Feathered Hearts - Continuation and Chronicles

by Firesight

First published

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

Four years after unhappily departing Equestria, Grizelda Behertz—known to her few friends as Gilda—has at long last begun to turn her life around, returning to the Griffon Kingdom to begin a new career as an Auxiliary Guard soldier. But even as she finally finds purpose and begins her slow rise through the ranks, her life—and that of the entire Griffon Kingdom—will shortly be turned upside-down again.

For the race known as humans, whom Equestria opened a portal to but three years earlier, is finally visiting, sending an Ambassador along with a military escort. Bordered by enemies and in need of new allies, can the Kingdom find common cause with a bipedal race of primates that is somehow both completely backwards yet incredibly advanced? Can Gilda learn to like their oddly interesting yet infuriatingly ignorant civilians who come from a culture completely unlike her own?

And what will become of all of them when an ancient enemy called the Cloven of The Sun emerges, invading and intending to wipe out the entire Griffon Kingdom?

Set in the Gentlemanverse, this is both an update and continuation of the original Feathered Heart by the great and sorely missed Fimfiction author Demon Eyes Laharl, containing all-new chapters that fill in gaps in the old story, and eventually continue it from where it left off. The continuation will be written so it will work with either the old or new version of the story. If you have questions or concerns, please read the introductory blog.

Original Story Author: Demon Eyes Laharl
Continuation Story Author: Firesight
Prereaders: AJ_Aficionado, Silentwoodfire, Silverblade5, ASF, and Wechsel

Cover art by Dvorgaz on Deviantart, cropped from the original.

0: Prologue

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Soaring high above the foothills of the Foal Mountains on the strength of her broad, brown-feathered wings, Grizelda Behertz—called Gilda by those who knew her—felt her lithe half-eagle, half-leonine form shiver as she spotted the silhouettes of the moderately-sized houses in the distance; their dark forms contrasting sharply with the piercing rays of the Celestial sunrise that appeared in the east.

Her shivering wasn’t because of the weather, which the ponies carefully controlled to the point of obsession. While it was the Running Of The Leaves Season—a rather ridiculously long name considering the Gryphons just called it Artumnus—and a step closer to Winter, the frosty predawn temperatures were not the reason for her discomfort. She was, after all, a sky griffon of the North; even the freezing bite of the wind was no match for her thick coat and feathers.

No, her discomfort was a product of the town itself—Ponyville. It was a quaint little settlement in the Sovereign Realm of Equestria, situated in the foothills of the mountain range where the Equestrian capital city of Canterlot was located. From her position, she could see the river that cut through the center, the big red building that served as its town hall, all the equally colorful houses with bright yellow roofs, and the outlying farms dominated by a giant apple orchard.

She had visited the town before only once, and it was not a pleasant memory. She’d lost her best friend, and with her, the only reason she had to stay in Equestria. The years had passed, and so many things had changed since then. She'd even made peace with that former friend, fighting back-to-back in the air against a mutual foe.

After her stormy and admittedly misspent youth, all was now well in both her personal and professional lives; she was content with what she had and what she was. Yet the trepidation of returning here remained. Was that the reason why she hadn’t stopped by the town yesterday, making an excuse that the travel had exhausted her?

Gilda stared at Ponyville from her hover for a few more seconds, with no answer springing to mind. Were the memories of her hurt still too raw? Did she fear encountering ponies who remembered her? Or was she too afraid to even think about it, even after fighting a war and facing down death a thousand times over?

In the end, she turned her back on the town, reminding herself sharply that she was no longer the immature and insecure eagless she was then. Her powerful wings flapped with practiced gracefulness as she soared higher and higher towards the overlooking foothills that built towards the distant Foal Mountains.

As dawn broke over the misty hillocks with an orange glow that touched their peaks first, her eagle-sharp eyes shifted from left to right, trying to find the cavern where they set up camp. It took her a moment, but she soon spotted it: wisps of red-orange embers, dancing inside an open maw almost a kilometer away.

The wind shifted as her wings began to fold the air around it. With a powerful push of her sky griffon wings, Gilda dove for the opening at breakneck speed; her eyes narrowing as she weaved through the clouds with expert ease—expertise she’d gained in both races with Rainbow and battles for the survival of her very race and nation. Before she knew it, she was at the mouth of the cave.

Smiling, she spread her large wings outwards, immediately causing the air to drag her back hard. The wind resistance slowed her descent enough to plant her claws on the rocky mountain ground, sparks flying from stone as her talons skidded across the surface. Her momentum was still pulling her forward as she shifted her body without difficulty, her hind paws moving diagonally as she then slid to a stop.

With such an entrance and her wings spread out, she was the very image of a graceful griffon: mighty, majestic, and “just plain awesome” in the words of the one she was returning to.

The first thing she heard was a series of sharp clapping sounds, causing her to cock her head slightly, like those damn griffon models she absolutely hated. Then again, she couldn’t really begrudge it, either—her companion, her chosen mate, was a special circumstance. She never really had a problem being a bit girly for him.

“Nice entrance,” he said, reminding her instantly of how his deep and throaty voice always sent a thrill through her. “I’d give it a 9.5. Have to dock you a couple points for low degree of difficulty and not quite sticking the landing. You also dragged your tail a bit.”

“Who asked you?” She growled in mock ferocity even as she felt a touch of flush build in her cheeks. She’d never really understood why she liked his teasing when she hated it from everyone else, but coming from him, it was somehow endearing; a mark of deepest affection. Trying her best to ignore the feelings his mere presence brought her, she approached the makeshift lodgings they had built the previous day.

The cavern that sheltered them from the cold was a former dragon hoard, though Gilda was certain it had been long abandoned. If it wasn’t, their stay would have been short indeed when the dragon got back. She had checked the whole place before they set up, and whatever wealth had once been there had long since been looted; there was nothing remaining except strong and ancient stone.

The camp, she noted again, was definitely different from the usual griffon setup, which usually consisted of a few dry twigs for the fire, firegems, and leaves for bedding. The basic materials were still there, though some additional amenities were needed because of her mate.

At the center of the camp was a small fire contained within a hastily constructed fire pit. The usual one-time use firegems were missing, instead replaced by human tools. Her mate called them fire-starters, which only consisted of two parts. One was the ‘flint lighter’, which was a simple-looking metallic stick with a wheel at one end. It could cause sparks with a simple flick of a finger—or claw, in her case—and unlike firegems, it was also reusable. The second were termed ‘fire-tabs’; little cotton knotted ropes that caught fire quite quickly, even when wet.

These tools were far more usable and much more simplistic than the off-at-times firegems that needed a vial of liquid magic or a strong impact to work. It was thus no surprise when the ‘fire-starters’ had almost single-handedly replaced the traditional magical gems back in the Griffon Kingdom. These had, in turn, become popular on the human world of Earth for providing a ready source of light even when their usual methods of powering lights—electricity, they called it?—were absent.

Also, instead of the usual leaf bedding, there was a tent in place. But unlike pony tents, which were costly and required magic, this one was far simpler, using one of those refined strong aluminum frames as its skeleton. How humans developed them were beyond her, given it usually took a team of unicorns or griffon metalworkers—called blackbirds—to refine the lightweight metal to a usable form, and even then, it was generally far too soft for most purposes.

The humans also developed interesting fabrics that they used to cover the tent. Her mate called it ‘nylon and other stuff’. It was thin, but it kept the insides toasty warm even if she didn’t quite like the smell. While it seemed impossible to accomplish without magic, it was unimportant in the end. After all, the tent was big enough for both of them—wasn't that enough?

Speaking of her mate, there he was, sitting by the fireplace and stoking the flames as he prepared to make breakfast. Since the cavern and the fire were more than comfortable, he was not wearing the gold-yellow and red hooded jacket, pair of brown pants and thick ‘steel-toed’ boots that made up his typical traveling attire. Instead, he wore short pants and that thick fur vest she had given him as a gift some time ago, showing off his well-muscled golden brown arms.

She remembered a time not long before when she was so busy with her military duties that it was hard to get enough free time to hunt animals for their fur. Worse, she had the bad luck of only starting the search a month before his birthday, when she desperately wanted to be able to present a coat made for him. She failed, but her gift was enthusiastically received nonetheless, and judging by the wear-and-tear, he wore it nearly every day.

It was just another reminder of why she loved him.

Remembering made her neck and face feel warm, and it wasn’t because of the flames. Approaching him, she laid her kill down next to the campfire, licking the blood off her beak before she faced him.

It didn’t show while he was sitting, but he was a tall, bipedal creature and unless she reared up herself, she’d only stand as high as his chest. The brown skin of his face was muted by the low intensity of the fire, but it made the white teeth of his smile much easier to see. Approaching him, she nuzzled his neck affectionately. He rubbed his cheek on her neck in turn, his teeth nibbling at the sensitive surface she wouldn’t bare to any other griffon, making her throat involuntarily trill.

“Morning, Gilds,” he greeted.

“Morning, Marco,” she answered back. She settled down on her haunches beside him, and he automatically grabbed a brush from his pack and began to groom the lion half of her body, smoothing out the fur and removing a few specks of frost. She groaned with pleasure, her spine arching with the brush’s passing.

“Nice catch. You need me to skin it for you?” her mate asked. It took her a moment to realize he was talking about her kill.

“Not unless you want some,” Gilda replied distractedly. While she had discovered a far greater appreciation for how humans prepared meat—who would have thought cooking it could make it taste better?—griffons were more than comfortable eating it without any preparations. Plus, skinning the kill herself was quite an enjoyable task, letting her be the predator she was.

“Eh, thanks, but I’ll stick with eggs and sausage. This jerky’s good, too,” he said as he placed a cast-iron pan on the fire to let it start heating.

Gilda rolled her eyes. “You’d really pick that mush and a piece of dry and briny meat over my fresh kill?” she asked, and this time, her reaction wasn’t entirely feigned—it was always something she’d say every time he’d eat the ‘jerky’ on their travels, which was what he called the dried and salt-preserved surplus griffon military rations they’d procured. Surprisingly, they had been a hit with their human guests, who found them close to snacks they enjoyed back home.

And, as always, he would give his usual smile as a reply. She looked at him for a second before turning away, with a fake huff. “I can’t believe you actually like that stuff. Humans really are masochists. The whole lot of you are weirdos.”

Her unperturbed mate just chuckled. “I don’t see why you’re complaining, Gilds. Especially if...” He let his words linger as he slowed down his brushing in a particularly sensitive spot near her shoulder. Gilda hiccuped a squawk of surprise and pleasure before she cuffed him with her wings.

“Stop that!” she ordered him, feeling her face flush.

He backed off, but only barely, keeping his efforts tantalizingly near the erogenous zone at the base of her wings. “If I wasn’t weird, would I be able to make you feel this good?”

She felt her face flush harder, trying to stop her twitching wings from going erect. “Oh, just shut up and brush me.”

“Only because you asked so nicely…” He gave a sound that was surprisingly close to a feline purr. And brush he did. Up and down, back and forth; his hands steady as he worked a rhythm of even strokes. They were very practiced motions, honed by months of repetition. Gilda always enjoyed his grooming ministrations, even when he wasn't initially that good at it. Thank the Ancestors that he was such a fast learner, at both that and...

Satisfied, she tapped his leg with her wing, signaling him to stop before he got too amorous. With the pressure off her coat, it was time to return the favor. She walked behind him and draped her forelegs over him, her claws lightly scraping through the fur vest as she rubbed her neck and beak over his head, shoulders and scruff. She closed her eyes and lost herself as she breathed in his scent deeply, finding it as pleasantly warm and spicy as always.

Her stomach suddenly rumbled. Her eyes flew open as she felt her cheeks heating up, from embarrassment this time. She suddenly felt his fingers glide over her feathered neck, his lips kissing her throat.

“Sounds like you’re as hungry as I am. So go eat, Gilds. And thank you.”

Gilda gave a very fake huff of annoyance, and immediately stalked her kill near the fire. Before she dug in, she looked back at him for a moment; her eyes shifting.

“Are you sure you don’t want...?” she motioned to her kill.

“I’ll be okay with the jerky for now,” her mate replied with an easy smile. “Save me some slices and I’ll do them up as steaks tonight. Besides, with Ponyville so close, I can get some potatoes, too.”

“Ugh, Ponyville,” Gilda spat out before she began to eat her breakfast ravenously, tearing meat off the bone with her beak.

“Hey, slow down, Gilds! I don’t want you to choke,” he advised with a laugh.

Gilda rolled her eyes as she ate her meal. Still, choking to death was a much better prospect to her than going to Ponyville. Who knew; maybe it would convince him to let someone else represent him. “Better to choke now before I enter that Ancestor-forsaken town,” she muttered between swallows of fresh flesh, not bothering to keep the annoyance out of her voice. “Why did I agree to come here, again?”

“Because I have to meet up with the town council to finalize and secure the new trade routes, while you volunteered to escort me as the Kingdom’s military liaison. You also claimed you wanted to protect me from amorous ponies,” he replied, chuckling as he cracked some eggs into the pan.

“Claim, nothing! I’m definitely going to protect you from those in-heat dweebs,” she replied through a mouthful of meat.

“Funny, weren’t you the girlfriend of one of them?” he teased, earning him a hiss and a swat with a wing. “Honestly, Gilda, I don’t think they’re that bad.”

She licked her beak clean before facing him again. Her mate wasn’t afraid of a little blood, but had told her that he was still a bit unsettled seeing it on her. Oh, the things she would do for him. “Not that bad? They’ve actually built companies to hire out male humans for sex with mares!”

He laughed loudly at the reminder. “Okay, you got me there, but I still say it wouldn’t be that bad. Haven’t you been reading those articles in the Manehattan Post? Sounds like mares really go for human guys, given how few stallions there are. And besides, it’d be nice to have some additional affection.”

As soon as those words left his mouth, Gilda stopped eating. Her neck straightened; her eyes narrowing. The tone of his voice indicated that he was teasing, but the idea of having to share him? Her thoughts began to zoom around her head. When she imagined seeing him with those stupid ponies or even other griffons, her blood began to boil.

“Additional affection?” she asked in a low, deathly quiet tone.

“Well, sure! I mean, a man can never get enough, you know! And neither can pony mares, if those articles are any indication. Wonder if they’re as fun in bed as the author says?” He made a show of being deep in thought, considering the question carefully.

A low leonine trill vibrated from the deepest confines of her throat, echoing throughout the cavern. She turned, leaving her breakfast on a flat stone near the fire, and stared straight at her mate, who was wearing a goofy smile on his face. He was egging her on and she was playing right into his wings—er, hands—but she didn’t care. How dare he imply that she should share him! Wasn’t she enough?

Her hind paws kicked up a bit of dirt behind her before she pounced him, her wings spread to make her look as intimidating as possible as she knocked him to the ground and stood over him. Her talons bit lightly into his shoulder, sharp enough to cause him to yelp, but not enough to pierce his flesh. She would not hurt him, but he needed to be taught a lesson!

Far from alarmed, he put up no resistance even though he had proven himself more than capable of offering it, letting her pin him on his back. She settled her haunches on his thighs, staring at him for a few seconds before her claws moved towards his vest. She then slowly kneaded them on the furred surface, a little rougher than her earlier actions.

“Okay, okay!” Her mate stiffened at her aggression, yelping quietly as her beak darted quickly and bit him on his neck, more sharply and painful than the usual nibble of affection. She wouldn’t let him up, though. Using her claws to force him down, she slowly traced the outline of his shoulders, nipping in particular places, feeling satisfied every time he gave a half-muttered apology. “I give! I give. Can’t a guy even make a joke?”

“You are mine, Marco Lakan!” she whispered harshly at his ear after a fifth bite. She earned only a weak affirmation, so she bit again, earning another yelp. “Now say it!”

“I’m yours,” her mate replied agreeably, then spoke more clearly and emphatically at the look in her eyes. “I’m all yours, Grizelda Behertz.”

“And don’t you forget it,” she said, her throat growling low.

“Swear to God,” he replied, with his arm moving and positioning itself perpendicular to his prone form, palms facing upwards from the ground, open. A human gesture, she had learned long before.

“Swear to me!” Gilda ordered, now settling on all fours, letting her full weight rest on top of him. She could feel their shared warmth; feel his beating heart beneath his chest as she deeply inhaled his scent, his body intermingling with hers once more. She lowered her face; her beak almost touching his nose, internally smiling as she felt him squirm under her weight.

It was an ages-old gesture of griffon dominance; a lesson to show him her displeasure. A normal griffon response was to expose their neck in a sign of trust and submission. Instead, he kissed her on the beak. Gilda stared at him, her eyes crinkling. Later, her face followed.

“Ugh, whatever,” she muttered, trying to force the smile from her face with an uninterested tone. She stood up off him, letting her mate sit up. She then rubbed her neck on his back and over his shoulder. “For teasing me like that, you owe me some preening.”

“Preening, or preening, Gilds?” Marco asked meaningfully, a little lust entering his tone as he began to give soft kisses on her feathery neck. Gilda felt like she was struck with lightning, her breath catching and spine stiffening.

“What do you think, dweeb?” she whispered huskily, sensing her passions rise.

His only response was more feathery kisses against her beak, chin and neck, sometimes with a little tongue. His hands moved with precision as well, one towards her neck, massaging it with his digits, while the other rubbed her sides and the more sensitive areas of her shoulders with practiced motions.

She sighed happily and finally surrendered to his efforts, baring her own neck while lowering herself on top of him. As affairs quickly turned more intimate, all she could think of was the time they had spent together, and the unlikely means by which they had initially met and bonded.

It was an impossible tale, one almost worthy of the sickeningly sappy romance novels the ponies favored crossed with one of the heroic griffon legends of old. A tale that was not always happy, but one she would remember for the rest of her life.

By my Ancestors... she thought as she felt her pleasure build to its inevitable outcome. How did I get so lucky?

1: A Griffon's Journey

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“’Tis said that to acknowledge one’s ignorance ‘tis to acknowledge one’s wisdom. Never have such words struck me any truer than today. For as most of you are aware, surprising and unsettling news has reached our Kingdom! Equestria, our long-time ally, has discovered life beyond this realm: A species called humans, the apex predator of their world.

“I am aware of the worries of our citizens. They fret that this new race shall alter the balance of power we have with our Equestrian allies. They fear that these humans will give rise to untold opportunities, and not all of them for the better. In this, they are correct—this discovery; this new species, heralds a potentially profound change for not just our nation, but for all races of this world.

“I am not omniscient, nor can I predict the future. Even with all the wisdom of our Ancestors, I am not armed with enough knowledge to even begin to guess what the future brings.

“But Gryphons! What I know is our illustrious history! What I know is our mighty race! Under a single banner, we crushed the Cloven of the Sun and routed the Elder Rams! United, we defeated Dragon Lord Diabla and fought Equestria to a standstill!

“Our race indomitable, we vanquished the Ibexian Supremacy and overthrew the Kirin Imperium! We thrive today because our progenitors have made sure to pass on an important lesson—that all obstacles can be overcome and that change is nothing but an opportunity to be grasped. And so we shall do the same!

“I have told our negotiators in Equestria to gather as much information on this new species as they can. Let us find out more about this human race. Let us examine their strengths and their weaknesses. Let us determine their worthiness of being among us. And as a token of good faith, let us extend the wing of friendship as a measure of respect to their power!

If they accept it, then we shall welcome them as peers and allies. But if they should shun it, then let them feel the terrible vengeance of our race! Let them feel the might of our many legions; our honed talons sharpened by stone, our beaks hungry for blood! Whether or not victory will be achieved, we shall proudly fly forth with our wings spread wide!

For we are Gryphons!”

—Queen Molyneux

Address to the Gryphon Kingdom
Fifty-Seventh Year of Her Reign

Such were the words of Queen Molyneux, reigning ruler of the Gryphon Kingdom. She was the latest in a line of griffon regents; the heir to an unbroken chain of succession stretching back over seven centuries to the Kingdom’s founding, rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Gryphon Empire that had preceded it.

Her speeches were always full of powerful and passionate prose, but this time with very good reason. Word had been received that Equestria had discovered a new world, and on it, an exotic and potentially powerful species wielding machine-based magicks never before seen on the world of Tellus.

No one knew then whether they’d be allies or adversaries, or the effect they would have on the balance of Tellusian nations, to say nothing of the day-to-day lives of those who dwelled within them.

But nearly a year after leaving Ponyville, none of it mattered to Gilda. Trudging through the frigid winds with a series of resigned steps that left claw and pawprints in the fresh-fallen snow, she had far more important things to worry about, chief among them her dwindling money. A month into her stay without more than a few menial jobs of manual labor, her savings were dwindling into nothingness.

It wasn’t that she had come there with no plan. She’d intended to seek her sire’s assistance in gaining entry to the Kingdom’s military, deciding her aggressive personality and predatory instincts needed a proper outlet.

But when she returned home to Aquilamra, the frigid northern city where she was born, she quickly discovered she could not expect any support from her family. Her sire had made that abundantly clear when he wouldn’t even recommend her to the regular army Talons, let alone the elite Wind Knights, stating she had ‘grown too soft in Equestria to be a proper soldier’.

Oh, by her Ancestors, she wanted to challenge him to a duel right then and there.

Could she begrudge him, though? Her first year in the Kingdom since leaving Equestria hadn’t exactly been a welcoming one. After leaving all the hurt and pain of the pony nation behind, she’d only returned home after a few months spent at the mostly-griffon fishing village of Nova Ocelota in the Canarian Maritimes, where she’d tried unsuccessfully to salve her pain by losing herself in drink and some work offloading fishing trawlers.

It hadn’t helped; she’d only ended up reeking of rum and fish oil—it had taken her weeks to get the stench of the latter out of her fur and feathers. Out of options and friends as she ended up in bar brawls and in constant trouble with the local constabulary over it, she’d moved on, flying across the Celestial straits to the Griffon Kingdom’s continent of Aresia, only to find she’d traded one set of issues for another.

For weeks, she had to relearn everything that her mother taught her regarding how to act like a proper griffon. But no matter how well she behaved or how proper her responses were, everyone instinctively knew she hadn’t grown up in the Kingdom and shunned her, denying her employment in anything but the most menial of labor.

An Equestrian griffon, they called her. No one dared say it to her face, though. Well, at least the older and more tempered griffons didn’t. The younger and more aggressive ones thought they could get away with it, reasoning that any griffon who grew up around peace-loving ponies didn’t know how to fight.

She disabused them of that notion promptly like any Gryphon would: she went up to them and punched them in the face. Needless to say, she got into a few good scuffles, earning a series of slashes, bruises, and even a few broken bones along the way. But she won most of her fights, which slowly built up her reputation, and in turn, earned a measure of respect from the other griffons.

She found it funny, though. Back in Equestria, if she ever got into a scuffle with a pony, even minor and light ones, she would expect a Royal Guardspony to come knocking at her door. Here, though, such fights were cheered on. Loudly, even.

Thinking of Equestria made Gilda’s mind wander back to the good friend she had lost. How much time had it been since she last saw Rainbow Dash? The question left a sour taste in her mouth, so she did her best not to think of ponies, trying to suppress all associated memories regarding Equestria. In its place, she told herself to focus on one thing: getting a job.

She passed through a few more stone huts, which were a common residential structure for anyone living in the North. The houses here were built from rocks carved and quarried out of the mountain, carefully placed; reinforced and extended with every generation. They were built to last in the harsh conditions. Understandable, considering this was the region where it almost perpetually snowed and had occasional bouts of hurricane winds and hail.

The way the city was built was a testament to how boring the North really was. It was just a stretch of frozen rock as far as the eyes could see, but it was… home? No, not even. She had grown up in Equestria near a Gryphon settlement north of Vanhoover, which was one of the few that had remained following the end of the Great Pony/Gryphon War seven centuries earlier. Sent there when she was six for reasons she was still not clear on, she’d been left in the care of her aunt before being sent to attend school in Cloudsdale, where she’d met Rainbow Dash.

The inevitable end result was that she spent her youth associating almost entirely with ponies, and culturally, that meant she was neither Equestrian nor Gryphon. She had lost her home and was now, essentially, a stranger in her race’s homeland.

Thank the Ancestors the town had barely changed in all these years. It was almost exactly the same as she remembered, even if it seemed much bigger to her six-year old eyes. She didn’t think she’d have more problems, like getting lost... well, most of the time.

She saw the recruitment hut, only a few steps away from her position. Its stone roof was draped with a banner bearing the Gryphon flag, consisting of a bloodied claw imposed over the Northern colors of white and blue. She could see a few griffons coming in and out, some younger males cuffing each other lightly as they squawked with joy.

They must have gotten the posts they wanted, she thought, her eyes narrowing. Stupid cubs getting everything served to them on a platter…

She shook her head sharply, knowing that mentally squabbling about complete strangers wasn’t going to do her any favors. She took a deep breath before walking towards the doorway and pushed herself inside.

The interior of the hut was warm thanks to the controlled heat produced by the firegems that ringed the inner walls. It also swathed the inside in a dark crimson glow; standard lighting for almost any northern griffon’s home. Even back in her Cloudsdale residence, Gilda had kept the practice, much to Rainbow Dash’s annoyance—she had commented that the light intensity was too low for her to see clearly, but for Gilda’s eagle eyes, it was more than enough illumination.

Rainbow Dash... Gilda sighed, half-wondering what her former friend was doing now. Remembering that ugly afternoon just brought a renewed feeling of jilted rage that quickly gave way to sorrow, which manifested itself as a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Damned Pinkie Pie…” she muttered under her breath as her tasseled tail lashed violently for a moment. Her gaze turned red as she felt fire well up within her at the mare she held responsible for her breakup with Rainbow. Trying to push her surging emotions back before her temper got her kicked out of her last option to join the Kingdom’s military, she stepped forward as the recruiter called her name.

“Application, please,” he asked as he sat behind a standard grey table made of slate. Annoyed at having to present it in person—why couldn’t they just receive it in the mail? She grabbed her sheath of documents from her side-mounted knapsack and placed it all on top of the desk before sitting down on her haunches, awaiting their appraisal.

The recruiter, a male griffon with blackhawk feathers and a spotted leopard-like coat of a lighter shade than hers, looked at Gilda for a moment before his eyes went towards the documents, studying them closely. It included her birth certificate with her family bloodline tree, Equestrian documents that covered her absence from the Kingdom, and a rather grudging letter of recommendation from her sire.

“So you want to be part of the Guard, eh?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Gilda said even as she internally bit back the reply she wanted to give. No, she wanted to be a soldier, not a poor griffon’s version of it!

The male griffon continued to study the documents as Gilda shifted her hind legs a bit, attempting to remain stoic and calm as the recruiter looked up and appraised her. She tried to project the image of a strong, no-nonsense griffon that oozed with confidence she did not feel. She might have been holding her breath; she did not know. “It says here you were rejected from both the Talons and Wind Knights,” he tapped the small stack of documents he’d been reading with his feather ink pen.

Gilda internally grimaced, trying hard not to let it show on her face. “Only because I lacked the needed recommendations. My father believes that I am not yet ready for them.”

“Well, considering how long you stayed in Equestria, your sire may have a point,” the recruiter replied, nodding thoughtfully. His demeanor quickly changed when he saw the look on her face, and he wisely dropped that line of conversation. “Are you sure this is what you want? There are openings for the Auxiliary Guard units, but there is also quite a demand for work in the mines. The pay is much better, too.”

“Thank you, but no. I want to be a soldier,” Gilda replied with steel in her voice. Even if she was awash in gems afterwards, there was no way she’d be stuck digging inside an enclosed space, hauling loads of coal and crystals up through the dark, dirty and narrow tunnels that were a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. Even if she had to brave the frigid Northern wind, Grizelda Behertz was a sky griffon at heart—no one would take the sky away from her! “I belong in the air securing the Kingdom, not stuck underground like a damned diamond dog.”

“Ah. An understandable sentiment for a sky griffon,” the recruiter agreed amicably. “Now, tell me, what do you have to offer to the Auxiliary Guard? Why should they take you?”

She blinked for a moment. Did he really just ask that? That line of questioning was something she’d expect a pony to say, not a griffon of the Kingdom. Gilda’s eyes stared at him for a few seconds, letting him stew a bit as he shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. She let her claws rest on top of the stone table that separated them and her talons began to scratch the surface, creating uneven lines on the slate surface in their wake.

The recruiter blinked at the painful sound and her display of strength, his feathers ruffling with discomfort before he nodded, eyes silently begging her to stop.

So Gilda did. She let go of the stone surface and raised her claws to her face. She wriggled them slightly before blowing out the dust from her talons and then rubbing them against her chest feathers. “Well, am I in or not?”

The recruiter swallowed, but smiled. “Welcome to the Guard, Grizelda Behertz.”

Gilda stifled a sigh. There it was—she was now a member of the Auxiliary Guards, and all it took was for her to ruin her talons. “Thank you, sir,” she said instead of saying something that might get her invitation revoked. “I won’t let you down.”

The recruiter gave a nod, bringing out a preprinted piece of parchment and placing a stamp on it, approving her application. He began to pass it to her but paused, and then gave her an odd look.

“Yes?” she asked, wanting to get out of his presence quickly.

“Uh, this has nothing to do with your recruitment, but what did you think?”

Gilda stared at him. What was this griffon going on about now? “Think about what?”

“Haven’t you heard the news?” When Gilda shook her head, the recruiter explained, “Equestria opened up some type of portal. They discovered a new species!”

Gilda blinked. She had heard word in passing about the news; she had even read the posted proclamation of the Queen’s Address to the Kingdom involving these new aliens.

But in the end, it mattered little to her. “I don’t know.” Gilda shrugged as she signed her induction documents and took back her approval letter. “Maybe we’ll get to fight them.”

As she entered training, Gilda was surprised to learn there was far more to the Auxiliary Guards than she initially thought.

She had expected to just be given a uniform and crossbow before being assigned to a unit immediately; sent out to patrol the borders of towns. She didn’t know whether it was because policies had changed or because she’d been under entirely the wrong impression, but the Kingdom, for whatever reason, didn’t agree.

Far from setting them loose with no training, she quickly learned that under the collective two-month basic training regime called “The Gauntlet”, reservist Guard, regular Talon and even elite Knight recruits were put through identical training; living and drilling together.

On most days, Gilda and the rest of the recruits would rise at dawn to do exercises like flight dashes and ground sprints in the rugged terrain and bitter cold of northeast Aresia, not far from the disputed borders with the Ibexian Ascendency. Such exercises were meant to build up stamina and speed in both air and ground combat respectively, and—she later realized—give them experience in the terrain and conditions they’d encounter when fighting the Ibexians, who were unarguably their greatest current rival and threat.

The rest of the day would be split between weapons training, making them use a variety of weapons ranging from the basic spears to blades to the more advanced crossbows, and general education, which encompassed a range of lessons from basic talon signals to the griffon command structure, including classroom lessons on battles of old both won and lost.

The latter were drawn heavily, she couldn’t help but note, from the Kingdom’s bitterest conflict, or more appropriately, the Empire that had preceded it—the Great War with Equestria. Ponies barely spoke of or remembered it, as with the sole exception of Cloudsdale, you often had to go out of your way to find a monument or memorial to it.

But in the Kingdom, it was different. Monuments and memorials could be found everywhere, most notably in the old Imperial capital of Mosclaw, which had to be rebuilt from the ground up after the war. The dead were honored, as befit griffon heritage, but there was little triumphalism about it, as despite the Queen’s proclamation, the case could be made that it was the one war the Gryphon race had ever truly lost.

But such were questions for military historians, not her. In the Kingdom military, ranks were mostly denoted by the type and amount of armor worn. Rookie soldiers, known as “Yearlings” to distinguish them from the “Fledgelings” they called raw recruits, began by receiving a single leather pauldron to cover their left shoulder. Climbing up the chain of command, more protection would be awarded; once you were ranked high enough, more protective pieces and hardier armor in the form of metal plates would be given.

The idea was that with higher rank, the more competent the Gryphon was. The more competent you were the more valuable you were to the Kingdom. The more valuable you were, the more the Kingdom wanted to protect you with additional armor. It thus promoted a single, unmistakable message to any soldier:

If you want to stay alive, Get Better.

Gilda also found it surprising that the ranks of the three branches of the armed forces were quite interchangeable. She was even more surprised when, in turn, this gave her opportunities in advancing her career. Far from the dead-end reserve formations she assumed the Guard was, there were indeed ways to be promoted out of it. In fact, if she merited it enough, she could apply for the Knights recommended solely by her own service record, instead of her sire’s word.

Such would take years of well-regarded service to the Kingdom, however. With that in mind, Gilda trudged through her unexpectedly severe training with singular focus. She made it a habit to always fly out at night after dinner, keeping her flying skills sharp. She went through all her drills, exhausted but unrelenting. Superiors and trainers always kept reminding her that she hadn’t been raised in the Kingdom—that as such, she was considered ‘soft’, maybe even unfit. She thoroughly proved them wrong.

After grueling months of training, she finally made the Guard with a solid recommendation, given the standard starting rank of Spear. Her reward was a second leather pauldron on her right shoulder to match the one on her left, and it fed her motivation to advance through the ranks.

When she was ordered to patrol through a brutally cold blizzard, she did so. When she was ordered to help out miners in clearing out a rockfall, she did that too. When she was ordered to stand sentry for sixteen hours straight in a silo to prevent Diamond Dogs from raiding a grain cache, she obeyed without complaint.

She quickly made herself a perfect Guard model, and the Kingdom, in turn, showed its appreciation: not even a year after graduating training, she received the rank of Gladio, gaining a leather vest and new insignia for her pauldrons. Granted, the pay still left much to be desired, but unable to spend much of it and with most of her food and lodging provided by the Guard anyway, she was surviving on what was given to her.

Only a year after being recruited, she also experienced her first Rotation: a required Kingdom practice of trading warrior units annually to different cities for the purpose of seasoning them. It ensured they would be adaptable enough to fight in a variety of environments and climates, as well as work with the local security forces with as little friction as possible.

Her Rotation had put her right in the heart of the southern farmlands, in the city of Tierra. A lush land full of plains with just a few ranges of rolling hills, it possessed the perfect climate to grow crops like grain, fruit and nut trees as well as various vegetables nearly year-round.

It was also the home of the Caleponians, earth ponies who had settled there after the war with Equestria as a token of good faith in the armistice agreement. Working the land for griffon steadholts, with the promise of being given land of their own and full Kingdom citizenship once a ten-year period of service was fulfilled starting when they reached adulthood, they had dramatically improved the Kingdom’s agricultural production.

Over the centuries, they had developed their own culture as they adapted to the demands of the more wild and rugged Griffon Kingdom, gaining hardier bodies and a rather interesting accent. They efficiently grew the bulk of the fertile region’s produce, which in turn kept the Kingdom fed and removed one of the former Empire’s major reasons for being an Imperial power.

While she was glad to get out of the freezing sky of the North, this warm region felt too much like Equestria, with all the ponies present and their staple diet of nothing but seeds, fruits and breads. Worse, little exciting ever happened in this region aside from the odd bout of spring storms. But even the weather had been quiet; the only disaster she had encountered since her arrival was when a younger earth pony accidentally backed his cart into a ditch and couldn’t pull it out without help, ending up hanging from his own yoke unable to unhook himself.

She and the other soldiers who found him had a very good laugh, but in the end, most of her days were spent lazily patrolling the borders of Tierra. For the rest, she was on the ground, making sure none of the Earth Ponies were slacking off during their periods of service. Today, she was keeping an eye on two stallions on their break as they began conversing about a race she had been hearing more and more of lately.

“Have yeh heard? These humans that Princess Sparkle fænd are two-legged apes!” the stallion with a red coat and bale of hay cutie mark told his companion, a stallion with a yellowish coat and scattered petals for a Cutie Mark. Both their manes and tails were of different shades of brown.

“Apes. By the sun itself, what are weh goin’ to discover next? Talkin’ dolphins?” the second stallion spoke. “So, what, do these humans bang their chests and make monkey sounds?”

“Actually, from what I’ve heard, they talk mostly in Equish,” he said, using the pony term for their own language. “Not anythin’ like we do, but enough to get along.”

“Begorrah, ‘tis odd! Have we met these apes before? Have we taught them our language?”

“Cannae say for sure. All I know is that these humans are quite the sharp ones with technology! D’ya reckon they can invent somethin’ to make the land till itself? Me back would sure appreciate that...”

Gilda rolled her eyes before she noticed the darkening sky. Hearing enough, she cleared her throat, grabbing their attention. “Sun’s going down,” she reminded them. “Finish up your work, or the Steadholder isn’t going to be pleased.”

“Aye, ma’am,” the stallion with the red coat said.

“Bloody slave driver,” muttered the other.

Gilda rolled her eyes again before she spread and flapped her wings. With a great push, she launched herself upwards, higher and higher, passing through a few clouds and dispersing them with her air streams with an ease that would have made pegasi proud. The wind moved around her as she expertly manipulated it with her feathered appendages and banked to the left. After a few seconds, she saw a garish square building made from stone and wood – the barracks. Aiming for it, she folded her wings and dove towards it.

With the wind hammering her feathered face, she thought back on the conversation she just heard, and the Queen’s speech addressing them, even though it had been given a year earlier.

In many ways, it was just the standard welcoming message to an established race, asking the obvious question: are you friend or foe? To offer them friendship immediately was a surprisingly generous offer from the Kingdom, considering that historically, alliances had to be earned when it came to griffons and there was almost no information regarding these humans. Usually, the Kingdom would test their mettle first in both diplomacy and warfare. So far, though, she hadn’t heard if these bipedal apes had replied, even though an entire year had passed.

She hadn’t given them much thought in the meantime, but under the orange sky of dusk and with the previous conversation in mind, her thoughts began to wander. Maybe they would yet get to fight the new species? After all, if they hadn’t responded to an invitation of friendship in a span of a year, it surely meant they were rejecting it, right? And if it came to a fight, she wondered how the Gryphon Kingdom would fare in battle against them.

It was a difficult question to answer. For what did she know of them?

Very little, aside from what rumor held. Chief among them that humans had superior technology. Gilda snorted at the thought—if anycreature but a pony said so, she might be inclined to believe it.

For ponies, anything beyond a spear or arrow was superior technology. The Zebrican Confederation had already far surpassed them in terms of alchemical weapons and tools, while the Gryphon Kingdom was experimenting with a new generation of rapid-fire crossbows and naval ballistae that were a far cry from the crude and somewhat unreliable ones the Minotaurs had originally fashioned for them during the war with Equestria.

But mere weapons were no measure of Equestria’s actual warfighting skill. Equestria could afford to be behind because they had powerful magicks and a very high proportion of magic wielders in relation to other races—unicorns made up a full fourth of their numbers, counting the thestrals. They also had a massive diplomatic advantage over other nations. For one thing, ponies were born to be almost non-confrontational to a fault, and for another, no other nation wanted to anger the long-lived alicorns who could control heavenly bodies at will and whose combat power, though rarely seen, was said to be nigh-unbeatable.

But even without the presence of the Princesses, Equestria was no easy opponent, not the least of which was because they were a geostrategic island surrounded by far weaker foes with hundreds of miles of tricky terrain to fall back on. Even taking them by surprise and caging Celestia in Canterlot with the help of a dragon clan, conquering the pony nation had proven pretty much a strategic impossibility and logistical nightmare for the former Gryphon Empire.

Even with their Weather Factory destroyed on the first day of war and their storm cloud caches destroyed, the ponies had plenty of pegasi to manipulate the weather, drowning the Imperial advance in downpours by miring their supply trains and most avenues of advance in endless mud and floodwaters, turning an initially rapid advance into a severe slog.

And that was to say nothing of wingblade-armed pegasus soldiers who could fly rings around all but the most agile sky griffons and wield storm clouds as weapons. Was to say nothing of earth ponies who turned out to be not just good at farming but fighting, able to both mete out and take horrific levels of punishment. Was to say nothing of unicorn archers who wielded an impressive arsenal of combat-effective spells as well as quivers full of enchanted arrows who could counter griffon mages and kill from distance.

Was to say nothing of the predatory bat-ponies the Empire had initially courted only to later betray, their entry into the war turning the night skies into killing fields.

Taken altogether, the wonder was not that they had failed to defeat Equestria, but that they came so close to doing so and remained in the field against such overwhelming advantages at the end. It had taken the ponies a while to be able to fight the experienced Imperial military on equal terms, but Equestria was vast enough and Canterlot far enough from the frontier that they could trade enough territory for sufficient time.

They had eventually learned enough to finally halt the Empire’s advance on the doorstep of Canterlot in the initial invasion, turning the Equestrian capital into a trap that nearly cost them the war right then and there. They had likewise turned the second Imperial offensive on Stalliongrad into a griffon graveyard in the year that followed, even if it had once again been a very close affair.

In the end, despite initial appearances, the two races were just too evenly matched to overcome each other. And in the end, they also needed each other, as even Gilda would grudgingly admit. But what of this new race?

Bipedal apes, it was said. Gilda had seen apes, and she had smelled them too. She had no idea how these humans would look, but if they were anything like the apes of their world, it’d be an easy battle. The animals were big alright, but were awkward and, outside of trees, lacking mobility. They couldn’t even run, let alone fly! True, there were a lot of egghead griffons claiming that the animals had some form of intelligence, but given the primates she’d seen, she severely doubted it.

All in all, information regarding the humans was still lacking. She had no idea how the Gryphon Kingdom would fare, though she knew if it came down to it, they’d win. Griffons were stubborn that way, especially when defending their homeland. Besides, the way the ponies described humans, they sounded really dweeby.

She spread her wings, slowing down her descent long enough to land safely on the soft earthy ground. She made sure the area was clear (something that the Gauntlet had drilled into her time and time again), confirming that there were no nearby enemies before she slowly relaxed and folded her appendages to her side. Her shift done, Gilda ran towards the barracks, hoping she was early enough to grab some fresh meat—there was no way she’d be beaten by the other two soldiers in her three-griffon Fuga and get stuck with bread and soup again; not after last night!

When she was a few more paces from the barracks, she saw the wooden doors open up, revealing three griffons moving outwards. Two of them wore forged shoulder plates, steel breastplates, and complete foreleg vambraces that ended in metallic claws, denoting Guard soldiers at least six or seven ranks higher than her.

It was the one in front that caught her attention, however.

He was a male griffon with barely light blue feathers blending well with his pale brown cougar coat. He wore no obvious metallic armor, but instead had leather-like clothing wrapped around his neck, sides, and underbelly with strategically placed metallic greaves. Around his neck was a chain made of copper weaved around it—a command chain that indicated he had not only the authority of his rank, but wielded authority over civilian security forces as well.

She immediately stopped, moved to the side and banged her enclosed claw near her shoulder while simultaneously exposing her neck in deference as they approached.

The center figure was Tribune Cipio, the Commander of the Gryphon Forces in the South Region and a son of a Kingdom High Lord. He had introduced himself to everyone that rotated to his unit in a manner that she would remember forever: he took down three overly-aggressive and overconfident griffons at once, who made the mistake of thinking he only had his rank because of his family and noble title, in under ten seconds.

It wasn’t just his skills, but also his leadership style that had earned him not just respect, but outright affection from his underlings. Tribune Cipio ran a tight unit and treated all of his subordinates, whether Knights, Talons, or even Guards, equally. He would take time to listen to concerns, though he had warned them that wasting his time was tantamount to spending a good amount of days in the brig.

Strict but fair, he was a model griffon military commander; a solid Tribune she was proud to serve. “Good evening, Tribune Cipio,” she greeted, thumping her right set of talons to her left pauldron again.

Cipio took a note of her before stopping. “Good evening. Making trouble, Gladio Behertz?” the Tribune asked with a sly smile.

“No, sir. Just making sure the Caleponians don’t get too lazy,” Gilda replied with an identical smirk.

“Good soldier. Carry on then,” Cipio replied, banging his own shoulder with his claw to return the respect, his neck stiff and straight before walking past her. She didn’t mind him not spending much time on her. He was, after all, her superior.

The sun had almost completely set as she entered the barracks. Going straight to the mess hall, her throat gave a satisfied trill when she saw that there was still plenty of fresh meat being served.

