coughing. She pulled her blanket more firmly up over her form as she huddled and shivered violently, hating the feeling of being so weak and helpless. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even want to think about it! So, uh, you said you wanted to inform me of what you knew…” she recalled. She then shivered again, and not entirely from the chill she felt. “Do I even want to know what I did?”
“With regards to you and Fortrakt, I cannot say. In truth, we know little of what happened, aside from what was observed by civilians and soldiers from the outside,” she replied. “All I can tell you is that First Spear Giraldi was observed undressing, caressing and then outright rutting Tara Fields through the skylights before an enrapt audience of griffons.”
“They watched?” Gilda was aghast. “What in the crows was the matter with them…?”
“Because it would seem they were affected, too. We believe that the steam from the heated cider also went up the exhaust pipes and saturated the stagnant air over the Inn last night, where dozens of griffons had gathered over the scent of the strangely cooked chicken. The initial dose was low, but they stayed bathed in it long enough that the effects over time were… predictable.” She blushed again.
“I regret that discipline among our outside troops broke down completely as more and more griffons were affected; as soon as soldiers were sent to chase off the observers, they, too, were caught up in it quickly and ended up in various rooftop… affairs.
“As a result, the healer houses are now filled with griffons being treated for minor injuries and moderate withdrawal symptoms, and half your old turma has been lost to duty until they recover.”
“Injuries?” Gilda repeated uncomprehendingly. “From what? Mating rounds?”
The Tribune hesitated before answering, but did so anyway. “Some, but more from attempting with each other what they saw the human female doing with Giraldi.”
“Voyeuristic dweebs… if I’d been there, fumes or no, I would have chased them off. But you said Giraldi was seen with Tara?” she blinked, finding at least one stray memory trying to click into place.
“Yes. And he was found in the human suite after.” Narada’s blush intensified. “Unconscious and aroused while in a rather compromising position with the humans.”
Gilda blushed as well. “But why was he there instead of outside with the Turma?”
“He was there at your direction, Decurion.” She showed Gilda a signed order penned in her own talonwriting directing Giraldi to remain in the human suite overnight for the ‘safety and security’ of Tara Fields. “As this happened early in the night, I was hoping you might recall why you issued this order?”
Gilda tried, but failed again to remember. “I wish I could tell you…” she finally admitted with a groan. “I just… don’t… know.” And I’m not even sure I want to…
“Not surprising,” Narada noted, not pressing the matter further. “This is exactly why zap apple items are illegal in the Kingdom—they are not only addictive, but they both remove inhibitions and suppress all memories of it after—except in the case of Lieutenant Nantz and Merlina Marcus,” she corrected. “They had enough to rut, but not enough to forget.”
“Nantz rutted… Merlina?” Gilda was shocked. “But she can’t even fight a round!”
“Apparently, the human males don’t care about that, finding her very desirable for her innocence and exotic plumage. Nantz himself has been removed from the Inn to the camp outside the city, for his own safety from Merlina’s sire,” she explained. “By all reports, he’s mortified by what he did, but Merlina has been caught twice trying to leave her recovery room to go to him. Mating round or no, she appears to now be very taken with him.”
“Damned… Ibex…” Gilda coughed out again. “If I find them, I’ll kill them!”
“I sympathize with your sentiments, but as this appears to be the work of some of their most skilled and dangerous adepts, I would suggest that you leave that to the Council of Crows and Ravens,” Narada advised. “And in the meantime, take comfort in the fact that in many ways, their plans not only failed, but turned on them badly.”
Gilda gave her a confused look. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean, Decurion, is that as the Captain and Ambassador said, they hoped to cause violence and conflict that would derail any possible alliance between us, and perhaps even result in open warfare between our races. They further hoped that their role in it would remain invisible, and that we would simply blame the ponies for selling them that cider.
“Instead, it would appear that the opposite happened—that all present merely became exceptionally amorous and those griffons who observed humans mating were quite taken with them. You know how zap apples work, so you should also know that that would not have happened if our two sides had not already bonded.
“Cold comfort though I know it is, it would appear that instead of driving us apart, they brought us closer together, proving us culturally compatible as well as natural allies. And as a bonus, the Ibexian machinations were revealed, meaning the humans will now have cause to ally with us against them.”
“Natural…” Gilda coughed again as she echoed the word. “With respect, sir, there was nothing natural about any of this!”
“I must disagree. The groundwork was there, in the form of friendships made, and mutual respect already gained,” she pointed out. “Even under the influence, this would not have happened unless an interest and attraction was already there. That the humans were found unharmed—mostly—is evidence of that.”
Gilda groaned, hating to concede the logic even as she internally acknowledged the Tribune had a point. So… this happened because we liked them? Even me on MARCO? she asked herself, only to feel another shiver of distantly remembered pleasure pass through her.
Shunting aside hard in her head what it might mean, she focused on her own actions again. “It’s still not an excuse. By all the crows of the Kingdom, I should have known what was happening. Because I’ve had zap apple cider before in Equestria,” Gilda reasoned, grimacing less from the memory of withdrawal pains she’d suffered than who she’d been with when it happened. “Ancestors above, I knew the effect was familiar, but I didn’t care.”
“Which is exactly what zap apples do,” the Tribune reminded her. “Enhance your sensory perceptions of everything while slowly stripping you of your inhibitions. Cider made with them is so delicious that you keep drinking more and more of it, imbibing in an endless cycle until you have no inhibitions left.
