The Traveling Tutor and the Royal Exam
Most unicorns have fairly colorful auras to their magic, allowing other unicorns to be able to identify the objects they are manipulating at a glance. The magical aura that surrounded the cleaver hovering in the kitchen doorway was unfamiliar to Papercut’s experience, but with a twisting feeling in his gut, he recognized it by reputation. Only Chef Sizzler’s magical aura had that dull colorless sheen to it with little sparkles of dark red flowing inside, particularly whenever the chef was distracted and whatever he was carrying wobbled in his magical field. Even after all that Papercut had gone through tonight, that magical wobble almost made him lose control of his abused stomach because the sparkles in Sizzler’s magic field were the deepest and bloodiest shade of red, and the emotional turmoil that was sweeping over the angry chef disrupted his field in a way that made them seem to drip off the cleaver like droplets of fresh blood from a murder weapon.
Papercut had never met the chef before, although he was a favored topic in many uncomfortable conversations from ponies who had met him, and could not keep from talking about the experience. It would have been difficult for Papercut not to know about Chef Sizzler, with as many months of training as he had spent in the castle, but now that he was actually going to meet the odd chef, it disturbed him nearly as much as the chaotic dining room he had just left.
After all, Papercut’s mother had been quite diligent about keeping him away from any hot stoves or sharp knives, and those habits had followed him through his life, particularly when faced with the Royal Kitchens and the various emotionally eccentric chefs who made their lairs like dragons around their precious treasures. The meat station and its chef were no exception. Although it was one of the least contested positions in the entire castle staff, it still brought in applicants from all over Equestria and beyond. It was a critical position for the processing and preparation of meat-based dishes for any visiting carnivore or omnivore diplomat or guest, even if every pony in the castle staff tried their best to avoid the sights and sounds of some poor creature being turned into food by way of knife and fire.
Papercut was no exception. He had never met Sizzler or visited his work area before because he did not want to. Nopony really did. It would not have been so bad if the chef had just been in charge of the meat station as his predecessor, Chef Leancut had been before him. No, it was worse than that. Sizzler actually enjoyed his work, and could not comprehend why any other hooved ungulate would not. To wander into his working zone was not only to be subjected to the muffled scents and sights of a dead creature in the process of being turned into food, but to run the risk of being ambushed and offered… samples. Generous samples even, because most diplomats who were carnivores could not possibly consume an entire slaughtered beast in one sitting, and that resulted in leftovers.
And to make matters worse, Chef Sizzler had a spell to preserve those tasty little tidbits just in the odd case that one of the pony visitors to his abattoir-like workspace would lose their mind and ask for a snack. He would talk while heaping thin slices of roasted and seared animal flesh onto poor innocent slices of bread and garnishing the remains with a zestful mix of tasty vegetables and herbs that he insisted would go well with the dead creature inside if only the pony trapped within his reach would be open-minded enough to just try a bite or two.
Trying to distract his attention by looking past the cleaver, Papercut’s first glance at Chef Sizzler turned into a long and disbelieving stare. No pony should have such a bright red coat, one that made him appear to be completely covered in blood, fresh where the bright kitchen lights reflected the faint greasy shine to it and seemingly coagulated and clotted in the shadows. Thankfully, his tousled and tangled mane was not any shade of red. However, the unkempt hairs were the color of bleached bones, with a single thin streak of red made all the more prominent by the yellowish-white of his mane that appeared like a trickle of blood flowing off the remains of a freshly butchered corpse.
“Princess Luna!” exclaimed the chef, nearly dropping the hovering cleaver in his startled reaction. “The most horrible thing has happened! You have to do something! Wait!” The cleaver returned to hover and ‘drip’ in front of the doorway again as Sizzler’s ears folded back and he glared viciously at the small group. “How do I know you’re not changelings?”
“Because Specialist Rose checked all of us,” said Luna, eyeing the hovering cleaver with some skepticism.
“Oh,” said Sizzler, shaken out of his panic by the need to think. “I’m just so glad you’re here, because— Wait!” He blinked away a tear and squinted out the doorway with narrowed eyes while the cleaver bobbed from side to side as if it were seeking targets on its own. “How do you know she’s not a changeling?”
