The Harem Noses

by Irrespective

Chapter 5: 5. - Everfree

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5. - Everfree

Shining Armor loved being out in the field.

He did not love it as much as he loved Princess Cadence or his own family, of course, but being out among the citizens of Equestria was a joy and a delight like none other. There was a thrill that came with being able to serve and protect the residents of Canterlot—and all of Celestia’s little ponies, in a broader sense—that had no equivalent in all the world. He lived to see the happy smiles that came when he pulled lost kittens out of trees, or to hear the heartfelt ‘thank you’ when he assisted an elderly pony with their groceries. Their safety and well-being brought peace to his own heart, and until his last breath, he would always give his all for them.

His recent promotion, however, meant that the days of city patrol were now pretty much at an end. Soon, his time would be spent at the palace, taking care of the minutia that was required to keep the Royal Guard running like the well-oiled machine that it was. He would be relegated to meetings and training, and while he would miss being out and about, he knew he could accomplish much good for the whole of Equestria in his new role and responsibilities.

So as Sergeants Hokey Pokey and Clover Leaf banked towards the Everfree Forest, the soon-to-be Captain Shining Armor stood, propped his front legs on the edge of the carriage, and took a long moment to enjoy the rush of the midnight wind through his mane. This was, in all likelihood, the last major field assignment he would be able to lead personally, and he was determined to relish the opportunity, performing his duties to the absolute best of his abilities.

Not that the assignment was particularly hard. All he had to do was waltz into the Everfree Forest, find the last remaining enclave of thestral ponies—even though he still believed them to be nothing more than a fanciful myth—and persuade them to return to Canterlot to take their place as Luna’s personal guard. If these fabled bat ponies did really exist, the greater challenge would be integrating them into the ranks of his guard, and into society in general.

Shining suppressed a smile with the thought of running the mythological race through basic training. When he was done with them, they wouldn’t want to exist.

“Lieutenant, does this carriage have any charms on it to prevent unfortunate falls during midflight?”

Shining drew in a long breath. “Yes, Mister Bean. It does.”

“Oh.” Bean’s reply came with a heavy overtone of disbelief as he continued to clutch onto the seat beneath him with all four limbs. Even his tail was wrapped around a convenient portion of the carriage, and if it were possible, it looked like Bean was considering how to grab onto something with his ears in case of an accident. “Well. I’ll be here. In case you need me. Please don’t need me,” he whimpered.

Captain Armor shook his head and rolled his eyes. “You really should try to enjoy the view. You’re going to be flying a lot in the future, after all.”

“No, thank you. I’m good.”

“Suit yourself,” Shining replied as he mentally reviewed the map of the Everfree Forest once more. He had tried to talk Luna into keeping Mister Bean in the palace, but she was firm and unyielding in stating that only her husband would be able to speak with her authority and her power. While Shining understood the reasons behind that, it still felt like the yellow princess stealer was being forced to come, in a vein that was similar to when his own parents would force him to take his sister when he went out with his friends.⁽*⁾

⁽*⁾If he had to be honest, this was never an imposition, since Twilight would usually ditch him as soon as she could and head to the nearest library, with the understanding that he’d pry her away from the bookshelves when it was time to return home.

Shining Armor then snorted. He still had a few minutes before they would arrive at Princess Luna’s marked location, and with little else to do in the meantime, he decided to make some smalltalk. “Mister Bean, where are you from?”


“I never asked you where your home is. I’m going to guess Las Pegasus.”

Bean hesitated, then leaned back slightly. “Why do you care?”

“Because I’m responsible for you, and I’m curious. Appleloosa, maybe? Nah; your accent isn’t thick enough.”

“I’m from Salt Lick,” Bean replied with a confused look.

“Ah, that makes sense. I couldn’t quite place your lilt. I’m from Canterlot, myself. My parents own a modest little place up in the palace district so we could be close to Twily while she studied at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. Does your family live in Salt Lick?”

Bean’s confusion was palatable, and he glanced around for a brief moment, as if looking for a reason for the questions. “Yeah, most of them are there. My parents own a restaurant in town.”

“Oh, they’re cooks? I could use some tips, if you have any. I always manage to burn toast, somehow.”

