by Airstream

In Which There Is Shipping

The night sky over Autumn Station was quiet and clear, the void sprinkled with tens of thousands of stars that watched over the resting denizens like myriad eyes, gleaming in silver and red and blue, their gaze broken only by the occasional fast-moving cloud. This would have been a fine night for a walk under the stars, perhaps with friends or lovers, but tonight was not one of those nights. A ship lay smoking at the docks, a hundred passengers were taking up all available rooms at the two inns, and the city was, in general, much more busy than it had any right to be considering its small size. Even the quiet of the night it did possess wouldn’t be lasting too long. Despite the far-too-early hour, most ponies had given up on sleep entirely.

On the outskirts of town, a small bundle of ponies waited, surrounded by a few bags and a host of Royal Grenadiers, as well as a few ponies who were scampering to and fro from the town to the site, ensuring nopony and nothing were left behind. In the middle of this crowd waited three ponies, surrounded by silent figures in grey cloaks, chatting quietly amongst themselves.

“How long until the ship arrives?” Serale asked Libra, stamping her hooves to warm herself up despite her heavy coat. Without realizing it, she nestled deeper into the seal fur surrounding her.

“We should be hearing them in a few minutes,” Libra said, “But we’ll be underway within the hour, I should think.”

“Does this town even have an airship tower?” Cobblestone asked. “I don’t see one.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Libra replied, “But these ponies in the Second Fleet are skilled at getting ponies and supplies on and off of the ships without special moorings, and without much of a delay, either.”

“So we’ll be using a basket and line?” Serale asked.

“Likely,” Libra replied. “It shouldn’t be much of an issue. Are you warm enough, Cobblestone?”

The unicorn shrugged. “I don’t know if I’m warm or cold anymore. I’ve had so many hot flashes and cold spells standing here that I don’t even know what temperature it is.”

Libra frowned. “You should have said something. If your core temperature gets low down here, we might have some problems when we climb above a few hundred feet.”

Cobblestone blanched. “A few hundred feet?”

Serale nodded. “Most of our airships cruise anywhere from a thousand to three thousand feet above the ground. There are more and stronger winds up there, which makes them faster.” She looked at Cobblestone. “You knew that, didn’t you?”

Cob shook her head. “The only time I’ve seen airships is when they were coming in to dock in Crescent City! I didn’t know they got that high!”

“Relax,” Libra said, “you’re more likely to be in a boating accident than to come to harm in one of these airships.”

“Oh, now I feel a lot better,” Cobblestone said, looking at the still-smoking riverboat behind them. “Just full of confidence.” Her face turned slightly green as she contemplated the heights she would be traveling at. “How long will we be on these airships?”

“A few hours at most,” Libra said, “And most of that will be belowdecks, where you won’t even have to look at the ground if you don’t want to.”

“I usually try to,” Serale said, “But at night, there isn’t really much point. So we can all take a bit of time to relax before we get to Starfall.”

Cobblestone focused on taking a few deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. She shivered; her stomach feeling like it had twisted itself into a knot. Her hooves trembled, her head ached, she wanted nothing more than to sleep, and she had almost died on this trip three times, from the assassins to the withdrawal to the explosion. At this point she just wanted to find the nearest quiet bedroom and barricade herself inside.

“It’s going to be alright, Cobblestone,” Serale said, “We’ll be right here, and these things are safer than most houses. I’ve taken a look at how they’re built. Safety is always first.”

“And besides,” Libra said, “They’re traveling with elite troops, all of them Pegasi. I think they’ve been in Lady Everstar’s employ since the beginning of this Kingdom. If you somehow managed to go over the side, they’ll catch you before you’ve realized you’ve fallen.”

Serale looked at Libra strangely. “The Condottieri are coming with the ships? Why? They only ever accompany-“

“Listen!” Libra said. “I can hear the engines.”

And sure enough, there came a faint sound, a low throbbing drone that seemed to start from one corner of the sky and roll of them all slowly, like a blanket made of low music. It started out low, faint at first, but as they listened, the sound began to grow louder, and louder still, new tones coming in as the ships drew closer.

