• Published 22nd Apr 2012
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Into the world of Hooves and Hands, Through a Humans Eyes - paladinwolf

A series of stories about a human adventuring in Equestria through no fault of his own

  • ...

Together or apart?

Chapter 3

Through a humans eyes...

Together or apart?

~~~ Justin

'Ugh! What's with all the swaying?' I thought to myself as I managed to mumble, "Oh, my head!" Or at least I think I did. It may well have come out sounding like, "ohhhhmmmmm 'ead."

I think I was being assaulted. Some thing or some one was crushing me and making it extremely hard to breath. Once my hearing managed to focus, I could have sworn I heard Daring's voice saying something. Only I couldn't figure out what. For whatever reason, I couldn't move much and my hearing was wonky. Heck, my eyes wouldn't open.

After several minutes of difficult breathing and garbled voices, I realized Daring was laying across my chest. I think she was hugging me? In her own way that is, more like crushing me in my current state! Somehow I managed to stammer out, "Air! Need air!"

The weight on my chest abated almost immediately. I managed to open my eyes, though it took some doing. I saw that I was inside one of the caravans with Daring and several others wounded so badly they couldn't walk under their own power. It was fairly dark and the smell of antiseptics permeated everything.

I heard Daring's voice, "I thought we lost you in the night! Thank Celestia you made it!"

My broken and garbled voice sounded alien to my own ears. "I'm harder to kill than that. Where are we?"

I noted then that she had been crying, least I think so with the way her face looked. Her voice had calmed down a bit when she spoke, "We are inside the second caravan and close to Riverside." She lay next to me, almost on top of me. I guessed that was due to the limited space inside the wagon. It was 'close friends' tight in here.

I laid back on the pile of sacks being used as pillows. I groaned out, "How many?"

A voice very different from Daring's answered me. "Six dead. Pretty much everypony bears some injury. Some of us are worse off than others though. We would have suffered far more casualties if not for you." The masculine voice sounded familiar. Who was it? He continued before I could remember, "My name is Keluro. And I owe you my life."

I manged to turn my head enough to recognize the warrior that fought at my side, but had been cut down by a thrown spear. He held a hoof out to me in a familiar manner. I shook his hoof weakly, "It was a privilege to fight by your side, Keluro."

I heard him chuckle painfully. "If you had not dragged me to the healers I would have been done for. I thank you." He made a strange gesture that was similar to a roman salute. I didn't think they did that? Meh, whatever. I returned the gesture, much to his delight.

I managed to catch Daring's eye and stated dryly, “Think we can go one day without a fight?”

Her laughter was music to my ears. “Oh, goodness I hope so!” She nuzzled me before saying, “You should get more rest. Soon we will be at Riverside. We can get better medical treatment there and maybe a bath!”

I couldn't help but chuckle at that. I know I would love to get the blood and stench off of me. None of us smelled too nice at the moment. “Sounds like a plan.” I murmured as I fell back asleep.

~~~ Daring

The rest of the journey to Riverside was relatively peaceful. Aside from frayed nerves, I had come out of the conflict unscathed. The zebras made me ride with Justin, both to keep watch over him as well as knowing I couldn't walk very well and would slow them down too much. I really didn't mind. I was with my friend, and he pulled through the night.

Zecella checked on us all several times during the trip. She made sure that nopony became more ill than they already were. I was positive she truly cared about those in her charge and took the loss of those who had died hard. I tried to talk to her, but she always had more pressing matters. Each time she would tell me, in her singsong rhymes, that we would speak later.

To pass the time, I spoke with the others in our cart. I learned much of what had happened from Keluro. He had been in the thick of the fighting and told me several of the gorier parts. Those I could have done without. Other than him, we rode with Ketaina. Another warrior of the Ke clan. She had an injured leg as well and couldn't walk. Beside her was Biro. He was clanless and used only his given name. His injuries were severe and he didn't manage to speak much. Where Biro was quiet, Frida, another of the clanless, was quite the talker. She spoke so much I almost didn't get the name of the last of our group. He was a pony named Sterling Vision and, perhaps due to his head wound, didn't seem too talkative anyway.

Several times during the course of the day, a younger zebra by the name of Kemal came to check on his clan-mates as well as Justin. Seems the little guy had taken a shining to him and helped make sure I got water into him a few times. He helped us all, but it was easy to see he took an interest in my friend. I found myself hoping his interest was in friendship and not an 'honor bound' way. Many zebra of the Ke clan fought for their dignity and if he thought Justin had impugned that honor, well he would likely try to challenge him to single combat once he was healthy as a way to regain said prestige. All he would say to me was 'He is honorable.'

