The Traveling Tutor and the Royal Exam

by Georg

Chapter 11 - And Into The Mire

The Traveling Tutor and the Royal Exam
And Into The Mire

“Fillies and Gentlecolts, Princess Twilight Sparkle of Ponyville.”

The thunderous announcement was still rolling over the crowd gathered around the Canterlot Castle Royal Guard Assembly Yard when the shining white chariot and four Royal Guards dropped precisely onto the indicated landing spot, each wingflap in perfect synchronization.

In an almost perfectly identical aerial ballet, a group of photographers who had been circling at high-altitude for just this opportunity swept down, each collecting a stern Royal Guard who grasped their wingtip and steered the camera-laden pegasi out of controlled airspace and over to a small out-of-sight area where they could be properly admonished for their actions. One much smaller photographer rose out of the chariot and began snapping off photographs as Princess Twilight stepped out, walked down the red carpet and strode over to where a rather understated young green stallion stood waiting.

They exchanged a chaste nuzzle, which was both ‘daww’d’ and photographed by the surrounding crowd, before trotting, shoulder to shoulder in the direction of the nearby castle entrance. Behind them, two more adult ponies climbed out of the chariot and herded a busy crowd of little ponies and one small dragon in the same direction. There was something a little strange about their small charges, each wearing a fedora and trotting (or flapping) along in a straight line with one larger pony at each end, and as one, each of the observers referenced the agenda given out by the Press Secretary.

Press Conference
Arrival open to the public at the Castle Royal Guard Assembly Yard
Followed by the Royal Guard Exhibition Troop Close Order Drill Squad
Young Ponies Welcome

9:00 Arrival - Princess Twilight Sparkle and Entourage⁽*⁾
9:15 Close order drill
10:00 Flyover by the Wonderbolts and Cadet Rainbow Dash
10:30 Free balloons and ice cream courtesy of the Crown
11:00 Press Conference (Closed to the public)
12:00 Luncheon at the Tertiary Dining Hall (Invitation only)
3:00 Departure of Princess Twilight Sparkle with Wonderbolt escort

(*) Entourage includes Spike the dragon, Rarity, the Bearer of the Element of Generosity, and various members of the press from Ponyville including the award-winning Foal Free Press and their teacher, Cheerilee⁽¹⁾.
(1) She’s single.

~ ~ ~ ~

About the time of the invention of the Printing Press, Celestia had also discovered the merits of Assigned Seating For Reporters, as well as the legal notion of Taking Somepony’s Seat Is Not Justification For Stabbing Them In The Back With A Quill. Ironically, it was the war reporters who had the most peaceful press conferences, as apparently the knowledge of just where the knife gets inserted tended to generate a sense of comradery that gossip columnists and political hacks lacked. Still, Celestia had yet to have a violence-induced fatality at a press conference in several centuries, but after a quick look out into the press room, she ordered another pair of pegamedics to be on standby, just in case.

It was a press gaggle⁽²⁾ of unusual gaggley-ness that filled the Sunrise Briefing Room this morning. The usual royal court reporters had all taken one look at the neat and tidy press release and the attached five pages of footnotes before giving their press pass for the occasion back to their newspaper for any of the social reporters to attend in their stead. After all, the regulars had considerable experience trying to outwit the Princess of the Sun and lately the Princess of the Moon too, and this was one battle they were more than happy to watch from the sidelines while calling out encouragement to their more muck-stained peers.
(2) Commonly, a group of pegasi is called a flock, a group of unicorns is called a hedgehog⁽³⁾, and a group of earth ponies is called a herd. Different groups of professions also have their own nomenclature, such as a group of singers being called a choir, and a group of soldiers being called an army. A group of reporters used to be called a mob, but after some consideration over years of experience, it was determined that a mob had more organization than reporters, so the term gaggle was used instead.
(3) Don’t ask me why, I just write footnotes.

Standard procedure for a Princess Press Conference included a light buffet of crackers and hors d'oeuvres for the attending reporters, prepared by the most talented in the castle kitchens and laid out in exquisite array along a low table about an hour before the conference was due to start, thus allowing the reporters to graze into a rather somnambulant state of mind before engaging in their battle of wits somewhat disarmed. There were even rare occasions where the Princess in question would stroll among the grazing reporters before the conference started, normally on days or evenings where the news to be released was either very low-key or extremely important, or on the odd occasion when there was cake in the buffet.

The present crew of reporters were well-aware of the reputation of Celestia’s kitchens, and an astonishing array of small bags, containers, and wrapping materials had been concealed on their persons for the storage of perishable snacks, including at least one large hat with an insulated section large enough to hold a watermelon. As the reporters gathered outside the door to the waiting area, the growl of hungry stomachs was a low rumble, an indication of their impatience to begin with the buffet, and then to tear apart the next item on their agenda: Princess Twilight Sparkle.

Of course, when the doors to the buffet were opened and the reporters stampeded through, a great number of their preconceived ideas were abruptly changed.

For starters, there were a large number of very small ponies already at the buffet, loading up their plates and walking them back to various tables scattered around the room. Each of the little students was proudly wearing a fedora on their head, some tilted at a jaunty angle, but all of whom had a little pasteboard card labelled ‘Press’ tucked into the headband, something that all of the older reporters could vaguely remember as having once been the unofficial uniform for a newspaper reporter.

Secondly, the buffet was considerably different than they expected, with what could only have been non-alcoholic pink punch at one end of the table being dipped out into small paper cups by a magenta-colored mare with a flowered cutie mark, and discretely large chunks of chocolate cake being served by a snow-white unicorn mare at the other end of the table.

“Come in, please,” beamed the unicorn, who the reporters gradually began to recognize as Rarity, the Bearer of the Element of something or other, as well as ‘good friend’ to Fancy Pants, the most interesting interview in Equestria, as well as the most dangerous. She gestured to the room, and a number of small white cardboard nametags sitting on the tables. “Go ahead and get a piece of cake and some punch before you sit down. The students would like to talk with you before the press conference about their little newspaper for Career Week at the school.”

