The Growing Years

This story is a sequel to A Different Perspective
Both the House of Path and Herd Path enjoy strong growth in the years following their establishment. Like all such things though, they both have their highlights and lowlights. These are vignettes in the lives of the children of Twilight, Path, Free, & Roseclaw, from foals to young adults.
This is a series of stand-alone stories of events that occur after the events of A Different Perspective, which I strongly recommend that you read first.
My collaborator, AlaskaIsCold, has written some of these and I mostly just edited them.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/296939/the-growing-years

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3. Treasured

Long Path was surprised by the unexpected visit from Griffonia’s highest ranking soldier. While they had more than a passing acquaintance, General Mara Windshear was not in the habit of making personal visits to House Path. The golden eagle/tiger griffon was an imposing figure standing in front of Path’s desk, flanked by her aides.

Path was not flustered by the display of power, having had many years’ experience dealing with the top political and military echelons by now “What can I do for you, General Windshear?”

“His Majesty, King Glimfeather, commands your presence at the court, Lord Path,” she replied curtly.

Path’s eyebrows raised in surprise. It was unusual for Argent to make commands like that, and even more so to send such a high-ranking messenger. “May I ask what is so important that the king would send his top officer to fetch me?”

“Dragons,” she replied succinctly.

“That could be bad,” Path admitted. “However, I would have thought that the Griffonian military was capable of dealing with an invasion force. Do you really require the help of House Path?”

“No, we don’t. There are only four of them, some obviously too young to be fighters, although one does not underestimate dragon-kind. The reason that your presence is required is that they are asking about you.”

Path’s jaw dropped in startlement. “Oh.” He turned to Goldenquill who had had been patiently waiting by the doorway after ushering in the general. “'Quill, please find Free, Twilight, and Rose, and ask them to join us immediately.”

“At once, milord,” Goldenquill replied with a small bow before departing.

Windshear frowned. “His Majesty only sent for you.”

Path smiled benignly at her. “Argent knows that for matters like this, he would expect Herd Path to turn up. I may be Lord of this House, but we four act as one.”

Windshear scowled some more, annoyed at the familiarity that Path had with the king’s name, but also aware of the good relationship that the kingdom’s ruler had with the pony lord. She forced herself to wait patiently until the others arrived. Fortunately they did not hold up things any further, apparently having been informed of the nature of the call by Goldenquill.

Due to the urgency of the call, Path decided to put on his magitek wings which he kept handy in his office. He finished buckling them on as the last of the four arrived. “Let’s go,” he told General Windshear, heading for the balcony doors.

The group took off from his office’s balcony and made quick time to the king’s castle. The guards flanking the huge doorway admitted them to the throne room without a word, evidently expecting them. Despite the size of the room, it was impossible to miss the cause of their summons.

Four dragons – two adults and two youths – were waiting, some more patiently than others. The sheer size of the adults made Path wonder how they managed to get into the throne room despite the size of the doorway, although their more serpentine build seemed to be a clue. They were obviously of a breed slightly different from the ones that he was more familiar with back in Equestria. He watched them move with both grace and power as their attention turn to him and his company, in turn watched closely by the retinue of griffon warriors half-filling the room.

The herd first paid their respects to King Glimfeather who thanked them for coming so promptly. Path then turned to the dragons, focusing on the larger adult who seemed to be in charge, a ruby-scaled female. “I am Long Path, Lord of the House of Path, and this is my wife, Lady Roseclaw. This is Princess Twilight Sparkle of House Path, and her husband, Lord Free Agent of House Path. I believe that you wanted to meet us?”

The dragon bobbed her head respectfully. “I am Elan Firestone, envoy from the Dragon Lands for my clan. This is my mate, Kiroc Blueshard, and our son, Alac. Also, this is Shaikhan-Gal, daughter of our Matriarch, Incendia.”

“A pleasure to meet you. May I ask why you wanted us here?”

“We have heard rumors of griffons, ponies, and changelings interacting with each other, both here and in Equestria. This is unprecedented and nigh unbelievable, but the tales are myriad and many center upon you. We have been tasked to ascertain the truth of these rumors, and how they might affect the Dragon Lands.”

“And Shaikhan-Gal…?” Path asked with an inclination of his head towards the young golden female.

“Her mother wishes that she broaden her horizons. If she is ever to succeed the Matriarch one day, her education is important.”

The young dragoness spoke up a little sullenly. “If Alac wasn’t with you, I wouldn’t give a curse about this so-called educational visit to this barbaric country,” she said in the draconic tongue.

I think you might be pleasantly surprised by what you might learn here, Cinder,” Path told her in the same language. It was not one of his most fluent, but he had never stopped loving learning languages.

