• Published 20th Mar 2021
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Feathered Hearts - Continuation and Chronicles - Firesight

The Griffon Kingdom has overcome countless challenges and adversaries over its long history. But can it survive the coming of humanity and the return of an ancient foe?

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4: Promotion or Punishment

Author's Note:

This chapter is a heavily edited, expanded and updated version of the first half of Feathered Heart: Chapter 3. You are not only invited but strongly encouraged to check out the original.

Thanks go to my prereading crew of AJ_Aficionado, Silentwoodfire, and SIlverblade5, whose inputs and edits make my works far better. Appreciated, gang!

When Gilda and Fortrakt reported the confrontation between her and the brown-skinned human to Giraldi, he had reacted with some alarm and agreed it had to be reported up the chain of command immediately. He did so even though he understood her reaction once Fortrakt explained what had happened, saying that other griffons had reported the human civilians could be annoyingly ignorant of griffon culture and customs at times.

Still, the fact remained that her attack on their human guests might have caused a diplomatic incident, and thus, she expected a severe reprimand at the bare minimum, whether written or verbal, the next day. There was even a chance that Fortrakt was right and she’d find herself thrown out of the Auxiliary Guard on her tail. And worse, she might drag Fortrakt down with her.

Thus, she wasn’t too surprised when she and Fortrakt were ordered to report to the Tribune’s office early the next morning. Nor was she surprised by Giraldi’s presence, given he was her Century’s ranking enlisted and had made the initial report.

What did surprise her was the presence of the Ambassador to Equestria, to say nothing of the coy gleam in Narada’s eyes that completely belied her stern expression.

“So, Decanus Behertz… it would seem you did your level best to further relations between our two races last night,” she began ominously, her claws clasped in front of her.

“He groped me, sir,” she stated as she stood at rigid attention before the Tribune, Fortrakt at her side. “Whether he meant to or not, he groped me. I admit I overreacted, but I was tired and hurting from wearing my dress uniform all day, and that action pushed me over the edge.”

“And do you really think that’s an excuse, Behertz?” she asked, to which Gilda wisely remained silent. “We should all be glad for the quick action and cool head of Gladio Gletscher, without whom this incident could have been far worse.”

“With respect, I wasn’t going to kill him, sir,” Gilda felt compelled to offer. “Scare the droppings out of him? Yes. Make him bleed and break the offending paw? Probably, to make sure the lesson took. But not kill him.”

“I believe you. Or else we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” she said, studying Gilda closely. “Nevertheless, it would seem some form of action is called for. So just what do you propose I do that would both satisfy human concerns over the safety of their civilians, and the Kingdom’s need for discipline in their soldiers?”

“Whatever you wish, sir. I attacked a human guest who was acting in ignorance, and very possibly ruined any chance of an alliance or trade agreement between us. I deserve whatever I’m given, so all I ask is that you not punish Gladio Gletscher for this incident. As you say, he kept this from becoming far worse,” she finished as Fortrakt gave her a surprised and grateful look.

“So you’re taking full responsibility for your conduct, then?” Ambassador Strenus prompted, speaking up for the first time.

“I am,” she confirmed, closing her eyes tightly for a moment. “Even if it gets me dismissed from the Guard.”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” Narada nodded slowly at her statement, “but it will not be necessary, Decanus. This meeting was a test, and you passed it. Your devotion to duty and willingness to accept responsibility are two traits the Kingdom values in its soldiers as much as battlefield valor. And thus, it’s time to give you more of that responsibility, which in my mind, is at least a year overdue.”

She then reached into her desk and pulled out several new pieces of armor and insignia, placing them on the granite surface before Gilda and Fortrakt. There were two sets; one for each of them, and their eyes went wide when they recognized what they represented.

“Ancestors Past…” her partner proclaimed in wonder as his gaze roamed over the top of the wooden table before Tribune Narada.

His eyes were gleaming and Gilda couldn’t blame him—the new armor pieces before him included a metallic shoulder plate and another pauldron, still leather but bearing an insignia of a spear crossed with a single feather. They indicated he was jumping two full ranks, skipping over Decanus all the way to Second Spear, making him ranking enlisted of the Turma. On the eagless’ side, though, was a pair of new metallic vambraces to replace her leather ones, an improved leather vest that would be difficult but not impossible for blades or bolts to penetrate… and a thin metal chain.

She stared at the latter balefully for a moment, wondering again if this was some sort of trick or another test. But it didn’t alter its form under her gaze—it was indeed a Command Chain; one that could only be worn by the lowest level of junior officer the Kingdom possessed—a Decurion. Its presence meant she was receiving far more than a jump in rank; it was a sign that the Kingdom wanted her as not just a soldier, but a leader of them, acting with authority that went even beyond her rank. But why?

“Stand proud, soldiers of the Kingdom.” Tribune Narada, behind her table, declared. Both Gilda and Fortrakt immediately stood to attention as two pairs of griffons, one on each of the Tribune’s sides, grabbed the armor pieces with their beaks and presented them to the two Guards—it was a very old and perhaps unnecessary tradition, but it had never been abandoned by the tradition-worshiping Kingdom. “For superb service to your Queen, to the Guard, and to your Century, this armor is well-earned. Accept them and your new ranks with honor!”

Before an astonished Fortrakt could reach for his new armor, Gilda spoke, holding up a wing to forestall him. “Is this a joke, Tribune?”

Fortrakt gave her a stunned look, but Gilda’s eyes were squarely on her superior officer.

Giraldi, who was standing beside Narada, smirked slightly. “Come on, Behertz. Don’t want your uppity team leader calling you ‘sir’?” he asked. He was quickly silenced when Narada gave him a glare.

“Is there a problem, Behertz?” the Tribune asked more coolly, looking back at Gilda. “It is a long-overdue honor, given you have served with distinction for the past three years. If it hadn’t been for your lack of a sponsor, you would have been given these over a year ago. So I would think you would be overjoyed to finally receive them.”

Gilda chose her next words carefully. “Tribune, I mean no disrespect. But I came in here expecting severe punishment, not promotion! I simply don’t understand why my actions last night would lead to a rather—” Gilda looked at the armor pieces offered to her, then back to her superior “—lucrative outcome, jumping me and my partner two entire ranks. It is completely unheard of, sir.”

“She isn’t wrong.” The Ambassador chuckled in his characteristic baritone; a deep, rich sound that emanated from his throat and lungs. “Might as well tell her, Tribune.”