“Just turn that knob on the front of the toaster to a lower number, then,” Bean said without thinking, and with a grunt, he sat up a little straighter. “Or turn down the flame on the stovetop. A light coat of butter would help, too.”

“Lieutenant!” Sergeant Leaf called out before Shining could ask any follow-up questions. “We’re coming up on the coordinates now!”

“Take us in, Sergeants!” Shining ordered.

“That was fast,” Bean said as he peered out and down at the rapidly approaching trees, although his tail was still curled around a strut on the carriage’s main seat.

“Sergeants Hokey Pokey and Clover Leaf are the best flyers in the airborne division,” Shining said with pride. “They could have been Wonderbolts, but I managed to talk them out of that horrible idea. The best of the best are always members of the Royal Guard, without exception.”

“Which is why I would never be able to make it past the screening process,” Bean muttered.

“I dunno, you look like you’re pretty stout,” Shining said as the carriage pushed through the canopy of trees and touched down. “A few pushups, couple of runs through the obstacle course, and who knows? Maybe you could have made Corporal one day.”

Bean and Shining dismounted as the sergeants unhitched themselves, and the three guards quickly began to evaluate their surroundings. The location Luna had given them was almost smack-dab in the middle of the Everfree, and Shining quickly reviewed the Official Royal Guard training that he’d been given regarding the oddly-behaved forest.

It had been little more than two words: stay out.

“Cheery little place, isn’t it?” Sergeant Leaf said with a sniff as she pulled a set of spears from the carriage and passed them out to her fellow guards. “I especially like the oppressive ambiance. It’s like the place thinks I’m a grape and it’s trying to squish me.”

“Not my first choice for a summer home,” Sergeant Pokey muttered. “No obvious tracks, sir, so the really fun monsters must be elsewhere at the moment.”

“Then let’s hurry and get this over with. Sooner we fail to locate this enclave, the better,” Shining said as his horn lit with an illumination spell, and he looked over the field of bright blue flowers to their left. “C’mon. Based on what Princess Luna said, their settlement should be somewhere over there, in that overgrown area. And where do you think you’re going?”

Baked Bean stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Away?”

“The batponies aren’t going to be that way,” Shining said as he walked up to the wandering Prince. “Not enough cover. A village would be seen from the air over there.”

“I’m not looking for the batponies,” Bean said.

“Oh? Then what are you doing, exactly?” Shining asked.

“Leaving. This is the part where I exit stage right, never to be seen again. I thank you for not killing me, Lieutenant, but I believe your work is done now. Please, carry on without me.”

“First off, that way is stage left,” Shining retorted. “Secondly, why are you trying to leave?”

Bean hesitated, as if the answer was obvious and he was surprised he had to explain. “Um, because absolutely nopony wants me around? Princess Celestia could care less about me, Princess Luna is only interested in my assets, your marefriend hates my weasley black guts and I’m pretty extra sure you want me gone, too. And let’s not get started with how the rest of Equestria feels about me, shall we?” Bean began looking for any kind of path in the thick forest cover with a snort and a heavy frown. “I didn’t agree to come here to bring the thestrals back, Shining. I came here to take myself out of the picture. With me gone, everything goes back to the way it should be. You get your mare back, and the Princesses can deal with something that’s actually important.”

“Your Highness, this forest is going to eat you alive if you wander off,” Sergeant Pokey called out.

“Good. Then you can bring back the bits that remain as evidence. If it doesn’t eat me, just say I got lost somehow. I don’t think it’ll much matter, in the end.”

Shining quickly trotted up to Bean, and he shook his head as the Sergeants fell in step behind them. “I can’t let you go, Your Highness. I have an obligation to protect you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do. I took an oath to protect all ponies when I became a guard, Bean. So did Pokey and Clover. My personal feelings don’t override my duty. If you’re set on getting lost, then we’re going to be lost with you.”

“Then I order you to leave.”

“Nice try. You don’t have enough authority to do that. Only the Princesses can issue that command, and even then, we would respectfully refuse.”

“Look, Shining,” Bean huffed as he stopped and faced the Lieutenant. “Just let me go. There’s no reason to keep me around. All I do is make things worse.”

