• Published 22nd Jul 2021
  • 11,035 Views, 230 Comments

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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II - Outside Stimulus

”Pardon me, lord Anonymous, but would it be too rash to ask you a favor?”

Your vacant gaze shifts to the white unicorn sitting across from you. Lucky Favor’s own eyes immediately snap down to the campfire, as if she hadn’t been the one who just interrupted your thoughts and dragged you back into Equus. Her ears are glued forward, but after a few seconds of some human-specialized scrutiny they start flicking this way and that, playing it off like she was just listening to the symphony of nocturnal life the whole time. After a while of seeming preoccupied, Lucky looks back up at you, a smile tinging her lips upward.

You give an affirming grunt as your gaze returns to the campfire.

A few stutters and verbal missteps later, and you’re on the verge of giving her a less polite grunt until Lucky Favor finally speaks. “Would the gentlecolt allow me to illustrate him?” she asks with a grin.

You blink, unsure of how to respond, before saying the first words that come to mind. “Why're you talking like that?"

”Oh!” Lucky titters, leaning forward on her perch on the log. “My apologies, my lord. It's commonplace to speak properly in the Uppercastes, but I tend to do it regardless when I’m nervous. Which I’m not. I’m very comfortable with you around. So, you're doing quite well as my housecarla!" She gives you a squee, which stops midway as a look of confusion crosses her face. "Housecarl? Which do you prefer?"

Not the first time a lady's been confused by that; not by a long shot. But it's the first time you've been asked which you prefer.

You hum in amusement, your attention turning back to the campfire between the two of you. "Housecarla is fine," you say.

The fire's crackling embers, coupled with the nocturnal buzz of the night, start to send you back into the nothingness of waiting for the two ponies to fall asleep.

Tia’s sudden explosion of giggles from the other side of camp, snapping you out of your progress, is a good encapsulation of your success.

”Tia, that’s not food!” Lucky Favor yawps as she launches from her sitting log.

You jolt from the quick movement. Your fingers snap to fists. However, as Tia’s giggling turns into an indignant, "buh' shiney!", your body relaxes. You sigh at the familiar hum of a certain filly being telekinetically lifted and turn your head to the stars above.

You remember when you’d spend hours lost in the wondrous, flawless night sky of Equus. You’d wonder, if you were pulled into that sky, how far up would you go? You’d try to put what you saw into words – stars, galaxies, comets, technicolor dust, a whole slew of ethereal bodies you didn’t even know the names of – you’d run out of words, you’d just lose yourself in its beauty, and you’d start all over again. Now, though, your mind can only think of one word: stars.

It’s a starry sky, is all it is. It’s gonna be a long night.

”So can I draw you, my lord?” Lucky peeps from below.

Damn. You were hoping she would be too embarrassed to bring it up again, or would at least keep it to herself for the night. It looks like she's not letting this go. Besides, this might just mellow the mood enough for her to grow tired.

You raise your hands in surrender. “Sure.”

”You won't even recognize your beauty!” Lucky Favor glows as her horn follows suit, washing the site in a cyan-and-orange luminance. Her bag floats to her side before being plundered by her hooves. “Did I ever tell you I drew, Anonymous? You never got around to asking me about my interests, and I’ve been dying to draw something I’ve had in mind since last night.”

Lucky's horn glows a cyan which contrasts elegantly with the oranges of the campfire, the same glow enveloping the filly at her side. Tia giggles as she reaches her arms out, looking down at the moving ground as she floats through the air over to you. You raise an eyebrow at the sight.

Lucky wants you to hold Tia?

"Speaking of last night," Lucky muses, her tone much more serious. "Well... We're away from Plumsteed now. That makes us safe, right? I'm not too familiar with the way bounties, and assassins, and the like work."

You can't help but snort in amusement. "We'll be long gone by the time the bounties get out," you say. "And the Maretinets wouldn't allow assassination bounties in such a major city. The most dangerous ones you'll find are the Magical Anomy ones. But those are just plain suicidal." The confused look on Lucky's face reminds you of her last sentence. She's new to the Lowercastes. "Maretinets would be the equivalent of cops. They have cops in the Uppercastes, right?"

The look of confusion on her face boils over into a tilt of her head. Right. You're not on Earth anymore.

In the meanwhile, the proximity of the cyan glow around Tia goads you to squint. The filly settles down in your lap. You blink in surprise, looking down at the pink mane of the filly as it twists this way and that, the eyes underneath exploring the leather pads of your armor.

"Uh, law bringers, basically," you utter as your hands instinctually cradle Tia before she falls. She responds by grabbing at your fingers. "You're gonna draw me holding the kid?"

You look up to see a grin and a nod from over Lucky's cyan-enveloped notebook. "Don't drop her!" she exclaims.

"spider-hooves?!" Tia babbles to herself as her forelegs entrap your right index finger.

"You really shouldn't trust me this much," you mumble, gently flexing your finger out of Tia's grip. "And I don't really like kids."

"wha--?!" Tia squawks, looking up at you with an expression you don't dare meet with your eyes.

Lucky Favor’s own peer up from her notebook, as shocked as someone who'd just been told the alphabet soup she ate had Inrithaumatic runes in it. She stays like that for exactly five seconds, which you know because you're intentionally looking at her to avoid seeing the heartbreaking expression on Tia's face. Finally, Lucky responds with a snicker and pitiful shake of her head. "I understand comedy isn't a stallion's strong suit," she giggles, "But kindly try not to give Tia a heart attack, my lord."

You find it hard to put up a fighting glare with the relieved sigh coming from Tia in your arms. You just opt to stay still as Lucky Favor begins drawing. Your eyes stay glued to the dancing feather behind Lucky's sketchbook.

She draws with an ink quill?

Either she's a damn good artist, or there's some kind of a cleaning spell to remove the any mistakes from the paper.

You close your eyes to relinquish the thought before it leads to more disturbing ones. At the familiar, fuzzy sensation of magic failing to affect you, and the confused squeak of Tia, you know she's trying to grab your finger with her magic. You can't help but hum in amusement as her confusion morphs to frustration, and she gives your index finger a quick bat of her hoof.

Said hum turns from amusement to puzzlement as a stray thought enters your mind. And the more it grows, the harder it becomes to ignore it.

"You know I'm immune to magic," you say to Lucky, prompting two cyan orbs to peek over her notebook. "In fact, I'm almost... anti-magic. If I touch a pony, they're unable to cast any spells. So, I have a question." The notebook covering Lucky's face lowers even more as she considers your words.

Tia switches tactics to biting your finger, and once you get a feel of those pegasus canines, you extend your index finger in front of her face and give her a stern wagging. Of course, she doesn't understand the gesture, and reaches with her forelegs to grab at it. In turn, you give her a light flick on the snout. She gives a surprised flutter of her wings before babbling, "bad hoof-spider!"

Your eyes glide to the bag on Lucky's hip. "I doubt your bag is intraflated due to Uppercaste craftsmanship alone," you say. "So why didn't I cancel the magic out when I touched it?"

For a brief moment, Lucky is stunned at the question. She turns to the bag on her hip, then to the filly in your hands, then to you. But with each turn of her head, her eyes become wide with excitement. "I'm not sure," she says, a hint of smugness crawling out with her words as the fur of her chest tuft begins to rise underneath her shirt. You recognize the foreign body language as confidence. "But I know enough about magical theory that I might be able to give a hypothesis. There are four main species of magic: direct magic, ambient magic, elemental magic, and magic-mortem." The notebook settles on Lucky's lap, and you're given a full view of the suddenly cocky Uppercastemare as she grins, "Magic-mortem is, in layman's terms, dead magic. Since an ambient intraflation spell would be exhausting to cast, nonstop, lest your valuables be crushed or the bag destroyed, an intraflation spell was casted during this bag's making and was killed by a skilled caster. It's effectively permanent, yet inactive, magic, unable to be affected by any outside means. I believe this may also extend to your magical cancellation."

"Hm," is all you mumble as you consider her words. You were expecting something useful for future encounters, but you doubt anyone will be hurling dead spells at you.

