by Airstream

In Which They Arrive At Their Destination

Cobblestone was roused from an uneasy sleep by a gentle hoof on her shoulder. She started, grabbing reflexively at the offending appendage and twisting her body in an attempt to gain leverage over her unknown assailant before she forced herself to freeze, remembering where she was. She blinked twice, focusing on the face in front of her. The blur of rest resolved itself into a close metal room, lit by the glow of electric lights from the hallway.


The mage gave her a pained smile. “Hello, Cobblestone. Would you mind letting go of my hoof? I’ll need that back, and this is actually quite painful.”

Cobblestone released the Magus sheepishly. “Sorry. Old habit.”

“Understood,” Libra said, rubbing her foreleg and frowning at her, “We’re approaching the city. I know you’re not fond of heights, but I thought you might like to see the approach to the capital. It’s an impressive view from this far up.”

Cobblestone considered for a moment before nodding, giving a satisfied yawn and rolling out of her bed. “Sure,” she said, buttoning the jacket she had been given back up. “So long as I’m not getting too close to the edge, I think I’ll be fine.”

“Excellent!” Libra said, offering the young mare her hoof. “By the way, where did you learn that hold?”

Cobblestone took it. “I had it used on me in a street fight when I was eight. I asked the colt that did it to teach me. That wasn’t the whole thing, you’re supposed to get the other pony down on the ground”

“And he agreed?” Libra asked as they stepped into the hallway, Hob close behind.

Cobblestone shook her head. “No. Not until I kicked him between the legs and watched him drop. I took his earnings for the day and said I’d give them back once he taught me how. Took me about ten minutes.”

The Magus looked at her disapprovingly. “And did you return what was his?”

“What do you think?” Cobblestone asked.

Libra seemed unperturbed by this. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected less,” she said.

Cobblestone sighed. “Fine. I gave him half. I had enough for a dinner at that point anyway; two or three copper more wasn’t going to get me much in the way of another meal. I handed off the half I took to another thief who was short some.”

“Rather altruistic of you,” Libra remarked as the continued down the hallway, reaching a flight of stairs that clearly led to the deck.

“Not really,” Cobblestone said. “She owed me a favor after that.”

“What favor?”

The unicorn shielded her eyes as they stepped onto the deck, the first rays of dawn piercing after the relative gloom of belowdecks. “Don’t know. I never got a chance to collect; she fell off of a rooftop the next week. Bashed her head open on the cobblestones and died in about a minute.”

Libra raised a hoof to her mouth. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Cobblestone shrugged. “I’m not. I was the first one there, got her cloak off of her. Kept me warm through that winter. And she was a lousy pickpocket anyway.”

She caught Libra’s disapproving eye. “What?” she asked. “She’d have done the same to me and more if I let her. She was a goner as it was, we could all see it. I took the cloak from her and called it even.”

Libra shook her head sadly. “You didn’t have much growing up, did you?”

Cobblestone’s shoulders slumped. “Worked since I was five,” she said. “Two years as an eye catcher, another two as a lookout, and five as a lifter.”

“And before that?” Libra inquired.

Cobblestone averted her eyes. “That’s between me and myself,” she said. “And that’s all I’ll say about it.”

“Fair enough,” Libra said as they approached the edge of the deck, avoiding the uniformed ponies rushing to and fro. She pointed. “Look!” she exclaimed, indicating a gleaming ribbon set into the landscape below. “That’s the river we were supposed to be on coming in.”

Cobblestone squinted into the distance, her hooves still a safe distance from the edge rail. The black cat that had been tailing her sat down beside her, tail wrapped against the cold and wind. “What’s that over the horizon?” she asked. “That jagged looking smudge?”

“That’s Homehive,” Libra said. “A Changeling settlement. The Queen lives there.”

Cobblestone focused on the air around the hive, and sure enough, she could see several black shapes winging their way around the strange, twisted spires, which reminded her strangely of crooked unicorn horns. As she watched, a few of the shapes broke off from the hive, headed towards them, silhouetted in the early sun.

“What are they doing?” she asked.

“The Changelings often follow ships in,” Libra said, “Especially large ones like this. They make sure nopony on board has duplicitous intentions approaching the city.”

“What?” Cobblestone asked.

“They make sure nopony is approaching the city with the intent to harm,” Libra said. “Changelings are experts on detecting emotion, good enough that they can often deduce your intentions by reading your feelings.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Cobblestone said.

“That’s why we assigned one to you on the boat,” Libra continued, “For your safety and the safety of those around you.”

