Ember Goes to the Spa

by Starscribe

First published

Ember doesn't think ponies have anything to offer. Spike takes her to the spa to show her ponies may be able to offer more than she bargained for.

Becoming Dragon Lord has brought a wave of new responsibilities for Ember, none of which she enjoys. The first of these tasks are the formal negotiations with Equestria, which will either formalize peace between the two nations or else be the start of a deadly war. She's pretty sure it's going to be the former, but if she has to sit through another awful meeting, she may change her mind.

Spike offers her an alternative: visit the spa.

Written as a minific commission by Vilken666 on my Patreon. Fluff isn't really my genre, but I took my best crack at it anyway. This was the result. Credit for the fantastic cover goes to Zutcha, as usual.

Relaxation Services

"So, how'd you like your first day in Ponyville?" Spike asked, approaching Ember with the nervous steps of a dragon who knows he's probably gone where he shouldn't.

It was only the first day of Ember's formal negotiations on behalf of the dragons. She looked far worse than she had after becoming Dragon Lord. Spike had seen this kind of expression on the faces of many guests to Twilight's Castle of Friendship, particularly when they came for diplomatic purposes.

Ember wasn't alone. A half dozen of the other young dragons had accompanied her on the trip, serving as honor-guards and diplomats. Yet for as impressive as dragons could be in the field of battle, they were thoroughly unprepared for the battlefields of diplomacy. There ponies were the undisputed champions, as evidenced by Twilight's cheerful expression as she made her way out of the great hall, followed by several scribes and functionaries. She looked as though she'd just spent a relaxing day reshelving books. Ember, on the other claw, slumped over the back of her chair, resting the scepter on her lap and looking like she'd just lost a fight with a volcano. She didn't even seem to have heard Spike.

Ember's other dragons had abandoned her, flown off to who knew what mischief until the next morning. Spike didn't doubt they'd be off causing chaos somewhere, but he felt no desire to join them. Spike had learned his lesson well during his first adventure trying to fit in with the young of his kind. Most dragons were brutish barbarians, and didn't care if their amusements hurt others.

But Ember was different. Spike reached down, setting down a tall glass frosted over with ice on the edge of the table in front of her. It was lemonade, though tiny splinters of sapphire floated in it. Each one chilled the throat and mouth when swallowed, making it one of the most refreshing things he'd ever tasted. "Here, this will make you feel better."

Ember finally seemed to see him. She reached forward with fumbling claws until she eventually grasped the glass, then sloshed it around as she lifted it for a sip. "This better..." She trailed off as she tasted its contents, visibly relaxing. She drank quietly for nearly a minute, seeming to come alive with each successive sip.

Spike grinned proudly to himself as he watched, feeling satisfied. Yes, ponies and dragons were very different beings, but the skills he'd learned as an assistant could work just as well for either one. It was only the trappings that ever changed.

"I don't know how you cope with this, Spike," Ember eventually said, setting the glass back down on the table. She didn't seem to realize she'd spilled, and some would dribble down onto the mountain of scrolls and papers in front of her. Spike deftly slid the glass a little further away from the treaties and other important legal documents she might've accidentally damaged. "I don't understand how they haven't all murdered each other by now. If everything they do takes so much talking... what stops them from going crazy? If this was a dragon meeting, we would've had a duel in the first ten minutes and whoever won would've made all the decisions. What's so hard about that?"

"Ponies aren't big on duels," Spike said. "Though they do like contests. You might be able to get them to agree to one of those if you wanted. Just... probably not any of the skills we dragons usually have." Spike winced as he remembered his experiences with dragon contests. Both hadn't been what he would've called "positive."

Ember's expression darkened, and she downed the rest of the lemonade before he spoke. Her voice was very quiet then, as though she didn't want to be overheard. Spike swelled with pride that she was trusting her opinion to him over the dragons she had brought with her. "Spike, I don't know how I'm going to make it a whole week in this place. At the end there, I just wanted to burn it all. Maybe a good war would make us feel better."

"Uh... maybe it wouldn't!" Spike said. "I know meetings are boring, but you shouldn't go to war because of it!"

Ember eyed him, genuine confusion on her face. "Why not? It's worked just fine for us, and dragons have been around a lot longer than 'Equestria.' Sure, we might not have all the fancy books they do, or waste time building castles... but there are dragons older than this whole civilization. They're the ones doing things wrong, not us."

"Well, uhh..." Spike retreated a step, his words more desperate as he began to panic. "If you did that, you'd lose out on all the wonderful things ponies have to offer! I think if you knew what you'd be giving up, you'd never want to fight them!"

The Dragon Lord rose, stretching and slinging the staff over one shoulder. She watched him with increasing skepticism. "Really? What could they possibly offer? And don't you start on any of the 'teaching us about friendship' crap, because I already heard that. Let's just say it didn't impress me. Me making friends was one thing, but I don't see many of the others being interested. I know plenty who would rather make food out of ponies than friends."