By my ancestors. How did I get so lucky?

~~~~~ Two years later ~~~~~

Gilda raced through the air, carving a broad circle around the large city below. Her sharp eyes darted left and right, trying to cover as many angles as possible, pretending she was in combat and attempting to evade airborne enemies.

It was the Fifty-Ninth Year of Queen Molyneux’s Reign; three years since her induction to the Guards, and her vigilance and disciplined work ethics had paid off as she finally earned her first metal shoulder plate and a pair of leather foreleg vambraces, gaining the rank of Decanus and making her the leader of no less than nine other Auxiliary Guard soldiers. She was also Rotated for the first time to the Kingdom's capital of Arnau.

The majestic city was built to be a stronghold as much as a seat of government, even more enduring than the Western Port Cities. The latter were constructed as the first line of defense for the Kingdom for threats from what ponies called the Antlertic Ocean, and griffons the Eagle Ocean, while Arnau itself was a fortress even more impervious than the original Imperial Capital of Mosclaw.

Like Canterlot, Arnau had been carved from the side of a mountain, taking many generations of careful planning and work. But unlike Canterlot, it was built primarily for defense, consisting of ten levels, each elevating sharply uphill, surrounded by thick and strong ancient stone walls that terminated into the sheer cliffs of the mountain. If anyone was foolish enough to fly up without proper clearance towards the royal palace, they’d have to contend with the patrolling Paladin guards wielding the newest model of rapid-fire crossbows, to say nothing of the lightning orbs that dotted the ramparts that could magically target anyone who came near with lethal bolts when activated.

The roads inside the city were split into two pathways. The main central road took the most direct route upwards, cutting through the ascending levels with an inclining smooth road. However, during battle, these roads would be blocked with heavily reinforced stone walls, forcing any invading army to take the longer, circling road towards the top. And even then, they’d have to contend with the well-placed checkpoints along the spiraling road—palisades using thick steel walls as their gates.

Defense wasn’t the only thing in mind when the city was built, though. Functionality was also part of its planning process. All flight passages and roads from the different regions led to Arnau, making it also the biggest trade capital of the Kingdom. Whether one was looking for precious gems and metals from the frozen mountainous North, fruits and nuts from the rich farmlands of the South, a variety of fish from the West, or even meat in the form of the game herds of the Eastern Steppes, any proud Gryphon would readily admit—Arnau had it all.

Gilda remembered visiting the capital city just once as a cub. Her mother had brought her there not long before she left for the Western Ports to go to Equestria. She remembered marveling at the splendor of the city; the patrolling green-armored Paladins and beautifully carved fortress walls. She remembered her mother beaming with pride as she beheld their capital, telling her daughter that the city was proof that Gryphons could do anything.

Even now, many years later, the image wasn't tarnished in her mind. The city was well-maintained, both structurally and socially. Though there were some rare cases of riots or other violent outbreaks, they were few and far between, coming as they did from a city where the vast majority living there were griffons.

Of course, that wasn’t to say her transition was easy. After living more than a year in the idyllic Southern Farmlands with minimal demand for work, Arnau felt like a very rude wake-up call. Patrols were far longer, and she had additional duties like goods inspector, Peacemaker (which was basically a civil officer that knocked out griffons before they could start anything stupid), and even had a brief stint as a help-claw at the palace, once getting close enough to spot the Queen for at least a few brief moments. Though overwhelmed at first by all her new duties, she persevered, and before she knew it, the busy city life became routine.

Until they received some very unwelcome news a week back.


Gilda glanced to her left, spotting her partner. He was not of her choosing, but his presence there was another Kingdom policy: any soldier with a high enough rank and armor would be assigned a partner of lower ranking from their subordinates. It had something to do with efficiently training rookies by giving them more experienced griffons to work with.

She wasn’t a big fan of that particular rule, even if she understood the reasons behind it. Her partner was a fellow Northerner named Fortrakt Gletscher. He was several years younger than she was and had only earned his second leather pauldron the previous month, which he wore proudly on his right shoulder. His feline coat was roughly the same shade as hers, though his feathers were the deep tan of a golden eagle.

And like any younger griffon, he thought to endear himself to his new superior by trying to invade her wingspace.

She’d responded by slamming him through a table, hard.

Thank the Ancestors he learned his lessons fast. Even more so when he was actually decent company.

“Gilda, crows take it, let me catch my breath!” Fortrakt called again, his tongue lolling as he began to fall back.

Heh, what a fledgling! she thought as she descended and perched on a crenel of the fifth level wall, only to take off again just as he’d caught up with her. An annoyed and panting Fortrakt followed afterwards, unable to close the distance, to which she looked back and gave him a smirk.

“What’s the matter, Fortrakt? Can’t even do a double fort-run without a break?” she teased.

“Stick your head in a cave,” Fortrakt muttered breathlessly. “Better yet, a dragon’s cave!”

Gilda only laughed as she continued to pull ahead of him, forcing him to flap harder to keep her in range. To be fair, fort-runs—a practice of simultaneous ground and air dashes—were exhausting. This was especially true for most Northerners, sky-griffons who were more enduring in flight than ground travel. However, she wasn’t going to tell him that. “Only when you stop being a cub,” Gilda replied, before she smirked and added the inevitable insult, “cub.”

“Not all of us have shed our down feathers,” he retorted, causing Gilda to roll her eyes. She wasn’t that old!

“Do you want me to drop you from here, Fortrakt?” she suggested, facing him with a smile. “Because you know how hard I dropped you on the ground that one time. Don’t think I can’t do it from the air!”

“Yeah, whatever you say, Decanus.” He fired her a mock salute.

She didn’t reprimand him because she didn’t mind it, knowing he was good at his duties and genuinely liked her. “Suit yourself, Gladio.” Gilda smiled for a second, rubbing his lower rank in before it faded—he was the youngest of her three Fuga leaders; which were a trio of three-soldier elements that made up her decade and were the lowest level of organization in the Kingdom’s military.

She took a deep breath and looked at the horizon. A web of paved roads from all regions converged as they approached the city. Spread in rows and columns down below were the green and yellow fields of local farmlands, tended by small figures, like ants. Gilda couldn’t identify if the figures belonged to ponies or griffons, nor did she care. Right now, her eagle eyes settled towards the Western Region.

“No matter how hard you look, you won’t be seeing the humans. I heard they only arrive three days from now.” Fortrakt reminded her, finally starting to catch his breath.

She looked at him for a moment before shifting her gaze back at the horizon. “Don’t remind me,” she growled low, to which he wisely shut up.

She knew he wasn’t wrong. The Gryphon Ambassador had sent word from Equestria just a week earlier that the humans were finally willing to start trade between the two species, and one of their major nations wanted to send a diplomatic mission to visit the Queen personally in order to begin the negotiations.

And only after three years of silence, she thought. Normally, that would be seen as an insult and earn a very cold shoulder from the Kingdom. So why are we still baring our throats and offering open talons to these... apes?

Unfortunately, she had no say in the matter. Five days ago, the High Lords and Ladies convened with Her Highness, and after days of silence, they announced that they had agreed to warmly welcome the new species to the Kingdom. They even planned a feast; chickens, game meats and even flying boars were being brought over from the Eastern Steppes, and grain import increased from the South. Bakeries all over the kingdom were gearing up and preparing for the mass production of various forms of bread, which Gilda grudgingly admitted ponies had done much to improve over the centuries.

All in all, Arnau had become very busy indeed in the last few days, and even more so for Gilda. After the patrol, she and Fortrakt were to report to the Eastern Gates to inspect the arriving goods, making sure nothing illegal was being smuggled in under their beaks. And with all the cargo coming in and all soldiers pulling double-shifts in the leadup to the visit of the alien apes, it left her exhausted enough that she couldn’t even enjoy her after-dinner flights.

And all because the walking and talking primates were visiting.

“So, you’re one of those ape-haters?” Fortrakt finally asked somewhat tentatively, sensing Gilda’s brooding mood.

“Does it matter?” Gilda answered shortly. Was she? She couldn’t tell, truthfully. Maybe annoyed, more than hate. For one, she was so sick and tired of hearing about these humans without ever coming across one — and all for so much ado about nothing. The last several weeks had been little except endless variations on “They are coming!” and “I wonder what they look like?”

And for what?

Even as more news came in, her opinion was unwavering. The fact that these humans were only extending their... well, whatever their claws were called now, well after the Gryphon Kingdom extended theirs three years ago, meant they weren’t taking them seriously.

So why should Gilda—or the Kingdom in general, she thought—care?

“Seriously, Gilda. Why are you so down on them even before we’ve met them?” Fortrakt challenged, breaking back into her thoughts.

“Are you serious?” Gilda gave him a look. “Never mind the fact it took three years for them to get back to us; these humans have probably already traded all the good stuff to those Equestrian dweebs. Even if they had something to offer, what’s left over for us? The warrior holds allegiance to whatever land they call home, but these humans seem little more than traders and peddlers, from what I can tell. So why are we putting out for them? What could they give us and what accord could we possibly expect them to honor?”

“No idea, but they are coming.” Fortrakt shrugged. “And like it or not, we’re going to welcome them.”

Gilda just growled, to which Fortrakt smiled. “Have to admit, I can’t wait to see you in a dress uniform.”

“Well, you can keep waiting,” Gilda declared. “I’m meeting with the Tribune later to see if I can get a leave of absence.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen, Gilda,” Fortrakt replied with a laugh as they concluded their patrol. “Everybody’s pulling double-duty, and just by asking, you’ll probably get us booted to kitchen or latrine duty. But who knows—maybe the Tribune will take pity on you and just have you nibble on some ape’s rear, eh?”

Gilda’s wing snapped out to try and cuff him, but the younger male just darted away, laughing.

Crows take him, Gilda thought before she shook her head and launched after him, giving chase. I’d sooner screw a stallion than a human!

It was just three days before humanity’s arrival.

2: Alien Arrival

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Gilda growled as she shoved her left foreleg in the appropriate opening of the crow-begotten torture device they called a dress uniform.

The damn dark-blue vest was supposed to make them look presentable, but all it did was make her angrier by the minute. She had spent almost half an hour trying to make her wings fit through the provided openings only to realize the foreleg sleeves were coming up far too short, pinching her at the joints and riding up uncomfortably towards her elbows.

That was annoying enough. But even once she finally got the tunic on around her forelegs—an exercise that was another ten-minute struggle—she had to secure it using a pair of darker-shaded straps that were looped around her arms and torso in strategic locations, tightening around her shoulders and even grinding uncomfortably against the base of her neck where her flight muscles extended.

The dress uniform didn’t fit, but the Guard garrison’s Quartermaster proved to be useless when Gilda showed up wanting a replacement. He simply laughed at her complaints, telling her that the dress uniform fit exactly as per Kingdom’s standards. She later learned from those griffons who had worn it before that it was designed to purposely annoy the wearer, as its uncomfortably constricting fit gave the griffon wearing it an angry, battle-ready look—scowled eyes, ruffled feathers, and twitching wings.

In that, she admitted it served its purpose perfectly, as she found herself ready to tear something apart from the not-so-simple process of putting it on. In truth, she’d probably have felt more embarrassed if she was in Equestria. Ponies, after all, were convinced from their experience with pegasi that twitching wings were a sign of sexual arousal. While not completely false, they failed to remember that for griffons, a pair of twitching wings far more often meant that said griffon was angry and ready to attack.

At least it didn’t fully impede her forelegs, though it certainly constricted her movement; she couldn’t understand the logic behind making them look battle-ready if the uniform itself limited their ability to fight. Her forelegs finally fitted, she donned her shoulder armor, polished to a mirror shine and gleaming proudly, over the dress uniform with a practiced motion.

Checking the straps of her dress uniform one last time, Gilda stretched her wings, making sure she could actually still fly with the stupidly tight vest. Finding that she could, even if she didn’t have full range of motion, she walked towards the exit, leaving her bare quarters behind. It consisted of only straw bedding, a small closet, and a stone desk, but it was still far more than she’d had for previous rotations, when she’d be lucky to be sharing a room with only an entire three-decade Turma.

She stepped outside, and her eagle eyes quickly narrowed to pinpricks as the bright sun momentarily blinded her. Once they adjusted, she quickly scanned around. She was currently in the fourth level of Arnau, and the griffons there moved around at a hurried but purposeful pace; the air smelling of freshly baked bread.

She sighed, feeling so sick of the aroma that had permeated the whole city since yesterday. She knew she should have been glad; maybe even proud that Arnau was fully prepared to greet the humans. Instead, she still felt nothing but apprehension regarding their presence, and judging by the tension she could sense from the griffons around her, she wasn’t the only one.

From ruffled feathers to twitching wings to curt conversations, the entire city seemed less festive than restive, not knowing either what their soon-to-arrive alien visitors would look like, or what would happen when they appeared.

Walking towards the edge of the level’s battlement, she met a few guards patrolling the merlons surrounding the area. She began to shout the clearance code but they immediately complied before she completed it, most likely recognizing her and giving her leeway.

A bit unprofessional, but then again, Gilda was grateful that they were not trying to be obstructive at a time she was in no mood for it. Dashing towards a free crenel, she leapt off and spread her wings wide, letting the air catch her as she took flight.

Gilda smiled as the wind hit her face, feeling some of her discomfort-caused anger receding as she reentered her element. The smell of bread was fully ignored as she flapped harder, letting her climb higher. She was almost stopped by two patrolling Guards in the fifth level before she shouted the code and they let her be.

Knowing she didn’t have the proper clearance to ascend any higher towards the royal palace where the Queen resided, she stayed at that height, admiring the splendor of their capital city, wondering how the humans would perceive it before she slowly glided towards the western entrance, where her decade had been posted.

As she descended, she could see the busy bustle on the third level, which was primarily designed as a commercial area. It had minimal residences but numerous shops, eateries and Inns set atop slabs of smooth, gray stone. The large central auditorium of the level was being cleared as tables, barely mid-torso high, were set down in rows. Some griffons, she noted, were setting torches for light as they occasionally did when large numbers of ponies were present, usually for state visits from the pony Princesses.

Apparently, humans couldn’t see that well in the dark, belying yet again their supposed status as apex predators.

She was almost at the first level when she was hailed by Fortrakt. He was waiting in the middle of a landing point, an upraised stone stage filled with soft soil, smiling. He was early, which was not surprising given he prided himself on his puncutality. He was also dressed in a blue vest, and while it looked snug, his smaller frame made it a far better and less awkward fit than hers.

“Nice dress uniform!” he greeted her with a wide smile, giving her a mock salute—she wasn’t owed a real one as even though she had a higher rank than him, she wasn’t an officer. “You finally look like a proper Griffon Guard!”

Gilda landed at an angle and didn’t slow down, letting her momentum deliberately carry her into a slide. Dirt flew as she twirled around, hoping to cuff him with her wing as she passed, but he ducked out of the way. Still, she got the last laugh as Fortrakt got caught from all the scattered dust that billowed in his direction. She watched him cough for a moment as she snapped and spread her wings before folding them on her sides.

“Really, cub? You’d think with all my armor, I look a lot more like a proper Griffon than you do,” she replied with a smirk. Fortrakt rolled his eyes and coughed one last time before he approached her. The two jumped off the platform and began to walk side-by-side to the gate.

“All it takes is time, something that old and past-their-prime griffons like you are lacking!” He chuckled, ducking as Gilda tried to cuff him again. “One day, I’m going to get my shoulder plates and braces. And then you’ll realize the fundamental difference between us, Decanus,” he addressed her by her Auxiliary Guard rank.

“Oh, and what is that, Gladio?” she returned the favor, emphasizing his lower status.

“That I make the armor look good.” He all but preened.

Gilda snorted, which shortly turned into a loud laugh that got the attention of a few griffons and ponies walking amongst them. “Cub, while you’re trying to entice an eagless with your spit-shined plates, I’d be behind a stone desk, ordering you to get my drinks.”

“Yup, like any old griffon. Sit behind the table and look important while letting the younger ones run the show,” Fortrakt countered with his tongue out. Gilda tried to think of a retort, but she had to admit, she flew right into that one, reflecting that just two years earlier, she would have immediately tried to fight him in wounded pride. Now, though, she continued her trek in silence as Fortrakt smiled, reveling in his small victory.

Arnau’s first level housed a lot of farmers, both Caleponian and griffon. Unlike the upper levels, the residential buildings were widely spaced; built more from wood than stone. It reflected the high number of Caleponians living there, as most of the houses were decorated with plants or had a small garden that they tended. There were some foals and fillies laughing about, sometimes playing with griffon cubs while wearing leather claw gloves.

They passed a statue of Ardanius of the West, a faceless griffon hero that once held fast against the invading forces of King Sombra, sacrificing himself to defeat the former Dark Lord of the Crystal Kingdom and throw his army back into the sea. He wore heavy armor, but his visage was not known because the thwarted and infuriated King had ordered his likeness purged from all memory and had the magical power to do it.

His sculpture stood on its hind legs, supported by the large diamond-shaped shield it held with one set of talons, while the other gripped a large war-hammer. It was used as a model for the Fortis Knights; earth griffons with smaller wings but stocky bodies able to carry and lift heavy loads. While it looked extremely impressive, Gilda still favored the Wind Knights that were meant to rule the air, as befit the sky griffon she was.

Thinking of the Wind Knights, Gilda was surprised when she spotted a number of them landing on the rampart on top of the Western Gate. From her distance, she could make out the leathery hide underneath their enchanted golden armor plates. Their armor was far lighter than the Fortis Knights as it was designed for maximum maneuverability, and the crossbows hanging on their flanks were meant to be used in aerial combat. Some were even bringing them forward, letting them rest on the raised stone platforms, ready to be aimed down the western road.

“Did I miss something?” Fortrakt asked, confused as he watched them take defensive positions. “I thought we were just greeting them!”

“Just letting the apes know that we’re taking them seriously.” A new voice answered him.

Gilda and Fortrakt glanced to their right, quickly spotting the voice’s owner; a female sky griffon with a dark grey lynx-like coat and very pale, falcon-like feathers. She was dressed like Tribune Cipio of the South, attired in a leather-like hide with metallic greaves on her throat, shoulder and sides. Unlike the Southern Tribune, however, her chain was made of silver, indicating her additional authority was to command Talons.

Fortrakt immediately saluted, letting his enclosed claw bang on his chest as he easily exposed his neck in deference. Gilda followed closely, though a bit more stiffly.

“Good morning, Tribune Narada,” Fortrakt greeted her with a smile.

“Greetings, Tribune.” Gilda did the same, though with less enthusiasm than her partner.

Narada saluted back, her neck stiff and unmoving. She gave Fortrakt an approving smile, but gazed at Gilda coolly.

“I’m glad to see you here, Decanus Behertz,” the Tribune declared somewhat dryly. “After our meeting three days ago, I was half-thinking you wouldn’t show up.”

“As an Auxiliary Guard soldier, I shall fulfill my assigned duties to the Kingdom, sir,” Gilda replied neutrally, surprising herself by succeeding in keeping the disappointment and distaste from her voice and body language.

“Indeed? That is very professional of you, Decanus,” Narada answered in approval. “The Kingdom appreciates your efforts, even when they involve tasks you don’t like. Such devotion to duty will be remembered.” With a parting nod, she took her leave.

Fortrakt looked at the retreating Tribune before he turned to Gilda, who said nothing. “I thought you were joking when you said you were going to talk to the Tribune about taking a leave of absence,” he told her, a note of respect in his voice.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Gilda muttered, looking away.

“So, the Tribune didn’t approve your leave, eh?” Fortrakt asked with a smirk. “Dare I inquire what happened when you asked?”

“What do you think, dweeb?” Gilda’s eyes narrowed as her mind went to the conversation.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

“What do you mean ‘no’, Tribune?” Gilda asked.

The Tribune looked up from behind her desk in annoyance. “Is there something wrong with your brain, Behertz? ‘No’ is a very simple word.”

“With all due respect—”

“And by that you mean ‘Kiss my tail, Tribune?’” Narada asked, her right eye growing slightly bigger than her left as said tail lashed behind her, thumping audibly on the floor. “I expected far better of you than such a last-second request with no justification beyond an obvious distaste for our visitors.”

Gilda shifted uncomfortably as she stood at attention, recognizing she was on the verge of severely overflying her accumulated goodwill and overtaxing the Tribune’s patience. “No, sir. But I just thought—“

“Thought nothing, Behertz! The answer is no! Even if I’d granted you leave before we learned the humans were coming, I would have rescinded it—we had to recall all soldiers on leave to make sure we had sufficient strength to secure the city, given the high stakes and the number of visitors involved.

“But even if not, Her Majesty wishes that all soldiers be present on this historic day, as both a show of strength and a statement of Gryphon solidarity. Be assured you can take your well-deserved leave later—if, that is, you convince me this visit was just an aberration and perform to my satisfaction in the days to come!” she stated in a warning tone.

“But for now, your request is most emphatically denied, and if you wish it fulfilled later, I suggest you give me no further cause to doubt your devotion to duty! Is that clear, Decanus?”

“Clear, sir.” Gilda came to attention and saluted, biting her tongue to make sure she didn’t say something more she’d quickly and sorely regret.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

“I bet you left her office with all your feathers ruffled like a fledgling,” Fortrakt continued, his smile growing. “You were probably thinking of telling her off.”

Gilda sighed. He was right, and yet... “I do not want to talk about it,” she repeated.

“Well, I hate to say I told you so, but I did,” Fortrakt continued. “I mean, what were you thinking? Just three days before one of the most important and historical visits to the Kingdom, and you decide to…”

“Dweeb.” Gilda rolled her eyes as she mentally tuned out his incessant yammering. She could have pulled rank on him to make him shut up, but she didn’t, knowing he’d just see that as another victory. Walking stiffly and official-looking towards the gate, she spotted the other Auxiliary Guards soldiers of her Turma clamoring around the area, also attired in dress uniform while talking amongst themselves.

Some were even conversing with Fortis Knights, whose armor pieces were tinted gold as opposed to the straight silver of the Talons. It wasn’t just for appearances; their armor was much stronger both in terms of steel and protective enchantments, as befit the Kingdom’s elite. They had their heavy shields and enormous war hammers secured at their sides; ones Gilda could barely heft but they could swing with ease.

Then there were the silver-armored Talon regulars with black dress uniforms as opposed to the blue of the Guard sitting along the wall as well, their spears set lazily against the vertical surface. She even spotted a single violet-attired Magus Knight meditating, hovering in the air with her levitation magic alone while her staff floated lazily in front of him, spinning slowly.

Ancestors, she thought. All the separate service branches of the Kingdom’s armed forces were present short of the Navy, including the Talons, all three types of Knights, and the Auxiliary Guards. Then a pulsing thrum overhead made her realize she’d been wrong there too, as the GKS Jeyenne came into view along with her three escorts.

Comprising the capital defense group, the airships took position over the arrival route of the human convoys, able to either fire a salute from her numerous Minotaur-made ballistae or turn them on the air and road routes into the city. The quartet of heavily armed airships represented the Kingdom’s ability to project power both within her own borders and over them, if she desired.

Tribune Narada wasn’t kidding, she granted with some renewed respect. The Kingdom really was taking greeting the humans seriously, even if she still didn’t understand why.

“Isn’t this overdoing it?” she asked Fortrakt as they took position with their Turma near the entrance of the gate.

The younger griffon looked at her and shrugged. “Well, if these humans are the apex predators of their world as these Equestrians claim, then they should understand a show of force is a sign of respect,” Fortrakt replied. “Besides, we don’t want to give an impression that we’re pushovers, right?”

“Maybe. It just seems like we’re showing too much of our capabilities before knowing theirs. If they do decide to fight us, they’d have the advantage.”

A few guards’ feathers fluffed, their eyes shifting to Gilda’s and Fortrakt’s direction. “Excuse me, Decanus—but are you two talking about the apes?” asked one of her decade’s younger Spears.

“Yup!” Fortrakt replied with a smile. “We’re just wondering if they’re really worth all this trouble.”

“They might be. I heard they were the only sapient creatures of their world,” a tiercel member of her decade interjected. “That means they’re warlike since they probably wiped out all their rival races to be on top, just like we did the Yaks.”

“I heard they didn’t kill off anyone and didn’t have any rival races,” One of her decade’s three Gladios replied.

“Really? Even the crows know that’s stupid! We live with a bunch of Ponies and Zebras and Ibexians and Harpies and even Abyssinians. But you’re telling me that they live on their world alone?” the tiercel retorted.

“That’s what the ponies are saying,” the eagless shrugged.

“Then you’re an idiot for believing them!”

The eagless’ feathers ruffled as her tail lashed and eyes narrowed. She quickly jabbed her fist into the tiercel’s neck, delivering a near-mortal insult that got a few ooohs from the crowd. “I’m starting to think I’ve had you cleaning the latrines too long,” she muttered with a hard tone, then grinned evilly. “Or maybe you might need to clean a few more!”

“And here we go,” Gilda sighed as the discussion suddenly became louder and was no longer confined to her decade as more griffons, Guards, Talons, and even some Knights, joined in the conversation, arguing amongst themselves regardless of service or relative rank.

“Yup, here we go.” Fortrakt nodded, his eyes rolling. He watched as the large group began to shout out their points. Some were already butting heads. “See, this is exactly what we need—to show the humans that we’re willing to fight, even against ourselves!” he shouted the last part loudly, but was largely ignored.

The bickering reached a point that a nearby Talon Centurion authorized the setting of a duel ring, around which soldiers from the different branches began to form a loose circle; those planning to fight stripping off their formal uniforms and meticulously shined armor so as not to mar them. In the center, there were griffons pitted against opponents of their choosing, engaging in full-contact sparring as occasional wagers were made on their outcome.

It was a normal state of affairs in the Kingdom’s military, serving the dual purpose of allowing a safe way to settle grudges between soldiers, or just generally let them release some tension and let off steam, as she’d heard ponies say, so they could later focus on their jobs and the real enemies.

Gilda herself had participated in a few of them, winning a match or two before losing out when a much stronger or better-skilled opponent bested her. Today, though, she was happy just to watch, if for no other reason than that she didn’t want to take off her dress uniform for how hard it would be to get back on.

Bets were made in both gems and duties; ones that even the older centurions joined in. For the moment, no one cared about rank or the impending human arrival as the action opened with her tiercel Spear and eagless Gladio fighting with the latter winning easily, though she relented on the threat of more latrine duty.

She was swiftly and soundly beaten by a Talon Second Spear in the next match, however, and before long, the ring was being dominated by an imposing Fortis Knight Centurion named Brutus, who mowed through his first five opponents before he was outmaneuvered and submitted by a female Wind Knight First Spear, to Gilda’s delight.

She won two more rounds before getting overconfident and falling to a far more experienced Optio; an earth griffon tiercel who was second in command of his Century and embarrassed her by outfighting her in the air.

For nearly twenty minutes, there were cheers and shouts, jeers and laughter as ranks and services were forgotten in favor of simple fighting skill. But it didn’t last. Just before the Talon could face his third opponent, a shout rang out from above:

“All soldiers stand to! The humans are coming!”

The cheers instantly ceased as the duel ring fell silent. The Talon Centurion, the highest-ranked griffon present, turned his eyes towards the patrolling griffons in the rampart above the gate. “Confirm!”

There was a pause before a Wind Knight Decurion exposed his head from above, looking down at the gathering. “Three more confirmations! The human convoy is approaching!”

The Centurions were the first to stand. The lead centurion, a female griffon with vibrantly hued red feathers—Gilda suspected they were dyed, which was strictly against regulations—took note of the others and faced the soldiers.

“Griffons! Stand to and stand proud!” she bellowed as every griffon instantly snapped to attention, combatants hastily pulling their armor back on and occasionally cursing as they found it just as difficult as Gilda had. But with the help of their comrades and the use of special brushes to remove dust and restore metallic gleams, they were presentable again within a minute and entered formation.

The duels forgotten, all present were shortly dressed and ready, necks straight, ready to receive orders. Satisfied, the senior Centurion continued his instructions. “Form up with your centuries! You have already been briefed on what to expect. Centurions and Decurions will advise you on your formation. Remember to give the apes a good impression, but even in the face of hostile threats, take no action without orders! Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir” everyone shouted their reply with a simultaneous salute and then dispersed.

“Summon the Tribune!” the lead Centurion shouted, her voice clear even amongst the bustle. Gilda couldn’t hear the rest as she and Fortrakt fought through the crowd. Auxiliary Guards were positioned at the very back. They weren’t front-line soldiers or specialized like the Knights, but they were the last line of defense in case the others were overrun.

As Gilda took her place, she watched as the Knights began to converge in their own groups. Fortis Knights were gathering in the gate, securing their helmets and shields. It was the normal state of affairs, as the Fortis Knights were always at the forefront of both attack and defense.

The Talons joined them soon after, as was proper given the two branches often worked together. According to Kingdom military doctrine, the Fortis Knights would act as shock troops on the attack, breaching ground defenses for the far more numerous Talons to exploit.

They also worked in close coordination with the Wind Knights, who positioned themselves behind the Talons on the high ground of the merlons and other battlements; it was their job to control the skies above and take care of any airborne threats, while also performing sudden strikes and deep penetration raids against surface targets behind enemy lines.

Sky griffons like Gilda, they were able to fight from the ground, but that was not preferred given their weaker bodies—a hard-learned lesson of the long-past Gryphon-Pony War was that sky griffons could take ground but not generally hold it against a determined earth pony counterattack. If they were sent to seize a position, relief in the form of earth griffon support had to follow quickly, or it was reasonably certain they’d be driven off.

She next spotted two Magus Knights take to the sky and settle right with the Wind Knights on top of the Western Gate, bracketing it. That, too, was hardly surprising; Magus wanted to be in the air so they could use their ranged attacks more effectively, which included elemental assaults like fire, ice, or especially lightning. They were typically assigned to units in pairs, redoubling their effectiveness for having one able to act as a shield and the other, the sword.

Speaking of swords, in ages past, griffon soldiers had been equipped with scimitars as a matter of course. But though swordsgriffonship was—and remained—a revered fighting art, to use them properly took time and training, and nowadays, only the best soldiers, like the Wind Knights or the secretive Ravens, wielded them. In contrast, spears were easy enough to master and quite lethal, and the much more general use of steel claws than had been known in Imperial times allowed griffon soldiers to fight far more naturally and instinctively with minimal training.

As they scrambled into formation, Gilda’s throat gave out a harsh trill when she felt someone brush her wings. She looked around, but with the crowd moving, it was most likely an accidental brush-up and she couldn’t identify the griffon responsible.

Just as well, or she’d probably have slammed them into the nearest wall.

Calming herself down, she began to push through the thick crowd. She lost Fortrakt for a moment before she saw him ahead of her, his talons waving at her. With one last effort, she pushed through the claustrophobic crowd and joined her fellow Guards in the rear ranks.

“Took your time, Behertz,” Giraldi, a large male earth griffon with metal shoulder pauldrons, greeted her. He was a First Spear, the ranking enlisted of her century; and despite his demonstrated skill, he was an easy-going griffon with nearly two decades of experience in the Guard.

“Why, Giraldi? Am I missing an invasion yet?” Gilda replied with a sly grin. Both bared their throats, Gilda exposing hers a degree more, while they saluted each other with a solid bang of their shoulder plates.

His eyes narrowed in mock warning—there were few superiors Gilda would feel comfortable teasing like this, but he was one. “If these apes are hostile and pass our defenses, I’m going to see you eat those words, Decanus.”

“Won’t happen, First Spear,” Gilda snickered. “I’ll just act as any Guard under your command would—stand back and let you fight them alone, lest I mess up my dress uniform.”

Giraldi guffawed, as did the rest of Gilda’s decade. Shaking his head, he shouted a command. The Guards began to form up around Giraldi. He ordered them to assemble into three Turmas, three decades deep. Gilda would have loved to have been further up in the formation, but as she lacked seniority, she and Fortrakt were stuck in the middle with the second turma on the ground behind the gate, probably a good seven rows from the front line.

From her position, her eagle-eyes swept through the gate, and shortly locked on to a series of small dotted figures moving through the skies. She could reasonably guess it was an air coach; maybe a six-seater, pulled and carried by five sky griffons. That wasn’t the only thing she noticed. A rising column of dust was also present in the distance, probably caused by ground coaches. They would be pulled either by griffons or Caleponian earth ponies, and judging by the amount of powder they’d kicked up, they were coming in big numbers.

Five minutes later, Tribune Narada arrived, marching down the ranks of readied soldiers. Satisfied, she turned and stood calmly in the front line, watching the approaching shadows. The Talons and Fortis Knights stood proudly, unwavering, as five more minutes passed and the air coach finally came into view.

It was a boxy wooden structure with lines extending outwards to connect to the harness of the four sky-griffons carrying it, and escorted by an entire century of green-armored Paladins in a defensive formation. As they began to descend between the bracketing airships, Gilda was surprised that not just the escorts but the carriers themselves were Paladins instead of mere Talons or even elite Knights, meaning whoever was inside was probably influential, and thus accorded both maximum honor and protection.

The lead shouted an ‘all-clear’ command, most likely for the Wind Knights spread out at the rampart—Gilda could imagine the anxious soldiers raising their crossbows and getting ready to fire—before they landed smoothly about ten paces from the Tribune.

They landed a bit awkwardly, with the Paladins carrying the coach showing signs of fatigue—no surprise, given they’d flown their guests all the way in from Loondon, which was a long way to fly for even the most conditioned Wind Knights. Still, when they saw the Tribune, they immediately saluted. The lead Wind Knight then addressed her, though the exact words escaped Gilda.

She could guess they were formalities, trying to get everything clear and out of the way. Whatever was said, Narada nodded, and the lead Wind Knight approached the side of the air coach. He rapped his claw on the door once, made some announcement she couldn’t hear, and then opened it.

The first one to step out was an older earth griffon, clothed in Equestrian-made clothing that softened his hardened features, though he carried himself with the same proud stance befitting his heritage. Even from far away, Gilda recognized him as Salva Strenus, the Griffon Kingdom’s Ambassador to Equestria. And following him was…

Despite the fact she was supposed to be standing at attention with her gaze fixed straight ahead, she stared. For whatever she’d been expecting was anything but the creature she beheld.

How could she describe them? The human that emerged looked far too different from any primate she’d ever seen to be even remotely considered an ape. It was a tall, bipedal being that wore clothing similar to an Equestrian business suit for a stallion, though it was far more plain than the more ornate offerings the ponies came up with.

It consisted of grey slacks and jacket offset with shined brown hoof coverings and accented with but a single splash of muted red on its necktie—a garment that always struck her as completely dweeby to say nothing of utterly impractical in battle for how easy it could give an opponent the ability to strangle you.

More humans soon followed, but these, near as she could tell, were dressed far more casually. The first that emerged wore simple white covers below the neck, short-sleeved and exposing two pale lanky limbs—arms, like a dragon or Diamond Dog, she assumed—covered with what she could just see was very fine hair that struck her as utterly useless against the cold of the north.

Those same lanky limbs ended with something that resembled Minotaur paws, complete with spindly digits that looked both too weak to lift and too dull to scratch. Its legs were hidden under slightly blotchy blue coverings and there was some sort of covering on its hind… paws? Hooves? Which jutted out far more than pony or even griffon equivalents would.

Its face had some hair on its chin, two small eyes, a short but prominent snout, a short tuft of unruly brown hair on top of its head, and two ears she could only call petite, leaving her wondering how well they heard at all. Not that griffons were ones to talk, given their nonexistent external ears, but their internal ones were very good, leaving them able to hear the barest of whispers in the wind.

She watched the more formally attired human talk to the Ambassador, noting that its face expressed emotions as richly as any Equestrian pony did. As he did so, five more humans came out of the coach and they all had different skin tones and hair color. There were even two humans that seemed to be shaped slightly differently than the others, with wider hips and bulky expansions on their chest. Gilda wondered how they fought with those in the way, then wondered in turn how such oddly shaped and ungainly creatures could fight at all.

The Ambassador guided the humans towards the Tribune with a sweeping motion of his foreleg. They talked, and then the business-suited human offered its arm, hand open, towards Narada. The Tribune took a moment, before the Ambassador gave a nod, and she grasped the human’s forearm to shake it in a mutual gesture, one griffons used but ponies did not like for making them vulnerable to predator talons.

The ground then vibrated as the unmistakable clip-clop sound of horseshoes announced the arrival of the rest of the convoy. Well-dressed Caleponian earth ponies pulled large ground coaches, long wooden boxy wheeled structures, not unlike the wagons ponies favored, with seating capacities of twenty griffons.

When they came to a stop, the doors popped open, and the humans inside pushed themselves out and quickly went to a loose line formation. These members of the alien race looked larger and stronger, and were all dressed the same, in strange, splotchy green uniforms over which sat some kind of bulky vest—given the sameness of their attire, were they military? And was that vest, therefore, some kind of armor?

Fortrakt’s thinking tracked hers. “By their build and manner, I’m guessing those are human soldiers. What’s your count of them?” he whispered beside her, breaking her train of thought.

“Let’s see…” Gilda did some clumsy mental arithmetic. So far, one coach had almost thirty humans—a tight fit by any measure—and with seven or eight coaches visible, taking into account the humans were likely bringing some form of gear and luggage, she guessed they numbered around… “I’m thinking two centuries strong. You?”

“My headcount is around one hundred eighty. Odd, considering I see eight coaches. Shouldn’t that be around two hundred forty? I could be wrong.”

Gilda didn’t doubt Fortrakt’s numbers, as he was far better at math than she. Still, she shook her head over his inexperience. “Your headcount is probably right. The extra coaches are most likely human supplies.”

“Ah, got it. Still, Ancestors, these creatures are tall. Somewhat colorful, I guess. All earth tones, ranging from pale pink to ebony skin, and look at the manes on top of their heads,” Fortrakt muttered. “I noticed most of them are wearing identical clothing. Green with different colored patterns plus those odd vests… uniforms and armor, maybe?”

Gilda gave a slight nod. “That’s my guess as well. Hard to say what’s normal for them, but they look fit enough to be soldiers.”

Fortrakt hummed thoughtfully. “I’ll give them credit—they came in force. I’m counting at least thirty non-uniformed humans. That’s about five soldiers assigned per human? Wow. Ponies usually send only what, fifteen guards for five diplomats? Even Celestia doesn’t rate more than a couple Turmas of Guardsponies.”

He was right, and Gilda had to admit the humans were putting up quite a good projection of power, even by griffon standards. Still, she didn’t see how they were apex predators or could fight griffons, unless…

“Those black tubes that are slung over their shoulders and strapped to their sides. Weapons?” she wondered aloud.

“Makes sense if they’re soldiers,” Fortrakt replied with a nod. “I have no idea how they’re supposed to be used though. No blades, no bows, and no quiver of arrows? I guess they’re some kind of blunt weapons.”

“So these humans evolved their fighting through close combat?” Gilda paraphrased. “Seems unlikely for such vulnerable forms.”

Fortrakt snickered. “Ancestors, if they fight standing up in lines like we do, they’ll be wiped out by our spears and crossbows. We wouldn’t even have to use blades or claws on them.”

Gilda was about to warn Fortrakt that underestimating the enemy would get any soldier killed when Giraldi harshly whispered, “Quiet on the line!”

Fortrakt shut his beak and the rest of the muttered conversations around them fell silent, giving Gilda a little more time to contemplate the strange human weapons before she noticed that some of the non-uniformed humans that rode the air coaches were grouping together.

She also noticed one particular human, who didn’t immediately join the others. It was instead talking to the uniformed humans, getting some reaction. Gilda noted that it wore a grey top and blue leg covers. It also had brown-colored skin and cropped ebony black hair. It then turned its eyes to Arnau, and its lips broke out in a… smile?

Yup, it was a smile, showing two rows of off-white teeth. For being predators, Gilda thought their canines were much too small. The way the ponies talked about them, she’d have thought they’d be more impressive. Then again, sharp teeth, no matter how small, tended to make ponies nervous, she recalled with a grin.

She noted instantly that the human seemed quite impressed at seeing Arnau. Pride welled within her to see his awestruck reaction, though she didn’t understand what he was doing when he removed a small rectangular object and pointed it towards the city, holding it in the air. She then looked towards the other non-uniformed humans, seeing if their expressions matched his; she was gratified to see that they did. Some were even pointing out its white walls to each other, their heads nodding as they spoke in low tones.

It took a moment, but the non-uniformed humans (from both air and ground coaches) finally grouped together. Gilda’s eyes were once more on the brown human who was walking towards its compatriot, one with pale skin and short curly red hair. The two approached and each of their hands slapped together, producing quite a strange sound of sharp, escaping air before they talked in an animated fashion before joining the rest of the group. Even as a visibly annoyed human Ambassador spoke to them sharply and motioned them to follow, leading them to the city gates, they wouldn’t stop talking.

Now that the humans were approaching, Gilda made sure her posture was straight. She kept her face impassive as the group passed her, even though she couldn’t see much through the first six rows of griffon soldiers. Still, she was close enough to both hear and scent them; the first thought that formed in her mind as she caught an initial whiff of their odor was that they didn’t smell as bad as she thought, given her past experience with apes.

Sure, they had that tell-tale musk of having traveled an enormous distance, which was common to any creature that spent too much time in air or ground carriages, but it was in no way offensive to her. Underneath it was an earthier but not unpleasant spoor that had some strange appeal; for as good as they smelled, a darker part of her mind wondered how they actually tasted.

“Will you look at that! Steampunk airships! They’re right out of Final Fantasy! And check out the city! It’s just like Minas Tirith!” the brown-skinned human declared to its red-haired companion as they stopped in front of Gilda’s formation and looked around, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they could be easily overheard by griffon ears, even with the low voices they were speaking.

Steampunk? Final Fantasy? Gilda repeated the unfamiliar terms to herself, having never heard their like in Equestria. The speaker’s voice was masculine, she noted even as she further wondered what ‘Minas Tirith’ was. Was the speaker male? Did humans even have genders? Or did they just reproduce asexually like Timberwolves were said to?

“Marco, can you shut it? No one wants to hear your lame opinions,” another human, a short-haired one with those odd protrusions on its chest area, declared in a feminine voice. Female, then? If so, it made sense the protrusions would be her mammary glands, even if they were very awkwardly placed. From her proficiency in Equish, Gilda also noticed that the human’s tone of voice indicated some sort of annoyance; maybe even anger. She was… frowning.

“Girl, what is your problem?” a second (presumably) female human asked her, raising her voice slightly.

“You know my problem—it’s him! So stop being a dumbass already, Marco. Ooh, lookie lookie! They’re like some stupid video game or movie from twenty years ago! If you like Ring Lords so much, go buy a Lego set! Next thing you know, you’ll be asking those griffons for a sword and armor so you can play some stupid character.”

“Stupid, you say?” The male—Marco, was it?—just smirked. “I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn! I wield Anduril, Flame of the West! Do you want to see it, my dear Gimli?” and he ended it with a thrust of his… hips? Gilda’s right eye grew a bit bigger. Was he…?

“Ugh, you’re a pervert, Marco!” the annoyed human (Gimli?) declared. “A total perv!”

Fotrakt’s throat was making an odd sound. Gilda was sure he was stifling laughter, an assessment confirmed as he nudged her with his foreleg. “Wow. I really like this human!” he whispered.

“You would,” Gilda muttered with a roll of her eyes. She watched as the other female suddenly guffawed, earning a warning glance from the human ambassador and an irritated glare from the angered Gimli before she stormed away from this ‘Marco’—or was it Aragorn, son of Arathorn?. Her facial features looked quite… mashed, for the lack of a better term, and for supposedly apex predators, they didn’t seem to have much of an ability to bite.

The human with the earthy red hair then approached Marco/Aragorn. “Marco, man, one of these days Dana’s going to bust your balls.”

“If she can find them,” the female human with long yellow hair declared with a smirk as she crossed her forelegs over her bulky chest. But far from amused, that earned a squished-face reaction from the two males.

It looked like they winced, Gilda decided, if the way the humans displayed emotions was the same as the ponies. She had a guess of what ‘balls’ might mean, but kept it to herself. If it referred to what she was thinking, then humans had entirely different terms for various gender attributes than either griffons or ponies used.

“Tara!” the red-haired human declared in a sharp but low voice. Gilda was reasonably sure Tara was the yellow-haired female’s name.

“Oh, come off it Chris, I didn’t mean it that way!” a chagrined Tara quickly corrected. “I was just saying she couldn’t find her own ass with a map and a flashlight, much less someone’s scrotes. Besides, ‘Ring Lords’? Christ Almighty. The books have been out there for something like sixty years, and the movies are available in 4K! There is no way she should have gotten the name wrong! So someone tell me again why the hell she’s here on this trip anyway, embarrassing us in front of the griffons? She’ll probably act worse than in Equestria.”

Her voice then turned high pitched, trying to mimic the Gimli human. “‘Oh, why is there no internet? Where’s the room service? Why can’t I get a good steak? Why are their toilets just holes in the floor? Oh, disgusting, they are naked! I can see their schlongs!’” she said in a deliberately bad imitation of the other female’s voice.

“Come on, she ain’t that bad,” Chris replied in an equally low voice as he scanned the rows of griffon soldiers, making Gilda wonder again if they knew that they could be heard, and that there were griffons who understood the Equish language they spoke.

“Chris, dude, I love you, but I have to agree with Tara,” Marco replied, at least momentarily more interested in the city before him than the griffons guarding it. “She has no charm, skill, or purpose in life except to get on our nerves, rile up twitter mobs and run up dinner bills. But all that aside? I’m sure she’s a wonderful human being!” he seemed to deliberately raise his voice enough for Gimli to hear him, earning a glower from her as she stuck close to the Ambassador.

Gilda highly doubted that, sensing some echo of her younger self in the departed Gimli. Please tell me that I wasn’t that annoying and obnoxious? she silently begged her Ancestors as Gimli looked ready to stalk back over to Marco and challenge him to a duel on the spot.

“You only agree with me because I have a nice ass,” Tara declared with a smile and a raised voice of her own, causing Gilda to blink—that was the second time Tara had mentioned donkeys. Apparently, Gimli couldn’t find hers, and Tara had a nice one. Wait—was having a donkey part of their culture? Did that mean they had slavery, which was an institution both ponies and griffons had abandoned a millennium before? It made no sense if the ponies were claiming humans were the sole sapient species of their world.

“Well, it is a very fine ass, no doubt,” Marco agreed in what she could only describe as an exaggerated manner, positioning himself slightly to... was he leering at the female human’s rear? Gilda’s eyes narrowed—he was! Her thoughts of donkeys evaporated when she saw him look exactly like a pervy griffon, one that was unbelievably brazen in his display. It immediately caused Gimli to turn away in disgust, abandoning any intention to go back to him.

Gilda could understand her reaction. She felt her hackles rise, and she sensed from some sounds of ruffling feathers that she wasn’t the only one. Such things were reserved for mates in griffon society, and in private places at that—griffons were not voyeurs; they most certainly did not openly leer at the hindquarters of other griffons!

“Wow... this guy is a pervert,” Fortrakt whispered, though there was a tone of admiration in his voice.

“If he does that to me, I’ll rip him open,” Gilda muttered, to some equally muttered sounds of agreement from the other eaglesses around her.

“Well, in fairness, he was just admiring her. I mean, that human female does have a nice rear end… for a biped!” he hastily added at the looks he got, not just from Gilda, but from the rest of the griffons around them.

Marco continued, unaware of Gilda’s antagonistic thoughts, “Dana’s only here thanks to her Senator daddy,” Marco said, looking a bit… disgusted? And that was interesting—humans had senators too? So Gimli (or Dana? She wasn’t sure. Human names were definitely weird) was the daughter of someone important?

Human hierarchy dynamics were still unclear to her. She didn’t want to assume that this Marco was of a lower standing, but if he was, his blatant disrespect towards Gimli, especially in public and under foreign scrutiny, annoyed her far more than the idea of him simply being perverted. Granted, she had met a lot of arrogant offspring of entitled nobles both in the Kingdom and in Equestria, and she also granted that with a few notable exceptions, the lot of them were nothing more than immature cubs. But if this Gimli really bothered Marco, why didn’t he just challenge her to a duel and get it over with?

Probably only talks big. Bet he’s actually a coward, Gilda thought harshly, her eyes narrowing towards the brown-skinned human.

“I just hope she doesn’t annoy the Griffons too much,” Marco said and then, perhaps sensing her stare, looked directly at Gilda for a moment. He hid it well, but Gilda caught him shivering for just a second. She felt triumphant and hardened her gaze. “Gotta say, they look ready to eviscerate us at a moment’s notice,” he said under his breath, which was useless against griffon senses.

Gilda couldn’t suppress a smile. Yup, he’s just a coward.

As they went on their way, they were followed by a few uniformed humans—presumably their armed escorts. Gilda was glad for the distraction. She’d rather take a closer look at their weapons than think about that Marco. Then Fortrakt nudged her. She stared at him, annoyed. “What?”

“Maybe my Equish is rusty. But what in the crows is a four-kay?” Fortrakt asked. “Or a ‘final fantasy’? Or a flashlight?”

“No idea.” Gilda shrugged. “I never heard those words before either. Probably some human things.”

“Ah.” Fortrakt paused. He opened his beak, then closed it again and grinned.

“What?” Gilda asked.

“Humans are weird. Fun, but weird.”

“Then you can have them,” Gilda groused. “Me, I’ll just be happy when they’re gone.”

3: Lost in Translation

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“I’m really hungry,” Fortrakt muttered as he stood with her at their guard post, reaching back to rub his belly with his talons. “So why are we in this shift and not the earlier one? I bet Schultz is eating up all the meat right now. He’s probably laughing his flanks off, maybe even trying to eat everything and leave nothing for us.”

“Schultz? That overweight oaf? He hears nothing and he knows nothing except food,” Gilda rolled her eyes, to some snickers from her next two nearest decade soldiers. “They should have made him a chef, not a Second Spear.”

“Great. So once he’s had his fill, there’ll be nothing left for us, then,” Fotrakt groused.

“I’m pretty sure that the Kingdom ordered quite a large amount,” Gilda replied dryly, not letting her eyes off the tables set in front of them, watching the present humans. Their orders were to simply stand guard and observe, but to take no action unless the humans attacked the Queen—which even after that short time, she found highly unlikely given it would quickly result in all assailants dead, courtesy of the Queen’s personal mage and red-armored Praetorian Guard—or they were ordered by Giraldi or some other authority to do something else.

“You think so?” Fortrakt asked dubiously.

“I know so. And not even Schultz’s enormous appetite could eat it all. We’ll have our share when our shift is over. Until then, stop salivating like a starved cub and stand straight, Gladio!”

Fortrakt harrumphed. “I’m not salivating.”

“Sure you weren’t. And besides, I thought you weren’t a fan of cooked meat?” Gilda pointed out.

“Well, yeah, I mean, I don’t really prefer cooked meat, but I’m so hungry, I’d eat anything now!” His stomach audibly grumbled to emphasize the point.

“Tough. It’s your own fault,” she reminded him with an amused smile. Fortrakt hadn’t eaten lunch, saying he wanted to save his stomach for a savory meat dinner, and he was now feeling it. Ever since he was assigned with the rest of her decade to stand guard over the dining hall, he had spent most of his time with his eyes closed, beak slightly open as he took deep breaths, as if trying to absorb the aromas in the air. “Next time, at least have a snack.”

It was nearly evening by then; a few hours had passed since the humans arrived. Their Ambassador and his entourage had been given a tour of the city while Gilda, Fortrakt, and other Guards in Giraldi’s unit were assigned to stand guard around the prepared receiving area. The air now smelled of wood smoke and roast as apparently, the humans preferred cooked meat instead of raw.

Once more, the Kingdom had accommodated them, leaving Gilda starting to think again that the whole deal was a bit one-sided. But as a mere Decanus in charge of but nine other soldiers, she knew her opinion counted for little with either the Queen or the rest of the Kingdom’s leadership as she took in the scene in front of her. From the way the seating arrangements were done, she knew which humans were higher in their hierarchy by how close they were sitting to Queen Molyneux.

The Queen herself looked regal and confident in her elevated chair at the end of the central table, draped with Royal Blue cloth under a gilded hide that had been polished to a shine. Her feathers were dyed and styled in dark blue and orange, and she had golden feathers dipped in diamond dust adorning the sides of her crown, giving her head some additional sparkle.

On her left sat Salva Strenus, her Ambassador to Equestria, who had acted as liaison to the humans and escorted them to the Kingdom all the way from the Portal. Along his left side, in turn, were the humans, the nearest being the human ambassador—what was his name? She heard it once but couldn’t remember; it was too unlike either pony or griffon names to easily recall—who clasped forelegs with the Tribune, followed by the rest of their diplomats and civilians, including Marco. On the Queen’s right were the High Lords and Ladies, all dressed in white cloth secured with golden buttons on their shoulders.

Gilda took one last look towards Marco, who was sitting beside the red-haired Chris. Both were done eating and were talking animatedly with each other; the female Tara then joined in a few moments later. Gilda narrowed her eyes as she observed them. She still didn’t like him, but at least the brown ape was behaving.

The surrounding tables were occupied by griffon and human soldiers; the latter rotating in Turma-sized units to eat every half-hour or so. According to a passing Wind Knight, the bulk of the human soldiers rode out with the ground coaches and traveled two-fifths of a league away from the city.

They were apparently building their own encampment, which Gilda hoped to visit and see with her own eyes. When asked about the diplomats and the non-uniformed humans, a Fortis Knight advised that the humans had reserved a place for them and their armed escorts to stay somewhere on the Third Level, which contained the markets, hotels, and entertainment areas.

Gilda was now definitely sure those black tubes the human soldiers brought were weapons, given they carried them even during dinner. So far, they only seemed comfortable enough talking amongst themselves, though they did give some of the griffon soldiers a look; their gazes especially setting on the Wind Knights with their scimitars and crossbows.

They were... raucous, was how she could best describe them. Not violent, though. They hadn’t once made any overly aggressive move or gave off any hostile signals that she could detect. Their body language was similar if not identical to ponies, and though there were almost certainly some nuances she was missing, they were loud and spoke in obnoxious tones.

She couldn’t tell their ages, and between their identical uniforms and short-cut manes, a whole lot of them looked alike to the point she was having trouble telling them apart except where skin tones were concerned. But given their brashness was definitely something she associated with youthful griffons, she was certain they were generally quite young, and they seemed to denote rank by the darker stripes on their sleeves.

“Hey!” Fortrakt called out.

Gilda blinked. She looked at her partner, who was staring at her, his head signaling her to move. She was about to ask why when she saw a very happy-looking Schultz and the Guard soldiers who were about to relieve them emerge from the canteen, fresh from their meal.

“There’s our relief! Come on, Gilda, I’m hungry!” Fortrakt all but begged with a fresh rumble of his stomach.

“Alright, alright,” Gilda muttered as the replacement decade arrived and she simultaneously exchanged salutes with their Decanus, the latter to the same depth as befit their identical ranks. “Come on, Guard, fall out and let’s go eat!” she called out to not just Fortrakt, but the other eight members of her decade, who quickly and eagerly did so, chatting amicably amongst themselves.

A short trip later, they were in the temporarily built pantry; a designated eating area for soldiers, which was filled with tables of uncooked meat. At the sight of it, Fortrakt was in awe.

“Ancestors bless us,” he declared, and Gilda was hard-pressed to disagree with the sentiment.

Without preamble, he immediately rushed towards a free seat, leaving Gilda behind. She just snorted and looked around for a moment, seeing a few Talons and Knights around, most likely not appreciative of cooked meats. It took her a moment, but she found a seat next to a male Wind Knight, cleaved off a slice of a freshly killed flying boar (or at least it had been when the preservation spell was applied) with a blade set in the table for the purpose, and then tore off a piece with her beak.

It was blessedly bloody and fatty, and for the first time, Gilda allowed herself to think that maybe the arrival of the humans wasn’t so bad after all.

“Would you give it a rest already?” Gilda declared to Fortrakt as both of them walked out of the pantry. She tried to sound scolding, but she couldn’t keep the smile out of her face as she watched Fortrakt continue singing.

Dinner had been festive—in Gilda’s opinion, far more so than the one with the humans. A few minutes after she had sat down, fresh kegs of mariner rum were opened and someone broke out a lute and began to pluck strings in tune with a lot of common songs the Gauntlet taught: battle songs to keep morale and marching tunes that staved off boredom.

Fortrakt himself had sung together with a young female Talon, who seemed to laugh at all his jokes. Things had gone well enough that he finally asked the eagless if she would be available for a Round; a day where they could ‘spar’. To his delight, she had said yes, and now he was irrepressible.

“March off to the land of ice and snow, where only the bravest griffons go...” Fortrakt continued to sing a marching song, joined in by the rest of the very happy decade, some of whom were leaning on each other and swaying heavily, gorged on meat and drunk on rum.

“Over land and sea, by blade and bow, rule the skies and the ground below!” they rejoined, then looked expectantly to Gilda, waiting for her to sing the next stanza.

But her beak stayed closed. “Come on, Decanus, join in already!” Fortrakt invited.

Gilda rolled her eyes. “No, Gladio, I won’t make a fool of myself. I already had a bellyful of spontaneous singing during my time in Equestria,” she recalled to an eruption of laughter from her soldiers, to which she then formally dismissed them with an admonishment to sober up, and to make sure they were on time and presentable for roll call the next morning. “Any soldier who is late or unkempt gets latrine duty for a week!” she added, to which her decade only chuckled, in too good a mood to be bothered.

Before leaving, her youngest Spear then teasingly asked her if she’d ever participated in pony singing, to which she responded with an angry glare that silenced him but only caused his smile to broaden as he walked off.

Fortrakt waited until they were gone before speaking again. “Always so strict, Decanus. Maybe you need a pad-warmer to help loosen you up,” he suggested with a glance back at the other two departing griffons of his three-soldier Fuga, who Gilda had already noted seemed to have picked up his casual manner and willingness to tease her. “How about that Wind Knight you sat beside?”

She stopped short and turned to him. “Cub, the sun will melt all the snow in the North before I let you start playing matchmaker for me,” Gilda told him. “Besides, that Wind Knight had a mate. He was wearing a colored primary that wasn’t his.”

“So? I bet you can take her out, and claim him as your own!” he gave her a playful nudge in the side, away from her wing feathers and flight muscles—he’d at least learned his lesson not to touch those, even teasingly.

“Right. Because we don’t know if they’re Uxorem. Or maybe they are just Desponsata and either way, challenging her may just insult him,” an unamused Gilda replied. “Or maybe we don’t live in Imperial times anymore and it’s considered dishonorable to poach mates from other griffons?”

“Oh, come on, Gilda. You have to live a little!” Fortrakt shook his head as they exited the building and headed for the barracks. “For the five moons I’ve known you, I haven’t once seen you spend time with anycreature else. Five moons, and I haven’t seen you even try to look for a tiercel. Or maybe it’s because you’re into eaglesses instead?” Gilda narrowed her eyes at him, and he raised a single set of claws in defense. “Hey, nothing wrong with it if you are.”

“Maybe you ought to worry about your own romantic pursuits before you worry about mine. Or did you forget that I could tell that Talon eagless all your most embarrassing stories? How about I start with the time you tried to impress Giraldi with how fast you could arm your crossbow but then loaded a bolt backwards?” she suggested with a smirk, causing Fortrakt’s cheeks to flush. “That was the best laugh I’d had in months. Or maybe I should tell her how you had a little accident during an afternoon combat drill after you ate too much at lunch?”

Fortrakt looked at her with narrowed eyes and huffed. “You play dirty, Decanus!”

“Only when you get condescending, cub,” Gilda smirked.

Before Fortrakt could reply, they heard someone speaking Equish, and not with Caleponian accents. Gilda and Fortrakt immediately crouched, claws out as they spotted three figures walking towards them. The low lighting made it difficult to discern their features from afar, even with their eagle eyes, but as they approached, Gilda recognized one of them.

“Great,” Gilda muttered darkly as she realized that Marco, Chris and Tara were making their way to them, with the brown-skinned human looking a bit... ruffled.

“Cool!” Fortrakt rejoined in Equish, leaving Gilda wondering where he’d picked up that particular pony vernacular.

Their presence went initially unnoticed by the three humans. “Come on, Marco, just ignore her,” Chris declared in what Gilda took as a consoling voice.

“I’m trying,” a clearly unhappy Marco muttered in a forlorn tone. “I left her alone at her table, hanging out with you guys. And what does that Whiskey Tango brat do? She rubs it in my face where they placed her!”

“Whiskey Tango?” Tara asked, confused.

“It means ‘white trash’. He learned it from his Marine friends,” Chris replied with a frown, giving Gilda two more unfamiliar terms to catalog.

White trash? Marine? She knew the latter was a word used by Equestrians in relation to the ocean, but she had no idea how that context was valid here.

“Swear to God, Marco, you hang out way too much with them. Besides, Dana’s a damn brat,” Tara declared, and that word Gilda knew. “She knows how to push your buttons, and she really likes doing it. When you react, she’s just going to do more of it.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t mind her going at me, but she was insulting you guys too,” an unhappy Marco replied, raising Gilda’s estimation of him slightly—at least he was loyal to his friends, unlike Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah, well that’s—hey, Marco! Look!” The red-haired human started pointing one of his spindly digits towards Gilda and Fortrakt.

Tara looked a moment before she smiled. “Marco! Marco! Here’s our chance!”

“Chance for what?” Fortrakt asked with a low whisper.

“We’re about to find out,” Gilda answered with a baleful stare at the brown-skinned human leading the group as they approached.

“Hi, there!” Marco greeted with an upraised paw as Gilda and Fortrakt waited, the former disdainfully and the latter expectantly. “Uh, do you two speak our language?”

“Sure do!” Fortrakt answered. Gilda had thought of pretending otherwise to make them go away until his junior partner spoke up in Equish on their behalf, making her want to cuff him, hard.

The human just gave a slightly nervous smile. His eyes flitted between Gilda and Fortrakt repeatedly, the former guessing he recognized her irritation. “Cool! I was just, uh, wondering... me and my friends were hoping to take a few pictures with you guys? I hope that’s okay?”

“We’re not all males,” Gilda replied shortly in the same pony tongue they spoke, but she still winced to hear it—her Equish sounded quite rough after not speaking it regularly for several years.

She was understood, though. Her statement even earned a laugh from Tara, though much to her growing annoyance, Marco didn’t seem to be discouraged. His smile got even larger as he looked at his female friend.

“Oh you like that, eh?” he asked his female companion.

“Hell, yeah!” Tara replied between her guffaws.

“To be fair, she’s right, Marco,” Chris said with a smile. “They aren’t all ‘guys’.”

Marco responded by sticking his tongue out at both of them before he coughed. Turning back to the griffons, he nodded. “Okay, uh… we’re not trying to offend either of you, I swear! As I was saying, my friends and I were wondering if it was okay if we took pictures of ourselves with such fine and majestic griffons.”

Before Gilda could tell him where to shove it—that was easily the corniest and most condescending thing she’d ever heard!—Fortrakt lit up. “Of course!”


“Oh, come on Gilda,” Fortrakt replied back in Aeric, nudging his head towards Marco encouragingly. “He called us fine and majestic specimens. That’s a compliment, right? They’re trying to be friendly, so surely you can stand taking a picture with him?”

Marco took a step forward and then knelt down as Gilda stared at him, apprehensive. What was he doing now?

“We come in peace,” he declared as behind him, Gilda noticed Chris grimace as Tara buried her head in her talons—apparently, they found whatever he was doing as annoying and clumsily offensive as she did. “Look, I’m really sorry if calling you a guy offended you.” He then made a loose fist with his blunt talons. “Friends?” He bumped it gently on the side of Gilda’s throat.

There was a sudden sound of air being sucked in as Fortrakt froze and Gilda’s eyes shrank dangerously, her feathers instantly ruffling in warming. Marco’s eyes widened as he wisely backed away as quickly as he could.

“Holy crap, she looks pissed,” Tara declared, moving fractionally behind Chris.

“What the hell, I thought you said bumping them with your fist was a friendly greeting?” Marco asked.

“I swear, that’s what the Ambassador said,” a suddenly-nervous Chris replied, taking a step back of his own.

Fortrakt blinked. He stepped in front of Gilda, looking between Marco and Chris. “Hold on a minute. What do you mean by... bumping with the fist?” he asked in Equestrian.

Chris looked at him warily. “Um, I kinda asked your Ambassador what’s the best way to greet griffons, and he mentioned that the younger ones seemed to bump each other with their fists as a greeting.”

“Bump fists… oh! You mean like this?” Fortrakt slowly approached the still apprehensive Marco, who comically still had his enclosed fist held out, and the griffon bumped his own fist to the human’s. “The younger cubs will do that, sure—we think they picked it up from ponies—but older griffons prefer to clasp forelegs.” He reared back to demonstrate the gesture by clasping his forelegs together, then offered his right foreleg with his talons open.

Marco stared at it, but finally duplicated the gesture, grasping Fortrakt’s foreleg only to hiss sharply as avian claws dug in slightly to his soft skin. “Ow…” he said, flexing his dull talons while looking at the red welts that were rising. “Yeah, I think we’ll stick to fist bumps. Forearm clasps with your claws are probably not a good idea on bare skin. We either bow or shake hands, for the record, depending on culture.” He showed the latter gesture by example with Chris, making Gilda realize he meant the same gesture that the human Ambassador had greeted the Tribune with.

“Oh… sorry. I was trying to be gentle.” It was Fortrakt’s turn to apologize as Chris and Tara could only stare, their expression utterly dumbfounded. “I’m sorry for the earlier misunderstanding, but the Equestrian Ambassador is really old,” Fortrakt explained, which earned a hard nudge from Gilda—respect to elders was very much a thing in griffon society, doubly so in the military. “What? He is! He probably didn’t know that it was called a fist-bump.”

“Okay... so what the hell did I do, then?” Marco asked, rubbing the scratches on his arm while still staring at Gilda warily.

Fortrakt chuckled, though Gilda didn’t know what he found so funny. “You basically insulted her. It’s… well, a griffon thing. Jabbing a griffon in the neck like that is saying they’re stupid or submissive, and is taken as an invitation to fight.”

“Oh!” A worried Marco backed away fractionally from a still-ruffled Gilda, who slowly relaxed. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know, I swear.”

Gilda sighed and nodded. “Fine,” she muttered in Equestrian, plodding forward to stand to his right, close enough she could more fully smell him—they’d apparently bathed before dinner, she noted, judging by the undertone of soap and some other cleaners over his usual earthy smells, which she still didn’t want to admit she found strangely pleasant. “If you want a picture, we’ll give you one. Let’s just get it over with before there are any more misunderstandings.”

“Nice!” Fortrakt exclaimed as he also walked up to Marco, standing next to the taller human on his left side.

“Alright, game on!” Marco declared in relief. “Would you do the honors, Chris?”

Game on? Gilda wondered, but even given the opportunity, she declined to ask what it meant, deciding it was just an invitation to even more conversation she wasn’t interested in.

“My pleasure.” Chris took out a black box, and Gilda hesitated for a moment. Whatever the red-haired human was holding, it was not the camera she had come to recognize. And with all the black metallic weapons the humans held, a suspicious thought entered her mind.

“Wait—what’s that?” she asked, warily motioning with her beak to the object.

Chris, who was removing a cap that was covering a tube that extended outwards, paused and blinked. “It’s a camera.”

Fortrakt’s eyes widened. “A camera? I thought...” he blinked. His beak opened and closed slightly. “I... wow. I thought they’d be bigger. Gilda talked about how they even had a stand and big light bulbs and all.”

Tara chuckled. “Oh my God, yeah. Equestrian cameras, you mean? I swear, I thought we’d stepped back in time sixty years. We stopped using those kinds of cameras ages ago. Show them by taking a picture of the building, Chris,” she directed.

“You got it!” Chris then pointed the camera away from them, up towards the Grand Hall and clicked a button, causing the object to emit a bright flash. He then turned the back of the box towards them to show them… a glowing image of the picture they’d just taken, the detail so fine Gilda couldn’t even make out the individual grains. “There you go.”

“That’s incredible!” Fortrakt marveled aloud, to Gilda’s great annoyance—why did he keep encouraging them? “How does that even work? Does it use film like pony cameras?”

“Nope. We don’t use film now,” Marco chimed in from above them. “Well, most people don’t, anyway. It’s hard to explain, but basically, we can take hundreds, even thousands of photographs with these cameras and then print them out later.”

Chris showed them some of the other pictures he had stored by making lateral movements with his talon across the flat glowing surface of the camera’s rear, causing the existing picture to be replaced by an earlier one with each motion.

“Amazing!” Fortrakt muttered in renewed awe. Gilda was grudgingly impressed as well, but she didn’t want to show it—maybe the ponies were right and humans really were technologically superior? But if so, why were the weapons of their soldiers apparently melee? Before she could think about it too deeply, Chris was already pointing the lens at them.

“Smile!” the ginger-haired human invited.

Gilda was about to give a very forced smile when she felt a touch at the base of her shoulders, where her flight muscles were present. It was an extremely sensual spot, something she knew pegasi had as well, and on contact, she felt jolted, like a lightning bolt had just lit up her spine and wings—she had never been touched there, in all her life!

Her eyes narrowed and her breath caught, fire bursting from her cheeks and stomach as she stared at Marco, who she interpreted as grinning like a depraved and indecent idiot; his hand and arm ever-so-casually caressing one of her most intimate erogenous areas.

There was a flash of bright light and, for a moment, she was blinded. In that moment, her thoughts took a far darker turn—Marco, the human she had determined to be a perverted coward... was now taking advantage of her? He was groping her!

Tired after a long day and uncomfortably constrained by her dress uniform, all logical thought processes were cast aside as she immediately shifted her whole body to her side and announced an attack with an outraged roar.

Without further warning or preamble, she jumped him as another flash of light burst out again. But she ignored it as she reared up to grab the offending human by his shirt front. She then threw him down to the ground hard, her beak open to trill out a battle-cry as she stared into his features, including unnaturally wide eyes. She could feel him shiver as she held him down, his mouth opening in shock and face contorting in sheer terror; she could all but smell his fear.

She raised a set of talons to deliver a set of punishing slashes to his face, but before she could do anything, something slammed into her hard from the side. She was forcefully thrown off the human and was then pinned down beneath another griffon’s considerable weight and strength. She immediately began to defend herself, her hind claws out attempting to rake his midsection and her wings trying to find an angle she could escape from.

“Gilda! Stop!” Fortrakt’s voice sounded in her head clearly as he got leverage on her and pinned her to the floor with his weight and wings, holding her down despite the damage he was taking. Even with his advantageous position, he was still only barely able to restrain her, trying to hold her back long enough to allow the humans to escape.

When she continued to snarl and struggle, threatening to throw him off, he finally cuffed her hard, like a parent to a cub, to snap her out of it. “Enough!” he shouted again in Aeric, raising a closed set of talons to deliver another blow if needed. It took her a moment, but she finally fully registered his presence and stopped. Her heart slowed back down and the flames began to recede from her cheeks and stomach, but only when she was still for a minute did a clawed-up Fortrakt let her go, his dress uniform torn with some lines of blood visible through them.

Once released, Gilda immediately flipped upward with a thrust of her wings and hips, scanning the area with her still-dilated gold pupils. The humans were gone, though she could see their shadowed figures fleeing at their rather feeble top speed into the distance. Despite their hasty departure, she could still smell him; still feel his offending paw on her back. Part of her wanted to give chase, a hunt for the thrill, while another wanted never to see him again, willing him as far away from her as possible.

Unable to reconcile the conflicting feelings in her head and body, she began to scratch the stone ground with her claws, trying to do away with the ugly urges and the stiff feelings in her wings. “Bucking degenerate dweeb…” she resorted to the nearly-forgotten pony invective.

“Crows take it.” Fortrakt sighed, continuing to block her way to him even as he licked one of his arm wounds. “Gilda, it was an accident—he touched me there too! He wasn’t trying to grope you; he was just trying to be friendly but had no idea what he was doing!”

“Sure he was.” Gilda grunted skeptically. That was all well and good for a mister nice griffon like him, but he wasn’t an eagless feeling a male presence—worse, an uninvited and alien male presence—where it didn’t belong.

“You saw how afraid he was—do you really think he would have done it deliberately if he knew?” he asked her pointedly. “By the Gods and Ancestors, you could have just grabbed his arm and explained it—you didn’t need to go all to crows about it!”

“I know,” Gilda replied with an edged tone, only to find that despite his explanation— which she knew perfectly well was true—she wasn’t calming down. Ancestors, she still wanted to chase Marco. Maybe it was the too-tight dress uniform that made her aggressive, or maybe it was the adrenaline still surging through her, but she wanted to confront him one more time; have a more decisive conclusion without Fortrakt getting in the way.

“Your wings and tail tell me differently,” Fortrakt stated as he continued to watch her warily, noting the former twitching and the latter lashing, but Gilda just stared at him. “Ancestors, I can’t believe he got you so easily. You weren’t like this when I got too forward with your wings!”

“That’s because I drove you through a table,” Gilda replied stiffly. Her body shook, wanting to release the tension that was built up inside her but finding no ready outlets. “And also because I didn’t have this stupid dress uniform on.” She shook again, trying to calm down her stiff wings, but they wouldn’t subside. “Crows take it.”

“Come on, Gilda,” Fortrakt said as he turned away from her, perhaps trying to spare her further embarrassment. “Let’s just head back to the barracks and report this to Giraldi. I’ll tell him what happened. Hopefully he’ll understand, and then we can get these damned dress uniforms off and get some sleep, okay?”

“Right,” Gilda nodded, though she found her eyes drawn once more towards the direction where the humans had run off.

But her attention was quickly diverted as Fortrakt snapped his claws together repeatedly, producing a sharp sound that got her attention. “Just let him go, Gilda. That human won’t bother you again. You scared the droppings out of him and I’m sure he’s going to do his best to avoid you from now on. It won’t happen again, so just forget about him, okay?” he asked, his wings flared for flight in case she didn’t, and he had to chase after her.

Gilda sighed and nodded, feeling her remaining anger start to ebb. Then, to her own surprise, she chuckled. “Look at you, Gladio. You snare an eagless for a Round and then you go acting all mature? You’re either bucking for promotion, or had too much drink earlier.”

“Well, drink or no, someone has to be the adult here, Decanus.” Fortrakt replied with a slightly forced smirk, no longer acting even slightly inebriated. “Excuse me if I’m just trying to keep my superior from doing something we’ll both regret!”

She exhaled sharply, feeling a strong sense of chagrin for the first time at having to be saved from herself by an underling. “And to think, the only thing it took for you to grow a sack was to get a yes from a Talon,” Gilda declared as she walked towards their destination, worried she wouldn’t have her rank for much longer—three years of work had just gone to the crows over one grabby, culturally ignorant ape. “You’ve grown up, cub. Really grown up.”

Fortrakt uttered a sound; a mix of disbelief and sputtering before he finally found his voice. “Oh, piss off on the flattery, Miss ‘Assault-The-Alien-Guest’,” he replied somewhat tersely as he followed her steps, though he continued to keep carefully between her and the direction the humans had fled. “I probably just lost her—why would a Talon associate with some low-ranked Guard soldier who was implicated in an attack on diplomatic visitors?” he groused, and she fell silent, worried he was probably right.

“You know, they’ll either bust us both back to Spear, or maybe even throw us out of the Guard and into the mines for this. And just for that, I’ll pray to the Ancestors that you’re going to be stuck with that brown-skinned human, one way or another!” Despite his worry—which she now shared—he found his sense of humor again.

Gilda smirked. “Hah! Like that will ever happen,” she retorted to steady her own still-raw nerves. Me, hang out with that ignorant and offensive human? I’d sooner reconcile with RAINBOW DASH!

4: Promotion or Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes were gleaming and Gilda couldn’t blame him—the new armor pieces before him included a metallic shoulder plate and another pauldron, still leather but bearing an insignia of a spear crossed with a single feather. They indicated he was jumping two full ranks, skipping over Decanus all the way to Second Spear, making him ranking enlisted of the Turma.

On Gilda’s side, by contrast, was a pair of new metallic pauldrons and foreleg vambraces to replace her leather ones, an improved leather vest that would be difficult but not impossible for blades or bolts to penetrate… and a thin metal chain made of iron links.

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

“Stand proud, soldiers of the Kingdom.” Tribune Narada, behind her table, declared. Both Gilda and Fortrakt immediately stood to attention as two pairs of griffons, one on each of the Tribune’s sides, grabbed the armor pieces with their beaks and presented them to the two newly promoted soldiers—it was a very old and perhaps unnecessary tradition, but it had never been abandoned by the tradition-worshiping Kingdom.

“For superb service to your Queen, to the Guard, and to your Century, this armor is well-earned. Accept them and your new ranks with honor!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She snapped her beak in annoyance when the soldier presenting the vest came forward to help her, making him wisely back away as she finally donned the new leather chest protection without assistance. After that, she swapped out her leather shoulder pauldrons with their metal replacements, which bore the insignia of a single talon. However, she would not touch the chain.

“Is there something wrong, young Behertz? I would have thought you would be delighted for that item to be included,” Strenus asked.

To Gilda, his tone and expression were more curious than scolding. “I appreciate the promotion, but I do not believe I will need a Command Chain for this assignment, Ambassador,” she replied carefully.

Giraldi snorted, though only for a second before Narada gave him a look, while Strenus just smiled. “Do you honestly feel that way, or are you afraid of shouldering the additional authority that comes along with this Chain?” he asked, continuing when Gilda didn’t answer.

“Your new assignment will have you responsible for the safety of our guests. The Command Chain will assist you in that. That it is made of simple iron indicates you act with diplomatic authority. An authority you may very well need.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were at least honest in their business dealings, even if their rates were steep. In contrast, the Kingdom had good reason to distrust some of their other neighbors. They were in an ongoing cold war with the Ibexian Ascendency to the east; a longstanding rivalry that was marked by yearly skirmishes over the Pearl Mountains that marked their border, and had occasionally erupted into outright warfare over the centuries.

The Kingdom had likewise once fought a war with a dragon clan they had previously allied with during the invasion of Equestria, and then kept all dragons at wing’s length even after defeating them—a preference that was fairly easy to enforce given the dragon lands were almost half the world away.

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

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

All that left of their neighbors were the avian Harpies, who were little more than clan-based brigands who raided unprotected shipping and were almost impossible to pin down. So all in all, Gilda somewhat grudgingly admitted, the Kingdom could use a few new allies, and she was increasingly coming to think that the new arrivals did have something to offer.

Add the fact that these arrivals were also a newly discovered species from an entirely different world wielding very exotic technology, and it was understandable why the third level looked as busy as it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Gilda asked, somewhat shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robbie? Gilda thought, looking at Reyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, buddy. It was too good an opportunity to pass up,” an unrepentant and still grinning Reyes said as Gilda could only blink at the unexpected use of an Aeric phrase. “Nicely done, Decurion.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5: Clashes of Culture

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Gilda yawned, scratching her chest as she finished packing her rucksack with her few possessions, preparing to move out of the barracks. Her headache, which began that morning, was persisting, and the latest developments were not helping.

When they reported back to Tribune Narada after their first day in the company of the humans, she informed Gilda and Fortrakt that they would be moving into the Winged Hall Inn to stay with their new charges. Ambassador Strenus had advised her that his human counterpart had found some free rooms where the two griffons could stay, and they “were invited” to avail themselves of the offer.

It wasn’t technically an order, but coming from Narada’s beak made it so.

The Tribune was also quite busy, swamped with written complaints in regard to her announcement forbidding any fighting with humans earlier that day. So, she told Gilda that whatever she and Fortrakt had to report, they could put it in writing and submit it to her tomorrow.

The parchment sheet lying in front of Gilda remained blank. It was not because she was lacking on any material to write about—quite the contrary, she reflected somewhat ruefully. It was just the first day; they’d had nothing more than an introduction, meet and greet followed by some food and a human movie. And yet, she had already learned a great deal about humanity from both.

Certainly, their food preparation was interesting enough—though she’d never admit it to Fortrakt, their ‘bacon’ treatment of slim strips of flying boar was surprisingly tasty for being pan-fried and slightly salted, as were the eggs for having been fried in the rendered boar fat after—and they’d been promised more examples of human fare later. That they called themselves apex predators without being able to eat raw meat seemed incongruous at best, but at least she could say that they were definitely carnivores and had learned to work around the restriction.

Though odd, their education of humanity had only truly begun in earnest with the movie Marco had shown them, once they’d cleaned up breakfast. It was simply called Warrior, which was undoubtedly a title that would entice any griffon. But it was in fact a human film that centered around the lives of two estranged human brothers. It was an eye-opener on many levels, not just for the story, but for how they were able to watch it.

The box with the lens was what she could only describe as a very advanced projector, but instead of using film, it was connected to that light-blue rectangular human machine. Marco had tinkered with it a bit, unfolding it while Fortrakt watched over his shoulder from a hover. The Second Spear had an awestruck expression as Marco explained to him in slightly nonsensical terms what he was doing, which if memory served Gilda correctly, never left the young tiercel’s face for the entire day.

When asked later, her partner could only describe the machine as some sort of ‘magical window’. Marco had also connected black boxes to it, which he explained were speakers; something Gilda had not expected to see in such small sizes.

Curtains were drawn before the movie played, projected directly against a smooth white wall, which they removed the mounted pictures from to provide a uniform background. As for the movie itself, Gilda’s first impression was that it was… clear. Very clear. She’d normally have expected some sort of fuzziness around the sides of the film; maybe some black spots or general graininess. And considering how small the speakers were, she was also surprised by how smooth and sharp the sound was.

The film itself showed a fair amount of the human world called ‘Earth’, or at least the nation from which most of the humans hailed. It also showed a window into human social and family interactions, delving into a bit of their culture. Once she’d gotten over her surprise at how crisp the projection was, Gilda could barely believe the images she saw, most notably the glittering waterfront city that figured prominently in the story’s climax. It consisted of a long sandy beach fronted by towering buildings made of stone, glass, and many multicolored lights.

The movie itself had taken nearly half an hour more than its actual running time to play. The reason was that it had taken her and Fortrakt a while to comprehend everything they saw, much of which required some explanation. More than once the movie was ‘paused’; the picture freezing in mid-motion while the three humans answered a question or explained some aspect of the film their griffon viewers found confusing.

To begin with, their society had ‘cars’, which were personal chariots of some kind; self-propelled machines she could only describe as miniaturized locomotives. When she’d been unimpressed by what she was told was their typical speeds or amount of cargo, which seemed to travel somewhat slower and haul far less than a griffon air coach could, she was informed that they were just vehicles for individual transport—that there were other, far larger and more specialized ones for hauling families or even what amounted to a mobile dwelling.

“Do humans travel by air?” Fortrakt had then asked, and was quickly assured that they did, through ‘airplanes’ that ranged from small to giant and could travel at speeds far in excess of even the fastest sky griffons, or the military airships the Kingdom’s Navy used. Unfortunately, such vehicles were never shown, and the only information she was able to glean on that front was that dirigible airships existed in their world but were not widely used.

But how, then, did they keep control of the air in war or give support to surface units without airships? Or was the air simply not a battlefield to them, given their wingless forms?

She didn’t press the question, for fear of prolonging the too-frequent pauses and potentially giving away that they were trying to get information from their hosts. Deciding there would be plenty of time to explore the subject more later, she focused more on what she saw of human society instead. The movie demonstrated that human culture could be at least roughly described as a vague cross between griffon and pony societies, with most of their members taking after the far more peaceful and social ponies while also having some number of specialized warriors like the griffons.

They were clearly not all taught fighting as griffons would be, but learning it seemed to be a personal choice.

Most of the humans in the film spoke Equish, which humans actually called ‘English’. Gilda found it particularly odd that the two languages were arguably identical, with the exception of a few expressions. Most, but not all, she reminded herself—at least once, she thought she heard a language she identified as some form of Sponyish, which had been spoken by mules and burros who hailed from Mexicolt.

She found that strangely disquieting—that they spoke one language from Tellus was odd enough, but now two? Does some part of human society speak the griffon tongue as well? she couldn’t help but wonder with a glance at their human hosts, suddenly worried it wasn’t safe to speak Aeric around them.

Still, she couldn’t deny that the movie had held her interest well; the pauses for explanation becoming far less frequent towards the end as they watched the surprisingly compelling story unfold. It culminated in a series of very physical and even brutal duels as the two human brothers inevitably collided in single combat, meeting in the championship bout of a fighting tournament as the story reached its emotional end.

There were at least a few scenes that gave her some insight on how humans waged war. One of the brothers was a former Marine, and the movie did show a glimpse of what looked like human soldiers taking cover from a spray of incendiary bolts fired from repeating crossbows, accompanied by a water rescue involving a metallic vehicle that looked like some exotic and highly advanced variant of a Minotaurian tank.

To her disappointment, there was not much to see of actual warfighting; just what looked like an army encampment in a desert where exclusively male soldiers were housed—which, despite speaking the same language, was a complete reversal from how the female-dominant ponies did things.

The military aspect was actually secondary to the primary story, but given the primary story’s theme, she concluded that Fortrakt was correct in his assessment: humans did seem to specialize in close-quarters combat.

Gilda’s mind went back to the very stylized bouts and “Mixed Martial Arts” fighting tournament the movie had centered on, ending with the climactic battle between the two brothers; each determined to win the tournament to take home the prize money for reasons that were anything but selfish.

Their story and motivations, she noted, had been only slowly revealed over the course of the movie. The two brothers had been well-acted—not overacted, as the typical Kingdom theatre troupe would do, but realistically portrayed—and the moviemakers had taken pains to make clear that each had their own crippling character flaw and a very good reason to dislike the other.

They learned late in the film that the younger brother was a former Marine who had deserted his unit—a capital offense in the Kingdom’s military—but that he’d also done so to take care of his best friend’s mate, whose death had left her without her partner and a means to support their cubs. She’d been disposed to dislike him both for that and his seemingly uncaring attitude to everyone around him, only to later learn that everything he did was to help his former comrade’s family.

In contrast, the older brother had seen fit to lie to his mate about their financial situation and what he was doing during the evenings after his teaching job—humans apparently used large and well-lit classrooms populated by several dozen students, she noted in passing—fighting in what Gilda gathered were some very shady matches for money.

But he, too, was doing what he thought he had to in order to provide for his family, and though she didn’t appreciate his willingness to lie about it or his wife’s initial refusal to accept that he was fighting—what griffon would ever mind a mate who fought well?—she granted that he, too, was trying to act honorably in the end, and had eventually won her over.

She’d also be lying if she hadn’t related to the two brothers’ severely strained relationship with their father, feeling an echo of her own innumerable issues with her sire within them. Much like hers, their father demanded perfection and didn’t take well to any perceived failings among his multiple offspring, but unlike hers, he was at least trying to make amends for what she gathered was a past involving too much drink, taking it upon himself to train the younger son personally.

And yet, though the dynamic between them was certainly interesting, what fascinated her most of all were their bipedal fighting styles. It seemed to center on shallow kicks, blunt force foreleg strikes, and some surprisingly well-developed grappling arts. The younger brother rarely had to resort to the latter—he had been an incredibly instinctive fighter who was just sheer speed and raw fury; so wickedly fast he could floor you in one blow and who initially advanced through the tournament bouts with ease.

The older brother, however, was a far less gifted but more… nuanced fighter who lacked the raw speed and striking power of his younger sibling, but he made up for it with pure toughness and relentlessness as well as some excellent takedown techniques. He simply refused to back down even in the face of what seemed a vastly superior opponent; he could take massive amounts of abuse while waiting for an opening to apply a visibly painful submission hold that could break a limb or worse. More than once, he turned a bout he’d been losing badly on its head in a matter of seconds, converting certain defeat into stunning victory.

She found herself rooting for him hard as he faced arguably the most dangerous fighter short of his younger brother, perhaps because his monstrous opponent spoke Ibexian. That was something guaranteed to raise the hackles of any griffon, given the Kingdom’s longstanding rivalry with the aggressive goat-like race on the other side of the Pearl Mountains.

Wait—that meant there were now at least three Tellusian tongues that humans actually spoke!

While the younger brother usually walked away unscathed from his matches, the older one ended up increasingly bruised and battered, yet always unbowed. And at the end, when the two finally faced off for the championship, each needing the prize money as badly as the other…

They hadn’t held back at all. In fact, they’d gone at each other with their proverbial claws out, taking out a lifetime of abuse and betrayal, both real and imagined, on the other. She cringed when she remembered a particularly notable scene where the younger brother received a dislocated shoulder halfway through the final bout. But then she watched in disbelief as he simply wouldn’t give up, refusing to surrender despite the pleas of his older sibling; fighting on despite his visible pain with his unwounded arm alone.

She couldn’t help but grimace at the memory. As it would cripple their flight muscles, and thus their all-important wings, most griffons wouldn’t even be able to stand up on all fours with such an injury, let alone on just two legs to continue fighting. And yet the grounded, wingless humans showed that they could.

If she had to guess, it was most likely due to their bipedal nature and the way they expertly coordinated their bodies in combat, used to balancing on two legs as they were. Gryphons could stand upright for short periods by flaring their wings for stability, but without their use, they were badly unbalanced and could be knocked over quite easily.

They moved with an agility I’ve rarely seen, Gilda thought as she finished packing, reviewing the events of the movie in her head. And it wasn’t just the movie, either. Reyes’ finger coordination, the way they twist their bodies in subtle motions... She recalled the former twirling an item artfully around his blunt talons, or just being able to snag the small object right out of the air when it was tossed to him.

Gilda swiped the air with her right set of talons, trying to remember how the humans used their arms to jab or swing their enclosed fists forward against their enemies. They’d also fought with padded gloves, not too dissimilar from what griffon cubs used when playing with pony foals. The only possible reason to do that would be for safety—because their bare fists were far more dangerous to each other; their visibly hard and protruding knuckles hitting with the potential impact of a thrown brick. It was then the words of Ambassador Strenus came back to her:

They are not the biggest or strongest beings on their planet. Nor do they have any sort of natural weapons or magic. Yet they number in the billions!

Gilda found herself nodding slowly at the statement. Because they have constant practice. When properly trained, their bodies are very injury-resistant and quite flexible. While they don’t have real teeth or talons, they have rock-hard areas like their fists, elbows, and knees. They can even launch powerful kicks with their hind paws, which have long reach and can do real damage to an unwary opponent.

And yet, the extent of their fighting abilities didn’t end there. Even without their striking surfaces, they can just wrap their limbs around you and use the leverage of their well-balanced bodies to put you in painful holds and locks, Gilda recognized, unconsciously tapping her throat as she remembered some of the human fighters going for chokeholds, attempting to cut off the flow of blood to their rival’s brains.

All in all, it presented a slightly unsettling picture to her, and even allowing for movie-making hyperbole, she concluded that maybe the humans weren’t as weak as they looked.

All of which was lost on Fortrakt. Once the movie was done, he’d had no end of additional questions, completely giddy over what he had seen. Aside from asking about their ‘MMA’ and if the fight depictions were accurate—he’d been delighted to be told they generally were—he’d been the most curious about the stylized skin art they saw on many of the fighters, wondering aloud if they were some kind of “human cutie mark earned by victories in battle?”

The humans had laughed at that, explaining that they were in fact “tattoos”—special inks injected under the skin by trained artists with an endless series of tiny needle pricks.

“Injected? Needles?” The thought made Fortrakt visibly cringe, and Gilda wasn’t much better. She’d had some blood taken when she enlisted, in case they needed to externally generate replacement blood or organs following severe battle wounds. It had been a brief procedure but had hurt badly, and she couldn’t imagine willingly letting somecreature do that to you. “But doesn’t that… hurt?” he further asked; she well imagined Fortrakt was remembering the same thing.

“Oh, yes. It hurts like hell when you’re getting it,” Tara confirmed somewhat ruefully, and then pulled back the top of her garment to reveal a previously hidden tattoo on her left shoulder.

It took the form of a stylized flower; Gilda had the thought that even if it wasn’t a cutie mark, it could have passed for one on a pony hip. “This one took two hours to do, and believe me, that was enough—it feels like a burning knife and you have to hold still despite the pain. I was only able to make it through by listening to music the whole time,” she recalled with a grimace. “And before you ask, the skin is itchy and irritated afterwards, but that subsides after a few days.”

“So... two hours of pain to get a single tattoo?” Fortrakt paraphrased dubiously.

“Only for one this small,” she chuckled. “These things are basically works of art, and the larger or more intricate they are, the more time you need. Those bigger and more complicated ones in the movie can take several sessions of four or five hours, done over a period of several months. They’re not cheap, either—at least, the good tattoo artists aren’t. But once a tattoo is there, it’s pretty much permanent, though it does get a bit fuzzy around the edges. Honestly, I need to get this one touched up.”

She then sat with her back facing Fortrakt and invited him to touch it, so he could see it didn’t feel any different than her regular skin. He stammered and blushed hard, looking to Gilda for help; she responded with a smirk, enjoying his discomfort.

With some difficulty, he reminded Tara she was instructing him to touch what for a griffon was a very intimate area.

She giggled at his stammered explanation, as did Marco and Chris. “It’s not the same for us. It’s okay, really. Go on and give it a try.”

“Dude, she’s letting you touch her!” Marco teased him with a grin, giving him an affectionate tap on the chest safely below the neck—he’d learned his lessons about where not to touch griffons, at least. “We should be so lucky!”

“Uh… okay?” With a second glance at Gilda, whose smirk deepened but gave him a nod of assent—who was she to deny him a thrill?—he reached up somewhat tentatively to brush the blunt backs of his talon tips over the tattooed area, to the cheers and a high-hoof exchanged between Marco and Chris.

Though flustered, Fortrakt didn’t remove his digits when she didn’t jerk away. “Wow—it really doesn’t feel any different! And your skin is so soft…” he further realized, placing more of his digits against the area to touch it further before catching himself and drawing back quickly with a fierce blush, to more teasing.

Afterwards, Marco had informed them that if they liked that movie, he had literally hundreds more they could watch. He’d then invited a giddy Fortrakt—and by extension, Gilda herself—to come back to see some of them, promising they had an endless array of movie themes that ranged from the same sappy romance she so disdained among ponies to outright action and fantasy films.

Though she wasn’t as eager to accept the offer as Fortrakt, who she wondered if even remembered what they were supposed to be doing, she recognized the potential benefits of taking the invitation. As much as her junior partner was enjoying their time with his new human friends, she couldn’t deny their utility to their intelligence-gathering mission as her mind went back towards the first film.

If just one had granted them a veritable fount of information in regard to human society, how much additional insight could they gain by viewing more of them?

She gave a low, annoyed trill while she rubbed her eyes with a set of talons, feeling forced by her own sense of duty into spending more time in the presence of Marco and the other humans. The latter she didn’t find too objectionable, but unfairly or not, she still associated them with the former.

And the former she still had severe issues with, even given the sorely needed chance by the surprisingly understanding Marine Sergeant for some payback. I can’t make this decision over Marco! she told herself with her thoughts for what seemed like the hundredth time, trying to still her twitching wings and lashing tail.

But then again, did she even need to? For how valid a window into human life would those ‘fighting and fantasy’ movies be? Equestrian cinema tended to show exaggerated and/or idealized versions of pony society; never mind their dweeby romance films that were invariably some variation of a powerful mare swooping in to save an endangered stallion, winning his affection and loyalty for life. But such stories were pure fantasy and not reality; she and Rainbow had seen a few over the years and had a very good time mocking them.

Rainbow… her thoughts went back to her former friend again, wondering what she was doing these days—other than performing for human and Tellusian audiences alike, that was. To her great disgust—and if she was being honest with herself, a measure of envy—Gilda had learned that Rainbow Dash had gained a measure of fame for not only performing the Sonic Rainboom, but for being one of the first ponies to cross over to Earth.

In fact, for being one of the first ponies they’d ever seen, she was now known on sight to humans—attention Gilda was sure Rainbow was only too happy to have. And thus, Gilda had been very careful not to tell anygriffon—or now anyhuman—that she had been friends with her, not wanting to draw attention to herself or be bombarded with painful questions about how she knew her.

But the hits just kept coming. For Gilda had also learned Rainbow Dash had fulfilled her foalhood dream to join the Wonderbolts, given her face was plastered all over the advertising posters when they came on a goodwill tour of the Kingdom.

It was crow-damningly hard for Gilda to forget about her when she saw a full-color picture of her on every street corner.

In truth, maybe even that wouldn’t have been so galling to her but for the fact that her own dream of joining the Wind Knights remained unfulfilled, while the ex-friend who had unceremoniously and unfairly dumped her had realized all her heart’s desires.