“Pardon?” Cobblestone asked. “Because it sounded like you said there was a Changeling taking care of me.”

“Yes,” Libra said, “Turquoise. She didn’t tell you?”

“She didn’t,” Cobblestone groused. “Now that’s rude.”

“Is that a problem?” Libra asked. “Does it bother you?”

“I spent a lot of time around Turquoise on the boat,” Cobblestone said, “She was one of my regular caretakers. And not once was it brought up, not once did she shift back.”

“Turquoise prefers the form she wears over her natural form,” Libra said, “She doesn’t spend much time near the Hives, and has since she was a hatchling. I personally think she’s more comfortable as a pony than a Changeling.”

Cobblestone frowned. “That’s odd.”

“I imagine it comes from spending a lot of time in the Court,” Libra said. “Enough time there is enough time to learn a lesson about keeping information close to the chest.”

Cobblestone said nothing, instead choosing to watch the Changelings as they hummed their way by the sides of the ship. After a minute, she turned to Libra. “Nopony should have to be secretive about what they are,” she said. “Even our crew took a bit of pride in being thieves. It sounds like she’s not proud of her heritage.”

Libra shrugged. “There are some ponies who still act uneasily around Changelings. Especially outside of the Kingdom. In Celestia and Cadance’s lands they’re looked at as monsters.”

“Hoy all hands!” a voice called, erupting from nearby speakers. “Prepare for docking procedures! Starfall sighted off of the starboard bow, one o’clock north, fifteen hundred down!”

Libra’s face lit up. She grabbed Cobblestone’s hoof, dragging her across the deck as the ship erupted into activity. The young thief’s stomach dropped as they began to lose altitude, but she noticed that the deck still remained perfectly level, the sign of a skilled helmsman. Together, they arrived at the starboard railing, where they peered towards the front of the ship at another smudge on the horizon.

“Is…is that it?” Cobblestone asked, awe in her voice. “Is that…”

“Starfall,” Libra said. “Largest city in the Evening Kingdom, third largest in Equestria, and home to Lady Twilight Everstar of House Everstar, the Rebel Evening. The most advanced, magical, and industrious city in the known world, home to nearly five million ponies at last quadrennial census.”

There was a mixture of pride and longing in her voice as they drew closer. “Home to the largest population of unicorns in Equestria, and the second largest population of Changelings. Home to the Grand Museum, the Heroic Graves, and the Grand Guild of Magical Craft, as well as the Collegia Arcana.”

She swallowed. “Home. My home. Fates above and below, how I’ve missed her.”

Cobblestone said nothing, her eyes wide as the small settlements below gave way to larger towns, forts and depots and rail stations growing together and in towards the grand city on the horizon. It was huge! Already the city spread dominated the entire skyline, spires and smokestacks and ramshackle buildings vying for space with the grand edifices of governmental power behind massive walls that appeared to be hewn from solid stone, rising thirty feet or more above the ground and feet thick. They did little to contain the city, which appeared to have spilled over the sides, sprawling out into the surrounding countryside like a tidal wave of densely packed urban jungle.

“Those are the Outer Walls,” Libra said, as they sped over them. “The first of three.”

“This is incredible!” Cobblestone said. She could see that beyond these walls were others, pointing into the city like the spokes of a giant wheel.

“The city is zoned for industry, commercial, and residential use in the lower two tiers,” Libra explained, indicating the walls. “Each of the eight sections of the outer City is appointed a manager called a Borough Governor, whose job it is to address problems and delegate resources in their sector with the help of their fellows. Anything they can’t handle is brought to the attention of their supervisors in the Old City or midtown.”

“What are those?” Cobblestone asked, pointing at the strange-looking grooves in the city below. They were deep, with what appeared to be walls separating them into sections, and emptied right before the walls.

Libra followed her hoof, narrowing her eyes as she tried to pick it out. They widened when she saw what Cobblestone was pointing at. “Those are the emergency channels,” she said. “There were problems with fire several decades ago, and so those were created. If a fire alarm is rung, then the channel is filled with water. The gates funnel it to where it’s needed, and bucket brigades use it to put out the fires. It’s only ever used for large fires.”

The speakers on the boat came to life once more. “Docking in four minutes. All unsecured cargo should be tracked, all unsupervised cargo buckled down. Deckhands clip to lines, engines throttle to two-thirds speed.”

Libra’s horn flashed, and a line rose from the deck, clipping itself to the buckles on Cobblestone’s back. “Careful not to get too close to the edge,” she said, “A fall from here won’t kill you since you’re buckled in, but you might hit a building before somepony can get to you and pull you up.”

