A Different Perspective

Long Path, an earth pony living in Canterlot, and his best friend, a griffon named Free Agent, set out in the company of Twilight Sparkle to visit various places and species to look into what makes them different, and hopefully learn how to get along with them better. Things rarely go to plan though, and along the way, they discover things about themselves, and find love, drama, and laughter. Then Chrysalis changes everything, and the fate of the whole world might be at stake. Their lives will never be the same!
This story is set mostly after the events of Conversations in a Canterlot Cafe and builds on the fanon of the series, especially changelings, so you might want to read those stories first for background material.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/246414/a-different-perspective

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10. Chapter 10: Faster Than A Speeding Bullet...

It is said that an army marches on its stomach, and no less could be said for the soldiers and Royal Guards stationed at the portal barracks. Free, Twilight, and the rest of the Harmony Bearers took full advantage of the copious amounts of good food provided for breakfast. While they did so, they also discussed their plans for the day.

“I still say we should check out the barrier border for suspicious activity,” Rainbow Dash said between mouthfuls.

“All that walking for what, darling?” Rarity protested. “That’s the job of the soldiers.”

“Who’ll be walking? I’ll fly around the entire perimeter in no time!”

“Provin’ what, sugah?” Applejack scoffed. “You ain’t gonna see nothin’ movin’ at that speed.”

“And we won’t be splitting up anyway,” Twilight stated emphatically. “The whole point of having us all here is in case the power of Harmony is needed, and without all of us, we can’t wield it.”

“So we gotta sit around here all day? Not cool!” Dash sulked.

Twilight shook her head. “We’ll do exactly what Diamondhard asked us to do – watch out for anything odd in the vicinity, and stay available at a moment’s notice.”

“Boring!”

“I can throw a ‘Defending the Crystal Empire’ party,” Pinkie suggested, getting up from the table to do exactly that.

Applejack grabbed Pinkie’s tail before she could leave. “Later, sugah. Them guards are on duty, and we should be too.”

“Aw!” Pinkie pouted.

“What about you, Free?” Twilight asked. “Want to join us?”

“Maybe later, Twi. I think I’ll poke around a bit; learn the lay of the land; stick my nose into everything; that kind of thing. Can’t tell if something is wrong if I don’t know what’s normal.”

“Okay. Have fun.” She then surprised him with a quick kiss on his cheek in front of everyone.

Free was impressed with how bold Twilight was getting, and a little heartened that there was not anything worse than a headshake of disbelief from Applejack. Fluttershy actually smiled at the sight.

“Catch ya later, girls. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he added with a wink.

Free left the mess hall and had a good look around. The place seemed a lot different in the morning light compared to yesterday evening. It was much clearer now what was where. To his right were the barracks which were located outside of the changeling barrier in order to accommodate the changeling Royal Guards and other hive volunteers. Across from the road were the officers’ and guest quarters where they had all stayed last night. Directly across from him was the supplies and stores building, located right next to the station platform to facilitate the transfer of goods and equipment directly from the train. Lastly was the command post which included the portal facilities. During his wanderings the previous evening, Free had found that the building straddled the border of the barrier roughly three quarters of the way in, so he had not been able to circle it like he had the other buildings. Of course to ordinary ponies, it was as if there was nothing there at all.

Free decided to poke his nose into that. Having been specifically told that he would not be allowed through the barrier, of course he had to try to push his luck. He entered the office and was immediately confronted by a unicorn guardspony.

“What are you doing here, griffon?”

“I just wanted to see the portal set-up.”

“There’s nothing to see, and you should know that already.”

“Just checking the security arrangements – independent observer, you know?”

The Guard looked like he was going to argue, hesitated, and then smirked. “Very well. It’s through there.” He pointed to his left with his hoof to a hallway flanked by two Red Changeling Royal Guards.

“Thanks, pal!” Free wondered if this was going to be too easy as he walked up to the hallway.

The Guards blocked the hallway with their spears, and one said, “Halt, changeling. You are not authorized to pass.”

“Aw come on! Didn’t you just hear the other guy? How can I check out the security arrangements if you won’t let me through?”

“Sir, we are the security arrangements. You have not been authorized to pass through the portal, so you may not enter the hallway.”

Free scowled at the Guard. “Don’t you know that I came in with Princess Twilight Sparkle and Princess Luna and the Harmony Bearers as part of the defense reinforcements?”

“I do. It makes no difference.”

“I’m a citizen in good standing of Equestria, and I don’t like being treated as a criminal suspect!”

“So are the rest of the changelings stationed here. They do not get to pass the barrier without authorization either.”

“What’s your name, Guard? I intend to file a complaint to the princesses about this treatment!”

“When you do, you may tell them that Sergeant Sterling Shield sends his compliments,” the changeling replied, utterly unfazed by Free’s threats.

Free regarded him with a long glare before bursting out laughing. “I’ll do that, Sergeant. No hard feelings – I really am just testing the security situation though, and I would have been very surprised if you had been swayed by my idiotic demands. I hope you don’t get too bored standing there all day. Catch you later when you’re off-duty!”

Sterling Shield nodded in acknowledgement with the barest hint of a smile. “Have a good day, sir.”