“I checked her,” said Luna in a very patient manner that bore no trace of the condescension that Papercut would have reverted to by now, despite the close proximity of a blade.
“Oh.” The thin chef paused in confusion. Sizzler was rumored to be somewhat dim with a single-track mind, and that track appeared to have several metaphorical carts and a wagon wedged into it at the moment. As he shuffled his hooves while searching for more words, the faint sticky sounds of treaded splatters of crop ejecta seemed to bring his whole world crashing back down on top of his trembling shoulders. Returning his tear-streaked, imploring gaze to Princess Luna, Sizzler continued, “It’s just so terrible, Princess Luna. What kind of meanie would do such a thing?”
“Calm yourself, my little pony,” said Luna, taking a step forward into the kitchen.
“How can I be calm!” babbled Sizzler with a wide gesture of his cleaver that had the entire group stepping back. “Somepony has poisoned Grand Chef Flay! How could they do such a thing? Right in his own kitchen. Actually my kitchen. Actually your kitchen, Your Highness, but he was using it, so it was really his kitchen while he—”
“Calm down,” insisted Luna. “We have come to investigate—”
“Investigate!” cried Sizzler, grabbing onto the word with an intensity of a drowning pony grasping for twigs. “We need to investigate just like in the Prancy Drew novels I’ve been reading. We’ll track down the suspects from the clues they left behind and grill them under hot lights until they confess and put them in jail for a hundred thousand years or until they—”
“Calm!” snapped Luna, sounding anything but.
In the echoing silence that followed, Green Grass stepped up to the side of the princess and put on his most sincere smile. “Chef Sizzler, what we need is for an expert witness to the crime to carefully explain what happened, so we can determine who put the henbane on the fish.”
“Oh, that was Grand Chef Flay,” said Sizzler with the startled blink of somepony returning to someplace vaguely resembling reality. “He didn’t know it at the time, but neither of us did.”
“None of us know how fish is prepared,” said Green Grass in a soothing tone as if he were speaking to a frightened colt. “I saw a little of the process when you made that delicious fish for Princess Sun Shines, but you’re the expert here. Could you walk us through every step that Chef Flay did when he prepared the fish for tonight’s meal?”
“You liked my poached trout?” Sizzler’s watery eyes brimmed over with more tears. “I mean, I heard that everypony at Princess Celestia’s private dinner for Princess Sun Shines had a taste, and I thought I had overdone it a little with the peppercorns, but… you liked it?”
Papercut spotted a brief hesitation before Green Grass responded, “It was a very memorable experience on a very memorable night. I shall never forget it. Much like tonight. It is a rare honor to taste the same course prepared by two totally different expert chefs, except, perhaps, for the bitter tang of henbane. When Grand Chef Flay is well again, I shall see if he is willing to repeat his performance this evening, only without the… mistake.”
Indignation seemed to drive the fear and anger away in a distinct ripple of annoyance that traveled down Chef Sizzler’s back, raising his bone-white mane much like an angry bird might fluff up to express hostility. “This is Grand Chef Flays The Flesh From The Bone With Amazing Speed! Grand Chef Flay doesn’t make mistakes. During every step of the process, he was magnificent, like a ballet being conducted under the hoof of a master.”
“Even while bringing in the trout?” asked Green Grass, totally ignoring Papercut’s silent indignation over conflating a ballet choreographer and an orchestra conductor. “How did he prepare them?”
While the disturbing chef walked Green Grass, and to a lesser degree the rest of the group through the steps involved in turning wriggling and flopping live trout into artistic expressions of the cooking arts, Papercut faded back. Any distance he could get from the waving cleaver being used as a teaching aid was a good distance, except for when he backed into a fairly large tub filled with a mass of slimy grey tubular objects which his brain insisted on identifying as the missing fish guts. As Sizzler waxed poetic on the beauty of the deboning knife when held in the claws of a master chef, Papercut turned to the most friendly beak in the room with a whispered question.
