• Published 22nd Sep 2019
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The Princess's Bit - Mitch H

Adventure is nothing but other ponies having a terrible time somewhere picturesque. But you take what you can get, when you take the Princess's bit.

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Two Promises

Giles MacGregor dreamed of fire and blood.

Sweet, precious sleep was split, cut in three parts by sudden sharp detonations, the bomb-memories destroying themselves and everygriffon around them. In his dream, they sounded off, somehow like nothing so much as a door slammed in the night, strangely loud and clear from across the far side of the loch. The loch high up in the highlands he once had called home, the loch that curled between his mother's home and the clanhold, so close, and so far, muted and warped by restless water in darkness. In his dream-talons, the slugger shifted awkwardly, snagging despite all his best efforts to draw it out under his rough cloak. His fellows were faster, and swifter, and they fired while he fumbled.

The memory of the screaming crowd, and beyond them, the damned crab-backs falling like tenpins to their fire. Giles' slugger finally untangled itself from his cloak, and looking up to see his targets, they were gone behind a cloud of powder-smoke, and his fellow clangriffs were already away, charging and screeching with their long blades swinging. Giles saw an equine shape with a sword high over the heads of the shadowy crab-backs in the powder-smoke over the backs of his fading fellows, and he pulled his weapon around to fire over their heads. Before he got his sights on the smudge that might have been an enemy officer, it went off in his talon, wasting his shot somewhere high up into the air over the stinking cloud.

The dream-Giles sobbed, as his too-clumsy claws scrabbled nightmarishly for his black powder and the shot and the ram-rod, all while the high keening cries marked his clan's charge into the powder-smoke.

Then, as he tossed his ram-rod aside, he heard the cannon-fire from behind him, and as always, he looked up to see the powder-smoke cloud parted by the terrible passage of the grapeshot, and briefly, before the cloud closed in with reinforcements, the shocking bloody ruin of the flower of Aerie Tarvie blowing across the pavement-stones of Gilbert Square, and the crouching bluecoats with their spear-tips red with clan blood.

And as always, he woke to the second volley of the ponies' cannons' fire in the darkness of the powder-smoke.

Giles woke with sulphur in his nostrils, and looked wildly around the crowded workers' nest. It was still dark, but there was perhaps a touch of the slightest color of morning to be seen, darkly through the thin clear screens. Screens with which the masters had replaced the old paper windows, after those hens had destroyed them with their fighting the month before.

His own shift was asleep, those who were still in their bunks. Half the barracks were on sixth and seventh shifts, and off finishing up their night-work. Fourth shift must have woken Giles - they were stumbling around in the darkness, getting ready for their own work. Today was seventh-day for fifth shift, and Giles like the rest of the workers on that shift had noplace official to be; it was traditional, which is to say obligatory, for off-shift workers to not fill up the mess hall for those who had machines to tend, and piecework quotas to meet.

Giles wasn't hungry, anyways. He slipped out of the barracks between the fourth shifters muttering for their coffee. The nestmother didn't notice the skinny straw-blue griffon as he lurked just out of her view on the far side of a clot of fourthers.

They weren't supposed to go out on their seventh days alone. The masters said that 'prentices got into trouble by their lonesome. In Giles' observation, flocks of griffons were more trouble than singletons, but that was definitely a minority view among the Trottish. The Trottish were a flocking clan.

A great bloody huge flocking clan. Their flocks darkened the sun when they rose into the skies. Giles counted it good that the city-clan griffons weren't much for flitting about. He liked the light, and didn't relish it when some ruddy crab-back came flying over his head.

The Trottish city-griffons didn't like to be called clan-griffons, of course. The city griffons were a strange, vast clan, a clan where nogriff knew anygriff else, but for family and immediate kin. Half of Giles' shift didn't see their kith and kin but a month out of two. The long shifts in the factory took up all their time, and sleeping and food ate up the rest. One seventh-day a week allegedly to themselves made for 'prentices isolated from their families.

Not that Giles had any family to maintain connections with. None living, none in a day's flight. Not since the Bucket.

He had run like a panicked alley-cat when the charge had shattered. He hadn't been able to help himself. The shock of seeing all of his kin blown to haggis had been bad enough, but he'd dropped his powder-horn, and didn't think to do anything else.