Free left the office a little disappointed that he had not been able to bullshit his way past the Guards, but relieved that they seemed on the ball. He assumed that there would be many more soldiers out of view around the bend in the hallway, preventing the enemy from seeing the security arrangements. He would have to look for other possible weak points in the Empire’s defenses.

Just then, a dust devil swept out of the fields and through the outpost, sending stinging sand into Free’s eyes. Judging by the cries of annoyance from the nearby soldiers, they were not any better off than he was, but after just a few long seconds, the dust devil had passed on. Free spat out the dirt that had blown into his beak and went over to one of the soldiers.

“Does this kind of thing happen often?” Free asked.

“All the time,” the earth pony replied. “It’s been pretty hot and warm lately, and the fields are dry. Those dust devils can blow up any time, and they’ve been a bit of a nuisance here.”

“Aren’t there any weather pegasi to control them?”

“The weather phenomenon is unpredictable and brief. By the time that a pegasus could be mobilized to do something about them, they’re already gone.”

“Leaving dust coating everything, I see,” Free said, shaking his wings to dislodge said dust.

“Like I said, they’re a nuisance. Word of advice – keep the window to your room closed when you’re not there.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that.”

Free was left considering his next move. There really was not much to see at this little outpost, and he had seen most of that last night. ‘Might as well look around the surrounding countryside,’ he thought, and took wing.

As had been described at the meeting the previous night, and similar to what he had seen the last time he had been in the Crystal Empire, the immediate area was primarily agricultural, with plowed fields, barns, haystacks, and the occasional line of trees for windbreaks. There was a large amount of open space between the outpost and the nearest farm building, so there was not any easy way to hide ground forces. Free could see soldiers patrolling along a line of flags that gently curved away in the distance, obviously demarcating the barrier’s invisible border.

Out of curiosity, Free flew up higher and cautiously headed for the barrier. Eventually he touched it, but much closer to the city than the border showed, indicating that it was in fact spherical. He considered going higher, but decided it was not worth it. ‘If its diameter is this wide, the top of the sphere will be way beyond my height limit.’ He considered his options, randomly selected a direction, and then headed that way to see what he could see.

# # #

“So did you find anything?” Twilight asked when Free returned for dinner.

“I ended up flying around a great deal of the countryside, trying to spot anything unusual, but with no success. At least I’m not feeling tired at all.”

“You mean you’ve been flying non-stop all day, and aren’t the least bit fatigued?”

Free shrugged. “I know we’re pretty far from the Crystal Heart, but there’s still some ambient love in the air keeping me topped up.”

“Maybe you should go back to Canterlot,” Twilight suggested.

“Oh, please! I’ve been better buzzed at a party. Besides, if you really needed to send me away, you would have to send away all the changeling guards also. That would sure throw a wrench in your security plans.”

“You have a point. Just let me know if you notice any potential problem, please, Firetail.”

Free gave her a confident grin. “I won’t let you down, Sparkles.”

Twilight nuzzled him gratefully, and then said, “I can’t wait until we hear what Path and Roseclaw have been doing today. It’s got to have been a lot more exciting than ours has been.”

While neither rushed their meals, they did not dawdle over them either. They soon were back in Twilight’s room and placing the call to Griffonia….

# # #

“We’ve had some setbacks, Twilight,” Path admitted. “It’s taking us more time to sort through the details of this estate, and only now we’re discovering that Ravenwing had been pretty heavily in debt.”

Roseclaw added, “His determination to marry me makes even more sense now. My family, while not as rich as some, is involved in a lot of business dealings, and Ravenwing owed money to some of them. Marrying into the family would have reduced or even cancelled out many of those debts, not to mention getting him more money to pursue his excessive lifestyle.”

Twilight thought about it for a moment, and then said, “But now that you are the First Lady of the House, wouldn’t that mean that your family would cancel those debts for you now?”

“That’s the good news,” Roseclaw replied. “Many have already been wiped out, and Path is negotiating deals for the rest. However, it will mean several steps backwards before we can start making progress on our plans for the House of Path.”

“Look at this way, Rose – we’re still ahead of the game,” Free reassured her. “Without the estate, there would be no House of Path outside of our drunken imagination. It’s early days yet, and I have confidence in Path and you.”

Path sighed. “You haven’t heard it all yet, Free. To save money, one of the first things that I looked at was reducing the number of staff. Ravenwing seemed to be keeping far more than he could possibly need, even allowing for his lifestyle. Many of them are indentured servants, but while I could write off their debt, the problem is that they indentured themselves to get out of grinding poverty, and they literally have nowhere to go if I dismiss them. I really don’t want to do that.”

“I agree,” Twilight said. “If our House is going to make a difference in Griffonia, setting a positive example is just one of the most important things that we can do. What about the rest of the staff though?

“Some of them simply quit because they did not want to work for a pony.”

“Hardly a surprise,” Free commented.

“No, it wasn’t, but what did surprise me was the number that had no problem with it.”

Roseclaw said, “I had to explain that it has more to do with rank and status than species. Those servants respect Path’s status even if they find it odd to have a pony lord. Even with the lowest classes, rank and status mean everything.”

Path added, “Yeah, the staff have their strict rank structure too, and Goldenquill is effectively a lord among the servant class. Others strive to increase their status within their class just as much as the likes of Ravenwing do among the upper class. And that leads me to the most disturbing discovery that we made while reviewing the staff. I had instructed Goldenquill to bring all the staff one by one to my office to review their employment. Then he brought one middle-aged griffoness who seemed terrified of me. You’re not going to like why.”

