• Published 12th Dec 2018
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Child of the Invasion - Starscribe

The changeling army has taken control of Canterlot. While their queen secures her grip over this newly captured territory, what happens to the drones who made up her army?

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Chapter 32: Irongate

In the beginning, Harlequin’s infiltration plan worked perfectly.

The Irongate guards let her past without resistance, looking more than a little confused as she went by. But they didn’t try to stop her, or even question what she was doing there.

The same held true for the house steward, who seemed either like her boss in the house, or the one who she told what to do. Maybe both?

After giving her contrived story of the sudden change of plans and feeling unwell, she was escorted to the lady’s chambers for a change of clothes and an emergency meal provided by hastily roused servants.

It was luxury like she’d seen only once before, when she broke into the home of Triptych in order to negotiate a peaceful surrender. The house seemed to be built in some of the same ways, with elegantly carved wooden paneling, and floors that were polished to a perfect marble shine. If anything, this further manor house was even more luxurious, since there was so much space to work with.

The steward didn’t feel suspicious, which was her only comfort. Instead, that pony shuffled from mild annoyance at being woken to fear something terrible was happening to the house, then back again.

Once she’d been served some thin broth with rotten-smelling grape juice beside it, she summoned her again.

“Have somepony help me to the study,” she said, feigning her mysterious illness with shaky hooves and an uneasy voice. “There are some matters I would like to review before I retire.”

Was that elegant enough? Apparently, because Lacework took her herself, down a connecting hall and up a stairwell towards the top of the house. She flung the doors open, looking concerned. “I’ll send somepony to light the fire for you, mistress. But are you quite certain you’d like to do all this reading tonight? You’re clearly exhausted from your trip here. Perhaps it would be better to return to this in the morning.”

“Perhaps,” she agreed. “But I’m set on it. Go ahead. I’ll… be here.”

She waited until the steward was gone, before hastily scanning the room. She didn’t need the fireplace to see in the dark, the moonlight streaming in through a shut window was enough for that.

The study was massive, with so many shelves of books that she could hardly count them all. They rose so high into the air along the rim of the wall that a brass track went with them, along with a stepstool that could be pushed anywhere in the room it needed to go.

A few shelves were glass, with delicate-looking locks holding them in place. Old queens before us if what I need isn’t in there.

She was fairly certain one of the books had a little train-car embossed on the cover, at least if those were the thing she’d ridden to get here. Maybe the expansion plans would be in there?

Why does Blueblood want this? They’re guarding bugs, aren’t they? Not building trains.

They were wrong to think of ponies as simple creatures that didn’t plot and plan. They might not be constantly trying to take love, but they wanted some things. Value, as Hydrus had said.

The door opened again, and a servant entered, rolling a little wagon behind them with wood and clear liquid.

“Is there anything else you require?” he asked, as soon as the fire was burning.

She shook her head, nodding politely to him. “No, I think that’s it. Ensure I’m not disturbed while I work, please.”

He left, and she locked the door behind him. That much was easy. Actually getting into the glass shelf proved to be a little harder.

She searched the rest of the room first, skimming over the various books that looked like they had something to do with trains. But discovering specific things about the “expansion plans” of the railroad when she couldn’t actually read anything that had been written about it…

After an hour or so of futile searching, without a sign of anything she could bring back to Blueblood, Harlequin found a key tucked away in a hollow book in the desk-drawer, one that looked like it would fit perfectly in the locked shelves. She went straight for the one with the little railroad picture. The lock clicked, and the glass was free to swing out of the way.

Then she reached in, snatching the book and curling up in a corner to read.

Well maybe not “read” since she didn’t know how, but… curl up in a corner to look at what the book had inside. She squinted, as though looking closer would somehow let her understand more of the secrets the book contained. But no, the patterns didn’t reveal their meanings to her.

I wonder how hard it would be to learn. I can already talk just fine, that’s connected. Maybe if I could learn what sounds those letters make, I could say it to know what it was saying.

That might be a good plan, but there was no time for learning now. She skimmed from page to page, past writing that wasn’t blocky like most of the other books, but graceful and elegant as though a set of real hooves had written it. She was almost to the end before she finally reached something that looked interesting.

It was a map of Equestria, with little crossed lines she took to mean the places trains could go. There was one leading to Canterlot, then down the mountain to Ponyville. But there were other lines, red ones that went to other places further away labeled with words she couldn’t read.

Harlequin stared at the image for at least ten minutes, memorizing its every aspect the same way she would memorize a pony she wanted to copy. She saw every letter, every pattern on the map. If this wasn’t it, what was?

Something rumbled down the hall, at least half a dozen hooves. Guards? Harlequin whimpered, darting across the room and tossing the railroad book back into place. She had shut the cabinet by the time someone tried to open the door. It rattled in its frame without budging, and she raised her voice a little. “Coming! Be right there!”

She wasn’t going to have that kind of time. They weren’t knocking the door open with their hooves, but something metal slid into the lock.

Harlequin put the key back in place, slamming the little book into a drawer and then selecting a book at random to open in front of her as the door swung open.

She’d been right in her guess—all the guards she’d seen tonight were there, carrying a cot between them. They ignored Harlequin completely, making their way to the table in the middle of the room, surrounded by the comfortable chairs. They pushed the other books there aside, then lowered the cot onto the table.

“Lady Irongate,” Lacework called, shuffling in behind them. “He only just arrived. I assure you, we’ve called for the authorities, and the Ponyville doctor is on their way. We’ll find out what happened.”