I never understood zebra principles. Then again, I never understood 'male' values or that of soldiers either. Maybe there was some kind of bond? I would have to remember to ask. Later, when things were better. Right now, we had to get to Riverside and get proper medical treatment for about a dozen ponies. At least the whole caravan seemed to accept our presence. There were many who found my friend scary or intimidating, but overall things were going as well as I could have hoped. Well, as well as they could be with combat involved at any rate.

~~~ Justin

I came to consciousness slowly and without much pain. It was the first time in how long? I didn't even know. I was able to wake at my own speed. It felt so good I just wanted to roll over in my bed and rest a while longer.

Bed? My eyes snapped open in panic. They focused quickly. I was in a white room, at least the ceiling was white. Though sore, I was able to move easily enough. I was indeed laying in a bed inside a plain white room. The only other piece of furniture was the nightstand. My clothing was laying, folded, atop the dresser along with my hip pouch. Leaning against it were the sword and spear I had claimed during the bandit fight. Light streamed in through the window. 'Where am I?'

I started to get up, until I noticed that I was naked as the day I was born under the sheets. After making sure I was alone in the room, I slid from the bed. Much to my surprise I didn't have any wounds or scarring, nothing to show I had been in a fight. I knew I had just been in a major combat, so where were my wounds? Better question, how long was I out? I started dressing. It wasn't until I was tying my boots that I realized my clothes had been laundered. All the lacerations had been mended so well that I didn't notice at first!

As I grabbed my belt pouch, a small bag fell to the ground. I cinched my belt and side pouch then bent down to pick up the palm sized bag. It jingled and had some weight to it. Opening it revealed strange coins and a note that read, 'YOUR CUT' in a flowing script. They were large for coins. Almost the size of fifty cent pieces back on Earth. I dumped the contents out into my hand and separated the coins. I counted eight of the coppery colored coins and five of the silvery ones. They had no markings, denominations, or other identifying features other than scratches and what may have been teeth marks. They were nothing more than blank slugs of metal. I would have to ask what they were before doing anything stupid.

I decided to use the window to see where I was before leaving the room. It was definitely a town, so assumed I was in Riverside. By the position of the sun, I gathered it was morning and my watch concurred. “Well,” I muttered to myself, “nothing to do in here. Guess I'll just take a look around town. Since this is probably an inn, the innkeeper should be able to tell me where Daring is.” I nodded to myself and exited the clean little room.

I had to stoop so my head didn't hit the ceiling. At least the stairs were wide enough not to cause me any problems. Thankfully the first floor ceiling was higher and I could stand comfortably. The hallway opened up into a larger common room. A yellow pony with the bluest hair, err mane, that I had ever seen looked up at me with inquisitive bright blue eyes. She smiled at me and with a musical voice said, “Good morning sleepy head! I hope your room was comfortable and that you rested well?”

I couldn't help smiling at her friendliness, “Yes thank you. I can't remember the last time I slept in such a soft mattress.”

“Wonderful,” she beamed. “I normally welcome guests when they come in, but since you were injured and unconscious I will have to take care of that oversight now. The names Shuteye, proprietor of the Shuteye Inn.” She held up a hoof in the manner I had learned was a handshake.

I shook her hoof and asked, “Have you seen my traveling companions? Daring Do and a zebra caravan?”

“Oh, yes of course! Most of them are staying right here, in different rooms of course! Wouldn't be proper to have them all in the same room now, would it?” Her cheeriness was almost too much for me, but it was refreshing in a quaint kind of way.

“That's good news.” I tried to think of a way to ask the next question without sounding like a crackpot. Too bad I couldn't figure one. So I just bluntly asked, “How long have I been asleep, Mrs Shuteye?”

The smile never left her face. “Well, you were sort of sleeping when your friends brought you in last night with several others who were all in a bad way. Now, I don't know how long you were out before arriving, but you have been sleeping soundly for as long as you have been here.”

“Do you know where I can find Daring? Or perhaps the caravan leader?”

“Certainly! They are currently at the magistrate's office finalizing some paperwork about the bandits you dealt with.” Her smile became even brighter, if that was possible. “Several zebras and ponies alike from the caravan told me all about how you saved them from the bandits at risk of your own life!”

I'm sure my face reddened at the praise. I wasn't one to accept credit, especially when it wasn't only mine to take. Those guards and workers deserved as much, if not more, credit as I did. Especially the fallen. I didn't want to offend my host though, so I averted my eyes and mumbled, “Shucks ma'am, was the right thing to do is all.”

She looked at me oddly, the smile never leaving her face. She made a startled noise, as if she just remembered something. “I almost forgot! Miss Daring asked me to give you a message if you woke before lunch.” I nodded for her to continue. “She said to meet her at the Dinner Bell Tavern.” She passed me a note with her hoof. I wasn't sure how she did that. Magic fingers maybe? Shuteye continued, “I wrote down the directions for you. The city isn't very big so you shouldn't have a hard time finding it. If you do, ask anypony. We all know our way around here like the backs of our hooves!”

I dug my pocket-watch out of my hip-pouch and checked the time again. I figured I had about three or so hours to burn until lunch. While I thought about what I should do with my time, Shuteye wandered away and came back with a covered dish. “Here you go sir. I saved you a little something to tide you over till lunch. I hope you like it, Miss Daring forgot to tell me what you eat.”

I took the dish from her, “Thank you ma'am. I am feeling a mite peckish.” I looked under the plate cover and saw several cucumber sandwiches with the crust removed. I don't think I've ever had one before, but they did look appealing and the rumble from my stomach agreed. I blushed slightly at my belly's outburst. “These look right tasty ma'am. Might I have a glass of water or something to wash em down with?” I wandered over to the oversized table adorning the common room.

Shuteye chuckled, “Oh course deary!” She walked toward what I figured was the kitchen. “Would you like juice, milk, or water?”

“Oh? What kind of juice are you offering?” I wondered.


“Ma'am, I think I am beginning to like it here” As Shuteye left the room to get the orange juice, I took a tentative bite of the awkward sandwich. I had to admit, it was pretty good.

~~~ Daring

'If I had known that sneaky zebra Zecella would make me do all this paperwork as part of our agreement for that healing potion, I would have let him die!' I thought sourly. I knew I would never have let Justin die. I was just so frustrated at Zecella for pulling this dirty stunt! Apparently, whenever bounties were collected, additional forms were required to explain in detail the nature of the situation causing the death and not capture of said bandit. Each! And every! One! Since Justin had been , 'instrumental' as Zecella put it, in the deaths of 'ALL' the bandits who attacked us... I got to file ALL the paperwork detailing the demise of them ALL! Thirty-one reports filed in duplicate to the local council. 'I may never write again!' I continued to gripe to myself.

'Not only did I get to stay up all night hoofwriting each and every three page report by myself, in duplicate mind you, I got the privilege of waiting on these blowhard bureaucrats to accept the forms to finalize the process!' Needless to say I was in a rather foul mood as I sat in the stuffy antechamber of the municipal building. The bundled reports, once completed, rivaled the amount of paper used in one of my adventure novels!

I had been told to be here bright and early at no later than eight o'clock sharp! I knew it was well after nine o'clock now and, aside from being acknowledged when I arrived, had not been spoken to at all. 'This is unbearable! I should be in bed right now, but no. Sneaky Zec pulled one over on me again. I should have remembered not to trust one of their clan. Especially after the last time!'

I sighed and looked out a small window. I wondered how my friend was. In a way, I was worried about him. Would he be alright if he woke up before I made it back to collect him for lunch? Zecella said he could wake up anytime this morning, but not to let him sleep longer than noon. Because of the jump-start the potion had caused in his metabolism, he would need a large amount of food to replace all the used up energy. While the potions were a miraculous cure all, they could also be exceedingly rough on the body as well.

“At least I know Shuteye will keep an eye on him for me.” I muttered. I had known Shuteye for years and she was a dependable mare.

My mind wandered for a while until I heard my name called by the secretary. “Mrs. Do?”

I rankled slightly. “Miss Do, and yes I am here. Call me Daring if you like.” I stated with a wry smile. I tried to be polite, but sometimes it was hard.

The secretary made a self-degrading sound before speaking again. “I'm sorry, Miss Daring.” The unicorn mare cleared her throat, “I just wanted to let you know that the chief councilpony will be with you shortly. He is just finishing up a matter of state and shan’t be much longer. Thank you for your patience.” The unicorn shut the sliding window separating us before I could say anything. In retrospect, that was a wise thing for her to do!

