• Published 22nd Jul 2021
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Preunification Anon - Spooples



[RGRE] An inexperienced unicorn and her human bodyguard travel to the dangerous heart of Preunification Equestria. This "alicorn" filly better be worth it.

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I - The Hyoo-men in the Tavern

”Here? Are you quite certain?”

From first glance, the beams of orange protruding from the tavern’s windows seem like welcoming beacons from the rain and cold.

And second glance, and third glance, in fact. From every angle, the tavern looks like the cozy respite you’ve been hoping for. The only things of any disconcert is the pair of guardsmares – one a swordsmare, the other a caster – standing just beside the entrance, and the crooked, magically-infused text on the wall glowing, “No horn, no hilt, no entry!”

But it isn’t the sights that make your hooves freeze on the wet cobblestone below. It’s the smell, the sounds – All-Mother above, it may very well be the taste as well.

The pleasant petrichor of the city of Plumsteed is replaced with the stench of rancid vomit and, even worse, alcohol. Turner of gentlemares into ruffians.

Beneath the muffled laughter and clacking of mugs whose volumes seem to be in competition – things you’ve had to grow accustomed to while in the Lowercastes – you catch odd tidbits of what sounds like squawking.

As you close your mouth, peering over to the red unicorn standing by your side, faint traces of something you can’t put your hoof on touches down on your tongue. Iron, it seems?

Red Letter gives a sage chuckle, squelching the glob of Ergot between her teeth as she chews. “Too mud horse-y for you, White Hooves?” she asks with sarcastic coyness.

You huff indignantly at the nickname and habitually glance down to make sure your hooves aren’t too unpresentable. Of course, your hooves are covered with the fabric waves of your cloak. It’s a futile effort anyways. The last few weeks you’ve spent trudging through swamps, forests, and manure-soaked cobblestone have ensured your hooves may never reach the same level of pristine whiteness again.

“I’ll have you know I’ve never before met an earth pony, Red Letter," you say in futile defense.

”Your olfactory senses are grateful,” Red Letter hums.

You’re tempted to mention that you have indeed met sky rats before, coming across a flock of them raiding a traveling merchant's cart for alcohol. Your olfactory senses are still recovering.

“As I’m sure you are as well, Lucky Favor?” the unicorn goads with a side-long glance, reminding you of her payment.

“But of course,” you titter as you shuffle your supplies bag off your withers before setting it down with a splash. After untying and sifting around your precious cargo, you pull out one of your 600-doit pouches. “For an honest day’s work, and a might extra for helping a helpless, unpresentable vagabond such as myself.”

You give a ladylike smile to Red Letter as you hoof her the pouch. You're unable to stop the tinge of smugness tugging at your lips at the sight of the Lowercastemare's eyes widening hungrily at the size.

At what sounds like a cannon shot, the smugness disappears as your entire body flinches toward the sound -- the tavern's entrance being swung open.

”—again and I'll rip your FUCKING horn off!” a bassy voice booms.

The guardsmares outside the tavern seem just as surprised as you as the unconscious body of a mare flies from the flung-open entrance and tumbles into a soaked heap.

There, standing at least four cubits tall, is the bipedal form of the much gossiped-about “hyoo-men.” The housecarla for whom you’ve spent the last week searching.

Or, would it be housecarl?

…Housecarl.

He sounded like a male.

It takes a moment for your brain to register this fact. As it does, you faintly hear the muffled sound of the tavern door being slammed shut, and the hyoo-men is gone. You’ve missed your chance to call out to her.

--Him, you mean.

Dear Ancients above, he’s a male.

”…clever…” you barely catch Red Letter mumble under her breath while your own goes ragged and wobbly.

You quickly turn back to your guide, whose eyes seem latched onto where the hyoo-men once was.

The male hyoo-men.

“Your payment, dear,” you almost whisper, hoping desperately she snatches the pouch away and fades into the rainy night.

”Actually,” Red Letter drawls, rolling the Ergot in her mouth, in no particular hurry. “Payment won’t be necessary.”

“You can’t just do something nice for me and expect not to get paid! In the Uppercastes, we’re taught to—”

”We’re not in the Uppercastes. Come on, let's not keep him waiting.” Red Letter starts towards the tavern before you can react.

There’s that word again. Him.

You feel like you could drown in this rain.

Your hoof tries and fails before succeeding in putting the gold pouch back into the bag, and almost gives out as you sling said bag over your shoulder.

You scramble towards Red Letter, still bouncing along, her eyes glued to the tavern door. “P-pardon me, Red Letter?” you ask.

You curse yourself for the unladylike stutter, but even the most regal Uppercastemare would be having a hard time speaking eloquently through a mouth of cotton.

”If it’s anything to do with the payment," Red Letter retorts, "You can get hilted. In fact—” Your guide stops momentarily to dig into the pouch on her hip before procuring something dark and pungent. “—Chewing Ergot? I’m feeling generous tonight. And you look like you could use it."

“I appreciate it, but I’m not a chewer," you say. "Anyways, I was wondering—"

As you speak, Red Letter fluidly lifts your hoof and plops the chewing fungus on top. “For your nerves,” she susurrates, but you’re too numb to refuse it.

“I-I-I was wondering if I could have a m-moment of privacy, Red Letter?”

Red Letter seems nonplussed for the longest half-second of your life before giving a curt nod. “Alright, but let’s not keep him waiting.”

You give a relieved smile that you’re absolutely, positively, 100% sure doesn’t come off as suspicious before you virtually teleport to the alleyway beside the tavern. Of course, you don’t literally teleport, even if you desperately wanted to.

Finally alone, you take deep heaves of air as you collapse. Your heart pounds like a rabid parasprite as four words bounce around in your head like a wrecking ball.

The hyoo-men is male.

The much gossiped-about housecarla, who you’ve finally been able to get a pin on after his switch to freelance bounty hunting, whom you are about to ask to do something that most hardened adventurers would balk at, is male. And there’s no backing out of this.

There’s no backing out of this.

There’s no backing out.

Between the sounds of each of your deep breaths, the pitter-patter of the rain on your cloak, and the muffled celebrations from inside the tavern, you slowly replace the words in your mind, one by one.

There’s no backing out, Lucky Favor.

One more deep breath, and you feel your heartbeat easing. You need to do something structured to calm down.

With a grunt, your bag is set gently onto the cobblestone ground. You recite the same checkup you’ve been perfecting these last few weeks. Making sure the ornate crossbow attached to your bag is still in mint condition. Making sure the magically intraflated bags of food, doits, and supplies are still intact. Making sure the magically stabilized locker of notebooks, quills, and ink bottles is still undisturbed. Making sure the ambient spell is still engaged on your precious cargo.