Tribune Narada looked at the elder griffon with a frown, but nodded. “Very well. This was going to be part of your briefing, but I’ll tell you now.” She faced Gilda and Fortrakt. “You are not the only ones who feel at fault for what happened. As of this morning, Ambassador Strenus received a formal apology from the human ambassador for last night’s altercation. In it, he blamed not us, or even you, but their own civilians for the incident.”

Fortrakt frowned. “But that wasn’t their fault, sir. It was nobody’s fault. They were just trying to be friendly and didn’t know what they were doing.”

“I agree. But it turns out that Humans are a bit sensitive in matters such as these,” the Ambassador clarified for the Tribune. “Not unlike ponies, really. They seem rather invested in making this ‘first contact’ work. Having spent some time with the humans in Equestria, I believe their logic on the move was to preemptively address any potential issues that could result from this incident.

“So, they issued an apology, and asked that we provide some escorts for their civilians to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Gilda frowned, still making no move to accept her new armor. “That doesn’t explain the promotions, sir.”

“We were getting to that, Behertz,” Narada replied with more patience than Gilda would have normally given her credit for. “For with this apology comes an excellent opportunity.”

“I have spoken with my human counterparts,” Ambassador Strenus continued for Narada. The Tribune, in turn, let him speak. “I suggested that to make sure the incident does not repeat itself, we would have the parties involved… reconcile and work with each other.”

Gilda’s eyes widened. “Reconcile?” she repeated, feeling a sudden sense of dread.

“We’ve made arrangements with the human Ambassador, and he has agreed to my proposal. Accordingly, you two are now assigned as escorts to the human civilians involved in the incident,” Strenus further explained.

She couldn’t see how Fortrakt reacted, but Gilda’s expression turned to one of distaste. “So we are to be human cub-sitters then?” she asked, trying and not succeeding from keeping an annoyed tone from her voice.

“In a manner of speaking.” The Ambassador chuckled while Narada just smirked, leaving Gilda wondering if she was being punished after all. “That was the proposal we presented to the humans. For what better way to foster friendly relationships than to have the parties involved during last night’s perfectly understandable but avoidable altercation come together to settle any misunderstandings?”

Gilda could think of several far more satisfying ways to do so, most involving a duel and ending with the ignorant and intrusive human thoroughly thrashed, but she held her tongue.

“The civilians are being housed with the soldiers and Ambassador, under the former’s protection. Accordingly, we’re making you the military liaison to their Turma of soldiers here in the city, and to make sure you can meet them on equal terms, you require an equivalent rank as their Turma’s commander. Or as close as we can get.”

Gilda scowled. This time, she opened her beak to protest, but the Ambassador gave her no chance, his eyes gleaming. “Of course, that was the story we gave them. Your jobs, Decurion Behertz and Second Spear Gletscher, are to observe them.”

Fortrakt blinked. “What do you mean by that, Ambassador?”

“Lest you both think this is some complicated and backwards form of punishment, it in fact presents an excellent opportunity to gather information on them,” Tribune Narada clarified. “While doing your duties, we want you to watch them closely. Learn everything you can about their culture, their outlook, their technology and their weapons… basically, anything and everything you can glean from them.”

Gilda exchanged a look with Fortrakt, noting from his troubled expression he seemed to have reached the same conclusion as her. “In other words, you want us to spy on them?”

“Not the word I would use. But yes,” the Ambassador confirmed.

“No offense, Ambassador,” Gilda began slowly, “and forgive me if I speak out of turn, but this makes no sense to me. We have known about the humans for three years. So why are my partner and I only now being assigned to a task that should have been done long ago by the Council of Crows?” she said in reference to the Kingdom’s centuries-old intelligence service.

“Behertz!” Tribune Narada began to scold her, but the Ambassador’s left wing flared slightly, signaling Narada to pause.

“Decurion Behertz has a valid question, Tribune. And to answer, while this may be hard to believe, the short answer is that the Council of Crows was completely unable to examine humanity,” the Ambassador stated. He lowered his wing as he looked towards Gilda and Fortrakt.

“As to why, in the first year after contact, we had no way to observe them, given they remained on their side of the portal. Equestria invited the humans into their country, but they demurred. The excuse was that they were taking precautions—that they were making sure that no diseases would easily spread from their homeworld to ours and vice versa, which at the time seemed a reasonable enough concern—especially given they were getting over a recent pandemic.

“But while I never voiced it, I suspected there was more to it. It was only during the year after that they finally started coming in through the portal the Equestrians made.

“It may surprise you to know that despite being one species, they do not have a royal line, or any single system of governance. They came under one banner called the United Nations, but apparently that body has little real power, only functioning as a glorified debate society where consensus is nonexistent. It exists mostly to air grievances that don’t get resolved.”

Gilda had the thought that such an arrangement sounded suspiciously like the Gryphon Senate, but she didn’t voice it as the Ambassador began to pace in front of them. “Far from being unified, these humans reside in many separate countries, each with their own form of government, and have an incredibly wide range of different cultures and passions. What this means is that we are dealing with a very complex species with outliers that go beyond any of the other races we have fought and befriended. Yet those complexities themselves remain almost completely unexplored.

“Granted, we have discovered some core similarities they all share; physical weaknesses and capabilities. However, if our history tells us anything, it’s that our enemies and allies constantly evolve to cover whatever weaknesses they have developed. And from what little we’ve learned of these humans… they have had constant practice on that end.” His expression turned troubled.

“Constant practice, sir?” Fortrakt asked before Gilda could.

“Indeed. They are far from the biggest or strongest beings on their planet. Nor do they have any sort of natural weapons or magic, and yet they are indeed the apex predators of their world. Lacking natural rivals, they have fought many wars amongst themselves, including two that apparently engulfed their entire world and slew many millions.

“Such casualties would be catastrophic here. And yet, far from wiping themselves out, they thrive. For though millions die, they number in the billions.”

He stared at them, letting the incomprehensible numbers sink in. “Even aside from what we have learned of their surprisingly violent history, that alone means they are absolutely not to be trifled with, and we underestimate them at our peril.”

Gilda and Fortrakt looked at each other again. The former reflected that Ambassador Strenus was an old-fashioned griffon, whose rise to power was not through politics, but by his stalwart reputation built by his many years of service as a veteran soldier and leader. So if he was giving these humans very high praises, she immediately sat up and took notice.

Gilda was not much for reading undertones, but Strenus’ words were clear—the humans were potentially dangerous foes that, if met on the battlefield, would have to be fought with as much strength as the Kingdom could muster. “Then if I may speak bluntly, sir… you are saying that we must prepare to meet them as enemies as well as allies.”

