• Published 22nd Feb 2016
  • 11,670 Views, 810 Comments

Empty Horizons - Goldenwing

Twilight wakes up, alone in the dark. And she's drowning.

  • ...

XX: The Price

A voice spoke behind her. “Mooncursed.”

Anatami turned away from the window, facing the wooden double doors across the hall and the soldier standing next to it. She arched a brow.

The soldier’s posture was stiff. He gestured to the door with a hoof. “The Duchess will receive ye.”

Ana didn’t offer any verbal response. She stalked across the hall and towards the door, her eyes passing over the nettle bush designs carved into its surface. The soldier didn’t go to open it as she came close, and so she came to a stop beside him and eyed him expectantly.

For a moment, it almost looked as if the soldier would go through with his little power play. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for him to cow, however. He dipped his head, reaching out to open the door.

Good decision. He was probably just a ceremonial guard, anyway. His gaudy armor didn’t look as if it would be effective in combat, and Ana suspected that his polished gold-and-silver shoes would just shatter if he was forced to kick anything.

The Duchess had somewhat of a flair for ceremony, a trait that was rare among baronlanders. Ceremony was expensive, and a soldier in gold leaf trained to look like a soldier wasn’t a match for one with more practical weapons and experience. Her throne room was long and framed on either side by thick nettle growths. Chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, cradling even more nettle. Something tells me this lady has never heard of moderation.

Duchess Nettlekiss reclined on a cushioned throne at the far end of the hall, nestled among even more nettles. A silver crown fashioned into the image of thorned leaves encircled her horn, and a thick coat of pale yellows and greens wrapped around her brown-furred body. “A mooncursed blemishes my court,” she mused. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Her voice scratched at Ana’s ears.

Ana repressed a sigh. The soft fabric of Rarity’s dress rustled as she dipped into a shallow bow. “Opportunity calls, Duchess. We have mutual enemies.”

“And which enemy would that be, mooncursed?” the Duchess asked. “I feel that I would recognize ye if we had met before.”

“Duke Titus,” Ana said. She smirked at the haughty flicker of anger on the Duchess’ face. “I’m a bounty hunter, with a capable ship and company, and he gives shelter to my targets. I’ve heard that you two have a history.”

“Ye’ve heard correctly,” the Duchess growled, her eyes drifting as she spoke. “That feathered barbarian has held me back from my true greatness fer far too many years.” Her green eyes refocused on Ana, sharp and piercing. “But ye are just a bounty hunter, mooncursed, and I have spoken with many in my time. Beyond yer dark nature, what sets ye apart from the rabble?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of Gava the Griffon,” Ana said. And I’m sure you’ve never heard of Anatami the Thestral. “We’re partners.”

The Duchess rose up out of her cushioned seat with a swiftness surprising for her age, propelled by the fury that surged onto her face. “That cocksure animal? Aye, I’ve heard of ’er!” She pointed a shaky hoof upwards. “She threw a dead fox onto my roof and left it to stink!”

Ana blinked. “Wait, that was you?” She looked around, observing the hall with a fresh perspective. I don’t remember there being so many nettles.

“That was me!” The Duchess took heavy steps down the dias her throne sat upon, her grating voice echoing off the walls as she came closer. “Never before or since have I witnessed such disrespect for one’s betters! I would’ve had ’er drawn and quartered if the coward hadn’t fled afore that corpse worked up a proper stench!”

“Huh.” Ana glanced towards the half dozen soldiers lining the walls. They bore real weapons instead of spears, and one was Gifted. She mentally reviewed her escape plan as she faced the approaching noble. “The offer still stands, Duchess. We have bodies, talented officers, and an airship. All we ask is for you to attack the Duke’s manor and take what you can.”

“Why should I, eh?” The Duchess spat. The earthy scent of her perfume reached Ana’s nose as she came closer. “How about I take yer head instead fer a souvenir? A mooncursed trophy would make fer a fine conversation starter.”

Good thing Gava isn’t here, Ana thought. Her bigger sister often took poorly to threats. Ana kept her tone carefully neutral, confident in her ability to escape if she needed to. “You can place a bounty on my head any day, Duchess, but opportunities to put Titus in his place are—” She smirked. “—a rarity.”

The Duchess glared up at Ana, working her wrinkled jaw side to side. Ana gazed back with her slitted golden eyes, well aware of the disconcerting effect it had on most ponies.

“What payment are ye asking, mooncursed?” the Duchess asked.