Everything secure, both in the bag and in your mind, you give yourself a determined nod. There’s no reason to have a panic attack here and now. You’re at the location, you’re not alone, and there’s nothing in the Lowercastes that can cut through the Paardian armor under your cloak. You’re safe. All that’s left is to have a little chat with the hyoo-men. Tartarus, you might even have an easier time convincing him if you put on the Uppercaste charm.

Plus, male or not, that certainly doesn’t change his reputation as a renowned housecarla. But that begs the question, why did he switch to bounty hunting…?

After hoisting the bag back onto your withers, you set off back to the tavern entrance. You hope Red Letter isn’t the type to question every little thing.

Despite yourself, you feel a smile tugging at your lips.

These past few weeks have felt like years. Every day felt like an impossible bounty, and only the Ancients know how it would’ve gone if you accepted it alone. Nopony in the Uppercastes would accept you, but you haven’t stopped thanking Them that the first Lowercastemare you ran into was Red Letter.

Before you knew it, you had a companion who knew the city of Plumsteed like the back of her hoof, who knew just how to treat ponies who gave her, or you, any trouble, and who would never leave you alone in an unfamiliar part of town with no guide.

Hey, where’s Red Letter?

Back in front of the tavern lays only an empty stone yard, no red unicorn in sight. Even the guardsmares are gone now, leaving the rain and clamor from inside your only companions.

You spend an embarrassing amount of time feeling like a lost filly before you shake your head and trot towards the tavern entrance. Red Letter probably went in before you to preemptively catch the hyoo-men. But where are the guardsmares…?

You have to remind yourself about the importance of your mission before the temptation to not enter uninvited keeps you outside.

You swing the tavern door open and quickly bounce in.

The first thing you notice is how much… warmer everything is. Not just the temperature, but the sights, the smells, and even the sounds as well. The tavern’s innards are a comely orange, washing away the cold, gray reality of the Plumsteed night with its quaint pub layout.

The second thing you register?

Unicorns.

Lots and lots of unicorns.

The temperature immediately raises from the increase of warm bodies all around you, sitting at tables, laughing raucously at some dirty joke or crude remark, drinking seemingly unlimited mugs of cider and ale. There’s a large circular amalgamation of mares at the center of the tavern, their attention drawn to something you can’t see.

The sound of squawking and the taste of iron are now unmistakable.

You scan around the tavern for either Red Letter or the hyoo-men, but the crowd makes it an impossible task. Without any other option, you trot towards the crowd. With how tall the hyoo-men is, if he’s in there, you’ll be able to spot him immediately. You have to weave between the tables of otherwise occupied unicorns, habitually leaning your bag in the opposite direction of anypony you pass.

Your frog is stepped into something wet and sugary.

You grimace as you shake the sticky ale from your hoof before you find yourself at the edge of the commotion. You find your opening, and slip through.

Rip her Ancients-damn beak off, Muddie!

I have twenty doits on you, Rat!

RIP AND TEAR HER BONE AND BLOOD!

You shrink away from the particularly bloodthirsty mare by your side before continuing onwards. You finally reach the cusp of the crowd’s attention and lift your hooves onto the wooden railing, staring at the commotion down below.

You curse your curiosity.

Now, the squawking is unmistakable as the two griffons below tear into each other.

One of them – the more muscular one – is wingless, two magically burnt stubs hanging limply on its sides. The other’s wings have been left in relative peace, although a Pulchramatic spell has been cast on them. The feathers are now much brighter and colorful, sending flamboyant, sardonic sparkles of glitter into the air with each vicious swipe.

The combatants roll through the sand as they bite and puncture each other. Maroon blood, spilt alcohol, and the golden glint of discarded doits are kicked up in the sand as if caught in the web of the fight.

At the disgusting squelch of something being ripped from one of the griffons’ face – you don’t care to look closer to find out just what specifically – you turn away to keep from gagging.

The bitter taste in your mouth isn’t iron. It’s blood.

”Ahem.”

You squeak as the baritone grunt penetrates through the hooting and hollering of the crowd around you. You have to crane your neck to realize just who you bumped into. In front of you towers the housecarla—er, housecarl -- of the hour, the hyoo-men.

His condition leaves you in shock.

The hyoo-men’s eyes are sunken and tired, and whether it's the shadows from his thick eyebrows, the dark bags under his eyes, or the subtle way his beard and bush of a mane frame his face, the glare he’s giving you sends a cold chill up your spine. His imposing height is lopsided, and you notice he's putting most of his weight on his left leg.

The only thing that even suggests he wouldn’t be an easy target for a mugging, or worse, is his armor. The hyoo-men is wearing a gambeson that hugs his torso, hard leather pads running across its surface in a pattern you assume matches his alien musculature. His bare shoulders striate with every subtle movement, and there's a prominent vein running down each of his upper arms. His forearms seem to be all-around thicker than his more flat upper arms, and he wears bracers on each arm - essentially leather straps keeping the oval-shaped stones secure atop his forearms. Leather also covers his hands, minus the upper portions of each of his fingers. There isn't much in the way of armor covering his legs, only a pair of thick, dark brown trousers and boots covering his feet. You can think of a million and one ways how the weapons you've seen in the Lowercastes can cut through his defenses.

Speaking of weapons, you don’t see a single one on the hyoo-men. No axe, mace, sword… Not even a dagger strapped to his boot. The only things which could pass as dangerous are the stone bracers on his forearms you can immediately tell are homemade.

Then again, if even a quarter of what you’ve heard about him from the ladies, civilians, and would-be attackers he’s dealt with is true, neither his lack of immediate defense nor his armor should be much of a problem.

…Plus you’d be hard-pressed to say the armor isn’t flattering to his figure. He kind of looks like the felines out West you’ve read about, but more muscular and broader.

It’s then you notice that the jostling from the surrounding mares has subsided. Sure enough, each of the onlookers of the griffon fight are now giving you a wide radius. Or, rather, they’re giving the hyoo-men a wide radius.

Most of the mares are avoiding the hyoo-men like the edge of a precipice they’re unfortunate enough to be stuck beside. A few glance in his direction. Most are nervous; the only expected lecherous mare in the crowd is quickly taken back into the crowd by somepony you assume is her friend.

”They’re wild,” the hyoo-men’s deep voice effortlessly booms over the commotion of the crowd.

You blink out of your stupor. “Pardon me?” you ask stupidly.