“What I am saying is we need much more information than we have, in order to make informed decisions and act appropriately in our dealings with them,” the Ambassador clarified carefully, leaving Gilda in some admiration of his diplomatic tact—the arts of indirection and understatement were ones she completely lacked. “Information that can only be gleaned from direct interaction with them on a more… personal level.

“Lest I give you the wrong impression, make no mistake, Decurion—we want them as friends, not foes. I have high hopes that an understanding will be forged, and your assignment can further that goal. At the same time, we must be cautious and have… contingencies in case things turn sour.

“By observing them closely, you can supply the Kingdom with the knowledge to help us in either instance. Make no mistake; this is a critically important assignment we are offering you two. For the Kingdom and all Gryphons everywhere, will you accept?”

Gilda and Fortrakt took a moment, drinking in the old ambassador’s words and request. And then, with a glance and nod at each other, the two Guards saluted with a solid bang, thumping their claws to their old armor for the final time.

Strenus nodded with a smile. “The Kingdom appreciates your service,” he declared. “Reap the rewards of your dedication, Gryphons of the Kingdom, and accept your new armor.”

Fortrakt moved first, removing his left pauldron and replacing it with the metallic shoulder plate. He gave the securing belts a hard tug as his claws moved towards the second pauldron, swapping it as well. Gilda then removed her leather braces, exchanging them for the metallic replacements. Once she secured them around her forelegs—a snug, but not uncomfortable fit, and she was relieved to feel that they had a leather barrier so as not to grind against her limbs—her claws shot towards the vest.

She snapped her beak in annoyance when the soldier presenting the vest came forward to help her, making him wisely back away as she finally wore the leather clothing without assistance. However, she would not touch the chain.

“Is there something wrong, young Behertz? I would have thought you would be delighted for that item to be included,” Strenus asked. Gilda looked at the Ambassador, his expression more curious than anything.

“I appreciate the promotion, but I do not believe I will need a Command Chain for this assignment, Ambassador.”

Giraldi snorted, though only for a second before Narada gave him a look. Strenus just smiled. “Do you honestly feel that way, or are you afraid of shouldering the additional authority that comes along with this Chain?” When Gilda didn’t answer, he continued, “Your new assignment will have you responsible for the safety of our guests. The Command Chain will assist you in that. That it is made of simple iron indicates you act with diplomatic authority. An authority you may very well need.”

“How so, Ambassador?” Fortrakt asked before Gilda could.

“By keeping the humans safe.” Tribune Narada was the one that answered. “You may not know it, but humans arriving in force have gotten a lot of soldiers talking. We’ve been having reports from the Centurions and Decurions that the younger soldiers have been wanting to test the new species’ mettle directly.”

“Not only the soldiers, Tribune,” Giraldi added. “Even among the populace, there’s been talk of wanting to wrestle with the intelligent apes.”

Tribune Narada’s face scrunched with exasperation, but Strenus just roared with laughter. “Griffons will be griffons,” he said rather jovially, chuckling a few more times before he shook his head. “Still, let’s not try and ruin this. The humans are concerned about the safety of their civilians, who I understand are not generally trained fighters outside of their soldiers.

“Her Majesty has directed that they be given protected status to preserve our negotiations with them. Accordingly, on the direction of the Queen, the Prefect of Arnau has decreed as of dawn this morning that humans are off-limits for challenges from civilians,” he mused. “So now we must also do the same for the military. Tribune, could you issue orders that fighting the humans, or challenging them, would be grounds for severe punishment, up to and including confinement?”

Narada nodded, her talons plucking a quill from its sheath. “As the Queen wishes, sir.” She dipped it in ink and began to scratch out the order on a fresh sheet of parchment. “It will be disseminated immediately and read to all soldiers by midday.”

Gilda closed her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath. When she was sure the Ambassador or the Tribune would not speak, she asked, “So this Command Chain is meant to give me power to stop trouble before it rears its ugly beak?”

“It is also a test,” Narada replied as she finished writing the order, and then passed it to an aide to transmit. “If you wish to know why you have finally been promoted, it’s because you finally got your sponsorship. Somegriffon important has commended you, suggesting that you have great potential as a leader.”

Gilda blinked. That was… surprising. Her mind began recalling names; potential griffons who had enough clout to have their commendation listened to. Tribune Scipio sprang immediately to mind, though if it was him, he’d have recommended her to the Wind Knights as he knew that was her aim. The other names that occurred to her were far less likely, and she found herself unable to guess. “Who, sir?”

The Tribune waited a beat before answering. “Your sire.”

Gilda’s eyes narrowed. “That must be a mistake.”

“I assure you it is not. Amalrich indeed sent the commendation. Your sire is strict, but not unfair. He recognizes your determination and devotion to duty, and he has reciprocated. He still cannot recommend you to the Wind Knights, where I know your true desire lies, but he believes you have earned an officer rank. I, in turn, believe you have earned the command chain your new duty requires.”

Gilda looked towards the Ambassador, the Tribune, Giraldi and Fortrakt in turn. It seemed every griffon’s eyes were on her as she considered the words, then closed her eyes and nodded. Slowly and hesitantly, she took the chain and placed it around her neck, sitting back to fasten it behind her with the clasp that instantly locked the two ends together. Once done, she fell forward back to a sitting position, and then rose to all fours, standing at attention again to present herself.

The griffons that presented the armor pieces, all Narada’s aides, immediately fell back in line to the sides of her office. The Tribune stood on all fours and walked towards the newly minted Second Spear and Decurion, nodding at their new appearance before giving them a salute—promotion was the one instance where a higher rank would salute a lower one, as a simple measure of respect for having earned it. Gilda and Fortrakt returned it instantly, then bared their throats deeply in turn.

“Stand fast. Both of you honor the Kingdom,” Narada declared. “Now serve with distinction.”

“For Queen and For Realm,” Gilda and Fortrakt gave the ritual reply as one, saluting one final time.

Gilda, Giraldi and Fortrakt exited the office a few minutes later, leaving the Ambassador, Tribune and her aides behind.

There wasn’t much ceremony afterwards; just the Ambassador offering them a foreleg clasp and wishing them luck before they were sent forth on their new assignment. It was just a few minutes later before the trio of griffons found themselves walking the worn stone streets of the sixth level, towards the edge of the battlement wall.

As they neared their destination, Gilda couldn’t feel anything but the additional weight of her newest armor and the cold steel of her chain around her neck. The latter felt unnaturally heavy, as if it was trying to drag her to the ground. Every ten steps or so, she’d look down at her neck just to see if the chains were still there, half-hoping that maybe this was all just a dream and she was in fact being thrown in the mines. Which she almost found preferable at that moment.

