• Published 15th Jul 2014
  • 1,533 Views, 106 Comments

Manehattan Madness - Ardashir

It's the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show! And for the first time ever Carousel Boutique wlll be there. Rarity and her models: Applejack and Fluttershy and a Changeling Queen searching for lost changelings -- who do NOT want to be found

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The Second Night: Sitdowns, Searches, and Cider Crawls

The Second Night:
Sitdowns, Searches, and Cider Crawls

Audra von Adler was sitting at her dressing table backstage digesting the emotional feast from the night’s audience, when she got a very familiar heavy rapping at her dressing room door. She went to it with an eyeroll. What does that minotaur want now? Better not be another ‘innocent’ cider-crawl.

It opened to reveal Asterion bending down and looking in at her, his shaggy dark mane hanging around his eyes and giving him a rather barbaric feel. Especially since he was still partially in costume as Tirek – gleaming black cuirass, crimson sleeves, silver bracers and nose-ring.

“Audra,” he rumbled like a thunderstorm trying to be quiet. “Lady here wants to see ya.”

He indicated a pony with a toss of his great horns.

The russet griffin peeked out her door, past a frantic-looking wardrobe mistress to a white unicorn standing there looking expectant. Not a stallion with flowers, but a very well-dressed and elegant snowy-coated mare with a magnificently styled purple mane and tail. Her capelet-dress almost made her wonder if the mare was an actress herself, combining as it did the showiness of a performer’s attire along with the fine materials of either a noble or a wealthy merchant. She looks familiar for some reason.

“Card says she’s some kinda noble.”

Audra looked down at the small decorated calling card in his massive hand. With a theatrical sigh she took it from him.

“She can see me just fine from where she is.” Looking down at the card, she added, “And you can tell her that while this is all quite flattering, I prefer stallions, and I…” Her voice trailed off as she read what she held in her talons.

Rarity Belle of Ponyville
Titular Countess Lipizzan…

TITULAR Countess, Audra thought. An honorific only; no actual holdings or power with the title. Like half the Vons in the aeries… Then she got to the last line on the card.

Bearer of the Element of Generosity.

Only two decades worth of hiding and acting stopped the Changeling-turned-griffin from staring at the mare in shock. But nothing could stop the sudden dread rising in her. One of the mares who defeated Queen Chrysalis last year, who was called to Canterlot a little while ago to help in that big anti-Changeling ritual the papers were talking about, just glad I was alone between gigs in Chalet von Herzog then. But even as she thought it she inclined her beak towards Lady Rarity in a gracious nod. A formal bow is out of place, this isn’t the Sun Palace and besides, ponies appreciate entertainers enough to allow us some leeway.

But if she knows or suspects what I am, then what?

In Secrecy lies Safety…

“Your Ladyship,” she said, respectfully. Not too respectful though. She did have her image as a proud queen of the theater to consider, after all. She stepped back and to the side, allowing the unicorn mare into her room. Rarity walked in, moving with a grace many of her female co-stars – for that matter, some of the play's noblemare patrons – might envy. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”

“Miss von Adler,” Rarity replied, bowing her head and smiling.

Same accent as mine. She’s had theater arts speech training somewhere in her past.

Audra fought down some small annoyance. Even in griffin form she could still take scent, if not very well, and something about this unicorn’s was just a little odd. She allowed herself to show some small amusement at the feel of Rarity’s awe. It would have been obvious even without her empathy.

“I came here to talk about a, a business proposal with you.” Rarity said. She stepped closer. “Perhaps it would be best to talk about this over dinner, back at the hotel I’m staying in?”

Wait, is she making a play for me? Audra reached out carefully with her empathic senses. No, no desire or lust, but definitely star-struck. And a little worried, and hopeful?

“Asterion, dear,” she said to the minotaur, watching them both, “I’m afraid you’ll have to go crawling for cider without me tonight.” At his dismayed look she reached out and lightly bopped him on the snout with one claw. “So do try and stay out of trouble. No races through the city streets, you know how the Manehattan Constabulary frowns on that.” To her slight surprise the mare didn’t make some silly giggle or foolish comment; instead, she looked like somepony who’d been there herself. She indicated Rarity with a wave of her talons. “Her Ladyship and I will have much to discuss.” Asterion looked from her to Rarity and back again. To her mingled amusement and annoyance, she felt concern washing from him. Just which of them was the one who always had bail the other out after his escapades, after all? Even as she thought that he brightened.

“If you say so, Audra,” he said to her, before turning to Rarity. “Take care of our star, Miss Belle, I mean Lady Lipizzan,” he pointed at the she-griffin, “We got no show without her. Don’t tire her out or nothing.” And with a broad wink and smile he turned and left, wardrobe mistress in his wake. The floorboards groaned under his heavy tread. Audra wondered what poor fools among the cast and crew he’d rope into accompanying him on his visit to, where did he say he wanted to cider-crawl tonight, the Lower West Side?

Audra turned to Rarity. She saw the look her empathic senses already told her would be there, one that mingled shock and confusion. The mare turned to look at Audra. Letting the amusement of the moment drag on a bit, Audra lowered her head and batted her eyes at the unicorn. Rarity’s ears and cheeks looked ready to turn crimson.

“Miss von Adler, I, I’m not sure what you think I’m after, but I assure you…!”

“Quite alright, my lady,” Audra held up a claw, stopping her embarrassed apology. “I was just teasing you there.” She said with a wary coolness, “But what sort of business do you want to discuss?”

“I’d prefer to wait until after dinner,” Rarity said, her blush slowly fading. A new businesslike tone entered her voice as she added, “I normally find business best conducted after everypony’s had a bite to eat.” She went outside and held the door with her magic, her horn glowing purple. “Would you like the restaurant at the Royal? They have carnivore dishes there. And, oh, please,” she lowered her gaze modestly, “do call me Miss Belle, or better yet, Rarity. I feel that ‘Countess’ or ‘your ladyship’ would be a bit too formal.”

“As you wish,” Audra stepped out and stood beside her. She could see Asterion heading out with a pair of unfortunate ponies in tow. Two earth pony extras. Heh, poor idiots. They’ll be lucky if they can stand upright tomorrow. She followed Rarity to the door, wondering at her words. From many another noblepony they’d be a shallow attempt at pretending to equal status with her, though some of course didn’t bother. But when Rarity said them, she sounded like she meant it.

# # #

Wheels screeched on rails as the dockside switcher pushed a cut of boxcars down the center of the street; two ponies – a palomino mare in a Stetson and a black-maned unicorn stallion – waited in the gaslight for the train to pass.