“None beyond my targets,” Ana said. “We’ll be making our attack whether you come or not. It’s just a question of whether you want to take advantage of it.”

The Duchess curled a wrinkled lip. “Do not be so foolish as to forget who’s in charge here, filly,” she growled.

“Of course not,” Ana said, holding her gaze. Nobles could be touchy, and they didn’t like being dictated to. Doing as much within their own halls was a good way to embarrass them. “Apologies, Duchess.”

The older mare gave her a thin-lipped smile. “There’s a good lass.” She turned back towards her throne, presenting Ana with the elaborate design sewn onto the back of her coat. Nettles, of course. “I shall consider yer offer, mooncursed. Tell yer eagle brute that she is not welcome on my land.”

Ana dipped her head. She kept her face carefully neutral. “Thank you, Duchess.”

“Now begone from my sight,” the Duchess spat. “Afore I change my mind.”

Ana turned for the door. She stalked back out into the hall without a sound, appreciating the silence with which the dress’s cool fabric slid over her coat. A shifty-eyed ceremonial guard waited for her there, and she allowed herself to be escorted through the building.

She had been a bit too pushy, giving her ultimatum to the Duchess. Still, she believed the deal to be solidly struck. Nettlekiss would gripe to those near to her about the disrespectful bounty hunter that dared to dictate terms to her, but at the same time she would be making subtle preparations. Ana hadn’t been bluffing when she said that the opportunity to seize superiority from Duke Titus was rare. She’d spent many hours gathering intel since arriving at Altalusia, and was well aware that Nettlekiss had been clawing at Titus’ position for years without success. The Duchess wouldn’t let such an occasion slip by, even if she would lose a bit of face from being summoned by bounty hunters.

The smell of wet grass heralded a light drizzle falling as Ana stepped outside. She gave a small nod to her nervous escort as she spread her wings, appreciating the wide range of motion afforded by her dress. She took to the air and climbed to a comfortable height before slipping into a lazy glide. Now all she needed was for Gava to show up.

Rarity shifted her weight from side to side. She ran her cleanest hoof through her mane, trying not to grimace too much at the coarse hairs. She was thankful for the lack of reflective surfaces in Duke Titus’ court. There hadn’t been time to acquire fresh clothes from her room upon arrival, but she would have hated to see just how decrepit her bare coat was.

The room was bare for a duke’s court, and small as well. It was just over half the size of the dining room, and whereas the latter was home to a host of detailed murals and painted armors, the court displayed little in the way of decoration. A pair of long windows set high in the walls let in the cloud-gray light from outside. A simple orange tapestry hung beneath each.

The room grew narrow towards the far side, drawing one’s focus to the raised throne and the thick orange fabric that hung low over the cushioned seat. A set of pikes hung on the wall above it, each one bearing a unique, gleaming blade.

It was very easy to imagine Duke Titus as contemplating which pike to use while executing judgment as he sat upon the throne. He glowered down at the five bandits kneeling in rope before him. The Duke had worn a grim smile when he ordered the prisoners brought to the court for judgment. Rarity’s hooves were aching after the walk back to the estate, still sore from yesterday’s hike through the woods, and she shifted her weight again as yet another minute passed. How she would have loved to collapse in her bed and regale Whitehorn with the dramatic tale of Rarity, the Gorgeous Bandit-Tracker. But she had to see things through first.

At last, Titus spoke. “Banditry.” The prisoners remained still, each one keeping their eyes down. “I should expect that at least one among ye are aware of my thoughts on it?”

After a few moments, the lead mare answered. “Aye, m-my Lord.”

“What is my position on banditry, then, fool mare?” Titus asked.

The mare gulped. “Banditry is a crime thrice-over,” she recited. “T’ steal from my Lord’s peasants is t’ steal from my Lord ’imself. T’ threaten my Lord’s peasants is t’ threaten my Lord ’imself. Th’ bandit denies my Lord their honest labor, and—” A deep shudder ran through her body as she forced the next words out. “And d-denies my Lord’s protection.”

Titus let out a quiet grunt. “I see yer parents taught ye proper, fool mare. A shame that ye didn’t take the learning to heart.”

“Aye, m-my Lord.”

“Tell me what’s to come next fer ye, fool mare,” Titus ordered.

The mare took a shaky breath, slumping down. “Death, my Lord.” Beside Rarity, Pinkie Pie let out a quiet gasp.