Cinder was startled to realize that Path not only understood her, but could also translate her name, and she began to blush in embarrassment at being caught out.

Firestone face had a hint of a smile. “As I said, she is here to learn, but so are we.” She turned to King Glimfeather. “Your Majesty, our peoples have clashed in the past, but times have changed. Dragons are a long-lived race and we are loathe to change in a hurry, but the wiser among us know that the world won’t wait for us. The Matriarch desires that we investigate what paths are open to us that will stop us from sliding into irrelevancy while retaining our traditional values. From what we have heard, the Griffonian House of Path seems to be an ideal means to do this, and so we wish to petition you to open formal relationships with the Western Dragon Lands.”

Glimfeather nodded gravely. “You have come at a good time in our history, Elan Firestone. Griffonia is opening up to other nations in ways that we never have before. If your heart is truly in your cause, then we may indeed become allies. Your petition is accepted.” He indicated the griff patiently waiting to his left. “This is Ambassador Far Scream. He will be responsible for negotiations between our peoples. Those can begin tomorrow, though. For tonight, I invite you to banquet with us to celebrate.”

Firestone bowed. “We are honored, Your Majesty.” She turned back to Path. “Now that our petition is accepted, I would ask if there might be a place in your school for dragons?”

Path grinned. “House Path is always open to any suitable candidate, irrespective of political relationships or race. We would be delighted to add dragons to the list of species that have come to learn our ways.”

“Excellent. Alac and Shaikhan-Gal shall be your new students, should you accept.”

“What?!” screeched Cinder. “This was supposed to be a short field trip, not banishment to this… place!” The tone she used on the last word conveyed volumes regarding what she thought of Griffonia so far.

Firestone scowled. “Your attitude is unbecoming of the daughter of the Matriarch. It is your mother’s wish that you enroll at House Path’s school and learn to be a warrior-scholar, both for your benefit and the benefit of our tribe. Alac will do the same, so you will not lack for company of another dragon.”

Cinder folded her arms, hunched her shoulders and looked away sullenly. “You tricked me into coming here, but you can’t make me like it.”

Twilight stepped over to the sulking dragon girl and said, “Trust me when I say that if you let yourself open up to the experience, you can not only enjoy it, but you can make good friends, and your life will be so much better for it.”

“Hmmph! What would a mere pony know?” Cinder said contemptuously.

“Shaikhan-Gal! Do not shame us in front of the king and his lords!” Firestone reprimanded.

Twilight merely smiled and said to Cinder’s guardians, “I would like to show her what mere ponies can be. May I borrow her for a few minutes?”

“You have our permission, Princess Sparkle.”

“Thank you.” She turned back Cinder as her horn lit up. A moment later, both disappeared in a soft bang of teleportation.

Path smiled and said, “While we’re waiting for them to return, shall we discuss your son’s enrollment?”

# # #

Twilight and Cinder reappeared at high altitude above the city. The young dragoness squawked and flared her wings to stop herself from falling.

“How did you do that?!” she demanded when she recovered.

Twilight calmly kept level with Cinder and replied, “Magical teleportation. Very useful for travelling fast to either get to places quickly or get out of trouble. Not bad for a mere pony, hey?”

“Did you expect me to be impressed with a mere magic trick?”

“Just this? No, but I’ve only just begun. Look down at the city. What do you see?”

“Lots of buildings, lots of griffons, some ponies… so what? I come from a nomadic tribe that lives in yurts that can be transported. I like it that way.”

“The point is that the griffons have built themselves a civilization from cooperation, but in the past few years after opening up relationships with Equestria, that city has grown greatly. Again, mere ponies have done this.” She neglected to mention that enslaved ponies had helped build much of the city in the first place. There was a time and a place to learn that, and it wasn’t here and now.

“So you like to work a lot; still not impressed.”

“Okay. Would you pick a fight with a griffon warrior?”

“I’m too young to be a warrior yet.”

“If I am judging your age correctly, and I do know a lot about dragons, I would say that you are significantly physically older than my son, Blue Streak, although perhaps psychologically much the same. He is already a warrior-scholar, and has fought in bouts with griffons many times. The average griffon is significantly larger than the average pony too, so how do you think mere ponies fare against them?”

“Ha! You probably teleport away!” Cinder scoffed.

“My son can’t teleport. Neither can the majority of ponies who fought wars with the griffons in the past. Guess who won though?”

“You’re going to tell me that ponies defeated griffons?”