“Or you could be making everything better and not realizing it.”

“Yeah? How?”

“Princess Luna has just returned from a thousand year banishment, Bean. She’s going to need help adjusting to the modern Equestria, and the nobility are champing at the bit to find ways to influence her to their way of thinking. Do you think that’s best for Equestria?”

“No!” said Bean before he recognized the trap. “I mean…”

“So who better than the most common of commoners, who has actual common sense for a change?”

“Um, anypony else?”

“Luna has you,” stated Shining Armor decisively. “Celestia… well, to be honest, I think she needs a good dose of common sense too. Goodness knows she spends enough time with the high and mighty.

“Also, do you realize that you’re probably the only pony that both Luna and Celestia can really open up to right now? When they talk to anypony else, they have to guard their words carefully, or else risk being eaten alive and having years of work undone. The Princesses can share their deepest thoughts and feelings with you without having to worry about what they say, and that’s something neither of them have been able to do for centuries. Put yourself in Celestia’s golden shoes. Imagine how you would feel if you could never express how you truly felt to anypony.”

Bean’s eyes drifted to his hooves, and it was clear that the reluctant prince had experienced something similar to the diarch’s dilemma. “It would be nice to share how I feel,” he murmured.

“And at the very least, if you turn up missing, Cadence would be the one leading the search parties. She’s the Princess of Love, but that isn’t limited to just romance. She cares for all ponies, like they were her own brothers and sisters. Believe it or not, that does include you.”

“I just want this to go away,” Bean whispered with tears in the corners of his eyes. “I don’t want everyone to hate me.”

“I don’t hate you,” Shining offered, and he put a hoof on Bean’s shoulder. “Much. Well, I did at first. The more I think about it, the better it seems. Within reason, of course. Perhaps we will become friends from all of this, and look back someday to have a good laugh.”

Bean glanced up and sniffled. “Really? You’re not just saying that?”

Shining smiled, and he tossed his head in the direction they were headed anyway. “C’mon, one way is as good as any other in this mess. Let’s go find those thestrals, then we can figure everything else out together. Whaddya say?”

The new Prince hesitated for several long moments before rubbing away the tears in his eyes. “I don’t know how I can help.”

“You can help us look for tracks. Another set of eyes never hurts.”

“I don’t know what to look for.”

Shining gave Bean a playful smack. “I’ll show you. The sergeants and I will make a guard out of you yet.”

* * 🛡 * *

Shining Armor grunted as he blasted yet another tree branch out of the way, and he paused for a moment to take inventory of his party. “Anything yet?”

“Nothing but rocks and dirt, sir,” Clover replied. “Tree cover is too thick to go airborne.”

“We’ll stomp around for a little bit more and then call it a night.” The tree cover was so thick that Shining had to put more power into his illumination spell, and he played the beam of light around the base of the trees. “We can pick up the search again at sunup.”

“Didn’t Princess Luna say we’d only be able to find the thestrals at night?” Bean asked.

“She did, but crashing around in the brush like this will only attract something that thinks ponies are a tasty midnight snack. We’ll have better odds of finding something when we can see what we’re doing.”

“If these supposed bat ponies even exist, sir,” Pokey said as he pointed his spear at something in the air. “This place gives me the creeps. I swear we’re being watched.”

“Stand fast, Sergeant,” Shining admonished. “There isn’t anything here we can’t handle.”

The Sergeant didn’t reply, but his glare remained on one tree for several long moments.

“Hey, Lieutenant?” Bean called out. “I think I found some paw prints over here. They’re pretty big ones.”

The three guards trotted over to Bean’s location, and Shining smiled as he glanced over the find. “Manticore tracks. Good work, Your Highness. I told you we’d make you a proper guard.”

“Tracks lead off to the east,” Clover said as she began to follow the subsequent impressions in the dirt. “Fresh, too; no more than an hour or so ago.”

“So, it’s still close?” Bean asked.

“Possibly. Keep sharp, everypony. I don’t want that thing sneaking up on us.”

“Sir?” Clover called out, and she pointed to the ground with the tip of her spear. “Check this out. Our little friend was heading towards the pond there, but he never made it. Something spooked him, and he skittered that way.”

