The Harem Noses

by Irrespective

Chapter 6: 6. - Duel

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6. - Duel

* * * *

It was too early in the morning for Princess Celestia to be dealing with this.

That statement in and of itself had been an impossibility for the last thousand years, given the fact that the princess defined when ‘early’ was each and every morning. But with Luna’s return, there was now another pony who could be earlier than even Celestia, in a relative way.

It was a fact that the daytime diarch was going to have to adjust to. She groaned and muttered as she pulled her blankets up and over her head, desperate to block out the indeterminate noise that had interrupted her sleep. In the back of her mind, there was a building curiosity as to why her ears were under assault, but that urge was quickly besieged by the rest of her tired self, and the fighting was fierce.

Curiosity won when a loud thunk echoed in her room, and her eyes slowly slid open in disappointment as a pony hissed and sputtered in pain. If this was how her sister was going to wake her every morning, she was going to—

Celestia blinked once in an effort to clear the sleep from her eyes, and she hoped the action would correct what she was seeing. When that failed, she slowly sat up and stared at the singularity that was at the foot of her bed.

Or duality, to be accurate. There was not one, but two batponies standing before the Throne of Slumber. The one on the left had frozen up in fear, her eyes wide and her ears splayed, but the other one was weaving together a tapestry of whispered profanities that threatened to set the tips of Celestia’s ears ablaze.

It would take moons to clear the air in her room of such foul language.

“Velvet!” the one on the left hissed. “Shut up!”

“..and I’m gonna hurl this—oh.” The one named Velvet froze after the sharp stab in the ribs from her companion. “Um, good morning, Your Highness?”

Celestia blinked again.

“Sorry for the language, Your Highness. Buttercup and I were just trying to figure out where your husband was. The day guards said he would probably be in your room, but we were hoping he wouldn’t be in bed with you.”

Celestia smacked her lips.

“We both really like how you’ve decorated the room,” Velvet continued, clearly unnerved by the lack of response and eager to fill the void with words, even if they were of the rambling sort. “I’ve never seen real damask drapes before, and your study nook over there is very cozy. If it’s fine with you, we can push those purple couches together for a bed when it’s your turn with Baked Bean. Of course, we won’t touch any of the books, but could we maybe have a bottom shelf? It’d give us somewhere to store our personal things. Oh, and that fireplace looks really cozy. Is there any chance we can maybe push the couches a bit closer? We thestrals always love a good fire.”

Without a word, Princess Celestia carefully untucked herself from her bed, placed the bedding back into its proper position, and proceeded to walk out into the hallway.

It was too early for her to be dealing with this.

Thankfully, she did not have to search very far for the source of the intruders. Her recently returned sister was, at that moment, walking down the hallway with a grim, determined expression, with Baked Bean and Shining Armor trailing in her wake.

“Cadence is going to kill me,” Bean muttered. “And then Celestia will bury me alive and dance on my grave.”

“I am sure my sister will be understanding of the situation,” Luna replied. “And I did promise to keep you from any fatal harm. You will be safe enough, husband.”

“Shiny?” Cadence called out in a soft and seductive voice from somewhere unseen. “Why are there a half dozen batponies in lingerie in your room?”

“Your Highnesses, it’s been an honor serving both of you,” Shining said with a wince. “Would you mind sending my remains to my parents after this is all over with? If there are remains to be had, that is.”

Celestia figured this moment was just as good as any other, and she cleared her throat. “Mister Bean?” she asked, her aura of perfect tranquility as steady as ever. “Why are there a pair of batponies in my bedroom? And what are they dressed in?”

* * 🛡 * *

“First, I want to state for the record that I am not responsible for this,” Shining Armor said with as much seriousness as he was able in the present circumstances. “I was following orders, nothing more.”

Cadence said nothing. Her impassive expression was doing all the communicating for her.

Shining Armor paused to throw back the rest of the coffee in his cup. It was a strong brew, but not quite strong enough to completely banish the fatigue he felt deep in his joints and horn. “I tried to leave before we met them, I really did. I told Baked Bean that we were outnumbered, but he insisted. There wasn’t anything I could do about it.”

“Of course. We’re not assigning blame,” Celestia said. “We gave you a task, after all. We simply wish to know what happened, and why.”