"Of course, there's no need to worry about the minutia of magic," Lucky titters, turning her attention back to her drawing. "It's more of a mare's subject."

Mare's subject?

A mixture of confusion and indignation creeps its way onto your face. Looks like this unexplained sexism everyone seems to have isn't just restricted to the Lowercastes. It's starting to get on your nerves.

The feather dancing from behind Lucky's notebook suddenly stops dead, to be replaced with a sheepish grin. "Of course, my intentions are not to offend the good lord," she says with a halfhearted squee. "Mares at better at some things, and stallions others. It is quite nice, having such a strong, affable male influence around. F-for, um..." For what seems like the dozenth time since you've known Faust, the white of her cheeks is stained red with embarrassment. "For Tia, of course."

Just... ignore that blush.

Tia successfully takes your index finger hostage and inspects it as if it were a wonder of the world. "Just don't bite it," you grumble to the filly in your lap, before turning your attention to Lucky. "You just met me. I could be some psycho-criminal-turned-housecarla. Why do you think I'm such a standup guy?'"

”Oh, just a feeling,” Lucky says coyly, levitating her notebook back over her face. You don't miss the slow kicking of her hindlegs as she focuses on the drawing. "I'm sure there's a beautiful, misunderstood, masculine spirit underneath all that mareliness."

"Want me to punch you again?"

The feather of Lucky's quill stops dancing behind the notebook. She drops the book to her lap, looking at you with a blushing frown. "I am a mare of dignity, lord Anonymous, and I do not enjoy being struck by a stallion. I enjoy deep conversations and romantic portraits. Masochism is a side effect of Lowercaste degeneracy."

A dumb look plasters itself on your face as you slowly take in what she just said. The looks seems to be infectious, as what Lucky just said seems to dawn on her, and she slowly levitates the notebook back up to cover her face.

"Alright," you grunt, leaning forward over Tia. “There's obviously some culture shock bullshit going on that I'm not getting. Why are males treated so differently around here?”

”bowshit?" Tia pipes up, and you immediately clamp on your hand over her muzzle. It's too big to do just that, though, and ends up covering her whole face.

The notebook drops into Lucky's lap as she gives you the epitome of the, "How dense are you, colt?" look. You click your tongue in embarrassment, looking off to the side as you remove your hand from a dazed Tia.

"Fillies aren't allowed to say that," you say. "Legends say their tongues will fall off if they say that... without going to sleep right after."

Nice save.

Tia's ears flap to her skull and she immediately burrows herself into your armor, feigning snoring. Once again, a soothing calm begins to overtake you as Lucky's gaze morphs from outrage to a kind of smug exasperation that you're pretty sure has to do with your "masculine spirit" shining through.

Once she's good and satisfied with your acceptance of defeat, her ears perk up in attention at your previous question.

You reach a hand up to scratch at your beard, remembering other instances of this phenomenon. Even earlier today, at Free Valley Carpentry, where they'll be building your carriage out of here. “This morning,” you recall, settling your hand back onto a steadily breathing Tia. “They changed their entire demeanor when I started talking. They started treating me like royalty, or something.”

”Well, all stallions should be treated like royalty,” Lucky Favor muses. "It's the proper mare's job to take pride in the upholding of the stallion. Even if he's just a stranger. Truthfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the Valley's treatment of you. Especially for Lowercastemares!"

Her open classism is somehow both charming and insulting.

You roll your eyes, but otherwise don't move from your spot. No reason to mock the Uppercastemare's pride when she's paying you 600 doits a night.

“…Y-you deserve to be treated like royalty, Anonymous," Lucky Favor says, almost soft enough for you not to hear. Your gaze locks with her own as she looks up at you from behind her notebook.

And there you two are, staring at each other over the campfire. Lucky Favor’s eyes brim with a determination that you can almost find respectable, if she hadn’t just prefaced it with the clumsiest attempt at flirting you’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing.

The two of you continue the impromptu staring match for… an amount of time you’d rather not discern. Long enough for Tia’s snoring to snap Lucky out of her stupor.

“You’re weird,” you say neutrally.

The blush on Lucky’s cheeks burns so bright you’re worried she might set her notebook ablaze as she buries her face in it. Lucky's face doesn't reveal itself again, but her ears flick to her skull in embarrassment, and her hindlegs begin kicking with a little more force.

You suck on your tongue in bemusement at the display. You don't like how at ease you're beginning to feel around her. She's hard to read.

Or are all Uppercastemares just this... naïve?

Your knee bounces slowly as Lucky Favor goes to town on that notebook. You’d be lying to yourself if you said you weren’t the tiniest bit curious how her drawing will turn out. You remember back to Free Valley Carpentry, when she had gotten flustered trying to explain the minutiae of the wagon. After a few technical words of which she didn’t know the meaning were sent her way by the workers, she took out her notebook and started drawing the wagon as a blueprint. It was accurate and detailed enough to draw a crowd of both carpenters and customers.

As your thoughts play with Free Valley Carpentry, you’re tempted to ask Lucky Favor about another occurrence that you had been wondering about. She had told you—no, insisted that you did not, under any circumstances, call her “Faust” when there were other ponies around. “Ponies of these… acclimations,” were the words she used. Something to do with only her close friends calling her by her Uppercaste name, you guess.

When you turn back to Lucky, though, the question fades from the tip of your tongue to the back of your mind. She’s sticking her tongue out in concentration, her eyes inches from her canvas as she tries to get the exact measurement of something perfectly. There's the threat of a smile on your lips once again.

She really is new to the Lowercastes. Maybe she can turn out to be one of the better ladies. A little snobby, but...

Well, she's no Red Letter.

The fire crackles peacefully and the filly in your arms lets out a faint giggle in her sleep as she digs deeper into your chest, and the nocturnal life seems to blossom once again within the silence.

A sudden movement from above catches your attention. It’s a comet, trailing across the ethereal canvas of the night sky. It blinks past the uncountable asterisms of stars, seems to cut through the limbs of a galaxy you can only guess is your own, and disappears into a nebula’s whirlwind of colors.

There's that twitching at the corners of your lips again; a hesitant smile, asking for your permission to blossom.

"a-dadda-dah..." Tia gurgles in her sleep, nuzzling closer into your abdomen.

Your grip loosens on the filly. Maybe to distract yourself from the blossoming of warmth in your heart. "Uh..." you murmur, slowly leaning away from the lump of sleeping pony. "She's aware I'm not her father. Right?"

Lucky's eyes peak over her notebook, and she lets out a squeak of recognition. "Did she call you--?" she begins in a panic, before she sees the affirmatory look on your face. Lucky Favor lets out an apologetic groan, dropping the notebook onto the wood beside her, leaning forward and planting her cheeks firmly on her forehooves. She lets out an embarrassed giggle before looking up to meet your eyes with her own, her maroon mane parting between her horn in a fashion that somehow amplifies her meekness. "I apologize, Anonymous. I was in a... well, awkward conversation with a filly about reproduction."

You silently mouth, "oh," knowing the feeling all too well.

"I told her that mothers and fathers were essentially guardians who protected and played with her," Lucky titters, her eyes gazing into the dancing tongues of the campfire. They stay like that for some time, her thoughts well away from the drawing by now. "Are you a parent, Anonymous?"

The warm feeling in your chest spreads slowly throughout your body as memories of Earth threaten to burst through your tear ducts.

You haven't been asked that one. Not in a long time.

You stay silent for a long time, blinking away the stinging sensation of tears coming to your eyes. Your throat begins to tighten, and your chin begins to tremble without your input. You lean forward, pressing an elbow to your knee and lips into your purlicue to hide the phenomenon. The movement causes Tia to be cradled in your other hand.

Your right knee begins to bounce. It's a habit you've had since you were a kid.

"I, uh..." you mumble, before snapping your mouth shut at the faintest hint of your voice's wobbling. You sniff, before turning it into a grunt, gliding your hands over your face to ruffle the hair bush on your head. When your eyes once again meet with Lucky, you see that her own are focused expressly on you. Your chew on nothing, as if mulling over this emotion you haven't had the displeasure of tasting in a long, long time. With one more exhale through your nostrils, you give her a simple, "No."