“But what scares a manticore away from water?” Shining said with a grin and a rub of his chin. “We may be onto something here. Fan out, see if you can find—”

Shining was cut off by the rustle of leaves from a nearby bush, but when prodded with a spear, the shrub did not repeat the action.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Pokey muttered. “There’s something here. It’s just toying with us.”

“Stay loose,” Shining ordered with a roll of his shoulders. “Probably just a rabbit, but let’s assume it’s bigger.”

“Sir?” Clover called out with a nod to the ground. “I got a new set of tracks just behind the tree here. Hoofprints.”

“So maybe our mythological friends do exist,” Shining said.

“Uh, Lieutenant?” Bean staggered back a step as he stared at the leafy canopy overhead. “Do you hear that?”

“Is that… giggling?” Clover asked as four sets of ears flicked and twitched to the unnerving sound above them.

“Who’s out there?!” Pokey demanded. “Show yourself!”

The order went unheeded, and the unexpected sound slowly drifted away on the evening breeze. After several long moments, Shining turned his attention to the hoofprint, and with a new surge of magic, his pink aura filled the indent.

Scattered spots of pink then flicked to life across the nearby bushes and on the trunks of the trees, and Shining nodded with a grin. “There you are. You’re good, but not good enough. Pokey, Clover, you watch the rear. Bean, I want you right behind me. It’s time to find our mystery stalker.”

* * 🛡 * *

“So, what did Luna tell you about the thestrals?” Shining said in a low voice as the foursome crept forward.

“Not much, actually,” Bean softly replied. “She gave me their location, told me they were probably in hiding due to their association with her fall, and that they should follow my orders, provided I told them I was acting on her behalf.”

“And Celestia?”

“All she knew was that they pay their taxes on time every year. She didn’t say what they pay their taxes with, though. She’s sent search parties after them before, but they always come back empty-hooved. She figured they were so ashamed of their association with Nightmare Moon that they forced themselves into exile and have refused to have contact with the outside world since then. She did tell me to be careful, since they’ve been alone for so long. She was worried that everything that was once known about them is now completely wrong.”

“Well, if they pay their taxes that means they’re still loyal to the Crown, so that works in our favor.” Shining paused, sent a new pulse of tracking magic out, and then began to follow the new markers that illuminated. “Still, she’s right. Since you’re Luna’s Voice, you’re the one who’s going to have to do most of the talking.”

“Luna did tell me what to say to them. If I invoke her titles and her authority over them as citizens of Equestria, she was mostly sure they’d listen.”

“‘Mostly?’” Shining repeated.

“They used to be rather stubborn, I guess. They were loyal, but they had their own way of doing things that tended to bend the rules.”

“Might be why they went into exile, then,” Clover said. “And why Luna likes them so much.”

“Maybe,” Shining said as he stopped. “Wait. Something’s wrong.”

“What is it, sir?”

“This trail just ends here.”

“Why is that so bad?” Bean asked.

“It means they were herding us toward something like a guard, or a booby trap—”

Shining’s illumination spell was snuffed out without any warning, and a round of delighted laughter filled the pitch-black woods.

“—or an ambush,” Shining finished.

A trilling shout rang out, and the Equestrian guards reared up to slash with their spears as the sky above them filled with the furious pounding of leather wings. Shining desperately tried to summon a shield, but the effort failed as soon as he tried, and in a few short moments, he was hog-tied, muzzled, and thrown into a pile with the rest of his party.

“Well, well, well!” A rich, dark, and decidedly feminine voice called out. “What have we here?”

“Trespassers!” another silken-voiced mare called out. “Spies! Ooo, I love it when we catch spies! I call dibs on the yellow one!”

“No way!” A third mare called out. “We haven’t had a proper stallion here in years! That’s not fair!”

“Manners, ladies,” the first voice chided, and Shining’s head was lifted up against his will. “We wouldn’t want to be rude to our guests, now would we?”

It took a minute for the loyal royal guard to make out any details in the darkness. A pair of bright gold eyes twinkled with unbounded glee while a fang-filled smile crept closer, split, and allowed a long velvet tongue to lick a pair of glossy black lips.

Thestral. He had been ambushed and captured by a female thestral.