The ragged lieutenant gazed into the bottom of his empty cup, and his rump wiggled slightly as he adjusted his position on the velvet pillow beneath him. Shining had never been privileged to enter Celestia’s drawing room, and he had to admit that, for an impromptu interrogation chamber, it was far too luxurious and soft for his military training. The soft sunlight from the freshly raised sun passing through the floor-to-ceiling window seemed to add a soft, comfortable warmth to everything from the soft-looking personal books and soft mementos to his own not-so-soft coat, and if not for the current situation, there would have been a good chance that he would simply fall asleep on the soft, overstuffed cushions he rested upon, caffeinated beverages or not.

But no matter how plush the pillows were, this was still effectively a court-martial. Shining Armor drew in a long, deep breath while trying to sort out how this latest development would affect his career, but he smiled when Cadence’s wing reached out and pulled him into a soft and loving hug.

No matter how this turned out, she would still be his. Her soft kiss provided all the strength he could ever need to endure, and then some. Oh, she was still angry. Odds were, alicorn grudges were likewise immortal. It was just filtered, smothered, covered, and overwhelmed by her love, perhaps even adding some invigorating spice to their relationship soup.

I’ve been hanging around Baked Bean too long.

He was grateful for the support. While he had his Cady by his side, Baked Bean had been roughly stuffed into the farthest corner of the room, and had been left there while Celestia had called for some light refreshments and some of her private Brassage Noir et Riche to be brewed for their ‘little chat.’ He had said nothing and moved even less while they waited, and even now, he simply stared out the window as Celestia’s magic picked up the percolator and provided Shining Armor with more of the robust liquid.

Shining could only imagine what was going through Baked Bean’s head at that moment, but he was sure it wasn’t anything pleasant. He made a mental note to assign a few more guards to the new prince, and one under the window just to be safe, and then he took a long draft from his refill.

“Are you sure you do not want anything, husband?” Luna held up a plate of croissants and jam. “You would feel much better if you ate something.”

“No, thank you,” he whispered. “I’m fine. Anything I eat right now would just come right back up.”

“Very well.” Luna pulled the plate back before selecting a croissant for herself. “Now, it is obvious that you managed to locate the thestral enclave, so let us put that part of the story aside for now and move to the more pressing issue. I did not ask you to take on concubines, and dealing with this complication will be rather difficult. How did this happen?”

“I had to,” he said in a voice that Shining had to strain to hear. “It was the only way they’d come back. I just wanted to do something right for once.”

* * 📖 * *

Earlier that day…

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Shining grumbled behind Bean, his magic blasting an errant tree branch out of his way. “How are we supposed to find anything edible in this Celestia-forsaken forest?”

Baked Bean paused by a tree that had just been trimmed, and he closed his eyes. He had thought that his idea was idiot-proof, but he hadn’t realized that since it was, the only idiot in the forest—namely, himself—would be defeated by it right from the start.

The thestrals were supposed to have food. They had to eat, obviously, and they had to know about stockpiling harvests.

But somehow, the rules of the contest stipulated that each team had to find their own ingredients, so here they were, stomping through a pitch-black and unfriendly forest yet again, trying to find something edible to cook for the challenge. He should have realized that the batponies were going to use any loopholes they could, and they probably had already whipped up a five course meal for their warleader to enjoy while they waited for Bean to fail.

But if the thestrals lived out here, then there had to be something. For once in his life, Baked Bean was going to do something right, and he snorted to help steel his resolve.

“Nose, don’t fail me now,” he muttered.

“So, any ideas on where to begin looking?” Shining asked. “Because there’s nothing here, unless you can do something with leaves and twigs.”

Bean paused for a moment and thought about the offer. “What kind of leaves?”

“Oh, sweet Cadence, you’re really trying to figure out how to make a meal out of that, aren’t you?” Shining groaned before offering a glare to the giggling batpony guard who had self-appointed herself to watch over them.

“Sure he is!” Velvet Midnight chortled. “I hear oak leaves and poison joke are all the rage in haute cuisine nowadays. I know where some gluemoss is too, if you need a garnish for the plate.”

Bean didn’t reply to the snarky batpony. He stood completely still, his nose upturned, and for several long moments, he allowed the scents of the forest to wash over him like the water of a perfectly heated bath.

“What are you doing,” Shining asked flatly.


“Smelling,” Shining repeated. “Great. My life depends on your nose. We’re doomed.”

