• Published 17th Nov 2016
  • 2,918 Views, 91 Comments

The Prisoner of Zebra - Tumbleweed

Flash Sentry: hero, heart breaker ... and self-admitted coward. For the first time, he details his own undeserved rise to heroism (as well as the trouble such a reputation brings him) in his own words.

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Flash Sentry and the Importance of Ceremony

“I hope you've enjoyed yourself.” Fancy Pants said as he poured me another brandy. “You're out here, enjoying the company of two fine young ladies, being literally treated like a prince.”

“At least the food's not bad.” I muttered. Based on Fancy Pants' cheery demeanor, Fleur and Harvest had neglected to tell him about the dueling-scar episode two weeks prior. Or perhaps they had, and he'd just chosen to ignore it.

“Hah!” Fancy Pants took swig of his drink, and shook his head. “You haven't seen anything, yet. There's even rumor that they're bringing in Gustave le Grand to bake your wedding cake. There are ponies who would kill to be in your horseshoes right now.” Fancy Pants' tumbler stopped halfway to his mouth as he considered his statement. “I suppose I mean that quite literally. What, with the intrigues and all.”

“Intrigue?” I tried to turn to the brandy for some tiny bit of comfort, but a better part of the liquor got stuck in my newly-grown moustache. I still hadn't gotten used to it, after all that time, which I took as an indication that I was destined to remain clean shaven (or, at most, dashingly stubbled in a properly rugged style).

“Intrigues. Plural.” Fancy Pants said. “I won't bore you with the details. Need to know basis, and all that. It's better you don't know.”

“It's better I do know.” I said. “Especially after all you've put me through.”

“Therein lies the rub, Flashy. We've spent the last few weeks turning you into Prince Percheron … and, as it happens, there's a great deal that Prince Percheron isn't aware of. Therefore, it's easiest to make sure you're not aware of it either.”

“Until somepony starts intriguing at me.”

“Possibly, yes. But your surprise at the assassination attempt will be genuine! I believe the term is 'method acting.' Quite popular these days.”

“Did you say assassination?”

Attempt. Assassination attempt. It's unlikely-- but not impossible that someone may try to disrupt the wedding-- and the alliance. But, I promise you, you are in safe hooves. Not only will you have the entirety of the Perchertanian military standing watch, but you'll also have Golden Harvest accompanying you in disguise. She's one of the best agents in the service-- she'll be able to provide any assistance you need.”

“Here's to hoping I won't need assisting.” I unconsciously rubbed at one of the scars that loony earth pony had given me. They'd closed up already, but wouldn't stop itching. It was almost as bad as the moustache.

“Yes, yes, I'm sure you'd much rather go grapple with some changelings again, but in this case, a lighter touch is needed. Fleur and I shall keep an eye on things here-- we've got quite a few irons in the fire, you know. Or, rather, you don't know, because it's--”

“Need to know.” I said with a little groan.

“Ah! You're catching on already!” Fancy Pants drained his brandy, and set his snifter down on the table. “In any case, we'd better call it a night. Your airship leaves early tomorrow. Once it's underway, we'll all be counting on you, Flash Sentry.” The unicorn grinned at me, and winked. “Or should I say, Prince Percheron?”

My journey to Perchertania was even more of a blur than my scant two weeks of training. They plunked me down on a fast but luxurious airship, and set off on a southerly course before the crack of dawn. As I watched clouds roll by, I briefly considered just leaping over the airship's railing and fleeing as fast as my wings could take me, but I soon decided against it. While Golden Harvest was decidedly wingless, I wouldn't put it past her to have some contingencies up her proverbial sleeve. That, and I didn't relish the prospect of having to explain my dereliction of duty. After all, the Flash Sentry who had singlehoofedly throttled a murderous changeling into unconsciousness would leap at another opportunity to serve Equestria, no matter how secretly.

And so, I spent most of the trip to Perchertania in a fugue of disbelief. I would've written it off as a dream, but for the uncomfortable itching of my recently acquired dueling scars. I didn't even have it in me to get drunk, because as we got nearer and nearer to our destination, the liquor just felt flatter and flatter on my tongue. The threat of a horrible death does tend to do a number on one's appetite. The crew, either sworn to secrecy or just too busy with the running of an airship, gave me a wide berth. Golden Harvest did too, which was a relief.

I wound up spending most of my time at the bow of the airship. To a pegasus, there's something inherently, instinctively satisfying in feeling the wind flow along one's mane and wings (and moustache, in my particular case). I looked down at Perchertania, far below-- from the clouds, it didn't look like much. Craggy mountains, thick forests, and a handful of villages wedged between them-- it basically looked like a smaller, pointier Equestria. Hardly the sort of place worth fighting a war over, I mused, but nobody asked my opinion on the matter.

Several days in, I noticed the first pegasus cruising alongside our ship. The young, spiky-maned fellow waved eagerly to us, and then veered off into a cloudbank. An hour or so later, he returned with a couple more of his friends in loose formation behind him. They kept their distance with a course parallel to ours, with more and more pegasi rising up from the ground to join them in their gawking.