“So, now, where-all are we going again?” Applejack raised her voice over the sound of steel wheels on steel rails. She was back to her normal hat-only attire and voice.

“Someplace I was told about,” her yellow-coated companion replied, his voice musical. “You said you wanted some real food, and this is closer than the grass in Central Park.”

The four-wheeled tank locomotive chuffed past at walking speed, warm against the night chill coming off the harbor, the glow from its firebox red against the cobblestones.

The switcher chuffed into the distance as the two crossed the street, hooves sounding against cobblestones. AJ affected an air of unconcern, but all the same she kept her eyes and ears focused on the street around her. The Lower West Side and its waterfront wasn’t her aunt and uncle’s neighborhood; even if the scare stories about the docks and waterfront were exaggerated, enough of them were true that she didn’t want to be taken unawares.

A pair of Diamond Dogs – scruffy even for Diamond Dogs – stepped out of the shadows, something in their hands gleaming in the gaslight. Applejack snorted and rang a forehoof on the pavement, making sure they caught sight of the apple-bucking muscles working under her coat.

Showing fangs in sneers, the two Dogs started forward, only to stop and freeze as the unicorn’s horn lit up with golden fire. One turned and left; the other held out the small blade in his paw.

“Urrrr… Ponies want buy knife?” He whined.

“Diamond Dogs wanna buy some trouble?” Applejack said, ears down. The Diamond Dog looked at them both and hurried away. The palomino kept an eye on him to make sure he kept going. Then she turned and followed after the stallion, who headed for the only building on the block lit from within – a diner-slash-barroom amid the brick warehouses.

“Ah repeat ma question,” Applejack said in a low voice. “Why are we down here?”

“Except for the Princesses, that’s on a ‘need-to-know’ basis,” Yellow Jacket responded in a stallion’s voice. “And you don’t need to know.” In Secrecy lies Safety…

The palomino snorted. “An’ just why do ya look like, well?” She indicated the quite masculine pony with her hoof.

“A couple out for a late dinner won’t attract as much attention; two mares will.” His horn glowed and the swinging doors before them opened. After wincing at the smells of meat and unwashed flesh from within, Applejack followed “him” inside.

# # #

The Manehattan Royal’s five-horseshoe restaurant was on the mezzanine level, overlooking the chandeliered lobby through a stained-glass window wall. The maître d' had seated the regal russet griffin and marshmallow mare in a semi-private booth by the outer wall.

Audra sipped at her goblet of perry, drinking in the emotional feed of the room along with the pear cider, just strong enough to be felt but not over-potent. Part of her wished her actual dates displayed as much class as this unicorn seated opposite her.

In the carriage between the Hippodrome and the Royal, she’d spoken with the griffin about her prior roles both stage and screen, and especially about the costuming. Impressive – this “Rarity” had all the fascination with her she usually felt from stage-door stallions and a lot more knowledge. As well as being a generous tipper, judging from the carriage-stallions’ spike of delight when they’d disembarked.

Yet, all the while something about this mare nagged at her, making her unsettled. A barely perceptible yet somehow maddeningly almost-familiar hint of a scent filled with a desire to display submission and revert to her true form and display fangs in a threat all at once.

“Is something wrong, Miss Audra?” The she-griffin looked up. Rarity’s eyes were wide with concern. “I trust there’s nothing wrong with the food or surroundings?”

“Oh, nothing,” Audra said. “Nothing at all, Rarity.” As the ordered food arrived – an artful arrangement of flowers surrounding a mixture of oats and bran for Rarity, a fine blood-rare cut of beef from the non-sentient cattle raised in the griffin lands for her – she said, “And let me say that, if I may refer to a countess by her first name alone, then you can call me ‘Audra’.” As soon as the words left her beak she lowered her head and ripped a mouthful of bloody meat from the cut before her. A small shiver of disgust from Rarity hit her, a rather stronger one from the other equine diners in the room. Audra grinned inside. It’d been years, but she still took a nymphling-like amusement at the way ponies reacted to the “griffin’s” meat-eating.

“Oh, thank you, Miss – I mean Audra. I consider it a privilege.” Audra glanced at her and saw the mare take a nibble from her own meal. Looking at her, Rarity said, “And please, don’t stint yourself on my behalf.” She indicated the meat. “It’s not something I like,” Audra thought she heard her mutter, “despite what Lyra and Bon Bon persist in thinking,” before Rarity added in her conversational voice, “but I have dined with griffins and other predators before. And I do have a cat at home. Meat-eating doesn’t bother me.”

Audra sensed that it wasn’t entirely true. Rarity on a certain level still felt the fear and disgust many ponies did at carnivorous behavior. But unlike them, she would manage it. Because of that, and because Audra’s curiosity was driving her mad with a desire to learn what this mare wanted, Audra gobbled the meat down as swiftly as any she-griffin seeking to impress a male of her own folk. She also made sure that nothing spattered on Rarity. She remembered that one noblemare who’d invited her to dinner to ask Audra to stay away from her lecher of a colt. She’d been persistent. It wasn’t until the blood flying from the raw meat Audra ate spattered against her face that she fled, whinnying in panic.

Thinking of that, Audra swallowed the last gulp of flesh and looked at Rarity. The mare kept her composure. Behind her, though the windows, Audra could see carriages and wagons passing in the gaslight glow of the streetlights.

“And now to business,” Audra said as she finished cleaning herself with napkin and talon-bowl. Leaning forward, she looked at Rarity. “Tell me, Rarity. Just what do you want of me?”

Rarity came straight to the point. “An endorsement, Audra. I would like to ask if you could wear some of my originals when you’re out and about.” Audra’s surprise must have been obvious, as Rarity went on with, “Please, Miss von Adler, it would be such a coup for me, as well as a personal honor, for my designs to be seen adorning the greatest star of the stage in Equestria today.” Pleading sounded in her voice, not begging, but Audra felt the fear of refusal in Rarity’s emotions.

My, but she is rather worried, maybe even desperate. Audra nodded at her, wishing this griffin form could smile. This can work to my advantage. At least until I find out just what that scent is I detect around her.

“Rarity,” she began, “I am of course flattered that you would think of me for this, but I have to consider my own image. And will I really have the time? I already have such an extensive wardrobe with me.” In other words, my little unicorn, what’s in it for me? Not bits, of course, this Rarity couldn’t begin to afford what she would ask for, but there would be something to profit her as well as the unicorn.

