• Published 22nd Sep 2019
  • 2,545 Views, 1,097 Comments

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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Grand Theft Quartermaster

The two guardsmares arrived in a battered, utilitarian officer's gig that strangely belied the fineness of their uniforms, which were a glittering rainbow of all the shades of purple. The dock ponies scurrying around the cranes and the pallet-gantries parted around the settling gig, and left it alone on the wide dock beneath the aft cargo hatches.

Purse Strings eyed the mane and coat colors of the officer deposited on the dock beneath the Iron Keel, and wondered what kind of egotistical monster would order such extravagant, pony-specific variants on the Guards uniform pattern. The big griffon wheeled the gig out of the way of the scurrying dock-ponies intent on emptying out Purse's ship, parking it off to the side where it wouldn't impede the dance of the warehouse carts and the unloading sacks and pallets from the overhead gantries.

The officer took one look at the expression on Purse String's face, and turned to her charioteer, trotting up from where she'd left their vehicle, and wailed to the big cat-bird, "I told you we shouldn't have taken delivery of these monstrosities, Gilda! Look at him! He's laughing at me!"

"Captain ma'am, you look fine. You look better than fine. And if you'd just walk it off like you were born to the purple, they'd accept it without a quiver. It's the cringing that breaks the illusion, isn't that right, Mr. - what was your name? Stop gawking, you skinny tit."

"Ah!" Purse Strings replied, intelligently. The big griffon hen was more than enormous, a full head taller than him, and he wasn't a short stallion. "Ah - Purse Strings, ma'am."

"Don't ma'am me, I work for a living. You the ship's master of this beast?"

The griffon didn't give him the chance to object that she hadn't bothered to give him her name, either, as she breezed past the two of them and boarded the ship via the lowered hatch. Purse Strings and the embarrassed officer scrabbled in the guard-hen's wake.

"Sorry about that, Mr. Strings, I'm Gleaming Shield. Gilda is in a mood today, and feeling her oats."

"Griffons eat oats?" Purse String asked, even more intelligently.

"What? No, of course not. Crab and haddock if she can get it, rats and silly ponies if she can't. Oh, hey, it's dark in here."

Purse String eeped, and stopped in his tracks.

The purple unicorn in the very purple outfit turned around and squinted at Purse in the eternal twilight of the half-emptied cargo hold, nearly being clobbered by a massive dangling sack sailing by on the overhead gantry crane jutting into the hold from the dock outside. "No, no, stop that right now, I was having fun with you, Mr. Strings," she said cheerfully if a bit cluelessly. "You are the ship's master, are you not?"

"Eh? Oh, nah, of course not. Captain Blythe is working with the portmaster ashore right now. Couldn't come to meet you, told me off to do the propers, proper-like." Purse cringed as the unicorn barely escaped being crushed to a fine magenta smear across his aft hold by yet another pallet being pushed by a longshoremare with one of those fiendish new hoof-cranked pallet jacks.

Damnit, they were supposed to pull with those things, for that exact reason.

"Who taught you to talk like that, Mr. Strings? It sounds odd in a Manehattan accent. That is Manehattanese, right?"

"Nah, dose wickerbockers are too hoity-toity for us islanders," Purse Strings said broadly, exaggerating his half-forgotten accent. "I'm as honest as you get from ol' Hocklyn." He dropped the accent. "But please look where you're going, ma'am. It's an active worksite in here."

The mare looked at where she was about to walk under a lowering crane, and made a cute yipping sound.

She was much more careful after that.

They caught up with the big griffon at the door out of the hold into the gangway between the aft hold and the main cargo hold, which still had the troop-barrack fixtures stowed away, accordioned along the overhead. She was standing, looking distracted and beautiful, staring up at the folded-away quarters partitions and bundled-up hammocks and suchlike. The crystal ripple of fabric which had looked self-indulgent on the pony in the broad daylight outside, in the dimness of the interior of the ship set off the griffon's grey feathers and brown coat exactly right, as if she were born to wear them in eternal half-light.

Born to the purple…

"…light carrier. We were told your ship was the perfect conversion hull for what we needed." Wait, what had she been saying? Something about…

"You mean this ship?" Purse Strings squeaked, panicked. "You want to turn the Iron Keel into a-"

"A warship, yes," said the purple officer next to him. "We wanted to set out in a purpose-built airship, built with our needs in mind from the keel up, but there have been, well…"

"Our shipbuilder isn't quite ready to produce warships," growled the griffon, looking beautifully fierce, like a barbarian princess. "Not even close, as of three weeks ago."

"Now Gilda, they're working on it. They'll get there."

"We don't have time for them to ‘get there'. And it's your damn money they're wasting time with. Yours and George's."