Amaryllis Quotes, the reigning queen of the society page, was only slightly taken aback at the way the rest of her peers meekly put on their nametags and fell in line instead of their normal elbows-and-hooves fight for free food. Once she had a moment, as well as a slice of cake, she sidled up to the other adult pony at the punch table and whispered, “So, I understand you’re Sun Glimmer, the pony who stole the Illamantine Literary Award away from me last year with your article on Princess Twilight’s new studmuffin. Tell me, how many times did you have to sleep with him to get that story?”

“Who, me?” The happy mare smiled as she poured a paper cup half-full of punch. “Oh, no, Miss Quotes. I’m Miss Cheerilee, the Ponyville Elementary School teacher. Sun Glimmer is one of my students. She’s a big fan of your work in the Times. Oh, Sun! She’s here!” Cheerilee waved at a cute little innocent⁽⁴⁾ unicorn filly at the other end of the room, who was sitting at a table with an alert expression and a notebook.

“Here’s your punch, Miss Quotes, and I just want to tell you something before you talk to my student.” Lowering her voice and leaning forward until her nose was almost pressing against Quotes’ ear, she continued without changing her perky smile one tiny bit. “You use the word ‘studmuffin’ when talking to my sweet little student, and I will take you outside and break every one of your legs. Got it?”

Startled into almost spilling her punch, Quotes nodded and scooted away to her assigned seat as the next reporter filed in behind her for their punch.
(4) Appearances can be deceiving, particularly in regard to young Ponyville residents. Or teachers.

~ ~ ~ ~

“I’m so nervous. I’m going to goof everything up. I think I’m going to be sick. What if I do such a bad job at this that Princess Celestia never lets me into another press conference ever? What if they laugh at me? What if they call you names? What if they want to know the name of the foal? Stop mocking me. Is that about it?” Green Grass finished reading off the checklist and gave it to Spike, who double-checked his work.

“Yep,” said Spike. “She’s used them all.”

“Oh, shut up you two,” grumped Twilight, still trying to get the lumps in her soft velvet dress to all flatten down at the same time. “They’re all perfectly logical worries, that I have now verbalized in order to reduce their impact on my performance this morning. See? Everything is fine.”

“Is that why you put your dress on over the top of your mane, Twilight?” asked Spike, taking a step backwards to get out of range.

“Oh, no!” The dress flung itself off her body, twisting into a new shape as Green Grass faded back and caught the flying crown in his mouth. It was a move of pure instinct to keep the Element of Magic from bouncing off the stone floor, and certainly it was only his imagination that filled his mind with just how much raw power he had gripped between his teeth, and how it suddenly seemed to taste like ozone and supernovas.

With a subdued feral growl, Twilight stuffed herself back into the dress, making sure to keep her mane outside of the folds of cloth this time, and took the crown back from her future husband without a word.

Well, one word. “There!”

“She used to have wings,” Spike remarked to Green Grass with a look around Twilight’s somewhat-bulky midsection.

“Arrrggh!” This time the crown described a high arc during the rapid clothes change, and Green Grass had to fade back to the wall to catch it. He got the distinct impression that the impassive lump of magical gold and tourmaline did not like its trips through the air, and that a third time would not be the charm, although it would probably resolve any of his worries about getting married.

“Honey, you really need to—” The crown left Green Grass’ teeth with enough velocity that he paused to check to make sure it had not taken any enamel with it.

“If you two tell me I have to relax one more time,” growled Twilight while jamming the Element back on her head.

After a quick glance over his bride-to-be revealed little more than a little dishevelment that Spike was rapidly de-sheveling with a manecomb and brush, Green Grass took a deep breath to try again, carefully not mentioning the fact that her tail was now hidden under the dress.

“No, I’m learning not to do that anymore, dear. I just want to know what is bothering you the most about this press conference. We already sat down to break the problem into every little step, and went over each of those steps in practice. If you think there’s anything else we need to practice before you go out there, tell me now.” Green Grass rested a hoof on her shoulder and waited for the inevitable verbal flood.

“Well, there was…” Twilight launched into an in-depth analysis of their press conference preparations to the moment, including the test sessions with the Foal Free Press reporter-ettes and an entire day of Featherweight flying around her in a barrage of flashes. He had been attempting to score on the reward that Green Grass had offered of five bits for every embarrassing photo of Twilight he could catch that day, and even though the practice had cost thirty bits, it had netted several ‘keep locked in the safe’ photographs and refreshed Twilight’s training from all the years she had spent at the shoulder of Princess Celestia. Those lessons on how to walk and talk among the stuffy Royals had gotten rusty in rural Ponyville, but the practice had brought them back quickly. Finally, their test interviews with the Ponyville Foal Free Press had brought out both the skills of the young interviewers and Twilight’s control at actually stopping answering a question, which was her greatest weakness.

The discussion had just gotten into tertiary press conference question possibilities when their two appointment secretaries and Fancy Pants came trotting into the green room. Twilight wasted no time in separating out her own secretary and promptly grabbed Crosswind by one hoof.

“Crosswind, thank Celestia! Did you bring my notecards? And the outline from the Office of Griffon Relations in case there are any foreign griffon reporters in the audience?”

“Twilight, relax. There are only a few local griffons in the press conference. And two Minotaurs from Minos, and a pool reporter from the Neighpon desk,” she quickly added. “Fancy Pants and I went over your notecards. Here.”

She dropped a very small stack of cards into Twilight’s hoof, which she leafed through in a panic. “Where are they? What did you do?”

“Your brilliant young assistants and I turned a stack of cards tall enough to be used as a chair into a useful set of reference cards,” said Fancy Pants. “Now we’ve checked the room, the students are all getting seated, and the conference should start in a few minutes. Just relax and be yourselves. The two of you are going to do fine.”

“Two?” Green Grass blinked and checked his schedule.

“Minor schedule change,” said Papercut, floating over a new schedule that showed both of the Royal Couple available for questions.