“Every time. However, our greatest achievement wasn’t winning wars, but making them our friends. You know who managed to do that? Lord Path! While we helped and supported him, it was Path who had the vision and the drive to open up relationships with the griffons. A mere pony. We are strong in all the ways that matter, even those that you hold the most dear. You are different from us in many ways, but it’s the ways that we are the same that we embrace. That’s the way of House Path, and that is the word that has been spreading over Equus these past years. That is what has led your Matriarch to look into relationships with us. She understands that ponies are not so mere as you think. She understands that we ponies might change her world, and she does not wish her kind to be left behind.”

Cinder was silent, not able to think of a suitable retort.

“Follow me,” Twilight said as she angled her wings in the direction of House Path.

Dragon and alicorn flew swiftly until they were above the House’s grounds. At that moment, there happened to be a sports event occurring, with the students playing a ball game that had been adapted to be played by multiple species.

“There are some of your future classmates. Besides griffons, there are ponies of all types, thestrals, zebras, deer, and others. In a few short years, House Path has already grown to be a much respected and powerful institute of learning as well as training for some of the best young warriors on Equus. In a few more years, we expect to achieve even more. It’s been an exciting and wonderful time, and you can share in this too. So do you think you might be able to learn from mere ponies?”

Cinder pouted. “I suppose so,” she mumbled. “My mom could still beat you in a real fight though.”

Twilight caught the snarking though, and she grinned. “Remind me to show you someday the mountain that I leveled in my fight with Tirek.” No need to tell her that she was amped up with the power of three other alicorns that day.

Cinder gulped. Right. Don’t piss off the princess. “Can we go back now?”

“Are you prepared to give this a fair go?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Everyone always has a choice. Seeing as your mother is determined that you learn something from us, you can choose to defy her, choose to obey but do nothing to cooperate, or choose to dive in and try to make the best of it. I recommend the latter.”

Cinder sighed. “Okay, I’ll do it. Don’t expect me to like it, but I’ll try.”

“That’s good enough for now,” Twilight said with satisfaction. She powered up her horn, and a moment later they had rejoined the others.

“Shaikhan-Gal has decided to give House Path a try,” Twilight announced happily.

The young dragoness rolled her eyes and sighed. “Just call me Cinder. If I have to fit in here, you might as well start with my name.”

Path said, “Welcome, Cinder.”

Free grinned and put a friendly wing about Cinder. “If you’re feeling a bit down over the next few days, come see me. I’m in charge of morale, and I like to see our students happy.”

Cinder looked askance at the overly cheerful griffon. “Okay,” she said placatingly.

“First things first,” Roseclaw said, brushing Free’s wing off Cinder. “I will settle you and Alac into dorm rooms, after which we will arrange your study schedules. You will begin tomorrow.”

Both Alac and Cinder groaned at that.

Path concealed a smile before turning to Firestone and Blueshard. “While Roseclaw is dealing with the new students, I would like to invite you to look over the House Path facilities before you need to return here.”

“We would like that,” Firestone replied.

Path then faced King Glimfeather. “By your leave, Your Majesty?”

Argent nodded and said, “You are dismissed, Lord Path.”

The herd bowed and started to leave the throne room. The dragons followed suit, the sinuous bodies of the adults smoothly but barely squeezing through the doorway, and soon they were outside. Path activated his magitek wings and took off, to the surprise of the dragons who had taken it to be some sort of ceremonial outfit. Nevertheless they quickly took off after him and they all made their way back to the House.

# # #

A little over a week later, Cinder flew up to meet Alac at the top of the ridge overlooking the House’s estate. She settled down beside him without a word, just observing the students below engaged in various activities.

Alac put up with the silence only briefly before asking, “So why did you want to meet me?”

“When do you think our parents will stop this stupid joke and let us come home?” she replied.

“Are you still complaining about that? This isn’t a joke. We’re supposed to be learning stuff here, especially you. I admit that I wasn’t happy with the idea at first either, but they’ve got some pretty interesting things going on here, and I’m kind of liking it.”

“Are you kidding me? What’s so great about this? How is any of this going to make me a clan leader someday? All I need to learn is back in the Dragon Lands!”

Alac rolled his eyes. “Have you even paid any attention to the lessons we’ve learned this week? The world is changing, and dragons have got to learn how to change with it. The Matriarch knows this, and she also knows that it’s us young dragons who need to learn how.”

Cinder sighed in resignation, remembering what Twilight had said to her. “It wouldn’t be so bad if things were more exciting around here.”

“You’re looking for excitement? Why aren’t you going to this afternoon’s tournament?”

“What tournament?”

Alac gave her a look of disbelief. “The exhibition tournament which is why we have this afternoon free, dummy! Aren’t you paying attention to anything?”

“Oh, that,” Cinder replied, although she barely recalled hearing it mentioned. “What’s so interesting about that tournament?”