“You won’t!” the pony croaked. Harlequin made her way over, looking down at the pony sprawled there.

He was older, with gray hair in his mane and a worn expression on his face. Something in her recognized him, even though she had no reason to actually know him. He looked so like the pony she was pretending to be, which meant he could only be—

“Come closer, child,” he said. “A gift from the sun herself that I can see your face before the end.”

She obeyed, stumbling over to him with eyes wide with horror. The other ponies had felt terrified, but it wasn’t of her. It was worry for the fate of this pony. His chest was wrapped in makeshift bandages, bruises swelling on his face and near his neck. She’d seen ponies younger than this die from wounds like these in the invasion—but this grizzled old earth pony looked up stoically. As she came closer, he reached out with a hoof, taking one of her legs and forcing her to meet his eyes.

“I know we’ve… never seen eye to eye, daughter, but… please. Don’t leave me now.”

Harlequin’s legs buckled under her, and she dropped to the ground. Magic unlike anything she’d ever felt before washed over her. She recognized it, even if she’d never experienced it. “I think… I was a fool to go so far. But I didn’t think they’d be so bold…”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, master. The doctor is on the way. You’re going to be fine.”

No he isn’t. Harlequin knew a dying creature when she felt one. He’d lost blood, and his body was failing. Though then again, she did know one way he might survive this…

“Everypony else, outside!” he roared, trying and failing to sit up from his cot. Harlequin was there to catch him, stopping him from tumbling off the stretcher to the floor. He looked up, eyes wide with shock. Do bugs know ponies can make so much love when they’re dying? A few drops of this could easily have filled up the awful harvesting bottle, stop her from needing to… harvest again.

“Brass Bell,” he whispered. “I’m glad you’ve decided not to… not to hate me, at the end.”

He fell still as the others filed out. “I’ll alert you as soon as the doctor arrives,” Lacework said, shutting the door behind her. Finally the two of them were alone. Lord Irongate looked up, and in just watching her she felt like she might explode with all the love.

And something else. The more love he provided, the guiltier she felt. Was it wrong to lie to this pony? Maybe she shouldn’t be filling him with hope about a daughter that probably didn’t feel any differently about him.

I need to let him die here, she thought, letting him grip her leg with fierce earth-pony strength, despite his wounded chest. That’s the only smart choice. There’s only one smart choice here, Harlequin.

“How did you find yourself at the old family home, daughter? On this night, of all nights?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, even though it didn’t actually answer anything he’d asked. But as usual, he didn’t seem to notice. “It isn’t important, er… father. Who did this to you?”

“Who do you think?” He glanced up at her, but whatever he was expecting, she didn’t know how to respond. “I can’t forget… of course you don’t know. It was Charon Holdings. Of course, it’s always them. No, I won’t be able to prove it. But they’re the only ponies who would. They want that EIC contract.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, so she said nothing, letting him hold her. She didn’t know where she was putting all this love by now. Felt like her body might split right down the middle. But this time, she didn’t. Why?

“You don’t buckin’ give it to them when I’m gone. I know you… never took much interest in the family business. But if you ever loved your father, I need you to do this for me. Don’t let Charon take those contracts. We’re the reason that anypony in Equestrian can afford to ride. Don’t let them take our engines and our tracks and… ruin them.”

“I won’t,” she promised. It still felt like she might explode, but she didn’t look away. I should be running. I should fly back to the city by night, not even wait here. The guards will be involved now. Guards and doctors.

Doctors who couldn’t help him. This pony didn’t have long.

Harlequin stared down at that broken pony, bleeding and dying. She didn’t even know his name, but all this love for her—it was almost enough to…

“You don’t think the doctors can help you?” she asked. “Here in Ponyville… aren’t they skilled?”

“Not that,” he muttered. “Charon is too… too good. Something will go wrong. Pony gets lost, or wanders off, or… if I was in Canterlot, I could pick a hospital at random. But they might not know how to fix a wound like this.” He trailed off, staring at her again. “I can feel it, Bell. My life, draining away. It won’t be… much longer now.”

“Do you want to live?” she asked faintly. “What if there was another way, something the doctors couldn’t do. Would you take it?”

For the first time, Lord Irongate’s eyes narrowed. “My daughter speaks of philosophy now, at the end. What have you done with the real Brass Bell?”

Harlequin tensed, eyes widening—but then he laughed. “Relax, Bell. I know I shouldn’t. It’s just so good to hear your voice again.”

He was fading fast. If he didn’t make a choice now… “I can save your life,” she said, voice urgent. “I don’t need a doctor. I can do it here. But the price will be terrible—the last time I saw it, the pony wished he had died. But I think he’s getting used to it.”

I have to make it back so I can see him and find out. And learn how to read.

Lord Irongate froze, looking thoughtful. “You aren’t… being hypothetical, at the end. You’re not trying to get me to tell you that I’m satisfied with the way my life went, and that I’m ready to go? Because I won’t lie, daughter. I’m not… I wasn’t ready. Charon is changing the story. I need you to stop them.”

“No,” she said flatly. “You can stop them yourself. Tell me now, Lord Irongate. I don’t know how much good it will do if we wait. But if you let me save you—”

“Yes,” he answered. “Obviously yes. I’m not ready to say goodbye to you yet. Or my work, or… any of it. It’s all too cruel. But I don’t feel any anger that you can’t… solve all of it, sweetheart. I’ll die remembering your forgiveness.”

Harlequin let go, walking around his cot to his neck. “Don’t forgive. Survive.”

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