I sighed again. 'Next time, Justin gets to do this!' I thought with a devilish chuckle.

~~~ Justin

I found myself wandering around the city. Shuteye had been kind enough to give me directions to several shops I wanted to stop at. She was also kind enough to explain what the coins were without being too degrading. The locals call the coins 'bits' and the material they are made of denoted their value. It seems there were three differing types. Copper or bronze 'bits' were the lowest denomination. Ten copper bits equaled one silver bit. Ten silver bits made one gold bit. Apparently there was a fourth denomination called a platinum bit, but that was more of a ledger notation for the wealthy than an actual currency. Shuteye claimed to have held one once, but I was pretty sure she was exaggerating.

I finally made it to the first place I wanted to stop at. I would have gone to the tailor first, but Shuteye had been very convincing that I should go to her friend's shop instead. I didn't know what the difference was between a tailor and a seamstress, except gender, but Shuteye was sincere enough that her friend produced higher quality clothing at less expensive prices. I was happy enough that, when I walked into the shop, I didn't have to stoop once inside.

From the back I heard a husky female voice call out, “Be right there!” followed by a slow clopping on the tiled floor. The voice belonged to a beige and brown colored unicorn mare with a fuller than normal figure and an odd mark on her flank that resembled two circles connected in the center by a slender tube. Once the mare got a look at me, she seemed a bit edgy. I forgot how intimidating my size was to these pony folk. She managed to stammer out, “Uh, what can I do for you today?”

I put on my friendliest smile, making sure not to show my teeth. I calmly stated, “The innkeeper Shuteye recommended I come here for some clothing needs. Would you be Bobbin Twist?”

She smiled nervously while nodding. “Ya, that's me. Call me Bobbi, if you don't mind.” She looked me over appraising. “So, Shuteye sent ya. What's she think I can do for ya?”

I chuckled, “Well, first thing I need is a shirt. My last one became bandages for a certain pegasus I rescued. If I can afford your prices, I would like to talk about a few other things as well.”

Bobbi smiled earnestly, “Oh! You're the fellow who rescued miss Daring? Folks told me you were tall, but forgot to mention how...different you looked!” She froze as soon as she said that, her eyes going wide, and threw a hoof over her mouth.

I liked her! She said what was on her mind, and I found that refreshing. “Yes, well I suppose I am quite odd to y’all.” I chuckled, “Where I'm from you would get the same. No worries.”

After some small talk, we got down to business. Thankfully she seemed skilled. I was very worried she wouldn't be able to fabricate clothing for me due to my differences. My worries wound up being for naught. Her prices were also reasonable, at least to someone who didn't understand the value of the currency. After dealing for a bit, she convinced me get a second shirt, a pair of pants, extra socks and undergarments. For all this she asked for two of my silver coins.

“Are you sure that is enough to cover your costs ma'am?” I hated to pass a bargain, but I didn't want to feel like I cheated anyone... er... anypony.

“Sure I'm sure.” She stated. “To be honest sir, I am charging you more than I would for someone my size. Two silvers will cover the extra materials and my time. Worry not, you're not taking advantage of an older mare!” We shared a laugh at that. “I should have everything done by this evening, if that is alright with you.”

I was pleased with how fast she would have my clothing completed. She did seem a tad confused when I gave her the payment right then. “I'm sure your good for it, ma'am. If not, I'll just let Shuteye know.”

She accepted the coins and leaned toward me, “A word of advice mister, Don't be so trusting in these parts. It will get you hurt.”

I was definitely put off by that, “What makes you say that?”

She had a grim look on her face. “Not all ponies around these parts are good or trustworthy. Galls me to admit it, but times have changed. Ponies have changed too.” She patted my hand, “Just mark my words sonny, be careful who you deal with and how you deal with them. Many a pony will burn you nowadays. You seem like a good fellow, and I don't want to hear about you getting swindled or beat up. Law here don't help the innocent as much as ponies would like to think.”

“Thank you, ma'am. Much as what you say upsets me, I will take it to heart.” I rose and started to leave the store, “Better safe than sorry, eh?”

“Right you are!” She cackled from the rear of the shop. “And remember to come back for your goods this evening!”

I closed the door and thought about what Bobbi had said. I wondered what had happened to her to make her so bitter. Likely wasn't pleasant. I checked my watch. Still an hour before I needed to meet Daring. Plenty of time to go to the next place on my agenda.

The pony folk I passed on the street during my few minutes walking between destinations seemed pleasant enough. Most smiled, a few even waved. One went so far as to greet me. Still, Bobbi's words rang in my mind. For a world that seemed to have such good people, even if they were anthropomorphic creatures, I would have to be on my guard for those who would use that goodness to nefarious ends. I began to wonder how much like Earth this place really was. My mind must have been wandering along with me, since I hardly noticed when I arrived at the next stop on my list.

The exterior of the shop was certainly interesting enough, rather large too. Colorful signs of every shape and size seemed to imply that the place was part general store, part pawn shop, part curio emporium, and all business. Entering the store was like entering an entirely different world from the one outside. Glass cases sheltered various odds and ends. Seemingly endless shelving housed hoards of everything from rope to raisins to raincoats. This place seemed to have just about anything you might need under one roof. There were several customers wandering the isles with handbaskets or saddlebags, or sometimes both. I saw the first gryphon that hadn't been trying to kill me here.

Seeing as I was the only being in the store who stood taller than the tallest shelf, I easily drew lots of attention as I meandered to a counter that had a zebra behind it. I smiled at the poor zebra whose eyes had begun to resemble dinner plates at my approach. “Excuse me, do you work here?” I asked.

The zebra stammered out, “Uh, Um, well, yes.” His gaze shifted around the room nervously and his breathing took on a frantic pace. If I hadn't been afraid of him having a stroke, I might have found it funny.

I hadn't seen all that many of the zebra people, but this one seemed very young. He was shorter than average, and his voice squeaked. Working on that assumption I said, “Son, you OK? You seem to have taken an awful fright. Mayhap you should sit a spell. Go get some water.”

The young zebra nodded vigorously and backed away from me through an open doorway to the back storeroom. I glanced around to see if the other customers had any reaction to this. I noted there were fewer shoppers now, though I never noticed the doorbell. Those left were paying too much attention to me. Feeling uncomfortable with the situation I spoke out loud, “My apologies for causing a scene. My business can wait for a later date.” And began to head toward the exit.

I was almost halfway there when a nauseatingly pleasant voice called out, “Ah! My nephew is a skittish one, is he not?” The sound of hooves on the hard stone floor followed after me. “Forgive him his youth, good sir giant.” I turned to see an older zebra slowly following me. He looked much like any other zebra I had seen, not counting the pouches and handbags hanging all over his body or the ungodly amount of tacky jewelry he wore. “Come, come. You said you had business. Come and let us do business, yes?” He motioned with a hoof for me to go with him to a side of the store that had fewer prying eyes.

I walked with the elder zebra to a solid counter and waited for him to settle himself comfortably. “Shuteye, proprietor of the Shuteye Inn told me that this was place to go to trade 'delving' wares.”

“Ah! Yes delvers are most welcome at the Emporium. We buy, sell, trade most anything you need or may need. If we don't have it, I can get it for you!” His smile dimmed for a moment as he muttered softy. “I thought that Shuteye had rented the whole inn to that caravan of greengrocers...OH!” He exclaimed suddenly as comprehension filled his eyes. “You must be the 'butcher of bandits' all have been talking about!” His already nauseating voice became even more obsequious, “Forgive me my manners, lord. How may Nazir serve you this fine day?”

I quirked ans eyebrow. “Butcher of bandits?” I replied skeptically.

“Oh yes, lord slayer! The whole city has been ablaze with talk of you. Only no one seems to know your name...”

I didn't know if I could deal with his tone much longer. “My name is Justin, and I am lord of nothing.”

“Oh, and so modest! Tis a glorious day that I, Nazir, have been sent to serve one so great as you.” he gushed.

“Look, Nazir was it?” He nodded at the question, and I continued, “I'm just a regular guy. I'm no lord. I'm no 'great warrior'. I was just in the right place at the right time to help some good ponies out. Nothing more.” I didn't think Nazir got it, so I added, “Can we drop the titles? Call me Justin. Just Justin.”

He looked up as he said, “He graces me with the privilege of his using his name!”

“Look, I'm leaving if you don't cut it out.”

Nazir sighed, “Forgive me, Justin. The bandits you dealt with had been causing me personally much grief. They were responsible for the deaths of many a good customer, and friend.” I frankly doubted that. More than likely they had sold him the variety of stuff that lined his shelves, probably stolen from the bodies of his other customers. I was taken completely off-guard when he crossed his hooves on the counter and lowered his head on them. His eyes shimmered with tears as he whispered, “They killed my only son.”

Well, to say I felt like Grade-A dogshit would be an understatement. I gently patted his hooves, “I... I didn't know. I'm very sorry for your loss.” I had no idea how to handle this. He was a full grown man...err...zebra. His pain was very real, somehow I knew he wasn't faking. Likely his over jovial behavior was his coping mechanism. Poor guy.

He sniffled and waved a hoof. His voice was a little hoarse when he spoke, “You said you had delver's business, take an old zebra's mind off his grief and honor me with what you have. I will be sure to treat the one who avenged my son well.”

Great, now I was taking advantage of a grieving father. Ever had one of those 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' moments? This sure as shit was one of them. I was granted a few minutes' respite when the young zebra brought Nazir a mug of something to drink. I did the only thing I could think of in a situation like this. I opened my hip pouch and began removing the things I had taken from the temple. I felt even worse because I didn't tell Daring about everything I had found. It hadn't been important at the time!

I laid out the beautifully faceted rubies, all six of them. A bracer made of gold far too small to fit me. A thick, silver chain with a broken clasp. And the oddest thing I had grabbed. A palm-sized, obsidian statuette of a diamond dog. Nice artwork too, if you liked gruesome.

It was astonishing to view the change in Nazir as he began to appraise my finds. He pulled an abacus from one of his pouches while muttering to himself under his breath. He examined the rubies one by one with a jeweler's glass. The beads flicked on the abacus. Nazir checked the bracer to make sure it was real gold and then did something with what looked like a quartz crystal before flicking more beads on the abacus. The broken chain he checked to make sure it was silver, then called his nephew over with a hand scale to weigh it. More beads moved.

When he came to the statuette he looked at it strangely. The crystal glowed dully when brought near the statue. I wanted to ask what it meant, but held my tongue until he was finished. He rubbed the statuette a few times. Held it at different angles in the light. Even used his jewelers glass to examine every facet of it. After a while he sat it down, but didn't touch the abacus.

When he finally spoke to me, his voice was clean and free of the prior sycophantic tone. “The gems I would normally give four silvers a piece for, but for you I will gladly pay five silvers each. That bracer might be worth two gold bits, but since its size is so strange and melting such fine work down would be a sin, I am willing to give you one gold and six silver bits for it.” He pointed to the chain. “Sadly this is only worth the melt down weight. I can part with two silver bits for a friend.”

Nazir once again picked up the statuette. He handled it gingerly, almost reverently, while speaking, “This I would love to take off your hands, my friend. Alas I cannot. I would be betraying my son's avenger and I will not have him haunting me.” He made eye contact with me while caressing the statuette. “This has a powerful enchantment upon it. I do not know what it does or can do, but I know it has much power. If you were not who you are, I would have taken this from you for a measly ten or fifteen golden bits.” He gazed lovingly at it and caressed it one last time before returning it to its spot before me. “Instead I will tell you that it holds a powerful enchantment and that it is likely worth much, much more.” He chuckled and said, “But if you want, I can give you twenty golden bits and call it a gift to myself...”

I couldn't resist sharing the chuckle with Nazir. “I thank you for being honest with me, my friend. I will have to turn the statuette over to the hands of my other friend, Daring Do. She will know what to do with it and, if it is harmful, make sure it doesn't hurt anybody...err...anypony.”

Nazir's eyes widened with surprise, “You are friends with the lovely lady Daring Do?” I smiled and nodded. He kept talking, “Then you are the mystery stallion!”

“Um, excuse me? What the hell is supposed to mean?” I was definitely confused, and that seemed to be more and more common lately.

Nazir only smiled and seemed to be evaluating me in a new light. “Oh, nothing. Rumor has it that she has a new friend. Nothing more.” He tapped his chin a few times with a hoof. “I should have put it together already. But no matter! Do you wish to take my offer on the lot minus the statuette, or would you like to speak to your friend first?”

I'm not sure I liked the way he stressed 'friend'. “Are you insinuating something, Nazir? I don't like that tone.”

He chuckled loudly, “Oh no, my friend! I mean no insult! She and I go back a long ways. Many times has she brought things to sell old Nazir. When this time she came to town, but didn't come to see me, I became worried. I knew she had journeyed to the temple of Sok'ko'kull, yet upon her return she does not visit. You do instead, and with treasure to boot.” His laugh was more a nicker, “This old zebra can now put two and two together. Yes, take the statuette to your Daring. You are very correct, she will know how to handle such a relic. Only make sure you tell her to come visit with old Nazir before she departs. I miss our conversations.”

“Sure, I can manage that. And yes, cash me out if you would.” Nazir had the statuette wrapped up in a cloth and handed it back to me. I placed it into my hip pouch and secured it while he went into the back room to collect my coins.

When he returned he counted out the coins. “There we are. Four golden bits and nine silvers.” He handed them to me than shook my hand. “Remember old Nazir, my friend. If ever you need anything, come see me. If you ever just want a chat, this old zebra likes that as well.”

“I will, Nazir, and likely I will be back soon. I need some things, but I have an appointment to keep in just a few minutes. Wouldn't do to keep a lady waiting.”

That odd look again. “Then be off with you, and remember to tell her I said hello!”

“I will. Until later.” I tipped my hat to the old zebra and hurried out of the store to meet up with Daring.