“Some of the more advanced students will be having duels with some of the professional fighters. The students get to show or test their skills, and get more practice. The pros get to prove that they’re worthy fighters. Apparently the House Path students have been getting a reputation for toughness, so there’s a good deal of friendly rivalry between them.”

“Sounds vaguely interesting,” Cinder said in a semi-bored tone, when in actuality she was quite excited at the prospect of seeing some good fights. She was hardly going to admit it to Alac though. “When do they start?”

“Very soon,” Alac replied, getting to his feet. “In fact I was going to leave without you if you weren’t interested. Come on, we have to hustle if we’re going to get a decent place to watch from.”

Cinder let Alac lead the way, matching his fast pace. They encountered some resistance from the griffs controlling entry because they were dragons, but displaying their House Path student cards near magically cleared the way. They were directed to a section of the arena seating where other students were already gathered, and they found themselves suitable places to sit.

“Hey, Goldie – down in front!” came a voice from immediately behind Cinder.

The dragoness turned around and scowled at the pegasus who had spoken. “My name is Cinder, not Goldie.”

“Whatever! Just get your wings out of the view.”

Cinder growled but tightly furled her leathery wings close to her body, and then turned her attention back to the arena. If the fights had not been about to start, she might have let the smart-flank know just what she thought of him.

Cinder had forgotten about the pegasus by the time several matches had been fought, so caught up in the excitement that she barely noticed when a blue earth pony trotted out onto the arena floor. Up until then, the fights had all been griffon versus griffon. This looked like it was going to be the first pony fight. Cinder fully expected another pony to be matched up against the first, but was startled when two large griffons flew down into the arena.

The master of ceremonies started making his announcement to the crowd. “Today we have a treat for you. In the first of three exhibition matches with Blue Streak, he has accepted Starscream and Badaxe's challenge to a duel. I hope you are as excited as I am. Will we see the young pony make them eat dirt, or will our doughty warriors finally teach this upstart colt a lesson? Are you ready for this?”

The crowd yelled in excitement, but Cinder started laughing uproariously.

“What’s so funny?” the pegasus asked her with a look of puzzled annoyance.

“Funny? Look at him! He’s half the size of those griffons, and you expect me to take this comedy act seriously?”

The pegasus started chuckling. “You haven’t been here long, have you? That’s Blue Streak, Master Warfist’s favorite student.”

“Who’s Warfist?”

The pegasus looked at her as if she had grown two extra heads. “Seriously? Haven’t you had any combat classes with him yet?”

“Next week, I think? So what?”

“Heh! You’re in for a shock. The point is: the fight isn’t a joke. Those griffs are in for a real fight.”

“Ha! He won’t last a minute.”

“I’ll make a bet with you that he not only lasts, but he’ll win.”

“I’ll take that bet. What’s the stakes?”

“If he wins, you have to ask him out on a date.”

Cinder blinked in surprise before she started smirking. “I’ll not only ask him out on a date, but if he wins all three of these matches they mentioned, I’ll pay for it all out of my hoard!”

Their talk had attracted the attention of the other students around them, and there was quite a stir when she said that. A dragon parting with even a small portion of her hoard meant she was very serious.

“Umm, Cinder,” Alac said, poking her with a claw to try to get her attention. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” While Cinder was talking with the pegasus, he had been watching the combatants. They had taken up positions at the sides of the arena about equidistant from each other, and he saw how appraisingly they had been assessing their opponents. Those griffs were taking the fight very seriously.

Cinder ignored Alac though, and continued saying, “However, if the pony loses, you have to ask him for a date while I’m there watching. Once for each time he loses.”

The pegasus colt gave her a funny look before laughing. “Okay, that’s weird, but I’ll accept that bet, and everyone here is our witness. The same goes for you, too - three wins, three dates! Now turn around; the match is about to start!”

The duel drum boomed out at that moment, and the griffons shot towards their foe. The pony waited for them until they were two thirds of the way before taking off. Before Cinder could blink, Blue Streak had circled behind one of the griffs and launched into a flying kick. The professional duelist was not so easily fooled though, and a wing flick sent the pony flying away… straight into the other griff’s flank.

“Ooh! That’s gotta smart,” the pegasus said. “Blue tricked the first griff into catapulting him into the second griff.”

Cinder’s eyes were practically bulging out of their sockets in shock. “What the…? How can anypony move so fast? That’s impossible!”

The pegasus tore his eyes from the fight long enough to give her a gloating glance. “That’s Blue’s special talent. Nopony in history has ever moved as fast as him. When he first started doing these exhibition matches, he lost a few, but under Master Warfist’s guidance, his combat skills have grown so much that no challenger has beaten him in over a year. The pros keep lining up to challenge him though because any griff who manages to beat Blue is going to be a big shot in the leagues for a long time.”

“He’s just a colt!” Cinder feebly protested.

