"The name's Larry. Larry Laffer. A temporary (for the foreseeable future) guest of the Gryphon Empire."
I run the comb through the tufts of black hair, taking care around the edges where the receding rainforest meets the Sahara desert.
"It's not a bad gig so far, aside from the first few days of pants-wetting terror. Turns out we managed to fit in pretty well. And yes, I do mean the first person plural."
The man in the red shirt looks in my direction, rolling the cigar in his mouth to let some words escape between plumes of smoke.
"Blow it out your ass."
"Well someone has to narrate," I shoot back, waving the comb with the menace of a cavalry officer’s riding crop. "I figure I'm pulling double duty here, with overtime! Weekend rates! On a holiday, no less!"
I swing my arm across the luxurious suite, gesturing toward the expanse of windows arrayed before my stuffed leather chair. Sunlight softly seeps through the silken sash. Our curtains to the world.
"We're here to have fun, remember? Relax. Unwind a bit. Maybe make some friends. Don't get me wrong, Duke, you're a nice guy and all.."
The cigar blazes brighter than the morning sun.
"..but you need to loosen up a bit. And what better way, than to have your good pal Larry show you a night out that you - and anyone else in a hundred foot radius - ain't never gonna soon forget."
He looks pensive for a moment. A haunted longing for the years of decades past. I never really knew him when we were first starting out, stomping out our own niches. But we've both been around a while now. We're old. Older than our looks would suggest. We've got a special sort of camaraderie. A mutual affliction, as it were. Too old to be remembered, too stubborn to be forgotten.
He stands slowly, two hundred and sixty pounds of muscle, hair gel, and empty bandolier pouches carved into a six and a half foot tall meat statue. He glances at me as he crosses the room, striding towards the window.
"Blow it out your ass," he rumbles.
I stand and follow him to the window. He's got one pane open, leaning out in the jetstream, and curling his hand into the shape of a gun, taking imaginary potshots at the ground miles below, whispering the hushed retort of a nuclear detonation with each snap of his thumb.
My name is Larry Laffer. I'm stuck on a flying airship in a magical kingdom of mythic beasts, and my roommate is an omnicidal maniac.
* * *
The airship thrummed as it sailed high above the carpet of clouds, bearing West with methodical determination. Two figures trailed from behind, rising like a pair of Soviet SA-2 missiles to intercept the swift sleek ship. One gryphon, and one pegasus, both clad in the glinting gleaming silver and gold of their respective uniforms.
They alit upon the polished teak deck, hoof and claw saluting the officer of the watch. They stood tall and waited, consummate professionals punctually perched upon the precipitous pointed prow.
The Captain was already on the way. He was an older gryphon, his feathers peppered with grey. Though his steps were slow and careful, he did not cause delay. Haste did not bring speed, as he was fond to say.
Wind whippled through the pony's mane as she nosed through her saddlebag, procuring and presenting a rolled scroll, one bound with ribbon and sealed with wax. It did not leave her clenched teeth until it was gripped firmly within the older gryphon's claws. He inspected the seal before snapping it with his talons, unfurling the parchment and reading with judicious intent.
Satisfied, he placed the scroll within his own messenger bag. A prismatic gem was plucked forth in return, one that swirled with the arcane essence of dragon breath frozen in crystal. He held it before the pegasus, but did not give it readily. A single order was passed to the officer of the deck, who passed his well practiced orders in turn. No less than a dozen armed gryphons marched forth from the ship’s superstructure, arraying themselves along the gunwales, and facing inward with their spears at the ready.
The doors were closed and locked behind them. The Captain held the gem loosely within his claw as he strolled back to test each in turn. The doors would not budge, despite the swift sharp pull from the old gryphon’s burly might. He turned and approached the pegasus once again, passing the small gem to the small of her upturned hoof.
A wooden wand with silver tongs gripped the edges of the gem, and she held it within her teeth like a pen. An unfurled sheet of paper lay trapped beneath her hoof. As the tip of the gem touched the parchment, there was a flash of lightning that burned many runic symbols into the page, before the whole thing immolated itself in green flame.
Moments later, a dozen guardponies flashed into existence upon the deck, arrayed outward in a circle, facing their gryphon counterparts. Weapons were held in salute, before returning to their sides.
The leader of the contingent twisted his head from one side to the other, surveying the scene. He proffered a gem of his own from within the recesses of his armor, and held it aloft with his magic.
It glowed. There was a flash of light. Four sets of suitcases, and twelve canvas rucksacks appeared in neat formation upon the deck.
The Junior Officer of the Deck inhaled sharply, then caught himself before accidentally announcing the arrival of luggage.
The ship’s deck bobbed softly in the rarified air, prompting one of the rucksacks to slump slightly, before toppling forward. Elsewhere in the formation of guards and gryphons, one pony was screaming internally, his eyes rattling the cage of strict posture and military bearing.
Mercifully, it was set upright once again with the soft glow of magic. The venerable gryphon nodded to the unflinchingly emotionless pony, and settled into position.
The gem glowed a second time, and a brief blinding burst of light washed over the pony and gryphon contingents. Between the encirclement stood Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, diarchs of the sun and moon, flanked by Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Princess Twilight, patron embodiments of Love and Friendship.
A bronze bell, polished to the same color as melted butter, struck eight gongs. The Junior Officer cleared his throat and recited from memory what he had practiced since yesterday.
“Announcing the arrival of Princess sun horse princess.. Oh Pluck Me!”
The Captain turned on one claw, leveling a cold stare at the trembling young gryphon. He shook his head, but gave a small nod at the end. His beak opened and closed quietly, mouthing the words ‘work on it’. With a flourish, he turned back to the new arrivals, and opened up with bombastic gusto.