“Aye.” Titus stood. “And death again, fer injuring my loyal servant.” He glanced towards the armored pegasus stallion standing at attention beside his throne. “I want them executed before sunset, Pole. Keep the heads fer use as warnings.”

Rarity stiffened. “Is that it?”

Titus arched a brow as he looked to her. “What else is there to say, my Lady?”

“You haven’t even asked them to explain themselves!” Rarity stepped in front of the kneeling ponies, ignoring the way that Pole slowly spread his bladed wings. “You can’t just—kill them!”

“Do not tell me what I can and cannot do on my own land!” Titus roared. “My land, my ponies, my law!”

Rarity hated the way she flinched at the sudden outburst. “They’re ponies with lives, Titus! Parents, children, and siblings! You must at least them plead their case!”

Pinkie hopped up to her side, teeth bared. “Yeah!”

“Ye dare to command a duke in his own court?!” Titus’ voice didn’t lower as he stepped down from his throne. “Ye best remember yer place and watch yer tongue, Countess!”

Rarity spread her hooves as he came closer, bracing herself. “I know my place, Titus,” she seethed. “But it seems the nobility has forgotten theirs in my absence!”

Titus came to a stop just a step away from her. Even without the assistance of the throne, he towered over her. “What’s yer plan, Countess? Do ye intend to raise hooves against me in defense of the very ponies who would’ve sold yer life away?”

“If I must,” Rarity said. She glared up into his eyes, hoping to cover her exhaustion with her anger. She didn’t know if she could really stop him if he tested her. She had drawn deep on her magic capturing the bandits, and she had woken from last night’s troubled rest feeling drained. Even if she could restrain Titus and his soldier, what then? She’d be forced to flee with five murderous bandits who had already tried capturing her once. She could only hope that they would be gracious for her help, and that Whitehorn wouldn’t forsake her. At least I know I have Pinkie at my side.

Titus met her furious gaze with his own for several long seconds. He kept it as he spoke. “Bandits, this mare is willing to fight fer yer right to speak in yer defense. What do ye have to say?”

Once more, silence filled the room. Rarity could hear the prisoners fidgeting in their restraints, but didn’t dare look away from the Duke.

A tentative stallion dared to speak. “I d-don’t want t-t’ die, my Lord.”

“Ye should’ve thought on that before ye forfeited yer life to me,” Titus said, never looking away from Rarity. “Are ye happy now, Countess? This isn’t a surprise to anybody but ye. They will regain their honor, facing their judgment with dignity.”

“No, I’m not happy!” Rarity rounded on the prisoners, facing each one in turn. “None of you have an excuse? Not one of you had a reason for your actions beyond greed or malice?” They all avoided her gaze as she turned to them.

Pontius took a tentative step forwards from the back of the room. “Father, forgive her. She’s not familiar with our ways.”

“Quiet, lad!” Titus snapped. “Don’t tell me ye believe the prattle about her being from old Equestria! Neither she nor her hoofmaiden have any right to meddle in our affairs, and ye’re clearly still too naive to rule our land!”

Pontius grimaced, looking away. Rarity took a deep breath before facing Titus again. “It doesn’t matter if they won’t speak. I won’t let you murder them!”

“And I’m with her!” Pinkie added, stepping close enough for Rarity to feel their legs brush together. “It doesn’t matter what for. Killing is no good!”

Celestia bless you, Pinkie, Rarity thought, fighting to keep herself from shaking. I don’t know if I could stand to face this barbarism alone.

Pole cleared his throat, stretching his wings. “My Lord?”

Titus raised a wing towards the soldier, signaling for him to stay back. “Ye stand firm on this, Countess?”

“I do,” Rarity said.

“Would ye give yer life to save these fools?” he asked.

Rarity’s mouth was dry. She swallowed before answering. “I would not abandon them to you.”

Titus gave a slow nod. “Are ye confident that ye can escape with them, then? They would turn on ye the instant they felt safe. Lawbreakers cannot be reasoned with.”

“That’s a risk I’ll have to take, darling,” Rarity said. “A lady does not stand idly by.”

Titus chuckled, sending a flare of anger up Rarity’s breast. He turned away, letting her glare at his back as he stepped back towards his throne. “I will spare them, on one condition.”

Rarity grimaced. “And that would be?”

“Yer hoof,” he said, facing her once more. “Yer hoof in marriage, to my boy.”


“Did I not tell ye to be quiet, lad?” Titus barked. “Ye will learn how to rule, but until then, ye will do as I say!”