“I can’t see them!” Cobblestone said, looking towards where the noise had originated from. “Where are they?”

“Puzzle!” Libra called. “Please have your ponies light their horns now!”

Without hesitation, the six Magekillers lit their horns, each of them emitting a bright light that burned blue in the night, forming a ring around the passengers as they did so. Other ponies began to do the same, lighting horns and torches to provide a landing spot for the incoming airships.

Cobblestone blinked in the sudden light, her night vision gone haywire for the briefest of moments before she screwed her eyes shut tight, before opening them to slits. She scanned the sky, looking for the shapes of the airships, and it was a scant minute later that she was able to find them, three cruisers gliding in low among the treetops.

The inbound airships were different from the ones she had seen daily in Crescent City, these being military instead of simple cargo or luxury craft. Their profiles were sleek, the sides and canvas of the ships painted in muted colors with only a few identifying insignia to proclaim their purpose, as opposed to the gaily colored pleasure boats she had seen before. Even from this distance, she could see the hatches along the sides from which the powerful guns of the ships would fire once opened. They kept a very strict formation, with little to no variation between them, seemingly without communicating in the open.

As Cobblestone watched, one of the ships, the one in the middle, broke away from its companions, which began to circle above the area where they waited, guarding its descent. The roar of the engines went from loud to deafening as it dropped lower and lower, until it was a scant hundred feet off of the ground. A team of six Pegasi vaulted over the sides, anchor lines held in their hooves, and they landed at equidistant points from one another, pounding their lines into the ground with spikes they withdrew from belts around their sides. Once they were secure, the ship dropped more lines, from which other ponies plummeted, rappelling down them with the skill born of extensive, exhaustive practice. In less than two minutes, the ship was secure, and a perimeter of guards had been deployed to the ground around them. More ponies began to drop to the ground, carrying with them equipment and gear to help them raise their cargo up to the ship. One of them, an Earth pony sergeant in muted grey, with a close-cropped mane and a scar running along one side of his jaw, trotted up to them before snapping a crisp salute.

“Chief-Sergeant Grandlaw, reporting for pickup duty, Milady,” he said, his voice gruff and respectful. “We’ll be underway in a few moments, if you’d care to accompany me to where we’re constructing the basket.”

Serale inclined her head, indicating he should drop his salute. He did so, but remained at a position of stiff attention. “I would be happy to accompany you, Sergeant. However, one of my companions is ill, and is suffering from the effects of the cold. Would you happen to have something to help her warm up?”

Sergeant Grandlaw eyed Cobblestone suspiciously. “I think we might, Lady Serale. However, my orders are to retrieve you first and foremost. If you accompany me, we can arrange for a coat to be sent down for your hoofmaiden.”

Cobblestone coughed in surprise. Hoofmaiden? Her?

“That would be fine, Chief-Sergeant,” Serale said. “Shall we?”

The sergeant offered her one hoof, and together, they headed for the area where the basket was being assembled. With a final flurry of activity, the enlistees constructing it managed to finish assembling the structure, one of them holding a side open for her to climb into before closing it behind her.

It was a simple invention, but one that had proven to be remarkably effective. The basket was lightweight, having a floor made of strong, light wood, which was fastened inside of a specially made cloth sling that was made of durable canvas. The canvas sides rose up to chest height, providing a restraining barrier for whichever pony or piece of equipment was inside it, and each side had several rings through which lines could be threaded and fastened, ensuring that the basket’s own lift kept the sides sturdy. The lines ran up to the cargo hatch at the stern of the ship, which opened wide to receive the package as they rapidly ascended through the gap, and closed behind them once they were safely inside.

Cobblestone watched this all with awe in her eyes. She had never flown before, and had never considered the possibility of her making it on board and airship, let alone a military craft.

“Are you alright?” Libra asked. “You seem a bit starstruck.”