# # #

Goldenquill stood in the doorway and addressed the next staff member waiting outside Path’s office. “Snow Wing, you are next. Compose yourself, hen – you are meeting your new lord, not your executioner,” he said sternly, but not without a note of sympathy in his voice.

The griffoness entered the office cautiously, giving Path and Roseclaw a chance to have a good look at her. Her avian half was covered mostly with mottled grey feathers except for the white plumage on her wings, hence making her name obvious. Her feline half was also basically grey, but with black rosettes patterning her fur. She would have been very pretty except for obvious scars marring her flanks, and the broken or missing feathers in various places.

Roseclaw gasped in dismay, and Path immediately got up from behind his desk in concern and approached her. He was shocked when she cringed away from him.

“Goldenquill, why is Snow Wing like this?” Path demanded.

The butler replied, “Snow Wing was Ravenwing’s concubine, milord. He was… less than considerate about her comfort in satisfying his desires.”

“Concubine? Is this normal, Rose?”

“Concubine is an honorable profession here, Path. You must realize that the constant striving for increasing rank and status leads to many arranged marriages, or marriages of convenience. The husband and wife are together purely for political purposes and to produce heirs. It is not unusual for either or both to have a concubine to meet their physical and emotional needs. Usually, to be a concubine means a lot of status, and a very pleasant lifestyle for one of the servant class, and so it is a sought-after position. I fear that something very wrong has happened to Snow Wing though.”

Path turned his attention back to Snow Wing. In his gentlest voice, he said, “There is no reason to fear me. Please tell me what has happened to you and why.”

Without taking her gaze away from the floor, she tremulously replied, “Lord Ravenwing would take me in a fit of rage whenever the Lady Roseclaw rebuffed him, sir. The worse his frustration, the more violent he became.”

Path had a sinking feeling. “Those newest wounds – he gave them to you just a few days ago, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sir – after he found out about your suit for Lady Roseclaw.”

Path winced at the confirmation that he was indirectly responsible for her latest abuse. “Why did you stay as his concubine if this is the way he treated you?”

“Because of my son, milord.”

“How is your son involved?”

“Lord Ravenwing promised to sponsor him through officer’s school in exchange for my services. If I had left, he would have had to drop out.”

“Surely a life as a simple soldier would have been sufficient if it gave you freedom from abuse?”

“Milord, my son would have not become a regular soldier. It was agreed that if he failed to become an officer, he would have to become Lord Ravenwing’s indentured servant to repay his debt.”

“And so you were trapped by your concern for your son’s future. Well, you don’t have to worry about Ravenwing anymore. He has lost all his status, his possessions, and his rights over you.”

“Yes, milord. I am now your concubine.”

“Wait! What?! No, that’s not what I mean! I neither want nor need a concubine,” Path hastily clarified.

Snow Wing looked only slightly relieved. “Then what does milord want of me then?”

“Stop calling me ‘milord’ every five seconds, for starters.” At seeing Goldenquill’s disapproving expression though, he amended, “An occasional ‘sir’ shows sufficient respect, Snow Wing, but I want you to know that the House of Path represents Friendship, Love, and Tolerance, and respect works both ways. I respect what you have done for your son, but I don’t need a concubine – I need happy, diligent staff members. You have not been happy here, obviously, so perhaps it’s best that you find other employment?”

Snow Wing looked crushed. “Milord does not need me then? I will tell my son to report to you tomorrow then.”

“Huh? What am I missing here?” Path asked.

Roseclaw spoke up. “I believe that she cannot afford to pay for her son’s schooling, and only Ravenwing’s sponsorship made that possible. We’ve inherited that responsibility, but you have just effectively told her that we would not be continuing the sponsorship in lieu of Ravenwing.”

“Is this true?” Path asked.

For the first time, Snow Wing looked up to gaze at Path directly, and he saw that her eyes were filled with tears. “Yes, sir.”

“Oh, Snow Wing, I am so sorry! I’m still very new at this stuff, and I’m going to make some more mistakes before I settle into my role as Lord of House Path. Let me reassure you right now that we will continue your son’s sponsorship, and we will find a place for you in this House also.”

Roseclaw stepped up and put a reassuring wing around Snow Wing, hugging her gently. “You are obviously a good and conscientious mother, and I could do with someone like you when I have children.”

“Er… you’re not being a bit hasty, are you, dear?” Path asked.

“Later, my love. Snow Wing, until then, would you like to take a position as my personal assistant?”

“Milady? Really?”

“Yes, really. I have a feeling that you will do well, but even if that doesn’t work out, you will have a job here at least until your son graduates. I hope longer though.”

“Thank you, milady! Thank you too, milord! You won’t regret your decision.”

Path reached out with one hoof and Snow Wing flinched a little before he lifted her chin and said, “Your son should be proud of what you have done for him, and you can be proud for your dedication. Welcome to the House of Path.”

Roseclaw added, “Take the day off to do whatever you wish. I suggest you see a healer to see if they can do something about your injuries, and then maybe visit a bathhouse and get a good grooming. And before you protest that you can’t afford it, we will cover any costs. I expect to see you bright and early tomorrow, looking your best for the start of your new job.”