To her credit Rarity didn’t try dissembling. “Firstly, Audra, I can guarantee that whatever I make for you will be hoof and horn-crafted by me personally.” She indicated her own cape-dress, royal purple and gold. Audra cast her eyes over it and recognized the craftsmareship involved. The Hippodrome could have used a seamstress and costume designer like this. Her eyes glowed as she said with enthusiasm, “I can say without bragging that my work has adorned some of the greatest names in Equestrian entertainment…”

“Such as?” Audra asked, raising one eyebrow.

“Well, like Sapphire Shores,” Rarity said. She tilted her head back as she ticked off names. “Right now my work is on display at the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show. I’m the smallest house there but I was invited personally by Finest Silk after crafting new dresses for some of her models several months ago, including Sky Talon. Oh, you have heard of her?”

“I have,” Audra said. Behind and around them both waiters passed on their way to the tables, bearing platters of food either on their backs or held by their magic for the unicorns. Audra felt some gratification in the small bits of desire she felt here and there among the stallions as they recognized her. She said to the unicorn, “And I seem to recall that Sky Talon left Miss Silk shortly after you made her dress.”

“Oh, but I assure you, that had nothing to do with me!” Rarity said, her eyes wide. Her horn glowed and her glass rose to her lips as she took a quick drink of her imported wine. Audra almost tasted it mingled with Rarity’s worry as she said, “I’ve spoken earlier to Miss Silk, she’s at the show too, and she said that Sky Talon, ah, became convinced that her efforts would be better rewarded with Photo Finish. So she went to work with her.”

“I see.” Audra didn’t fail to notice that this unicorn managed to not only deflect any possible blame for costing the biggest Manehattan fashion house its best model, but to do so in a way that reflected no blame on anypony or griffin involved. Clever mare. And I thought I was good at this. Rarity hoped at her with her eyes. Audra said, “I would like to know, who else has worn your clothes?” And from where that smell around you, and why do you seem so familiar?

“Oh!” Rarity’s horn glowed and a magazine slipped out of her saddlebags to be held alongside Audra’s face, allowing her to see it without having to turn or interfering with her meal. At the sight of the cover, Audra froze.

# # #

Remind me again why Ah’m here? In some salt lick in a bad part of town with a Changeling Queen thinks she’s Con Mane…

“I would have thought that mere lack of bathing wouldn’t bother you,” Yellow Jacket said with a grin as they walked to an unoccupied table. “Don’t you live on a farm?”

“Ah may live on a farm,” Applejack said, looking around the lamplit room with a mixture of caution and interest. “But that don’t mean we don’t take baths.” Most of the crowd here seemed to be earth ponies, with cutie marks of nets and fishing poles and sails, hammers and gears and wheelbarrows. A flock of griffins held one table – that’s where the meat smell came from – and at another in back a gigantic black minotaur upended what looked like a small bucket of cider into his mouth. The two better-dressed earth ponies with him looked like they were trying to keep up and regretting the decision.

A griffin waitress walked over and set a bottle before them on the table along with two glasses. She gave them the hard-eyed glare griffins gave so well and said, “What’ll ya have? Or do ya want ta see the menu? Oh, and we got rooms upstairs by the hour if ya need some privacy.” She seemed to leer over the last part. Applejack looked at her in confusion, wondering why they’d need rooms by the hour. Yellow Jacket simply smiled.

“Sorry, dear, but neither of us like feathers.” He reached out and patted Applejack’s hoof with his. As he did it hit Applejack. She pulled her hat down to hide her face and wondered if her ears really were on fire. The griffin ruffled her feathers up in annoyance. A few of the diners at nearby tables whickered laughter. Yellow Jacket smiled at her before saying, “But thank you for the offer. Menus will be quite fine, though my companion is desperate for ‘good earth pony fare’.”

The griffin squawked a laugh and went past the bar to what had to be the kitchen.

“Say, Yellow Jacket?” Applejack waited until the griffin was gone before she whispered, “Why did ya have ta imply that we were here for, ya know?” She jerked her head at the stairs. A rather saucy looking mare was leading a male griffin up it. He crooned and lightly tugged on her tail with his beak. She giggled and hurried up. Applejack shuddered. Yellow Jacket stared after them. AJ saw his horn and eyes glow slightly. He sat back with a snort.

“Just a randy mare who wants to be ‘ravished’ by a ‘wild griffin barbarian’,” he said. And to answer your question,” he turned to the palomino, “we’re a couple out for dinner, remember? If we both came as mares, this bunch might think we were prowling for stallions.” He looked across the room at the minotaur, roaring with laughter at some joke and slapping one of his pony friends on the back hard enough to send him to the floor. At Applejack’s shocked look, he said, “It can’t be that much of a surprise to hear. I know that most ponies are in love with the idea of a long romance that grows gradually out of a friendship, but not all of them are. Some just want a night’s amusement.”

Applejack just thought about some mares she knew and nodded. Pinkie Pie seemed to date a new stallion every few weeks. And Dash liked to brag of her conquests when the subject came up even if it was obvious she didn’t know what she was talking about.

“And in a city like Manehattan, you get a lot of beings coming through,” Yellow Jacket said, keeping his voice low to stay under the murmur of conversation in the room. “Changelings prefer feeding on love, it's far and away the most nourishing and delicious, but any emotion will do in a pinch. When We’re hungry," Applejack caught the emphasis Yellow Jacket laid on the We, "We’ll go for what We can get. So, here we are.” He shrugged and indicated the room. “Just sit here a bit, eat, see who shows up and what happens. If nothing develops, go on to the next place. So be careful how you drink that cider,” Yellow Jacket pointed his horn at the somewhat worse-for-wear tankard in AJ’s grip. “I don’t want to have to carry you back to the hotel.”

“No worries,” Applejack said after she took a sip. She put the tankard down with a shudder. “Nasty stuff there, tastes worse ‘n what Berry Punch used ta drink after we cut her off. Thank Celestia that mare finally got a clue and cleaned herself up.” She looked at Yellow Jacket and saw incomprehension. “Just Ponyville business. How long do ya want ta stay?”

“Less than an hour,” Yellow Jacket said, looking around the room as the griffin returned. She stood upright, with a couple plates in her talons which she slid onto the table – piles of salted veggies on beds of half-wilted alfalfa, with sides of oats. The palomino stared at hers.

“Better eat unless you want us to get tossed out.”