“I’m fine” Cobblestone said, “Just impressed. And a bit nervous. They were up pretty quickly.”

As she spoke, the cargo hatch opened up again, sending the basket back down for its next passenger, containing Sergeant Grandlaw, who was holding a bundle of cloth in one hoof. A scant few meters from the ground, he jumped out of the basket, letting it hit the ground, before trotting over to the two remaining passengers, who met him near the basket.

“For you, Miss,” he said, holding out the cloth. “It’s a sky-duty surplus jacket, but it’s warm and about your size. Get it fastened while I escort the Magus up.”

“She’s under detention, Sergeant,” Libra said. “She’s cooperative, but I’d feel better if you could have an escort assigned to her just in case.”

The sergeant nodded sharply before turning over one shoulder. “Corporal Sandbar!” he yelled. “Report with haste!”

A young uniformed Pegasus came barreling out of the crowd before clattering to a stop in front of them, the tools around his belt clanking as they swayed. He came to the position of attention .”Corporal Sandbar reporting, Sergeant!” he brayed.

Chief-Sergeant Grandlaw gestured at Cobblestone. “This young mare requires supervision. She goes up with the next basket. She is not to leave this area until then, understood?”

Sandbar stiffened even more, if that were possible. “Understood, sir.”

The sergeant took in Cobblestone, who was struggling with the jacket. “And help her with that damned thing,” he said, “Before she strangles herself with it.”

With that, he and Libra climbed into the nearby basket, and with a quick tug from the Sergeant, the duo began to rise. Cobblestone could not watch them go, preoccupied as she was with the jacket, which seemed to consist mostly of buckles.

Sandbar watched her for a moment, amusement in his eyes, before stepping in to help her.

“Right,” he said, “The trick with these is to match like to like.”

He indicated the brass clasps that dominated the front of the jacket. “Connect brass to brass, those are the actual buttons. Start at the bottom and work your way up.”

Cobblestone did as she was told, fitting her hooves through the sleeves before marrying the two sides of the jacket together.

Sandbar moved behind her. “The regular metal clasps are for connecting to the rigging, or attaching tools, except for one set along the back. You should be able to feel them along your spine. Let me just fasten those up for you.”

“What are those for?” Cobblestone asked as his hooves moved up her back, fastening them with practiced speed.

“Those are called storm buckles,” he said. “When we fly through rough weather, we use these to buckle our overcoats onto our backs so they don’t fly around and get caught in something. They buckle together when they’re not being used.”

He finished the last buckle. “And there we are!” he said. “All done. It’s a good fit, Miss.”

Cobblestone felt the jacket retaining her heat already, and smiled at the young soldier gratefully. “Thank you,” she said, “That’s much better.”

“Not a problem,” he replied. “Which bag was yours, Miss? I can send it up with you.”

She indicated the rough canvas bag that contained most of her belongings. “That one,” she said.

He handed it to her just as the basket hit the ground once more, Sergeant Grandlaw waiting on her expectantly. “There you are, Miss,” he said, “If you’re feeling ill, remember not to look down until you’re safe inside the ship.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” the sergeant said, “You are dismissed.”

Sandbar nodded once before returning to whatever his prior duties may have been, leaving Cobblestone standing alone by the basket. She turned upon hearing an expectant cough from the sergeant.

“Waiting on you, Miss,” he said.

Cobblestone hurried into the basket, not wanting to spend any more time than necessary engaged in this particular activity. She stepped inside, surveying the ground once more, and felt the sergeant give a tug on the line.

Before the basket had gone too far off the ground, however, a small black shape rushed forward from out of the darkness, making a truly heroic leap into the basket next to Cob, who jumped to see what had caught up with her.

Hob stood by her hooves, an immensely pleased expression on his face as he twined around her hooves, choosing to curl up underneath her, where he began to purr.

“What in the Shadow’s name was that?” the sergeant exclaimed, craning his neck to see Hob regarding him with calm eyes. “How did he get here?”

“He’s mine,” Cobblestone said as they rose up into the air, keeping her eyes tightly shut. “He ran off a bit earlier. I’m glad he decided to come back.”