“No matter how many times you look, the Chain is still there, sir,” Giraldi declared without looking at Gilda or even pausing on his steps.

“Don’t call me that,” Gilda replied dully.

“Can’t do, sir. You’re an officer now, and I’m just a lowly First Spear,” Giraldi replied, the amusement unmistakable in his voice. Gilda grumbled but didn’t look back, trying to avoid griffons walking in the opposite direction.

“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you, Giraldi?” a jovial Fortrakt ventured, in too good a mood after his unexpected promotion for Gilda to drag him down.

“What, by having a younger upstart be promoted over me to be my superior?” Giraldi chuckled. “Oh, Ancestors, yes! Instead of having one more beak depending on me for direction, I get to lean on them instead! Such are the joys of a simple soldier.”

Gilda dashed three steps forward before she turned to face him, her eyes narrowing at the older griffon. The two tiercels stopped in their tracks, recognizing her unhappiness. “Are you really okay with this, First Spear?” she asked, tugging at the chain with a talon. “You’ve been in the service far longer than I have. If anyone deserves this opportunity and chain, it would be you, Giraldi!”

“Well, I don’t have a distinguished sire like you, Behertz,” Giraldi replied with a chuckle, only to wisely stop when the eagless’ eyes narrowed and her wings slowly spread open. He quickly bared his neck and turned formal. “Sorry, sir. Just trying to make light of the situation.”

Gilda deflated, reminding herself not to take out her fears or frustrations on him. He was one of the Turma leaders she liked and respected, after all. She may have needled him once in a while; even joked on occasion that his mild demeanor and the lack of flaunting of his position made him only slightly superior to her, but it had been all in good fun.

But here he was now, deferring to her and even saluting her. That finally clinched it; the whole situation was real and there was no escaping from it. “Please don’t call me that,” she muttered in defeat, and this time, Giraldi obeyed.

For a minute, there was silence as they continued on, at least until they arrived at a cross-street. Fortrakt and Giraldi looked at each other, while Gilda stood there, looking lost. Fortrakt looked a little unsure before he mock-coughed, gaining the attention of his two superiors. “By the way, Giraldi, where are we supposed to meet the humans?”

“They have a Turma-sized force staying at the Winged Hall Inn. According to Ambassador Strenus, we’re supposed to meet them there in five minutes. The humans leased the place and posted their soldiers in front, so regardless of the new orders, do us all a favor and try not to start any fights,” he suggested dryly.

“No promises,” Fortrakt replied, his voice still jovial. “If my partner and superior officer charges in, it is my duty as a lowly subordinate to follow.”

Gilda raised her head to stare at Fortrakt. Sensing her mood, he instantly turned impassive; his face devoid of any emotion. However, as she turned to continue walking, she could hear him instantly break his bearing again to chuckle softly with Giraldi. They clearly weren’t going to stop making fun of the situation. And they weren’t going to stop jabbing her with jokes, at least behind her back.

Strangely enough, she didn’t feel mad at them—the opposite, actually. Maybe it was the fact that they were taking all this in stride or that they were still comfortable enough around her to make jests? Whatever it was, it somehow lessened the weight the chains seemed to have.

Crows, Gilda thought, what would the Ancestors say that I needed those two to cheer me up after getting such a reward?

As they approached the rampart, Gilda gave the signal towards the Guards posted on the battlement. They recognized her and very casually signaled back a reply. However, as Gilda got closer, they did a double-take, hastily baring their necks and thumping their talons to their chests when they saw her new armor and command chain, recognizing her sudden elevation in rank.

Far from gratified, Gilda could only sigh at the display—it would be a while before she would get used to soldiers saluting or greeting her in deference. “Dweebs.” Not wanting to think about it, her wings spread as she took a running leap through the crenel and off into the cool morning air, trying to find some solace in flight.

Narada’s office was located high on the sixth level, so it was expected that the party would be greeted by at least one aerial patrol on their way down. She gave one a signal, and the patrolling Guards moved easily out of the way as they made it back all the way to the third level without further incident. The three griffons aimed for a landing platform there, and once their claws and paws were safely on the ground, Gilda studied their surroundings before she flexed her wings, folding them on her sides.

There were a lot of griffons and ponies on the receiving and festival areas of the third level—far more than usual, actually. Gilda guessed that their presence was most likely because of the human visitors, filling up the hotels that existed there. The Kingdom rarely got visits from foreigners, with Equestria being the only one to visit every year to mark the Armistice. They would dispatch a dignitary, be it a Duchess or Duke, or a member of the Royal Family itself in the form of one of the four Alicorn Princesses or the two unicorn Princes.

They had cooler relationships with most other neighboring nations. They were on decent terms with Saddle Arabia and their vassal states of Graze, Steedgypt and the Ottomares in southeast Aresia, engaging in trade but little in the way of diplomacy. It wasn’t so much personal as societal—the two sides liked each other’s wares and markets, but they also casually disdained each other, either due to their markedly different cultures or the predator/prey dynamic. They did extensive business with the Minotaurs, who provided much of their machinery but were in the end just a small island nation who dealt with everybeing who could pay their price.

They were at least honest in their business dealings, even if their rates were steep. In contrast, the Kingdom had good reason to distrust some of their other neighbors. They were in an ongoing cold war with the Ibexian Ascendency to the east; a longstanding rivalry that was marked by yearly skirmishes over the Pearl Mountains that marked their border, and had occasionally erupted into outright warfare over the centuries. They had likewise once fought a war with a dragon clan they had previously allied with during the invasion of Equestria, and then kept all dragons at wing’s length even after defeating them—a preference that was fairly easy to enforce given the dragon lands were almost half the world away.

On the other wing, the Zebrican Confederation to the south of the Servalanian Sea was too loose a union to present a united government they could negotiate with, and the griffons never really got along with the various Diamond Dog tribes, even when they’d been allies of convenience back in Imperial times. The Abyssinians were less an independent race than well-paid stewards to the Saddle Arabians, as they made excellent spies, servants and sentries who kept rodents from consuming their graineries.

And then there were the Changelings, who were in hiding and the Kingdom had no formal contact with anyway. But nor did any other nation; they were in disfavor with pretty much every race of the world at that point following the failed attack of Chrysalis’ hive on Canterlot. Though it was understood that they possessed many different hives who saw each other as rivals and acted independently of each other, the griffon nation had never trusted them even going back to Imperial times, when they sided with Equestria during the war.