There’s no justice… she thought for the millionth time since learning the news, suddenly wondering if the way she felt about Rainbow was the same way the two human brothers looked upon each other; each believing the other had wronged them.

It stung, but at least it didn’t provoke the sheer rage in her it used to; just a dull ache deep in the pit of her stomach.

No, the only rage she felt now was over Marco, leaving her wondering what it would take to fully relieve it. All of which brought her back to the question of how she was going to deal with him, and whether to take the invitation to watch more human cinema if it also meant being around the brown-skinned human more.

Her wings twitched and her talons curled, digging into the floorboards as she recalled his hand resting on her flight muscles again. She knew he didn’t mean anything sexual by it, but she couldn’t help it. Her blood still pumped hard when she pictured him; she still had a strong urge to stalk him.

To pay him back for taking such an intimate and uninvited sensual liberty with her, even unknowingly.

She exhaled sharply, trying to restrain her surging temper again. It was so strange—she had never had someone get under her feathers so deeply or quickly. Not even the crow-begotten pink pony mare, who Gilda held responsible for breaking up her friendship with Rainbow all those years ago, had raised her hackles this much.

She didn’t want to see him again, for whenever she did, all she could see or feel was his hand on her flight muscles. Even without him present, she still felt a ghost of the sensation. She couldn’t seem to shake it, and she admitted she was afraid of what she might do to him if they were alone, and neither Fortrakt nor anygryphon else was there to stop her.

“You’re a soldier of the Kingdom. So by all your Ancestors, stop acting like a crow-damned dweeb, Gilda…” she ordered herself under her breath, willing her wings and tail to still. She was an adult and a military officer now, not some stupid tiercel teen who couldn’t control his emotions. She still didn’t want to take the offer, but a more rational part of her realized that ignoring it was not only stupid, but outright treasonous for throwing away such an easy opportunity to learn.

Needing a distraction, she looked back at her blank and waiting page of parchment, beginning to gather her thoughts. There were so many things to write about, and whether she wanted them or not, there were far more days with the humans to come.

“Crows take it…” Deciding the night wasn’t getting any younger and her nerves weren’t getting any less raw, Gilda closed her eyes for a moment before she grabbed a quill, dipped it in ink, and began to write.

“Duty comes first. I’ll figure out how to deal with you later, Marco Lakan...”

The next day, Fortrakt and Gilda were guided to their new rooms at the Winged Hall Inn by Sergeant Reyes, unconnected with the human quarters but in the same general area and level.

Though far more modest than the dwellings that the humans had received, they were considerably more comfortable than her bare barracks quarters. Gilda now had a room with an actual bed, a bigger closet, and her own bathroom with a tub and shower.

Though she would have appreciated the chance to soak in it for an hour and preen—a luxury she definitely didn’t have back at the barracks—the two griffons didn’t have much time to unpack or enjoy their new amenities as the trio of humans were scheduled to examine the farmlands and fields outside Arnau.

Somewhat surprisingly, the three civilians weren’t just diplomatic baggage, as she’d sometimes heard other griffons refer to nobles or other elites that glommed on to diplomatic missions for mere visibility. They were there because they had an actual job to do, explaining that they were tasked with analyzing griffon mines and farmlands to see what opportunities existed in the area for human agriculture, mineral collection, and trade.

Meeting them outside the Winged Hall Inn, Fortrakt and Gilda began to guide them towards the Southern Gate, though Gilda made sure to keep on the side of them away from Marco. Tara had brought along some metallic tools and a blank booklet made of white human paper as well as a strange writing tool; the latter two she called a ‘notepad’ and a ‘pencil’, respectively. But Chris simply had one of those magic windows he called a ‘tablet’.

Marco, though, looked like he was ready for battle. He brought a small pack that strapped around his shoulders and made soft clinking sounds every time he moved. Around his waist was a belt that held a lot of familiar tools, but miniaturized and optimized for human paws—er, hands, Gilda corrected her own thought, wondering if humans also had a separate name for their digits. If not talons, what were they?

His arsenal included a shovel, a hammer, and what looked like some sort of pickaxe. The two males wound up sticking together—Marco explained that he’d be at the fields collecting soil samples while Chris talked to the steadholders and Caleponian farmers there, to determine what crops grew best in the sandy soil. Tara, on the other wing, wanted to go to places with higher ground.

Gilda had Fortrakt stay with the two males to keep herself away from Marco, though she somewhat reluctantly agreed that they’d change shifts every hour to give them time to be with both. She couldn’t help but note that though he definitely wanted to be around Marco more, Fortrakt also seemed excited at the idea of being alone with Tara later.

She couldn’t help but wonder if he was taking a more personal interest in her after being allowed to touch her the previous day. But it was a question for later, and perhaps something she could tease him about when she was in a better mood. Just glad to be away from Marco for a while, the still-annoyed eagless spent the better part of that hour helping Tara move herself and her tools to the tops of hills and rock formations.

The human eagless—woman, she corrected herself, finding that an odd term for a female—was absolutely specific on where she wanted to work and had a perfectionist attitude; one that reminded Gilda very much of her sire. Fortunately, she wasn’t anywhere near as overbearing, and she also didn’t dismiss Gilda’s efforts out of wing when they weren’t immediately to her satisfaction.

In fact, the normally talkative human female turned unusually quiet as she worked with her tools. The only time she spoke was when she’d recite numbers out loud, writing them down on the notebook. Gilda assumed they were some form of measurements but didn’t ask.

And then abruptly, she started and looked up. “Oh, God!” Tara suddenly declared, making Gilda snap back to alertness as well.

“What’s wrong?” Gilda asked, scanning the area for danger but not seeing any. She wasn’t sure what to make of the exclamation—an invocation to a God? What God? What was human religion even like? There had been some odd but prominently placed symbols in the movie she’d ignored, as well as a reference to what sounded like divine figures she didn’t recognize. But not wanting to prolong the conversation, she hadn’t asked about them.

“I’m so sorry,” Tara apologized, then explained at Gilda’s questioning look. “I’m sorry if I’ve been rude. I didn’t mean to ignore you, I swear.”

Gilda relaxed—of the three human civilians, Tara was the easiest for her to be around, at least, either because she was female or because she seemed the most sensible and stable of the three. “You were busy. I understand.”

“Really? That’s a relief. I swear, I’m not snubbing you or anything, I just tend to stay really quiet when I’m working.”

Gilda nodded. “I don’t begrudge you for being a hard worker. I respect that a lot, actually, since I’ve had to work really hard myself.”

“It doesn’t always get you what you want, though,” she noted, somewhat ruefully. “So has it gotten you to where you want to be?”

“Not yet,” Gilda admitted, her tone turning subdued. “I want to make the Wind Knights—they’re our most elite sky gryphon soldiers, similar to what I gather your Marines are. I can’t do it right away, but I’m patient and willing to work for it. Which believe me, I wasn’t always.”

“Soldier, huh?” Tara mused. “It’s a career I can’t imagine choosing. I’m just not cut out for it—most humans aren’t, really. So, what’s it like to be in the military?” she wanted to know.

Gilda gave her a curious look. “Why do you ask?”

Tara adjusted her tool again; a three-legged metallic construct with what looked like a pony spyglass on top. “Well, it’s a little silly, but I just don’t understand the appeal of it. Chris told me he had wanted to enlist in the Army when he was a kid, though he eventually decided on being a scientist instead. Then we have Marco who was quick to befriend the Marines with us, so I...”

Tara fell quiet again, once more absorbed in her work as she examined a rock through her spyglass. Gilda found it funny how she just lost her chain of thought like that, but she remained quiet as the human female worked. She even found herself thinking back on Tara’s words, only belatedly realizing she may have given out unnecessary information in regards to the Kingdom’s military.

But before she could worry about it further, she spotted a figure taking flight in the distance. A sharp trill then cut through the breeze, which she instantly recognized as coming from Fortrakt.

Time to change shifts already? Damn. She grimaced, knowing she was now going to have to hang around Marco again. Fine. Let’s just get this over with…

“Tara,” Gilda called.

“Hmmm?” was Tara’s reply.

“Fortrakt and I will be changing shifts. Please stay until he arrives, alright?”

Tara nodded and went back to look through the spyglass. “No worries. I’ll be here,” she replied, writing something down in her notebook once more.

With a strong beat of her large brown wings, Gilda took flight, meeting Fortrakt halfway. “I left them over at the western fields,” the tiercel declared once she was in hearing range.

“Marco’s got a lot of glass vials and is taking samples of everything. Chris was talking to the steadholders and some of the Caleponians, using his magic tablet to record them,” he related. “Did you know that those tablets can also take pictures? Humans have got some really neat stuff!”

“Maybe you can ask your new best friend to teach you how to use them,” Gilda replied dryly, then pointed towards the southeast area she’d just left. “Tara’s over there, near the small creek. I’m not sure what she’s doing, but she’s got some sort of spyglass.”

Fortrakt blinked, his raptor eyes staring off in the direction that Gilda was pointing. “Yes, I see her. And you know what? Maybe I will ask him how their stuff works!” With those words, he took off towards Tara, leaving Gilda to shake her head as she followed her partner’s directions and moved towards where Chris and Marco were, though not in as much of a hurry as Fortrakt was.

Gilda sighed as her thoughts went to Marco yet again. She knew she was going to have to confront the brown-skinned human at least one more time before she could clear whatever anger she still harbored for him, or all their encounters were going to be as uncomfortable as this one. But as now was not the time, she carefully checked her emotions, reminding herself again that he had acted in ignorance.

Despite her deep-seated feelings, she found it increasingly silly that she was holding onto a grudge for so long. It was, after all, quite clear by then that Marco had meant nothing untoward by his touch; his mortified reaction to having it explained confirming it. She also thought back on how amicable he was to her yesterday, and how he had been the first to extend his human paw in friendship towards her.

But she’d slapped it away, unwilling to forgive and forget so easily—maybe in that sense, she really wasn’t any different than the two brothers of the movie, who were both unable to see or accept things from the other’s point of view until the very end.

It was then Fortrakt’s words came back to her, and she felt a measure of admonishment. When all was said and done, she really was acting like a stupid cub. The human male was trying to be friendly and make amends to her. So maybe it was time to sheathe her claws?

Her entire train of thought vanished when she spotted Chris, a bit far off, running at his rather meager top speed through the fields. Thinking that was strange, her eagle eyes saw the very clear panicked expression he had. Sensing something was wrong, she took a series of strong, broad strokes, racing towards him through the air.

As she came into range, she folded her feathered limbs to her sides, making her dive down fast and hard in a move she’d learned from her time with Rainbow. Flaring her wings at the last second to arrest her descent, she landed before him and skidded to a stop. Her sudden appearance made the red-haired human recoil in fear for a moment, at least until she spoke.

“Chris? What’s wrong? What happened?” Gilda asked.

“Decurion!” he exclaimed through panting gasps, bending over to put his hands on his knees. Catching his breath, he then pointed behind him, speaking in clipped tones. “Marco! In trouble! Help him!”

“Crows,” Gilda cursed with a leonine hiss as she flapped her wings upwards, creating a small dust cloud in her wake. In the air again, her eyes scanned forward, trying to see what the stupid brown ape had gotten himself into this time. “Follow me!” she directed, taking flight again—she didn’t like leaving Chris alone, but it sounded like Marco was in immediate danger.

She confirmed it quickly. After a few seconds of flight, she saw the brown-skinned human surrounded by two younger griffons, who encircled him in a predatory pincer movement designed to take down grounded and cornered prey. Though it was two against one, they seemed strangely wary, and it was only then that she noticed Marco was holding some sort of dark metallic stick.

As she closed the distance, he kept shifting his legs just like the fighters in the movie. His head moved back and forth as he slowly backed away, trying to keep the two griffons encircling him in sight; she could see a glitter of sweat on his arms and forehead. And was it the sun, or was he bleeding?

It was then she realized—he’s FIGHTING them?

Beating her wings harder to increase her speed, she rocketed herself towards the endangered ape, trying to reach him quickly, but she was too far away to prevent one of the griffons from finally attacking him. The tiercel of the pair leapt at him with a slash of his talons, leaving Gilda certain it would result in the human being wounded or worse. But to her surprise, he dodged the swipe and brought his arm holding the stick upwards, hitting the male griffon hard on the head.

The force of his blow was surprisingly strong, judging by the way the tiercel recoiled and stumbled hard, but then the human made a mistake—as he raised his rod high to deliver a final blow, his eyes were on the stunned and stumbling earth griffon, not on the tensing sky griffon eagless sneaking in behind him.

Gilda’s guts clenched as she pounced on and pinned Marco down, face first in the dirt as she knocked the metal stick away. Victorious, the female griffon then grasped the human’s neck with her talons from behind and ordered him to submit in Aeric, in a move that threatened to rip open his throat and called for the opponent’s submission.

Still too far away to assist, and feeling strangely frantic over the fate of the human male, relief washed over Gilda at the realization that the eagless wasn’t looking to kill him. All Marco had to do to end the attack was expose his neck to admit defeat, not unlike how the human movie fighters “tapped out”, repeatedly drumming their fleshy talons against their opponent’s body to indicate their surrender.

She’d quickly figured out that they did that to end the bout and prevent whatever lock they were in from resulting in crippling injury to a pinned limb. But he’s not a griffon! Gilda reminded herself, and her stomach suddenly felt heavy at the realization that Marco might not know the griffon signals for that.

Her growing alarm giving her extra speed, she accelerated her approach further as despite his vulnerable position, Marco continued to forcefully resist, arching his back hard to try and get the eagless off. But he didn’t have enough heft and all that accomplished was to annoy her. In response, she flared her wings for balance while raising her other set of talons, preparing another blow aimed at the back of his head.

She had no idea if he could withstand a hit like that and wasn’t about to find out. Blindsiding her, Gilda grunted as she slammed into the other eagless from the flank and bowled her over. Momentum was on her side, and the other female easily gave way; the impact leaving Gilda rattled but not shaken. The force was enough to dislodge the offending eagless off the human, eliciting a surprised feminine squawk.

The griffon was just a teenager, Gilda realized as she pinned Marco’s attacker down; no older than she’d been when she’d had that awful day in Ponyville years earlier. For a moment, Gilda thought there would be more resistance. But once the eagless’ eyes identified her captor’s armor and the diplomatic Command Chain around her neck, she immediately went limp and exposed her neck in submission. It was a wise choice given she was facing not just a soldier, but an officer; one with the added authority to order her arrest and punishment.

But before Gilda could ask her what in the name of her Ancestors she thought she was doing, a masculine tiercel shriek filled the air. It was the trilling call of a frightened cub pleading for help from his parents, and her eyes widened as she turned her head and looked behind her.

Even with the source of the cry unquestionably being a griffon, she had expected—even feared—that she would see the male griffon hurting Marco. She was sure she would see him pinned down again, fighting uselessly against his opponent.

Instead, what she beheld was Marco on top of the trembling tiercel, who was on his belly while Marco was sitting on top of his hindquarters, crouched over and reaching beneath the tiercel’s rapidly twitching tail. That was incredible enough, but what was even more shocking was the fact that the griffon was spouting apologies in Aeric, his tone one of sheer panic.

“N-No! Please! Don’t cut them off! Don’t cut them off! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Please let me go!” the tiercel begged repeatedly, tears streaming down his feathered cheeks. His feathers were ruffled and his feline tail twitched hard while he repeatedly bared his neck, desperately signaling his submission.

But Marco wasn’t giving any indication that he was accepting the griffon’s surrender. There was something quite lethal in the way the brown-skinned human looked at the downed griffon. He didn’t speak Aeric, but he seemed to understand the plea for mercy well enough as he began speaking in both Equish and another unfamiliar tongue, his tone low and quite menacing.

Sige, gumalaw ka, punyeta ka. You attacked my friend! So give me a good goddamned reason why I should let you keep them, you fucking piece of griffon shit…”

“Marco…” Gilda didn’t know what was worse—the death glare the human was giving the tiercel, or the fact that his hands were right between his hind legs, holding something. Judging from the increasingly panicked shouts and pleads, to say nothing of the griffon’s visibly shaking body, Marco was probably holding a blade or something sharp against his dangling malehood, threatening to relieve him of it and leaving the poor tiercel scared out of his mind.

Before she could think of what to do next, there was a rustle as she saw an increasing number of earth ponies and griffons appearing, apparently trying to figure out what the commotion was about. Relieved to find some backup, Gilda gave a signaling squawk, earning the immediate attention of one of the griffon Guard soldiers, who was probably assigned to watch ponies on another field.

She was another eagless; a young soldier fledgling fresh from the Gauntlet given her youth and the fact she possessed only the single pauldron on her left shoulder. When she saw Gilda, wearing an officer’s armor and a diplomatic command chain, she immediately saluted and bared her neck hard, standing to rigid attention.

“Yes, sir?” she asked hesitatingly.

“I am Decurion Grizelda Behertz. On my authority, Get the Peacekeepers here, now!” Gilda ordered.

“By your command!” She gave a ritual answer as she saluted, and then off she flew, leaving Gilda wondering again if she was ever going to get used to that, and worried that she was starting to like it. Putting the thought aside for now, she slapped the manacles from her belt on the eagless’ limbs, and then asked Marco to let the tiercel go. But he refused, not about to let the male earth griffon up despite his crying sobs and translated promises to never bother them again.

Thankfully, the Guard griffon came back quickly with a good number of Peacekeepers in tow. Her new command chain granting her the authority to direct them, Gilda immediately ordered them to detain the eagless she had cuffed and the tiercel—who was still pinned and crying freely at that point—for questioning.

It took a while with the latter, though, as Marco still refused to let him up until he was assured that Chris was safe and they wouldn’t let the tiercel go. In the end, it wasn’t until his red-haired friend came back and gently asked his fellow human to release his captive that the brown-skin human relented.

Once the two griffons were sent away—the female hobbled and the male completely broken, barely able to walk and still wracked by squawking sobs—Gilda shooed the onlookers away, and then approached the two humans, who were huddled together in a somewhat isolated area. Upon closer inspection, she spotted some fine crimson lines streaked across one of Marco’s arms from where talons had grasped him.

There was also some bruising appearing on his face and other arm not unlike she’d seen in the movie—the movie makeup artists had apparently gotten that detail right—and although Marco looked spent and subdued after his earlier eruption of anger, he at least seemed to be in control again.

Approaching them, her attention landed on the small shovel Marco was holding, if not outright clutching. He wouldn’t let go of it as Chris sat beside him, patting his shoulder and repeatedly asking his fellow human if he was okay.

Marco didn’t reply except to mutter something unintelligible in the strange tongue again, eventually saying in Equish that he was fine so long as Chris was. She then noticed that Chris was holding the same black metallic stick that Marco had been using as a weapon before he lost it.

“Okay. It’s over and done, so would you two mind telling me what happened?” Gilda asked gently. “I’m going to have to make a report about this, and I need your side of the story.”

Marco looked at her numbly for a moment but stayed silent. Noting his mood, Chris was the one that answered. “There isn’t much to say. We were taking rock and soil samples and doing nothing but minding our own business when those two griffons approached us.”

Gilda nodded. “And then?”

“Does it matter?” Marco muttered, his eyes on the ground.

Gilda looked at him sharply, pulling out a roll of parchment and quill she was using for taking notes, following it up by placing a small ink jar on the ground and uncapping it. “Yes, it does. The Peacekeepers are going to question those two griffons. I’m responsible for you, so I need to know what happened,” she said as she dipped the quill in ink and laid the parchment on a flat stone.

“What’s the point? You know Goldberg’ll spin this one against me anyway,” Marco muttered.

“No, he won’t,” Chris replied, his voice surprisingly hard, giving Marco’s shoulder a squeeze. “It wasn’t your fault, Marco. At least, not this time.”

“Like that’ll matter,” Marco answered dully.

“It will if I have anything to say about it,” Gilda spoke up, surprised to find herself standing up for the brown-skinned human. “Now please explain what happened here.”

Marco and Chris glanced at each other again before the latter spoke. “Well, they flew in and started speaking Lat—er, I mean, your language,” Chris continued dully; when Gilda looked closely, she noticed he was shaking slightly, too. “When Marco told them we didn’t understand, they said in English, ‘Fight’.”

“It was ‘You, me, fight’, actually,” Marco corrected. “Pretty rough English, really.”

“Yes, well, not every griffon is well-versed in Equestrian,” Gilda reminded them somewhat shortly.

“Really?” Chris looked up at her. “You and Fortrakt seem to speak it well.”

“That doesn’t mean we all do.” Gilda sighed, not wanting to explain that her knowledge of Equish stemmed from growing up in Equestria, or the fact that the Gletscher family was from the more temperate parts of the Northern Region. Such areas had lots of Caleponians that helped them produce enough food during the short growing season, in order to minimize importation from the Southern Region, and thus knowing Equish was more or less a necessity for him.

“It’s unimportant right now, so please—those two griffons will be questioned soon, and we’ll need to have your side of the story ready,” she implored them again, her quill poised.

Marco looked at her for a moment. Then he sighed, his gaze resigned as he gave her a short nod. “Fine, for all the good it’ll do. Like Chris said, we were just out here minding our own business when they showed up wanting a fight. We told them no and tried to make that clear. Chris said something in Latin and turned his back on them. That’s when they swarmed him.”

“Latin?” That wasn’t the first time she’d heard that word, though she hadn’t been able to figure out the context from its earlier usage.

“I said ‘Nos pugnare non vis. Exite’!” Chris explained, causing Gilda to blink hard—that was pretty rough as well, but he knew the griffon tongue? “And that’s when you went kamikaze and attacked them with this!” Chris finished, tapping the black metal stick he was holding against his open palm. “Honestly, Marco—what the hell were you thinking, using this to attack two big winged cats with beaks?”

“Dammit, dude, they came at you with their claws out! Just what the hell was I supposed to do?”

“You could have called for help! That’s what she’s here for! And since when did you start carrying a weapon?” a still-rattled Chris spoke quickly.

Marco looked at Gilda for just a second before he went back to looking at the ground. “Two days ago.”

Both Gilda and Chris looked at Marco for a moment. The former felt strangely flattered as the latter recovered first. “Okay, but still, you came at them with just a bloody baton? There were two of them! With talons! They could have fucking eviscerated you! Or just picked you up high into the air and dropped you! Did you have a death wish? I mean, of all the stupid, idiotic things you could have…”

Gilda’s eyes glazed as she listened to Chris rant on, waving his arms about, driving the point home on how he felt Marco’s actions were absolutely brainless. For his part, Marco just accepted the abuse, giving his friend a roll of his eyes and a ghost of a grin.

Blocking him out, Gilda found herself nodding as she pictured the scenario they described. If what Marco said was accurate, then it was clear enough what had happened—two young griffons in their late teens, probably young enough (like her at their age) to be both sufficiently brave and stupid to ignore the military and civilian edicts announced yesterday, had decided they’d test their alien visitors and thus came to the two humans looking for a fight.

Whether their objective was a simple thrill or hoping to make a name for themselves as the first griffons to challenge humans, they couldn’t speak Equestrian well and Marco probably made the mistake of speaking in simpler terms. ‘No fight’ was most likely misinterpreted, as was Chris’s subsequent reply in broken and barely understandable Aeric.

In fact, in some ways, the latter was even worse—by poorly dismissing them in their own tongue, the two griffons thought that Chris was not only insulting them by mangling their language, but claiming that he was too strong for them and that they weren’t worthy of fighting. Turning his back on them must have exacerbated the situation further, flaring their teenage tempers by making them think that the human was claiming that they were weak and not worth his time.

She sighed and rubbed her eyes. Just like two nights earlier, it was yet another unnecessary clash resulting from a crescendo of cultural misunderstandings, and as she wasn’t involved in it directly this time, Gilda found herself feeling a much greater measure of sympathy and appreciation of how they came about.

So maybe I can forgive Marco a little more readily now? she asked herself, only to still feel an undercurrent of anger towards him. “Okay, I can make a report about this,” Gilda suddenly declared, cutting Chris’ tirade short as she finished writing. She then rolled up the scroll and passed it to the ranking Peacekeeper, directing her to pass it up her chain of command.

“As you know, Tribune Narada just announced yesterday a new policy of disallowing any aggression between griffons and humans. While it seems this involved yet another escalating series of misunderstandings, they still started the fight. I don’t see that either of you were the aggressor here, and given that you both tried to de-escalate, if rather clumsily, the two of you will most likely be cleared of any wrongdoing.”

Chris exhaled sharply, his shoulders sagging. “Oh, thank God.”

Gilda gave him a reproachful look. “Which is not to say you didn’t provoke some of their reactions. I can see now we’re going to have to seriously educate you two on Griffon culture and body language. And Chris? If you’re going to speak Aeric, or ‘Latin’ as you call it, I’d suggest getting a lot better at it first.”

He looked chagrined. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“Trust me, it was,” Gilda informed him bluntly. “The first thing you need to know about us is that we Gryphons revere our culture, including our language, and we tend to take it personally when it’s spoken sloppily. If you like, Fortrakt and I will give you lessons in speaking it,” she then offered, to which Chris nodded slowly but remained silent.

“They spoke our language sloppily, too. Was that okay?” Marco asked, somewhat snippily.

“No, but you’re the visitors, not the hosts,” she reminded him with strained patience, biting off an initial inclination to snap back at him. “You’re also not a pair of teens with more stupidity than good sense like those two were. So do yourselves a favor and don’t speak it again until you speak it a lot better.”

“Don’t worry,” Chris mumbled. “I guess I wouldn’t be well-received in ancient Rome, either…”

Though she didn’t get the reference, Gilda then looked at Marco. She expected some sort of relieved expression to cross his face at the news they were likely to be held blameless, but it remained blank. “I have to say, you did a decent job holding them off,” she declared, scarcely able to believe she was complimenting him. But there was also no question in her mind that he deserved it, for doing what Rainbow hadn’t. “And all to defend a friend? I approve. I admit, I may have misjudged you, Marco Lakan.”

Marco looked at her, his expression still numb despite the compliment. “Yeah. Thanks,” he replied unemotionally.

Gilda could only nod, recognizing he was suffering from at least a minor amount of battle shock; she’d suffered the same after she’d been bullied into her first real duel many months earlier, which was as close to actual combat as she’d ever been. For a few seconds, the three were silent until Gilda pointed towards the shovel. “Still, I have to ask—why did you go after him with that?”

Marco blinked. He looked at where her talon was pointed before replying. “Oh. Well, uh, I lost my baton, and this was the only thing I could reach. The griffon was dazed enough that I could get in close to knock him down, then pin him by sitting on him. When I did, I kinda just reached in and… threatened to cut that griffon’s... well, sac, with it.” He grimaced as he spoke.

“With a shovel,” Gilda repeated dubiously. “And he didn’t notice?”

“Well, like I said, he was dizzy from being hit with my baton. I got him down, and then I remembered my brother sticking a spoon in my neck, tricking me to think he held a knife. Back when we were stupid kids,” Marco said with a shrug. “I just about pissed myself then, so I thought maybe it could be the same here. He couldn’t see what I was holding without twisting around, but when he started to, I dug it in deeper and froze him. That’s when he started squawking.”

“Squawking? He was sobbing!” Chris corrected. “My Latin may be rough, but he was begging you to let him keep his balls!”

“So you tricked him,” Gilda realized with a moment of genuine amusement as she wrote a second report to pass up to Tribune Narada herself. “But how could you be sure it was going to work?”

“I couldn’t. The griffon was speaking Latin, and I didn’t understand what he was saying. So how did you?” he asked Chris.

“Because I took classes on it in college. It’s a dead language in our world, as the society that originally spoke it faded out a thousand years ago. I never thought I would actually be speaking it for real one day!” Chris added in a note of disbelief. “I’m serious, though—he begged you for mercy, Marco! He really thought you were going to cut his balls off.”

“Yeah, well, I was just trying to scare the shit out of him and keep him in place. It shouldn’t have worked, but I guess I sold it well enough that it did.” He shrugged and then looked up to see Gilda staring at him.

For a moment, she said nothing, not even questioning the strange label they’d repeatedly applied to the griffon tongue, or what they meant by a ‘dead language’. The next, she was laughing. Her reaction only confused the humans further as the pair glanced at each other in bemusement, then looked back to her.

“What?” Marco asked. “Why is this funny?”

“With a shovel,” Gilda replied with a shake of her head, still snickering. “With a small, crow-begotten shovel, you made a fully grown griffon beg for mercy and cry for his mother? And it wasn’t even a war shovel! Unbelievable.”

“Okay, seriously, what?” Marco asked in a measure of annoyance.

“You know what? You’re not bad, Marco Lakan,” Gilda decided, an actual smile gracing her face in his presence for the first time. “Not bad at all. Whatever punishment he gets, that tiercel will never live this down.” She shook her head again, then turned and walked off to direct the Peacekeepers to summon a healer for Marco. “With a shovel,” she declared as she continued laughing, then finished writing her latest report.

Tara and Fortrakt arrived a few minutes later. The younger griffon was initially confused, but when he saw the wounded Marco, he insisted on bringing the humans back to the Winged Hall himself. He seemed to be taking the attack personally, later confiding to Gilda that he blamed himself for leaving them unprotected, even briefly, in his eagerness to see Tara again.

As it turned out, their wounds weren’t deep or bad enough to need a Magus Knight—"I could treat it, but it’d be a waste of magic and it might have deleterious effects for such shallow scratches,” an eagless mage said upon examining them.

But they still needed at least some treatment, which Marco got when he was checked by a human medic—whom they called a “corpsman”—back at the Inn. After being given some form of salve and a bandage to keep the injured area clean while it healed, he was then summoned to Lieutenant Nantz’s office along with Gilda to explain what had happened.

Though initially disposed to blame the affair on Marco given his “uncanny ability to attract trouble and piss people off”, the human officer had been swayed by Gilda’s backing, noting that if she of all griffons was defending him, then he really wasn’t at fault. He then promised to pass her report up his chain of command with a recommendation that there be no punishment, but he also warned Marco that Ambassador Goldberg would be unlikely to let a second incident involving him go.

Marco could only nod ruefully in response, thanking the Lieutenant—and Gilda herself—for their efforts, even if they ended up being fruitless. He then retired with Chris and Tara to their quarters, escorted back by Reyes and Fortrakt.

Only after the humans were secure in their hotel suite did Fortrakt return and finally ask Gilda for the full story of what had happened.

So Gilda explained.

By the time she was finished, Fortrakt laughed even harder than she did.

6: Hall of Heroes

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Gilda was starting to wonder if becoming an officer had already irrevocably changed her, or if her new command chain was somehow enchanted to make her less impulsive and more mature.

As she faced the griffon and human Ambassadors in the latter’s office at the Inn, she found herself standing up for Marco repeatedly, even emphatically. This, despite her earlier dislike of him and her own lingering desires to settle things with him, which increasingly were less about stalking him and slashing his face than sitting him down and making clear she was still not happy with him.

Even after his occasionally clumsy attempts to make amends, and his honorable attempt to defend his friend, she still didn’t fully like or trust him. But nor could she just stand by and let him be slandered by the obviously biased human Ambassador, who had called her in after he and Strenus had interviewed Marco and Chris separately in the presence of Lieutenant Nantz.

That, at least, she could justify to herself. She’d already had that happen to her once before, when Rainbow refused to stand up for her after she’d gotten mad for being made the butt of an endless series of pranks. Remembering the sting of it, she had vowed to be better about such things if the time ever came, and she found herself on the other side of it.

She just never thought it would be over an alien ape whom she still had severe issues with.

But in the end, she couldn’t help it. Though her sense of gryphon honor might have been a bit stunted from her upbringing in Equestria, she refused to let the brown-skinned human be held responsible for something that was not his fault—especially when he’d only been defending a friend.

So she gently brushed aside all of Goldberg’s probes and thinly veiled suggestions that she recommend Marco be shipped back through the portal, on the grounds that he was “endangering the amicability of their ongoing trade negotiations” through his “unfortunate habit of regrettable incidents with civilian and soldier populations alike.”

Though increasingly annoyed by his needlessly wordy and transparently dweeby attempts to sway her, she stood fast and kept her voice level, keeping her irritation confined to an occasional tail flick as she continued to insist there was no valid reason to expel him, regardless of whatever issues she’d had with him previously.

In truth, she was impressed with herself for her steadfastness in the face of such pressure, knowing that she’d likely have lost her temper over it just a year or two earlier. She wasn’t sure if it was more adulthood or the command chain she now bore that had mellowed her, but either way…

Or maybe I’m just getting old like Fortrakt says, she inwardly admitted when their attention wasn’t on her. I call him “cub” even though I’m only three winters out of my teens? Guess after being abandoned by my friend and being told no repeatedly by father, I had to grow up quick, she grudgingly conceded, as much as she hated to give any credit to her sire or her missteps in Equestria for helping her to mature.

Such thoughts were best saved for later, however, as they had no end of questions for her. In the end, after additional deliberations behind closed doors, Ambassador Goldberg relented. He allowed Marco to stay, but insisted that all human soldiers and civilians receive ‘intensive cultural sensitivity training’ to prevent such mishaps from occurring again.

With his attention on Gilda, she knew he didn’t see Lieutenant Nantz grimace and rub his eyes behind him. But after the human Ambassador had departed in what she took to at least be a slight huff, Nantz summoned Gilda to his improvised headquarters to discuss matters ‘officer to officer’ with her.

“Now that our betters are gone, let’s work this out without any personal agendas or diplomatic doublespeak, shall we?” he suggested with a slightly exasperated grin and an arched eyeridge, offering her some coffee in a bowl when they arrived at his office. Though not her favorite drink, she accepted it graciously, at least after he gave it a strong measure of cream and sugar. If nothing else, she was gratified that he had the same reaction to the interview process as she had.

Once they’d downed half their mug and bowl, he sat down behind his desk and asked for her advice, as a griffon officer, on how to keep his civilian charges safe without provoking resentment or causing more trouble with the Kingdom.

To her surprise, they ended up chatting openly and amicably for the better part of an hour. It was a far more pleasant conversation in which they bounced ideas off each other, though she surprised him when she agreed with Goldberg that the three needed much more instruction on griffon culture. “It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for your Marines to receive it as well,” she further mused.

When asked why, she explained that both incidents could have been defused at the start if Marco and Chris had simply known basic griffon gestures, behavior, and body language.

“Challenge and duel rules, taboo talk and touching… These are things every griffon knows, so we expect visitors to the Kingdom to learn them as well. When somecreature doesn’t… well, bad things can happen, like yesterday. Or three days ago.” Her wings flared slightly and tail twitched once for emphasis, letting him see her feathers were still ruffled over the initial incident with Marco.

Nantz studied her closely for a moment. “I don’t need to take your training to tell you’re still pissed at him over that,” he noted. “I can well imagine you don’t like being around him right now. And yet, you stood up and defended him.”

She looked up at the taller human officer. “Whatever issues I may have with Marco Lakan, they do not affect the performance of my duty. And regardless of my feelings for him, I’m not about to let him be punished for defending a friend,” she said emphatically, but then blinked hard and had to stifle a grimace—she’d meant to say feelings towards him, not for him!

If Nantz picked up on her slip of the beak, he hid it well. “That’s very professional of you, Decurion. I approve.” He gave her a respectful nod. “Very well. I can’t argue with what you’re saying. We got some cultural training from your Ambassador before we came, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said without thinking, then caught herself. “I mean that with all due respect to Ambassador Strenus, he’s been away from the Kingdom for so long that he’s forgotten some of his own culture—he actually gave your civilians some very bad advice on greeting griffons,” she recalled, her feathers ruffling again before she forced them to still. “I don’t actually blame him for that, though. The same thing happened to me when I was away from the Kingdom for a few years.” Or twelve...

“Understandable,” he said with a nod at her. “That being the case, can you and Second Spear Gletscher give us some classes? Civilian incidents are bad enough, but the last thing I need is one of my Marines getting into it with another griffon over some misunderstanding. That would be a whole different level of bad,” he noted somewhat mildly, to which Gilda, though not relishing the idea of additional duty, agreed.

In the end, they decided to both carry out the training and to cancel any more field forays for Chris, Tara and Marco until the classes could be given and security procedures could be “improved to ensure civilian safety.” Though somewhat formally stated, Gilda gathered that the Lieutenant wanted to send some of his own soldiers along for the ride the next time they went out again, in which case the training had to be given sooner rather than later.

It would take some time to arrange, though, and in the meantime, the three were not to leave Arnau, and not to leave the Inn except under escort and close supervision. That being the case, Gilda asked for permission to take Chris, Tara and Marco on a private tour of the Kingdom’s Hall of Heroes, located on the city’s fifth level, that afternoon.

“Consider it part of their cultural training,” she replied when he asked why. “If you want to know who we are, you can start with who we revere. And besides, I really don’t want their impressions of the Kingdom to be defined by being attacked by a couple dweeby teens looking for a chance to fluff their chests and flare their headcrests,” she told him with a roll of her eyes. “In short, Chris and Marco saw some bad parts of our society. So, let me show them the good.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Nantz replied. “But what about—”

“And if you’re worried about their safety, don’t. As it’s in a restricted area for being only two levels below the Royal Palace, that area is well-guarded by elite Paladin soldiers, and we won’t make the mistake of allowing them to be separate again.” She anticipated his question. “I promise that Second Spear Gletscher and I will keep them together and safe.”

“Sounds secure, but are you sure I can’t send a few of my Marines along?” he asked, to which Gilda emphatically shook her head. “If you’re worried about a show of force, I could order them to just wear their day uniforms and leave their weapons behind.”

“Thank you, but no. Armed or not, the Paladins would not appreciate it,” she informed him, referring to the Queen’s green-armored and well-trained protectors that were at least roughly analogous to Equestria’s Royal Guardsponies in function, but far more competent at their jobs. “As the Hall of Heroes is considered sacred ground, uniformed foreign soldiers are not allowed there, even as unarmed bodyguards.”

“They wouldn’t make an exception for guards attached to diplomatic guests?” Nantz asked.

“No. They take their duties quite seriously and do not make exceptions except on direct order of the Queen, who has issued none,” she explained, to which he relented. “But that said, you can also be sure they’d act promptly to protect such guests, especially foreign dignitaries. That’s why I can promise that Chris, Tara, and Marco would be safe there.”

“Understood. In that case, you have my blessing,” he decided, then turned contemplative. “I assume Chris and Marco will behave themselves after their close calls. Especially Chris, given that from what you say, he set off the attack by trying to speak your language.”

“It wasn’t just that, but yes. He tried, but very poorly,” she confirmed with a wince. “His accent and inflections were all wrong. I offered to give him lessons, but after his… experience, I’m not sure he’d be willing to try speaking Aeric again for fear of making a griffon angry.”

“I can imagine,” the Lieutenant acknowledged with a nod, but then he smirked. “Ego sum etiam operantes in taberna dominus ad me Aeric ope. Quid sonat? Numquid melior illo?” he asked her out of nowhere.

She blinked hard and looked up at him in surprise. “Non perfecta, sed multo melius,” she replied, and meant it—he’d even gotten the squawk on the leading Ts and the slight trill on the vowels passable, if not perfect. “Not bad at all, Lieutenant. You still need some work on the proper amount of hiss for the S sounds and selecting which syllables to stress. You’re also missing the beak clacks on the Qs and Cs, though I’m honestly not sure how you can fix that without beaks of your own. May I ask where you learned our language?”

“I took it at the U.S. Naval Academy as my foreign language requirement,” he replied with a grin. “It became much more popular to take once we learned there was a large nation on Tellus that still spoke it. You don’t speak it the same way we did since you’ve got all these additional sounds involved, but Merlina Marcus, the daughter of the Inn’s owner, has been helping me in the evenings with the intonations.”

“I see,” she replied neutrally, though inwardly she was worried—still spoke it? So, they’d been studying the races and languages of Tellus for years? That was troubling—it suggested that humans had been conducting their own intelligence gathering long before the Kingdom had been able to start, putting them at a potential disadvantage in both diplomacy and warfare. And why was he attending a ‘naval’ academy if he was a Marine?

Wait—did that mean they had a Navy? But how, if they didn’t have military airships?

She didn’t know, but it was all excellent fodder for her next report to Tribune Narada. She would also have to have a chat with the Innkeeper’s daughter, to see what other information she might have divulged to them. Perhaps she thought she was just being a good hostess, but Gilda was increasingly concerned that the humans were gathering as much intelligence on griffons as they were trying to do on humans.

“Overall, you’re getting there, Lieutenant, but I’d encourage you to keep practicing. And I extend the same offer to you as Second Spear Gletscher and I did to Chris—we would be willing to help teach you.”

“Thank you. I may well take you up on that,” he told her, getting up from behind his desk to walk around the front. “Thank you as well for your time and counsel, Decurion. This has been a very productive meeting.”

“My pleasure, Lieutenant.” They clasped forelegs, and then stepped back and saluted each other simultaneously in their own manner, as befit their roughly equal ranks. “By your leave, the Second Spear and I will take Chris, Marco and Tara out after midday.”

By the time their talk concluded, it was nearly lunchtime, as the rumble of Gilda’s belly shortly reminded her. Walking with Reyes, he asked her if it was true they were going to have to sit through another “cultural training session” again. She told him yes, but as she would be giving it, she promised it would be very direct and to the point.

“I don’t know what training you had before, but it shouldn’t take more than half an hour to relate everything you need to know. Trust me, I don’t have any more interest in spending all day stuck in a seminar than you,” she told him with a slightly pained smile, to which he smiled and fired her a respectful salute.

Arriving, she found Fortrakt already there and Marco quite tense, awaiting the decision on whether he could stay. She saw he relaxed fractionally when it was just herself and Sergeant Reyes that entered, perhaps guessing that if he was actually being expelled, Nantz or even the Ambassador would have come to tell him personally.

“You’re good, buddy,” Reyes told him with a grin and an odd gesture of making an enclosed fist except for his opposable talon, which pointed up. “All thanks to the lady here.”

She gave him a reproachful look. “That’s Decurion, Sergeant,she reminded him, to which he only grinned and flashed her another salute. After returning it, she detailed what had happened in the morning’s deliberations, and the decisions that had been made.

Though disappointed to learn that they wouldn’t be allowed back out into the countryside for a bit and not looking forward to more training, even Marco agreed they probably needed it. “Once bitten, twice shy…” he admitted, and though Gilda hadn’t heard that particular idiom before, she at least guessed the meaning of it.

Lunch consisted of fruit and thin slices of sausage they piled between pieces of bakery bread they’d bought the previous day. Sausage was sold in the markets as it was considered something of a starter food for weaning cubs or restoring strength after a serious injury or illness, and it amused her at least mildly that humans considered it valid fare for healthy adults as well.

But she accepted it amicably. She was certainly well-used to eating sandwiches from her time in Equestria, and at least unlike most of those, these had meat on them. They’d even brought along some Equestrian condiments to dress up the bread a bit. As far as that went, she preferred mustard, but noted Fortrakt seemed to greatly enjoy the mayonnaise once he’d tasted it, slathering it on his bread.

The humans ate it on their sandwiches along with some salad greens and slices of artisan cheese they’d bought a couple of days earlier. They then washed it all down with brewed tea and juice, though she noticed Marco poured a small amount of liquid from his flask into a mug of the latter.

When Fortrakt asked what it was, he was told it was Buffalo Whiskey, a drink that was even rarer to griffons than the heavily tariffed thestral wines. “Wow! I’ve heard that’s really strong! We don’t have any relations with the Buffalo and they don’t export their stuff. Can I try some?” he asked hopefully.

“We’re on duty, Second Spear,” she reminded him. “No drinking.”

“Come on, Decurion! I’ve never had it! Just a sip?” he suggested hopefully, to which she rolled her eyes, but nodded.

He coughed hard when he took a small spoonful in his beak, his eyes watering as it burned the back of his throat. “By the Ancestors…” he croaked out, having to quickly pour some water for himself as the humans and Gilda could only laugh. “That’s good stuff! Could I have some more later…?”

Once lunch was finished, Gilda told the three to clean up and dress nicely, instructing them to treat their visit to the Hall of Heroes the same way they would if they were being brought before the Queen herself.

“It’s both a museum and a monument. They contain the statues and stories of those griffons—and non-griffons—we revere, so we ask that you accord them due respect by not appearing slovenly,” she explained with a pointed look at Marco. She’d gotten some sense of the range of human attire from formal to informal by then, and he certainly fell hard on the latter end of the spectrum.

“That means no torn-up jeans, Marco,” Tara chided him, pointing a blunt talon at his splotchy blue leg coverings. “You’re going to a museum, not a backyard barbecue.”

“Yeah, yeah…” he said somewhat grumpily as the three went to their rooms to shower and change clothes, while Gilda and Fortrakt retreated to their own quarters to hastily groom and pull on their dress uniforms for the second time in a week. Though still an annoying process, she got it on a little easier this time, maybe because wearing and moving in it for the better part of the day of their arrival had loosened it up a bit.

“Not bad, Decurion,” Fortrakt said as he greeted her outside, straightening her left steel shoulder pauldron slightly, to her annoyance. “But I still say that I make this uniform look good. Especially with all my new armor!” He struck a pose.

“Yeah, and I still say that while you’re trying to impress Tara with your spit-shined plates, I’ll be sitting behind a desk, ordering you to get me a drink.” She deliberately baited him with her earlier comment, wondering if he’d catch what was different in his eagerness to get the better of her again.

“Yep, just like any old griffon. Sit behind the table and—” he blinked hard as he caught up with her statement mentally, his wits a half-second slow. “Wait—Tara?” He instantly went flustered. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You know perfectly well what it means, cub,” she said as she smirked at him. “Like it isn’t as obvious as a crow against the snow that you’re interested in her.”

He blushed and his tail twitched hard. “No, I’m not!” he initially insisted, only for Gilda’s knowing grin to grow.Well, maybe… I-I mean, yeah, she’s kinda interesting. But she’s not an eagless!” he finally managed. “Come off it, Gilda—why the crows would I want her? It’s not as if she could fight a mating round or anything!”

“No, but she let you put your claws on her shoulders to check out her ‘tattoo’,” Gilda pointed out, her smirk growing as his blush intensified. “Your skin is so soft…” she then pantomimed in a deliberately bad imitation of his voice. “Sounds serious to me! So should I send out the wedding invitations? Or maybe I should just tell that Talon eagless you scored a round with that the date is off?”

“Don’t you dare!” he exclaimed in Equish to some glances from the Marine sentries stationed down the hall, but then he looked away. “Look, uh… she’s just… different. Marco’s cool, and I love all his toys, but she’s really warm and friendly and open and…” he trailed off uncertainly, unwilling to voice whatever he’d been about to say.

“And she lets you touch her nice soft shoulders without so much as a single spar or talon slash,” Gilda guessed, relishing the look on his face. “Fine, whatever. All joking aside, I won’t order you to stay away from her, but you’d best fly carefully, Second Spear. We’ve already got enough complications with the humans; crows know we don’t need anymore!

“And besides, you really don’t know how she’d react to your interest in her, or how humans in general would. Never mind other griffons. And never mind that we’re here on an assignment, remember?”

She had the distinct pleasure of seeing him speechless and unable to come up with a retort. “Yes, sir,” was all he could say, deflating and falling in silently behind her as they walked back down the hall towards the human suite.

Ten minutes later, they were exiting the Inn to some snickers from the Marines at the front, who seemed especially amused at the sight of Chris in a business suit and Marco dressed at least somewhat up.

“Wow, a collared shirt and slacks? You look almost civilized! So who died, flip-boy?” one of the lower-ranked ones called out, she judged from the fewer stripes on the thick fabric of his sleeve—she really did need to learn more about their rank structure and insignias, she had the passing thought.

Flushing, Marco then threatened to withhold further ‘fun stuff’ from them if they took his picture “out of his proper attire”, to which they pulled out their cameras and began snapping away as Chris and Tara could only laugh.

In contrast, Tara earned what she could only describe as a series of openly appreciative and even leering looks as she passed them, dressed in a bright red business suit with a black ‘blouse’ beneath that looked like it could have come from a high-end clothier in Canterlot.

Though no connoisseur of human fashion, even Gilda could see that it showed off the curves of her feminine form quite well, especially with her skirt not quite coming down to her knees. She also wore stylized black shoes that raised her heels and had an odd bag with her, not unlike a side-mounted satchel that griffons often used, except this one was slung over her shoulder.

“It’s not for you, but I hope you enjoyed the show, boys,” she told them with a wink and mock salute as she passed the male Marines, putting what looked like some additional sway to her hips and strut to her step.

For his part, Fortrakt was awestruck at her altered appearance, and the sheer confidence she radiated. “You know, maybe I will cancel that date…” he said under his breath in Aeric beside her, leaving Gilda wondering if he knew he’d said it out loud.

But she let it go, deciding it would provide endless hours of entertainment teasing him over it later. She then escorted their guests through the commercial district of the third level and the high-end residences of the fourth, heading all the way up to the fifth level—a trip that would take her less than a minute by air, but nearly half an hour by ground.

They had to pass the sentries to reach the fifth level, which was where the Paladins took over from the Auxiliary Guard patrols, but her command chain and recognition code got them past that as well. The three humans were, however, instructed to surrender their ‘recording devices and other exotic magical items’ before they were allowed in, with the sentries explaining that by order of the Paladin leadership, they didn’t want any of the upper levels recorded.

The three humans did so reluctantly, parting with their tablets and smaller rectangular objects. “Uh… will we get them back?” Marco had to ask before surrendering his.

“I’ll put it this way—if you don’t, there will be diplomatic issues,” Gilda announced emphatically, making sure the Paladin leader heard her and noted her diplomatic command chain. “I promise they will be here, untouched and unexamined for you to pick back up when we return,” she told them, her tone making clear to the green-armored guards it was an order.

“By your command,” the slightly annoyed Paladin Decanus promised, her feathers ruffled at having to take orders from an Auxiliary Guard eagless when it was normally the other way around. Nevertheless, she obeyed, baring her throat and saluting, placing the items in a sealed container to store with a tag in a secured room.

Once past the guards, they reached the fifth level proper, which was home to various monuments, governmental offices, and museums. Before long, their objective was in sight—the Hall of Heroes; the largest museum in the entire Griffon Kingdom.

“Damn…” Chris said as he saw the massive columnar structure, taking the form of a large granite monolith carved like the city out of the mountainside itself. He reached for his pocket, presumably to get his picture-taking device, only to remember it was gone. “That’s impressive.”

“If you think it’s grand from the outside, wait until we go in!” Fortrakt said, delighting in their astonished expressions. “You’re going to love it!”

“We will… as long as we don’t wear out our welcome,” Gilda noted, then stepped in front of the three humans so their attention was on her. “So listen up, all of you. Here are the rules, and they must be obeyed at all times: no yelling, no touching of the statues or other exhibits, no running and no flying while inside—okay, the last doesn’t apply to you,” she remembered too late with a grimace.

“You’ll also see green-armored Paladin Guards with spears stationed at intervals as sentries; do not bother them. If they—or we—give you an instruction, obey immediately, and do not get separated. I promised Lieutenant Nantz we’d keep you together at all times. So are we clear?” she asked the three.

“Yes, Mom,” Marco groused slightly; Gilda might have been more annoyed but for the fact she knew she was sounding like a mother talking down to a litter of cubs. “We get it. May we go in now?”

Though uncertain if he really did, she nodded and led them up the steps, passing through the open doors to enter. If the three had been amazed by the outside, they were utterly awestruck by the inside, and even Gilda couldn’t help but feel a great swell of pride at their open-muzzled expressions.

It was as she remembered it from her only other visit as a cub so many years earlier; an enormous Hall with a high ceiling carved entirely out of granite, sometimes stained with dyes or embedded with gems to provide highlights or to mark paths and corridors. It was lined with reverently rendered statues of the great gryphon heroes of the past, with one every ten paces and Paladin guards stationed along the walls every fifty, accompanied by massive murals on the high walls and skylight-studded ceiling showing notable scenes from Gryphon history.

Each historical figure was depicted life-sized in shiny black stone, often with their weapons and armor, and laid behind them in a line towards the wall were a series of granite-mounted exhibits explaining their lives and deeds—explaining to visitors exactly what made them worthy of appearing in the pantheon.

“Whoa…” even Marco’s moodiness seemed to vanish as he took it all in, his brown eyes sweeping back and forth repeatedly. “This is incredible!”

“You said it! But it’s not just griffons—there are ponies in here, too?” Tara pointed at a large equine form much further down the Hall.

“That’s a Saddle Arabian, but yes,” Gilda confirmed. “We honor all those who served us in war and peace, even those belonging to other nations and races. And yes, even if those races were former—or in some rare cases, future—foes.”

“Kinda like General Lafayette, then…” Chris mused as they explored the first few life-sized statues, and the exhibits that accompanied them. When possible, their actual tools, clothes, armor and weapons were displayed, encased in crystal to preserve them for, if not eternity, at least as close as griffons could manage. Some even had one or more of their primary pinions preserved, rotating at eye level in a magical stasis field.

“General who?” Fortrakt asked.

“A foreign military leader who assisted my nation in our War of Independence,” he explained. “He has an entire plaza named after him in our capital city.”

“Oh,” Gilda’s partner answered. “So do you have anything like this in your nation?”

“We have plenty of monuments, but not like this!” he told them, looking to a gratified Gilda like he didn’t know where to go or what to examine first.

“Not even close. These sculptures are exquisite,” Marco admitted, his hand going for his pocket, only to remember—again—that his picture-taking device wasn’t there. “That black stone isn’t granite. What are they made of? Obsidian?” he guessed.

“Solid onyx,” Gilda replied, earning a low whistle from Chris. “A semiprecious stone here that’s easily sculpted and holds magic well, so it can be enchanted to repel both dust and any attempt to damage them. If you try to pull one down or so much as scratch them, you’ll get shocked into unconsciousness, and find yourself facing some very angry Paladins when you awaken.”

“Seriously?” Chris took an involuntary step back from a statue he’d gotten within a single pace of.

“Seriously. You’ll then be hauled before a civilian tribunal, facing charges of desecrating a national monument. If you’re lucky, you might get off lightly by spending just a couple years at hard labor in the mines,” Gilda informed them with a smirk.

“Really,” Tara said dryly, taking out a pad and pencil to start sketching what she saw—she’d already checked with the door guards that photos weren’t allowed, but drawings were. “Considering the past couple years, we could have used some of that back home…” she muttered darkly as they passed a statue of Adolphus, a hero from the war with the Kirin Imperium. An upright earth griffon leaning on his war hammer with his wings flared, he stood about half a head taller than the humans around them, his unit’s pendant fluttering from the staff.

“I hear ya.” Marco then raised a hand to touch his statue at the shoulders, causing Paladin heads to turn and their eyes to narrow. “Onyx, huh? It’s beautiful! And he looks so perfectly rendered…”

Before he could reach it, Gilda seized his foreleg and held it in an iron grip, digging in her talons slightly to emphasize her next words. “Don’t… touch!” she warned him in no uncertain terms, reflecting that was the first time she’d touched him since his hand had been on her flight muscles. “Especially not there!”

“Ow!” he exclaimed, causing her to relax her grip, but only fractionally. “What’s the big idea? I wasn’t going to damage it! So what did I do wrong this time?”

“You even have to ask? Never mind the fact that I already told you all exhibits are strictly paws-off, but you were about to put your hands on that tiercel’s shoulders! So how do you think that would have looked to our not-so-friendly green-armored guards?” she asked him quietly but heatedly, not immediately releasing him.

Marco cringed as he took her meaning. “Like… I was molesting the statue of a male gryphon hero?”

“Now you’re learning, Marco,” Gilda smirked, finally letting his arm go. “So if you don’t mind, do us all a big favor and keep your crow-damned paws to yourself!”

“You heard her, Marco,” Tara spoke up, her tone only partly teasing. “Please don’t get us in trouble again because you can’t stop being grabby.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled, shoving his hands hard into his pockets and standing a safe distance back.

A few minutes later, they encountered the first pony of the exhibit. Chris had been practicing reading the placards below each sculpture, and his eyes went wide at what he found. “Whoa! It says she’s… Firefly?” he translated in astonishment.

“Close. She’s Firehawk,” Fortrakt corrected with a grin, pointing with a talon at the syllable he’d gotten wrong. “Firstborn daughter of Captain Firefly. A quarter-century after the War with Equestria ended, she volunteered to join a private army being sent to defend a remote gryphon colony on the Cheetahean Peninsula against the Ibexians, who claimed the entire area belonged to them and threatened to go to war if regular military forces were sent there. Can you translate the rest?”

“Uh… yeah.” Chris did so with some difficulty. “It says she came to serve the Kingdom over her own mother’s vehement objections, risking assassination attempts and death duels from former Imperials to do so—and all because she wanted to forge her own name and destiny apart from her famous mother.”

“Wow. I like her already,” Tara said, now rapidly sketching her. “I take it that she succeeded?”

“You could say that. It says here she ended up saving them more than once from Ibexian and dragon attacks. She stayed even after the colony was secured and ended up founding a separate colony of pegasi there called the… Sevastoponians?” he stumbled slightly over the pronunciation.

“You got it,” Fortrakt confirmed with a grin. “In fact, her descendants are still there along with the colony, around five millennia strong, and they still defend the peninsula against the Ibexians. I’ve met a couple. They’re part of the Kingdom so completely now that they’ve acquired hardier bodies, eat meat, and they don’t even speak Equish anymore.”

“Wow…” was all Tara could say as she let Fortrakt guide her to another hero, listening intently as he described each in turn.

So it went for the next hour as they slowly worked their way further in. The deeper and closer to the center they got, the higher the well-cleaned and well-shined granite floor was raised, step by step, until they reached a large circular dome at the museum’s heart.

“Welcome to the Chamber of Champions,” Gilda said as they gaped anew at the massive hemispherical vault, at the center of which sat a large map of the Kingdom over which flew the Gryphon Flag. Surrounding it were a score of additional onyx-sculpted figures, all facing outwards, forming a symbolic defensive ring against the nation’s foes. “Here are the greatest gryphon heroes of all time, whose deeds were so enormous and far-reaching that they echo down through the ages. Those gryphons—and others—without whom we might not be here today.”

“As she says! Welcome to the Hall’s inner sanctum, my human friends, where our most famous heroes reside!” Fortrakt invited them all forward grandly, then led them to the first statue in line.

“This is Ardanius of the West”, her junior partner said reverently as they stared up at the pedestal-mounted tiercel. “One of our earliest heroes. A millennia and a half ago, he thwarted King Sombra when he tried to expand the Crystal Empire overseas, attempting to invade The Isles of Eagleland as a prelude to conquering the whole of Aresia. But Ardanius rallied the gryphon clans living there and repulsed him quite bloodily, sacrificing his life to throw the evil King’s armies back into the sea.”

“Interesting. But how come he has no face?” Marco asked in confusion, staring at his sculpture’s blank features and only generalized griffon form.

“Because Sombra got so angry at his defeat that he cast a spell to purge both his name and face from all griffon memory,” Fortrakt detailed, to a series of surprised looks. “But it only half-worked. His magic was strong enough to make us forget his appearance, but not his name or his deeds!

“So we don’t know what he looked like, but we know exactly what he did. Sombra tried to make sure we couldn’t remember. But all he did was make sure we’d never forget,” Gilda added, standing up a little straighter as she spoke.

“Not bad,” Chris granted. “Have to say, I like a nation that reveres their history and heroes. It’s certainly nice to see.”

“You mean yours doesn’t?” Fortrakt asked in confusion.

“Don’t ask. So, who’s this eagless?” Tara asked next. She’d definitely been favoring the females, Gilda couldn’t help but notice.

“Lady Arnau,” Gilda answered, reflecting somewhat ruefully that of all the things she thought she’d ever do, being a tour guide for alien visitors was not among them. “The gryphon for whom this city is named. The great leader and defender of the Gryphon race, who unified our fractured society in time to defeat and destroy the Cloven of the Sun.”

“The who?” Marco prompted.

“Don’t ask,” Gilda echoed with a warning glance at Fortrakt before he could answer. “It’s not important. All you need to know is that they tried to wipe us out and got wiped out in return, thanks to her.”

“And this griffon? He looks really important with that cape and chain.” Marco stepped to the next tiercel in line.

“Unquestionably, he was. This is Prelate Salvio Gaius,” Gilda detailed. “He was arguably the greatest griffon military mind of all time. Said to be a strategic genius on par with the pony Sun Master himself, he completely reversed the course of a war we were losing to the Elder Rams, and he was later the commander of all Imperial forces during the war with Equestria. He was so brilliant he even came up with a plan that successfully caged Celestia herself and very nearly overthrew her—not once, but twice.”

“But he didn’t,” Marco pointed out needlessly. “And from what we know, the Empire wasn’t exactly the good guys back then. Even the earlier exhibits we saw seem to admit that. So why is he here?”

“Because we don’t lie or make excuses for our history, whether good or bad,” Gilda said, a little more sharply than she meant to when Rainbow’s face flashed through her memory again. “Sorry. Continue,” she invited Fortrakt.

Though giving her an odd look, he did so. “Oh, it’s true that he had some issues. By some reports, he went slowly insane over the years of war from the enormous pressure he was under, to the point that he had to be… removed,” Fortrakt said carefully with a glance at Gilda. “He didn’t survive the war, but his strategies and the reforms he instituted to the Kingdom’s military did. They later saved us.”

“What do you mean?” Tara asked, staring up at the statue’s visage.

“I mean that a decade after the war, we were attacked by the army of Dragon Lord Diabla, who sought revenge for the death of her father, the dread Dragon Lord Kalator, during the war with Equestria,” he clarified.

“Blaming the Kingdom for losing not just him but half their clan by luring them into a fight with Celestia they couldn’t win, she sought to burn the rebuilding but still-vulnerable Kingdom to the ground. It was Prelate Gaius’ reforms, well-thought contingency plans and accurate analysis of her army’s strengths and strategic weaknesses which saved us, enabling a joint pony-griffon force to put an end to her and her army.”

“I don’t know. It says here that his forces committed atrocities against pony civilians, including hostage taking of stallions and summary execution of resistance fighters?” Chris summarized the Aeric text on one of the displays. “He doesn’t sound like a very nice guy, or a genius if his final campaign ended in defeat.”

“No creature’s perfect,” Gilda replied with a shrug. “Just like every other being in this room, or on this planet—and yours as well, I’m sure. You and I have the benefit of hindsight while Gaius had nothing but an uncertain future to stumble through as best he could.

“He was trying to win an incredibly bitter and bloody war that he saw as critical for the survival of not just the Empire, but our very race, and he served his nation faithfully and honorably—until, perhaps, the very end. A few bad deeds or lost battles don’t erase his many achievements or change the fact he saved us more than once. Wars aren’t won by good character, you know.”

“I get that, but—”

“No buts, Chris.” Gilda shook her head. “If you want a paragon of virtue, I promise you’re not going to find it in the military, or even in this room. Take it from me—if you demand perfection of all your friends and idols, then you won’t have any friends or idols left,” she added with a note of bitterness. Will you ever learn that, Rainbow? she called out mentally to her former friend.

“I guess there’s some truth to that…” Chris muttered.

“Some? There’s a ton of truth in there! Wish certain folks would learn that back home,” Tara remarked in renewed anger as her pencil began scratching harder at her latest sketch. Then she caught herself, realizing Fortrakt was staring at her in some concern. “Sorry, it’s just that… never mind.”

“And this one? Chris stopped beside yet another sculpture of gleaming onyx, which depicted a very strong and sleek-looking griffon tiercel in full battle armor with crossed swords over his back. “From what I read earlier back in the main hall, he looks like a…” he trailed off, seeming to Gilda like he was struggling to remember the term.

“A Talaeus. Our most elite warriors, sometimes referred to in Equish as Red Talons. Correct. This is Prelate Layan Kaval,” Fortrakt said reverently, then stepped back and saluted him, along with Gilda. “Adjutant and successor to Salvio Gaius, he was a Talaeus commander who is said to be the greatest gryphon warrior who ever lived. He was as close to unbeatable as there is! More than once he took down a full-grown dragon, and he could even fight wing to wing with Captain Firefly herself!”

“Huh,” Chris said as he took pains to read the text. “It says that when the Empire fell, he returned the battle-hardened army he now led to Aresia and drove out the Ibexians, who had invaded to take advantage of depleted griffon numbers after four years of war, serving his new Queen as faithfully as he had the Empress?” He looked to Fortrakt for confirmation.

“Well-read, Chris. That was a perfect translation! He was also instrumental in both defeating Diabla and cementing our alliance with the ponies after, as he left the military following her defeat and served as Ambassador to Equestria for the next thirty years. Hey, did you know my clan traces our bloodline back to him?” he asked them all wistfully.

“Oh, please.” Gilda rolled her eyes. “Seriously, Fortrakt? Half the Kingdom claims lineage to him! Even though he only had three cubs.”

“And eight grandcubs. All of whom were magnificent fighters as well!” He didn’t get any less excited. “And then there’s his mate…” Fortrakt led Tara to another eagless flanking him, this one as large as a lioness. “This is Marquis Kamilya Ampok. Go on, Chris, read her story!” he invited eagerly.

Chris did so, though it took him a minute to translate and absorb it all. “Holy shit…” he used the human invective again, which Gilda found confusing—what in the crows was holy about excrement?

“This is incredible. It says here that she had a wing crippled in combat with the Elder Rams and was left only barely able to fly, but she was still all but unbeatable in a fight, rising to the rank of Legate? That’s roughly equal to a Major General, from what I know.”

“Impressive, but is that all she’s here for?” Marco asked in some confusion. Gilda noted that he was afraid to approach the sculptures, keeping his hands in his pockets. “Doesn’t seem like enough.”

“Not even close. She’s here because she disobeyed Imperial orders she found dishonorable and refused to renounce her actions afterwards, even when faced with execution by being brought before the Empress herself! Though she was spared, her name was shamed, and she spent the next twelve years at hard labor in the mines, surviving it alive and unbroken despite innumerable deprivations and assassination attempts.

“And then when the war with the ponies came, she declined amnesty and an offer to join a Talaeus team being put together to counter the pony Bolt Knights, saying she would rather die in the mines than fight for an Empire she no longer found honorable.”

“Whoa…” Marco stared up at her in awe. “Sounds like she had some serious balls.”

Gilda had figured out by then that ‘balls’ was a human euphemism for a male sac; what the ponies would term ‘horse apples’. She found she much preferred the human term but kept the thought to herself as Chris went on.

“There’s more. She later escaped to lead an internal uprising against the Empire that eventually overthrew it, restoring the Kingdom that the Empire had usurped a century before. She then negotiated the end of the war with Equestria on behalf of the new Queen and eventually married Layan Kaval there, gaining the title of Marquis and never leaving his side. He once said that she was the only eagless worthy of him, not just for her considerable skill in combat but for her superb intellect, enormous honor, and sheer force of will.”

“In short, she set right many wrongs and restored honor to the gryphon nation,” Gilda summarized. “In short, she defined honor and set the example for every generation to come. She’s not perfect, but she’s probably as close as you’ll find in this room to a true paragon of virtue, Chris,” she noted to him.

“Nice,” Tara said, staring up at her statue, scratching a quick sketch of her as well. “She sounds like my kind of girl. I wish I could have met her.”

“You and me both,” Gilda agreed, wondering if she could have done any of that in the famous eagless’s place. Well, definitely not a couple years ago…

“You know, this is all really interesting, but it strikes me that every single individual we see here is a military leader or warrior. Aren’t there any artists or scientists or any other, more peaceful professions represented?” Chris wondered aloud. “I only ask because I’m a scientist myself.”

“Oh, there are, but one thing you’ll find about our history is that we’ve had to fight constantly to keep our borders and even our very existence,” Fortrakt replied as they walked to the next statue. “Historically, we’ve been surrounded by a lot of hostile races, so it’s only natural that military service figures prominently.”

They then stopped beside a statue of a much smaller gryphon, who was only half the size of most of the other tiercels in the room, belying the twin swords on his unarmored back. “But if you want a hero who did as much for the Kingdom in peace as well as war? Then here’s your gryphon.”

“Gavian… Ravenoff?” Chris read the inscription. “But he’s so small!”

“Small in stature, but very large in our history,” Fortrakt said in a tone of pure reverence. “Of everygryphon here, he’s my favorite. I’ve been in here like twenty times, and I always go into his personal exhibit hall,” he said with a nod towards the back wall, where the tiled line from Gavian Ravenoff’s sculpture led to his individual exhibit room.

“Twenty times, Fortrakt?” Gilda smirked. “That’s not obsessive at all.”

“Well, some of us like to know our history, Decurion!” he huffed. “I know we can’t do all the individual hero exhibits in a single afternoon, so why not show them his?”

“Fine,” Gilda agreed, if only to shut him up for a bit—he’d been talking nonstop ever since they’d come in. “You know, I had no idea you were so dweeby about these things, cub.” She couldn’t resist a tease, even in the presence of the humans.

“And I had no idea you were such an old and grumpy crow about them!” he promptly retaliated, to some snickers from their human guests as they took the walk over, following the path set in the floor.

When they arrived, they found a large and well-lit antechamber dedicated to his life, with many paintings beside which Aeric text explained the scenes. There were also two impassive Paladins stationed inside, standing to either side of the entrance, casting a wary eye over their human guests as they entered but making no move against them.

The first thing that caught their attention was not the paintings, or the Paladin guards, but a centerpiece exhibit Illuminated by a shaft of sunlight spearing through the ceiling. It was a pedestal upon which sat a single large diamond, floating in the air and slowly rotating, gleaming and glittering in the sunbeam. Below it, encased in clear crystal was a small set of Talaeus armor clearly fitted for him, and a single scimitar with two diagonal red stripes across the base of its blade, under which was…

“Wait—is that a brush?” Chris pointed down at it.

“You got it! You like to draw, Tara? Well, Gavian Ravenoff was an artist,” Fortrakt explained, sounding to Gilda like a giddy cub. “His story did not have a happy start. He was abandoned by his parents for his small size, and forced to steal and scavenge from age six. Unwanted and uneducated, he ended up joining a gryphon raider gang out of desperation and was captured by the ponies during an attack on one of their border bases.”

He went on quickly, not giving Chris the chance to read the placard that contained the story he was relating; Gilda gained the distinct impression that her junior partner knew it all by heart. “The Empire then tried to kill him, but the ponies protected him, so he defected and threw his lot in with them. They fed, educated and trained him, and they found him so honorable and eager that he was later adopted as a son by the base’s commander—Firefly herself!”

“By Firefly?” the three humans chorused incredulously—they’d apparently learned all about her during their time in Equestria, she noted.

“I know, right? He later wrote that the ponies let him know friendship and family for the first time, and he loved them all because of it. Then when war came, he openly sided with Equestria and fought against the Empire using a hybrid combat style he’d invented with the help of the ponies. He fought at his adoptive mother’s side in many early battles, later helping to train pony troops and liaise with Imperial dissidents—at one point, he even induced an entire Auxiliary Guard unit to defect!

“Though considered a traitor by many, even by some to this day, he was a gryphon through and through, saying later he wanted to see the Empire he so hated overthrown ‘so cubs and nations would not suffer as he and Equestria had’. He became an emissary between our two nations after the war; an example to both sides that the other was not as bad as they’d been told. Some say he’s the first true friend between our races.”

“Okay. But where does art come into that?” Tara seemed subdued at the story, which Gilda had only remembered bits and pieces of until Fortrakt refreshed her memory.

“Because he was not just a warrior, but a completely self-trained artist who later ran Celestia’s famous art academy in Canterlot, and once his griffon citizenship was restored over objections by Queen Jeyenne, he came to the Kingdom to establish such schools here!

“He single-wingedly rekindled interest in our lost arts and re-founded all our abolished artisan guilds! Painting, sculpting, theatre, even cooking—he brought it all back a century after the Empire had expunged it! You’re looking at one of his two swords, and one of the actual brushes he used to paint—his other sword resides at his monument at the Royal Art Academy in Canterlot. In fact, several of the large ceiling murals you saw outside were his!”

“Not bad. But wait—I thought you said he fought against the Empire? But in that picture, he’s fighting a pony!” Tara pointed out as she stared at a very detailed painting on the wall behind them. It showed a battered and bleeding Gavian—he had leopard hindquarters and falcon feathers—in what looked like Cloudsdale, facing off with an equally injured but far larger pony pegasus stallion wearing wingblades around whom electricity crackled.

It looked to Gilda like they’d been dueling to the death for some time, with Gavian in a two-legged pouncing crouch poised to draw his sword in a rapid slash; the text beneath it explained that it depicted the duel’s end, when he was about to meet—and defeat—his opponent’s final attack.

“He’s fighting a demon,” Fortrakt corrected sharply, his emerald eyes narrowing and voice turning ice cold. “His opponent is the pony known as Thunderbolt.”

Their guests blinked. “You mean the Equestrian war hero?” Chris asked as Gilda stayed carefully silent, not certain she wanted to speak up on the subject for reasons both personal and professional.

“I mean the Equestrian war criminal,” Fortrakt corrected, an angry edge to his voice that Gilda had never heard from him before. “He may be a hero to the ponies, but he’s nothing more than a mass murderer to us. He hated gryphons and swore to slay any he saw on sight. He slaughtered hundreds of civilians, even cubs, and he didn’t care!”

“A pony did that?” Tara gave him a disbelieving look.

“Yes, a pony! Powered by bloodlust and all but invincible in combat, even our best soldiers and assassins couldn’t stop him. But Gavian Ravenoff—who at the time was but a small gryphon only sixteen years old—could! Armed with only a single sword and his own unique fighting style, he defeated him in single combat!”

“Huh? But he’s so small! How’d he manage that?” Chris asked, still staring at the painting.

“We can show you!” Fortrakt promised, leading them towards the sunlight-illuminated crystal on a pedestal in the center. “Read the inscription, Chris!”

“Uh…” He did so, squinting at the placard beneath the rotating gem, and then blinked hard. “If I’m interpreting this correctly, it says this crystal contains the actual memories of a disguised ‘Raven’ witness to his duel with Thunderbolt? And invites visitors to witness those memories in turn to understand how great his deed truly was?” he translated dubiously as Fortrakt nodded vigorously. “But that doesn’t make sense. What’s a ‘Raven’? And how do you ‘witness’ someone else’s memories?”

“Like this!” Not waiting for permission from Gilda, who was already having some serious reservations of whether it would be a good idea, Fortrakt went to the mounted crystal holding recorded memories and reared up to pass his talons over the shaft of sunlight that illuminated it. The room then went dark as the firegems lowered their illumination level and the skylight above closed, followed by the gem itself beginning to glow. “See for yourself!”

“What do you mean?” Marco asked, staring at the gem warily.

“Exactly what I said!’' Fortrakt replied eagerly as the glow of the crystal intensified and began to project a moving image into the air. “What you’re about to see is a memory recording of their duel taken from the early days of the war, seven centuries old.” Startled, their human guests then hurriedly backed away to watch as the diamond began projecting the sounds and sights of that night, as seen through the eyes of an anonymous eagless.

“I’ve seen this more times than I can count, and it never gets old! You’re going to love this! So just sit back and watch what some say is the greatest duel victory in all of gryphon history…”

7: Council of Crows

View Online

As the duel between Gavian and Thunderbolt unfolded, Gilda was surprised by how rapt it held not just the attention of their human guests, but her own.

Given she’d already seen it once during her previous visit, she couldn’t fathom it would be that compelling to her. But as a five-year old cub, she hadn’t really been able to comprehend what was happening or what was said, other than that there was a pony and griffon fighting for reasons she didn’t understand, and that they spoke with funny words and accents.

It was also hard for her to follow, watched through the eyes of an eagless who’d temporarily turned herself into a pony as a means of disguise—something she had far too much pride to ever do, never mind the fact that polymorph potion was unavailable to the general public.

And that one time she and Rainbow had gotten hold of some by breaking into a Cloudsdale potion shop didn’t count, given they’d been sixteen and soused on stolen zap apple cider—a controlled substance in the Kingdom whose possession was illegal given its inhibition-shattering effects—at the time.

She could just barely remember that they’d found the potion in a secret compartment in the back, and then drunkenly decided to use it to switch races on a mutual dare. Unfortunately, she’d been so inebriated she couldn’t recall what they looked like or what it felt like after; only that they’d been discovered by the shop owner passed out in the backroom.

Worse, she’d been left very achy and sick for the next several days, suffering a severe hangover and magical withdrawal symptoms from the exotic cider and transformation potion after.

It had all earned her and Rainbow a three-day stay in the hospital followed by probation from a Cloudsdale Juvenile Magistrate for breaking and entering, as well as illicit magical substance possession. He sentenced them to community service at the Weather Factory cafeteria, which meant everything from peeling potatoes and carrots to cooking Cloud Creole and other lunches for the workers.

But such memories were quickly lost as the duel began. This time, she comprehended everything she couldn’t before, from an initially frightened Gavian’s appearance before a hostile crowd—she never dreamt she’d hear such vile invective hurled by ponies, even those from seven centuries past—to the pitched blade battle that followed between two incredibly overpowered opponents.

It was watched over by Captain Typhoon, the then-Commander of Celestia’s Royal Guard and a minor legend in his own right. But he did not take part in the duel, which was fought strictly between Gavian and Thunderbolt. They were both astonishing fighters, each moving at speeds and wielding abilities that would even put characters in certain Neighponese mangas she’d seen to shame.

While Thunderbolt came about his otherworldly abilities naturally, Gavian had them imparted by something odd the Captain did to him; the latter had delivered a series of sharp taps with his hooves and wingfeathers to Gavian’s body just before the duel began. Whatever it was, it instantly boosted Gavian’s combat abilities from merely elite to extraordinary, with the Captain boasting to a shocked Thunderbolt that all he’d done to the young tiercel was release his “full fighting potential!”

If it had been described that way to her before, she would have thought it way too corny even for one of those Neighponese comics. But to see it happen, it proved anything but. She also thought she wouldn’t identify that much with Gavian Ravenoff, who was a small pony-raised griffon who liked to paint—on the face of it, he sounded really dweeby, after all.

But she’d been wrong on all counts. It was an utterly surreal experience seeing it, and not just for watching it through pony eyes—the scene was darker than it would have been simply because pony night vision wasn’t as good as those of gryphons; the colors seemed a little off to her as well—but because she found herself doing something she never had before.

Actively identifying with and rooting for another griffon.

She knew the outcome, and yet her heart still raced and chest swelled with pride as she watched Gavian Ravenoff continually parry not just Thunderbolt’s blades, but his barbs. The duel quickly became as much of wits as of steel, and as the battle wore on, Gavian gradually turned both forms of attacks back on Thunderbolt. Before long, the larger stallion was visibly frustrated and uncertain, finding himself thwarted and even the crowd slowly turning against him as Gavian’s honor—Gryphon honor—shone through and won them over.

What got Gilda the most, though, wasn’t the stunning blade battles or even the war of wits that Gavian ultimately won, progressively shredding Thunderbolt’s tortured logic and goading him into his final, fateful attack—an attack in which he struck the larger stallion down mid-charge with a blindingly fast sword draw.

It was his painful past that struck a rare chord in her heart; she could hear the agony of being unloved and unwanted in his archaically-accented voice, as he explained how he’d been abandoned by his parents at age five for being too small.

For the simple crime of being unable to meet their standards for what a mighty griffon should be, they’d left him to fend for himself in a hostile world he was far too young to survive in. But survive he did, scavenging from trash piles and stealing to live until the ponies found him.

His abandonment was an utterly unthinkable act now, and yet, even as he hated the Empire for allowing it and sided with the ponies who finally gave him the acceptance and education he craved, he never renounced his race or heritage, standing fast as a proud gryphon in the duel.

In the end, Thunderbolt fell, but so did Gavian as his injuries overcame him and he collapsed to the cloud surface of the city, completely spent. She had no idea what the Captain of the Guard had done to him to enable him to fight at such a high level and great speed, but he’d done so. The playback ended with a voice narration explaining that he knew the pony Captain’s power-boosting technique could kill him even if Thunderbolt didn’t, but he went through it anyway for the sake of his race and own wounded spirit.

For as confused as she was over it as a cub, it was impossible not to be affected by it as an adult, leaving Gilda feeling a great swell of pride at the show of honor and impossible battle feat. As the memory projection faded and the firegems came back up, she found herself trembling as Fortrakt stood tall and proud beside her, staring at where the now-absent scene had been with fire in his eyes.

It was only then she thought to check on their human guests. “So, that was it! The greatest duel in gryphon history! What did you guys think of…?” Fortrakt trailed off as he looked back and saw their faces; his expression falling as he beheld theirs.

Far from awed, their audience had sat down heavily on a nearby bench intended for viewing it; Tara was shaking while Chris had to loosen his tie; his brow wet with sweat.

“Súsmaryosép!” was all Marco could say at first, making an odd crossing gesture across his chest. “Dude, that was fucking brutal!”

“And it was real…” Chris shivered, grasping Tara’s hand in what seemed like a gesture of reassurance. “It looked like something out of a movie, but it wasn’t. That really happened?” he had to ask again.

“It really did,” Gilda confirmed warily, then glanced over at Tara, who had buried her head in her other hand while Fortrakt watched her and worried. “What you saw were actual memories of the duel, pulled directly from the mind of the gryphon present—a rather invasive and unpleasant magical procedure, by the way, but one she acceded to for the sake of history.”

“Are you okay, Tara?” Fortrakt asked her, looking like he wanted to approach her but was afraid to; Gilda could well imagine he was worried that he’d accidentally upset her.

She took a shuddering breath before speaking, taking her hand back from Chris to wring it in her lap. “Yeah, just… I didn’t believe you, but Thunderbolt really was as bad as you said. Lord above, I never thought I’d hear such awful words coming from a pony. Let alone one who could toss lightning around like a fucking wizard!”

Fortrakt looked like he didn’t know what to say or do as she visibly shivered again; he moved up and extended his wing slightly like he wanted to drape it over her in what for griffons and pegasi would be a protective gesture. She was about to warn him not to, but he stopped before she could, realizing as she did that it might not be welcome. “Christ almighty, I’m not sure I wanted to see that. I’m afraid that’s going to be giving me nightmares for a while. And worse, even after all that hate and all those crimes he admitted to, Thunderbolt wasn’t killed?”

“No, but he should have been!” Fortrakt’s concern was instantly replaced with anger, his hackles raising and tail lashing. “Gavian spared him, like you saw, at the Pony Captain’s request. He recovered to fight in the newly-founded Bolt Knights, who later became the Wonderbolts.”

“So the Wonderbolts really did begin as a military force,” Marco mused; Gilda could only guess that they'd learned that during their time in Equestria but hadn't quite believed it. “To watch their performances, you’d never know it now.”

“Yes. We generally see the original Bolt Knights as not just worthy foes, but outright heroes for later helping the Kingdom in the Dragon Lord Diabla War,” Fortrakt explained. “But for his innumerable crimes against our race, Thunderbolt is the only one of them who isn’t honored by us.”

“But… then how can the ponies possibly consider him a hero?” Tara asked incredulously.

“Because his war crimes were nothing compared to ours.” Gilda found she could stay silent no longer. “Because his good deeds outweigh his bad. Because he was far more than what you see here. And because he had every crow-damned reason in Tellus to hate us.”

Fortrakt looked up at her sharply; even the Paladins seemed to perk up and take notice of her statement. “What did you say?”

“You heard me,” Gilda said firmly, reflecting that she never thought she’d be in a position where she was defending ponies to other griffons. But she’d spent too much time in Cloudsdale to not know the story by heart.

“This exhibit ignores some important context. What it doesn’t tell you is that just three days before this duel happened, the War with Equestria began. On that day, Imperial forces launched a surprise attack, sending over two millennia—that’s two thousand—elite soldiers and assassins to strike Cloudsdale, where Thunderbolt had spent the last twelve years living in peace as a simple flight instructor for young pegasi.

“Their objective was to destroy the pony weather factory… and to kill all its civilian workers,” she emphasized, pinning Fortrakt with a stare. “You want to know how anypony could think that way, Tara? Well, the better question is, how could he not for what he witnessed just three days earlier—an Imperial massacre of unarmed pony civilians?”

Fortrakt stared at her in shock while the Paladins were frowning. “But—”

“But nothing, Fortrakt! You know what he did, but you don’t know why he did it!” She switched to Aeric and took on a scolding tone, not caring if Chris could understand her. “But I do. I lived in Cloudsdale for years and saw his statue every day in front of the entry hall at the Junior Speedsters camp!

“That’s how I know he was far more than the war criminal you claim—he’s there because he taught probably hundreds of pegasus foals to fly, and he later almost single-wingedly repulsed the Imperial attack on the weather factory, saving several centuries of civilian lives!

“And if that’s not enough, it may interest you to learn that even Gavian Ravenoff himself forgave him. Or did you not know there’s a series of pictures he painted of Thunderbolt in battle on the walls surrounding his monument at the Weather Factory?”

Fortrakt’s beak fell open and seemed to have trouble working for a moment. “But… that’s a lie!” he tried to claim. “You take that back!”

“What did you just say?” Her eyes narrowed dangerously—there were few things that could ruffle a griffon’s feathers faster than being accused of dishonesty. The Paladins knew it too, instantly turning their full attention on the pair. “I’ve seen them!”

“There will be no fighting here,” the eagless of the pair warned them ominously in Aeric. “If you wish to duel, take it outside.”

But Fortrakt ignored her. “You’re making that up! Or maybe your time in Equestria addled your mind as well as your sense of gryphon pride!”

“Okay, you are really asking for it, cub…” she warned him, her wings twitching hard.

“I could say the same to you, old crow!” He stepped closer, a desire to duel growing in his eyes. “Now take it back!”

“That will do!” the tiercel Paladin warned, thumping the back of his metal spear on the ground with a sharp sound that echoed through the antechamber. “Step back, both of you!”

“Enough,” Gilda said with a trilling growl, holding up a halting wing towards the Paladins even as she felt intense ire at somecreature other than Marco for the first time in several days. “Like he said, that will do, Second Spear. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re making a scene, so shut your beak and keep it closed. I’ll let it go only because of them, and because it’s clear you don’t know what in the crows you’re talking about.”

“What do you mean I don’t know? I know every word in this exhibit!” he tried to claim while to her relief, the Paladin pair held off at her gesture, granting her the chance to defuse the situation.

“Then you only know half the story! You say Thunderbolt was a war criminal? Well, if you tally it all up, he only inflicted a fraction of what he suffered! By the time of that duel, he had witnessed not one, but two gryphon-committed atrocities that resulted in several millennia of dead pony civilians! So I’ll say it again—as far as I’m concerned, he had every crow-damned reason in Tellus to hate us! And repay us!”

“But… but that was the Empire, not the Kingdom!” Fortrakt sputtered as the two Paladins glanced at each other again, this time in doubt and distaste over Gilda’s statement. “And that didn’t give him the right to—”

“I said but nothing! Never mind that there was no Kingdom then, put yourself in his wings, Fortrakt! Could you make that distinction between the Empire and griffons after seeing not one, but two griffon-committed slaughters of everything you loved and everypony you cherished?” she challenged, going nose to nose with him and tapping his chest with a talon.

“I know I couldn’t. And if you claim you could, then you’re either a liar or a far more forgiving gryphon than me!”

His wings and headfeathers flared indignantly; for a moment she saw a fresh desire to duel in his eyes. “Save it. We are not fighting here, and not in front of our guests. If you want to challenge me, then do it when we’re not around them and you’re thinking clearly. You are way out of line right now, so by my order, lower your hackles and stop acting like a stupid cub, Fortrakt! You’re attracting Paladin attention and scaring our guests.”

He looked up like he had just remembered where they were, seeing them staring back at him warily; the two earth griffon Paladins stationed in the room had already taken a step towards them, ready to arrest them both on the spot if they started to fight.

To her relief, the sight of them instantly chagrined him. “Yes, Decurion,” he replied, then forced his wings and tail to still as he bared his throat, switching back to Equish. “M-my apologies to everycreature here. I got a little too intense, there.”

“You think?” Gilda said derisively, turning to the Paladins to bare her throat. “My apologies to both of you as well. We’ll be leaving now.”

“I think that would be for the best,” the higher-ranked tiercel replied, still poised to intervene. “We don’t wish to arrest either of you, Decurion, or cause trouble with our honored guests. But our standing orders to prevent violence and damage to the exhibits supersede such concerns, and even your command chain.”

“Understood,” she said shortly. She then turned to Chris and spoke slowly, trying to make sure he could understand her ‘Latin’ speech. “Sorry about that. If you don’t mind, I would greatly prefer that you not repeat what I just said to your friends. As you can see, it’s still a sore point between our two races, even seven centuries later, and I don’t want too much known about my time in Equestria. Never mind why.”

It took him a few seconds to process her words; as she watched, he closed his eyes and carefully sounded out the sentences to make sure he understood her request.

In the end, he nodded once. “Intelligo,” he replied passably, then shook his head when asked by Marco to explain the conversation, saying only that they’d started speaking Latin because it was a private dressing-down. “Don’t worry, it didn’t involve us.”

“S-Sorry…” A trembling Fortrakt then apologized again, stepping forth to bare his throat hard, doubly so in Tara’s direction. “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just that I love that story and duel so much, but… I guess I didn’t think that you might not.” He slumped as he spoke.

“Hey, we get passionate about certain subjects, too,” Chris told him with a wan grin. “And it’s clear you love this one. Still, I think we’ve had enough,” he decided. “Speaking for myself, I’d like to leave now. You’ll understand that this has… been a lot to take in.”

“Leave now?” Fortrakt went crestfallen. “But there’s still so much more to see! You asked about Firefly before? She’s there!” He pointed out the door to the far end of the chamber, where Firefly and her sister Wind Whistler were displayed side-by-side in the line of champions.

“Fortrakt…” Gilda said warningly, regretting more than ever that she hadn’t stopped her junior partner from showing the humans the duel when she’d had the chance, or at least made far clearer what they were about to see first. “You heard them, and the Paladins. We’re done. If they feel up to it later, we can come back to finish the tour another time.”

“Thank you,” Tara told her, getting up to leave. “And Fortrakt?”

He froze. “Y-Yes?”

“Look, um… I don’t blame you for showing us this, but next time? Please make sure we know what we’re about to watch. Let us decide if we want to see it. Because this time… I don’t think I did.”

Every one of Fortrakt’s golden feathers drooped along with his tail. “Promise…”

The walk out of the Hall was made in silence and under the watchful gaze of the Paladins, as was their descent to the fifth level gate.

After they had retrieved their picture-taking items from the gatekeepers—she was at least pleased to see that the Paladins had obeyed her orders, as the box they were in was still magically sealed when it was brought out—they started to perk up again, at least slightly as they walked through the high-end residential district of the fourth level, with Marco asking if such sword skills as Gavian Ravenoff demonstrated were common among modern griffons.

“Nope. Never swung a sword in my life—unless you count being a cub and pretending a stick was one,” Fortrakt admitted, his tone wistful again. His earlier despondency and dark mood had vanished quickly once they exited the Hall into the late afternoon sun, though Gilda noted he was carefully keeping his distance from both her and Tara. She didn’t blame him for that, given she didn’t want to be around him just then, either.

“Believe me, I’d love to learn, but short of joining the Wind Knights, I’d have to set aside a couple of years to train, to say nothing of a few thousand Aureus to buy a proper scimitar from a professional ‘blackbird’—that’s our term for metalworkers,” he added as an aside. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll find the time when I retire as Auxiliary Guard Praetor with a full pension.” He closed his eyes and smiled.

“Sure you will. Right after I get appointed Prelate.” Gilda rolled her eyes. “To answer your question, Marco, the Kingdom doesn’t generally train soldiers in sword arts any longer outside of elite units. The reason is that although our scimitars are quite powerful, they take too much time to master.

“The average soldier fledgling can be taught to use spears, shields, and steel claws much quicker. That was actually one of the reforms Prelate Gaius implemented during the war with the ponies,” she further noted, going on to say that only the Wind Knights still generally used them, along with—it was rumored—the modern Ravens.

“And who are the ‘Ravens’?” Chris asked. “That… memory video? The inscription said we would be watching the duel through the eyes of one.” He made a face as he voiced his initial sentence, making her think he found the term very strange to say.

She and Fortrakt exchanged a look before answering. “The Ravens are a secret millennia-old griffon warrior society,” Gilda answered carefully, regretting the slip.

“Warrior? Try assassin!” Fortrakt corrected despite her warning look. “Nogryphon—or excuse me, nobody knows who they are, but it’s said they act to protect the Kingdom from the shadows, taking care of internal and external threats to the griffon race that conventional means cannot defeat. They’re supposed to be expert spies and masters of stealth and swordplay.”

“So… they’re basically sword-wielding assassins? You make them sound like griffon ninjas,” Marco mused, a smile on his face that suggested he liked the idea.

“Ninjas?” Fortrakt blinked.

“From all reports, they basically are.” Gilda recognized the term from some Neighponese comics she’d perused in the past, even as she was surprised that the humans also knew it—and then she wondered in turn why she was even surprised anymore. “Believe it or not, it’s said the ponies used to have such a group, too.”

“Sounds right out of a video game series we know. Okay, so are we considered a threat?” Chris suddenly worried as they descended the steps to the third level, to which Gilda gave him a look.

“Don’t practice dark magic, plot to assassinate the Queen, plan to release some all-consuming curse or organize a cabal to try to overthrow the Kingdom from within, and you won’t have to worry about them,” she answered with a smirk. “That’s the kind of thing they deal with.”

“I never thought I’d hear the words ‘dark magic’ or ‘curse’ spoken unironically,” Chris gave another shiver. “And what about alien visitors? Are the Ravens watching us now?” He looked around nervously.

“Even if they are, you’d never know,” Fortrakt said with a smile. “It’s not worth worrying about, Chris. But getting back to the original question, the point is that even though it’s not generally practiced any longer, swordsgryphonship is still a revered art.” He wisely changed the subject. “There are plenty of combat schools that teach it, and sometimes formal duels are still fought with scimitars. Hey, do humans have sword arts?”

“Yes. Of many different kinds from many historical cultures, but they’re no longer that useful and few practice them now,” Chris said simply, though his tone remained subdued. “Old swords tend to be collector’s items and go for big money. Hey, Marco, do you have any movies involving swordplay?”

Marco gave a chuckle. “Maybe one or two… dozen,” he finally said. “I can think of a couple our friends might like. Maybe we’ll watch one tonight. How about The Princess Bride? It has swordplay and I think we could all use some lighter fare after how intense that show was.”

“Think I’ll pass,” Tara said dully; unlike the others, she hadn’t perked up at all. “It’s a good movie, but I don’t think I’ll be in the mood for anything tonight, including company. In all honesty, I just want to go back to my room and be alone for a bit.”

“Seconded,” Chris said as they started their next descent. “Sorry, guys. Like Tara said, we don’t blame you for showing us that, but… we just weren’t ready for it and it’s going to take us a while to absorb. What about you, Marco?”

“Me? I’m fine, but if you guys aren’t…” He nodded slowly. “Guess I’ll just hang out with Reyes and the off-duty Marines tonight. You’re welcome to hang out with us if you want, Fortrakt. And you too, Decurion,” he hastily added.

“Thanks,” Fortrakt said, his tail having gone low again as he blamed himself anew for showing them the duel. “I’d like the chance to meet them more informally. And if you have another movie, I’ll watch it. What about you, Decurion?” he asked warily.

“I’ll pass,” she replied in clipped tones, planning to take the chance to strip off her tight and itchy dress uniform and soak in the tub her room at the Inn offered, giving herself a proper preening before writing her next report over a private meal. She also decided it would probably be best to keep her distance from Fortrakt for the time being, lest their tempers flare again over their earlier confrontation.

“Enjoy yourself, but remember your duty, Second Spear,” she admonished, reminding him to keep observing and spare enough attention to be able to write his own report.

“Right,” Fortrakt said shortly as they descended to the third level on their way back towards the Inn. They stopped just long enough at a convenient market stall to grab some barbecued boar and fresh hot rolls from one griffon-run stand, followed by roasted potatoes with other vegetables from a Caleponian one since none of them were in the mood to make dinner.

As they reached the Inn, the Marines started to crack some jokes at Marco’s expense again, only to stop short as they saw the dazed looks on their collective faces. The sentries then asked if anything was wrong or they needed help, to which they only shook their heads and continued inside without another word or glance.

As they reached the third floor and parted to go to their respective rooms, the last thing Gilda saw of the humans or Fortrakt was the latter giving her a glower before he followed them into their suite.

Early the next morning, Gilda and Fortrakt stood at attention in their regular uniforms in Tribune Narada’s office, in the presence of her and Ambassador Strenus again.

They had come to review their latest reports, submitted as they entered, though this time, the aides of the Tribune and Ambassador were not present. In their place was a new figure; an earth griffon eagless Gilda had never seen before, dressed in such finery that marked her as a member of a Senator’s staff.

“At ease,” Tribune Narada invited after they entered and saluted. They both relaxed, but only fractionally. “Greetings again to both of you. Just two days into your task, you have already obtained an exceptional amount of interesting information on our visitors—far more than I honestly thought possible. To this point, you have not only proven yourself worthy of your new ranks and assignment, but you have done yourselves and the Kingdom proud—a minor incident at the Hall of Heroes yesterday notwithstanding.” She raised an eyeridge at them.

“Thank you, sir,” Gilda and Fortrakt chorused; the former sensing and awaiting the inevitable but.

It was not long in coming as Strenus spoke next, even if it wasn’t over the subject she thought. “But still more is needed, and that is why our guest is here. Decurion Behertz and Second Spear Gletscher, this is Talia Tarseus, chief Succursum to Senator Pilius, who you may recall is head of the Senate’s Ipsum for Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs.”

“A pleasure,” Gilda offered a greeting and foreleg clasp on behalf of both of them—the other eagless wasn’t in the military, so she didn’t rate a salute regardless of how highly ranked a civilian she was—sensing that it shortly wasn’t going to be any pleasure at all. So, we’re being greeted in private by a Senatorial aide? There is no way in either the pony or griffon underworlds that this ends well...

“That’s her official position. But unofficially,” Narada spoke up somewhat unhappily, “she is a Senior Sparrow for the Council of Crows, charged with compiling information on humanity for use by the Queen and her advisors in negotiations with the humans.”