“He’s certainly enthusiastic about his… craft.”
Prince Sky nodded, keeping his voice down as he responded. “Despite being a pony, Chef Sizzler is highly respected throughout our diplomatic circles. He actually emigrated here from Great Griffon several years ago in the hopes of gaining a position in your famous kitchens.”
As the description of the food preparation process ended, the group had gathered around a wide table to observe a simple tin labeled ‘Parsley Flakes’ in the swooping dots and commas of Griffon script, although none of the unicorns made a move to pick it up. Even Chef Sizzler simply glared at it with his cleaver held in front of him, just in case the innocuous-looking tin were to leap at him with bared fangs.
“First, we need to identify any magical residue that remains on the tin,” said Luna in somewhat of a lecturing cadence. “Everypony please hold still.”
There was a low glow around Princess Luna’s horn and a tingle ran up Papercut’s neck, duplicated by nearly all of the group from their similar reactions. Ever so slowly, the room around them began to shimmer as Luna continued to talk.
“Green auras are from earth pony magic, yellow from pegasus magic, and blue from unicorns,” she recited, just as calmly as if she were reading from a book. “Griffon magic is much fainter, but should show as a light orange.”
The ordinary tin still sat on the table, with the faint traceries of orange surrounding it matched by the same orange patchwork across the food preparation area and the oven doors in a tight grid of precise thin lines unmarred by any other aura. There was a deeper blue tint to the room in multiple hues from Sizzler’s magic, but it was obviously predating every phase of the fish preparation except for the fairly small meat preparation area directly inside the odd pony chef’s sanctum sanctorum. That area fairly blazed with a series of brilliant blues around the smaller food preparation table and private oven of the meat station. It was more spellpower than Papercut had considered usable in the preparation of food, but a short step forward for a better look rapidly turned into a quick step backwards as he realized just how much of that magic was permanent enchantments strictly for the elimination of odor. Even saturated in vomit and regurgitated fish, his tortured nose still was quite adamant about not going anywhere near the faint traces of blood it could sense on both of the kitchen furnishings, despite their neat and clean appearance from a safe distance.
He deliberately turned his eyes back to the larger food preparation tables and traced the thin orange scratches that Chef Flay had left over the area while preparing the fish, and the regular circular green blotches on the floor where the servers had trooped in to load the dishes onto carts and take them to the dining area.
“Nothing,” grumbled Prince Sky. “The tin and the larger preparation area appears to be untouched by pony hooves in the recent past.”
“I’ve never looked at spells this way before, Your Highness,” said Green Grass, gently placing a hoof onto the floor and removing it in order to see the faint green glow of his magic that remained. All of the members of the group were outlined in their particular tribal magic, with Luna a deep, dark indigo that seemed to churn with silvery glints of movement even when she was standing still.
“This still gets us no further to finding who poisoned my father,” snapped Sky.
With a wave of Luna’s horn, the spell cut off and the normal view of the kitchen was restored.
“Au contraire,” said Luna. “It may not totally eliminate all pony suspects, but it does considerably reduce the probability that it was an Equestrian who committed the crime. Now, if you please, Prince Sky, carefully pick up the tin and rotate it while Specialist Grace examines it. Since we’ve shown there is no pony magic on it, just griffon, your touch should not contaminate any further thaumatological examination by the forensic team, who should be here once we are done.”
With a rather reluctant expression, Sky picked up the tin of ‘parsley flakes’ as requested and began to slowly rotate it while Specialist Grace examined it at nearly nose-length. After the second revolution and a few 'hmms' under her breath, she sat back and lit her horn with a pale green glow and an exact replica of the can appeared in mid-air, only five times the size of the original. Various scratches and chips in the enamel coating were promptly highlighted in glowing orange lines as the illusion rotated, and then stopped.
"There are too many tiny scratches to get a good pattern on the recent ones," said Grace with a tight frown. "Most of them correspond with a griffon of Chef Flay's size, but beyond that, nothing." A second green-highlit illusion of a griffon claw appeared next to the illusionary can, and after a little manipulation, Grace added, "It's not Prince Sky."