MacGregors weren't worth a piss without other MacGregors around them, ta keep 'em honest. That was what his uncle Galt had always said. Usually with a laugh, after Giles' mother had sent him to collect his drunken uncle from the pub.

Galt had been their sergeant, before the grapeshot had turned him and six other McGregors to a ghastly pink ruin.

Right in front of Giles.

So Giles had run and run, and scrabbled and hid. Giles had clubbed down some blue-feathered griffon with a spear that had tried to stop him. Knocked the big tom down with his slugger, and then broke the delicate, worthless, horribly expensive wonder-weapon over the tom's partner's crest, and kept on running.

Giles had left the broken precious weapon behind him. It had come apart in his talons the one time he'd needed it.

Eventually, Giles had fetched up behind a pile of crates in an alleyway, and crouched, balled up, hiding from the ponies and their minions. Sharp spears, and terrible cannon-fire.

They'd talked brave talk, the griffons of clan MacGregor. Generations of bravery and bravado, of the conquering lords of the fallen pony city. Of Guillaume the Clever, and his tamed nag. Of how they'd seize the white duchess some day, and make her their nag.

They had been fools.

He hadn't been surprised when the clip-clop came out of the tumult of the battle's aftermath. Screams and howls and the clashing of blades and the terrible sound of the cannons' volley-fire… and somehow he'd known they'd find him.

He'd never had much luck, Giles MacGregor.

The ponies had magic. How had the MacGregors ever thought they could pitch claw against pony magic, and prevail? The old stories had to have been lies. No griffon living could possibly have won against that.

The clip-clop stopped, and Giles had looked up through the feathers of his tousled crest, through the cage of his arms and talons, protecting his cowardly head from the inevitable blow.

The pony was pink, pink and brown - a brown costume. Terrible blue eyes peered under a lank waterfall of pink, and in that moment Giles had seen his death drowning in those bottomless blue pools, the spring blue of the loch in brightest day. The loch that Giles' little sister had disappeared into, three springs back when he hadn't been watching her.

"Hello there, little birdie. Lost your flock? Don't cry, little birdie. You're a survivor, aren't ya? Smile, griffie! You didn't die today! You're a lucky little survivor, aren't ya?"

Giles had stared up at his death, and didn't understand. He still didn't. All he knew, walking into the Trottish dawn, on a spring morning he never thought he'd see, was that the strange pink Death had smiled madly, and patted the curled-up, cringing clan-griffon on his crest, and had dragged a filthy tarp over his head. He'd heard pony's hooves clip-clopping away from him, unseen, as Death passed him by.

His paws tapped-tapped-tapped across the cobbles as the sun warmed the chill out of the stones. Aimlessly wandering through the morning air led him to a dining room in the southern blocks of Halfpenny, a dining room which had set up an open-air cafe for the breakfast crowd. Giles didn't have the money for cafe food, but he stood there and watched the more prosperous Trottish griffons conspicuously consuming. There was a white pony eating with a flock of laughing, grinning journey-hens, her horn glowing blue as she made papers and objects float about in her pony magic.

Giles watched the workaday pony miracle, and thought about the pink Death, and what she'd said. The strange, dire promise the pink Death had given him before she'd left him to live.

Today was the day. Six months later. Six months spent as virtuously as Giles could manage, living first in the gutter, and then in the 'prentice hall. Six months pretending he wasn't exactly what he was. Six months like a chick in his shell, gestating. Of taking on town-bronze, of learning how to speak like a Trottish griffon. Of learning how to be… civilized. What a strange word. The pink Death had called it 'socializing', but the Trottish didn't really socialize. They worked and worked, and lived by the masters' clocks and schedules. Giles had obeyed every tick of the clock, every caw of supervisory journey-hens and toms, done everything he was told.

The terror of the Crab Bucket had faded, retreating into his night-terrors. The other griffons of his shift had grown used to his nighttime starts, although he'd absorbed enough blows in his early days, to have his cringe-reflex beaten out of him. Somehow, the beatings and the work had conspired to fix whatever the Bucket had broken in him. Giles didn't twitch at loud noises or screams anymore.

The pink Death had promised him this; but she had promised him something else, with that.

So Giles waited, and watched the breakfast-shifts wash away, and the luncheon crowd began to trickle in.