Despite their attention stances, Gilda glanced sharply at the new eagless for a moment—the Council of Crows was the Kingdom’s intelligence service, whose agents were called Sparrows. Though their title was not that of a particularly large or powerful bird, it was meant to convey that they were outwardly ordinary and unassuming griffons who others would not notice. And for her to reveal herself…

Then SHE’S the dweeb who set this whole spying ball into motion? Gilda guessed, keeping her features carefully composed. Crows take it. The only reason she’d be here is if she wants more from us...

“Indeed I am. It is my pleasure to meet you as well, Decurion Behertz and Second Spear Gletcher. My apologies for not introducing myself sooner, but we wanted to test your dedication to duty and the quality of your data first,” she explained as she read through their latest reports with a practiced eye.

Her presence, while not physically intimidating, was still unsettling to Gilda. Her expression didn’t convey any outward emotion whatsoever; if anything, her lowered and slightly hooded eyes as well as her nonchalant posture gave her the appearance of an out-of-place accountant. And yet, her deliberate, even didactic manner of speech, to say nothing of the intensity with which she studied the documents, gave Gilda the impression this eagless was not one to be trifled with. And that a griffon crossed her at their peril.

“On the latter, at least, we have been quite pleased. Your information thus far has been most helpful to our efforts to compile intelligence on the humans, if still incomplete. It is regrettable you have not yet been able to obtain any information on their strange weapons, but perhaps it is a little much to ask after only two days.”

The eagless was just messing with her now, Gilda was certain. Of course she’d have expected her and Fortrakt to go above and beyond for such a vital mission! As such, her pointing out the difficulty of the task was little more than a backtaloned insult; her dry delivery and emotionless manner of speech notwithstanding.

“Still, I am given some pause to wonder if your reports and efforts are being colored by… personal feelings,” she continued with a glance at Fortrakt as she scanned his latest report, who kept his face carefully composed. “Your latest offering seems a little too enthusiastic, Second Spear.”

“Well, I admit I had a good time last night, but I still related what I learned,” he answered carefully, his eyes looking slightly tired, leaving Gilda wondering how late he’d been up the night before hanging out with Marco and the Marines. “If I conveyed the first part along with the second, I’m sorry, but it’s still all there.”

“Forming personal bonds with an intelligence target is a dangerous sentiment for a field operative,” she admonished him, though she never rose to the level of showing anger. “That minor matter aside, we congratulate you both on your skill in obtaining this intelligence. Especially you, Decurion. Your analyses are refreshingly insightful and thorough—in fact, far better than most of my Sparrows in the field.

“But I fear I cannot fully praise you, given your rather glaring error in judgement yesterday.” She betrayed her first hint of emotion by waggling a disapproving foretalon at Gilda; her head shifting fractionally to one side, and then the other.

Gilda blinked. “My error?” She quickly reviewed her actions in her mind, but found no issues—aside from almost getting arrested over her near-duel with Fortrakt, that was. She looked up at Strenus and Narada, their unhappy expressions leaving her wondering if she and Fortrakt were yet going to be in trouble over it.

“If this is about what happened in the Hall of Heroes, I take full responsibility,” Fortrakt spoke up, clearly thinking the same thing.

“It is not,” she replied immediately. “That is between you and the Tribune, and not something the Council of Crows cares about. Simply put, Decurion, your order to the Paladins to secure and not allow the human recording devices to be touched while they were in the Hall of Heroes was a mistake. It was a golden opportunity for us to examine those items more closely while they were away from them, but you denied us the chance,” she explained while Gilda frowned.

“As your order bore the weight of your diplomatic command chain, it meant that the Paladins would not surrender them to us without a direct order from the Queen or a senior enough Legatus, neither of whom could be reached in enough time.”

Understanding dawned on Gilda, but despite the other eagless’s unnerving gaze, it came with no regret. “Sorry, but not sorry,” she replied, her eyes narrowing at the realization that the instructions to the Paladins to deny recording hadn’t only been a security measure—it had been at least in part designed to separate the three humans from their magical devices to allow for their covert analysis by the Council of Crows.

“My instructions were intended to preserve their trust with us, and their entire delegation’s trust with the Kingdom. Never mind that I find such tactics dishonorable, but you could have easily damaged their devices, in which case they would know that we lied to them! And they would never trust us again after that.”

“Let us worry about that,” Tarseus said in some strained patience. “And we thus ask that you rectify that error by helping us to get our talons on those devices. We wish to pass them to our magic labs and arcane theorists for analysis, so make some excuse for the humans to leave them behind again on your next trip into the city.”

“No,” Gilda replied emphatically, putting some growl in her voice. “It’s bad enough that you’re asking me to spy for you, but now you’re asking me to break their confidence and trick them? I will not do that, and if you insist, I will refuse the assignment. Even resign if I must.”

“She speaks for me as well!” Fortrakt added heatedly. “Sorry, but I can’t help it if I like them, Senior Sparrow. Regardless of our differences in cultures, they’re open and friendly and they trust us. And besides, between the amiability of their soldiers and the… reaction of their civilians to seeing the recorded duel in the Hall, they’re anything but bloodthirsty,” he recalled with a pained grimace. “So, with apologies, I just don’t see them as a threat to us.”

The spymaster looked at Gilda and Fortrakt as if they’d lost their minds, all pretense of disdainful detachment suddenly cast to the crows. “Then you are a fool, blinded by what I can only see as your wonder at their technological toys. Tell me, has it occurred to either of you that such things could be turned to more military ends?”

“It has,” Fortrakt answered evenly before Gilda could, though a single lash of his tail betrayed his growing annoyance, “and it’s also occurred to me just standing here now that the Council of Crows seeks less to protect ourselves from this new race than use their ‘toys’ to gain an advantage over our neighbors.”

“Toys which could all be acquired through trade anyway,” Gilda finished before the Senior Sparrow could retort, giving her junior partner credit for a far larger pair of ‘balls’, as humans called them, than she had previously. She then turned to Strenus and Narada, pointedly speaking past Tarseus.

“With respect, Tribune and Ambassador, you gave me this rank and command chain telling me that it was to help the Kingdom, and I accepted them on that basis despite my severe reservations at taking this assignment. If you will not allow me to use them honorably and in the ultimate spirit of furthering an eventual alliance with this new race, then I will return them to you right now!” She raised her talons to her neck to remove it.

“Hold, Decurion,” Narada spoke up, raising a halting wing before Gilda did something she couldn’t take back. “In my view, Senior Sparrow Tarseus, her points are well-taken. And in any event, they are my soldiers, not yours to command. I will not direct them to do such a thing, and I know them both well enough by now to realize they would not obey such an order anyway.”

“Nor will I,” Strenus spoke up, his eyes angry. “I cannot help but note, Senior Sparrow, that you did not come to me seeking an order to override the Decurion’s—I assume because you believed I would not give it, so you instead tried to go over my wings. In that, at least, you were correct—I would not. I am perfectly willing to gather information about the humans to help further the safety and security of the Kingdom, but such interests are not served by antagonizing them or giving them good cause to distrust us.

“And I must concur with the Second Spear’s assessment—it is starting to sound to me like the Council of Crows is concerned less about forming a new friendship with the humans than taking advantage of them!”

“Friendship.” Tarseus rolled her eyes. “You really have been hanging around the ponies too long.”

“Which has taught me of its strength,” Strenus replied immediately and cooly. “I have also been around the humans for far longer than you, so believe me when I say we want them as friends, not enemies. Accordingly, I must side with the Decurion and Second Spear in this matter.

“As lead negotiator of this effort, I will not approve of any actions that potentially undermine our ongoing negotiations with the humans. And as the Decurion says, attempting to steal their technology when they might conceivably give it to us following successful diplomacy would certainly qualify.”

“Friendship does not defend the Kingdom, nor empty promises of peacefully acquiring vital technology in the vaguely distant future. Especially against those threats we cannot foresee,” Tarseus replied, dropping her veneer of civility.

“But since you seem to believe my motives are selfish and lacking in honor, I am authorized to say that the Crows have heard rumblings of a growing danger to the Kingdom. We believe there is an internal threat we cannot yet identify. There have been too many disappearances and odd but fleeting magical signatures that coincided with humanity’s arrival here,” she detailed. “And thus, we believe they might have something to do with it.”

“So in other words, the Council of Crows is jumping at shadows again?” Narada paraphrased scornfully. “Like I haven’t heard that once or twice. Or a couple dozen times before.”

Tarseus pinned her with a stare. “The Ravens are investigating it as well,” she replied, causing the Tribune to fall silent. “And I remind you that they don’t involve themselves unless they think a threat is real.”

“Be that as it may,” Strenus said with a flick of his tail, “and regardless of the timing, I fail to see how humanity would be involved. Or that even if we got our talons on their technology, that we could decipher and turn it to our ends in enough time for it to matter. So, you’ll forgive me if I’m thinking that this talk of a potential threat to the Kingdom is much more an excuse than the reason.”

“Agreed,” Tribune Narada said as Gilda couldn’t help but smile, instantly upping her estimation of the Ambassador by several levels. “Like Behertz, I agreed to this arrangement because I thought the motives behind it were both sensible and honorable. Based on what I have heard here, I am no longer certain that is the case.

“I am willing to allow the Decurion and Second Spear to continue this assignment in its intended spirit, but only if we receive assurances that they will not be ordered to act against their honor and the mutual interests of our races. And only if they agree to continue, knowing what they now do.”

Gilda and Fortrakt glanced at each other, each asking the same question. When the former saw her answer reflected on his face, she voiced it. “If we can have the same assurances… then we will. But make no mistake—the moment I am ordered to violate the trust of our guests is the moment I quit and tell them everything. Good luck getting any information or exchange of technology from them after that.”

“The Decurion speaks for me as well!” Fortrakt spoke up forcefully, leaving Gilda wondering if he’d resolved his anger at her the previous night. “And with regards to my ‘emotional attachment,’ Maybe I do like their ‘toys’. Maybe I even like them. But that doesn’t change the fact the humans have become my friends, and I will not dishonor myself and the Kingdom by taking advantage of that friendship.”

“I see…” Tarseus glared at them. “You are correct that I do not have the authority to command you on this matter, but be assured that others do. We Sparrows remain ever vigilant and dedicated to the defense of the Kingdom. So be assured, this isn’t over yet.”

“It is for now,” Narada replied coolly, “and I expect you to tell your masters that my soldiers are not theirs to order about as they see fit. Now leave my office, Senior Sparrow Tarseus, before I summon my sentries and have you thrown out.”

The flight back from the Tribune’s office was spent in silence between Fortrakt and Gilda.

So was their landing on the third level and walking to the Inn’s entrance, and their subsequent return to their quarters for some minor grooming before beginning their latest day with the humans.

Gilda had initially greeted him with nothing more than a mutually terse nod and tail flick before going into the Tribune’s office, noting his emotions were still as raw as hers over their near-duel the previous day. They had set it aside to deal with the intelligence agent, but they were now alone with each other—and their unresolved anger—again.

After the Senior Sparrow had been escorted out, they’d had a long talk with Tribune Narada about the incident at the Hall of Heroes, which had been reported by the Paladins. They’d both apologized for their role in it, if not necessarily to each other, and though Gilda could tell the Tribune wasn’t fully convinced, she’d let it pass.

But only after a severe reprimand. “I can only let this go because it did not result in your arrest. But if it happens again, I won’t be able to brush it under the bed straw,” Narada warned them both. “You are soldiers of the Kingdom who were given a great and grave responsibility, so kindly act like it!

“You will keep your trivial personal disputes to yourselves, and you will not let them affect the performance of your duties again,” she ordered them through narrowed eyes. “Mind your tongues and your tempers at all times, especially in front of our guests. We need to present a united front to the humans, and such needs are not served when they see our soldiers squabble.”

“Yes, sir,” they both accepted her sharp rebuke, leaving Gilda feeling like she’d just been scolded by her sire. Except she respected Narada far more than her father, so the admonition stung far worse.

The Tribune’s words were still ringing in her ears as she exited her quarters again to find Fortrakt waiting for her. Well, one of us has to say something, she finally decided, and it may as well be me. I kept waiting for Rainbow to make the first move, and never once considered that maybe I should be the one to do so. In that case…

Mentally steeling herself, she opened her beak to speak. “Second Spear? About yesterday—do you still want to challenge me?” she asked him. “Because if you insist on it, I’m sure we can arrange it through the Tribune later, away from our guests.

He stopped short at her question, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before exhaling it slowly. “No,” he finally said. “I’ve thought about it, and you were right—I was way out of line yesterday. I called you a liar to your face for no other reason than that you said something I didn’t want to hear.

“Never mind the fact I nearly got us both arrested, I scared our guests, and worse, I may have hurt them, so you had every crow-begotten reason to chew me out over it. If I dueled you over that, then I really would be just a stupid cub. So instead…”

He stood up straight before Gilda and saluted her crisply, beginning to speak formally. “I fully and unreservedly apologize, Decurion. My behavior was inexcusable yesterday, and I know it. On my honor as your subordinate and a soldier of the Kingdom, I will accept any punishment you impose.”

“That’s very mature of you, Second Spear,” Gilda said approvingly. “Apology accepted, and don’t worry—I won’t punish you. There’s no point, because I know that seeing our new friends hurt was punishment enough,” she told him, to which he closed his eyes tightly for a moment. “You saw you were wrong and said you were sorry, so that’s good enough for me.” See how easy that was, Rainbow?

“Thank you, Decurion.” Fortrakt relaxed in relief. They then turned to each other and clasped forelegs before stepping back and saluting, not as subordinate to superior, but as two soldiers and longtime partners rediscovering their mutual respect.

“It’s Gilda when we’re alone.” She invited him to address her informally again to indicate it was okay to resume their usual back-and-forth banter. “So… what happened with the humans last night? Did you ‘hang out’ with them like Marco invited?” she asked as they began to walk down the hall towards the human civilian suite.

“Sure did,” he said, his beak breaking out into a smile at the memory. “I went with Marco and we found a bunch of their Marines off-duty and out of uniform in one of the meeting halls. They were doing everything from reading to playing card games to betting money and various duties on wrestling matches—not unlike our duel rings, now that I think about it.

“Their matches were actually pretty rough—they even invited me to join in, but I declined because of the prohibition against fighting humans. And did you know they even have games they can play with each other on their devices? But I couldn’t play them because my talons don’t seem to work on their magic windows, and their quill-like ‘stylus’ you could use on them was too small for me to grip without dropping.” He shook his head in disappointment.

“Huh,” Gilda said, wondering what kind of game you could play on a window. “That’s weird.”

“I thought so too, but the games looked really fun! They also used their windows to show me some ‘videos’ they liked—I asked to see some more fighting matches like in that Warrior movie, so they showed me a few real ones, and it turns out that the film wasn’t far off in depicting them. And you won’t believe the variety of music they have!” he recalled, his tone turning wistful. “I really liked some of their ‘metal’, which was the name for this one genre that was popular. Neither we nor the ponies have anything close to it.”

“I’m so glad you had a good time.” Gilda rolled her eyes. “I don’t suppose it occurred to you to take the chance to ask about their gear? Or weapons?”

“Actually, it did,” he replied easily. “But they told me they weren’t allowed to say anything about them. I dropped the subject because I didn’t want to make them suspicious and ruin their company. But they did show me their combat knives!” he recalled, perking up again.

“Oh? And how were those?”

“Very nice! They let me hold one. It seemed very sleek and well-made, with good balance and several different cutting surfaces. It wasn’t a perfect grip for my talons, but I could manage. I asked if I could have one, but they said they’d have to get permission first.” He shrugged. “They also asked to see one of ours, so I said I’d bring a couple of mine by later.”

“Not bad,” she conceded, wondering if the Council of Crows might relent if they could at least examine a human blade. “And did they ask you anything?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact. They were curious about our history and some of the things they’d heard—like if it was true that we’d once gone to war with the ponies or that we fought before rutting. Then they asked to see me take flight close-up, so I did—I think they were honestly amazed that I could not only fly, but hover,” he recalled with a chuckle.

“Later on, they asked a little more about me, about the Kingdom, and about how our society worked. One even asked me if I had a ‘girlfriend’.” He blushed slightly but smiled at the odd term, whose meaning was obvious enough. “I told them no, but that I had my eye on one, and hopefully a round with an eagless on my next day off. When I said that, they whistled and congratulated me on having a ‘hot date’.”

Her grin broadened. “Nice way to split feathers, cub. Did you tell them that the one you had your eye on wasn’t the eagless?” she teased, delighting in his fierce blush.

“Sorry to disappoint you, but no. And don’t worry—I didn’t say anything sensitive.” He quickly changed the subject. “It was all about our basic history, society and anatomy.”

“Anatomy?” Gilda snickered. “What, did you offer them to show them yours if they showed you theirs? Didn’t think you were into that, Fortrakt!” she offered with a lopsided grin.

“Decurion!” he exclaimed with an intensified blush. “Of course not! They just wanted to know what was off-limits for eaglesses after what you did to Marco! I didn’t ask to see them unclothed! Though Marco might have offered to show me some pictures of naked human females…” he recalled with a suddenly nervous air.

She gave him an askance look, not sure if she felt more distaste or some mildly morbid curiosity at the offer. “And did you take it?”

He blushed hard but answered. “No, because they started teasing me. I was also afraid that if I did, I might start thinking of Tara and…” the rest went unspoken except for his fierce flush.

“Right.” She rolled her eyes again, but then smirked. “Because there’s nothing more exciting to a twenty-year old tiercel than seeing some wingless female ape with chest-mounted teats.”

“Oh, go soak your head in a piss bucket,” he casually insulted her, which Gilda took to mean they were friends again. “Or are you just feeling left out? Next time, I’ll try to arrange it so you’re there when we really do compare our equipment!” he offered evilly, earning a laugh. “Just be sure to keep your wings down and eager eagless eyes off us then!”

“I’ll try to contain my excitement,” she snickered as they reached the door of the human civilian suite and knocked.

* * * * *

They were invited in immediately. But when they entered, they found Chris, Tara and Marco silent and slightly hollow-eyed while nursing mugs of coffee around the cooking fire; the three having barely touched their breakfast.

If Fortrakt had been hoping that Chris and Tara were better after a night’s rest, he was quickly and sorely disappointed. “Uh… are you three all right?” he asked in concern.

“Fine,” Chris mumbled, not looking up at them.

“None of us slept well,” Tara admitted, her glassy gaze fixed on the fire. “I was having nightmares all night. That duel we saw… I couldn’t stop seeing it. Seeing him.”

“Him? Him who?” Fortrakt asked, staring at her in concern.

“I mean, I kept dreaming about Thunderbolt,” Tara shivered and wrung her hands as all of Fortrakt’s golden feathers drooped. “Kept hearing all those awful things he said. Kept seeing him try to kill that poor cub. And when I told him to stop, he turned on me!” she shivered. “He started firing lightning at me, and then…” She trailed off, her eyes going distant.

“Then what?”

“I… I don’t know,” she finally said, clutching her head for a moment. “It’s all a blur and I can’t remember. But something happened and then the dreams stopped. That’s the only reason I got any sleep at all.”

“I wasn’t much better,” Chris replied. “I kept having nightmares of Ravens and ‘dark magic’. Dreamt I was being interrogated by griffons, who yanked my most embarrassing memories out of my mind and proceeded to play them before an audience. Then they put them all on display in the Hall of Heroes as an example of humanity’s depravity!”

“Sounds awful, but I’d still prefer that to mine,” Marco mumbled as he picked at his food. “I kept dreaming about the statues in the Hall of Heroes coming to life...”

Tara stared at him. “Well, that doesn’t sound so—”

“And coming after me when I wouldn’t stop touching them,” he cringed to admit, as Gilda watched, his hand began to shake as it held his mug. “I couldn’t help it—no matter how many times I was told not to, I kept touching their wings, their shoulders—all the stuff I shouldn’t!

“And then that big tiercel sculpture you stopped me from touching yesterday finally had enough. So he grabbed me by the head, pushed me down and told me if I was going to keep touching him there, then I could just go ahead and—” he caught himself. “Never mind. Let’s just say the pucker factor was high.” He pulled out his flask and took a long draw on it.

“The wha—?”

Before they could answer Fortrakt’s confused question, the door to the suite opened in back of them without so much as a knock. They heard human footfalls, and it wasn’t Reyes, Gilda immediately realized, since the gait was shorter and the steps were lighter.

She had just enough time to register them before Dana appeared out of the short hallway and strode up to them, not waiting for an invitation to do so.

“Well, look who it is,” the dark-haired female smirked as she stopped before them. She was holding up one of the human recording devices, this one with a gray case. “The Three Stooges, making undeserved friends and causing enough trouble that you should all have been thrown back through the portal days ago.”

“Get out of our quarters, Dana,” Chris said shortly. “We’ve had a rough couple days, and we’re really not in the mood.”

“Can I help you?” Gilda asked politely, even as she sensed that politeness was not going to be effective against this second human woman. “I don’t know what the rules are in your world, but in ours, you don’t come inside an abode unless invited.”

“I’ll go wherever I please, griffie,” Dana said disdainfully, causing Gilda’s eyes to narrow. “Unlike these three, I’m a VIP and I don’t need permission for anything. I get an entourage of guards wherever I go, and doors get opened up for me instantly.”

“V-I-what?” Fortrakt asked.

“Very Important Person,” Marco all but growled. “Though right now I’m thinking more of a Very Insulting Pussy.”

Dana glared at him. “Fuck you too, Marco.”

“In your dreams, Dana,” he replied sullenly. “Whiskey Tangos like you don’t turn my head. Now kindly get out of our room. And preferably out of our lives.”

“Or you’ll what, ‘Flip-boy?’” she stood in front of them with her recording device raised, her use of the term causing Marco’s jaw to clench. “I don’t know what ‘whiskey tango’ means, but if you lay a finger on me, I’ll have you hauled back to Earth and thrown in prison so fast your heads will spin. Chris there can only barely justify his presence, but you and Tara shouldn’t even be here!”

“Back at you, Dana,” Chris said as Marco’s hand clenched harder on his coffee mug. “They at least have some usable skills other than acting like an entitled brat and badmouthing folks on Twitter. You’re only here because of your Daddy.”

“I’m here as a personal observer to a Senator, who just happens to be my Daddy,” she said smugly. “And trust me, I’ll have a few things to say when I get back. I hear you three went to the Hall of Heroes yesterday. I hadn’t been there yet, and I can’t believe you were given a tour before I was!

“So wherever you’re going, I’m just going to invite myself along this time,” she announced like she was an entitled griffon noble, making Gilda take an immediate and intense disliking to her. “Just hope you don’t embarrass us again, Marco, or lash out at a VIP like me. Because that’ll be three strikes, and you’re out.”

The tone of her voice made clear to Gilda that she was fully planning to provoke him until he did, and a glance at Fortrakt told her he’d reached the same conclusion. And worse, she thought for a moment that Dana had succeeded when Marco clenched his fists and started to stand up, only to be stilled by a hand on his arm.

“Marco… don’t,” Tara warned. “She isn’t worth it. Don’t rise to the bait. She’s recording this because she’s trying to get you in trouble.”

“Listen to your girlfriend, Marco,” Dana said with a smug grin. “Even if your Flip-boy dick’s too small to do anything for her.”

Marco gave a very griffon-like snarl and stood up; Gilda guessed from the context that Dana had just insulted his stature—something that would earn an immediate reprisal from any self-respecting tiercel.

“Enough,” Gilda spoke up again, stepping between them to forestall an attack. “With respect, Miss Dana—you’ll forgive me if I don’t know your last name—you cannot give them orders, or us. We are their escorts, and we will decide who and what we see. Now I will ask you politely to leave.”

“And that’s where you’re wrong, griffie. I can go wherever I please. And I’d advise you not to do anything except exactly what I say. Like that blond bitch says, I’m recording this, you feathered freak!”

Gilda flared her headcrest and gave a very feline hiss. It was the first time she had encountered a human who deliberately insulted her, and she didn’t appreciate it at all. “If you were a griffon, or I wasn’t forbidden to fight humans, you’d be facing a duel right now,” she warned, knowing that just a year earlier, that wouldn’t have stopped her.

“Too bad I’m not one. I’m the daughter of a human Senator with diplomatic immunity, and you can’t touch me, griffie. None of you can! If you do, that’s the end of your stay and careers. Trust me, I’ve made a habit of ending them back home.”

Though she had no idea what the human female meant by that, Gilda sensed her smoldering temper threatening to surge into white-hot rage, her feathers ruffling hard and wings starting to flare in ire. “Fortrakt, get the human sentries,” she instructed as she lowered her head and allowed her crestfeathers to flare in warning. “Get them now, before I do something we will all regret,” she instructed in very strained tones.

“Gilda…” He warned her, watching her warily.

“Heia!” she ordered him again in Aeric, but Dana moved to block the entire entryway, ensuring Fortrakt couldn’t push past her without having to shove her aside.

“Don’t touch me, griffie,” she warned with a smirk. “If you do, I’ll claim assault. That’ll be three incidents between griffons and human guests, and I’ll demand you get your flank thrown in prison. Or the mines, I think it is here. You can’t do a damned thing to me without causing a ‘diplomatic incident’,” she said as Gilda could only grind the two halves of her beak together, feeling trapped.

“You know what, Dana? You’re right. They can’t,” Tara agreed as she slowly stood up from her seat, rubbed her face, and then walked right up to the other human eagless, getting in her space. “But I can. Final warning: Get the fuck out, or else.”

“Or else what, blondie?” Dana challenged with a sneer, turning her recording device on the other female.

Tara’s blue eyes flashed. “This!” She curled her talons into a fist and socked Dana right in the mouth with it in a blow that would have done the fighters in Warrior proud, sending her sprawling and her device flying away.

“Ecce!” Fortrakt exclaimed in Aeric as Gilda and the others stayed still, frozen in momentary shock.

Her smugness instantly gone, Dana suddenly looked on the verge of crying as she found herself on the ground, her eyes unfocused. “You… you fucking hit me?” She raised a trembling hand to her bloodied mouth, her eyes going wide as she saw it come back red. “Do you know what my father will do to you? You’re gonna spend the rest of your life in prison for this!”

Far from afraid, Tara hauled Dana back up and punched her hard in the stomach, causing her to double over. It might have stopped there, but Tara continued her assault, next throwing Dana against a wall and pinning her with her weight, bending her arm backwards behind her in a very painful-looking lock. She shrieked like a cub and called for help, only to be silenced when Tara banged her head sharply into the wall.

“Sorry, little girl, but your daddy isn’t here now—he’s an entire dimension away, and he can’t help you! So you listen to me, you entitled little twat—don’t you ever threaten my friends like that again! Chris and Marco are way too nice to hit you, while Gilda and Fortrakt are too professional to! But sorry, bitch—I’m not.”

Tara then grabbed her by the shirt collar and dragged her to the entrance, bodily throwing her out the open door into the hallway with enough momentum that she hit the opposite wall and bounced back.

“So, still think you’re untouchable, Dana?” Tara mocked her, making a show of rubbing her hands together with a series of loud slaps, standing over her fallen opponent triumphantly. “Too bad being a twitter terror doesn’t count for shit here!”

“You… bitch…” Dana got out, still clutching at her stomach as her lip bled heavily onto her shirt front. “I’ll get you expelled and jailed for this!”

“Yeah. Me and only me!” Tara proclaimed as she pulled Dana up one final time and head-butted her directly on the crown of her head, knocking her cold. She then released her limp form, letting her slump unconscious to the floor as the human sentries came running up, attracted by the noise of fighting. “Damn, that felt good…” she said, her eyes glittering as she rubbed the growing bruise on her forehead.

Gilda didn’t know what they’d been expecting, but the sight of Tara standing over a fallen Dana was probably low on the list as they stared at her crumpled form in surprise. “Is there a problem, boys?” Tara challenged them as they lowered whatever weapons they were holding.

“If you want to know what happened, Miss Entitlement here barged in, insulted all of us, and deliberately tried to get us to attack her so she could get us expelled—even our griffon guests. Here’s your evidence.” She retrieved and passed them Dana’s device, whose face was now cracked.

Despite that, it still worked. They played back the recording she’d been making, and though Gilda couldn’t see it, she once again heard their voices replayed. The two sentries glanced at each other as Reyes came up. They showed him the recording as well, causing the Sergeant to look up at Tara in surprise, and what Gilda recognized was no small amount of respect. They called back to Lieutenant Nantz for instructions, asking Tara to wait there as he detailed two more sentries to carry Dana to their makeshift infirmary.

“Holy fuck, Tara. Where’d you learn to do that?” an awestruck Marco asked her after they’d departed.

“I grew up in a family with three older boys,” she said shortly, making an odd motion with one set of talons over an enclosed fist that resulted in a sharp crackling sound. “So I had to learn to roughhouse. And then I had to deal with drunk and handsy patrons as a bartender while I was putting myself through school. It was a pretty seedy pub, and sometimes they didn’t get the message until you smashed their fingers by slamming a full drink mug on them or decked them. And if that didn’t work…”

She made a motion like she was grabbing something big at her feet. Rising back up, she held her arms like she was holding something at an angle in her talons and made an odd motion with the upper set of them, like a rapid pump. “So yeah, I have a low tolerance for that crap. She’s lucky I didn’t do it earlier. I might not have done it here, but I guess I was on edge after all my bad dreams last night, and her taunting us pushed me over the edge.” She rubbed her temples, the bump on her forehead growing.

“And if they decide to return you to Earth on grounds of assaulting her?” Chris asked. “Dana wasn’t lying. She could get you thrown in prison.”

“Then I’ll just request asylum with the Kingdom,” Tara said easily. “At this point, I think I’ve decided they’re more my speed anyway.”

“Wow…” Fortrakt stared up at her in awe. “You’d really do that?”

“Would I really stay with a race that doesn’t put up with such stupid bullshit? That allows me to smack anybody who insults me and my friends like that without being hauled off in handcuffs? Hell yes, I would!” her eyes flashed and she smacked one fist into the palm of her other hand.

As Fortrakt heard her declaration, his surprise gave way to an expression of pure worship, watching as Tara simply stood with her arms crossed and her head held high with a very satisfied expression on her face as Dana was carried off.

And then Gilda heard him take a surprised and ragged breath.

Turning, she saw his cheeks flush and eyes go panicked for a moment, darting about and scanning frantically for an unblocked open door. Not finding one—Chris and Marco were standing in the entryway to theirs—he hurriedly backed up, his wings and tail twitching as he pushed his hindquarters into a convenient corner.

Gilda wasn’t initially sure what that was about, but his actions went unnoticed by Chris and Marco. “I think we all would!” Chris said with a broad grin, clapping Tara’s shoulder affectionately. “Girl, we owe you one.”

“If this was back home, we’d buy you drinks!” Marco added eagerly. “Just wish I could be there when Nantz and the Ambassador see that video she took. Talk about digging your own grave!”

At that moment, Reyes came back and told Tara that Lieutenant Nantz wanted to see her in his office immediately, along with Gilda and Fortrakt. “He’s probably gonna have to go to the Ambassador with this one,” the Sergeant said apologetically. “Understand, ma’am, that I’m not even remotely angry at you for hitting her—she’s been calling the Marines ‘pigs’ among other choice terms—but I don’t get to make the call on what happens to you.”

“I understand,” an unrepentant and still immensely satisfied Tara said. “Lead the way, Sergeant.”

“My pleasure,” he said with a respectful nod, instructing her to go with two more sentries.

“Be sure and tell us how it all went,” Chris told her. “We’ll have lunch ready when you return.”

“Deal,” she said, hugging them both. “Thanks for your support. All of you,” she added with a nod of acknowledgement at Gilda and a slightly huddled Fortrakt.

“N-no problem…” he answered easily, though Gilda could hear a strong note of tension in his voice.

With things happening so quickly, she wasn’t sure what was causing it, but didn’t have time to consider it just then. “Well, duty calls. The Lieutenant asked to see us, too. So let’s go, Fortrakt!” Gilda instructed.

“I, uh…” Despite her order, Fortrakt didn’t move; his eyes darting from Gilda to the humans and back. Sensing his distress, she looked at him more closely, taking in everything from the flush on his cheeks to his pleading expression to the way he had backed himself into a corner, using the walls to pin his slightly flared wings and frantically twitching tail. “Yeah, sure. In a minute.”

Understanding dawned on her, along with a knowing grin. Though taking pity on him, she also decided she’d have some fun with him; for just a moment, she found herself wishing Rainbow was there so they could taunt him together, trying to one-up each other with an endless series of innuendos.

And best of all, griffons had some puns on the subject that the humans weren’t likely to know.

“So, what’s the holdup, Second Spear? I know your feathers were ruffled and you now need some serious preening—” that was a griffon euphemism for foreplay that flew right over the heads of the humans but caused Fortrakt to visibly flinch—“but your wings will have to wait since we need to present our side of this to the Lieutenant first. And who knows? Since she thanked you, maybe you can teach Tara to properly groom them later,” she further suggested with a deliberately casual air.

“But th-that’s… I…” Fortrakt’s wings flared another two inches at the idea of her hands roaming his feathers and flight muscles.

But Gilda didn’t relent, having way too much fun, and in too good a mood after seeing Dana given some very griffon-like justice. “Look, you want to help Tara, right? Well, the sooner we get this cleared up, the sooner you can take her somewhere you’d like,” she suggested easily to another shuddering breath, leaving her wondering what means of mating Tara her words had made him fantasize about.

“Maybe you can go out to the markets with her, Chris and Marco. I’m sure you can find something special for her to taste—you know, some thick and meaty griffon treat?”

His eyes began to glaze as his mind settled firmly into the fantasy before he blinked and shook his head sharply. “S-stop it...” he begged in Aeric, starting to shake.

She could all but see him vividly imagining it no matter how hard he tried not to. “Stop what? I’m sure Tara would greatly appreciate you coming for her. I mean, it’s not hard—” she paused long enough to make sure he heard the emphasis on the two words and whimpered, leaving her trying very hard not to laugh as she finally went for the kill.

“After all, you’ll just have to stand directly in front of her as you testify to the Lieutenant. Let her see for herself just how professional and honorable a griffon you are!” she finished with no little relish. “I’m sure she’d be very impressed by what you show her!”

“Decurion…” he all but hissed out the word, flushing harder and shrinking back further even as his wings spread wider against the not-quite constraining walls, threatening to go fully erect right in front of the confused humans. He switched to Aeric and spoke quickly, probably hoping he was saying the words too fast for Chris to understand them.

“Will you please stop teasing me? You know why I can’t go with you!” He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, giving her the distinct impression that between her endless innuendoes and the lurid fantasies of Tara they fed, his loins were all but ready to burst. “By all the crows of the Kingdom and for the love of our Ancestors, stop cracking jokes and get me out of this!”

She considered continuing the torment despite his plea—this was, after all, an enormously rare opportunity; one she and Rainbow would have never let go! But as much as she enjoyed teasing him, she didn’t want to humiliate him. And besides, she would have endless opportunities to tweak him further over it later, once they were alone.

“Fine,” she relented, still speaking in Equish. “We’ll go on ahead. Take care of your business, and then report to the Lieutenant’s office to testify on Miss Fields’ behalf.”

“Y-yes, s-sir…” he all but squeaked, giving her a grateful look as she led the group away. Once they turned the corner and he was out of sight, they heard him race off. Unable to fly because his wings were too stiff, she heard several thumps as he half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall towards his quarters; his increasingly flared wings audibly scraping the sides of the corridor as he sprinted.

“Okay, so what was his problem?” Reyes asked once the sounds had receded, ending with what sounded like a distant tumble; it brought yet another smile to Gilda's face as she imagined how stiff and stilted his movements were in his state.

“Oh, he just had to use the latrine. Very urgently,” Gilda covered, though she never lost her smile. “Poor timing, but it happens. Sorry about teasing him over it. I like him, but he’s way too fun not to embarrass occasionally.”

“Latrine…” Marco muttered, throwing an odd look back over his shoulders in the direction Fortrakt had gone. “From the way he was acting, I half-thought that… never mind. Okay, so once we’ve got Tara back, what are we doing this afternoon?” he wondered aloud to Chris.

“I don’t know.” Chris shrugged, but then he grinned. “Or maybe I do. As a celebration for Tara smacking down Dana and as an apology to our hosts for allowing themselves to be insulted while putting up with all our alien idiocy, we should treat these two to something special.

“Fortrakt said he wanted to try more of our cooking, so how about we head for the markets like Gilda suggested? Get what we need to do up some fried chicken and trimmings for them? I’ve been kind of wanting to try their rum, too.”

“Oh, I am so up for that!” Marco agreed with a broad grin as they continued down the hall. “That’d be perfect for dinner and a movie! Just hope we can find something to use as frying oil…”

“I noticed the meat markets had some kind of lard for sale,” Chris pointed out. “That should do nicely, and we don’t need a full fryer, just enough to put a couple inches of oil at the bottom of the pan. So, I’ll handle the bird, and you do the side dishes.”

“You got it!” Marco’s eyes lit up. “See if I can improvise some Kilawin. Or since we’ll have the cooking oil, maybe some Lumpia…” He mused aloud, turning thoughtful as they continued to walk down the hall.

“Well, if you guys are gonna make all that, then I might just have to check on you a couple times tonight. Gotta make sure there are no lingering troubles after the catfight, after all,” Reyes remarked with a twinkle, leaving Gilda with another odd term to catalog. She might have asked about it but was still savoring her assault of innuendoes on Fortrakt, wondering how big a mess he was about to make of his own fur and feathers in his room.

“Of course, Sergeant,” Marco agreed with a conspiratorial grin as they walked on. “We’ll save some pieces for you.”

While they were talking, Chris turned to Gilda and spoke in a low voice. “Uh, Decurion? About Fortrakt…” He paused for a moment, like he was rehearsing something in his head. “Uh… Erat ille... excitatur?” He at least tried to trill the vowels more.

“Sic,” she answered with a broad grin, then spoke slowly so he could understand each word. “Ipse est magnopere cordi eius.”

“Really? Wow…” Chris answered once his mind had caught up with the translation. “This is gonna be interesting.”

“That’s one word for it,” she agreed, even as she snickered. You’re such a dweeb, Fortrakt. You’ll never see ME creaming myself over some upright walking ape!

8: Expulsion or Asylum

View Online

It had been nearly three hours since the confrontation between Dana and Tara, yet it seemed to Gilda that they were no closer to determining their fate.

While Dana remained in the Marine infirmary with a severe concussion, some internal damage and a broken tooth—for which she was being treated by not just a Marine ‘Corpsman’, but also a Magus healer—they had finally pulled both Ambassadors out of the ongoing trade negotiations to discuss the incident and determine what to do with the two human women.

Goldberg and Strenus had seen the video Dana had taken by then. Watching it elicited an angry reaction from Strenus but a far more troubled and nervous one from Goldberg, who initially tried to blame Tara for the whole affair. He wanted to expel her instead of Dana, even suggesting he should also expel Marco for “being a bad influence” on her, blaming him for “inducing her to act irrationally” and worried “he might cause others to do the same.”

Gilda couldn’t believe he was trying to hold them responsible for the whole ugly affair when they’d been anything but the aggressors; in her mind, Tara had done nothing wrong by responding as a griffon would to Dana’s provocations.

Her opinion of the human ambassador dropped further by the minute as first Lieutenant Nantz, then Staff Sergeant Stafford, and finally Sergeant Reyes spoke up, each saying the same thing: that Dana had been nothing but trouble, and for the good of Marine morale as well as the success of the trade mission, she needed to be sent home.

And yet, Goldberg still refused to let go of the notion that Tara or Marco was at fault. He resorted to increasingly tortured logic to justify his position, to the evident exasperation of not just Strenus, but his own security force officers and soldiers.

Through it all, Gilda waited patiently for her chance to speak beside Fortrakt. He had arrived at Nantz’s office thirty minutes after she did, looking a little dazed but far more composed; his chest feathers and belly fur had clearly been hastily washed and groomed to judge by their matting and the smell of soap in the air. She’d greeted him with a sly smile when he arrived, causing him to flush again, if only briefly.

“So nice of you to come, Second Spear,” she told him under her breath in Aeric as Nantz interviewed Tara, watching Dana’s video a second time. “I was beginning to worry you’d fallen in love with your own talons.”

“By the loins of my Ancestors, I swear I’ll get you back for this,” he promised her in a whisper as they sat on the floor behind Tara, waiting to be called upon. “I’m starting to think you like to see me suffer.”

“If I did, you’d still be stuck in that corner. And how are you going to ‘get back’ at me, cub? By making me fall for a human, too?” she snickered. “Good luck.”

When the time finally came to offer up their perspectives, she and Fortrakt were in agreement—Dana needed to be expelled before she caused another human/griffon incident.

“She’s lucky Tara went after her before I did,” Gilda admitted to the Marine officer. “Consider this part of our cultural training, Lieutenant: you don’t insult a griffon to their face unless you fully intend to fight, and you don’t get to back out from that fight without losing all face and honor. Even then, the average griffon would be far more likely to thrash you then let you go.”

“I’ve learned that much, at least,” Nantz granted. “And yet, you did show restraint, Decurion, even in the face of Miss Carraway trying to provoke you. I don’t think she truly understood the danger she was putting herself in.”

“She doesn’t understand anything except her own entitlement,” Tara spoke up from her seat in front of Nantz’s desk; being the one civilian in the room, she didn’t wait to be called upon. “And sorry, but I’m not sorry for disabusing her of it.” She made a fist and wrapped her other set of digits around them to produce another crackling sound, causing Fortrakt’s face to flush slightly and wings to twitch anew.

But this time, he’d relieved enough of his internal tension to not be in danger of uncontrollable arousal, leaving Gilda wondering how long he’d been pent up to react the way he had. Bet he’d been saving himself up for that Talon eagless… she guessed with another grin, intending to tease him further over it later.

The interview with Lieutenant Nantz concluded, they’d ended up having to wait for another hour before Goldberg and Strenus could pull themselves out of a meeting at the palace and return to the Inn, where the interrogation process started all over again. The same individuals were then interviewed in the same order, forcing Gilda and Fortrakt to wait their turn once more.

Finally, after another ninety interminable minutes had passed, Gilda was called upon. Instead of reciting the same events that everyone had already seen from the video, she explained things in terms of griffon culture, emphasizing that what Dana had done was very dangerous in the Kingdom.

That it was very likely to result in an attack regardless of the prohibition against fighting humans, which was designed to prevent challenges to them, but not challenges from them.

“… It is thus my recommendation that for the good of both sides and for the success of the ongoing trade negotiations, Miss Dana Carraway should be expelled from the Kingdom.” Gilda made her statement as wordy as she could, even though she hated the taste of such noncommittal and indirect terms on her tongue.

Speaking her mind had never been a problem, but putting it into properly polite diplomatic terms was; she could only begin to imagine what Rainbow would think if she could hear her now.

“As she has, from all reports, shown no respect to either her hosts or even her fellow guests, it is my considered opinion that the interests of neither side are served by her staying in the Kingdom, where she might potentially cause a far more dangerous diplomatic incident than this one.” In other words, she’s a crow-damned idiot who’s going to get herself or another human killed! Send her home, NOW!

“I see. A very well-reasoned statement, Decurion. And your opinion, Second Spear Gletscher?” Strenus called on Fortrakt next.

“Nothing to add, sir, except that I do not feel that Tara Fields should face any punishment for this incident.”

“And why is that?” an obviously unhappy Goldberg asked as Tara sat quietly behind them.

“Because she responded as any griffon would to such a provocation. I don’t know the standards of human society, but by those of the Kingdom, no crime was committed,” he pointed out. “Miss Carraway insulted not just Miss Fields, but her friends. That would earn an automatic attack from any griffon.”

“He’s right,” Ambassador Strenus confirmed, still swathed in his formal attire of a maroon tunic with cape, though the latter was hourglass-shaped to ensure his wings weren’t covered. “No magistrate here would impose punishment for such a thing, as long as it didn’t escalate past a simple duel to submission.”

Goldberg stared at him. “So you’re saying that griffons can’t take an insult? I have to deal with them all the time back home.”

“We can take one just fine,” Fortrakt answered before Gilda could. “I insult the Decurion here all the time. The difference is, she knows I don’t mean it personally, and we griffons enjoy verbal sparring in order to sharpen our wits as well as our claws.”

“But there’s a difference between friendly banter, and attempts to wound,” Gilda picked up the chain of thought from there. “Miss Carraway clearly meant to wound. She was trying to provoke a reaction that she could then use as grounds to get her fellow civilians expelled. And all because she couldn’t stand that they got to see something before she did,” she added in a tone of contempt, her eyes narrowing.

Goldberg shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I admit her actions were ill-thought and unhelpful. But nevertheless, we do not equate words with attacks in our society.”

“Bullshit,” Nantz said under his breath, leaving Gilda wondering why humans had made cursewords out of so many different sources of excrement.

And this time, from a bull? What, do humans have Minotaurs in their world, too?

He didn’t speak quietly enough that Goldberg didn’t hear him, as the human ambassador turned to glare. “That will do, Lieutenant. Regardless of your feelings on the matter, I expect you to show due restraint, as should my entire security force.”

“With respect, Ambassador, we’ve already told you that she’s insulting my Marines, too,” Nantz replied shortly. “With great and infuriating regularity, according to my subordinates. And near as we can tell, she does so in front of others—including griffons—for no other reason than to show that she can.”

“Sticks and stones, Lieutenant Nantz,” Goldberg replied, leaving Gilda no idea what that particular idiom was supposed to mean. “Regardless of what she may have said, she has neither disrupted your duties nor these negotiations. Just because you don’t like her is not grounds to expel her.”

Gilda had the thought that he should apply that logic to his dislike of Marco, given how hard he tried to pressure her to recommend his expulsion earlier, but she held her tongue as the humans argued.

“It has nothing to do with me not liking her, sir,” Nantz said in strained patience, standing at bipedal attention before the Ambassadors. “It has everything to do with her attempting to cause trouble wherever she goes and believing herself above the rules. And as for not disrupting negotiations, I would think that insulting our griffon escorts would also be seen as an insult to our griffon hosts… sir.”

“The Lieutenant is correct,” Strenus spoke up. “An assault on our soldiers, whether verbal or overt, is taken as an assault on the Kingdom as a whole. And refusing to hold her to account would be taken as… what is the Equish phrase? Insult to injury. Our negotiations would not be able to proceed.”

Goldberg looked up at him in surprise. “You would seriously terminate our negotiations over one minor incident involving a single civilian observer? And just when we’re starting to make progress?”

“Yes. Because Miss Carraway has severely and repeatedly slandered not only her fellow civilians, but spoke contemptuously towards her griffon escorts. As the Second Spear has already said, insulting one’s appearance, standing and masculinity are fighting words and instant grounds for a duel in the Griffon Kingdom, Ambassador Goldberg,” Strenus explained patiently to his human counterpart.

“We do not look kindly on those who insult our soldiers or abuse our hospitality, and I am honestly surprised that you would not recognize this. Or make excuses for her behavior.”

Goldberg was clearly not happy at the bind he was being placed in, for which Gilda had no sympathy. “I understand your concerns, Ambassador. But please understand in return that her father has a certain… influence… with our current political leadership. If I send her back, they are very likely to recall me. And dismiss me.”

“And if she stays, she may well get your entire delegation expelled,” Strenus replied evenly. “How would that look to your leadership if you not only return with no treaty, but a newly hostile nation because you refused to hold your own to account?”

“That would be the end of your career as well, Ambassador,” Nantz reminded him. “But then again, if you dismiss Miss Carraway and then return with a treaty, perhaps that would allow you to withstand such pressure as her father could bring. Successfully negotiating the first trade agreement with a non-pony Tellusian race would be a nice feather in your cap, don’t you think?”

“Your opinion is duly noted, Lieutenant. But as you are a soldier and not a diplomat, you have no say in this matter,” Goldberg replied in irritation as he rubbed the sides of his forehead. “So I will thank you to not offer advice unless I ask for it.”

“Ambassador,” Nantz was starting to get angry. “As you say, I am merely the commander of your personal security detachment, so I have no authority over you, and you are free to ignore my advice. But I would also be remiss if I didn’t give it.

“So I’m telling you—again—that Miss Carraway is causing enough trouble that our mission is being put in jeopardy. None of my Marines like her, and you’re risking far worse incidents than what’s already occurred if she stays. She has amply demonstrated that she has no respect for anything, including our objectives here.”

Goldberg sighed and sat back in his chair heavily. Another minute passed before he spoke again. “Very well. It seems I have no choice—for both Miss Carraway and Miss Fields. As the latter assaulted the former, I’ll send her back as well to face charges and be tried under our laws,” he decided without looking up at Tara, making Gilda respect him even less for being unable to say it to her face.

“No!” Fortrakt spoke up sharply before Tara could. “By griffon standards, there was no crime committed! She responded as any griffon would to an assault on her honor and that of her friends!” His vehemence earned a surprised but grateful glance from Tara, who’d looked ready to explode at Goldberg’s statement.

“But she’s not a griffon. And there was no declared duel.” Goldberg pointed out weakly. “Aren’t their rules around that?”

“There are,” Gilda answered, speaking through a clenched beak as the human Ambassador’s arguments got ever more desperate and dweeby. “But she already ran afoul of them by making clear she was trying to avoid one. You don’t get a pass on duel-provoking behavior just because you can’t be made to fight one.”

“But in the eyes of my society, she wasn’t the aggressor—Miss Fields was!” Goldberg pointed directly at Tara, who’d been sitting silently but angrily to that point. “Enough! We’ve wasted far too much time on this, and my decision is final! Both will be expelled, with Miss Fields facing charges of assault.”

“In that case—Ambassador Strenus? I formally request asylum in the Griffon Kingdom,” Tara spoke up for the first time in twenty minutes, causing everyone to look back at her in surprise.

“What?” the human Ambassador’s normally pink cheeks turned very red.

“You heard me. I will not be punished for something no griffon would, especially since Dana was trying to provoke an attack! I simply obliged her, and I’m not sorry.” She crossed her arms and glared at Goldberg. “And you know, Ambassador, you really don’t seem to care about what happens to me as long as you can save your standing back home. But the Kingdom does,” Tara pointed out mildly. “Even my escorts care, so yes—I think I’d much rather stay with them, now.”

“I see…” Strenus considered the request with the barest hint of a smile. “Understand, Miss Fields, that I cannot grant asylum to you myself—only the Queen can. But I will certainly petition her on your behalf.”

“Ambassador! If it would help her case, then I volunteer to appear before the Queen to speak for Miss Fields!” Fortrakt offered eagerly, making Gilda stifle a grimace and then silence him with a glare. Turning to face him, she saw that Tara gave him another surprised look, followed by a slightly more askance one.

You’re such a dweeb, Fortrakt! You know, if she hadn’t figured it out already, she certainly knows you’re interested in her NOW! Gilda didn’t say out loud as she hastily stepped forward.

“My apologies to all present for speaking out of turn. What my junior partner is trying to say is that both he and myself have come to greatly respect Miss Fields. We would thus be willing to submit testimony in support of such a petition, whether that means a written statement or being brought before the Queen directly,” she quickly amended Fortrakt’s offer, just catching Tara’s amazed gaze falling upon her next before she turned back to face the Ambassadors.

Never thought a few years ago that I’d be the one to keep their head while another griffon nearly loses theirs! Or maybe it’s not THAT head that’s speaking for him… she stifled the passing thought.

“Noted, Decurion. You may certainly sign your names to her petition, but I do not think a personal appearance will be necessary,” Strenus said diplomatically despite the annoyance in his eyes, leaving Gilda guessing that he was thinking—as she did—that Fortrakt was not the best candidate to be brought into the Queen’s court.

“But… but she can’t ask for asylum! Do you know how that would look back home?” Goldberg sputtered.

“That is not my concern,” Strenus answered shortly; Gilda noted that even his patience seemed severely strained at that moment over his human counterpart’s intransigence. “I represent the interests of the Griffon Kingdom, and I expect you, in turn, to represent the interests of your nation—not a lesser official to your leadership, his daughter, or your own standing. So since you seem unable to do so, let me put it simply, Ambassador:

“If you wish our trade negotiations to not only proceed, but succeed, then you must remove Dana Carraway from the Kingdom forthwith while allowing Tara Fields to stay. If you are not willing to honor us by respecting our rules and reciprocating our hospitality—rules that Miss Fields did not break but Miss Carraway certainly did—then in the eyes of not just the Queen but the entire Griffon Kingdom, you will not be worth an agreement. Or an alliance.”

Goldberg sat back heavily again, his expression that of a caged and cornered animal. “This is not an easy choice…”

“Actually, it’s a very easy choice, Ambassador,” Nantz said mildly, crossing his arms. “So with all due respect, kindly grow a pair and send Miss Carraway home… sir.”

* * * * *

With those words, the two Ambassadors dismissed everyone to continue to talk privately, with Dana released to the custody of Gilda and Fortrakt pending the decision reached. They were told to keep her in her suite, though, where Tara exchanged hugs with her friends. She took pains to also thank Gilda and Fortrakt for speaking up so forcefully for her as well.

“I’d hug you both if I wasn’t afraid of touching something I shouldn’t,” she told them with a slightly anxious smile; Gilda wasn’t sure if she noticed the fierce blush erupting on Fortrakt’s cheeks again. She could tell how badly he wanted to accept the offer, but he declined, saying he wouldn’t celebrate or accept any thanks until it was certain she could stay.

Or did he turn it down because he’s afraid of getting turned on again if she touches him? Gilda wondered as they ate a light lunch of a few sausage slices and salad greens again, though she quickly found that everycreature was too nervous to eat much. In truth, Gilda wasn’t sure why she felt so anxious over Tara’s fate, given she didn’t have the emotional attachments to her that the others did.

Then again, maybe now I do? The more Gilda thought about it, the more she realized that after several days around the human female, she genuinely did like her, finding that Tara compared favorably to Rainbow’s best qualities but without her worst faults.

To her surprise, she felt an increasing affinity and even some feelings of friendship for her, conceding somewhat grudgingly that maybe Fortrakt had good taste in females after all.

At least in terms of personality and general character traits, she hastily amended her thought, uncertain how Fortrakt believed his interest could be returned by Tara given the obvious compatibility issues.

I mean, never mind a mating round, but how could he even rut her, given she seems to have such a fragile form...?

After another long but interminable wait, the decision came down mid-afternoon, delivered in person by an elated Lieutenant Nantz—Dana Carraway was leaving the Kingdom. Despite that, Gilda was somewhat disgusted to learn that Strenus gave Goldberg cover by getting him a signed and sealed expulsion order for Dana from Queen Molyneux herself, leaving him no choice but to act on it if he was to continue his trade mission.

Nor could Goldberg touch Tara, as the Queen also granted her asylum request “for acting as any honorable Gryphon would in defense of her friends and hosts,” meaning Tara was released from house arrest; free to come and go as she pleased. The Queen’s proclamation was then read by Nantz aloud to the off-duty Marines in their recreation room, who whooped and cheered loudly, exchanging what for ponies would have been a series of high-hooves.

Several then asked to shake Tara’s hand for ‘decking’ Dana, which she obliged; one low-ranked Marine even jokingly fell to one knee like she was royalty and asked her to marry him!

Gilda had to restrain Fortrakt from stepping forward in immediate challenge at the display, grabbing the rear of his pauldron straps to yank him back. “He’s joking,” she informed him in Aeric forcefully, and Tara’s unoffended reaction confirmed it.

“Sorry, Private, but I’m already wedded to my work,” she told him in amusement, then glanced over her shoulder at Gilda and Fortrakt. “And I’m starting to think I might have another suitor, anyway…” she added under her breath just loud enough for Gilda and Fortrakt to hear; whether she meant to be overheard or not, Gilda turned to see Fortrakt cringe and flush anew.

“So, is the round with that Talon eagless officially off?” Gilda asked him in Aeric with a sly smile as Tara accepted an offer to take pictures with the Marines.

“It just might be…” he admitted as he sat back heavily, his expression a mixture of hope and dread. But before Gilda could say anything else, the Marines invited them, Chris and Marco into the picture as well. They asked them to bracket Tara as her friends and escorts, instructing the two griffons to sit to either side of her in front.

Gilda noted with satisfaction that both Marco and the Marines actually gave her space, with the ones nearest her folding their arms to make sure they didn’t accidentally touch anything untoward. But that didn’t stop Tara from resting a hand on the back of her head as the camera flashed, safely above her flight muscles, and then dropping down to give her and Fortrakt each a sudden and simultaneous hug with her arms to the same area.

“Thank you both,” she told them again as the Marines laughed at their startled reactions; Marco looked equally surprised at the display while Chris just smirked at Fortrakt’s renewed blush. “I don’t know how, but I promise to repay you both for sticking up for me later…”

Tara’s release from custody was accompanied by a massive release of tension from her friends as well.

For as unhappy as they’d been when they woke up, Chris, Tara and Marco were suddenly in far better spirits. Being informed that Tara would be allowed to stay had instantly brightened their mood and outlook, even more than learning of Dana’s ordered expulsion. After waiting for a short but sharp rain shower to pass, they set out again for the markets, seeking the ingredients for whatever their latest culinary concoction was.

But they went only with Fortrakt this time, as Gilda elected to stay behind and work on the notes she would be using to lecture the Marines and civilians during their upcoming cultural training session. For as much as I’ve teased him today, it wouldn’t be fair to deny Fortrakt some time around Tara, either!

She still had to hammer out the remaining details with Lieutenant Nantz, but it was looking like she would have to give the class no less than three times; once for each of their decade-sized ‘squads’ as they rotated off-duty. And possibly more times than that as different turma-sized ‘platoons’ were rotated into Arnau from their countryside camp.

Join the Auxiliary Guard! Be a proud gryphon and defender of the Kingdom! She recalled an enlistment scroll posted on the recruitment hut as she wrote, reflecting ruefully that it hadn’t mentioned anything about giving classes on basic gryphon societal rules to culturally backwards alien apes.

And on that point, she was beginning to wonder if their ways were already starting to rub off on her.

Normally, I’d be angry at any griffon who touched or hugged me without permission like Tara did, tiercel or eagless, even if it wasn’t in a bad area. So why was it okay from Tara…? She still wasn’t sure. It wasn’t just the human female being superficially similar in temperament to Rainbow, who was even less keen on overt shows of affection than Gilda herself had been as a bad-tempered teenager.

Maybe it’s just that coming from Tara, it felt like genuine affection and didn’t seem like she was taking any sort of liberty? Guess she’s not actually into eaglesses, whether griffon or her own kind. Then again, neither am I! she nodded to herself, some minor experimentation with Rainbow years earlier notwithstanding.

Gilda grimaced at the sudden memory, which was unpleasant to recall on not just one, but two levels. Never mind that I don’t like being reminded of how close we once were, but trying to be intimate that one time just felt really weird and awkward, and neither of us knew what in the crows we were doing anyway.

Maybe we were just too young and inexperienced, but it left a bad taste in our beaks—no pun intended—and the only other time I tried getting it on with an eagless was even worse, she further winced as she continued to write, recalling a rather forced and alcohol-fueled encounter with an eagless mail courier she’d met in Nova Ocelota not long after Rainbow had dumped her, when she was seeking solace from her pain and loneliness.

It had the exact opposite effect, and it was so awkward and unpleasant I had to skip town after. Can’t imagine that it’d be any different for me now, either!

Whatever the answer, by the time she finished her work and returned to the civilian suite close to evening, the three humans and Fortrakt had already returned to the Inn. They had bought an array of goods, most notably a trio of large upside down and freshly killed chickens—not her favorite bird, but one the humans were apparently used to—that Fortrakt and Marco immediately set about to plucking and prepping.

To his credit, Marco was apparently far less squeamish about butchering the birds than his two companions; he did so with gusto and with Chris’s blessing while the latter prepared a pair of what he termed ‘mixes’.

The first was to be a batter made of “flour, plus a little salt, pepper, garlic and paprika,” according to Chris himself, and one was a ‘marinade’ designed to impart flavor to the meat before cooking by soaking it for a set period of time; the pungent and not entirely pleasant odor of vinegar suddenly hung in the air as he prepared it.

“So how are you going to make fried chicken without buttermilk?” Tara asked him, looking over his shoulder with a mug of steaming tea in her hand. “Every recipe I know says you first soak the chicken pieces in it overnight.”

Soak meat… in butter and MILK? Gilda made a face, unable to fathom that such a thing would turn out well. Then again, I couldn’t fathom half of what I’ve seen or done the past few days...

“By going old school,” Chris replied as he uncorked a bottle of Thestral wine and added it to the flour mix, followed by a series of goose egg yolks. “This is an old 18th century recipe I learned from this guy on YouTube. And honestly, it’s some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.

“It still does require you to marinade the chicken for a couple hours in citrus juice, vinegar and spices, but we’ll get around that with smaller pieces and cutting into the meat. That’ll expose more surface area to the fluid and speed the absorption process,” he explained as he began to whisk it all together.

“Spoken like a true scientist,” Tara teased him. “Sure I can’t help?”

“Nope! You’re the guest of honor tonight, Tara. So you just sit back and let us take care of everything,” he instructed her with an affectionate clasp of her shoulder, briefly drawing Fortrakt’s envious eyes as he continued to help Marco.

Once Chris was done with it, he poured the rest of the thestral wine into bowls and mugs for everycreature to try. Gilda had personally never understood the allure of the non-sweet wines the bat-ponies brewed, though she granted they were surprisingly smooth and mellow, having just enough alcohol in them to have a calming effect on her while she waited for dinner to be served.

Still prefer pony cider to this, though… she didn’t voice the thought as she inspected the clear and slightly golden liquid in her bowl, eying the keg stamped with the seal of Sweet Apple Acres in a corner which they’d taken out of the closet earlier that afternoon.

Much as I hate to admit it, maybe my tastes still run towards sweet from all my years in Equestria? I blame you, Rainbow! she inwardly groused as she began making some small talk with Tara, finding that after the events of the past day, she wanted to learn more about her.

* * * * *

Though Marco had offered to show her and Fortrakt some additional ‘videos’ while they were waiting for dinner to be served, Gilda found that she was too interested in the unusual cooking process for the vinegar-and-citrus-soaked chicken pieces to be distracted.

While Fortrakt helped Marco make a pair of side dishes that seemed to involve boar meat, eggs, and some crispy noodles as well as an array of minor vegetables, she watched closely as Chris continued the chicken preparation.

After being chopped up and spending half an hour soaking in the ‘marinade’, as Chris called it, he melted an entire large block of lard into the cooking pan until it formed a clear and bubbling pool at its bottom. He checked the temperature of the melted fat repeatedly with an odd device, nodding in satisfaction when it reached his desired heat.

The chicken pieces were then removed from the first bowl of liquid, shaken off, and subsequently rolled through the second, which was the consistency and color of slightly thin cake batter and completely coated the meat. It did not look or smell particularly appetizing to her as it was then added to the oil in the pan, hitting with a very loud sizzle and large amount of spatter that caused those nearest to jerk back, including an over-curious Fortrakt.

The meat was fried in batches, first on one side and then the other, before being transferred to a rack away from the heat to drain the fat. To her surprise, the smell of cooking chicken had been undeniably tempting despite the odd and unappetizing array of ingredients used.

They combined with the hot lard to produce an undeniably appealing aroma, and Fortrakt agreed, judging by the way he kept sniffing the air and hovering dangerously close to the pan. The finished product looked like no chicken or cooked meat she’d ever seen, with the batter turning golden brown and very crispy; nothing at all like the state it had initially entered the oil.

But even then, it wasn’t enough for Chris. As the chicken cooled, he then plucked some sprigs of parsley—an Equestrian garnish Gilda roundly detested for its pungent aroma, unpleasant flavor and ability to taint all that it touched—into the oil as well, frying it for several minutes more.

He then extracted it and crumpled the now-crispy leaves onto the chicken, giving it some greenish flecks, though he did leave a couple pieces clean of it at Gilda’s insistence.

Even the other two humans were skeptical at the treatment, but Chris was insistent that it worked as Marco finished his two side dishes. He used the same hot lard Chris had to fry some batter-dipped hard-boiled eggs, while he also tossed some form of noodles with cooked meat and vegetables—a strange hybrid salad which he then splashed with some form of improvised dressing.

“These are tokneneng and a pork pancit from my homeland. I promise you’ll like them,” Marco informed them with a grin as the plates were finally passed out, with each receiving a single fried goose egg and a serving of his noodle dish as well as two pieces of the strangely cooked bird.

“Cheers, everyone! To friends, old and new!” Chris raised his mug of thestral wine in toast.

The gesture was returned by bowl and mug, and then Gilda, though still very dubious, plucked a single piece of chicken in her talons. She sniffed at it several times before closing her eyes and biting into it with a surprisingly loud crunch.

She’d been prepared to have to force it down, but she paused as the taste and texture hit her, not in disgust but in surprise—it was superb!

That’s the tastiest, juiciest meat I’ve ever HAD! And from FRYING? Gilda still couldn’t believe it as she quickly realized her reaction was shared by Fortrakt, who took a small bite, blinked, and then took a much larger one, staring at the piece he held in pure wonderment.

“By the Ancestors, that’s…” the rest went unspoken because his beak was shortly full and expression blissful as their human hosts laughed.

* * * * *

Half an hour later, Fortrakt sat back heavily, wearing an expression of pure contentment as he licked his talons clean of chicken-flavored cooking grease. “By the Ancestors, that was amazing! I never knew frying meat or eggs could taste so good…” he granted with an affectionate pat of his belly, only to abruptly belch out his beak. “Sorry…”

“Yeah, well, it’s good, but it’s also about the unhealthiest way you could cook something, so it’s just an occasional thing for us,” Chris told him with a grin as he cooked the last chicken in the remaining lard, which was reserved for an expected visit from Sergeant Reyes later. “Maybe we’ll try feeding you two a properly seared and seasoned steak next time. If we can find a good analog meat for it, anyway.”

“And for dessert… the best of both worlds!” Marco put a plate of varied griffon pastries followed by the cider keg on the table. He then yanked a protruding cloth tab from the keg bottom, causing a muffled splash and boiling sound. “This is what we’re promised is the ‘best dang cider in all Equestria!’” he affected a familiar accent that immediately gave Gilda a series of very unpleasant flashbacks.

“Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough alcohol,” Tara demurred as she patted her lips with a cloth napkin from beside Gilda. “I now stick to a strict two-drink limit, given what you may recall happened the last time I exceeded it?” She grimaced, and Gilda caught winces from Chris and Marco as well.

“It’s okay, Tara. This isn’t hard cider. You weren’t there, but the mare we got the keg from said this was their best non-alcoholic and ‘non-special’ brew—whatever the hell that last part means,” Marco said with a shrug as he picked it up to rotate it so the sealed tap was facing outwards.

“Not special? But the keg says that it’s their ‘special reserve’,” Tara pointed out with a soft talon aimed at the stylized Equish letters burned into the barrel.

“It does? Huh, I don’t remember seeing that before, but I guess I wasn’t looking, either.” Marco shrugged. “Chris and I initially wanted their hard cider. But when I told her where we were going to take it, she said that griffon customs wouldn’t let their alcoholic or ‘special’ cider into the Kingdom—something about an unfair trade advantage or running afoul of ‘really dumb rules about certain ingredients’.”

“She’s right,” Fortrakt confirmed. “The Kingdom tends to impose tariffs or outright bans of certain pony products, especially alcoholic ones, in order to protect local distilleries and Caleponian produce prices.

“The reason is that the ponies can generally make them much more cheaply and quickly than we can,” he further explained, leaving Gilda guessing that the reason he could recite that so easily was that his clan was heavily involved in cross-ocean trade with Equestria.

“Really? Had no idea. So anyway, she gave us this keg instead, which she promised was their best non-alcoholic brew.” Marco shrugged. “Seems stupid given we could spike it ourselves, but there you are. She also said to drink it hot, and that pulling the strip would activate a mulling crystal at the bottom of the keg, there. Said it would heat it up and really enhance the spices.”

Gilda thought about asking them about the mare, but then thought better of it as steam began to seep out around the seams of the barrel. If It’s who I think, then I REALLY don’t want to know…

“Well, it certainly smells good…” Fortrakt granted as his nose twitched, and even Gilda was surprised to find the aroma alluring. “Though it does seem a little pointless if there’s no alcohol.”

“Like I said, we could always spike it!” Marco suggested with a smile, holding up and waving his flask of buffalo whiskey, to which Fortrakt’s green eyes lit up. “You had trouble drinking this straight, but how about diluted?”

“Yes! Definitely!” Fortrakt nodded eagerly, waiting for Marco to break the seal on the keg tap. He did so with a flourish, sending a stream of brown liquid into Fortrakt’s drink bowl.

“Before adding any liquor, better try it first, Fortrakt. Make sure that mare didn’t lie just to sneak it through customs,” Gilda told him, as despite her pretensions of honesty, she didn’t trust any of Rainbow’s friends.

“Yes, sir,” he groused, but obeyed, taking a long sniff of the steaming liquid before dipping his beak in. “Whoa… I don’t taste any alcohol, but even straight from the tap, it’s really good! Some nice spices and bite, and whoever that mare was, she’s right—it’s better heated. Try some, Decurion!” he implored her.

“Fine, whatever,” Gilda said a little more shortly than she meant to, not wanting to give any credit to a friend of Rainbow. But once a second bowl was poured for her, she took a sip and blinked. “Huh. Not what I was expecting.”

“That’s Gilda-speak for ‘I like it’,” Fortrakt teased, earning a glower.

“Well, if even Miss-Call-Me-Decurion likes it...” Marco rejoined with a grin as he filled a mug for himself, taking his first sip and then staring down at it in surprise.

“Grabe! That mare wasn’t lying. I think that’s the best cider I’ve ever had, hard or otherwise. I’m not sure what’s in it, but it’s got enough flavor and crispness that I don’t think it needs anything else!” He decided as he put his flask away, pouring out mugs for Tara and Chris in turn.

“Cheers, folks.” He said as he served them. Chris tried his mug first, sniffing at it with his prominent nose before taking a long draw on it.

“You’re right. That’s damned good,” he granted as he put the mug to the side to continue cleaning. “Okay, we’ve had our dinner, and now we have our dessert and cider. So, what are we going to do for a movie tonight?” he wondered aloud as he started on the final set of dishes.

Marco downed his entire mug and began to refill it before answering; Gilda wasn’t sure in the light of the still-flickering cooking fire given his darker skin, but it looked like there was a slight flush to his cheeks.

“Well, we could do another action flick with swordplay, like was suggested yesterday. But you know what? I think Dana’s expulsion calls for a very special celebration. Since it’s only us adults here, I could always show our guests some very hot X-rated action! Maybe even some high-quality hentai!” he suggested with a lopsided grin.

Tara looked up at him sharply from where she’d been eating a pastry, her cider mug still untouched. “Are you crazy? We are not showing them porn, Marco!”

“Porn?” Fortrakt echoed in some confusion, looking up from his bowl. “You used that word before. What does it—?”

“He means he could show you and Gilda movies centered around humans having sex.” Tara rolled her eyes, causing Fortrakt’s to go wide in turn. “Just take my advice—don’t. I don’t know what stuff he has, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.”

“Hey, come on girl! If you’re worried about quality, I don’t do skanky! I’ll have you know that my stuff is nothing but the finest of filth!” Marco announced grandly, tapping on the lower half of his device as Tara just rolled her eyes again.

“Knowing some of what you like, that doesn’t exactly fill me with faith, Marco,” she said dryly as she picked up her own mug for the first time and took a large gulp, blinking once. “Wow. You guys weren’t kidding. That’s really good…”

Chris turned to Gilda from the sink, caught her eye and winked. “Well, I think it’s a good idea, Tara—since we’re receiving cultural training from our hosts, it’s only fair that they get some in return! I’m sure it would be very educational to them!

“No doubt a strapping young soldier like Fortrakt here wouldn’t mind seeing what a naked human female looks like, or the many ways they can mate!” he suggested with a second wink at Gilda, who gave him an evil grin back.

“Uh…” Fortrakt blushed hard and nearly dropped his bowl, earning a stifled snicker from Gilda and a facepalm from Tara. “Th-thanks, but I’ll pass. I really don’t think I’d be comfortable with that,” he explained awkwardly, fidgeting slightly as he gave another furtive glance towards Tara, followed by a far more pleading look towards Gilda.

Her smile grew at his reaction. She was sorely tempted to announce they would watch whatever ‘porn’ the brown-skinned human had, just to see her junior partner squirm and perhaps even be forced to hide his hindquarters again. But that would mean she would have to watch it as well, and she couldn’t fathom that she would find the sight of furless apes rutting even remotely titillating. Or anything other than incredibly uncomfortable to outright nauseating.

Thus, she gave the response that Fortrakt was praying for. “All joking aside, I’ll pass as well,” Gilda confirmed. “With apologies, you’ll understand that there are certain things I really don’t care to see.”

“Well said, girlfriend.” Tara smiled and offered her a fistbump with her blunt talons. Gilda returned the smile and gesture, recognizing the odd title as a term of endearment. “The more I know you, the more I like you.” The human woman tipped her mug to Gilda in respect, and then brought it up to her mouth.

“Likewise, Tara. It’s good to know somecreature—er, somebody—does,” she quickly corrected her sentence to the preferred human usage; her thoughts going back to Rainbow yet again as she dipped her beak into her bowl a second time. Tara, Gilda had already noted before, had some characteristics in common with her former friend, including a take-no-guff attitude as well as a certain assertiveness she very much respected.

But unlike Rainbow, she stood by her friends through calm and gale, even when they screwed up. By her own statement, she’d taken it upon herself to beat up Dana to make sure that her friends wouldn’t bear any blame for it—to make sure that only she would get punished, and not them.

Huh. You know, I guess I really do understand Fortrakt’s attraction to her, Gilda granted with her thoughts as her tongue licked out to clean the cider from her beak. She’s not only got the mindset of an eagless, but she’s the kind of friend that Rainbow SHOULD have been… “For what it’s worth, Tara, I think you’d make a very good griffon.”

“So I’m now an honorary eagless? I’m flattered,” she said with a smile and a nod of respect. “Wait—does that mean I have to walk on all fours now?”

“And be naked, too,” Marco reminded her with a wink, earning a return look from Tara that was, to Gilda’s eyes, equal parts annoyed and amused. “Come on, Tara—you’ve been granted asylum in the Kingdom, remember? Well, since you’re now an honorary griffon, it’s time to start acting like one!”

Though Gilda would have taken offense, Tara’s reaction was far more tolerant. “So now you want live porn? Then you’re going to have to offer me something a lot stronger than cider, Marco,” she informed him as she took another long draw on her mug. “And quite frankly, I don’t think the Decurion here cares to see it.”

“You got that right,” Gilda confirmed with a roll of her eyes as she took another drink of her own. She glanced over to Fortrakt, noting he was now listening to the conversation with very keen interest; she gave him a glare to make sure he didn’t speak whatever heady thoughts he was suddenly having.

“So that’s a no to human porn from you, too? It hardly seems fair, Gilda,” Marco addressed her as he finished off his second mug of cider. “I mean, we get to see you guys naked all the time, but you still haven’t seen us unclothed!”

“Then feel free to strip down right here, Marco.” Tara instantly turned the tease back on him before Gilda could think of a retort, holding up her smaller rectangle to record him as Dana had done earlier that morning. “Go on. I’m sure all our friends back home could use a good laugh! By the time we go back through the portal, we’ll have an entire playlist of your escapades in Equestria… and now here!”

“Et tu, Tara?” Marco made a show of putting on a pouting look, causing Gilda to blink again at the casual use of an Aeric phrase. “Mocking me again! Are you sure you’re not secretly Dana in disguise?” He raised a foreleg to his head in a manner reminiscent of one of Rainbow’s only slightly-less-dweeby friends.

In response, she gave him a level look over her second mug of hot cider; to Gilda’s eyes, there seemed to be a beginning of a flush on her pale cheeks as well. “I’ll put it this way, Marco—I know Dana was wrong about your ‘flip-boy dick’ being unable to satisfy.” Her arched eyeridge quickly gave way to a sultry gleam. “I may not remember much else about that night, but I do remember that. So, feel free to show us all.”

“Don’t tempt me, girl,” Marco motioned with a hand down his body, turning as if to present himself in offering. “Or tempt yourself!”

“Uh, do you two need a room?” Chris asked mildly, though there was also a sudden edge to his voice. “Or just a lot of liquor again? You may not remember everything that happened that night, but I sure do! I had to clean up after both of you when you got sick, and then get you over the hangovers after!”

“No,” they both answered with a sudden chagrined air and an accompanying grimace. “We learned our lesson, Chris.” Tara added.

“I should hope so,” he replied mildly. “Because that was nearly the end of our team and our friendships.”

“Wait—Tara? You mean… you and Marco?” Fortrakt reached the same uncomfortable conclusion that Gilda did, with the latter instantly lowering her opinion of the two humans by several notches.

I thought Tara had taste. But to be with HIM? She wasn’t sure why she felt a sudden sense of envy to go along with her disdain.

“Trust me, my griffon friend, we’re not proud,” Marco replied ruefully.

“It was a drunken fling nearly a year ago, following a celebration over Marco getting his citizenship,” Tara said shortly, rubbing her forehead at the memory. “It should never have happened, but one thing led to another—or more correctly, one drink led to another—and we both deeply regretted it the next day.”

“Why? He wasn’t any good?” Gilda wasn’t sure why she had voiced her guess out loud.

“Gilda!” Fortrakt exclaimed, but Tara answered anyway.

“He was fine, at least from what I can remember. I know I enjoyed it while it happened. But I did not enjoy what came after.” She rubbed her eyes again, taking another long draw on her cider as if to fortify herself.

“You said it. The physical hangover from all the liquor we had was bad enough. The emotional hangover was worse,” Marco confirmed, taking another hard swallow of his own. “No joke—it felt like a knife to the stomach after. We couldn’t be around each other for the next week, and it was hard to even look at each other for the next month. We nearly had to stop seeing each other entirely after that.”

“That bad, huh…?” Fortrakt asked; Gilda recognized that he was trying very hard to sound casual.

“Like Chris says, it nearly cost us our friendship, and it took time to overcome. We eventually just decided to treat it as a one-time thing, and to never do it again,” Tara explained. “We may still tease each other over it, but that’s more to say we’re okay with it now rather than that we want to do it again. Believe me, we learned our lesson. In the end, we—by which I mean all three of us—make much better friends than lovers.”

“You said it,” Marco agreed, clicking his mug gently to hers like a fistbump. “Though in fairness, I haven’t been with anyone else since then… well, except my porn,” he mused, and this time, it was definite to Gilda—he was getting a flush on his cheeks.

“TMI, Marco,” Tara said with another roll of her eyes. “Why did we start talking about this again?”

“Because you said my ‘flip-boy dick’ was good enough for you,” an unrepentant Marco reminded her with a twinkle. “You started it, girl.”

“Then I’m finishing it,” she replied coolly, though the sultry gleam in her gaze didn’t quite disappear. “I think we’re making our guests and Chris uncomfortable, so let’s stop talking about it.”

“Yes. Let’s,” Chris said shortly before Gilda could, throwing back the remainder of his mug for emphasis. “You two at least have some pleasant memories of that night. For what you put me through, I don’t have any.”

“No, it’s okay…” Fortrakt was processing all he heard with some difficulty, struck speechless by the revelation.

Watching him carefully as he hurriedly gulped down the contents of his bowl and then went for a refill, Gilda found she was relieved that he was so dweeby. For a more aggressive tiercel might have issued an immediate challenge upon learning that a friend had bedded an eagless he now desired, whether there was a prohibition against fighting humans or not.

“One question, though, and I’m sorry if it’s a stupid one—what does ‘flip-boy’ mean? I mean, it seems like everybody keeps calling you that, Marco…” Fortrakt then asked, surprising Gilda when he got the usage of everybody right the first time.

All three humans exchanged glances again before Marco answered. “It loosely means ‘Filipino boy’—I’m a Filipino, as I come from an island nation called the Philippines.”

“The Philippines…” Fortrakt repeated, while Gilda tried to remember why the name was vaguely familiar. “That’s near where the portal to your world opened, right?” she was instantly reminded.

“Yes. But the point is, there are certain… connotations to that term that aren’t nice. Understand, I don’t mind hearing it from the Marines or Tara here, because from them, it’s meant affectionately. But coming from Dana… it was a slur,” he explained through narrowed eyes; Gilda had the distinct impression that if he had a tail, it would have lashed.

“A slur? Like some ponies calling us ‘chickenhawks’?” Fortrakt guessed as he started into his second bowl of cider.

“Yeah. And if you want to know what she meant by ‘flip-boy dick’, there’s a certain stereotype about people from my region having a small… you know.” He growled, motioning down his body again.

“Which he doesn’t,” Tara replied emphatically, leaning back against a wall.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Gilda replied evenly, quickly recovering her respect for the human eagless. In truth, she was amazed that Tara had not only remained friends with him after all that, but even felt compelled to defend his masculinity.

She also found that upon reflection, she couldn’t really hold it against them anyway. If she was being fair, such circumstances as they described weren’t unknown in the Kingdom; many were the tales told of rounds and rutting sessions between griffons of much different ranks or stations that should never have happened, but did due to a great deal of inebriation.

Rounds and rutting sessions that tended to be, just like Marco and Tara, deeply regretted after. Crows know I had the same thing happen to me with that Nova Ocelota eagless. What was her name again? Owlia Accipiter…? she recalled with a fresh grimace, suddenly remembering keenly the uncomfortable look on the other female’s face as she realized how inebriated—and utterly inexperienced and emotionally needy—Gilda truly was.

In the end, Gilda was certain Owlia had gone through with it more out of politeness and pity than anything else, with neither of them enjoying it and each making a flimsy excuse to part quickly the following morning.

But that had been in civilian life. When it happened between soldiers in the same chain of command in the griffon military, it often led to both parties being severely disciplined. They were typically docked rank and pay for violating the Kingdom’s strict policies against soldier fraternization, followed by one or both offenders being transferred out for their corrosive effect on morale and obedience to orders.

So I guess I can’t begrudge it, given it happened to me and my reaction was to leave town entirely. Even now, I can only imagine how I’d feel if I woke up in bed with, say, Fortrakt after a drunken roll in the bed straw, let alone with a human. Let alone with MARCO! she could scarcely imagine. Even if he does smell nice, is well-endowed, can cook, and honorably defends his friends…

Gilda blinked hard, startled by the unexpected swing in her thoughts. “So, about this movie you wanted to show us…?” She decided it was best to change the subject, not wanting to think about human mating in general or Marco’s malehood in particular any more than she had to. How did we get on these topics again? she wondered as she finished off her first bowl of cider and passed it to Tara to refill.

“Oh, right! You said you had movies with swordplay, Marco? Well, I’d like to see one!” a relieved Fortrakt requested eagerly, apparently satisfied that Marco was no threat to his interest in Tara.

Marco looked only too happy to oblige him. “Your wish is my command, my griffon friend! So, let’s see… swordplay…” he mused mostly to himself as he sat down at the desk in front of his glowing window, beginning to make a series of swiping motions with a finger against the surface.

“Well, as previously offered, there’s The Princess Bride, though that’s as much a comedy as an adventure. There’s also the Lord of the Rings series, which has tons of sword battles, and then there’s Gladiator, Braveheart, The Last Samurai, The 13th Warrior, 300… or for a more modern look, maybe the Kill Bill movies?”

“Scratch Samurai, and Kill Bill,” Chris spoke up immediately as he finished cleaning up and closed the cabinet on the scrubbed and dried dishes. “We can’t show them those.”

“We can’t? What do you mean we—?” Marco trailed off as Chris made an odd gesture with a hand, curling most of it into a fist except for his opposable talon and the one next to it, which he kept extended and pointed forward as he raised it to point at Marco, then twitched it sharply upwards. Understanding then dawned on the brown-skinned human’s face. “Oh, right. The rules.”

“Rules?” Fortrakt said in confusion, having no more idea what the gesture meant than Gilda.

Marco, Chris and Tara all looked at each other. It was the latter who spoke first. “There are certain things we’re not allowed to show you,” she explained carefully. “Not by our choice, but it was one of the conditions we agreed to in order to come here. To be honest, they would probably have banned Marco from bringing his movie collection if they knew what was in it. And looking back, we were skirting the rules just by showing you Warrior.

“I don’t see why. I mean, they didn’t actually—"

“Marco!” Chris and Tara snapped before he could complete his sentence, causing him to blink.

“Right. Sorry. Guess I’m not thinking clearly.”

“There’s a first,” Tara teased, earning a snicker and fistbump from Gilda.

“Fuck you too, Tara,” Marco rejoined in a far more playful tone than Dana had used when speaking that phrase; Gilda had guessed by then that fuck was a rather severe human oath involving a very coarse and vulgar term for rutting. “Oh, wait—I already did!”

He gave her the same suggestive thrust of his hips he had when Gilda first saw him outside the air carriage the day of their arrival—had that really been nearly a week ago? It seemed like a small eternity since then—but this time, she found herself at least somewhat less offended by it, now that she knew him and the circumstances behind it better.

“Down, boy,” Tara replied with a waggle of an extended blunt talon. “Don’t make me get out the squirt bottle.”

“Squirt bottle? With the way this conversation’s been going, we need a fire hose!” Chris replied acidly. “What is with you two? Will you please get off it? I am not going through that again!” he downed the remaining half of his cider mug and then pointedly stepped between them to refill it.

“Seconded,” Gilda quickly concurred. “As amusing as this has been, I think Fortrakt and I have heard enough.”

“Right,” Tara agreed, sitting down on a low lounge sofa beside a discomfited Fortrakt. “Sorry, guys. Not sure where all that came from.”

Despite the latest exchange, which resulted in a renewed flush on Fortrakt’s cheeks, Gilda’s interest was piqued—from what they were saying, there were things the humans didn’t want griffons to see?

But what would those be? Less desirable parts of their society? Then she remembered that Fortrakt had said the Marines told him they weren’t allowed to discuss their weapons with him. Could this restriction have something to do with that?

If so, it could only mean there would be something in the mentioned movies that might indicate what those weapons actually were, and how they worked. But why bother if they’re just blunt weapons like we guessed? Unless…

She realized two things at that moment as she took another swallow of cider. First, that there was really only one possible reason for it—a reason that would likely upend all their earlier assumptions—and second, that the humans were likely playing the same spying game with the Kingdom as the Council of Crows was doing with them.

Guess I didn’t give them enough credit, and neither did the Kingdom. They’re definitely not as dweeby as they first seem… she somewhat grudgingly conceded as she licked her beak clean again after her latest dip into her cider bowl, wondering only in passing why the edges of her vision seemed to be turning pink.

It would all be in her next report, but until then, she lounged out and settled into a floor pillow as the projector was readied again. Tara sat to her right, while Fortrakt—once he determined where she was sitting—put Gilda between him and her, sitting to her left. Which Gilda didn’t actually mind, given that he gave her separation from Marco in turn.

“Let’s watch The Princess Bride,” Tara said as the question was posed of which remaining movie to watch. “I think Marco was right when he suggested it yesterday. After how intense the last couple days have been, we could all use some lighter fare. And some serious downtime.”

“Sold,” Chris said as he prepared some popcorn over the embers of the dying fire they’d also imported from Equestria. Once it was ready, he drizzled it with melted butter and salted it before passing it out to everycreature, splitting it into several large bowls to share between them. “Now we’re ready. Marco, will you do the honors?”

“My pleasure,” he said as the firegems were lowered to nearly no illumination. He then made a series of additional taps and motions on the bottom of his clamshell portal device, causing the projector to begin to glow and project an image of what looked like a title page, accompanied by the sound of a coughing cub.

“Enjoy, folks! It’s a family-friendly fantasy adventure with a strong measure of both swordplay and humor. And Chris, could you pour me another mug of cider…?”

9: Intrigue and Aftermath

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“Ugh…” Gilda moaned as her gold eyes fluttered open, only to quickly snap shut again at the painful level of light in the room. She felt both chilled and feverish at the same time as a shiver of cold passed through her body, even under whatever blanket she lay beneath. “Where am I…?”

“Easy there, Decurion,” a male human voice speaking Equish broke into her thoughts—the Marine healer?—as she felt the blanket being pulled up further over her. “Just lie still. You’re going to be fine.”

“Fine?” Gilda echoed. She sensed something was wrong with her, but she wasn’t sure what; she tried to raise her head only for it to fall back to the pillow beneath it almost instantly, a series of aches and shivers suddenly shooting through her like she’d last felt when she was down hard with the feather flu. “What… happened?” She switched to Equish as well.

“A long story,” Gilda then recognized Tribune Narada’s voice, etched with a rare note of concern. “And one we were hoping you might yet be able to shed some light on. Welcome back, Decurion. You’ve been unconscious for nearly two days now.”

“Two… days?” Gilda said in disbelief through her very pasty beak, trying but failing to pull together her last memories as she struggled to focus her eyes and raise a foreleg. “But why am I…?”

She was finally able to see and immediately wished she couldn't, finding there was a long, thin tube running into her foreleg just above her talons, where her fur had been shaved from a small area. It was thin, clear and flexible, held to her bare skin with some kind of odd adhesive strips. And at the point it met her arm...

A wave of nausea shot through her as she realized what was happening—they were pouring fluid into her body… through a needle in her foreleg!

She had to stifle an abrupt urge to vomit and faint, suddenly feeling in danger of falling right off the low table. “Get… that… thing… out of me!” She tried to reach over to rip it out, only to be firmly restrained by a pair of human hands on her weakened foreleg and torso, which held them fast.

“Lie still!” she was ordered again by the human healer. “I’m sorry, Decurion, but for now, it has to stay. When we found you, you and the others were so badly dehydrated we had to get fluids into you quickly, and then leave them in to keep you hydrated afterwards while you were unconscious,” he explained shortly, not letting go.

“It’s not going to hurt you… unless you rip it out. It’s there for a good reason. If you don’t want to see it, I can hide it, at least.” He began to wrap the area with a soft bandage made of some form of stretchy fabric. “When you feel ready, we can try feeding you some soft foods and fluids, but until you can eat and drink on your own without throwing it back up, the tube stays.”

“Crows take it…” Gilda groused, realizing she was too weak to remove it anyway.

“I thank you for your care of my stricken soldiers, Staff Sergeant Cullen,” Narada acknowledged. “With your permission, I would like to speak with her privately now.”

“I’m afraid I can’t permit that, Tribune,” he replied apologetically. “Orders from the Captain. We are not to allow her or your other soldiers to be interviewed without him present.”

“Then please summon him,” she requested somewhat shortly, not used to having her wishes denied. But the Inn was what amounted to a foreign consulate, and thus, she had no jurisdiction over those inside it—not even her own Auxiliary Guard soldiers. “As well as the Ambassador and Senior Sparrow, if you would.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied to a startled look from Narada. The odd address also caused Gilda to blink as he nodded to a sentry, who pulled out some form of communication device and spoke into it.

Ma’am? Gilda repeated the Equish word, which as far as she knew, was a pony form of address used strictly for female teachers or managers. Never heard it used on a military officer! She could scarcely imagine Narada’s response to being called that by a griffon, imagining latrine duty would be the least of the punishments she would impose.

Several minutes later, Ambassador Strenus entered, followed by another Marine officer—a higher ranked one than Nantz, to judge by the two silver bars on the side of his immaculately creased uniform shirt lapels as opposed to the single silver bar the Lieutenant had. He was wearing the same kind of tool-equipped utility belt seen on the Marine sentries standing at the door of the makeshift infirmary, who were now in what she assumed was full battle armor, armed with the longer black tubes that the ones outside were equipped with.

He was a tall human with fair features and a more weathered face than Nantz, with hair nearly as blonde as Tara’s. He looked a bit more trim in comparison to Nantz’s bulky arms, giving Gilda the impression that the difference between the two physically was somewhat akin to that between Earth and Sky Griffons—one being stronger and the other being swifter.

Her thoughts were cut short as he spotted Narada first and went up to her to introduce himself.

“Greetings, Tribune. I’m Captain Miles Moran, overall commanding officer of the Ambassador’s Marine security forces.” He gave her a human-style salute and then offered his hand for a forearm clasp. “I believe we met once before, on the day of our arrival.”

“Yes, I recall,” Narada replied as she returned the honor and the offered greeting. “I am truly sorry for the circumstances, Captain, though I do thank your soldiers for their professionalism in taking such good care of my griffons. As I’m sure you’re already aware, this is my subordinate, Decurion Grizelda Behertz.” She motioned to where Gilda lay, who turned over just enough to offer a shaky salute, wondering if she’d ever feel anything but weak again.

He returned the salute crisply with a straightened hand and talons held at an angle to his forehead. “A pleasure, Decurion. You have my sympathies and sincerest apologies for what happened. But now that I’m here, I can at least report that on one point, you are very much praiseworthy.”

“Oh?” Narada said with a glance up at him.

“Yes. You will be happy to know, Tribune, that even under the influence of whatever unholy magical cocktail she drank, she was conscientious of her duties, as she took great pains to write a report on… something she learned about us. We found her report scroll on a desk in the civilian suite, carefully rolled up and sealed, awaiting delivery to you.

“With apologies, we had to confiscate that report, as it contained not just some rather... lurid personal perspectives on the events of that night, but what we consider sensitive information.”

“I… did?” Gilda blinked. “Am I really… that dweeby…?”

“I see…” Narada said with the barest hint of a smile. “Well, I think that could be forgiven.”

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Decurion,” Ambassador Strenus greeted her next. “It may interest you to know that Second Spear Gletscher and the three civilian humans are in worse shape than you. You’re only the second to wake up, after First Spear Giraldi.”

“Giraldi?” Gilda blinked hard. “Why is he here?”

Strenus and Narada exchanged a glance. “You don’t remember?”

“No…” She grimaced again, finding the effort to recall the night’s events painful as well as unfruitful. “Should I?”

“Before I answer, what do you last remember?” Narada asked her carefully.

“Uh…” Gilda struggled for a second time to focus through the chills, pain and pastiness she felt, but to little avail. She could recall dinner, the keg of cider, some teasing of Fortrakt—had he gotten excited and accidentally exposed himself? Or had she just imagined it?—and the first part of some dweeby movie for human cubs. But after that…

“We had dinner and were going to watch a movie… wait. Did Giraldi come by?” she seemed to vaguely recall. “I think I remember seeing him… and Lieutenant Nantz…”

“And Merlina Marcus?” the Captain broke in with a sudden edge to his voice. “The Innkeeper’s daughter?”

“Uh…” Gilda’s eyes squinted painfully again, finding her headache worsening as she tried to focus through her pain and the foggy haze that surrounded that night. “I think so… she was with… Nantz?”

“You could say that.” The human officer visibly winced at the term she used. “Anything else?”

“No…” she admitted at some length, finding her memories simply disappeared into a deepening pink haze the further into the night she probed, as if gradually enveloped by a thick Loondon fog. “What… happened?”

“This happened,” the human healer replied, holding up what looked like a wooden barrel rib from a keg. “The cider you drank.”

“Cider?” Gilda echoed uncomprehendingly. “But it wasn’t—”

“It wasn’t alcoholic, no. But it was made from zap apples,” Strenus informed her, causing Gilda’s eyes to go wide. “I assume from your time in Equestria that you know its effects well.”

Gilda blinked and groaned as suddenly much became clear. “So that’s what the pink in my vision was…” she belatedly realized, then recalled its effects on everycreature. “Ancestors above, do I… want to know what I did?”

“I’m afraid we can’t say,” Narada said shortly. “You and Fortrakt were seen leaving the human suite late that night by Marine sentries, who said you appeared quite inebriated and were ‘slobbering over each other’ like you were going to rut. We then found you late the next morning after failing to report for duty, passed out in a pile with each other in the Second Spear’s room.”

Gilda had to stifle a renewed urge to vomit up the nonexistent contents of her empty stomach, and not just from the needle in her arm. “Please don’t tell me I rutted Fortrakt! Ancestors above, he’s… way too dweeby for me…” She coughed hard at the end of her statement, to which the human healer offered her a bowl of cool water.

“Good to see the Gilda we know and love is still there, Decurion,” Narada said with a hint of a smile as Gilda tried to drink from the bowl. She managed a single sip of water with some difficulty, but found her stomach turning over from even that minor amount of liquid.

“We don’t know what happened between you two. But we do know what happened to you,” Strenus answered carefully after a glance at Narada. “The Council of Crows analyzed the cider you drank, and found it was not only made with zap apples, but also spiked with a potent Equestrian aphrodisiac potion the ponies call ‘Fruitful Fields’,” he informed her.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s a strictly regulated prescription magic used by pony herds to increase fertility and interest during estrus, to be used only by herds whose mares are having trouble bearing foals. It’s designed to be equally effective on both genders to facilitate mating for those who want to conceive, and it even works well on humans, it seems. It's available through the Kingdom’s pharmacies for limited use by the Caleponians.”

Gilda was aghast. “Chris, Tara and Marco… fed us that?”

“Don’t blame them. There’s no way they could have either obtained such a potion or added it to a sealed cider barrel themselves. So somecreature else must have done it,” Strenus replied angrily. “Typically, only small doses of that potion are prescribed, given its potency and highly addictive nature. But what all of you got was a lot more than small.”

“And worse, its effects were then redoubled by the zap apples, which are known to catalyze and boost all forms of magic, including spellcasting and alchemy,” Narada finished. “The effects in this instance… I’m sure you can well imagine.”

“I don’t have to imagine it. I’m living it!” Gilda could only groan again, wishing she could manage some more water, and worse, feeling a renewed craving for the cider itself; she was further stunned when she felt a sudden wish to be rutted as she lay fallow on the table before them, in what she guessed was an ongoing but very unwelcome aftereffect of the fertility potion. “Gah! Crows take it…”

“It would have been preferable if they did,” Narada replied dryly, even if she had no idea what Gilda was actually thinking. “The question before us now is, how did that spiked cider get inside the Kingdom’s borders, and to what end was it brought here? Even under diplomatic escort, it should have been confiscated upon arrival. Customs should have detected it as contraband magic.”

“But only if it was there when they arrived,” a new voice broke in, though this one was a far more unwelcome one. “Greetings, Decurion Behertz. How do you feel?” Senior Sparrow Tarseus asked as she entered the room, looking more than a little haggard and sleepless. She was greeted with a terse nod by Strenus and Narada, and narrowed eyes by Captain Moran, giving Gilda the impression they’d already met.

“Like I just fought a mating round with a Minotaur…” she groaned. “And I’m afraid I might have.”

“Well, I can at least assure you there were no Minotaurs present that night,” the Senior Sparrow offered a mild joke, only to receive an unamused glare back. “On the subject of how they got the cider, the short answer is—they didn’t.

“We’ve already contacted the ponies through the Equestrian Embassy. It would seem the mare who sold them the cider is a friend of Princess Twilight Sparkle, who investigated this matter personally in the presence of one of our embassy agents from Canterlot. She—and he—sent us a full accounting of their findings that I received not ten minutes ago.”

“Twilight Sparkle?” Moran broke in. “I met her in Equestria. Among other things, she seemed to be a very earnest and… thorough mare.”

“I suppose that’s one word for it,” the Senior Sparrow said shortly. “Her reports and articles are usually drowned in irrelevant details, but that’s unimportant right now. According to both her and our agent, the mare in question swore ‘on the graves of her parents’ that she didn’t sell the human civilians zap apple cider, and her receipts seem to confirm it,” she conceded grudgingly.

“Receipts can be faked. Can this mare be trusted?” Captain Moran asked.

“Princess Twilight promised us she can. The mare also gave our agent an earful when he suggested that she deliberately gave them the wrong cider so she could slip it through customs, in hopes that griffons might gain a taste for it.