The rage had slipped away from Rarity, lost amidst a fresh insurgence of shock. She exchanged a quick glance with Pinkie, seeing her own confusion reflected back at her. “I b-beg your pardon?”

“Marriage, Countess,” Titus repeated. A smirk worked its way onto his face. “Ye should be thankful for the chance. I have searched long fer a noble mare worthy of my line, and yer foals would inherit my title.”

Rarity blinked. Her jaw hung limp. Old fantasies of marrying a prince battled with waves of anger, confusion, and revulsion.

“Where has yer fire gone, eh?” Titus prodded. “Ye would fight fer yer beliefs, risk yer life fer them, but a betrothal to my dear boy has ye frozen in fear?”

Again Rarity turned to Pinkie, but the other mare’s only response was a wide-eyed shrug. What do I do? Perhaps she could stall for time. “I—you’d spare them?”

Titus nodded. “Aye, exile in place of death. Altalusia is a big land. I’m sure they could find villages willing to take ’em. Assuming they decide to change their ways.”

Rarity could feel her heart pounding against her chest. She had been ready to fight, to stand firm in defense of the helpless and give her all, but this? This wasn’t how marriage happened. She wanted love. She wanted a thrilling courtship from a noble gentlecolt, to gush about him to Fluttershy and plan the wedding with Pinkie, to hold a magnificent ceremony in Canterlot with all of her dear friends at her side.

But she had no choice, did she? It wouldn’t kill her to betroth herself to Pontius, but she would never be able to live with herself if she let these five ponies die over such a frivolous thing. A lady doesn’t live in a fairytale.

Titus snorted. “Lost yer fire, eh? I’m not surprised.” He lifted a wing, gesturing towards Pole. The soldier nodded and stepped forwards.

“No!” Rarity shouted. “Don’t touch them! I—I’ll do it.”

“Rarity!” Pinkie gasped.

“You’re a brute, Titus,” Rarity said, glowering up at him. “Despicable. But I won’t let you kill these ponies.”

Titus blinked, cocking his head. After a few seconds, he spoke. “Ye surprise me, Countess. Why are ye willing to do so much for these scum?”

“Because they deserve it, scum or not.” Rarity took a deep breath. She sat down against Pinkie’s side as her legs went weak. I’m really doing this. “If that’s what I have to give to save their lives—” She paused, holding back a sniffle. “I’ll do it.”

“Hrm.” Titus looked her over, narrowing his eyes. “Ye’re as much a fool as they are, but ye have my respect, Lady Rarity.” He turned back to Pole. “Take ’em to the dungeon, then.”

“Dungeon?” Rarity echoed. She made to struggle to her hooves, but they wouldn’t support her. “You said you’d let them go!”

“Aye, fer yer hoof in marriage.” Titus nodded. “Unless ye intend to hold the ceremony this evening, I expect that’ll take some time to arrange. As much as it pains me to waste good food on this lot, I won’t be letting ’em free until yer part in the bargain is carried out.”

“So they’re hostages, to make sure I don’t step out of line?” Rarity asked, not bothering to hide her disdain.

Titus shrugged. “The deal’s been struck, Countess, but I’m not paying my part until ye do.”

Rarity let out a shaky sigh. She just didn’t have the energy to argue with him anymore. Now that the decision had been made, she just wanted to curl up in a bed and cry.

Oh, who am I kidding? I could barely walk to my room right now. Rarity watched in silence as Pole grabbed the lead rope all the prisoners were tied to, tugged them to their hooves, and pulled them out into the hall. The mare who had recited her own crimes looked back at Rarity with wide eyes as she shuffled along, and Rarity mustered up the energy for an exhausted smile.

Titus angled around her on his way out. He paused in the doorway to turn to his son. “See to yer betrothed, lad,” he said, and then he stepped out of sight.

“Aye, father.” Pontius looked after the Duke for several seconds before turning to Rarity and Pinkie. He took a deep breath as he approached. “Are ye well, my Lady?”

“I just need a moment to catch my breath, dears,” Rarity said. She leaned fully into Pinkie’s embrace. “Heavens, I shouldn’t be stressing myself like this so soon after that escapade in the woods!”

“You just relax for now, Rarity,” Pinkie said, giving her friend a tight hug. “I never knew you could be so scarifying!”

“Me either, darling.” Rarity looked up and gave Pinkie a wan smile. “I’m quite grateful for your support. I don’t know if I could have stood up to him on my own.”

Pontius reached out with a hoof, laying it lightly on Rarity’s own. “Shall I—do ye need anything, my Lady?”