The ship passed over another set of walls, these containing much older and larger buildings, as well as several large and spindly spires that supported airships much like their own. Cobblestone watched them pass by curiously. “What are those?” she asked. “They aren’t houses.”

“Most houses are in the lower city. These structures are either historic parts of the old city, the headquarters of noble Houses, governmental buildings, or Guild halls,” Libra said. “In addition, most of the military buildings are here as well. Armories, barracks, that sort of thing.”

“Then we’ll be stopping here?” Cobblestone asked.

“No,” a new voice said, “We will not.”

Libra turned around quickly before sinking into a bow, and Cobblestone spun to see Lady Everstar with Serale at her side before doing likewise.

“Milady,” Libra said in a low voice. “My apologies. I had wanted to see home once more, and to show Cobblestone Starfall as well. If you were looking for us, I apologize for making it more difficult.”

Lady Everstar gestured to them both, and they rose. “Hardly,” she said. “I was actually coming up to get the view myself. Serale expressed a great desire to see the city, and I felt obliged to let her up here.”

Serale said nothing, choosing only to give Cobblestone the barest of nods, her face impassive. Cobblestone returned the gesture, perplexed at Serale’s suddenly withdrawn attitude. She had been rather animated just a few hours before.

“Has Libra explained to you what will happen once we’ve docked?” Lady Everstar asked her.

Cobblestone’s head snapped around, and she averted her eyes. “No, Lady Everstar.”

“Just ‘milady’ will do,” Lady Everstar said, “But it’s a good habit to use formal titles unless told otherwise. Libra, would you be so good as to explain?”

Libra sighed. “Yes, milady.” She turned to Cobblestone. “Technically, you are still a prisoner in transport and awaiting trial, so before you are led off of the boat, we will be forced to hobble you, though we can forego the bridle if you promise your cooperation.”

Cobblestone attempted to protest, but a raised hoof from Libra interrupted her. “Please wait, I am not finished. You can ask me questions after I am done.”

Libra took a deep breath. “Now. You will be led from the airship tower to a nearby coach, and once you are loaded into the coach, it will be drawn to a high-security detention house in the Old Town. There you will await trial until such time as your case can be heard, a period of about one week. Let me stress that this is not a prison, it is a house. You will be able to have supervised visits with legal counsel, medical staff, and friends, and free reign of the domicile apart from certain areas.”

“Like what?” Cobblestone asked.

“Like staff quarters, storage rooms, that sort of thing,” Libra said. “You will not have access to items which could be weaponized, and magic is dampened in the house and on the grounds. You may roam the boundaries as long as you like, though you must be inside by nightfall, and certain items such as books or other such materials will be made available to you upon request and after approval.”

“Which brings me to the next point,” Libra said, “You will be monitored constantly by staff, which I believe consists of a few guards trained in nonlethal detention techniques, several maids, and a head of House. Many of them we once lawbreakers such as yourself, but I can assure you that they will not be aiding you in any escape attempts. Lady Hedera trains them quite well, and they have each been personally selected for their integrity.”

“It’s really not as bad as it sounds, Cobblestone,” Serale said, a faltering smile on her face. “I’ve visited houses like that before, they’re actually quite nice.”

“Will Hob be able to come along?” Cobblestone asked, looking at the cat, which was busy peering out over the city below.

Lady Everstar shrugged. “I see no problem with it. He’ll be restricted to an indoors environment, however. I seem to recall a prisoner sending messages to the outside using a cat once, about two hundred years ago.”

They passed over the last set of walls, massive things at least forty feet high, and the cluttered majesty of the buildings below gave way to a rather bucolic scene, an open field with was crossed with a very few paths. Cobblestone saw a vast garden off to one side, and beyond that something that could have been a hedge maze, but those were quickly forgotten when compared to what stood before her.

A grand palace, a collection of buildings made of stone dominated by four massive towers, towered over even the airship, as it coasted in to land at a spire that seemed positively demure by comparison. These towers were all linked by bridges that spanned hundreds of yards through the air, made of wrought stone that even from a distance looked intricately carved. The buildings themselves were just as ornate, if not more so, seeming to be all at once wonderfully ethereal and incredibly durable.

“It’s all of it carved from one stone,” Lady Everstar said, “Even the windows were made by thinning and treating stone until it became transparent. Of course we added in metal fittings and wood trim, but this whole palace was made out of a single massive stone.”