AJ took the hint. Meanwhile Yellow Jacket looked around the room, now and then speaking with Applejack about life in Ponyville. AJ wondered why until she realized that if they discussed the fashion show, the other diners and drinkers would get wary and go on their guard. She doubted this place got many runway models among their customers.

Time passed. Applejack switched her tail against her sweaty sides. Yellow Jacket worked “his” way through “his” plate. The warmth of the fire and of the crowd made the room a little uncomfortable. The crowd itself seemed rowdy, but no more so than the hired hooves and rodeo ponies she'd known. Every now and then a few ponies or griffins would get up and leave, and a few more would come in, often smelling of sweat and sea salt. Once a few older ponies by the fire slowly sang their way through an old, old sea chantey. The rest of the crowd fell silent as they sang. Applejack listened carefully. She enjoyed these old earth pony songs. When they finished she dared clap her hooves against the floor along with the rest except the minotaur and Yellow Jacket. The latter scanned the crowd, brow furrowed, only to sit back down with a snort. The former was working on the barrel of cider he’d demanded for his table. Working alone; his two cohorts were sitting back in their chairs, groaning and looking decidedly green. AJ saw him toss his horns as he looked around the room before focusing on them. He rose, set the barrel over his shoulder, and began crossing the room in their direction. His iron-shod hooves clamped across the scarred floor.

“Uh, Yellow Jacket,” she nudged the mare beside her. “Ah think we’re about ta have company.”

“Nothing,” Yellow Jacket said, looking after the singers as they accepted the gifts of drinks pressed on them by the audience. He lowered his ears. “A herd this lively and big? If there were any of my folk left down here they’d be…” He stopped as a great horned shadow fell over them. Like the shadow of Tirek’s horns, Applejack thought as she remembered the old story. Hopefully this would end more peacefully.

“Is there something my friend and I can do for you, sir?” Yellow Jacket said as he looked up at the massive minotaur towering over them both, horns scraping the ceiling. He wore little past knee-length breeches of leather. His coat showed pitch-dark as he bent down to them both. Applejack made the effort not to flinch back from the sour-apple smell of his breath.

“There sure is,” he grunted, his voice loud as Bulk Biceps’ in the close quarters. He set the keg down and yanked a pair of empty tankards off of the tray one of the griffin waitresses bore nearby. She looked ready to complain, took a second look at who’d snatched them, and quietly moved along. He set them down before the two ponies and said, “I’m a stranger here, same as you. I was drinking but those two weaklings,” he jerked a thumb back at the two ponies who groaned in response, “couldn’t keep up. Let’s the three of us finish this keg, alright?” He shook the keg he bore, one big enough to give Applejack pause. It sloshed, half-full.

As he did a pair of young Diamond Dogs, both of them looking raggedy even for their folk, came in. By their smell they had to be sewer workers. The tall skinny one bore something wrapped in cloth that clattered as he set it down on the bar. The griff behind it glared at them.

“Get that outta here, an’ take yourselves with it!”

“But you no see it!” He began unwrapping it, and as he did, Yellow Jacket’s eyes shot wide. He leaned forward, sniffing, as the dog said, “We find in sewer…”

“Then get that junk offa my bar, ya halfwits!” The griffin speared some crawling vermin on one talon and tossed it aside. “I run a clean place!”

The short pudgy Dog yelped. “But it from dead monster bug-pony!”

That line got the attention of everypony and griffin in the bar. Some of them, looking more bored than anything else, started heading for the bar. Yellow Jacket rose to his feet and followed them. He stopped when the minotaur gripped his shoulder.

“Hey, buddy?” He pointed at the barrel. “What ‘bout this? Or are ya saying my cider ain’t good enough for ya?” The last line was a dangerous rumble. Applejack rose to her hooves with a snort, picking out the spot where she’d hoof him if she had to.

Yellow Jacket turned with a smile.

“Oh, of course not! Applejack, dear, you sit with our new friend and help him finish his cider, alright?” He looked towards the bar. “I simply have to see what those two found.”

“Hey, now!” Applejack called after her as the “unicorn” headed for the crowd at the bar. She cast a glance at the minotaur, who was already pouring cider from keg to tankard. “Ah thought we were supposed ta stick together!” Yellow Jacket simply looked at her, a fiendish grin sweeping over his muzzle. Then to her horror, the “unicorn” flung “his” forelegs around her and embraced her neck-to-neck.

“Don’t worry, darling, I’ll return!” The voice was like Rarity’s when she drama-queened; the minotaur and other listeners all broke up laughing. AJ’s cheeks flamed as the stallion said, “I know how much you need me, but nothing will ever keep us apart again!” He leaned in close and whispered, “I have to check this out. Don’t worry, we’ll meet back at the hotel.” Yellow Jacket glanced around, and then to Applejack’s shock nuzzled her cheek before heading for the bar. Ribald calls followed him.

“We- we’re just friends!” The palomino said as she looked around, wide-eyed and red-eared, wondering if you really could die of embarrassment. Pulling her hat over her face, she sank back down with a groan. When Ah meet that skin-turnin’ bug-mare again, so help me!

Meanwhile the minotaur pulled up a chair several sizes too small. He looked at it, snorted, and sat right on the floor. He shoved the filled tankard right at Applejack.

“Go on an’ drink up. Blondie!” Stunned, AJ picked it up and set it to her mouth. As she gagged on the sour contents, he yelled over at the bar, where Yellow Jacket stood by the two sewer workers, studying something black and crimson in their paws, “Hey, don’t worry, I’ll treat your fillyfriend right!”

“Ah ain’t his fillyfriend!” Applejack spat the half-full tankard out along with the words. Part of it hit him in the face. He bellowed as she added, “And Ah wouldn’t wash a sink with this, let along drink it! If ya gotta get drunk outta your horned head, can’t ya at least drink something better ‘n this?”

IPPOS!” His bellow filled the room. He repeated the insult in Equestrian for good measure, "Rotten horse!" Patrons scattered as he turned the table over. Past him Applejack could barely make out Yellow Jacket leaving with the two Diamond Dogs, with them pocketing some bits. Her attention got called back to the minotaur as he snorted and tossed his head, saying, “Blood of Taurtessos! Are you saying my cider ain’t good enough for you to drink? Because if so…” He smashed the end of the barrel in and upended it over her. “Then you can wear it!”

Pale yellow cider sloshed down over her. He roared laughter.

Applejack looked up at him and snorted.

Okay, that’s it.

Applejack wheeled and sent both her hind hooves full into his face.

# # #

“Miss von Adler?”