~~~ Daring

'What a moron!' I thought to myself as I walked toward the diner. 'Damn bureaucrats are all the same! At least my part of the deal's done and over with. If I had to spend one more moment with that sanctimonious prick staring at my flank, I would have broken his teeth!' My foul mood lightened a little at sight of the familiar restaurant. 'Thank Celestia! I can finally get something to eat! On the plus side, Justin should already be there. Shuteye said he was already up and about and remembered to tell him to meet me here at noon.' I began to smile at this thought, 'Maybe I will treat myself to a few cocktails, I know I certainly earned them!'

I looked at the position of the sun and realized it was close to one-o'clock. 'I hope he hasn't been waiting for me too long.' I thought with a smirk. I waved to Antony, the bartender and proprietor of the Dinner Bell Tavern, as I walked in. “Hey Tony! I got anyone waiting for me?”

The older chestnut stallion smiled warmly, “Daring Do! It's been too long, girl!” He walked over and gave me a quick nuzzle then turned and pointed toward the huge main room, “I hope that the odd looking bipedal fellow over there with the two zebras is who you mean.”

“That's him.” I nodded. I was wondering what Zecella and Keluro were doing here. I hadn't invited them. From my vantage point they couldn't see me yet, so I asked Tony slyly, “No trouble I hope?”

Antony's smile faded only a moment, “Well, Mary did get an awful fright at his appearance and broke a lot of crockery in the process.” I gasped as he told me about his wife's unfortunate first encounter with Justin. “It was hilarious watching her scream and bolt for the backroom while your giant friend just stood there and looked perplexed. He then calmly walked over to the mess and began to pick it up before I could get there. You know what he told me?” After a shake of my head, he continued. “He told me needed to pick up the broken glass before somepony got hurt. Like there was nothing wrong.” Tony began to chuckle, “Odd fellow there. Got to talk to him for a bit before the zebras waltzed in. Nice once you get past his looks. Should have been here when I made Mary apologize to him.”

I chuckled with Tony. “So, the zebras didn't come with him?”

Tony sobered. “Nah. They arrived about ten minutes or so after he did. Been here ever since buying him drinks and chatting.”

I raised an eyebrow at this. A Zec spending money? That was unheard of, unless she wanted something. “Any idea what they've been discussing?” I didn't want to walk into a situation without knowing a little of what was going on.

Antony looked shocked, “Madame! I am outraged you would even suggest that I would betray my customer's confidence!” With a raised eyebrow I passed him a silver bit. He pocketed the silver and continued without missing a beat, “Mainly small talk. The big zebra seemed like he was trying to trade war stories with your friend. Seemed a bit put out when your giant claimed he didn't have any war stories of his own.” Tony paused a moment and thought. “The lady seemed to let the male do most of the talking whenever Mary or I were nearby, but I did manage overhear her mention Nijan and Gentra. Pretty sure they are destinations for the caravan they run. If I was to speculate, I would wager they wanted to hire him as a guard or something.” He smiled devilishly, “It's a pretty common tactic. Get a potential recruit drunk, then get them to sign a contract while they are inebriated.”

I was shocked. “That is an outrageous business tactic! How can it be legal?”

Antony shrugged, “Dunno how it's legal. All I know is that it is and they have been hitting the sauce pretty hard last half hour or so. It's definitely good for business.”