Snow Wing actually smiled, and although the tears continued, it was from the overwhelming feeling of gratitude and relief this time. “Yes, milady!”

“Dismissed,” Path said with a grin.

They watched her nearly scamper out of the office with satisfaction. Then Path’s expression turned serious again. He looked at Goldenquill and said, “You were aware of all this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why would you want to work for such a creep as Ravenwing?”

“We all had our reasons like Snow Wing. Some of them were worse than others.”

“Then what’s keeping you here now?”

“Because I believe that like Snow Wing, we have good reason to stay now.”

Path nodded thoughtfully. “I see. ’Quill, I believe you and I are going to work well together, but try to keep me from making foolish oversights like that again, please.”

“I will endeavor to do so, sir.”

“Thanks, ’Quill.”

“Is milord going to continue calling me by half my name?”

Path smiled. “Probably.”

Goldenquill sighed melodramatically. “I suppose not everything can be perfect.”

Roseclaw giggled. “I can see you two are going to be a lot of fun.”

Path sat back down behind his desk once more. “So, any more nasty surprises in store for me today?”

“Probably, sir,” Goldenquill deadpanned.

“Bring ‘em on!”

# # #

“So what sort of surprises did you get?” Free asked.

“Oh, all sorts of things. Former cronies of Ravenwing who thought they would get a similar deal with me, but were shown the door instead. Suspected thieves. A couple of bigots. One idiot who thought Roseclaw was a new hire and tried to put the moves on her.”

“Ooh, what did you do to him?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing at all?” Free’s disappointment was enormous.

“Why should I? My fiancée is a warrior too, after all.”

“Let’s just say that he couldn’t wait to leave after I was through with him,” Roseclaw said smugly.

“I am so sorry I didn’t get to see that,” Free bemoaned.

“Back on subject,” Twilight said, although fighting off a smile of her own. “Did you manage to get the staff sorted out?”

“Almost. The head groundskeeper will be taking us out to see the grounds staff tomorrow. We’ve pared down the staff to a manageable level already however, and we’ll be looking at other cost-cutting measures after that. I did have one other interesting meeting today though.”

“Oh? Who with?”

“Did I mention that Ravenwing was deeply in debt…?”

# # #

“Sir, there are two griffs here to see you. They are former associates of Ravenwing, and they say that they now have business with you to sort out.”

Path sighed. “I wonder how many of these I’m going to have to deal with? Okay, better send them in, ’Quill.”

“Very well, sir, but may I recommend a touch of caution. These are less than savory types.”

“Forewarned is forearmed. Thanks, ’Quill.”

Path disliked the two griffs on sight. They were almost stereotypical in their demeanor – one a big brute and the other a shifty-eyed individual whom he wouldn’t trust for a moment. He could almost guess Ravenwing’s association with them already.

“I am Long Path, Lord of this House. I hear that you have had dealings with the previous owner of this castle.”

Shifty-eyes smirked. “Yeah, and I hear that you won all of Ravenwing’s possessions and titles. Dunno how a pony could do that, but business is business. He owed us money, and now you do.” The brute loomed over Path to add emphasis to his colleague’s words.

Path did not like the contemptuous note in the griff’s voice, and he replied, “I don’t believe that is true, and in any case, your disrespectful attitude towards me won’t buy you any satisfaction from me.”

“I’ll tell you what we respect – crowns! You fork over the crowns, and we fork over the respect.”

“Did Ravenwing owe you for goods purchased from you?” Path sincerely doubted it, but he had to be sure. “If so, you can have said goods back.”

The griff guffawed. “Nah, he owed us for being very bad at poker. Now you have all his assets, so you pay up.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Told you ponies are stupid, Crackbeak.”

“Stupid,” the brute agreed.

“Gonna tell you just once, pony – pay up or else.”

“Or else what?”

“Or else we get to eat pony steaks tonight. Kinda curious what that might taste like actually.” They both stepped closer to Path and reared up with talons extended, adding a lot more menace to their words.

“Then let me tell you just once – get out of my House before I lose my temper.” He reared up on his hind legs and put a hoof on each of their chests.

Shifty-eyes looked at the hoof on his chest contemptuously. “Think those clawless things will stop us?”

“Yep.” Path could not do the thunderhoof with his forehooves, but the same spell that powered it also allowed him to easily kill the changeling invader months back. Path had some mercy though – he only knocked them halfway through the wall.

“Quill!” Path called.

“Yes, milord?” The butler had evidently been waiting, prepared for almost anything.

“Please arrange to have the trash removed from my office.”

“With pleasure, sir.”

# # #

“Last I heard, they were both in the hospital, and likely to make full recoveries. Hopefully they’ll spread the word that this new House is not ever going to be a pushover.”

“Is gambling what got Ravenwing so into debt?” Twilight asked.

“Only part of it, Twilight. Hopefully his other debtors will be more reasonable. If they have reasonable claims over goods, then I will be happy to negotiate a fair settlement with them. If it’s a personal debt though, they can take it up with Ravenwing. Those are his problem, not mine.”

“Seems like you have your work cut out for you. I wish that I could be there to help. After all, I’m part of the House of Path too.”

“Wish you were here also, although more to do with the charter that me and Rose are putting together.”