"And it's a damn fine investment, I know we'll make our money and the time cost of the money, on top of it, at the very least. I can see the outlines of what they'll be, given time and encouragement."

"Time we don't have. You know why."

"Yes, well, that's why we're looking at Mr. Strings' ship, isn't it?"

"I keep trying to tell you, it isn't my-" Purse Strings tried to interject.

"Yeah, yeah, not your ship," said the griffon hen. "So why are you here showing it to us? Trying to sell us the Statue of Harmony? I hear tell that's a common hobby in Hocklyn."

"Nah, nah, that's the Hocklyn Bridge," Purse said, distracted by the spinal-reflexive opportunity to make fun of his people and his family. "I've got a cousin who's sold the Hocklyn Bridge to six different hicks from the sticks. One mare, he managed to sell it to, twice."

"How...?"

"You'd be amazed what a fake beard and a fake cutie mark can let you get away with, especially if you have somepony to cool off the mark the first time and direct her to the 'real owner of da bridge'. So nah, we do the bridge. It's those Stablen Island crooks that'll try to sell you the Mighty Mare."

"So…" drawled the griffon. "Why are we talking to you, Mr. Hocklyn Bridge?"

"Nah, that's my cousin Contract Bridge, ‘Hocklyn' Bridge. Used to be a real terror on the gambling circuit, until the law caught up with her."

"Mr. Strings, if you wouldn't mind, why are we…?" asked the unicorn, with remarkable patience.

"Ah, that's because I'm Captain Blythe's second in command, me. I'm her executive officer."

"You don't look like an officer," sniffed the big griffon, looking down at him. "You smell like the ranks to me."

"Well, I ain't exactly an officer, not by merchant marine regs, leastwise. But we had to let our actual XO go, so I'm filling in, until someone with the guild notices we're short an officer."

"Shouldn't there be a midshipmare to take over if you lose your lieutenant?" asked the pony officer, looking suddenly, sharply interested.

"Well, we never had any midshipmares. We've not all that much in the way of crew, none of the long haulers do, really, and the captain didn't have any connections making her take on extra apprentices we have to train out of their diapers into their big mare pants."

"So what are you?" demanded the griffon.

"Me? I'm the purser!" Purse Strings said, proudly.

"Well, that would follow," sniffed the hen.

"-also the boatswain, the quartermaster, my own cooper, harmonic councilor-"

"I've heard of jennies of all trade, but how in the world-" said the unicorn officer before -

"-chief steward, oiler-"

"Not chief engineer?"

"Nah, you see any horn on me? But I can help with the engine, and I does. Also chief mate-"

"What about cook?" asked the griffon with a creeping grin on her beak. How did griffins grin with beaks? She did it anyways.

"Nah, I can't cook worth a damn. And most of the troops we carry bring their own cookstaff with ‘em. We've got properly safed kitchen facilities bult along the back wall of each of the holds, the crew uses the ones that ain't being used by any troops we might be hauling on any given cruise. The regiments can feed their own fool selves."

"Have you forgotten any of your many hats?" asked the unicorn with a slightly pole-axed look on her face.

"Hrm… steward, oiler, councilor - oh, chief gunner!"

"I was told the ship had no guns!" objected the officer.

"I don't know about that, captain ma'am, that sign over there says ‘gun deck'," noted the griffish sergeant.

"Oh, that's not really a gun deck," Purse Strings said airily, waving his hoof in negation. "Might have been designed for it, but we use it to stow extra supplies. Mostly patches for the envelopes, you wouldn't believe how often we blow a cell or two in transit."

"So if you don't have guns, why are you chief gunner?"

"Well, cuz the table of organization says somepony has to be chief gunner. And we can't afford a useless gunner's mate sitting around eating her head off, taking care of literally no guns! So I'm the gunner. With my no guns to take care of."

"You can't argue with logic like that, captain ma'am," the griffon sergeant agreed. She looked around as their tour led them up out of the secondary hatches from the main hold to the middle deck, and the conversation turned to the dimensions of the ship, and how they usually stowed supplies, cargo, and sundry other things through the various compartments of the big converted freighter.

Purse Strings found himself staring at the glittering fabric as it cascaded over the griffon sergeant's shoulder like a crystalline waterfall in the sunlight of the open deck between the planks below and the envelope above. The sergeant's finery shone like starlight on the greywashed planks, setting her feathers to a perfect contrast. She was so beautiful, her finery so lavish, so grotesquely rich, he couldn't tear his eyes away. He and the captain had chosen the grey to hide just how much rot lay in the timbers under the paint; the color made visitors think of steel and aluminum and other metallic, solid materials. It reinforced the lie of the ship's name, "Iron Keel". He had become so used to prevaricating, lying, skimping, making do, making up, hiding the rot…

God, they looked rich. They were the perfect marks. It would work. They'd sell them this wreck and his debt would finally be-

"The next hurricane the Iron Keel sees will be her last," he heard himself saying. "She's five years past her last refitting, and two past when they should have sent her to the breakers. She's held together with twine and cantrips, and I'm not sure the cantrips will last us through the return leg to Manehattan, let alone into military service."