Lucky Favor meets your eyes with a gentle smile as she says, "Anon, if something's bothering you, I'd be happy to listen. Only if you're comfortable, of course.

"Why are you crying all alone, Anon? Let me help you."

Slowly -- painfully slowly -- you come to a realization.

The warmth of the campfire fades into nothing, and the filly in your arms turns to metal.

The warm feeling in your chest shrinks into itself, malforming into a dense, cold stone. It slithers down and into your gut in a painful and unstoppable crawl.

It took you longer than the others to figure her out.

Maybe it's because she's from the Uppercastes, you expected differently.

Fool you twice...

No. Not twice. This makes thrice.

It starts as a simple gesticulation of your stomach and brief snorts through your nose. Bizarrely, it feels as if it infects your mouth before your vocal chords, resulting in a few rapid fire pants before it finally comes through as something perceivable: a chuckle.

Lucky blinks, that innocent fucking look on her face -- the one she no doubt practiced -- before it turns into confusion. No, not confusion. Concern.

Concern.

The chuckling, for a moment, retreats back into shallow panting before you let out a guffaw loud enough to wake Tia from her sleep. She gives a little jump -- an innocent, little jump -- and you're sure her magenta eyes are looking up at you with confusion.

You have the fortitude to pluck Tia from your lap and lay her unceremoniously on the space of the log beside you as you let out the first belly-wrenching cackle. Lucky gives Tia a confused glance before she sets the notebook down. With a little hop, she's on all fours in front of the log, slowly walking towards you with a hesitant smile.

"Did you think of a joke, Anonymous?" she asks pathetically.

You end your laughter with a wheeze, burying your face in your hands.

It's a joke, but you sure as Hell didn't think of it.

"Tia," you command with a giggle, not even looking at the filly at your side. "Cover your ears."

With that out of the way, you push yourself up to full height. Lucky's own height diminishes as she gives you a look of unbridled confusion. She seems to snap out of it as she quickly nods to Tia, "Cover your ears, Tiny-Tia."

Tiny-Tia?

Red Letter's nickname for you was so much more straight forward.

"A stallion needs to be coddled every once in a while, right, Anon?"

"It's okay to cry, Anon."

"You deserve this, Anon. Let me make you feel good."

"We'll see who the cops will believe, Anon."

The stray thought, completely out of Equus yet inextricably connected to your arrival, almost makes you burst out in another fit of giggles. But you're thankfully able to keep it down to a low chuckle as you kneel down to meet Lucky Favor at equal height. She blinks at your sudden descent, taking one instinctual step back, but the blush on her face betrays her thoughts.

She's blushing.

You give a knowing smile to beat down the cold rock of grief in your gut. You reach forward with a hand and give Faust's burning cheek two light pats. Her brow furrows and she gives you a slack-jawed frown. A mixture of concern and confusion. "Did I really hire a psycho-criminal-turned-housecarla?" she'd be thinking, if she were smarter.

"I know what you're doing," you say without emotion.

Lucky blinks rapidly, as if she were blinking out of a confused stupor you put on her, as you stand back up to your full height. "Oh!" she suddenly jolts. "I called you Anon! I'm so sorry! I was simply caught up in the moment! It won't happen again... Anonymous?"

You grin as you walk around Lucky Favor, aimed at the dormant notebook on the log. You even find yourself casually humming a nonsensical tune.

"Tia, cover your ears," Lucky says again from behind, keeping her voice kind yet firm. "I mean it!"

Tia gives a hesitant affirmative as you assume she does just that. In the meanwhile, you round the corner to be able to peer down at Lucky's unfinished drawing, and your suspicions are confirmed.

She's a good artist, you'll give her that. She went out of her way to draw your silhouette before anything. The drawing has a heavy emphasis on your muscular figure. As the cold rock in your gut deepens into a freezing stone, the smile on your face only becomes tauter.

It took a nickname for you to see it. Any other mare, you would have made the connection right away, but with Lucky?

A nickname, and a child to lower your walls. Despite the fact that a child is the whole reason you're on Equus.

Lucky tilts her head at your reaction, her eyes dancing between you and the picture. She stays like that for a moment, before a thought seems to deflate her. "Are you okay, Anonymous?" she asks.

"No," you say. "Not at all."

Lucky's face crumbles at your response. She takes a few careful steps toward you as her eyes plead up to you. "Anonymous?" she murmurs, "Do you... want to talk about what happened? With Red Letter?"

"You want to help me?" you more say, than ask. Like a command. It's a command Lucky takes as she gives you a nod. You grin to hold back the bubbling laughter in your throat, amalgamating with the burning anger in your chest at the sick joke that took you a full day to get.

You shake your head in a slow, dead seesaw and tell her, "No, you don't."

"Pardon me?" Lucky's words would have been condescending, if they didn't come from an Uppercastemare's mouth. Somehow, she makes it seem filled with concern. She's good at that.

Your nonplussed smile seems to trigger something inside Lucky as her posture gains a few inches of height. "Why would you say that?" she asks, an ounce of umbrage dropped into her tone. "I've been nothing but accepting to you, Anonymous!"

Alongside Lucky's confidence, comes your anger. You close the distance with Faust with two large steps. The unicorn takes one back, quickly glancing at the filly behind her, her own look of confusion aimed right at the two of you as her hooves cover her ears. You don't miss the faint glow of Lucky's horn. A defensive spell, you're sure, even if it won't do anything to you.

As the fake joy across your face crumbles into a dagger-like stare, you growl at your lady, "You mares are all the fucking same."

Lucky's face undergoes an expression of horrified confusion and betrayal. "What does that mean?!" she yawps.

"Your constant blushing? That fucking drawing? 'You deserve to be treated like royalty?' You don't want me as just a housecarla, you want me as a fucking Uppercaste suitor!"

That seems to bring Lucky up short. Her mouth opens and moves as if she were speaking, but no words come out. They're stuck in her throat as she struggles to bring up a defense. The only thing that's lacking is a blush on her cheeks.

You knew it.

It took you long enough.

"Admit it," you growl lowly, closing that last bit of distance between the two of you, crouching low to meet her face to face. "You just want to get in my pants. You're like a little Red Letter."

You regret the words the moment they leave your mouth.

Faust's face becomes two shades whiter. Her raised cheeks and shaking eyebrows battle with her horrified eyes. "I--..." she begins, before she's brought up short once again. Her muzzle begins to twist and tremble in emotion. A single, dry sniffle seems to reap through her entire body as she jolts, her eyes beginning to panic as she looks between the ground and you.

Finally, her hindlegs give out from underneath her, and her haunches drop to the ground. "It--" she starts again, a sharp intake of air silencing her. "It isn't like that!"

Deep down, despite everything you've been through and everything you know, a small part of you asks yourself why you shouldn't believe her. It's a small, shriveled tendril of guilt that grips you from the inside.

As the sounds of the argument are replaced by your rapid heartbeat, the campfire, the nocturnal buzzing, and Lucky's shaky breathing, that small part of you demands an answer.

Look at her. Does she look like a Red Letter?

She wants to help.

You could tell her.

You could tell her everything. You could tell her how your last days on Earth broke you. You could tell her just how good a family's word was back on Earth, how good a mare's word here on Equus is. You could tell her how you were not even allowed to cry there -- how you're only allowed to cry here. You could tell her you still feel the crushing sensation of the noose around your neck every night before you go to sleep. You could tell her all of this, and she would comfort you, and you would finally feel safe in this new, unfamiliar world.

But then, she’d be just like Red Letter.

You watch, silent, as tears begin to well in Lucky Favor's eyes.

Don't you dare feel guilty. Earth taught you better than to fall for that.

Despite your own thoughts, it gets harder to meet Lucky's eyes. You just look away from the sight and into the forest. Your hand errantly scratches at the hairs around your mouth as you glare into the darkness. For some time the two of you sit in silence, Lucky's deep breathing eventually shallowing into another attempt at words.

"I-if I'm making you uncomfortable..." she pleads, "Please just--"

It's fake.