“How?” Cobblestone asked, her voice quietly amazed. “It must have taken decades!”

“We finished it in eight years,” Lady Everstar said, “The first unicorns and I. I brought the stone, a small mountain, and placed it over the ruins of the old castle that once stood here. One of my very best friends, who had once been one of my most bitter enemies, helped with the design. I can still see her hoof in the place. She always did pay attention to the little things. I meant this place to be a symbol, a place that shows how much we are capable of when allowed to strive for great things. Aside from the first rough cuts, I had no part in the shaping of this place.”

Cobblestone listened as Lady Everstar continued. “This was all the work of mortal ponies, unicorns and earth ponies and Pegasi alike. Eight years of hard work, and when it was all done, this place stood as a monument to the power of will. The rest of the city is the same. Designed by mortals, provided for by mortals, and built by mortals.”

There was a jolt as the docking arms of the ship shot forth from their hatches, extending out towards the tower, where they were met by long coils of rope, expertly tossed to catch hold of the hooked ends of the metal arms. The ropes were fed into winches, which slowly but surely reeled in the Discernment, whose engines idled with the low growl of some massive cat.

“Cobblestone, you’ll need to be restrained before you’re allowed to leave the ship,” Libra said. “We can fit you with light manacles.”
Seeing no other option, the unicorn bowed her head in assent. A quick flash from Libra’s horn, and Cobblestone winced as she felt cold iron bands materialize around her hooves, linked together to keep her from doing much but walking. There was a click as the bands fastened shut and locked tightly.

“Would you like to keep the pendant on?” Lady Everstar asked, “Or would you prefer a horn ring? The latter is more noticeable, but some ponies feel a bit nauseous when they have the pendant on.”

“I’ll keep the pendant, Milady,” Cobblestone said. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Lady Everstar said, motioning for two guards that had been hanging back to step forward. “These two will escort you to your carriage. Your bag is on its way down as we speak. Is there any other business you wish to conduct on the ship?”

“May I speak with Lady Serale?” Cobblestone asked.

“Of course you can,” Serale said, forestalling any attempt at speech from her mother. “Mother, Libra, if you wouldn’t mind? I’d prefer a bit of breathing room.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow archly, but stepped back, indicating that the guards and Libra should do so as well.

“Will you visit?” Cobblestone asked.

“I’ll try,” Serale said, “At least once before the trial starts. More often than that if I can, there will be some things I need to attend to in Court.”

Cobblestone nodded to herself. “Be careful, alright?”

“I should be telling you the same,” Serale replied. “Don’t go doing anything stupid, and stay in the house. You’re liable to make yourself sick if you spend too much time out of doors in your condition.”

The subtext was clear. Don’t try anything stupid, especially escape attempts. It will go badly for you.

Cobblestone nodded in affirmation. “I’ll be careful. See you soon.”

She turned to the two guards. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

They moved smoothly to her sides, flanking her as she was escorted across the gangplank, making a point not to look back as she was unhitched from the ship lines at the tower and bundled inside. It was only once she was moving down the stairs, made of wrought iron, that she allowed her mask to slip a bit, her shoulders slumping and her face drawn with worry.

She wouldn’t have tried to run anyway, had she made it here without befriending Serale. There was no way she would have been able to escape a house made especially to contain prisoners, slip through multiple checkpoints, and flee into the countryside. Even if she had made it out by some miracle, she’d spend her time out as a fugitive. Nopony escaped when they attracted the notice of Lady Everstar.

They emerged from the relative darkness of the tower into the light of the morning sun, and Cobblestone felt a tug on her right side as she was led off towards a carriage that looked more like a metal box on wheels than anything, bearing no emblem or decoration, with a few slits for windows. A waiting guard opened the door into the carriage, revealing a low wooden bench and padded floors. AS promised, her bag appeared to be securely fastened to the top of the transport.

“It’s a quick ride, Miss,” the guard on her left said, helping her to the carriage. “Less than a quarter-hour to the house proper, and then we can get you unpacked.”

Cobblestone took his hoof gratefully, stepping into the small space before turning around just in time to see Hob jump in behind her. The guard blinked.

“Was that cat following you before?”

Cobblestone smiled. “He’s hard to notice most of the time. He’s mine.”

The guard shrugged, shutting the door. Cobblestone heard the distinct thud and click of the latch on the outside, before the rattle of metal against metal suggested the addition of a lock. There were two sharp knocks on the side, and the carriage started forward with a jolt.