“We can still discuss that over the Talkie.”

“Yes, and we can do that tomorrow if you like? Meanwhile though, it’s getting a bit late, and I’d like to head off to bed.”

“We’d better be getting to bed also,” Twilight replied and then looked at Free who grinned back at her. “Although I think we might be doing some serious snuggling first.”

Path laughed. “Yeah, I think I could do with a bit of that too. Goodnight!”

# # #

After breakfast, Free headed over to the portal building again. Although no pony intercepted him this time, the changeling guards were already on duty, and he ambled over to them. Once again they crossed their spears to prevent access to the hallway.

“Good morning, Sergeant! Did you get the memo that I was to be allowed through the portal today?”

“Good morning, Free Agent, and no, I didn’t, so I’m afraid you’ll not be going through right now.”

“Even though it was Princess Twilight Sparkle who said so?”

“Princess Sparkle is not my immediate superior, nor the commander of this outpost.”

“Looks like I’ll have to work on that, won’t I?”

Sterling Shield smirked. “Good luck with that.”

Free grinned back. “Thanks. Y’know – you’re awfully chatty for a Royal Guard. Most I’ve met are very businesslike – never using three words when just one will do.”

“Comes from our normal duty directive. The Changeling Royal Guard Squad was first formed with the intention of familiarizing the citizens of Canterlot with the growing population of undisguised changelings in the community. We were to mingle and interact with the ponies while being obviously sanctioned by the princesses in our position of authority.”

“In other words, you were ordered to chat with everypony and make friends where possible,” Free summed up.

“While we still had our normal Guard duties to perform, that’s basically correct.”

“Nice. And here I haven’t even gotten your comrade’s name yet.”

The other guard spoke up. “My name is Bazztuk.”

“What? No pony name like Sterling here?”

“I joined the Royal Guard after changelings started being seen undisguised in Canterlot. I had no need to take on a pony-style name, unlike the sergeant.”

Sterling Shield added, “Bazztuk is the youngest in the squad, barely out of basic training before he was selected. He doesn’t even have a pony alter-ego yet.”

“Still don’t feel the need for one, sarge.”

“You might change your mind about that eventually,” Sterling said with a knowing smile. “It could come in handy.”

Bazztuk just shrugged.

Free said, “I’ve seen your squad around Canterlot occasionally. Are you all Red Changelings?”

Sterling replied, “Yes. While there is no restriction on hive, Reds do tend to gravitate towards this profession. Speaking of hive affiliation though, why is it that I can’t tell what yours is?”

Free grinned. “I’m my own hive, mate! You’ll never see me kowtowing to a queen!”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Better believe it! Nopony has ever….”

“Mister Agent!” A stern voice interrupted Free.

Free turned around to see Diamondhard standing there, glaring at him.

“You have no business here. Please move along.” While it was phrased as a request because Free was a civilian, he knew a firm order when he heard it.

“Aye, aye, Captain Hardhead!” Free trotted out of the building under the baleful gaze of the captain. Once outside, he looked around, considering what to do next. Like yesterday, there seemed nothing obvious, so he took off in the opposite direction from last time. Perhaps today he would find something of interest?

# # #

Twilight found Free in the shower when she came back to their room before dinner to freshen up.

“Hi, Free. How was your day?”

Two dust storms, Twi! Two eye-stinging, feather-fouling whirlwinds caught me today. I’m so glad to be back.”

“One’s bad enough, but two? That must have been awful. Want a little help scrubbing your back?”

Free grinned at the coy look Twilight was giving him. “Don’t need to ask, hon. I’m always up for a scrub from you.”

Twilight giggled, joined him under the shower, and set to work on his back.

“So how was your day, Sparkles?”

“I spent some of the morning discussing House Charter with Path. He reckons he’ll have a firm final version ready for us tonight.”

“Awesome! Anything else?”

“Not really. It’s been pretty quiet actually. I gather that you haven’t seen anything of importance either today?”

“Nah. Everything is so boringly normal, it’s hard to believe that there’s any threat. Maybe that’s Chrysalis’ plan – to bore us to death?”

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Twilight said as she shifted to cleaning Free’s wings.

“So what are the rest of your friends doing?”

“Well, Rainbow Dash is doing much the same thing as you – scouting around and looking for anything unusual. Those trunks that Rarity brought along – they’re filled with materials for gowns that she’s working on for customers.”

“I remember that she was complaining about having to pack so ‘lightly’,” Free said with a smirk.

“You should see what she brings when there isn’t a weight restriction!”

“I shudder to think. What about Applejack?”

“We’re in the midst of farmlands – guess what she’s sticking her nose into?”

“I’ll take a wild stab at apple-growing.”

“However did you guess? Although to be fair, she has been interested in other produce and their farming techniques.”

“That leaves Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. I’m gonna guess that Flutters been getting cozy with the local fauna. As for Pinkie… hmm… baking?”

“You got it, although she’s planning a party for tonight. One of the crystal ponies has her birthday today, so plan on sticking around after dinner.”

“Sounds like fun. Seems like everypony has something to fill their time except for you.”

“Actually the free time has been very welcome. I’ve been using it to do some projects that I’ve had to put off for a while. Top of the list has been making more of my Talkie Trotties. I feel that communications will be a key factor in defense, and with Rainbow Dash scouting so far away, we need her to be able to return at a moment’s notice.”