Red Letter did the same thing. You'd be stupid to fall for it again.

Ignore the guilt. You know better.

"So, am I fired?" you interrupt before she can finish.

As if suffering from whiplash, Lucky blinks rapidly at the question. She sniffles, wiping at her eyes with her forelegs. "Pardon me?" she asks quietly.

"Are you going to fire me?"

Lucky's tear-stained eyes seem to reexamine you, as if you just teleported in front of her with completely different features. "No... Why would I fire you?"

"Because I'm just your housecarla until we reach Equestria. I'm not your friend, and I'm not some romantic interest in one of your Uppercaste novels. So if that's going to be a problem, just fire me now and we can go our separate ways."

The longer you talk, the lower Lucky's eyes fall from your face. She opens her mouth once, in a futile attempt at a rebuttal, but it soon closes without accomplishing anything. After a moment of consideration, Lucky turns around to see Tia meet her gaze. The longer she looks at her precious cargo, the lower her ears sink into her mane.

You can't follow her gaze.

Lucky Favor, you can handle. But if you look at Tia, you know you'll start having second thoughts.

You take her silence as an affirmative.

As if it can distract you from the feeling of your heart being condensed into itself, you give a clap of your hands and shift your weight upward, standing back up to your full height. Lucky's eyes snap back to you in confusion.

"Alright, then," you say, turning to see that the cold embrace of the forest looks much more inviting than around Faust. "I'm going on a walk to clear my royal, masculine head."

If Lucky had a response ready for that, she can't get it out before you're already limping away. You hear her take a few steps after you, but they soon slow, before stopping completely.

"Okay..." she mumbles in a wavering voice, just loud enough to stain that word in the insides of your skull.

You don't give a response as you keep your eyes forward, cursing the stubborn, guilt-ridden, rumbling warmth in your chest. The longer you walk, though, the more another rumbling warmth begins to make its unwanted appearance.

Your right leg is beginning to hurt again. After that lucky hit in Plumsteed, you've been unable to walk for long without it happening. And it feels like it's getting worse.

The orange lights on the passing trees gradually dim and disappear, and soon, you're finally out of earshot of your ladies. There's still the residual shaking from your fight with Faust, in your gut and on your face. You slowly suck air in through your teeth, cringing as burning coal is shoved into the shin-long splinter of your cracked shinbone. You try to shut yourself out from the outside stimulus, but like always, the pain soon overtakes you.

Your body forces you to lean up against a tree, unable to stand.

You barely last a second before you buckle under your own weight, shaking like a dying leaf. You let out a low, animalistic groan as you simply sit there, squeezing your head between your hands, and clenching your eyes shut.

"Equus isn't Earth, Anon," she had told you once. "It's okay for a stallion to cry."

You open your eyes to glare at nothing, and the bottom of your forearms drop onto your knees. With a well practiced coating of anger over the pain, you will yourself to simply block out the feeling of tears wanting to well up in your eyes.

Push it away.

Push her away. Don’t give her an opening, Anon.

Never again.

You use this moment of stillness to breathe.

You're able to steadily remind yourself that you're finally alone with each slow breath. You're no longer on Earth. You're no longer in Plumsteed. With some effort, you're even able to push what Tia called you out of your mind.

You're no longer a villain for wanting to be a parent.

Red Letter is not here. She's in Plumsteed. Probably scrambling to put out bounties of you two. But it'll take time for those bounties to spread out of Plumsteed.

You liked the look on her face when you deflected her bolt in that tavern. She looked so scared.

You're not sure how much times passes with you taking deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, and you don't care. Long enough for the burning coals in your chest to simmer into nothing, and the cold stone in your gut to thaw out.

You're Faust's housecarla just until you reach Equestria. Nothing more.

Equestria is untamed. Settlers, raiders, and natives aplenty. Like a Colonial America. The bounty hunting business is booming there.

Although... you know that doesn't really matter. Not with the real reason you took up bounty hunting.

You stubbornly pinch the bridge of your nose, taking in a few extra breaths just to be sure. With an extra few minutes, paleness will subside, and Lucky won't have another reason to pretend to worry over you. You put one hand beneath you and begin to push yourself up.

FUCK!

You hiss as your body immediately collapses back to the ground.

You reach down and pull up your pant leg to study your leg. As you tear off your makeshift gauze of plantain leaves and ointment, not an inch of peach skin shines back to you in the darkness. Everything is either purple or red. That old stallion's ointment did nothing.

You slowly suck it up and get to work, clawing your way up to your left foot.

You start limping through the forest in your search for a branch of optimal size. You’re tempted to just settle for a walking stick, as a splint would work as a makeshift cast, but it’d be hard to take off. After all, you won’t be much of a housecarla if you can’t even intimidate your lady’s attackers, would you?

Not only that, but Lucky Favor would have a persistent reminder that you’re injured.

Although, a walking stick would be much easier to hide from your potential opponents when the moment calls for it. And Faust. She’s proven herself to not be able to keep her hooves to herself when it comes to your injuries, fretting over your gashes and going on and on about how she's been educated on the subject of first aid.

You mull over the possibilities before you finally come to a solution, and get to work.

It takes some time, wandering through the forest, gathering the branches, twigs, and leaves needed. You have to awkwardly sit on the ground to gather some twigs from the base of a large, gray tree. You detach one of the drawstrings of your bag and wrap your collection of leaves around it tightly. This takes the longest to complete, at least you think. You're not keeping track of time.

Your Scout leader sure as Hell didn’t follow you to Equus, so you’re free to make your branch splint without his God-fearing scrutiny. Two branches on each side of your shin, small enough to inconspicuously fit under your pant leg and hug the outside of your boots. The branches are secured to your leg over a quilt of plantain leaves -- natural gauze between the strings and your shin -- and extend half an inch longer than your ankle to put weight on. Your drawstring, strengthened by the rolled-up leaves, provides above-ground support for your ankle. You can keep your balance by tilting your toes downward. Just have to be careful on raising them so as not to activate your tibialis anterior.

You’ve had these kinds of injuries before, back on Earth. You have to fight the urge to cringe at the memory of your overconfident, second-week Tae Kwon Do self roundhouse kicking a heavy bag at full strength. You estimate your leg would be in walking shape by the time you reach Equestria.

Provided there are no delays, of course.

After your round of baby steps are completed, you figure it's time to head back to camp.

The trek back to the camp site is spent in mental quiet. As you near it, the combination of the orange glow of the still-burning campfire and Faust's unladylike snoring make you wonder just how much time has passed.

You limp into the camp, aimed squarely at your makeshift cot, only to find that it is… no longer makeshift.

The pile of leaves on grass has been changed –no, renovated into– what has to be a floral replica of a king’s sized bed. The two logs by the campfire were used to create the frame, and it looks like the many barren tree branches around you donated their leaves to make the tightly-sown quilt of a blanket. You half expect it to collapse when you poke it with a finger, as if it was just a hollow replica, but the bed holds firm.

Right. Magic-mortem.

Your eyes are tracing the boreal work of art when you notice a neatly folded piece of paper lying in the center of the bed. You lean over the bed to pick it up, setting a hand down on its soft sheets for support – holy fuck, that's soft – and realize it’s a note. Two guesses who it’s from.

…Nevermind, one guess. The text is written in a cursive so decorative you have to remind yourself it’s Ponish in the first place:

”Fit for a king."

You glare at the snoring figure of your lady on the opposite side of the fire, atop her own makeshift cot. But the pain in your shin, the weight atop your eyelids, your emotional exhaustion, and the simple fact that you just don't want to all come together to form two words.

"Fuck it," you mumble, tossing the note on the ground before collapsing onto the bed.

You let out a long, drawn-out groan as you grab the pillow and place it underneath your right leg. After that, the back of your head sinks into the natural amalgamation of softness, and your eyelids draw the curtains on the world around you.

naw-naw-naw…

For fuck's sake.

You sigh, resigned to another hour of staring up into the night sky, waiting for Tia to fall asleep. Today has been full of surprises. Why not add the revelation that Tia is a late sleeper to the pile.