As she settled in, Cobblestone looked at the small black cat that was curled up on the bottom of the carriage. This was the first time she had actually been alone with the cat since she had gotten him, and she decided to perform an inspection of her own.

“Come here, you,” she said, hauling the cat into her lap. Hob squirmed for a minute before settling in, finding a comfortable position in her lap and beginning to purr softly. Cobblestone checked him over, noting that he didn’t show any signs of having ticks, fleas, or other parasites she had seen in the mangy strays of Crescent City. He was also remarkably solid, lean musculature rippling underneath his coat like taut springs. Thankfully, he was rather relaxed, and so he was soft to the touch.

“Where did you come from, eh?” she asked, scratching absently behind the cat’s ears. “And why did you end up following me all the way here? Did Dis send you?”

Hob’s ear twitched. Hardly.

Cobblestone jumped, sending the cat flying out of her lap. Hob twisted in the air, landing lightly on the ground. He glared at her disdainfully. Rude.

Cobblestone clutched at her head. The voice wasn’t her own, but she could tell it wasn’t coming from the cat himself. Somehow, he was speaking silently into her head, a pleasant tenor.

Hob’s tail coiled around his paws. Relax. If you want me out of your head, I’ll tell you how.

“Son of a sway backed, half-sheared hobble horse!” Cobblestone said. “What the buck are you?”

Language, he said, stretching out. I’ve been sent to keep an eye on you.

“By who?” Cobblestone asked. “Dis?”

Hob’s glare became somehow more disdainful. I already said no. Be calm, the one who sent me is a friend.

“What’s their name?” Cobblestone asked. “Who sent you?”

Hob’s tail gave a pleased twitch. Better. As to that, I’m afraid she said not to tell you. All I will say is that she is an ally.

Cobblestone began to hyperventilate. “Get out of my head. Now.”

Hob sank to the floor. As you wish. It is simple to shut out the thoughts of others when they are directed at you. You are going to create a barrier in your mind. It will be hard at first, but with time, you will be able to maintain a barrier with little effort, and you won’t even know it’s there.

Cobblestone’s hooves tightened on the bench. “Teach me.”

Firstly, try to imagine walls going up around the inside of your head. Sturdy ones. While you’re doing that, reach for your magic. Don’t let it out through your horn, just hold it.

Cobblestone did as she was instructed. It took her a moment, but she was soon aware of a strange stillness in her head, like she was suddenly cut off from a sense she hadn’t known about before. She reached for more power, and was rewarded with that feeling solidifying around her mind. It was, aside from comforting, remarkably peaceful.

“Did…did it work? Was that it?”

Hob was silent, choosing only to yawn. Cobblestone watched him warily. Either he was keeping quiet, or she really had shut him out. As the carriage rattled on, she realized that Lady Everstar and Libra were right. There was definitely something damned odd about that cat.

“Interesting,” Aura Hedera said. “And you said that this…Keystone?”

“Cobblestone, Lady Hedera,” the servant said.

“Right, Cobblestone. You said she appeared close to Everstar’s daughter?” Hedera inquired sweetly.

The servant kept his eyes averted. “I believe so, my Lady. They spoke privately before she was detained, and appeared to be quite close from what I could glean of their brief time together and Lady Serale’s reaction when she was taken away.”

“Fascinating,” Lady Hedera murmured. “Very well, you are dismissed.”

The servant withdrew from the study, leaving her to ponder. The aristocrat checked her clock, making sure she was still on schedule to receive guests in an hour. Seeing that she had plenty of time, she poured herself another cup of tea and considered what she had been told.

So, Serale had finally opened up to somepony, had she? It was about time, the wretched filly had spent most of her life quite secluded from the Court, and as such she had acquired an air of mystery that was equally tantalizing and frustrating. But why had she chosen such a…common pony, out of all the possible friends she had made?

Mentally, Lady Hedera ran through the likely list of prisons she had been sent to. While a pony awaiting the trial would be put up in one of the Guest Houses, the carriage had been spotted leaving the western gate from the palace, meaning that she was headed to one of three possible houses.

It occurred to her that she had no idea why the pony in question was being imprisoned, or for what purpose. She’d heard rumors that the young commoner was a thief, but that hardly seemed like cause for a formal trial in the Evening Court. Maybe she had attempted to rob Serale? But then why was she not being imprisoned wherever she had been caught?

There was only one solution. She would need to speak with the stupid thing herself. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but there had to be a reason for the visit in question. An official, formal visit.