The griffin barely heard Rarity’s voice. “Oh, dear! Should I fetch the waiter?” When she didn’t answer, the unicorn began to call out, “Waiter, please, help here, something’s wrong with Miss von Adler!”

NO! Audra surged to her feet, leonine hindclaws showing. Rarity stared at her in worry, nothing but concern and fear filling her emotions. She could hear and feel the equal worry of the nearest waiter behind her, hurrying to see what was wrong. The window was next to her, overlooking the street; one five-talon punch through the glass and she could fly for it. A lifetime of caution told her what the results of that would be, how out-of-character it would be for the elegant Audra von Adler – any griffin – to behave. Ponies flee, griffins fight…

Even so, it took more willpower than she liked thinking about to simply hold her ground. In Secrecy lies Safety…

“Miss Rarity, I mean Countess Lippizan!” She forced down the terror filling her as she spoke to this unicorn. Calling on all her acting skill, she said, “I am vastly sorry, Your Ladyship, but I am afraid we cannot do business together. Please accept my apologies for the outburst when I saw…” Her voice choked off as she indicated the now-fallen magazine, a copy of Clothes Horse with a cover article of a diplomatic reception in Canterlot.

“This?” Rarity sounded downright injured as she raised the zine, looking at the photo article. She turned it so Audra could see it as well. Shots of both Celestia and Luna and the diplomats at the Sun Palace, with commentaries on their wardrobes. The Princesses in more formal attire than they normally wore; a broad-shouldered Minotaur in traditional Taurtessan dress, bejeweled griffins, crystalline-sparkling earth ponies in fashions ten centuries old.

And special shots of the two newest diplomats. One young white-furred wolf in equine court dress with embroidered badge where a cutie mark should be, next to a proud-looking Countess Lippizan in a dress similar to the one she currently wore; and beside them both, tall as Princess Luna, a gleaming-black pony-shaped insect with a golden mane and tail and eyes, sporting a bioluminescent “crown”.

Audra turned away with a shudder.

“It’s, is it because of who I worked for?” Audra forced her own terror down to hear Rarity say, “I assure you, both Ardi and Queen Vespid are utterly trustworthy. Their Highnesses have personally vouched for them both.”

“It’s not that,” Audra said with a shudder. After all these years, after avoiding those black-and-teal Changelings scouring out every stray they could, I get approached by some pony who’s working with Celestia’s Tame QUEEN? All it would take would be a whiff of the other’s pheromones and Discord’s Curse would kick in.

And she kills me. Or I kill her. Even if I win – even if I live – I’m stuck with a Hive I can’t control, not without the crown. Either way, I lose…

Dead or alive, everything she loved best about her life – she looked down at her silver platter, drinking in the image of a she-griffin she saw – would be lost to her forever. Then it struck her.

“That’s where I’ve seen you before!” She stabbed one talon at Rarity, who flinched. As the mare’s confusion and sudden wariness filled her senses, she added in a voice and demeanor more like the one “Audra von Adler” would be expected to display, “That is, Your Ladyship, I read about you in the newspapers a few months ago when you and your friends and the Princesses were working on that anti-Changeling ritual…”

“No, not an ‘anti-Changeling ritual’, Audra,” Rarity corrected her. “It was a working meant to force shapeshifters out into the open for several hours, to force them back into their true shapes so Celestia could show us all that Equestria wasn’t overrun with malevolent hidden enemies.”

“Ah, yes.” Good thing it failed, then. “I also seem to recall that the wolf was there as well, pretending to be a pony?”

“Actually…” Despite her worry Audra felt amusement at the embarrassment filling Rarity as she said, “It was a, well, a magical disguise of myself that he was in. Part of my friend Twilight Sparkle’s Archmage’s Thesis. All a big mistake, really.” Rarity finished, looking hopeful. Audra quirked one eyebrow at her in a “go on”.

Rarity sighed and said, “I was in Manehattan at the time, auditioning for the show with Finest Silk. I was rather exhausted and I reacted badly when I saw a picture of Ardi as me. I went right to Canterlot on the train to stop the “changeling infiltrator” and we all ended up in the Gala Hall before the Princesses – Ardi, Queen Vespid, and myself.” She hesitated and added, “I haven’t seen either recently, Ardi not since I was his escort at that reception.”

“It sounds like something from one of those new “movies” they’re starting to show everywhere,” Audra said, trying to sound mildly bored. “Awful things, no real art in them at all.I have done a few, but only for the bits.” I can’t feed from one the way I can off a live audience. Even if these days I do more of them than live stage. Rarity set her ears back as Audra added, “I seem to recall that one of the Los Pegasus studios is planning on making their own adaptation of the events. Perhaps Your Ladyship should consider making more of those mare-suits, they would probably be willing to reward you handsomely.”

“No, thank you,” Rarity shuddered. “I received several offers for more of those suits, some of them rather large, but the comments in the letters asking for them?” Rarity’s horn glowed and she took a good-sized drink from her wine, emptying the small snifter. “I vastly prefer fashion. Speaking of which, if we can return to our prior topic, Miss Audra? I’m sorry if I unknowingly offended, but I really do want to ask for a small endorsement for my work and the Boutique from you.”

‘I don’t think so.” Rarity pleaded at her with her eyes, disappointment filling her, as Audra added, “I have to think about making contacts the same as you do, and showing your fashions might not…” She stopped as Rarity sat upright, her eyes wide with hope.

“Wait, Miss Audra, you do know of Lord Fancy Pants, don’t you?”

“I should,” Audra sniffed. “A Canterlot noblestallion, favorite at the court, great patron of the arts.” She sighed. “Our producer keeps hoping he’ll end up becoming a patron of our work.” She gave a short sharp griffin laugh. “As if we could ever find the time to meet each other!”

“And if I could guarantee it?”

“What?” Audra almost squawked it out, recovered just in time to maintain her seat. “You know Fancy Pants?”

Now it was Rarity’s turn to give her a slow, delighted smile.

“My dear Miss Audra, he’s in town for the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show, and his wife, the Lady Fleur, is aiding me in presenting my models.” Audra looked at her, stunned, as Rarity said, only a hint of self-disgust at name-dropping like this fouling her deep delight, “And he did say he wanted all of us to accompany him to a showing of Rescue at Midnight Castle tomorrow night. I think I can promise that if I asked him politely, he’d agree to meet you.”

Audra sat back in her chair and thought. One part of her, the bigger and cautious part, knew that she would be taking vast risks if she did this. Not only was Rarity a close associate of what might well be the last Changeling Queen in Equestria, she was also close to the Princesses who’d fought Changelings. In Secrecy lies Safety.