Tia’s babbling continues, interrupted with spontaneous giggling at what you can only assume to be the smallest of things. Your gaze is glued to the night sky. Maybe if she thinks everyone else is asleep, she’ll follow suit.

That’s your thought process, until you hear her utter something that makes your blood run cold.

widdle sun…

You have to flail out of the welcoming softness of the bed to bolt upwards. Your eyes snap onto the sight of Tia standing dangerously close to the campfire, smiling as she reaches a hoof into the flames.

Tia!” you shout, making Tia jump. Her magenta orbs snap to yours as she hastily retreats, back on all fours. Her eyes are devoid of tears and she’s putting equal weight on all her legs. She didn't burn herself.

Tia takes a few steps away from the campfire, but her eyes remain glued to you. You keep up the intensity of your glare in response, raising your index finger to give her a slow wagging. Her eyes follow your finger, transfixed, reminding you of her ignorance.

"This means 'don't do that,'" you begin to explain, until an explosion of giggles from the filly cuts you off.

“naw-naw, back!” Tia chitters excitedly, flapping her wings as she stomps her hooves in joy. She bounds towards your bed, her face not even betraying a hint of hesitation. "gwump gone, gwump gone!"

You blink owlishly before you come to the realization that Faust didn't tell Tia what your conversation was about.

Not only that. She covered for your ass, somehow.

You glance in the direction of the snoring Faust, but Tia's laughter draws your attention back to the scene of a winged, horned filly, still fully awake, and not showing any signs of sleeping.

Shit.

Hey,” you warn, accentuating your raised finger. Tia skids to a halt, her ears perked up in surprise as she stares up at you. She seems to only look at you for a few seconds, her magenta eyes glowing in the dark as she studies your finger, then your face, then your leg. Her eyes squint at its elevated position.

"Alright," you groan, sweeping your legs off the bed and standing up to full height. You kneel down to Tia's level, keeping your injured leg away from her concerned eyes. "Tiny-Tia," you command, resulting in a brief jolt from the filly. "Go to sleep."

You hold onto those last, fleeting hopes that she’d just fall asleep if you don’t encourage her playtime.

You should've known better, hanging around your toddler in-laws so much.

Instead of going to sleep, Tia smiles.

It’s a slow, mischievous smile; the kind your racist cousin in-law would wear at family reunions, moments before all Hell breaks loose at the dinner table. One of the few fun moments you remember.

”naw, naw naw…” she snickers, lowering herself to a predatory crouch, wiggling her rump in the air.

Your finger steadily shifts targets from the sky to the filly in front of you. “Tiaaaa,” you growl, narrowing your eyes into what you hope would trigger her prey instincts. “No play. Sleep. Remember what happens to fillies who say that word and don't go to sleep?"

"did go sweep!" Tia responds as her tail lashes left to right. "curse bwoken! now wevenge for tiny-tia!"

“You oppose me, little missy?” you jeer lowly, raising to a sitting position to raise both hands. A grin overtakes your features, unbeknownst to you, but going fully noticed by Tia.

She really reminds you of your in-laws.

“They call me the Sandman Monkey," you growl, waving your hands in front of you in a faux-martial arts fashion. Tia's smirk only grows. "I get paid to put disobedient mares to sleep. You and your wings wouldn't stand a--”

Tia attacks.

Actually, Tia stumbles at you and cries a war cry that wouldn’t intimidate a chipmunk, but it's something.

You respond to her dastardly stumbling in kind, reaching out and grabbing the filly. She squeals as you hoist her above your head, flailing her hooves as her wings flap in the air. You’re surprised to feel the deceptively powerful gusts of wind those tiny wings produce.

ah-dadda-dah!

You snap out of it immediately at Tia's exclamation.

Tia stays suspended in your hands, giggling madly for a while, until she notices that you’re no longer smiling. A few seconds go by as she only tilts her head at you, her expression one of bewilderment. You slowly lower the filly to the ground. The moment her hooves touch down, she laughs and tries to bite at your fingers, but you quickly put a stop to that with a flick to her snout.

Tia scrunches as she backs onto her hindquarters, rubbing at the collision sight with both hooves. She looks back up to you, one ear lowered in a crooked confusion.

You close your eyes as you push the memories of your in-laws back to unconsciousness. “I don’t like kids,” you remind yourself more than tell her. When you open your eyes, you're beholden to the same expression Tia had the first time you said it, though this time you don't turn away. “And I’m not your dadda."

"nawt dadda?" Tia muses. "bu'... dadda, cowt who pwotect an' pway!" Tia's confusion vanishes at her definition, and she gives you a Cheshire grin. "ebeepony have dadda. no dadda, so... naw-naw dadda!"

You let out a frustrated sigh as a hand glides to the back of your neck, rubbing it in discomfort. "Listen, kid," you mumble. “I’m just your housecarla until we reach Equestria. Then you’ll never see me again. Christ, the fuck am I doing, anyway, having a conversation with a toddler?"

You’re not sure if it’s the tone in your voice, but Tia seems to finally get the message. Her wide eyes turn away from your own as she scrunches. She slumps on the grass with a small bounce, her head hanging low as she glares at the ground. "fine," she mumbles. "no dadda."

You just frown, trying your best to ignore the niggling feeling of guilt in your gut. Your shoulders slumping from your collars like heavy weights.

Better for both of you this way.

For some time Tia doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even cry or sniffle, which is what you’ve been preparing yourself for. Instead, she suddenly stamps a hoof on the ground before giving you a glare.

”naw-nee, aaaaaah!” she yells at you.

You can only blink at the sudden change in atmosphere.

"...aaah?" you ask dumbly.

Tia nods fervently, before a thought seems to shock her out of it. She groans loudly, stomping in a small circle as her wings rustle with frustration. ”naw-nee, aaaaaah!” she repeats as she jabs a tiny hoof into the soil. "what word?! aaaaah!" Your slack-jawed reaction only seems to frustrate the filly more as she points a hoof in Faust's direction. "wif tubboh, wucky aaaaah! but nawt naw-naw! no twubboh, wucky cawlm, buh' naw-naw 'aaaaah!' what word!"

As you slowly come to the reality of yourself in mid-argument with a talking filly on an alien planet, all you can do is play along. You let out a groan as you consider her words, before coming with an answer. "Scared?" you ask.

"skaood!" Tia pipes up, hopping up and down in confirmation. "wif twubboh, naw-naw nawt skaood! buh' no twubboh', naw-naw skaood! why?!"

"Does this have to do with my fight with Lucky?"

Tia tilts her head. "fight? jus' dis-gweement! wucky say naw-naw just beeng emo-jzonal cowt."

The only reaction you have to that is a long, hard breath as you roll your eyes.

"buh', i tink diffwent," Tia says, drawing your attention back to her. Tia blinks up at you, giving you a small smile. "naw-naw... skaood. buh' why be skaood?!"

Faust didn't cover for you. At least, not in a complimentary way -- not that you deserved it.

Tia thinks you're scared all by herself.

"How old are you again?" you ask quizzically, unable to stop the question before it comes out.

Tia responds with a shrug and a hum that says, "I dunno!"

You just groan, rubbing your temples as you lean forward in defeat. The kind, concerned look on Tia's face becomes harder to ignore as she takes a step forward so she's under your face, innocently smiling up at you.

She's innocent. You know she isn't anything like the mares... at least not yet. But right now, she's innocent.

She doesn't deserve your bullshit.

You're not scared.

This is just the best way forward. This is how you never let another Red Letter happen again.

But if it'll satisfy Tia, and get her to fall asleep...

"Yeah," you drawl, leaning back up and away from Tia. She follows you by taking a step forward and laying a hoof on your good leg, smiling earnestly. You have to look away from the display. "I am scared."

"buh' why?" Tia asks. "no twubboh'!"

"It's, uh..." you mumble, sincerely wishing this conversation to be over. "It's the dark."

Tia tilts her head, giving a questioning hum as she looks all around.