“We don’t generally allow cats on board our vessels,” the sergeant said.

“Check with Lady Serale and the Magus Libra,” Cobblestone replied, her eyes still shut tightly. “They’ll vouch for him.”

“Lady Serale has been escorted to the captain’s quarters as per our orders,” Grandlaw said. “We’ll need to wait to hear from her.”

There was a clang as the doors behind them shut tightly, and Cobblestone opened her eyes. She was standing right next to a catwalk made of wood and rope, upon which Sergeant Grandlaw was already standing. He offered a hoof, which Cobblestone took, clambering out of the basket and slinging her rucksack over one shoulder.

“Welcome aboard the HLS Discernment, Miss,” Sergeant Grandlaw said as they began to walk, Hob padding behind them, “She’s four hundred and forty-eight feet in length, with thirty eight feet at the beam. Runs on three Class Nine engines, reaches thirty four knots, and can reach a maximum cruising height of nearly twenty five hundred feet for nearly four hours. She’s got eight independently targeted Executor-class guns on each side, and four Judgment-class bombards pointed down below in addition to her air defense guns up above. Crew of three hundred enlisted, twenty five officers, and able to carry twice as many again for transport.”

They passed through a wide open area in which several groups of ponies were running to and fro hauling crates and boxes to one side or another as they entered and exited through a hatch above them, swinging from lines or flying in the relatively tight spaces between. Not only this, but the engines were idling, filling the space with such noise that Cobblestone’s headache, which had been abating, came back with a vengeance. The noise was terrific here.

“She’s got to be loaded evenly, else we’ll spend all of our time correcting course!” the sergeant shouted over the racket they were making. “Her outsides are plated steel, welded tight and reinforced throughout the ship to ward off fire, and the gas-bag’s got about twenty layers of enchantments on it! She’s top of the line, can give and take punishment all day if she wants!”

He grabbed a set of earmuffs, tossing them to her. Cobblestone clamped them over her head as they walked through the belly of the ship, the catwalk spanning the entire length. Above them she could see the gunnery deck, deserted save for a few watchful sentries watching them go, and in front of them was a wall made of more metal, through which others were passing quickly, limited by the narrowness of the catwalk.

As they, too, passed through the doorway, Sergeant Grandlaw indicated that she should take off her headgear, which she did. Much to her surprise, she found the noise from the engines had diminished from a deafening roar to a dull, ever-present thrumming. She sighed in relief as she felt the throbbing in her head cease, letting her think clearly again.

“Once we’re in the air and on our way, it’ll be a few hours before we’re back in Starfall,” Grandlaw said. “The Fleet actually just left a few days back on maneuvers, which is why we were able to respond so easily. In the meantime, I’ll need to ask you to remain in the common room, seeing as you’re under detainment. Upon our approach to the city, you’ll be allowed on deck to disembark, or to view the approach if you’d like.”

Cobblestone shook her head. “I think I’ll be fine down here, thanks.”

“If that’s what you’d like, Miss. The common room’s right down this way,” he said, indicating a hall to their left.”

He was interrupted, however, by the arrival of a uniformed unicorn who wore the same muted grey, but with simple golden epaulettes on his shoulders. Sergeant Grandlaw snapped to, saluting the other pony, who returned the salute easily.

“Sergeant Grandlaw?” he asked, curiosity written across his face, light yellow in color and framed by auburn hair.

“Yes, Lieutenant,” the sergeant replied. “How can I be of assistance?”

“I’ve been sent to fetch one of the passengers we’re taking on, by the name of Cobblestone. She went up with you. Is this her?” he asked.

Cobblestone nodded. “I’m her,” she said. “But why do you need to see me?”

The lieutenant inclined his head slightly. “My name is Lieutenant First Grade East. I’ve been ordered to bring you directly to the captain’s offices for an examination.”

“Sir, this mare requires an escort, being under detention,” Sergeant Grandlaw said.

