• Published 19th Mar 2021
  • 695 Views, 43 Comments

The Runaway Bodyguard - scifipony



Her best and only magic teacher, Sunburst, abandoned her. Proper Step refused to teach her magic; it wasn't "lady-like." She runs away and learns to fight with hoof and magic, to save her life—but doesn't realize she's becoming somepony's sharp tool.

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Chapter 70 — On Fire

Author's Note:

There is an intense scene in this chapter.

Though this SFW video link of a disaster in Lebanon is embedded in the chapter, and the first six seconds adds gloss, what happened there was a couple magnitudes worse than what's in the story. Unfortunately, it probably starts with ads that would interrupt reading.

Stay tuned for the epilogue next week!

I did not realize that I had just 10 seconds to live.

"Well, that was easier," I said, gasping.

The last EBI agent, a puce fellow in a blue suit, galloped for the building exit with a reflective mirror sheen Shield flickering as he went. The fire alarm blared wah-wah-wah and strobed. The door jam burst into flames, lit by my last Force spell. Stinging sweat dripped into my right eye and I began blinking.

I maintained my spell queue and fiery numbers on semi-polar orbits; they precessed right to left like comets through my view of the world. For an instant, I imagined my guardian Proper Step, his mustachioed face twisted into a disapproving glare. What might he think to learn that his carefully cultured ward, the Countess Aurora Midnight, the Earl of Grin Having, had mastered battle magic?

My imagination filled it in. His ears turned forward and flattened.

I heard—or rather felt in my insides—a powerful krump! It sounded deeper than the largest most bass tympani drum struck powerfully once with my stomach next to it. It felt like a punch. Bits of ceiling tile tumbled down. Desks and filing cabinets hopped forward. My heart, pummeled, stopped, skipped that beat, then limped back into rhythm.

I staggered and fell to my fore-knees as I glanced up at the ceiling, to the second floor, beyond the wall to the vault of the Old Equestrian Post Office.

Carne Asada had put me in an untenable situation. No matter what I would choose, ponies would die. She had thought she and Princess Celestia played a game of life and death, and that somehow the princess had forfeited a valuable pawn to her. She had wrapped a wing confidently over my back, trusting in our shared hate that I would do as she expected.

Her logic, like an improper mathematical proof, was flawed. I had lifted that wing.

I had trusted Carne Asada!

I still hated the princess, but because of how Carne Asada had abused my trust in the last months, weeks, and throughout this very day—ponies had died because I helped.

She had asked me to Teleport her away from the vault. Instead, I had pushed her aside before I cast.

Only the spilt fuel-oil canister must have exploded.

Carne Asada was dead and I was responsible.

That meant I was alive, which meant the crates of ammonium nitrate had not yet exploded.

"Foal!" I yelled. Of myself—standing frozen, contemplating happenstance, circumstance. Circumstance had granted me a miracle: an extra second of life, two at most!

I snapped together the vectors to the doorway I'd seen the last agent gallop toward. A two-story glass façade. I spun-up Teleport out of my queue.

Queuing spells saved a huge amount of time, but took a finite amount of time nonetheless. Time to gasp a single breath.

Lightning spidered up as a sphere of nothingness consumed me. My world went black. Frigid cold limed me in frost and instantly attacked my open eyes with sapping pain. Utter vacuum tried twisting my lungs out through my still open mouth as I continued shutting it as fast as I could. Time wasn't suspended in-between mid-teleport.

For the first time, I wished it to last forever. I really hoped Broomhill Dare and Citron and the rest had run for cover as I screamed they should.

Time in-between did not last forever.

I popped back into existence just beyond the travertine portico of the EBI Headquarters. I had transformed my x-y coordinates so I still faced the street.

Bridge Street here ran roughly east-west, the same as Plaza East in front of the Old Equestrian Post Office where the delivery van had been parked. It was four one-way boulevards wide, two servicing the bridge and two city. The westering sun would have been to my right before sunset. Despite that, orange light brighter than noon mid-summer illuminated the building ahead, from the north. It felt like a furnace at my flank. I saw a blurred band of instantly condensed moisture and lofted dust slam into the brown marble exterior, then splash like a wave against a seawall. Every window burst, punched in before its glass was sucked up and over the five stories of stone.