I was determined to help my friend, but I needed to know a few more things first. “Tony, has he signed anything?”

Antony immediately said, “Nah. They tried to. I saw some papers myself, but he said he wanted to talk to you first. Amazing how he can hold that much Cider!”

“How much have they had to drink?”

Antony squinted at them for a moment before turning back to me, “Let me see here. First round was normal. Your friend chugged it in one gulp, mainly due to the size of the mugs in comparison to his body, I guess. The next seven rounds he drank from a full pitcher and the zebras from mugs.” He nodded, “So he had six full pitchers and a mug, the zebras both had seven mugs.” Antony whispered to me, “Your pal isn't even the slightest bit tipsy. A pitcher holds five drinks each. Both yer zebra 'pals' have been slurring for the past two rounds, the lady a bit more than the male.”

I pondered this information. Tony's hard cider was some of the best and strongest in all Equagga. I didn't know Justin could hold his liquor that well. I had planned to find that out this evening, as celebration on both of our recoveries and securing the amulet. In a way I was upset at Zecella and Keluro, but that was now tempered in light of his new knowledge. Justin would not only have drunk me under the table but very likely would've had to carry me back to the inn when I tried to match him drink for drink. 'Maybe I can use this situation to my advantage and find out what they are up too.' I thought to myself.

“Thanks Tony.” I gave him a quick nuzzle and waved to Mary when I saw her. She ran over to give me a greeting nuzzle before we both turned toward the dining floor. Tony had designed the place to have the bar separated from the diner. I think he did that to make his wife happy. She had been running a diner of her own when they had met. After a whirlwind courtship, that I may have had a thing or two to do with, he built a new establishment that combined both of their businesses. I'm glad it was working well for them both, they seemed happy enough. I made idle chit-chat with Mary while we strolled toward my target.

Justin made eye contact with me almost the instant I walked into his field of vision, but didn't say anything. I managed to overhear Zecella slur, “Afffter schpeaking with my team...additional protection wasss deemed. A <hic> u-u-unanimousss vote for you was the theme.”

Keluro belched in a 'manly' way as he agreed with Zecella. “Sche schpeaks the truth. <burp> In fact...scheveral membersh announced that they would not continue unlessh you agreed to come with ush.”

When I was almost to their table Justin stated loudly and, if I was not mistaken, seemed genuinely happy to see me, “Hey Dee! Wondered what was keeping you.” His nonchalant wink spoke volumes for his knowledge of the situation.

Zecella was startled to see me. Keluro wasn't. He smiled broadly, if not a little lecherously, at me. “Ah! The lovely lady grachesh ush with her preshcence, tasshtefully late too!” There was no mistaking his interest. Males like him shouldn't be allowed to drink. It brought out the worst in them.

Justin wasted no time in coming to my rescue, “Dee, I have been waiting almost an hour to order. Zecella and Keluro were kind enough to keep me company while I waited, but they were just leaving.” The way he stressed the last part left no room for either of them to argue without causing a scene. As Zecella was about to say something he cut her off by snatching some rolled papers from her and saying, “Your offer intrigues me. I will get back with you after lunch with my decision.” Even I was slightly startled as he stood and waved his hand toward the exit of the building. “It was a pleasure Zecella, as always.” He then turned and shook Keluro's hoof before telling him, “I will drop by the inn this evening. Perhaps we can get the others involved in a good night's drinking to rehash some old stories. I know I would like to hear more of your exploits.”

The older soldier smiled drunkenly and stated, “Schounds like a plan! Come on Zecella. We have plasches to be and poniesh to... <hic!> schee!” With a nod to both of us they staggered from the diner like old sailors.

Once they had left I sighed, “Wow, what did they want?”

“To hire me.” Justin stated that while taking a long pull from a pitcher. Once empty, he set it on the table with a few others. “Would you excuse me? I need to utilize the facilities. Far too much to drink.” he said while patting his stomach.

I could only nod to his back as he disappeared toward the bar to ask directions to the lavatory. As I watched him walk away, he didn't stagger or sway even once. Mary scurried over to clear the table and wipe it down. I noted that it was only dirty where the zebra were. Justin had managed not to make a mess at all. Mary said in a low voice, “He seems nice enough, now that I've talked to him a bit.” She blushed a little, likely remembering how she had caused a scene when Justin first entered the building. “I admit he scared me a lot when I first seen him, but he is so polite!” She stopped working to look me in the eye, “Where in Celestia's chipped hoof, did you find him? I've never seen or heard of his like!”

Before thinking I replied, “Pennsylva-....” Catching myself I corrected, “A land very far away. Likely, he is the only one of his kind here.” Glancing toward where Justin had vanished, I spoke in hushed tones to Mary, “I am not sure what he is, but I plan to find out. Now that my wing is healed up, I must fly back to Canterlot for business anyway. While I am there I will seek an audience with Princess Celestia. If anyone knows about his kind, she will. Other than that,” I gave Mary a sly little smile, “he is my friend.”

Mary grinned to me. “I hope you keep this 'friend' longer than the others.” She glanced over her shoulder to see Justin returning. In a whisper she said, “I like him a lot more than them!”

Before I could even begin to defend myself, Justin returned and sat down. Mary balanced the full tray of empty cups and pitchers on her back. She said, “I will be right back with some menus. Can I bring you something to drink?” She raised an eyebrow to Justin, “Another Cider?”

I murmured, “Could I please have some water, I am parched.”

Justin shook his head 'no'. “Oh, lordy, no. That stuff tastes nice, but it's beyond me how ya folks can guzzle it all the time. Do you have any iced tea?”

Mary seemed a little shocked, “You... you... with all you drank, you don't like it?”

Justin quickly said, “Oh no! I didn't mean it like that. It's likely the best cider I have ever tasted. I simply can't drink that much of it without a stomachache. That's why I would love a tea or some cold water if you don't have any.” He leaned toward Mary and whispered loudly, so I could easily hear, “I gotta ask. Why did Zecella and Keluro look so drunk?”

Many and I both blinked and traded looks. She mouthed to me, 'He doesn't know cider is alcoholic?'

“Guess not.” I stated. “Go on Mary. I'll let him in on it.”

Mary nodded, without unbalancing the tray, “Sure thing, Hun. Be back in a jiffy!” With that, she was off to the kitchen.

Justin was just sitting uncomfortably in a chair meant for a Diamond Dog. He had the cutest look of confusion on his face. I wanted a picture! It always amazed me just how pony-like he looked at times. “Hard cider, what you have been chugging like it's going out of style, is a moderately powerful alcohol.” The way he cocked his head was adorable! “It's also the most common one. Strong enough that the average pony can only handle three or four before catching a very nice buzz.”

Realization brightened in his eyes. “You mean Zecella and Keluro were trying to get me drunk to sign these?” He held up the scroll for emphasis.

I nodded, “Most likely. What is it anyway?”

“A work contract. Has so many legal terms in it that it makes an I.R.S. Form look simple!”

I shook my head, “Well I don't know what an 'Ayerres' is, but I have seen Zec contracts before. They are all overly complicated and have far too many loopholes, all in the favor of the Zec.”

He looked confused again. “Zec?”

I nodded, “Yes, one of the three main zebra clans.”

He nodded slowly, “Explain please.”

I sighed. Explaining clans was one of the things that drove me to drinking. “Well...” I decided on the extremely simple explanation, “...there are three main zebra clans. Zec, who are the scholars and potion makers and such. The Ke, who make up the warriors, guards, and police forces. And last, but never least, are the Ne. Workers and laborers pretty much sums them up.” I so wished I had a hard cider right now. “That is a pretty simple and vague explanation, but it gets the point across I hope?”