All in all, she somewhat grudgingly admitted, the Kingdom could use a few new allies, and she was increasingly coming to think that the new arrivals did have something to offer. Add the fact that these arrivals were also a newly discovered species from an entirely different world wielding very exotic technology, and it was understandable why the third level looked as busy as it did.

Walking past a few more shops, Gilda, Giraldi and Fortrakt spotted the Winged Hall Inn. Its design was definitely griffon in aesthetic, using smoothed white stone walls and hard edges. All in all, it looked more like a small castle than an inn. As they approached, Gilda could see a few human soldiers posted at the front gate; their black metal tubes slung over their shoulders and held at an angle in front of them.

They also seemed to have borrowed some wooden barriers that the Peacemakers used to cordon off an area, turning them into a temporary barricade that discouraged anygriffon from going in.

As they approached, one of the human soldiers raised a hand. Gilda wondered if it was a signal of some kind, but then she realized that she had no idea what their signals meant. A part of her worried what would happen if her ignorance could cause a misunderstanding that sparked some sort of conflict, just as had happened with Marco the previous night.

Maybe as a regular Guard, the thought wouldn’t have crossed her mind so easily, but now? Gilda looked down at the Command Chain again. She had responsibilities now. Her actions would now be scrutinized and could have outsized consequences. Once again, she felt the weight of the chain dragging her down, still uncertain whether she wanted it or was in any way worthy of it.

As it turned out, she didn’t have to worry as the human soldier explained his intent loud and clear. “Halt! Identify yourself!” he ordered in Equestrian.

To Gilda’s relief, Giraldi took a step forward. “Let me take care of this,” he whispered, to which the eagless nodded gratefully. The older griffon then turned back to face the human and replied in Equestrian, impressing Gilda when he did so without much of an accent.

“Giraldi, First Spear of the Auxiliary Guards under Centurion Batz. I am escorting Decurion Behertz and Second Spear Gletscher, as per arrangements made by Ambassador Strenus and Ambassador Goldberg.”

Gilda tried to get into a relaxed stance, but when she heard the discussion between the two human soldiers behind the one Giraldi was addressing, she stiffened.

“Behertz? That’s the one who took down Marco.” One of the soldiers whispered—apparently, the humans really didn’t know that griffon hearing was good enough to pick up their muted conversations at that range. “Which one is she?”

“He said the griffon was a female. You want to go check?” his partner whispered back in a tone she could only describe as amused.

“What? Shit, no way, dog. I don’t want to get the same treatment Flip-Boy got.”

“Why not? You didn’t mind getting smacked by that chick you hit on in Okinawa.”

“Yeah, well, she just slapped me, and she wasn’t a two hundred-pound mythological creature who could fly and had man-shredding talons,” he rejoined. “Look at them. Marco got off easy if you ask me.”

The very mention of his name got Gilda to close her eyes as she reminisced about the previous night. She began to feel lightheaded and fire spread out from her stomach. The memory of his touch spilled forth embarrassment and anger she had yet to settle, even with a fitful night of sleep. Her mind began to wander, her imagination feeding her the brown human’s image pinned down on the ground, his eyes wide in fear.

“Gilda,” Fortrakt called out in a warning tone, derailing Gilda’s train of thought. Her eyes snapped open as she looked at her partner, now her subordinate.

“What?” Gilda asked, somewhat shortly.

“Your wings are stretching,” Fortrakt pointed out in a low whisper of his own. “Am I going to have to tackle you again?”

Gilda took a deep breath. She reminded herself again that she was now not just a soldier, but an officer of the Kingdom—that she had to control herself. Giving out a sharp exhale, she shook her head, willing her wings to sheath themselves. “I’m fine,” she insisted, even if she wasn’t sure herself.

Fortrakt looked like he was about to say more but Giraldi and the human soldier stopped conversing. The former then looked at Gilda, and she was mentally chagrined when he saluted her.

“Sir, you are cleared to go in. This is Sergeant Robert Reyes,” Giraldi introduced, his Equish faltering slightly with the rank. “He’ll lead you to Lieutenant Nantz”—the older griffon had difficulty in both pronouncing the rank and title this time—“who will introduce you to your new charges. Know that he is the commanding officer of this turma-sized detachment and bears roughly the same rank as you, so treat him as your equal.”

Gilda hesitated before she saluted back. “Thanks, First Spear,” was all she said.

The older griffon nodded. “Good luck, sir,” he whispered as he passed. He then went on his way, walking a few paces away before spreading his wings and taking flight. “If you need me, I’ll be outside with the Turma.”

The human soldier that greeted them took a step forward. “Decurion Behertz?” he asked, his eyes looking towards Gilda.

“Yes,” the eagless replied as her eyes did a quick study of the uniformed human.

He looked a bit different from the rest of the soldiers; his green-patterned uniform was slightly modified with cloth wrapped around his neck, yet somehow it didn’t seem out of place. On further inspection, Gilda was finally able to actually look at the human’s face from this close without emotion running through her.

To her surprise, she found him neither wholly alien nor ugly. His face was symmetrical; his facial structure quite similar not to only ponies, but also griffons. The top of his head was covered with some kind of hat that appeared to be made of the same mottled fabric as his uniform, with a short brim. His cheeks were sharp, his nose melding well with them in the center. He gave her a smile, his lips reminiscent of a pony’s (though smaller) while his teeth had a more predatory feature to them, with visibly sharp canines. His eyes, while not large, were sharp and piercing, fully ranged in emotion and alive.

Then there was his scent—somewhat sweet and not wholly unpleasant, which struck her as really odd. Even when ponies used griffon soaps, they still smelled like ponies. The humans just smelled… good.

“Sergeant Reyes, Third Marine Division,” the human introduced himself, thankfully ignorant of the thoughts running through her head. “Come this way, please.”

The collection of soldiers at the entrance gave way as Reyes led them in. A lot of them greeted the sergeant by his name despite his title, which sounded like a position of command. He wasn’t saluted, though. Granted, she had no idea how high the rank of Sergeant was, so she kept quiet as she and Fortrakt were led through the entrance of the Inn.

The first thing Gilda noticed was that the Winged Hall’s interior was very well-lit, with the firegems burning brighter than usual in their wall sconces. It was also in very sharp contrast compared to the outer, more Gryphon-based design—the inside was best described as posh; painted in softer colors with a hint of silver. There were some small picture frames or paintings hanging around, while the windows were draped with curtains, making it clear that the hotel was intended less for griffons than foreign visitors who preferred softer and gentler surroundings.

There were still griffon touches, though. Wooden and occasionally stone furniture was spread around in the form of long benches and tables. Some of those tables had vases, though instead of the flowers that the ponies would use, they contained more practical river-polished rocks and colored sticks that didn’t require the constant care and tending that came easily for earth ponies but not so readily for griffons.