Lieutenant East smiled gently. “Her power is restrained by the pendant around her neck, Sergeant. She’s lucky to have the use of her legs right now. We’ll be fine. You are dismissed.”

Grandlaw stiffened, throwing a swift salute before about facing and continuing down the hall towards the common area, leaving Cobblestone alone with the officer.

“You’ll have to forgive the sergeant,” the lieutenant said, “He’s from a border fort and doesn’t quite understand the idea of a gentlecolt soldier. He’s much too stiff.” He offered one hoof. “Shall we?”

Together, the pair walked down a second corridor, one which had only a few other doors along its length before culminating in a single heavy door at the far end, outside of which two guards in dress uniforms were posted, rifles slung over their shoulders, gazes straight ahead and nigh-unblinking.

The lieutenant let go of her hoof. “I’ve been told to wait outside for you,” he said, “Just go on in. You’re expected. Knock before, somepony will open the door for you.”

Cobblestone looked at him mistrustfully before hitching her knapsack higher on her back. A weight on her leg reminded her that Hob was following her closely, and the thought of his being there, even if he might not be much use in a fight, gave her a bit of courage. Whoever the captain was, they clearly had a lot of interest in her. Taking a deep breath, she walked up to the door and knocked four times, suddenly reminded of her last conversation with Chipped Bit. She swallowed reflexively, and the door opened. She stepped inside, the door shutting behind her.

“Cobblestone?” a mare asked from her seat behind a desk to her left. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

She indicated a seat in front of the desk, in between Serale and Libra, who said not a word to her. Cobblestone, her legs shaking, did as she was told, leaving her bag by the door before sitting down directly across from the mare behind her, her own eyes locked onto the other’s violet ones.

“Can I get you anything?” the mare asked. “Water, anything like that?”

Cobblestone shook her head meekly.

“Good,” the mare said, “Then we can begin. I’m going to ask you a few questions, alright?”

Cobblestone nodded, still not saying a word.

“Firstly,” she asked, “Do you know who I am?”

Cobblestone nodded, her throat dry as she tried to get the words out to speak. “You’re…you’re…”


“Lady Everstar,” Cobblestone managed to get out.

The purple mare behind the desk nodded, the light in the center of her chest flaring as she did.

“Indeed I am,” she said, “And I’ve been told by Libra that you’ve had something done to your head. Mind if I take a look?”

Cobblestone bowed her head. “If you’d like, Milady.” Even she knew that one.

Lady Everstar came around the desk, her every hoofstep delicate and precise. She stopped in front of Cobblestone’s chair, and it was as if Cobblestone could feel the power radiating from her, pouring out of her body like heat, nearly physical but not quite. A gentle hoof found her chin, lifting Cobblestone’s head up so their gazes met once more. She smiled.

“Now, I just want you to relax and don’t worry if things start to feel a little strange. You’re absolutely safe with me, and if you start to feel any pain or stress, just let me know, and I’ll stop, ok?”

Cobblestone nodded, not taking her eyes off of the near-goddess in front of her. She flinched as Lady Everstar’s horn lit up, and felt her own horn light involuntarily as the two leaned closer and closer together, nearly touching.

Suddenly, she felt something strange on her horn, like it had been enveloped in warm sand, and all at once, she felt an immense, yet gentle, pressure on her mind, something completely alien to her, causing a little thrill of fear in her stomach. Her muscles tensed, and Cobblestone found herself almost springing backwards out of her chair before a voice sounded in her head.

Relax, Cobblestone. It’s just me. I’m going to look at your mind to find the block and get it removed, alright?

Cobblestone found herself unable to move her head, instead thinking her affirmation at the presence in her mind.

With that, she could feel the magic spreading across her mind, filling it in like warm water, sifting through her memories and thoughts without leaving a trace or handling anything too roughly. Cobblestone found herself actually cooperating with the search for whatever it was Lady Everstar wanted in her head, knowing that the sovereign bore her no ill will and would do her no harm.