Justin nodded thoughtfully. “So, they add the clan name as a prefix to their actual names?”

I nodded. “You got it.”

He shook his head. “That is probably the dumbest thing I have ever heard and, lemme tell ya, I have heard some doozies!”

I couldn't help snickering, “About what I always thought too.” I leaned across the table toward him, “Just don't ever say that to one of them. It's a good way to wake up dead, if you understand me!”

“So what about the ones who don't have one of those clan prefixes?” He said while nodding.

I thought for a moment. He must mean those from the caravan who were clanless. Hmm, how to explain them? “There are those who have, for whatever reason, rejected their clans. Many try to join another clan, but just as many remain clanless.”

He nodded slowly as our drinks arrived. “Thank you, Ma'am.” He said as he picked up his tea and hid his face.

“And here you go, Daring,” said Mary as she set down my glass of ice water. She then handed us a pair of menus, “I'll give you a few minutes to decide what you want.” She walked away with a cheerful smile and a wink toward Justin that, from the way his cheeks reddened, he didn't miss.

Mary will never change, she always enjoyed messing with males' minds. I simply shook my head, “Same old Mary.” I muttered under my breath as I looked to my lunch companion, “So, what are you hungry for? I think I'm going to go for the chef's salad and the roasted red pepper sub” Subconsciously I licked my lips thinking about it.

Justin looked thoughtful. “Toasted sub huh? With the way you are lusting over one,” he smirked at me as it was my turn to blush, “I think I will give one a go. They must be good with the way you acted.”

