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 a chronicle 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.

By site rules, the original story chapters cannot be reposted to a different account, but for those interested, they have been heavily edited and expanded with new scenes and lore here:

Feathered Heart v2.0 - For Readers

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

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

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 thus 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 Inn’s proprietor, 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 few 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, instead of just tears them all down for reasons both ignorant and stupid.”

“Who does that?” 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 needed 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.

“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 shrugged dismissively. “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 I could shove it down the throats of certain folks 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. “Adjudant 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. “A truly powerful female who accomplished great deeds without a single complaint about being kept down? 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 a raid 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 an incredulous 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 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 twenty times, and it never gets old! You’re going to love this! So just stand 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. 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 looked 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 information 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 assertion as well—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 at the word. “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 and Ambassador 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 rolled her eyes. “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 the same answer on his face as her own, 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 each other again, not as subordinate to superior, but as two soldiers and longtime partners rediscovering their mutual respect.

“It’s Gilda when we’re alone,” she told him, inviting 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 echoed, and then 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, standing before them, 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 just 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 tried to insult 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,” she 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.

While Fortrakt watched the scene and her subsequent declaration unfold, 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. “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 and sweat right through his fur and feathers.

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 again.

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 utter 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 trade agreement, 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!” he exclaimed, earning 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 over crossed arms. “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 despite his counterpart’s declaration.

“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 starting 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 plate with an old dishtowel 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 as well.

“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 smiled back and returned the 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 ruefully, 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 there was a slightly odd gleam in her eye as well. “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 as well. “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 would never have happened, at least not without 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 blue 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, Sergeant First Class 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 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 replied 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 I’m 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 in the heat image, 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 images, 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’m grateful… 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 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 understand your sentiments, but as this appears to be the work of some of their most skilled and dangerous adepts, do yourself a favor and 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 both physically and 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 then 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 happened 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 another day 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…”