Spike didn't say anything to that, and he hoped that Ember wouldn't be repeating it around town either. It had taken him years before the comparatively backward ponies of Ponyville had finally accepted him into the village. He didn't want to go back to the days of mothers pulling their foals close whenever he walked by. "Well, uh... how about a trip to the spa! Twilight and her friends always go after a stressful day, and they always seem to come back feeling refreshed! I bet if we left right now, we could get you in before they close!"

"Spa," Ember repeated, saying the word slowly. "What is a... spa?"

"I'll show you!" Spike took hold of one of her claws, tugging her towards the doors. Ember looked like she might be about to protest, but ultimately, she stopped fighting and followed alongside him. "Alright, Spike, I'll trust you. But if this turns out to be one of those sissy pony things, where you sing songs and make each other flower necklaces, I'm going to be very unhappy."

* * *

Ponyville was abuzz with news about the conference, but none of the ponies gave them any trouble. It was true that Spike was a familiar face around town, but Ember wasn't. Anypony who saw them coming promptly found a good reason to be going the other way. Fortunately, Ember didn't seem to notice—if the dragon could even see their social cues, she was content to ignore them.

Spike knew from experience that Aloe and Lotus's spa was most active in the mornings and afternoons, then slowed down as ponies went home with their families for meals and other activities. So, he wasn't surprised to see the place almost deserted when they finally reached it, and he held the door for the Dragon Lord.

Ember stopped in the doorway as she entered, sniffing suspiciously. "What is that smell?"

"All kinds of things, miss," Lotus Blossom said from behind the counter. "Essential oils, herbs, anything and everything it takes to help a pony run down by the day relax." The lobby was empty of all but her, and the earth pony had put down a colorful magazine as they entered. To her credit, she didn't show even the smallest sign of fear at Ember's presence.

"Well, I'm not a pony," Ember said, gruff. "But my friend here thinks this place is pretty great. I guess I'm going to give it a chance."

"You won't be disappointed, miss," Lotus said, stepping out from behind the counter. "Uh, Spike dear, did you have anything specific in mind for your friend?"

"Well, I'm guessing you don't offer a lava facial or gemstone scrub," he said.

Lotus betrayed her first sign of distress, glancing nervously away. "No, I am afraid we do not. But we have cared for many exotic clients. I am sure we can find a treatment to suit your taste, miss..."

"Ember," she said, waving one claw dismissively. "Just call me Ember."

"Ember, right..." Lotus said. "Well miss Ember, the lockers are through there." She gestured to the door. "Stow your, uh... once you've put your things away, we can get started."

Lotus hurried away towards one of the two doors, holding it open for Ember.

The dragon turned to glare at him over her shoulder. "This better be good," she hissed. "If you've dragged me all the way to a frou-frou pony pleasure palace..."

Spike shook his head, though he matched her whisper. "It's not like that! Even the toughest, bravest ponies I know come in here! If even somepony as cool as Rainbow Dash likes it, I'm sure you will too!" I hope.

"I better," she whispered back, before following Lotus into the lockers.

Spike didn't follow, though he did stick around to pay.

"My friend really needs to enjoy herself," Spike said as he handed over the bits, failing to conceal his fear. "She's really, uh... it would be really bad if she didn't."

"Do not worry yourself, dear," Aloe said. "I'm quite certain she will leave as refreshed as any other customer." She pointed at the sign on the wall behind her, proclaiming the “money-back guarantee of total relaxation.” "Will you be joining her, or waiting here for her to be finished?"

Spike thought about it for a few seconds, considering the war Ember had (hopefully) suggested as a joke. Then he pushed several more bits into the pile. "I think I could use a little relaxation myself. Ember can be a little temperamental, so... probably best for me to be close, just in case."

"Of course, of course," Aloe said, gesturing for him to follow. "Your satisfaction is important too, dear. Serving a princess during such a momentous time in Equestria's history must be quite the chore."

"You have no idea," Spike muttered, following her into the lockers.

Despite all his fears, things went well at first. The spa ponies cranked the water as hot as it would go, and that was almost as good as lava. Better even, once they added the lavender and tea tree oil. It was true, Spike would've been terribly embarrassed to share this place with almost any other dragon he'd ever met. But Ember seemed to be able to appreciate it. She stopped complaining very quickly, and soon was sipping a refreshing beverage and enjoying the same scale-polish and claw-trim Spike always asked for during his visits.

The last part was always what Spike looked forward to the most: the massage. By then the spa was closing, more and more of the rooms they passed were dark and apparently empty, and the light of late evening was streaming in through the windows. I hope Twilight doesn't mind that I took Ember here. I wonder if I should've told here where I was going... Twilight was smart, she would figure it out. Anyway, it was too hard to think about his worries with Aloe working all the stiffness out of his muscles.