Other tables had simple griffon art like small stone sculptures, while beneath them, the floor was covered with a very Zebra-styled carpet—a highly stylized flower with multi-colored flying petals in a red backdrop—that was enchanted to quickly shed dirt and moisture, making it easy to clean.

Sergeant Reyes walked the two griffons through the halls. Fortrakt looked absolutely amazed by the opulence while Gilda was less impressed; some of the hotels she had visited in Equestria were far more sophisticated. She was more interested in the human soldiers that they passed, noticing that quite a few of them were no longer armed with the long metal tubes. They did wear elaborate belts, though, which held various tools at their hips. She couldn’t even begin to guess their function, though she did note the largest and most prominent one appeared to be sheathed like a blade and have its handle exposed for rapid access by his right set of talons.

As they moved towards the stairs, Gilda found the silence a bit unbecoming. Thinking of taking a stab at fostering friendly relations, she said, “You certainly have a lot of soldiers present here.”

Reyes turned his head for just a moment, before he continued looking forward, not breaking stride. “We’re not soldiers, Decurion,” he replied. “We’re Marines.”

Fortrakt blinked. “Wait, you’re not soldiers?”

“Nope. A proud Marine of the Corps,” Reyes answered, his tone a mix of amusement and pride. “Always faithful; always forward. Ready for all and yielding to none. First to fight and fall. We also serve as guards for our nation’s diplomats.” The two griffons looked at each other in confusion—Gilda still knew of no Equestrian definition of the word ‘marine’ that was valid in this context—but remained silent as they passed through another corridor. A few steps later, Reyes stopped by a large door, opened it, and led them inside.

Judging by the size, Gilda thought it was a conference area, though the long rectangular stone table that would normally be located in the center was pushed off to one side of the room. The room itself was divided into two halves, each with neat rows of chairs facing the long table with a narrow walking space in the center. At the far end of the room, Gilda spotted three human males, two in uniforms and the other in a formal suit, similar to what Ambassador Strenus would wear in Equestria.

It was then it occurred to her that she hadn’t seen any human female soldiers. Did they not have them? Or did they prefer male soldiers for the same reason Equestrians did—they made much more effective peacekeepers when around a mostly-female population?

Regardless of the answer, Reyes led them to an upper floor of the three-story structure. The three walked in single file until they passed through the walkway. Gilda and Fortrakt positioned themselves, standing formally in front of the three humans while Reyes came to what seemed their equivalent of an attention pose, and saluted.

It was quite different from how the griffons did it, but the motions were similar. With a quick snap of his arm, he raised his fingers to touch the brim of his hat. It was actually quite reminiscent of a Guardspony salute, but far sharper given their stretched-out talons. Once the honor was returned, the human Sergeant introduced them. “Gentlemen, this is Decurion Grizelda Behertz and Second Spear Fortrakt Gletscher, our new civilian escorts and Kingdom military liaisons.”

The man in the suit came forward first, his arm extending. “Very glad to meet you both. I am Ambassador Goldberg.” Gilda extended her foreleg as well, grasping the human’s hand with her claw as he gave it a bit of a shake, taking care to not grasp too hard. He went towards Fortrakt next and both greeted each other the same way. “I am quite happy that both our races are taking necessary steps to make sure any misunderstandings will be stamped out, as we build towards a relationship that is mutually beneficial for all of us.”

Gilda blinked, wondering if all diplomats were so wordy regardless of their race. Taking a neutral approach, she gave him a nod. “Of course, Ambassador.”

The Ambassador nodded happily, his smile somewhat infectious for Fortrakt who was sporting a similar grin (though not as wide, given the beaks). The human diplomat took a step back as the two marines stepped forward as well.

“First Lieutenant Jason Nantz,” one of the humans, male, with a hard-faced expression, cropped blonde hair, and sharp blue eyes, introduced himself as he extended his arm to offer not a pawshake, but a forearm glasp. Though surprised, Gilda took it, noting his uniform fabric was quite thick and tough, keeping her talons from easily getting through to what felt like a large forearm beneath. “Commander of the Ambassador’s diplomatic guard. We are responsible for his safety, as well as that of all human civilians in the city. And this is my second in command: Staff Sergeant Stafford.” He motioned to the other human beside him.

Stafford, another male, had a much softer and darker face, his brown eyes smiling as his lips curved upwards. “Heyo,” he greeted. While he extended his arm, his fist was closed, surprising both griffons. They bumped fists together.

“Lieutenant Nantz is the commanding officer overseeing guard duties here in the Winged Hall,” Goldberg began. “He’ll get you introduced to Mister McClain, Miss Fields, and Mister Lakan. You both will be in good han—er, claws,” he corrected himself at the last second, using the griffon term. “I would rather take you myself, but I seem to be quite busy nowadays and have a meeting with your Senators soon. However, I do hope you enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you, sir.” Gilda didn’t mind his departure. Diplomats, whether griffons or not, always appeared busy, and given how much they seemed to enjoy being wordy, it was usually best for them to be needed elsewhere. “Be assured, we will carry out our duties as directed.” The Ambassador gave a smile and left, leaving the two griffons with the three marines in the room.

Moments passed and Gilda half-wondered why they still hadn’t moved. Assessing the three marines, she noticed Nantz was contemplating something. After a few seconds, he crossed his thick-looking arms and asked: “Which one of you was directly involved in the altercation last night?”

Gilda blinked, but stepped forward. “That would be me, Lieutenant,” she replied. Nantz looked at her and she felt the force behind his stare. She stood her ground. “Is there a problem?”

“Yes. I’ll be frank, Decurion—I’m not comfortable with your presence here.” Gilda’s beak opened, but before she could say anything, Nantz continued. “While Ambassador Goldberg maintains that this ‘improves relations’, I do not agree with transferring three civilians from my care to yours. And knowing that you attacked one of those civilians last night concerns me even more. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t let you anywhere near him.”

Gilda had the thought that if it was up to her, she wouldn’t go anywhere near him either, but before she could voice it or any other response, he held up a hand to forestall protests as a griffon would their wing. “Yes, I know what happened, and I agree that Lakan was in part to blame for it—he clearly wasn’t paying any attention during the griffon etiquette and culture classes we took before coming here. Nevertheless, I have serious reservations about this arrangement.

“Now that said, I am a soldier under civilian authority, so I will obey the Ambassador’s orders. I’ve heard good things about the Kingdom from the Equestrian side; they say that griffon soldiers are as professional as they,” he noted, leaving Gilda wondering by what standard Equestrian soldiers were professional.