"What?" The griffon prince nearly dropped the tin of poisonous green flakes, saving it only with a last-minute grab before it hit the ground.
"You're a claw-tip grabber," said Grace as a series of amber highlights circled several scratches on the illusion. "You're keeping your top two claws together and grabbing onto things with the tips. Whoever grabbed onto the tin before Chef Flay was a whole-claw grabber who kept his or her claws equidistant. It was a confident grip, so they either did not know what was in the tin, or knew and didn't care."
"I suspected you were innocent of the crime," said Luna, punctuating Sky's smug expression as she added, "You have too little grasp on subtly or cunning to have thought of it, and you are too bad of an actor to be faking your reaction. Please, shake a little of the poison onto this plate. Not too much.”
With a mixed glare and sulk, the griffon shook the nearly-empty tin of flakes over the plate until a sufficient amount had been removed, then sat the tin back down on the table much as one might place a bomb with an intermittently fizzing fuse. “Why do you need the henbane?” he growled.
“We have a witness as to the tin’s use, and we have identified that the tin was not touched by any other than a griffon, but we have not verified that this particular henbane—” There was a brief flash of light over the plate of flakes and Luna nodded “—is actually the source of the henbane that was used in the poisoning attempt.”
“Starswirl’s Tracer,” said Specialist Grace, almost in reverence. “You’re going to have somepony ingest it so you can compare the thaumaturgic resonance to what was found in the griffons when they were being treated. Even the smallest variations in batch mixture can be isolated to track a solution back to an individual test tube, or even what level of the tube the sample came…” Grace trailed off with a brief glance at Princess Luna. “Sorry, Your Highness.”
Papercut had enough experience with Princess Celestia to be able to detect the subtle signs of an alicorn whose lines had been stepped on, from the tiny irritated twitch to her wings to an almost infinitesimal narrowing of her brows. He was expecting the subject of Luna’s little chemical tracking experiment to be a guard who had spoken out of turn, or possibly a rather annoying appointment secretary, but he was surprised beyond words when Luna turned to Prince Sky and floated the plate near him with a polite, “If you please.”
“Why would I…” Prince Sky paused with a snap of his beak, looking between all of the other ponies in the room before leaning his head back and holding the plate up. By tilting the plate to one side, he managed to get the entire collection of fine green flakes into his beak, and with a short snort of irritation, Sky swallowed.
“If my father did not have such confidence in you,” growled the griffon prince, “I would never agree to this foolish stunt.”
“If you had waited for a moment,” said Princess Luna, her horn glowing alongside Specialist Grace, “I would have told you to merely take a portion of the contents so we could have a control sample. Now be quiet while we work.”
In the background, Papercut and Green Grass quietly filled up several pitchers of tap water for what was going to come next, staying to the back of the open area in a futile attempt to stay away from the disgusting tub of fish guts, the actual meat station, and of course, Sizzler, who seemed fascinated by the spell that Princess Luna was casting. Papercut kept his silence while using a chilling spell on the pitchers of pure sparkling water, but eventually the tension built up to the point where he had to say something, even if it was just whispering to his literal liege.
“Will this delay the wedding, sir?”
“No.” Green Grass rolled his eyes. “With only two days left, I’m starting to think I could die, and the wedding would proceed as planned⁽*⁾. Twilight might even… No, you said Princess Celestia rather disapproves of Necromancy.”
(*) By chance, Green Grass had happened upon the only wedding contingency that Twilight Sparkle had not planned on. By intention, he did not mention it to her until long afterward.
After a moment’s thought, Papercut nodded in agreement. “It would be a shame to waste all of the cake and decorations, and everypony would be able to wear the same outfits to the funeral that evening. It would make the vows rather peculiar, though. Pardon me.”
Papercut slipped away from his owner for the sound of a light tapping on the swinging kitchen doors, which he answered with a hoof held over his lips to indicate the need for quiet. The medical pony on the other side of the door held up a bottle and whispered, “We have the antitoxin as requested. The team is dosing the rest of the griffons now, but I understand Prince Sky is in there with you.”