On the other talon, if she got to meet Fancy Pants and convinced him to support the show? They would have the prestige of being funded by the greatest patron of the arts in Equestria, and her reputation and career could soar higher than ever. And then what? Maybe retirement as some noblepony or griffin’s wife or consort until time came to drop “Audra” and move on to whatever form and life would best suit her? At any rate, she’d have new audiences to feed on and entertain, more and bigger ones than ever before.

I could be not just famous, but a legend. Nopony would ever mention Filea von Herzog again. They would mention me. Me, Audra von Adler, the greatest actress who ever trotted the boards in all history!

And the chance for a legend like that is worth any risk!

“Miss Audra?” Rarity looked at her, half hoping. Audra returned her the cool look she did so well.

“My dear Lady Rarity,” she said, batting her eyes. “I’d like to see you at my dressing room again tomorrow night with whatever work of yours you’d like me to display.” As Rarity clapped her forehooves together in glee, Audra added in a half purr, “And please, do bring Lord Fancy Pants along. I’m simply dying to meet him.”

# # #

In the shadows of a waterfront alley, two Diamond Dogs and a unicorn stood around a ponyhole cover. Not even Luna’s moon overhead did more than dent the alley’s darkness.

“Pony pay us when we show him where we find skin from bug-ponies?” the taller Diamond Dog said to Yellow Jacket, sounding suspicious. Before them the short one carefully removed the ponyhole cover, revealing a passage more than big enough for her to use. “Maybe should ask for bits now,” the Diamond Dog said in a half snarl. Yellow Jacket felt some aggression but more wariness from these two, like they’d been cheated before.

“As I said,” she told them, “you’ll get your bits when I examine the place where you found that.” She pointed at the piece of carapace the standing Dog held. He looked at her cautiously. Yellow Jacket sighed and showed them the pouch full of bits she’d brought along. Their eyes lit up and they nodded at each other. Only then did they drop down into the hole at her hooves. She followed them down in, feeling the sudden burst in confidence from them. Like most of their race they felt more at home underground in tight spaces, whether self-made or not.

Like Us.

Below was darkness and stench, an unlit brick tunnel with a stinking breeze blowing through. Both Diamond Dogs grinned their crooked fangs at the unicorn.

“Pony scared of dark, maybe?” The tall skinny one said; he seemed to do most of the talking. “Pony want us take lantern? Cost extra.”

“Pony not scared,” Yellow Jacket responded. “And I don’t need any lantern.” She made her horn glow, just bright enough to make them wince before weakening it. In truth she didn’t need it at all, a Changeling could see in even this darkness. And like the Diamond Dogs, she had senses that could guide her around even in the utter lack of light. She looked around at the brickwork; lighter patches showed here and there in the hornlight, the sign of expertly-done repairs. “You do good work,” she said to the two Dogs. “Now where did you find the part of the bug-pony?”

The first Dog sniffed. He seemed bothered that their “guest” didn’t show fear. A flicker of greed passed through his emotions. Yellow Jacket readied herself in case he decided on trickery, like leading her in circles before claiming they were “lost” and demanding a higher price to guide them back to the surface. Or just trying to mug her for her bits – Diamond Dogs were not known for subtlety. Instead he simply shouldered the smaller Dog aside and headed down the tunnel.

“Find this way!”

Yellow Jacket followed, keeping an eye on the brick-lined passage. This was one of the main access tunnels for the sewers, easily big enough for a pony to pass. Even so she had to duck her head a few times to avoid hitting her horn on smaller overhead pipes. It presented little problem. Even after a few months of living in one of Blueblood’s estates, this felt like second nature. Even the overly-ripe organic scent of the place seemed homey.

“Why pony want piece of dead monster?” The smaller Dog asked. She stiffened a bit at the “monster” line, caught a flash of fear as he quavered, “Pony make magic from dead monsters?”

“No,” Yellow Jacket said with a roll of the eyes, “Pony not wizard. I am just curious about them. A student.”

“Ah,” the Dog said. As they passed a set of hobo signs carved into the brickwork, the smell of aged Diamond Dog urine burned Yellow Jacket’s nostrils; an instant later the two were rushing her through the tunnels as quietly as they could, the short one whispering “Pony move fast! This gang turf! Swamp Dogs Pack!”

When they finally paused, the two canine guides panted for a moment, then all three listened. Off in the distance the “unicorn” could hear water rushing in one of the tunnels. From somewhere above came the faint rumble of a train; that put them under the approach viaducts to Grand Central, near the hotel district. Either that or the maze of waterfront rails serving the docks she and Applejack crossed on their way to that salt lick.

Hmm, I wonder how she’s doing? Oh well, probably fine.

# # #

“Darn ya, Asterion!” Applejack glared up at the huge minotaur. He towered over her, snorting in barbaric amusement. She kicked air with her hind legs as she hung by her tail from his massive hand. “Lemme down, ya hulkin, hornhead!”

“Remember the bet,” he said to her, pointing at the half-full tankard between her forehooves. “Either you drink all of it, or I hold on to you the rest of the night.” He reached up and rubbed his chin. “Nice kick, but I don’t want another like it!”

Applejack snorted, but she drank. The crowd around her cheered; this was the fourth she’d managed. After knocking Asterion off his hooves, he’d roared that she’d never have dared try that if he were stone sober. She’d told him that drunk or sober she could knock anypony down. He dared her to try it. She responded that she wouldn’t drink anything except Sweet Apple Acres cider. To her surprise it turned out the place did have some, so they broke it out and started in.

Somewhere along the way she’d realized just what sort of a good feller Asterion was, and the bet changed to who could drink the most standing on their heads. She forgot why, but she knew there’d been a good reason at the time. But for some reason she couldn’t manage it, so he held her upside down by her tail to help.

Really, Asterion was such a nice feller, even if he was a meany-tor. Whatever that word was.

Ah better stop sometime soon, ‘fore I forget why Ah came here… Wait, why did Ah come here? She accepted her fifth tankard, licking her lips. Ah’m sure Ah’ll remember sometime. Probably after Ah get back ta the hotel.

# # #

Yellow Jacket’s patience wore thin as they passed through one dark smelly brick tunnel after another. The Diamond Dogs were looping around under the city, waiting for the pony to panic and hoof over “his” bits to get out; the realization did little to calm her as brick gave way to rough stone, then to even rougher tunnels that looked chewed out of the earth, smelling of must instead of sewage and drainage. And ahead, a small patch of phosphorescent fungus.