”The griffons,” he responds, giving a brief nod to the fight that you most definitely will not be looking back at. It’s only a minor comfort that the Lowercastemares here aren’t cheering for the death of a sentient griffon like those out East. ”So, why were you following me, mare?”

His small eyes bore into you, resembling a growling timberwolf more than an adorable foal.

Nevertheless, you’ve spent too many nights sleeping in gutters and praying to the Ancients above for this moment to go perfectly to let this set you back. You draw your left hind leg and right foreleg back and give the hyoo-men a courteous bow. “I was hoping to proposition you with a bounty, my lord.”

A few of the snickers and murmurs from the crowd around you put a dent in your confidence, but you still hold firm as you sweep back up to a standing posture. The bemused scowl the hyoo-men is sending your way, though, puts more than a dent in it. For a long time the hyoo-men only studies you. His piercing eyes flick this way and that, dancing between your face, your cloak, and the sack on your back.

If he were to suddenly reach forward and grab your bag, what could you do to stop him?

Well, that's a silly question. You're no slack when it comes to defensive spells. Plus, he's a male!

Why did you have to remind yourself of that?

”Let’s grab a table,” the hyoo-men finally murmurs.

Heart fluttering, you give a quick nod and eagerly lift your head to search for a table for the gentlecolt, but to your surprise the hyoo-men simply turns around and walks off!

“Excuse me!” you call out, cantering after him.

With each bound of his long legs, the hyoo-men easily slices through the crowd, leaving you to hastily keep up. His way of moving is equal parts graceful and intimidating, like an homme fatal character in a novel. “Mister hyoo-men, my lord!” you call out as you bound to his side. “Excuse me! Where are we going?”

”To grab a table.”

Your cheeks burn with embarrassment. You know nothing about the hyoo-men’s customs, but you assumed he would at the very least let you take the lead.

You hope the looks of astounded horror the unicorns are giving you and the hyoo-men have something to do with that.

”Move," that baritone voice mumbles with the same authority as a shout.

You scrunch, this time formulating a retort against his ungentlecolty command, until you realize the hyoo-men wasn’t talking to you. He’s talking to the two unicorns sitting at an alcohol-slathered table. More specifically, he’s talking to the bigger one.

The only reason you can distinguish the unicorn’s coat color is because of her uncovered face. Besides that, all you can see on her body is chainmail, leather, and metal. The giant war axe by the mare’s side, the business end at least as big as your whole body, sits menacingly beside her chair like a drooling guard dog. Five runes seem to be etched into the weapon’s blade, although you’re not close enough to decipher them. They look much more sinister than the paralysis runes dancing across your crossbow.

Well-fed and well armed; an epitome of Housecarlatel. Her lady must be the wealthy-looking unicorn sitting beside her, thoroughly shrunken and meek in comparison.

The housecarla gives a start; a symphony of chainmail and metal rubbing against each other. Though, her distress is short-lived. The smaller mare follows the bigger one’s lead as her face deforms into a salacious, satisfied smirk.

Her teeth are stained an Ergot-colored brownish green.

”Good to see you too, Anon,” the unicorn grins as she lowers her chin onto a metal-plated hoof. “I see our boss’s attempts to domesticate you have gotten us nowhere, as expected.”

The sultry way she slathers the word “domesticate” in innuendo just about makes you gag.

”This is the ‘hyoo-men’ you’ve been talking about, Storm?” The smaller mare’s voice sounds like a young filly’s when compared to her housecarla. As her eyes snap to you, they gleam with an immature mischief. “I didn’t know he was back in business so soon. Last I heard--”

Without warning, one of Anon’s arms shoots out at the bigger mare. His monstrous hand grabs her by the horn before her face is whiplashed to his own.

The lady is too stunned to move. You’re not doing much better.

Move,” Anon growls, his masculine voice dangerously low.

Without waiting for confirmation, Anon drives the mare out of her chair and to the ground with a shove and a resounding thump! The unicorn’s cohort can only stare at Anon, frozen.

”Storm” is back on her hooves before you can even register how much it’d hurt for your horn to be marehandled like that. The glare she gives Anon could cut through glass.

”You're lucky you're her favorite,” Storm spits before her horn glows. You feel a jolt of outrage as the handle of Storm’s axe is enveloped in the same glow, but it only drags along with the mare as she and her lady trot away. “That’s what I was talking about, Vivi. Colt hasn’t had a job in--...”

”Sit," Anon commands.

You don’t catch whatever else Storm says as Anon’s voice reverberates through your skull. He’s made himself comfortable on the mare’s chair, although there is still a subtle slump to his posture. His knee bounces up and down as he gives you an expectant gaze.

You let out a breath you didn’t know you were holding in. Freakishly fast, undeniably competent, weirdly attractive hyoo-men or not, Anon is still a colt. Does he not care about what could’ve happened? She was a fully-equipped housecarla!

Then again, he's a trained housecarla as well. Though, unarmed...

You shakily shuffle your bag onto the floor beside your chair before sitting across from your potential future partner.

Don’t screw this up, Lucky Favor. It’s time to turn on that Uppercaste charm.

So, how should you start? Some small talk, perhaps? Cater to his male ego?

Although, that might not work with Anon. He’s not shown any colty acclimations since you’ve met him. Tartarus, are you even sure he’s a male to begin with? You’ve heard hyoo-mens are exceedingly rare; Anon the first one you’ve ever heard of.

Could he be the only hyoo-men?

No, no, Lucky. If you were about to ask the only male member of a species onto a dangerous mission such as this, you might as well just throw yourself off a bridge to rid Equus of its most selfish evil yet.

Hmm, could he just be a she with a deep voice? Female minotaurs also have the ability to grow beards, you've read. After all, how would a colt build up such a résumé as a housecarla in just a few months--?

Lucky Favor, your genius knows no bounds.

“I’d like to start off with an apology, my lord,” you start, earning a quirked eyebrow from the hyoo-men. “Since our encounter, I’ve so ruefully given you a most unladylike impression. I’ve been nervous about meeting you, truth be told.”

You just slipped into your Uppercaste dialect. Don’t overstep, Lucky. You’ve got him on his heels.

You reach a hoof into your hip pouch to retrieve the glob of Ergot Red Letter gave you. You’re no chewer, but you could really use some extra confidence right about now. “After all, what mare wouldn’t be, when faced with such an accomplished housecarla? I must say I’m a little confused as to why you’ve chosen to switch to the bounty hunting business, though.”

Anon gives you a look that screams, “First strike, Lucky. Change the subject.”

“So who were those mares, if it’s not too personal?" you ask instead. "I’m sure your reputation precedes you, but they talked as if they knew you personally.”