“She took particular offense at the notion that they’d spiked it with some ‘danged dangler dandelion’”—that was a pony term for a naturally occurring aphrodisiac they had, Gilda recalled—“claiming that ‘our cider don’t need no help’ and ‘anypony who thinks I’d foist that on somecreature I just met in hopes of making them get it on with a griffie don’t know me at all!” she quoted directly from the report, even managing a passable Gnashvillian accent.

“Such refreshing bluntness from an Equestrian pony? I like her already,” Narada approved with a grin.

If it’s the mare I’m thinking, then I’m surprised she didn’t buck whatever griffon accused her of lying clear into the next pony province! Gilda had to stifle a smile of her own despite her aches and chills. She didn’t care much for Rainbow’s friends, but at least that one had the muscle to back up her muzzle.

“I’m glad you did, because she definitely didn’t like our agent. When pressed further, she informed us that she could find out who the keg in our possession was really sold to. She said that each keg had a serial number on it—in not one, but two places.

“It turned out whoever procured the keg doctored the number on the outside to the one she’d originally sold them, but not the one on the inside,” the Senior Sparrow further explained. “That’s cleverer than the ponies usually are, so we broke apart the keg to get the real serial number, which was burned into the wood on the inner bottom of the empty barrel, and sent it to her.”

“And…?” the Ambassador prompted again, to which she unfurled another report scroll.

“It turns out that keg was sold just two weeks ago… to a Saddle Arabian trade merchant and information broker who does business with multiple intelligence services, including ours.

“Zap Apple Cider is considered halal and thus legal in Saddle Arabia, so whoever hired him knew he could purchase and transport it. We tracked him down in Loondon, and—once we paid his fee—he said he was contracted by a zebra stallion to purchase and then deliver it to a certain secluded point in the city, where it was picked up by unknown agents.”

“And he agreed to this… why?” Moran wanted to know, tapping his fingers on the tray beside Gilda as he listened to the report.

“Because he’s a merchant who is frequently paid to make purchases for others without asking questions. It makes him valuable to all sides but disposable to none, for to kill him would be to instantly alert other factions that some business he did was dangerous and cause it to be uncovered,” she explained with a shrug.

“Sounds like a real piece of work. I don’t suppose you asked him why he thought he was buying it?”

For the first time, the Senior Sparrow looked annoyed. “Hard as it may be to believe, we in the Council of Crows do know our business, Captain. He says he wasn’t told what it was for, which is hardly surprising, but he assumed it was for simple smuggling of Equestrian contraband to underground Zebrican alchemy rings in the city—not an unlikely assumption, given such smuggling is not that rare an occurrence.

“Unfortunately, we could trace it no further than the drop point, though it now seems clear this was intended from the start to find its way here.”

“To what end?” Ambassador Strenus wondered aloud.

“We cannot say. Perhaps—”

“Theft of human technology, and an attempt to thwart an alliance between humans and griffons,” Moran answered instantly. “Hard as it may be to believe, we in the American military know our business as well, Senior Sparrow. It’s clear that this was a deliberate attack on my people… and yours.”

“Attack? There was no attack!” the Senior Sparrow replied.

“No, but there could have been, and there was certainly a security breach,” Strenus pointed out angrily. “Zap apple overdose typically results in one of two outcomes among griffons—sex or violence, depending on what their mood and internal urges are at the time. This could have been an attempt to cause griffon soldiers to attack, rape or even slay their human civilian charges,” he noted, turning troubled. “The consequences of which could have been disastrous.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Captain Moran replied as Gilda listened quietly, increasingly uneasy.

Ancestors above—he’s right! If I had still been mad at Marco… she didn’t want to think as Moran went on.

“If that happened, my Marines might have been forced to kill said griffons to protect the civilians, and at an extreme, a battle might have then erupted between our two sides,” Moran echoed Gilda’s worried thought. “That would be the end of any potential alliance or trade agreement. And in the ensuing chaos it could have caused, it would also provide excellent cover to steal some of our technology and weapons—which, no thanks to your Council of Crows, has already happened.”

“What do you mean?” Tribune Narada asked.

“I mean that we have just discovered there were intruders present in the Inn that night, and we’re certain they took several sensitive items from us.”

The Senior Sparrow’s sleepless eyes narrowed. “With all due respect, there is no evidence of intruders, Captain.”

“No evidence?” Narada gave the derisive reply that Gilda wished to before she or the human Captain could. “Then how in the name of our Ancestors did the keg get switched without a break-in?”

“We don’t know when the switch of the keg was made,” Tarseus answered in some exasperation. “It could easily have happened before they arrived here, in transit.”

“So they just plucked it out of their air carriage in flight?” Narada pointed out dryly.

“Or at the point it was loaded or unloaded, or when the baggage was delivered to the Inn,” she replied in strained patience. “Trust me, it’s my job to think of these things.”

“We trusted you already, and you’re amply proving right now that we were wrong to do so,” Moran replied acidly. “I am not suggesting to you but outright telling you that there were magically shrouded intruders present in the Inn that night.”

She stared at him like he was crazy. “Captain Moran, I would remind you that you are not familiar with Tellusian concealment and illusion spells, but we are. We know how to detect and counter them, and I promise you that the Council of Crows has applied that knowledge to keep the Inn under surveillance and prevent intrusions the entire time you have been here.”

“Oh, really?” the human Captain asked in a contemptuous tone, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Yes, really. So no matter what else you may think of me, be assured that nocreature could enter the Inn without us knowing, magical shrouds or no.”

Moran stared at her before replying, the anger on his face growing. “And be assured, Senior Sparrow, that we did not rely entirely on your Council of Crows or the Kingdom’s military in securing our Inn from such intrusions. We did our homework before coming here, including regarding what illusion and concealment spells were available. They’re good but not perfect, and we found a gap in them we could exploit.”

“Exploit?” Gilda was certain Tarseus thought the human officer was bluffing.

“Yes,” the Captain growled. “Understand, Senior Sparrow, that we are less than pleased to discover that you were actively spying on us, and worse, using your own military liaisons to do so. I will be discussing this with Ambassador Goldberg later, and the only reason I am sharing information with you now is that we need your help.

“We know that the culprits behind this attempt on the lives of our civilians succeeded in breaking in and stealing some of our technology and weaponry, as I have reports of multiple missing items from the platoon stationed at the Inn following their presence. We want you and the Council of Crows to get them back, immediately.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I do not take orders from—"

“Your anger is understandable, Captain. And I’m sure the Senior Sparrow will exert every effort to recover them.” Strenus cut Tarseus off sharply and gave her a warning look. “Especially after I deliver my report to the Queen. I’m sure she will be most interested to hear that the Council of Crows prioritized espionage over the safety and security of our guests, and the soldiers who so faithfully guarded them.”

“Indeed we will,” she said shortly, her beak tight; Gilda couldn’t help but smile despite her continuing weakness and withdrawal symptoms, glad that somecreature was putting the arrogant eagless in her place. “Though it would help, Captain, if you would tell us exactly what items they took, and why they are so dangerous.”

The Captain’s eyes narrowed; even in her mentally weakened state, Gilda could spot the clumsy attempt to gain intelligence. “We will give you true-size pictures of the items, but that is all. Get them back, and do not attempt to analyze them first,” he warned. “The items are dangerous to those untrained in their use. And be assured, we will know if they have been examined or tampered with.”

Tarseus clearly did not like the corner she was being backed into, for which Gilda had no sympathy. “We will make every effort to find those responsible, and to get your property back.”

“Oh? And just how do you plan to do that?” he asked in a tone suggesting to Gilda that he was waiting for the Senior Sparrow to flail her wings just a little more.

“We have our ways,” she said shortly, then switched to Aeric. “Know, Ambassador, that we are already in contact with the Ravens, who are attempting to pick up the trail of the miscreants.

“But as there are many potential suspects from foreign intelligence agents to simple petty thieves hoping to sell such exotic items on underground markets, the scent is rather thin. It would help if we had a starting point, which I doubt our guests can provide,” she mocked them openly, to which Moran looked at her, eyes narrowed.

He then spoke to her in perfect Aeric, causing her to start. “Then let me relieve you of that doubt, Senior Sparrow. We can give you a starting point. We know there were intruders present that night because we captured an image of the culprits right through their magical shrouds.”

Tarseus looked up in surprise, which quickly turned to sneering doubt. “Very well, I’ll humor you, Commander. How?”

“It’s Captain. And as to how…” He pulled out one of the human portal devices. “We have had the hallways where our soldiers and civilians are billeted under constant camera surveillance, in addition to our armed sentries. Not long before sunrise, those sentries saw Second Spear Gletscher and the Decurion here walking down the hall from the civilian suite in a drunken manner.”

“And what of it?” Tarseus asked impatiently.

“This is what our visible cameras saw,” he said, showing them a playback of Gilda and Fortrakt walking armorless down the hallway, rubbing wings lewdly and laughing; even exchanging a series of lover’s licks as Fortrakt only half-jokingly mounted her at one point, causing a red-cheeked and giggling Gilda to push back against him as the Marines in the picture looked on in some distaste.

Watching it, Gilda’s cheeks flushed as red as they were in the image. “That can’t be me…” she was certain, wanting to kill whoever depicted her like a total dweeb slobbering over her own subordinate. “I don’t care how drunk on that crow-cursed cider I was, I would not have gotten it on with him!” she further protested, wishing she could also lose her memory of seeing herself like that.

To her surprise, the human officer turned sympathetic. “It wasn’t you,” he assured her. “I know because that was just a visible image. Which brings me to the subject of the flaw in your illusion and concealment spells, and how we know that’s not real. For you see, we have a second set of cameras that can see not light, but the very heat of living bodies—something those spells do not mask.”

“Body heat? You mean like dragons?” Tarseus spoke up. When he stared at her for a moment uncomprehendingly, she explained: “They can see heat, too.”

“I don’t know about that. But now look at this video from a heat-seeing camera down the same hall, recorded during the same time as the first.”

With another few motions of his fingers, a new video was placed side by side with the original, causing everycreature present to blink and stare. Not just at the second playback itself, which clearly depicted heat in terms of a spectrum of colors with blues being cold and reds to yellows being hot, but at the markedly different scene it showed.

The two images were slightly offset, as if taken from the opposite hallway ceiling edge at the same distance. Gilda might have been more amazed by the exotic technology and image, but for the fact that the heat-based picture did not show two figures walking down the hall.

It showed four!

The two in back, which did not appear in the visible images, appeared to be griffons, even if only their rough outlines could be made out—herself and Fortrakt?—suspended in the air by what had to be a magical aura and being carried along behind the lead pair of creatures. They were in the same locations and stances as her and Fortrakt were in the eyesight-based picture, but they took decidedly different forms.

The two magically disguised imposters were four-legged quadrupeds like her and Fortrakt, but they were otherwise anything but griffon. Their stocky outlines showed them to be wingless ungulates slightly larger than the average pony, but with a longer snout and two long, back-curved antlers on their heads. The latter shone brightly to the heat-sensing camera, which was to be expected as magical nexuses like horns and staves tended to warm up when large amounts of magic were being cast.

Their clothes, coats and facial features could not be made out in a purely heat-based image, but even depicted as they were, their race was instantly obvious to Gilda and every other griffon present; she felt an intense rage building within her even despite her continuing withdrawal symptoms as Captain Moran tapped the screen once to freeze the playback, showing their true forms clearly.

“Ibexians!” Gilda spat out the word, then coughed hard even as her temper flared into white-hot fury. “They did this to us!” she managed before another coughing fit erupted and she had to fall silent again.

Originally an alpine-dwelling race whose birthplace was rumored to be the rugged terrain of the Pearl Mountains, the Ibexians were a flightless but physically powerful and magically adept race. Their cloven hooves gave them uncanny climbing abilities that meant they could easily scale even the sheerest cliffs, enabling them to seize whatever high ground was available, as well as granting them a sharp striking surface they could use in combat to good effect.

And that was to say nothing of an array of powerful magics wielded by their twin horns, especially the much larger ones on the male of the pair; it was rumored that they were in fact a distantly related race of the Elder Rams, who had nearly not just defeated but annihilated the Gryphon Empire two decades before the War with Equestria.

“So, are you still going to claim your security was perfect and you kept out intruders, Senior Sparrow?” Moran inquired dryly. “Because it certainly looks to me like your nation’s biggest adversary just pulled off a successful infiltration and heist!”

“So it would seem…” Tarseus admitted wanly, starting to squirm under the angry gazes of all present as it became clear how grave her failure of duty had been. “We knew the Ibexian Ascendency had taken an interest in the arrival of humans, but I was told we had all their agents under surveillance and would know if they tried anything.”

“Then you were told wrong,” the Captain said in a prize understatement. “And now it appears they escaped cleanly with some of our technology, using the night’s events as a distraction—events they no doubt caused to give themselves cover! So just what do you plan to do about it, Senior Sparrow?”

As Gilda watched, the visibly flustered Tarseus had to pause long enough to gather herself. “We will find them, of course. Only the highly-trained ‘Capricorn’ adepts of their state security service, the Конклав Козерога, would have the skill and resources to carry out such an audacious operation.

“Thank you for supplying us with such surprising intelligence, and I must congratulate you on successfully analyzing magical strengths and weaknesses despite your unfamiliarity with such arts. We have much to do if we are to catch them, so If you would be so kind as to leave this image with us…” She reached for the portal device.

He yanked it away and gave her a printed copy of the image instead, all but shoving it at her along with several images of the missing items—one of their black hip-mounted L-shaped weapons, several larger and smaller portal devices, and what appeared to be a detached, crescent-shaped metallic object with a quill pen beside it to provide scale.

“You have your starting point, Senior Sparrow. You get one chance to make this right—find those fucking mountain goats and get our items back intact, or I will recommend to Ambassador Goldberg that this trade mission be abandoned as it seems your Council of Crows was less concerned about securing us than spying on us,” he warned her over crossed arms. “We trusted you. And you betrayed that trust.”

The Senior Sparrow’s tail lashed once before it stilled again. “Your anger is noted. But your attitude is unhelpful, commander. In ordering your surveillance, I was acting in the interests of the Kingdom, not my own.”

“I told you already, it’s Captain. And my attitude is that three of my civilians and two of my Marines lie gravely ill in what I can only consider an attempt to manipulate their minds with various illicit substances, in hopes of causing a rape or murder attempt that would in turn cause a battle to break out between my Marines and griffon soldiers!

“My attitude is that all this was both foreseeable and preventable if you just did your crow-damned jobs!” he told her in Aeric again, impressing Gilda with his use of the griffon invective.

“He’s right, Senior Sparrow.” Strenus spoke up again, his tone dark. “And you may be assured I will be saying as much to the Queen.”

“I am in agreement. And you may also add three of my finest soldiers to the casualty list,” Narada added angrily as at the Captain’s command, the Senior Sparrow was then escorted by a Marine sentry to the door. “I share your ire, Captain.”

Despite her sympathy, he looked at her coolly. “I am sorry for your soldiers as well, but I am also less than pleased that you allowed your liaisons to spy on us, Tribune. We can discuss that later, but for now, I expect your troops to protect the Inn properly, and to keep the skies above it clear.

“This is an embassy, so I want it secured as such—I will not have any more spying through skylights, or griffons landing on balconies. As of this moment, I want no unauthorized griffons or any other airborne race approaching within one hundred wing paces of the roof. Understood?”

“It will be done,” she replied with a bared throat. “I will be more than happy to meet you at your convenience, Captain. I do request, however, that you first allow me the chance to speak to the Decurion privately.”

His eyes narrowed. “In hopes that she recalls what she reported on?”

To her credit, Narada didn’t flinch from his accusing tone. “So that I may inform her of all that we know happened to her—which, you will understand, might be rather embarrassing to be shared before others—and then ask her if she wishes to continue in her assignment.”

“That choice will be mine, Tribune,” he reminded her. “I will leave, but your conversation will be recorded, and as you have already learned, I speak your language fluently.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go offer my personal apologies to the Inn’s owner. And hopefully convince him not to demand a duel with Lieutenant Nantz for deflowering his daughter!” he all but snarled as he stalked out of the room, leaving the pair behind under the watchful gaze of the well-armed Marine sentries.

Gilda noted they were now wearing odd reflective goggles over their eyes that hid them. There was also some kind of secondary tube mounted to the bottom of their weapons at the ends, emitting a strange purplish light.

Maybe something that allows them to see heat like those cameras? So they can spot any more disguised Ibexians? Gilda guessed as she watched him leave, but lacking answers or the ability to think about it too deeply, she turned her head back towards Narada.

* * * * *

“Their Captain is my kind of commander. Direct and to the point,” Narada admitted after Captain Moran had departed.

“He tolerates no doublespeak and spotted the Senior Sparrow’s ploys quickly, letting her trap herself with her own claims before he brought his war hammer down and crushed her defenses. In truth, I rather like him. He is not only refreshingly open in his opinions, but he seems a cunning warrior who only reveals his true strength at an opportune moment—the perfect military leader. I do believe he would make a very good griffon.”

“I would too, if I didn’t feel so awful…” Gilda replied. “I’m sorry if I don’t get up, Tribune, but I can’t stop shivering and everything aches. And worse, I think I was… taken. Somewhere I would not have chosen!” she felt a sudden puckering sensation beneath her tail, loathing the slight but strangely pleasant tingling that accompanied it.

The Tribune grimaced, but offered at least a weak chance that Gilda was mistaken. “It might just be the withdrawal symptoms from the potion and cider. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s very similar in effect to the feather flu—body aches and chills, as well as a low fever. Just be grateful I quickly realized something was amiss, or you might have died of dehydration and withdrawal symptoms.”

“Believe me, I am… but how did you know?” Gilda asked.

The Tribune gave a wry smile. “When you and Fortrakt didn’t show up to give your daily reports and receive a briefing, I inquired with the Inn as to where you were. I was then told the two of you had been seen by the human soldiers walking drunkenly down the hallway acting like you were ‘in love’—by which they meant acting like newly bonded Uxor,” she clarified as Gilda made a nauseated face.

“As I could not fathom such a thing taking place between you two, even under the influence of alcohol, I was certain something was wrong. That’s when I advised the humans to break into the rooms. From what I was told, they found both of you severely ill and immediately rushed you to their healers. So be sure you thank them as well as me. I do not envy you that tube, but there is no denying it saved your life. It is how they are able to both nourish you while stepping down the dose of the fertility drug and cider gradually—by feeding it all to you through it.”

“I’d thank them if it wasn’t for this crow-damned needle in my arm!” Gilda answered with another round of coughing. She pulled her blanket more firmly up over her form as she huddled and shivered violently, hating the feeling of being so weak and helpless. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even want to think about it! So, uh, you said you wanted to inform me of what you knew…” she recalled. She then shivered again, and not entirely from the chill she felt. “Do I even want to know what I did?”

“With regards to you and Fortrakt, I cannot say. In truth, we know little of what happened, aside from what was observed by civilians and soldiers from the outside,” she replied. “All I can tell you is that First Spear Giraldi was observed undressing, caressing and then outright rutting Tara Fields through the skylights before an enrapt audience of griffons.”

“They watched?” Gilda was aghast. “What in the crows was the matter with them…?”

“Because it would seem they were affected, too. We believe that the steam from the heated cider also went up the exhaust pipes and saturated the stagnant air over the Inn last night, where dozens of griffons had gathered over the scent of the strangely cooked chicken. The initial dose was low, but they stayed bathed in it long enough that the effects over time were… predictable.” She blushed again.

“I regret that discipline among our outside troops broke down completely as more and more griffons were affected; as soon as soldiers were sent to chase off the observers, they, too, were caught up in it quickly and ended up in various rooftop… affairs.

“As a result, the healer houses are now filled with griffons being treated for minor injuries and moderate withdrawal symptoms, and half your old turma has been lost to duty until they recover.”

“Injuries?” Gilda repeated uncomprehendingly. “From what? Mating rounds?”

The Tribune hesitated before answering, but did so anyway. “Some, but more from attempting with each other what they saw the human female doing with Giraldi.”

“Voyeuristic dweebs… if I’d been there, fumes or no, I would have chased them off. But you said Giraldi was seen with Tara?” she blinked, finding at least one stray memory trying to click into place.

“Yes. And he was found in the human suite after.” Narada’s blush intensified. “Unconscious and aroused while in a rather compromising position with the humans.”

Gilda blushed as well. “But why was he there instead of outside with the Turma?”

“He was there at your direction, Decurion.” She showed Gilda a signed order penned in her own talonwriting directing Giraldi to remain in the human suite overnight for the ‘safety and security’ of Tara Fields. “As this happened early in the night, I was hoping you might recall why you issued this order?”

Gilda tried, but failed again to remember. “I wish I could tell you…” she finally admitted with a groan. “I just… don’t… know.” And I’m not even sure I want to…

“Not surprising,” Narada noted, not pressing the matter further. “This is exactly why zap apple items are illegal in the Kingdom—they are not only addictive, but they both remove inhibitions and suppress all memories of it after—except in the case of Lieutenant Nantz and Merlina Marcus,” she corrected. “They had enough to rut, but not enough to forget.”

“Nantz rutted… Merlina?” Gilda was shocked. “But she can’t even fight a round!”

“Apparently, the human males don’t care about that, finding her very desirable for her innocence and exotic plumage. Nantz himself has been removed from the Inn to the camp outside the city, for his own safety from Merlina’s sire,” she explained. “By all reports, he’s mortified by what he did, but Merlina has been caught twice trying to leave her recovery room to go to him. Mating round or no, she appears to now be very taken with him.”

“Damned… Ibex…” Gilda coughed out again. “If I find them, I’ll kill them!”

“I sympathize with your sentiments, but as this appears to be the work of some of their most skilled and dangerous adepts, I would suggest that you leave that to the Council of Crows and Ravens,” Narada advised. “And in the meantime, take comfort in the fact that in many ways, their plans not only failed, but turned on them badly.”

Gilda gave her a confused look. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean, Decurion, is that as the Captain and Ambassador said, they hoped to cause violence and conflict that would derail any possible alliance between us, and perhaps even result in open warfare between our races. They further hoped that their role in it would remain invisible, and that we would simply blame the ponies for selling them that cider.

“Instead, it would appear that the opposite happened—that all present merely became exceptionally amorous and those griffons who observed humans mating were quite taken with them. You know how zap apples work, so you should also know that that would not have happened if our two sides had not already bonded.

“Cold comfort though I know it is, it would appear that instead of driving us apart, they brought us closer together, proving us culturally compatible as well as natural allies. And as a bonus, the Ibexian machinations were revealed, meaning the humans will now have cause to ally with us against them.”

“Natural…” Gilda coughed again as she echoed the word. “With respect, sir, there was nothing natural about any of this!”

“I must disagree. The groundwork was there, in the form of friendships made, and mutual respect already gained,” she pointed out. “Even under the influence, this would not have happened unless an interest and attraction was already there. That the humans were found unharmed—mostly—is evidence of that.”

Gilda groaned, hating to concede the logic even as she internally acknowledged the Tribune had a point. So… this happened because we liked them? Even me on MARCO? she asked herself, only to feel another shiver of distantly remembered pleasure pass through her.

Shunting aside hard in her head what it might mean, she focused on her own actions again. “It’s still not an excuse. By all the crows of the Kingdom, I should have known what was happening. Because I’ve had zap apple cider before in Equestria,” Gilda reasoned, grimacing less from the memory of withdrawal pains she’d suffered than who she’d been with when it happened. “Ancestors above, I knew the effect was familiar, but I didn’t care.”

“Which is exactly what zap apples do,” the Tribune reminded her. “Enhance your sensory perceptions of everything while slowly stripping you of your inhibitions. Cider made with them is so delicious that you keep drinking more and more of it, imbibing in an endless cycle until you have no inhibitions left.

“For griffons, that typically has two outcomes, as the Ambassador said—violence or sex. No doubt the Ibexians were hoping for the former, but would settle for the latter—particularly if it resulted in a human civilian being torn up in a forced mating round. And yet, that didn’t happen,” she pointed out again. “The Marines are being rather tight-beaked about what they found regarding Giraldi and the three humans, but… it would seem that whatever occurred was quite mutual.

“Thank the Ancestors…” Gilda acknowledged. “If this had been just two days ago, I might have tried to kill Marco instead of…” Her thoughts trailed off as the barest hint of a sensual memory tugged on her, only to quickly disappear back into the pink haze of the night.

“Exactly,” Tribune Narada confirmed with a hint of smile. “So I think we can safely assume that you like him now.”

Gilda could only groan again. “You’re right about it being cold comfort. You wanted to know if I can continue in this assignment? I don’t think I can. I don’t know if I can even look at them after this!” Gilda related, thinking she suddenly understood what Tara and Marco had been talking about when they said they’d had trouble being around each other after their drunken fling.

And they at least knew what happened AFTER! I still don’t have any idea, except… She nearly grasped another memory of Marco, only for it to turn into mental vapor again.

“If it makes you feel any better, I know how you feel. I had my own experience with zap apple cider during a vacation in Equestria not too many years back. I tried it in a Las Pegasus resort over the pony New Year celebration and its effects proved rather… liberating.” Narada blushed. “So if you were feeling bad about whatever you may have done, know that I woke up the next morning in the company of a rather amorous adolescent dragon, who I still see occasionally to this day—information I will thank you not to spread around.”

Despite her state, Gilda couldn’t help but giggle. “At least you know what happened, Tribune. I don’t. And I’m not sure I want to.”

“You have me there,” the Tribune admitted. “But at least we know you were not at fault. That you tried to fulfill your duties even under the influence. And that contrary to Ibexian hopes, you did not hurt your charges, which I remind you again can only mean you had bonded with them.”

“I guess…” she grudgingly conceded, only for her mortified feelings to turn to worry. “Chris, Tara and Marco—how are they doing?”

“Still unconscious, and they must remain that way for some time. Unused to such potent magicks, the humans are now suffering from doubly severe withdrawal symptoms and are thus being kept asleep for their own sake. Unfortunately, their injuries are not entirely limited to that. Tara Fields has talon scratches all over her back, including some rather deep cuts,” she explained shortly.

Gilda froze where she lay. “She was made to fight a mating round?” She couldn’t believe that even a cider-soaked Fortrakt would have forced her to do that.

“Thankfully, no, or it is likely she would have been torn up far worse. Her wounds appear to have happened in the throes of passion, due to a… rather unusual mating position,” the Tribune said with an intensified flush. “She would have had to be belly to belly with a griffon to have her back marked up like that.”

“Belly to belly?” Gilda made a face. “Who would do that? Giraldi? Fortrakt?” she wondered, trying but failing again to remember anything that happened.

“Likely. But Giraldi doesn’t remember, and I can’t imagine Fortrakt would either once he wakes up. His symptoms among the three of you were the worst—he apparently got a larger dose of the cider, or was simply more susceptible to it. Giraldi has awoken, but perhaps wishes he hadn’t as he promptly got berated by his Uxor—not for cheating on her, but for not testing his latest eagless properly.

“Despite that, he wanted to make sure Tara was safe—he remembered going to her, but not what happened after and thus feared he had hurt her. As near as we can tell, he didn’t, as the talon patterns do not match his.”

“So it was Fortrakt...” Gilda guessed. “He’ll never forgive himself for hurting her. What about Chris and Marco?”

“They’re physically uninjured except for a beak nip or talon prick here and there, but like Tara, are being kept unconscious for their own sakes,” she replied. “We are still stepping down the dose of that crow-begotten concoction even more slowly than you to wean them off it gradually. It will likely be at least another two days before they are safe to awaken. But in time, they should be fine. At least physically.”

Gilda groaned. Barely got to know Marco, and now I nearly lost him… the surprising thought crossed her mind.

“Crows take it. So now what?” she asked her superior. “Am I just supposed to lie here and do nothing but wait for the withdrawal symptoms to pass with this evil and ugly needle embedded in my arm?” she held up her bandaged foreleg again, just glad she couldn’t see what it was hiding or she might have tried to rip it out anew.

“I’m afraid there’s little else you can do,” the Tribune said apologetically. “Just know that you are not in trouble with me or the Kingdom, and that I am in fact impressed by your devotion to duty, even under the influence as you were. I know not what you discovered, but it must have been important for you to see fit to write it down even in the middle of… whatever activities you found yourself in,” she said carefully, causing Gilda’s flush to deepen.

“I will not ask you to explain it, as I know you cannot, and I have no particular wish to earn the ire of Captain Moran before I speak with him again. So for now… rest and recover, Decurion.” She laid a motherly set of talons on Gilda’s chest. “I will return later, and I Iook forward to seeing you well again.”

“That makes two of us…” Gilda groaned. “Thank you for your concern, but with respect, Tribune, I’d like to be alone now.”

“Of course,” Narada replied with a nod. “If you wish, I’ll see if I can find some reading material to distract you with?”

“Sure.” Gilda shrugged weakly. “It’s not like there’s anything else I can do…”

10: Rest and Recovery

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“Greetings, Decurion,” Tribune Narada called to Gilda as she entered the infirmary for the second time that day, with Captain Moran coming in behind her. “How do you feel?”

“Sir… beg to report… human medicine is uncomfortably and embarrassingly intrusive,” she replied with severely strained humor, but only after she managed a salute with some difficulty. “Because it turns out there’s a second tube in me. And you don’t want to know where it goes!” she explained in disgust, nodding down to where the second clear tube disappeared under the blanket in the vicinity of her hindquarters.

“Well it’s either that catheter, or let you piss yourself while you’re sleeping and into a bucket I hold for you when you’re awake?” the unsympathetic human healer pointed out dryly. “If it makes you feel better, putting it in wasn’t exactly titillating to me.”

“It doesn’t!” Gilda exclaimed, then coughed hard and shivered.

“Good to see that your famous bedside manner remains intact, Staff Sergeant,” Moran told him, though Gilda saw there was no salute exchanged between them. She had noticed earlier that the Marines didn’t salute each other indoors; only griffon officers.

Maybe there’s some rule against that and they only salute us to accommodate us? she wondered idly, more for distraction than any real curiosity.

“And good to see your personality is as open and friendly as ever, Decurion,” the Tribune rejoined, to which Gilda could only groan. “Was the reading material I sent you any help?”

“Not really…” It had been twelve hours since she had awoken, but she felt scarcely less ill than before. This despite the assurances of the human healer, whom they sometimes called ‘Doc’ instead of his rank, that they were almost finished stepping down the dose of cider and fertility potion.

The latter had come from the kingdom pharmacies, while the former, she’d been told, the Council of Crows had obtained by having their agents search the black market that could be found in the seedier lower-level areas of the city. “I tried to read, but it just made me nauseous and dizzy.”

“She’s not lying. She nearly fell off her cot at one point. We tried to show her some videos on our tablets instead, but the display had the same effect,” the dark-skinned Staff Sergeant added; his normally gruff tone turning something close to sympathetic. “You’ll have to forgive her for being short-tempered, Captain and Tribune. She’s had a rough day.”

“Understandable,” the Tribune said solemnly. “But perhaps I can cheer you up a bit. I came by to give you an update on where things stand with the Ibexians.”

“I’m listening…” Gilda replied. Her eyes focused on the Tribune with difficulty, though she wasn’t sure if it was due to the withdrawal symptoms or because of simple bleariness.

“To begin with, the Queen has issued a proclamation decrying the ‘poisoning of the Gryphon Kingdom’s guests and soldiers’, naming the Ibexian Ascendancy as responsible. She has ordered ‘all efforts of the Kingdom’s intelligence and military’ set towards finding the adepts who infiltrated the Inn and recovering the lost human property.

I am told through my informants at the Council of Crows—yes, I have a few, and I will thank all present to not tell the Senior Sparrow about them—that the Ravens have picked up their trail and believe them to still be in the city, which strikes me as odd. If it was me, I would have left Arnau quickly with my stolen prizes and made for the Ascendancy immediately,” she mused, making Gilda wonder if she’d just imagined a brief but sly smile breaking out on the features of Captain Moran behind her.

“I am further told by Ambassador Strenus that we have sent a strong warning to the Ibexians through the Saddle Arabian embassy, who as you know, does maintain relations with them. The warning is very simple: surrender their adepts and the items they stole immediately, or ‘twill be considered an act of war—a deliberate attack with lethal intent on our soldiers and the civilians of a foreign embassy we were hosting.”

“And do you think that will work?” Captain Moran asked idly. “From what little I know of the Ibexians, they don’t strike me as easily intimidated.”

“Be assured, they are not, and there is good reason the Kingdom considers them such a dangerous and implacable foe. As for the question of whether it will work, the short answer is—it depends. The Ascendancy prefers covert action and proxy warfare to direct conflict as a rule; they have backed down before when their machinations were revealed. But they have a powerful military and will go to war if forced to—if they believe the prize, which in this case is human technology, is worth fighting for.”

“Can’t say I’d mind…” Gilda spoke up with another cough and shiver. “By the Ancestors, I owe them payback for this.”

“You and me both,” a new voice spoke up, causing all present to turn towards the entrance.

“Sergeant Reyes?” Captain Moran called to him. “What are you doing up?”

“Can’t sleep, and I’m sick of being sick,” he replied, looking very drawn. “Guess I was hoping to talk to the Decurion there now that she’s awake. But if you’re busy with her, Captain, I can come back later.” He turned to leave, nearly falling as he did so, causing Staff Sergeant Cullen to steady him.

“You’re not supposed to be out of bed, you dumbass,” he scolded.

“Good evening to you too, doc,” Reyes replied sullenly, wearing only a plain olive-hued undershirt to go with the usual splotchy green pants they wore. “I’ve had enough of beds and IVs. You said I’m weaned off that cider shit now, so at least let me try to be mobile again?” he requested shortly with a pleading look at Moran. “Come on, I’m not going to get my strength back unless I start moving!”

“Let him be, Staff Sergeant,” Moran directed. “And if you wish to talk to the Decurion, I’ve no objection. Have you told her what you need to, Tribune?”

“For now,” she answered evenly. “If you’re still having trouble remembering things, I’ll come back to deliver the news again tomorrow morning. And hopefully have more progress to report on the pursuit.”

“I look forward to it,” Gilda answered politely, swallowing a fresh urge to cough. She saluted again and waited until the pair of officers had departed before turning to Reyes.

“Sergeant,” she acknowledged after finally releasing the cough. She shifted her head to face him, wishing she could at least turn the pillow around to present its cooler side on her hot head. “How do you feel?”

“Like shit. I’d ask how you’re feeling, but I’m pretty sure I know.”

“You seem to be holding up better than me,” Gilda noted weakly. “I think I remember that you were there at the start. You had the cider, right?”

“Just a couple mugs of it,” he recalled, rubbing his temples briefly. “That’s why they got me weaned off it quicker, but it was enough. About five minutes after I left you guys, I got so horny I couldn’t see straight. Started fantasizing about screwing everything from the Caleponian cleaning mares to the Innkeeper’s wife. Or Uxor, I think you call them.”

“Sounds about right,” she groaned. “I’ve had that stuff before—well, the zap apple part, anyway. It’s illegal in the Kingdom because it enhances sensory perceptions while destroying inhibitions—which can be a very dangerous combination to a griffon.”

“I noticed, believe me.” He rubbed his eyes. “And I can confirm it works equally well on humans. Unfortunately, just like Lieutenant Nantz, I didn’t have enough to forget what happened. Or what I did. The memory is hazy, but it’s there.”

“Dare I ask?” she inquired idly, not certain if she was asking out of curiosity or the remaining cocktail in her system was still tilting her thoughts towards more sensual ends. “Only if you want to tell.”

“Misery loves company, eh?” He sipped at his mug of water. “At first, I tried ignoring it, but it was getting a little hard when… well, I was hard. So I then tried some self-service, which only worked for about a minute before I stiffened again. Then I tried distraction, watching some videos and listening to music in the lounge, but it was getting really difficult to hide my… you know.

“After an hour of this, I was about to go to Doc here and beg for a strong sedative, but then I found an open door to a room suite we were using as a classroom. I felt like I was overheating, so I went out on the balcony to try to catch some breeze on my sweaty face, and…” He had to look away.

“And the griffons outside saw you,” Gilda guessed. “I think I remember the Tribune saying that they were affected too.”

“Right in one,” he confirmed with a fleeting smile. “I got pounced, pinned, and rather forcibly undressed by this very amorous serval-spotted and falcon-headed eagless speaking broken English. ‘You! Me! Rut! Now!’” he mimed, then shook his head.

“I might have fought back, but in the state I was in… I didn’t want to. Needless to say, she had her way with me, and then some,” he admitted wanly, pulling his collar away to reveal beak nips on his neck, followed by shifting his shirt enough for Gilda to see a set of healing talon scratches on his chest.

“Sorry about that,” Gilda offered on behalf of her fellow female. “As I’m sure you’ve figured out, an ‘amorous eagless’ can be a little rough. And very insistent.”

“At least she was satisfied,” she heard the human healer point out from behind her, earning a glare from Reyes. “I mean, if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t have come back to the Inn asking for you, stud. And what was her name again?” He gave the Sergeant a wink as he walked around the front of Gilda to adjust what might have been a valve on the tube leading to her arm. “Cock Lover?”

“Kaiko Louvre!” Reyes corrected sharply, but he then blushed, which looked odd against his darker skin. “She came by to apologize and ask me if I wanted to see her again, but do things ‘more properly’ next time, by which she said she meant a mating round. Worse, Captain Moran was translating for her when she asked it in front of the Doc and sentries here! So the entire fucking platoon knows by now!” He glared at the guards by the door, who gave an unrepentant grin.

“Ain’t our fault you’re always so popular with the local ladies, Sergeant,” the amused human ‘medic’ replied. “And sorry, but not sorry—the Captain didn’t order me not to tell anyone, and that intel was too juicy not to spread!” he added with a nod at the goggle-wearing guards standing to either side of the door, who broke their stony bearing again long enough to smirk.

“I’m glad you’re happy, Doc. But me? I’m still trying to figure out what to do about her. And I guess I was hoping you could help, Decurion,” he admitted.

“Why? Because you want to see her again?” she asked in some annoyance. “You’ll understand that I am really not interested in playing matchmaker for you.”

“I don’t know if I do. Ask me again in a week,” he said at some length. “Because right now, I don’t even want to think about sex.”

“And I wish I couldn’t…” Gilda replied shortly, trying not to visualize the various illicit acts she feared she might have already performed under the influence. “There’s still some of that crow-begotten magic mix in me.”

“Twelve more hours, and we’ll reduce the dose to zero,” Staff Sergeant Cullen told her as he injected a fresh vial of liquid into the odd, upside-down clear bag that was feeding her tube with a fluid that was only slightly brownish—diluted cider? “This is your second-to-last dose, at 20% strength. Your final dose in six hours will be at 10%. Your healers promise us the urges and withdrawal symptoms should disappear entirely within a day or so after.”

“Great. So that means I only have to lie here doing nothing but fantasizing about sex or annihilating the Ibex for another day!” she groused.

“And that, Decurion, is why the Marines like you,” Reyes told her with a grin. “You take no crap, and you back it up. I wouldn’t want to get between you and those Russian mountain goats right now.”

“Thanks.” Had no idea the Marines liked me… she thought, even as she wondered what ‘rush in’ meant in this context. “So if not to set you up with her, how do you want me to help you?”

“Well… put simply, how do I say no, or at least not now, without offending her?” he asked, to which Doc snickered, earning another glare. “With all due respect, Staff Sergeant, do you mind?”

“Listening in? Not at all,” he replied jovially. “But fine—I guess I can visit my other patients for a bit. The sentries stay, though.”

“Whatever,” Reyes replied in the same tone Gilda wanted to, waiting until he had departed before turning back to her. “So, what do I tell her to let her off easy?”

That, at least, was a question Gilda could readily answer. “The truth. That you’re not in any shape for a round right now and won’t be for some time. She would certainly accept that. An eagless would only want you at your best, or else it’s not a fair or stimulating fight.”

He stared at her dubiously for a moment. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” she confirmed with a fresh shiver. “And for what it’s worth, be flattered that she wanted to go again even after knowing what happened. That means she likes you.”

“Wonderful.” He rubbed his eyes and groaned. “What it means is that regardless of what happens, I’m never going to hear the end of this from any Marine.” He motioned with an opposable Talon back at the sentries standing watch at the door, who exchanged a quick glance and grin.

“Sorry. Any news on Chris, Tara and Marco?” She decided it was best to change the subject.

“Nothing new. They’re still asleep in the next room over, having their doses stepped down at half the rate you are,” he told her. “I checked on them, and they’re all looking very ill. So listen—it’s not our call, but if the Kingdom goes to war over this, we’d be ready to join you for this ‘Ascendency’ of theirs trying to kill our civilians in hopes we’d blame it on you.”

His gaze narrowed and lips went tight; for the first time, she saw a genuine battle gleam in the eyes of a human. “We like them, and an attack on our friends… well, we consider it an attack on all of us.”

“Then you do think like griffons,” Gilda shifted enough to offer him a fistbump, trying not to cough and shiver again. “And I’m glad. You’ll forgive me for hoping we yet get to fight alongside you, and not just to see what those weird weapons of yours can do.”

At her words, Reyes glanced back towards the sentries behind him. She didn’t sense any overt reactions from them, but he sighed and nodded. “We know you’re interested in them, but with apologies… I can’t tell you anything. I think it’s stupid and pointless, but orders are orders.”

“I know. I don’t hold it against you. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry we spied on you,” she said, deflating slightly.

“Don’t worry about it. The Captain may be pissed, but we’d probably have done the same in your place,” he conceded. “We know how the game is played, Decurion. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get your wish and we’ll finally get the chance to show you what we can do before all is said and done…”

Gilda woke the next morning feeling at least slightly better.

Upon waking, she’d been told that she had taken her last dose of cider overnight and was now fully weaned. “Congratulations, Decurion; you’re a free bird!” Staff Sergeant Cullen had told her in an oddly amused tone upon coming back on duty midmorning. She was more than ready to depart, but not before some unpleasantness had to be resolved first.

“And that means, it’s time to remove your tubes.” He donned a pair of thin green gloves with a sharp snapping sound as he spoke.

“Be careful where you touch me, Staff Sergeant,” she warned him with a weak trill as he rested a hand on her flank, letting her feathers ruffle.

The Marine healer was unimpressed. “Believe me when I say I’ll enjoy this just as much as you. Now hold still!” he ordered her, reaching beneath the blanket to grasp the tube leading to her private areas. “I promise this’ll be quick…”

To her surprise and relief, it slid free with a minimum of discomfort. “That’s done. Now for your fluid feed…” He turned her foreleg over, causing her to tense hard and pull it back as she sensed his intention—if there was anything she’d been dreading, it was having the needle there removed, fearing it would cause her to pass out or would be plugging some hole that would then release a gout of blood.

“Oh, will you relax? It’s not that bad,” he told her in the air of a parent speaking down to a cub. “I’ve seen you guys fight with blade and beak, and yet you’re scared of a little needle? Trust me, you’ll hardly feel it.”

She exhaled slowly, wanting to retort badly even as she acknowledged she was acting like a frightened fledgling over such a small thing.

“Fine. Just… get it over with.” She presented her foreleg, trying not to look or think about it as he unwrapped the area, laying it flat on the table beside her. That accomplished, he pressed down on the insertion point with one primate paw while placing his other hand at the base of the needle, preparing to yank it.


“No. But do it anyway.” She closed her eyes and clenched her beak.

“Will do. On the count of three: one… two…” He yanked it then, before she could fully tense.

“Hey!” she protested as a wave of nausea shot through her when the needle was suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn, leaving a brief burning sensation in its place that quickly faded.

“Sorry about that. But it hurts less when you’re not expecting it,” he told her unrepentantly, instructing her to press her other set of talons into the piece of thick woven bandage he placed against the wound.

“You’re devious, ‘Doc’,” she told him as she obeyed, noting she’d at least regained enough strength to sit up slightly. “And your bedside manner leaves much to be desired!”

“Why thank you,” he replied with a twinkle as he finished wrapping the area. “As of now, you’re released from treatment—you can return to your quarters to convalesce there. Keep the bandage on for at least four hours. And don’t be surprised if there’s a little blood in your urine from the catheter, but it’ll pass—pun intended.”

“Dweeb.” Gilda was so shaky she couldn’t think of a better retort as she forced herself to rise, trying to will her weakened limbs to still their shaking.

“And proud of it. Do you need help getting back to your quarters?” he asked in a more serious tone, offering a set of blunt talons to help her down from her cot.

“I’ll manage…” she growled, trying to sit up and resisting the urge to peck at the offered paw.

He watched her stumble as she eased herself down and frowned. “You need an escort,” he announced in a tone that brooked no argument; not for the first time she noticed he had two modes he could switch between—commanding and joking. “In case you fall and can’t get up.”

“Fine…” she reluctantly agreed as he picked up a blocky communication device and called into it, realizing she didn’t trust her wings or her legs to take her the distance. Walking is hard enough, so I definitely wouldn’t want to try flying right now!

“You know, we could just carry you there on this cot if you like…” he mused as he watched her awkwardly ease herself down to the floor, noticing her trembling legs.

“Forget it!” she snarled at him as she willed her limbs to still and the door opened to admit two Marines. “Thanks, but no thanks. I think I’ve been embarrassed enough for one day…” She forced herself to stand and took a couple halting steps, praying her body wouldn’t buckle.

“Suit yourself,” he told her as the new pair of uniformed humans entered, each looking so young that they would have barely shed their fledgling feathers if they were griffons. “Private First Class Munoz and Lance Corporal Shriver, please escort the Decurion here to her room. Help her if she needs it, but only if she needs it, and watch where you touch her,” he reminded them both.

“Don’t worry,” the higher ranked of the two said, possessing what looked like one and a half inverted-V stripes on his sleeve instead of the single stripe on his partner. “None of us want the same treatment as Flip-Boy.”

Gilda kept to herself the thought that she wasn’t capable of giving them that treatment just then, and that she wasn’t at all certain what ‘treatment’ she may have given Marco during her forgotten night. Don’t even want to think about it… she decided, at least grateful that with the cider and fertility potion purged from her system, she no longer felt compelled to fantasize about sex.

To her credit, she made it halfway down the hall before her weakened legs collapsed and the two Marines had to carry her the rest of the way.

At least they had sense enough not to make jokes, gently laying her on her bed while promising they’d bring her some soft foods and fluids later.

By late afternoon, Gilda had almost recovered enough strength to sit at her desk and write again, able to at least pick at some soft sausage and sip from a bowl of cool water without throwing it back up.

All she could think to do to relieve her boredom and distract herself from her continuing weakness—to say nothing of worry over the fate of her partner and human friends—was write a new report, this one detailing all she’d learned about human medicine.

She’d barely started to scratch a few observations onto a fresh sheet of parchment when there was the distinctive rap of griffon talon knuckles on the door.

She looked up sharply, having not expected any visitors now that her dinner had been delivered. “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” Fortrakt’s slightly raspy voice startled her. “They released me two hours ago. I’m still too queasy to eat and can’t sleep. Can we talk, Decurion?” he asked her, and she was surprised to pick out a pleading note in his voice around the formal tone he took.

“Sure,” she said, shuffling heavily towards the door to admit him. When she opened the door, she couldn’t help but stare at him, noting he looked even more ragged than she felt.

He, in turn, flinched slightly at the sight of her, and she certainly understood the impulse—seeing him sparked lurid memories from deep within her psyche, but they simply could not rise to the surface, as if they were hitting an airborne inversion that kept updrafts from breaking through.

“So how do you feel?” was all she could think to ask as she poured a fresh bowl of water for him—she didn’t trust her still-unstable system from drinking anything except that for the time being, and she couldn’t imagine it would be any different for him.

“Like every crow in the Kingdom has been endlessly pecking at my head,” he told her as he chanced a sip but couldn’t take another one, his stomach visibly turning over to judge by his sickened expression. “Plucking memories out of me one by one all the while beating my skull like a war drum. I have the hangover to end all hangovers, and worse, I don’t remember anything that happened that night.”

“Neither do I after the start of the movie,” she agreed, rubbing her head. The sight of him kept trying to stir her memories of that night, but she simply couldn’t grasp them no matter how hard she tried. “Did they tell you what—”

“Yes,” he said shortly, his green eyes turning dark. “Ibexian spies hit us with some crow-besotted concoction of zap apples and pony fertility potion. You, me, and even Giraldi when he came to find out about the fried chicken. They were trying to get us to…” he couldn’t even finish the sentence, but his talons curled hard against the wooden floor.

“But we didn’t,” she reminded him. “Chris, Tara and Marco are fine except for severe magical withdrawal symptoms.”

“That’s not what I heard,” he replied shortly, his beak starting to quiver. “They said Tara had talon slashes on her back. So tell me the truth, Decurion—was it me? Did I hurt her?” he raised his emerald eyes to her gold-hued ones, tears starting to well in them.

She opened her beak, only to shut it again, closing her eyes in turn as she realized there was no way to honey-coat it. “All I can tell you is—the talon patterns on her back didn’t match Giraldi’s,” she forced herself to admit. “I’m sorry.”

“Then it was me… He slumped hard, burying his face in his talons. “Ancestors forgive me… I hurt her…” He began to give mewling sniffles.

For the first time since she had known him, Gilda was surprised to feel a strong measure of pity for her junior partner, recognizing how he had lost the eagless of his dreams before he could truly have her. And worse, he had no memory of their all-too-brief time together, left only with the evidence of the damage he’d done to her. “I’m truly sorry. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe for a moment you meant to hurt her, even under the influence,” was all she could think to offer.

“It’s worth nothing to me! So what do I do?” he asked her forlornly. “I don’t think I can be around her now knowing what I did. By the crows, I don’t even know that she, Chris or Marco would want us around them!”

“I don’t know either, and until they wake up, we can’t ask them. But it may interest you to know that the Marines want us to stay.”

He looked up in surprise. “They do? Why?” he asked, though he didn’t lose his forlorn tone.

“They don’t seem to blame us for what happened. They blame the Ibex, as they should. In fact, from what Sergeant Reyes told me, they actually like us. He even said they’d fight the Ascendancy alongside us for this if they were allowed to.”

He stared at her in disbelief, tears still glimmering in his green eyes. “Even after what we did?”

“We don’t know what we did,” she reminded him sternly. “And call me dweeby if you want, but at this point, I don’t think I want to know. Look—we were all under the influence and not in our right minds through no fault of our own, so maybe we should just brush it off as a one-time thing. Try to let it go like Marco and Tara once did.”

“And you really think it’s that easy?” he asked her with a bitter laugh. “Just pretend that I didn’t hurt her?"

“No.” She shook her head. “But if I know Tara at all, she won’t blame you, and if she and Marco got over something like this before, then we can too. And besides, if we just up and quit, then the Ibex win. They caused this, and I’ll be damned if I give them the satisfaction of even a single victory out of this.” Her gold eyes flashed.

A shadow of anger crossed his forlorn features again. “I was told what they did by the Tribune. And by all our Ancestors, I have never wanted to do violence to another being as badly as I want to do to them right now.”

“You and me both,” she confirmed, feeling so drained she couldn’t even growl. “Look, Fortrakt. Whatever you did—whatever we did—the Ibex made us do it. The dose of that accursed cocktail we got was so strong that nocreature there could resist it. I don’t know if you spoke to Sergeant Reyes, but even he couldn’t fight it after just two mugs of it!”

“Reyes? I didn’t even know he was there that night. What happened to him?”

She considered not telling him out of concern for the Sergeant’s privacy, but then decided that since the entire human force already knew, there was no point in withholding it. So she told him, eliciting a blush.

“Whoa…” he admitted, trying another sip of water and, judging by his slightly less sick expression, his stomach was at least a little more accepting of it. “I don’t know whether he’s lucky or not.”

“He doesn’t either,” she recalled. “He doesn’t know what to do about her and asked for my advice.”

“Oh? And what did you tell him?”

“To make clear to her that he wasn’t in any shape for it, physically or mentally. Any Griffon should accept that, especially knowing what happened,” she mused.

“Sounds about right.” He shrugged tiredly. “And sorry if I don’t offer to help. They say I’m weaned off that crow-cursed cider, but I still feel like I’m coming off two weeks of the Feather Flu. Right now, I don’t even want to think about rutting, ever again.”

“Me too,” Gilda agreed. “And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that even if we recover physically from this, there’ll be emotional scars and ugly memories rearing up if we ever try to be with another griffon.” Or human… she couldn’t help but have the thought, her memories stirring slightly again.

“I’m worried too. So what do we do?” he asked her in renewed depression, his feathers dull and drooping. “I feel like I can’t even show my face to other griffons after what happened, let alone to Chris, Tara and Marco right now.”

“Our duty,” she told him firmly, resisting the urge to lay a set of talons on his chest in a sisterly gesture. “To the Kingdom and to our charges. And crows take the reactions of other Griffons—they can’t condemn us after what the Tribune said happened outside.”

“Outside?” he echoed in confusion, to which Gilda froze.

He doesn’t know about what happened outside? That probably means the Tribune also didn’t tell him about Tara and Giraldi. So should I...?

Not coming up with an immediate answer—she knew that unwelcome news should come from them instead of her, but if she didn’t tell him, there was a chance he might overhear it from the Marines, or worse, the griffons of their old Turma—she decided to play it safe for now.

And besides, there’s probably a good chance Tara won’t remember it either and have to be told by somecreature else… Gilda found herself fervently hoping that somecreature wasn’t her, scarcely able to imagine how she would take being told she’d been rutted by a male of another species as other griffons watched.

You know, even Rainbow wouldn’t tease you over that! She idly wondered what her old friend would think of what happened to her. Then again, she might even know if Princess Twilight told her…? “From what the Tribune told me, fumes from the cider steam went up the exhaust pipes over the stove and… was inhaled by all the griffons who had gathered over the Inn attracted by the scent of the fried chicken. You can guess the effects.”

“I’d rather not right now,” he made the same face Gilda would if she was sick to her stomach and caught the aroma of spicy food. “I guess at the very least, the Council of Crows will stop pressuring us for information on humans, now.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But the point is, we weren’t alone in this, and it’s not like other griffons were able to successfully resist it—the Tribune said half our Turma was affected! That alone means I’m not quitting my post over this.

“And in the immortal words of our guests, fuck the Council of Crows and their spying on humans—if I stay in this post, it’s for the express purpose of protecting them,” she said emphatically, oddly reveling in her first use of the human curseword—or was it? That one was for you, Marco! She mentally saluted him. “Look—I can’t order you to remain in light of what happened, but I think you should stay. That's all we can do, Second Spear.”

He considered her words carefully, deflating slightly. “Maybe you’re right, but—”

“No buts,” she cut him off. “If you’re with me, we’ll tell the Tribune tomorrow that we don’t want to quit. Hopefully Reyes and the other Marines will convince Captain Moran to let us stay, even though he now knows we were spying on them.”

“And just when I think I can’t feel any worse, I do.” His wings and tail slumped further, confusing her—why did that make him feel worse, given they’d already talked about the spying?

His next words explained it. “It’s still our fault, you know—just like the Council of Crows, we got so concerned with observing them or ‘enamored of their technological toys’ that we forgot we were there to protect them,” he quoted the Senior Sparrow, staring numbly into the clear contents of his half-full bowl. “Well, at least we don’t have to worry about hiding it from them now. But Chris, Tara and Marco—will they allow it? Will they even want us around?” he begged her to supply an answer.

“I don’t know,” Gilda said equally numbly, knowing she had none to give. “And there’s no way to know until they wake up and have had some time to absorb this. In the meantime, we wait for word from the Council of Crows that they’ve found the Ibexians who did this to us. Hopefully we’ll get to see them tried and executed, if nothing else.”

“Would that the Ancestors grant such a thing,” he finally conceded, replacing the bowl in her sink; to his credit, he’d managed to down a little over half the liquid. “Thank you for your time, Decurion. I really needed somegriffon to talk to.” He began shuffling slightly shakily towards the door.

“You’re welcome. So did I. And Fortrakt?” She called him by name instead of by rank.

He stopped, stumbling slightly. “Yes?”

“I just wanted to say… I’m sorry I teased you when you got excited before. I promise I won’t again, after this.” Wow. Here I am apologizing! She wished Rainbow could see her then.

Unaware of her thoughts, he gave a short laugh without turning back to her. “It’s fine. Because for as sick as I am and as bad as I feel about hurting Tara, I don’t think I’ll ever be excited again.”

The next two days passed both slowly and swiftly for Gilda.

She gradually recovered her strength to the point that she was able to walk, eat light meals and even chance short flights again, though her stamina was so poor she could barely stay aloft for even a minute. The Magus healers she spoke to promised the effect would pass and she would feel her strength restored over time, admonishing her not to press herself too hard lest she set herself back.

When Gilda groused in their presence about her slow pace of recovery, they offered to use their healing auras on her. But she emphatically declined, wanting no more magical influences on her.

To her great annoyance, she even received a query from a pony doctor writing from Canterlot, saying she and her comrades ‘presented a unique opportunity for research’. The unicorn mare had dweebily followed that up by asking if she’d noticed any ‘surprising or lingering aftereffects’ of having so much fertility potion boosted by zap apple essence.

Great. So I’m now officially a magical ODDITY! was the first thought Gilda had upon reading it, wishing the mare in question was in front of her so she could offer up a profane and well-deserved earful. Unable to do so, she’d crumpled up the missive and thrown it in the garbage without replying to it, wondering if it wasn’t just Pinkie Pie who had no respect for others’ feelings.

Surprising or lingering aftereffects… sure, if you count feeling so sick and weak you can’t eat or drink even a crow’s worth of fluid for days, and then not wanting to even THINK about sex ever again! she answered the question derisively in her head, wondering what response the mare healer thought she would get.

At least she had some company to commiserate with. Fortrakt was no better, and perhaps even worse, either from a stronger addiction or the fact that Tara and the others remained unconscious, taking six days to fully wean off the tainted cider instead of three.

Steeling themselves, she and Fortrakt had gone into their recovery room to check on them the day after they’d been released, only to find that, as Sergeant Reyes had said, they looked deathly weak and ill, swathed in blankets with the color having faded from their cheeks. They were all hooked up to the same tubes she and Fortrakt had been, and the upside-down bottles that fed those tubes still bore half-strength cider and fertility potion.

It was unquestionably difficult to see, though the least Gilda could say was that the sight of them provoked no memory flashbacks given their severely sick state. Fortrakt had then requested to see Tara’s wounds, which Staff Sergeant Cullen sharply advised against. But when he insisted, he sighed and pulled back her blanket to reveal not one, but two sets of angled slashes only slowly healing on her upper back. They started near the neck and went diagonally down across the shoulder blades towards her sides, and worse, the leftmost set had bisected her flower tattoo, ruining it.

Though the slashes weren’t as deep or bad as Gilda might have feared, they were still quite visible, and Fortrakt could only stare numbly at them for a moment before he hung his head and left, exiting the infirmary without another word and refusing to even acknowledge Gilda as he shuffled back to his room.

He did not emerge again until the next day, and only after being ordered to by Tribune Narada. She then rebuked him sharply not for hurting Tara, but for conduct unbecoming a soldier of the Kingdom for moping and holding himself responsible for her minor injury, especially when worse had happened to many outside griffons.

“And your mind was even more compromised than theirs! So stop beating yourself up, Second Spear! You’re useless to both her, and the Kingdom in such a state!

“B-but I—” Fortrakt went flustered.

“Crows take your excuses! Do you think they matter in battle? If we go to war with the Ibexians, we’re going to need sharp minds and blades; not the mewling self-pity I see from you now!” she excoriated him in front of Captain Moran, who smiled and nodded slowly to himself. “Now by my order, pull yourself together and stop acting like a twelve-year old tiercel pining for his first crush!” She surprised Gilda by knowing the Equish word for adolescent desire.

It worked, as Fortrakt acted like he’d been slapped and instantly snapped to attention, firing a salute and stammering an apology to her. But the Tribune was unimpressed.

“Save it! The next time I see you, Second Spear, you’d better be in armor and properly groomed! I will not have my soldiers acting like whimpering cubs or appearing around our human guests out of uniform in such a slovenly state—and the same goes for you, Decurion!” She rounded on a surprised Gilda next. “Regardless of your lingering weakness, I expect my Guards Griffons to both look and act the part of proper soldiers! Is this understood?”

“Sir! Yes sir!” They chorused as they both stood to rigid attention and fired their crispest salute in response.

* * * * *

Though Gilda had never thought the Tribune one for motivational speeches or Gauntlet-style chewing out of her soldiers, her words had the desired effect as a fully groomed and dressed Gilda exited her quarters the next day to find that Fortrakt looked inspection-ready, bathed and groomed with his pauldrons polished to the point of gleaming and his wingfeathers each individually preened.

At a summons from the Tribune, they’d then presented themselves to Narada and Captain Moran in the latter’s office, which he had inherited from the still-absent Lieutenant Nantz. He let her take the lead as she gave Gilda and Fortrakt a formal and very thorough inspection, giving the latter a great deal of extra attention.

“Sir! I am ready to resume my duties and act the part of a proper soldier, sir!” Fortrakt had shouted like he was a fresh-out-of-training fledgeling again when Narada had pressed him over Tara. “If we go to war, then I will volunteer to be on the front lines!” he announced vehemently when she asked him if he was truly ready to fight, and his delivery combined with his raised hackles and ruffled feathers seemed to confirm to her he meant it.

She’d relented after, at least somewhat, as she and the human Captain related the latest news. While Moran told them that he’d been overruled by Goldberg in his desire to remove them from their posts—Might be the one good decision that dweeby human has made, even if he’s just hoping for another incident to send the civilians home, Gilda thought darkly—Narada brought them up to date about the progress of the diplomatic pressure the Kingdom was applying to the Ascendancy, and the search for the Ibexian adepts.

“The Council of Crows believes they remain in Arnau, perhaps because the alerted countryside is now too dangerous for them to travel in, even disguised,” she mused. “Or perhaps because they’ve been instructed by their superiors to stay put.”

“Why would they do that?” Moran asked her.

“We’re not sure. The Ibex have been acting oddly,” the Tribune answered, all traces of her earlier show of temper gone. “According to Ambassador Strenus, who was dispatched to Saddle Arabia three days ago to present our demands to them, they initially and quite heatedly insisted they launched no such operation and that we were lying to gain favor with the humans.

“When presented with indisputable evidence to the contrary, their diplomats—which, it must be said, are all intelligence agents anyway—seemed genuinely surprised and asked to report their ‘findings’ back to their leadership.”

“Which means... what?” Gilda asked over a bowl of plain tea Moran had given her. It was the first thing other than water she’d been able to drink since being released from treatment, and she found herself savoring even its weak flavor and mild aroma.

“Possibly good news. The Crows believe this means the Capricorn Conclave launched an unauthorized operation—it wouldn’t be the first time—and that the Ascendancy is now trying to find a face-saving way out of this short of admitting responsibility or surrendering their adepts,” she recited.

“Sounds strangely familiar…” Moran mused over crossed arms behind his desk, mostly to himself.

Narada gave him a glance before continuing. “It might be wishful thinking, but the fact that they’ve only gone on defensive deployments across the Pearl Mountains suggests they don’t want war over this. That usually means they’ll back down in the end.”

“Pity. For making me hurt Tara, I’d tear out the throat of every Ibex I see!” Fortrakt all but snarled; his earlier despondency having turned to outright anger whenever he thought of Tara over the past day. It left Gilda wondering why she felt nothing more than a dull ache whenever she thought about what happened, which only seemed to get stronger when she realized how much of it she couldn’t remember.

Crows take it… she thought to herself in renewed annoyance and confusion as they departed the office. Fortrakt then announced his intention to stand vigil over Chris, Tara and Marco, in the stated hopes that he’d be there when they woke up.

“I want to tell them what happened myself, and apologize to Tara personally,” he explained when she inquired, making Gilda wonder what was in the Tribune’s tea that she’d been able to turn Fortrakt from sad sack back into a determined and duty-conscious soldier with just a few choice words.

However she takes her tea, I should too! While he did that, promising at her request to summon her instantly if they should awaken, she was able to catch a slowly recovering Giraldi alone before he went home to his wife and cubs to convalesce. And to her surprise and his great credit, he took things in far better wingstride than she or Fortrakt had, chatting with her as she escorted him outside.

“It happened, Decurion. It wasn’t by our choice, so I see no reason to beat ourselves up over it,” he told her simply before gingerly entering a small carriage he’d been forced to charter to get him home to his family aerie on the outskirts, located cliffside several leagues from the city walls.

It was harnessed to a pair of Sevastoponians who were to pegasi what the Caleponians were to earth ponies—slightly sleeker, thicker-furred and generally more rugged-looking versions of their Equestrian counterparts. They spoke Aeric with the same inflections she would expect from griffons who lived in the southeast parts of the Kingdom; they even had what looked like surplus griffon military rations in their vest pockets—dried meats, fruits and scones—for their longer journeys.

As the topic of their discussion was private, Giraldi switched to Equish so neither the Aeric-speaking pegasi or the griffons around them would understand his next words. “It must be noted that whatever we did would seem to be both mutual and enjoyed given our guests suffered little to no injury, except to Miss Fields’ back.

“And even that appears to have happened in the throes of simultaneous passion given the odd mating position involved,” he noted idly, causing a brief stirring in Gilda’s memory that infuriatingly, she once again couldn’t grasp.

“The Second Spear may comfort himself with that knowledge, if nothing else. Perhaps the unspoken truth to this whole sordid affair is that we proved ourselves physically and culturally compatible with the humans, which bodes well for an eventual alliance—as does the fact that they took as grave an offense at the actions of the Ibexians as we did.”

Though she didn’t want to, Gilda had to admit he had a point. She replied in Equish as well—and was it her imagination, or had one of the two pegasi stallions briefly pointed an ear towards them? “I guess. But nothing that happened that night was natural, First Spear,” she still felt compelled to point out like she had to Narada, only to receive much the same reply the Tribune had delivered back.

“I disagree. From what I was told by Sergeant Reyes and what little I recall, we seemed to discover and enjoy each other’s affections quite easily, regardless of any foreign magical influence or the annoyance of my Uxor over not testing my ‘human eagless’ properly.

“The good Sergeant, by the way, has asked me for training in fighting griffons in case he does choose to be with her again,” he noted in some amusement.

“Oh, really?” For the first time since she’d awoken in the infirmary, Gilda’s trademark smirk showed itself.

“Really. If it is truly his wish, then perhaps I will. Perhaps, like him, I at least know I enjoyed what happened, and might seek to do it again,” he mused aloud. “So let me say this in parting, Decurion—despite how ill I remain, I do not regret my time with Tara Fields. And be assured, I will duel and defeat anygriffon who thinks me less a tiercel for being with her. I only wish I remembered more.” He closed his eyes in regret.

The dull ache in Gilda’s gut got more pronounced at his words, making her realize that part of her pain came from the same source. “At least you remember something of that night, First Spear. I barely even remember seeing you!” Gilda noted, surprised to hear a forlorn tone in her voice.

Wait—am I actually frustrated over that? Trying not to think about it, she told Giraldi that Fortrakt still didn’t know he’d been with Tara, to which he closed his orange eyes again and nodded slowly.

“Not surprising. I’m sure the Tribune thought he deserved to hear it from the parties involved and didn’t need that burden on top of learning he’d clawed up her back. So if Miss Fields does not do so first, let me tell him when the time comes and we are both fully recovered. I will give him the chance to challenge me for her affections if he wishes—and Miss Fields allows. In his place, I believe I would do no less,” he reasoned.

“Are you sure?” Gilda had to ask.

“Yes. Whatever my motives or the magical influences I was under, there is no denying I did steal from him the opportunity to be her first griffon, and he will have every right to demand satisfaction from me.”

“Can’t argue,” was all Gilda could think to say, though she didn’t honestly think Fortrakt stood a chance against the veteran earth gryphon soldier, who she knew had already fought and won many a duel. “If you’re not back before then, is there anything you want me to tell Tara when she wakes up? There’s a good chance she won’t remember what happened, either.”

He was caught short, but only briefly. “Tell her that my only regret is that I do not remember more of the proceedings, and that I hope she feels the same way,” he recited easily, then turned back towards Gilda. “Assure her that I am not avoiding her, but spending time with my Uxor, who understandably demands my presence after this whole cider-soaked affair.”

“I will,” Gilda promised with a nod, wondering if she’d ever get to the point where she was able to take things so easily. Is this just a product of his maturity, or is it simply his personality? She hadn’t known him long enough to guess. “Anything else?”

“Yes,” he decided after a short pause, a gleam growing in his eyes. “May both my Uxor and my Ancestors forgive me, but I also hope very much we can have more readily remembered proceedings again later, when we feel more ourselves again,” he finished with a salute of her. Once she returned the respect, he closed the carriage door, asking the waiting pegasi in Aeric to take him home.

“Will do, sir,” one of them replied in accented Equish with a smile and wink, causing them both to start. “And for what it’s worth? In your place, I’d feel the same way.”

A speechless Gilda watched them kick off and pull the chariot into the air.

She didn’t return inside until he was out of sight over the city walls.

11: Ties that Bind

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Four days into her recovery, Gilda was finally starting to feel more herself again.

With more food and a growing appetite, she was no longer forced to take frequent rests or naps. She was even able to fly for up to fifteen minutes, though she was still a long way from being back to full strength or stamina.

She kept herself and Fortrakt busy with additional reports and observations of human medicine, which they found Staff Sergeant Cullen far less reticent about discussing than their weapons. He’d not only answered their questions patiently—far more so than he typically was with the Marines he served with—but had even gone so far as to relate some slightly sickening stories of exotic injuries and diseases he had treated in the course of his career.

On the one wing, human healers couldn’t rapidly heal battlefield injuries or bone fractures like the griffons could with the spellcasting of Magus Knights, but unlike them, they could restart stopped hearts under certain circumstances, induce sleep and completely deaden pain without any magic, effectively treat the wound infections that could bedevil even the best Magus healer if not caught quickly, and even replace entire lost limbs with mechanical constructs that allowed for similar if not equal abilities to the appendage they replaced.

It was all intriguing but also a little disturbing, especially for how much their medicine seemed to involve cutting and needles. But with Senior Sparrow Tarseus having not returned while she tried to track down the missing Adepts and Ambassador Strenus still in Saddle Arabia, the only griffon they could present their reports to was Tribune Narada.

“I don’t know whether to find this more impressive or appalling,” the Tribune concurred as she read the latest report on watching Doc Cullen treating an accidental blade wound.

He had begun by first deadening the area with a series of wince-worthy injections of something he called ‘lie-dough-cane’—it had been all Gilda could do not to look away, to the apparent amusement of Cullen and the Marine being treated, who pointedly showed her up by not flinching at all as the needle pierced his skin repeatedly—before closing the wound not with magic, but with a thin but strong thread using a series of what she could only describe as seamstress stitches!

She’d only barely been able to watch it while Fortrakt, his stomach still unsettled, had to leave the room entirely before he threw up his lunch, eliciting a laugh from the Marines after he’d departed.

The only individual she hadn’t seen during that time was Ambassador Goldberg, who, she had been told by a scornful Sergeant Reyes, stayed ensconced in his chambers behind multiple layers of Marine and griffon security while the trade negotiations remained suspended, pending the outcome of the crisis with the Ibexians. He not only remained inside, the Marine noted in some contempt, but he had ordered his food and drink magically scanned by griffon mages before eating it.

So he’s the coward I originally thought Marco was, Gilda kept the thought to herself as she and Fortrakt walked down the hall together towards the infirmary where Chris, Tara and Marco remained bedridden. A useless and entitled idiot with no ability to fight his own battles. Wonder if he was a gryphon noble in a previous life?

To little surprise, the Ibexians were still resisting turning over the items they stole and the adepts who stole them, though according to Tribune Narada, the Council of Crows was more convinced than ever that it had been a rogue operation—that there was some kind of power struggle going on behind the scenes of the Ascendancy, whose clearly stressed Saddle Arabian ambassadors kept asking for more time.

In the meantime, the search for their spies continued. Though the Ravens had been unable to apprehend the elusive Capricorn Adepts, who were said to be their equals in the espionage and assassination arts, they were having some success unraveling their spy network; they had captured and interrogated at least four of their contacts and cleared three safehouses, slowly denying them sanctuary.

“They’re running out of places to hide. My guess is, once they’re out of options, they’ll try to placate us by returning some of the stolen items while keeping the rest hidden, or simply scatter them throughout Arnau as a distraction to keep the Ravens busy while they attempt to slip free of the city.” Tribune Narada had noted when Gilda and Fortrakt had shown up to deliver their reports the previous morning. “But with the entire Kingdom looking for them and multiple magical fields ready to send up flares upon sensing Ibexian spellcasting, it won’t work.”

Seeking to increase the pressure on the Ibexians further, the Kingdom had moved a dozen additional Talon legions and two airship flotillas into range of the Pearl Mountains, threatening the Ascendancy with outright war if the Adepts and the items they stole were not surrendered.

The Ibex had responded in kind by reinforcing the border with additional grand legion-sized ‘armies’, as they called them, along with an uptick of their customary belligerency and bluster. But even Gilda could pick up the slightly shrill and worried tones in their public proclamations, as they found themselves trapped in a situation of their own making.

Though Gilda found herself secretly hoping for war, the Marines would not be joining them. They’d been able to get word of the situation and what caused it back to their homeworld, dispatching messages through the Equestrian embassy, who then relayed it and the subsequent reply through the portal in Equestria.

The response they got back three days later was very simple: stay out of any conflict and prepare to evacuate if war erupted. The trade mission and scientific examination of Kingdom lands were otherwise on hold until the crisis was resolved, at which point the negotiations and field studies could resume ‘at the discretion of the Ambassador and his security chief’—meaning Captain Moran.

He had warmed up to Gilda and Fortrakt somewhat, perhaps seeing how much the other Marines liked them, though he’d pulled Gilda aside at one point and said he still wasn’t comfortable with them being around the civilians, especially after all that had happened.

“The feeling is mutual,” she told him, but then explained that she’d decided to stay for the same reason she’d given Fortrakt—that she felt responsible for what happened and that she refused to give the Ibex any victory at all from their evil operation.

“I guess I can respect that,” he finally conceded. “And the Marines seem to like having you around as well, even if I don’t understand why.”

“It’s because they’re our kind of griffies, Captain,” Staff Sergeant Stafford spoke up without prompting, then held up a pair of placating paws at the look Gilda gave him over the slightly insulting nickname. “I mean that in the best possible way, Decurion. You take pride in your nation and duty—just like us. You also care for Chris, Tara and Marco—just like us. We really appreciate the willingness of you and Second Spear Gletscher to fight for them. And speaking of Fortrakt… he’s just plain likable. He’s a good young soldier who wants to do right by us, never mind the fact he’s also a fun and earnest kid who likes our stuff.”

Moran stared at him for a moment. He initially looked like he was going to reprimand the Sergeant for speaking out of turn, but instead he simply nodded. “Well said, Staff Sergeant. I will trust the judgment of my subordinates in this matter, Decurion, as they’ve had much more exposure to you than me. But I still do want you to give cultural training sessions to my Marines, as recommended by Lieutenant Nantz.”

“Yes, sir.” Gilda suppressed a grimace, as did Reyes behind her. “I’ll see to it within the next week.”

At least Chris, Tara and Marco are awake, she reminded herself as she exited. They had finally regained consciousness the day before, causing Fortrakt to excitedly summon her to their bedside. The three all awoke within an hour of each other, once whatever strange potion the human medic was using to keep them asleep was withdrawn.

She arrived to find Captain Moran and Sergeant Reyes present; she’d seen the latter doing some form of calisthenics in the halls and Marine ready areas as he tried to regain his strength, running two-legged laps in the corridors of the Inn.

“Right on time,” Staff Sergeant Cullen said in satisfaction, glancing at the complicated clock he seemed to wear around his wrist. “You two took about sixty hours. So I figured it’d be double that for them, given we were stepping down the dose at half the rate.”

“Well done, Sergeant. Are they alert? Can they hear us?” Moran asked.

“They should be able to.” He nodded down at their stirring forms, all business around his Captain. “You’ve been waiting for this all day, so would you like to do the honors, Second Spear?” He invited Fortrakt forward, who immediately perked up.

“Yes! Thank you, Staff Sergeant. Chris? Tara? Marco? Can you hear me?” Fortrakt beseeched them, though they only weakly turned their heads towards him.

“For...trakt?” Chris spoke first. “That… you?”

“It’s me, Chris. Gilda and I are here,” he promised, though he kept most of his attention on Tara, whose eyes were only barely beginning to flutter.

“Oh… hey, Gilda.” Marco reached a hand towards her. “I forget… did you like… midway?”

“Uh… sure. It was fun,” Gilda said placatingly, even though she had no idea what he was referring to. Midway… to what? She gave a confused glance at Fortrakt, who gave her an equally bemused look back. She wasn’t sure why the Marine Captain looked up sharply and exchanged a worried look with Cullen, or why she had a sudden but fleeting image of strange metal birds and fiery explosions, but put the question aside for later as Tara murmured something unintelligible.

Fortrakt tried to explain what had happened to them in his typically dweeby way. But the three humans were so groggy and out of it from their long sojourn into unconsciousness and the remaining cider in their systems that they didn’t fully comprehend his words. Not even when he told Tara in no little shame that he was responsible for the scratches on her back.

“But…” Tara only looked confused when Fortrakt offered his apology, turning her head towards him as she lay on her side to keep pressure off her healing wounds. She visibly grasped for her memories, only to find them falling through her mental talons like so much sand; Gilda wasn’t certain why the human woman’s gaze fell on her for a moment, only to go unfocused again as a sharp shiver passed through her.

“So cold… where’s… Giraldi…?” she suddenly asked out of nowhere, causing Gilda to freeze and Fortrakt to stare at her in confusion.

“He’s recovering at home with his Uxor,” Gilda spoke up quickly, wondering how she was going to convey the First Spear’s words without Fortrakt hearing. “He wishes you well.”

“Such a sweetie… he’s not… in trouble, is he…?” she suddenly worried, her eyes staring off into the distance like she was trying to remember something again, but before Gilda could think of another safe reply in the presence of Fortrakt, Chris spoke up.

“Wait… what happened to us? Was it… my chicken?” he wondered aloud, his thoughts visibly sluggish and words slurred, not remembering that he’d been told the answer just two minutes earlier. “Was the choice of wine wrong? Did I use too much lemon? Or too little clove?” he worried, trying but failing to sit up.

“Your chicken was great, buddy. It was a hit with our hosts, too,” Reyes promised. He laid a hand on Chris’ shoulder, gently pushing him back down. “It wasn’t your food; it was the cider. Some fucking Ibex spiked it with some really nasty stuff.”

“Ibex…?” Chris repeated uncomprehendingly, then raised his arm to focus on the tube running into it, only to groan. “I… hate… needles…”

“You and me both,” Gilda agreed before Marco spoke next.

“Why are we lying here…?” he wondered again as he set eyes on Gilda, which lit up in recognition like he didn’t recall seeing her just moments earlier. “Oh. Hey, girlfriend. Did I do good? Did you like the movie…?” he asked her.

Girlfriend…? Do good…? She couldn’t even begin to wonder before Staff Sergeant Cullen, at a warning look from the Captain, stepped up.

“I’m sorry, Decurion and Second Spear. As you can see, there’s not much point in talking to them right now. If you two were any indication, it’s probably going to be another day or so before they’re lucid enough to remember much of what they’re told,” he explained apologetically.

“But—” Fortrakt’s headfeathers drooped as he stared longingly at Tara, whose skin was pallid and golden mane had visibly dulled.

“But nothing. When the two of you first woke up, there was still enough cider in your system that we had to keep reminding you of what we’d said for a while,” Doc Cullen—to her surprise, Gilda was starting to attach the Marine nickname to him rather than his rank—said to them in some rare sympathy. “They’re just not going to remember much right now. Don’t take it personally.”

“Right,” Fortrakt slumped in defeat. “May we stay with them?”

“With apologies, I’d rather you didn’t,” Captain Moran told them over crossed arms. “I appreciate that you want to be there for them, but you’ll understand that in this state, I’m afraid they might say something we don’t want them to.”

“Understood,” Gilda replied placatingly, guessing that whatever Marco had been trying to ask her about, they recognized it even if she didn’t. “You heard them. Come on, Second Spear.” Gilda began to gently pull him away. “We’ll visit again tomorrow.”

“It’s okay. I’ll stay with them for you,” Reyes promised them both. “Since I’m still officially on medical leave, it ain’t like I got much else to do right now…”

When Gilda and Fortrakt reported to their briefing with Tribune Narada the following morning, she gave them some surprising news:

The Ibexian Ascendancy had backed down.

Their leadership had issued a formal apology “to Humanity and all Gryphondom” through the Saddle Arabian Embassy in Arnau, blaming a “rogue and overzealous cell of the Capricorn Conclave for the unconscionable assault on an embassy and its guests.”

The Adepts had been ordered to surrender but thus far had not, nor had there been any indication that the message had been received by them despite a placard containing the declaration being posted on every street corner in the capital, along with a series of coded phrases they were told to use.

“They’re supposed to come out of hiding, but they haven’t. Either they don’t believe we’ll allow them to live after this, or the coded phrases we were told to use ordered something else entirely,” she mused. “Regardless, it looks like war is averted, and even if they don’t surrender, the Ravens believe they’re closing in and will have them within a day anyway.”

“A pity,” Fortrakt growled. “For making me hurt Tara, I was really looking forward to fighting them.”

“You may yet get the chance. It remains possible the Ibex are still trying to cover for smuggling some human technology back. They might surrender one or two agents and a few of the items while another one tries to slip free,” she mused. “But after being excoriated by the Queen herself over their misplaced priorities and failures of security, I’m pretty sure the Senior Sparrow and Council of Crows will not be allowing it.”

They’d flown back to the Inn after that, and to their mutual credit, they made it in a single hop instead of having to repeatedly rest, in a further sign that they were recovering their strength. Upon being admitted by the Marine guards, who were now all wearing the strange goggles they’d had their inside sentries don, they’d gone immediately to the infirmary to check on the civilians.

This time, Gilda was gratified to see, they were recognized quickly and greeted far more eagerly. “Gilda! Fortrakt!” Marco called out to them first. “They’re here, guys.”

“Wait… were you two here yesterday?” Tara asked in some confusion. “I think I remember you coming by…”

“We were there, Tara,” Fortrakt assured her, sitting by her bedside. “And we’re here now.”

“Thanks, but… why are we here again…?” Chris asked aloud, then he visibly shivered. “Why do I feel so cold? And why do we all have eye-vees?” he wanted to know next, glancing and then wincing at his arm. “Dammit, Doc, I hate needles…”

“You’re as bad as the Decurion,” Doc Cullen teased as he wrapped the area like he’d done for Gilda, earning a glare. “As for what happened…” he nodded off to the side, where Captain Moran had been waiting for them to arrive before offering his explanation.

It took five minutes, this time delivered in refreshingly blunt and direct terms by the Captain himself, though he very carefully avoided specifics or any mention of Giraldi being with Tara.

Gilda had been fearing how they would take the news, even sanitized. But by the time he was finished, the three humans looked more befuddled than disturbed.

“So… a bunch of Russian mountain goats switched our cider and then spiked it?” Chris was finally able to comprehend. “With some magical cocktail that made us all want to fuck?”

“They were hoping for something a lot less fun to happen, but yeah,” Reyes told them from their bedsides as Fortrakt and Gilda kept a respectful distance. “They got me and Lieutenant Nantz with that shit too, when we came by for a share of your chicken. But since we only had a couple mugs of it… we were able to get off it quicker. Didn’t mean we weren’t affected, though.” He rubbed his eyes.

“Yeah? So who’d you screw, Robbie?” Marco wanted to know from the next table over, carefully avoiding looking at Gilda.

“Just some griffon girl we’re calling Cock Lover,” Cullen said with a smirk.

“For the last fucking time, her name was Kaiko Louvre,” Reyes said sullenly. “A bunch of griffons were affected by cider steam that went up the exhaust pipes—they’d gathered over the Inn attracted by the smell of your chicken, Chris. She pounced me when I made the mistake of going out on a balcony and being seen.”

“Really?” Marco gained an odd grin as he visualized it. “Uh… congratulations?”

“Not the word I’d choose. The better question is, who’d we screw?” Tara wanted to know from her bed, lying on her side to keep her bandaged back wounds from chafing. “I just remember doing something with Nantz…”

“Nantz?” Everycreature echoed incredulously, especially Fortrakt, whose eyes flashed.

“Couldn’t help it…” She groaned and turned her head away in shame. “Got so horny so fast… knew it was wrong but couldn’t stop… is he okay? Wait—is Merlina?” she wondered, suddenly worried, and was clearly not encouraged when everycreature fell silent.

“Merlina?” Chris and Marco chorused. “Who’s that?” the latter asked.

“The Inkeeper’s daughter,” Moran patiently explained. “She’d been giving him language lessons when he was off-duty. They had the cider too. You can guess what happened.”

“No!” Tara exclaimed as she raised her head, only to lower it again in mingled weakness and dismay. “No… It’s my fault.”

“What do you mean it’s your fault?” Chris called out from his bed.

“Because…” She visibly slumped, even where she lay. “Because... I can just remember that I gave him the idea to screw her. I couldn’t help it. That poor girl… I’m so sorry…” she sniffled, struggling to raise her talons to cover her face in shame.

Nobody spoke up again until Reyes did. “Look, Tara—you weren’t the only one who ended up not in their right mind over this, believe me,” he told her as Gilda stayed carefully quiet. “Nobody’s blaming you or anyone else here for what happened—well, except maybe Merlina’s father. He wants to duel the Lieutenant over this, but Merlina herself isn’t upset at all. In fact, she keeps trying to go to him even though she’s still sick.”

“Still my fault… was so weak…” Tara rolled onto her stomach to hide her face and her shame.

“Tara, if you could have resisted it, you would have done what no other human—or griffon—could in all of Arnau,” Gilda felt compelled to speak up. “It was meant to be irresistible. It was meant to cause us harm or worse, make us harm each other. That didn’t happen, but it was an attempt by the Ibexians to destroy any potential alliance and steal human magic before either could be used against them. They failed, and now the Kingdom is ready to go to war with the Ascendancy over this.”

“And we’d join them if we were able to,” Reyes added angrily, only to be silenced by a look from Moran.

“Great. So is that supposed to make me feel better? Knowing that two entire nations are ready to fight over us?” Tara asked despondently.

“Tara, I know we’re still having trouble remembering things, but were you listening to what they just said?” Chris asked heatedly before having a violent coughing fit. He waited until it subsided before he spoke again, accepting a sip of water from a mug that made him look as ill as Fortrakt had been when he first tried some. “God almighty, they tried to kill us, girl! And hoped it’d be blamed on the griffons!”

“Ganon ba…” Marco muttered to himself. “Sorry, I’m still wondering what we did? I feel so sore, and I don’t know what’s from the withdrawal and what’s from…” He shivered and pulled his blanket tighter around himself.

“I wish we could tell you, Mister Lakan, but we really don’t know,” Moran said with a glance at Gilda. “All we know for sure is that the Second Spear and Decurion here were found in the former’s room, dragged there by the Ibex. The rest of you…” he visibly chose his next words with care. “The rest of you were found unconscious the following morning, suffering severe dehydration and withdrawal symptoms in your suite… along with First Spear Giraldi.”

“Who?” Chris asked.

“The First Spear of our unit,” Fortrakt offered helpfully, only to receive uncomprehending looks back from everycreature except Tara, whose eyes got distant and cheeks flushed.

“Never heard of him.” Marco groaned, but then his brow furrowed. “Or have I…?”

“Giraldi… why is that name familiar?” Tara wondered, not recalling that she’d asked for him by name when she’d woken up. “It feels like… I know him…”

You could say that… Gilda kept the thought to herself with another nervous glance at Moran, praying to the Ancestors that Tara didn’t remember enough to blurt out what had happened in front of Fortrakt.

But then her brow furrowed. Wait—if she remembered him then but not now, maybe they actually recalled some of what happened when they first woke up! she realized, wondering if she could discern anything from their odd questions and the cryptic phrases they spoke.

Okay, then—what did Marco mean by ‘Midway’? And why did Tara look at me that way when Fortrakt apologized for the talon scratches? She didn’t know, but then realized something else. Crows take it… even if Tara did remember before, this means she no longer recalls what happened with Giraldi, and there’s no way to keep that secret indefinitely. How are we going to tell her? And more to the point, WHO is going to tell her?

She groaned at the answer that suggested itself. It can’t come from Fortrakt, since he doesn’t know and wouldn’t take it well. And it shouldn’t be Giraldi, or who knows how she would take it with him standing right there. For anycreature else to tell her might be humiliating to her, especially with her friends or the Marines around. She’d need someone she likes and trusts to tell her when she’s alone…

Gilda slumped at where her logic was leading her. So it sounds like the only one who might be able to tell her without too much additional trauma… is ME! She grimaced, already dreading it as the three began to grow visibly tired again, their mental processes and responses becoming noticeably more sluggish.

She wasn’t the only one to detect it. “With respect, sir, I think they’ve had enough,” Staff Sergeant Cullen told his Captain. “They’re getting better, but they’re still at 20% cider strength. They need rest and another day to be completely weaned at this point.”

“Understood, Staff Sergeant. You heard him, Second Spear and Decurion. You can come back later in the afternoon, when they’ve recovered a little energy,” he offered, gently herding them out.

“Great. Another entire day of doing nothing but laying here,” Chris groused, to which Marco could only groan his agreement.

“I’ll take it over dying. Thanks for coming by, both of you. But Gilda? Fortrakt?” Tara called out to them before they exited.

Both stopped in their tracks and turned back to her. “Y-Yes?” Fortrakt answered nervously.

The human woman looked as if she was struggling to find words for a moment. “I just wanted to let you know that whatever happened… I don’t blame you. And I don’t hate you.”

“Seconded,” Marco added as his eyes began to flutter again. “Hard to hate you for something we don’t even remember happening...”

Later that afternoon, Gilda ordered Fortrakt to the markets to buy some fresh fruit and other soft foods for their guests, who Staff Sergeant Cullen said would be released sometime the following day.

They would certainly need a stocked icebox, given they wouldn’t be able to leave their suite while they regained their strength and things were still uncertain with the Ibex. But she had an ulterior motive in mind in sending him on the errand, wanting to clear him out so she could speak to Tara alone.

The ponies may think friendship is magic, but there’s nothing magical about doing a friend’s duty to reveal upsetting information! She inwardly groused, wondering what Element of Harmony was supposed to assist in a task like this. Honesty? Loyalty? Kindness?

Explaining her intentions to Staff Sergeant Cullen, he moved Tara into a side room, obstinably so he could check her injuries in private.

Once she was there, he admitted Gilda and told the surprised sentries to leave. When they objected, he showed off a new black metal object she hadn’t seen before. It was slightly longer than the standard ones wielded by the Marine sentries and appeared to have not one but two vertically aligned tubes.

It also had no crescent-shaped object hanging from the bottom, though it did have the mounted cylinder that cast a purplish light; she noticed it seemed to cause her white feathers to glow slightly as the beam passed over her.

“Stay posted outside. And don’t worry—any Ibex that comes in here is dead,” he promised them as he hoisted and patted the weapon, fitting his shoulder and arm through the long strap to keep it fastened to his body.

Gilda looked at him when she realized he intended to remain in the room. “With respect, Staff Sergeant—”

“Sorry, Decurion, but my orders say I have to stay—there has to be at least one sentry around at all times, and if the Captain isn’t available, I have to be present for all conversations. For what it’s worth, I already know what happened, so you won’t be embarrassing her any further by telling her in front of me.”

“Right,” Gilda said unhappily as he took station in the corner to oversee the room, giving the space a sweep with the beam of his light before moving the odd weapon back into what looked like a ready position.

“Tell me… what?” Tara asked in confusion, her blue eyes flitting between Gilda and the Marine healer. “What’s this about, Gilda?”

Gilda took a deep breath before beginning, her rehearsed speech already slipping from her memory now that it was time to give it. “We don’t know what happened in the suite between us. But we do know something that happened to you. Sorry to pull you aside like this, but I figured you really wouldn’t want it explained in front of Chris and Marco….”

* * * * *

Gilda spent the next five minutes telling Tara about what happened to her early in the night—how she’d been seduced and rutted by her century’s First Spear in front of an audience of outside griffons.

She had been terrified of how the human female would take it, knowing her initial inclination to receiving the news would be to lash out at the bearer with tongue if not talons. But instead, either due to her much different temperament or simply remaining subdued for feeling so weak and still under some influence of the cider, Tara Fields simply listened quietly as the tale was related, not speaking until Gilda was done.

To her relief, Staff Sergeant Cullen remained silent the whole time, not cracking any jokes as he’d done with Sergeant Reyes—clearly, he made a distinction between the Marines of his unit and the civilians they were supposed to protect.

“Gods above…” was all Tara could say at first after Gilda had finished, leaving her wondering about human religion and what deities they had again. “You’re serious? Me and… Giraldi? And he did me in full view of other griffons?” Her expression shifted constantly as her emotions rapidly oscillated between what Gilda could only describe as variously fear, intrigue, worry, and even a measure of wonder.

“Yes,” Gilda confirmed. She closed her eyes, wondering if she was being even remotely honorable in telling the human female about this instead of one of her other friends. “I’m sorry, Tara. I spoke to him a couple days ago. It turns out he remembers a little of it, and for whatever it’s worth, he asked me to tell you that he didn’t regret it. And that he hoped you didn’t either.”

“It’s a little hard to regret what I don’t remember…” she said with a sigh. “I can’t recall any of it, and yet… I somehow know you’re right. It happened.” She stared off past Gilda, her gaze focusing on the far wall. “But he didn’t give me these slashes?”

“No,” Gilda confirmed with a glance at Cullen, who nodded. “His splayed talons are too big for the marks you got. Considering how rough griffon mating can be, that means he was very gentle with you. But Fortrakt clearly wasn’t. Please don’t blame him, Tara. He hates himself enough already.”

“I already said I don’t… and tell him not to worry about the damage to the tattoo, either. I was planning to get it redone anyway,” the human woman reminded Gilda, her voice subdued, but then she turned her blue eyes on Gilda’s brown ones again. “So why are you telling me this instead of him?”

“Because… Giraldi’s with his Uxor—I mean wife—and as for Fortrakt, he doesn’t know about the two of you,” Gilda said carefully with another glance at Cullen, who grimaced. “Reason being, you know how he feels about you. So if he finds out Giraldi was with you, he’s liable to challenge him to a duel. And probably lose badly.”

Tara closed her eyes and sighed. “I don’t want a bunch of griffon guys fighting over me, Gilda. Especially not those two. And you’ll forgive me if I really don’t like the idea of two nations fighting over me—over us—either.”

“Griffons and Ibex have been at each other’s throats for a long time, Tara,” Gilda reminded her. “The Ascendancy tried to kill you and your friends. As our honored guests, the Kingdom takes that very seriously.”

“So do we, Miss Fields,” Cullen spoke up for the first time. “I can safely speak for all the Marines when I say we’re livid over what happened. You, Mister Lakan, and Mister McLain—you’re our friends too, you know. So are the griffons, including the Decurion here. If we were allowed, we’d be more than willing to join the Kingdom on this one and show those fucking goats why they don’t ever mess with Marines. Unfortunately, we already got word back that we’re to stay out of any conflict,” he explained in some disgust.

“Thank you, Doc,” she acknowledged. “And honestly? I’m glad. I don’t want to see anybody hurt or killed over us, whether it’s the Marines or griffons, including Gilda, Fortrakt, or Galen,” she said, but then blinked hard. “Wait—Galen? That’s Giraldi, right? How did I know his first name?”

“Then I guess you do remember a little,” Gilda offered with a wry grin. “I imagine he’ll be very pleased to know you recall it. And for the record, Tara? A griffon would only offer their first name to a very good friend. Or lover.”

“Oh, really?” Either from the remaining cider in her system, or from a simple appreciation of irony, Tara’s grin got something close to sultry. “Well, since you and I are now calling each other by our first names, I guess we’re friends or lovers now, too, huh?” Tara offered Gilda a set of her soft talons, her tone only partly teasing. “All joking aside, I appreciate what it took for you to tell me this, Gilda. Thank you.”

“Well, I can’t say I was looking forward to it, but it just felt like it would be easier to hear coming from a friend.” Gilda smiled as she took the human woman’s talons gently in her own. “And yes, we’re friends, Tara.”

“And I’m glad,” Tara told her with a slight squeeze of her talons, but then looked at her oddly as a memory likewise stirred from deep within Gilda again. But even though she still couldn’t reach it, it seemed to find a focus in Tara’s scent and soft skin. “You’re a good griffon, Grizelda Behertz.”

Gilda smiled somewhat sadly. “Thanks. Though there’s at least one pony back in Equestria I wish you’d tell that to.”

Tara’s sultry gleam abruptly turned angry and she gave a sound not far removed from a pony snort. “Well, next time you see her, you can tell that ungrateful and disloyal ‘Dashie’ from me that—” she trailed off in surprise as Gilda gaped at her. “How do I know that name?”

“I…” For the first time, Gilda was feeling severely anxious over something other than informing Tara what happened with her and Giraldi. How DOES she know about Rainbow? Did I tell her during that night? But why would I, even drunk on that sex-spiked cider? Unless—she froze at the idea that suddenly occurred to her.

And then she swallowed, very hard. “Tara… hold still for a second,” she instructed; her voice shaky as she reached up to pull back the blanket from Tara’s back.

“What? Why?”

“What are you doing, Decurion?” For the first time, Cullen looked ready to intervene, his hand going to one of the tools on his belt.

She immediately backed off. “I have to… check something…” she explained weakly, her legs suddenly feeling as shaky as they had when she had first gotten up from her sickbed. “Staff Sergeant Cullen, could you please remove her bandages for a moment?”

“Uh…” Cullen looked confused. “Is that okay, Miss Fields? You’re almost due to have them changed anyway.”

Tara didn’t answer right away, turning her head to look up at Gilda; as their gazes met, the latter realized that they were reaching the same conclusion. “You really think that…” the rest went unspoken.

The pull of Gilda’s buried memories grew steadily stronger, urging her forward. “I do…” she admitted, stunned to feel a sudden sense of outright desire for the first time since she’d been fully freed of the potion addiction. “There’s only one way to find out.”

“Find out what?” Cullen asked, looking back and forth between them.

“Please remove my bandages, Staff Sergeant,” Tara requested, her voice tense. “And let her check the talon scratches. She isn’t going to hurt me. Or them.”