There was a low glitter of amusement in Papercut’s eye that Green Grass really did not like, and that practically wrote a sign on his pointy forehead stating “Ready to bail out yet, earth pony?”

Thank you, Papercut,” said Green Grass, lowing his head in a shallow bow that concealed the deep breath he took. “Twilight and I appreciate this far more than you realize. Dear?” Turning to Twilight and extending an elbow, he nodded towards the podium. “The music is about to play. Shall we dance?”

The faintest smile fought its way to the surface under Twilight Sparkle’s tension, and the corners of her lips turned up as she returned the bow. “It would be an honor, Lord Green Grass.”

And shoulder to shoulder, the newest Royal Couple went forth to face the lions.

* *

Watching from the wings as the press conference went on, Fancy Pants took the time to give Papercut a long evaluating look, but did not say anything until Crosswind left the room to get some water.

“May I help you, sir?” whispered Papercut, deeply disappointed at how well both young ponies were handling the considerably subdued press, particularly after one of the society reporters had used a rather detailed profanity and Miss Cheerilee had dragged him quietly out of the room by one ear. The reporter in question was standing back at his seat now much as if he did not wish to try sitting down, scribbling across the paper in repetitive lines, most likely spelling “I will not say (censored) at a press conference” a hundred times. Afterwards, the rest of the reporters fell into line almost eagerly, each unconsciously rubbing a spot on their left hoof where a ruler would have been applied to disobedient little ponies during their early years.

“What is your game, sir?” replied Fancy Pants. “You seem to be dead set against Lord Green Grass marrying our newest princess, and he seems to be just fine with keeping you on. I would have fired you for disloyalty weeks ago.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about, sir.” Papercut scratched a small note on the schedule. “I am a completely loyal servant to the Princesses.”

“Princess Celestia did not assign you to Princess Sparkle,” said Fancy Pants with an introspective look. “She assigned you to the prospective prince.”

A muscle twitched in Papercut’s cheek despite himself and Fancy Pants nodded. “Ah, that explains it. I had been wondering why Princess Celestia picked you to step into Kibbitz’s sizable shoes.”

“Explains what, sir?” Papercut looked at Fancy Pants out of the corner of his eye, and found to his surprise that a broad grin had spread across the gentlestallion’s face.

“You simply must bring Greenie by the house someday, Mister Papercut,” started Fancy Pants in a sudden change of conversational direction. “I would be honored to show you the kiln out back. It is amazing how a simple lump of clay can be turned into a beautiful vase in the hooves of a master. I am only a novice at the craft, but my wife can make the clay sit up and beg. She says that half of the magic is in the potter and half in the raw materials, but I have never been able to pick out the proper clay for a pot the way she can.”

“And this has what to do with Princess Celestia’s decision to hire me?” asked Papercut, a little set back.

“Celestia transcends pottery,” said Fancy Pants, nodding out at the podium where Twilight and Green Grass were both responding to a question. “She has an eye for clay, and an amazing skill at shaping it. She has taught other ponies for thousands of years, she was Princess Twilight Sparkle’s personal teacher, and she has blessed the union of her precious student to yet another teacher. Tell me, young lad. Do you appreciate the valuable lessons he is teaching you?”

“He’s just an earth pony,” grumbled Papercut under his breath. “He can’t teach me anything.”

~ ~ ~ ~

The formal noon luncheon filled the Tertiary Dining Hall completely to the walls with every pony who was anypony in the Canterlot social scene, or at least that is how it looked to Papercut as he observed the collection of nobility and social climbers gathered around the tables while the waitstaff hustled and bustled among them. Of course, Appointment Secretaries were not on ‘The List’ for seating, but apparently baby dragons were, as well as many diplomatic members of Equestria’s non-pony races. Princess Celestia sat regally at the head table, surrounded by other members of the potential wedding party, including curiously enough, the little ponies from the Ponyville newspaper.

They were an odd bunch of little ponies indeed. Green Grass’ record made for an interesting read, but three of the little ponies had a file twice his size. Each. They had been flower fillies at Princess Cadence and Shining Armor’s wedding, been involved in Discord’s original escape, and somehow been responsible for a twelve point rise in insurance rates for Ponyville for each of the last two years.

Which Celestia was secretly covering out of personal funds, from her entertainment budget for some reason.

It was only a short trip from the elegant dining hall, filled with Very Important Ponies, over to the dining hall filled with Not Quite That Important But Still Associated With Important Ponies. Diplomatic adjuncts, clerks, hoofstallions, manedressers, and of course, appointment secretaries still had to eat while their betters were dining with their peers, so a buffet had been set up with much less expensive but still amazingly good cuisine and a large floor filled with a mix of tables. Minotaurs and griffons mixed in relative abandon among their pony counterparts, with tables pulled together as old friends who had been separated for months or years took this brief opportunity to renew their acquaintances. Papercut took his time going through the buffet due to certain dietary goals ‘encouraged’ by his employer, but in a note of subtle rebellion, he made sure to take the smallest piece of Germane Chocolate Cake that he could find before heading out to find a seat.

“Ahh, Miss Crosswind.” Papercut gestured to an open seat next to the slim pegasus. “Might I have the pleasure of your company at lunch today?”

Crosswind looked up from her paperback book, held to the table by the pinions of one wing. “Nopony’s stopping you.” The annoying pegasus had nearly filled her tray with various high calorie fare and then emptied it down her voluminous gullet, much unlike Papercut’s neat and practical spinach salad with a sliced egg, fat-free dressing, and a half-dozen croutons. She glanced at his tray as he sat down, giving a disparaging snort before returning to her cheap romance novel.

“From your attitude, I presume you have something critical to say about my culinary selection, Miss Featherbrain?” Picking up a fork in his magic, Papercut rolled a piece of cauliflower in the dressing before eating it all in one bite. “Perhaps you would like it better if I were to eat like a pegasus,” he added, with his mouth full and dripping little flecks of cauliflower on the table.