“Yeah, not much point in having you here if one out of the group is out of touch. My turn to scrub your back, Twi.”

Although she could easily scrub her own back with telekinesis, Twilight found she much preferred it when Free did it, even if she did not need it. Maybe especially if she did not need it. From that point, scrubbing quickly morphed into more intimate touching and nuzzling. If they had not needed to get to dinner on time so as to not spoil Pinkie’s party plans, things may have gotten even steamier.

# # #

Free was a little giddy by the time that he and Twilight got back to their room from the party. The amount of positive emotion that had filled the room had stuffed him almost as much as the huge quantities of cake and other goodies. Spirits were certainly high after that little morale-booster.

They collapsed onto the bed with groans of satisfaction, and as Free cuddled up to Twilight, the alicorn levitated the Talkie over from the dresser. She activated the spell that would set its opposite number ringing, and it was quickly answered.

“Hi Free! Hi Twilight! I’m glad to hear from you.”

“Twi tells me that you should have our House Charter ready,” Free replied.

“Yes, but something a lot more important has come up; something very disturbing.”

From the tone of Path’s voice, they could tell it was serious. Twilight said, “Better tell us about that first then. What’s happened?”

“Remember that the head groundskeeper was to introduce me to his staff today? Well, let’s just say that my preconceptions of them could not have been further from the truth….”

# # #

Groundskeeper Greenclaw was only a small griff, with the avian half being that of a burrowing owl, which Path thought was most appropriate. His rear half looked to be of a bobcat, which seemed a bit of a mismatch, but at least his bobtail wouldn’t get in the way of his work. He seemed to be a dour individual, but perhaps it was the novelty of a new lord in charge that was responsible for that. Free would give him time to get used to it.

Greenclaw started with giving Path and Roseclaw a tour of the grounds to familiarize them with some of the less obvious attributes. They were impressed by the variety to be found, ranging from formal garden beds to almost natural ponds and small copses of trees. In fact, it was so good that Path had to question it.

“Frankly I can’t see Ravenwing being so interested in gardens this complex and beautiful,” Path said to Greenclaw. “So what’s going on here that I don’t know?”

“ ’is lordship didn’t care much at all. Make it pretty to impress my guests, ’e tells me. Only time ’e ever came out here was fer one of ’is fancy events, fairly boasting about them then. Never a word about our work, but weknew who deserved the praise.”

Path could tell that there was no love lost between Greenclaw and Ravenwing. The question was whether that attitude would spill over onto him.

“Well, I want to meet the griffs who did this wonderful work. Where are they anyway? I haven’t spotted any yet.”

Greenclaw snorted in amusement. “Yeah, griffs. They’re waiting to meet their new master at the workshop.”

“I dislike being called ‘master’, Greenclaw. I am their employer, no more.”

“I calls it as I sees it, yer lordship.”

They were brought to a large building that was set out of sight behind a stand of tall trees. It looked like a combination of a barn and a smithy, and Long Path assumed that it was the main workshop where all the tools and supplies were kept. Greenclaw took them in through one of the doors where they found they were greeted by a sea of faces. The owners of those faces though, shocked Path to the core.

“They’re all earth ponies! Are you telling me that Ravenwing’s entire grounds staff are ponies except for you?”

“Yep. Finest bunch of slaves in all of Griffonia. Earth ponies make the best gardeners.”

“Slaves! You can’t be serious?!” He whirled around to look at Roseclaw. “Did you know about these? How are there pony slaves here?”

Roseclaw looked embarrassed and apologetic. “I’m so sorry, darling, but it never occurred to me that there would be pony slaves here. My family doesn’t keep them at all.”

“But you still knew about slaves? How can this be?”

“They’re descendants of the prisoners taken during the last pony-griffon war. While Griffonia lost, the king at that time concealed the fact that they had many prisoners, and those ponies were thought to have been killed. Instead they were put to work in the fields. Pegasi were frequently killed trying to escape. Unicorns had their horns hacked off, but they were more trouble than they were worth without their magic. Earth ponies survived though, and they eventually had children, and their children had children, and… well… these are some of the latest generation.”

Path looked at the ponies who were quietly and nervously watching and listening. It made sense – a horrible and tragic one, but one that brought him to one inescapable conclusion: he was now a slave-owner.

“Rose, I can’t own another pony. How do I go about freeing them?”

“Yer Lordship can’t be serious?” Greenclaw objected.

“Be quiet! I wasn’t addressing you!” Path snarled at Greenclaw, who recoiled as if bitten.

“I’m sorry, dear, but I don’t think there exists any formal means of freeing slaves.”

“Then we’re going to create one.” He turned to the crowd. “Who among you can speak for all of you?” he asked in Equish.

There were a lot of confused looks before a mare spoke up. “No speak pony – griff speak,” she said in halting Equish.

Path suddenly realized that most of these ponies had probably never heard anyone speaking Equish. Through the generations, they had only needed to know Griffish, and most of their native tongue had been forgotten. He repeated his question in the griffon language.

A shire stallion even bigger than Path stepped forward. “I am Groundpounder, headpony of this clan. How can I serve you, your lordship?”

“Did you know that a pony had taken over this House?”

“So I was told, milord.”

“And didn’t you see anything odd about that?”