What? How? Why? What had caused that to come out of his mouth? What was he thinking? Was he thinking?

Purse Strings quailed to think what Captain Blythe would say when she found out that he'd… his debts! She'd sell off his debts!

"What do you mean, military service," asked the Guards captain. "I was told the Iron Keel has been in the EUP's employ for the last eight years. How is that not military service?"

"Well, I told you, didn't I? We're a troop ship, not an assault carrier. Or any sort of warship. We keep afloat in the air by never getting anywhere near a strong breeze, let alone actual weapons."

"The southern seas are full of pirates!"

"We never go south of Horseshoe Bay."

"Why were we told you'd be a perfect solution to our transport problems?"

"Well, who told you that?"

She named a name.

"Well, there you go, that pony is known for holding a grudge. When did you piss them off?"

"I barely know them!"

"That doesn't matter, now does it? They clearly know you, if they tried to get you to take the Iron Keel off their hooves. Hades, with the war wrapping up, they've got to be thinking there's less desperate need for rattletrap troopships."

The two guardsmares scurried into a cross-corridor to whisper desperately to each other. Purse Strings looked sadly at the big griffon. Such a shame, he'd have liked to have spent more time with that big beautiful girl.

He started making plans to lie his dock off, explaining to Captain Blythe why they weren't getting a payday out of this would-be scam.


"What do you think, Gilda?"

"I think this is a death trap even in a light breeze, captain ma'am, and we'd spend almost as much time bringing it into any sort of ship shape, as if we waited for the shipworks in town to produce a warlike airship."

"No, not the blasted lug, it's a hideous cog and I wouldn't use it to haul fish for diamond dogs. I mean the purser."

"What about him? Purse Strings is a repulsive little sleazebag."

"Yes, but he's an industrious little sleazebag, and strikingly straightforward with his knowledge of the dodges. And willingness to deal with them."

"We got our tails caught in the wringer bad enough when it was Grippe, and we didn't know she was up to no good."

"I think," Gleaming Shield said, thoughtfully, "that the best remedy for not getting scammed out of our armor or our gear, is to put a thief to catch out any thieves looking to cheat us of our proper supply and so forth. You know this, Gilda, I know you and Lady George have been playing at dirty for months and months by now."

"And you know it was only playing, captain ma'am. A griffon has to know where the lines are, even if nogriff else does."

"Yes, yes, very virtuous of you. And that's why we need a proper quartermaster to do… prophylactic scammery on our behalf."

"I don't have the time to keep an eye on a scumbag like Purse Strings," Gilda objected, her beak curling in disgust.

"You'd be surprised, Gilda, I think he's sweet on you. I know the look, I think?"

"Ick."

"Well, we already have a pony with a reputation for probity we can put him in tandem with, right?"

"Ping? As far as I know yes. Why can't we just have Ping double-duty like this loon is doing for the hilariously absent Captain Blythe?"

"Because just because a pony can half-flank two jobs, doesn't mean he wouldn't be more use doing one job, perfectly, instead. I'd like to think I'm not a Celestia-damned fool like this Captain Blythe!"

"You're definitely not that, captain ma'am," said Gilda, and then sighed. She looked over at the earth pony with the pile of bits cutie mark.

Winds damn it, he was making cow-eyes at her.

"You know he's probably going to be expensive, right? Nogriff works like a diamond dog like that without some sort of leverage. I'm guessing debts."

"That captain not even showing up like this is the sign of a guilty conscience. I'm willing to bet that my uncle in the Provost Marshals could find enough to distract the good captain long enough to get ourselves what looks to me like an industrious, effective and excellent quartermaster!"

"If you say so, captain ma'am."

"Now go soften up Mr. Strings while I work up a message I can send off to my uncle. Strike while the iron is hot! And the Iron Keel is unguarded."

"You do know we still need to find ourselves an airship to refit into a light carrier, captain ma'am?"

"I'm willing to bet that stallion knows where all the best prospects are moored, Gilda. Go recruit him! Shoo!"

Author's Note:

Thanks for editing and pre-reading help to Shrink Laureate, and the general Company.

And special thanks to iisaw for inspiring me to kick up my airship game a notch.

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