Smoke, dust, and fog rolled over in a cylindrical eddy, then streaked outward. The glass façade of the EBI building, obliterated, tumbled like sea foam across the street.

Ponies were bowled over like wooden toys and slid away from me in the flow.

I understood then, by miracle*, I'd avoided the explosion's shockwave.

The vacuum caused by the just passed shockwave grabbed my cloak, but not before bits of masonry and glass peppered the tough material. It was like being pelted with pebbles thrown by a crowd in anger. The cloak tore, then flapped forward over my head. A bruising slap to my flank made me instinctively rear.

Under any other circumstances I might have fought losing my disguise, but I let it be sucked from my forelegs as I skidded away in the wake of the shockwave. Half a hundred EBI agents and support ponies would remember the cloaked crazy pony who'd attacked them and, by unmitigated force of will, had gotten the building evacuated. Best I lose the cloak.

I looked behind.

I saw the shell of the Hooflyn EBI headquarters, the glass blasted away. The glow of the explosion faded, belied by blistering heat. I saw a burning column of dirty red-brown smoke rise, then spread into a rolling cap of the same noxious color as it cooled while more smoke rose.

I had thought nothing could match the horror of dodging Force bolts and defending myself and Carne Asada in the middle of a riot. The explosion aftermath radiated heat that crinkled the hair on my muzzle, but the monstrous smoke mushroom seared into my brain like a hot brand fresh from the coals.

It took a moment for me to see when I looked away from the building. I rapidly descended the steps, away from the heat, gasping for air. Air came, in a comparatively cold wind pulled in from down the street by the updraft of the fire. I'd heard naught but the echo of the blast, which was plenty loud, but as the booms cleared I heard screams and moans.

I realized the toy ponies I seen blown away from me were the EBI agents that had not yet run far enough away from the building when the blast occurred. With my eyes adjusting, I saw...

I gulped.

More fodder for nightmares.

For whatever reason, the first thing I did was braid my mane into pigtails and my tail into a bun as I trotted faster. A crumpled puce stallion wore a necktie and I pulled that free, because I tied it on as a tourniquet on the mare laying broken beside him who wouldn't last half a minute more without it. She would never walk again, but she might live. I levitated them as I dragged them toward others I found bleeding, cut by flying glass or still with a transparent dagger embedded.

In those few minutes, I learned the true meaning of the word triage. The act of separating those ponies whose lives you can save from those you can't so others can live, carves a piece from your soul with a serrated knife; I feared I had little enough to spare. I could only push ripped clothing compresses with two hooves and a Push spell on so many bleeding ponies no matter how loudly I sobbed or cursed my very existence.

Not everypony had been knocked unconscious, however. Soon other ponies arrived. A stallion performed compression on a pony I'd given up on, and the mare coughed back to life and gasped. Others got dragged or levitated over. Within five minutes of the blast, ponies were sweeping away the glass and forming a field hospital around me, but I kept working...

With a whinny, I noticed a reporter had showed up. I saw a camera. He didn't need a flash bulb because of the fire. I found myself holding compression bandages on three ponies, one with two hooves, while wrapping a bandage on a fourth without really even being aware I was in a fugue. I had stopped mid-sentence directing somepony to do something I suddenly didn't remember.

I blinked.

A stallion said, "Shock's setting in," about me.

I looked down.

My naked fur and pigtails were splattered and wet with blood, my hooves down on a pegasus' wing. Ironic. Fitting. All that glistening redness painting me. The bloody outside matched the twisted inside, now. The earth pony next to me moved over and took my place and another pony rushed up to take over the bandaging.

I saw the press photographer blanch, lowering his camera. Blood dripped from his ear. He had taken the picture of me when I'd looked at him, or in the last minute. Didn't matter.

He'd photographed a monster.

I swallowed and got up, backing away.

"Thank you," the closest of the EBI agents said. She was a very green pegasus mare I very much recognized: Agent Greene and Greene. Others thanked me, too. They knew I wasn't one of them and didn't care.

I saw dozens laying surrounding me.

Alive.

Even as I saw the first EMT wagon come bouncing over the debris down the road, followed by a fire fighting lorry, I had to let that fact get past my need to deny what I had clearly done.

I had saved ponies.

I had saved...

I had...

No.

Ponies had died because of me.

The math clearly didn't balance.