“I don’t see how you can eat like that, Pinhead,” snapped Crosswind, slipping a bookmark in her paperback and stuffing it back in her bag. “You’re going to starve to death with the way Greenie is running you ragged every morning.”

“Four early-morning laps around the Royal Guard training grounds while discussing our daily schedule is hardly worthy of a change of diet,” he sniffed, mopping up the few bits of cauliflower that had dripped onto the table. “Lately we have been joined on our rounds by various other functionaries, including Fancy Pants, and I scarcely think they are slugging down the quantity of food that you seem to be consuming.” He cast an eye on the scattered fruit stems and banana peels that littered her tray with an additional sniff.

“You try flying any distance and see how many calories you burn,” she snapped in return, standing up and putting one sky-blue leg up on the table. “Do you see one ounce of fat on these thighs, you blithering numbskull?”

“Well, hello there.” A quite handsome unicorn stallion slipped into the nearby seat and cast an appraising glance at the proffered limb and the rather stunned pegasus to whom it belonged. “Papercut, do introduce me to your date, please.”

There was something more irritating about Green Grass’ brother today than his normal smooth mannerisms and Papercut returned a scowl to the smiling grey unicorn stallion with the perfect manestyle. Graphite’s silky-soft grey coat always contrasted so well with his milky white mane, forming gentle waves rolling down his neck. Mares seemed to have some unconscious desire to surf in those waves, and sometimes Papercut’s own grooming felt horribly inadequate next to him. At least today there was one minor imperfection that he could see as a short indigo feather peeked out just slightly from behind one ear, most probably a sexual memento left by his most recent conquest that had been overlooked by the handsome unicorn during his morning toilet.

“Lord Graphite, Crosswind is not my date. She is the personal appointment secretary to Her Highness, Princess Twilight Sparkle. Your future sister-in-law,” he added with a scowl.

“My apologies, beautiful mare.” Graphite gently lifted the extended leg and placed a soft kiss on her hoof, which irked Papercut for some reason. “I should have known that a mare this stunning could never be attracted to such a bitter lemon as Papercut.”

“Pardon me, sir.” An elderly unicorn stallion slipped into the seat next to Papercut with a polite nod, placing his shining bowler hat on the table. “I thought I heard my name. Good day, Miss Crosswind. Allow me to apologize for Master Graphite’s forward behavior. How are Master Green Grass and Princess Twilight’s preparations for the wedding getting along?”

There was a knowing twinkle in Friday Haysting’s topaz eyes as he glanced between Crosswind and himself, and if Papercut had not known the solemn mannerisms of the elderly stallion, he would have sworn the corners of the lips on his impassive face actually turned up in a miniscule smile.

“Very well, thank you,” replied Crosswind with a nod, after reclaiming her hoof. “In their press conference this morning, Princess Twilight announced the wedding will be financed entirely by donations. It was very well received.”

“That’s not exactly new news,” said Friday, gently tapping on the hard-boiled egg that seemed to be his entire lunch other than a small glass of prune juice. “I understand the fund was put together a few days ago with a rather dramatic donation of five million bits from an unnamed source. As a matter of fact, I’ve donated a few bits to it myself. It will be good for the lad and the young princess to embark on their new life with the friendship and generosity of others.”

“Greenie got Celestia to chip in five big ones for the wedding?” asked Graphite, digging into his own salad with gusto. “I wonder if the Griffon Emperor is going to try to top that when he shows up next week.” The handsome stallion paused, brushing back a lock of his creamy white mane and swallowing as the two appointment secretaries flipped frantically through their schedules.

“Actually, sir,” said Friday, lifting the neatly bisected eggshell off his egg and placing it to one side, “Princess Celestia has yet to allocate any funding from the privy purse to the fund. Since the fund was created, there has been a veritable flood of donations from all of the generous Royals trying to out-do each other in this regard. Rumor has it there are over twelve million bits in the fund now and rising rapidly.”

“What wonderful news, sir,” snapped Papercut, pushing his chair back from the table and standing up abruptly. “Now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to freshen up a bit.”

He walked at a rapid pace in the direction of the bathrooms, trying to conceal the ire that boiled up inside. He was not sure which was upsetting his stomach more: the new news about Emperor Ripping Claw coming to the wedding, or the way Green Grass’ brother looked at Crosswind, with his creamy white mane cascading back along his neck in a way that Papercut had never been able to manage on his own mane. It was only a short walk down a smaller hallway to the bathrooms, and his brooding kept him from noticing the measured tread of two other ponies following him, at least until Papercut opened the bathroom door and went inside.

“‘scuse me.” The hefty dull-orange earth pony who muscled past him as he entered the bathroom took a quick look under the stalls and turned to Papercut with a toothy grin that had very little friendship in it. The thug could not have been more obviously a thug if he had been carrying a sandwich sign across his back advertising the fact and his hourly rates. From his aggressive posture to a certain degree of ‘broken’ that crooked his nose just slightly to one side, he projected a degree of menace that the Royal Guard could never attain, and Papercut knew generally what he was going to say before the thug opened his square jaw and began to speak.

“Fust of ahll, you make thaht horn glow once, ahnd ah’ll feed you yo ohn teeth. We’s just gona have ourselves a little tahk about youh employah, ahn how he’s gonna back outah this here upcomin’ wedding while mah brudder ouside de door keeps dis conversation private like.” The stallion was wearing a long ‘duster’ jacket that was cut to cover his cutie mark in a style that Papercut vaguely recognized as modern-formal for the east coast, as well as a trim hat that actually looked better than Green Grass’ well-used chapeau. He made a mental note to set an appointment at a proper milliner for the twit even as the bulky stallion tilted his fedora up a little higher on his head and glowered in a way that should have been horribly intimidating, but only made Papercut snicker.