“Regrettably,” said Papercut. “He is presently in private consultation with Princess Luna in an attempt to track down the being who poisoned the meal this evening. Will a slight delay prove any problems for the treatment?”
“Probably not,” said the medical pony with one hoof over her nose to block the smell. “From what I heard, he was properly treated after receiving a lower than average dose, but griffons are more sensitive to alkaloid poisoning than ponies. I’d rather we get to him sooner than later, though. Without additional treatment, we’re looking at possible irreversible nerve damage and a chance of paralysis in griffons after two hours, depending on the initial dose.”
“I see.” Papercut did not want to ask, but it was a subject both important to his liege, as well as near and dear to his heart. “How about for ponies?”
The medical pony scoffed. “Other than Lumpy, nopony was stupid enough to be eating fish this evening.”
After a breath to compose his features, Papercut said, “Optio Pumpernickel, Princess Luna’s personal guard and close associate to His Majesty, Emperor Ripping Claw, deserves far more respect than you are showing. Please correct your behavior before I am forced to report it. Now, as to the matter of your treatment this evening. Lord Green Grass, soon to be Prince Consort Green Grass, had a bite of the tainted fish. As did I.”
The look of pure astonishment that fairly poured off the startled medical pony could not have been more impressive if Papercut had somehow grown a beak right in front of her. The door guard paralleled the medic’s look of surprise with considerable restrained humor, barely keeping from bursting out in laughter as Papercut backed out of the doorway with a quiet, “Please prepare a proper dose for your patients. I’ll inform you when they are ready.”
He returned to where the female guard and Green Grass were helping Prince Sky vomit up Luna’s toxic science experiment, still nauseated all the way to his tail at the sight and smell of the procedure but still valiantly keeping his own henbane-tainted snack inside, as Green Grass had not thrown up yet, and somehow the thought that Papercut was managing to endure the ordeal better than the earth pony was a wan comfort to his soul.
Besides, the medical pony said that ponies were less affected than griffons. Papercut had only taken two small bites, and the antitoxin was just outside the door. Other than Wingmaster Pumpernickel, Papercut was most probably the most poisoned of the two other ponies stupid enough to have eaten…
No, make that three.
“Chef Sizzler, didn’t you say that Chef Flay had shared his fish with you?” Papercut glanced at the nearby table where only a few bones remained of the mutual meal distributed among two plates, although one plate had a very small number of bones and a rather lumpy napkin. The skinny red stallion twitched as if a sensitive spot had been poked on his flank, and the cleaver wobbling around the room in his pale aura dipped dangerously close to the floor, making Papercut jump backwards. “Watch the cleaver!” blurted out Papercut as he stumbled up against the table. “You’re going to stab somepony!”
“Stab? A cleaver is used to hack through stubborn gristle or cartilage. You don’t use it to stab,” babbled Sizzler with a sudden dash towards his comforting food preparation station. The heavy blade wobbled over to the spotless wooden table that swept along the side of the fairly large room, landing with a clatter as a half-dozen slim blades from the station knife block floated up in his magic. “You use a knife for that. No, that’s a deboning knife, probably too thin for stabbing. The santoku might be useful for stabbing, but it’s more of a chopping knife. I suppose you could use a yanagiba, if you were careful not to hit any bones that would—”
“Chef Sizzler,” said Luna, seemingly unperturbed by the floating hedgehog of glittering blades in front of the disturbing unicorn. “Our servant asked you a question.”
“Er…” Sizzler cast a set of panicked glances all around the room as the collection of blades slowly began to reinsert themselves into the solid wooden knife block, one at a time, until the dim light on his horn extinguished with a gentle touch of Luna’s magic. Somehow the blood-red of his coat managed to look even redder around his cheeks and his folded-down ears, and if he were blinking any faster, his eyelids could have taken off like hummingbirds. Papercut took advantage of the relative calm by using his magic to open up the lumpy napkin on the plate and reveal most if not all of the missing fish from Sizzler’s plate, somewhat masticated and gooey, but still recognizable.