I looked away from the snarky human and mumbled, “Well, they are good...”

~~~ Justin

Daring was an awesome lunch companion. I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard or so often. She had almost as many stories as I do, and I have a M.S. In B.S.! She regaled me with how her morning went at the council's office. She spun her story with an expert flair, even using her hooves like I would use my hands.

The food was actually quite good. I was a tad disappointed when the sub came without meat, though I really wasn't too surprised. Sadly, I couldn't figure out a polite way to ask Mary to put some salami or capicola on it. Even so, I had to admit it was a top notch. While I was crunching through my delicious vegan sub, I was trying hard to remember...something. I couldn't remember what, all I could remember was I had wanted to talk to Daring about something. 'Now, what was it? Something from back on the day we met?' I just couldn't remember.

Daring broke the silence, “By the way.”

I snapped my head up, “Ya, wassup?”

She leaned forward, “Since when did you start calling me, Dee?”

“Oh!” I chuckled, “I give everyone I like a nickname. Besides, Daring sounds a bit too much like darling and I don't know you that well yet.” I froze. 'Did I just say that?' Sure, I tended to flirt harmlessly all the time. Only she wasn't human! I mean, was that even allowed in this society?

The look she gave me was indescribable. Suddenly she burst into braying laughter. “Oh... okay... that's... fine... with... me!” she barely managed between giggles. If she didn't calm down soon, she was likely to pass out.

Several minutes passed without any signs of her stopping. Every time she started to calm, she'd look back up at me and the laughter would begin anew. Eventually, I cleared my throat and said with an annoyed look, “What's so funny?”

She tried, with limited success, to pull herself together. “The look on your face was priceless!”

“I'm sooo glad I could amuse you, Miss Daring” The sarcasm practically dripped from my tone.

She managed to calm herself this time. “Oh, come on, Justin. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. I just had a horrible morning. Everything that could go wrong, did. I just needed to let it out. When you made that face, I couldn't help myself.” She snickered a few more times.

“Alright, it probably was funny.”

“Oh, it was! Trust me, I wouldn't steer you wrong.” She extended her hoof to me, “Friends?”

I took her hoof, “Of course.” I shrugged my shoulders and with a mirthless smirk said, “Probably the only one I have right now that doesn't want me to stab someone, err somepony.”

Daring's face became concerned. “Who wants you to stab somepony?”

“Our mutual zebra pals.” I picked up the contract scroll. “See? They want to hire me to kill any...pony that bothers their caravan. I haven't read most of this damnable thing yet. At least half of it is in a different language.” I handed the contract to Daring, “Here take a look. They tried to assure me it only repeated the same thing in zebraccen or whatever they called their own language.”

Daring scanned the contract while nibbling the last of her sub. When she got to the bottom half she started shaking her head in a negative manner. “This is a pretty standard 'Zec' contract. The top part you can read sounds pretty good, it's the bottom you can't read that gets you.” She turned the paper toward me, as if I would suddenly be able to understand the strange symbols. “See here?” I nodded and pretended I could. “It says here that they can dock your pay for any 'reasonable' grounds. That is so vague that, by the end of the journey, you could very well end up with nothing!” She motioned to another part, “And this here? Sub-clause that states every time you wake up late, they can dock you five copper bits.” She kept showing me so many exceptions, clauses, and sub-notes that the average worker would likely end up owing the caravan at the end of a journey.

“That's ridiculous! Why in the world would anyone sign one of these?” I said with a bitter note.

Daring batted her eyelashes at me sweetly, “They did buy you a couple silvers' worth of 'hard cider'. You know, the stuff they assumed would have you drunk off your ass!”

My eyes widened in realization of the scam they tried to pull on me, then narrowed dangerously toward the door they staggered out of. “Those slimy sons of a whore! Wait till I get my hands on them.”

Daring cocked an eyebrow at me, “Oh? And just what will you do? Wring their necks? Beat them up?”

I looked at her like she was crazy, “Are you nuts?” At her confused look I continued, “That would not only be immoral, but also, most likely, illegal. I was thinking more along the lines of making sure the whole city knew about their illicit dealing. I imagine there's a newspaper or something that would love to print some juicy and hurtful gossip that was actually true for a change.” Daring looked shocked that I would try something along those lines, so I decided to give her something a little closer to what she was expecting. “Baring that, I could just bust some of their wagon wheels.”

She smirked, “A male after my own heart. You had me going there with the 'newspaper' thing.”

“Oh, I was serious.” I took a long drink of iced tea. “Only your reaction to that plan told me it, likely, wouldn't do much. So...” I shrugged and let the thought hang. “Besides, we haven't really had any time to discuss where we're going.” I figured if I just invited myself along with her, she would likely take me.

“Oh, it's 'we' now is it?” The amused look on her face told me she was goading me along, so I decided to play her game...but only on my terms.

“Unless your saying you don't need my help anymore. If that's the case, I suppose I can get a job at 'bandit bashing' just about anywhere in these parts.” I smirked as I said this.

The thoughtful look on Daring’s face took me off-guard. I never for a moment supposed she may want to get rid of me. I was pretty sure she viewed me as a friend, and friends don't leave friends behind. Did they? It wasn't like I understood their society in the least. Then there was what Bobbi had said. I managed to keep a straight face as several scenarios ran through my mind, most of which sucked.

She flexed her wings that, thankfully, had been healed by now. Must have happened while I was unconscious. I was glad she'd been able to get the 'magic' healing she'd wanted. At least I knew she could take care of herself again. When she spoke, it was with a remorseful tone. “Justin, where I have to go is a long flight. If you could fly, I would love for you to come with me. Princess Celestia might even know how you got here and send you home, if that's what you want.” She looked me in the eyes. “But I have to take the Amulet to Princess Celestia, it's my job.”

I nodded, then remembered something. I reached into my side pouch and set the wrapped up statuette near Daring. “Here. Better take this to her as well.” She looked at me questioningly then picked it up. “Nazir told me it held a powerful 'enchantment'. He doesn't know anything more about it, only that it might be dangerous and that you would be able to take it someplace safe. Since I assume that would be to the princess, might as well take it to her along with the Amulet.”

Daring examined the statuette. “You didn't tell me you found this!”

“I thought it would upset you. Found it when I went back to...” I dropped the thought. “Ya, well anyway, take it to her. Least I know it won't be able to hurt anyone where you're taking it. I have a feeling it doesn't do anything good. Just a guess based on where I found it.”

Daring looked at me in wonder, “This is worth a small fortune. How do you know you can trust me with it?”

“I don't.” I shrugged, not looking at her, “But I do have faith in my friends.” I looked toward her, “You're the type of perso-...pony..." I was getting better at correcting myself, "... that does the right thing, and you're my friend.”

Mary came by and cleared the empty plates. I passed her two silver coins to pay for our lunch. She thanked me with a wink and asked if we wanted more to drink, which I accepted. The whole time Daring sat there deep in thought.

She broke the silence with, “There has to be a way for you to come with me. I don't want to leave you here. It wouldn't be 'right'.”

I chuckled bitterly, “Sorry Dee, I can't fly and that isn't gonna change anytime soon.”

“I know that!” She snapped. Under her breath I managed to catch, “Celestia would know what to do.” I think she was pouting, of all things.

I asked, “Um, Dee, how often do you come around these parts? I mean, everyone here knows or knows of you.”

She waved a hoof and stated offhand, “I pretty much live around here. I only go back to Canterlot when I find something that needs to be researched, examined, or locked up. Oh, and I do like to visit my half brother now and again. He doubles as my publicist.”

I laughed and startled Daring with, “Well then, problem solved!”

Daring gave me a perplexed look, “I don't follow you? How does that solve your coming to Canterlot?”

“Simple...oh, thank you Mary,” Mary handed me another mug of ice tea and Daring another cold water.

“Mary,” Daring said, “would you bring me a cider? I think I could use one right about now.”

“Sure thing, Hun!” Mary cheerily said as she scurried off.

“As I was saying, it's simple.” I took a sip of tea. “I just don't go to Canterlot.”

“That's an unique way of looking at things.” She said sourly.

“No, it makes perfect sense! If I don't have a way to go with you, I just meet up with you when you get back.” I leaned back in my chair. “The way you make it sound, Canterlot is only a few days away via flight.”

Daring looked at me with confusion in her eyes, “Roughly a week, each way.”

I nodded and remembered something a certain zebra had told me along with a few other things Daring had mentioned to me. “Well, since you mentioned that the next place you wanted to inspect was closer to Nijan than here...” I stopped talking and waved my hand for her to continue the thought.

Daring caught on slowly, “So... you are planning to head to Nijan by yourself and meet up me there? Bad idea. Single travelers are easy prey. Even one's as fierce as you.” She said with a smirk.

I don't know why, but it made me smile broadly that she thought I was fierce. “Ah, but I have it on good advice that a certain caravan is leaving in two days. It just so happens, they're headed for Nijan.” I leaned closer to Daring, “I also have it on good advice that they require the services of at least one human guard to go along with them, else the caravan may not be able to leave at all.”

Daring's eyes lit up, “So, all I need to do is rewrite your contract and meet you in Nijan! From there we can team up and search for the lost temple of Ahn'Ah'Ankh!" She paused a moment, her eyes glazed in thought, before focusing on me again. "Wait, you remembered that I want to look for that place?”

I nodded, “Yanno, I have been blamed for paying attention before. Terrible trait, or so I have heard.”

She laughed with me, “Your crazy, but you know that don't you?”

I scratched the couple days growth of stubble on my chin, “I recall admitting that to you once or twice before.” With a gleam in my eye, “So, think you can scribble me up a good contract?”

She paused for a moment before nodding, “Sure can. I have no idea how your going to slide it past Zecella though.”

I smiled evilly, “Leave that to me.” I held up my hand and snapped it a few times to catch Mary's attention.

She clopped on over and asked, “What can I do for you, Hun?”

I smiled sweetly and said with a slight British accent, “Madame, I require your husbands assistance. Do you suppose he would be so kind as to leave the bar for a few moments to discuss some business with me?”

Mary looked confused at my sudden change of dialect and accent. “Sure thing, Hun. Give me a minute to go get him.” She left with a puzzled look.

I turned back to Daring, “OK, let's assume I get this past them. I don't want you to write up anything bad in that document. Just a fair contract to be paid a fair wage.” I pondered, “Whatever a fair wage would be in these parts.”

Daring smiled, “Oh, I'm sure I can manage that part.” I think she understood what I had planned. “Don't worry, I'll put a little something in there about reimbursing you for the alcohol.”

I almost giggled and thought to myself, 'Mental note, do not piss off Daring. She is as much of a vindictive prick as I am!' Out loud I said, “I also need you to come with me to the Emporium. Nazir misses you and I need some supplies.”

Daring raised an eyebrow, “You need me to buy your gear too?”

I gave her a wry look. “No, I have a few gold bits. Only I'm not positive about everything I'm really going to need to get and could use a seasoned adventurer's opinion.”

She smiled at my compliment. “I think I can manage that. Besides, I bet we can get Nazir to whip up a great contract for you. Would look much more authentic if a zebra wrote it up. They have a certain way of writing that I never did master. It's almost an accent in writing.” She shrugged. She then asked sharply, “Hold up. Where did you manage to get gold?”

I coughed, “Well, you didn't know about the statuette right?” She shook her head 'no'. “There were a few other things I nicked while I was poking around. I only showed you two gems, but I found six... yanno, just some nick-knacks to pawn.”

She blandly stated, “I see I'm going to have to keep a close eye on you.”

I placed my hand over my heart, “I promise you here and now...”

We hadn't heard Antony approach until he cut me off with, “Sorry, I'll come back after the engagement.” He started walking away.

Daring yelled toward him, “Tony! It isn't like that!”

“Yah!” I agreed, “I was only telling her I wouldn't hold out on any treasure in the future!”

Antony looked at us and laughed louder and harder than Daring had earlier. Looking to Daring, I was positive she had the same sinking feeling I did. Lacking anything else I could do at the moment, I joined Antony in his laughter. At least it felt good to laugh...


It was good to see Nazir again. His stories always made me laugh, and this time I had a few new ones to tell him while Justin perused items in the store. His choice in things puzzled me several times, like the large tubular backpack. Those are usually used by mules due to their abnormal strength. Or why in Celestia's name he would want a flint and tinder set when he already has that nifty thing that makes fire. The large shield he found made me wonder only because his fighting style seemed so aggressive, and what in the world did he plan to use the harnesses and rivets for?

I heard him ask Nazir's nephew, Nadif, “Got any old armor? Damaged stuff not worth selling?”

Nadif looked to Nazir, “Uncle, should I show him the stuff you were going to have me take to the smith to have melted?”

Nazir waved a hoof lazily, “Sure sure, not like he will find much in that pile of junk.” While he continued working on the new contract.

Nazir told me much of what had been happening for the past several months over some nice mulled wine. I was glad we were in the backroom when he spoke of his son. It took me a while to calm him down. He had taken the loss of his wife a few seasons earlier with less difficulty. I would have definitely lost a lot of my reputation as a hardass if ponies had seen me comforting my old friend.

Half hour, maybe forty-five minutes after Nazir's breakdown, Justin walked in with a mystified Nadif. Seems Justin had managed to cobble together an interesting, and reasonably sound, suit of patchwork armor. Somehow he had managed to cover all his vitals with bits of plate secured with the harnesses and the rest with mail and hardened scales. In all honestly, he didn't look bad. He didn't look particularly good either, but he certainly resembled a guard now. How he managed to create his suit of armor from bits and pieces that Nazir considered trash, I will likely never know. The only thing he needed to stop at a metal smith for, was to alter the helm.

Justin left the Emporium three gold coins lighter thanks to that round backpack full of equipment and his armor. I wasn't sure why he bought a second sword, a dagger, and a crossbow, but who was I to question? Nazir enjoyed the fact that Justin's plan would involve embarrassing a member of clan Zec, whom he held little love for. His help in creating the contract to our expectations came surprisingly inexpensive. We had to promise that, on our next trip through the city, we'd stop to tell him the tale of what happened. He also wanted an autographed picture of us all together. He had his nephew take the picture and made us both sign it. He said it was to remember us, but I figured he was going to hang it behind the counter as an endorsement.

After saying our goodbyes, we made a little deviation to visit a seamstress's shop and pick up some clothing Justin had purchased earlier. I hadn't thought him the type to remember clothing, but I suppose it was due to his race's requirement to wear them. My ears reddened a little as I remembered learning why, while taking care of him at the inn. Once we had his purchases, we returned to our inn room to drop everything off. We went over the plan one more time while I made my preparations to leave in the morning for Canterlot. I really hoped this would work, I didn't want to loose yet another friend.