“We belong to the House, your lordship.”

“No pony should belong to any House, or any griff for that matter. I intend to set you all free, and offer you passage back home to Equestria.”

There was a squawk of outrage from Greenclaw that Path ignored.

“Home? We are home, your lordship.”

“I mean, back with other ponies.”

Groundpounder looked about himself, and then replied, “We are already with other ponies.”

Path wondered why he could not get his point across, but Roseclaw spoke up.

“Don’t you see, darling? This is the only home these ponies have ever known, and they have their families and their lives entrenched here. To them, Griffonia is their home, and Equestria is a fearful unknown. Am I right, Groundpounder?”

“Yes, your ladyship.”

“But Rose, I can’t be owning slaves!” Path objected.

“Then don’t. Proclaim that they are free, and then formally hire them back. You won’t have slaves, but you keep your staff.”

“I won’t be able to afford that! If they’re all slaves, then that means that they aren’t paid. If they become staff, I will have to pay them, or else it all becomes meaningless words.”

“I’m sure that you’ll find a solution, dear. Meanwhile, why don’t you ask what they want?”

Path facehoofed. Why hadn’t he thought of that? “Well, you heard her ladyship – what do you want of me?”

Groundpounder looked thoughtful before replying, “Respect.”

Path blinked in surprise. “That’s all?”

“It’s a lot, your lordship.”

Path considered that. As slaves, they literally had nothing that was not given to them by their owner. They all looked healthy and strong, so they were well fed, and the condition of this building suggested that they did not lack decent housing, but the one thing that they probably never got from Ravenwing was the respect that they deserved for their hard work. He gave the ponies his most sincere smile.

“Mares and stallions, I am most deeply impressed with the work that you have done to make these grounds and gardens one of the most impressive that I have ever seen, and I am proud to have you on my staff. I will be discussing a suitable reward for your efforts with Greenclaw and Groundpounder soon.”

One blue-coated colt stepped forward. “Hey, us colts and fillies do a lot also!”

“Blue Streak!” a mare urgently called out. “Show your lord some respect and get back here!”

“No, wait.” Path’s interest was aroused by the first pony who had shown some spirit, even if he was just a colt. “Blue Streak, is it? I see your cutie mark is a lightning bolt – does that mean you’re fast?”

“The fastest, your lordship! No pony can match me.” He looked at Roseclaw and grinned cheekily. “No griff either!”

Path was liking this colt more and more, and he could see that Roseclaw was amused by his cheekiness also. “Okay, Blue Streak, I’d like you to come with me for a while, if it’s okay with your mother.”

“Naw, that’s my aunt. My mom and dad died when I was only two.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. So your aunt is your guardian?” he asked, looking up at the mare in question.

“Yes, your lordship,” she replied.

“I’ll have him back to you soon enough,” he reassured her. “Come on, Streak, I want to see what you can do. Oh, and Greenclaw, thank you for the tour. I suggest you all get back to your normal duties until I can sort out exactly what I want to do about this situation.”

“As you wish, your lordship,” Greenclaw replied.

Path exited the workshop, accompanied by Roseclaw, with Blue Streak following close behind as instructed. When they were clear of the concealing trees and could see the castle clearly again. Path halted and said to Blue Streak, “See the archway into the courtyard?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Race you there!” Path galloped away, leaving the startled colt behind… but not for long.

Path was still recovering from his injuries, but he was still making good speed. Moments later, though, a blue blur overtook him and left him in its wake. Path chuckled and eased up a bit. There was no point in overtaxing himself if he was going to be so comprehensively beaten anyway.

 

 

Blue Streak was sitting at the archway, waiting a little impatiently for him, not even breathing hard. Roseclaw joined them moments later, having taken to the air to watch them.

“Well, my young colt, you certainly got the best of me. My dear, would you care to test Streak’s claim at being able to go faster than a griffon?”

“My pleasure, love. Blue Streak, see that pond? We will race around the pond, touch the tree, and return. Are you ready?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Go!”

Blue Streak took off, kicking divots of turf as he accelerated to top speed in almost nothing flat. Roseclaw leaped into the air, beating her wings hard. Path watched in fascination as the two raced. Roseclaw had the advantage of being able to take a direct route, while Blue Streak had to dodge around garden beds and other features. Nevertheless, the colt was living up to his boast and holding his own, and they reached the tree nearly simultaneously. However, there the balance changed. While Roseclaw brushed the foliage and banked to make a turn, Blue Streak simply leaped at the trunk and bounced back, reversing his course in virtually no time, gaining him a significant lead. As hard as Roseclaw tried, she could not make up the difference, and Blue Streak skidded to a stop a second ahead of the griffoness. This time the colt was panting hard, but he had a grin a mile wide.

“Told you so!” he boasted. “Sir!” he added belatedly.

“It’s not hard to see how you earned your cutie mark,” Path said with a smile. “I have never seen any earth pony so fast before.”

“Nopony is as fast as me, sir,” Blue Streak said confidently.

“Ha! Rainbow Dash might dispute that, I reckon, unless you’ve done a sonic boom lately?”

“A what, sir?”

“Never mind. Streak, I want you to see me again tomorrow. I think that I might have an idea that could change your future… unless you’re looking forward to a career as a gardener?”

“I’m a good worker, sir… but…” Streak said hesitantly.