"I'm just scared of nighttime," you lie with a chuckle. "Sorry, Tiny-Tia. I've been acting bad because I'm scared of the dark." Tia's eyes widen with realization as you give her a pat on the head, careful to avoid her horn. "I'm just being a scaredy-colt. You and Faust don't need to worry about me, okay?"

Instead of accepting your answer, Tia smiles.

It’s a slow smile to be sure, but it isn’t mischievous. In fact, you can’t spot an ounce of malintent in it. It seems to beam through the darkness as her eyes light up with pure joy.

You don’t have time to react before Tia hops away from you, her horn glowing in a miasma of watercolor you've never seen before. Your eyes widen at the display, but before you can say anything, Tia announces, "pwotect naw-naw wike big mawre!"

Without warning, the ethereal glow of Tia's horn suddenly shoots out all around you.

You instinctively cower behind your arms at light, but no blistering heat follows. There is no deafening explosion; just the quiet, lolling hum of a unicorn working their magic. The light on the other side of your eyelids isn't even blinding. It isn't piercing through like a dagger, rather flowing gently like a river behind a wall.

You slowly lower your arms, and when the white light fades to a manageable orange, you creak open your eyes. Tia stands just a few feet away, looking mightily proud of herself. Her horn glows a magnificent color; an ethereal, nebula-like ocean of yellows, whites, and purples you can’t even begin to describe.

The shock comes when you look up.

In the middle of the now cyan skies, hidden only by a few stray, white clouds; the Sun glows with the same beauty.

The Sun, not due for at least another few hours, slowly ascends over the treetops of the surrounding forest. As it climbs into the sky, the dark shadows which were there just moments ago shrink in accordance with the sunlight's command. The familiar buzzing of the nocturnal life fades into nothingness, to be replaced by the harmonic chittering of morning animals; as if they, too, are a part of the times changing.

But the times aren’t changing by themselves.

You can only stare as the otherworldly glow of Tia’s horn slowly wanes to oblivion. The Sun floats victoriously overhead now, framing your surroundings in a picturesque moment of unadulterated wonder. A wonder more deep, more powerful, and more paralyzing than any night spent under the Equus stars.

Tia giddily turns towards you, before an itch suddenly overcomes her facial features and she blinks away the colorful inferno from her eyes and horn.

When Tia recovers, she can barely contain herself as she giggles, “naw-naw, pwotected! i nawt so tiny no more!”

“…ahhh…” you respond.

Tia tilts her head like an innocent schoolfilly. “naw-naw stiww skaood?”

“…aaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHAAAAAAAAHAAAAAAAAAAAA!!


”Anonymous, my lord. Just tell me... is there something on my face? With your bluntness, I expected you to just come out and say it, but if it's so bad you're acting colty about it, I need to know! I promise I won't be offended."

You were staring again.

"Just lost in thought," you grumble as you crank your head away from the unicorn by your side, instead focusing on the dirt path ahead. The sun-lit dirt path, surrounded by the green-yellow glow of the forest Sun, permeated with the tweets and calls of daytime life. The things that should be happening hours from now, but aren’t because the filly in Lucky’s bag holds the power of an angry god.

The filly that Lucky Favor has been lying to you about.

Well, lying by omission. Isn't it funny, how they're never outright lying? It's always under some fucking technicality so it isn't straightforward lying.

”Oh, please," Lucky snaps, taking a step closer to you. "I know how you look when you're deep in thought, and it's not that. You look positively ragged! How long were you in that forest last night? And has your leg gotten worse?" Lucky leans closer to your leg, which you not-so-subtly swerve away from, putting distance between the two of you as you walk. The unicorn looks up at you with a betrayed concern, but doesn't pester you further.

Unless fillies with godly powers are common in the Uppercastes, Lucky Favor has been lying to you since you met her. You were right not to open up to her.

”Oh!" Lucky suddenly exclaims, "We're here, my lord!"

You grit your teeth as, for the dozenth time too many, Lucky calls you her lord. Thankfully, the sight of Free Valley Carpentry coming into the distance is the good news you need.

It’s a quaint little cottage, and if it isn’t for the large thatch-and-wood workshop attached to its side, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for somepony’s home. The place is festooned with the branches and vines of the forest engulfing it from all sides. However, you know they don’t provide any threat to the building’s integrity. Technicolor ropes of ambient magic sprawl across the surrounding foliage’s surfaces, between bark and under stones, preventing anything from causing harm to the structure.

As the two of you near Free Valley, the sounds of the workshop overtake the wildlife of the outdoors: horns humming, hammers nailing, and unicorns shouting indistinctly.

”I hope they have it ready by now,” Lucky Favor mumbles excitedly. “I’d like to be rid of this place as quick as possible. You as well, no doubt. And once we're on the road, I'd... Well, I'd like to have a conversation with you, Anonymous."

You can feel Lucky’s eyes on you, as if she’s waiting for confirmation. But your attention is on the mare approaching the two of you. The tan overalls and various bandages across her body cover her turquoise coat like hanging accessories.

“Heads up," you say with an upwards nod toward the worker.

Lucky turns to see the unicorn as well. Her gaze shifts between said unicorn and you, each time her face a little more frustrated, before she grumbles to herself and uses her hoof to wipe all over her face, presumably to get rid of whatever spot she's suspecting. You'd find it cute, if you didn't know better.

”Miss Lucky Favor?!” the unicorn calls out in a voice you'd assume came from a brass instrument.

”Oh!” Lucky responds eloquently, taking a moment to readjust her mane before she canters towards the worker. “Yes, dear, that’s me. Pardon my curiosity, but you weren’t the one we met before—?"

”Yeah, there’s more than one worker here. Makes the place run smoother. I'm Smooth Roads. A thousand and five hundred gold ones for the finishing costs, Uppercastemare.”

You take a little pleasure in watching Faust squirm under the Lowercastemare's bluntness before her horn glows, drawing a few doit bags from her bag. “Six hundred, twelve hundred…” she whispers to herself as she counts. You, meanwhile, wander past her towards the workshop.

The racket of the unicorns raises tenfold as you cross the corner of Free Valley to be greeted by the open wall of the workshop. Unicorns trot this way and that between tasks as their horns glow. You have to bow to avoid smacking your head on their cargo, virtually making up a low ceiling of boards, planks, and an assortment of other wood-based paraphernalia. Most of the unicorns – especially the ones who heard you speak yesterday – raise their cargo as it nears your head, but you still allow a good foot of leeway. A few of the unicorns who do so give you polite, "Be careful, sir!"s and "Watch that handsome face of yours!"s.

You ignore the more flirtatious remarks as you weave through the busy crowd of miniature horses. Before long you arrive at a very familiar-looking house-on-wheels. You whistle at the accuracy of the whole thing; the unicorns got everything right. From the windows, to the empty supply barrels and bags hanging off the side, to even the miniature watch tower at the back which you had insisted would be a contrivance at best.

Well, that makes one of Lucky Favor’s drawings coming to fruition.

”Hey!”

At the resounding thwack! of something hitting between your feet, your eyes snap to the new smoking hole in the ground.

“You!” the feminine voice continues, drawing your attention to…

…What the Hell?

”Yeah, you! The hairless cat! What’re you doing around our wagon?!”

You hadn’t noticed it before. You blame your lack of sleep for thinking the band of unicorns occupying your wagon were workers. Now that you pay closer attention, you realize that the band of unicorns occupying the wagon aren’t wearing overalls, or wielding hammers. They’re wearing an assortment of mixed and matched-together armors, wielding everything from swords to blowguns. You know this because each of the weapons are pointed at you.

You cross your arms, giving each of the wagon raiders a glare. The one with the blowgun pointed at you is standing on the seat of the wagon, just beside her a pony… that’s blind?

Sure enough, the unicorn on the seat’s eyes are a muted gray, staring into emptiness. She leans toward the blowgun one and whispers something in her ear.

Before you can open your mouth, you hear a familiar voice pipe up from just beside you.

“Pardon me, dears,” Lucky Favor questions with a genuineness you hope she doesn’t mistake for intimidation. “But why’re you dirtying your hooves on our wagon?”