Anon’s lips curl as if he’s mulling over rotten food. ”Former coworkers,” he opts to say in a manner that suggests you do not want to press that matter.

“Ahh,” you breathe, gripping the Ergot in your pouch. Second strike. “…Well, enough small talk, it’s time for some business talk.”

You squee at your clever wordplay. Anon gives the spilt alcohol on the table a look as if wondering whether he could get drunk from it. You’d bet he could, being a male, but you obviously don’t tell him that.

“My name is Lucky Favor,” you start. “Well, my Lowercaste moniker is Lucky Favor. My Uppercaste name is reserved for close friends, so I sincerely hope we'll be using it freely in the near future! And yours is Anon, if I heard correctly?”

”Anonymous," Anon says monotonously.

“Right! Well, Anon, let’s begi—”

Anonymous,” he repeats, equally monotonous, yet twice as impatiently.

“…Anonymous,” you concede, before taking a deep breath. “I’m offering you a job as my housecarla.”

Anonymous seemingly gives no reaction.

Seemingly. To most ponies, Anonymous may as well hadn’t even heard what you said. But you’re able to catch the subtle widening of his eyelids and upward twitch of his cheeks.

“Now, I understand that this might be an… unconventional offer, meeting like this so suddenly," you concede. "And I know you’ve forgone your former occupation for freelance bounty hunting, but I guarantee it’ll be worth your time. Six hundred doits per day, to be exact.”

Anonymous’ knee stops bouncing.

You can’t help but smirk as you bring the Ergot up to your muzzle and plop it in your mouth.

“First time working for an Uppercastemare?” you say as you chew, your tuft puffing up from under your cloak. Anonymous’ eyes don’t leave the Ergot in your mouth. “I can assure you the steep pay isn’t indicative of the danger we’ll be encountering, as well. It’s merely proportionated to your experience and, no doubt, the competition for your services! There'll be no stipulations for what you can spend your pay on either. Weapons, armor, clothes, shoes, whatever else befitting of a gentlecolt. And I assure you I can afford— where are you going, my lord?”

Instead of answering, Anonymous gives you an unreadable glare before standing to his full height and walking past you.

It takes a moment for it to register. He’s leaving.

WAIT!” you shout. All Uppercaste manners are left at the table as you virtually lunge towards the hyoo-men.

They leave your system almost as quickly as your sense of reality when what feels like an earth pony’s buck lands right on your cheek. Your world turns into a hazy mess of pain and iron, and when your vision finally clears, the world is lopsided. You’re lying on the wooden floor now. Anonymous struck you.

Of course he struck you.

In your desperation, you touched—no, grabbed-- a stallion without his consent and made him uncomfortable.

…Uncomfortable isn’t the right word. You made him enraged. You saw it in his eyes the split second before your vision was rendered useless. It’s ironic, how only after your brain has been thoroughly rattled can you realize how wrongly you must have acted towards him.

You clench your eyes shut as the ringing subsides, replaced with the ongoing celebrations of the tavern, sans the hyoo-men’s footsteps. He’s gone.

You make no move to get up.

“I’m sorry,” you whisper, whether to Anonymous, to yourself, or to your precious cargo, you don’t know.

Speaking of Anonymous, you hear his voice say from above, ”You really are new around here, aren’t you?”

You flinch, cursing the Ancients above that They’d torture you with auditory illusions, until you feel two warm appendages wrap around your barrel.

“Ah!” you gasp, eyes immediately open and staring as you’re lifted off the floor. Unlike the cold, hazy feeling of telekinesis, Anonymous’ arms are warm and solid.

You can't be sure if it's the lingering ringing in your ears from that punch, or if the fiery heat under your face is affecting your hearing, but the racket of the tavern seems to dwindle ever so slightly. You chance a glance around to find a few unicorns’ faces snap away from your direction.

As Anonymous sets you down on the chair, his warm, comfortable feelers leaving your fur bereaved, you suppress a sigh of disappointment.

Disappointment soon turns to realization as the hyoo-men makes his way back to his own chair and sits back down, chewing on the inside of his mouth as he looks down at the table. ”Sorry about that,” Anonymous finally mutters, giving an errant click of his tongue as his eyes finally meet your own. You blink owlishly in response. "Thought you were bullshitting me, but... well, just don't try to grab me again. Now, details."

“…A-about the job?” you ask, hastily correcting the voice crack. As hope rises in your chest, what feels like a burning glob of pain swells in your cheek. With a quick check with your tongue, you thank the Ancients no teeth were knocked loose.

Do all hyoo-mens hit that hard?

...Do all male hyoomens?

Anonymous flashes an impatient glare before he quickly recomposes himself. Your eyes study one of his feelers as it lifts to his face before pinching the bridge of his nose. “Let’s start with why you need a housecarla. And be direct this time, Uppercastemare.”

He’s willing to hear you out.

Despite everything, he’s willing to hear your proposition, Lucky Favor.

The clash of your blossoming hope and the cold fear of absolute honesty is not one you’re familiar with. You try to bite down on the Ergot, only to realize it’s probably somewhere on the other side of Equus with how hard he hit you.

“I’m being hunted,” you whisper.

”By whom?” he asks immediately.

Your breath hitches. His response was too quick – too sudden. You miss the fiery, embarrassing blush on your face. Anything to replace this cold, hopeless feeling in your throat. “I can’t tell," you mumble as a response.

The look Anon gives you reminds you that you can indeed tell, and you will indeed tell.

“E-everypony,” you say as you stare into the wooden, ale-riddled table. “I’m being hunted by everypony.”

The jovial celebrations and cheering from everypony around you, all painfully unacknowledging of your existence, remind you how crazy you just sounded.

“Listen,” you elaborate, glancing at your bag. “I’m carrying… something to somewhere far from here. If anypony here sees it, they won’t hesitate to destroy it, and... kill me. It’s not that I’ve wronged them, or they’re bad ponies! It’s just...” Your eyes sting as you try to find the right words to explain your situation, but you come up empty. All you can do is tell him why you’re having this conversation right now. “I’ve been led to believe you might be different, my lord. I've heard you come from someplace far from here.”

You expect a volley of questions. What are you carrying? Why are you risking so much for this? How crazy do you have to be, to give up everything you know, to spend weeks on the run, for the off-chance of meeting somepony you’ve never met for help in making the trek to a place you've never been?

Why would he ever accept this offer?

All questions for which you have no answers.

Instead of any of these questions though, Anonymous instead leans over the table and asks something else. Something which almost makes you feel physical whiplash.