In fairness, she’d heard they’d been rapidly rebuilding their military to reestablish their old service branches, including a Navy, Army and Aerial Corps after the complete failure of the Royal Guard to defend Canterlot during the Changeling invasion. But even two years later, she couldn’t imagine they were that far along in it, and wasn’t convinced they would be any more useful than the previously mostly-ceremonial Guardsponies had been.

“I’ve also recently heard that the Kingdom’s authorities are announcing that any griffon who provokes or attacks a human will be punished.” Nantz nodded in approval, but then his eyes narrowed.

“However, actions are considerably louder than words. Be warned, Decurion—if there is to be a repeat performance of last night, I will personally deal with the aggressor, and my soldiers will use all necessary force to stop them. So let me make this very clear: If you have a problem with Marco Lakan, or with any soldier or civilian under my command or care, then you will come to me, and I will deal with it. Do not attempt to resolve it yourself. Do we have an understanding, Decurion Behertz?”

Gilda looked at the human for a moment. His speech was consistently neutral in tone but there was an undercurrent of a threat and a definite harshness in his words. He looked quite tough too; his arms were massive and his chest was impressive.

A part of her wanted to challenge him in order to test him, as well as establish who would be dominant. Another part toyed with answering with an equally aggressive reply, but she couldn’t find a suitable one—at least, not one that wouldn’t make her look unprofessional or needlessly hostile.

To her relief, she was spared a decision when Stafford spoke up next. “What Lieutenant Nantz is trying to say is that we all want to set clear boundaries, in order to prevent any further misunderstandings and to make sure there won’t be another incident like last night. We’ll extend you a measure of trust, hoping whatever happened between you and Marco Lakan will be out of your systems.” In direct contrast to the human officer’s stern manner, he gave an easy smile.

“We promise to be fair, and not automatically side with our civilians. So if Lakan’s going out of his way to stir up trouble, please just report it to us, and not… well, take matters into your own hands. We can deal with him or any other issues you have, up to and including returning our civilians to our world.”

“That is appreciated.” Gilda nodded, noticing that Stafford’s wording and tone had softened Lieutenant Nantz’s words significantly, which made her suspect why the two humans were together. She had seen some officers and enlisted do the same when trying to motivate or order the soldiers under their command; one would take a more professional, harsher stance, while the other would be more understanding. “And to answer your question, yes,” she further replied to Nantz, her head nodding. “We understand each other.”

“Good,” Nantz declared. His face then softened somewhat. “I admit, though… I’m surprised Lakan thought it would be a good idea to lay a hand on a griffon soldier,” he noted with a tone of amusement, causing Gilda to take note again of the term ‘hand’, guessing it was what they called their forepaws or talons.

“He does seem to have a knack of getting into trouble, sir,” Reyes replied with a wry tone. “And remarkably, he was not drunk this time.”

Nantz and Stafford chuckled while the two griffons looked at each other, somehow feeling they had just stumbled into a private conversation. But the feeling didn’t last long as Nantz gave Reyes a nod.

“Well, he’d better not again, or I’m going to have a hard time convincing Goldberg not to send him home. As expectations should now be clear, let’s get this show on the road, as we say. Sergeant Reyes, escort Decurion Behertz and Second Spear… Gletscher, was it?” he asked, his Aeric accent somewhat thick.

Fortrakt nodded, with Gilda noting approvingly he had—quite properly—remained silent through the meeting, letting her take the lead as his superior. “Alright. Sergeant Reyes, please escort them to Mister McClain and company. Introduce them and stick around at least long enough to make sure Marco survives it.”

“Roger that, sir,” Reyes replied with a grin. He then turned and faced the griffons. “Come on, let’s get you two started. Please follow me.”

As they passed through the narrow walkway but before they made their way out the door, Gilda took one last look at Nantz and Stafford, both watching them steadily as they left. They moved through the corridors of the Winged Hall Inn, completely silent until Reyes led them to the stairs, where he spoke up again.

“Just so you both know, the L-T doesn’t mince words and will be quite frank when talking to anyone. So don’t take it personally.”

“Ell-tee?” Gilda repeated the odd phrase.

“L-T. Two letters. Short for Lieutenant,” Reyes explained.

“Oh. Well, to be honest, I can actually appreciate his candor,” Gilda replied truthfully as they reached the top of the stairs that led to another hallway. “He spoke his mind and made clear his feelings. I respect that.”

“Good. However…” Reyes trailed off, stopped walking and turned around, facing Gilda, and for the first time, his eyes narrowed dangerously. “He was wrong about one thing. If you hurt Marco in any way, you’d be dealing with me first. And believe me when I say you don’t want that.”

Gilda’s eyes narrowed in turn as Fortrakt looked between the two somewhat nervously. “The way you word it seems a bit more personal,” she ventured.

“He’s my friend. And I would take it very personally,” he replied easily but pointedly, resting his hand on the top of one of his hip-mounted tools.

That confirmed it as some sort of weapon to Gilda, but she kept the thought to herself. She then looked at the unafraid human soldier—marine, she corrected herself, even if she still didn’t understand the term—for a moment and gave him a quick nod, noting instantly that humans seemed as big on friendship as ponies. Seemingly satisfied, Reyes continued to lead them on, passing through a number of doors before they stopped near the far end of the eastern corridor.

The marine was about to knock on the door when his eye moved towards a corner. A contemplative expression crossed his face for only a second before he motioned Gilda to approach with a curling motion of his blunt talons. Curious, she did so, and was about to speak when Reyes made a pair of gestures—one was a halting motion with his paw (hand?) she immediately recognized the meaning of, while the other was a single talon held vertically before his lips, which she could only assume meant to be silent.

Reyes knocked on the door with the joints of his talons, which she noted became quite hard and prominent when he curled them into a fist, resulting in a very sharp rap. “Who is it?” came the response from a familiar voice; one that caused Gilda’s blood and temper to start rising again, forcing her to choke back the memories and near-murderous desires she’d had the night before.

“Marco, dude, it’s me,” Reyes replied in a friendly tone, a mischievous smile gracing his face as he winked at Gilda. “The L-T talked to Goldberg. You’re clear, man. No griffon babysitter for you!”

Gilda's eyes widened as she exchanged a startled glance with Fortrakt. Reyes was deliberately lying? Why?

“No shit?” Marco replied, then exhaled audibly. “Holy crap. You hear that, Chris? I just dodged a bullet!”