“He’s a colt who has fought in the Crystal Kingdom War. Goldie, you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life betting against him.”

With growing horror, Cinder was beginning to agree with him. She watched as the fight continued, but even when the griffons worked in tandem, the best that they managed was the occasional glancing blow that Blue Streak barely noticed. He, on the other hoof, kept dancing around the slower griffons, darting through their defenses before they could react, and pulling back out of reach again. It became evident that he was toying with them, but eventually he stopped playing and backed far away while both were off balance. He lined them up and took off like a shot before dropping and skidding through their legs, throwing them both to the ground. Before they could get to their feet, Blue returned to tap them on their heads, symbolically ‘killing’ them. The duel drum signaled the end of the bout, and the crowd erupted in cheers while the vanquished griffons got to their feet, chagrined by their loss. They paused to congratulate Blue before exiting the arena.

Alac said, “Careful, Cinder – you’re drooling.”

Cinder snapped her jaws shut, but she was still overwhelmed by the fight. “That was… impressive,” she admitted.

“One date down, two to go,” the pegasus could not help but rub it in.

“He hasn’t won those fights yet!” she protested.

She might as well have not bothered. The second bout was against a single griffon, but one with even greater skill in unarmed combat, and with very fast reflexes. It did not matter to Blue though – no one could match his speed and reaction time. The third bout was against a visiting minotaur wrestler. Ironically this bout lasted longest because even though he was knocked down frequently, the tough bull kept bouncing back up with a roar or a laugh, or a roaring laugh. He was enjoying himself, and the crowd was entertained too. Eventually the minotaur was actually knocked out, and the match was finally over.

Cinder tried making a quick exit from the arena, but the pegasus’ outstretched wing blocked her way.

“You can ask for the first of those dates right now,” he said with a smug grin.

She looked about and saw that all the other students who had been within earshot all looking at her with smiles on their faces. She sighed as she realized that she had no way out, and she surrendered to the inevitable. She turned around and headed towards the edge of the arena where Blue Streak was moving toward an exit. Before he could disappear down the tunnel, she called out to him.

“Blue Streak! Could I talk to you for a moment?”

Blue turned towards her voice and smiled in recognition. “Hey, you’re one of the new dragon students, aren’t you? Alac, is it?”

The misidentification annoyed Cinder, but she was keenly aware of the many eyes upon her. “No, that’s the male student. My name is Cinder.”

Blue caught the emphasis on the ‘male’ and he grinned. “What can I do for you, Cinder?”

Gritting her teeth, she took a deep breath and said, “I was wondering if you’d like to go on a date with me?”

Blue looked amused. “A dragoness wants a date with a pony? Now why would you want that?”

“Let’s just say that I was overwhelmed by your battle skills.”

“Lost a bet, then?” he said with a smirk.

Cinder cringed but refused to acknowledge his correct guess. “Well, how about it? My treat.”

Blue’s smirk just got broader. “Well, if you put it like that, how can I refuse? Sure, I’ll go on a date with you. When would you like to do that?”

Cinder thought the sooner the better to get it over with. “How about tonight?”

Blue shook his head. “It’s Friday – can’t miss the usual social night.”

“What social night?” Cinder asked with a puzzled look.

Blue was surprised. “You’ve been here over a week, so you were here for last Friday. That social.”

“Oh. I… wasn’t there.” The last thing that she wanted then was to rub shoulders with so many ponies and griffons, so she had gone off to the woods to hunt up some small prey instead.

“So you don’t know what you missed? Tell you what – you turn up there tonight and I’ll tell you when and where we’ll go on the date so you can pay off your bet.”

Cinder was trapped, so she nodded. “Okay,” she replied with a total lack of enthusiasm.

Blue chuckled and waved. “Seeya!”

Cinder watched him trot off so confident and energetic. She sighed. ‘At least I’m not stuck dating a wimp.’ She turned around to see Alac laughing his head off. She glared at him and said, “It’s your fault this happened. If you hadn’t brought me here, I would never have seen that damn pony!”

Alac managed to contain his laughter long enough to reply. “Stop being so sulky and pay attention to what’s happening, or else it’s going to happen again. Maybe if you learn something tonight, the date might be enjoyable. And the two more after that!” He started chuckling again.

Cinder growled and left just as quickly as she could.

# # #

After the organization and quiet discipline of the normal student meal times, the Friday night social was something of a shock to Cinder. She just stopped and stared in disbelief as students, teachers, and nobles seemed to be interacting with a total blatant disregard for proper status and dignity. Her eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets when she recognized King Glimfeather joking with the pegasus student who had made the bet with her. She wondered if he was telling the griffon monarch about the bet, and she decided to try to avoid him to spare herself some humiliation. She spotted Alac chatting with a group of ponies, and wondered if she should join him, but before she could do so, she was approached by another familiar face.