Bean blocked out Shining’s words of discouragement and continued to sniff. There were some wild onions nearby, and a few berry bushes, but not much else. If he could find a patch of wild peas, somehow, and maybe some basil leaves, there was a chance that—

His thoughts ground to a halt when a new aroma tickled the tip of his nose. It was distant, and it wasn’t anything he was familiar with, but it was unmistakable.

Somepony was cooking.

Bean took a few steps in the direction of the scent, and a thrill of delight ran up his spine. This smell was coming from the opposite direction of the thestral’s camp, and even his simple mind realized that this meant there was a fresh source of food. The challenge to bring back the batponies had just become a battle, and a winnable battle at that.

But Velvet Midnight probably knew who the mysterious chef was, and it wasn’t hard for Bean to convince himself that she would try to stop them. He needed a distraction, something that would take her attention away from where he wanted to go.

Bean fought back a small grin. The best way to distract somepony was to get them talking, and he had ways of making her talk.

“How long have you thestrals been in hiding, Velvet?” Bean asked their hovering guard before taking another long sniff of the air and slowly moving towards his salvation.

“Ever since Nightmare Moon’s banishment,” Velvet replied. “We move the location of our village from time to time, just to throw off the searchers that Princess Celestia sends out. You four found us because we let you.”

“Why are you trying to hide?”

“Take a good, long look at me, Your Highness,” Velvet said with a flat glare. “Then, I want you to tell me, in all honesty, what the ponies of Equestria would do if they saw me.”

“Well, they’d probably think that… oh.”

“Bingo. Nightmare Moon’s evil minions, twisted and corrupted to serve her and bring about her everlasting night. We hide because we wouldn’t be accepted among your kind.”

“But you’re ponies too,” Bean said. “There aren’t ‘kinds.’”

Velvet gave Bean a sour frown. “Really?”

Bean’s gaze went to the dirt. “Well, there shouldn’t be.”

“A beautiful sentiment, but I doubt it’ll ever happen. Besides, there is some truth in it.”

Bean carefully stepped over a fallen log, then paused as Shining did the same. “How so?”

“A thousand years ago, the thestrals were Luna’s black ops army,” Velvet said with a small smile. “Silent but deadly. By the time you heard us, you were already dead. We were the ones who fought back all of the monsters that go bump in the night, and we were good at it, too. Still are, in fact. You have no idea what we keep bottled up in these woods.”

“I’m sure I don’t.”

“Problem is, when my ancestors enlisted to serve the Princess, they promised that we would serve her for always and eternity. ‘Until there shall no longer be found a thestral in the world,’ if you want to be official about it.”

“The Oath Tripartite?”

“Same as you, Lovercolt,” Velvet confirmed. “You already know how binding and completely unbreakable that oath is. And to put the cherry on top, that also meant that we were still her slaves when she decided to pull her Nightmare stunt. If she had won, we would have been the ones to enforce her darkness.”

“But Celestia defeated her,” Bean noted.

“Yes, but the damage was done. After that little fiasco, nopony trusted the thestrals anymore; there was no way to convince them that we hadn’t been corrupted, too. So, the ancient Warlords agreed to move to and keep watch over the Everfree until Princess Luna returned.”

“So you knew she was going to come back?” Shining asked while he and Bean pushed another branch out of their way.

Velvet’s gaze went distant, and her voice became soft. “Those who keep the night do tend to understand it best. The only problem is, we didn’t know if she would return as Luna or as Nightmare Moon. Since she’s back to her old self, that means us thestrals have a thousand years of catching up to do.”

“Catching up?” Bean repeated in confusion.

“Thestrals come in one flavor, Highness: female. There never has been and never will be a boy batpony.”

“So, you need us to…” Bean trailed off as the truth hit him like a ton of bricks.

“Gotta propagate the species somehow,” Velvet said with a wink. “You’d be surprised how many explorers and researchers have come stomping through here, trying to find evidence that we exist. Most of them stayed, since they were pretty well mocked and humiliated for believing in us in the first place, but one or two would go back and try to convince others that they had sired some foals. It never worked.

“It was never a free-for-all, though. The Warlords have always kept strict control over how many foals were born in any year, so when Nightmare Moon returned, we would be too few in number to be of any meaningful use. But since we don’t have to worry about that now, we can finally start rebuilding our numbers.” Velvet licked her lips and purred. “Sure, it’s going to take a few years, but I doubt any of the thestrals will mind that.”