Ember had insisted that Spike go first, so she waited on a nearby chair, looking much happier than she had after the conference, but still skeptical. "I don't understand why ponies would invent something where they lay down and get beaten up."

"Oh, most of our customers don't require such a firm hoof," Aloe said, looking up from her work. Spike didn't really notice. As much as he knew this diplomatic mission was important, it was hard to think straight about anything. "But dragons are tough—we know how to cater to every customer." She rose, moving away from Spike. "How's that, dear? Better?"

"Much, thanks!" He sat up, then got out of the way. "Go on, Ember! I know you'll enjoy it!"

Ember grunted, rising slowly and depositing her towel on the edge of her chair. She lay down on her belly, and Spike had to scold himself for looking a little too long. Don't even think about it, Spike. You know she's way too important to be interested in you.

"How does that feel, dear? Is that the right amount of pressure?" Spike was barely listening. Aloe appeared to be working on Ember's back, exactly as she had been doing for him a moment earlier.

Spike took Ember's empty seat, folding his claws and waiting for Ember to be finished.

"Have you started yet?" Ember asked. "I can't feel anything."

"Oh, of course." Aloe brought her hooves down in harsh, exaggerated movements, hard enough that her tough hooves might've seriously bruised a pony's back.

At the very least, it seemed like the trip to the spa had worked. Somehow, he doubted that Ember had been serious with her rantings about a war with Equestria, but he couldn't ever be quite sure. Maybe he'd get another statue.

"Nothing." Ember rolled onto her side, annoyed. "This isn't doing anything. Are you sure it works on dragons?"

Aloe retreated a step, frowning. "I don't know if I can be any harder, miss..." Then her expression brightened. "But I know somepony who can. One moment, I'll get him." She hurried off, leaving the two of them alone for the moment.

"We don't need to stick around." Ember sat up at once. "I get it, they're not tough enough to handle a dragon. I already knew ponies couldn’t handle us."

Spike shook his head. "Not yet! Aloe said she was getting somepony... you should have the full experience!"

The door to the massage parlor opened less than a minute later, Aloe hurrying back with an urgent expression on her face. She held the door open, but nopony else came through it. Instead, one came through the wall.

Bulk Biceps was one of the few ponies Spike knew who could seem intimidating even to a dragon. He shook the wood and plaster of the damaged wall off around him. The pegasus didn’t have a scratch on him.

Aloe winced, and spoke with a deliberate, forced tone in her voice. "Miss Ember, this is Bulk Biceps. If my massage wasn't firm enough, his will be."

Ember looked up from the bed, eyes widening a little as she saw Bulk Biceps. "You're... a pony?" she asked. "I've never seen..."

"Yeah!" he responded, shouting from less than a foot away. "Most ponies don't understand the importance of personal health!"

Ember opened her mouth like she was about to object, then shrugged and rolled back into position. "Whatever. Do whatever you came to do."

Spike winced, getting out of his way. Bulk Biceps hardly even saw him, and probably would've knocked him right over if he hadn't moved. As he walked, the floor of the parlor seemed to shake. I wonder how often he forgets to use the door?

"Most ponies say I'm too aggressive," Bulk said, apparently thinking he was speaking quietly. He wasn't. "Say something if this is too hard, okay?"

Ember nodded absently. "I wouldn't worry, pony. I probably won't even feel—" She trailed off as the muscular pegasus slammed himself into her back with one shoulder, with the force of an earth pony trying to settle a fence. The table wobbled, barely holding upright, and Spike heard a sound like bones breaking.

He winced, expecting to hear Ember's angry shouts, maybe pony screams as fire engulfed the spa. Instead all he saw was his friend begin to smile, Ember exhaling as though Bulk Biceps had just removed an enormous weight she was carrying. "First flames of heaven," she muttered, barely loud enough for Spike to hear as the pegasus lifted himself up for another blow. "I've never felt—" He didn't get to hear whatever she'd never felt, not over the volume of another strike.

This time he didn't look away in fear, and he was able to see the sound he'd taken for bones breaking was just the cracking of tired joints in her back.

Bulk took to the air with the buzzing of his pathetic wings, and started attacking Ember's back with his hooves with all the vigor he was known for. Strength that could've broken the bones of a pony without Bulk's special talent seemed like just the right amount of force to make a dragon like Ember relax.

Less than an hour later, and they were making their way back to Twilight's Friendship Castle, and the diplomatic lodgings within. Lotus had sent the two of them on their way with a few relaxing glasses of chilled melon juice flavored with spices. It was a pony relaxation, but even Ember hadn't complained. She no longer looked like she might be about to snap at the next pony who dared talk to her, either.

"So, you still thinking about..." Spike began, but he didn't actually finish the sentence. "That was pretty great, wasn't it? It would be a shame if something bad happened to Ponyville, and you couldn't come here and enjoy it again."