“I heard that you aren’t interested in my art classes,” Free said with a disappointed expression.

Cinder bowed her head and said, “I’m afraid I’m not the artistic type, Lord Free.”

“Whoa! Hasn’t anyone told you that there’s no rank at these events? It’s just Free, okay? And anyway, how do you know if you’re not artistic if you don’t at least give it a try?”

Cinder shrugged. “I never felt the inclination.”

“Tell you what – try a couple of my classes and see what it’s like before you give up on it.”

Cinder dithered, not really wanting to, but neither wanting to insult one of the lords of House Path. Before she could work up a response though, Blue Streak walked up.

“Hi, Dad! I see you found my date.”

“Hard to miss, Streak. I was just trying to persuade her to try my art class.”

Cinder stared in shock. “Dad?!” she blurted out.

Blue grinned. “Yeah, one of them anyway. I have two moms also. House Path adopted me.”

Cinder felt dizzy. She was not only dating a warrior, but a future lord of House Path?

Free poked her in the shoulder with a claw and it elicited no reaction. “I think you broke her, son.”

Blue chuckled. “Just wait until we go out on the date!”

“I’ll leave you two to enjoy the evening,” Free replied with a broad grin. “I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”

Blue put a hoof on Cinder’s shoulder and urged her in the direction of a mixed group of ponies and griffons who were chatting animatedly. “Come on, Goldie, I want you to meet some friends of mine.”

Cinder snapped out of her daze, irritated at the nickname. “The name is Cinder, not Goldie!”

“Better tell everyone else that then. You’ve been so reclusive, nopony and nogriff knows much about you. Time to change that.”

“But I don’t want to!” she whined.

“Too bad. Now try to make a good impression,” Blue replied as he firmly pushed her into the group. “Hey, guys – meet Cinder, my date for tomorrow night.”

Cinder was surprised by the welcome that they all gave her, and she managed a smile in response.

One griffon hen asked, “Where are you going to take her?”

“I’ve made a booking at The Warrior’s Feast.”

“Ooh, that’s not cheap.”

“She’s paying,” Blue said smugly.

They all looked surprised. “A dragon paying for both of the meals? What’s the catch?”

Cinder spoke up hastily, “It’s a reward for his magnificent victories in the arena today.”

Blue looked at her with a broad grin, but allowed her to get away with the face-saving lie.

While the others were still doubtful, they did not know enough about dragons to dispute her reason. They started asking questions about her and where she came from, and Cinder was glad to put the subject of the date aside.

It was with great surprise when dinner was announced and Cinder realized that she had been getting quite involved with the conversation. She was startled once again when everyone took up whatever table position that they felt like, and she spotted King Argent seated between two youngsters – a pony and a griffon – and having quite an animated conversation with them. She could not reconcile this with her world view, and wandered in a daze until she found the buffet table with carnivore fare. Her rumbling stomach finally brought her attention back, and she loaded up a plate. As she headed for the tables, she started smiling as she considered the pile of meat on her plate. She wondered how her pony date would react to her gorging on that? There weren’t any seating spots near him though, so she decided it could wait for the date. In fact, that could be even better, and with a bit of luck, he might not want the other two dates she was obligated to ask for if she played it right. She set to eating her meal with a growing sense of wicked anticipation.

# # #

When Cinder went to bed that evening, she lay awake for a while pondering the social event. After a lifetime of dealing with strict status protocols, she thought that it would be much the same in Griffonia, and the griffons that she had initially met had done little to change that opinion. Tonight her expectations had been shattered as nobles mingled with commoners, teachers chatted and laughed with students, and royalty played with foals. What bizarre circumstances had she been dropped into? Someday she was destined to be Matriarch of her tribe and as such had to be strongly aware of the laws and customs of her people, but she had been forced to stay here and told to learn about this madness!

So why did she find herself liking it?

Cinder sighed and tried to calm her whirling thoughts. It didn’t help that Blue Streak’s grinning face kept popping into her mind, but she countered it with thoughts of the stunt that she planned to pull. With a satisfied smile, she finally dropped off to sleep.

# # #

Blue Streak had told Cinder to wait for him at the front door of the House mansion. Now that she knew that he lived there with his family, it wasn’t such a surprise, but she still found it a bit daunting that she would be dating the son of the four Lords and Ladies of the House. Her political awareness made her realize that she couldn’t afford to offend the family, but her plan should not cause that problem.

Blue turned up right on time, and he was wearing something that Cinder had seen on a few griffons before.

“What’s that all about?” she asked.