Luna’s sole reaction to the disgusting sight was a slightly-raised eyebrow.
“I’m sorry!” blurted out Sizzler in a sudden burst of words that poured out from the skinny stallion in an unstoppable flood. “It was such a high honor to have the Grand Chef in my kitchen and I know you told me not to talk to him but I kept my mouth shut like you told me to while he was cooking and just watched out of the corner of my eye while I was preparing the rabbits because I know how distracting it can be when somepony talks while you’re working.” Sizzler sighed, his runny eyes seeming focused on a distant place of pure bliss as a temporary refuge from his ongoing panic attack.
“I was so tempted to offer my help even though I knew the Grand Chef had wanted to prepare the meal with no pony magic at all. He was so skilled with the deboning knife and the spreader. Not a single nick or scratch on any of the intestines while gutting them, just one swift slice of the knife and the guts came pouring out into the bucket, like poetry. He even borrowed my sharpening stone to touch up the edge on his fillet knife.”
Wiping his running nose on his foreleg with a sniff, Sizzler gestured at a stack of strange grid-like stones next to the ovens lining the back of the room that were shared with the rest of the kitchens outside of Sizzler’s isolated zone. “You should have seen the way he brought the stones out of the oven where they were warming and just slipped the buttered fish onto them to sear the scales down so they wouldn’t slide off, and then passed the herbs over each of them before popping them into the oven. I could smell something just not quite right then.” He trembled, eyeing the now-cool ovens with the same expression one might look at a coiled snake. “I should have said something, but I thought that maybe the Grand Chef was improvising, or maybe using a secret ingredient that I wasn’t supposed to know about. After all, he’s the Grand Chef, and they’re never wrong, but then he asked me about the Lapin A La Bourguignonne I was preparing! Me! The Grand Chef actually asked me, and I forgot all about what I had smelled.”
His rump hit the sticky floor of the kitchen as the chef clutched his forehooves together in an expression of beatific joy.
“He said my work was adequate! He actually ate all of the portion! He even gnawed on the thighbone!”
There was a very long pause where four sets of pony eyes and one nauseous griffon watched Sizzler with his forelegs clutched to his chest and an expression of pure ecstasy radiating from every single hair of his body. Eventually, Luna cleared her throat and Sizzler promptly started babbling again.
“I don’t remember much after that until the servers had taken away the butterflied trout,” said Sizzler with another wet sniff. “I was breathing into my bag for a while. I… may have offered to sell myself into indentured servitude or something like that. I saved the thighbone. I wonder if it can be framed.”
“Focus,” said Luna in a flat monotone. “The fish.”
“Fish!” exclaimed Sizzler, and the verbal flood resumed in an odd torrent of panic and pride. “After the servers were gone, he brought one of the remaining trout out from under a dishcover. He must have planned it, because the rest had gone into the ice box, but do you know what he did? He offered to share it with me! It’s such a high honor to be asked to share meat and salt with a griffon, let alone the Grand Chef that I… I’m afraid I had to breathe into my bag again for a while before I fainted. Well, after I fainted. I was just so excited!”
His pale magical field glowed from under the table, and a well-worn paper bag drifted out for a few well-needed breaths until Sizzler could barely talk again. “I’m never washing that plate again! Never! I wonder if it can be framed too. Yes, focus,” he added in a rush as Luna began to breathe in.
“We sat down, right here in my kitchen, right at this table, and we shared the fish. He ate most of it while I… um… nibbled on the piece he set aside for me.” The skinny red stallion squirmed as if he was sitting on a tack while he began to speak even faster. “I could taste something different in it, but I couldn't place the herb, and I knew he couldn't possibly have put anything wrong into it, so I didn't check for henbane at all until I had finished using the recipe spell to check every other possible plant I could think of, even Neighweigean Thyme. I even checked twice just in case it was a false positive or maybe I was mistaken, and it took forever for me to get up the nerve to tell Grand Chef Flay about it. I should have said something sooner, the minute I thought something was wrong. He has such a reputation, and this will just wreck it. He might even have to resign! And it's my fault,” he ended in a frantic squeak.