Rarity looked over to him. She couldn’t help but giggle at the grimace on his face. The poor dear doesn’t know what to do with himself, does he? “Perhaps you could kindly help me to my room, dear sir?”

“Of course, my Lady.”

Rarity offered him a foreleg, and he grabbed it with one of his own before helping her to her hooves. Pinkie stayed close on the opposite side, but Pontius bore the brunt of her weight as the trio started out of the room and down the hall.

“Is it true what you say, Countess?” Pontius asked, his voice low. “You’re nobility from Old Equestria?”

“As true as cake!” Pinkie said. “And your father’s the meaniest pony I’ve ever met!”

A deep sigh escaped Rarity, but she said nothing. Being a countess perhaps wasn’t as grand as the books made it out to be. She almost yearned for the simple days of making tents and blankets. Wake up, work, see the gracious smiles, and then sleep reassured that she had done good. But that would never really solve the problem, would it? No, I have to focus on the root of it all, even if it isn’t easy.

“What were they like back then?” Pontius asked.

An image of Prince Blueblood drifted through Rarity’s mind. She could almost hear his incessant whining, even with a thousand years and an apocalypse separating them. She shook her head, calling on better memories. Fancypants was certainly a gem, at least.

The truth was that Rarity didn’t have much good to say about the nobility of old. Those she had actually met had been, by and large, petty and self-obsessed. She had heard many tales about the violent feuds for power that went on behind the pomp and pageantry, even if she herself had never dealt with more than snide remarks or social jostling. In reality, she couldn’t even say for sure that a country duke would have hesitated to execute those who disobeyed him if he didn’t have Celestia looking over his shoulder. Her books were just books. Fantasy.

But Rarity could make them more than fantasy. She had been granted the exclusive right to share the story of the old nobility, and not even her friends had the knowledge to truly challenge her. She could already imagine Applejack’s quiet disapproval, but how could she just let this opportunity slip past? Telling the truth would only validate the unique brand of barbarism she’d faced in Altalusia, and that she expected existed in every other baronland. But telling a fantasy might make a difference. She could give them her fantasy. She could give them her history.

Rarity looked up to the cloudscape painted on the ceiling as she resolved to begin her lie. “They were noble,” she began. “Chivalrous and kind. They lived as servants to their ponies, and their ponies granted them love and adoration in return. They threw grand galas and invited all who could make the journey to partake. The ponies under their rule worked hard, and the fields overflowed with crop every season.” She closed her eyes, giving her best wistful sigh. “They were lords of paradise.”

She peeked an eye open to see Pontius watching her with wide eyes. “But what about the wars? Father always speaks of great pegasus warriors from the past.”

A frown marred Rarity’s face. She considered the question as they passed through the dining hall, empty for the first time that she had seen. She imagined that the empty armors lining the walls were watching her. “It is true that there were some conflicts,” Rarity started. “But they always had the good of their ponies in mind above all. They fought only for righteous causes, and never for greed or jealousy.”

“I see.” Pontius pursed his lips, looking away, and settled into a ponderous silence.

It wasn’t long after that they reached their rooms. Rarity pushed herself off of Pontius as they stopped in front of her door. She was still struggling to come to terms with the bargain she had just made, but her body didn’t feel quite so cold and numb anymore.

“Is there anything else I can do, my Lady?” he asked. He was standing much stiffer than he usually did.

Rarity gave a gracious dip of her head. He may need some further refinement, but perhaps he’ll take the new ideal to heart. “Thank you, darling, but I think I’ll be fine for now.”

Pontius nodded. “Please don’t hesitate to send fer me, if ye require.” He took a few steps back, dipped into a quick bow, and then turned around.

Rarity’s jaw worked side to side as she watched him go. “Pinkie, would you be a dear and find Whitehorn for me? I’d quite like to see him.”

“Oh, uh, oki-doki-loki!” Pinkie chirped. “You don’t wanna come with me?”

“I’m sorry, darling. I think I need to lie down for a moment.” Rarity gave her friend an affectionate nuzzle before forcing herself away from Pinkie’s warmth. She opened her door and stepped inside. “I do hope you understand.”

Pinkie’s lips curled into a quiet little smile. “I understand, Rarity.”

“Thank you, Pinkie. You’re just a gem.”

Rarity lifted a hoof to the door. It closed with a clean click. As one door shut, another opened.