“You'd think they'd never seen an airship before.” I murmured.

“They're looking at you.” Golden Harvest said from behind me. I nearly jumped over the railing at that-- the damn woman could move as quietly as a cat when she wanted to. Which was often.

“Really?” I said, and tried not to gawk back at my gawkers.

“Better get used to it.” Golden Harvest said. “Prince Percheron.”

By the time our airship landed at the Perchertanian Royal Skyport, an enormous crowd of ponies of every sort had gathered to greet us. To greet me. Or, well, to greet Prince Percival Percheron, but I'd just have to do. I may have been a fraud, but the mob below didn't know it. As the airship broke through the clouds and began its descent, the mass of ponies below let out a great, patriotic cheer, and started waving flags and banners. A battery of six-inch confetti cannons sounded off in salute, and a band large enough to use every bit of brass tubing for miles around started belting out Perchertania's ear-pummeling national anthem. Something about clear skies and turnips.*

*Based on Sentry's description, the band did not play, “Hail Perchertania,”the actual Perchertanian National Anthem. Instead, the band most likely played “When King Windwing Went for a Stroll,” a more celebratory song typically played in honor of returning royalty. I am not sure if Sentry's mistake here is a matter of ignorance, or just simply getting the facts wrong after having written his memoirs several years after the fact. Incidentally, several of the later verses of “When King Windwing Went for a Stroll” can be quite bawdy, which I can only assume Sentry would have appreciated if anyone had bothered to teach him.

Why so many ponies went to so much trouble, I cannot say. Don't get me wrong, it seems there's some kind of princess-centered festival held in Canterlot every other week. The key difference is the Canterlot celebrations (most of them, at least) are entirely justified. What, with Princess Celestia's history of fighting chaos gods and demon wizards and what have you. As far as I'd gathered from the various lessons drilled into my head, all Prince Percheron hadn't done anything nearly as impressive. His family had. Questing was involved. Allegedly. Generations ago.

On the other hoof, I supposed the Perchertanians had to cheer and stamp for somepony, so it might as well be Prince Percheron. Or at least a dashingly handsome pony who happened to look just like him.

The keel of the airship's hull bumped gently into the ground, and the crewponies started tying ropes about cleats and calling out to each other. Eager to be off the airship, I flapped my wings and eased myself over the railing to glide neatly to the ground.

As soon as my hooves touched the earth, the crowd went silent. This lasted for a moment, only to be followed by a few discreetly incomprehensible murmurs rippling through the crowd. I blinked, and then glanced over my shoulder-- noting the length of velvet carpet that had been rolled up down the airship's boarding ramp … about twelve feet to my left. Most ponies stared at me with expressions of puzzlement and shock-- except for Golden Harvest, who merely facehooved at my breach of decorum.

Well then.

I cleared my throat, and then offered a practiced, charming grin to the stunned crowd.

“Sorry about that, just couldn't wait to get off the ship.” I spoke from the diaphragm, as regally as I could manage. Still, the crowd stared and gaped at me. A mare in a lacey bonnet fainted. I grit my teeth and forced a smile, and finally added on: “ … because I love Perchertania so much?”

And by simply adding on those few words, the mood of the crowd turned completely around. Their faces turned up in smiles of estatic joy, and a great hurrah rose up from the masses. The musicians started blowing into their instruments with even greater gusto, and the confetti cannons sounded in unison, making the whole scene look like someone blew up a paper warehouse.

Golden Harvest appeared at my left without apparently having crossed any of the space between there and where she'd been on the ship. Somewhere along the line, she'd acquired a starched, high-collared uniform as well. I didn't have any time to consider the pony's quick-change skills, as she soon started nudging me towards the red carpet. The celebratory din was too loud for me to hear anything she said, but her actions spoke clearly enough: get moving, idiot.

I trotted over towards the red carpet before Golden Harvest could start giving me any new dueling scars. Even on the cleared-out strip, it was slow going, as ever few feet I had to pose for a photographer or kiss a baby or hastily scrawl an autograph onto an offered book or picture. Eventually, I made it to the gilded carriage waiting at the end of the carpet, and Golden Harvest fairly well shoved me inside.

She climbed into the carriage behind me, and slammed the door shut behind her. As soon as the door closed, the carriage started moving as the quartet of burly earth ponies in harness started galloping away from the aerodrome.

“Congratulations.” Golden Harvest glared at me. “You haven't been here for half an hour, and you've already caused a scene.”

“What? With that?”

“Prince Per--” Golden Harvest bit back her words, and shook her head. “The House of Percheron is known to be … aloof. Unapproachable. You've surprised them. Overwhelmed them, even.”

“Well, good.” I leaned back against my seat. “They seemed to like it.”

“If you're more … accessible, Prince, that means you'll be meeting more ponies. More ponies who might notice if something were … amiss? However small?”

“Oh.” My stomach twisted as the realization struck me (which, at least, was better than Golden Harvest striking me, but most things were).