“And if we refuse to help you?” Shining challenged.

“You’re welcome to try,” Velvet replied, her grin becoming lecherous. “But no stallion has ever been able to refuse us before.”

“What if we win this cooking contest?” Bean asked from behind Shining Armor. “What happens then?”

Velvet shrugged. “We’ll return to Canterlot, as promised. But you’re not going to win. You’re up against Midnight Surprise, and we’ve never had a better chef. Ever.”

* * 📖 * *

“Bean, I really, really hope that you have something amazing planned for this bake-off,” Shining muttered. “I’m not looking forward to being a foal factory for a bunch of sex-starved Amareazonians.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Velvet smirked. “How do you know you won’t like it? We’ve never had any complaints before about… wait!”

Bean and Shining were forced to stop as Velvet slammed into the ground in front of them, flared her wings out, and brandished her spear. “Not another step! You can’t go this way!”

“Why not?” Shining asked.

“They fear if you continue this way, then another creature will enter your fray.”

Velvet Midnight whirled and hissed at the intruder. “Stay out of this, Zebra! This does not concern you!”

Baked Bean retreated a step when the mysterious speaker stepped out of the shadows, but his curiosity soared as high as the moon above him. He had heard of zebras before, but the stories always portrayed them as a fiercely independent tribe that lived far beyond the Great Celestial Sea, a group who wanted no contact with the outside world in any way.

So to see one now, here in Equestria, was bit like… well, like finding a thestral. The striped intruder was clad in golden necklaces and earrings, smelled like witch hazel, and was grinning with mischievous glee. Her piercing blue eyes were locked with Velvet’s furious glare, but it was clear that the thestral wouldn’t be able to win this showdown.

Baked Bean liked the zebra immediately.

“If this truly does not concern me,” the zebra said, her contralto words tinged in amusement, “then why have you come here to my tree?”

“A simple navigational error,” Velvet retorted with a sneer aimed at the stallions. “And it’s one that I’m not going to let you two make again. Ever.”

“No, I meant to come here,” Baked Bean said with a smug grin. “Forgive our intrusion at this late hour, ma’am, but I could use your help, if you don’t mind.”

“Don’t you talk to her!” Velvet forced Bean and Shining back with a few unfriendly swipes with her spear. “That zebra is nothing but trouble!”

“Velvet Midnight, I am surprised. Why do you try to hold up this guise?” the zebra asked. “Come, let us make amends. My home is open to all, noble friends.”

“I take it you two have a history?” Shining said, his glee at Velvet’s discomfort obvious.

“That’s putting it mildly,” Velvet muttered. “Zecora has been a pain in our flanks ever since she showed up.”

“Oh really?” Shining said with a snort of amusement. “What, the forest isn’t big enough for the two of you?”

“It would be if she’d just stay in her part of it. C’mon, move it. We’re leaving.”

“No we’re not,” Shining retorted, his hoof flashing forward and swatting the spear away. “You said we had to find our own ingredients for the duel, and Bean did. You never put any restrictions on where to get those ingredients from.”

“You’re not getting them from here, I can assure you of that. That zebra will probably put some kind of evil spell on the food or something.”

“Too late,” Shining said with a nod to something behind Velvet.

Velvet glanced over her shoulder, then shrieked. Somehow, Baked Bean had snuck away from her, and he was prancing on tip hoof as he talked with Zecora. “No! Not good! Baked Bean, you get back here!”

“You know, I’ve never met a zebra before,” Bean said, oblivious to the sputtering protests of Velvet. “How long have you lived here?”

“I have not lived long in the Everfree, but I have found it to be quite cozy,” Zecora replied with a pleased grin. “But tell me, my friendly visitor, why is Velvet holding you prisoner?”

“That’s a horrifying story, in a funny sort of way.” Bean began to walk with Zecora as he continued his story. “See, the Lieutenant and I were sent out here by my wife—well, wives, actually, and…”

“Oh, great,” Velvet muttered. “I’m never going to hear the end of it now.”

* * 📖 * *

“So, if you don’t mind, I would really, really appreciate it if I could borrow a few ingredients from you,” Bean said. “I’ll pay you back for it, and give you whatever else you want, too. Just name your price, and I’ll figure out a way to pay.”