Ember shrugged, grinning slyly at him. "It was better than I expected. But I knew ponies had to have something going for them. They're not strong like minotaurs, they're not as brave as griffons... it had to be something. Mostly I wanted to see how serious you were, Spike. Words are okay I guess, but you should know by now that isn't the way we dragons do things. You didn't just tell me not to do it, you did everything you could to make sure none of your friends got hurt. Even if I had really been considering it... which I wasn't... that would've been enough to convince me. It wouldn't have mattered if the spa was worse than listening to Garble bragging about his conquests the whole flight over."

"Wait." Spike stopped walking, staring up at her with horror and depression on his face. "All that... and you weren't even serious about invading Equestria?"

Ember laughed, loudly enough that one of the few ponies still walking the streets turned to stare at them. "Invade the country that controls the sun?" she said, a toothy grin on her face. "Maybe my dad would be that stupid, but not me! If ponies really had something we wanted, we could just wait for them to die."

Spike shivered, unable to meet her eyes anymore. "Y-you're joking again, right? W-we dragons sure are funny... heh heh..."

Ember laughed louder than ever. Yet as they walked together the remainder of the way back to the castle, passing along the empty streets, she began to slow, walking closer to Spike. When she spoke again, it was barely louder than a whisper. "No one hears about that," she said, her voice quiet and dangerous. "Not Garble, not your pony friends, nobody." She lifted the scepter of the Dragon Lord with her free claw, though Spike felt no magic from it. "I want your word."

Spike gulped. "You got it, Ember. Not a word." He was smiling now, though he made sure to look away, not letting her see. She liked it. She's just like Rainbow, she just doesn't want anypony to know.

"Good," Ember nodded, satisfied. "Keep this secret for me, and maybe I'll let you take me again before I return to the dragon lands. Maybe."

"Your wish is my command."

Something told him the peace talks were gonna work out after all.

The Spa Comes to Ember

Becoming the Dragon Lord had brought Ember much in the way of responsibilities. Dragons were not like lesser creatures, easy to subdue and eager to submit themselves to anything that looked like qualified leadership. Every new day presented a new challenge, a chance to dominate those beneath her and cement her rule. Her father had been right to be reluctant to take the position, though she would never admit as much to him now.

But over all the challenges of her office, Ember had triumphed. No dragon in all the world, even beasts thousands of years old and many times her size, would question her rule. Where her father had struggled to stay afloat in the increasing complexity of an interconnected world, Ember was an unquestioned leader. Thanks to her, the dragons had not wasted resources or lives in pointless wars with inferior creatures.

Thanks to her, lesser creatures brought what they wanted to them.

Not that any of them knew what they were doing. Politics was a subtler game than she ever had to play with dragons. If you wanted to kill a dragon, you told him so, and you would fight, and one of you would win. That was the way dragons ought to be—it was simple, honest, pure. Ponies were none of those things.

But she could still get them to obey her. Ember used the same tools she used on her own kind, just dressed up in a different way. Instead of telling a pony, “I hate you and want you to die unless you change,” she would say, “We would be better friends if you did this.” Instead of burning a pony village and carrying away the spoils for her hoard, they would trade.

This latest expedition had been one such mission of “trade” between Equestria and the dragons, facilitated by Ember’s increasing grasp of their culture and her connection to Equestria. It had started with a letter, because she knew ponies liked to have things in writing.

“You will bring your best creations to my mountain. I will give you gems and metal in exchange. Dragons won’t kill you if you do what I say.

Spike will bring the ponies he took me to visit. He knows who they are.

-Dragonlord Ember”

Ember had been quite proud of her letter—few dragons had ever composed works so subtle and clever. The ponies would have no choice but to obey.

And so they did. She received a reply from Princess Twilight Sparkle long enough to fill a large book in dragon terms. Ember barely read it—pages and pages of nonsense about a cultural exchange, and strengthening the relationship between them, and fluffy pony friendship words. She could practically smell the pony words before she even opened it. But the important part was the obedience, and the ponies had obeyed. Ember sat a little straighter on her throne that day, knowing she had greater strength than any dragon who had owned this mountain. Those dragons had needed to fly out into the world and burn to make creatures obey. Ember just had to send paper.

She prepared her lands for pony arrival. Mostly this meant informing dragons who patrolled that any who hurt the ponies would face her wrath. That, and clearing away all the corpses from her mountain. Ponies were sensitive about that.

Ember welcomed the procession at the base of her mountain, where the Devouring Wyvern Aži Dahāka had crawled from the earth after feasting on its heart. Over a hundred of the ponies had come, wheeling carts and carriages and other vehicles. Only a small number of dragons waited to receive them in her mountain, those she could trust not to eat one of their visitors if they got too hungry. There weren’t that many who qualified, even after over a year of contact with Equestria. Dragons were slow to change.