The “unicorn stallion” stopped, nostrils flaring to sample the air for Changeling pheromones, mind reaching out for the empathic feed of Changelings. Especially the scent of another Queen.

“Pony scared?” The big Dog grinned.

“No.” Her horn began to glow with a baleful light. “Lead on.”

Then the three of them were crawling through a chewed-out tunnel spattered with hardened Changeling goop. No pattern or reason, just the random dirt and rock left when a Changeling tunnel is collapsed.

The tunnel opened into a chamber, dimly lit by fungus patches. A Hive chamber, empty. The taller Dog’s voice echoed through the fungus-lit darkness.

“Here place where find shell!”

Yellow Jacket pushed past the smaller one and followed him. She sensed some anticipation from the small Dog, but ignored it.

Once inside she froze. The bigger Dog turned.

“What pony see?”

“Nothing,” Yellow Jacket said, too shocked to think of what she said. “It’s what I smell.” And sense. Or don’t.

Only lingering traces of scent, and no empathic feed. This Hive was empty. Dead or abandoned.

The three wandered through tunnels and chambers of stone and chewed paper and Changeling goop, lit by Yellow Jacket’s horn and patches of green-glowing fungus, the “unicorn” alert for any trace of scent that could trigger Discord’s Curse, the pheromones of another Queen.

The glowfungus was faint and patchy, most of it dead from neglect. Puddles and pools of organic-smelling wastewater splashed underhoof. And over all, the silence both physical and magical.

Yellow Jacket took the lead, working towards the center of the Hive where the Queen’s Chamber should be, sniffing for nonexistent Queen’s scent at every step. Behind her, the Diamond Dogs stayed silent except for the occasional whimper.

Empty chambers… more empty chambers… still more empty chambers... At least twice as many as Hive Vespid’s tunnels beneath Canterlot. From the residual scents, abandoned between one and two years. The tunnel opened into a vast chamber, high as a two-story building and stretching into the fungus-lit darkness behind support pillars. At its center, the floor rose into the dais of a Changeling Queen.

Yellow Jacket’s horn glowed brighter; the debris all over the floor resolved into dead Changelings, exoskeletal shells half-buried in silt. Debris other than the body-shells, torn and smashed in battle, worse than Hive Vespid after the Battle of Canterlot. Fragments of chitin and carapace in black and lime-green – and the teal of Swarm Chrysalis.

“They came here, too. All the way to Manehattan…”

She bolted, galloping between the support pillars to where the Nursery Chambers would be, dreading what she’d find.

“What pony doing? Why pony run?” The taller Diamond Dog demanded as the two followed her through the Nursery Chambers, shadows dancing in the horn-light.

Yellow Jacket – Queen Vespid – didn’t answer as she checked the ring of broodchambers. All empty – no starvation-killed nymphlings, no cocoons, no pupae, everything cleaned out. Deliberately removed; there had been survivors. Either taken to join HER Swarm or cleared out when the Hive was compromised. In Secrecy lies Safety. That explains the collapsed adits.

She ran back into the Queen’s Chamber, Diamond Dogs yelping at her heels, to stop before a faded shell of chitin larger than the others, half-encased in silt and glow-fungus.

“Why pony run? Why pony run?”

She silenced them with a glare, as the residual scent of the dead Queen tickled her nostrils. That Royal Guard Intelligence report Celestia had shown her – she remembered a photograph from it, a group shot of Hive Theda in what had to be their off-season. Queen Theda in the center, with all her Hive-daughters except the cameraling gathered around her on the beach of their resort. Before the Dire Wasps came. All dead…

This nameless Queen before her had died hard, her chitin cracked and torn. Around her body, those of her drones, her guards, and Swarm Chrysalis Changelings, most of them in pieces. She bent her muzzle down and touched them lightly, chittering. It was said that dead Changelings would be hatched again into their Hive or Swarm. But what became of the ones who no longer had either? Did they just become nothing, or wander lost and alone forever? And the ones who’d converted, how many of them lived through the end of the Battle of Canterlot?

She thought, whatever happened, wherever you are, I’m sorry this happened to you. Even if we would have fought if we’d met when you were still alive. Noling deserved to die for Chrysalis’ folly.

Did SHE come herself, to challenge Queen to Queen, or did SHE just send assassins to kill this Queen and scoop up the orphaned 'lings when they evacuated? In either case, they’d been in for a fight. In either case, Yellow Jacket – Queen Vespid – knew she’d find no other Hives in Manehattan. Even if Chrysalis hadn’t knocked them over, they’d have relocated and gone into hiding as soon as survivors brought the news. In Secrecy lies Safety.

She looked at another pile of Changeling chitin, not bodies but shed molts. Molts?

A hard clawed paw gripped her mane. She looked around, eyes cold, to see the bigger Diamond Dog glaring at her.

“What pony do?” He jerked his thumb at the floor behind him. The other Diamond Dog stood behind him, scrounging through the pieces of chitin. He’d set his red and black piece down on the floor, beside a Swarm Chrysalis carapace. Yellow Jacket snorted and stared at it. Wait, RED and black? Not lime or teal? That chitin didn’t come from this Hive or from Chrysalis’s either! Stragglers after the fact? The Dog ignored her to say, “Pony want see where we find shell from dead bug-pony. We show him where we find it. Now pony pay!”

“I will as soon as you answer one question.” The Dog stiffened and growled. Her horn glowed and the red and black chitin began floating over to her. The Dogs yelled and tried to grab it. Yellow Jacket easily maneuvered it around their clutching paws and said, “Where did you get this?!?”

“Like said!” The first Diamond Dog snapped. He waved his paws around. “Get here! With others!” He stepped back as Yellow Jacket thrust her head forward, horn almost burning now.

“No, you didn’t!” She waved the piece under their noses. “See? It’s RED! Not blue, not yellow-green! Not even you are that color-blind. Now where did you find it?” All she felt from them was confusion and mounting anger. The first Diamond Dog looked around, ears low and almost whining in his fear.

“It lay on floor, right over there!” He pointed at a section of the floor near the dais, half covered with a pile of what were once brightly-colored banners from Topside. The dais retained an empathic trace, the pride and respect this Queen had once commanded, along with the fury and agony of her death as Chrysalis or HER assassins tore her apart before her nest.