”Lucky Favor,” he almost whispers, his eyes scarily genuine. “How far away?"

You don’t know if you can answer that.

“Ah, White Hooves!” a feminine voice pipes up from behind.

“GAH!” Your entire body whirls around to be met with a certain red unicorn. Red Letter gives you a raise of her eyebrows as she makes her way towards your table with a smile you never knew she was capable of. “Oh, hello!" You breathe deeply, until you notice the mares following behind Red Letter.

The guardsmares from the tavern door, and the two unicorns Anonymous accosted.

As Red Letter nears you, you lean towards her and hastily whisper, "Are we in trouble?”

“Oh, there’s no need to worry about them," Red practically tosses over her withers at you as she continues to the other side of the table.

At the sound of wet chewing, you turn back to see that one of the guardsmares – the swordsmare, with two wicked-looking Marabian blades on her hip – has a piece of Ergot in her mouth.

You make a similar motion of your lips before turning back to see your guide approaching Anonymous. You clear your throat before introducing him with, “Well, Red Letter, this is—”

“The human," she purrs. "Yes, I figured. I’m so glad you found him.”

Human? What an odd way to pronounce it.

Odd as well is the fact that you can feel your hackles instinctually raising under your cloak. “I-it wouldn’t have been possible without your help,” you opt for, neutrally. “Thank you.”

You feel sorry for Red Letter, hoping she leaves so soon. Ancients above, you wouldn’t even be having this conversation with Anonymous if it wasn’t for her. And you get a newcomer’s curiosity, but you really need to talk with your potential partner. And how, exactly, does Anonymous feel about all this?

You turn to gauge the hyoo-men’s reaction, but you gaze is stolen by Red Letter’s hoof as it nears his arm.

“Oh, I wouldn’t—!” you start, but you’re not quick enough to stop the clink! of her hoof connecting with the stone bracer on his wrist. An alarmed squeak escapes your mouth as you hope the guardsmares do their job quickly, but neither of them move from their perch, less than a cubit away from your side.

Anonymous makes no attempt to hit Red Letter as she says to him, “It’s so good to see you again, Anon.”

So why is that sigh of relief stuck so firmly in your throat?

"Anonymous?" you start, but when you look into the hyoo-men's eyes you know you won't get a response.

His green orbs are simultaneously corpse-like and crazed. Glossed over as they witness events passed, glued to the table and straining as if trying to levitate it from the floor. His lips and cheeks twitch without direction. His knee is no longer bouncing, rather pushing his body back and forth in a subtle rocking motion.

He's having an attack. By the Ancients, he’s having an attack.

The cold feeling in your chest spreads throughout your entire body as Red Letter's hoof draws slow, lackadaisical circles on the hyoo-men's arm. "You all know how he gets," she says without even a glance to her partners' direction. "Would you do me a favor and clear the place?"

It's Storm who speaks first from her post to Anonymous' right. "But the main attraction is still going on, Boss. How are we--..."

Whatever complaint leaving Storm's mouth is muffled, your mind replacing it with her earlier words:

"I see our boss's attempts to domesticate you have gotten us nowhere, as expected."

"Then end it," Red Letter says somewhere far off.

"You all know how he gets," you hear her recant in your mind, among other things.

"So, why were you following me, mare?"

"You're lucky you're her favorite."

"How far away?"

You bucked up.

From behind, you can hear the sharp, thunderous cannon shots of lethal spells booming over the crowd. The squawking of the griffons cease, replaced with a renewed tumult of outrage and fear from the onlookers. "EVERYPONY OUT!" an augmented voice shouts. "TASKMASTER RED LETTER'S ORDERS!"

"The sight of blood never agreed with me," Red Letter continues to an unresponsive Anonymous. "That's why you came here of all places, isn't it, Anon? Under my own muzzle, the one night of the month I wouldn’t visit. You really are too troublesome for your own good, colt. Lucky Favor, why are you still here?"

And just like that, you would’ve rather been called your Uppercaste name by the lowest scum of Equus than hear Red Letter call you Lucky Favor again.

The guardsmares return to your sides, although you feel no warmth from the proximity. Everything feels cold as the clamor from the tavern decreases with every agonizing second. The waves of hoofsteps from behind, the drunken grumbling of mares being hauled away, and the occasional uppity unicorn being quickly shut up with a spell and sent outside.

Regardless of all this, or maybe because of it, you ask a stupid question you're too numb to stop. "Pardon me, Red Letter, but what’s happening?”

“You made this yourself, Anon?" Red Letter muses, leaving your halfhearted question to wither away. She lifts Anonymous’ arm into the air with her hoof, inspecting the stone bracer. The hyoo-men’s eyes snap to her hooves in the same fashion as when he hit you, yet his body refuses to act out. "Your equipment was so much less… homemade when you worked for me. Well, that'll be the first thing we fix."

“Miss Letter!” you shout before your mind catches up with your body, and you realize you’re standing on your hind legs with your upper hooves digging into the table.

You’ve never been in a fight before. You’re an educated caster and have many combat books and classes under your belt, sure, but you’ve never before felt this sickening, consuming tension. You’ve never before fully reached magical exhaustion. You’ve never had to use the crossbow on your bag; just the sight alone would scare off most attackers.

So why is the cold feeling in your chest slowly being overcome with anger?

"I gave you every chance to slink away without making a scene, Lucky," Red Letter mutters as she sends you a glare unlike anything you've ever seen from her. "You need housecarlas? I can give you housecarlas. So now you have no reason to be here. Wait outside, and I’ll tend to you shortly. I’ll be out in about...--"

Red Letter's lecherous sneer she gives Anon, coupled with what she says next, causes the prickles of anger to explode.

"--Twenty? Thirty minutes? Can never tell how long he'll last.”

"Stop this!" you shout as you lunge forward, but something pulls you back from behind. You don’t have time to react before your back slams against the wooden floor. A cold haze envelopes your limbs before you can whip them away. A somber blue – the same color of Vivi’s eyes – hold them in place. You try to scream out for help before cold steel touches down on your neck.

”Should’ve trotted away when he hit you, Uppercastemare,” Storm sneers from behind her axe.

”Don’t you dare get blood on my floor!” Red Letter shouts over the cacophony of your thumping heart and hyperventilation. The axe recedes, although the magical binds on your limbs tighten. “Take her outside, already. And find out what’s in that bag of hers. I never could get a good chance at it.”

NO!!” you scream, your horn glowing a fiery cyan, but it’s quickly snuffed out by Storm’s axe tapping it. “STOP! ANONYMOUS, HELP! PLEASE!