I turned away and got up to a trot, tripping once because I dragged a hoof.

I realized I still had the gum in my mouth when I felt it buzzing. By some miracle, I hadn't coughed it out or swallowed it. Normalacy asserted itself. I parked it against my molars and asked, "Are you okay?"

"Thank Celestia!" came Citron's voice, followed by Broomhill Dare's with a much more colorful sentiment that implied sexual positions... I think.

I said, "Don't care. Status!"

"No bad casualties. Glass cuts. Saw a Marvel pegasus sliced in half—"

"Enough." I thought furiously, images of the explosion and blood-soaked ponies mingling with the fighting I'd seen today. That, and the krump sound when I knew Carne Asada was no more. "Orders are to retreat south down Bridge Street. Disengage east where you can. Let emergency vehicles through. Got that? Those are orders!"

"Copy that."

I added, "Pass it on."

"I will," I heard Safe say.

If that dispersed our ponies, that would be best I could hope for. Fewer might end up hurt. If it was the last thing I could accomplish, I would get my team out of Hooflyn. With Carne Asada gone, the Syndicate would dissolve into chaos because the war would continue like a ship without a captain; it would dash itself to pieces in the shoals.

"Where are you?" Citron demanded.

I said, "Bridge Street, heading south from the EBI Headquarters."

"You were near the blast!?"

"Was in it."

"No way!"

"I'm a ghost now."

"Ha, ha," Citron said. "We're on Blue Jay, probably a block away judging by how strong you sound."

"Keep retreating," I said, "I'll catch up."

I didn't assume I'd be safe, though I expected the blast would have frightened any but the most stubborn gang members away from the fight. I kept near to vehicles, with Shield and Teleport queued. I stopped only once to see caped ponies dashing west toward the parks. I backtracked when I noticed coppers coming up from the provincial courthouses. I undid the pigtails and bun. They had to look embarrassing, considering the blood.

After trotting a total of five blocks, I caught up with no less than seven dozen C.A., many of whom looked bedraggled. For obvious reasons, the lamplighters hadn't been around to light any of the street lamps—but at least the moon had risen!

As a group, they saw me approach. I slowed and let my hoof drag so they could recognize me. I really didn't look like myself right now.

I clearly heard Citron's voice as he did recognize me. He saw me covered in blood that had begun to crust. "Not a ghost. A ghoul."

"You certainly know how to flatter a filly," I responded.

In the cold bluish moonlight, I saw all of my team, including Crystal Skies who had his wing bandaged to his side. I saw Peppermint, but not any of the C team. I recognized Downtown and Sunset Park amongst the C.A., and it was Downtown who asked, "Where's Doña Asada?"

I hadn't thought that one out, had I? Stupid.

I slowed my approach to the motley herd, their eyes on me as I looked unblinking into each of their intent gazes. I heard the sound of my scraping hoof and knew they did, too. My breath condensed in front of my face as the evening chill set in. I didn't have a cloak. I didn't wear anything. They knew something was wrong. What I said next would make a difference, but I had no plan—only my disgust and a sense of deep cutting betrayal. You gave them your trust, but ponies always left you in the end. What could I say? Would I be destructive or constructive? I didn't know my own mind.

Then it came to me.

I stopped and looked at them all. "You all saw the explosion?"

That merited nods.

"Carne Asada is dead. My mother," I sneered with as much contempt as I could muster, "proved too stupid to live."

Sunset Park sat down hard. A few others did as well. Muttering began as I watched and waited. Clouds of breath rose in front of my face. I wondered if all that I had taught over the last half-year had had any effect at all.

No.

No, it hadn't.

Carne Asada's ghost proved strong. A bad omen, for sure. My ears swiveled and strained to hear something too low to register. My brain supplied what I thought I heard.

Hija.

Somepony echoed it. "She's her daughter."

"Doña Asada's Daughter?"

Dozens of pony voices all spoke over one another. "You heard her say it enough times." "I did. Right in front me." "CA's hammer?" "Yes—no, she's The Mechanic!" "She has the kiss—" "That blank flank covered in blood is Glitter?" "She is." "That's right!" "Sweet Celestia, that's a lot of blood." "She's Glitter." "Glitter!"

I cried, "Wait, what!?"

That broke the log jam. Flood waters splashed through and overflowed the banks of the river.