Something shone on the floor by the banners. Yellow Jacket bent to look. A near-Queen-sized molt of that crimson and black chitin, but smashed and broken. Recent, with a different emotional trace – Pride, and a trace of scorn, some disgust, and under it all a terrible sour-tasting fear. She stepped back with a shiver. Whichever Changeling left this here, it felt half mad with terror of something, the same something it gloated over.

There’s a lone Changeling nearby, a straggler, close enough to use a dead hive as a place to molt. Recent enough to hold a trace, not recent enough to hold a scent. Which probably means it’s hiding among the ponies, somewhere. But where? She looked upwards, remembering the maps and gazetteers. We’re near the Royal, maybe under the Theater district. Plenty of places to feed. A performer? One of the models at the Fashion Show? No, I’d have sensed them by now.

That tug came on her mane again. She turned and barely kept herself from snarling at the two Diamond Dogs.

“We show you where we find bug-pony shell!” It pointed at her neck-pouch where it hung, heavy with bits. Behind him the short one pulled out a heavy wrench that he must have used in his work. His eyes shone balefully as the first one snapped, “We want pay pony promised! Pony pay! Now!”

“When we get back,” she said to the taller one, the obvious pack leader. They intended to take their promised bits here and now and then leave the “unicorn” to wander around the sewers in ever-increasing panic and dismay until they found their way out. She could read it on their emotions, the mix of greed and anger and glee at their intended revenge. She could easily find her own way out, but if she just handed the bits over without an argument they would get suspicious. They expected her to quarrel, so she said, “You lead me back to that ponyhole we used to get inside. I’ll pay you there.”

The Diamond Dog growled but stepped aside to allow her to pass. Knowing exactly what was going to happen, she started to walk past him. As soon as she was abreast his paw shot out and closed on her bag of bits, yanking it away. As he did the short one cracked his wrench across her horn, disrupting the light spell and leaving the chamber in near-total darkness.

“Find way home now, pushy pony!” That mocking voice called back to her as she heard the fading sounds of padded paws on stone and debris. Yellow Jacket just stood there with a smile. They’d stop running soon, to count their loot. Even as she thought that, golden flame consumed her and she resumed her true form. With a fanged smile that stretched her chitinous lips, she flew along the passage silently after the two Dogs.

She caught up with them sooner than she expected, in one of the dead hive’s entry chambers. The two stood in the center, charcoal ghosts in the pale glow of the fungus patches. Collapsed adits and open escape tunnels led into the darkness, as well as one adit showing Diamond Dog clawmarks. My, they really must have been eager to count my bits. She let a golden glow from her horn spread back along her body and flew out to hover over them with a hideous hiss.

The smaller Diamond Dog looked up and saw her. His eyeshine engulfed his face. The tall one stayed bent over, counting the money.

The short one’s mouth worked, but no sound emerged. He tugged at the tall one’s vest. "Bowser..."

“No bother when counting bits!”

The short one finally found his voice. “HEY BOWWWWWSERRRRRRRRR!”

The tall one’s head whipped around. “Go away! Bowser busy! He...”

Then he noticed the glowing Changeling Queen hovering above them, surrounded in golden fire.


Bits flew as the two Diamond Dogs wrapped their arms around each other and yelped, too terrified to even run. Bowser finally managed to choke out, “W-Wh-Who you? You ghost?”

“I am,” Yellow Jacket hissed. “I am the spirit of the bug ponies you found! I devoured that unicorn who disturbed Our death,” she licked her lips, showing fangs as the two Dogs whimpered in terror, “and I will do the same to you if you ever DARE to return there!” They began howling, yelping their intention to never ever return. She let them grovel a bit before saying, “I will do the same if anypony else ever finds it! Hand over the piece of Changeling you showed that dead and delicious unicorn, or I will EAT you here and now!”

She caught the piece of chitin as it flew at her head, hurled by the short one before they fled, disappearing after a momentary traffic jam at the Dog-clawed hole. Yellow Jacket smiled as the panicked yelps faded into the blackness; the two had managed to scoop up most of the spilled bits as they fled. They knew what was important enough to take, even when leaving a trail of droppings, and I did promise them their pay.

Now all I have to worry about is finding the owner of this, she thought as she hefted the piece of red and black chitin in her horn’s aura. Well, that and getting back to the hotel unnoticed. Golden flames consumed her again and she reappeared as a Pegasus with her usual mane and coat colors.

Whatever did become of Applejack, anyway?

# # #

In the lobby of the Royal, the late-night clerk at the front desk jerked his head up from A.K.Yearling’s latest to stare as at the odd couple that came walking, or rather staggering in. A palomino Earth Pony mare singing something incoherent, accompanied by the biggest minotaur he’d ever seen, bellowing what could be the same song at full volume.

“This here’s ma, Ah mean, some other pony’s, Ah mean where Ah’m stayin’,” the palomino said to the minotaur. She looked up at him weaving on her hooves even though she stood still. “Ya wanna come upstairs? Ya can sleep on th’ couch. Naw, maybe ya better not. Shy’s still kinda jumpy aroun’ minnie, meany,” she waved her hoof vaguely. “What ya are.” She looked sad-eyed. “Ah dunno why. Y’all are the nicest minotaur Ah ever met – hah! Ah knew Ah could say it if Ah tried!” She looked ready to give a cheer, but the minotaur set his massive hand over her muzzle and noisily shushed her.

“Naw,” he said back in a rumble like an oncoming train trying to be stealthy. “It’s late. They rolled the sidewalks up, see?” He pointed at a rug over at the side of the room folded up for removal and cleaning. The mare looked at it with bleary eyes and nodded with the solemn awareness of the very drunk. He stepped over to the piano they had in the lobby and removed the sheet covering it before yanking several of the cushions from the couch. He piled them on the floor, laid down, set his horned head on them, and covered himself with the sheet. He rumbled, “I’ll just go beddy-bye here. I did this before.” He yawned widely. “Jus’ ask Audra, she’ll tell ya… Great gal, that griffin, makes th’ best Megan I ever saw…” His voice trailed off and he began to snore with a sound remarkably like someone strangling a dragon. The clerk winced, wondering if he saw the ceiling shivering at the volume.

“Huh,” the palomino said as she headed for the lift. “’Kay, Asty-whatever.” She clumsily leaned over and nuzzled him. “Y’all get yourself a good night’s rest, ya gotta get blown up by the Rainbow o’ Light tomorrow.” She turned and stumbled off for the lift. On the way she stopped and looked at the wide-eyed clerk.

“Ah’ll regret this tomorrow,” she said, “but right now Ah don’t know why.”

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