“Really? Does Prince Blueblood have any idea how I’m supposed to go about breaking them up?” Papercut paced back and forth with little clicks of his hooves on the tile in the small room, nearly ignoring the muscular earth pony. “I’ve tried everything I can think of to show Princess Sparkle what a dud she’s shacked up with. Really! How can she even think about marrying that hopeless twit, let alone give herself to him in that fashion? I don’t know how he managed to pull the wool over her eyes and get her pregnant, but that is not the behavior of a proper prince. He’s a cad, a clod, and the worst example of proper behavior. She should have kicked him out of her home, not slept with the moron!”

“Da princess is preggers?” The stallion ran one thick hoof through his mane with a puzzled look. “Ah didn’t know dat.”

“Yes, she’s pregnant,” snapped Papercut. “Where did Blueblood pick you up, anyway?”

“Brooklin,” said the heavyset stallion. “Me and my brodder was hired threw a cut-out, so we’s don’t know our employah. Ya says it’s Blueblood? The ponce with the stuck-up nose?”

“He’s not a… well, I suppose,” said Papercut with a twitch. “Go back to your employer and tell him that… tell him you leaned on me and I’ll do… what I’ve already been doing. It’s not working worth a piss though. I mean hoot.” He grimaced. “My language is going downhill from the company I’m keeping.”

“Yeahs, I know what choo mean. When we work wit dose mooks from frilly Fillydelphia, it takes weeks to git our accents back.” A thought seemed to bang around inside the stallion’s large head until his heavily-lidded eyes opened slightly wider. “Why is you so down on yo boss, da green mook? He’s some high muckety-muck unicorn in Canterlot, right? I’d tink youse would break a horn to snug up to a knob whoze marryin’ a princess, like.”

“Because he’s a stupid earth pony, you mud-brained idiot!” exploded Papercut, only to cringe back as the huge earth pony thug walked up to him with deliberate steps.

“So what’s wrong wit dat?”

~ ~ ~ ~

The world trickled back in on Papercut in very small increments, aided by a constant beeping in the background and the faint tickle of an anesthesia spell that he remembered from the last time he had visited the dentist. Extractions hurt, and apparently so did having a rather fat earth pony stomp up and down on oneself in the bathroom. Of the two, he was not quite sure which was the most painful, because in addition to the physical pain, there was also a rather large bruise on his ego, made worse by what he was certain to see once he opened his eyes. After procrastinating as long as he could, and having a somewhat urgent need to use the facilities, Papercut cracked open one eyelid just a tiny bit to look around.

Unfortunately, he was right.

“Oh, good. You’re awake.” Green Grass unfolded himself from the hospital chair at the side of Papercut’s hospital bed and poured a hospital glass full of ice water from a hospital pitcher. “You’re in the hospital,” he added, completely unnecessarily. “How are you feeling?”

“Delightful,” croaked Papercut, taking a sip of the offered water while letting his employer keep hold of it. Several sips later when the room had quit swimming in circles, he hazarded a few more words. “I shall have to recommend that chiropractor to all of my friends. How far backlogged on the schedule are we, sir?”

“Currently, I am supposed to be the evening entertainment for Baroness Hoffenstrotter for a meeting of several of her female friends and associates from Bridlehaven. Twilight is subbing for me, with a half-dozen of the most serious guards available as her companions.” As Green Grass sat the glass back on the table, Papercut could see a faint tremble to his hooves, as well as the smallest amount of encrusted tears along one side of his muzzle which only made it worse.

“Sir,” he started and then paused. The urgency of ensuring Princess Twilight Sparkle was properly wed to a member of the Royals suddenly seemed rather distant, but he shook it off. He had mucked up his chance by opening his big mouth, and the only proper thing to do was obvious. “I shall be offering my resignation on the morrow. I’m certain that Princess Celestia will be able to find a suitable replacement whom you will be more comfortable with. There are at least forty to choose from. Perhaps one of them is an earth pony, like yourself.”

“Denied.” There was no humor in Green Grass’ eyes as he looked back at the stunned unicorn. “Princess Celestia did not appoint you to this position, she gave you to me. A vassal can’t resign; he’s considered to be the responsibility of his liege lord, and that responsibility can only be transferred under certain circumstances. You really should have looked at that letter.”

“That’s illegal,” breathed Papercut. “There hasn’t been vassalage in Equestria in centuries. It was outlawed right after chattel slavery. I mean, I swore an oath to her when I took my position, but I’m positive it did not include—” Papercut hesitated minutely, trying to remember the exact wording of the oath. It had been fairly archaic, with many thees and thous, but he had been far too excited at the time to examine it closely.

Green Grass shrugged. “Perhaps it’s coming back into fashion. Please note that my name was listed too. I know it’s illegal, and you know it’s illegal, and I’m pretty sure Princess Celestia knows it’s illegal, but she wrote it on the letter, and that means something.”

After a long pause, Papercut asked, “What does it mean?”

“Trouble, for certain. If she had just assigned you the position, I might have been sorely tempted to let you wander away, but this? Green Grass shrugged again. “There’s something deadly serious going on, way above either of our heads.”

“So,” started Papercut, shifting positions in the hospital bed and taking inventory of his bruises. “If we’re in over our heads, what do we do?”

“Swim like crazy,” said Green Grass promptly. “Luna taught me that you can do amazing things if you have to. Dropped me off a waterfall into a deep lake just to teach me how to swim. I think Celestia has much the same teaching technique but tends to release her students at a much higher altitude.”

“Seems a little hard on the students,” grumbled Papercut.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” asked Green Grass. “If you survive this, you’ll be able to write your own ticket anywhere.”

“I was in training to become Her Highness’ Personal Appointment Secretary,” said Papercut with an arrogant huff that was spoiled by a wince of pain. “One can scarcely endeavor to a higher office from my stratum of society.”

“Is that who you are, or just what you did?” asked Green Grass with a peculiar quirk to the corner of his mouth. “I used to think I was just a little unicorn teacher, destined to spend my life happily instructing the young in their first precious stages of magic use. I would have been content to remain there for the rest of my life until Twilight showed me who I was, instead of just what I did.”