“Welcome to my mountain,” she said when they had finally stopped before the massive iron gates, melted and warped by many ancient campaigns. Dragon Lords had died where she stood, the title claimed by rivals. But she doubted the only dragon who had come planned to do that—Spike had already given away the office once. There was no reason to fight him for it.

“Equestria is thrilled to make our second cultural exchange,” Princess Twilight said, landing before her with Spike on her back. Her friends had come as well, because of course they had. The pony princess never went anywhere without her friends. “We hope to make an even stronger friendship between Equestria and the dragons.” She kept talking, the way ponies often did. Said lots of nice things, complemented Ember, and the others there. That was nice, but not why Ember had invited them.

Eventually the pony finished talking. Ember might be learning to communicate their way, but she was in her domain now, so she wasn’t nearly as committed to it as she had been back in Ponyville. “I am a young Dragon Lord,” she said to Twilight, though she was sure that many others could hear. “I have the mountain, and the scepter, but my hoard is small. It is fitting for a new Dragon Lord to fight wars and fill her mountain, as my father did. I have elected to try something else first.” She looked down at the many carts the pony artisans had brought. No doubt filled with their creations. Much that ponies made was fragile, which made it more valuable. Gold the dragon lands had in abundance, but art? Little that could be burned survived here for long.

“I wish to exchange my gold for all that you have brought. Every dragon who visits will see the benefits of trade with ponies, and will know that I have done it. They will know that the wealth of the north flows through me.”

“That’s… great,” Twilight said, a little nervous now. “That’s great Ember. We’re glad to help. I did my best to bring what you suggested. But your letter was so vague…”

Ember looked more closely at the crowd of ponies Twilight had brought. “Spike, did you follow my instructions?”

“Yeah, Ember,” he said, nodding eagerly. “They all came. I guess you wanted to share with other dragons, huh?” He winked at her. “I see what you did there. Becoming more like a pony every day.”

“Something like that.” She gestured imperiously through the gate. At her command, the massive iron bars began to retract, digging new gouges into the earth. They probably hadn’t been opened for centuries. While her father owned this mountain, he tended to eat visitors instead of letting them walk in.

Ember led them past the feast, which she had instructed prepared according to pony tastes as best she remembered it. There was only one roasted cow here, and only a few pigs. Ponies didn’t eat enough meat.

She led the princess to her hoard, located in the heart of her mountain, where she could negotiate the surrender of their tribute (or the “trade” as the ponies called it). She felt a little self-conscious as they passed into the massive vaulted space. It was gigantic on a scale ponies would barely understand—large enough to fit several pony castles inside with room to spare, so that even her elder kin could have fit themselves in here.

It was embarrassing for a Dragon Lord to have a hoard empty enough that visitors could see the floor in places, but she ignored the warmth of her cheeks and continued to sound like she wasn’t embarrassed.

The ponies didn’t mock her. They stared at her pitiful pile of treasures, jewels, and gold, with shocked expressions. Like when they’d seen the roasted cow, only less afraid. Three carts were already waiting, each loaded with gold. Not just the most boring thing in her hoard, but the most boring kind of gold—in flat bars, or undecorated coins. Not the crowns, armor, and sculptures with real value.

But Ember was counting on the ponies being too dumb to realize what gave something real value. And to her enormous satisfaction, she could see from their expressions she and been right. “All of this we dragons give you in trade for what you brought,” she said. “If it looks worthy of my hoard, I mean. I’ll inspect it when we’re done. But I have come to trust you—I know you would not bring anything if it wasn’t worth showcasing here.”

“A-all this?” Twilight squeaked, levitating one of the flat, boring bars out of the cart and holding it up to inspect. “Ember, are you sure? This is gold. Gemstones would be one thing, but… all this?”

Ember nodded, grinning to herself. It was a good thing these ponies were so dumb, or else this “trade” stuff would never be worth it. She could never grow her hoard if she had to give them the value of what they gave in return, it would always stay the same size! Spike alone seemed to understand, but she gave him a meaningful look.

It didn’t silence him. “That’s all you want?” he asked. “All the art and music and stuff we brought? For all this?”

“You didn’t just bring me art,” she said, glancing at the passage leading into the feast hall. “You brought me ponies for the hoard as well. The ‘spa’ was so enjoyable, I know they will add great value to my hoard. Dragons for thousands of miles will be filled with envy!”

“Wait,” one of Twilight’s friends said. Ember didn’t know which one. She hadn’t bothered learning their names, when they were just ponies. They’d be dead so fast there wasn’t much of a point. Whoever they were, they sounded braver than most ponies around her. “You think Aloe ‘an Lotus ‘an the rest are here tah join the hoard? Not like… set up fer the weekend and give you folk a good time? Cuz’… I think they might be under the impression it’s more the latter.”