“Obviously, the rigors of travel have gotten to you, Prince.” Golden Harvest peeked through the curtained window at the countryside rolling by. “Which is why you'll spend the next twelve hours in your private chambers. Resting. Alone.”

“Ah, right. A good plan, that.” I nodded.

Golden Harvest remained quiet through the rest of our carriage ride. At her prompting, I opened the door-- this time stepping directly onto the red carpet that had been rolled out. The crowd, while friendly, was far less ecstatic than the one at the skyport. You could tell it was a more formal affair because that turnip song was being played by a string quartet, rather than a full brass band. Armored pegasi snapped to attention on either side of the red carpet-- I returned their salute with a crisp flick of my hoof, and walked on, keeping my chin up and properly regal.

Percheron Palace paled in comparison to the lofty spires of Canterlot-- but then again, most places do. Still, it was grandiose enough for royalty-- even if the architect had entirely too much affinity for grotesque sculpture. Ranks upon ranks of statues lined the outside of Percheron Palace, depicting ponies in nearly every activity you could think of: fighting, dancing, bowing, flying, and so on. There were even a handful of sculptures around the palace's gutterspouts that would be downright scandalous when it rained.**

**Percheron Palace's exterior friezes are a source of pride for the kingdom. Dating back to an earlier era in which literacy was not common amongst the populace, the sculptures were commissioned by King Pendleton Percheron IV as a way to show scenes from the kingdom's history. It took hundreds of craftsponies the better part of a decade to complete the project. The 'scandalous' sculptures referred to by Sentry were likely intended to convey lessons about proper sanitation and hygiene. At least, that is the current interpretation favored by the academic community, given the alternative of some anonymous sculptors and engineers putting years of effort and craftsmanship into a pee joke.

I walked beneath the sculpted arches and into the palace proper, where a small delegation of important-looking ponies were waiting. Thankfully, those ponies also had servants, who in turn had champagne. One flute later, and I was back at it, dispensing hoofshakes and salutations and the like. I made aimless, royal chitchat, and made sure to drop a few of the talking points Fleur made me memorize a week prior. I even met a few zebras-- tall, stripey, and elegant in their geometrically patterned cloaks.

“Your highness.” A zebra stallion with a voice like a bass drum emerged from the throng of diplomats. “Princess Ianthe is looking forward to finally meeting you.”

“Ah.” I said, and glanced around. “She's not here?”

“She is busy making preparations for tomorrow's ceremony-- she believes it would be … untoward to stay beneath your roof before she is properly wed. It is tradition.”

“Ah. Yes. That.” I nodded. “How virtuous of her. I trust her accommodations are comfortable enough?”

“They are adaquate.”

“Right then. Thank you for the update … er, I'm sorry, I didn't get your name?”

“You may call me Vizier,” said Vizier, “I gave up my proper name when I swore to serve the Zebrican throne.”

“How … devoted of you. Is that customary?”

“It is tradition.”

“Ah, right. Tradition. Very important, that.” I said.

At the edge of the gathering, Golden Harvest cleared her throat-- discreet, but still an unmistakable signal. “In any case, Vizier, as much as I'd like to learn more about your no-doubt fascinating cultural traditions … I must beg my leave of you. It's been a long journey, and I should retire early if I'm to be at my best in the morning.”

“But of course.” Vizier rumbled as he bowed his head.

I made a few more little goodbyes to a few more dignitaries whose faces I can barely remember, and Golden Harvest soon herded me towards Prince Percheron's royal chambers. Normally, getting whisked off to such a luxurious suite in the company of a lovely mare would be the perfect end to an evening, but that would've required somepony less deadly than Golden Harvest.

“Remember.” Golden Harvest kept her voice low as we walked down the hall. “This entire alliance depends on the wedding tomorrow. If anything happens to the Prince, or if there is an … incident, this could all collapse. Ponies could die. So I just want you to know, in case anything unthinkable happens, I will personally track down and bring the guilty pony to justice. Whoever. They. Are.” She prodded me in the chest.

In retrospect, I have to admire the mare's cleverness. She spoke with just enough vagueness to sound like a loyal Perchertanian soldier to potential eavesdroppers, but she made the double meaning crystal clear to the one pony the message was targeted at. All these years later, I can see why Fancy Pants recruited her into his organization.

In that moment, however, she was terrifying.

“Very good. Colonel.” I managed through a suddenly dry mouth.

Golden Harvest's lips turned up in a tight, knowing grin. “Thank you, your highness. Someone will come for you in the morning.” With that, Golden Harvest saluted with one hoof, and shut the door to the royal chambers with the other.

So there I was, all alone, mustached and disguised as a foreign prince, set to marry a strange princess I'd never seen before, in order to cement an alliance on which countless lives depended. With, of course, one of the most dangerous ponies I'd ever met no doubt keeping tabs on me, ready to cut me to ribbons if I set a hoof out of line.

And for the first time since I'd been drafted into this insane scheme, I knew exactly what to do.

I got drunk.