She collapsed onto the lush sheets of the bed, her breaths coming fast and shallow. What had she just agreed to? Marriage? To be stuck in the cruelest, most primitive part of the brutish future for the rest of her life?

Tears clogged her vision. She rolled over and sobbed into her pillow. She had thought she’d come to terms with her decision, but that had been with ponies around to watch. Now she was alone, and the mask came off. She wasn’t Countess Rarity anymore, Last Lady of Equestria. She was a scared filly with nothing but her own decisions to keep her company. And they haunted her.

Rarity clutched the pillow as tight as she could. No matter how hard she cried, nobody was coming to save her.

Gava leaned closer against the trunk of the tree, seeking shelter from the light rain. She picked at the branch she perched on with a talon. A breeze played with her feathers as it stirred the surrounding leaves.

Her eagle eyes played over the woods around her, sometimes darting up or down to check the sky or ground. Gava loved her sister, but she hated being snuck up on. As she waited in the copse of trees that Ana’s trail had led to, she brooded over the approaching future. Ana would see her from afar. She would close the distance with her strange, silent thestral glide. And she would whisper something snarky into Gava’s ear.

What if she doesn’t show up?

Gava almost snarled out loud at the traitorous thought. Of course Ana would show up. No matter how tough any of these Gifted were, Ana would never attack unless she was certain of her victory. And unlike Gava, Ana was a far better judge of such things.

Still, the thought nagged at her. She lifted a talon to the comforting weight of the revolver strapped to her chest. Her father’s revolver. She’d cast fresh bullets for it in the past few days. Confidence. You’re nothing without your pride.

Gava snapped her head around at the sound of a twig breaking. No, too obvious. Ana never broke a twig except for as a distraction. Even now she was probably—

“Hey, sis.”

Gava jumped. Damn it! She turned to face the thestral perched on the branch adjacent to hers with an awkward twist. She frowned, taken aback by both the lack of whispered snarkiness and the sight before her. “Why are you wearing a dress, Ana?”

“Yeah, I missed you, too.” Ana grinned as she joined Gava on her branch. “So, tell me all about it. Did you find a place to pawn those Gifted off, yet?”

Gava clacked her beak, turning away. “I lost them.”

“Uh, what?”

Gava’s feathers fluffed up with irritation. She forced the words out one more time. “I said, I lost them.”

“Wow,” Ana said. A hoof jabbed Gava’s wing. “So what’s the story?”

Gava’s talons dug into the bark of the branch as her grip tightened. She turned to fix Ana with the most fearsome glare she could muster.

Ana stuck her tongue out. “C’mon, sis. I already know you’re a big bad bird, alright?” She shuffled closer to Gava, lending her warmth against the damp breeze. “Let me guess: you pounced the first chance you saw, and they surprised you.”

Gava sighed, leaning back into her sister. With just the two of them, there was no need to worry about reputation, and Gava was more willing to relax her pride. “Yeah, I could’ve used one of your usual warnings. Those Gifted are...” She looked up, recalling the power of the purple witch. “Thrilling.”

“Is the Screech alright?” Ana asked.

Gava nodded. “She took some heavy damage, but I was able to get back to port and make repairs. One of their unicorns—Twilight, they called her—nearly crushed the ship all on her own.”

“Wow. That’s—” Ana grimaced. “You’ll have to tell me about that. Good thing you decided to come rejoin me, too,” she added. “I don’t think Dad would be very happy if we lost his ship.”

“Another thing, sis,” Gava said, turning to eye the thestral beside her. “They had an alicorn with them. She had a dark coat.”

Ana stiffened against her side. A shiver ran through her body, and Gava suspected it wasn’t because of the wind or wet. “L-Luna?” She looked up, meeting Gava’s gaze. “With them as in—like, alive?”

“Not sure,” Gava said. “I just caught a glimpse, and she wasn’t conscious. But if she is, just imagine! Being the first to welcome her back to the world?”

“Y-yeah.” Ana’s eyes drifted off to the side. “Imagine…”

The two lapsed into a comfortable silence. Gava took the opportunity to examine the elaborate dress her sister wore. It looks almost like it was made for her to wear it. “So what’s up with the dress?”

“Huh?” Ana blinked, her eyes refocusing.

“You never told me why you were wearing that dress,” Gava pressed. “So?”

“Oh. Right.” Ana raised a hoof to her neck, toying with the polished gem that rested there. “I was speaking with a noble. Appearances matter with their kind, y’know.”

“Okay,” Gava began. “But why this dress?”