~~~ Justin

“Showtime!” I smiled. “Time to wag the dog, as folks back home might say.”

Daring cocked her head in the oh so human look of, 'what in the world is that supposed to mean' before she haltingly stated, “You mean, to make the contract not the thing of interest while getting Zecella loaded?”

I nodded. I hoped this wouldn't be too hard, but still had no idea. “I would enjoy your company for moral support, but don’t think it wise... at least until the deed is done. I plan to use your leaving as an excuse to join up with them. Having you there, at least in the beginning, might be counterproductive.”

She nodded as she said, “I agree. So, per the plan, I will meet you there in an hour?”

I nodded as I left the spartan room. Zebras were all over the common-room as I got there. Virtually all of them greeted me in a friendly manner. They were all from the caravan, and likely many were waiting to see if I would join them before agreeing to continue to Nijan with Zecella. Speaking of the devil, I spotted her chatting with a zebra whom I was unfamiliar with. Sadly, differentiating them was difficult at best for me.

“Hey there boss-lady.” I waved to her. “Want to finish discussing that contract with me over a mug at the tavern?” I nodded toward the door.

She gave me a peculiar look before nodding. She muttered something to the zebra next to her as she rose and walked over to me. “You have read the contract, that you will be joining us is a fact?” I didn't miss that all the other zebras had ceased conversations to listen to my response.

“I believe so, though I think we need to discuss the pay-grade.” I smiled, “Don't you think Keluro should join us as the guard captain in command?”

“It will be as you say, Keluro shall join us at the cafe.” Her unblinking eyes unnerved a little.

Keluro must have heard me, because he was with us in an instant. He spoke loudly, “I'm glad you've decided to throw in with us! Good sturdy soldiers are hard to come by in these parts.”

As we left the inn, Keluro kept up the conversation, “Won't Miss Daring be joining us this evening?”

“No, she is busy with her preparations to fly to Canterlot. She said if she finishes at a decent hour she might join us. If not, she will say goodbye to me over breakfast.” I purposely put a little hurt in my voice.

I noted Zecella gauging my every word while Keluro kept me talking. “Ah, I think I see now.” He stated grimly. “She's done with you, so now she is leaving.”

I made a point to look skyward. “Something like that... I thought...” I laid on the sorrow extra thick as I let my words trail off.

“Tis the way of things.” He was nodding sagely and his voice had the old 'been there, done that' tone. “I 'thought' a few times in me life as well. Some things just ain't to be, me boyo.”

Zecella said nothing, but nodded with Keluro as we entered the bar portion of the Dinner Bell Tavern.

As we entered, Antony waved a greeting. There were only a few other patrons this evening, so we were able to secure a comfortable table away from prying eyes and ears. I waved back as we were being seated and called out to Antony, “Bring a couple pitchers and some cups, Tony!”

The beverages appeared on our table before either zebra could blink. Small talk ensued. Things of no consequence. After our third drink; distance, duration, and difficulty of the trip were discussed. I made it a point to pretend to be affected by the hard cider this time. I told them about how Daring and I met, made up a few things to make it more interesting and such, though I really didn't have to add much. In fact, some details I needed to tone down. Hell, I didn't believe some of the ridiculous things that we had actually been through already.

Once the zebras were both slurring with me like old friends and had already sung some bawdy ballads together with the traveling entertainer the inn boasted that evening, I began to talk shop. About how I didn't want to stay in this 'two-bit town' as I called it. I bemoaned my losses and let them tell me a few of their woes. With the amount of alcohol they had consumed, I believed most of what they told me. Even though I knew it was heavily embellished. They had both seen some rough times and made me feel just a tinge of guilt about pulling one over on them.

After the first hour, I was certain I would be carrying them both back to the inn. They were absolute lushes! They never once turned a glass away, especially because I was paying. I was sure that Zecella wouldn't remember signing the contract, nor would Keluro remember being the witness. I went so far as to have Antony and Mary both 'witness' the signing to make it even more legal. Them being in on my scheme helped assure me that I hadn't really done anything illegal. If I had, I was sure they would not have helped.

My keen eyesight alerted me to Daring's presence as soon as she entered the establishment. I gave her a nonchalant nod as a signal that the deed was done already. She looked surprised that I had already accomplished what I had set out to do before she joined us.

As Daring made her way over to the table, Keluro draped a comradely arm over my shoulder and whispered far too loudly, “Don't look now, the harpy has returned!”

Daring pretended not to notice and sat down with me and the drunken zebras. We ate and made small-talk, save for Zecella, who didn't speak much. I wagered since rhyming while drunk was tough, she choose not to talk. Keluro was extremely rude to Daring. I felt bad, but at least that made it easier for her to quickly excuse herself after she silently made sure I'd be okay..

After another hour of listening to Keluro's blatantly embellished and highly entertaining stories, I did indeed have to carry them both back to the inn. Fortunately neither of them weighed more than sixty pounds and I managed to haul them on my shoulders with a little difficulty. Shuteye assisted me getting them to their rooms while others of the caravan watched us.

Once Shuteye and I had the catatonic zebras situated, the others in the common room asked what had happened. Again, I feigned a touch of intoxication while explaining that they had too much to drink. I also let inquiring minds know that I would be leaving with the caravan when it left the morning after next. This seemed to please many of those present, who confided in me that they would not have gone with Zecella's caravan had I not joined them. I feigned surprise at this and let them know I was honored by their faith in me. I managed to excuse myself to my room after a short while, claiming exhaustion and need to rest.

Upon shutting the door to my shared room, Daring stated, “Remind me never to challenge you to a drinking contest!” We both shared a little laugh at that.

I 'sobered' a little, “Think they'll be mad when they figure out they've been had?”

Daring snickered, “Not likely. The Zec will act like it for a while, but they respect things like that.” She stopped laughing, “Keluro might be, at least a little, but I wager he will simply challenge you to another drinking contest!” We both got another good laugh.

It was at about that point that I realized the room only had one large bed...

I want to thank you all for all the comments and favorites. I also want to apologize for the time between updates. My grammar Nazi was deployed, but wanted to continue working with me! I salute his, and all soldiers service! Also to my team of friends who I usually talk to and help me with ideas, I am uploading from my pals home due to lack of I-net. Hope to talk to ya all soon! ]