The vitriolic hate in Anonymous’ eyes – the animalistic desire to spring forward and fight – is snuffed out the moment Red Letter speaks again, “That crossbow looks expensive. Oh, paralyzing bolts. Nice. The bag’s intraflated, of course. Uppercastemares love to intraflate their purses, don’t they? You gotta disengage—”

When the contents of your bag spill onto the floor, though, she stops speaking.

In an instant, the tavern is dead silent.

Every head in the room snaps to your precious cargo as it drops to the ground.

As it lets out a squeak of pain at its rough awakening.

As it grumpily stumbles onto all fours before shaking its coat from some spilt ale, its snow white wings unfurling in the effort.

And as its horn glows a pale magenta to fully dispel the remnants of your ambient sleep spell from its mind, its eyelids unbolt as it scans the room drowsily.

”…Twubboh’?” the alicorn filly gurgles to you with a tilt of her head.

MONSTER!” Red Letter’s otherworldly scream blasts through the silence like an explosion. “DESTROY IT! DESTROY IT AND KILL THE UPPERCASTEMARE!

A few things happen too quickly for your brain to register all at once.

In the ensuing rush of fur and magic, your captor slackens her magical hold on your limbs enough for you to scramble to your hooves.

A resounding THWACK! explodes above the commotion of the unicorns.

You immediately ready a teleportation spell aimed at your precious cargo, but your connection with her has been severed. It’s as if her magical signature has become a hole in the void.

You can hardly breathe as you assume the worst, but when you see your precious cargo in the arms of a full-height Anonymous, you feel a rush of relief.

The guardsmare who went for the attack on the filly hisses in pain as she spits out a crimson glob.

The hyoo-men’s gaze swivels from you to the filly in his arms, as if even he was unsure of what just happened. Your precious cargo, in the meanwhile, kicks her bottom hooves in the air as she squeals, "/twubboh'! no pway!/"

”Nonny…”

Red Letter’s voice is sickeningly smooth as she approaches the hyoo-men. As if a switch had been flicked, Anonymous is immediately hunched over and making his way to you. You almost experience whiplash from how quickly the tall hyoo-men is between you and the unicorns. Almost without thinking, you telekinetically grab your bag and slide it to your hooves. Nopony in the room even glances at you, even after you curse under your breath from the absence of your crossbow.

”You’re not from around here,” the red unicorn continues as you hear the door to the tavern slam shut. You send a glance that way to see the other guardsmare returning from locking you all in. “And you’re a colt, so I’m going to give you just one chance to step away from Lucky Favor and that… thing. I’ll even give you a head start.”

Instead of responding, Anonymous slowly lowers the filly to the ground by his side. You’re shocked to feel the influx of magical connection be repaired once she’s out of his grip, and immediately pull her to your hooves. You stare between the filly and Anonymous, the shock of what's happening barely overpowering the shock of Tia's magical tether being cut by the hyoo-men's touch.

Anonymous is turned away from you, so you can’t see his reaction to Red Letter’s words. Still, the looks of shock and fear that blink across her cohorts’ faces show you everything you need to see. The hyoo-men lowers himself, drawing his right leg behind him and his left leg forward, raising his fists. He’s not going anywhere.

You have your precious cargo.

You have your bag, and you have your life.

Nopony is paying attention to you right now. You could teleport to that alley and be out of the kingdom before morning. You could find another kingdom, another housecarla – Tartarus, you’ll just spend a week or so studying invisibility magic and make the whole damn trip transparent!

But no matter how hard your instincts scream at you to ignite that teleportation spell, you’re too engrossed by the sight of Anonymous, between yourself and the ponies who want you dead.

The first of anypony to defend you since you found your precious cargo. Even in the Uppercastes.

He’s not going anywhere, and neither are you.

”Kill them both," Red Letter says, no more unnerved than a pony swatting a fly. "But leave Anon alive enough."

At her command, the room explodes in a symphony of lethal spells being blasted your way.

Reflexes take over as you ignite a protective sphere around your precious cargo and leap into Anonymous’ side.

“LOOK OUT, MY LORD!” you screech as you careen into the hyoo-men. Anonymous yelps as he’s driven to the ground, the thunderous booms of lethal spells zipping above you both.

One by one, each lethal spell zooms across your heads, implanting into the far wall.

I’m immune to magic, you dumbass!” Anonymous yells as he scrambles out of your grip. “Stop fucking touching me!

You don’t have time to chastise the colt for his marely language before the cacophonous lethal magic is quickly replaced with the sizzling of an explosion spell building up.

Anonymous is already bolting from its target, so you quickly respond in kind, grabbing your precious cargo and teleporting away from the now smoldering crash site, burnt wood sent flying in all directions. Your head snaps to Red Letter, and at first you think it’s the dizzying effects of magical exertion messing with your head that you see her all alone.

Then you see the smirk on her face, and you realize your mistake.

”Keep him distracted, ladies!" a mare shouts. "The white one is easier prey!”

You don’t have time to check how Anonymous is faring before another boom racks the tavern.

You let out a scream as you rear back from a lethal spell implanting itself into the table just by your head. The healthy mahogany sizzles into an ugly greenish-brown before your eyes.

Not even a moment passes before you feel something buck into your stomach. Sparks fly from where Storm’s axe slashed into your underside’s armor. Your breath is knocked out of you as you fall onto your back, but the attacks keep coming.

Your focus is on Vivi as she launches booming lethal spells and howling paralysis spells your way. Your horn glows in quick spurts as you deflect each spell to the ceiling, across the room, anywhere away from yourself and the squealing filly in your forelegs as you scramble away from the onslaught.

At the sizzling of Vivi’s horn, you quickly ignite your own during the brief buildup--

Storm’s axe destroys the planks of the floor at your side, less than a hooflength from your cheek. Sharp splinters shower the side of your face as she effortlessly pulls the axe back.

You quickly snag a clump of wooden debris and hurl it at Vivi’s horn. She lets out a shriek as a splinter bounces off, and her current spell is immediately disengaged. Finally with some room to breathe, you quickly engage a protective sphere, but the moment Storm's axe makes contact, it squeals out in a way almost pony-like.

A sharp pain rips through your horn as the sphere explodes like glass. You shout out before immediately trying for another, but when Storm raises her war axe above her head once again, you know it’s futile. The runes on the weapon’s head are glowing a foreboding purple in a pattern you immediately recognize.

Inrithaumatic runes. You can kiss your defensive sphere goodbye.

“Th-those runes are illegal!” you sputter out.