Ana frowned. She shifted her weight from one side to the other. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing,” Gava said, and within a second added, “It looks too good. So either you got really lucky, or you suddenly care enough about looks to find somebody with the perfect dress for you to filch. So what’s up?”

“And I’m not allowed to get lucky?” Ana asked. She looked away, her tail flicking. “When did you start judging the clothes I steal, anyways? Do you want to hear about the deal I struck or what?”

Gava cocked her head. She’s hiding something from me. The wicked curve of her beak twisted into a teasing smirk. “What’s with the dress, Ana?”

Ana’s ears twitched. “So you don’t care about the deal?”

Gava bumped her sister with a wing. “I want to know about the dress.”

“I met with a local duchess,” Ana said. She glanced back towards Gava. “Remember that noble whose roof you left the fox carcass on?”

Gava snorted, deciding to drop the issue of the dress. For now. “She was annoying.”

“I spoke to her about joining us in an assault against the estate of the noble who’s sheltering Countess Rarity and Pinkie Pie,” Ana said. The tree branch swayed beneath them as the wind picked up for a few seconds. “We should be able to sweep in and take them while the garrison is occupied.”

“What’d you have to promise her for that?” Gava asked. “Or was she just impressed by your get-up?”

Ana let out an exaggerated sigh. Her hooves moved up to fumble with just one of several tiny buttons that held it in place. “Don’t worry, the Gifted will be ours. Help me get out of this thing.”

Gava raised a talon. “Hold still, I’ll cut you out.”

“Hey!” Ana dropped off the branch, snapping her wings open and twisting mid-air before settling into a hover just out of Gava’s reach. “Don’t damage it! I might need to use it again.”

Gava arched a brow.

“What?” Ana grunted as she struggled to get a hoof out of the sleeve. “Look, do you want to start doing the talking from now on? Cause if not, just trust me when I say that I need this dress.”

“Whatever.” Gava reached into the satchel at her side and pulled out a small package wrapped in thin leather. “You hungry?”

Ana’s eyes lit up at the sight of the parcel. She used her wings to stabilize herself as she removed a second leg from the dress. “Never thought I’d feel my mouth water at the smell of chicken, but I guess we’ve been apart awhile, huh? Let me just pack this thing up, first.”

Gava shrugged, unwrapping the cooked meat and grabbing a chunk for herself. “Caught this just today, you know. Oh, well. More for me.”

Over a minute had passed by the time Ana finished crawling out of the dress, rolling it up tight, securing it with twine and stowing it in her satchel. Gava ate at a leisurely pace while she waited, picking out the smaller, bonier pieces for herself. She knew that Ana probably hadn’t spared any time on hunting during their separation.

Ana let out a sigh as she settled back onto the branch at Gava’s side. “Alright, give it over.” She grinned as the griffon surrendered the rest of the meal.

A little smile tugged at Gava’s beak as she watched her little sister dig in. “How long before we make our move?”

“All six Gifted will be reuniting on this island within a few days.” Ana paused to spit out a bone before swallowing. “I’ll be watching the docks. We’ll wait for them to get together, then take them out all at once.”

“How can you be sure?” Gava asked.

“Trust me on this.” Ana winked. “Pinkie Pie is throwing a party, and she says it’ll be a doozy.”

“Uh huh.”

“Until then, we plan and we prepare,” Ana said. “I’ll need you to tell me everything you remember from our time apart. We’ll have to be careful.”

“Right.” Gava nodded. She looked up to the sky, listening to the sound of the rain bouncing off the forest leaves. “We’ll be ready, this time.”

The gears inside the cargo hold groaned in Twilight’s ears as the rear opened up. Sparing one last glance to her flank to make sure the drab uniform she wore covered her cutie mark, Twilight led her friends out onto the pier. Soft raindrops bounced off the wood, filling the air with the smell of rain.

“So this is Altalusia, huh?” Rainbow asked. “Seems kinda small.”

Applejack arched a brow at that. “Seems kinda big by my reckonin’.”

“Well, um, I like it,” Fluttershy said.

Altalusia was a stark contrast to Heighton. Whereas the latter had filled every conceivable space and then some with its urban sprawl, here it was possible to see actual countryside. Even here on the coast, where Twilight assumed ponies would concentrate, the surrounding settlement could be described as ‘humble.’ Perhaps it was just because she was comparing it to the packed layers of Heighton.

Twilight looked back as Flint stepped out onto the pier. He drew in a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and nodded. “Been a bit too long since I had that baronland smell in me.”