And then there was a darkness, and a shadow, and Giles looked up.

And there it came. The airship, descending. Smoking like the factory's stacks. It didn't look like salvation. It didn't look like much of anything, really. Giles had kept an eye out for airships ever since the previous fall, but even before then, he'd marvelled at the ponies' great flying ships.

Yet another pony miracle.

He shook out his stiff wings, and took to the air, to follow the airship with the Trottish arms painted on its rippling sails. He saw on the deck, another horned pony, and a huge griffon hen with strange coloration he'd never seen before. They were dressed in Territorial colors. The pink Death had said something about that, too. Nogriff saw Giles as he silently followed the airship until it settled in the city.

He almost shied in terror as he realized they were landing in Gilbert Square, and barely controlled himself as he realized that they were settling on the patch of paving-stones where the courage of Aerie Tarvie died screaming.

He remembered the deep blue eyes of pink-maned Death, and looked up into the unblinking eye of clearest spring sky. She'd promised him a new start. She'd told him what he'd had to do, and what to wait for, what to look for.

This was it.

He folded his wings and landed beside the grounded airship. He joined the marvelling crowd of griffons and ponies, and sidled his way through the press.

He almost didn't recognize the hen and her pony officer in their glittering crystalline magic uniforms. The huge hen with stripes on her shoulder met his eye, and he blushed, confused.

"You're not recruiting for the Territorials?" Giles asked, barely keeping the clan tones out of his words.

"Nah, my tom. No more Territorials for us. We're forming a new regiment, y'see? Serving the Princess, not the Duchess. You lookin' to take the Princess's bit, my pale friend?"

"If you 'ave the bit, I've got the toime. Can ya keep the guild-marster from comin' after me?" Giles asked.

"Tommy, the Princess's bit dissolves all apprenticeships. You look a bit old for a 'prentice, anyways. Not that I know much about that end of the guilds. Sign here, tommy, and start again."

Giles signed, and started again.

"...And that's the long and the short of it, Corporal," Gilda concluded, looking anywhere in the cluttered, ill-lit room than the half-convalescent sitting in his battered lounge-chair. "New regiment, new recruits, new problems. We'll be looking to steal some veterans from any unit that isn't holding onto theirs too tightly, but we want the right veterans, to get the Sixth set properly in her traditions. Begin as you'd continue, as they say."

It was the day after Gilda and her unicorn had crash-landed in Gilbert Square, and found themselves absent-mindedly recruited a corporal's guard for the new Guards regiment. Gilda had known they'd need help, so, she'd gone to see the old corporal.

"Who says that, Gilda?" asked Gustav, looking cross. "I never did. Winds, I 'ope you never learned anything from our lot. Thieves and slackers and scapegraces, the lot of us."

Gustav was staying with his sister's boy's family, since he'd never had time to start his own family. They'd plopped him in a back parlor, shabbily furnished, full of old furniture no longer good enough for the front parlor.

"If that's so, Corporal, then we're all in a great deal of trouble, because I learned everything I know about sergeanting from you and the others."

"I can't see 'ow! None of us ever were sergeants. Excepting the sergeant-major, and you could see as 'ow 'e weren't nogriff to be picking bad 'abits up from, now weren't 'e?"

"The Territorials always had sergeants, Corporal. They just called you 'corporals', because the Equestrians are a bunch of tribalist snobs."

"I don't care if you're in some brand spankin' new outfit with your shiny new duds, Gilda me 'en, you won't be bad-beakin' the orficers in me presence, you won't! Don't think I'm so crippled I won't wing-beat you to an inch of yer royal-crested 'ide!"

"Oh?" asked Gilda, provocatively, eyeing the old bird wrapped up in his blanket. "You can get up out of that seat, can you? I thought you were invalided. Retired. Useless."

"Like 'ades I'm useless! Those daft cunts can think what they want, but I'm bird enough to beat some respect into young tail-tuckers like you lot!" The corporal was out of his chair, and bristling, with one wing held threateningly over his head.

Only trembling just a bit.

"Yes, I can certainly see that, Corporal Gustav," Gilda said, suppressing a grin. "I knew when I saw you come out of that surgery that you'd be back and cawing at the grumblers inside of six months. Look at you! Ready to start PT again, aren't you?"