“It’s not your fault,” said Papercut before he realized he was talking. An encouraging glance from Luna made him add another unfortunate sentence. “I couldn’t determine what the poison was even after two bites.”
“You ate the fish?” The four eager words made Papercut look up into Sizzler’s intense red gaze with the sudden realization that he had just subjected himself to a career’s worth of being offered little tidbits and choice morsels from the meat station, and that he would live in continuous nervous anticipation from that moment on as long as he worked within the castle or anywhere within a short train trip.
Perhaps Princess Cadence will need an appointment secretary in the Crystal Empire. I could always bleach my coat and wear a hat.
“We were of the opinion that you had eaten of the poisoned flesh also, Chef Sizzler,” said Princess Luna flatly.
“I tried,” whined Sizzler, looking so much like a spanked puppy for a minute that Papercut had a twinge of sympathy. Or maybe it was the undigested fish trying to make a second appearance. In any case, it appeared Sizzler was in far more discomfort than anything Papercut was going through.
The skinny chef cringed away from Princess Luna and fixed his gaze on the sticky floor, lowing his voice to a harsh whisper. “I couldn’t actually eat it. I mean I’ve never actually been able to eat anything that I cook, and I know what an honor this was, but—” Sizzler swallowed firmly “—all I could think of was it used to be a fish, all flip-flopping around and swimming with scales and a tail. I know they’re delicious, because I can smell and feel the flavor in my magic, but I've never actually… bitten one before. It was… odd. It was delicious, of course, but all I could think of when I was chewing was where it had been and what it had been eating. Trout eat flies and maggots and all of those creepy crawly things that live in that mucky slime at the bottom of the lake—”
Both Green Grass and Papercut bolted for the same trash can at the same moment, with the earth pony winning the impromptu race by a small margin. Rather than expunge his rebellious stomach all over the back of Green Grass’ head, which although a pleasurable thought, would probably not look well on his servant’s annual performance review, Papercut choked back the upcoming vomit and sprinted for a nearby door with what he assumed was a small bathroom behind it.
This isn’t a bathroom.
His first reaction was muted somewhat by the cold, as a sudden damp chill soaked in through his entire coat and mane at once. It could have been the moisture in the small meat locker, but more likely was a sudden outbreak of nervous sweat at being surrounded by so many dead bodies and pieces of dead bodies. Plucked ducks soaking in unmentionable fluids lined one wall, while most of a hydra head was skinned and hanging from a hook directly in front of his nose. To either side, suspended sides of meat hung in various states of dismemberment and preparation, as well as a number of savory smoked sausages draped across a rack and emitting a heavenly fragrance that made Papercut’s upcoming regurgitation pause for a moment while his brain caught up with his tortured nose.
That’s meat! It’s not supposed to smell that way! How can it smell good and terrifying at the same time?
Reversing his steps at an astonishing rate of speed, Papercut dashed to the main sink in the meat station kitchen and spewed his guts out as hard as he was able. Everything else in the world settled into a subordinate importance compared to the urgency of getting every single bit of his insides outside, in the hopes that perhaps he would be able to disgorge the memories along with the chunky bits of potato soup and rice pilaf that sprayed into the sterile stainless steel of the sink.
Between spasms, he could hear the soft voice of Princess Luna talking to Sizzler in the background, in a low but still quite firm timbre that cut through his own misery like one of the chef’s knives.
“We can understand your reluctance to consume animal flesh, even during this singular opportunity of high honor, good chef. Please be assured that none shall think unkindly of your natural instincts, not even Grand Chef Flay.”
“I know,” said Sizzler with a sniff. “I wanted to. Ever since I was a little colt, I’ve loved meat, the way it slices and cooks, and how it mixes with other ingredients to make delicious dishes. I’ve just never been able to get up the nerve to actually… swallow it.”
The scrawny chef climbed rather listlessly up onto a chair next to the table and hung his head until Luna broke the relative quiet.
“We scarce have had a meeting with you that did not include some tidbit of meat offered. You fear that which is your special talent, and believe that if you press enough of it upon others who share your fear, you shall gain courage.”