“I don’t get it, but okay,” Cullen said as he shifted his metal tube onto his back. He gently peeled back the adhesive strips that kept the soft woven fabric in place, before carefully removing the bandage. “For what it’s worth, the slashes are looking a lot better than they were, though your flower tattoo will need some repairs. So now what…?” he asked them both, waiting, his eyes glancing back and forth between them.

Gilda knew he was likely to learn something she did not want getting out, but found her need to know overrode all such concerns. Taking a deep breath, she splayed her talons to their maximum width and then hovered them over the marks on Tara’s back, only to gasp in shock and dismay when she saw what she somehow sensed she would:

The separation of the talon scratches perfectly matched the width of her splayed claws!

Ancestors forgive me, it wasn’t Fortrakt… she realized, reeling as she yanked her talons back while Cullen turned to stare at her in shock and Tara instantly guessed from her reaction what she’d found. By all the crows of the Kingdom, it was ME!

“Gilda…?” Tara called from where she lay, unable to see. “Did you…?”

“I… I…” Gilda couldn’t finish before she felt an unreasoning wave of sheer panic overtake her, along with an incomprehensible surge of remembered passion for the human female.

“Gilda, wait!” Tara called after her, but she didn’t stop or look back. Unable to accept what she was feeling and terrified she was about to get uncontrollably and very obviously aroused, she fled the room, bolted down the hall and ran out of the Inn, taking flight for the Auxiliary Guard barracks as soon as she was outside.

Tribune Narada regarded Gilda coolly as she stood before her superior, drumming her talons on her stone desk. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t understand this sudden change of heart, Decurion. After demanding to remain in your posts with the humans, you now want a transfer?”

“Yes, sir,” Gilda replied, still standing at stiff attention.

“To an Auxiliary Guard combat unit near the Pearl Mountains?” she said dubiously.

“Yes, sir.”

“And you don’t want to tell me why?”

“No, sir.”

The drumming of her talons got louder as Gilda’s recalcitrance grew. “Have you told Second Spear Gletscher or the humans about this…?”

“No, sir,” she admitted, closing her eyes.

Narada studied her a moment longer before she shook her head. “Request denied.”

Gilda’s jaw dropped open. “But sir—”

“Must I repeat myself, Decurion?” Her eyes narrowed. “After fighting for days to stay in your post, you just up and change your mind on a whim. You’ve offered me not a single justification for it, particularly after learning that the human soldiers and civilians actually want you and the Second Spear to stay. This makes no sense, and I’m not going to approve your transfer to an Ascendancy-facing combat unit until you give me a damned good reason as to why.”

Gilda’s beak opened, then closed, then opened again. “It’s personal, sir.”

Narada’s eyes narrowed again and there was a sharp flick of her leonine tail. “Do you honestly think that’s going to fly with me, Decurion? Especially when just about everything should be personal for you with regards to the humans now?”

“No, sir.”

Narada’s tail lashed hard and her tapping talons turned into a partially clenched fist that dragged painfully loudly on her stone desk. “Decurion, I have much better things to do right now than play word games with you, so out with it! Either tell me what sparked this nonsensical request, or get out of my office so I can write my deployment orders in peace!”

Gilda closed her eyes, mentally bracing herself. “Very well, sir. I will explain. But as the matter is highly personal, I respectfully request that none of your aides or sentries be present.”

“Denied. They’re here in case of an Ibexian assassination attempt as a prelude to war. Be assured that by my order, they will not say a word about what they hear,” she said with a pointed glance to the guards and aides around them, who nodded once. “Now cut the angsty teenager routine and tell me why you’re here before I have you thrown out of my office!”

Gilda feared her next request was certain to result in an outright explosion from her superior, but with no other way forward, she voiced it anyway. “Then… may I write my reason, sir?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice from trembling as Narada’s quill snapped in her grasp when her fist clenched around it. “By my most revered and sacred Ancestors, I swear you’ll understand why I’m so reluctant to speak it when you read it!” she hastily added, trying to placate her superior’s smoldering temper with a very crisp salute.

Narada regarded her coldly for a moment, before pushing a fresh quill and blank sheet of parchment at her along with an ink jug. “You are severely trying me, Decurion! But very well. Out of morbid curiosity, I will indulge you. But you’d best have a very good reason for this infuriating behavior, or I will not be happy.”

“I do, sir.” Realizing the Tribune’s patience was at an end, she grabbed at the pen and parchment and began writing out her reasons on the rear of the Tribune’s desk. She took no time to choose her words carefully but simply explained in terse sentences what she had learned from her meeting with Tara, praying it would be enough and Narada wouldn’t share it with anygriffon else.

Two minutes later, Gilda passed her the note and stood back to rigid but trembling attention as Narada accepted it with an impatient swipe of her claws. She scanned the note once, blinked, and then read it again a second time, much more carefully.

She studied Gilda closely for a moment as she took the note and dropped it into a metal can beside her, where the piece of parchment was instantly incinerated by the charm the can contained, reducing it to ash. It was normally used for classified communiques that required their destruction upon receipt, but she’d seen fit to use it for this note as well.

She then grabbed a communication gem out of her desk and spoke into it. “Decanus Nydia, report to my office immediately,” she instructed, then set her eyes back on Gilda, not speaking until the aforementioned griffon arrived.

There was a knock at the door, followed by a female voice when the summoned griffon entered. “Decanus Nydia reporting as ordered, sir.” Gilda could just hear the thump of talons in salute.

“Greetings, Decanus, and thank you for answering my call promptly. By my order, please cast a shroud of silence over me and the Decurion here. I need to speak to her privately about a personal matter.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, and Gilda, though she never saw the Magus in question, felt a wave of magic wash over her followed by seeing a shimmering field descend, enclosing the two of them in a translucent but distorted bubble.

“Very well, Decurion.” Narada’s voice had become, if not more gentle, at least less impatient; the magical chamber producing an odd echo effect like they were in a wide cavern. “I now understand why you didn’t want to say anything in front of other griffons. But I’m still at a loss as to why this changes anything.”

Gilda broke her bearing long enough to give her superior a disbelieving look. “With all due respect, sir, how in the crows am I supposed to be around Miss Fields or her friends now, knowing that I both rutted and injured her?” she asked, sparing a glance outside to see the Magus in question. The bubble tended to distort sight like you were seeing through a bumpy glass surface, making it impossible to discern what was happening on the other side of it, but she could just make out that the Magus had the headfeathers of a red-tailed hawk.

“Is that the only reason?” Narada challenged, lacing her Talons as she leaned forward in her sitting position with her elbows on her desk.

“What other reason do I need? By all the crows of the Kingdom, sir, I can’t even look at her now without thinking about it—without memories of crows-know-what trying to rise up even despite the cider! And even if they weren’t, it doesn’t matter! Knowing what we did is always going to be in the back of my mind whenever I’m around her!”

“So in other words, you now know how Second Spear Gletscher felt when he believed he hurt her?” The Tribune pointed out dryly, causing Gilda to blink hard. “He didn’t quit. So why should you? And by the way, have you told him that he’s not responsible for Miss Fields’ injuries?”

Gilda had to look away at the question. “No…” she admitted, squeezing her eyes tightly shut as she realized how it sounded. To say nothing of how it felt. “I’m sure Miss Fields herself will tell him.”

“So… instead of facing him—and her—you’re running away? And maybe hoping to kill a couple Ibexians to assuage your guilt?” she paraphrased in some contempt. “I expected far better behavior from you than falling to pieces over a drunken fling that wasn’t even your fault, Behertz. Even Gletscher realized he was acting like a crow-damned fool over hurting her—after a few choice words from me. Why can’t you?”

It undeniably stung, being compared unfavorably to Fortrakt. “Even if that fling was with an alien female whose race the Kingdom is courting? Even if I’m afraid I might hurt her again?” she asked wanly, cursing herself for feeling a strong sense of remembered sensual desire to go along with her pain.

“What were the answers to those questions for the Second Spear, and why would they be any different for you?” the Tribune instantly challenged, her tone short. “And is that really the reason you want this transfer? Because unless I miss my guess, all I’m hearing right now is an eagless scared to death of what happened and what she’s feeling. Scared to death that she might do it all again, cider and fertility potion or no.”

Gilda slumped at the undeniable answer that she sensed from the depths of her very being, where her hidden and deeply buried memories of that night kept calling to her like the barest rumble of thunder from an unseen storm. “Never mind the fact I might hurt her again, I can’t be guarding somecreature I may be feeling emotionally attached to, sir!” She tried a different angle.

“So your solution is to flee to the frontier and hope to lose yourself in combat, potentially getting yourself killed in a war that may yet start over what happened to you?” she summarized. “This isn’t an act of bravery, Behertz. This is one of pure cowardice. Of turning tail and fleeing!”

The words were a slap to the face, which Gilda had no doubt was the intention. “With all due respect, sir, I’m offering up my life to avenge what happened to us! How by all our Ancestors is that cowardice?” she couldn’t stop her wings from flaring slightly in anger.

“Because what you’re doing is trying to hide from your guilt! What you’re doing is a selfish act designed to save you pain! And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to let you do it!” she snapped back. “You once told me that you left Equestria to flee a broken friendship. Then tell me, Decurion—how is this not doing the same?”

Gilda’s jaw dropped open as she made the comparison herself, and came up with the undeniable answer. By all the crows, she’s right… She felt her anger and fear turn into a deep sense of shame. This is what I’ve always done—up and fled when a relationship ended badly. I did it with Rainbow. I did it with that eagless in Nova Ocelota. And Ancestors forgive me, I nearly did it all again over TARA!

She deflated, hard. “Sir… as I think about it, you are correct on all counts. I offer my sincerest apologies for my dishonorable conduct and cowardice. You are absolutely right that I am acting out of fear. I therefore respectfully withdraw my transfer request.” She stood back to rigid attention.

“Granted. But Decurion…?”

“Yes, sir?” she froze, expecting a final reprimand.

“Emotional reactions do not become you, or a griffon soldier. I will let it pass only because I had the same thing happen to me once, years ago, when I got into it with that dragon.” She reached into her desk and pulled out a small lockbox, releasing its seal spell with a pressed talon to pop it open and pull out a picture of her lounging with a gold-scaled and red-tailed adolescent drake.

“His name is Crimson Comet. He was the one I ended up with after too much cider at a Pony New Years’ celebration in Las Pegasus. I couldn’t face him for a long time after, either, until he eventually sought me out. It was hard having to face him and explain why I fled, never mind the fact that he’s 120 years old and could tell me in exact but gentle terms why I’d been wrong to do so,” she recalled, turning a mood Gilda had never seen from her before—regretful.

“In time, I was able to accept what happened and indulge myself with him again, without any guilt or liquid help. When I finally did—it turned out that being over a century old, he’s a very experienced lover and dangerously good at fighting griffon mating rounds—all I could do was slap myself with a wing for spending so many months in denial. So learn from my mistake, Decurion, and do not cut yourself off from either Miss Fields, her friends, or Second Spear Gletscher.”

Emotionally spent and feeling completely cowed, Gilda could only nod her understanding. “I thank you for your time and indulgence, Tribune. I offer my sincerest thanks, and with your permission, I will return to the Inn to make my apology to Miss Fields.” She turned to leave, intending to step out of the bubble.

“Granted. But Decurion?”

“Yes, sir?” she turned back as the Tribune’s expression turned stern again.

“About Crimson Comet… if you say a word about him to anycreature? Then I’ll not only bust your rank back down to Fledgling, but assign you latrine duty for a year! Is that clear?” she warned.

For the first time since entering, Gilda grinned. “As the ponies say… crystal clear, sir!” She came to attention and saluted again.

The flight back to the Inn was easier than it had been before, Gilda realized with some amazement, but she still felt her stomach clench as she reentered the Inn and went immediately to the infirmary.

“You came back,” Tara said after Cullen had transferred her cart to an adjacent room again and then shooed the sentries away, though he still insisted on standing guard himself with his different and slightly larger metal tube, once again donning the same goggles as the guards he replaced. “I was afraid you might not.”

“At first, I wasn’t going to,” Gilda admitted in shame as she returned to Tara’s bedside. “I tried to request a transfer. Fortunately, the Tribune told me I was acting like a crow-damned idiot over you. And she was right.”

Instead of scolding her or making fun of her as Rainbow might have done, Tara smiled. “Hey, I know how it feels to be afraid of facing someone again,” she replied wanly, enduring a fresh shiver from her withdrawal symptoms, making Gilda throw a second blanket over her from a folded pile of them. “I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t blame you—or Fortrakt—for what happened. And the fact that these slashes came from you doesn’t change that.”

“It sure changed it for me,” Gilda admitted in pain. “All this time, I thought Fortrakt was being a smitten idiot over you. And now the weight’s on the other wing. I’m very sorry for injuring you, Tara. I can’t imagine I meant to.”

“If you meant to, I’d be in a lot worse shape than this, don’t you think?” Tara pointed out dryly. “That’s what the Ibex wanted, from what you guys said—for you to rape or kill us, right? Well, that didn’t happen. And in fact, if these scratches are all they got out of that tainted cider, then I’m gonna laugh at them.”

“I’m glad you can, Tara. Because it’s no laughing matter to me.” She hung her head. “So if I stay in my post around you, what’s to say it won’t happen again?”

Tara considered her words carefully before speaking. “You know, Giraldi didn’t hurt me despite how big and strong he is, and with a little more experience, I’m sure you won’t either,” she pointed out, then grinned at Gilda’s surprised look.

“Yes, I’ve recalled a little more. Maybe the cider’s not as effective on us, but I keep getting these flashes of memory wafting up, especially from early in the night. Nothing about you yet, though. Pity.” She gave a wistful sigh, then grinned again. “For the record, I’ve been with a couple girls over the years, but neither worked out.”

“Me too,” Gilda admitted without thinking, then started and looked over at Cullen, whose face was as impassive as a soldier at inspection. “So, what do we do now?”

“I don’t know, and I probably shouldn’t be asking myself that while there’s still some of that cider in my system,” she decided as she moved slightly sensuously on the bed. “But we don’t need all the answers now, you know. Just like with me and Marco, let’s give it some time and distance—after I’m off this fucking fertility potion and can think with a clear head again, that is,” she glanced up at the upside-down bag feeding her arm tube with a wince.

“Maybe this’ll change once I’m off that juice, but right now, I don’t feel the same regret with you or Giraldi that I did with him. That might mean it’s safe to pursue this further. If so, it can be a one-time thing, or it can be an ongoing affair if that’s what we—yes, we—decide. But for now, just stop feeling guilty and let it go, Gilda. It happened, and there’s no sense beating yourself up over it.”

“And you really think it’s that easy?” Gilda felt an odd sense of deja vu as she suddenly heard an echo of both Giraldi’s advice and Fortrakt’s anguish within her. By all my Ancestors, I will never, EVER tease Fortrakt for falling for a human female again! And I still don’t know what may have happened with Marco, either… one mental crisis at a time, though!

“Easy? No. I learned that the hard way with Marco. But it’s not impossible. Look… I don’t know what happened that night, and neither do you. But those talon slashes on my back weren’t made in anger. It’s pretty obvious it was the result of mutual passion, don’t you agree?”

She pantomimed the action that would have produced them with her own blunt talons, arching her spine in feigned pleasure while her fingers splayed, causing her soft claws to dig into an imaginary back. “So whatever we were doing, we enjoyed it… right?”

The action caused Gilda to flush and her wings to start to splay as her own psyche responded with the undeniable answer.

Tara noticed her reaction and gave a sly grin. “You know what, Gilda? I’ll call these scratches marks of affection from a lady I like, and I’ll wear them proudly. In an odd way, they’ll make sure that even if we don’t remember that night, we’ll never forget it, either.”

Gilda smiled at the heartfelt declaration of forgiveness and friendship, choking back an uncharacteristic urge to cry. You hear that, Rainbow? THIS is how a friend acts when you buck up! “Thank you, Tara. I won’t forget this.”

“I know you won’t, Gilda. I already know you’re the kind of girl—eagless—that keeps their word. But do me a favor and let me tell my friends and Fortrakt about this. I already got Doc here to promise he wouldn’t say a word, and he won’t unless ordered otherwise.”

“If the Captain tells me to spill it, I’ll have no choice,” he warned, speaking up for the first time. “But aside from that… my lips are sealed, Decurion. I don’t want to hurt or embarrass Miss Fields here, so the other Marines won’t hear word one about this from me.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Tara told him with a grateful nod. “And Gilda? Let’s take care of things sooner rather than later. So please find Fortrakt and tell him I’d like to speak with him privately…”

Gilda wasn’t privy to the conversation that followed. But she thought it best to remain there just outside the infirmary in case Tara wanted to talk to her again in Fortrakt’s presence.

But she was never summoned, and the door to her room remained closed. They sure are taking a while… is that good or bad? She wondered as she waited for nearly an hour outside the room for him to emerge. When he finally did, he looked equal parts dazed, despondent… and devastated.

“Second Spear?” she called to him in Aeric when he didn’t look up. “Are you okay?”

“What do you think?” he replied forlornly in the same tongue. “And before you ask, she told me everything.”

“Everything…?” Gilda held her breath.

“Yes, everything. I guess I should be happy it wasn’t me who wounded her. I guess I should be jealous and angry at you for doing it! And I should be completely furious at the First Spear for getting her first! And yet… all I feel is… numb.”

Well, that’s better than I thought he’d take it, she granted, even if she wasn’t sure it was an improvement. “For what it’s worth, Second Spear, I don’t know how I feel about all this either. And I don’t know what I can say.”

He looked up sharply at her. “What is there to say? This not only means that you got to be with her, but so did the First Spear! And just what am I supposed to do now? Challenge each of you?” he threw up his wings in disgust.

“Don’t worry. Even if I wanted to, she already told me not to—that she doesn’t want us fighting over her. So there’s nothing for it. Whatever happened, I wasn’t part of it. And it’s obvious by now it’s dangerous for us to be with them anyway. You hurt her in the throes of passion, so what’s to say I wouldn’t?”

The only response she could think of was a weak one, but lacking options, she used it anyway. “You don’t know you weren’t part of it. You don’t know what else might have happened, and neither do any of us.”

“Oh, right. And just who else was there, Decurion?” he asked derisively. “You? Despite what the Ibex depicted of us in that crow-damned ‘video’, we wouldn’t rut no matter how soused we were because we don’t like each other like that! So who does that leave for me? Chris? Marco? Giraldi?” he scoffed, causing Gilda to fall silent. “You really think that I’m a tiercel-tucker, or that they are?” he exploded, his wings flaring in full fury at her in a display that would have instantly resulted in a duel if she didn’t feel his pain so keenly.

Noticing he’d attracted the attention of the Marine sentries at the door, he took a deep breath and quelled his anger, forcing his wings and headfeathers to furl. “Crows take it, Gilda. All I wanted was Tara. And all I could take from that night was the certainty that I got to be with her, however briefly. And now... even that is denied me.” He hung his head as his wings and tail drooped.

“Fortrakt…” She trailed off as she realized she had no idea what she could say to him.

“Save it. It feels like this entire last week has been nothing but the Gods themselves mocking me. And I’m tired of it, Gilda. I’m a Second Spear, but apparently, not even the second choice of my dream eagless. So if you and Giraldi want her? You can have her. I won’t pursue her any longer. I’m through being hurt,” he told Gilda as he stepped past her, not looking at her.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going to write my daily report on what I’ve learned about human concepts of friendship and forgiveness, and then I’m going to write a letter to that Talon eagless asking if she still wants to have a round when I’m fully recovered.”

“Will you be staying in your post?” she had to ask. “I wouldn’t blame you if you left now, and I’m sure the Tribune wouldn’t either.”

“I don’t know yet,” he replied sullenly, stopping but not looking back at her. “At a minimum, I’m going to ask the Tribune for immediate leave when I report tomorrow. You’ll understand if I need to be away from everything for a while.”

“I understand,” Gilda bowed her head, feeling a deep measure of pity for him. “Listen, if there’s anything I can do…”

“Haven’t you done enough?” he snapped at her irritably before catching himself. “My apologies for my behavior, Decurion. I respectfully ask that I have this evening to myself. You’ll understand if I need time to… to just deal with all of this.”

“Of course,” she said as she watched him leave, wondering why restoring one set of friendships meant she had to hurt another. So is this your ‘Magic of Friendship’, ponies? she asked herself unhappily as he departed for what she feared might be the last time. Because right now, it sure doesn’t feel magical at all...

To Gilda’s great surprise, Fortrakt was waiting for her at Narada’s office the following morning when she arrived to deliver her report and receive her daily briefing.

More to the point, he seemed in far better spirits, answering the Tribune’s questions crisply. Having presented himself well, his request for leave was granted, but he asked for it to be delayed for one day so he ‘could see his new friends out of the infirmary’ and escort them back to their rooms.

When Gilda somewhat anxiously asked what had happened on their way back to the Inn—five days after leaving the infirmary herself, she had regained over half her stamina, she was happy to see—he replied that he’d sought out Giraldi at his cliffside home and had a long talk with him in the presence of his Uxor.

“I think he first thought I was there to challenge him,” he admitted with a chuckle—the first time she’d heard him laugh since before they ended up poisoned by the potion-spiked cider. “But I told him that I needed to understand why he did what he did, and why I should accept it. As it turned out, he didn’t remember everything, but he remembered enough. And we ended up having a long talk over some larded scones, a jug of good rum and several bowls of tea.”

“Then what did he tell you?” she asked, but he only shook his head.

“With apologies, Decurion, that’s personal. But he said some things that really made me think, and seeing him with his Uxor and cubs… well, that gave me a whole new perspective on him. I see now why Tara liked him. He’s a really good soldier, sire and lover—just an all-around good griffon.

“And you know what? Maybe that’s why he was the best tiercel for her. Seasoned and able to give her the first time with a griffon she needed. As much as I hate to admit it, being inexperienced meant I would be clumsy and probably accidentally hurt her. But he knew exactly what he was doing, and what she needed,” he granted as they landed in front of the Inn, folded their wings and walked up to the Marine sentries to request entry.

After passing their purple tube-mounted lights over Gilda and Fortrakt to no noticeable effect, they were allowed passage, though they both heard some whispered asides from the human pair as they passed that were enough to make them blush.

Clumsy and inexperienced… she repeated the phrase as they ascended the stairs to the second floor. That’s probably exactly how I ended up hurting her! Sorry, Tara… she mentally apologized again, still amazed that the human woman had forgiven her so easily when Rainbow had dumped her for less.

They arrived in time to find Chris, Tara and Marco being helped up out of their cots. Their “eye-vees” were already removed, to Gilda’s relief—even after her own experience with it, she was afraid she might pass out at the mere sight of seeing them pulled free.

They were greeted warmly by the three, who were struggling to stand, having already dressed in some light clothes for the trip back. Tara leaned heavily on the Staff Sergeant for support at first, while Marco waved off help as he struggled to gain his feet.

“If you want, you can ride on my back, Chris,” Fortrakt surprised Gilda by offering him a lift, as he seemed to be having the most trouble of the three keeping his balance. “Don’t worry, I can support you. Just be careful of my wings, okay?”

“Oh. Thanks,” Chris granted as Fortrakt knelt before him, though the red-headed human seemed to blush slightly to Gilda’s eyes. “Ride ‘em… griffie?” he suggested to the others with a grin, earning a snicker back as he settled in somewhat gingerly to his uncertain mount. “Just take it slow and easy, would you? My stomach’s still not okay.”

“Lucky. Don’t suppose I could get the same treatment, Gilds?” Marco suggested with a lopsided but hopeful grin.

“It’s Decurion. And in your dreams, Marco Lakan.” For the first time in many days, she felt some of her old attitude resurface.

“Ouch, Marco. Shot down again, huh?” Tara teased, to which Marco made a show of staggering back like he’d been shot by a crossbow.

“Even on my deathbed, I can’t win the favor of my fair lady!” he over-emoted like he was part of a Kingdom theatre troupe, eventually accepting the help of Sergeant Reyes to make it to their suite. For her part, Tara accepted the aid of Doc Cullen, and Gilda couldn’t help but feel a momentary flash of jealousy when she kissed the taller Marine after making it to their room, saying it was for all the help he’d given them.

“Just doing my duty, ma’am,” he said graciously, though the smile on his face suggested he was going to be savoring her favor for a while.

When they got in and got settled, pausing long enough to sip at some of the juice Fortrakt had purchased for them, they started looking around for their possessions, only to realize not all of them were there.

“Putang ina! Those fucking Ibex… they also took my laptop!” Marco announced in disgust after searching all over the suite and in his room. “I paid twenty-eight hundred bucks for that!”

Bucks…? Gilda guessed from the context that was some kind of currency, as she couldn’t imagine they were selling whitetail stags, whose isolated and slightly xenophobic nation in the northeastern interior of the Equestrian continent would not take enslavement well.

“It ain’t just you, buddy. My phone’s gone, too…” Chris groused as he returned from his room to search the couch pillows. “And I can’t find my field equipment bag!”

Tara came back next, keeping her balance by leaning on the wall as she walked. “I just checked my room. It isn’t just electronics—my books are missing! I also can’t find my sketchpad or my earphones! Those fucking mountain goats cleaned us out! They took everything!”

“Not everything…” Marco visibly relaxed as, with some help from a surprised Fortrakt, he moved a couch aside to check a hidden compartment under the floor. “Good news, gang—I guess the shroud spell worked. Our other stuff is here…” He removed a hidden panel in the floor with a burst of magic—an unsealing spell?—and then pulled out a small nondescript chest, opening it just enough for the taller humans to look inside. “See?”

Both Chris and Tara relaxed. “Thank God,” the latter said as Marco put it back in its hiding place. “If they’d gotten hold of those…”

“Those? Those what?” Fortrakt tried to peer over the top, but Marco closed the lid.

“Just some stuff we’re really not supposed to have brought,” Marco said carefully. “Sorry, buddy, but we can’t say what it is. Because we’d be in trouble with everybody if they knew.”

“What he said. And it’s okay, Tara. Even if they did swipe them, they couldn’t use them or get very far with them,” Chris smiled thinly, then turned to a confused Gilda and Fortrakt. “Just like the Marines, we had the ponies magically protect our stuff before coming to the Kingdom. The apprentice of Princess Twilight herself, Starlight Glimmer, cast the spells once we explained what we needed.”

“Who?” Gilda exchanged a glance with Fortrakt. Starlight Glimmer? Never heard of her, but I also haven’t been paying much attention to the news out of Equestria lately. And just what’s so important that an alicorn princess who’s also a friend of Rainbow Dash would need to get involved…?

“Starlight Glimmer. Personal student and Magus to the Princess, which is kind of odd given the Princess can already cast some incredibly intricate and powerful spells. Interesting mare with a bit of a checkered past. She was liaising with us while we were in Canterlot, and she actually seemed to like the fact that we brought some stuff we weren’t supposed to,” Chris detailed with a chuckle. “I don’t get how it works, but if the stuff her spell is cast on is magically probed or taken too far away from their owners—us—the enchantment is triggered.

“It’ll send up a massive magical flare that Starlight said every griffon magus ‘within thirty leagues’ would sense instantly. The intensity of the flare would also disable the magic of any nearby mage by overloading their casting tool, whether it was a horn or stave or something else,” Tara further explained. “The items would then automatically teleport back to us, and if unable to do so, would self-destruct by melting or burning. That was our way of making sure none of our toys or tech would get stolen.”

“Really? Wow,” Fortrakt said in some amazement. “I’m no Magus, but that sounds like a pretty complex incantation.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I think the Marines did something similar, only with different parameters. In their case, from what some of the younger Marines let slip, Princess Twilight herself cast the spells,” Chris concluded.

“Nice,” Gilda granted, suddenly gaining a sly grin even as she wondered what they were hiding. So that’s why Captain Moran wasn’t surprised that the Ibexian adepts hadn’t left the city—he knew they couldn’t without triggering the enchantments. And that’s also why he warned us not to examine their equipment, she realized, relishing being able to tell the Senior Sparrow about them later—she didn’t know what magical tricks the Council of Crows had up their wings, but she was reasonably certain they weren’t smarter or more magically adept than Twilight Sparkle.

“Wait—how far away would they have to be removed for the beacon to go off?” Fortrakt asked excitedly. “The Ravens might be able to use that to narrow the search!”

“Well, we can’t speak for the Marines, but since we didn’t want it to be triggered accidentally just because we left a bag behind at a restaurant or something… we asked for five miles and a thirty-minute delay,” Marco said apologetically. “That’s why we didn’t complain much when the Paladins asked for our stuff before entering the Hall of Heroes.”

“Great. So that only encompasses most of Arnau,” Gilda’s excitement quickly ebbed after she mentally translated the distance into leagues. “I don’t suppose this ‘Starlight Glimmer’ gave you a way to trigger that magical flare remotely?”

“Unfortunately, no. She said that in order to keep the enchantments hidden, its magical shroud had to be opaque in both directions, only reacting to an attempt to breach it. That’s probably why they couldn’t leave the city, though,” Chris mused, echoing Gilda’s earlier thinking. “The Ibex detected the enchantments and their nature. They didn’t want to leave without our stuff but also couldn’t without figuring out how to deactivate the spells. They weren’t able to, so they’re stuck now.”

“I guess so…” Marco said as he pulled out a separate, smaller portal device from his bag. “They also didn’t get my backup hard drive or tablet—guess there was only so much they could carry at once. I can still play movies, music and other videos off this, but I don’t have my full library and it’ll be a little slower to respond.”

“That’s something, I guess,” Tara granted, sitting down tiredly on the right-side couch. “I’m still too queasy to eat, too weak to walk, and I don’t want to sleep after being out for days on end. Looks like we won’t be leaving for a while. So what should we do?” she asked them all.

“I don’t know…” Chris admitted, slumping down on the leftmost sofa in defeat—whatever state the room had been left in, it had at least been tidied up by the Caleponian cleaning staff, Gilda guessed, not wanting to imagine what mess they’d left them with and what they’d been thinking as they cleaned up the aftermath of the night. “Any thoughts, Marco?”

“Just the usual one.” He shrugged, turning on his backup device. “Guess we’re stuck here for a while and have to make the best of it. No fancy food or even going outside until we’ve recovered more, too. Our options are limited, and that being the case, how about we watch a movie…?”

12: Lockdown Lifted

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A full week after their release, Gilda was happy to see that Chris, Tara and Marco were finally starting to seem more themselves.

Just like her at that stage, their appetites had improved and their energy was starting to return in earnest, even though they still tired a little too easily and didn’t wander much further than a trip to the market under escort—something that was only possible given the crisis with the Ibexian Ascendancy appeared to have ended.

Faced with imminent capture and possible execution for the attempt on the lives of the humans and their griffon escorts, their elusive Capricorn Adepts had indeed surrendered—but not to the Ravens or any other griffon authority. They had instead taken refuge in the Saddle Arabian embassy and were refusing to obey orders from their government, saying they would only give up the location of the items they’d stolen upon a signed guarantee of amnesty from Queen Molyneux herself and safe passage to the Ascendancy.

To that end, they’d revealed the location of a small cache of human gear, where the Council of Crows found Tara’s ‘backpack’, which contained her books and sketchpad as well as her magnification device. However, the more important items, including the portal devices and human weapons, remained hidden; the adepts had even gone so far as to forcibly wipe the memories of their contacts to make sure they wouldn’t be discovered.

Despite the attempt at extortion, the Queen openly stated she had no intention of acceding to their demands. Her latest posted proclamations declared that “the Gryphon Kingdom will not agree to anything under duress” and further insulted the Adepts by stating that “their dishonor is only exceeded by their cowardice.” Unable to enter the embassy to get them, she had ordered the Kingdom’s security forces to simply wait them out until they could get the less-than-happy Saddle Arabians to expel them.

It unquestionably put the latter in a bind, as unlike the Kingdom, Gilda knew that Saddle Arabia wanted good relations with the Ascendancy; a major trading partner who paid richly for their goods as well as passage to their ports on the Marabian Sea. But nor did they wish to antagonize the Kingdom, who kept the Harpie pirate clans in check who might otherwise harass their borders and raid their shipping.

“I don’t see any way out for them,” Tribune Narada had responded when Gilda asked that morning if the Ibexian Adepts could yet slip free of the trap. “Never mind the Council of Crows, Ravens and Paladins, but the entire populace of Arnau is after them. I’m having to deploy extra Auxilia around the Saddle Arabian embassy to keep the protests peaceful and angry griffons out.”

“They should be angry,” Gilda grated, gratified that griffons as a whole had taken the attack on the humans as an attack on all of them. “So why are the Saddle Arabians sheltering them?”

“Because they’re between a storm and a gale right now. They don’t want to upset either side, and are currently in some rather urgent talks with the Ascendancy, whose leadership continues to insist the Adepts are not obeying their orders. For whatever it’s worth, the Council of Crows thinks they’re telling the truth but doesn’t know why.”

“Then they should have no objection to the Saddle Arabians surrendering them,” Fortrakt pointed out with a sneer. He had come back from his two-day leave that morning somewhat distracted but in a generally good mood, leaving Gilda guessing that his first-ever round with the Talon eagless he asked out weeks earlier had gone well.

“Unless they know the Adepts can spill information they don’t want revealed,” Narada pointed out dryly. “Information like past operations, who gave them the order to attack the humans and steal their gear, their contacts among the criminal underworld of Arnau… even if they’re not obeying orders, the Ascendancy has plenty of reason to keep them quiet and try to negotiate their return. For this reason, Ambassador Strenus remains in Saddle Arabia for now, but he hopes to return in two days’ time. Negotiations with the humans will restart then.”

“So where does that leave us?” Gilda asked. “With respect, it’s been over two weeks since the attack, and it looks like the odds of war are ebbing—pity,” she couldn’t help but add with a growl, flexing her talons against the floor. “Can we let their civilians out of house arrest, yet?” She wasn’t happy about having to keep them inside the Inn, doubly so since they were starting to go what she’d heard ponies refer to as stir-crazy as their energy and appetites returned.

“You may,” Narada said, presenting a signed and sealed order for them lifting the restriction. “But they are to be kept together and escorted at all times by both of you when outside the Inn, and you are to inform our outside forces of your intentions so they can be shadowed.”

“By whom? The Council of Crows?” Fortrakt asked grumpily. They had not seen the Senior Sparrow in days, for which Gilda was glad; she’d been told earlier by the Tribune that Talia Tarseus had been informed by no less than the Queen that if she wished to keep her post, she would not rest until the Ibexian assassins and their stolen human equipment were found.

“No. I am told by my contacts that after the failure of the Council of Crows to do their jobs, the Ravens will protect them now. If all goes well, you’ll never see them, but they’ll be watching and will intervene if necessary. Needless to say, do not inform the humans about this.” She raised an eyeridge at them both.

Gilda exchanged a startled glance with Fortrakt. She felt a slight chill go through her at the idea that the Kingdom’s most skilled and lethal warriors short of the mythical Talaeus were going to be watching over them from here on out. I don’t need to be ordered not to tell Chris, Tara and Marco about this, though. Don’t want to make them even more paranoid than I am right now!

“What about continuing to gather information on them, given they now know we were spying?” Gilda had to ask. “I have no objection as long as we make their protection our top priority, but it’s a little more difficult now. Their Marines like us, but Captain Moran still seems suspicious of us. He tried to get us dismissed as liaisons, but the human ambassador overruled him.”

“I would be both surprised and disappointed if he did not,” the Tribune said easily. “In their Captain’s place, I would do no less. Fortunately for us, their Ambassador seems resentful of implementing advice from his soldiers. In that, at least, he is not unlike our own elites,” she mused with a shrug. “Regardless of his reasons, you will continue to gather whatever information they will grant you, but from here on out, be open about your intentions. Perhaps the ponies have it right and the humans will give up more to friendship than to subterfuge.”

Gilda agreed with the statement, though she wondered how Narada would take the news that the civilians were hiding a mysterious cache of items. The morning after learning about the protective enchantments on their gear, they’d discussed over breakfast trying to use them to capture the adepts by simply taking the three humans far enough outside of Arnau that they’d trigger the spell parameters. But in the end, they had decided against it for three reasons.

First, they weren’t in any shape to travel for several days as they continued to convalesce. Second, as Marco somewhat ruefully pointed out, they would have to take their hidden chest with them lest its enchantment be triggered by distance—Gilda was surprised to learn they’d done just that for their initial field foray where Chris and Marco had been attacked, where it had been concealed in Tara’s backpack. Regardless, this would result in them likely being instantly expelled by Goldberg when they were forced by a no-nonsense Captain Moran to reveal its contents—whatever it was, they were worried it might even affect Tara’s asylum claim.

And third, it would likely get Twilight Sparkle’s apprentice, Starlight Glimmer, in trouble back in Equestria, given she’d helped them smuggle the items into the Kingdom even knowing what they were, casting the spells without her mentor’s knowledge.

“There’s also the fact that the Marines haven’t tried this already given Twilight Sparkle probably did something similar for their gear,” Tara added. “Whatever their reasons, if we reveal what we had done to our stuff, they’d have to do the same, and that might force them to give up more information than they want. I just don’t think we’d be helping them—or us—by doing that.”

In the end, they’d decided to keep things quiet, swearing her and Fortrakt to secrecy. “Much as I want my laptop back and those fucking goats served to me with curry sauce, it’s not worth the expense of being kicked out of the Kingdom and hurting Robbie or Tara here in the process,” Marco decided with a sigh, explaining that Sergeant Reyes alone among the Marines knew what they’d brought and had helped them smuggle it through the portal initially.

Although Gilda didn’t like the idea of keeping things from the Tribune, she and Fortrakt agreed to stay silent unless she thought it was in the Kingdom’s interest to tell. We’re keeping stuff from them, so I guess it’s only fair that they be allowed to do the same, she decided as the Tribune dismissed them to begin their latest day with the human civilians.

They saluted and parted with her after that, taking flight for the Inn; she’d been flying extra wind sprints in her off-hours trying to recover her lost wing strength and stamina. She wasn’t there yet, and neither was Fortrakt, but if she were to guess, she would say they’d recovered around 70% of their pre-cider stamina.

They weren’t the only ones exercising. Once he’d felt able, Marco had started to avail himself of the human exercise equipment the Marines had brought—some padded benches and old iron weights, mostly—and began working out alongside them. He was being drilled by Sergeant Reyes, who was in turn being trained to fight griffons in his off hours behind closed doors by Giraldi, who’d received special permission from the Tribune to do so.

“I won easily at first, but he is quickly getting better at our bouts. He is not as strong as me physically, but his body has some surprising heft he is learning to use to good effect,” Giraldi commented to them when she asked about it. There’d also been at least one private meeting between him and Tara in Doc Cullen’s presence, which Tara would only say had been ‘amicable’ and that anything otherwise stated was between the two of them.

Whatever they discussed, the meeting left her deciding she would start working out as well, understanding by then that the griffons she was going to be living among valued strength and fitness. This had in turn induced the slightly overweight Chris to start exercising alongside his friends, not wanting to be left out and perhaps shamed by what he found to be an inferior physique.

Their workouts, when she was allowed to see them, consisted of a mixture of repetitive movements with the weights or simply their own bodies designed to build strength quickly, usually overseen by Reyes when he was off-duty.

Sometimes they struggled with weights and movements that would be ridiculously easy for a griffon, like when they attempted to push off the floor with their forepaws while keeping their legs and back straight; other times they did things that would be very difficult for a griffon, like hanging their entire wingless body off a bar and pulling themselves up with the strength of their forelegs alone. Only Marco could do the latter at first, while Tara and Chris could barely hang off the bar.

A curious Giraldi found he could do a few ‘reps’ of it with great difficulty, as griffons weren’t used to supporting their weight without their wings by the use of their foretalons alone. But Gilda and Fortrakt could barely manage one “pull-up” as the Marines showed they could do a dozen or more at once, even with the weight of their armored vests.

“Our bodies are built for lifting,” Reyes replied when a panting Chris complained that he couldn’t heft the weight he was given. “Now, lift!”

They’d also learned that unlike griffons, who could simply flare their wings and splay their feathers wide into the air to rapidly vent excess heat, humans cooled themselves off through sweat, leaving them glistening and their clothes soaked through in places. The odor it generated was a bit pungent but not unpleasant; there was a distinct spoor to it that told her their sweat was salty, leaving her wondering idly if it would be good to lick.

And so it went. Lacking much else to do except eat and watch their human charges workout, they’d filled the rest of the time with more movies. They’d seen perhaps a half-dozen human films courtesy of Marco’s ‘backup’ device; some centered around fighting and some not. The latter had included a rather interesting film called “Apollo 13” that showed some impressive human technology—the rumors were true; they had actually traveled to their moon!—and how they’d recovered from an accident that endangered the lives of their ‘astro-knots’ through ingenuity and resourcefulness.

It had been both shocking and fascinating seeing the wingless humans float in the air of their ‘spaceship’; they had been told that it was because they were somehow weightless. She had known that the air got thinner the higher you ascended, but it never occurred to her that there was a point it became an airless void in which flight was impossible and gravity did not exist.

A realm the humans called ‘space’ that they had somehow learned to travel through using massive pillars of fire and small ‘capsules’ that maintained an atmosphere for them. But they could only survive in them for as long as their air and food lasted, and their supply of the former had been limited by their crippled ship.

There were some things of military interest in it, including the massive ‘helicopters’ that could hover and pluck their returned voyagers out of the ocean they’d landed in, and glimpses of giant metal ships. The latter kept sparking slightly nonsensical images of metal birds in her head that seemed strangely sourceless; she could only guess they were related to her still-missing memories of their lost night.

Even after all this time, neither she nor Fortrkat could remember much; the best she’d been able to recall from the night was not sex, but an odd flash of memory regarding an army of red-caped and quite chiseled humans wielding spears, shields and swords.

“300!” Chris and Tara chorused in recognition when she’d wondered aloud what it meant.

At her confused look, Chris explained: “It’s a movie about an ancient battle. Marco must have shown it to us that night. But why would you remember that instead of…?” The rest went unspoken, and Gilda had no answer.

She was tempted to ask if they could watch it again, but she hadn’t yet. She knew she was being dweeby, but she also wasn’t certain what she was more afraid of: That it wouldn’t spark any additional memories of that night…

Or that it would.

She’d even pulled Marco aside at one point and asked him what ‘Midway’ meant, to which he froze and stammered, leaving her initial guess that the reason he was so nervous was because it was something sexual.

“It’s another movie…” he finally admitted, visibly choosing his words with care; she had noted earlier he kept refusing to meet her eyes and seemed to be otherwise avoiding her. “I guess I showed it to you guys under the influence, but, uh… I really shouldn’t have. I can’t say more. And before you ask to see it, I don’t have it or that 300 movie Chris and Tara mentioned you remembering any longer. They were on my laptop that the goats stole, but not my backup device.”

She let it go then, her mind turning as Marco made an excuse to leave her presence, saying he was overdue for another workout with Sergeant Reyes.

So, there’s something in that ‘Midway’ movie we’re not supposed to see? I’m guessing it’s related to those ‘rules’ they keep talking about. Meaning it reveals something about modern human weapons or warfighting, she guessed. Nothing for it, though. Wonder if that movie was what I was trying to report on that night? She still couldn’t believe she’d been so dweeby as to write a report while she’d been in the middle of…

To her great frustration, she nearly grasped a memory again only for it to once more slip free of her mental talons, crumbling like a clump of wet sand. Whatever it was, it caused a sudden rise of arousal within her, for which she quickly excused herself to visit the latrine lest her rosy cheeks or surge of scent gave her away.

“Crows take it…” she muttered to herself. It had happened repeatedly around Marco and Tara; the latter was certainly understandable to her but the former…?

Ancestors above, what did we DO? And why is Marco avoiding me? she still had no immediate answer, and no way to find out the former.

But the latter?

She decided she would attempt to resolve it after they watched their latest movie.

The thrum of bass was subtle, mixing well with the soft sound of the trumpets as Gilda watched the crowd murmur amongst themselves. Two onlookers wearing peculiar hoods watched anxiously as a male human, clothed in red, spoke out.

“The prisoner wishes to say a word.”

The crowd, initially antagonistic, began to murmur “Mercy”. The lilting music started to ascend, getting louder as the prisoner, a rugged-looking human with long hair, struggled to take a final breath; his muscles twitching as he gathered what little strength he had left. His death close but defiance unbowed, his throat expanded as he shouted a single word:


Gilda would have found the whole scene quite moving despite it being so incredibly brutal. Even if the prisoner was not of her species, she felt she could respect the human just from his sheer audacity of staying strong in the face of the most barbaric torture. They had him strangled, mangled, and if Chris was telling the truth, even removed his sac, yet he did not beg for mercy. It was so odd to see how similar humans and griffons were in a lot of regards, yet strangely different at the same time.

Of course, Fortrakt had to ruin the moment. Ever since he saw the humans in the movie riding what he called ‘huge, ugly ponies with very large muzzles’—unintelligent Terran horses, they were told—he hadn’t stopped giggling. Honestly, there were many things in the movie he found funny (like the odd Equestrian accents the ‘Scottish’ and ‘English’ humans had; he’d clearly never been to the Pony town of Trottingham or visited Shetlandia between the Celestial and Lunar Seas) but it was the horses they rode that definitely got to him.

Most of the time, he was trying to muffle his beak with his claws, but he was fighting a losing battle. Every so often, she’d hear a snort of air, and a few moments afterwards, loud giggling if not outright cackling.

And now, here it was again. When the human prisoner shouted his last cry, a sharp snort escaped him and Gilda closed her eyes for a moment, counting the seconds before she heard Fortrakt laughing.

“Sorry, sorry!” Fortrakt apologized placatingly as he began to retreat away. It was a smart move, given Gilda had already thrown a sofa pillow at him and she was seriously considering throwing the round table, which had Marco’s backup portal device, speakers and projector on top of it, next.

Marco chuckled from where he was sitting. “You’re really tickled by the horses, eh?”

Fortrakt snorted again. “Can’t help it… they look so ugly and funny!” This time, his laugh afterwards was unrestrained, causing Gilda to release a sharp sigh. Even with the film depicting the human prisoner being beheaded, her immersion and mood were shattered and she lost interest, turning on Marco in annoyance.

“You just had to remind him,” she muttered.

A ghost of a smile touched Marco’s lips before he looked away from her gaze. It was an act that was getting a little too familiar these past few days, as was the irk of irritation his obvious aversion to her generated. It caused Gilda to narrow her eyes as Marco began to once again ignore her.

“Come on, dude,” he began, lightly tapping Fortrakt on his chest with the tips of his blunt talons. “Let’s go to the pantry and get dinner started. Think I promised you we’d try some Caldereta next….”

As the two made their way to the other room, her junior partner’s laughter faded to silence. Without the distraction present, Gilda tried to focus on the film but found it impossible. As the movie ended with the band of ‘Scottish’ heroes doing one last charge against their enemies, her thoughts again strayed towards Marco, causing her wing to twitch and feathers to ruffle slightly.

“You okay, Gilda?” Tara asked; she’d learned along with the rest of them that ruffled feathers indicated annoyance and anger. “You’ve seemed a bit moody of late. Are you still having trouble dealing with what happened that night?” she guessed.

With effort, Gilda forced her feathers to furl. “It’s not that, it’s…” Gilda looked towards her, wondering for a moment if she should speak her mind. While she toyed with the idea of just brushing it off, with Marco gone, it was the perfect opportunity to get some answers from his friends. “Honestly? Yeah, a little. It’s frustrating not being able to recall it. But that’s not what’s bothering me right now.”

“Then what is?” Chris asked her from his couch. He’d been careful not to talk about anything he remembered, she’d noted, though she wasn’t sure if she was imagining that he kept throwing odd glances Fortrakt’s way.

Steeling herself, Gilda took the proverbial plunge, feeling like she was diving off a cloud into a deep but narrow ravine. “Is it just me, or is Marco avoiding me?”

Instead of answering, Tara turned her gaze towards Chris, as if to ask if he wanted to answer. Gilda watched with some fascination as the male human sighed and mumbled, running his hand over his head to brush his red hair back before finally speaking.

“So you noticed too, huh?” he asked, his tone neutral. He’d been suffering the worst under the intense workouts Reyes was putting them through, walking very stiff and stilted after them. But to his credit, he hadn’t given up and was starting to show the beginnings of more sinew on his previously weak frame.

“It’s a little obvious.” Gilda couldn’t see how anycreature who wasn’t blind could fail to notice. It had started the second time they’d seen them awake in the infirmary; he’d looked at her once, flinched, and then never locked gazes with her again.

Since then, he seemed to be doing his best to avoid her; even going to lengths his friends said he normally never would. The first of his twice-daily workouts were at dawn; they had him eating breakfast with the Marines before Gilda and Fortrakt could arrive from their morning briefing with Narada—a slightly bemused Chris had mentioned that Marco was never one to rise before the sun. And even when she was around, he behaved neutrally to outright cooly towards her, sticking closely to Fortrakt while generally not looking in Gilda’s direction.

Adding to her moodiness was the strange certainty that something had happened between them that night; more due to a feeling than any flash of memory that fed it. There was no direct evidence of it like there was with Tara, and yet, the idea alone kept sending a thrill through her; that she’d somehow allowed him access to her.

And when she asked herself why she would be even remotely interested in the brown-skinned ape—and she increasingly found herself sharply rebuking her own thoughts for assigning him that insulting label—she surprised herself by coming up with several possible answers, from his ability to cook (griffons who could do so well were seen as artisans and thus worthy of respect) to his honorable actions to defend Chris.

To say nothing of the fact that he had honored her by bringing the weapon he used, a steel baton, for use specifically against her.

She was certain he did it by accident. He didn’t know enough about the Kingdom’s culture to realize that a weapon brought against a gryphon conveyed a good measure of respect. While she granted it was an old tradition, and yes, he used it against another griffon instead of her, she couldn’t help but feel a bit… flattered, which only added to her frustrations and conflicted feelings even as she acknowledged there were valid reasons for her to like him.

But rut him?

“For what it’s worth, I know how you feel,” Tara broke into her thoughts. For a moment, Gilda thought the human eagless was opting out of the conversation and leaving the room, but instead, she made her way towards the kitchenette and grabbed a pot from a machine that emitted a familiar bittersweet smell.

“How do you take your coffee, Gilda?” Tara asked.

“With extra sugar and cream.” I don’t even know how anycreature could want it black!

“Coming up.” Tara stirred two mugs and a bowl before laying them on a tray, bringing them to the table. She gave the latter to Gilda, who sniffed and found the coffee more sweet than bitter, which was how she liked it. “It’s not just you, Gilda. Fortrakt’s doing the same to me and Chris. Honestly? The way those two are acting around us is just like Marco did around me after we had our little fling.”

“You just had to remind me of that…” Chris groused as he accepted his mug. “When I close my eyes, I can still smell the vomit from that night.”

“Sorry, Chris,” Tara grimaced. “It wasn’t our finest hour as friends. But with regards to Marco and Fortrakt, I don’t know… maybe they just regret it?”

“I’m not so sure. It’s hard to regret what you don’t remember,” Chris replied, holding his mug in one hand while rubbing his temples with the other.

“Unless that’s what he regrets,” Tara pointed out idly. “Marco really did want to befriend you, Gilda. And maybe he thinks that’s all out the window now.”

“Maybe,” Gilda granted as she dipped her beak in her bowl. “It’s definitely frustrating not knowing. But as for Fortrakt, I think he’s avoiding you because he doesn’t want to be hurt again.”

“Understandable,” Tara said with a sigh. “It wasn’t fun telling him that you and Giraldi got to be with me.”

“So he thinks that means he didn’t. It was hard on him, Tara,” Gilda said, taking another slurp.

“He doesn’t know that…” Tara trailed off as she visibly tried to recall the later events of that night again, only to sigh as she yet again failed. “And neither do we.”

“It doesn’t matter. He feels like he wasn’t the first or second choice of you, and that’s a hard thing for him—for any young tiercel—to accept.”

“Just like the guys back home…” The human woman sighed as a glance at Chris showed him with a pensive expression. “Guess we’re not that different after all. But didn’t you say he was going to be with some eagless on his leave?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t asked him about it. I was worried that if it went badly, it might set him off,” she explained, reflecting that had his round occurred before that night, she wouldn’t have hesitated to tease him about it. But now…?

But now, it’s just hitting too close to home, and I really don’t want to hurt him further, she decided, finding her feelings towards him had turned something close to sisterly.

“You seem very quiet, Chris,” Tara changed the subject. “Something on your mind?”

“Oh! Uh… no,” he stammered slightly as Gilda looked up to see he had gone flustered. “Or, well... nothing important. I was just, uh, thinking what Dana would have done if all this happened while she was still here.”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Tara’s eyes narrowed along with Gilda’s, who reflected that it had been a very good thing that Dana had not been present that night, or the Ibex might well have gotten their wish that a griffon murdered a human. “Far as I’m concerned, she’s just a bitch in designer clothing.”

“’Bitch’? You have diamond dogs in your world?” Gilda asked at the odd use of the term.

Tara blinked, her expression bemused. Then she laughed, to Gilda’s mild annoyance..

“‘Bitch’ is a term of insult,” Chris explained. “It roughly means a very mean, stupid or unpleasant person. It’s used mostly for women with a bad attitude, but not always.”

“Ah.” Gilda nodded as she sipped from her bowl, mentally adding another term to her growing catalog of human cursewords. “From what little I saw of her, that certainly does describe Dana. Crows know I was ready to tear her up after insulting me to my face.”

“And we wouldn’t have minded one bit,” Tara replied, taking another sip from her cup. “She did nothing but cause trouble and act like an entitled brat. But she’s gone now, thank God.”

Chris sighed. “At least you don’t have to deal with her any longer, Tara. I will when I go back home. I half-expect I’ll return to find I no longer have a job.” He turned pensive again.

“Hey, you could always stay in the Kingdom with me!” Tara said with a grin.

“Don’t tempt me.” He gave her a rueful look. “But the thing is, I can’t. I’ve got personal and professional obligations back home that I can’t just throw away.”

“Yeah, I understand. I guess I’m lucky. There’s no professional obligations for me other than a few classes at the university I was TA’ing—that stands for Teaching Assistant, Gilda—but I’m going to have a hard time explaining this to my parents.” Tara turned downcast. “At least my brothers might think it’s cool. I imagine they’ll want to come visit. I’m worried Dana will turn her attention on them, though, to try to get back at me.”

“Is she really that petty?” Gilda asked, even though she thought she already knew the answer.

“Yes,” the two replied thinly, their eyes narrowing before Tara continued for both of them. “She made it a sport of ruining people back home for ridiculous reasons, and she could get away with it because of her daddy and that she championed online mobs. I mean, come on—she’s only here because she’s well-connected.”

“A little hypocritical of you to say that,” Chris replied with a sly smile, to which Tara rolled her eyes.

“Okay, maybe I do have to thank a certain someone—” she gave Chris a mock glare “—for pulling strings, allowing me and Marco to accompany him to an alien world in the first place. So do I want to know how you did it?”

“You’re welcome, Tara,” he said, pointedly ignoring her latter question, though his sly grin did seem to grow. “Well, I do admit that having two of my friends with me sounds much better than being accompanied by random strangers. It also helps that both you and Marco have enough qualifications to justify your presence, particularly given we complement each other well.

“You’re working on your master’s degree in Geology while Marco’s a soil specialist. That pairs well with me being about plants and climate when we’re trying to figure out what minerals can be mined and what crops we can grow here.”

“Exactly,” Tara said, crossing her arms over her chest. “In other words, Marco and I have some usable skills for what we’re supposed to be doing here. A privileged bitch like Dana? Not so much.”

Before Chris could reply further, Gilda asked, “What do you mean by ‘privileged’?”

“Her dad’s a Senator,” chorused Tara and Chris. There was no follow-up explanation afterwards, as if their single sentence alone would suffice. And oddly enough, for Gilda, it did.

Given how the typical cub of a Senator acts here—entitled and bratty like everycreature else is beneath them—guess it’s yet another example of how uncannily alike our societies and culture are, she decided as a stray memory suddenly clicked.

“Dana… oh! Gimli!” she suddenly exclaimed, causing the other two to look up in confusion.

“Huh?” Chris asked, his face and hand frozen in mid-sip.

Gilda chuckled. “Sorry, I just remembered something. When you three first arrived in Arnau, Marco started spouting some nonsense about a sword, and then I got really confused over your names.”

Chris snorted and almost spilled the contents of his mug, while Tara’s laugh came unrestrained.

“I’m sorry,” Tara said at Gilda’s slightly peeved look, which quickly melted away—just like with Rainbow before their friendship ended, Gilda had a very hard time staying angry at Tara for anything. “I guess that was a bit confusing to anycreature watching.” She surprised Gilda by using the griffon term.

“Very. I mean, Dana started berating Marco when you first arrived in Arnau, right?” Gilda recalled. “And then Marco called her ‘Gimli’?”

“Yup,” Tara chuckled and grinned. “So at a guess, you thought that was actually her name?”

“Uh... well, yes,” Gilda began, which elicited a fresh series of chortles from Tara followed by a flush from Gilda’s cheeks. “Can you blame me, though? I couldn’t figure out why she got called Dana at one point and Gimli at another. All I could figure was that one was a title or rank or something. It didn’t help that Marco also identified himself as ‘Aragorn’.”

“Yeah,” Chris nodded with another chuckle. “Sorry to have confused you, and sorry to laugh. ’Gimli’ and ‘Aragorn’ aren’t ranks or titles; they’re characters from another movie series we know. I guess we should show it to you eventually—if Marco’s still got it on his backup hard drive, that is. But honestly, he was just trying to annoy Dana enough to make her go away.”

“By making thrusting motions with his hips towards her or ogling Tara’s flank?” Gilda replied with a pointed look. “I get why he did that now, and I also get that you’re okay with it, Tara. But that didn’t exactly endear him to everygriffon watching.”

“I guess not. But It worked, didn’t it?” Tara countered. “She left.”

Gilda snorted. “Yeah, it worked, but it really painted Marco in a bad light with not just me, but pretty much every eagless there.” She remembered all the ruffled feathers around her. “It convinced me he was a pervert. It was part of what set me off that night when he touched me—I thought he was trying to grope me.”

The two looked up, no longer laughing. “I didn’t even think of that,” Chris granted somewhat ruefully. “Yeah, based on what we know now, I guess it wouldn’t exactly endear him to the average griffon.”

“Still worth it just for getting rid of her,” Tara grumbled. She punched a fist into the palm of her other hand, like she still seemed to do whenever she thought of the other female. “For the record, we tried to be nice to Dana at the start, but she threw it back in our faces. Didn’t want anything to do with us.”

“It wasn’t just us, either—even when we were back in Equestria, she did nothing but complain,” Chris added. “Honestly, I admire the ponies for not losing their temper over her. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t have TVs, satellite, or social media.”

“Maybe, though I think Starlight Glimmer might have gotten back at her for us that one time,” Tara smirked. “Remember at the Grand Galloping Gala, when Dana suffered that little wardrobe malfunction after she was rude to us? The strap of her gown broke while she was getting her picture taken with Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis. She flashed a boob at everyone.”

“Just as the cameras clicked, too.” Chris grinned at the memory. “Starlight winked at us after that.”

Okay, I really want to meet this mare! Gilda decided. Sounds like she had Rainbow’s sense of humor, but also stood up for her friends! “Sounds embarrassing. But what’s a ‘boob’?” Gilda asked, even though she strangely sensed the answer, which Tara then confirmed by squeezing one of her chest-mounted mammaries. “Oh. I take it those aren’t supposed to be seen?”

“As a matter of modesty, no,” Tara confirmed with a glance at Chris. “But also as a matter of practicality. If they’re large, they tend to flop around a bit when they’re not secured by special undergarments called brasseries, or bras.” She pulled aside the shoulder of her shirt to reveal a strap, tugging on it gently to make clear that was what she meant.

She then shifted slightly uncomfortably. “And I’m starting to think I might need some new ones. I’m not sure why, but mine have been too tight ever since…” The rest went unspoken except for the blush of her cheeks and a furtive glance at Gilda, who blushed back.

“Interesting…” Wondering what they looked like—and part of her even wondering what they felt like!—Gilda found herself eyeing the prominent mammary mounds from just a foreleg’s length away, watching in some fascination as the hidden teats that capped them visibly engorged under her scrutiny from beneath the shirt the human woman wore. She dimly noted that neither Chris or Tara said anything as she stared, as if waiting to see what she would do; she wasn’t sure, but she thought Tara tugged on her shirt to show off just a little more of her flesh.

Her head drifting closer as she swore for a moment she could all but see and feel them again—again?—she didn’t realize what she was doing until she leaned far enough forward that she spilled coffee from her bowl and then fumbled it onto the floor, causing its porcelain to shatter on the stone surface and all present to flinch at the sharp noise.

“Crows take it…” she growled, the moment broken, getting a dishtowel to wipe up the mess after throwing the broken pieces of the bowl into the trash. Not finding another one—they were overdue to wash dishes—she grabbed a mug instead and filled it from the coffeepot, deciding it would be best to sit further away from Tara.

“So… why is hiding those a matter of modesty?” Gilda had to know, covering up her embarrassment and suddenly heady thoughts with a fresh question. “I only ask because, well... Griffons don’t hide themselves.”

“Well…” Tara squirmed slightly as Chris blushed hard against his normally pale cheeks. “What you have to understand is, they’re considered sexual. Our breasts are an erogenous zone, and as such, they’re considered attractive by our men.” She spelled it out, eliciting an intensified flush from all present. “For many guys, the bigger the better, too. They’re placed to catch the eye, and in most human cultures, you only show them when you’re being... intimate,” she explained carefully with another glance at Chris, who was pointedly looking away.

“I see…” Gilda couldn’t shake the feeling that she had asked these questions before and that she already knew their answers. She couldn’t fathom why she would be attracted to teats—certainly, she’d never seen her own as anything sexual! And yet… “So this ‘Starlight’ embarrassed Dana by showing her teat to everyone,” she summarized.

“Yes. But in all fairness, I can’t entirely blame her for her bad attitude. Dana didn’t take well to being disconnected,” Chris replied, quickly changing the subject. “That’s understandable, given we had some issues, too.”

“Maybe…” Tara muttered, taking what seemed to Gilda a very deliberate sip of her coffee to cover her thoughts. “But come on, Chris—we were specifically warned that Equestria didn’t have a lot of human conveniences. I mean, I miss home too! I miss dabbling on Facebook and playing Minecraft; I miss going to movie theaters—at least when they’ve been open—and going online to troll my favorite Reddit forums! Have I acted like a spoiled brat, though?

“And look at Marco—Goldberg’s been riding his ass this entire time, but have you seen him bitch and moan?”

Facebook? Minecraft? Gilda filed those words away, also noting the use of words like ‘bitch’ and ‘ass’ in a different context. But before she could ask about them, Chris spoke up.

“Point. All I’m saying is she had some valid reasons for being… whiny.”

Tara snorted but kept quiet while Gilda encased the mug in front of her with her claws. She delicately lifted it to her beak and slowly tilted it, careful not to spill. “I understand that she came here through family influence, but it sounds like she was just making herself miserable here. Why would she even come to this world, then?” she asked as she took a cautious sip.

“For the prestige of it,” Chris answered. “it would get her more attention and acclaim when she came back. She might even be called to testify in the Senate before her father. She’d get plenty of good press and publicity along the way, which she could then parley into greater influence in the… social circles she travels in,” he finished carefully.

Gilda sensed there was more he wasn’t saying, but she’d figured out by then that of the three, Chris tended to be the most circumspect about things and least likely to say something he wasn’t supposed to. “Okay. So why did the three of you want to come here, then?” she asked next, genuinely curious as to the answer.

“Well…” Tara paused as she took another sip of her coffee. “Speaking for myself, I just wanted to escape home for a bit and do something different. It was also kind of a fun thing to think about; being a pioneer in traveling to an alien world…” Her voice trailed off as she looked up at Gilda, surprised to see her drinking from a mug in her talons instead of a bowl. “Okay, how do you do that?”

“Do what?” Gilda asked, taking another sip. When Tara pointed at the cup, she understood. “Oh. Well, it takes some practice, and the right-sized cup. I had to learn how when I lived in Equestria since they use big mugs that their hooves can hold.

“These are fine, since these rooms are meant to be used by any species from ponies to Minotaurs, but I can’t do it when the mug is smaller than my beak is wide. So kindly don’t serve me anything in a teacup.” She grimaced slightly at the memory of snapping hard at a pony waiter when that had happened in Rainbow’s presence back in Cloudsdale.

“Huh. So that’s why the mugs are larger than back home,” Chris noted. “Not that I’m complaining. Big cups of coffee do me just fine.” He emphasized the point by taking a long draw on his mug.

“Yeah. But getting back on topic? About Marco,” Gilda reminded them. “Why is he avoiding me?”

“Have to be honest. I’m not sure,” Tara told her. “The one thing I can promise is that he doesn’t dislike you. If he did, he’d just insult you or make you uncomfortable like Dana.”

“Unless he’s afraid Gilda would tear him up,” Chris pointed out. “That wasn’t an issue with Dana.”

“I don’t think so,” Tara replied with a shake of her head. “Trust me, I’ve seen him. He came by the bar I used to work at, and he’s no coward—I saw him do it to guys he didn’t like, too. Guys much bigger than him.”

“Yeah, well, he was probably carrying then,” Chris said dismissively.

“Without a permit?” Tara challenged.

“Like that ever stopped him,” Chris said with a roll of his eyes. He then turned to Gilda, who was giving him a quizzical glance. “By ‘carrying’, I mean carrying a certain class of weapon. For reasons I’d rather not get into, that’s illegal in a lot of places back home.”

Though Gilda knew that was something worth exploring for her daily reports, she didn’t care as much about that as continuing the chain of thought on Marco. “He was carrying a weapon before. Am I wrong to think he’s carrying one now?” she challenged them, to which they remained conspicuously silent. “Fine, you don’t have to tell me. If yes, then from what you’re saying, there’s some other reason he’s ignoring me.”

Chris sighed heavily. “You’re right. If I were to guess, it has something to do with that night. Maybe he remembers something. Or thinks he does.”

“Thinks he does?” she echoed uncomprehendingly.

“I know it sounds weird. But speaking for myself, I keep having these flashes of memory that… well, seem too fanciful to be real,” he told them. “I keep imagining I did things—we did things—that seem impossible.”

“Like what?” Tara asked, giving him an askance look.

“Never mind,” he said shortly, his lip tight. “What I’m trying to say is, I have these memories and I don’t know that they’re real. I literally can’t tell what’s fantasy and what’s reality—I’m worried my brain just filled in the blanks with what I wanted to have happened.” He shifted uncomfortably again and conspicuously put his hands down over his lap, still holding his mug.

“But the point is, if Marco’s anything like me? Seeing you is causing him to recall stuff he finds uncomfortable or just confusing—stuff he doesn’t even know actually happened. I admit I’m just guessing, but that might be what’s making him act this way.”

“I see…” Gilda said carefully, searching her own memories to see if the discussion had sparked any fresh recollections, only to find it hadn’t.

“Do you remember anything else from later in the night, Gilda?” Tara asked her, half-hopefully. “Because I still don’t.”

She could only sigh and shake her head sadly. “Nothing but flashes of that one movie,” she replied, though she once again glimpsed an incomprehensible vision of metal birds diving on a strange seagoing ship from which a hail of incendiary arrows erupted. She thought of asking them about it, but decided it was too nonsensical and fanciful a vision to possibly be real. “But why would that make him uncomfortable?”

“Because he may have memories of himself doing things he wouldn’t normally do otherwise,” Chris answered cautiously. “And he may feel emasculated by it.”

Gilda blinked. “Emasculated?” she repeated the odd term, rolling the word on her tongue. “What’s that?”

“Ah, crap, how are we supposed to explain that,” Tara muttered. Her hands moved slightly in a circular motion; her expression one of deep thought. “Um… in the context of what Chris was saying, it means that Marco may feel less of a man—a tiercel in griffon terms—based on something he remembers happening.”

Gilda considered that for just a moment before the ridiculousness of the idea crystalized. “That’s insane,” she muttered. “Come on, Tara—he thinks he’s not a true male? Just a couple days before that whole evil Ibex plot, he held off two griffons with just a blunt weapon and even had one praying for his Ancestors to save him! How can he feel inadequate as a tiercel—as a man—after that?”

“It’s one of those… human things,” Chris answered cautiously, visibly suppressing a shiver at the memory of his close calls. “It’s a bit complicated, I’m afraid.”

Gilda stared at him for a moment before smirking. “Are we pressed for time?”

Tara smiled in response, taking another sip from her mug. “Well, then… the easiest way I can explain it is that it has to do with our culture. One aspect of human history is that most of our societies are patriarchal—male-dominated. There’s debate on why this came to be, but a lot of theories center on the primitive development of our species.”

“Which is?”

“Well, to put it simply, in tribal times, the more physically powerful males hunted for food, providing for their family and the community.” Chris placed his cup down on the table as he spoke. “The females, in turn, mostly stayed at home, protecting, feeding and rearing the children.”

“You make it sound so sexist, Chris,” Tara said with a chuckle.

“Don’t go all social justice on me, Tara.” Chris rejoined with a wink, leaving Gilda guessing there was a joke she wasn’t getting, having no idea what the odd turn of phrase meant.

“Do you see me with purple hair, a Che Guevara t-shirt and a nose ring, Chris?” Tara jested, though her expression suggested she was anything but amused. “But the point he’s making is that in Marco’s homeland and many others, men are expected to be… dominant, both culturally and sexually. But around you, he’s been anything but.

“I admit I’m just guessing right now, but based on… well, something that happened during our fling last year, he might feel like he’s not living up to what a man should be.”

“Do I want to know what happened?” Chris asked warily.

Tara hesitated but answered, choosing her words with care. “The memory’s hazy, but… let’s just say he wasn’t exactly on top at one point.”

“TMI, Tara.” Chris grimaced, causing the two to fall silent.

Gilda had a guess as to what she meant, based on what she’d heard Tara had done with Giraldi while under the influence from some of her old Turma who had witnessed them. Then… I might have done the same with Marco...? She searched her mind again, but even with a possible hint, no scraps of memory rose to the surface. If that’s the case—and I have no idea if it is—I’d have trouble dealing with such a strange mating method after, too!

She took a moment to think back on what she had learned. “So to paraphrase what you’re saying… as human males are built to be stronger than females, they tend to take it badly when they’re overmatched or dominated by one?”

“Oversimplified, but basically correct,” Chris replied carefully. “It’s a throwback to our more primitive times. Nowadays, most of our food is grown, harvested or herded. There aren’t a lot of cultures back on Earth that still hunt for provisions, so the notion of men providing food is a little outdated. However, the patriarchal nature of our world hasn’t completely faded.”

“And Marco’s from a country with a strong patriarchal culture, so… that’s kind of hard-wired into him,” Tara finished, then took another sip from her cup. “How about griffons? Are you guys patriarchal? Or matriarchal, like the Equestrians?”

Gilda looked up at the sudden change of subject, swirling the contents of her mug with a talon to spread the cream out further. That accomplished, she shook her head. “Neither. Tiercels and eaglesses are almost exactly alike in terms of overall abilities. Males can be a bit stronger, but not enough for it to matter in most instances, especially since most of our fighting takes place in the air. Speed and skill tend to count a lot more in combat with us than raw strength, so our two genders are considered equal in capability.”

“Well, except an eagless can get pregnant,” Tara pointed out with a wry grin.

“Of course,” Gilda replied, returning the smile. If somecreature else made such an obvious statement, she would have been annoyed, but she simply couldn’t be mad at Tara. “But the point is, neither male or female griffons enjoy any real advantage over the other. Both can hunt and wield weapons; both can farm, fight, or mine. Any differences in strength are generally due less to gender than bloodline or sheer force of will.”

Chris looked up. “What do you mean by bloodline?”

“Well, for us, bloodline is mostly ancestry,” Gilda explained. “There are some families that are built to be stronger or faster, and used arranged marriages with other clans to emphasize those traits further. If I remember my history lessons correctly, that was a big reason why there are now sky griffons, earth griffons, and more importantly, mage griffons.”

“We learned that early on. Couldn’t help but note you seemed to have the same three types as ponies,” Tara said. “Earth pony, pegasi, and unicorns?”

“Not exactly,” Gilda replied with a shake of her head. “There’s an important difference between the ponies and us. The United Tribes of Equestria is made of three distinct subspecies—actually four, if you count the bat-ponies.”

“Bat-ponies…” Tara murmured, then shivered. “I saw a couple of them in Canterlot. Bat-wings, sharp teeth and cat-eyes on a pony body are just…” She shivered again. “You don’t have bat forms, do you?”

Gilda blinked at the strange question. She’d always thought of the thestrals as being slightly comical-looking herself; she knew they had a reputation of being both skilled hunters and fierce fighters, but she didn’t believe it.

Predatory ponies? Now THAT’S a lot more funny than horses, Fortrakt! she mentally told him. “There are some highly questionable legends of bat-griffons in our ancient past, but… no. Even if they existed before, they don’t today,” she reassured her human friend.

“But the point is that unlike the different races that comprise the ponies of Equestria, earth, sky and mage griffons are all the same species. But their bloodlines are… specialized to fit their lands of origins. For example, the Western Ports and Northern Mountains needed strong fliers, so most sky griffons you’d meet can trace their lineages to those places.

“In contrast, the Eastern Plains and Southern Farmlands needed griffons that were faster or stronger on the land, so the origin of earth griffons can be traced to there,” she further explained. “It wasn’t just griffons, either—the same thing happened to the Caleponians and Sevasteponians once they settled here. It didn’t take many centuries for them to start becoming distinct from Equestrian ponies, both culturally and physically. They’re not a different race, but they’re definitely a new bloodline.”

“Interesting,” Chris muttered, placing his hand beneath his chin. “How about mage griffons?”

Gilda finished her drink before she replied. “Nogriffon knows their origin. In the old days, magically gifted griffons were considered gifts by the Ancestors; revered for the many miracles they could perform. They could quickly heal sickness and wounds, bless pregnant eaglesses so they’d safely give birth, and even help grow crops.”

They were also the most valued soldiers in the griffon military as they could rain fire and lightning down on their opponents from a safe distance, but Gilda felt a bit uncomfortable revealing that to the humans.

“Wow. You learn something new every day,” Tara mused, staring into her mug as she considered Gilda’s words. “Is there any obvious way to tell you apart? Earth griffons like Giraldi seem to be generally larger, but not always.”

“Unlike with Equestrian Ponies, it’s not so obvious,” Gilda granted. “With sky griffons like me and Fortrakt, you’ll notice that we have a thicker coat and feathers so we can survive the cold winters of the north. Our wingspans are larger and our eyesight is better—you can tell us apart in flight fairly easily. We basically fly far faster and longer than earth gryphons, and in combat, our preferred weapons are steel claws and crossbows.

“On the other wing, earth griffons have stockier frames to carry more muscle. They can only fly a few dozen leagues, but are much stronger; their great strength means they excel at ground combat and can carry heavier weapons like shields and war hammers.

“And as for mage griffons… well, I guess the best way to know if they are mage griffons is if they carry a stave. One of their unique characteristics is that they can be either an earth or sky griffon. Their abilities tend to be hereditary, but not always—mages have given birth to non-mages and vice-versa.”

Chris nodded. “Okay, that explains bloodline. But I have to point out, it sounds a bit predestined to me. So far, from what I’ve seen in the Kingdom, griffons value strength. Does that mean if you don’t have a strong bloodline, you won’t be able to... I don’t know, raise your station or something?”

Gilda was impressed at the observation. “That was actually true in ancient times. Before the unification of our lands, griffons were loosely separated into four distinct tribes: the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western territories. They each had their own Tribal Lords called the Blessed, revered by those beneath them because of their strong Lineages.

“Of course, that all changed when the griffon tribes united under one banner. Our Primo Basileus, King Fortis Primus, established that instead of promoting griffons for their ancestry, they’d be promoted by their merits, acts, and will to self-improve. He believed that hard work, dedication, and loyalty were traits that would prove to be stronger and far more useful to the Kingdom than bloodlines.”

“Huh,” Tara interjected. “That’s very forward-thinking.”

“And now-backwards thinking for us,” Chris muttered under his breath.

“Maybe it was until the Empire took over,” she said, wondering what to make of Chris’s statement; she was getting the distinct impression that the humans were unhappy about the way things were going back home. “Then the idea of strength became all-consuming, and gryphons who didn’t meet Imperial standards of what a mighty gryphon should be were cast out of society as unworthy. As you learned at the Hall of Heroes, Gavian Ravenoff was such a gryphon,” she noted.

“Right,” Tara said somewhat shortly. “Abandoned by his own parents at age six for being too small?”

“Exactly. And I’m sorry to say, he wasn’t the only one to suffer like that. Even if they survived, those such as he had few options in life and often ended up joining criminal raider gangs out of desperation. Not because they were bad—well, some were—but because there was nowhere else they could go.”

“Sounds awful. So how did all that change?” Tara asked.

“Well...” Gilda considered what she knew of their history. “First and foremost, the Empire had to be overthrown, as it was at the end of the Great Pony/Gryphon war. Once it fell and the Kingdom was restored, our older, more honorable and more pragmatic values could reassert themselves.”

“What values were those?” Chris asked, making an odd gesture of rubbing his chin with his soft talons. They produced a slightly raspy sound; she’d noticed before that the human males seemed to grow the moustaches and beards she’d seen on some ponies over time.

“Once again, you have to go back to the founding of the original Gryphon Kingdom for the answer,” she noted, marveling that she was giving what amounted to a classroom lecture when it used to be that she hated going to school. “Before he became our Primo Basileus, King Fortis was a tiercel from a very unremarkable family and ancestry. He was, however, a griffon in possession of a particularly strong will and sharp mind.” Gilda stretched out a bit as she spoke, lounging out on the sofa beside Tara.

For a moment, their proximity seemed to spark a memory, but once again, it faded except for an odd feeling of tightness in her teats; she covered up the sudden surge of sensations their increased sensitivity produced by charging ahead with her explanation, trying to distract herself.

“His path to power was not easy. A lot of his early memoirs were mostly in regards to favoritism towards ancestry and lineages. When he came to rule, it was by default. At the time, the griffons were at war with an enemy that used our own reverence of bloodlines against us, destroying all of the Blessed along the way and nearly bringing down the entire gryphon race. What King Fortis established from the ruins was a system where griffons like him wouldn’t bow down to others just because of ancestry.”

“Huh,” Chris muttered in what she interpreted to be a degree of wonderment. “So bloodlines are unimportant now?”

“Well, not entirely,” Gilda admitted, her tail flicking once as she thought of her father; she used her anger and resentment at him to force her more lurid thoughts back to bay. “We still have to establish our family tree, and gaining officer ranks without battlefield experience generally requires sponsorship from established figures with good bloodlines,” she explained, deciding to leave out that her own sire was such a griffon.

“But it in no way affects our standing in society. Normally, every griffon starts out in the lowest position and gets the opportunity to grow—to make themselves useful to the Kingdom. In return for your hard work, the Kingdom rewards you—in the case of the military, with higher rank, and better weapons and armor.” She tapped one of her metal pauldrons for emphasis.

“Now I get it,” Tara said in some amazement. “So the amount of armor a griffon gets determines your rank! That’s why Fortrakt doesn’t have as much as you!”

“It’s the other way around, but yes,” Gilda confirmed. “When you graduate from The Gauntlet and enter the Kingdom’s military as a Fledgling, you get a single leather pauldron for your left shoulder. After a year of serving and learning, you’re considered a seasoned enough soldier to receive your first true soldier rank, which is Spear, earning a second pauldron for your right shoulder.

The next rank is Gladio. It’s the first rank where you command other griffons, leading a three-soldier Fuga—I spent a year as that, getting my first leather vest. Later, I was promoted to Decanus, which meant I commanded a ten-griffon Decade, getting leather foreleg protection added to the ensemble,” she recalled.

“And so it goes from there. Second Spears get their left pauldron upgraded to a metal plate. First Spear gets the same on the right shoulder, and after that are officer ranks, of which I hold the lowest level. Decurion means I could command a Turma of three decades. I get a stronger vest plus my leather foreleg pieces upgraded to metal vambraces,” she nodded down to where hers sat snugly on her forearms. “After that would come things like improved helms and flank protection, and when you rise high enough, steel chestplates.”

“And that command chain…?” Tara inquired, pointing a soft talon at where it ringed Gilda’s neck like a loose collar. “I get that it grants you additional authority, but I still haven’t figured out what the rules of it are.”

“It was confusing for me at first, too,” Gilda chuckled somewhat ruefully, remembering how she had repeatedly failed to recite the rules of them during inspections at Gauntlet training. She had ended up getting chewed out on top of receiving additional and generally distasteful duties ranging from cleaning the latrines to cooking endless sheets of barely edible scones.

“The first thing you need to know is that there are five types of command chains—six if you count the one worn by a Prelate, which is our highest military rank. To be one means you command the entirety of the Kingdom’s armed forces and wield authority second only to the Queen herself. We don’t currently have one, though.”

“Why not?” Chris asked.

“Because they’re generally only appointed in times of war or great danger. Outside of that, the Praetors, or service heads, command at the Queen’s direction,” she recounted.

“But as for the chains… we’ll start with mine. This is a diplomatic command chain, denoted by being made out of iron.” She hooked it with a talon briefly; she’d at least been pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t uncomfortable or chafing. It means that I act with diplomatic authority. I can use it to give orders to local security and military forces in furtherance of diplomatic goals… which in this case, is to protect you and help the trade negotiations,” she explained, waiting until they nodded before she continued.

“Understand, there are limits to what authority it grants me. I can’t command regular military forces with it like the Knights or Talons, but I can give orders to internal security forces like the Paladins or Auxiliary Guard. Any orders I issue using the chain’s authority can only be overridden by the Queen or a senior enough Legatus—our word for Ambassador—but that authority is not absolute or unquestioned.

“If I pull Paladin or even Guard soldiers away from their duties, crows know I’d best have a damned good reason for it, or I would be in trouble later on.”

“Interesting…” Chris said. “Then you can issue orders to ranks higher than the one you hold?”

“To a point, yes. But I really don’t want to do that unless I have to. That’s liable to result in a duel, or at least some very uncomfortable scrutiny after.”

“I think I get it now. So what are the other types of command chains, then?” Tara asked.

Gilda organized her thoughts before replying. “Well, remember how I said I can’t command regular military forces? There are other chains that grant that. A Talon chain, which is made from silver to mimic their armor color, grants you the ability to command Talon units—they’re our Army, basically, and our biggest service branch. That’s sometimes issued to Guard or Paladin commanders for purposes of streamlining chains of command. My Auxiliary Guard Tribune, Felicia Narada, was assigned one for the arrival of your delegation so she could more efficiently deploy forces around Arnau.

“There’s also a Knight chain, which is gold like their armor. But that’s given much more rarely, given that the Knights are the elite wing of the Kingdom’s military; they can normally command all the lesser branches. On rare occasions, you’ll see one given to a Talon commander to whom Knights are attached but a more senior Knight officer isn’t available.

“There’s also a copper chain used for military officials to be able to command civilian security forces like the Peacekeepers. That’s sometimes given to Talon or Auxiliary Guard commanders when there’s a need to work closely together. And then there’s a cobalt chain given to allow higher-ranked officers from Peacekeeping forces to command the Auxiliary Guard.”

“What about your airship navy?” Chris recalled. “Is there a chain for that?”

“Oddly enough, no, because there are practically no circumstances when lesser services should be commanding them,” she replied. “In terms of service hierarchy, they’re second only to the Knights. Airship battlegroups and flotillas either operate independently, or are assigned as support to Talon units under Knight command.”

“Odd, but okay. And you said there was one for Prelates?” Chris asked next. He was now leaning forward towards her from where he sat on the sofa.

“Yes. That chain contains links of all types, to show that such a gryphon wields authority over all security and military forces in the Kingdom. That gryphon would be allowed to make and execute war strategy on behalf of the Queen, and the post would normally only go to a masterful military mind like Salvio Gaius.”

There was a moment of silence as the humans seemed to absorb everything Gilda had said. The first reaction came from Tara, who chuckled. “Oh, wow. That’s really interesting. Marco is so going to wish he was here. He gets massive boners when it comes to military history and culture.”

“I didn’t need that image, Tara,” Gilda winced, earning a chuckle, and this time, for a moment she swore she did glimpse Marco’s malehood in her memory. But just like Chris, she had no idea if what she recalled was real—a large, smooth shaft with a slightly flared, tulip-like head and darker ring halfway down?—or if her mind was just making it up to try to fill in the infuriating gaps in her memory. “But I guess It shouldn’t surprise me that he’s into military stuff, given how much he seems to enjoy showing us fighting movies.”

“You’ve no idea,” Chris chuckled. “He loves visiting military history museums and exhibits. When we went to Cloudsdale, his insatiable curiosity over Equestrian military history and culture got him in some trouble there. And now, he yammers nonstop about what new thing he learned from Fortrakt when you guys aren’t here.”

Hearing Marco’s name suddenly reminded Gilda of the original reason the conversation took place. Her expression must have shown, because Tara stopped smiling.

“Look, Gilda, about Marco—” Tara was cut off by the eagless.

“He feels that I humiliated him, culturally if not sexually,” Gilda decided. “His ‘manhood’ is wounded, and that means that it doesn’t matter what I do next.” She slumped slightly, surprised to feel a moment of hurt.

“I really don’t think that’s the whole reason he’s ignoring you,” Chris declared, finishing his coffee. “I’ve known Marco for a good while now, and while Tara was right about him growing up in a strong patriarchal culture, he’s not that simple-minded. So if you really want to know? Ask him. Talk to him.”

“Or if you prefer, we will,” Tara offered, then crossed her arms over her chest and raised one of the curious curves of hair they had over their eyes. “On the condition that you also talk to Fortrakt and ask him why he’s avoiding us.”

“Deal,” Gilda agreed, though she wasn’t looking forward to it that much. “And we’ll start right now...” she added as she heard the door open to herald the return of the two males from the pantry.

13: Explanations and Epiphanies

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“Deal,” Gilda said as she, Chris and Tara agreed to talk to Fortrakt and Marco, respectively.

But before Chris or Tara could reply, she heard a click of metal followed by Fortrakt’s and Marco’s voices coming from the entrance to the pantry. “And we’ll start right now...” Gilda added as she heard the door open and felt a rush of cool air from within it to herald the return of the two males.

“Wow... so your homeland has that many types of fighting styles?” Fortrakt asked in amazement as he held the door open for Marco, who backed through it like he was carrying something.

“Yup,” Marco replied as he carefully stepped through the opening with an array of ingredients for dinner; it mildly amazed Gilda that humans could walk backwards on two legs like that. Then again, it still mildly amazed her that they could walk upright at all given their slightly gangly forms.

“It’s mind-boggling, really. We’re a small island chain with a limited population, but we came up with all this just to resist being invaded and occupied by colonial powers—not always successfully. We’ve got styles for blades, blunt objects, and even an array of grappling arts, some of which we’ve borrowed from the various invaders we’ve had over our history. They all take years to master.”

“And you say you’ve learned three of them?” Gilda could hear the wonder in his voice, but she could only wonder in turn why he hadn’t shown any of them—or any combat ability at all—when she’d attacked him.

Marco laughed. “I wish. I’ve only dabbled in Yaw-Yan, which is a powerful striking art, and I learned a little Dumog for grappling. The only art I really studied intensely was the Kali style, which is a weapons-heavy art where I learned how to use that baton—it’s very good at teaching you to use sticks, staffs, blades, or whatever blunt object might be at hand. Got several years of instruction there, and it’s so popular that a lot of modern militaries use it to train their soldiers!

“That was definitely something I am good at… or at least, was good at.” Gilda heard Marco sigh. “It happens when you stop practicing. And though it was useful against punks in pubs in the seedier areas of Cavite, I’m not sure yet how much good it would actually be against a full-grown griffon as opposed to those two teens I fought earlier. Particularly since I can’t even beat Sergeant Reyes with it yet.”

“So is that the reason why you’re doing these morning workouts?” Fortrakt asked as Marco released his armfuls of ingredients onto the counter—he and Chris had been alternating making meals, slowly introducing them to various human foods. “To practice?”

“Partially. But all I get is Robbie poking a training knife at my ribs and pretending to slash my neck, saying”—Marco deepened his voice to mimic Reyes’s quite accurately—“‘You’re dead. Dead. Dead. Dead again’.”

“Well, that actually sounds like training,” Fortrakt replied with a smile before seeing the rest of the group staring at them. “Uh, we’re back?”

“And dinner will be ready in an hour…?” Marco felt compelled to add, but his smile dropped as he saw the looks on their faces.

Gilda felt the eyes of Tara and Chris fall on her. She paid them no mind, instead looking intently at Fortrakt, taking in his silly grin. She then turned towards Marco, who yet again averted his gaze to avoid her eyes.

A soft trill of annoyance escaped her throat as she stood up and walked towards Fortrakt. “Let’s go, Second Spear,” she declared with a glance at Chris and Tara. “We need to talk.”

“Uh, okay?” A confused Fortrakt answered. “And go? Go where?”

“Out,” was all she would say as she left without another word, waiting for him to fall in behind her.

“Yes sir,” he said obediently as he followed Gilda to the exit, then downstairs and out the front door of the Inn.

“Uh… have I done something wrong?” Fortrakt was confused as they took flight up to an isolated late afternoon cumulus cloud and sat there, staring down at the city.

Instead of replying, Gilda answered with an observation; the stronger wind ruffling her feathers at that altitude: “You’ve been hanging out with Marco an awful lot.”

“And… is that a problem?” he asked warily. “I like him. Never mind all his toys and ‘videos’, he’s a really interesting human.”

“And what about Chris and Tara?” Gilda challenged. “You like them too, don’t you? We’re supposed to be liaising with all three of them, but you’ve barely spoken a word to them lately. They have noticed. And they’re a little hurt.”

His cougar tail and golden eagle feathers drooped. “It’s nothing personal…” he muttered. “It’s just…”

“Just what?” she asked, but Fortrakt didn’t reply despite opening his beak and closing it again repeatedly. “Did something happen over your leave? Look—I didn’t ask you how things went with that Talon eagless, because I didn’t want to tease you over it. Didn’t want to hurt you if your first round went badly on top of everything else that’s happened.”

“And I appreciate that, Decurion. Very much,” he said cautiously. “But you didn’t have to worry. For the record, my leave went fine and my mating round with Decanus Kesi Tralia went well—very well, in fact. We ate, we talked, we sparred, and then we rutted, enjoying not only each other’s company but some really good label rum afterwards. And she was not only satisfied, but she even invited me back for another round later.”

The corners of Gilda’s beak turned upwards. “Well, congratulations, cub! That means she found both your fighting and physical prowess worthy. You should be proud and feel like a true tiercel. So why are you acting unhappy? And what does that have to do with avoiding Tara and Chris?”

“Well…” His green eyes went evasive for a moment. “I know it sounds strange, but two things happened when I was with her. First, I’m not sure how, but I’m... bigger than I was.” He flushed as he spoke, and so did Gilda. “I’m thinking all that fertility potion in the cider somehow enhanced me. And if it did that to me… then it probably did it to all of us,” he told her. “Have, uh, you noticed any changes?”

“Do I look like I have a spear or sac that can be measured?” Gilda asked dryly, but she suddenly flashed back to Tara saying her ‘bra’ suddenly seemed too small for her ‘boobs’. “So that’s the reason you’re avoiding Tara? You’re worried you’re too big for her now?”

He gave her an incredulous look. “No, of course not! Why would that matter if I already said I wasn’t going to pursue her? No, Decurion. There was something else that happened.” His eyes went distant.


He shifted uncomfortably. “If I tell you… will you please promise not to tell them?” he beseeched her. “I don’t know how they’d take it.”

She gave him an odd look, but nodded. The Tribune kept what I told her about me and Tara secret when she didn’t have to, so it’s only fair that I do the same for him, right?

“If you want to know why I’m avoiding them… it’s not because I don’t like them. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s because whenever I see them right now, I...“ He gave a shiver that she wasn’t certain was more fearful or sensuous. “I’m having flashbacks, Decurion. To that night.”

Gilda looked up sharply. “You remember what happened?”

“I’m not sure...” he hedged, his cougar tail twitching twice in indecision before he continued, “but I think so. And I also think I was wrong—that I was part of whatever happened that night.”

Her gaze at him went askance. “If you’re not sure, then how do you know?”

“I don’t,” he admitted, running his talons through the feathers on his chest in a frustrated gesture. “But I also can’t ignore what happened during one of my later rounds with Kesi.”

Gilda stared at him. “What does that have to do with this?”

“It triggered my memories,” he explained, his eyes going distant as he looked past her. “Maybe…?”

“‘Maybe’?” Gilda echoed in some exasperation. She was starting to appreciate how annoyed Tribune Narada had gotten at her when she’d been trying to get Gilda to explain why she wanted a transfer, because getting answers out of Fortrakt was proving about as pleasant as plucking itchy old feathers from her head.

“I mean, I don’t know that what I recalled was real!” He threw up his foretalons. “Everything was going fine with Kesi. We fought and mated as proper gryphons—not once, but twice. Everything happened exactly as it should—we wrestled, we rutted; she came, I came. And yes, before you ask, it was very enjoyable. But then, while we were lying together afterwards, she said she wanted to try it with herself on top, sitting up and straddling me belly-to-belly like she’d heard human females did. So I said yes, and when she did…” He shivered. “I saw… her.”

“Her? Her who?”

“Tara. I saw Tara,” he explained, turning slightly away—was he trying to hide his excitement from her? “I saw Tara sitting on me in place of Kesi, belly-to-belly and taking my spear in her nest! By the Ancestors themselves, I swear she was there, as clear as you’re standing here before me now!” His voice trembled as his words started coming quickly.

Though she didn’t want to throw cold water on what sounded like a powerful but almost impossible fantasy, Gilda felt she had to point out the obvious. “Well, that doesn’t mean it actually—”

“And I didn’t just see her in that instant, Decurion. I felt her body. Heard her voice. Smelled her scent.” He shivered, and this time, he was forced to turn away from her fully to hide his excitement. But he couldn’t hide his wings splaying into full arousal as she watched, causing her to blush.

“I have never had a dream or vision, erotic or otherwise, be so intense and involve all my senses! And by the Ancestors, she was so beautiful! My greatest fantasy made real! But then...” He shivered again and clutched himself.

“But then…?” Gilda had no idea what to make of his sudden shift of mood. Shouldn’t the possibility that he was with Tara make him happy? She was surprised to feel a moment of jealousy—not over the idea that he’d been with Tara, but over his described vision. By all the crows, why can’t I have one of those…?

He visibly swallowed. “And then, I could feel another set of talons on me that weren’t hers! A voice in my ear… belonging to Chris! He was behind me, and… b-beneath me.” His voice dropped to a whisper as he clutched himself all the harder even as his wings splayed wider.

Gilda fell speechless. She understood the implications instantly, and suddenly, what Chris had said about remembering things that seemed impossible or some form of wishcasting made sense, as did his reluctance to talk about what happened. Could it be because he’s a tiercel-tucker? And does he remember this, too? she wondered, but had little time to consider it before Fortrakt charged ahead.

“And when I realized that, I not only f-felt him inside of me, but I came instantly!” He buried his head in his talons in shame. “By the Ancestors, I’m no tiercel-tucker! Why would I have allowed that? Why would I have enjoyed that? W-was the cider so strong that we would rut anything? Or am I really…” he couldn’t finish the sentence.

“And you really think all this happened?” Gilda had to ask, even as more and more of what he detailed seemed to line up neatly with what Chris had said… and, she noted somewhat warily, what he hadn’t said. “Even with all that cider, it seems… unlikely.”

“I don’t know… that’s just it; I don’t know!” He reared up and raised up his forelegs to the sky, as if to cry out plantitively to The Ancestors themselves. “Did it really happen? Or did I just imagine it because I wanted it to have happened? Crows above, that’s just as bad when it comes to Chris! Why am I so turned on by this? Did he…? Did we…? And was Tara really…?”

His wings and tail slumped and he buried his head in his claws again, his excitement ebbing as quickly as it had come. “I’m sorry, Decurion. I know you must think I’m being a total ‘dweeb’ over this, but it’s just been too much for me to deal with. So I’ve been dealing with it… by trying not to deal with it.”

“By not being around them?” Gilda suggested, her voice more gentle, even as she was worried about what implications this had for her.

“Yes! I stay with Marco because he’s safe to be around, near as I can tell. I not only like him, but he’s good for distraction and doesn’t seem to trigger any memories for me. But whenever I see those two…” he shivered again, more violently. “I can feel and see them all over again. I’m not only terrified I’ll get turned on again, but worried I’ll want to do it all over again, even though I don’t even know that it happened in the first place!” he finished, then turned his haunted eyes on Gilda.

“So how am I supposed to deal with that, Decurion? I think I’d rather be plunged headfirst into an unwinnable war than have to figure all that out, not even knowing if it’s real!”

They ended up talking on the cloud for another twenty minutes, trying to work through what happened and what to do, including whether it would be best for Fortrakt to request reassignment for fear of being emotionally compromised and unable to discharge his duties properly.

To his credit, and unlike her, his first instinct had not been to flee—whatever else Fortrakt Gletscher was, he was no coward, and he refused to just up and quit his post in the face of his fears. “Like the Tribune said, I’m a soldier, not a sniveling cub! What kind of griffon would I be if I just up and abandoned my sworn duty to protect two good friends over this?”

In the end, after she told him that Chris and Tara were speaking to Marco just as she was speaking to him, he decided it was time to face his fears and talk with the pair directly. But when Gilda asked if he wanted her there, he shook his head, saying that it was between them. That “for the sake of their friendship,” he owed it to them to tell them what he knew, no less than Tara had when she had explained to him what had happened with Giraldi and Gilda.

“It was your duty to tell Tara about Giraldi, and her duty to tell me about both him and you. So it’s my duty, now, to tell them about this,” he ultimately decided, standing up straighter even though she could see both the determination and dread in his young eyes. “May the Ancestors guide me. And may our friendships survive the trial.”

She could tell he was afraid, but also resolute. “You really have grown up, cub,” she told him, not in the air of a superior to a subordinate but an older sibling to a younger one. “You had a successful first round only to learn something frightening, but face your fears and do what friendship and honor requires? Then I don’t care what anycreature says—you are a true gryphon, Fortrakt Glescher.”

“Thank you, Grizelda Behertz. And you are not only an officer I gladly follow, but a true friend.” He came to attention and saluted. And even though she was hardly given to overt displays of affection, she not only returned his salute, but feeling genuinely sorry for all he had been through—and worse, some things she had put him through—she hugged him, hard.

For a moment, his scent and touch stirred a memory just as he’d described with Tara, but it was fleeting and she couldn’t grasp it. “Listen, if you want me to talk to Marco first…” he began to offer, but she shook her head.

“And that’s my duty,” she said shortly. “Go on ahead of me, Second Spear. I’ll give you some time to talk to them. I’ll follow later and see you at dinner.”

Gilda stayed on the cloud for another fifteen minutes, lost in thought, considering how she was going to approach Marco but finding no satisfactory answer. Even as the cloud slowly dissolved from right under her talons with the setting of the sun, fading with the loss of daytime heating that fueled the updrafts which sustained it, she didn’t move; the words of Marco’s friends echoing through her head.