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Shining apologized to Cadence for the thoughts that were tumbling through his head.

Several torches surged to life, and Shining’s eyes darted back and forth to see how bad the situation really was. The small clearing they had entered held perhaps fifteen batponies, all dressed in purple-black armor and wielding ebon-shafted spears of their own.

It was like the illustrations in his childhood mythology books had come to life. Dozens of golden eyes glittered in the night like Luna’s stars, and each pair seemed to be overflowing with glee and desire. Large draconic bat wings flittered and stretched upwards in eager anticipation, as if they would launch into flight at any moment.

The only thing those old books had been wrong about was the ears. In the illustrations, thestral ears were twice as large as a pony’s, but from his position, he could see that they were the same size as any other pony’s, but with an added inch or two for the tuft of hair at the tips.

“Congratulations, Lieutenant,” the mare cooed in a deep contralto voice. “You’ve found the thestral encampment. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to tell the tale of your find, but I think we can make your stay here rather comfortable.”

Shining Armor gave her the most furious glare he possibly could. He was down, but he was far from out. He refused to be beaten by this silken temptress.

“Ooo, this one has some fire to him. How delightful.” The apparent thestral leader released his cheeks, and her gaze slowly dropped towards Bean. “However, one of these ponies is not like the others. Why would a squadron of guards be out here with this nopony? Did that meddlesome zebra send you?” she asked while she freed his muzzle.

“We were sent here by Her Most Royal Majesty, The Imperial Empress Selena Luna mond Gealach, Queen of the Night, Princess of Equestria, Mistress of the Moon, Defender of Dreams, and Baroness of the West Tartarean Estates,” Bean said as quickly as he could.

The reaction to that string of titles was not exactly what Shining Armor would have liked. The lead batpony blinked, glanced to a mare on her left, and shrugged.

“I suppose that’s supposed to cow us into obedience? You’ll have to come up with something a lot better than that.”

“But Princess Luna—”

“Enough!” The batpony leader was quick to bind Bean’s mouth, and with a snort, she nodded to another mare in the clearing. “Ladies, let’s show our guests to their accommodations. We’ll let the Warleader decide who gets dibs.”

“Aw! No fair!”

* * 🛡 * *

Shining Armor hated being out in the field now.

“I really want to say this is all your fault,” he grumbled from where he dangled upside-down from the tree that was their makeshift prison. “But I suppose I’m responsible too, in a way. I just wish I knew how they snuck up on us.”

“I told you I make everything worse,” Baked Bean said, tied up and dangling right beside him. Clover Leaf made no response, since the eager batponies had trussed her up into a cocoon of vines until only her tail was visible. Hokey Pokey had been dragged off for what the thestrals had called ‘samples,’ so he was unable to contribute to the conversation, either.

“Nah. To be fair, this is their turf, and that always puts you at a disadvantage. Besides, we both thought they’d be a bit more friendly and little less tie-them-upside-downy. If I had known they’d be this hostile, I would have brought more guards.”

“What do you think that one mare meant by calling dibs?” Bean asked in a soft whisper.

“Easy. How many stallion thestrals did you see in that clearing?”

“Well, none. They were all…” Bean trailed off, and Shining could almost hear the color draining from his coat. “Oh, horseapples.”

“Eeyup,” Shining deadpanned as he tried to twist around and get a better bearing on his situation. “We found a wild pack of Amareazons.”

“But, but… but I’m already married. That means they’ll leave me alone, right?”

“Depends on how desperate they are. Usually married males are off limits, if the old legends have any truth in them. Usually.”

That statement seemed to cheer the Prince, if his sigh of relief was any indication. “I hope so. Y’know, it’s kinda funny. If I hadn’t been vigorously proposed to by Nightmare Moon, you’d be the safe one, married to three alicorn princesses. I can’t believe Luna was seriously talking about having me in bed with all three of them,” he added in a distracted tone of voice while swaying in the ropes. “One is difficult enough. She does this thing with her horn—” He broke off with a shudder and faint “eep!”

“Alicorns,” said Shining with a sigh. “I wonder if that’s the same thing Cady does, where she turns her head to one side and… no, focus,” he added. “Can you see what they put on my horn so I can’t do magic?”