YOUR cart?!” the blowgun one explodes, staring daggers at Faust. “You little bitch, we—”

NO FIGHTIN’ IN MAH BUCKIN’ WORKSHOP!” Smooth Roads' voice suddenly explodes near Lucky, her accent clawing its way through her speech. The effect of her voice is instant, clapping each of the unicorns’ ears to their skulls. The blind one lets out a growl and a flurry of swears as she holds her ears against her skull. Meanwhile, the unicorn workers making their way around you continue on without a care. Smooth Roads stomps forward, and the pony with the blowgun clops down to the front seat as the two of them get into a heated discussion.

"Anonymous?" Lucky whispers with a tap on your good shin. You turn to your lady to find her peering up at you nervously. “Firstly, I want you to know that I say this not to sound misandrist, but to protect your identity as a male of an unknown species. Please don’t speak and reveal your gender. Something's off about these ponies.”

Yeah, they're dumbasses who thought they could steal your wagon surrounded by ponies who know its owners.

Instead of responding, you let out an amused snort, shaking your head at your little lady.

Lucky blinks at your reaction, a hint of offense twitching at her face, until she simply frowns and turns back to the commotion at the wagon.

”What crawled up your snatch, Roads?” one of the wagon raiders snaps back.

”A couple’a no-good, illiterate rats who were too late on the draw!” Roads responds, her accent now much more prominent from her anger. “Beat it! This one’s paid for.”

”That didn’t matter last--”

”This wagon was assembled to the paid order of lady Lucky Favor, and her housecarla who wishes to be named anonymously!”

Teehee.

Smooth Roads’ horn glows an earthly brown before the bell by the wagon’s front seat is enveloped by her hue. The unicorn doesn’t have time to react before the bell smacks her upside the head.

She snarls, but her aggression never boils into attacking. With a simultaneous grumble from each of the wagon raiders, they step down from the structure, their wagon raiding fantasies crushed. They don’t disperse, however, instead trotting up to Smooth Roads, engaging in a hushed argument.

”You two can go on and take your wagon,” the craftsmare says to the both of you before she’s pulled into a bout of angry whispers.

As you and Lucky pass the huddle, you can faintly make out three words:

“…three thousand total…”

Roads' words unnerve you as you pass the unicorns. You're not sure why that would be coming up in any honest conversation.

You step up and onto the front seat of the wagon, and are surprised to not even hear a creak as you settle down; not even when Lucky Favor hops up the hoofsteps to join you on the soft cushion. With a glow of her horn, her back is removed from her back and set onto the space just beside her.

The space in front of the wagon is cleared of unicorns, and you’re about to catch up on some much-needed rest until a voice snaps you awake.

”Hold on now, hold on now!”

You jolt at the sensation of the wagon’s weight shifting once again. One of the wagon raiders doesn’t mind the owners’ glares sent her way as she ascends the hoofsteps to be level with you and Lucky. Where her fur isn't caked in dirt and grime, you see a sapphire-colored coat. Her pale yellow eyes gleam at the two of you behind her gray mane in a dangerous, yet polite mirth. “I’d hate for us to part on terms such as these,” the unicorn says with a smile, holding a hoof out to you. “There was some honest miscommunication with Free Valley, and we'd hate for the two of you to think of us as thieves. The name’s Sapphire Lily. And yours, ma’am?”

You keep your glare level at Lily, even if it’s becoming increasingly hard to resist the urge to back away from her. There’s something in her eyes that makes you uneasy.

They remind you of another set of pale yellow eyes.

“Lucky Favor, as you know," the aforementioned unicorn says at your side. You lean back to give Lily a proper view of her conversation partner. The unicorn responds with a disappointed “hmph" at your silence, but otherwise turns to Lucky gracefully. “The rightful owner of this wagon, as my friend Smooth Roads told you.”

’Rightful owner,’ she says,” Lily giggles softly, shutting Lucky Favor up. There’s a moment in which Lily’s soft titter reigns above the clamor and ruckus of the workshop, dominating whatever Lucky’s retort would’ve been into submission. Lily suddenly smiles to Lucky with a less-than-appropriate gaze. ”Ten thousand.”

You blink.

”Pardon?” Lucky Favor almost whispers, staring at Lily like she had grown a second head.

”I’ll even magic up a contract that prohibits myself and my cohorts from touching your wagon until the money is in your hooves,” Lily continues, accentuating her point with a tap-tap-tap on the wood. “Ten thousand doits, Lucky Favor. That’s a might more than what you paid, wouldn’t you say? Now I’m no accountant, but slap me silly and call me a househusband if that’s not a steal! Not only that, but you could just draft up another, better one with the extra money. And let’s not forget your cat friend’s need of proper medical attention over here.” You subconsciously drag your injured leg away from Lily. Another tap-tap-tap as she leans over to Lucky with a hungry glint in her eyes. “What do you say?”

You can hear Lucky Favor’s heartbeat through her chest. You slowly turn your gaze to your lady, a look of annoyed confusion on your face. "Why would you pay so much for somepony else's wagon?" Lucky asks earnestly. "Surely you could easily buy one of your own."

”I’m an artist at heart. I can appreciate a fellow craftsmare. And I'm running low on time, truth be told."

Lucky Favor’s wild expression turns from Lily to you in an instant, before turning back to Lily.

You’re at a loss. The trade makes perfect sense to you. Ten thousand bits for a wagon that costed three thousand to make. Lily’s promise of honesty means nothing to you, but that doesn’t change the fact you’re in the middle of the Free Valley workshop. There are too many witnesses to try anything.

“I think we should take her up,” you whisper to Lucky Favor. “Then get out of here as quick as possible.”

From the wagon’s weight shifting and the preserved humming, you can tell that Lily is leaning away from your conversation and giving you both some privacy.

“It’s not about the money!” Lucky nearly yelps. “I have more than enough doits as is! We don't need it!"

You swear you hear Lily's humming falter as Lucky mentions her doits. Your heartbeat quickens, and you glare at your lady for letting that slip, but Lucky Favor either doesn't notice or is too preoccupied with her rant to care.

"This is my wagon!" she says. "I designed it myself, and I'm proud of it! A Lowercastemare and her thieving ruffians do not get to have it! And if we took her up, we'd be in the woods for at least another night before we got a new one!”

“Why does one more night camping matter?" you murmur.

”Because every minute we spend here is a minute Red Letter spends trying to find you!”

You feel a stone drop in your stomach. Another dishonest mare, acting like she cares about you. You just close your eyes and let out a long, low growl, biting your tongue from saying what's on your mind.

Ten thousand doits, ensured by a room full of witnesses... why don't you just take it yourself?

Of course, that thought is immediately shot down and replaced with the cold frost of self-loathing. Maybe Red Letter rubbed off on you.

Lies or no, you wouldn't leave Tia like that. Hell, you probably wouldn't even leave Lucky like that. You don't even know what you'd do with the money.

You give a frustrated sigh, opening your eyes to a sight that makes your heart stop.

Faust's bag is gone.

Lucky seems to catch the meaning of your expression as her head whips away from you to her side. You catch movement in your peripheral to see her bag floating behind the back of one of the unicorns in the group of raiders. The blind one's eyes are shut in concentration as the one with the blowgun strapped to her withers whispers something into her ear.

The blind unicorn's magical aura is transparent and silent. She teleported Faust's bag to her side.

The one with the blowgun makes eye contact with you, and you immediately react.

You launch yourself from the helm of the wagon and barrel towards the airborne bag. Lily gives a sharp yelp of surprise, and the blind unicorn's eyes widen in confusion.

"Hey!" is all the blowgun unicorn can get out before you nearly throw yourself with your fist as you punch the blind unicorn's snout in. She lets out a muffled yelp before immediately collapsing to the ground. Your heartbeat thumps loudly in your ears as you quickly snatch Lucky's bag from the ground.

"What in the Eternal Graze--?!" Smooth Roads exclaims, reeling from the scene.

"You'd hit a blind ma--?!" the blowgun unicorn shouts as a lilac foreleg grabs at your arm, and by instinct your arm snakes around her limb, pulling her whole body towards you as you grip her neck with the other hand. The unicorn's orange eyes widen, and the horns of her cohorts glow in tandem.