Zecora chuckled a bit and shook her head. “While you are kind and very polite, my current life is what feels right. Generous though you try to be, such things would be wasted on me. Everything I need is here in my tree, so I will assist you without charging a fee.”

“Thank you!” Bean blurted with a gasp of relief. “Oh, I feel so much better now. You have no idea what this means to me.”

“I always delight to help another,” Zecora said with a grin. “Now, what shall we make for Velvet’s mother?”

Bean took a moment to study Zecora’s humble home. It was pleasant, if somewhat small, but the exotic trinkets and baubles that lined the walls were fascinating. Bean wished he had more time to ask her about the masks in particular, but he needed to get on with the duel.

“Do you have any suggestions? I could whip up something from memory, but if you happen to know what they like, that would make my life easier.”

“Cheater!” Velvet shouted from the corner where she had chosen to sit and pout at the proceedings. “You’re only supposed to have one assistant!”

“Hey, I’m not helping,” Shining quickly said. “See? I’m the picture of not-assistance right now. I’m just guarding my sovereign, nothing more.”

Velvet had no retort for that, so she went back to grumbling.

“The thestrals are a picky bunch, but I just so happen to have a hunch,” Zecora said. “I do know what meal will please, but the answer may fill you with unease.”

“At the moment, I don’t care,” Bean replied.

“Since thestral delight is what you wish, then you must cook a meal of fish.”

“Fish?” Bean repeated.

“It is the prefered snack of the hidden pack,” Zecora confirmed with a nod. “If you fill their bellies with trout, you will win. I have no doubt.”

“Trout, trout.” Bean tapped his chin as he mentally went through all of the fish recipes he knew. “I assume there’s some trout near here?”

“I caught some earlier this night to use in a spell to cure a fright. I have six over there, and with you I will share.”

“Do you know how to cook fish?” Shining Armor asked. “I’ve never had any kind of seafood in my life, and I doubt many other ponies have either.”

“That’s one good thing about living in Salt Lick,” Bean replied. “We get a fair amount of griffons and hippogriffs from the barge traffic, so my family’s restaurant had to have some unconventional menu items. To pull this off, though, I’m gonna need horseradish, onions, vinegar, vegetable oil, and some watercress. Is that asking for too much?”

“I can easily provide all that you require.” Zecora smiled and motioned to the various bottles, jars, and jugs that were strewn about her home. “All we need now is a healthy fire.”

“You’re wasting your time,” Velvet muttered. “We hate fish. With a passion, even.”

“Do not listen to Velvet’s lies. She is merely upset that I defeated her spies.”

“Oh?” Shining perked up at this opportunity to get a dig in on his tormentor. “Is somepony pouting because there’s a zebra better than you?”

“I don’t know how she does it!” Velvet gestured to Zecora with both hooves. “No matter what we do, she always figures out where we are and what we’re doing! We can’t get away with anything while she’s here! Is it some kind of bizarre zebra magic? Incantation? It’s gotta be something! She’s some kind of evil enchantress!”

“Zecora, you and I need to have a talk once this is all done,” Shining said with a gleeful laugh.

* * 📖 * *

“So, my charming young friend, how did you manage to come to this end?” Zecora asked.

“What do you mean?” Bean asked, his knife a blur of motion as he sliced an onion.

“The path to my humble home makes most tremble in fear, so what has brought a young prince here?”

“It’s just like I said. Princess Luna wants the thestrals to return, and—”

“I am afraid you misunderstand. What has led you to this stand? You appear to have considerable skill,” she said with a nod to his chopping, “but in your eyes, I see no thrill. You are cooking this meal by rote, and upon this task, you wish not to dote. Why did you leave your childhood home, and what compelled your hooves to roam?”

Bean’s chopping slowed, then stopped. For several long moments, he said nothing and moved even less.

“Bean?” Shining called out. “You okay?”

“It was so simple,” Bean whispered, his gaze a thousand yards past the walls of Zecora’s home. “Anypony could have done it. Why couldn’t I just…”

There was another brief pause before the knife in Bean’s hoof flew into a flurry of motion. “Well, none of that matters. Let’s just say that I’m terrible at multitasking, and so I’m not really all that good of a chef. I can do one meal here and there pretty well, but if I have to do a dozen different dishes all at the same time, I get overwhelmed. I got into this mess because I was trying to find a different job, but I never should have gone to the Castle of the Two Sisters.”