"Doña!" somepony shouted.

I sat hard, waving both hooves. The street was cold and dewy wet. "No, no! Not Doña! No!"

Sometimes you get what you ask for. You could think it couldn't get worse, but it did.

They listened to me.

Over new shouts of, "Princess Glitter!" they started bowing. For whatever reason, Crystal Skies called me "Princessa Grim" with the Prench accent he sometimes affected.

With all the racket, I don't know how some other gang didn't take the opportunity to ambush us and offer us our flanks on a platter. Nopony heard me tell them never to call me princess—either that, or the foul word is hardwired in pony brains. At least Citron and the A and B team kept on station, and got us hustling out of the downtown area.

Funny thing about being named princess...

I told everypony that I was declaring a one week truce. I told them we were retreating back to our territories from since the Running of the Leaves, and to slash all our new tags with equal signs to acknowledge that. I told them that we were to disengage unless attacked, announce we would take no quarter if attacked, then if attacked fight to teach the needed lesson.

Did they listen?

Yes.

Yes, as a matter of fact, they did. Every. Last. Flapping. Word.

In every city across the entire eastern seaboard of Equestria.

#

By the afternoon of the next day, I fully understood I was a moth circling a candle flame. I was the proverbial filly in mare's horseshoes.

Thanks to Carne Asada's mania and my filly ability to construct a fantasy world around me, I had managed to convince an organization of very dangerous ponies that I was their queenpin. Yes, I could fight. Yes, I had been tutored and had helped organize things on many levels, but I hadn't been the infrastructure. I hadn't been the puppet master so much as an annoying stage-hoof suggesting changes to the script. Or maybe a mechanic; I had greased the axles, polished the coach works and brass, and replaced kit with modern tack. I had neither designed nor built the brougham. I did not know how the syndicate actually worked or what it sold, except barely conceptually on any real level.

Conceptually.

I...

I could...

I could learn.

Sunset Park, Downtown, Flatbush, Brightown, and others from Hooflyn, Fillydelphia, and Upper and Midtown from Manehatten met me for breakfast at the hotel. My first question had been who would support me, and who they thought might not. My words could be construed as a deadly implication to action.

I knew this. I was royalty.

Princess Celestia had absolute power and now so did I.

Its application was how I got C.A. gang members out cleaning up the city, helping the constables notice damage caused by other gangs, and more erudite lieutenants generally answering official questions with nuanced candidness that deflected attention away from the Syndicate. Ruling by fiat wasn't the word. Through respect?

I let the fact that Carne Asada had died "leak" to the press. From a heart attack. She'd been "startled" when her peace plan had failed. The Manehatten Times got the scoop that her body was on its way by ship to Equidor.

With mauve dye in my mane and tail, I wore a smeared-blood cutie mark, a starched white blouse, and a frilly red gothic-lace cravat that matched the big red bow I had tied at my dock.

My dangerous-looking cutie mark didn't convince me, nor my stomach, that I held absolute sway over the syndicate, however. Any time I thought I might be able to rely on ponies and keep my distance from the real work of "the business", Mustang's word's the day that she and Cyclone Beaujangles tried to beat me to death came to mind.

Those words came to me with incredible clarity.

She had been speaking to Cyclone when she said, "Carne Asada is losing it. There's ponies not happy with her leadership. The right words in the right ears, and leaks in her organization, got our team inserted in place against Gelding's team."

Later, Citron knocked and led Trigger into the empty conference room. It was the same one where Agent Greene and Greene had interviewed Carne Asada. I made sure the silver blinds to the public area were closed. Pegasi had it raining outside to extinguish the fires around the city and the roan pony had a slight wet horse smell. Though the Hooflyn Bridge was closed to normal traffic due to the riot lockdown, I'd gotten him smuggled across the bay simply by asking.

Citron's ear had been glued together expertly and I'd been told it wouldn't scar. When the fur grew out on his flank, Dr. Feel had assured me the burn scar wouldn't be apparent. I didn't believe her. His skin under his yellow fur was black, so it looked as if his fiery cutie mark had burnt his flank to charcoal.

I waved him off. He shook his head. I glared. He grumbled, but left.

Trigger looked at the paperwork carpeting the conference table, then at me, his eyes alighting on my blood smear cutie mark. The bay was distantly visible out the window, despite the clouds, rain, and buildings.