She pondered a plausible cause for her to arrange a visit with the girl. She rejected the idea of a social call out of hand; there was clearly no precedent for a friendly visit there. Likewise was the pretext of a goodwill visit equally idiotic. She sighed, sipping at her tea. Her mouth wrinkled at the edges, unseemly lines marring her otherwise smooth features. The one who had brewed this had made it too strong, but tolerably so.

An idea occurred to her. She did, on occasion, visit those awaiting trial to gauge their potential as servants. In fact, she got some of her best recruits in this fashion, but she hadn’t made a visit to her usual prisons in absolute ages. Her duties to Fate had kept her rather busy. It would not be seen as unusual if she made a call to offer this Cobblestone employment after her sentencing. She made an attractive offer, an alternative to time spent in a reformation house by agreement with Lady Everstar herself.

Lady Hedera nodded to herself. That could work. That could most definitely work.

A gentle chime interrupted her chain of thought, and she lazily waved in the direction of the mirror on the opposite wall from her desk, allowing it to go from reflective to receptive.

“Pardon me, Aura,” a familiar voice called from the mirror, “Have I interrupted you?”

The mare plastered a smile on her face. “Not at all, Vino!” she said. “If you had been, I hardly would have picked up, would I?”

“I suppose…” Vino said, his tone perplexed. “I wanted to talk to you about the letter I received.”

Lady Hedera frowned. “Is something wrong?”

Vino’s eyes widened, and he held up an apologetic hoof. “No, not at all! It’s just…I thought you were going to call me back home after my training with Sir Ironhide, not allow me an assignment!”

“Does this displease you?” Aura asked. “I can arrange to have the assignment withdrawn if you prefer to return home. There would be no shame in that.”

Her stepson nearly sputtered as he tried to backtrack. “No, that’s not what I meant at all! I’m more than happy to have an assignment, especially to something as prestigious as the Court Guard! It’s just…I was wondering why you changed your mind.”

Lady Hedera arched an elegant eyebrow. “Well, there were a number of reasons. The first being that you seemed to express a desire for further military service. While I would normally have taken that into account and brought you home regardless, I also made a promise to your father before he died that I would keep you safe and happy. And, if I am to be blunt, you are not needed here at home for a while yet.”

Vino frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that things are running smoothly here, and there is no reason for you to forsake your dreams and duties to your nation so that you can honor your obligations to the House,” Lady Hedera replied. “You’ve grown remarkably since your father’s death. But I feel that you could do with a bit more experience in matters other than how to run a House. So I requested you be given a good assignment, somewhere you can grow as a stallion before returning home.”

Vino, as usual, was lost for words. “Th-thank you, Aura. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“Of course, dear,” Lady Hedera replied, “I’d just ask that you do me one favor.”

“What’s that?”

She smiled sweetly. “Write to me frequently. I’d like to know what you’re up to, how things are going in your life. Once a week, more if you can. And calls like this would be welcome, time permitting. We’re both busy ponies. And despite any differences we may have had, I still worry about you sometimes. It will do me good to hear from you.”

Vino bowed his head. “Of course I will.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Lady Hedera replied. “Now I really should go. I’ve got some paperwork to sort through. Unless there was something else?”

Vino shook his head. “No. No, ma’am.”

“Be safe, Vino. I’ll speak to you again once you’ve arrived at the Regia,” Lady Hedera said.

Her son smiled. “I’ll let you know once I’ve settled in. Evening Reigns.”

“Evening Reigns,” Lady Hedera said, hating the words as they came out of her mouth.

The mirror went reflective again, and Aura sighed with relief. Vino had proven remarkably easy to maneuver into the necessary position with the help of her contacts on the inside of the palace walls and his frankly idiotic obsession with becoming a warrior. So she would have somepony close to the inside of the Court at all times, somepony that she could at least rely on, if not trust.

She picked up the bell from her desk, ringing it once. It was only a moment before one of her servants opened the door, a young Pegasus in formal wear.

“Yes, Milady?” he asked.

“Tell the House Head he is to request access to the prisons and Guest Houses so that I can survey potential recruits,” Lady Hedera ordered. “Tell him to use the usual channels, but to make sure that the affirmative is given within a week.”

The Pegasus’s eyes remained averted. “Is there anything else, Milady?”

“A fresh pot of tea,” Lady Hedera said. “That is all.”

The Pegasus bowed his head lower and withdrew, leaving Lady Hedera to her own devices once more. She picked up her cup, swirling the murky brew inside as she stared into its earthy depths.

“Cobblestone,” she said, as if trying the name on for size. “I should very much like to meet you.”