“Of course,” Ember said, matter-of-factly. “Most of this gold is for them. I had to guess at their weight, but…” she shrugged. “I won’t have them for that long, as dragon lives go. I’ll need more when they’re gone. But we can arrange that in a few centuries.”

Spike approached her, lowering his head in the closest thing to a bow he’d done. “Uh… Ember, that isn’t how it works.”

“Huh?” Her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about, Spike? Don’t forget who the Dragon Lord is here.”

“I’m not forgetting!” he insisted. “But you don’t trade ponies. That just isn’t the way it works! You can’t put them into your hoard!”

“Why not?” she asked. “Is my price not high enough? I could double the—”

“No,” Twilight cut her off. “It’s not that, Dragon Lord Ember. It’s that we don’t trade in ponies’ lives. The spa ponies have families back in Equestria, friends who would miss them. You can’t just pay them—money doesn’t replace a missing friend.”

Ember felt the heat rising in her belly. She exhaled a breath filled with smoke—not aimed at the ponies exactly, but certainly close enough that they’d feel the heat. “You’re… denying me?”

“No!” Spike stepped between her and the ponies. “Ember, I think I know what you really want. I know how much you enjoyed your trip to the spa… does it really matter if it’s the same ponies so long as you can still enjoy it?”

She stopped, cooling off a little. “I guess not. But who else could know what they know?”

“You could,” Spike said. “You and any dragons you want. Instead of adding the ponies to your hoard, you could add the knowledge instead. Have them teach you!”

“Oh.” Ember was silent for a long time, considering that. She had known the ponies were stupid, but she had never even imagined they could be this monumentally incompetent. Sharing a few tributes was one thing, but giving away the secrets of their relaxation-magic? Such wealth might not help fill up the mountain… but honestly, she hadn’t been sure how she would clean up after a dozen ponies living in here anyway. They’d probably have been eaten by accident at some point anyway, and then she wouldn’t have anyone to serve her.

But with their secrets… she would never need them again.

Ember smiled. It was good to see Spike knew who he was loyal to. He winked at her, and Ember winked back. “Yes, I think that could be arranged. But I retract my offer of doubling the gold. You will have to be satisfied with… four carts.”

Twilight Sparkle’s mouth hung open, stunned by Ember’s political genius. You ponies might’ve made me feel dumb when I was in your lands, but here? Here I am in control.

Author's Notes:

I wasn't sure if there was anywhere else to go with an idea as simple as this one. Turns out there were a few more games that could be played with viewpoint. Hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

And Also Gilda Works There

Author's Notes:

So I didn't think I'd be writing any more of this, and I wasn't even sure this idea would mesh super well with the other two. But given how loosely this is all connected, I thought I might as well stick this final chapter here.

Gilda stared forward at the scroll in her claw, hardly believing her eyes. Of all the places she'd interviewed, the days spent searching with increasing desperation, she hadn't imagined the Ponyville Spa of all places to accept her. But Lotus's dense scroll of hoofwriting was quite clear on that fact—not only was she accepted, but she should come in as soon as possible to begin her training.

"With the Summer Sun Celebration taking place in Ponyville this year, we anticipate overflow crowds. The position can be guaranteed at least until the end of the season. Further employment to be determined pending a performance review."

Gilda hadn't ever been much for the fancy way ponies spoke to each other, or the way they used politeness to hide when they were just insulting you, but a yes was a yes. Her bits were running low, and she couldn't go back to Griffonstone after leaving the way she had. There's no place for me there anymore. I need to make a new life for myself here.

But Gilda had been getting desperate. It was harder and harder to hear offers of help from her friend Rainbow Dash and to continuously turn her down. She would've accepted, if it was between that and going hungry. But her pride might never have fully recovered. After Griffonstone, she had precious little pride left to spare.

Gilda left her modest apartment—all that her few bits could afford—and flew to the spa as quickly as she could. She didn't know the first thing about treating ponies at a spa, and hadn't pretended to, but she'd proudly proclaimed how hard a worker she was and how quick she could learn. Apparently, that was enough.

Aloe and Lotus greeted her with visible relief—the ponies looked like any other earth ponies to Gilda, soft pink and blue twins with a perpetually-hushed voice about them. They were entirely polite to her, not trying to take advantage the way a griffon might've done. Griffons rarely started companies, since working for another was a sign of subservience.

But it's okay, they don't know that. I can get the bits I need without anyone thinking less of me.

As it turned out, Gilda’s work at the spa would involve very little physical contact with ponies—like all the new hires, she’d mostly be dealing with the infrastructure. Collecting towels, maintaining the heating system, occasionally offering refreshments. It wasn’t difficult work, just the matter of memorizing everything she needed to be doing and when.