"A blind fucking thief!" you shout as your grip only tightens around the unicorn's neck.

The unicorn in your grip's expression immediately turns from rage to awe at the sound of your voice. Each of the would-be raiders are quiet amongst the racket of the workshop. Smooth Roads approaches from behind the would-be thief, her eyes narrowed in resolution.

"Thief?" she questions simply. A few of the unicorns passing you by are staring at the commotion -- most of which are looking at you with looks that range from concern to outrage. When Smooth Roads catches a glimpse of them, she immediately turns and shouts, "If y'all're done gawkin', get back to work! It's mah' job to handle this!"

Slowly, the agape mouth of the unicorn in your grip closes to form a subtle smirk. A tinge of red dances across her lilac cheeks as she gives you a wink, the tip of her tongue poking out from her teeth.

The way the shorter unicorn is pulled up to your side forces her hindlegs into an awkward position to keep balance. You plant your good leg behind her hooves and simply shove the unicorn to the ground. She immediately slams on her back, gagging from both the sudden pressure to her neck and the wind being knocked from her. Gradually, as she recovers, her lecherous gaze returns to you once again. That familiar feeling of pinpricks traveling up your spine tells you each of the raiders are also leering at you.

Ignoring them, you simply turn to Smooth Roads and raise your bag to her face. "The blind one tried to steal it," you grunt. "Are there any Maretinets here?"

Smooth Roads' eyes shift from you, to the bag, to the unconscious heap on the ground. "Nearest Maretinets are in Plumsteed," she reckons, "But these sacks of shit will get their just desserts. That's a mare's promise, sir."

As if that's worth anything.

"Sir, indeed," comes the slow purring from one of the raiders.

Your glare snaps to said raider, but the feeling of Lucky's scared gaze, contrasting heavily from the leers, stops you from acting out. The bitch would probably enjoy the beatdown, anyways. Your glare shifts to the brown, unconscious mare on the ground and you spit into the pool of blood collecting next to her nostrils. Without a word, you just turn towards the wagon and begin walking.

As you near the side of the wagon, you see that Sapphire Lily hasn't moved from her spot. In fact, the unicorn's posture suggests she's as calm as ever. She wears a polite smile as you near, her horn glowing a casual yellow as she draws something from the bag on her hip.

A glob of Ergot floats lazily into her mouth, and she begins chewing. Your gaze snatches towards the wagon to avoid the sight.

"Well, damn. Looks like our reputation will be staying in the mud," she says with a chuckle, briefly glancing at your injured leg. "Enjoy your wagon, gentlecolt."

She's not going to be punished for this. At least, no more than a hefty fine, you're sure.

You just growl to yourself as you grip the front seat and hoist yourself up the steps to find the irate expression of Lucky Favor's face. You take your seat to see that the sea of unicorns parts to give your wagon a clear path to the outdoors. Without even glancing in her direction, you set the bag on Lucky's lap.

Without wasting any time, the front reigns are pulled taut by Lucky's magic, strings of ambient magic begin to dance across the wagon's wheels and reigns, and the wagon lurches forward. You don't miss the look of guilt Smooth Roads flashes at you as she talks with the raiders. Probably just saw the lump of doits that guarantees Sapphire Lily's innocence.

The unicorn with the blowgun, though, keeps her eyes on you as you pass. A knowing grin spreads across her face before it's thankfully replaced with the trees and grass of Equus. With another whip, the ambient magic across the wagon glows even brighter, and the two of you begin to gain speed.

"Brutish," Lucky grumbles through her clenched teeth, "Arrogant, uneducated, bucking Lowercastemares... Thank you, Anonymous." Lucky closes her eyes as her magic envelopes her bag, attaching it to the drawstring on her side. Tia's horn pokes out from the opening, her ears quickly following suit as they rotate this way and that.

After letting out a low, frustrated growl, Lucky turns her attention to you and snaps, "But for future reference, kindly let me know what's happening! I'm quite able to handle situations like that!"

An unbelieving grin that could be mistaken for pure joy spreads across your face as you register what she just said. "You're quite able to handle situations like that?" you ask simply.

"I could have used my magic! I know you're my housecarla, but... well, you ended up speaking, showing those... brutes your gender!" Lucky snarls to herself as she puts a little more force into the next whip of the reigns, resulting in another lurch of the wagon.

"You're quite able to handle situations like that?" you repeat again, as if it were some joke you didn't get. You chuckle as if it were a joke. You hope it was a joke, but the look on Lucky's face reveals the punchline is that she was being unequivocally serious.

Lucky seems to finally read the expression on your face the right way. She uses a hoof to push Tia's head back down into the bag, her face souring as she stares sternly at you. "Anonymous... I know you're my housecarla. I know what I'm about to say won't be to your liking. But it is difficult enough for me to watch you put yourself in harm's way as is." Lucky's frown turns into a glare as she turns back to the road, shaking her head in a slow, simmering fashion. "That mare..."

Lucky takes a moment to recompose herself before continuing, "All I ask is that, if a situation arises wherein you must speak, please think about the consequences first! These Lowercastemares are all brutes..."

"Right," you chuckle. "Because I should be 'treated like royalty.' And you're the Uppercaste knight in shining armor I need."

Lucky's face seems to compress into itself as she holds back a barrage of swears.

There's a bump in the road that briefly jostles the two of you. Lucky's hoof darts towards you to steady your body. It isn't until it makes contact with your side that she either reconsiders or realizes what she just instinctually did. Lucky returns her hoof to her side in embarrassment.

Only proving your point.

You lean closer to Lucky, speaking lowly, "Faust, I'm doing my job. I signed up for it. I'm being paid for it. And I don't need you to pretend to worry about me."

"PRETEND?!" Lucky lets out a gutteral yell of frustration and snaps back at you, "Anonymous, I want you to know I have the RIGHT to be angry with you, but I am still choosing my words very carefully! I know you don't trust me -- or any mare -- but the least you can do is respect me! Regardless of how marely you are, you are still a stallion, and I can't disassociate from that just because you're my housecarla! It's how I, and every Uppercastemare, was taught! Unlike whatever backwards tribe you hyoo-mens obviously are, worrying about my male counterparts is considered a strength! So, ex-CUSE ME!"

Faust and her fucking sexist, Uppercaste HIGH HORSE!

You turn away from your lady and squeeze your temples as hard as you can to keep from screaming in Lucky's face out of frustration.

If you had closed your eyes one moment earlier, you might have missed that flash of lighter green and white momentarily glimmering among the forest brush. Your hands lower into your lap, and the anger towards your lady cools into an uncomfortable confusion.

You lean back up to full height, staring into the passing trees on your left. Nothing looks out of place now. With Lucky silent, there's no other sounds but the crunching of dirt and wood as the wagon continues on lazily.

Your eyes narrow, and your attention sifts through the trees.

Too fast to be a unicorn. Definitely not a wagon raider. Was it an animal?

You've been on Equus long enough to learn that, just like the mares' "feminine intuition," as they so like to brag about, you have your gut, and you need to trust it. Something's not right.

It's just when you're about to open your mouth to voice your suspicion that it happens.

Thwip.

Something that feels like a small needle embeds itself into your left shoulder. You grunt, immediately swiping at the pain. Your hand comes into contact with something much larger than a small needle.

A dart is embedded in your shoulder, the red feathers of its fletching dancing in the wind. There's a symbol on the dart, but your vision is too blurry to make it out. The whole world is becoming blurry as the numbness travels from your left shoulder to the rest of your body, far too quick.

Not magic. Poison.

"Hide Tia," is all you can get out before you use the last of your strength to throw yourself over Lucky Favor. She lets out a yawp as you collapse on top of her, yelling out in discontent, just before another dart strikes your neck -- where your lady just was.

The last thing you see is a watercolor miasma of greens, whites, and browns. The last thing you hear is Lucky Favor's horrified yelling.

Your touch is the last to go. Before you drift into darkness, you can feel one tiny hoof tapping against your face in panic.

And then, nothing.