“He’s not that simple-minded.”

“Talk to him.”

Gilda squawked out an annoyed tone as she shifted position to stay on the fading cumulus, its edges becoming diffuse. She wanted to remain up there, alone with her thoughts for just a little longer. She hoped to reach some resolution, but it didn’t help. No matter how badly she wanted to, she could not get the male human out of her head, nor resolve the conflicted feelings she had for him.

By the crows, this is really getting bothersome… part of her wanted to protest. For what was the point of talking to him? If it was true that his cold demeanor was due to some silly wounded male pride over events neither he nor she had any control of, or could even remember, how was talking to him supposed to fix that?

She didn’t have any immediate answers, but with the dying cloud now fading to a few wisps, it could no longer support her, so she took flight, diving from its remains, tucking her wings to quicken her pace. The increasing rush of cool air and delicious feeling of speed—she would at least grudgingly admit Rainbow had given her that particular addiction, which she didn’t mind one bit—helped settle her mind and restore her awareness to the here and now.

Maybe Chris and Tara are right—there’s nothing that will fix this except finding Marco and talking to him, she decided as she turned her dive into a glide when she neared the same altitude as the city’s fifth level, a minute later. If Fortrakt can find the courage to do it, why can’t I?

Facing the west as it did, Arnau was bathed in fading orange rays as she landed on a third-level platform not far from the Inn. She took a moment to scan her surroundings as she’d been trained to do, only folding her wings when it was clear. The great city at sunset was a striking sight as it slowly began to glow with pinpricks of light, softer than the cold glint of the nighttime stars; it was her favorite time to fly as the sun’s light faded and the moon rose in its place. More than once she’d simply hovered high above the city to watch as one by one, each house from the Eastern Gates began to glow as they turned on their firegems; the Caleponian households brighter than the griffon ones due to their inferior night vision.

However, that did not detract from the beauty of seeing it at that height, even if she couldn’t fully appreciate it just then. Not with a potentially awkward talk with Marco still to come.

Walking back towards the Winged Hall Inn, she was greeted once more by two low-ranked Marines who let her in only after she had been scanned with their violet lights—what did they do? She had heard them referred to in passing by the Marines once as “black lights”, which made no sense given they were purple, and the whole term seemed a complete contradiction anyway—and had answered a challenge with a countersign, which they changed every day.

Regardless of the answer, all of it was necessary to ensure she was Decurion Grizelda Behertz and not another griffon—or worse, an Ibex—in disguise. Passing their inspection, Gilda walked through the artificial barricade and made her way through the lobby, towards one of the two stairwells that flanked it.

The wall-mounted firegems were starting to increase their illumination with the dimming of the sun through skylights, as they normally did in the evening; she passed a few armored Marines coming to relieve their compatriots, which would allow the latter to eat and otherwise go off-duty.

She received some greetings and even a few salutes, but she didn’t pay much attention to them until a more familiar voice was heard.

“Good evening, Decurion.”

Gilda looked up to see Staff Sergeant Stafford approaching with something he called a ‘clipboard’ and a writing utensil humans called a ‘pen’, even though it looked nothing like the quill pens griffons used. Then again, she had first mistaken it as a ‘pencil’. This was another thing that she found odd with humans; they seemed to make more than one tool to do the same job.

“Staff Sergeant,” Gilda returned his proffered salute, carefully mastering her still-roiled emotions and trying not to think about Marco for a moment. “On patrol?”

“Just reviewing our new security protocols, ma’am,” he said, causing Gilda to start at his using a form of civilian female address on her. It wasn’t the first time, by far, but she did find it jarring, and decided she would include a note about that in her upcoming cultural training seminars explaining that griffons didn’t use that form of address for female officers in the military. “Captain’s orders.”

“I see…” Gilda replied, though she really didn’t. She’d noticed before that they seemed to be putting more devices in strategic and occasionally hidden locations, but she couldn’t discern their purpose. Nor did she particularly care just then.

“Getting flight time before dinner, I take it?” Stafford asked as he continued to inspect his checklist. “We can already smell one of Mister Lakan’s latest culinary creations being cooked. In truth, we’re rather envious of how well you all eat.” He favored her with a smile.

Gilda smiled back. She hadn’t enjoyed everything they’d been served—as far as she was concerned, it was very hard to equal the exquisitely fatty yet crispy flavors of Christopher’s fried chicken—but it certainly had been interesting fare and had shown them the many unexpected ways cooked meat could be made to taste good.

It also helped that both Chris and Marco seemed to be making it a competition to see whose food would be enjoyed by Gilda and Fortrakt the most; even Tara had made an attempt at cooking some ‘pork chops’ of flying boar she found a bit too dry. “Wings need some stretching. And being cooped in a room for an hour or so isn’t good for a sky griffon like me,” she offered carefully.

“Makes sense. I noticed that young Gletscher was with you earlier. Another aerial workout for the two of you, then?”

Gilda shook her head. “Not this time. I had to discuss something soldier-to-soldier with him.” That’s true enough, right?

“Considering how close he sticks to Mister Lakan, it’s understandable why he might need a talking-to.” Stafford chuckled. “It’s become a running joke with us how easily Marco gets into trouble, no matter where we are.”

Gilda forced a smile on her face when she heard Marco’s name, though it was belied by a sudden flick of her tail, less from anger than exasperation and confusion. Part of her wished she had spoken up earlier in front of Marco to clear the air then. Even if the outcome wasn’t going to be favorable, maybe it would have at least eased her doubts?

Or maybe he would have just gotten defensive and felt embarrassed about being called out in front of his friends, she reminded herself. No, this has to be something we discuss alone and—

“Is there a problem, Decurion?” Stafford’s sudden question jolted Gilda from her thoughts. “You look troubled.”

“No problem at all,” she replied as neutrally as she could, trying to still her twitching tail.

But to her frustration, Stafford proved too perceptive; he noted her body language and frowned. “Is Mister Lakan still bothering you? Because I’ll inform the Captain if he is.”

Gilda sighed and closed her eyes. “No, that won’t be necessary, Staff Sergeant. Marco Lakan isn’t making any trouble for me.” At least, not in the way you’re thinking...

Stafford continued to stare at her for a moment before he gave an unconvinced nod, firing her a respectful salute. “Alright, I won’t keep you, then. Enjoy your dinner.”

“Thank you.” Gilda returned the honor before the two went their separate ways. Ascending the first flight of stairs to the second floor, she passed and greeted a few more Marines before she ran into Sergeant Reyes, who she knew generally came off-duty around that time. He had stripped down to splotchy shorts and an olive-hued ‘t-shirt’, as he’d heard them call it, stretching his legs as he prepared to run laps in the halls. He was also wearing one of their utility belts and an armored vest, maybe because he wanted the extra weight to train with?

He saw her and smiled. “Good evening, Decurion. I take it you’ve more or less recovered if you’re taking your usual nightly flights?”

“And you as well, if you’re doing all this training—in armor, no less,” she noted, looking him over. It was hard for her to tell beneath his clothes, but he seemed to be not so much more muscular as more wiry-looking now. “Dare I ask how it’s going with the First Spear?”

“Humbling,” he said simply, rubbing his eyes. “But at least I’m making some progress. He can still put me down pretty easily most of the time, but once in a while I surprise him. Even managed to pin a foreleg and tap him out earlier today—that was a first.”

“Oh, really?” Gilda grinned—unlike Fortrakt, she would have no qualms whatsoever about teasing Giraldi over being bested by a human. Or the Sergeant over what it might mean. “So in other words, you’re getting to the point you might be able to give an eagless a good round?” she asked him point-blank in front of two on-duty sentries, who smiled.

“I haven’t decided that!” he said somewhat shortly and with an angry glare at the pair, only to slump slightly. “But yeah, I also want to have the option. To be able to put up a good match and even fight a duel over her if I have to. And if you two spread that around, I’ll have you on mess hall duties for a week!” he warned the pair of armed sentries, who didn’t lose their conspiratorial grins.

“Understandable,” Gilda nodded with a grin of her own, but then her mood dropped again. “But on an unrelated matter… may we speak privately, Sergeant?”

“Uh… sure,” he said agreeably, leading her down the hall, out of what she assumed was earshot of the pair—griffons or even ponies could overhear conversations at that range easily. “What’s up?”

“It’s Marco…” she said, deciding she would avail herself of the opportunity to get more advice and information on him. Or was she just trying to put off talking to him a little while longer? “He’s avoiding me and I’m not sure why.”

Reyes stared at her for a moment. “Given the way you two started, I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“That was then,” she said, letting her feathers ruffle and still as she recalled that night. “He’s redeemed himself to me—mostly. But ever since he woke up and left the infirmary…”

“He’s been giving you the cold shoulder,” Reyes guessed, teaching Gilda yet another new human euphemism. “So forgive me for asking, but in order to answer, I need to know—did something happen between you that night? Are you and Marco an item now?”

Though she’d never heard that usage of ‘item’ before, the meaning was clear enough. “What makes you say that?” she asked, slightly defensively.

“Because I’m not stupid, Decurion,” Reyes replied, one of his eyebrows rising. “So is that the real reason why he joined my morning training? Am I going to hear about a mating round between you and him?” he asked, his gentle smile at least somewhat toning down the teasing tone of his words.

Gilda hadn’t thought of that, and she couldn’t help but flush as she suddenly wondered if he was in fact correct—was that the reason?

“Short answer—I don’t know what we did,” she groaned, rubbing her head with a set of talons. “I’m not lying; I still don’t remember. But maybe he does, given his behavior. I’m told by his friends that Marco may feel humiliated by something that happened that night. Something I did but don’t even remember doing,” she replied honestly, amazed that she could discuss such a matter with the human male so openly.

But then again, he had already been open with her about his eagless encounter, so why should she do any less? “Chris and Tara think that I may have… e-mas-cu-rated him.” she screwed up her beak a bit at the odd word.

“Emasculated,” he corrected with a chuckle. “Well, I’d normally joke and say you’d have to let him buy you dinner first before you rip his clothes off like that eagless did to me. But honestly, I think that’s off-base.”

Gilda blinked—what did that mean? “Off-base?”

“Wrong,” the Sergeant clarified. “As in, I don’t think Marco feels humiliated by you. I’d say from his behavior that if anything? He likes you but feels unworthy of you.”

“Unworthy?” Gilda echoed in disbelief.

“Yep.” Reyes smiled. “I remember a particular conversation I had with him after some daring junior officer swooped in and saved his ‘flank’.” He winked as he used the pony term, which had gained some favor among griffons as well. “And you know what he said? ‘Man, Robbie, I wish I was half as awesome as Gilda’.”

Gilda’s face scrunched to a dumbfounded expression that even an uninitiated human could understand. Her beak fell open, speechless for a few seconds before she finally closed it again to voice a single word. “No.”

“Yes,” Reyes replied with a chuckle. “Swear to God, whether the human or griffon ones. Once the shock wore off, he couldn’t stop singing your praises. It was Gilda this; Gilda that. I think you earned quite an admirer that night. He really does like you, Decurion. And he wants you to like him.”

“I don’t believe you,” Gilda muttered as she turned away, her tail twitching in agitation. “How could that be? He’s done nothing but avoid me for the past week. Most days he barely even talks to me. And now you’re saying it’s because he likes me?”

“Like a teenage boy around a girl he crushes on but thinks is too good for him, yep,” he said, and put that way, Gilda realized that it did make sense. “That’s my guess. Still, maybe I’m speaking out my rear. So if you really want to know… talk to him,” he suggested, more seriously. “And if you’re afraid it would just make things worse, take it from me that Marco’s a good, but complicated guy. Even occasionally an idiot, but at least a well-meaning one. There’s a reason the Marines like him, and it ain’t just because he gives us plenty of porn.”

He pointed towards the next flight of stairs at the end of the hall that led to the third floor. “So seriously, Decurion—go find him. Just corner him or something. Don’t give him the opportunity to hide behind someone else. Clear the air with him properly and don’t automatically assume that he’s avoiding you for this or that reason. I think you’ll be surprised at what you learn. And if, after all that, I'm wrong, and he gives you grief?”

He smiled thinly. “Then I’ll be sure and punish him properly at his next workout and chew his ass out like he’s a raw recruit just off the bus at Parris Island—that’s where we do our version of your ‘Gauntlet’, before you ask.”

She smiled at the thought, then offered him a set of curled talons as she’d learned the Marines didn’t salute when out of uniform. “Thanks, Sergeant.”

“My pleasure. And if it’s not too personal, let me know how it goes either way.” He bumped her talons with his fist; not for the first time she noticed the striking surface of his knuckles was nearly as hard as rocks.

“Promise,” she swore as she took her leave, wondering where and how she could ‘corner’ the brown-skinned human.

Reaching the stairwell at the end of the corridor that led to the third floor, she turned the corner to find Marco sitting on the stairwell landing with his legs resting two risers down, his head in his hands. At the sound of her approach, his head rose up and his brown eyes met her gold ones, widening slightly in what she could only presume was anxiety as their gazes locked.

“Oh… uh, hey, Gilds,” Marco greeted her, his voice subdued.

“Hey,” Gilda greeted back, her tone much sharper than she wanted. Marco grinned nervously in response. Shaking her head slightly, she took a breath, trying to relax. “I thought you were cooking dinner.”

“Ah, yes, well…” He paused, visibly grasping for words. “Chris is tending it. I, um, was actually hoping to speak with you. Fortrakt already came by, so I figured waiting here was the surest way to make sure I bumped into you.”

“Okay,” Gilda replied, sitting several stairs lower to keep her distance. She was doing her best not to let her feathers ruffle or tail twitch for fear of scaring him off—he’d certainly learned such signals of griffon anger well by then. “I’m here. So speak.”

Marco scratched the nape of his neck. His mouth opened for a moment before he closed it as his eyes wandered towards the floor. Gilda could barely keep herself from trilling in impatience and annoyance before Marco finally spoke up.

“I guess I just want to say that I’m sorry.”

Gilda felt her shoulders relaxing but forced herself to look stiff and unmoving. Her eagle eyes narrowed as they gazed at Marco accusingly, eliciting a nervous chuckle. “Then why have you been avoiding me?” she asked, pointedly not accepting his apology. Despite that, she was impressed that she was able to keep her tone level, even as her insides churned with ever-more roiled emotions. “For stuff we don’t even remember happening?”

“You’re really gonna make me spit it out? Fine,” Marco sighed, running his hand through his mane of black hair. “Because I think I do remember one or two things that happened. And I’ve been having a hard time dealing with it.”

Just like Fortrakt… “Okay. And…?” She held her breath. “Were your friends right? Did I somehow humiliate you? Make you feel like less of a ‘man’?”

He flushed. “You didn’t...” He seemed to shrink back a bit in the same manner Fortrakt had when he talked about Chris. “But… that’s a whole different crisis. Look, the reason I’m here is I just got a talking to from Chris and Tara,” he muttered. “They told me I was acting like ‘a fucking idiot’ over you. And like Tara reminded me, it’s not the first time.”

Gilda rolled her eyes. “Ah, so that’s why you’re apologizing. Your friends called you out,” she said in some contempt even as she reminded herself that she’d asked them to do exactly that. Still, she couldn’t help but feel anger that he needed a strong shove in her direction before he did so. Then again, hadn’t she?

“Well, not only,” Marco replied, starting to squirm where he sat under the intensity of her stare. “I… okay, look, this is going badly, and I have no idea how to say this.”

This time, an annoyed trill did escape Gilda’s beak; one that made Marco immediately stiffen. “I’m not going to sit here listening to you sputter and stammer, Marco Lakan. If you’re going to say something, then say it! If you can’t, then come back to me once you can.” As she made a move to walk past him and go up the stairs, Marco stood up and blocked her way.

It was a gutsy move on his part, as that was normally tantamount to inviting a griffon to fight.

“Wait! Hold on.” He held up his palms in a halting manner against her glare and low growl. “I want to fix this, Decurion! I really do! I’m just—” he sighed again “—I just need to find the right words. And no matter how well I speak it, English isn’t my first language. So I have to translate my thoughts as I go.”

Gilda exhaled slowly, trying to release some of her tension. She sat before him in a neutral pose on the landing this time, keeping her wings and feathers furled. “Okay,” she said with far more patience than she felt.

“Oh… okay,” he replied, smiling nervously as he seemed to do when he felt anxious. A short relieved laugh escaped his lips, but he immediately stopped it. “Um… okay. Okay, I’m just saying okay. Alright. Look, I realize I’m not the easiest guy to like. When I first met Chris, he and I had arguments over religion. With Tara, it was politics. The point I’m making is that I never would have thought that after a year, they would be my two best friends. At this point, I’d go to war for both of them. Hell, I’d go to war with them.”

“You’ve already proven that to me,” she reminded him. “That’s why I decided you weren’t as bad as I first thought—you defended Chris without hesitation, even facing down two hostile griffons with nothing more than a metal stick. By griffon standards, that was a very honorable thing to do.”

“Thanks. But that’s just it.” He sighed heavily. “I always seem to give a bad first impression to people I meet. In the end, it usually stays that way. For every Chris or Tara who gets over that first impression, it seems like I get five or six others who don’t—Ambassador Goldberg’s an example of the latter. So when I screw up really badly with someone, I tend to just avoid talking or hanging out with them for fear of making things worse.”

“So that’s why you ignored me?” she guessed. “You thought I was still mad at you? Over what happened with the cider, if not you accidentally groping me that first night you arrived?” She let her feathers ruffle in reminder.

“Kinda,” Marco replied, eyeing her warily. “I thought you were over me being an ignorant idiot that first night, but I wasn’t sure. And as for the cider stuff, I didn’t know how you felt about it. I didn’t even know what you remembered.”

“Nothing,” she said shortly, but then looked away as she once more felt a memory trying to rise up within her, only for it to infuriatingly bump up against a hidden barrier again. “Nothing but a strange certainty that we did something…”

“We did,” he confirmed with a sudden swallow and sheen of sweat, abruptly unable to meet her eyes. “So then if I have to tell you just what I remember doing, I was afraid you’d hate me even worse than before.”

She gave him an odd look. “Why? Over something we had no control over and few memories of?”

“Those few memories are enough. And I’m still scared you might tear me up over them?” he cringed to admit.

“And you really think I wouldn’t have then?” she challenged him. “Look, Marco—no offense, but you’re not that character in Braveheart or one of the fighters in Warrior. You’re not strong or skilled enough to overpower me—at least, not yet,” she hastily added on seeing his hurt look.

“The point I’m making is, there is no way in all the Crows you could have raped me or otherwise forced me to do anything I wasn’t willing to. And as much as I hate to admit it, the way that crow-cursed cider works is it brings out a griffon’s—or anycreature’s—deepest desires and removes all inhibitions about enacting them!

“So if I was still mad at you—or if I got mad at you while under its influence…” She had to look away again as Marco swallowed hard. “Well, the Ibex would probably have gotten what they wanted. But instead? I guess I let you have me. I guess that I wanted you to have me.” She was surprised that it felt more liberating than painful to admit. “Be honored.”

“Honored…” he repeated the word. “Then you really do like me,” he realized in further wonderment.

“Well, you’re making it a little hard right now by acting like a damned dweeb, but yes,” she replied dryly, making him cringe. “If you want to know why, it’s because you can cook, you can fight, and you’ve proven repeatedly you’ll stand up for your friends. Any one of those is considered honorable to a griffon, and having all three of them makes you worthy of friendship to most griffons—especially me!” she exclaimed as Rainbow’s face flashed through her head again.

“Thanks. But just friendship?” he had to ask. “I admit I’m still learning about griffons, but, uh... don’t you have to earn the right to ‘rut’ through a mating round?”

She stared at him. Why had he just asked that? “Usually, yes.”

“But that’s just it. I didn’t…” He slumped again. “You know, most human guys would be delighted to land a lady they think is normally way out of their league, but that’s not what I feel at all. If you want to know why I’m avoiding you, it’s because, well... It feels like I cheated with you. That I didn’t do anything to deserve you. That I only got my hands on you because we were both under the influence.

“And for the record, that’s the biggest reason I’m training now,” he forced himself to admit. “It isn’t just to make sure I can deal with another attack. Just like Robbie with that eagless of his, I want to be able to win you properly, on your terms and not because of that ‘crow-cursed’ cider.”

Gilda was struck speechless by the admission. She dimly noted that Sergeant Reyes had been improbably right in his guess that Marco’s behavior stemmed in part from feeling unworthy of her. But that mattered less to her at that moment than the heady realization that the brown-skinned human well and truly wanted her, but only if he could have her on griffon terms.

Only if he could have her on her terms!

So he feels he didn’t earn me, and now he wants to correct that by proving himself worthy as a gryphon would? By all the crows of the Kingdom, nocreature has ever offered that to me before, she thought in wonder, and she was surprised to feel a sudden and very strong surge of not just appreciation but outright desire for the brown-skinned human; a surge that quickly brought color to her cheeks.

A surge that threatened to start her wings flaring right there in front of him, not in anger but in excitement. And by my Ancestors, nocreature has ever HONORED me like that before!

Her reaction was not lost on Marco, who stared at her and smiled—not slyly, which she would have hated, but shyly, like he was afraid of embarrassing her.

“Wow… you really seem to like that?” he observed cautiously, causing her flush to deepen and wings to widen in response. The latter began to steadily rise up right there in front of him despite her weakening mental efforts to restrain them; announcing her arousal to the world. “I mean it, you know! I swear, what I want most of all is to deserve you!”

The heartfelt assertion sent another wave of pure headiness through her that left her feeling lightheaded and shattered her remaining resistance, leaving her suddenly and quite keenly aware of his presence and scent. “I know…” she barely croaked out as her disobedient wings flared rapidly to full attention, revealing her reaction to his fervent declaration with a sensual display she would have teased Fortrakt about endlessly had it happened to him just a couple weeks earlier.

She had an incomprehensible but overwhelming urge to not only show herself, but offer herself up to him right then and there! She knew it was both ridiculous and even potentially dangerous for who might see them and what it might mean. And yet, here and now, she couldn’t help it—she wanted him to see what he’d done to her; turning her on as no male ever had… again?

And he’s wrong… she somehow sensed just then as her dilating pupils flicked to the rapidly growing bulge in his pants that would have made even the best-endowed griffons proud; her flared feathers becoming instantly and exquisitely sensitive, ready to receive a lover’s touch. It wasn’t just the cider that made me do it. He did something else that really won me that night. Something that REALLY turned me on… but what?

As if in response, the image of red-caped and shield-wielding humans flashed through her head again followed by the persistent vision of metal birds diving on a strange seagoing ship through a hail of incendiary arrows. Their presence and several strong measures of music she could somehow recall sent more excitement than she could ever remember experiencing coursing through her, cider or no.

She didn’t know if it was flashbacks from her still-buried but now-boiling memories of that night driving her, each a self-contained bubble that rose and burst against her mental barrier with a release of, if not the actual recollection they contained, the feelings and emotions that accompanied them.

Tolerant amusement at his interest giving way to the simple enjoyment of being admired.

The heady thrill of being seen as desirable turning slowly but surely into a simple wish to reward.

The delicious feeling of dominance giving way to a very surprising surrender.

The delight of finding out just how compatible humans and griffons truly were.

She didn’t know what acts accompanied those emotions, but she desperately wanted to find out.

To feel it all again.

To know it all again, and this time remember it fully!

Unable to restrain herself any longer, she reared up hard and lunged at him, shoving him against the wall; her claws ready to tear his clothing off right there—to bare him fully so he could pleasure her properly with his spear as well as his soft but sensuous talons.

In response to her aggressively amorous act, a surprised but sorely aroused Marco reached up to embrace her and locked his soft lips with her hard beak. His eyes went wide and breathing came labored as he began to caress her lower flanks and back while clutching her to him, letting her feel his hardness against her belly.

A passionate trill escaping her beak as they began to kiss more frantically, she willed his hands higher towards her flight muscles as her talons began to dig into the thin fabric of his shirt, ready to rid him of his constraining clothing by ripping it to shreds.

But the sound of approaching and quite rapid human footfalls broke into her lurid thoughts; the sight of Sergeant Reyes entering the stairwell from below snapped her out of her sensual reverie. He began to charge up the first flight, taking them three at a time until he looked up and his eyes widened, spotting the intertwined pair and stumbling to a halt as he reached the landing, barely a body length away from them.

“Oh. Uh… hey, Robbie,” Marco offered wanly, still caressing her for a moment before he let her go, allowing a mortified Gilda to push back from him and hastily drop back to all fours. “Gotta say, you’ve got perfect timing!”

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be, Sergeant?” she all but growled at him even as her wings remained flared, not giving him much room to pass. She did so even though she wasn’t sure she was more relieved or angry he had interrupted them, given how ridiculous the idea of rutting Marco right in the middle of an open and frequently traveled stairwell was!

“Uh… sorry,” he said, panting lightly as he recognized their intent and looked away. “Didn’t exactly expect to find you here.”

“It’s okay. We really shouldn’t be out here anyway,” a still-flushed Gilda pointed out, looking up to the open skylight over the stairwell through which patrolling griffons could occasionally be seen. “It’s not private and anycreature from Marine sentries to the cleaning crews may pass.”

“Y-yeah… sorry…” a flustered Marco replied. “Maybe this isn’t the best place to t-talk...?”

“If you can call that talking. Just remember that tomorrow morning is still on, Flip-boy. If you pussy out, I know where your room is,” Reyes threatened, though the twinkle in his brown eyes belied his tone. “I’ll drag you right out of bed with her if I have to.”

“I’ll be sure to wear my steel underwear then,” Marco replied flippantly, impressing Gilda that he was still able to make jokes, even caught in a compromising position.

“Oh, har, har, you little brown prick,” the Sergeant said with a mock sneer.

“Undoubtedly bigger than yours, Robbie. Wanna compare?” Marco instantly rejoined, his hands going as if in offering to his badly strained belt.

“Fucker. You know, I’m getting the distinct impression I should make myself scarce,” Reyes noted wryly as Gilda continued to glare at him, the knowing grin on his face growing as he carefully eased himself around her erect wings.

“I’ll be off then. You kids have fun. And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Or if you do, I’d at least go somewhere a bit more private than this.” He resumed running upstairs with a wink that caused them both to flush.

“Considering what he’s done…” Marco noted as he hastily smoothed out his clothes, leaning back heavily against the wall as he gave a heavy exhale. “Sorry, Gilda. That hit out of nowhere…”

“My fault… not yours...” Gilda managed through pants, still stunned by the intensity of emotions and sensations she’d felt—was that what it had been like for her, that night? “S-sorry…”

“Don’t be!” Marco told her, still showing signs of strong arousal from his flushed face to the prominent bulge in his pants that caused her to blush anew, looking at it from nearly eye-level as she was. “But, uh… maybe Robbie’s right and we should continue this conversation elsewhere?”

“Right,” she agreed shortly, realizing that whatever happened, there was no turning back—that with the way she was feeling, and the way he clearly was as well, they both had to get this out of their system or it was going to happen at a far less opportune time and place.

“Then come with me to my quarters, Marco Lakan. Dinner can wait while we discuss this matter, human to eagless.” She stepped in front of him and drew her tail between his legs before raising it high over her back, beckoning him with him to fall in behind her.

To her great gratification, she heard him take a ragged breath as he felt the contact and beheld her display, his eyes following her as she ascended the first few stairs. “Love to! But, uh... I’m not good enough to fight a round yet!”

“And I’m not asking you to—at least, not now. You said you wanted it on my terms, right? Well, don’t worry—it will be.” She grinned evilly at the thoughts and ideas now flowing freely through her head, stopping her walk just long enough for him to bump into her from behind and stumble.

“You’re right that you haven’t earned all of me yet, but for honoring me like this, you’ve earned enough, Marco Lakan,” she promised him as she reached the top of the stairs and resumed a rapid walk forward towards her room at the other end of the hall. Her sky griffon wings scraped the sides of the broad corridor as he quickly steadied himself and began hurrying to catch up; she could all but feel his hungry eyes on her, ogling her flared wings and feminine features.

“Enough…?” He repeated dumbly as his breathing became harder and far huskier. “And how did I honor you?”

“You’ll see. And to borrow a phrase I remember from somewhere… it will not be quick. But you will enjoy it!”

14: Feathered Heart

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Night had fallen over Arnau hours earlier and dinner remained uneaten. And yet, Gilda found herself completely disinclined to leave her bed or eat.

Her armor and the tattered remains of Marco’s clothes, which she’d been very ungentle about removing, were strewn about her suite in a trail from the door to the bed; she’d been mildly amazed they’d actually been able to make it there rather than her throwing him to the floor and taking him the instant they got inside.

Thankfully, they had retained just enough of their senses to slap the master opacity control on the room skylights to make sure nocreature could see in. It also surprised her in hindsight that they had encountered no sentries or cleaning crews along the way to her room, given there were usually at least a couple pairs of them posted in the corridor and her wings were splayed wide for all to see.

But she wasn’t about to question their good fortune. In the end, they had mated not once, not twice, but three times, unable to get enough of each other. They were also helped by the fact that Marco found his recharge time was nearly instant; the stature of his human spear impressive and—she was told by him—expanded over what it was before, just as Fortrakt had described.

He endlessly enjoyed the simple act of touching and exploring her while she, in turn, found she couldn’t get enough of his smell or taste—of his wondrous talons working her or the surprisingly practiced sensual techniques of his tongue. She loved his earthy scent and the deliciously sweet and salty sweat he produced, to say nothing of how he made her feel! He let her be dominant as few griffon males would, all the while playing some surprisingly stimulating music off of his small portal device that only aroused her further.

Though she had denied him the rights to rut her properly without winning a mating round—she wanted him to keep having motivation to train, after all!—Marco had found a… loophole around that restriction she might have been more than momentarily annoyed at, had it not felt so incredibly and unexpectedly good. And when she half-seriously threatened to order Giraldi to give him the same treatment in retaliation, he’d only gotten more excited.

It was all exquisitely pleasurable, to say nothing of immensely enjoyed. And now, three hours later, they lay intertwined, staring up through a still-darkened skylight into the starry sky; the twinkling lights not too dimmed by the city ones.

They were both disinclined to move, but hunger and thirst were starting to get the best of them as Gilda felt her stomach growl. “You know, we really should get back to the suite and eat. Even though I’m sure your dinner is quite cold by now,” she told him as she laid her head against his bare chest, nuzzling it.

“Eh, Chris will keep it warm. And besides, we could always order room service,” he pointed out, laying a set of soft talons on her head. It was a minor intimacy compared to all they’d already done, but one she found she liked every bit as much as the more major acts they’d performed, for the simple sense of appreciation she felt from him.

“They don’t cook their meat,” she reminded him with a contented trill. “And Fortrakt is probably wondering what in the crows happened to us.”

“Unless he ended up in bed with Chris and Tara,” Marco pointed out between caressing her chest with his other hand, only half-jokingly. “You said he was going to have a chat with them—the same kind of chat we did?”

Gilda blinked at the image, then chuckled and shook her head, reaching up to run her talons gently through Marco’s mane of dark hair. It was very fine, she noted, but he kept it clean and reasonably well-groomed. “As fun as it is to think about, I doubt it. We were ready. But I really don’t think they were,” she said at some length.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he said with a sigh, reluctantly pushing off her to sit up on the bed. “Guess it’s past time we get back to them. So how are we going to explain this?”

“With the truth,” she told him firmly as she sheathed her still half-stiff wings as much as she could, rolling to her side so she could sit up and lay her talons on his shoulders, leaning on him from behind. She knew the humans didn’t consider that an erogenous zone, but griffons did, and it still produced a heady feeling within her. “We don’t hide this from them.”

“I doubt we could anyway!” Marco chuckled as he swung his feet over the side of the short bed and rubbed his face with his hands, leaning back into her slightly. “They know me too well. They’ll probably guess what happened the instant I step inside. But what about the Marines? I trust Robbie to keep a secret, but the rest…” he trailed off.

“Given how they tease him over his own eagless encounter, I imagine they’d be okay with it. I’m not sure about the Captain or Ambassador, though.” Or Tribune Narada… she suddenly fretted.

“Fuck Ambassador Goldbrick,” Marco all but growled, leaving Gilda wondering what the altered name meant. She guessed it was some kind of slur, but she’d never heard the term before. “And as for Captain Moran, he’s hard but fair. I don’t think he’d be happy, but I also don’t think he’d want us expelled over this.”

“He still doesn’t quite trust us,” she reminded him as she stood up on the bed and hopped down to the floor, starting to collect her scattered armor pieces. “And he’s got a good reason not to. We were spying on you, after all.”

“True. He may think you seduced me to gain information or something,” he mused as he began gathering his clothes, but at her offended look, he quickly threw up his hands. “Don’t blame him, or me for suggesting it! That’s a tried and true espionage technique on Earth.”

“And here as well,” she relented as she located her vest and began to pull it back on. Though considered dishonorable in the Kingdom, the Ibexians certainly recruited less-reputable griffons to do it, and she was sure the Council of Crows had resorted to it repeatedly in return to gain intelligence over the years.

“What about your own superiors?” he suddenly worried as he pulled on his torn-up jeans, which she’d broken the clasp on in her urgent efforts to get them off. “Will they be okay with this?”

“Leave that to me,” she said with a sigh as she secured the buckles on her leather cuirass and tightened the straps. She wasn’t looking forward to telling the Tribune, and she could scarcely imagine what Senior Sparrow Tarseus would say. Not that I care what she thinks. But Narada… “If worse comes to worst, I’ll resign so I can stay with you. I’m sure Captain Moran wouldn’t mind having a griffon civilian advisor around.” She didn’t think it would come to that, but if it did...

He stopped dressing to stare at her in awe; showing sudden and very obvious signs of excitement again, even after three figurative—if not literal—rounds. “You’d really do that for me?”

She asked herself the same question—was she really willing to give up her career and dreams of one day joining the Wind Knights for this one human?—and smiled at the answer she received, deciding he’d shown her a simple but powerful honor, to say nothing of treasures of the heart far more valuable than simple battlefield glory. “I would, Marco Lakan.” She allowed her wings to stiffen in response again; a riposte to his own erotic display.

“Wow...” was all he could say as he dropped to his knees and began exchanging licks and kisses with her once more. His hands even began to roam her wings and flight muscles again, starting to try to pull her armor off before they reluctantly pulled back at the sound of Gilda’s growling stomach, earning a laugh from each as they resumed redressing.

“One question, though, and I’m sorry if it’s a stupid one… just how did I honor you earlier?” Marco asked.

She smiled at that. It would have been a stupid question coming from a griffon, but it was somehow utterly endearing coming from this brown-skinned human, whose body and mind she now knew well.

“By trying to make amends. By elevating me above you. By making all this effort to train just to make yourself more attractive to me. By wanting to prove yourself to me on my terms—by wanting to have earned me,” she recited easily, but then her mood turned a mixture of enamored and exasperated. “And by having an uncanny ability to both piss me off and turn me on, often all at the same time.”

Marco could only grin sheepishly in response as he buckled his belt to secure his pants, though it still bulged over the only half-flaccid organ within. “What can I say? It’s an ‘uncanny’ talent I have. But it usually backfires. For the record, the only thing I regret with you now is getting off to such a bad start,” he recalled with a sigh; his remaining excitement quickly ebbing.

“Listen, I’m sorry again for avoiding you. I guess I did it because I don’t want you to be one of those people—well, griffons—who’d come to hate me.”

“By not talking to me, and treating me coldly,” Gilda said deadpan as she buckled one of her steel pauldrons next. “What a wonderful plan to get a griffon ‘girlfriend’.”

Marco visibly winced as he sat down to pull on his socks. “Okay, if you put it that way… then yeah, I was being stupid about it. I’d make a joke by saying it worked, except it didn’t until we started talking. Honestly, though, it’s the truth. I mean… we’d already got off on the wrong foot—or paw. I broke your boundaries so badly that first night you were ready to rip my balls off. And yet, just a few days afterwards, you swooped in to save me and Chris.”

“It was my duty,” Gilda reminded him, now working on her second pauldron.

“I know, I know,” Marco replied as he found his ruined shirt. “But that doesn’t mean I still don’t feel grateful. Even more so after talking to Fortrakt. He explained to me that those two griffons weren’t going for the kill, and that the worst thing they would have done was knock me out. And Chris told me how quickly you took to the air to find me. You basically could have waited until they were done with me before you came in to do your job, and nobody would have faulted you. Hell, I don’t even think that I would have.”

Gilda’s mouth opened but before she could speak, Marco raised a single finger, laying it on her beak in what she could only guess was a shushing gesture.

“I know you’re going to say you’re not like that. And believe me, I know you're not—especially after everything we just did! Listen, Fortrakt respects you a lot, and so do Chris and Tara. They were talking my ear off because I’ve been treating you coldly ever since waking up.

“But I’d gotten to see you in action by then, and no matter how turned on it made me, I also thought you were so far above me that there was no way you’d be interested in me. I know now I was wrong,” he recited in some shame, then held up a paw to indicate he wasn’t finished yet.

“I also know you tried to patch up things with me after you swooped in and saved the day, and I know that it must have taken something out of you to do so. I’m slow, but I’m not stupid. And as foolish as I know it was now, I really thought that after all that happened and given what little I remembered of that night, it was just best to keep my distance. That given how wild those few memories were, you’d feel more comfortable if I didn’t bother you more than strictly necessary.”

“That’s not how griffons do things, Marco Lakan,” she told him as she tugged the straps of her shoulder armor taut, checking herself in the mirror to make sure they were on straight. “We don’t hide our feelings, especially from our friends and mates.”

“Humans, unfortunately, have a bad habit of doing just that,” Marco recounted ruefully. His words made Gilda flash back to the movie Warrior, recalling how both protagonists had kept things from their friends and family, to the detriment of all.

But she didn’t have time to consider what that might mean for human society before Marco went on. “Then for what it’s worth, and as incredibly obvious as it seems right now… I really like you, Decurion Grizelda Behertz, both as a soldier and… well, an eagless. I’ve wanted to get to know you better from the start, but I was terrified of fucking things up further along the way.

“So, since I didn’t say this before… thank you for all you’ve done for me—done for all of us. Thank you for saving me and Chris. Thank you for putting up with all my alien idiocy and for… well, everything that happened between us that night, because I know full well that you wouldn’t have allowed it except for that spiked cider.

“And I know now that I hurt you even more afterwards by giving you the silent treatment. You didn’t deserve that. So please… accept my apology.”

He bowed his head in contrition, but Gilda immediately stopped him. “No. Don’t bow,” she instructed as she reared up on her hind legs, flaring her wings for balance as she rested one set of talons on his chest—and how odd that she didn’t have a second thought about doing it!—while her right foreleg went to his head, stopping it mid-dip. Marco stopped and his eyes focused on her in confusion. After a moment, he stood straight as Gilda went to all fours again.

“Uh, okay,” Marco muttered, his tone confused. “Um, did I get that wrong or something? I thought it was a sign of respect. I saw griffons bow before your Queen.”

Gilda sighed, realizing she had to add one more item to an already lengthy list of topics to discuss at her cultural training seminars. “It is. And they did. But they did it because it was the Queen—bowing is something gryphons reserve exclusively for royalty,” she explained patiently. “In other words, we only bow before either Queen Molyneux herself or a member of her line. We would also bow if brought before foreign royals like the pony Princesses.

“But I’m not a pony Princess or a gryphon royal, so don’t ever bow to me. Not even if you feel grateful or because you want to apologize. It gives me an honor I don’t deserve. And if you’ve learned nothing else about us, I hope you’ve learned by now that griffons consider it dishonorable to assume a rank or station we do not have.”

“Damn. And here I thought I could show you how sincere I was—other than all the sex, of course.” Marco chuckled. “Uh, okay, then how do I—?”

“I’ll cover all this in the cultural briefing tomorrow, but I think in this situation… baring your neck would be the most appropriate action. When you don’t want to rut me instead, that is,” Gilda replied with a wry grin and wink.

“Bare your neck… oh! You mean, like how the other griffons greet you outside of a salute?” Marco recognized with a smile as she nodded. He then bared his neck and held it, though a little too slowly and deeply for her. “How’s that?”

“Not that much,” Gilda said patiently. “Don’t exaggerate or force it—just do it. It shouldn’t be a strain on the neck or feel unnatural.” He corrected himself by trying it again, and this time, she nodded her satisfaction.

“There. Perfect. In the future, know that it’s appropriate to use for everything from indicating respect to an outright apology. It’s also a sign of submission you can use in place of ‘tapping out’ during a duel or spar. In fact, I’d recommend you do so when going against griffons, since they won’t instinctively know human signals.”

“Meaning, I could have just done that when pinned by that teen griffon and been fine.” Marco sighed somewhat ruefully as he straightened his neck. “Okay, forgive my ignorance—again—but I have to ask: what does baring your neck imply?”

“That’s a bit... complicated,” she admitted as she finished refastening her command chain behind her head, realizing she’d best come up with a succinct answer before she started giving her cultural training sessions the next day.

Marco raised one of his furred eyeridges. “More than this?” he motioned between the two of them, a human man and a griffon eagless; the closest analogy Gilda could think of at that moment was the pair of them trying to pick their way through a minefield of lightning-charged clouds laid by pegasi in the fog—one of the nastier tricks the ponies had employed against griffons during their war seven centuries earlier.

“You’ve got me there.” Gilda grinned, finding his mildly teasing expression and words oddly comforting. A small chuckle escaped her beak, which caused Marco to break out with a silly smile. It quickly became infectious, and her chuckle soon transformed to a soft laughter with a broad smile gracing her face.

“You have a nice smile, Gilds,” he told her, kneeling before her to cup her face and kiss her. “You should show it more often.”

“No way! I have a reputation to uphold,” she replied in mock severity as she rebuckled her vambraces, then stood up straighter before him, a uniformed soldier again. “I accept your apology, Marco Lakan—on the condition that you not avoid or ignore me any longer. That you come to me if you have questions and don’t just assume something out of ignorance. And that you tell me if something’s wrong or bothering you. Griffons don’t hide things from their mates.”

“Deal,” he said, offering his talons to bump, and suddenly the pair stood there awkwardly for a moment. “So, we’re mates, then…?” he had to ask.

“I guess we are,” she chuckled, amazed at how easy the admission was, but then her stomach grumbled again. “I’m hungry, and your friends and Fortrakt are probably wondering what in the crows happened to us. We really should be getting back to the suite now.”

“Yeah, I’m hungry too. Kind of odd they didn’t come looking for us, though…” he mused as he finished dressing; she reared up to give him a parting kiss and gentle nip to the neck. “So, um… after we eat, can I stay the night with you?” he asked hopefully, only to go slightly crestfallen when she shook her head.

“Tempting, but no. I’m still a soldier, and I still have a job to do. Once dinner is done, I have to write my nightly report and then go over my notes for the seminars tomorrow. Just talking with you here now has reminded me of a couple things I still need to add to them,” she sighed.

“Like how your beaks don’t preclude oral and that you love being on top?” he suggested with a lopsided grin, earning a swat of her wing against his backside in lieu of cuffing him on the head as she usually did with Fortrakt.

“All joking aside, I still have duties to perform, and I don’t get to put them off for sex. And besides, don’t you have morning workouts with Sergeant Reyes? Shouldn’t you be getting to bed early after all the energy you expended here?” she reminded him with a raised eyeridge of her own.

“Eh, a cold water dump will be a small price to pay for spending more quality time with you,” Marco replied with a smile as he secured his shirt as best he could, hiding the torn tail in his pants and using a collar button to at least partially cover another long tear at the top.

“Ah, so your intentions are suddenly clear,” she deadpanned as she walked past him. “You only apologized because you wanted to rut.”

“Well… not only,” Marco replied with a wry grin. “That was definitely a bonus, though.”

“Then you got what you wanted. Let’s go, Marco Lakan,” Gilda declared, walking to the room exit. “I’m hungry, and we might still need to save Fortrakt.”

“Right behind you, Decurion. So, I guess we’re cool now, right?” Marco asked.

“Nope,” was all Gilda said, trying not to let a grin break her beak.

That stopped Marco short. “Wait, what?”

“I accepted your apology, but you were right that you haven’t earned me fully,” she reminded him. “You said you wanted to prove yourself worthy to me on griffon terms? I’ll hold you to that. It’s like I said before—you can touch me, but you don’t get to truly rut me until you best me in a mating round. So my nest remains off-limits to your spear until then.”

“But—” She silenced him with a single swish of her tail, holding it high for a moment to give him an eyeful of her eagless attributes before she lowered it again.

“I let you have me twice, Marco Lakan—once under magical influence and once by choice. But next time, we do things properly. So train and train well if you want to have all of me,” she instructed him again, dangling her tail tassel in his face for additional enticement. “Because griffons do not hold back!”

“Yes, ma’am…” came his awestruck voice, but this time, she let the mistaken form of address pass as they walked down the hall. They passed two pairs of sentries whose eyes were unreadable behind their goggles, but who gave them odd looks at what she could only assume was the dazed expression on Marco’s face and the rips visible on his clothes.

“I think Flip-boy just got some griffie tail…” Gilda heard one whisper to his partner after they passed, to which she could only smile. But just as they arrived at the entrance to the civilian suite, Sergeant Reyes exited the room with a bowl full of some kind of steaming meat stew that made Gilda’s stomach rumble; her energy needing replenishment after all the intense lovemaking.

He saw them and smiled. “So, I take it you two had a good ‘talk’?” the Sergeant asked with a lopsided grin and wink as he recognized their contented expressions. “Or do I need to punish him at morning training tomorrow, Decurion? Because you know I will!”

“Gee, thanks, Robbie…” Marco only half-groused as Gilda grinned evilly for a moment.

“As fun as that would be to watch… no. And thank you very much for talking with me, Sergeant. It turned out you were right on all counts.” She bared her neck at him then turned back to her left. “See, Marco? That’s the kind of thing you bare your neck for—gratitude, deference or apology.”

“I’ll remember that,” he promised as Reyes listened in some bemusement while eating his stew.

“Uh, no idea where that came from, but do I have to bear mine back?” Reyes asked. “And for the record? When I was jogging, I cleared out the sentries from the hall ahead of you. I was trying to keep you two a secret, though I’m not sure how much good it did given they just saw you now.” He nodded back down the hall where Gilda could still hear the sentries whispering to each other about her and Marco.

Nevertheless, she smiled at the thoughtful gesture. “I see. I’ll cover all this at the training seminar tomorrow, but it’s not necessary to bare your throat in return. All you have to do, Sergeant, is put that stew down for a minute,” she all but ordered, a gleam growing in her eyes.

Camera, she mouthed at Marco with a wink, deciding that since Reyes had pranked Marco when she first arrived at their suite, it was only fair to help her new mate return the favor.

“Uh… okay.” Though confused, he did so carefully, setting his steaming bowl down on the floor before standing back up; Marco used the opportunity to surreptitiously pull out his smaller portal and make several quick motions on it. “Now what?”

“This,” she said as she reared up and shoved the surprised Sergeant into the wall so she could rub her cheek against his and give him a light lick. “Thanks for thinking of us. Thanks for the advice. Thanks for being Marco’s friend, and thanks for whipping him into shape… with the emphasis on whip.”

Reyes needed a moment to recover from his surprise and the pinned position he suddenly found himself in. “You’re welcome. But, uh… Decurion? You’re kind of giving me flashbacks to getting pounced on the balcony…” he warned as he flushed and squirmed uncomfortably, though he made no move to resist or throw her off. Which he probably could at that point, if he could now hold his own with Giraldi.

Gilda glanced down his body and grinned at what she saw; her gaze growing sultry. She might have been appalled that she was being so flirty or open with her affections now, except for how much she was enjoying herself—enjoying the idea that she could potentially turn on and dominate any human male she wished.

Though she was sorely tempted to take the tease further—he’d certainly earned some affection from her for as much as he’d helped not just her, but all her new human friends—she relented out of a simple sense of honor if nothing else.

“Don’t get too excited, Sergeant. After all, you belong to another eagless, not me.” She poked him gently in the chest with a talon before lightly trailing it down his belly, stopping it tantalizingly near the bulge beneath his pants; she could smell his surge of excitement and feel his body tense.

“But I do consider it my duty to remind you of what you’re missing with her. By my order, you will fight that mating round with Keiko Louvre. You will duel her. You will defeat her. And then you will rut her repeatedly. Consider it your duty as a soldier serving a diplomatic delegation to help establish good relations between our races.” She silkenly whispered her next words into his ear in a trilling tone of voice she’d never thought herself capable of. “Consider it your duty to bury your spear in her nest.”

She heard him take a ragged breath and felt him shiver, his pants bulging even harder. “Y-Yes, ma’am...” he said through a suddenly dry throat, then looked past her and blushed harder as his eyes widened. “Dammit, Marco, stop recording this!”

“Payback’s a bitch, Robbie.” She turned to see him holding up his smaller portal device with an evil grin as he repeated the same words Reyes had said to him upon playing his prank on him three weeks earlier. “You should have seen the look on your face when she shoved you into the wall! I’ll be showing this to Chris and Tara shortly, but maybe I should show it to the entire platoon? And I’m sure Captain Moran would be very interested to see it!” he suggested with great glee.

“Don’t you dare!” Reyes exclaimed loudly, uncharacteristically flustered. “And Decurion? With all due respect, would you please let me go before I…” the rest went unsaid, but a nervous glance down his body showed what he was afraid of.

“As you wish. But do give Keiko Louvre my regards when you rut her,” she couldn’t resist adding with a wink, eliciting another ragged breath. “Given your obvious stature, you should have no issue satisfying her,” she said with an approving nod to his bulge.

“But for the record, my ‘brown prick’ is still bigger, Robbie,” Marco teased.

“F-fucker…” was all a still-shocked and flushed Sergeant Reyes could say in retort as Marco just laughed.

“Thanks for the heads-up, Gilda. I got it all on video,” he announced, still snickering as he pocketed his device.

“You’re welcome. Now let’s go eat, Marco Lakan,” she said casually as she walked right by a still-sorely aroused Reyes, letting her tail brush over his chest and chin as she passed. “It may just be because I’m so hungry, but your stew does smell really good.”

“Thanks, but it smells like Chris added some spices he shouldn’t have. It better not have been curry, or we’re gonna have words…”

Another day, another report… Gilda thought as she rolled up the sheet of parchment that contained her latest list of deductions and observations of the humans, tying it neatly with a thin red ribbon and imparting the wax seal that had come with her command chain. The latter wasn’t just to keep it from unrolling, it was to keep the message secure; its internal enchantment would destroy the missive in a puff of fire if it was opened without the counterpart unsealing spell in the possession of Tribune Narada.

If things went badly the next morning, she knew it might be the last report she ever wrote as a soldier. But she was also at peace with it, finding herself with not a shred of doubt or regret over the time she had spent with Marco.

She smiled at the still-fresh memories despite the fact her writing talons were aching; understandable given she had been penning the report for the past hour. It was not just for Narada, but shortly, a returning Ambassador Strenus to go through.

It had been very lengthy, given all that had happened in the past day. She had opened by admitting that she was now in a relationship with Marco Lakan, but by choice this time—the Tribune’s likely going to find out from Captain Moran anyway, so best for me to tell her directly before she learns it from him.

Even though some of the details were probably needlessly lurid, she outlined all that had led to it, noting in particular that human males seemed to instinctively wish to prove their worthiness to females—and some even seemed to greatly enjoy being dominated by one. In that sense, they were completely unlike Equestrian ponies where the females courted males, or even griffons, where both genders courted the other equally.

He honored me in several very deep and direct ways, so I rewarded him as an eagless should, she took pains to say in the letter, attempting to preempt any accusation that she was emotionally compromised or had suffered some aftereffect of all the cider and fertility potion.

She was, however, starting to suspect that those aftereffects did exist, given two confirmed increases of male stature. And that was to say nothing of her later flirtiness and teasing of Reyes, who she worried might take it out on Marco the following morning.

She chuckled and shook her head at the thought. No, he’s not like that. Still, I’d best be present for his morning workout, she decided then, setting her alarm crystal back an hour—it was keyed by outside light level; you could set it to audibly vibrate when before-dawn twilight was reached—to make certain she would be there.

Though she didn’t look forward to the Tribune’s reaction to reading her account, she had also made sure she couldn’t be accused of otherwise neglecting her duties. She had written down everything she could remember from the movie as well as her conversations with Chris and Tara in regards to human history and culture, including the presence of large unintelligent horses used as war mounts, and the interesting evolution of at least one part of their government from what appeared to be an absolute monarchy.

The movie they watched earlier was, according to Chris, a historic retelling of real events with some major embellishments, but more or less accurate to the barbarity of the time—the human ‘dark ages’, they called them; you had to go nearly two millennia into the past, well before the Great Unification, to find its like in griffon history.

And yet, comparing the society the film depicted with the modern one found in Warrior, it struck her as strange that humans evolved warfare using close range fighting and weaponry. unicorn-style longbows and even primitive crossbows had been used to good effect in the movie, so surely they understood the utility of long range weapons in war? Why, then, would they have discarded them in favor of pure melee arms?

Or had they…?

Gilda shook her head. Now was not the time to go off on another tangent, especially given she had just finished her report. Sleep was certainly needed given her earlier energy expenditures and the double-helping of the delicious meat stew that was now settled happily in her stomach—Marco had outdone himself with it, and whatever ingredient Chris had added certainly hadn’t been bad, despite Marco’s mild grousing—but she found her mind was just too active to rest.

Chris and Tara had been okay with learning about them—Marco had been correct, they had guessed from their long absence and simply seeing Marco’s state what had happened—offering up congratulations to them both. Gilda had even accepted a heartfelt hug from Tara that left the young eagless fantasizing about the human female on top of everything else.

Have to say, I think I’d be willing to be with her again, too… She licked her beak at the thought, only to shake her head sharply. But definitely not now. Not only would it hurt Fortrakt, but Marco and I don’t need any more complications. She’s an honorable eagless, so I’m sure she realizes that as well as me.

She looked outside her room window, drinking in the sight of the starry skies above, which somehow looked more beautiful and inviting than ever. Maybe it was just the lingering afterglow of her time with Marco, but her musing thoughts vanished as she imagined the cool rush of the wind. She found herself yearning for the night skies; doubly so as she’d missed her evening flight. Being with Marco and earning the Diplomatic Command Chain she now wore had certainly changed things, but some would always remain the same, like her love for the sky.

Exiting the room, Gilda closed her eyes as she was hit by the sudden brightness of the hallway. It was brighter than a griffon was used to but still considered dim by the humans. Like ponies, they had much weaker eyesight than griffons—was that simply a byproduct of their smaller eyes?—and they tended to crank up the brightness of firegems placed around the area. Thankfully, not so bright that it would be blinding for her, though she was sure the bat-ponies that Tara inexplicably feared would find them painful.

After her eyes adjusted, Gilda found herself staring at Fortrakt’s door. She almost knocked on it, intending to ask if he wanted to join her before she remembered that Tara had said he wanted some time to himself.

Her guess had been right that unlike with her and Marco, his discussion with Chris and Tara had not led to anything untoward. In fact, by the time she and Marco returned, Chris and Tara did not care to discuss it beyond confirming they had spoken, while Fortrakt himself had already left the suite out of awkwardness and a need for distance.

Of course, that meant he didn’t yet know that she’d been with Marco, but she didn’t think he’d take the news too badly this time, given Marco wasn’t any object of affection or desire to him.

As she proceeded down the hall, she saw a few Marines, both on-duty and off, walking past; they greeted her with either ‘Decurion’ or ‘Ma’am’ in addition to a salute if they were in uniform. As the guard had been changed by then, she had no idea if the new sentries knew about her and Marco yet, though she couldn’t discern any change in their reactions to her from what she’d seen just hours earlier.

Even if they don’t know, they will by tomorrow, she knew, remembering something she’d once heard about how the only thing that traveled faster than news was gossip. It’s going to make giving the cultural training seminars interesting, to say the least!

Still, despite the complications it portended, and even the possibility that she was about to lose her post over getting involved with Marco, she was mildly amazed at how well she’d settled into her new rank and authority.

It had certainly helped that the humans’ somewhat informal attitude was much better than the stiffer regards other griffons gave her. She swore to the Ancestors that whenever she went outside, every tiercel and eagless in both the military and security services were baring their necks and saluting towards her as if she was going to call in the crows on them if they didn’t.

She sincerely hoped she would get used to it as time passed by. Or will I even need to after tomorrow? she wondered and worried as she exited the Inn.

As she passed by the front gate, she spotted the three goggle-wearing Marines that stood guard. Their long black-tubed weapons were pointed downwards, hanging loosely from the straps though their mounted purple lights were aglow; she noticed then that they seemed to make the granite ground beneath their feet sparkle; tiny crystals embedded in the rock fluorescing intensely from whatever strange energy the violet lights fed them.

Before she could wonder again what the nature of the lights were, one of the Marines—two stripes meant he was a ‘corporal’, if her memory served—addressed her. “Good evening, Decurion. Out to fly again?”

“Yeah, but not for long. Just gonna clear my head. You can expect me back in an hour or so. And yes, I know the latest password procedure,” she assured them before they could ask. It was one of the new security procedures they’d implemented after the Ibexian adepts infiltrated the Inn, as they’d apparently gotten past a couple checkpoints in disguise by overhearing the simple sign/countersign challenges they’d been using previously.

The new procedure was that it wasn’t just a simple password they required now—when challenged, you had to give a proper response based on whether it was morning, afternoon or evening, inside or outside, day or night (determined by whether any part of the sun was above the horizon), whether the challenge phrase had an even or odd number of words, and even if the Marine or griffon challenging you was standing to your left or right.

Thus, there was no single response that would satisfy any given challenge, nor could you come up with the correct answer using a scrying spell or any other remote mind-reading magic the Ibex and other races were sometimes known to employ. Even knowing the password procedure was no guarantee of finding a good reply; especially if you weren’t good at speaking Equish—which few Ibex were.

Answering correctly required you to step down a decision tree and come up with an Equish word quickly that matched the desired parameters—for example, if it was morning, outside and night, like it would be when she returned, then her reply was required to have the letters M, O, and N; an odd number of words in the challenge phrase meant she had to reply with a sentence that had an even number and vice-versa.

The final part of the procedure was that a challenge from her left meant she had to end with a word containing the needed letters plus the last letter of the first word spoken, while a challenge from the right meant her first word had to contain the needed letters plus the first letter of the last word spoken.

It was a difficult procedure to follow if you weren’t already well-versed in it. Fortrakt and Gilda had practiced doing so extensively while they’d been convalescing; by the end, they’d been having a very good time trying to stump the other with difficult letter combinations and even paragraph-sized challenge phrases that made it difficult to count the words and determine whether it was even or odd.

The Marines, fortunately, kept it reasonably simple with challenge phrases that generally ranged from two to five-word sentences, but if you couldn’t come up with a correct reply within six seconds, you were either detained or denied entry.

Once past the barricade the humans had built, she dashed towards the battlements, squawking a clear signal for the griffon guards posted nearby before she took off from a crenel, flapping her wings as the cold night air took her into the starry skies. She climbed a few levels up, meeting and passing at least two patrolling griffons before she reached the fifth level, high enough that she could float almost lazily just by keeping her wings spread as she enjoyed the nighttime view of the glittering gem that was the Kingdom’s capital city.

This was how she’d start her flights, and it was always her favorite part. Granted, it wasn’t sunset, which was her favorite time of day, but it was still a striking sight to see the city lit up like that; a glittering jewel against the slopes of the Falcine mountain range. Admiring the view—maybe it was just her continuing good mood, but it looked more beautiful than ever to her—she basked in it for a few more minutes before starting a workout by flapping her wings, hard.

Dashing forward in the air, she started an intricate sequence of rolls and dodges, sometimes folding her wings to her side to accelerate before spreading them out to abruptly change angles, trying sharp turns that would allow her to dodge bolts and move through confined spaces in a hurry.

It was something she’d gotten good at as a teen, just having to keep up with Rainbow on their improvised obstacle courses. Of course, she’d never been Rainbow’s equal at that given pegasi were much more agile to begin with, possessing an uncanny ability to grab hold of or push off the air itself.

She next dove towards the fifth level—the highest level she was allowed to come within a hundred wing paces at night without heightened clearance she did not have—descending towards a landing stage and, without pause, dashing perpendicular to the battlement as some patrolling Paladins watched but did not interfere.

Her breathing became ragged as the muscles of her legs sprinted tirelessly while they pounded on the unforgiving stone ground, working herself to nearly exhaustion—she still wasn’t back to full stamina, though she was close—before she reached a new crenel and took flight again.

She repeated her fort-runs twice over the next half-hour before deciding she’d had enough and returned to the Inn.

“Greetings, Decurion. The bricks are splintered.” The Marine to her left said as she presented herself to them; their violet lights causing her to squint slightly as they passed over her eyes. The strange light also made her normally brown wing feathers glow brightly with a slightly violet-tinted white hue—now that was an interesting effect! But she didn’t have time to contemplate it as she mentally stepped down the password procedure quickly but carefully:

Even number of words… morning, outside, night, and the first letter of his last word was S… she cataloged quickly before coming up with a reply.

“So summon a damned mason,” she answered within three seconds, earning a snicker and even some impressed clapping as they let her pass.

Her response didn’t have to make sense; it just had to have an odd number of words and end with a word containing the letters M, O, N and S. But coming up with a reply that did make sense given the constraints earned a strong measure of respect and could be considered an accomplishment. Reentering the inn, she thought she might have been getting more odd looks from the Marines than before as she went upstairs to her room, but also couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just her imagination.

Though she was dirty from her earlier exertions, she found she didn’t want to bathe just yet; still able to scent some of Marco on her. It brought a smile to her face as she climbed into bed and quickly nodded off, deciding again that whatever happened to her tomorrow, the day had been 100% worth it.

That regardless of what happened to her, it was a day she would remember for the rest of her life.

Gilda was jolted out of her sleep barely three hours later by the sound of the crystal alarm on the nightstand vibrating hard in its casing, emitting a shrill sound that normally made her want to smash it. Groaning slightly—it seemed like she’d just gone to bed!—she rolled over slowly as her memories returned to her, grinning as her mind caught back up with the previous day’s events.

She was tired, but not unhappy, though she knew she was going to have to steal some extra hours of sleep eventually to make up for the ones she’d lost. But she’d endured far worse during her Gauntlet training, so she rolled out of bed, doused herself in the shower to both clean up and wake up, and gave herself about five minutes of grooming before heading downstairs to the meeting suites they were now using as training rooms.

She was met by a few Marines along the way, and though she found herself watching carefully for any sign of being treated differently—a stare, an odd question, or a simple smirk—she couldn’t detect any. Instead, they greeted Gilda as they always did, with a smile and salute, admitting her to the Marine recreational area on the second floor once she’d answered the latest challenge of the sentries outside.

She picked out the voice of Sergeant Reyes quickly as she entered.

“—isn’t too bad. Legs still sore, Flip-Boy?” she heard him ask as she walked down the short hallway towards them; she could hear the sound of some hefted weights and grunting that accompanied it.

“Not as bad as yesterday.” Her heart rate spiked in excitement and even a little anxiety as she heard Marco’s voice—she didn’t have any regrets about the previous day, but did he?

“Speak for yourself. My arms are killing me,” Chris replied as she turned the corner to the cleared-out suite, which was now empty of furniture except for various exercise equipment; barbells, benches, and at least one large hanging bag the size and weight of a boar she’d seen them practice punching with their bare fists.

“Good. That means you need to increase your reps and hang time off the pull-up bar,” Reyes remarked unsympathetically. “And you still hit like a girl. So we’re going to start you on some bag work.”

“Now I resent that, Sergeant,” Tara told him with a mock glare. “Or do I have to deck PFC Ricardo again for trying to grope my butt while I was on the pull-up bar?” she asked mildly, causing Gilda’s eyes to go wide, then narrow.

“And you hit harder than most of my Marines.” He turned to her with a grin, not seeing Gilda enter. “Don’t worry. He’s already been hauled before Captain Moran, and I also threatened to tell Giraldi what he’d done. I didn’t, but after Doc patched him up, they sent him to the encampment outside the city to keep that idiot safe from him.”

“And from me,” Gilda announced her presence with an angry trill, one that caused Marco to grin and Reyes to stiffen. “One of the Marines groped you, Tara? Good thing I wasn’t here.” She flexed her claws meaningfully as the rest of the Marines in the room grimaced.

“Appreciate the thought, girlfriend, but I fight my own battles,” she said with a wink, dressed in shorts and a tight-fitting shirt. “It was two days ago, and trust me, he already regrets it, if for no other reason than that the rest of the boys let him have it after me,” she said to some snickers from the male Marines around her.

“I’m sure,” Gilda replied, furling her feathers as she was reminded again of why she liked Tara. “Hope you don’t mind me sitting in on this workout, Sergeant.”

“As long as you don’t try to tease me again,” he replied in a jovial tone, though he fidgeted slightly. Chris and Tara smirked while Marco snickered, the latter earning a glare. “And just for that, Flip-boy, we’re going extra hard today.”

Gilda heard him groan, followed shortly by Chris and Tara. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Reyes declared, suddenly all business again. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what retarded reasons the three of you had when you decided to sign up for morning training, but you did. That means you freely gave me all the rights to make sure I un-fuck you. So stop bitching and moaning! When I say more reps, you say how many. When I say jump, you say how high!”

“Really? How many? Wow, Robbie. Are you trying to become some sort of drill instructor?” Marco asked, his tone teasing. “Are we your first recruits?”

Reyes didn’t reply; for a moment, there was nothing but silence. “Listen up, all of you,” the Sergeant spoke after what seemed an uncomfortably long pause, in a voice so soft that even Gilda had to strain to hear. “What you’re experiencing during my morning training is nothing compared to what Marine boot camp has to offer.”

The three instantly fell silent, perhaps recognizing they’d overstepped. “I… of course,” Marco muttered apologetically.

“I’m sorry Robbie, I didn’t mean to—” Tara added as well.

Reyes cut them off with a wave of his soft talons. “I know, I know. Look, I’m not mad at any of you. I just don’t want to give you the wrong impression about what it takes to build a Marine. Of what it takes to make it in the Corps.”

“Not that I’d want to go through it, but if I were to ask you to describe boot camp… how would you?” Chris inquired as he began running in place lightly. He’d lost some of his paunch and gained at least a little more sinew on his skinny limbs by then, though he was still well behind the well-muscled frames on the other Marines.

“In one word: chaotic,” Reyes replied, earning some rueful nods from the other Marines in the room as they continued their own activities. “You come in on a bus with just the clothes on your back, nervous and jittery as fuck. They start screaming at you the moment the bus pulls to a stop at Parris Island, and it only gets worse from there.

“First thing they do once they’ve got you off the bus is herd you into groups and usher you inside where they shave your head, strip you down to your skivvies, and give you identical uniforms with no name tags, stripping you of all individuality. And while this is going on, you got a bunch of DIs yelling constantly at you; in your face about how worthless and useless you are as they tell you what not to say or do, how to march, and to always toe the line.

“In boot camp, you as an individual no longer exist. There’s no me, my, I, or Roberto Reyes, former star soccer player in high school passed over for an athletic scholarship by all his favorite Division 1 schools. There’s only Recruit Reyes, whose prior accomplishments mean nothing.

“And Recruit Reyes has to show the DI his left shoe, his right sock, and it has to be done any day now. They’ll scream if you’re too slow, stick even just one toe out of line, or even just look funny. And that’s just the first hour of the first night.”

Gilda listened intently as Reyes continued to enumerate a list of what he had gone through when he was a recruit. In many ways, she could relate, having gone through the Kingdom’s all-service Gauntlet when she joined the Auxiliary Guard.

She’d had her share of bad moments there, especially early on when her temper and attitude issues got her into repeated trouble; they had come down doubly hard on her given all the time she’d spent in Equestria.

Still, she’d made it all the way through, just like Reyes and the other Marines in the room. Given that, she could easily appreciate what the Sergeant was saying. Strength through unity and discipline was the bedrock of the Kingdom Military as well, after all, and she found herself amazed again at how alike their races were culturally despite how different they were physically.

“Oh wow,” Tara muttered. “What’s the point of some of those orders, though?”

“To give a recruit a sense of what it would be like if he was in a war zone,” Reyes explained as he helped Chris stretch his legs. “Take it from me after two tours in Afghanistan that war is nothing but chaos. A stabilizing factor in such a situation is basically orders given by the higher-ups. Orders that allow Marines to do something rather than sit on the ground with their thumbs up their asses, waiting their turn to be killed. It also teaches brotherhood—that you can depend on the Marine next to you. That you, in turn, are expected to do the same for him or her.”

“‘The Marine Corps teaches family values’,” Marco muttered. “You told me that back in Equestria.”

“Yeah, well, you should know I rarely talk out of my ass,” Reyes replied with a smile, and Gilda found herself finally starting to understand that ass was a human slang term for a rear end.

“Huh. And here I thought Marines were knights in shining armor, swinging swords and slaying dragons.” Tara teased as Gilda blinked.

They have dragons in their world? And wear Equestrian-style armor? Even after all the time she’d spent with them, she was getting dizzy from the turns the talk was taking.

“Ha! You should know I put on my shiny armor everyday I’m in the Corps, Tara. Oorah!”

“Oorah!” The other Marines in the room echoed as one.

Marco chuckled. “Heh. Oorah! Though I have to ask, Robbie—for as hard as you’re working us, are you recruiting us?”

Reyes laughed straight from the belly. “Are you serious, Flip-boy? Who’d want to recruit you?” he asked, though there was a twinkle in his eye.

“Ouch!” Marco replied as the other Marines snickered while Chris and Tara looked at each other and oooed. “Dude, that hurt. Are you saying I’m not good enough?”

“Considering that I already have you three whining about my morning workouts because it doesn’t have the air-conditioned rooms, fan-equipped treadmills, fruit shakes, or all that tight female ass jiggling in your face? Yeah. Hell, I can’t see that you could even handle a little bit of boot camp.” Gilda heard Reyes laugh again. “Shit, Marco, I bet you just want to pop your cherry.”

Gilda blinked at yet another unfamiliar term. ‘Pop’ his cherry? What did that mean?

“Uh, for your information, I already have,” Marco replied somewhat smugly.

“We all have!” Tara added to a sharp nod from Chris as the pair continued through their respective warm-up routines.

Whatever they were bragging about, Reyes was unimpressed. “The fuck you three did. Firing a rifle downrange doesn’t count,” the Sergeant retorted before he caught himself, giving a quick glance towards Gilda as Tara looked up sharply and Chris visibly grimaced, like they recognized the slip. Despite that, or maybe because of it, Reyes charged ahead. “There’s a lot more to combat than that.”

Gilda felt her heart stop. She didn’t know what a ‘rifle’ was, but ‘firing’ down a ‘range’ definitely indicated some sort of distance weaponry. Then they DO have them! she now knew beyond any shadow of a doubt. And it wouldn’t make sense that they’re hiding them from us, because they’d need to get at them quickly if they need them, whether for use against us or the Ibex. Wait—could it be those black tubes they’re all equipped with?

She kept her face carefully impassive as she watched and listened, her mind turning. And what does it mean that they’re not using anything we even remotely recognize as distance weaponry? If they were using primitive bows so many centuries ago, what type of ranged weapons have they advanced to by now?

“Good morning, Decurion.”

Gilda almost jumped at the sound of Captain Moran’s voice, which held the same cool tone she’d first heard from him when he informed Tribune Narada that he wanted to discuss Fortrakt and Gilda’s spying with her. For a moment, her wings flared in a fight-or-flight response; she found she was ready to both defend Marco or take wing and flee as she instantly realized there was only one possible reason he’d be there.

Stilling her emotions and bracing herself, she turned and came to attention as she found herself face-to-face with the intimidating human Captain flanked by two fully armed Marines, offering him a thump of her right set of talons to her chest.

The Captain, however, wasn’t impressed by the offered honor, only perfunctorily returning the salute as he stared down at her in a manner she could only describe as baleful. “My apologies if I startled you, Decurion Behertz. And sorry to pull you away, but I want to see you in my office, immediately.”

He was giving her an order like he was the Tribune herself, and even though she wasn’t under his command, she found herself inclined to obey it as surely as if the Tribune had issued it. “Of course, Captain. If I may ask, is this about—”

“It is about exactly what you think,” he cut her off hard, addressing her in clipped tones over crossed arms. She internally cringed even as she quickly recognized that he was trying not to say it out loud—did that mean the other Marines didn’t know, and he was trying to keep it secret? “And we need to talk.”

That immediately got Marco’s attention. “Sir, I’d like to come too and—"

“This is none of your concern, Lakan,” The Captain said in a clipped voice that brooked no argument or backtalk, his glare and sharp tone instantly silencing him as surely as it would one of his actual subordinates. “I’ll send a Marine for you later if I want to chat, and the same goes for you, Sergeant. In the meantime, as you were and feel free to continue your workout. For now, I need to speak to the Decurion in private.”

“And after that?” Marco asked anxiously, causing the rest of the room to hold its collective breath; even Reyes suddenly looked nervous, Gilda noted.

The Captain gave him a withering stare before replying. “And after that, we’ll see.”

15: Aftershocks

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Gilda couldn’t remember the last time she felt so anxious as she followed Captain Moran back to his office.

Her heart was beating hard in her chest as they neared their destination on the second floor; it was all she could do not to let her tail twitch. She knew it was dweeby, given the Marine Captain couldn’t actually do anything to her, but she found herself reacting to what she assumed was her coming interrogation over Marco as if she was about to be scolded, if not excoriated, by Tribune Narada herself.

Not helping her nerves was the fact that he had two fully armed Marine sentries stationed to either side of the door as she entered, and two more in the back of his office. One was even equipped with a brand-new type of weapon she hadn’t seen on the Marines before, as the burly human possessed a much larger and more menacing black metal object with a significantly thicker and oddly-shaped block affixed beneath its tubing.

So if those things really are distance weapons… how do they work? And why does that block remind me of something? Her mind began to turn, trying to compare it to any weapon she knew of or had seen. It was then she made a pair of connections, and mentally cuffed herself for not having thought of them before. By the crows… if that’s what they are, then those weapons are far more dangerous than we could ever imagine!

But she could spare it little thought then. Following Captain Moran into his office and doing her best to ignore the looks she was getting from not just him but the five other humans in the room, she stood at attention before his desk as he walked around it and sat down.

Staff Sergeant Stafford was there as well, looking unhappy as he stood at a relaxed attention stance with his legs slightly apart and hands clasped behind his back—she’d heard them refer to that stance as “parade rest”?—while the Captain poured himself some coffee but made no move to offer her any as Lieutenant Nantz had. Instead, he sat down and pursed his human hands.

“You know why you’re here, don’t you?” he opened.

“I do,” she answered, wondering if the show of strength and refusal to show her any courtesy was in fact an act of intimidation—one she’d seen griffon officers use in the past against their own subordinates, including her. “But if we’re going to discuss it, then I would respectfully ask that it be in private.”

His pale blue eyes narrowed. “You don’t make demands here, Decurion. And I suggest you answer my questions promptly and fully if you don’t want to be marched out of not just this office, but out of the Inn entirely.”

Gilda’s feathers ruffled slightly as her gold eyes narrowed in turn; her anger starting to override her anxiety. She was uncertain why he was suddenly acting so hostile—he’d been a bit suspicious of her, certainly, but he hadn’t let that stop him from treating her respectfully, either. “With due respect, Captain, it was a request, not a demand. In any event, I am an officer of the Griffon Kingdom’s military, not one of your subordinates. So, I will thank you to not speak down to me as one.”

“With due respect to you, Decurion, we are not equals in rank, and you are inside a foreign consulate I am responsible for the security of. And based on what I now know, I am very close to declaring you an unacceptable security risk to my civilians, and my mission here.”

“That does not give you the right to punish or expel me, sir. Only the Ambassador can,” Gilda replied smoothly even as she felt her ire rise further; suddenly glad she’d made sure to study the Kingdom’s rules of foreign embassies well. “And I further remind you that mistreating a diplomatic liaison would be taken as an insult to not just me, but the entire Griffon Kingdom.”

“Oh, don’t worry. As I’ll be taking this up with the Ambassador and your Tribune shortly, I’m sure you’ll be expelled and punished by them soon enough. But know that if you were one of my Marines, I would already have disciplined you severely for so brazenly breaking fraternization rules. To say nothing of potentially compromising our security.”

She broke her bearing long enough to give him a glare. “And know that if you were my commander, I’d be very close to challenging you to a duel right now for extreme personal disrespect and exceeding your military authority,” she warned him evenly, letting her feathers ruffle again; her reaction caused some motion from the Marine sentries, who hefted their black tubes slightly.

“That’s an empty threat, given you’re forbidden from challenging humans,” he instantly pointed out.

“As is yours to expel me, given you have no authority over me. So spare me the posturing and get to the point, Captain! I didn’t think you’d be happy with me, but I also didn’t think you’d treat me this badly. And if you’re not willing to speak to me in private, then at least speak to me in ‘Latin’ so your Marines won’t understand.”

He glared back at her, but gave her a curt nod, addressing her in fluent Aeric. “Very well, Decurion. To begin with, despite the best efforts of Sergeant Reyes, I’m afraid that you and Mister Lakan were seen last night. Not just by the third-floor sentries, but by the cameras we’d installed in the stairwells.”

He turned around one of the portal devices to face her, which showed a video of her and Marco starting to make out on the third floor stairwell landing—she had no idea they’d put cameras there! By all the crows, I didn’t see them at all—how were they hidden? She thought somewhat frantically as her cheeks flushed.

“To this point, only the on-duty monitoring staff knows about these, along with the sentries you passed later. Thus far, I have ordered them not to spread that information around, but I’m no fool—orders or no orders, that information will get out eventually. And what do you propose I do then?”

Gilda closed her eyes, then opened them again. “Then let it get out,” she told him evenly. “I won’t hide what I feel, or what I’m doing. To do so would be dishonorable. And I don’t plan to stop being with him, either. Even if that requires me to resign my post.”

For the first time, the Marine Captain looked caught off-guard. What had he been expecting me to say? she wondered, but she had no chance to consider the question before he returned his expression to a glower and charged ahead.

“I can well imagine you will, given all the information he’s undoubtedly spilling to you. So, tell me, Decurion—do you truly like him? Or are you just sleeping with him to gain more intelligence on us for Talia Tarseus and the Council of Crows?” he asked her directly, leaning over his desk.

Even though Marco had warned her that the Captain might believe exactly that, Gilda’s feathers ruffled and her wings splayed in anger; she gave a growl that would have earned a severe reprimand and punishment if she’d done so in the presence of Tribune Narada. “Do not associate me with her!”

Despite her display of ire, the Captain continued. ”And why shouldn’t I? We know perfectly well you’re gathering intelligence on us! And no doubt Mister Lakan provides the perfect opportunity to do so. That being the case, why wouldn’t you sleep with him?”

Though terming sex “sleeping with him” was an euphemism she’d never heard before, she took the meaning quickly. “I ‘slept’ with him because I like him, sir! Because he honored me as no griffon ever has! And with regards to intelligence gathering, why by all the crows wouldn’t we?” she immediately and vehemently countered.

“When you first arrived, we didn’t know anything about you, including whether you’d be friend or foe! Did you seriously expect us not to try to gather such information for the safety and security of the Kingdom? If memory serves, you complimented me on carrying out my duty to gather information before! So only now is it a problem?” she challenged him directly.

“So you admit you are an agent for the Council of Crows?” he continued to needle her instead of answering her, causing her feathers to ruffle harder. “I see you don’t like that. The truth hurts, huh?”

“The truth, sir, is that I despise Talia Tarseus! I blame both her and the Council of Crows for failing to do their duties and allowing the Ibex in! You said it yourself when I woke up—they were more interested in spying than security, and they used us without telling us their true intentions! I just didn’t realize how badly until after that attack.”

“Then why didn’t you quit? And why are you still spying?” he asked her, watching her reaction carefully. “And why would you be sleeping with a total ‘dweeb’ like Marco Lakan if not to gather information? A scrawny kid like him hardly strikes me as your type!”

Despite her growing anger, Gilda was starting to get a sense he was deliberately provoking her, perhaps to see if he could get her to slip up and make a damaging admission. But as she had nothing to hide and no reason to lie, she answered immediately and heatedly, leaning her head towards him as she spoke. “Because I am loyal to him, sir—just as I am loyal to the Kingdom! You can call it spying if you wish, but all I’m doing is reporting my observations on human culture and equipment. No more and no less.”

“Equipment? With special emphasis on our weapons?” he guessed immediately.

“Of course! Wouldn’t you?” she asked him in annoyance—why was he being this confrontational? “We’ve never seen their like and we don’t know what they do! Would you honestly expect us not to try and figure them out?”

“And have you?”

She stared at him in disbelief. “Do you seriously expect me to reveal that?”

“You will if you want to stay in your post,” he informed her coolly. “I offer you this deal, Decurion. I’ll let this pass—if you report to me as well as your Tribune. And among other things, that means that you run all your reports by me and allow me to censor them before you pass them along.”

Her stare turned into an outright glare as her respect for him evaporated like snow under the spring sun. Had he just asked her to betray her own side? “If you are telling me to turn traitor, then to borrow a phrase I’ve heard Marco and your Marines use, you can go fuck yourself… sir.” She spoke the sentence in Equish to make sure Staff Sergeant Stafford and the sentries understood her; the former visibly grimaced while she couldn’t read any reaction from the latter.

He smiled thinly, switching back to Equish in turn. “Nice. Well, I can think of one way we can settle the question of spying and whether Lakan’s now selling us out. Give me your latest report to the Tribune. Let’s see if he told you anything sensitive you’re now passing along.”

“Sorry, but you can’t,” she told him, swallowing her temper yet again—if he was a griffon, she would have already issued a challenge, demanding he answer for the assault on her honor and that of her mate. “Even if I agreed to get it, you can’t read it because I used my diplomatic seal on it. That means if it’s opened without the counterpart unsealing spell in the possession of Tribune Narada, the message it contains will be destroyed.”

“Just bring it,” he instructed again tersely, perhaps thinking she was bluffing.

“No. It is confidential, and if you break into my room to get it, I will report that to Ambassador Strenus and Tribune Narada. That will be seen by both as a breach of confidence, and a new diplomatic crisis will ensue.”

“Not my problem. Do it, or I will order these fine gentlemen to escort you right out of the Inn.”

She lowered her head and flared her wings hard. “You do not have the authority to expel me, or give me orders, Captain,” she warned him again, amazed she could keep her voice level when she’d once exploded in a roar at far lesser provocations back in Ponyville. “Following your instructions is a courtesy, not a duty for me. You know perfectly well that I do not fall under your chain of command, and I know perfectly well that only your Ambassador can expel me.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be taking this up with him and the Tribune soon. I don’t expect you to stay here after that,” he promised over crossed arms.

“Then do so. In the meantime, I still have duties to perform, and I intend to carry them out to the letter until ordered differently by Tribune Narada or another griffon authority. I will leave if they or your Ambassador instruct me to, but not you! Now, if there is nothing else, there’s somewhere I need to be.” She turned on her tail to leave the room.

“Get back here! I haven’t dismissed you!” he stood up and snarled as beside him, Staff Sergeant Stafford looked decidedly unhappy at the direction the conversation had taken.

“And I don’t care! You can’t order me to do anything!” she shouted back, out of patience with the obtuse human officer. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I would like to get back to watching Marco’s workout, and get ready for my first cultural training sessions—sessions I strongly suggest you attend as well, since it seems you need some remedial instruction in basic griffon honor!”

He looked up sharply and stood up to his full height. “If you were my subordinate, you’d be arrested and thrown in a cell for that!”

“And if you were my superior, you’d be facing me on a duel field right now for slandering my mate and demanding dishonorable actions!” she instantly retorted, then very deliberately turned on her heels to leave; she wondered if he understood just how grave a sign of disrespect it was for her to show him her back. “We’re done here. Good day, Captain,” she dismissed him, stalking out the door between the two sentries.

* * * * *

Gilda was still seething as she walked back down the hall towards the improvised gymnasium located near the center of the second floor, and the presence of the two armored and unsmiling Marines escorting her didn’t help her mood.

Though Captain Moran couldn’t order her to do anything, he could order her shadowed wherever she went; the clearly unhappy escorts told her tersely when she asked them to leave that they had instructions to accompany her and deny her access to any sensitive areas.

She wasn’t sure how that changed anything, given she and Fortrakt hadn’t been allowed entry to the Marine ready areas or wherever they monitored their cameras before. But there also wasn’t anything she could do about it short of lodging a formal protest with the human Ambassador, whom she worried was now going to use her confrontation with Captain Moran as the excuse he needed to finally expel Marco.

Crows take it… she thought again, wondering if the other Marines were going to follow the Captain’s lead and start treating her with far more hostility—and worse, treat Marco badly if they believed the pile of crow droppings Moran was spouting about him giving up information to her for sex.

As if in response to her unspoken worry, Stafford caught up to her when they were halfway to the suite the Marines were using as a workout area, presumably out of the Captain’s earshot.

“Listen, Decurion—I know you’re upset with the Captain right now, but please understand where he’s coming from. He’s trying to juggle political and military concerns, and believe me when I say he’s had some really bad experiences with trusting locals in the past. I’ll try to talk with him after he’s cooled off a bit, but for now, please don’t antagonize him further.”

“That’s up to him,” Gilda grated out. “I don’t care where he’s ‘coming from’, you don’t ever ask a griffon to betray their mate, or their own side!” she all but snarled out the words.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t be pissed. But you should also understand he was deliberately provoking you. Trying to see from your reactions if you were really a spy.”

“Then he succeeded,” she answered with a low trill and freshly ruffled feathers. “I am beyond ‘pissed’ right now, Staff Sergeant. I don’t care what he thought he was doing, there was nothing honorable about his words or actions!”

“He’s a good soldier and officer, and trust me, he’s no coward—he’s seen his share of combat,” Stafford said. “He isn’t doing this just to make you mad. Put yourself in his place—how would you react to the news that one of your civilians was sleeping with a foreign soldier of a nation you already knew was trying to gain intelligence on you?”

That made her relent, if only very grudgingly; she had to take a deep breath and exhale it slowly before she could speak her next words. “Point taken.”

“Thanks for understanding. Look—he may not like you, but speaking for the rest of the Marines, we do like you, Decurion,” he reminded her. “We don’t want to lose you or Gletscher over this, even if we don’t get why you’d like Lakan.”

She gave him a look. “You don’t have to ‘get’ it, Staff Sergeant. You just have to accept it. And make sure your Marines understand that from here on out, I will take an attack on Marco Lakan as an attack on me.”

“Oh, we believe you,” he assured her with a glance back at their escort, whom she was pointedly ignoring. “We know what you do to people who piss you off. Do me a favor, though—tell Sergeant Reyes I’d like to speak to him privately after he’s done with Marco. Tell him that it’s in regards to the Captain.”

“Fine,” she said, trying to settle her still-simmering temper as they reached the entry to the makeshift gym. “And as I respect you, Staff Sergeant, I apologize for putting you in the middle of this.” She bared her neck to him, wondering if he understood the gesture by then.

“Don’t worry about it. Comes with the post,” he replied with a slightly wan smile. “I’ll do what I can. But just in case I don’t see you again, it’s been an honor and a privilege, ma’am.” He came to attention and saluted her crisply as they reached the door of the gym.

“Thank you, Staff Sergeant.” His words having at least somewhat eased her anger and anxieties, she returned the salute with a thump of her claws against her chest, then offered him her talons for a forearm clasp. “I’ve enjoyed working with you as well.”

When Gilda presented herself for entry at the improvised gymnasium again, she was told by the sentries that Chris, Tara and Marco were no longer present there. Though initially worried that meant she’d missed their entire workout, she was advised that they’d simply moved it to the Inn’s outside playground for cubs located in the interior plaza, towards the back.

Thanking them, she informed her escort that she was going there whether Captain Moran wanted her to or not, to which they glanced at each other and nodded, following her down the hall.

Answering the challenge of the outside sentries, who fortunately let her out—she half thought they wouldn’t if the Captain instructed them not to, believing she would flee once she could take flight—she exited the Inn to find Fortrakt was there, in the middle of what appeared to be a sparring session with Marco.

They were grappling in a sand pit located in the center of the Inn’s outside recreation area. It was for cubs to play in and adults to spar in, as that was a favorite way for eaglesses and tiercels alike to burn off tension or settle minor disputes. The playground itself consisted of a series of small structures and aerial obstacles that could be climbed on by the cubs of ground and airborne races alike; there were even a bin full of leather balls of various sizes for cubs to play games with in the air or the sand.

Fortrakt’s presence was certainly a surprise, as was the fact he was sparring with Marco. Her junior partner was wearing thick leather mittens to sheath his talons while Marco himself was stripped down to wearing nothing but his shorts and a pair of leather forearm braces. The latter appeared to have been borrowed from Fortrakt, who had stripped himself of his armor pieces for the purposes of the duel.

She didn’t blame him for that, as to spar in armor in a sand pit was to invite that sand to get trapped beneath the armor, becoming very abrasive and grating. It appeared they had been at it for some time given Marco’s ragged breathing and thick sheen of sweat; he was unarmed while Fortrakt had a single sheathed blade strapped to his side.

“How’d it go?” Tara asked under her breath as Gilda reached her. They watched the pair of males circle each other in the sand pit; Marco at a low two-legged crouch with Fortrakt in a four-legged one. The human appeared to be in some kind of guard stance not too dissimilar from what she’d seen in Warrior, with his legs spread wide and arms raised with his uncurled fingers positioned to protect his head, ready to block a blow from Fortrakt’s talons.

“Don’t ask,” Gilda replied shortly to a worried look as she sat down beside the human female, whose still-heavy breathing, she guessed, was slowing from having completed her workout just a few minutes earlier. “I’ll explain later. In the meantime, how’s he doing?” She motioned with her head towards Marco.

“Don’t ask,” Tara answered right back over crossed arms. As to emphasize her words, Marco stumbled slightly in response to an attempt by Fortrakt to knock one of his legs out from under him with a swipe of his talons, only barely pulling it back in time. “It’s his first time trying to grapple an actual griffon. And so far, he’s doing… poorly.”

“I see…” Gilda felt her heart sink a bit at the realization that Marco really wasn’t anywhere near ready to fight a mating round with her, wondering if she might try training him herself. Probably not a good idea… she granted with a small smile, able to easily imagine such affairs rapidly turning more intimate even if they didn’t mean them to. I’m his motivation, so let’s not chance giving him anything unearned...

Her thought trailed off as Fortrakt’s gloved talons came in fast, almost a blur, towards Marco’s side. If unsheathed, they would have stabbed the human right in the ribs; perhaps even penetrated and punctured his lungs. It still hurt, though, judging by Marco’s short but sharp cry as he moved away from Fortrakt; his arm protecting his side against the fresh welts that were forming there. Welts she noticed he now had in several places all over his body, from his forelegs to his face.

“Dead,” Fortrakt declared, taking a few steps back to put space between him and Marco, sparing a brief glance and nod over to Gilda but otherwise not reacting to her presence—did that mean he didn’t yet know about her and Marco? Instead, he looked from her over to Reyes, who gave him a satisfied nod.

The Sergeant, who was overseeing the training outside the improvised duel arena, looked sharply at Marco. “What the hell, Flip-boy? You’re getting worse, not better! These last couple times, you’ve been moving even slower!”

“Aw, come on, Robbie! You’ve had me sparring non-stop for twenty minutes already!” a panting Marco replied, glaring at his Marine friend. He was covered head to toe in sweat, and his legs were visibly trembling. “They’re taking their break. Why can’t I take mine?” he motioned over to Chris and Tara as he spoke.

“Because they’ve already finished their sets, and you know the rules,” Reyes said unsympathetically over crossed arms. “They’re the same rules I use when training with First Spear Giraldi—we don’t stop until you score a solid hit.”

Sitting outside the improvised duel arena, Gilda could see Marco closing his eyes; his lips thinning. Despite her lingering anger at Captain Moran, she found it both fascinating and funny watching his expression change. She could tell that he was irritated, angry at his friend and at himself, and frustrated at the situation he found himself in.

So I guess Reyes wasn’t lying about today being extra hard, Gilda thought with a grin. Still, she wondered when they’d finish as the sun would shortly be rising over the top of the mountain peaks behind them. As much as she was enjoying seeing Marco shirtless and sweaty again as Reyes put him through his paces, she and Fortrakt had their daily meeting with Captain Narada soon.

Also have to remember to tell Reyes that Stafford wants to speak with him, she reminded herself, but she didn’t want to interrupt Marco’s training session to do so.

“Come on, Robbie. At least give me my baton?” Marco pleaded, his voice weary.

Reyes shook his head. “No chance. This spar simulates a situation when you’re unarmed.”

“I’ll never be unarmed,” Marco countered before glancing once at Gilda, slightly ruefully, who grinned back. “Not anymore…”

“You can never be too sure when it comes to combat situations,” Reyes replied. “If you lose your baton, you need to know how to defend yourself without it.”

Gilda found herself nodding in agreement. The Gauntlet had hammered home that point to her, giving all recruits basic training in every weapon in the Kingdom’s arsenal and talon-to-talon combat lessons at the same time—her favorite had been when she’d gotten to fire a repeating crossbow, which were normally only wielded by the Wind Knights. She opened her beak and squawked softly to get Marco’s attention. “Listen to Sergeant Reyes, Marco. Remember the attack in the fields?”

“Not a fair comparison. I was fighting against two-to-one odds,” Marco replied as Chris grimaced.

“Not my point,” Gilda said sternly. “You lost your weapon during the scuffle, remember? Things like that happen in combat. The Sergeant here is only trying to prepare you for it.”

Marco sighed, then shook his head. He pointed towards the sheathed knife on Fortrakt’s side, worn on a belt strapped around his back. “Okay, but come on—he’s got a knife on him!”

“Yes, he does,” Gilda agreed with a coy grin. “And he hasn’t even used it.”

“Exactly my point!”

“Marco, stop wasting time,” Reyes declared deadpan over crossed arms, earning an immediate glare. “Just land one solid hit and we’ll call it a morning. You can shower and eat then.”

“Yes, come on, Marco,” Fortrakt goaded. “I have better things to do than watch you flop around like a freshly caught fish!”

Marco looked surprised, then hurt as he stared at Fortrakt. “Wha—? Dude! Harsh!”

Her partner’s confused look got Gilda chuckling. “Fortrakt didn’t say that to put you down, Marco,” she quickly clarified, finding her moodiness at least temporarily receding the more of the bout she watched. “It’s the griffon way of telling their opponent that they can do this. Insults get the blood pumping faster than praise. He wants you to put forth a better effort, and he knows you can.”

“Really? You’re just trying to motivate me?” Marco asked Fortrakt, who nodded immediately. The human conceded with a sigh, then crossed his arms over his chest. “Look, dude… I’m flattered, but you’re a trained soldier and a four-legged predator! So how am I supposed to beat you, unarmed and protected with only leather arm braces?”

Reyes answered before Fortrakt could. “You have to figure that out. Just remember, Marco, this isn’t the pansy-ass spar at the local dojo you're used to. This is a combat simulation, so no bowing and all that stupid shit. If I can take Giraldi, then you can take Gletcher here. So you step up and you go to fucking work. Now, come on!”

Marco frowned, his expression deep in thought for a moment. When he faced Fortrakt, a spark appeared in his brown eyes, leaving Gilda wondering if the human male finally had a plan in mind.

The two combatants approached the center of the improvised ring. Fortrakt lowered his forequarters and arched his back, ready to pounce, while Marco stared at him steadily.

Reyes gave the two a look before nodding, slicing the air between them with his arm. “Okay, let’s go to war!” he announced grandly, causing Gilda to immediately flashback to the Warrior movie.

Fortrakt was about to charge in when Marco extended his hand forward with his palm outward; a call for a stop. Oddly enough, it was the same signal griffins would use as well.

Surprised, Fortrakt slackened his stance. “What is it?”

“Look, Fortrakt, are you sure you can’t just… I don’t know, stand still while I hit you once?” Marco asked.

Fortrakt rolled his emerald eyes. “Come on, Marco, you know I can’t—”

Before he finished the sentence, Marco made his move as his long hind paw kicked up the loose sand from the pit towards Fortrakt’s unprepared face. The tiercel tried to immediately cover up, but it was too late. He screeched as he moved away, eyes closed and watering, his forelegs swiping blindly in front of him.

To her surprise and great satisfaction, that was all the advantage Marco needed as he quickly stepped in. He used his hands to guard his head while his elbows flared outwards as he moved, weaving in and out through the tiercel’s blind and clumsy strikes. Marco’s borrowed forearm braces protected him from any lucky hits as he penetrated Fortrakt’s defenses, deftly using his hard elbows to deflect his opponent’s forelegs out of the way.

Smart, but not enough, thought Gilda with a grin. Soon as Fortrakt recovers his vision, he’ll put Marco down immediately…

But then Marco did something that surprised her. He grabbed Fortrakt’s extended foreleg, twisted it in a rather painful looking angle, and drove the tiercel down towards the ground, eliciting a startled squawk. His position now dominant, Marco used his legs to pin his griffon opponent in place, freeing his hands to reach towards Fortrakt’s sheathed knife. In one quick motion, Marco drew it and drove the flat of the blade towards the side of Fortrakt’s exposed neck.

“Dead,” Marco declared, his chest heaving again.

Reyes nodded. “Finally. Then we’re done here. Hit the showers and I’ll see you at breakfast.”

Marco eased away from Fortrakt, who recovered quickly. Standing up on all fours, he blinked and rubbed the remaining sand out of his eyes as he looked at the sheepish-looking Marco.

“Sorry,” her new mate muttered apologetically. Was he actually embarrassed by his victory?

“Sorry about what? That was a great move,” Fortrakt replied with a grin.