He shook his head. "My little sis is older than you."

"She isn't," I said, though with dimples, she was cuter. I'd gotten his files an hour ago. Mine, too. Carne Asada had been truthful about not tracing back further than the hedge healer, or at least she hadn't recorded if she had learned I was an earl.

"Promoted, huh? What do I call you?"

I put down the quill and let my horn go dim as I stood. "If I told you my real name, your teeth would hit the floor and bounce. Gelding is good amongst the inner circle—"

"Glitter, without the P-word, otherwise?"

I nodded and smiled. "You remembered!"

"Funny. I thought I was on your punch-in-the nose list."

His crinkled smile betrayed his nervousness. I could smell it, too, as I approached. I tilted my head and kissed him on the lips. As he pulled back, I placed a hoof behind his ears to gently make it clear that was not what I wanted. He got with the program. I quickly realized that maybe Mustang may have had something to get jealous about!

We stepped apart, his eyes darting around in concern. He wiped the moisture off his lips. I knew what he would say before it came out of his mouth. "That was the k-kiss of d-death, wasn't it?"

I rapped him on his withers. To make the point, I turned around and snapped my tail at him as I sauntered back lazily to my seat, waggling the red bow while holding my tail aside to let him see anything he chose to look at. I had learned a thing or two in the last year on how to manipulate stallions. When I sat, I said, "No. Some idiot came up with that in a panic and I let ponies spread the rumor." I shrugged. "I don't roll like that, but don't try convincing ponies otherwise, okay? Too useful."

"O—kay."

"I have a proposition for you."

"That I can't refuse?"

I grinned toothily. "That you shouldn't refuse, for your own good. I was going to offer you gold bits and an airship ticket out of Equestria because you actually did treat me squarely. Then I got your files and read about you and your family. You are as good an actor as I am. Middle-level, not a tough at all. Manufacturing happy juice, but also a recruiter. You brought me to Carne Asada's attention... and she promoted you. I am still going to offer you that ticket, and a bonus, but I'm sure you've got bank accounts. But first, I need an executive secretary."

"A... secretary? What now?"

"Somepony smart enough that I can explain how I want the syndicate to do things without me understanding how it actually does those things, and see that they get done as I intended."

"You don't want to dirty your hooves."

I winked and raised a hoof. "Got it in one."

"Not a good idea."

"Yeah. Ya, think? I'm going to have to trust somepony, and now I think that pony may be you. It will eventually go off the rails. Any business association with me will become toxic. This is why I am reserving you an airship ticket."

"I see." He coughed and moved to the window. He put a hoof on the rain speckled glass. "If I refuse?"

"I know where your family lives—"

"You!" His eyes darted to me and his face darkened. Good trick, considering it was black already.

"Hey! I've got them airship tickets, too. Just because the colt of the household is a jackass doesn't mean they should suffer. I may be a princess now, but I'm not as heartless as Equestria's one is."

The pony plopped down as if all the energy had been sapped from him. Tears streamed from his eyes. Citron had stuck his head in to look. I briefly shook my head and the door quietly shut.

"Good. That's settled."

He said, "Uh-huh."

I dragged typewritten papers and files over. "When I read what you had been doing, especially in organizing my championship bout, I got excited. I need to get a whole bunch of things changed in the syndicate in the next few days to stabilize things. Some of the core businesses ought to go legit. If I get this right, I think some concerns can also be decentralized with a board of directors, maybe? Oh, and I also want to present the belt at the championship. I'm pretty sure Grape is going to win. Right, and pay White Towel. Hey! Are you listening to me?"

#

To be clear, I hired other secretaries to cross-check my information. We did work well together, even if I think Citron got a little jealous that I had Trigger sleep with me one night. Sadly, that was only because I passed out from exhaustion in my suite. I never got my chance to ride his stallion parts.