“You were looking for a new career?” Zecora asked. “But what about the mark on your rear? Any pony with your skill and that book could easily decide they should be a cook.”

Bean took a quick glance at his cutie mark and snorted. “I used to think that, at one time. But if that was true, then destiny hates me. Of course, being the universe’s chew toy would explain a lot of things that have happened lately.”

“Ah, the tides of destiny can be very strong. Even if you fight, they will push you along,” Zecora said as Bean scooped his onions into a bowl of vinegar with the flat of his blade. “Though you are not meant to be a chef, you have not been left bereft. Princess Luna has shown her desire, and it is clear her aspirations for you are higher. Trust in harmony, and you will see that what you desire can come to be.”

Zecora then turned to check on the cooking fish, giving Bean a moment to think over the mystic zebra’s words. It was hard to believe that this marriage mess with the princesses was something other than some huge practical joke, but if Zecora was right…

Bean shoved the thought out and refused to let it back into his head. This wasn’t destiny, despite Zecora’s persuasive arguments. This was torture, pure and simple. Once the thestrals were back in Canterlot, he could see no reason why he would have to go out in public again. He would simply recuse himself from everything and stay in his room.

It was the only way he could prevent things from getting even worse.

* * 📖 * *

“Ah, our young prince has returned.” Warleader Pansy chuckled and leaned back in her chair. “I must say, you have fantastic timing, Your Highness. We have just finished the first meal, and it was the finest rosemary salad I have ever tasted. You’ve got a high bar to clear. Let us see what you have created.”

Bean glanced over the ring of batponies in the clearing, and he swallowed hard. “You’re not expecting me to feed everypony, right? The deal was that I only had to provide a meal for you.”

Pansy nodded. “This is true, Highness. I alone will judge between you and Midnight Surprise. The others are simply here to observe the proceedings. Please, present your meal. The night is waning fast, and Luna will be worried. Zecora! Good evening! I had no idea you were part of this.”

“You know Zecora?” Bean and Velvet asked in unison.

“Of course! I frequently stop by her home for various herbs and salves,” Pansy replied. “She has a delightful cucumber concoction that’s done wonders for my split ends. I hope you’re still planning on stopping by on Friday; I do love our games of canasta.”

“Wait. You’ve been conversing and playing games with our sworn enemy?” Velvet blanched and retreated. “I can’t believe this! How could you?!”

“There’s no need to be so melodramatic,” Pansy replied. “Zecora is welcome here any time. If you have any qualms with her, I suggest you get over them.”

“But our spies!”

“Need to practice until Zecora can no longer find them,” Pansy finished with a hard glare. “Perhaps the Lieutenant can give us a few tips, if the Prince should happen to win.”

“Oh, I’m sure there’s a few things I could teach you,” Shining said with a wicked grin for Velvet.

“First things first. What have you prepared for the challenge, Your Highness?”

“Baked trout with pea shoots and onions,” Bean said as he placed his creation before the decider of his fate. “It’s a family recipe, and one of our most popular dishes, too. But before we begin, I have a request.”

“Oh? And what might that be?”

“I have some serious concerns about your impartiality,” Bean said. “I have no assurance that you will judge fairly, other than your word. So, Zecora has brought with her a potion that will force you to tell the truth for one hour. I want you to drink it first, and then we’ll know for sure that the winner really is the winner.”

“Of course,” Pansy said with a slow nod. “If it will make you feel better. Come! Pour the drink, and let us get on with this. Your offering smells quite tempting.”

A few nervous whispers were passed between the thestrals while Zecora filled a wooden goblet with a green liquid and passed it to Pansy. The cup was emptied in one quick swallow, and the warleader gave a grunt of surprised delight as she smacked her lips.

“Interesting. I wasn’t expecting it to be fizzy,” Pansy said. “Zecora, I’ll have to get that recipe from you later. Forced honesty aside, that was quite tasty.”

“The brew is easy enough to make. I’ll provide it to you after you partake.”

Dozens of eager eyes watched on as Pansy sniffed the meal that had been provided. Bean’s rear leg began to shake, and without realizing it, he held his breath.

“Please like it. Please like it. Please like it,” he heard Shining whisper, and he fully supported the sentiment.