It was amazing to her just how weak the ponies who worked at the spa really were. The heat of the boiler quickly overwhelmed them, and they couldn’t carry enough fuel or towels to make only one trip. With so few unicorns working there, they had to work patiently and carefully at repairs Gilda could make in moments with the help of her claws. Gilda had none of those weaknesses, and so very quickly made herself indispensable. She got a few odd looks, from the many ponies surprised to see a griffon working there, but that was all.

Within a month, she’d mastered her routine to such an extent that she had plenty of extra time to learn more involved work. It started with mixing baths first—no different from remembering the ingredients for a recipe. But with the Summer Sun Celebration truly upon them, that too proved to be a waste of her abilities, and Gilda graduated to the most prestigious position in the spa: giving massages.

“I expect you will have a… unique touch,” said Aloe, or maybe Lotus (she still hadn’t learned which was which). “Those claws of yours, should really be able to work the aches out of our customers.” She gestured over her shoulder, at the massage parlor. There was already a customer in there—one of the locals, Gilda didn’t know their name either. And the one standing over her…

For the first time since visiting Ponyville, Gilda found herself looking twice at a stallion. To say he was muscular would’ve been an understatement—he was one of the few ponies she’d ever seen who wouldn’t be looking up at her. The few who might have a chance against her if they got into a wrestling match. His wings left a lot to be desired, and he still didn’t have a beak or claws—but she couldn’t hold that against him. It wasn’t just his looks, either. Gilda could smell him, could imagine all the things he might…

Aloe had moved on, expecting her to follow. Gilda had been standing in the doorway this whole time, staring like a fledgling leaving the nest. Without a word of explanation or apology, Gilda hurried inside beside her boss, her tail twitching in agitation behind her.

Aloe cleared her throat, looking away with obvious embarrassment. “Forgive us, Mayor Mare. I’ve brought our newest trainee to observe your session, if that’s alright. Bulk Biceps is going to train her—we think they’ll probably have a similar style.”

“Oh, of course.” The pony was lying on her belly, head swallowed by the contours of the table. She hadn’t even looked up. “No bother to me. I’m always thrilled to see the ongoing success of a local business.” She lowered her voice just a tad. “If she’d like to take a crack at these knots, that’s fine by me. I don’t even think Bulk here has the endurance for the stress of running this celebration. Why they couldn’t have just done it in Canterlot again I’ll never know…”

But Gilda wasn’t listening—she couldn’t care less about what this pony was talking about. With renewed embarrassment, she realized she’d been staring again, and glided the rest of the way over to the table, where she landed with a thump.

“Bulk will teach you,” Aloe explained, whispering into her ear. “Watch very carefully. You’ll practice with a dummy before touching a live pony, but you need to see how it’s done. We’re too pressed for time to have him demonstrate on a dummy first.”

She nodded. “Yeah, sure…” She would’ve agreed to just about anything right then. “I got it.”

“Bulk is… well, you’ll see. Just pay attention.” Aloe bowed politely to the customer, who wasn’t even watching, before excusing herself out the way she’d come.

Bulk Biceps looked up from where he was standing beside the pony, meeting Gilda’s eyes. She stared back, searching for any sign that her feelings might be reciprocated. All she saw was intense concentration. “I, uh… for Earth Ponies, it’s like this.” He hopped up onto the table, with such force Gilda was a little surprised it didn’t break right then. Apparently pony furniture was sturdier than it looked.

He demonstrated the technique, though of course Gilda had eyes for a very different aspect of what she was watching. She was still learning, in the sense that she would need to succeed here to one day get the bits to return home, but just now her skill and future employment at the spa was the last thing on her mind.

“Yes, that’s wonderful,” the pony muttered. “I feel so much better already, and it won’t even be over until next week. You can’t even imagine the stress.”

“Of course not, Miss Mayor,” the stallion said. “But we will do everything we can to help you relax.”

And so it went. When the appointment was over, Gilda followed the pegasus stallion out, trailing him as close as she could. “That was impressive work,” she said, her tone a little deeper and slower than it would’ve been normally. How had she not seen this pony working here until now? “I wouldn’t mind a personal demonstration myself. If you’d like to come over to my place after work.”

“Oh, we don’t have to go anywhere,” Bulk said, not even looking back. “They keep the dummies in a back room. I can show you there. I know how overwhelming it can feel when you’re new on the job. But just keep practicing, and soon enough they’ll love you. I know it worked for me.”

Gilda opened her mouth to protest, staring in stupefaction at the pegasus. She mumbled something that was not quite a question and almost an apology, but nothing came out and the pegasus didn’t seem to hear her anyway.

They went to the back room, and he proceeded to demonstrate proper technique for her on the dummies for the next hour or so. Entirely not the sort of technique she had in mind. She tried a few more, even less subtle hints, but as before the pegasus hardly seemed to notice. He just kept working. As soon as the shift ended, he left without remark.