Before dinner, Broomhill Dare trotted in with a newspaper folded in her magic. With us alone, she unfolded it and placed it on the table so I could see the masthead of The Manehatten Times. The headline read,

Nameless Filly, Hero

Taking a black and white photo by firelight, then printing it in halftone newsprint, pretty much guarantees you'll get something horribly contrasty. The lack of full-spectrum light when capturing the image will pretty much ensure you can't guess the actual fur or mane colors of the subject ponies. Still... Blood. A blank flank filly in pigtails, her horn aglow, sat amongst a dozen ponies. Naked, she was drenched in sprayed blood. Her braided mane, her face, her coat. Drops and splashes of red. Her hooves. Her hooves pressed against a pony's chest over his wings. Magical nebulosity pulsed around torn rag compresses pressed against six ponies unceremoniously dragged to within range of her horn. And, with all that multi-furcated Levitate going on, it seemed she was winding a scarf around another pony's leg. The newsprint posterized her eyes to white as if they glowed with infernal energy.

I decided that was a reflection of the fire, but it looked spooky nevertheless.

I scanned the article to make sure that the filly really was nameless. I didn't hear the orange mare as she said it, but replayed in my mind. I asked, "The library?"

"Yeah. I found a newspaper article about the Earl of Grin Having's kidnapping. You are her."

"Uh, huh," I said, putting down the paper and saw the mare make a zipping motion with a hoof across her lips. I added, "I hope Proper Step doesn't get the daily edition." I ripped out the article and tucked it into my notebook.

"You are too cool for words, Aurora Midnight." She turned and strode out of the room, tail held high. "I'm proud to have you as a friend."

I scoffed.

Over the next six days, I got little sleep. I even worked in the private rail car shuttling between cities. One more skirmish did occur despite the warning that my syndicate ponies dutifully gave. After that, the war ended because we fought like timberwolves, I was told. That added three more ponies to my mental tally. I listened to the report personally because I needed the blood cut into my soul. I need it to spur me into finding a way to free ponies from their awful behaviors. I was certain it had do with cutie marks and royalty at some level, and was relieved that the bloody cutie mark I wore on my flank, while richly deserved, was still only painted on.

The syndicate transferred ownership and title of the apartment block Citron and his family lived in to him and his retired dad, and paid the taxes that involved.

Thanks to me exchanging pegasus mail with Crystal Skies' sister, Daylily, he and Pig Pen found themselves offered a partnership in a legitimate security and investigation firm in Manehatten. When they asked about it, I gave them a hug and suggested they ought to take the opportunity and leave the syndicate for good. I bankrolled them.

I pre-paid Broomhill Dare's entire Prancetown graduate tuition, including a generous stipend and dorms for however long she would need it, and told her I expected her to have the title of Doctor of Thaumatergy before her name before a few more years.

Safe... Well. Whole different story!

He was the son of the mare who owned the firm that laid down the keels that Carne Asada had sold the self-styled Prince of Storms and his yeti wives. That mare had done the negotiation in person. Safe was the heir to a dirty shipping fortune. I gave him Carne Asada's files and made sure he read them. They were the ones she had used to blackmail him. I then shot them with Force before his face and burnt them into blackened curled cinders. I told him, "Your mother is bad news," and left it at that.

With Trigger's help, I identified all Carne Asada's indentured servants (read: blackmailed). We picked out everypony we thought didn't start out corrupted, or had subsequently gone feral. Each received a letter they were instructed to burn. It contained an admonishment to go legit and reparations to help with that.

#

The day of the championship fights arrived. Broomhill Dare joined Citron and Peppermint to escort me into the venue. She froze though, when I opened a door into a locker room and found Grape on a massage table being worked on by an earth pony masseuse. I had been very worried she might throw herself at the dreamboat stallion. Despite her insistence that she wanted her relationship with Safe to remain monogamous, with this one purple stallion, I knew that given the opportunity, she'd bear his foal any day. In any case, I didn't think she was Grape's type.

Grape looked beyond her and said, "Hi, Gelding."

I waved and said, "I expect a good fight tonight." I caught his masseuse's big magenta eyes and motioned with my nose. The fellow got it the second time I motioned and hustled on out. I was the fight promoter, after all.

When Broomhill Dare merely stepped aside and still said nothing, I shoved her forward with two hooves on either flank.

"This is Broomhill Dare. She's a big fan." She stumbled forward and I magicked her tail out the way so I could shut the door.

#

I got both her and Pig Pen front seats at the arena.