“It’s my status cape. It’s a bit of a silly showy thing, I admit, but since we’re going to a fairly fancy restaurant, I thought I’d dress up for a change.”

“Does that mean I should have dressed up somehow too?” Cinder asked doubtfully. Aside from jewelry of various kinds, dragons did not usually dress up at all.

“Don’t worry about it, Goldie. There’s no dress code, and you look spectacular enough as it is.”

“The name’s Cinder, not Goldie,” she growled through her teeth.

Blue just grinned maddeningly before he replied, “We’d better get going. Our reservation is in ten minutes.”

“What?! How are we getting there in time? I don’t even know where it is other than in the city, but even if I did know, I could fly there in five minutes, but I’m not carrying you!”

“It’s a hundred yards south of the arena gate. Painted red and blue. Got crossed battle axes painted on the roof. Can’t miss it. I’ll wait for you there.”

You’ll wait for me? What do you… mean…?” Cinder found herself staring in shock at a rapidly disappearing Blue Streak hurtling up the road towards the city. “By the shell – that’s impossible,” she whispered before shaking herself and hastily taking off in pursuit.

Finding the restaurant was as easy as Blue had said it would be, and sure enough the young stallion was there waiting for her, not even breathing hard or showing the slightest sign of sweating.

“I’ve let them know we’re here already, so shall we get seated?”

He even had the time to spare for that before she got there? Sweet heavens, could he get any more astounding? And smug. Definitely smug. She hoped she could wipe that smile off his face soon.

They entered the restaurant and were immediately led to their table. The waiter, a rather gaudy parrot/puma griffon, passed a menu to Cinder, but merely asked Blue, “Will you be having the usual, Blue Streak?”

“You know me, Gaylord; I can’t pass it up.”

“Very good. Would madam want some time to consider her order?” he asked Cinder.

Cinder had already spotted what she wanted though. “Sirloin steak, your largest cut please.”

“And how would you like it cooked?”

“Rare. Barely heated to body temperature.”

“A popular choice. Any sides with that?”

“Any sapphire seasoned fries?”

“Alas, we have no jewel foods or condiments as we don’t generally have dragon customers,” Gaylord replied with genuine regret. “May I suggest our chili fries instead? They are a favorite of many of our clients.”

“Those will do,” Cinder conceded.

Gaylord retrieved Cinder’s menu. “I will have the drinks waiter attend you soon.” He then headed to the kitchen to place their orders.

Cinder said, “Gaylord, hey? You come here often enough to know the staff by name, and to have a meal that you always order. I didn’t realize that you had that much money to spare.”

Blue shrugged. “I don’t actually, but this restaurant is one of my parents’ faves, so I get to eat here often.”

“I see. You’re full of surprises, like the way you ran here in a few minutes.”

“Kind of slow for me. I have to dodge too much traffic to make really good time.”

Cinder wanted to bash her head on the table. Slow?! He had to be yanking her tail. “So how fast can you go without traffic? What’s your top speed?”

“I don’t know – I haven’t reached it yet, but I’ve been measured at Mach 1.3 so far.”

“What in the heavens does Mach mean?”

“Oh. Mach One is the speed of sound. Once you break the sound barrier, you often measure speed as a multiple of the speed of sound for convenience,” Blue replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

Cinder stared at him for a long moment before bursting into laughter. “Good one, Blue Streak. You had me going there for a while.”

Blue just gave her one of those infuriating knowing smiles. “So, besides making bad bets, what else have you been doing since you came here?”

Cinder’s mood soured instantly. “Trying to figure out a way to get back home, actually.”

“Oh, come on! I saw you enjoying yourself at times last night. It can’t all be that bad.”

“You try dealing with being dumped in a strange land hundreds of miles from your family and friends.”

Blue’s expression got serious. “At least you have a family to go home to eventually. My birth parents were killed when I was a young colt. I had only an aunt who fed me and gave me a place to sleep, but wasn’t really a parent. That’s what it was like for me for years until Lord Path and his family took me in and adopted me. That’s what House Path is like, Cinder. You can feel at home here too if you try.”

Cinder was chagrined to be essentially chided by a pony who had not seemed to be able to take anything particularly seriously until now. She did not know how to respond to that, and there was an uncomfortable silence for a while until the drinks waiter turned up to take their orders.

After the waiter departed, Blue eventually spoke up. “You’ve got two more dates with me, so how about I use them to show you how to enjoy your stay here?”

She frowned and asked, “How did you know that I was going to ask you for two more dates?”

Blue’s smirk returned. “Half the school knows by now that you bet against me and what the stakes were.”

Cinder groaned. Her ploy to discourage him had better work.

Blue chuckled before noticing their server returning with a covered tray. “Looks like your meal is coming. That’s the advantage of having your steak rare – it doesn’t take long.”