“But you have dreams of something more, don’t you? I sensed that from the moment you spoke up.”

Blue Streak merely nodded, not daring to hope for more.

“Good. You can go now, Streak.”

“Bye, sir!” Streak galloped away again.

“I don’t think that colt can go slow,” Path commented to Roseclaw.

“I agree. I quite like him.”

“Me too. You didn’t take it easy on him, did you?”

“No, but although I’m very fast, there are faster griffs than me.”

“Doesn’t matter – he’s proved himself as far as I’m concerned. He has a lot of potential.”

“You’re considering such a young colt for your plans for the House?”

“I am. In fact I think his youth will count in his favor. Less bad habits to undo.”

“And his status as a slave?”

Path set his jaw grimly. “That’s something that will be very high on my list of priorities. No matter what it might cost me, I’m going to put a stop to the business of owning ponies.”

“Be cautious, love. I strongly suggest that you establish our House securely so that we have a foundation on which we can build support for your ideas.”

“My ideas, yes, but do you agree with them, Rose? I’m going to be shaking some things up a lot.”

“I already made my choice, darling. I will support you unreservedly.”

Path put his foreleg around her neck and pulled her into a kiss. “Thank you, Rose. I love you.”

“And I love you too, my warrior.”

# # #

“So, we’re slave-owners until we find a way to change their status?” Twilight summed up.

“Yeah. I’ve asked for an audience with the king, and while it was initially to present the charter for our House, I fully intend to bring up the slavery business.”

“I hope you get Quiet Words to help you there. It’s not something that will be changed overnight, no matter how we feel about it.”

“Don’t worry, Twilight. After I cooled down, I thought things through a bit better and I can see that it won’t be easy. I fully intend to formally emancipate ours though, even if not legally as yet.”

“Can we handle putting them on as staff though?”

“Fortunately, it won’t be as bad as I first thought. A little creative thinking was involved, but basically they are living in my dwellings, so I can charge rent, and they’re growing food on my land, so I officially get my cut. That means that with those deductions and a few others like the education that I plan to give the foals, I need only pay them a nominal wage. Of course I will bring that up to more realistic levels when we can afford it, but they’ll still be better off, and we won’t be slave-owners any longer. Win-win, I reckon.”

“Sounds good, but have you managed to decrease the overall staff costs enough?”

“I think so, but I plan to hit the king up for a little more support anyway.”

“What makes you think he’ll give it?”

“Because I think we’re being manipulated, Twilight. Why did the king create a new noble House for us? Sure, I won Ravenwing’s status and possessions, but that didn’t make me a noble. I have this suspicion that the king has an agenda of his own, and we’re the means of achieving that. What are the chances that Glimfeather did not know that Ravenwing had pony slaves?”

“I see your point, and that may be just the first of the things that we might encounter. Are you going to be okay, Path?”

“I have Rose to help me, Twilight, and I think I have some pretty good staff to assist me also.”

Free said, “That’s great, buddy, but never forget that we’re just a comm call away.”

“I know. Miss you guys a lot!”

“Same here, mate! Hey, did you get that House charter finished like I asked about?”

“There was a delay due to the slave business, but it’s basically done. Want to hear the tenets of the House?”

“Sure! Let’s hear ’em.”

“Okay. We added one more after today’s experience, but it holds number one position.” He then listed them, pausing between each to let them take each in before proceeding to the next:

• All thinking creatures are your brothers or sisters.
• Embrace cultural differences.
• Never stop learning.
• Hone the body and the mind; find the balance and master yourself.
• Honor the House, honor the Crown, honor your opponent, and honor yourself.
• Every failure is a learning experience; every victory is a time to reflect.
• Perfection is an unobtainable goal; while one may strive for it, only a fool thinks that they can reach it.
• Graciousness in defeat; humility in victory.
• The lion helps the mouse; the mouse helps the lion.
• Excessive force is never authorized.
• Elders are your past; you are the present; youth are your future – preserve the link.
• All truth is subjective to the observer.

“We’re leaving the list of tenets open. I believe that as we grow as a House, we may realize that we have omitted something that is dear to our philosophy.”

“That’s going to be a hard sell in Griffonia, you know that?” Free asked.

“I know, and it will probably mean a slow start to getting new members, but it also means that those that come first are most likely to believe in the same things that we do.”

“Sounds good. And you already have your first student too.”

“You mean Blue Streak? Not yet, but I think he’s the type to jump at this sort of thing. Maybe some of the other slaves, but I’m thinking that it’ll be their foals who will raise the status of their families. However, it’s the existence of pony slaves that will also push another agenda, and that’s my status as an officer in the Griffonian army.”

Twilight said, “Conflict of interest.”

“Yep. You’ve obviously been thinking of this, Twilight.”

“From the very first, actually. The slaves just complicate things, as you have realized. You are a representative of the Equestrian Crown, and as such, you have to put Equestria’s interests first, and owning slaves is very much illegal. As a Griffonian officer though, you have to defend their kingdom and support their laws, which includes legal slavery. You need to resolve that conflict.”

“Right, and I think I have a solution, but I’m going to need your help.”

“How so?”

“As an Equestrian princess, you have the authority to make a deal between the two countries, and have I got a deal to offer the king!”

# # # # # # # # # #

 
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