“For griffons, that typically has two outcomes, as the Ambassador said—violence or sex. No doubt the Ibexians were hoping for the former, but would settle for the latter—particularly if it resulted in a human civilian being torn up in a forced mating round. And yet, that didn’t happen,” she pointed out again. “The Marines are being rather tight-beaked about what they found regarding Giraldi and the three humans, but… it would seem that whatever occurred was quite mutual.
“Thank the Ancestors…” Gilda acknowledged. “If this had been just two days ago, I might have tried to kill Marco instead of…” Her thoughts trailed off as the barest hint of a sensual memory tugged on her, only to quickly disappear back into the pink haze of the night.
“Exactly,” Tribune Narada confirmed with a hint of smile. “So I think we can safely assume that you like him now.”
Gilda could only groan again. “You’re right about it being cold comfort. You wanted to know if I can continue in this assignment? I don’t think I can. I don’t know if I can even look at them after this!” Gilda related, thinking she suddenly understood what Tara and Marco had been talking about when they said they’d had trouble being around each other after their drunken fling.
And they at least knew what happened AFTER! I still don’t have any idea, except… She nearly grasped another memory of Marco, only for it to turn into mental vapor again.
“If it makes you feel any better, I know how you feel. I had my own experience with zap apple cider during a vacation in Equestria not too many years back. I tried it in a Las Pegasus resort over the pony New Year celebration and its effects proved rather… liberating.” Narada blushed. “So if you were feeling bad about whatever you may have done, know that I woke up the next morning in the company of a rather amorous adolescent dragon, who I still see occasionally to this day—information I will thank you not to spread around.”
Despite her state, Gilda couldn’t help but giggle. “At least you know what happened, Tribune. I don’t. And I’m not sure I want to.”
“You have me there,” the Tribune admitted. “But at least we know you were not at fault. That you tried to fulfill your duties even under the influence. And that contrary to Ibexian hopes, you did not hurt your charges, which I remind you again can only mean you had bonded with them.”
“I guess…” she grudgingly conceded, only for her mortified feelings to turn to worry. “Chris, Tara and Marco—how are they doing?”
“Still unconscious, and they must remain that way for some time. Unused to such potent magicks, the humans are now suffering from doubly severe withdrawal symptoms and are thus being kept asleep for their own sake. Unfortunately, their injuries are not entirely limited to that. Tara Fields has talon scratches all over her back, including some rather deep cuts,” she explained shortly.
Gilda froze where she lay. “She was made to fight a mating round?” She couldn’t believe that even a cider-soaked Fortrakt would have forced her to do that.
“Thankfully, no, or it is likely she would have been torn up far worse. Her wounds appear to have happened in the throes of passion, due to a… rather unusual mating position,” the Tribune said with an intensified flush. “She would have had to be belly to belly with a griffon to have her back marked up like that.”
“Belly to belly?” Gilda made a face. “Who would do that? Giraldi? Fortrakt?” she wondered, trying but failing again to remember anything that happened.
“Likely. But Giraldi doesn’t remember, and I can’t imagine Fortrakt would either once he wakes up. His symptoms among the three of you were the worst—he apparently got a larger dose of the cider, or was simply more susceptible to it. Giraldi has awoken, but perhaps wishes he hadn’t as he promptly got berated by his Uxor—not for cheating on her, but for not testing his latest eagless properly.
“Despite that, he wanted to make sure Tara was safe—he remembered going to her, but not what happened after and thus feared he had hurt her. As near as we can tell, he didn’t, as the talon patterns do not match his.”
“So it was Fortrakt...” Gilda guessed. “He’ll never forgive himself for hurting her. What about Chris and Marco?”
“They’re physically uninjured except for a beak nip or talon prick here and there, but like Tara, are being kept unconscious for their own sakes,” she replied. “We are still stepping down the dose of that crow-begotten concoction even more slowly than you to wean them off it gradually. It will likely be at least another two days before they are safe to awaken. But in time, they should be fine. At least physically.”
Gilda groaned. Barely got to know Marco, and now I nearly lost him… the surprising thought crossed her mind.
“Crows take it. So now what?” she asked her superior. “Am I just supposed to lie here and do nothing but wait for the withdrawal symptoms to pass with this evil and ugly needle embedded in my arm?” she held up her bandaged foreleg again, just glad she couldn’t see what it was hiding or she might have tried to rip it out anew.
“I’m afraid there’s little else you can do,” the Tribune said apologetically. “Just know that you are not in trouble with me or the Kingdom, and that I am in fact impressed by your devotion to duty, even under the influence as you were. I know not what you discovered, but it must have been important for you to see fit to write it down even in the middle of… whatever activities you found yourself in,” she said carefully, causing Gilda’s flush to deepen.
“I will not ask you to explain it, as I know you cannot, and I have no particular wish to earn the ire of Captain Moran before I speak with him again. So for now… rest and recover, Decurion.” She laid a motherly set of talons on Gilda’s chest. “I will return later, and I Iook forward to seeing you well again.”
“That makes two of us…” Gilda groaned. “Thank you for your concern, but with respect, Tribune, I’d like to be alone now.”
“Of course,” Narada replied with a nod. “If you wish, I’ll see if I can find some reading material to distract you with?”
“Sure.” Gilda shrugged weakly. “It’s not like there’s anything else I can do…”