Gilda made her way to the lockers to clean up for the day feeling more than a little despondent. Of course, the innocent ponies wouldn’t notice. Crazy they’re not all extinct by now. Of course, there was another possibility, one she wanted even less to consider. It was possible the stallion had noticed her advances, but just hadn’t been interested. Maybe ponies were pickier than griffons, maybe they were only interested in their own kind. Could the stallion have ignored her as his way of being polite?

Gilda’s mood had thoroughly soured by the time she was making her way back home from the spa, and she didn’t even take the effort to fly home. Instead she found the darkest, most deserted route she could, so she could stew in her feelings. She couldn’t take her anger out on those who had upset her, not as she might’ve done in Griffonstone. The Equestrians were already skeptical enough of having a griffon in town, she didn’t need to lose another home.

Yet as she walked, hissing, and growling to herself as she did, she became dimly aware of dark figures following her. It was well after dark, and the streets were almost completely deserted, so it wasn’t hard to see the shadows of motion at the corner of her vision. Gilda stopped walking and inhaled sharply, trying to use scents to isolate who might be following her. Unfortunately, she was standing on what would have been a busy street during the day, because there were so many different pony smells around her she couldn’t tell them apart. Some seemed fresher than others, but that didn’t mean much. Sundown had only been an hour ago, and plenty of lights were still on in the surrounding buildings.

“Hey,” said a voice from behind her, as unfriendly as a pony voice could sound. “I think you’re lost, friend.” It was a stallion’s voice, gruff and unpleasant.

“Yeah,” a mare joined in. Like the stallion, she didn’t sound like anyone Gilda had known in Ponyville. But there were so many visitors here for the celebration, that it was quite likely neither of them were locals. “You should be flying south, friend. Equestria isn’t safe with strangers like you around.”

Gilda tensed, taking a single deep breath. On some level, these ponies had a point—she did have to take a moment to clear her head, to resist reacting violently to their words. A brief scuffle would settle disputes among griffons, but ponies were too fragile for that. She had to always keep that in mind, no matter what these same words coming from a griffon might mean.

Gilda turned slowly around to face them. There were five of them, and none looked familiar to her. Visitors for the celebration, or just ponies who avoided her? Either one seemed plausible. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, as flatly as she could. “I live in Ponyville. Lots of different creatures do—a dragon, a zebra, a reformed criminal…”

“Exactly,” said another one of the stallions. “These Ponyville ponies have been through enough. We think you should move on.”

“Move on…” Gilda looked away, claws briefly tensing, tearing little divots in the cobblestone path she was standing on. Maybe if she hadn’t already been so upset, she might have just taken to the air and flown home. As far as she could tell only one of these ponies had wings, they probably wouldn’t follow her. She could give up a little pride, let them think they won, and just wait for the festival to end so she wouldn’t be bothered again.

Unfortunately for them, Gilda had not been having a good day. For a griffon, pride was everything. She wasn’t going to bow to these idiots. “I don’t know what you mean, friend. I live here. This is my home. You all are the ones visiting.” Whatever part of Equestria these ponies had come from, obviously it wasn’t one that had much contact outside their own kind.

The crowd visibly stiffened. A few ponies closed in around her, ringing her in. Gilda didn’t look to see if there was a policemare nearby—as far as she knew, Ponyville didn’t have very many. Besides—she could settle her own scores. “You wanna say that again?”

Gilda opened her mouth to do just that, but someone beat her to it. “Hey!” It was another pony’s voice, this time a familiar one. “Gilda, is something wrong?” Bulk Biceps towered over these ponies, in height and girth both, and the crowd parted from behind as he approached. He walked over to her, turning to face the crowd. “What happened?”

“We found a potential threat to Ponyville,” the stallion with the scar said. “We were making sure it flew away.”

Gilda would’ve snapped back at him again, but now that Bulk Biceps was here, she decided she’d rather just watch him. Maybe she hadn’t been as unsuccessful as she’d thought?

“Gilda’s my friend,” he said, without anger. Almost as though he genuinely thought these ponies were confused. “There’s no danger to Ponyville here. I think you’re lost.”

“A griffon is your friend?” A mare asked from the crowd, raising her eyebrows.

“Yeah!” Bulk answered, his voice loud enough to rattle the nearby windows. “So what?”

The crowd was stupefied. That, and they probably didn’t like their odds against a griffon and such a powerful specimen of pony strength. They dispersed, muttering angry slurs as they slipped away into the streets.

Bulk turned back to her, apparently unconcerned. “Ponies used to talk about me that way. I don’t think it’s very nice.”

“No,” she agreed, watching him. “I don’t like it.”

Bulk Biceps looked as though he were thinking very hard about something. He didn’t speak for nearly a full minute. Gilda just waited, silent in the darkness. Eventually he said, “I know a place that’s still open. Hungry?”

“Yeah,” she said, much more quietly than he had. “I think I am.”

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