“I still believe Her Highness’ proclivities would be best spent enlightening another member of the Royals in that fashion,” sniffed Papercut. “And do not look at me with that smirk, sir. If I am obliged to be in your service, I shall endeavor to give you my all, but even if my body happens to be a rental, my mind is still my own.”

“I wouldn't have it any other way.” Green Grass rifled through a saddle bag and pulled out a familiar schedule. “Now, the doctor comes around every hour to check on your condition. She’s keeping you in here for a day for observation even after you’ve been cleared of any potential complications, just in case. Your assailant put in a few good shots to your thick head.”

“I may have referred to you as a ‘stupid earth pony’ somewhere in our discussion, sir.” Papercut leaned back in the bed and tried to pick up the water glass in his magic, getting nothing but a dull throb from his horn and a sudden luch to his stomach that took a moment to die down after he quit his foolish overexertion. After a moment to regard the flimsy hospital issue plastic magic suppressor on his horn that relegated him to the same category of magic-impaired pony as his ‘owner,’ Papercut reluctantly continued, “He seemed to have taken offense when I mentioned his disability, and chastised me extensively for my insensitivity.”

“From what the doctor told me, you should be fine after a week or two. Still, no magic until the doctors approve. I can survive a few days without a personal secretary.” At Papercut’s raised eyebrow, Green Grass continued, “You have an appointment with a nice policemare who has been waiting outside your door for an opportunity to interview you about the gentlestallion who did this to you, and then once you’re released from the hospital, a few days at home recovering. You’ll be back to tagging along behind me by the end of the week.”

“Thrilling news, sir. I shall endeavor to find you a leash and collar that best fits my neck.” This time it was Green Grass’ turn to look back with a raised eyebrow, and Papercut made a wan attempt at a smile. “That was a joke, sir. I am quite well trained, and can heel without a leash.” He shifted positions and began to pull the sheets away with clumsy hooves. “However, sir, if I do not make it to the bathroom soon, you may doubt my housetraining.”

“Don’t worry, Papercut,” said Green Grass, moving to support his servant as they shuffled towards the tiny hospital bathroom. “If you make a mess, I won’t rub your nose in it. Just…”

His bathroom-bound support quit moving, and Papercut glanced over at his employer, who had taken the opportunity to rub a hoof over his eyes. “Look. I don’t want to get sappy about this, but can you please be more careful in the future? You’re my first vassal, and hopefully my last. I would very much like to see you returned to Princess Celestia in more or less perfect condition, without any more unnecessary bumps, dents or scratches.”

“I shall endeavor to remain unbroken for your convenience, sir. It would be a shame to reduce my resale value. Now, can we please make all due haste to the bathroom? I greatly fear the consequences otherwise.”

~ ~ ~ ~

“I assure you, Miss Crosswind, I am fully able to walk myself home with the assistance of this rather impressive Royal Guard. I may not be fully recovered from my attack, but the doctor insists that I shall be more comfortable at home recovering. We do not need your help, so please be off with you.”

Papercut tried not to limp as he walked behind the alert Night Guard whose yellow eyes were continuously darting from shadow to shadow as if expecting to find an assassin lurking in them at any moment. There was something creepy about the bat-winged pegasus that made Papercut uncomfortable with the idea of him standing outside his apartment door all night, but those were Princess Luna’s orders, and if she wanted him to take her pet Nocturne out for a walk, then he was going to walk her pet Nocturne, like it or not.

I wonder what they eat?

Shaking the idea of fitting the hefty dark pegasus for a leash, Papercut turned down the small street and plodded behind his keeper through the rather plebeian section of Canterlot he called home, the streetlights keeping their clean path well-lit and mugger-free. He turned to face his unwelcome follower when they arrived at the base of the tall building that had once housed an extended family of earth pony Royals. The mansion was still there, but the family had succumbed to their baser financial instincts and subdivided it into a few dozen small but fairly comfortable and affordable rooms.

“Here, I must bid you adieu, Miss Crosswind. The owners do not permit the residents to have visitors or pets.”

Crosswind cleared her throat and cast a rather dubious look at the Night Guard, who managed a bland expression of his own indicating quite firmly that a Royal Guard did not fit into either forbidden category.

“Really,” chided Papercut. “Shoo, or I shall be forced to get a broom and chase you off the premises.”

“I’ll go, I’m going,” grumbled Crosswind while not moving a hoof. “But only under one condition.” She leaned closer and smiled. “Let me see you unlock the lobby door.”

It took a great deal of effort not to look up at his horn and the flimsy suppressor ring that had been gently attached to it. The doctor had said in no uncertain terms that Papercut was not to remove it except back at the hospital, but the actual suppressive ability of the therapeutic ring was more of a discouragement than a block. A good, solid push would have broken it like a twig, but the ring was meant more as a reminder than for any real suppression of his magic, and he sincerely doubted his ability to manage any significant magical force anyway. He scowled and reached with a clumsy hoof for the door key tucked in his top jacket pocket, fumbling around until he sat down and tried to extract it with both hooves.

And his teeth.

Getting the key out of his jacket pocket at the cost of a few popped stitches was only half of the battle, because then he had to turn his head sideways to get the key to line up with the lock which left him blind to the actual location of the hole. Several dozen jabs and pokes later, along with some subvocalized curses and threats, the key grated into the hole, but refused to turn. Nearly chewing the brass to twist the cursed thing made no difference and he took a few minutes to jiggle it, declaring premature victory when the lock rotated a quarter-turn—

—in the wrong direction.

“Invalid,” scoffed Crosswind, nudging him to the side with a bump of her warm hips and taking the key in her teeth. A few moments later, the three of them walked into the apartment lobby and she hoofed the key back over to Papercut with a disparaging snort. “So these are your digs, huh? Swanky.”

Papercut took a moment to look around the lobby, which used to be the former greeting area of the grand old mansion before it had been portioned up into apartments. He had not really taken the time before to admire the craft that had gone into the soft golden fixtures and gleaming marble, but now that she mentioned it, there was quite a bit of ‘swank’ to his building. There was even a pattern of tiles inlaid in the ceiling that depicted tile pegasi in flight, pushing around tile clouds in the blue tile sky for the undoubtedly tile earth ponies somewhere around here that would be raising tile crops.