“Yes.” Sizzler hunched his shoulders and Papercut almost felt sorry for him while spitting out a few last fragments of his memorable dinner.
“Your idea is doomed to failure, my little pony,” said Princess Luna with a long, slow shake of her head. “It is instinct that drives the herd away from the scent of blood and meat, the same instinct that wars with your special talent whenever you consider consuming that which you create. Even one such as you who truly understands the joy of your creations cannot consume them without considering the source being possibly one who was once known to you.”
“But Princess,” objected Sizzler, “No living sapient being has eaten of another within our nation's boundaries since the Treaty Of Menagerie. We always use verified non-sapient meats in the kitchen. Always,” he added in almost a plaintive whine.
“That’s… not quite what I meant to say,” said Luna. “One who is aware of their instinct and is able to set it to the side, even in a partial fashion, would be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor, as they were, in order to calm your fears. With a few considerations, of course.”
There was a long pause with a look of bafflement on Sizzler’s behalf as he attempted to translate the complex terms into something that he could understand, followed by a quiet Royal cough. “As a Princess of Equestria, our actions are watched by many eyes. There are already copious rumors about the proclivities of alicorns, without adding rumors about our diet to them.” After another long and responseless pause, Luna continued in an even simpler way. “Our ponies would view the former Nightmare Moon consuming flesh with considerable nervousness.”
Another spasm in his gut caused Papercut to withheld his comment, which was probably a good thing for everypony in the room. He spat bitter bile into the sink while considering the situation from the other end of the Royal Pay Scale. It took little effort to come up with the same determination to be a dedicated vegetarian, even if Luna had actually wanted to experiment with her diet. Still, the fish had not been all that bad, other than the poison.
Lord Green Grass is corrupting me. Next thing, I’ll be asking for some fava beans with a nice chianti.
“I understand,” said Sizzler, sounding anything but convinced.
“I think not,” put forth Luna with unusual solemnity and a fairly long pause to let the words soak in. “The peace of our subjects is of great concern to us. It is not proper that I ignore this source of discomfort from one of my loyal staff any more.”
The princess seemed to be hesitating on the brink of a sharp mental precipice, but after a brief swallow and a sharp glance at Papercut to ensure his silence, she continued.
"If thou art so deeply concerned about thy weakness, it would only be proper for your Princess to show you there is nothing to fear, once this incident is behind us.”
Sizzler looked up, and in that instant, Papercut realized that he no longer had any worries about being asked to sample little bits of meat for the rest of his career.
“You'd do that… for me?”
Luna nodded. “Thou art a valued member of the Royal staff, who hath gone through great trials in our service." She paused, wrinkling up her muzzle. "Some very small samples, for Celestia and myself, and only if you maintain your composure throughout the investigation. No offering samples to the press or to the constabulary who will be speaking with you over the next few days. Do you understand?"
Sizzler's slumped spine straightened, his sunken chest puffed out, and a small smile crept onto his face in stages. "Yes, Your Highness."
“Good. Papercut, please allow the medical pony in."
With a cough and one last spit into the bucket, Green Grass spoke up. “Your Highness, I need to be excused. I have an important meeting that I need to attend in a few minutes.” He exchanged glances with Papercut, who suddenly remembered the pressure of twenty thousand bits in his ruined sidesaddle, and with that realization came a sudden increase in the metaphorical weight of the bits until it felt as if a boulder had been dropped on his back.
“It shall wait. You are needed here for the immediate future,” said Princess Luna with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “After he has been treated, send your minion to explain the circumstances.”
“Ah…” Green Grass hesitated before catching Papercut’s affirming nod. “As you wish, Your Highness. The details are in the note,” he added with a return nod to Papercut.
From his expression, Papercut could tell that Green Grass wanted to add “Be careful,” except for the presence of so many witnesses, the most royal of whom stopped him on the way out the door to tuck a small object into Papercut’s ruined jacket pocket.
“A little reward for once you have completed your task,” said Luna. “Now, off with you.”