Cinder was dismayed; he was acting too casual about it. Gaylord placed the tray on the table and removed the lid. He then placed a plate with a huge steak on it in front of Cinder, plus a bowl of seasoned fries. She licked her lips in anticipation before thanking Gaylord who gave her a smile and small bow before leaving.

“Don’t wait for me,” Blue commented.

Cinder had no intention of doing so. Eschewing the cutlery, she picked up the steak in her talons and ripped off a chunk of meat. She deliberately made a production of chewing the steak, letting some of its bloody juices dribble down her chin. ‘Let’s see the grass-eater deal with this!’ she thought to herself smugly.

Blue just rolled his eyes at the display before his own meal turned up. Gaylord uncovered the tray and served up a large plate of food.

“Thanks, Gaylord,” Blue said. “It looks great as always.”

Cinder stopped eating as she stared in surprise at the tenderloin steak with mushroom gravy that was served with roasted vegetables. Her dropped even further as Blue cut off a chunk, put it in his mouth, and chewed with a blissful expression. “But… ponies can’t eat meat!” she protested.

Blue waved his fork in disagreement until he swallowed his mouthful. “Correction – ponies can eat meat. It’s just that most don’t and are too repulsed to even try. As long as there isn’t too much fat, it’s perfectly acceptable for us. Papa Path and I have it quite often.”

Cinder was too stunned by that revelation to reply. She had been counting on disgusting him with her blatant carnivorous display, but instead of being so turned off by the bloody meal that he’d call off the date and perhaps the others, he was relishing a steak of his own! Was nothing normal about this pony? She put down her steak and sighed.

“By the way,” Blue continued, and pointed with his fork, “If you look around, you’ll see several griffons eating their steaks just like you. Did you really think I was going to get turned off by a dragoness doing the same?”

Cinder looked around and finally noticed that he was right. How blind and stupid she had been! She had been too focused on her ‘clever’ plan that she didn’t even see what was right under her muzzle. She sighed again. “Round one to you, Blue Streak.”

Blue chuckled. “Finish your steak, Goldie. After all, you’re paying for it.”

Cinder glumly did just that, too dispirited to even correct his use of that nickname. Just two little bright spots remained – the steak was delicious, and at least she wasn’t eating it with some grass-eating wimp.

# # #

The meal had been completed with only a little more conversation exchanged, and the duo stepped out into the street with full stomachs. Cinder had winced a bit when paying for the meals, but while they had not been cheap, she consoled herself with the thought that at least Blue had not insisted on one of the really expensive high-class restaurants. For a member of one of the most influential Griffonian Houses, he had decidedly middle-class tastes.

“I think this qualifies as completing the first date, so I’ll let you escape,” Blue Streak said cheerfully. “However, I’m going to pick you up at nine tomorrow morning for the second.”

“Wait… what?” Cinder asked in confusion. She had not even considered the second date as yet.

“See all the tents down the road?” Blue indicated with his hoof.

There were brightly colored tents lining the street as far as she could see. “Yes?”

“Tomorrow is Kilkarn Street Festival, and we’re going to spend the day there.”

All day?” she asked with dread.

Blue’s smile just grew wider. “I’m going to show you how to enjoy this city even if it kills me.”

“I could save you that effort,” she offered helpfully.

“And miss out on all the fun? Pass. Catch you tomorrow. Don’t be late!”

With that, Blue Streak dashed off.

Cinder groaned. How could he run like that with such a full stomach? With no small effort, she launched herself into the air to take a more leisurely trip back to her dormitory. She didn’t feel like doing anything else except sleeping off the huge meal that she had just eaten.

# # #

Cinder was annoyed with herself. She had started the day with deciding what she would do on the date while she ate her breakfast. Blue Streak had arrived promptly, and they had ridden a cart into the city. Cinder had expected him to run and she to fly like yesterday, but apparently riding a cider cart was considered one way to make a fitting entrance at this festival, and the large mug of non-alcoholic cider that they each got to drink along the way was enjoyable. It probably helped to contribute to why she was annoyed. Her ploy was to make the experience as frustrating and unpleasant as possible for Blue, but she was rapidly distracted from that goal. She was enjoying herself, damn it!

Until now, she had been content with the nomadic tribal lifestyle of her clan. Today though, the festival was opening her eyes to all the different ways to celebrate and enjoy life. The colors and the music buoyed her up. The games of skill excited her, and stage shows enthralled her. Exotic snack foods tantalized her taste buds, and wild rides almost made her throw it all up again. She totally forgot her intention to be miserable, and when the festival finally closed and they headed back to the House, she quietly walked alongside Blue with a happy smile on her face.

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