Maybe I should cut down the dosage on my pain medication.

“No, my apartment is upstairs, top floor, north side. It even has a balcony, so any unwanted guests can fly away.” He was a little discouraged to see her reaction to the four story climb as Crosswind zipped up the staircase without even touching any of the creamy white marble steps. After a minor struggle, he tucked the outside door key away into his pocket and licked his lips afterwards as he climbed, tasting the scented lip gloss that she had left behind. There was an appeal to the scent that he could not place, and once they got to the top of the stairs, still in pain but not out of breath for a change, the scent still lingered in his nose as if he had smelled it before.

His annoying counterpart was studying one of the paintings in the hallway while he fumbled for his inside door keys, having little better luck with them and popping yet another seam in his jacket before extracting the appropriate key. With one last lick of his lips and a tilt of his head to try and remember if the key went toothy end up or down, he looked over at Crosswind and held the key out in one hoof. “If you please, mademoiselle?”

She plucked the key out of his hoof and rattled it in the lock for a moment, apparently having the same tooth up/tooth down problem as he was. To pass the time while waiting, and as an attempt to maintain his cranky reputation, he added, “And try not to get quite so much flavored lip gloss on this one.”

“Lip gloss?” she asked with a twist of her head that unlocked the door. “What do you mean?” She dropped the key back onto his hoof before he began the ordeal of trying to get it pocketed again, holding it in his own teeth and jabbing at his pocket.

“Y’know—” mumph “—Tastes like ginger or mint I think. Got it!” He licked his lips again and looked up to see Crosswind frozen in the doorway. The Night Guard, whom he had totally forgotten about up to that moment, slipped in the door the instant it opened, undoubtedly looking for hidden nests of Neighponese Ninjas or bear traps in his rugs, but Crosswind just remained standing in place with a hoof over her mouth, making little squeaky noises like some doggie toy being squeezed. Finally, she doubled over and collapsed in the doorway, rolling around on the floor and holding her gut.

Attracted by the noise, the Night Guard popped back in to take a look, shook his head, and went back to his dangerous job of assassination prevention. Papercut was seriously tempted to just step over her, except that would result in the rather intimate exposure of his private area to her sight, something which no proper gentlecolt would do to a young mare. He gave up after a short while, sighing and saying, “Please try to keep it down. Miss Waxwood lives just down the hall, and she would like nothing more than to catch me slipping some sweet young thing into my room in violation of the rules.”

The rational words did not calm Crosswind down. In fact, they seemed to trigger even larger gales of suppressed laughter, although she did manage to roll into his entry room and stick her face in the couch to muffle the noise. He followed, kicking the door closed with a quiet thump and limping over to the balcony. “Since you seem to be having such a good laugh at my expense, I’ll give you the shortened tour before you head home. Kitchenette, living room, bedroom, den, bathroom, balcony and goodbye.”

The balcony doors were nearly as difficult to unlatch as his front door, and by the time he got them opened to the night breeze, Crosswind had beckoned the guard over and whispered something in his ear that made him blush bright red.

The Nocturne coughed once into a hoof and rustled his membranous wings before nodding at Papercut. “Excuse me, sir. I think you and the rest of the residents might find it more comfortable if I were to stay out on the balcony this evening.” The bulky guard slipped past Papercut and out onto the balcony where he nearly vanished into the shadows, appearing only for a moment as he reached back and quietly closed the glass doors behind him.

“Creepy bats,” he muttered before regarding the giggling pegasus still laying sprawled out in the middle of the floor right on top of his expensive Saddle Arabian rug. “What in the sun’s name is so funny about lip gloss?”

“You don’t know?” Crosswind rolled over on her back and flapped her wings against the floor while curled up around her trim tummy, laughing too hard to speak. He averted his eyes at the display of her trim udder along with two unmentionable bits on top normally referred to as ‘pert’ in questionable fiction. If his magic had been up to snuff, he could have just thrown her out the window, a horrific crime to do to a unicorn but probably thought of as a sport to the feathered fools. Or maybe the jingling chandelier above her would just spontaneously fall, despite the sturdy construction that marked some overprotective earth pony architect.

After briefly cursing the concept of laughter, Papercut limped over to the wet bar and morosely considered the paradox of which beverage would best fit his mood but would not interact with his pills to create some unhealthy side effects. At least the bottle of white wine in the icebox from yesterday was already opened and easy enough to pop the loose cork out before pouring himself a thin layer in the bottom half of his glass, barely sufficient to get a good taste of the excellent vintage but not enough to make him see purple elephants as it mixed with the sedative he had been prescribed. One envelope of powder with the corner ripped off by his teeth dissolved neatly into the wine, and after considering the instructions on the packet, he rummaged through the bottom of the icebox for a proper cheese that would go with opiates. Perhaps a nice Mimolette, or some of the jeune Cantel along with a plate of whole grass crackers to soothe his stomach and calm his aching head.

He grasped the filled plate in his teeth, trying to figure out how to transport both the food and the wine back to his bedroom for his medicated snack before sleeping, but when he straightened up, the wine was missing.

Unfortunately, his guest was not.

“Needle-Noggin, you’ve got a funny taste in booze,” she said, sitting the empty glass back down on the bar and reaching for the bottle. “I thought the expensive stuff was supposed to taste better than the box brands.”

“You drank it?” The heaping plate of crackers and expensive cheese fell to the floor as he lunged for the empty glass and looked inside only to see a few leftover damp drops. “That had my medicine in it!”

“Oops.” Crosswind looked somewhat cross-eyed at her forehead and smirked. “I’m not going to grow a horn, am I?”

“Yes!” he snapped, grabbing for the empty medicine package and holding it down on the bar to re-read the side effects. “Crap.”