Her vision shifted, blurring for a moment, before resolving itself far too sharply and fading to normal once more. She felt happy, sad, furious, and fearful in quick succession before her entire body erupted into pins and needles and she momentarily forgot how to breathe. The problems resolved themselves all at once, leading her into a state of euphoria that vanished as quickly as it came.

Found it, the voice said, now I just need to…ah!

Cobblestone’s world went pink for a moment, and there was the vague impression of plaid and the smell of chocolate and soap before she tore her eyes away from Lady Everstar’s, slumping in her chair and breathing heavily. She wasn’t sure how she knew it, but she realized that the entire process had taken only a moment, in between one eyeblink and the next.

Lady Everstar straightened, her expression self-satisfied, before returning to her seat behind the desk, dabbing at her brow with a small cloth.

“There!” she said triumphantly, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Cobblestone blinked, trying to rid herself of the frankly odd impressions that the spell had left behind. She coughed, tasting cherries and spun sugar, and tried to ignore the idea that her coat was actually comprised of sunlight.

Focusing, she marshalled her thoughts, driving the sensations away and remembering why she had needed to get the block removed in the first place.

“His name was Dis,” she said, “Or at least, that’s what he called himself. He did something to one of the deckhands, mentioned something about his ancestors. He gave me the pin and told me to use it at Autumn Station, that there would be a diversion. He said I’d find an ally there.”

Hob leapt onto the desk, staring Lady Everstar right in the eyes as he did so. As usual, he was not impressed.

“I take it this was your ally?” she asked with a chuckle, her face amused.

“Either that or your daughter, Lady Everstar,” Cobblestone said, “It was there that we got to know each other better.”

Serale looked at her appreciatively before turning to the desk. “Cobblestone’s a good pony, Mother. I promised her my protection.”

“You did, did you?” Lady Everstar asked. “Well, we can’t have you going back on your word. She’ll have it.”

She frowned, looking at the cat. “There is something odd about this one,” she said. “Some sort of residual magic.” She looked closer at him, her brow furrowing as she inspected the cat closely. Unlike Libra’s attempt, this was not met with any undue hostility. Lady Everstar turned to look at all of him, from his head to his haunches, even going so far as to look into his fur. After a minute of this, she straightened up.

“Well, then. You’ve certainly got something special here,” she said. “I’d keep Hob close, were I you.”

Cobblestone frowned, surprised. “I never told you his name,” she said.

“You didn’t need to,” Lady Everstar replied. “I knew it already.”

“What is he?” Serale asked.

“I can’t say,” the purple unicorn said. “He’s older than you think, and means you no harm. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.”

She withdrew a crossbow quarrel from beneath her desk, laying it on the table. “I took this from among your things, Serale. I also took the liberty of removing the curse from it. Nasty little thing, had quite a hook on it.”

With a small application of her magic, she broke the seal on the scroll. A wide, impish smile spread across her face. “Who wants to know what it says?” she asked.

Lady Hedera yawned and stretched, laying her ledgers and contracts to one side for the night. There was much to do, and so little time to do it. Normally, she would have handed this off to one of her many, many clerks or servants, but some of the contracts were rather sensitive, and she didn’t trust anypony other than herself with the necessary documents. Papers in tow, she trotted over to her nearest bookcase, pulling on a volume labelled “A History of House Hedera, from Rose Manes to Riches”.

It was enchanted to respond only to her touch, and were any other pony to attempt opening it, the contents it normally would have revealed would be incinerated in seconds, blinding the poor fool permanently as well. The shelf swung open, revealing a hollow in the wall that she placed the folio of documents into, making sure that it closed tightly. She had been show the knack by her husband before his unfortunate passing, and someday, when she was on the way out, she’d pass it to her son.

Reaching for her bell, she rang it three times before setting it down and waiting on a servant to appear. It was not long before one entered the room, a young mare in servant’s attire, done up well except for her missing headband.

“Yes, mistress?” she asked.

“Tell the maidservants to prepare a bath, after which they are to leave. I am not to be disturbed,” Lady Hedera ordered, “And be quick about it, girl.”