Storm gives you an uncaring, unimpressed look. “It’s a miracle you survived down here for so long, White Hooves,” she gibes. “White Hooves… is that your Uppercaste name, I wonder?” With a flick of her horn Storm’s axe descends onto you.

It never connects with you, though, as pure light suddenly engulfs your vision.

A haze as hot as the sun above licks your fur as the light recedes as quickly as it came. When your vision returns, Storm is nowhere to be found.

”…twubboh’ gawn…” your filly gurgles in your arms.

Your head snaps to the filly as her head goes slack. Were it not for the smoldering magical residue of her horn and her deep breathing, you would’ve assume she had died right there.

Storm’s smoking body falls from the ceiling to an unconscious heap on the ground. Her axe follows instantly afterwards, embedding itself into the tavern’s ground. You’re met with the shocked reflection of your face, and further beyond is Anonymous fighting for his life against the two guardsmares.

ANONYMOUS!

You quickly, and rather unceremoniously, shove the filly into your intraflated bag and prepare to teleport to the gentlecolt’s aide, but the sight of the fight stops you.

Even while his attackers hold nothing back – the swordsmare slashing at him with dual blades, Red Letter letting loose the odd crossbow bolt when there's an opening, the caster using tables, chairs, and even her own hooves as weapons – Anonymous holds firm.

Holding firm or not, though, the sight of a stallion bleeding lines your stomach with lead. Anonymous fights unlike any colt you’ve seen – or, how you’d imagine a colt would fight. He’s brutish and direct as he sends one-legged bucks to any unicorn he can, but the guardsmares outmatch him in both mobility and weaponry. They keep out of his range, whittling him down from a distance. Crimson streaks down one of his arms as the bracer had missed another swipe from the swordsmare. He grunts out in pain as he clumsily puts his weight on his right leg while blocking a broken bottle being thrown at him by the caster. Immune to direct magic or not, there are plenty of corporeal objects around to be thrown at him.

He needs help.

”You’re wide open, White Hooves!” a voice cackles from the side.

You barely have time to jump away from a lethal spell as it zips past your head, but in your haste you don’t have a solid landing plan.

Spell after spell is redirected from yourself, setting the tavern ablaze with a cyan and blue display of life and death. But this time, you don’t have the distraction of a war axe as big as yourself aimed at your head.

You start noticing the patterns of an amateur in Vivi’s casting. Her hooves remain close together even while moving, ready to spring away from any offensive spell you might send her way. Her eyes are glued to your horn, leaving every other part of your body out of focus. She tilts her head too far downwards when she aims her horn at you.

Don’t mess this up, Lucky!

Making sure to establish eye contact with Vivi, you intercept another navy explosion before you whip your head to the left. Vivi’s entire body follows as she expects a spell from that direction, and when your horn lets loose a simple wind spell, she believes she’s caught you.

Wind spells, as you know, are much easier to redirect than any other kinetic spell, but even then they are too quick to reliably maneuver. There’s no chance to curve your spell around to the right without losing control, so you instead opt to bend it in a straight line, aimed at Vivi’s hooves. They’re too close together to stand a chance.

Vivi looses her hoofing as the gust crashes into her lower body, and you immediately spring forward. Landing in front of her, you cast a dream spell on her horn to seal the deal. The caster slouches to the floor limply.

You hear the sharp zip of the bolt from your crossbow before you see it, but even then it’s too late.

A piercing pain shoots out from your shoulder as the bolt lodges into you, but it’s only momentary. All of the muscles, tendons – Tartarus, even the bones -- in your body go numb as you tumble to the ground. The tavern around you swims as it flips upside down and right side up before settling with Anonymous in clear sight.

Without any other option, you shout out, “ANONYMOUS!” as your magic grabs the bag and pushes it across the floor with all your might -- just as another crossbow bolt embeds into its last position. It easily slides over the polished wood, between chairs and tables, until Anonymous’ hands sweep it up on the far side.

The change in Anonymous is almost instant.

The moment the bag is in his hands, the hyoo-men cradles it in the crook of his arm, away from his attackers. His movements are no longer brutish or clumsy; they are equal parts fluid and exact as he deflects one of the mares’ swords with a bracer, grabbing another aimed his way before hooking it in his armpit. With a graceful twist of his body, not only is the unicorn’s magical grip on the sword relinquished, but a crossbow bolt is sent whizzing just by his long torso and the bag is secured into the crook of his other arm tightly. Anonymous makes no deadly use of the sword he snatched, instead using it to crash through a table sent his way. The caster who had thrown it at him is uncomfortably close to the hyoo-men and gives him a parting buck to the leg before teleporting away. You don’t catch which one she caught. From Anonymous’ unphased expression as he eyes the two guardsmares in front of him, you can only guess it was his good leg.

You hope it was his good leg.

The second of the swordsmare’s blades swipes at Anonymous, but he’s quicker, smacking it away with a bracer, showering the floor with sparks. In the same wave of motion, he also flings his confiscated sword toward the swordsmare. She has no time to react before it collides with her horn. The guardsmare screams out as a few pathetic sparks spurt from her horn; this gives Anonymous ample opportunity to land the most bone-crushing punch you’ve ever seen on her cheek.

The swordsmare falls, and the caster is most undoubtedly next as she scrambles back towards Red Letter, hurling anything hard or sharp around her at the hyoo-men. Anonymous either bats away, dodges, or tanks whatever she throws at him until there’s the zzzZWIP! of a bolt aimed not at himself, but at the bag in his arm.

Now, as stated before, you have never been in a fight. The classes you’ve taken and the books you’ve read never prepared you for all the little nuances.

The pumping adrenaline, the shaking down to your bones, the cotton in your mouth; all of these are things you had never experienced before today. Really, the only thing you had gullibly expected in no small part due to the copious amounts of romance novels you’ve read had been the one thing you haven’t experienced in this fight.

Until now.

As sparks fly from the crossbow’s collision with Anonymous’ stone bracer, showering his handsome features in a dangerous, life-threatening glow, his body twists in a way that makes your heart skip a beat. The bag is nowhere near danger, tucked away in a place more secure than the most guarded castle in the highest caste of unicorn society.

The heat of the sun above attacks your face with half of the fury you see in Anonymous’ face.

The moment ends as quickly as it began. Whatever insurmountable spell the hyoo-men had casted on you, it seems to have afflicted the caster as well, as all she can do is stare at Anonymous.

She doesn’t make the slightest move, even when Anonymous rears one leg back and swings it into her cheek. The guardsmare’s entire body follows her head as she’s sent airborne, crashing into the bar before slumping to the floor.