“My apologies, Princesses Celestia, Luna, Cadenza, and Twilight,” he nodded at each in turn. “I believe we had a little case of stage fright. But no matter! Welcome! Welcome! It is my profound pleasure and the highest honor to welcome you aboard the Laden Swallow!”
Twilight’s brow furrowed, but before she could ask a question, Celestia strode forward and discreetly tapped the tips of her primary feathers against Twilight’s nose.
“Captain Stormsquall, it is good to see you again,” Celestia stated. Her words carried weight like a stack of bowling balls in a velvet pillowcase.
“Oh bollocks and tail feathers, Tia,” Stormsquall threw a claw around Celestia’s neck and patted her on the withers. “You’re here to relax. Unwind a bit. I know you’re ready to loosen up a bit after fifty-one weeks of dealing with your nobles and fending off the stray nightmare-given-flesh that threatens to end the world. It’s high time to let slip the surly bonds of Earth, and get so plastered that you forget that Mondays even exist. Will you do that for me, Tia? Let Ol’ Stormy show you a fun time?”
Celestia looked distant for a moment, wrestling with a concern beneath her weary crown. Her eyes softened and she smiled at the Captain, nodding her head gently.
“Excellent,” Stormsquall boomed. He stepped back from Celestia, and threw both arms around Luna. He was half eagle, half lion, and all bearhug. “And it’s wonderful to see you again, Luna, Princess of the Night.”
“I can only hope that you enjoy this visit as well as the last one, even if it does mean we have to get another weathervane.” His eyebrows leapt up his forehead several times.
Luna turned a shade of crimson beneath the azure hair of her face.
“Alas, I must temper my merriment. It would appear that for this visit, I am the designated Princess.”
“Oh,” Stormsquall was struck with the terrible injustice of Luna’s predicament. “Such cruel happenstance. I can sympathize Lulu, there’s not a drop of the ether to pass my beak while the Swallow is under my watch. Perhaps I can invite you to my sitting room when our schedules align. I do understand you have a penchant for card games, and the music-making records, both of which I am in no short supply. My door is open.”
Luna smiled, and nodded.
“Cadence!” he bounded towards her upon his thick paws. “So good to see you again, as well.”
“It is my pleasure,” Cadence beamed.
“How’s Shining been doing? Probably living up the bachelor’s dream with the castle all to himself, eh?” Stormsquall guffawed. “Do tell him I send my regards, and that the Laden Swallow is ready to receive when you plan to have your second or third honeymoon,” he gave a conspiratorial wink, leaning in closer to whisper, “We’ve nearly finished repairing the damage to your previous suite.”
Cadence smiled in terror. Stormsquall roared with laughter.
FInally, he turned to the most recent arrival.
“You must be Princess Twilight. I’ve heard so much about you,” he grasped her hoof within his claws and shook it heartily.
Twilight’s mind raced, but the gear was in neutral. With all the grace of a student driver coaxing a stickshift through San Francisco, she began to move her jaw, but then stopped when she realized she was supposed to move her hoof instead.
“I am Twilight Sparkle! My hovercraft is full of eels!” she blurted out.
The memory eradication effects of the evening’s activities could not come soon enough.
“I mean,” she composed herself, and continued, “um, yes. What you said.”
“First time’s always a bit awkward. Don’t worry though. What happens on the Laden Swallow, stays on the Laden Swallow.”
He turned back to Celestia.
“Mare’s night out, I take it? Mmm. Please allow me to extend my claws to show you the heights of hospitality aboard my vessel. My crew will see to your luggage, and accommodations have already been prepared for your guards. With no further ado, allow me to show you to your respective suites. And Tia? Do come see me after you’re settled in. I believe we have an unfinished game of Talons and Horseshoes in my study.”
Celestia nodded and smiled. Talons and Horseshoes meant the item was secure. Hoofopoly would have denoted a crisis of horrific implications.
Twilight turned to Cadence.
“I thought we were going to the Crystal Empire?”
“We’re going to the Cristal Empire. There’s a difference.”
“Downstairs. You’ll see,” Cadence whispered.
Stormsquall turned and looked across the prow of the airship. There were four Princesses, twelve ponies, and thirteen gryphons - not counting the Officer and Junior Officer of the Deck.
He was not pleased, but he did not let it show. The trap could not afford to be triggered this early.
“I believe we have some surprises in store for the evening. The lounge has undergone some, ah, remodeling since you last visited. And while the Laden Swallow is no stranger to guests of exotic lands and stratospheric prestige, we have the honor of hosting two individuals that the Crown has found to be of the most peculiarly interesting nature.”
Celestia’s ears twitched forward, intrigued.
“Officer of the Deck. Please pass the order to open the doors.”
The gryphon marched smartly to the porthole next to the door, passing several phrases through the small circle. The doors began to open.
“Stormsquall, what is the meaning of this!”
From within the confines of the ship, stood a mostly hairless biped, who seemed to be on the fast track to becoming a completely hairless biped. The wiry tufts of hair on his chest peeked through the deep v-neck of the shirt, a terrifying contrast to the white polyester suit that seemed to be an aberration of a lost decade. A small golden medallion hung from a small golden chain, the singular focus of the tall white winged unicorn standing at the precipice of the passageway.
“Holy crap, a talking horse!”
The four princesses stare at the owner of the abrupt outburst. Twilight slowly turns her head to look behind her.
“Well,” Stormsquall declares, “I suppose you shall be meeting our esteemed guest sooner rather than later. Please say hello to Mr. Laffer.”