Pansy’s fork cut a portion of the meal away, then stabbed it firmly. A hundred breaths collectively stilled as the food moved from plate to mouth.

The judgement then came down.

“You win, Your Highness.”

The batponies nearly exploded. Cries of foul play and enchanted dealings with the zebra rang out, and were supported by an undercurrent of protests at the prospect of returning to civilization. Shining Armor, Clover Leaf, and Hokey Pokey quickly surrounded Bean in a protective circle, horn alight and wings flared, but Pansy simply continued to enjoy the meal at a leisurely pace.

The furor died out rather quickly with Pansy’s lack of emotion, but Velvet continued to rant and rave until she finally stormed up to the table.

“Mother, you can’t let them win! How are we supposed to—”

Pansy held up a hoof, and her daughter was instantly silenced. “Velvet, you are the one who agreed to the terms that were set forth for our tribe. I know Zecora would not enchant, drug, modify, or manipulate the food, so my ruling is final. Prince Baked Bean’s meal is better, end of discussion. We must now prepare to return to Canterlot, and take our place once more as Princess Luna’s guard.

“However, there is one other matter that we must attend to,” Pansy continued, a sly grin appearing on her face. “You have bested the Oberjarl in singular combat. By the ancient laws that govern our tribe, we are now prepared to present the victors with their prize.”

“Prize? I thought returning was the prize,” Shining said, the wariness in his voice matching what Bean felt.

“That was an additional term. All duels with the Oberjarl are governed by very strict and very binding rules, passed from generation to generation from the original Oath until the present.”

“So, what is this prize?” Bean asked, though he was dreading the answer.

“Having defeated my champion in combat, you and your party are now claimants to the rights of concubinage over our tribe,” Pansy said in a matter-of-fact tone. “We’ll need to sort out how many each of you get, and who will be a concubine to whom, but I’m sure that—”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Shining Armor shouted. “You can’t be serious! All of you have to be our concubines just because Bean cooked a better meal?!”

“The laws are quite clear,” Pansy replied with a calm grin.

“Even me?” Clover Leaf asked.

“Even you,” Pansy confirmed with a nod. “As your Prince, Baked Bean will have claim to myself, my daughters, and any other batponies he wishes to take. However, I believe Equestrian prize laws stipulate that the spoils should be divided evenly. That will simplify matters, if I am right.”

“Zecora?” Bean turned to her, the desperation building in his gut.

“She did drink my special brew, so all that she says is true,” Zecora simply replied. “I thought you knew of this, but apparently I was remiss. But it would seem to be no mistake that fate gave you this tribe to take.”

“Velvet Midnight, Buttercup, and a contingent of guards will accompany me to Canterlot,” Pansy stated. “We will meet with our Princess and learn her will. The rest of you will prepare to leave. Pack everything, leave nothing behind. Our time in the Everfree Forest is now at an end. It is time for us to begin a new chapter, and I am sure our new spouses will guide us all to an era of great prosperity.”

Bean would have taken it for a serious and honest gesture by their leader, if she had not finished by briskly smacking Shining Armor on his firm rear.

* * * *

“So you were tricked,” Luna said with a low growl.

“I guess?” Bean said, his voice still at a near whisper. “Anstasi Von Wünschenswert and her entourage came with us, as you saw, and she says she will meet with you at your leisure.”

“Sister, I believe it would be best if all three of Bean’s wives met with the Warleader,” Luna said with a glance between Celestia and Cadence. “We will be their masters, and they will subject themselves to us. It behooves us to present a unified front, so that she understands her place. As I recall, the tribes can be quite fractious and argumentative.”

Celestia stood in place for a moment, then turned to face her sister and raised her eyebrow just a fraction, as if to measure the degree of fractiousness between her sister and her new guards. “I agree,” she finally said. “Mister Bean, have you,” she cleared her throat “divided the spoils of your victory yet?”

“No. Shining and I agreed that it would be best to talk things over with you first.” Bean paused, and a confused look came over him. “Sergeant Hokey Pokey did seem rather interested in Midnight Surprise, now that I think of it.”

“Then you and Shining should get some rest. Luna, Cadence and I will deal with the Warleader and prepare for the batponies’ return.”

* * * *

Next Chapter: 7. Wishes, Hopes, and Desires Estimated time remaining: 18 Minutes
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