“You don’t visit them often?” Twilight asked.

He shook his head. “Not much t’ dive fer, not much t’ pay fer, and too many little lords lookin’ t’ move up.” He shrugged. “Feels like home, though. C’mon.”

He led the way down the pier, Twilight and her friends falling in behind him. “What about the others?” She asked, glancing back.

“We’ll keep t’ th’ port fer now,” Flint said. “Look around, see if we can find some hints as t’ where yer friends are. Keep yer eyes down, ’n look out fer anyone watchin’ ye too close.” They reached the base of the pier, and his eyes scanned the thin crowd walking on the cobbles that ran along the coast. “Once we got a lead, then we’ll all head out together.”

Applejack nodded. “I reckon that’s a solid plan.”

“Alright, let’s split up,” Rainbow said. “It’ll be way faster!”

Fluttershy took a step closer to the other pegasus. “Um, I’d rather stay together, if that’s okay with you girls.”

“I agree, Fluttershy,” Twilight said. Her eyes swept along the street, taking in the warehouses and taverns facing the dock. “We don’t want to be caught out alone.”

She picked out a pair of ponies watching them intently, a pegasus and a unicorn. Both wore orange cloaks over iron breastplates, and Twilight stiffened as she saw the barrel of a gun poking out from under the pegasus mare’s wing. The unicorn stallion dipped his head as he saw her looking back at him, and both ponies started making their way through the crowd towards her.

“Flint,” Twilight said, still watching them. “Do you recognize those two?”

“Eh?” Flint let out a thoughtful grunt. “Nay, I don’t. What I can tell ye is that they’re some lord’s soldiers, from th’ dress.”

“Soldiers?” Fluttershy echoed. “Oh, my.”

“Bah, don’t ye worry,” Flint said. “A couple goons wouldn’t be trouble fer us, even if they tried anythin’.”

“Hail!” the lead unicorn called, closing the distance. “Yer friends sent us!”

“Prove it!” Rainbow shot back.

The unicorn let out a groan. He glanced back to his comrade, who shrugged in response. “Are ye really gonna make me?”

“Aye, we’ll make ye,” Flint growled, stepping forwards. “Make it quick.”

“Fine.” The unicorn grumbled something to himself before lifting a hoof. “Cross my heart, hope t’ fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”

Flint blinked. “Eh, what?”

Twilight gasped. “Pinkie Pie sent you!” Behind her, her friends each let out exclamations of relief and elation.

“Right,” the pegasus mare said.

“Ye can call me Onyx,” the unicorn said. He gestured towards his pegasus comrade, and Twilight caught a glimpse of the bandages wrapped around his barrel beneath his cloak. “This is Ivory.”

Applejack trotted up to Onyx and gave him a friendly slap on the back, drawing a sharp grunt from him. “Well, any friend of Pinkie’s is a friend of mine! I’m guessin’ y’all’re here to take us to her?”

Ivory snorted. “Friend?”

“Aye,” Onyx groaned. “Ye got a strong hoof, mare. Is it just th’ five of ye?” He looked between each of them. “She had me expectin’ a bit more.”

Twilight exchanged a glance with Flint. “We aren’t ready to leave just yet,” she said. “Just give us a little time, and then we’ll head out with you.”

“Sounds fair t’ me,” Onyx said. He looked around before pointing towards a nearby tavern. A picture of a cartoon seapony adorned its sign, musical notes floating out of its wide smile. “We’ll wait fer ye in there. C’mon then, Ivy.”

“We won’t be too long,” Twilight said. She watched them go for a few moments, her gaze lingering on the tavern’s sign. Singing Seapony? How grotesque.

“Well, that was easy,” Rainbow quipped.

Twilight nodded. “Let’s head back and tell the others.”

Together, the five of them retraced their steps back up the pier towards the Argo. Twilight paused halfway down, struck with a sudden chill. She looked back, scanning the city once more. A sturdy stone keep dominated the city’s outline. As she watched, a winged silhouette dropped off the tallest tower, snapped its wings open, and glided down out of sight.

“Twilight?” Fluttershy asked.

Twilight shook herself. “Sorry, girls. Just being jumpy.” Not everyone in the world is out to get you, Twilight. Don’t get paranoid, now.

She followed her friends back into the cargo hold with fresh hope in her chest. She’d been stretched thin by the past few days, and was looking forward to getting some time to unwind at a nice, relaxing Pinkie Pie party.

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