“Language!” exclaimed Crosswind, picking up the bottle and taking a swig. “You’re right. This stuff is a lot better without your medicine in it.” She straightened up abruptly and took in his panicked expression and the spilled crackers. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m serious! I’m always serious! Now shut up while I read. Maybe you’ll grow a horn after all,” he grumbled. “It might make you smarter.”

“You had a Grade 3 concussion, dufus,” she said, putting the bottle down and sticking the cork back in it. “That means no booze for you. Even though the medical scans show no intracranial hemorrhages, you were unconscious long enough that your pathophysiological state is still somewhat indeterminate. Any long-term damage to your prefrontal thaumatological membranes or the parathaumetric nerve extensions won’t show up for several days to a week or more. Besides, you’re the one with possible brain damage. Psuedoacetyl-para-aminophenol won’t really have any additional side effects in my head when mixed with alcohol except in really large doses.”

“It doesn’t?” He looked up from the empty envelope, still a little lost with the para-this and pseudo-that’s scattered around the warning text.

“That’s what my flank says,” said Crosswind with a smirk, pointing at her red cross cutie mark. “Princess Twilight went into full panic reading mode when she heard about your injuries, and I picked a lot of this up by osmosis over the last day and night. Now, stick this bottle back in your fridge—” she shoved the half-empty bottle of white wine at him in blatant disregard for its age or character “—and get a drink out that doesn’t have booze in it. Something that you’ll be comfortable drinking for the next few weeks while your tender little brain cells recover, just like your doctor ordered and you ignored. I’m going to stay here while you take your medicine, tuck you into bed, and then go get some sleep myself.”

She yawned, a deep cavernous noise that was accompanied by the popping of several vertebrae and a wide blink. Suppressing a sympathetic yawn himself, Papercut obediently got out some orange juice to take with his second packet of painkiller and plodded off to his bedroom, somewhat put out by the yawning pegasus who followed him even into the sanctum sanctorum of his most private room.

“A four-poster,” she remarked, running one hoof down one of the posts while he hesitated at the bathroom door, momentarily unwilling to leave her alone in his bedroom while brushing his teeth. “What? Are you afraid I’m going to seduce you with my ‘lip gloss?’” she snarked, running the hoof down to the mattress and letting out a low whistle. “Soft as a cirrus.”

“Thaumopedic Ultra-Soft,” he responded. “They’re actually metastabilized clouds in a sky-silk petroglyphes lining, and what do you think you’re doing?” He goggled in shock as Crosswind twisted around to put her nose close to her tail, then flopped down on the bed and spread a wing out across the satin sheets.

“Just a feather that was bothering me,” she replied with a yawn and a giggle. “Besides, I thought you liked the flavor of my ‘lip gloss.’”

“Oh, no.” He wiped his lips with the back of his hoof and stared in shock. “That’s not…”

* *

Princess Twilight Sparkle reclined on a mound of silken pillows, running her lips gently across the feathers of one wing as a rather dingy green earth pony stallion stomped into the bedroom, trailing little bits of sand and dirt behind him as he plodded along.

“Ugh,” he grunted, looking up with dull eyes as Princess Sparkle gestured him closer.

“I’ve been waiting for you to return for ages, you filthy animal you.” She tucked her nose back in the vicinity of her tail and nuzzled for a moment before looked back at the poor slob. “Come here and give me a kiss.”

The ugly brute of an earth pony stumbled across the floor, his attention seemingly riveted by a sheen of glossy substance across her face and lips. “I cannot resist your allure, Princess Twilight Sparkle. The preening oil made by your uropygial gland has psychotropic properties that bend the minds of weak-willed earth ponies such as myself. Allow me to kiss you and then do whatever twisted sexual favors you might desire.”

“Perfect,” she purred, wrapping her wings and limbs around the hairy beast, kissing lower and lower until…

* *

“No!” gasped Papercut, staggering back with a rather terrified glance at Crosswind’s lips. “You didn’t… There’s a… Why would… You stuck your nose up your… fundament and rubbed it on my keys!”

Instead of being angry at being discovered, Crosswind started laughing again. “You really didn’t know? Sheesh, I thought you were just playing dumb. Haven’t you ever kissed a pegasus before?”

“No! That’s disgusting!” He frantically wiped at his lips with the back of one hoof. “Isn’t there some hygienic gel or something out of a bottle you can use instead?”

“Nothing like the natural is what my mother always used to say. Heck, in Wonderbolts training, we used to have upwards of thirty pegasi in the same room all preening at once. There’s just some spots it’s too much of a pain to preen on your own, so—”

“Shut up! Shut up! I don’t want to hear it!” He vanished into the bathroom and confronted the strenuous difficulties involved with manually using a toothbrush and squeezing a toothpaste tube without spraying it all over the room. Even washing his face to get every last bit of ‘lip gloss’ cleaned off was a chore, with the soap constantly squirting out from his hooves. It seemed to take forever, but after he finished cleaning up the bathroom, and then cleaning up what he messed up while trying to clean up, Papercut limped back into his bedroom and considered his beautiful bed, which had never seen the slumber of a female.

Until now.

His four-poster bed had always seemed quite sufficient in size, but Crosswind was stretched out crosswise from one corner to another with wings outstretched and legs sprawled out in a fashion that seemed aimed at touching every single speck of his high thread count sheets. At first, he thought she was just tweaking him again, intending on jumping up and making some pornographic reference to ‘lip gloss’ when he drew near, but there was a little something about her that made him quite positive she was not faking sleep.


There was a certain amount of soundproofing in all of the apartments, so at least the surrounding residents would not be hammering on his door wondering just why he was engaged in a construction project in the middle of the night. He considered her expansive wing-spread pose and impressive vocal volume in thoughtful contemplation for a while before retrieving one of his loose pillows as well as a spare sheet from the linen closet and heading out to the living room to curl up on the couch.

Then, after a few minutes, he limped back into his bedroom and tucked the satin sheets over the sleeping pegasus before returning to the couch for the rest of the night.