“Good point,” said Bean, twisting around so he could get a better look. “Seems like some sort of fruit sap, I think. Probably frutious babathanchi, if I had to guess. It’s delicious, but you can’t serve it to unicorns because it makes their tongues numb.”

“Great,” said Shining in a monotone. “And we don’t have any way to remove it.”

“If you twist this way, and I bend a little, I bet I could lick it off,” suggested Bean.

Shining shuddered. “As I said, we don’t have any way to remove it.”

“Let me just brace myself against this tree branch,” continued Bean. “And you put your head… no, over here!”

“I’d rather die!” said Shining while continuing to struggle.

“They’re not going to kill us,” said Bean. “They’ll just tie us up in various bedrooms and have their feminine ways with us until the whole village is full of little Hokeys, Beans and Shinings. I’ll bet Cadence would love to play with the foals.”

Shining Armor did not say anything, but did lean slightly in Bean’s direction. Then, after considerable convoluted twisting on Bean’s behalf bore fruit, so to say, he muttered under his breath, “Not one word when we get back. Not. One.”

* * 📖 * *

“Pokey!” Shining called out as the Sergeant was dropped at the base of the tree that Bean and the Lieutenant were still trying to escape from. “You all right, Pokey? What did they do to you?”

“I’m fine, sir,” Pokey replied in a dreamy tone while the two thestral mares snickered and walked away. “Er, at least I’m as well as can be expected. They, um… can we talk about this some other time?” he asked, holding his tail tight against his rear. “Like never?”

“That’s it. Let’s get out of here before they decide they want more samples.” Shining’s horn flared to life, and with a flash, his teleportation spell deposited the three dangling ponies safely on the ground. Clover ruffled her wings with a deep inhalation to celebrate her freedom as Shining continued with “If the Princess wants the thestrals, she can come get them herself. This isn’t worth the risk. Where did they all go?”

“They’re just over there, sir,” Pokey replied with a jab of his hoof to his left. “I think they’re trying to figure out who gets the first turn.”

“Wait,” Bean cut in. “We have to stay here.”

“What?” Hokey Pokey stared at Bean wide-eyed. “Are you nuts?”

“We’re here to convince the thestrals to return to Canterlot with us,” said Bean.

“And we’re doing such a wonderful job so far,” snarked Shining Armor.

Ignoring Shining, Bean pressed onward. “I think I’ve figured out a way, but you’ll have to trust me.”

“What is it?” asked Clover.

“Well…” Bean cringed. “I don’t want to say it out loud.” He pointed out into the dark forest. “They’ll hear.”

“Aw, trying to leave so soon?” Laughing golden eyes in the darkness made it abundantly clear who Bean was referring to. “I don’t know why you’d want to, though.”

Shining’s horn flared to life, and a large pink bubble shield instantly surrounded the entourage from Canterlot. “Look, Bean. I’m not one to defy orders, but we’re outnumbered here. A tactical retreat is our best option. If we stay, they’ll just tie us up again and have their way with us.”

“That’s not all bad,” Pokey added, but with a wince when his superior gave him a death glare. “Sir.”

“I know, I know.” Bean doggedly pushed forward. “But I really think I know how to get this to work.”

Shining opened his mouth to override his Prince, but the words stalled in his throat. Baked Bean looked almost desperate to have a chance, and it reminded the Lieutenant of all the times he’d begged favors out of his parents, friends, and superiors in the guard. Besides, Bean was technically a superior officer, and Shining Armor did not want to explain their failure to Luna.

“Fine,” he finally said. “You get one shot at this. If they try to pull any sort of stunt, I’m going to teleport my guards out of here and leave you to deal with the aftermath.”

“That’s what I wanted to do when we got here,” Bean insisted.

Shining snorted, and his shield dropped. Bean then stepped up to the row of dark spears that were lined up before him, and he took a deep breath before he spoke.

“My friends and I wish to meet with your Warleader, but not as your prisoners. If you will allow us to speak to her, I promise that we will not attack or harm you in any way.”

“You think you’re in a position to make demands?” The lead guard laughed with the others. “Such a strange male. You’re just lucky she sent for you. I’ll humor you for now, but that fancy shield of yours isn’t going to protect any of you if you try anything funny.”