“Great, Marco,” a masculine voice came from further in the room, almost inaudible and flat in tone. “Pity, too. You need to apologize to her.”

“Lay off, dude! I didn’t know it was wrong!”

“Didn’t know?” Tara’s voice echoed unsympathetically. “I’m more curious as to why you thought it might be right? You’d already pissed her off by thumping her neck, so I can’t imagine anything more stupid than turning around and thinking it was okay to put your paws on a couple alien predators like they were a pair of pet cats!”

“Yeah, yeah…” Marco muttered, his voice getting louder as his human footfalls approached the door. “I was an idiot—I get it, okay? Since I don’t wanna get ripped to shreds, I ain’t gonna do it again. Hey, Reyes, want to come in? Or are you on duty?”

“On duty, but I got some time to spare,” Reyes declared, and then whispered to Gilda, “Okay, Decurion. If you want a little payback, just stay right in front of the door and put your meanest face on.” The marine winked, his smirk now a full-blown smile as he took out an black rectangle and made some hurried motions on it.

Gilda had stayed with Rainbow Dash long enough to spot a prank in the making. She too smiled, immensely liking the idea of frightening the brown-skinned human, eagerly imagining his reaction to her. She immediately took on a fierce and angry look, and found it wasn’t that difficult, given she just had to think back to the previous night, letting her headfeathers go ruffled. “Why? What do you have in mind?” Reyes asked amicably as Gilda deliberately crouched low and flared her wings like she was about to pounce.

“Uh, Gilda?” A concerned Fortrakt called out in Aeric, watching the scene warily.

“Relax, Fortrakt,” she replied in Equish just loudly enough for Reyes to hear her, wanting to make sure he understood her intent. “I’m not gonna attack him; I’m just gonna scare him. And have a very good time doing it.”

“Well, I loaded up Warrior to my laptop,” Marco replied with a slightly nonsensical statement before Fortrakt could reply. “We were gonna watch it after breakfast.”

“I can’t stay for a movie, but breakfast should be good,” Reyes replied as he stepped back and pointed his camera at the door and clicked it, though there was no flash or whirring noise this time.

Gilda heard the tell-tale signs of the door being unlocked. Reyes was already stifling snickers, while off to the side, a bemused Fortrakt seemed to have finally caught on to what was happening. “You humans have a very odd definition of friendship.”

When the door opened, Gilda saw him again, this time in more detail. Ebony black hair cut short. Soft-looking cheeks and darkened lips, almost blending with his skin color. A rather slight build compared to the human soldiers. Dark brown eyes that were warm and friendly, at least until he saw her.

His expression went slack for a second before his cheeks drained of color and his eyes widened dramatically with… pure terror as he beheld her poised form like he would a grass lion about to pounce. Yes, the expression was the same as with ponies and griffons.

The predator part of her felt no little satisfaction knowing that he recognized her. And in turn, feared her. “Hello, Marco Lakan,” she greeted him with a low growl, not quite able to suppress the smile that broke out around her beak, finding herself immensely gratified by his reaction—so much so, in fact, that she felt some of her unresolved anger at him recede, to be replaced by a heady feeling of pure dominance.

“I’m your new escort. So if you don’t want to get ‘ripped to shreds’, then don’t ever touch me or any other eagless again uninvited,” she warned him from her crouch, holding her threatening pose for a beat longer before rising again and pulling her wings back against her sides. “Remember that, and we’ll have no issues.”

Putang ina,” Marco muttered in a language she’d never heard, having to steady himself by propping his foreleg against the door frame while his face was suddenly covered with a sheen of moisture and his legs threatened to buckle. His eyes then wandered towards Gilda’s left, where he saw Reyes, holding up his odd rectangle and smirking. “Robbie, you evil asshole!”

Robbie? Gilda thought, looking at Reyes.

“Aw, man, you should have seen the look on your face!” Reyes declared with a tone that she last recalled from Rainbow Dash following one of their more successful pranks, thinking this would have been worthy of the practical jokes they used to play. “Your eyes just about bulged out of their sockets!” he turned the curious rectangle to show him—not an image, but a moving picture that played back the entire scene with sound, letting her hear her own voice! It did seem too high-pitched, though.

Chris then came into view around the corner of the short corridor, his expression curious. “What the hell is going on?” Marco replied by side-stepping and showing Chris who was at the door. The red-haired male blinked, looked from Gilda to Fortrakt to a grinning Reyes, and then at Marco again. “Oh. Guess Reyes got you good, didn’t he?” he asked with a smile.

“See for yourself!” The Sergeant passed Chris the device, who broke out in a huge grin as he played the scene a second time.

“Wow. Now that’s worth posting on YouTube when we get back home!”

“My only friend, stabbing me in the back,” Marco muttered in a tone Gilda found reminiscent of the Senators and some Equestrian nobles. “Et tu, Reyes?”

“Sorry, buddy. It was too good an opportunity to pass up,” an unrepentant and still grinning Reyes said. “Nicely done, Decurion.”

She bowed her head in acknowledgement, and to her surprise, great gratitude. “Thank you for the opportunity and for trusting me, Sergeant. I needed that.”

“What’s with all the commotion?” a feminine voice called out as Tara appeared as well. When she saw Gilda at the doorway, she turned her head slightly, an amused smile and understanding look gracing in her human feature. “Oh. Good one, Reyes.”

“Dude, I still have time to shut the door and we can all make a run for it out the window,” Marco muttered.

“Wouldn’t help,” Gilda instantly answered, still grinning triumphantly. “You wouldn’t get far. You’re three stories up, and we can fly a lot faster than you can run.”

“Oh, yeah. That makes me feel a whole lot better!” He grabbed some kind of flask and took a long draw of it.

“Marco,” Chris and Tara said reproachfully as one. “You heard her. She and her partner are here to escort us, not attack you again. And you do owe her an apology,” the latter reminded him.

“Fine, fine.” With some reluctance, Marco stepped back and motioned Gilda, Fortrakt and Reyes inside. “Look, Miss—er, Decurion, I’m sorry, okay? I was just trying to be friendly and I had no idea it was wrong.”

She studied him for a moment, uncertain if he really meant it given how much he was fidgeting and fumbling through his apology. “Then do us all a favor and please don’t ever try to be friendly like that again,” she warned him, letting the barest of edge into her voice.

“You got off easy, thanks to my partner here. Any eagless worth their wings would have torn you up for touching them there. Or worse, their tiercel bondmates if you did it in sight of them.”

“Don’t worry,” he promised her with a second swallow of his drink; her nose just then picked up the aroma of some exotic alcohol. “I swear I’ll never lay a paw on you again!”