“It was?” Marco blinked as he offered the knife back to Fortrakt, hilt-first. “But I tricked you!”

“Nah, keep it,” he said amicably as he began to pull his armor back on. “You earned it. And you didn’t do anything wrong by tricking me. Deception is part of war.”

“He’s right, Marco,” Gilda spoke up. “We griffons may be big on honor, but we’re not going to lose a war over it, either.”

“It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile,” Chris spoke up in a deliberately deeper and oddly-accented voice that suggested he was quoting someone. “Winning’s winning.”

“Yeah, well, we’re not driving hot rods and I don’t have a stunt double, Chris. And are you sure, dude?” Marco asked Fortrakt, starting to recover his stamina. He looked at the blade, turning it over repeatedly. “I mean, this is closer to a bolo than a kitchen knife.”

“I’m sure. It’s a combat knife, and I’ve got three more of them,” Fortrakt replied with a grin, removing the blade’s sheath and its belt to pass to him. “I’m not going to miss one.”

Gilda stood up from her sitting position, walking towards the ring. “Not bad, Marco,” she said. “A few more bouts, and maybe you’ll be ready for me.” She let her eyes go hooded for a moment.

“Don’t tempt me, girlfriend,” he shifted slightly uncomfortably despite his grin, as the others smirked and Fortrakt blinked. “I’m not there yet.”

Before she could reply, Chris spoke up. “Okay, now that training is done, want to watch Lord of the Rings after breakfast? He asked out of nowhere, leaving Gilda guessing he was eager to change the subject. “It’s another fantasy swordplay adventure, and a really good one, three movies long.”

“And by watching it, you’ll finally understand who Marco was referring to that first day when he mentioned Gimli and Aragorn,” Tara added with a smirk, pulling on some kind of thicker hooded garment against the morning chill.

“Sure,” Gilda replied, hoping they’d get the chance. “But we’ll have to do it a bit later. Fortrakt and I have our morning meeting with the Tribune to attend. And there’s a good chance Captain Moran is going to want to talk to me again.” She suppressed a grimace.

“Uh… want me to come?” Marco asked again.

“We all will if you want,” Tara instantly spoke up, to a sharp nod from Chris but to Fortrakt’s evident confusion.

“Uh, are you in trouble, Decurion? Why would you need to—"

“Actually, your meeting with the Tribune is happening right now,” Staff Sergeant Stafford’s voice was heard, equal parts resigned and apologetic as he approached the group. “At the request of Captain Narada, the Tribune has come here. She’s ordering the immediate presence of you and Second Spear Gletscher in the Captain’s office, and she instructs you to bring your daily reports.”

Gilda closed her eyes and sighed. Crows take it… she’d wanted to tell Narada herself at their morning meeting so she couldn’t be accused of hiding it, but this meant the Captain had told her first. “Very well. Inform her that we’ll be along presently…”

Ten minutes later, after a brief detour to her room—she was pleased to see that they hadn’t broken in, at least, given her rolled-up report scroll was still there and undisturbed—and then being told to wait outside while they interviewed Fortrakt first, Gilda found herself back in Captain Moran’s office standing at attention beside a still-befuddled Fortrakt, who pointedly did not even look at her when she entered.

He might be mad at me, she worried, if this was how he found out about her and Marco. She could only guess the others hadn’t told him because they thought it proper for both her and Marco to do so. And though she certainly understood their reasoning, she now worried he was going to be angry with her for keeping that from him.

To say nothing of a glowering Tribune Narada herself, who spoke first this time from where she sat in front of the Captain’s desk.

“So, Decurion… from what the Captain has shown me, it would seem you’ve been taking your duties as a diplomatic liaison a little too seriously,” she began ominously in Aeric as Gilda could only flush. She couldn’t see the reaction from Fortrakt to her right, staring straight ahead as she was, but she couldn’t worry about him just then. “As you apparently sought to hide this fact from both me and your partner, I am having a very hard time finding a reason why I shouldn’t fulfil the Captain’s request to order your removal from the Inn here and now.”

The threat of being separated from Marco hanging in the air, Gilda chose her next words with very great care. “With respect, sir, it was my intention to tell both you and the Second Spear at our morning meeting. If you don’t believe me, then I simply request you read my report,” she answered crisply, holding out the scroll. “It’s all there.”

“Is it, now?” the Tribune asked dubiously as she snatched it out of her talons. “The Captain here seems to think that you’re simply ‘sleeping’ with him as a means to gain intelligence. Ludicrous though I find that idea, I’m also having a hard time comprehending why you would have any interest in him after all you’ve been through, and without any influence of the cider this time!”

“Then I once again ask that you read my report, sir,” Gilda answered evenly, knowing that this time, she was on firm cloud. “I explain everything within it.”

“I will read it as well,” Captain Moran said.

“That depends,” the Tribune immediately replied. “This is a confidential communique, Captain. You do not have the right to demand it. If I find it appropriate to share, I will.”

“And if you don’t, I will take that as a sign it contains sensitive information, and that Marco Lakan divulged it to her,” he warned. “If that happens, I will recommend to Ambassador Goldberg that he be shipped home. And I don’t expect he’ll be able to ask for asylum like Tara Fields.”

“We will see,” the Tribune replied shortly, then pulled out an enchanted gem, pressing it into the wax. The latter turned color from green to gold to indicate the incineration charm Gilda’s diplomatic seal contained was deactivated, at which point Narada unrolled the scroll and scanned through it quickly while facing away from Moran.

When she was through, having seemingly read it over twice, she looked over Gilda again, at least somewhat mollified. “Very well, Captain. Though highly personal in places, I see nothing of particular sensitivity or interest here, nor any evidence that Marco Lakan said something to her that he shouldn’t have.

“It is also clear to me that the Decurion was not lying when she said she intended to tell me about her and Mister Lakan at our morning meeting, since I would have read it then. But you be the judge. As you wanted to see it, here it is.” She slid it on the desk before him, then took position between Gilda and Fortrakt, sitting as they stood at attention.

The former took her posture as a sign that the Tribune was going to stand by and defend her two soldiers, for which Gilda was relieved and grateful. She was still worried about the reaction of a still-silent Fortrakt, however, scarcely able to imagine what was going through his head just then.

Will he be jealous? Or angry that I didn’t tell him, even though I really didn’t get the chance to? Maybe even mad that not even Marco did?

The Captain studied her report for several long minutes; she guessed that even though he spoke Aeric well, reading it might still have been slower for him. Especially if he was trying to read through her pengryphonship, which wasn’t the cleanest script. She’d certainly gotten better in the course of writing reports throughout her military career, but it still was a bit rough in places.

The Tribune waited for two minutes before addressing him in Equish. “Satisfied, Captain?”

Instead of immediately replying, Moran looked up and drummed his talons slowly on the desk as an impatient griffon would. “Though there are several pieces of information in here I did not need to know, it would appear that you are correct. Marco Lakan did not divulge anything untoward to her while being intimate—though there’s no guarantee he won’t do so in the future, and I’m worried about these movies he’s showing them.

“I also admit I’m... surprised at some of these observations, which I would have thought were obvious from the start. Never mind what,” he quickly added, switching to Equish as well.

“Did I lie, sir?” Gilda prompted him, even if that was speaking out of turn. But the Tribune did not rebuke her. “Was anything I told you in our earlier meeting false?”

He drummed his talons several more times before answering. “Very well, Decurion. Either this is a very elaborate deception with an attempt to present a believable backstory—one I do not give you or your Council of Crows enough credence to attempt—or you simply do like Marco Lakan for reasons I still cannot even begin to fathom.”

Gilda barely suppressed a growl at the backtaloned insult. “I don’t give a crow’s worth of droppings whether you fathom it or not, sir. Gryphons don’t lie about such things, and neither will I.” She then turned to the Tribune, speaking far more respectfully. “And with respect, sir, I think that report also shows that I have not let what happened interfere with my duties.”

“We will discuss that later,” Narada said in clipped tones. “In any event, Captain, I believe you owe my subordinate and Marco Lakan an apology. You jumped to some very questionable, and I daresay dishonorable conclusions, insulting her and her mate in the process. Such insults would be grounds for a duel in our culture, and I would hope the Decurion’s cultural training lessons would include some instructions about that.”

“They will now,” Gilda grated. “I’m waiting, Captain.”

He looked up sharply. “Then you can keep waiting. I will not apologize for acting on perfectly reasonable security concerns, especially given all that has already happened! I do not trust you, Decurion, or this... situation!”

“But those concerns have been answered,” the Tribune pointed out in tense tones, her eyes narrowing in turn. “Though I can’t say I’m entirely pleased with her, the Decurion demonstrably isn’t spying, or ‘sleeping’ with Marco Lakan to gain information. I also know her well enough to trust that she will not divulge any to him, in turn.”

“Not spying? Then what do you call all this?” he motioned to the report.

“Observing,” Narada responded instantly before Gilda could, “so that we may better understand you as a race and culture before accepting you as allies. We would be remiss not to, and I find it very hard to believe you would not do the same in our place. If you still doubt the Decurion’s integrity, it may interest you to know that both her and the Second Spear here declined requests from the Council of Crows to help them steal some of your devices.”

“Oh, really?” That only made him more suspicious, not less. “And why didn’t you?”

“Because they were telling us to lie, sir!” Fortrakt spoke up for the first time. “Because they were asking us to take advantage of our new friends and violate our personal honor in pursuit of political goals!”

“Just like the Pentagon…” Staff Sergeant Stafford mumbled before being glared silent by Moran, leaving Gilda no idea what he was referring to by the name of a five-sided object.

“It is as the Second Spear says. It may further interest you to know that in the aftermath of that incident, I offered them the opportunity to resign their posts. But they declined, wishing to remain with their charges out of a sense of duty to them,” the Tribune confirmed.

“A likely story,” the Captain grumbled aloud, gaining Narada’s immediate ire as Gilda exchanged a startled and angry glance with Fortrakt.

“So now you’re accusing me of lying?” The Tribune’s feathers ruffled. “Captain Moran, I strongly suggest you mind your tongue, as you are now in very thin air with not just me, but the entire Gryphon Kingdom!”

“So now you’re going to claim you are the aggrieved party here, Tribune? After we already caught your side spying and after the Ibex assault you allowed on our embassy? I remind you that your Council of Crows has still not caught the adepts or retrieved our missing items! For all we know, they’re already in possession of them and examining them as we speak! So what reason do we have to trust you?”

Gilda couldn’t see Narada’s expression, but she could well imagine the glower she was now wearing. “If they had, I would have heard about it from my contacts. And told you of it right after I informed the Queen of their duplicity, at which point Talia Tarseus would be put in chains and brought before her, facing execution for defying her will,” she replied with severely strained patience.

“But the overzealousness of the Senior Sparrow and Council of Crows notwithstanding, we have acted in good faith, Captain—may I remind you that we nearly went to war with the Ibexian Ascendancy over what happened! But I am currently having severe doubts whether you are.”

Moran leaned forward towards her. “I have given you and your liaisons ample opportunity to prove your good faith, only to have it repeatedly thrown in my face. First by their spying, and then by seducing our civilians! Her actions make no sense except as an intelligence gathering activity, and I want her removed from this embassy before she compromises our security again!”

“That will do!” Narada’s angry reply erupted before Gilda’s could, her wings flaring hard. “I will not allow you to sit here and slander my soldiers, Captain! If there is discipline to be meted out, I will do so, and if you had issues with Decurion Behertz, your first move should have been to come to me, not her!

“In any event, despite your claims, she has done nothing wrong that I can see. It is true we do not allow sexual relationships within a chain of command, but there is no such chain here! As long as she does not allow it to affect the performance of her duties, I see no issue with it.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. Because it’s the perfect opportunity for Behertz to gain all the intelligence you could ever want!”

“Captain Moran…” Narada made a low growl Gilda had never heard from her before. “She has demonstrably not done that, as her own report shows! Nor has she shown any indication she cannot continue to carry out her diplomatic duties! Be assured that if I thought she was emotionally compromised over this, I would pull her out myself!”

“‘Emotionally compromised’?” he echoed incredulously. “I don’t care about her, I care about Lakan! He’s a young kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing and is probably just happy to get some exotic tail!”

“Enough!” Gilda growled and took a step forward before Narada’s upraised wing blocked her path. “Tribune Narada—as the Captain has refused an apology multiple times, I hereby request an exception to the prohibition against griffons challenging humans! For slandering me and insulting my mate, I demand satisfaction!” She exploded in raw temper, causing the sentries to raise their weapons and Fortrakt to tense like he was going to tackle her again.

But this time, the Tribune stopped her with sheer force of will and the intensity of her warning glare. “Get… back…” she ordered Gilda in no uncertain terms, not turning back to the Captain until she’d done so.

“I admit, Captain, that I am tempted to grant her request. Be assured, she is reacting exactly as a griffon should to your ill-thought words and accusations! They are gross affronts to her honor—and mine as her commander!”

“I don’t give a crow-flown fuck about your ‘honor’, Tribune. I only care about stopping a spy!”

“She is not a spy!” Narada snarled, then stepped forward to lean her head right over his desk. “To this point, you have given me no cause to doubt your competency or character, Captain Moran. But right now you are showing an appalling disregard for our culture and customs; one that will reflect badly on both yourself and the ‘mission’ you claim you are trying to fulfill!

“I strongly suspect that were I to divulge this discussion to the Queen or a senior enough Legatus, your diplomatic mission here would be immediately terminated. Or at least could not continue until your removal from command.”

“My removal?” Moran snarled again. “I took personal command here after this embassy was invaded to make sure it was secure! And at this point, removing her is part of securing it!” He pointed directly at Gilda.

“Excuse me…” Without prompting, Fortrakt stepped forward, ignoring the stares and outright glares on him. “I realize I am speaking out of turn, but with the greatest respect, Captain and Tribune, you’re just talking past each other right now, and not getting anywhere.

“For the record, this was a surprise to me, too! And though I admit I’m a little hurt that I wasn’t told about the Decurion and Marco Lakan before this—” he paused long enough to give Gilda a momentary glower before turning his attention back to Captain Moran—“I don’t doubt her intentions are honorable, and I have no wish to see our good relations and all the work we’ve put into creating them descend into rancor.

“So with the utmost respect, I would suggest that both sides withdraw to cool off for a bit before resuming this discussion.” He came to attention as he spoke.

“And I must agree, Captain,” Staff Sergeant Stafford spoke up for the first time from Moran’s right. “With due respect, this is not helpful to either side. We’re not making progress; we’re just pissing each other off right now.”

“You are not in command here, Staff Sergeant,” Moran told him icily, to which his subordinate came to stiff attention. “When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”

“Whether you want it or not, I would be remiss to not give it, sir,” Stafford replied with surprising force, still staring straight ahead while maintaining a rigid attention stance. “As your acting second in the absence of First Lieutenant Nantz, it is my duty to keep a cool head and point out that you are acting contrary to our objectives. Having been here from the start, it is my considered opinion that our hosts do not deserve this treatment or your suspicion. And that you do owe an apology to Decurion Behertz, sir.”

“Are you quite through?” Moran glared at him, leaving Gilda no doubt he was planning to punish Stafford for backtalk later.

“No sir, I am not. Having known the Decurion for the past four weeks, I am satisfied that she means neither us nor Marco Lakan any harm,” he answered evenly, causing Gilda’s estimation of him to rise even as that of the Captain fell.

“In my view, sir, you are applying your past experiences to them. But the Kingdom is not a failed state, and the griffons are not Iraqis or Afghanis! As near as I can tell, they are open in their intentions and do not wish us ill. It is a mistake to treat them as such, and to do so reflects poorly upon both you and our mission here!” he said quickly, seeing Moran’s scowl.

“I would suggest, Captain, that you listen to your subordinate… as I will to mine,” a still-ruffled Narada broke in, causing Fortrakt to exhale slightly and release some of the tension he’d been holding in.

“I have no wish to act in anger over such a sensitive matter. So I recommend we reconvene later, in the presence of Ambassadors Strenus and Goldberg, who are now holding their first meeting since the Ibexian crisis began. Let them hear both sides and decide what to do. I will abide by their decisions… if you will agree to do the same.” She lowered her head again.

“I answer to Ambassador Goldberg only,” Moran replied shortly through clenched teeth. “But as I can see any further talks now are pointless given your side’s intransigence in this matter, I will await the Ambassador’s pleasure...”

16: Guns and Roses

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Gilda was quickly coming to realize that being with Marco Lakan bore far more potential complications and dangers than she had thought. And worse, those potential complications were coming from both sides.

An hour after her talk with Moran, she found herself back in the Auxiliary Guard barracks on Arnau’s fifth level facing interrogation again, this time by Tribune Narada. But when Gilda arrived there with Fortrakt, the Tribune ordered them to wait outside while she wrote a note to summon Ambassador Strenus, who had only returned from Saddle Arabia the previous night.

That gave them at least some minor chance to finally catch up a bit while the Ambassador made his way there. While waiting, Fortrakt told Gilda he was just as taken aback at the hostile treatment they’d been given by the previously neutral Captain, though he also admitted he had a degree of anger of his own at her for not telling him she was now with Marco.

“It only happened last night, Second Spear, and it hit like a bolt from the blue! What did you want me to do, wake you up in the middle of the night just to tell you that?” she challenged him irritably.

“You were gone when we got back! If you’d been there, you would have learned then! I’m sorry your talk with Chris and Tara didn’t go well, but it’s not my fault you left!” She further reminded him, causing him to fall silent. Though tempted to ask him about that talk, she didn’t, deciding she didn’t want to chance upsetting him when she needed all the support she could get.

Narada finally invited them in five minutes later. Though the Tribune was less than pleased at the surprising turn of events—“So, first you attack Marco Lakan, then you resist being around him, then you try to flee after finding out about being with Tara, then you skip over her to be back with him? Have I missed anything, Decurion?” she inquired acidly at one point—she was at least satisfied that Gilda was serious about him, deciding further that she really couldn’t hold it against her subordinate given her own whiplashing desires over Crimson Comet at a similar age years earlier.

She also said she wasn’t convinced that Gilda could still carry out her diplomatic and intelligence-gathering duties dispassionately in the face of her feelings for Marco, to which Gilda pointed to her observation-and-conclusion-rich report as proof that she could.

That might have been the end of it if Talia Tarseus hadn’t shown her face in Narada’s office for the first time in four weeks, to the surprise and annoyance of all. Despite the Tribune’s efforts to keep it quiet, word had somehow reached the Council of Crows of Gilda’s indiscretions, and far from unhappy, the Senior Sparrow was almost giddy at the news.

“Ancestors above, this is perfect!” she had exclaimed upon rapidly scanning Gilda’s latest report. She looked like she had aged five years since Gilda had last seen her, as she and the Council of Crows had spent little time sleeping while pursuing the Capricorn agents and trying to track down their caches of stolen human gear. “Marco Lakan should be much easier to gain intelligence from now! Perhaps he will even be willing to divulge information about their black metal tubes!”

Gilda’s feathers ruffled hard, the remark leaving her ready to explode after an already-tense morning—just like Captain Moran, the Senior Sparrow wanted her to act dishonorably, but unlike Moran, she wanted Marco to betray his oath of secrecy as well?

Thankfully, a familiar and far more welcome voice stayed her tongue. “I am certain that Decurion Behertz is less concerned about that than the possibility Marco Lakan is about to be sent home.” Ambassador Strenus quickly broke in from behind her, entering the Tribune’s office for the first time in weeks. “Greetings to you all.”

“Welcome back, Ambassador.” Tribune Narada smiled in obvious relief, baring her throat at him in lieu of a salute. “As the Ibexians have backed down, I congratulate you on a successful mission and being able to resolve this crisis without bloodshed. Was your stay in Saddle Arabia enjoyable?”

“Not especially,” he said with a thin smile. “The Ibex are never easy to deal with, couching everything in terms of doublespeak and turning even the simplest of negotiating points into a contest of wits and wills. And not helping matters was that the Saddle Arabians were far too placating to them, in my view, after the Ibexian intelligence agents—or excuse me, their honored diplomats—threatened to enact harsh trade tariffs if they sided with us.”

“Charming,” was all Gilda could say as her feathers stilled, very glad to see him along with Narada and Fortrakt. “It’s good to have you back, Ambassador.” She offered him a bared throat and forearm clasp, her mood instantly brightening.

“Likewise,” he agreed with a warm smile, returning the latter. “Be assured I have kept up on your daily reports as forwarded to me by the Tribune, and I find them as informative as they are intriguing. I am also quite pleased you have overcome your initial poor beginnings with Marco Lakan to have bonded with him, though I admit I am rather surprised by the circumstances.” He raised an eyeridge at her.

“As am I, sir,” she granted with a slight blush. “It wasn’t exactly planned. It just… happened.” She squirmed a bit.

Despite her discomfort, he smiled more broadly. “Planned or not, it bodes well for our respective races to learn that we are both socially and sexually compatible. And I am impressed by Marco Lakan’s instinctive understanding of griffon honor, even if he knew not what he was doing by arming himself against you and simply wishing to win you as a gryphon would,” he noted, nodding towards her report.

“Though the Senior Sparrow here may see this in terms of gathering intelligence, I see it far more about establishing and furthering good relations between our races. I suspect you will be but the first of many such pairings. Or do we already have another one? Have you taken a human lover among your civilian charges as well, Second Spear?” He gave Fortrakt an askance but wry look.

“No, sir, I have not,” Fortrakt answered somewhat stiffly despite the teasing tone. “And though I wish the Decurion and Marco—I-I mean, Mister Lakan well, nor do I plan to, given the… difficulties involved.” He offered no further comment than that, leaving Gilda wondering just how badly things had gone when he spoke to Chris and Tara. He’d at least seemed okay to be in their presence while sparring with Marco, though then again, she’d never seen him look at or even speak to them.

Better ask Tara about what happened later, Gilda decided. If, that was, she was allowed to by Captain Moran, who had barred her from seeing not just Marco but all three civilians. She knew he had no authority over Tara since she’d been granted asylum, but Gilda also didn’t trust him to respect that.

“I thank you for your kind words and understanding, sir,” she bowed her head towards him, “though I fear it will all be for naught if Ambassador Goldberg uses this as the excuse he needs to finally expel Marco.”

Strenus turned solemn and nodded gravely. “Be assured, I will be discussing the matter with him this afternoon. I will do what I can, but ultimately, I cannot intervene in human affairs, except insofar as they affect griffon ones. His fate will be decided by their Ambassador.”

“This does affect griffon affairs,” the Senior Sparrow spoke again, her mere presence causing Gilda’s ire to rise anew. “He almost certainly has information on their strange weapons, and perhaps he might share it in exchange for his own offer of asylum.”

“So, you want him to act dishonorably?” Narada spoke up before Gilda could, giving her a warning look.

But Tarseus was unperturbed. “Call it what you wish. But the Council of Crows is not picky about where intelligence comes from.”

“I can promise you, Talia Tarseus, that the Queen would not exchange asylum for information,” Strenus said mildly, though the warning tone that underlay his words was heard loud and clear by Gilda. “For she knows well that anycreature that does such a dishonorable thing once is very liable to do it again, against our interests later.”

“My thoughts exactly,” the Tribune concurred. “But that said, she might approve of asylum to allow Mister Lakan to remain with Behertz.”

Gilda’s heart leapt, only to sink as Ambassador Strenus thought about that, only to shake his head. “Unfortunately, I think not. I am certain that such an arrangement would negatively impact the negotiations, and lacking friends, we desperately want this new alliance and trade agreement to improve our defenses and crop yields—never mind their weapons; their agricultural improvements and cattle herds alone could feed the entire Kingdom easily!

“We indulged their Ambassador once, giving him political cover at home for expelling Dana Carraway. We would have a far more difficult time providing such cover here, especially when they believe Marco Lakan might spill their secrets.”

Gilda closed her eyes, reflecting that everything that seemed so perfect the previous night had in fact complicated things far more than she ever thought possible, and worse, it might have been the final feather in the wing that got Marco expelled. The Ambassador was right; she didn’t see any way around the simple fact that Marco’s defection to the Kingdom—well, what else could she call it?—would be seen as a gross betrayal by both Moran and very possibly the Marines themselves. Unless…

She blinked at the sudden idea that occurred to her. Unless I take away his ability to divulge those secrets? I’m still not completely certain, but…

“With respect, Ambassador and Tribune, I think I may be able to relieve Marco Lakan of that burden,” she said, closing her eyes again to steel herself. If I’m wrong… she didn’t want to think. “It’s not in my report, because I only made the connection this morning. But I believe I know what secrets they’re hiding, and what those strange metal weapons of theirs actually are.”

All eyes instantly turned on her; Ambassador Strenus seemed intrigued while to Gilda’s annoyance, the Senior Sparrow went something close to giddy.

Tribune Narada's reaction, however, was far more measured. “You have information in regards to the odd human weaponry?”

“Yes, sir,” Gilda replied, taking a deep breath. “As you know, me and Fortrakt have been reporting on the black tubes and the variations we have seen.”

“Indeed I do.” Narada grabbed a scroll Gilda recognized as one of the previous day’s reports, written in Fortrakt’s surprisingly practiced script. “From what you’ve said before, you've seen at least three variations.”

“Make that four,” Fortrakt corrected. “One standard model, one with a thicker tube wielded by their doctor, a longer model I glimpsed partially disassembled that appeared to be propped on some kind of stand, and just today, we saw what looked like a heavier version with a bulky block hanging beneath its belly.”

“It’s the last I find the most interesting," Gilda interjected. “The one with that square block at the bottom that the Second Spear noted. I kept thinking I’d seen something like it before. It was only after I left the Captain’s office that I remembered where. And if I’m right, then we were wrong—very wrong—about what they were from the start.”

“Then what about them, Decurion Behertz?” Narada’s voice sounded both intrigued and impatient.

Gilda organized her thoughts carefully before speaking, trying to make sure all her observations could be supported by evidence. “Sir, I believe that all the black metal tubes that the Marines are carrying are not melee weapons as we first thought… but are in fact highly advanced ranged weaponry.”

“Ranged weaponry?” Narada echoed, glancing at Strenus before looking back to Gilda. “We’ve seen no indication of that, Decurion. They have no arrow quivers that we can see, nor any drawstring or other recognizable mechanism to fling projectiles.”

“Our mages have also detected no magic on them other than what we believe to be some powerful Equestrian-made wards to deflect magical probes—by their potent aura signature, we believed them to have been cast by one of the Pony Princesses themselves, making them very difficult to defeat,” Talia Tarseus added in some disgust, her excitement ebbing as quickly as it had risen. “There was no casting mechanism detected on them either, meaning they do not launch magical beams or bolts. So how can you possibly conclude they are ranged weapons, Decurion?”

“Yeah, how?” Even Fortrakt was giving her an odd look.

“Observation,” Gilda replied. “I initially thought that their weapons were far too cumbersome to wield in a melee setting, but after I’d been around them a bit, I assumed that human fingers could compensate for it—that the various protrusions of their weapons were meant as striking or swinging surfaces.”

Narada raised her claw. “Excuse me, Decurion, but what are ‘fingers’?”

Before Gilda could reply, Strenus answered for her. “Fingers, my dear Tribune, are humanity’s blunt yet nimble talons. Though not hard or sharp, they are very dexterous and can manipulate even small objects with ease.”

The Tribune nodded her understanding. “I see. Continue.”

“Thank you, Ambassador,” Gilda acknowledged with a bared throat toward Strenus before she turned back towards Narada. “As I said, I initially thought that their fingers would be more than enough to compensate for the weapon’s cumbersome form. But I now realize I was wrong.

“After observing how humans move and fight—and even how they would fight a griffon, thanks to the Second Spear sparring with Marco Lakan—I have concluded that the weapons are not designed for close combat. I believe Fortrakt and I have submitted regular reports in regards to the human ‘films’ we’ve been shown, Tribune?”

“Yes, you have,” she replied somewhat impatiently. “Their subject matter is certainly diverse, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, the first film we’ve watched, Warrior, showcased modern human civilization in a country called the United States of America, which is the parent nation of the Marines present,” Gilda said. “A later movie we watched, Braveheart, was a historical re-telling of a far older civilization in another country called Scotland.”

“And the point of this is… what?” Talia Tarseus asked irritably, to which Gilda gave her another glare.

“The point, Senior Sparrow, is that while Warrior showed how modern humans can fight effectively with no weapons in single combat, Braveheart showcased how early humans actually fought a war! Among other things, they rode—”

Fortrakt suddenly chortled hard, which got the attention of everygriffon else in the room. Gilda gave him her harshest stare, while Narada and Strenus looked annoyed.

“Do you find something amusing in this discussion, Second Spear Gletscher?” Narada asked mildly.

“Nothing, sir,” Fortrakt replied immediately, clearing his throat repeatedly. He then stayed completely silent. Gilda ignored the urge to cuff him with her wing but settled on rolling her eyes.

“As I was saying, Braveheart showed us that early humans waged war almost exactly the same way we do! They had melee weapons quite like ours in that they used swords, spears, and shields. In matters of mobilization, they rode large beasts of burden—unintelligent Terran Horses—to maneuver their forces more quickly.

“And just like us, their warfare was not limited to close quarters. They in fact used bows and arrows to strike from distance, much like Equestrian unicorns, and they even wielded a very primitive version of our crossbows designed to defeat metal armor.”

Strenus stroked his chin. “Interesting. I can certainly see them manipulating Equestrian-style longbows with their fingers. Their bipedal forms would make them easy to wield without unicorn magic, as standing on two legs would leave both sets of foretalons free to level the bow and pull back the drawstring. But you say they also used crossbows? That they invented a weapon similar to ours?”

“Similar to ours in the very distant past, yes,” Gilda confirmed. “Single shot and very slow to reload, requiring mechanical aid to do so. I emphasize that they were very basic designs. We might have last used ones like them a full millennium ago, when we battled the invading army of Nightmare Moon.”

“Interesting,” Narada granted. “So if they were using them then, why aren’t they using them now?”

“But that’s just it!” Gilda exclaimed. “And this brings me back to the other film, Warrior, which is set in the modern human setting.”

“And how is that relevant?” Tarseus asked.

Though Gilda didn’t want to acknowledge the Senior Sparrow’s question, her query was a valid one. “I can’t help but note that the difference in living standards between the two films is very drastic. Building designs turned from painfully primitive to incredibly sophisticated. From stone castles transforming to metal and glass towers that seemed to reach the sky; from riding beasts of burden to mechanical carriages that could enable them to travel by ground and air at high speed. By the crows, they’ve even been to their moon now!” she reminded them.

“Impossible,” the Senior Sparrow said dismissively. “We heard that rumor from the Equestrians, but dismissed it as a pile of crow droppings given the incredible distance and difficulties involved.”

Gilda gave her a look. “Whether you believe it or not, I’m satisfied that it happened, Senior Sparrow. And that goes to the heart of the argument. They’ve advanced incredibly far over the past millennium in all other areas of their society, so why not in weapons and warfare? Why would they have regressed back to using simple melee arms after effectively wielding bows and arrows?” she asked pointedly, waiting for them to process the question and reach the only conclusion possible.

“With everything else they have, it’s unthinkable that they would have done so. If they had ranged weapons like crossbows before, it makes no sense at all that they’re not using them now… unless they got something better to replace them. I think that ‘something’ is those black tubes they all carry.”

“Then… you think those tubes of theirs are in fact extremely advanced crossbows?” Narada sounded very dubious.

“No, sir,” Gilda shook her head. “Though the way they grasp their weapons bears a passing resemblance to how we hold our crossbows, I don’t think they’re that at all. I think they’re far more powerful and dangerous. And the reason is…” She took a deep breath before voicing her conclusion. “I didn’t make the connection until this morning, but I finally figured out what their metal tubes—and particularly that big, mounted block—remind me of.

“With regards to the former, I believe they’re what amounts to miniaturized naval ballistae, firing tiny metal balls.”

It was several seconds before anygriffon spoke again as all present processed her claim; a glance behind Narada showed that even her aides and sentries appeared uncertain. “So in other words, they’re tiny cannons firing equally tiny cannonballs?” Strenus summarized doubtfully.

“But how would those be useful?” the Senior Sparrow challenged, her brow furrowed as she tried and failed to visualize it. “I admit I’m no expert on naval affairs, but I know that even for practiced gunnery teams on airships, reload time for a single ballistae is very slow! And the explosive gem dust needed to propel them is very difficult to refine and store.

“It’s extremely volatile, and you would not want to keep that on your body given it’s been known to spontaneously ignite. Or worse, the detonation could be triggered remotely by hostile mages.”

“As much as I hate to say it, I agree with the Ambassador and Senior Sparrow, Decurion,” Fortrakt spoke up again, his tone serious. “Even if you’re right, that doesn’t seem very useful. I mean, sure, they could conceivably fire one destructive volley with them like an airship broadside, but after that? We could cut them down before they reloaded with a hail of crossbow bolts and then quickly close to finish them with spears and steel claws. They’d get no chance for a second volley and their weapons would be effectively reduced to melee.”

“Unless their weapons are not single shot,” Gilda said quickly, having already anticipated the objection. “And that’s where my second piece of evidence comes in. Tribune—I know this is a difficult request, but may I ask that a repeating crossbow with a loaded drum be brought to your office?”

Narada looked startled, and Gilda certainly understood why. Such powerful weapons, which were generally Minotaur-made, were highly restricted and very dangerous to those untrained in their use; as a result, they were tightly controlled and only issued in rare instances outside of wartime as an assassin could use one to slaughter an entire roomful of unwary griffons. “On what grounds?”

“To show you why I believe the human weapons are repeating as well.”

“I don’t get it, but okay.” She gave the order to an aide, who obtained her the required release document. She signed it and added her personal seal, which would be needed to unlock the Auxiliary Guard armory vault where they were stored.

Even with orders issued promptly, it took ten minutes to retrieve from the well-guarded vault. It was then delivered to the office with an escort of guards, where it was placed on the well-polished and highly reflective surface of Narada’s stone desk before them.

“Very well, Decurion. Here it is. Now without touching it, what did you want to show us?”

“The quiver.” She pointed at the barrel drum which stored scores of individual bolts—she believed the count was sixty per standard drum—in a connected coil, which was visible through the housing.

It wasn’t the newest model, but as arguably the most powerful individual armament in the Kingdom’s arsenal, it was still an intimidating sight. Gilda also couldn’t help but note the weapon had the head of a goat, which meant this particular crossbow had been used in combat against the Ibexians and had drawn blood at some border skirmish with the Ascendency in the past. “I didn’t think of this until I saw that big block hanging beneath their latest weapon, but I believe that’s what the block is—an attached quiver drum. I think it’s the container for the cannonballs!”

Nogriffon said anything while they considered her statement. “You know, I think you’re right, Decurion…” an impressed Fortrakt said at some length. “I think that’s it. It would explain everything—their secrecy, why they don’t want to show us certain movies, why we didn’t recognize them as distance weapons… even why their soldiers and civilians won’t discuss them with us! I mean, if they were just melee, then what’s the point of hiding that?”

“Heh. Humans come in force, and they even have their civilians remain vigilant for any information gathering? Equestrians were never this fun!” Strenus didn’t laugh so much as roar.

“Well, I’m not convinced,” an unsmiling Narada replied despite the Ambassador’s mirth. “I’d have to see these ‘quivers’ for myself. And if that’s what they are, why haven’t we seen them on their other weapons?”

“Perhaps, like us, they use repeaters in only a very limited manner, issuing them to just one or two soldiers per Turma?” Talia Tarseus suggested. “You did say you only saw the one.”

“No…” Fortrakt said as he moved closer to the repeater before an escort sentry stopped him—the weapons were so restricted they weren’t even allowed to approach within two body lengths of them. “No, Senior Sparrow. I think Decurion Behertz is not only right, but that all their weapons have those quivers. We just didn’t recognize that’s what they were until we saw this latest version of their metal tubes.”

“All of them?” This time, it was Gilda’s turn to be dubious.

“Yes, all of them! I can show you what I mean. With respect, Tribune, could I trouble you for a quill and a piece of parchment?” He came to attention and bared his throat as he spoke.

Though confused, Narada granted the request as the half dozen escorting sentries looked on in some bemusement, having only entered the room mid-conversation while not being allowed to stray from the crossbow’s side. Ignoring them, Fortrakt accepted the writing implements, moved to a side table and then dipped the pen in an ink jug.

He used the top of a cabinet as a drawing surface as he began to rapidly sketch something. Within half a minute, he had produced a passable depiction of one of the black tubed human weapons—their basic model with the three protuberances below. The smaller two seemed to be grips as there were noticeable indentations for their fingers, but the larger one in the middle…

Though she’d never known him to have an artistic flair, Fortrakt produced a surprisingly accurate sketch. He took pains to depict the human weapon properly, from its rough dimensions to the position of the three underhanging protrusions; it was only then Gilda realized that the largest of the set took the same rough mid-weapon location as the drum did for the crossbow.

“Just as a bolt drum contains a coil of crossbow bolts, I think that these long, curved rectangles are the quiver drums for their standard weapons! I grant they’re too small for a coil of bolts, but if we’re talking about miniature cannons, then maybe ‘bolts’ isn’t what they contain so much as stacks of metal balls…?” Fortrakt suggested somewhat tentatively, filling the object with a pile of them.

“Remarkable…” Narada said as she studied the design. “Could that be it?”

“By the Ancestors…” Even Talia Tarseus seemed fascinated. “If this is true, then our arcane theorists were looking in entirely the wrong direction. We certainly suspected the tubes were some form of distance weapons, but as we kept trying to associate them to crossbows, we found no usable parallels to our own. We should have instead been considering that they could be cannons.”

“The more I think about it, the more I believe you’re on to something, Decurion,” Strenus said in some wonder. “Tribune, did we ever experiment with miniature naval ballistae for individual soldier use?”

“Yes. Both we and the Minotaurs did, well before the beginning of my career,” Tribune Narada confirmed. As she spoke, she went to a magically sealed cabinet and used her command crystal to unlock it, ruffling through the files it contained. “We even produced a few prototypes some eighty years ago, which were demonstrated before then-King Malachia. But they proved almost completely impractical and useless.”

“Why?” Strenus and Fortrakt chorused.

“Because the problems they presented were myriad, from agonizingly slow reload times to difficulties in storing small amounts of highly volatile explosive crystal dust that would be used to propel the balls down the tubes as our naval cannons do,” Narada explained as she removed a single sheet of parchment from the cabinet.

“Worse, unlike our naval cannons, the amount of the crystal dust required for even a single firing was very precise—too little and the cannonball would not have enough force to be damaging or travel far, but too much and the tube might burst, exploding in the soldier’s grasp. The latter could be helped by making the cannon tube thicker, but doing so made it weigh so much that it was all but impossible to heft and aim by all but grounded earth griffons.

“They were also quite hard to maintain and could mechanically fail in other ways without constant cleaning and tending, which was difficult for soldiers in the field. Here is a design picture of the prototype, plus a focus on the projectile firing mechanism.” She laid the sheet of parchment on the table before them.

“By the Ancestors… how does that even work?” Fortrakt wanted to know.

“Not important, though its complexity is part of its impracticality,” the Tribune replied. “Even aside from that, you will note it is quite large—far too large to be easily carried or wielded in flight, and it proved almost impossible to aim accurately from the air.

“Even fired from the ground, their accuracy was suspect, having range barely better than a crossbow… though I’m told the Minotaurs did solve that particular issue by carving spiral grooves into the inside of the tube, imparting the small cannonball a stabilizing spin. In the end, they incorporated that discovery into some of their regular ballistae, which they then sold to us and now equip our airships, and even certain of our siege engines.”

There was another long pause. “As I look at this now, I do see a resemblance to the human tubes. Could the Decurion be right and they are in fact a successful version of a potential class of weapon we long abandoned?” Strenus wondered again. “If they made it work, we could too! So why did we not pursue this further?”

Tribune Narada opened her mouth to speak again, but this time, Talia Tarseus beat her to it.

“Because as the Tribune said, such small cannons seemed to offer no real advantages to soldiers given their bulky size and maintenance requirements, difficulties in reloading, dangerous propellant, total impracticality in air combat and very poor rate of fire compared to crossbows. They were also quite loud, like our cannons, meaning soldiers could not strike stealthily with them. Thus, the idea was abandoned in favor of other research avenues.”

“What avenues?” Fortrakt asked. Gilda didn’t expect an answer, but the Senior Sparrow gave one anyway.

“It is hardly a secret that we are researching crossbows that fire magical bolts instead of real ones, which would—in theory—give even our standard soldier weapons far more power and range. They are called ‘bowcasters’, and they would even enable our soldiers to fire far more quickly, if not as fast as our repeaters,” she explained, her tail twitching in excitement. “But all that might be unnecessary if we could duplicate the human ones! If we could just get our wings on even one of those tubes—”

“No!” everygriffon chorused.

“No. We will not steal them, Senior Sparrow, or we will validate their Captain’s suspicions, and lose any chance to acquire them legitimately through trade,” Ambassador Strenus said flatly. “And before you plan to examine any human gear the Ibex stole and you subsequently find, I remind you that the Queen has ordered all stolen property found to be returned to the humans immediately. So you will.”

Talia Tarseus ruffled her feathers at the insinuation. “I know my duty, Ambassador, as does the entire Council of Crows. We would never disobey the Queen.”

“If I thought you had, I would have already reported it. To both the Queen, and the humans,” Tribune Narada replied coldly. “In any event, this weapon has served its purpose. By my order, return the repeating crossbow to its vault,” she instructed the guards, further ordering them in no uncertain terms not to speak about what they’d heard.

Once they had saluted and departed, she turned back to Gilda, standing up to bare her throat in a rare show of respect. “I must congratulate you, Decurion, on this remarkable insight. Your conclusions ring true to me, and it is certainly made clear you are more than capable of carrying out your duties, even with the potential… complications that Marco Lakan offers.” She blushed slightly as she spoke. “As long as that does not change, be assured you have my support to continue in your post as diplomatic liaison.”

“Thank you, sir. But I fear it is not up to you.” Gilda bowed her head and clenched her beak in worry.

“Perhaps not. But I assure you, I will speak to the Captain again,” the Tribune promised, “and do my best to make him see reason.”

“And I will speak to the human Ambassador this afternoon,” Strenus added. “We will do what we can, but even if unsuccessful… know that you have done the Kingdom a very great service, Decurion Behertz. And I will see that you and Second Spear Gletscher are rewarded for the veritable dragon’s hoard of information you have bequeathed us.”

“Thank you, sir,” she nodded and bared her throat, wondering if that meant another promotion, or—if she was very lucky—finally getting her long-desired posting to the Wind Knights. But here and now, the only reward I want… Marco’s face flashed through her mind again.

“I thank you for your kind words, but with respect, Second Spear Gletscher and I are due back at the Inn shortly, Tribune and Ambassador. I am scheduled to give my first cultural training seminar to the Marines at the top of the hour. If, that is, the Captain allows me to give it.” Her feathers ruffled anew.

“If he doesn’t, then I will give it in your stead,” Narada replied instantly. “I’ll be there regardless to make sure the Captain attempts no further insults or intimidation tactics with you. Hopefully my presence will make him behave. But if not…”

Her eyes narrowed and feathers ruffled even harder than Gilda’s. “If not, then I may well decide to drop the restriction against dueling humans so I may challenge him myself.”

“…which brings us to our next topic: concepts of griffon honor,” Gilda announced to the Marines in attendance at the first of three cultural training seminars she was giving that day. They were sitting in ordered rows in the improvised classroom; two ‘squads’ of thirteen Marines pulled from the six present at the Inn—Captain Moran had reinforced the contingent with a second ‘platoon’ following the Ibex invasion, allowing for doubled patrols and sentry counts.

As it turned out, the only reason she was permitted by the Captain to give the session was that Ambassador Goldberg and his staff were not available, ensconced in negotiations for the first time in three weeks that Ambassador Strenus was belatedly returning to.

Not helping her mood was that Captain Moran not only continued to treat her coldly, but he denied her permission to speak to Marco, and further ordered him confined to quarters pending his chat with the Ambassador. He clearly expected Marco to be expelled, and worse, clearly hoped he would be—along with her.

“I expect this will be your last appearance before my Marines. No tricks or funny business, Decurion. I will be watching you.”

“Good. I also suggest you listen to the presentation, Captain. Maybe you’ll learn something about griffon honor,” she needled him while Narada frowned.

“And I will be watching you, Captain Moran,” the Tribune then warned him in turn. “And know that if you continue to treat my soldiers so suspiciously, it will be reported. And it will reflect badly on not just you, but your entire mission here.”

“I won’t start anything unless she does,” the unimpressed Captain replied as a clearly unhappy Staff Sergeant Stafford stood stiffly behind him. But this time, he did not speak up; Gilda didn’t even want to think about what reprimand or punishment he’d already received for speaking out of turn earlier.

But as Fortrakt reminded her gently afterwards, there was nothing she could do about it for the time being, and he further told her to remember that both Ambassador Strenus and Tribune Narada would be speaking up on her behalf.

“I’m not happy about any of this either. But we’ve got most of the Marines on our side even if their Captain isn’t, so let’s not endanger that by taking it out on them,” he advised her quietly while she stopped back at her room to get her notes, escorted by four armed Marines in front and in back the whole time.

Their brief discussion left her wondering how he had become the voice of reason, and how he was repeatedly able to shake off his fears and even a succession of body blows to his young psyche. But unable to talk to him more than briefly, she put the question aside for later.

The seminar had begun promptly at the start of the 11th hour with the human troops coming to attention as she entered. Gilda was surprised but pleased to see Tara there, sitting in the back where she could watch the whole room; her angry glare focusing on the back of Captain Moran’s head. She gave the two griffons only a terse nod as they entered, leaving Gilda guessing that the human female had already confronted Captain Moran over Marco and Gilda’s treatment earlier, to no avail.

Gilda also couldn’t imagine that Moran was happy about her presence. But as Tara had asylum, he had no authority over her, and short of her expulsion from the embassy—which would likely leave his Marines in near-open revolt, given they all liked her and she was the only female human present short of the far older and less desirable ones on the Ambassador’s staff—he tolerated her presence there, pointedly ignoring her steady glare.

Just hope I can talk to her later. But if this is my last duty here, so be it, she decided, vowing to perform it as well as possible.

She began her lessons by explaining the basics of griffon body language and behavior rules, putting special emphasis on what not to touch or do, using Marco’s actions the first night as an example. She’d even used a slightly uncomfortable Fortrakt to show directly what was strictly-off-limits, pointing to his wings, flanks and flight muscles in turn.

“Or put in terms you guys might be more familiar with, touching griffon wings or shoulders is tantamount to groping a girl’s boobs,” Tara offered directly. “The difference is, I might deck you. But a griffon might gut you.” She smiled unpleasantly.

“She exaggerates, but not by much,” Gilda confirmed with a glance at Fortrakt, who grimaced. “I wouldn’t have killed Marco Lakan for that transgression, but I would have broken the offending talons if not for my partner, here.”

“So shoulders are off-limits even on griffon males?” One of the Marines asked.

“Even on males,” Fortrakt confirmed before Gilda could. “We take personal space very seriously—the Decurion once threw me through a table for violating hers! So, don’t ever touch us in a familiar manner unless you’re in private and you’ve earned the right.”

“And how do we do that?” One of the Corporals asked. “We’re kind of afraid to be friendly after what happened to Flip-boy—er, Mister Lakan.”

“By being honorable,” Gilda said simply. “By word and by deed. Marco Lakan made every effort to make it up to me, and further showed his quality by being willing to defend his friend. Thus, he redeemed himself and established his honor in my eyes.”

She saw some glances between the Marines that indicated they were trying to figure out how Marco had parlayed that into being her lover, but she didn’t address it just then. She instead went on to explain that griffons were an intensely loyal race that valued personal honor above all, glaring at Captain Moran as she did so. “To that end, you never invite a griffon to betray that honor, or you invite a duel that may indeed be to the death.”

That had led to her next topic—an in-depth discussion of challenge and duel rules, with some of the more adventurous Marines asking if it was true griffons dueled before mating.

After exchanging a glance with Fortrakt and even Tribune Narada, who could only smirk, she confirmed it was.

“What you refer to is called a ‘mating round’, or ‘Round’ for short. Perhaps my partner would care to explain them, given he’s fought a few recently?” Gilda then asked with a smirk of her own, causing Fortrakt to flush but step forward to the sound of snickers. His reaction left her in some amusement despite her still-smoldering anger at Captain Moran, as her junior partner was forced to field a series of rather probing and occasionally embarrassing questions.

But to his credit, he answered them all patiently. In response to being asked why griffons considered mating an occasion to fight, he explained that mating rounds were a ritual test of warrior worthiness in which you did not hold back, designed to build passion by getting the blood pumping.

“There is nothing more stimulating to us than a contest with a worthy foe,” he went on to say, though the reaction to that seemed a mixture of intrigue and distaste.

“So the griffies aren’t Romans, they’re freaking Klingons…” she heard one Marine mutter under his breath, leaving her wondering what human nation that was.

But she could ignore the remark, given it was not directed at her and she didn’t understand the reference anyway. But then she heard whispering from the Marines in back regarding her and Marco, wondering how he could possibly have fought her, or why she’d be interested in him given his almost assuredly small ‘dick’.

It was another human euphemism she’d heard often enough by then to guess it was a slang term for a male spear, though she had no idea where such an incredibly lame and dweeby nickname came from. She might have ignored that as well—how little they knew!—but then the other Marine suggested that maybe since griffons were half-feline, they were poorly-endowed to begin with, and thus, Marco’s small stature was perfectly sized to her.

The remark earned another stifled snicker followed by an angry glare from Gilda, who very deliberately let her words trail off and her feathers ruffle hard.

“Decurion…” Fortrakt called to her warily—he’d heard the insult, as had Tribune Narada, who watched Gilda carefully but did not intervene as she proceeded to stalk down the aisle to pin the two Marines with a stare, her wings partially flared in anger.

“Here’s your next lesson in griffon senses and honor, Private Munoz and Lance Corporal Shriver—we may not have visible ears, but as predators, we can hear the barest of whispers in the wind! So look at me right now, all of you—this is what an angry griffon looks like!” She added a trilling growl to her words; she was gratified when she saw their cheeks pale as she bore into their smaller eyes with her narrowed gold ones.

She held her stare for a few seconds more before speaking again, making sure her ire was obvious, and her next words would be driven home. “Let me say right now that the rumors are true—I am with Marco Lakan. Why is none of your crow-damned business, but as you are still ignorant of griffon culture, I will state this once, and one time only:

“To insult the stature or honor of an eagless’s mate is to insult that eagless herself,” she warned not just the pair of Marines, but them all. “We brook insults to neither ourselves nor our partners. Accordingly, you will not slander him again in my presence! So to borrow your own phrase… is that fucking clear?” she snarled at them both.

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” they said as one, which only made her angrier.

“And by all the crows, stop calling me ma’am! I’ve already told you twice that griffon officers are called sir, regardless of gender!”

“Yes, ma’—I-I mean, sir!” they stammered before Gilda pinned them with another stare.

“Under normal circumstances, your apology would not be sufficient. If you two were griffons, you would now be facing a challenge you could not back away from without losing all face and honor. For slandering my mate, I would demand satisfaction in the form of a duel! The terms of the challenge would be a fight to submission, which can mean anything from a simple surrender by bared neck to ending the duel by breaking a limb!”

“Decurion…” Narada’s warning voice rang in her ear.

“Unfortunately, as the Tribune reminds me, I am not allowed to challenge humans, but that doesn’t mean I can’t invite you to help give me a demonstration. So then… would either of you like to volunteer?” she asked them pointedly, to which the pair sat stiff and silent.

“I thought not,” she allowed herself a smile at having cowed them; the feeling of dominance over the human soldiers furling her feathers and wings.

She then smiled as a sudden idea occurred to her. “You know, for the record, Marco Lakan bested Second Spear Gletscher over there in a training spar. He also held off two griffons at once with a single metal stick. So at least I know he can fight, unlike the two of you.” She couldn’t resist tossing forth the insult and was rewarded by a flush on one face along with a clenched jaw on the other.

“Oh, you don’t like that? Well, if you two want to challenge me for insulting your ability, there’s no prohibition against that,” she suggested slyly. “But then again, you really shouldn’t, since I can tell just by looking at you that you couldn’t beat me or satisfy me! After all, to answer your earlier question, I just about promise that ‘Flip-boy’ is far bigger than you both!” She dug her talons in deeper.

“I can vouch for that,” Tara said with a smug grin from where she watched in the back, listening over crossed arms. “I’ve seen him. She’s not lying, boys.”

All eyes then turned on the two Marines Gilda was provoking, whom she saw looked ready to explode. So she fanned the flames further. “But that’s okay. After all, size isn’t everything to a griffon—honor and warrior ability are! But then again, you’re clearly lacking in those as well, as I can already tell that the two of you have neither!” She got in the taller one’s face.

“Okay, enough!” a red-cheeked Lance Corporal Shriver stood up. “You are not comparing me to him! So you want a challenge, griffie girl? You got it!” He smacked a fist into his other palm loudly like she’d seen Tara do.

“Sit down!” Moran ordered sharply. “In case you idiots can’t tell, she’s deliberately provoking you! She knows she can’t challenge you, so she’s trying to get you to challenge her! We are not here to fight griffons!”

“No, you’re here to learn about us,” Gilda replied instantly, her grin growing. “And the first thing you should learn is that if your Marines want our respect, Captain, you have to show that you’re willing and able to fight us!”

“I couldn’t have said it better,” the Tribune agreed. “And better yet, this will provide a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how we conduct duels.”

“I said sit down!” Moran ordered Shriver again. “Sit down, or be on kitchen duty for a week!”

“Too late,” Narada replied with a grin before Gilda could. “Your subordinate issued the challenge, Captain. You could order him to rescind it, of course, but the loss of honor holds. I’ll make sure that all griffons know that you wouldn’t allow your soldiers to so much as answer an insult when we stood up for you over an actual assault. At that point, you will lose all respect, and be seen as unworthy of the troops you lead.”

She then smiled almost sweetly. “I daresay that would reflect very badly on you, Captain Moran. In fact, I daresay that such an order would be seen as so dishonorable that the negotiations could not continue until you were relieved of your post.”

He glared at her. “This is blackmail…”

“This is how we do things. So step forth, Lance Corporal Shriver,” the Tribune invited with a grin; a smug Gilda noticed that Tara’s smile got broader while a glance behind her showed her that Fortrakt had buried his head in a set of talons.

“My pleasure!” Shriver said, deliberately cricking his neck while also shaking out his limbs a bit to loosen them. “Don’t worry, Captain. I’ll show her what a real man is!” An improvised duel circle was then cleared for the pair.

Gilda’s grin got wider even as she lowered her head. “Well, ‘real man’, I would normally say that Marco Lakan should answer that insult himself, but as he is not here, I will stand in his stead! So the first question we must settle is—what are the terms of the duel?”


“What is the manner of combat, what is the stopping point, and what do you wish from her if you win?” Narada clarified. “You can demand a duel with blades or bare talons. You can order both sides to strip their armor and fight with bodies alone. And in victory, you can ask for just about anything—within reason. Just be careful not to demand something too dishonorable or degrading, or you might earn a second duel with potentially lethal terms later. We’ll cover those next.”

“Oh, okay! In that case, let’s go hand-to-hand, all armor off! Duel is to knockout or surrender! All I want is to try fighting one of those ‘mating rounds’ with you! If I win, I’ll show you what a real man is!” he claimed again to a mixture of groans and cheers.

Though her feathers ruffled and tail lashed, Gilda caught Tara’s gaze for a moment, who rolled her eyes hard before giving her a sharp nod, followed by a very evil grin—a grin she shortly shared. “Very well, Lance Corporal Shriver. Before we can duel, I must accept your terms, and I do! But in return, if you lose, you will publicly apologize to Marco, and myself.”

He stared at her. “That’s it?”

“That’s it. I could make it more humiliating, but I want this to be a lesson, not a cause for revenge! There are, however, a few more formalities that must be observed first. So if you would, Tribune?” Gilda asked politely with a bared throat in Narada’s direction.

“First, it is important that all duels must be witnessed,” Narada explained as the two faced off on opposite sides of the circle. “To that end, at least two witnesses must be present, with at least one allied with each duel participant. This is to prevent either side from later claiming an illegal assault or refusing to uphold their side of the bargain because they lost. Both the terms and the duel itself must be witnessed. So, who will stand with Lance Corporal Shriver?”

“I will!” Private Munoz offered, standing up. “Show that griffie who’s boss, buddy!”

“Very well. And I will serve as second for the Decurion,” Narada said before Fortrakt or Tara could, earning a surprised and grateful bared neck from Gilda. “Now as per the terms of the duel, remove your armor and all weapons.”

“Fine by me!” Shriver announced as he stripped off his uniform shirt and utility belt to bare his broad chest, flexing it for show as Gilda swiftly removed her armor—she was amazed at how naked she felt without it now; she’d been a soldier for so long!—then watched as the large human male took an almost four-legged ready stance at the edge of the circle with a single set of talons flexed hard against the ground, like he was going to push off it.

He gazed upon her almost lasciviously and grinned. “For the record, I was a linebacker in High School, griffie. If I can take down a running back, I can certainly take you down!””

“You can try.” Though Gilda had no idea what a ‘running back’ was, she grinned back and took her own combat stance, lowering her forequarters and flaring her wings for flight—not that she could fly in the room, but she could use her wings for balance and rapid shifts of stance. “Very well. All that remains now is to call the start of the duel and remind you of the duel terms—to knockout or surrender! And know that if you wish to surrender, simply bare your throat, Lance Corporal.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” he promised as Moran saw the proceedings unfold in impotent anger while Tara came near the edge of the duel circle to watch closer, her arms crossed and smile one of lazy anticipation. “Now let’s go!”

“Very well. As I am the Decurion’s second, we need a neutral party to officiate. Would you do the honors, Second Spear?”

Fortrakt looked less than happy about the request and the direction things had taken, but he obeyed nonetheless. “Yes, Tribune. As I am officiating, I am required to remind all parties that this duel is to knockout or surrender only—that exceeding these terms results in duel forfeit and being dragged before a magistrate on illegal assault charges which may result in weeks of imprisonment or hard labor in the mines! Do both sides understand?” he gave the ritual question, to which Gilda nodded while Shriver just sneered a smile.

Fortrakt then closed his eyes, seemingly offering up a prayer to the Ancestors, perhaps that this wouldn’t go as badly as he feared. “Then on my signal… combatants! Fight!” he made a slashing motion with talons vertically between them, then stepped back out of the way as Shriver sprang at her not unlike a pouncing cat, charging her at a low crouch like a Minotaur.

But if he was going to act like an attacking Minotaur—which despite whatever delusions the human Marine had, he was nowhere near as big or strong as—then she would simply treat him like one. With a single sudden lateral thrust of her wings, she sidestepped him and then attacked his ankles, knocking the nearest one sideways in midstride, and the Marine instantly off-balance with it.

She then grabbed his flailing hind leg in one smooth motion and yanked it towards her, sending him sprawling; he wasn’t able to recover his balance or raise a guard before Gilda was on him, slamming him hard to the ground; her talons clenching his biceps and beak poised to rip out his throat. “Surrender,” she ordered with a trilling growl, but he tried to struggle against her instead even though her position was dominant—not even the fighters from Warrior could escape her now!

“Suit yourself.” She then head-butted him hard, leaving him unconscious on the floor before she got up off him. “The duel is mine! Unless anycreature now present objects?” she asked them all with a smirk. When no answer was received, the Tribune continued for her.

“As he failed to surrender, he was knocked out, and thus, the Decurion declares herself the victor. When he wakes up, the Lance Corporal will be required to fulfill the duel terms he agreed to,” Narada explained as Shriver was carried by two Marines to the infirmary, a bruise quickly forming on his forehead. “And my commendations, Decurion. It would seem you learned your lessons at the Gauntlet about dealing with angry Minotaurs well…”

Three classes—and two more mock duels—later, every seminar for the day had been given. There were still more classes scheduled for the off-site Marines, and even one for Ambassador Goldberg’s staff, but Gilda increasingly expected that after the additional confrontations with the Marines and Captain Moran during the first seminar, she wouldn’t be giving them.

In fairness, the other duels had been friendly, and she’d even been on the losing end of one when she found herself rolled up on her side in seconds by a powerful and well-practiced Sergeant Reyes, with her wing pinned and her neck caught in a headlock. Unable to break free, breathe or bare her throat, she’d been forced to ‘tap out’ as humans did, patting his forearm repeatedly with her talons.

The Sergeant’s victory had earned him a series of whooping cheers, leaving Gilda marveling at both how good he was and how well Giraldi must have trained him to beat her so easily. Sorely impressed, she’d bared her throat to him after, explaining again that she would then have to abide by any terms of the duel, whether it was a bet of gems, duties, or a simple apology.

“Soldiers are allowed to challenge their superiors for their rank in the Kingdom’s military.” She’d even answered the question from one of the lower-ranked Marines. “But only your immediate superior, as any higher would mean you assume a rank and duties you are not qualified for.“

“And even if you win the challenge, you must take additional training to ensure you can carry out your new duties,” Fortrakt added from the side. “I could not, for example, challenge the Decurion for her rank, given she’s two ranks above me.”

“That said, you could still challenge a much higher superior to, say, demand a transfer or satisfaction for a personal affront.” Narada then added with a nod, followed by an increasingly sly grin. “But that is highly inadvisable as a rule. As to why… step forth, Sergeant Reyes.”

She then entered the improvised duel ring herself. “No challenge necessary, as this is simply a friendly spar. I understand you can now not only best the Decurion, but First Spear Giraldi himself? Then let us see how good you have gotten! No blood shall be drawn; we fight to submission only.” She donned Fortrakt’s gloves before settling into a combat crouch.

“Sir, yes sir!” Though surprised, Reyes smiled and took his ready stance again while Fortrakt called the start of the duel, saying he would act as the Sergeant’s second while Gilda did the same for the Tribune.

At the downward swipe of his claws, Narada struck swiftly, using her flared wings to add speed to her pounce. But Reyes successfully pivoted to deflect her initial rush, then dodged or parried two subsequent talon swipes before he was off-balance enough that the Tribune was able to spin and sweep his rear leg from behind with a wide arc of her wing.

Her surprise strike knocked the Sergeant’s underpinnings out and made him fall flat on his back, giving him no chance to recover before he found Narada atop him, pinning him from above with one set of gloved talons on his chest and another poised at his neck.

The room fell silent at the swift defeat. Well-versed in griffon sparring and duel rituals from his time with Giraldi, a shocked Reyes quickly bared his throat, causing the Tribune to instantly release him.

“As we advance in rank through duel and combat, griffon commanders are generally very good at fighting,” she said dryly as the Marines stared at her warily, “And we do not take kindly to having our honor or ability slandered. That said, very well done parrying my initial blows, Sergeant,” she complimented him as she helped him back up with a clasp of his arm through her glove. “The First Spear has taught you well.”

“Thanks, sir. But I guess I still have a ways to go,” he said somewhat ruefully as he stood up and saluted her.

She smiled as she returned the honor. “There is no shame in your defeat, Sergeant, as you lasted longer than most griffons could against me. The point I am making is that when it comes to duels, do be mindful not to bite off more than your beaks can eat,” she then addressed the other Marines.

“Had your Sergeant been an actual subordinate, or even one of equal rank who had insulted me or those under me, I would have been far less gentle and likely wounded the offender to make sure the defeat was felt fully.” She looked pointedly at Moran, whose eyes narrowed and lips tightened.

She’s goading him, Gilda knew, though she kept the grin from her beak, wondering if there was yet a point that the human commander would issue the challenge to keep from losing face in front of his soldiers.

The final seminar ended ten minutes after that, with Moran departing first as his soldiers stood to attention without another word. Once he was gone, the other Marines went up to Reyes; several even hitting him on his shoulders hard enough to almost cause him to fall.

As difficult as it was to believe, it became clear that it was a complimentary gesture instead of an insult or outright assault on a sensitive area. Tribune Narada also received respect as well, with several Marines asking if she truly wished to fight the Captain.

“That’s up to him,” she answered shortly, but accepted the acclaim anyway. She might have stayed longer, but as she was then informed that Ambassador Goldberg was now available, Narada departed to speak with him immediately. She then ordered Gilda and Fortrakt to stay outside the Inn until summoned, giving them a communication crystal.

“I suggest you clear your head with a walk and flight, Decurion,” the Tribune advised before departing for her meeting. “If you’re called to testify, I want your wits sharp and your temper held in check. If there is to be a challenge issued to their Captain over his conduct, I will issue it,” she further warned, to which Gilda fervently hoped she’d at least be allowed to watch.

Though internally grumbling over having to leave—she’d been wanting to speak to Tara if nothing else—she obeyed, leaving the Inn with Fortrakt to take a long but lazy flight. While approaching the entrance of the Western Gates, they began to chat more about the day’s events.

“Have to say, the humans have some weird ideas about what makes a proper duel—even Marco,” Fortrakt mused at some length. “While we were sparring, it took him a while to realize the knife was planted. I expected him to go for it, but not to kick sand in my face as an initial attack.” He screwed up his features slightly, blinking his eyes rapidly at the memory.

“Me neither, but it was a good tactic. Though I don’t think he realized at first that the knife was there to be used,” Gilda replied with a smile as she thought of her human lover, before it dropped again at the knowledge that she might be about to lose him. “He said afterwards that he thought using it was cheating. So I imagine he’d been thinking of going for it but didn’t until he decided he had no other way to beat you. In his own slightly dweeby way, he was trying to be honorable.”

“Then between that and their Captain, they’ve got very strange concepts of honor.” Gilda was gratified to see that Fortrakt was just as put off as her by the Captain’s conduct. “And I’m starting to think Marco wasted his time learning those martial arts of his.”

Gilda shook her head as they continued to walk. “From what he said to you, he trained much more on weapons than striking or grappling arts. Give him that baton, and I don’t doubt he’d hold you off easily. But the thing is, Marco’s not fully trained for competition or warfare like us or Sergeant Reyes. He did it to keep fit and to be able to defend himself against untrained adversaries.” But now he’s training so he can be with me as a griffon can… the thought brought a smile to her face anew.

“Yes! And see, that’s the other thing!” Fortrakt exclaimed as they reached the crenel. “Their self-defense rules! I mean, the Captain tried to stop his subordinates from responding to your insults? Tara even told me once that the first rule in their society is to avoid confrontation, run when you can, and only fight when cornered! What kind of backwards thinking is that?” he huffed. “The best way to defend yourself is to put down your enemy immediately! We’ve seen humans kick rear in their movies! So why can’t their self-defense rules be like that?”

“Like in Warrior, you mean?” Gilda guessed as they waited in line for their turn to take flight.


Gilda chuckled. “Even there, fighting was frowned upon outside of special settings by both Brendon’s workplace and wife. Kinda like Equestrian ponies, really.”

“Well, they’re not on the human world! They should really let themselves loose more often. I enjoyed sparring with Marco! So if their Marines want to challenge us, I say let them!”

Gilda looked at her partner for a moment before smirking. “Enjoyed it, eh? So my partner is having fun doing Rounds with a male human?” She teased him for the first time in weeks.

Fortrakt blinked hard. “Wait, what?”

“Not that I blame you if you were a bit jealous that I’m taking a lot of Marco’s time.” Gilda chuckled, amazed she could make jokes. “I just wonder how Talon Decanus Trali will react when she finds out that the tiercel she has been having Rounds with is doing the same thing with a male human.”

“Wha…? That wasn’t a Round!” a flushed Fortrakt exclaimed. “And at the time, I didn’t even know you two were together!”

“Nice touch with the gift giving, too,” Gilda continued despite his denial, her grin growing. “So are we going to hear plans for an Engagement soon? Just be warned, you might have to fight me for the right!”

“It was just a knife, not a—” He got cut off by Gilda’s snort and laugh, eliciting an annoyed trill. “Oh, piss off and go suck Marco’s spear,” he finished grumpily.

“I already have.” Gilda continued chuckling until they passed through the Western Gates, offering the guards a signal. Given the all-clear to fly, Fortrakt and Gilda arched their backs and launched themselves into the air, wings spread out. In rhythm, both sky griffons flapped their feathered appendages fast and hard, passing through the fourth level and going even higher until they reached the fifth. “Twice, now. Or is that why you’re jealous?”

“Decurion!” he shouted in pure outrage, turning redder than she’d ever seen before. But she only laughed and darted away from him as he proceeded to give chase, coming up with some impressive insults while swearing various elaborate and imaginative forms of vengeance when he caught her.

The chase lasted nearly twenty minutes, giving each a good workout and allowing them to burn off much of their tension. Still not receiving word from the Tribune, they had ended up finding a private table in a Caleponian-run pub at the base of the city and talking over some pony-style snacks and cider.

Deciding he deserved to know the full story, she told him how things had happened with Marco—“by all the Ancestors, he truly did honor you! So how could you not honor him in turn?” he agreed in amazement—while finally feeling more at ease, Fortrakt told her in turn what had happened during his talk with Chris and Tara, saying that after explaining what he remembered, he’d had to leave out of awkwardness when all three of them started getting turned on.

“Even if they couldn’t recall it, they sensed it,” he confided to her over a mug of soft Caleponian cider—not hard, because she wasn’t about to show up before the Tribune and Captain with alcohol on her breath. “I got excited. Then they got excited! Things were happening quickly, and I was afraid that if I didn’t leave…”

The rest went unspoken as he shivered and took a deep breath before continuing, shifting slightly to press himself tighter against the table. “Maybe you and Marco were ready for that, Decurion. But by all the Crows and our most sacred Ancestors, we weren’t,” he said as he nursed his drink and picked at a small platter of grapes, scones and cheese cubes they’d ordered to stall their hunger and master their nerves.

“A wise decision,” Gilda agreed as she speared a grape with a talon, recalling what had happened to her when she’d tried to force an encounter with an eagless back in Nova Ocelota. “You did the right thing. But for what it’s worth, cub, I actually envy you.”

He looked up incredulously. “You do?”

“Yes,” she said as she popped the grape in her mouth and then dipped her beak in her cider bowl. “You at least remember a little of what happened with them. I still don’t remember anything about Tara or Marco from that night…” she said forlornly, to which Fortrakt could only offer a wan smile.

An hour passed. Then two. But still they were not summoned. The sun was nearly down and they were getting hungry for something more than snacks, but it wasn’t until dusk when the communication crystal glowed and vibrated in Gilda’s pouch, signaling them to return to the Inn.

Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, Sergeant Reyes was waiting out front for them along with Staff Sergeant Stafford; their expressions grim, flanked by four fully armed Marines guarding the entrance.

“Thanks for coming back. Unfortunately, we have orders to not let you in,” Stafford said apologetically. “I’m sorry, Decurion. We tried our best, but the Captain wasn’t budging. And in the end, neither was the Ambassador.”

“That doesn’t sound like good news,” Fortrakt said warily as Gilda held her breath.

“I wish to God it was, buddy,” Reyes replied, his voice grim. “We just got word. By order of Ambassador Goldberg, you two are hereby barred entry to the Inn and are forbidden further contact with our civilians and Marines except on explicit orders of the Captain. Worse, Marco’s being expelled from the diplomatic mission on the grounds of being a severe security risk.

“I’m truly sorry to tell you this, Decurion, but he’s being kept under house arrest and will be sent home as soon as it can be arranged…”

17: Best Laid Plans

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“I’m sorry, Decurion. We tried our best, but the Captain wasn’t budging. And in the end, neither was the Ambassador,” Staff Sergeant Stafford informed them, standing before her and staring straight ahead like he was delivering tidings of a family member’s death.

“That doesn’t sound like good news,” Fortrakt said warily as Gilda held her breath, feeling suddenly faint as she sensed her worst fears were about to be realized.

“I wish to God it was, buddy,” Reyes replied, his voice grim. “We just got word. By order of Ambassador Goldberg, you two are hereby barred entry to the Inn and are forbidden further contact with our civilians and Marines except on explicit orders of the Captain. Worse, Marco’s being expelled from the diplomatic mission on the grounds of being a severe security risk,” he finished, closing his eyes tightly for a moment.

“I’m truly sorry to tell you this, Decurion, but he’s being kept under house arrest and will be sent home as soon as it can be arranged… which is likely tomorrow.”

For a moment, Gilda couldn’t move or speak; her legs going shaky. It had been expected, and perhaps even likely. And yet, now that she was faced with the reality of it, she felt the impending loss keenly.

“I’m sorry, Decurion. If it was our call, none of this would be happening,” Reyes offered. “We all tried to dissuade him; the Staff Sergeant here got a severe reprimand with threat of demotion, and I got my tail reamed, too, for getting ‘too close’ to you. He’s also forbidden me from training further with Giraldi or any other griffons, believing the Council of Crows is trying to use our bouts to learn more about human weaknesses.”

“In other words, he’s completely fucking paranoid,” one of the sentries muttered, earning a sharp glare from the Staff Sergeant. “Well, he is! Look, Decurion—we liked you and Gletscher there. We liked Marco too. And yeah, we all know about you and him now. For most of us, we think it’s weird, but kind of cool, too—especially after the seminars today and learning what it takes to win a griffon. We don’t hold it against him, and we sure as hell don’t think for a second that he was divulging stuff to you for sex,” he said in disgust.

“Unfortunately, the Captain does,” the Staff Sergeant decided not to reprimand him for speaking ill of his commander. “When the Tribune told him that he didn’t have to worry about Marco spilling secrets because they already knew what our weapons were—‘miniature cannons’ in her own words—he was sure that the only way you could have learned that was if Marco told you or showed you something he shouldn’t have. That cinched it. He demanded Marco be expelled on the spot, and Goldberg happily granted the request.”

“Crows take it…” was all Gilda could say as Fortrakt draped a wing over her back, wanting to both kill and cry over the unfairness of it. She couldn’t even feel any satisfaction that the Captain’s reaction confirmed her guesses about the human weapons to be true, or the promised rewards it would gain her.

For the only reward she wanted was being denied her.

For the only thing she wanted was now being wrested from her, perhaps never to return.

Ancestors above, you give me Marco Lakan, but then you just as quickly TAKE him from me? She wondered who she had dishonored in a previous life to earn such an awful punishment.

“It didn’t end there. The Tribune then challenged the Captain to a duel for his command and your continued posting, but he told her to piss off, saying he wasn’t bound by griffon customs and that from here on out, he alone would control interaction between our troops and civilians.

“She’s furious and threatening to go to your Queen over this, but for now, she offers her sympathies. She also grants you and the Second Spear an evening’s leave.” Stafford then passed her an order written in the Tribune’s script and marked with her command seal. “She says to return to the barracks tomorrow morning to meet her when you’re ready, and in the meantime, to do nothing that would dishonor yourself or the Kingdom going forward.”

When Gilda made no move to accept the order, her gaze locked downward and beak quivering, Fortrakt stepped forward to accept it. “Thank you for your kindness and understanding, Sergeant Reyes and Staff Sergeant Stafford. Will you please offer our apologies and well-wishes to Christopher McLain and Tara Fields?” He bared his throat towards them.

“I’ll do that, buddy,” Reyes promised with a nod. “Tara would be here too, except Moran told her that if she left the Inn, she wouldn’t be allowed back in and would have nowhere to go. She’s furious and he’s being completely fucking ridiculous at this point, but for now, the Captain is still in command. And at the moment, all we can offer you is this.”

As one, the six Marines came to attention and saluted them crisply. “It’s been an honor and a privilege, Decurion Behertz and Second Spear Gletscher. Know that you have our friendship and respect, even if you don’t have the Captain’s,” Reyes spoke on behalf of them all.

Gilda mustered just enough focus to return the gesture before her head fell again and she allowed Fortrakt to lead her away. “Come on, Decurion,” he told her gently, tugging her along. “Let’s go back to the pub, and have something a little stronger this time…”

Gilda barely remembered the flight over, or reentering the pub.

She was only dimly cognizant of being sat down or Fortrakt telling her the drinks were on him, asking for bowls of hot mulled cider and soft, freshly baked bread with a cauldron of melted cheese that could warm them inside and out—comfort food both griffons and ponies could share. They were getting some odd looks from the Caleponian patrons, and even a couple griffon Peacekeepers who were having drinks there, but they ignored them.

“This is good stuff, but remember Chris’s fried chicken?” Fortrakt recalled as they were served, leaving Gilda guessing he was trying to get her to talk. “By the Ancestors, that was so tasty! They could easily sell that here. Marco’s latest stew would do well, too. And Tara said they had a slew of exotic alcohols she knew how to turn into some really interesting brews.” He turned wistful, taking his first drink from his bowl. “Would have loved to have tried them. But maybe we’ll still get the chance? She’s staying, after all.”

“And I’m glad,” Gilda said dully, pulling her mulled cider closer and staring into its steaming contents. The smell of spice was strong, as was the alcohol within it—the Caleponians used a stronger brew for their Kingdom-acquired tastes. “I mean it, I am. But right now…” Instead of dipping her beak, she tipped the bowl back and simply poured it into her mouth, drinking half of it in one draw.

“I know.” He reached across the table to grasp her talons and guide them to a piece of warm bread. “Eat, Decurion. For as much as Marco loved making food, he wouldn’t want you to be hungry over him.”

She gave a sad smile, but obeyed, tearing off a small piece and distractedly dipping it into the cheese bowl. “He was so much more than he seemed…” was all Gilda could think to say as she recalled her reaction to seeing the brown-skinned human on his very first day there. “At first, I thought he was just a coward and a pervert. How little I knew.” She buried her head in her talons.

“How little we all knew,” Fortrakt ruefully agreed. “Guess first impressions aren’t everything and the ponies are right—you can’t ‘judge a scroll by its header.’ You want to know the funny thing, though? I told you that nothing happened between me, Chris and Tara last night because we weren’t ready for it. But now…?”

He exhaled slowly and squeezed his eyes shut in deep regret. “But now, if that was going to be our only chance to rut again and remember it, I wish we had. And for taking that chance and getting to be with Marco willingly, I now envy you.

Due to curiosity or simple despondency, she decided she had to ask: “Rut again? With both of them?”

He hesitated but answered. “Yes,” he admitted, either out of a sense of honor or the alcohol starting to seep into his system. “I don’t know why, and I never thought of myself as a tiercel tucker, but the idea…” He shivered again as his cheeks took on a more rosy hue before he shook his head sharply and sidled himself slightly more to the inside of the table. “Guess it just goes to show that some opportunities should be taken, because they may never come again.”

“Or maybe it’s just better not to take them, if it only makes things worse afterwards,” Gilda answered dully, surprised she was feeling far more numb than angry at that moment, emotionally spent after the events of the past day. “By all the crows, what was I thinking, believing that everything would work out…?”

“You were thinking that he had honored you and earned you,” Fortrakt reminded her gently as he ate a fresh piece of cheese-dipped bread followed by another swallow from his bowl. “That human or not, he had proven himself a worthy friend, lover and mate. And don’t blame yourself for what happened after. You couldn’t have foreseen Moran turning on us like that. Even his Marines are mad at him now.”

“For all the good that does,” she groused. “Dishonorable, paranoid, boar-headed…” She couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to make him that way, but at that moment, she did not care. “It’s over, Fortrakt. I’ve lost my post and my mate. So what do I do now?” she asked forlornly.

“Let’s worry about that tomorrow,” he said gently, even chancing a brotherly squeeze of her talons she would have sharply reprimanded him for a month before, if not tried to break them for touching her like that depending on her mood. “I’m sure the Tribune will have some answers. But after a couple more bowls of this, we won’t be in any shape to fly back to the barracks, so let’s just sleep here tonight. We’ll get a room upstairs, and I’ll watch over you, okay?”

“Spending the night together in an Inn might be seen as a breach of fraternization rules, Second Spear,” she reminded him as she felt her cheeks warm as the cider soaked into her.

“With all due respect to both you and our human friends: Fuck the rules,” he said with a smile at what she could only assume was his first use of the phrase. “Have to admit, that’s one curseword of theirs I really like…”

She couldn’t help but smile at him, even finding herself with an urge to stifle a snicker. “Look at you, cub. You have your first eagless and a couple humans, and then you start acting all mature.”

“Well, somegriffon has to,” he replied with a wry smile, speaking far less huffily than he had when she had used that line on him following her first-night attack on Marco. “You’d do the same for me. So come on, Decurion. Eat and drink up. Drown your sorrows as much as you like. And know that I’ll be there if you need me…”

Gilda slept fitfully that night, despite Fortrakt’s company.

Nothing happened between them, nor did she think there was a danger of it, though he held her like a sire would a cub having nightmares a couple times in the night, leaving her grateful for his presence. Her dreams were indeed haunted by Marco and Moran; the former involved fantasies of keeping and being with him and the latter, of challenging and even killing him, though he kept rising from the ashes like a phoenix to take Marco away.

And in the background of all her dreams was an ominous shadow; like a growing threat stalking steadily closer. It blotted the sky and set the horizon afire; its flames starting to creep near until they were in danger of consuming all Arnau. She saw them but barely noticed or cared until they were licking at her talons, and this time, it was the shadow itself that reached for Marco, trying to take him away from her.

She took flight, attempting to reach him, but no matter how fast she flew or how desperately she beat her wings, he was pulled further back until she found herself face to face with her true enemy; a demon of darkness against whom there was no defeat or defense. She shrieked like a cub as its tendrils coiled around her and separated her from Marco for the final time; the entire Kingdom aflame around her.

“Gilda!” Marco called, reaching futilely for her as the shadows consumed them both. “Gilda! Gilda!”

And then abruptly, the voice’s owner changed. “Gilda! Gilda!” She awoke with a start to realize Fortrakt was calling to her repeatedly, shaking her hard. “You were having another nightmare.”

She blinked, realizing her wings were splayed for flight and her crestfeathers were standing on end as she continued to pant rapidly out her open beak. “F-Fortrakt…?”

“I’m here,” he promised her, holding her tightly like the big brother she’d never known. “I’m here, and I swear by all our Ancestors that I’m not going anywhere. By the crows, you were thrashing about like you were caught in a snare! That must have been a bad one.”

“You have no idea…” She shivered at the memory, taking what comfort she could from his warmth and presence. “By the crows, that was awful… have you gotten any sleep at all?”

“Not much. But it’s fine,” he promised her. “I had some bad dreams too. But also some good ones of Chris and Tara,” he confided. “They helped.”

“And I had some good dreams of Marco…” she conceded in turn, including a particularly powerful one in the middle of the night where he’d bested her in a round and she’d finally allowed him to properly rut her; she swore she could still feel his human paws groping her and eager thrusts into her as well as the enormous pleasure it brought. She used the potent memory to try to drive the still-powerful fears of her nightmare away, wondering if Princess Luna attended the dreams of griffons as well as ponies.

Well, if she does, she’s sleeping on the job! “Thanks for being here tonight, Second Spear.” Her heart rate and fear-splayed wings were starting to settle back down as she patted his foreleg with her talons. “You were right; it would have been very bad for me to be alone.”

“Well, one of us had to be an adult,” he reminded her with a chuckle, still holding her. “It was no problem. Looks like the sun’s coming up, so we should be getting up. The Tribune said to meet her later this morning. We’ve still got time, so do you want some breakfast?”

“Maybe later. Right now, I just want some water…” She was starting to feel the beginnings of what she guessed was a hangover-caused headache exacerbated by her restless sleep.

“Coming up.” Rising, Fortrakt poured her a bowl from the sink, letting her quench her thirst and water her cider-dried throat before he did the same for himself.

Leaving their armor behind for a bit—Gilda found she needed to not be a soldier just then, if only for an hour—they then went downstairs and ordered a breakfast of eggs, melon and muffins, washing it down with a Caleponian coffee brew they sweetened too much, even for her.

Though the meal was certainly filling, and the coffee woke her up fully, it still didn’t feel complete to her. It left Gilda wishing they could also have a few strips of the deliciously crispy and fatty flying boar ‘bacon’ the humans had introduced them to, wondering in turn if she would ever be able to enjoy human food again for being reminded of Marco.

Or human company…

They lingered over their meal for a bit, eating and chatting about their next steps and how they would present themselves when they showed back up at the Tribune’s office.

“We’re soldiers of the Kingdom, and by the Crows, we will act like it,” she ultimately decided, resolving not to show up moping. She’d had her night of grief, and though the pain of losing Marco was still very real, she vowed she would not allow Moran’s actions to break her spirit or desire to carry out her duty any more than the Ibex had.

That just like with the Ibex, she would allow him no victory over her, simply by remaining an honorable and earnest soldier.

Feeling at least somewhat better, and still having an hour before they were due, she and Fortrakt took time to bathe in the room’s small shower and put themselves to rights, preening their feathers and even putting some shine on their armor before exiting into the bright morning light. To her surprise, the sun cast an oddly orange or even red hue over Arnau like there was a pall in the air.

“Huh. Must be a wildfire in the mountains,” Fortrakt guessed as he looked up, though they couldn’t yet smell any smoke. “No big deal. They’ll probably just call in a Magus team with ice spells to deal with it. Or maybe one of our rented pegasus weather teams will extinguish it.”

“Maybe.” She might have given it more notice except her thoughts were decidedly elsewhere at that moment, allowing Fortrakt to take the lead in clearing their approach to the fifth level with the sentries. At one point she started to bank hard to go back to the Inn, only to remember with fresh pain what had happened, feeling the pit form in her stomach anew.

But she shook it off, reminding herself again that she would not spiral into depression or despondency over Marco.

That she was a soldier in service to the Kingdom, and she would show no weakness to the Tribune.

* * * * *

Five minutes after landing on the fifth-level crenel, they stood at crisp attention before Tribune Narada and Ambassador Strenus in the former’s office again.

Their appearance and bearing was noted with appreciation by the Tribune, who inspected them briefly before nodding her satisfaction. “Welcome back. And let me begin by saying that I’m truly sorry for the circumstances, Decurion,” Narada apologized to her with a bared throat as Gilda stood at stiff attention, doing her best to remain impassive.

“Know that both Ambassador Strenus and I tried to convince them to let you and Marco Lakan stay, and know that many of the human soldiers also spoke up on your behalf, including Staff Sergeant Stafford and even First Lieutenant Nantz, who addressed the Ambassador remotely from their outside camp. But in the end, Captain Moran simply would not listen, and appeals to neither reason nor honor worked,” she announced through narrowed eyes.

“I challenged him to a duel, but he declined, telling me in rather blunt terms that he would not answer to me or anygriffon else for doing his job. I even told him that we had guessed the nature of their weapons, but that only convinced him that Marco Lakan had been the one to tell us. He then insulted us again by proclaiming we could not have figured it out on our own, even though his subordinates told him that we were certainly smart enough to do so,” she finished in renewed anger.

“At least your theory was confirmed as correct by their reactions. Their black tubes are cannons, and the metal blocks beneath them their quivers,” Strenus pointed out. “For that insight alone, you have earned the gratitude of the Queen and the Kingdom, as I imagine our Arcane Labs and armories are going to be quite busy digging out and improving our old prototypes for the next few years—if we cannot convince the humans to trade us some of theirs, that is.”

“And will they?” Fortrakt asked.

“Admittedly, it seems unlikely. They have already told us that they will not, under any circumstances, sell their weapons to Tellusian nations, but they are checking with their government to see if they can accommodate a request for a demonstration as a precondition for a trade agreement. It will be some days before we get a reply back, but regardless, the credit for this discovery is yours, Decurion, and due credit will be given for the insights the Second Spear offered as well. You will both be rewarded for this.”

“Thank you, sir,” she and Fortrakt said automatically, but without any emotion. Just a day earlier, she would have been delighted, but now…?

Strenus and Narada glanced at each other, reading their unhappy moods. “I understand you two are still hurting, but perhaps I can cheer you up. For your rewards start now.” With a smile, she reached under her desk and then brought out several additional upgraded armor pieces for both of them, along with new rank insignias.

This time, the ensemble put before Fortrakt showed the improved vest, second steel pauldron and metal vambraces of a Decurion, while the set put in front of Gilda contained a sturdier helm, broader pauldrons that also covered most of her upper forelegs, and even a new leather vest equipped with a flexible metal band at the neck to protect her throat.

Gilda barely had time to register what was happening before the Tribune stood to attention, saying a ritual phrase to them as her aides stepped forth to present the new pieces in their beaks.

“Stand proud, Gryphons of the Kingdom! And reap the rewards of your service, Decurion Fortrakt Gletscher and Centurion Grizelda Behertz!

“Ancestors above…” Fortrakt looked on the verge of fainting as Gilda was no less stunned. For they were both receiving a second two-rank promotion? In less than a month? “But… why?” he had to ask.

“For the wealth of information you have brought us, for the respect you have gained from human civilians and soldiers alike, and for solving the mystery of their armaments, these new ranks are well-earned,” Strenus said with a smile. “And before you ask about sponsorship, you were given the highest possible. At my direct request, this was ordered by the Queen herself.”

“But sir…” Fortrakt seemed to be having trouble speaking as he accepted the new pauldrons, staring at their single-feather insignia in wonder. “With respect, I’ve barely commanded three soldiers before this, let alone thirty!” He knew immediately what his new rank entitled him to do.

“Indeed,” Strenus said with a sly grin. “Which means you two will need to be given new duties and training in support of your new ranks. I am truly sorry you cannot see your previous assignment through to completion, but perhaps this will make up for it? Though it would seem you both will have one final duty in support of that assignment.” His grin suddenly got broader.

Gilda and Fortrakt looked at each other. “We do?” The former finally found her voice.

“You do indeed.” Gilda instantly picked out the coy note in Tribune Narada’s words. “You will be personally escorting Marco Lakan’s air coach to the coast with a single Turma, accompanied by a decade of Paladins. The human leadership wants him to leave immediately, escorted by a detachment of their troops and even an aide of the Ambassador to ensure no escape is attempted or information is divulged.“ She rolled her eyes.

“Paladins?” Fortrakt repeated dumbly as Gilda had trouble processing what she was hearing. “Not Knights?”

“Excepting the required presence of a Magus pair, no. And the reason is very simple: Though we will tell the humans that the presence of Paladins is to honor and protect their diplomats, the real reason is that your diplomatic command chain gives you the ability to lead them, and thus, the entire mission. And so you will, Centurion.” Narada’s grin was growing broader. “You will escort them to Catlais, where they will be met by a chartered Equestrian airship.”

“But due to short notice and logistical issues, that airship will not arrive for three days. This will, of course, mean you will have to stay with Marco Lakan in Catlais for the duration,” Strenus added with a wink. “This in turn means that his safety, security and comfort will be your responsibility, Centurion. And to that end, we have arranged lodging for you, Mister Lakan, and all the escorting troops in Catlais,” he explained as Gilda felt increasingly faint.

Narada picked it up again from there. “But sadly, due to the same short notice, there was no space available at the local Auxilia barracks; nor could we reserve enough rooms at the airship field Inns, which were already near capacity. This means that you and Marco Lakan will simply have to share a room.” Narada sighed in mock sorrow as Gilda’s heart leapt. “I trust that you will not be too inconvenienced?”

For the second time in the space of a day, Gilda had to choke back an uncharacteristic urge to cry. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you both.” She bared her throat harder than she ever had before. “By my most revered Ancestors, I won’t ever forget this kindness.”

“You’re very welcome, Centurion. And before you ask, First Spear Giraldi has already discussed the matter informally with their outside Marines. They are no more happy about the Captain and Ambassador’s actions than we are, and though they are not willing to disobey their orders, they are willing to look the other way and simply not report certain things.

“If you don’t believe me, you can ask him yourself. Isn’t that right… Optio Giraldi?” she called behind them as they both heard the door open.

“It is indeed,” Giraldi’s jovial voice answered in some mirth as he entered and stepped between them both, saluting the Tribune hard with a thump against his sleek new steel pauldrons. “Greetings, Centurion and Decurion. I offer my sincerest sympathies at being so unjustly removed from your posts, but also my sincerest congratulations on your promotions! They were well-earned.” He saluted Gilda next.

“And greetings to you, Optio!” Fortrakt addressed him in amazement, saluting him for the first time. “But why—”

“His promotion was long overdue as well, as he has served the Kingdom loyally and competently for two decades, asking for little in return. He never had a proper sponsor, and due to his insulting a Paladin noble in his youth, he was held back from an officer rank even despite his combat experience,” she noted as Giraldi simply gave a strangely satisfied smile at the statement, leaving Gilda wondering what the story was there.

“As he has also played a major role in both gathering information and establishing good relationships with the human soldiers by training Sergeant Reyes—it may interest you to know that he, too, has been filing daily reports—I finally had an excuse to ignore said noble and give him a proper rank.

“Accordingly, he will be your new second, Centurion Behertz. Until you are more seasoned in your new responsibilities, I suggest you lean on him heavily as he has already aided Centurions and commanded their forces in combat in his guise of First Spear,” Narada advised.

“That will be a pleasure, sir!” Gilda was dizzy at the rapid turn of events, her mood suddenly soaring. I’ll get to be with Marco again! Alone for at least two DAYS! She went giddy, only to remember--“But after I see him off, what then? Wait until he can return?” But that could be… YEARS!

“I have already written Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, the new ruler of the recently restored Crystal Kingdom,” Strenus answered easily. “She was Equestria’s former Princess of Love, and in that capacity she will attempt to arrange it so Marco Lakan can stay in Equestria while things are sorted out here.

“In time, once proper trade agreements are implemented and immigration arrangements can be finalized, he will be able to return, and in the meantime, I imagine you’ll be taking a few vacations in Equestria?” he suggested with another wink, to which Gilda could only nod eagerly.

Just so long as he doesn’t live in Ponyville! “So what are our orders once he departs?”

“Twofold. Your final act as Diplomatic liaison will be to welcome a new group of humans to Aresia, who will be on the airship Marco Lakan will subsequently depart on—a team of twelve agricultural and ‘geological’ specialists their Ambassador requested without telling us their intention of replacing the existing one.” She frowned again.

“Ambassador Goldberg was apparently plotting to get rid of Mister Lakan, Miss Fields and Mister McLain anyway as soon as this new team arrived. This time, by request of the humans, they are being liaised with by an experienced civilian diplomat instead of military ones. The liaison is Miral Kalishad; a personal friend of mine.

“And with apologies, as your duties will be complete upon your departure from Catlais, you will transfer your diplomatic command chain to him.” Narada gave Gilda a scroll that contained her orders, including her new itinerary.

She scanned it quickly, scarcely able to believe what was happening and the incredible lengths they were going to for her, wondering how she would ever be able to repay it. “Of course, sir. But does he know how to use it?”

“He does indeed. I know Miral. He is a fine griffon who has done everything from escort dignitaries to liaise with pony singers. So believe me when I say that he is more than able to keep confidences,” Ambassador Strenus assured her. “To that end, know that I have made him… aware of you and Marco Lakan, but I promise you can trust him to be discreet. And please do not think of losing your chain as a punishment, Centurion. Your new duties will simply no longer require it.”

“Trust me, at this point, it will be a relief, sir,” she said, baring her throat at him, feeling the weight of the chain anew. “And after that?”

“And after that, you will report to Tribune Rialta of the Catlais Guard garrison to be assigned a full century of troops. Though the coastal cohorts generally see little action aside from the odd Harpie or Diamond Dog raid against isolated ships or settlements, they make excellent training grounds for new commanders. There, you will learn how to properly command a century, and you, Decurion Gletsher, a Turma. Optio Giraldi will help you both learn, and in time, be rewarded with a long-overdue command of his own. Is that satisfactory?” she asked them all with a wry grin.

“More than satisfactory!” Gilda spoke on their behalf as they all came to attention and saluted. “Our orders are understood. Will that be all?” she asked, still feeling shaky; a quick scan of the documents told her that they were due at the rendezvous point for the air coach at noon, with the intention of arriving at the coast by nightfall.

Get there, get settled, and then get two full days with Marco! she thought again eagerly, worried for a moment that the idea alone was going to make her get very obviously and embarrassingly aroused.

“It will. And Behertz…?” Narada called to her. “Know that I would not do this favor for just any griffon. But you have more than earned it. Well done, Centurion.” She then stood back to attention and saluted the newly promoted trio, signaling all her aides and sentries to do the same.

“Stand proud, Gryphons of the Kingdom and Soldiers of the Guard! As this may well be the last time I see you, I wish you the best of luck in your new posts…”

The previous night and morning had been a wild ride of events and emotion for Gilda. And she knew it wasn’t over yet.

Her orders were issued, but getting everything together on short notice was no small task. Their former comrades outside the Inn were stunned anew to see their latest promotions—“So all we have to do is rut some humans to get some new ranks?” a tiercel of her old decade asked jokingly, to which Gilda gave him only a half-hearted glare while Fortrakt and Giraldi just laughed.

Still, she let it pass. If she was going to be commanding the escort flight out, she wanted soldiers they were familiar with, and thus—with the Tribune’s permission—she had gone to their old Turma to collect them. They needed enough sky griffons to both escort and carry the likely trio of air coachs assigned, which would contain a fourteen-human ‘squad’ of Marines plus Marco Lakan and Ambassador Goldberg’s aide, as well as all the earth griffons like Giraldi, who would be inside to provide additional security, and could—in a pinch—provide an emergency escape avenue for the wingless humans.

Let’s see… sixteen humans plus six earth griffons equals… twenty-two, right? That means we need five six-seat or three nine-seat air coaches to carry them all, counting their supplies, she noted, which in turn required no less than four sky griffons harnessed to each for the former, and five for the latter.

As each coach also required two earth griffons inside and she only had the six, Gilda guessed they would be sending her a set of the larger but less comfortable nine-seaters, which was confirmed as a detachment of civilian griffons delivered them empty to the field outside the human encampment—which was little more than several lines of variously-sized tents right out of the movie Warrior—close to noon.

Though not military, they wore vests and flight goggles that bore the insignia of one of the Kingdom’s civil flight companies. They wer