"Yer damn roight I am, I am! Bloody continentals, come over to tell us when and where we can serve our bloody duchesses! Medical retirement me blue-steeled buttocks! I got ten good years in me, I do!"

"You certainly do, Gustav. I wish I could do something about it, but I'm not in the Territorials anymore. Technically, I'm not even working for the Duchess anymore. Some might even say I never did, it was all some stupid mistake, can you believe that?"

"Yeah, well, Grippe. Everygriff knew she was dirty, we just didn't know 'alf 'ow dirty. Sorry about that, Gilda. I probably should 'ave said something, I should 'ave."

"Not your job, Gustav. Not your job. But it is my job to get old birds in place, to keep these new recruits in line. You're an old bird, and nopony's got a claim on you now."

"Not since they drummed me out of the service, they don't. By damn! You're right. I could do - anyfing! There was this young idiot from the militia wanted to talk to me, but I told my nephew to tell 'er I weren't in. You're lucky you were one of my 'ens."

Gilda thought that he was lucky that he'd let her in. That room smelled like death creeping up on the old bird. Inactivity was bad for injured old birds. Now to reel him in…

"So you'd be willing to come work for Captain Shield?" Gilda asked, carefully.

"Work for you, you mean, Gilda me 'en. Going to be a sergeant-major, are you?"

"I bloody well 'ope not!" Gilda squawked, surprised into an accidental Trottish outburst. "You were there when I was captured! I've barely got a year in the service."

"Less, dependin' on 'o you ask, these days, roight?"

"Exactly! We need to pull this outfit together out of nothing but baling wire, twine, and the captain ma'am's paper commission. It's an impossible job!"

"An' yet, ponies and griffons 'ave done it before. The Territorials, they ain't no older than I am, you know? I weren't there at the actual beginning, but I was for the Fifth 'erself. One more year, and I'd 'ave 'ad me pension, the bit-pinchin' barstards. There from the bloody beginning, and not a bit for an old veteran, can you picture it?"

Gilda certainly could. Nogriffon gave up a bit if they could keep it in their sharp claws. And none of the ponies were any better.

"Well, we want to pay better in the Guards, but in order to shake the money-tree, we need to be… plausible, you know? Shined up and impressive," Gilda said, vaguely, waving a claw in the air.

"Yeah, I can see it. Bronze and polish gets the bit-hens moist, gets 'em in a mood to give up the coin. Nogriff wants to waste their ready on a shabby trooper. 'Ave you thought of getting 'em drunk? I always found that 'elped when I wasn't lookin' my best. Which was most of the time when I was younger."

"Aw, come on, Corporal. You had to have been a hen-slayer when you were a fledgeling!"

"Awr, go on, Gilda. You know I'm an ugly old tom, and I was an ugly little kit. Do you have a nice set of duds planned for the troopers? Fancy duds always sells the troops."

"Lady Rarity is still hanging around town, and said she looked forward to fitting us out. Fancies the 'Crystal Guard' thing, she does," Gilda said, smiling.

"Lawks! I could see it!" Gustav said, looking into the distance, an answering smile on his beak taking ten years off of his weathered face. "Like every day was a crab-back march!"

He looked up at Gilda, and got out of his chair, and stretched, trying to stand as tall as she did.

"Damn me, but I'm in! Just promise me I'll die in the 'arness this time. Never say you'll 'and me back to my nephew to rot in this room again!"

"Corporal, we plan on going places. When you die, we'll bury you somewhere foreign. That's a promise."

Author's Note:

So, this is the promised sequel to Good Trooper Gilda. Structurally a bit more ambitious, with multiple viewpoint characters and an actual adventure-type quest plot of sorts. If GTG had any serious faults, it was that it was more of an action-adventure story than the dark comedy I'd promised. So, doubling down on that, The Princess's Bit is more of a swashbuckler than a black comedy.

BTW, for those not familiar with the term being referenced, in the 19th century, joining the British Army was known as 'taking the queen's shilling'. You took the shilling, and you were no longer a free man - you were a man under authority, with all that came with it, for better or worse.

Thanks for help over the last half-year in getting this long-delayed project off the ground to Shrink Laureate, Oliver, Damaged, and the general Company. And thanks to ChristheBlue for his beautiful cover art.

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