The view from the sky box, the glassed in management and supervision offices for the former airship assembly plant, wasn't what I'd hoped for. The fight ticket consisted of six events, including wrestling, athletics, a battle of the bands, and a tag team before the championship bout. One event was interviews with sports professionals and reporters. I could hear well enough, and the concession's cornbread carrots on a stick and curly garlic hay fries were passable. The tag team included pegasi, so I actually could see them fighting, but I'd already pretty much decided the night before I wasn't going to teleport in with the championship belt from the sky box.

My security knew my plans, of course. Keeping it a secret from the rest of my syndicate operatives took a bit more work. The blue dye and the old costume less so. Patience, attention to detail, and knowing how to act allowed me to squeeze into the press gaggle, in my grimoire cloak with Citron at my side. I finally got a good unobstructed "front-row" view of the fight: Dragonheart vs Punch Drunk. I smiled broadly. Two lithe, but muscly, earth pony stallions, both sexy.

Because of too many undecideds, lack of decisions by knock-outs, low point counts in wins by decision, and having lost the championship match against Secretariat, Punch Drunk was the 3 to 2 underdog, which I learned was pretty good. It didn't reflect his chances of winning, only my sports book's chances of making money on the way it expected ponies to bet.

As I watched the purple pony avoid the attacks of his bold opponent like embodied smoke, I felt lucky it wasn't me in the arena tonight. Broomhill Dare had had the right of it: I had won my championship by subterfuge verging on cheating, and calculated luck. This bout was a constant dance of brute muscle against grace that continued for five riveting minutes until the bell rang. Neither pony drew blood, but sweat dripped from each stallion as if rain in a thunderstorm. There was lightning, even if it was only in the hearts and minds of those who watched. Dirt and straw stuck to them where they had rolled and skidded away from each way to avoid a grapple or a strike. Punch Drunk did manage to land a punch on Dragonheart's flank during the first minute of the fight as they tumbled together without otherwise touching. Punch Drunk also got a point when Dragonheart tripped during the third minute, though it was only in response to feint after a parried attack.

The two fighters met in the center of the arena and hoof-bumped gloves. They didn't have to wait long for the referee to jog back out from the judges to grab Punch Drunk's right forehoof, making the stallion rear. "Punch Drunk, in a decision by points, your new cham-peen!"

The ref did the pirouette thing with Grape on two legs, then paraded him around the arena as the fans shouted his name, cheered, threw roses, and stomped their hooves. The photogs, still corralled by security, snapped away with their long lenses, not even noticing as I stripped off the cloak and extracted from the duffle bag the championship belt I had received last year. The flowers were refreshed, and the bright work polished to a perfect sheen. I placed it over my head, then shouldered the fellow next to me.

"Excuse me, please."

I'd been somepony in a hoodie next to him a moment before. Now he blinked at the blue mane and fur, and the familiar dark costume with the silver peytral moon. A unicorn. He gasped.

Citron said, "Yeah. It's Princess Grim. Could you step aside, please?"

He didn't wait. He shoved ponies aside and opened the gates. That released the reporters and the photographers to gallop into the arena—and Peppermint and Citron, and ponies they'd tasked to help. I felt like the world orbited by the sun, the moon, and the stars as I also crossed the arena. I was aware of the shutter snaps and the lenses pointed at me as much as at the new champion and White Towel who galloped out to meet the both of us. The old green unicorn asked, "Is that you, Gelding?"

I didn't answer him. Instead I stopped in front of Grape and smiled into his dreamboat magenta eyes. "Congratulations, Champ!" I told him. I craned my neck forward and kissed him.

When he returned my advance with wet gusto, the audience roared.

Did you really think I was going to miss the opportunity? Come on, now!

I levitated the belt over its new owner, then posed for a photo with Grape with White Towel between us. With Grape's permission, I also made sure White Towel got that picture of him with me wearing the belt so he had a complete set of pictures for his trophy wall.

In the commotion and celebration during the after party that evening, I slipped away. Teleport proved useful.

I left a note for Citron telling him not to follow. I left a note for Trigger advising him to leave Equestria. I sent letters to all the borough chiefs I trusted with a notice that I had abdicated, which also stated I hoped they would heed my advice and take most of their operations legit by working together.

I crowned nopony.

I had done all I thought I could do to prevent the syndicate from dashing itself to pieces on shoals.

I had learned everything I could.

I left Baltimare.

Time to start over.


* Don't tell her, but her unicorn thaumaturgy granted her wish to survive.

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