The maid curtsied before hurrying from the room to do her employer’s bidding. Lady Hedera went after her at her own pace, knowing that when she arrived in her bathing room, there would either be a hot bath or some freshly unemployed servants waiting for her. She demanded perfection from her staff, and the longer they lasted in her employ, the more respect they would garner when they either became too old or outlived their purpose, and she released them from their contracts.

She only ever took newly indentured servants, ones with long contracts and no experience, still young and eager to please. In the employ of House Hedera, she made sure they were up to snuff, ensuring that they were ready to fulfill the needs of whatever House they would eventually end up in. Most others had the same job until their contracts expired. She rarely kept a servant for more than a few years.

“You there!” she snapped at a passing cleaner, who immediately sank into a bow, “Did you see the maid who rushed through here?”

“Yes, Lady Hedera,” the cleaner replied.

“What was her name?”

“Lily, Lady Hedera,” he said, his eyes still averted.

“Let my head of House know that she is to be given ten strokes of the cane for being improperly attired,” she said idly. “I’ll not have sloth in this house.”

“Of course, Lady Hedera,” the cleaner murmured, his head still bowed.

“Well?” Hedera enquired. “Stop scraping the floor and go!”

This served to galvanize the unfortunate pony into action, as he rushed down one of the many well-appointed hallways to find the head of House and let him know of the punishment. He’d need to wake him up, but the Head was used to it.

Sighing, Lady Hedera continued upstairs to the third level of the house, looking forward to her bath. Her hoofsteps fell muffled on the thick blue carpet in the center of the hall, one that she had ordered brought in after the death of her husband. He had left the marble floors bare, and the endless echoing of hoofsteps had driven her to distraction. She passed under his portrait, one hoof resting on a chair and the other holding a cane, his kind eyes following her as she passed. She sighed, shaking her head. She had loved her husband, but he had been awfully soft at times.

At last, she arrived at the baths, her presence awaited by no less than four attendants, waiting to hear if their preparations met with her standards. She inspected the room, breathing in the scents of lavender and feeling the heat of the steam in the air, rising in waves from the water. She noted her perfumes and soaps were within easy reach, the doors were secured, and all appeared to be well.

“I have no further need for you,” she said to her attendants, “You may go. Do not let me be disturbed.”

Rising without a word, they simply curtsied and left, closing the last open door behind them as they went. Lady Hedera was, at last, alone. She made one last inspection, checking for listening ears or unlocked doors and windows.

Sighing to herself, she unfastened the dress from around her neck, working the buttons open and stepping out of it before tossing it into a hamper near the door. It would be meticulously laundered and pressed by tomorrow, if she for some reason made the unconscionable choice of wearing the same thing two days in a row. At last, she ascended the steps to her bath, sinking into the nearly scalding water and adding a few salts and such to improve its cleansing effects on her skin.

She fondled the pendant around her neck, turning the dark crystal over in her hooves. She allowed her mind to idly drift, feeling the stone catch hold of her consciousness and allow her to project it if she so desired. Her mind expanded, and she waited for the feeling she knew would come.

She smiled as she felt it, the young maid receiving her punishment. She was almost tempted to ride along, just for the sake of experience, but realized that she simply had too much work to do. Using the pain of the maid, she allowed the crystal to activate, using the sensation as a catalyst to connect to the greater still magic waiting for her.

Child. How goes your task?

“As well as could be expected, Mother. My servants are slow to learn, but once I deem them worthy, they leave my House bearing your Glory. Even now, they work in the Houses of many.”

You are careful, I take it?

“Of course, Mother. My work is delicate. Molding young minds is a gentle process. Some resist, some need to be shown your Way. I inspect each of them personally.”

You do good work, my child. Prepare, the child of the False Goddess arrives soon.

“We shall be ready for her. I’ve attended to her servants myself.”

I am well pleased with thee, child. Your reward for this shall be great.

“I live to serve, Mother. We all do.”