Glass shatters as somepony dives through a window.

Anonymous’ head snaps to the broken window just before the white flash of teleportation magic illuminates the outside wall. For the second time of the night, Red Letter is replaced with the rain and fog of the Plumsteed night.

You can only stare at the hyoo-men as his eyes turn to meet your own. For some time you two only stare at each other, the only noise in the tavern the deafening thumping of your heart.

For some reason, you feel your cheeks heat up as he approaches.

He’s limping badly now, his right leg dragging lifelessly behind him. Still, his expression remains resolute as he nears.

…No, not resolute. In a daze.

“…Q-quite the interviewwwblrrrgh,” you gurgle before your throat goes numb and you convulse, vomiting onto the ground just beside your face.

Was it from the adrenaline? Was it nervousness from Anonymous approaching you in such a helpless state?

Either way, you might as pull the plug on your comatose dignity and say its farewells to its loving family and friends. Because it’s never recovering from that.

Anonymous doesn’t react to your half-digested lunch as he merely leans down and pulls the bolt from your shoulder. You gasp as feeling returns to your dead limbs, and groan when it reaches the many wounds you were too busy avoiding death to notice beforehoof.

“A-Anonymous, dear?” you whisper hoarsely, before you realize Anonymous has walked past you. You turn to find him grabbing a wooden chair, your precious cargo still in the crux of his arm.

”More’ll come,” Anonymous mutters. He continues towards the tavern entrance, tracking blood and disjointed footprints across the floor as he does.

“Anonymous, dear, it’s already locked from the inside, remember?”

Anonymous jams the chair’s top rail underneath the tavern entrance’s doorknob, not paying you any heed. Of course he ignores you, why wouldn’t he?

This is all your fault.

You put this gentlecolt in danger. You wanted to put him in danger from the start, coming here and even asking him to accept your job. You’re the reason Red Letter found him.

Even thinking her name scoops out your insides and replaces them with cold stones.

Tartarus, you’re so stupid.

You miserably drag your hooves below your barrel before slowly raising yourself to catch the hyoo-men as he makes his way back to you.

“I’ll… just take her back now,” you say cautiously.

Anonymous’ eyes are unfocused, up until the moment you reach for the bag in his arms. Then they’re immediately on you, reflecting the same ferocity as when Red Letter had almost shot your cargo.

Thankfully, this moment goes on for much shorter than last time. Anonymous blinks out of his stupor, and you swear you can see the life returning to his tired eyes.

”…Grghhhh…” the bag in his arms murmurs.

Oh, thank the All-Mother!

Anonymous quickly kneels down and hands the bag off to you. The moment it’s in your hooves it’s opened and you pull out your cargo from within. You rotate the filly this way and that, but nothing sticks out too much. The worst is a bruise on her forehead.

”Careful with her,” Anonymous says so quietly it could’ve been a whisper.

When you turn to him, you see his eyes snap away from the filly. His expression is back to an unreadable scowl. He grunts as he hobbles to his full height, and before you know it, Anonymous is simply crossing his arms, peering down at you with a glare.

"So," he says simply, his eyes resting on the filly in your arms for a brief moment. "I'm protecting you against everyone while you transport this filly 'far away?'"

A brief jolt against your chest tells you said filly is back at full capacity now. You peer down at her to find her staring up at Anonymous, tilting her head before giving him an excited wave. Anonymous, you swear to the Ancient Lady of Perception, has to restrain himself from waving back.

"...Um, yes," you whisper, your eyes once again stinging from the pain.

For a brief moment, you're sure Anonymous will refuse. His body becomes rigid, there's the ever-so-slight furrowing of his brow, and a twitch of his cheek. Until his eyes once again land on your filly, and there's a hint of something much softer on his sullen face.

"Money better be worth it," he grumbles, barely discernable, yet making your world slow all the same. "Fine. I accept. Now quit blubbering."

You gasp, looking back down at the filly in your arms to once again study her for injuries, and that's when your vision becomes blurry. He was talking about you.

You slam your eyelids shut and turn from the hyoo-men. "I am not crying!" you grunt, but the amused snort from Anonymous tells you he isn't convinced.

Somepony shouts in the distance, her voice flicking your ears in the direction of the shattered window. Anonymous reacts instantly, his head whipping in the direction as he makes his way over to the window.

You, meanwhile, can't stop the grin on your face as you cover your eyes, sniffling. It's time to leave, you can already guess, but Ancients above, you deserve a moment of peace...

You did it.

"wucky?" a tiny, squeaky voice pipes up from your forelegs. You smile down at the filly as you set her on the ground, standing up to all fours. Your shoulder aches from the crossbow bolt, but once you're out of Plumsteed, you can sew it.

"Yep," you say as you realign your bag's drawstring across your body. "One step closer to Equestria."

The alicorn filly blinks up at you, before her eyes turn toward Anonymous. A few moments of silence passes before she suddenly gasps and whips back to you, hopping up and down on her hooves. "dadda?!" she squeaks, a hopeful expression on her face.

The grin on your face slips, and you curse yourself. You did your best to avoid the topic of a certain... procreative activity when she asked you what mothers and fathers were in the Uppercastes. That, and the subsequent heartache of that question even being asked, made you stick to the "provider and protector" description of the two.

"No, and you should not call him that!" you hastily whisper to the filly. It only makes her more confused, but the bass voice of a certain hyoo-men cuts in before she can ask more.

"Need to stop somewhere first," Anonymous says as he limps past you. "After that, we're getting out of Plumsteed."

You magic the filly from the ground and into your bag as you're thankfully able to keep up with the hyoo-men due to his injuries.

His injuries!

Stupid, stupid Lucky Favor!

Stop being inconsiderate to the rogue of your dreams!

You did not just think that!

“My sincerest apologies, my lord," you titter nervously. "First we must mend your wounds.”

“Stop calling me ‘lord,’" he deadpans, "And let’s just worry about getting out of here first.”

“I will worry about both getting out of here and your well being, mister!”

For the first time since you’ve met him, you see the ghost of a smile threaten his lips.

You can't help but smile smugly to yourself, and decide to push forward, turning to the hyoo-men and giving him a full-fledged grin. With a giggle from just behind your neck, you know your precious cargo is also giving the hyoo-men a look -- and with a flutter of warmth, she gives him another wave. Anonymous, this time, gives her a half-fledged wave of his feelers in return.

“And, um, Lucky Favor is just my Lowercaste name," you say, your cheeks blossoming with warmth at the prospect of your first true friend. "My true name is Faust, and this is Tia! It’s a pleasure to have you aboard, Anonymous!”