“I’ll behave if you do,” Shining said smugly. “No ropes, no spears, no shield. Deal?”

“Whatever. Let’s go,” the guard said with a slow lick of her lips. “I’m Velvet Darkness, by the way, but you can call me Velvet. Over there is Blackjack, that’s Midnight Surprise, and behind you is Buttercup.”

“I still have dibs on the yellow one,” Buttercup purred with a seductive grin of anticipation.

Nothing more was said during the short march to a nearby clearing, which was not much more than a small meadow. Torches lined the outer perimeter, their light teasing and twisting the midnight air into mocking makeshift pillars for a pitch black wall. Baked Bean’s nose filled with the scents of honeysuckle, lavender, and something else he was unfamiliar with—no. It took a moment, but Bean realized that the strange scent was not any sort of wildflower.

It was the smell of pheromones. Female pheromones.

Bean quickly blocked the ideas that came cascading up from his wild imagination, but the effort did nothing to calm his nerves. In the center of the clearing stood an older-looking and absolutely gigantic mare, easily the same height as Princess Luna and twice as thick but without an ounce of fat to be found on her frame. She was surrounded by the remaining thestral mares, who formed a loose half-circle around them with an amused look of detached enjoyment. The muscles that were visible under their armor twitched in anticipation, like a panther’s slow movements just before they launched themselves at their prey, and for a moment, Bean wondered if they would say he tasted like his namesake or more like a turnip.

“Welcome, distinguished guests,” the hulking mare said with a dip of her head. “Please, forgive my daughter’s eagerness. It’s been so long since we’ve had visitors, and they’ve forgotten that they tend to play rough.”

“I was nice,” Velvet said. “Mostly.”

From the corner of his eye, Bean watched Pokey blush like a furnace and tuck his tail closer to his rear.

“As you may have figured out, I am Anstasi Pansy Von Wünschenswert, Oberjahrl and Warleader of this humble thestral tribe. I must confess, I was surprised that you found our home so easily.”

Bean took a sideways look at Velvet with almost a sense of giddiness at this much stress. After all, he thought the most terrifying thing he’d have to face as Luna’s Love Toy was being shown off to a few wrinkled royalty. At least that was what he intended on blaming for his levity when he quipped, “We were attracted by the wild beauty of your forest, Warleader.”

A brief giggle swept through the watching thestrals, although Velvet merely lowered her ears and glared at him.

“Ah, I see,” said Pansy. “I was told you were sent by another. Have you come on the behalf of the Empress?”

“Since when is Princess Luna an Empress?” Clover muttered under her breath.

“We were sent by Her Most Royal Majesty, The Imperial—” Bean started, but he was cut off by Pansy’s upraised hoof.

“Please don’t throw titles around like that. It’s rude. You can simply say ‘yes.’”

“Then, yes?” Bean said hesitantly.

“So the Mare in the Moon is no more, then?” Pansy asked with a bemused smile. “How can we know you speak the truth?”

It was a good point. Bean mentally knocked himself on the top of the head for not bringing a current newspaper, or perhaps a photograph.

Or a husband?

“She swore the Oath Tripartite to me,” said Bean while trying to control how much he was trembling inside. “By hoof and horn and wing, she made me her own, and as her husband, I swear the same to you. Nightmare Moon is no more. Princess Luna stands ready to accept you back into her service, should you care to abide by your own ancient vows.”

He stopped at that point, because he had run out of words, although he did have to confess that part of it was also due to the growing vulpine smile on Warleader Pansy.

“The Oath Tripartite,” she mused. “Well. This gift of three prime stallions is quite generous of her, isn’t it girls? I do believe we will need to thank the Princess after we have the chance to replenish our ranks. You see, we lack males to help propagate the species, so I think I’ll choose… you,” she added, pointing to Bean.

“Nope!” declared Baked Bean, putting his legs into reverse and backing right into a tree. “No way, no how, no!” he continued while scrabbling up the trunk until only a few bits of bark raining down were the only evidence of his existence.

“He knows we can fly, right?” asked Velvet, who was trying her best not to laugh and failing terribly.

“I didn’t know he could climb a tree backwards,” murmured Shining before raising his voice. “Actually, Warleader. Prince Bean said he had an idea to help resolve our situation, and I really would like to hear it.” He squinted up into the darkness where a few bits of tree bark were still falling, indicating Bean was still gaining altitude. “Provided we can talk our fearless leader down....”

There was a pause, a reduction in the amount of falling bark, and then a long, quiet moment before Bean’s voice rang out from somewhere up above.

“A duel!” he announced. “I propose we settle this like civilized beings and decide this with a duel.”

“What?” yelped Shining, taking a quick glance at all the grinning batpony mares surrounding them.

Velvet Darkness took to the air with a cackle and rose up into the darkness until she was lost from sight. “You’re on. Your choice of weapons. We have swords, daggers, spears…”

“Cooking,” Bean said. There was a scattering of bark bits floating down, a pause, then Bean added in a much fainter voice, “Can you carry me down out of the tree first? We’re a long way up.”

~ * ~

Baked Bean did look a lot better with all four hooves on the ground. Shining had offered to catch him if Bean jumped, but in the end, Velvet had glided down out of the darkness with a Bean clutched quite firmly to one leg. And it had only taken ten or fifteen minutes to get him pried loose.⁽*⁾

⁽*⁾To be honest, Velvet had not been very helpful in that regard.

With a deep breath, Bean mustered up every last ounce of confidence he had, faced the mountain of a Warleader, and proceeded. “I propose a cooking duel. I will challenge any mare you put forth, with one assistant for each of us. Whoever pleases more of your tribe with their skills shall be the victor. If I win, you come back to Canterlot and serve Princess Luna. If you win…” his confidence ebbed as Velvet smiled a sharp-toothed grin.

“You stay here, with us. Agreed!”

Hokey grabbed his sovereign and pulled him aside. “Your Highness, forgive me for saying this, but are you out of your mind? How are we supposed to beat them at cooking?!”

“Did you hear me when I said my parents owned a restaurant in Salt Lick?” Bean whispered, and Hokey nodded. “Okay, I wasn’t sure if you did. I’m a chef too, Sergeant. They taught me everything they know.”

“Was your restaurant any good?” Clover asked.

“Best in the city. We packed the house every night. I’m pretty sure I can beat these mares, but I’ll need your help, Shining.”

Shining glanced up at the cheshire grin of Velvet Midnight, inhaled deeply, and grunted. “Fine, but we better get some ground rules laid down here. These thestrals are going to do whatever they can to keep us here.”

“Hey, we’ll fight fair,” Velvet called out. “But we’re going to smoke you, too!”

“C’mon,” Shining muttered. “Let’s get this over with.”

* * 📖 * *

“BEAN!” Princess Luna proclaimed, and with a pounce, she tackled her husband and wrapped him up in a large, feathery hug. “Thou has returned to Us, unharmed and whole! We did greatly fret while thou wert away.”

Baked Bean tried to say something in reply, but the furious repetition of her alicorn-powered kisses prevented him from speaking. The guard detail in the throne room cleared their throats and respectfully averted their eyes from the Royal Snogging, but one guard did grumble as he passed a small bag of bits to another.

“Don’t even say anything. I thought for sure the prince would run for it.”

“Would you run away from kisses like that?” the other guard snarked.

“I’m glad to be back, too,” gasped Baked Bean once he surfaced for air from Luna’s kisses. “We got your guards like you wanted—”

“Speaking of wants,” growled Luna deep in her throat.

“And a little something extra,” he managed as fast as he could get the words out. “A concubine.”

Luna blinked, and seemed to look at her nose, which was an extraordinarily cute expression, although Bean was not about to admit it. “Praytell, what did you say?”

“Well, concubines, since I ended up with three of them. I defeated their commanding officer in a duel,” started Baked Bean, “and therefore under the laws of their tribe, I’m… um… Shining Armor has some, too,” he added weakly.

“How did this happen?” Luna asked, but then she held up a hoof. “Wait. Do not speak of this until we have summoned my sister and Cadence. As your wives, we deserve to hear of this together.”

* * * *

Next Chapter: 6. - Duel Estimated time remaining: 42 Minutes
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