The use of locations from The Ambassador's Son by Midnight Shadow is done with permission.
Tacksworn Population 8624, the sign said. A small desert town, it had a school, a small library, several diners, two inns, and a salt bar. There were the expected stores down the short main street, and homes whose siding was worn by sun and the incessant dryness.
Just outside the town was a patch of farming land; the lone pegasus in charge of local weather for the town was old but he did his best to gather enough cloud to keep the crops from withering away. He used to have a younger helper, but the youthful pegasus couldn't wait to head off to Cloudsdale; small town life just rubbed his feathers the wrong way.
For all of that, Perspicacity and Wildfire found themselves in a surprisingly diverse community, quite unlike anyplace they had been before. As they waited for the baggage ramp to be put in place, they noticed griffons and ponies walking by, chatting with each other, and a pair of dragons of moderate size carrying their shopping in bags tied to their tails, which they held high. The town was mostly ponies, but the scattered griffons and at least two adult dragons made Tacksworn seem the most exotic place either of the Starshines had ever been.
This was both Starshines' first look at griffons and dragons, and so they could not help but stare; not once had either species ever visited the two Fetlocks, Greater or Lesser, and they found these new sapient beings mesmerizing simply to look at. At some point they realized they were probably being rude; it wasn't their intent, it was just that they had been caught up in innocent fascination.
"I take it that you've never been to the border before?" The voice was a little raspy, doubtless due to the desert air. Pers and Wild couldn't take their eyes off the tails of the two dragons as they walked around a corner and down a street far to their right.
"No. This is our first time this far from Central Equestria." Wildfire answered without turning. He felt like he had to see the last bit of the dragons going down the street. "Pers, I never imagined that dragons would, well, go shopping. And the griffons - they're beautiful! Those feathers just shine in the sun, and the way they walk is just... I don't know, jaunty, like 'Hey, I'm a griffon, and I know I'm cool, and you know I'm cool, so, like let's not have any pretense about it', you know?"
"Griffons are cool. In fact, they're awesome. They go shopping, too. Did I mention they were awesome?"
"Really?" Wildfire turned around, finally, the dragons having vanished from view entirely. The raspy-sounding pony that had addressed them was...
A surprisingly large, quite heavy griffon with shining, coppery plumage and an astonishingly sharp-looking beak. A loudly laughing griffon, now, holding his side with his talons. "Oh, droppings, the looks on your faces!" The chimeric creature finally finished laughing and held out a claw. "They call me Piotre. Sorry, but seeing you two gawking like you'd never been out of the stable was just too rich. Welcome to Tacksworn, the Jewel of the South Desert!"
Wildfire stuck out a hoof, which Piotre gave a firm shake. "I'm Wildfire. Wildfire Starshine, and this is my wife, Perspicacity."
"The Jewel of the Desert? Really?" There was some doubt on Perspicacity's muzzle; the buildings were a little old and worn, and the streets were nothing but sand. It didn't seem very fancy at first glance.
"No, not one bit. Any jewels here would have been taken by the D-Dogs, long, long ago." Piotre held Perspicacity's hoof more gently in greeting. "But... it's still a pretty cool place to live. We have some interesting stuff go on, from time to time, can't help it with three cultures all having holidays and throwing fairs and generally being weird. And I'm just talking about the ponies!" The griffon laughed again.
The great steamer trunk was ready to be unloaded now, the ramp being in place. Piotre offered to help guide the Luggage down the surprisingly steep ramp, together he and Wildfire got it's wheels finally onto the sand. Where they promptly became stuck.
"Oh... horsefeathers." Wildfire hadn't even considered this possibility. So far they had only been to places that had pavement, cobblestones, packed earth, or the hard, dry desert clay such as back in Salt Lick. This was Wildfire's first experience of soft, shifting, desert sand. This was not a surface built for tiny wheels.
"Hey, Wildfire - if I can give you a piece of advice; you might want to lose the wheels. They're too small for sand; you'd do better just dragging that thing flat. It'll scuff it up pretty bad, but at least it'll move." Piotre scratched the feathers of his neck with his talons. "If ya want, I can help you tilt this thing up, so we can deal with the wheels."
"Actually, I may have a better solution, if I'm strong enough." Perspicacity's horn began to glow as she wrapped the heavy luggage in her telekinetic grip. The huge steamer trunk began to wobble then lift from the sand. It rose, slowly, until it was five or six hooves from the surface. It was clear that the silvery unicorn was struggling; the weight was an issue but even more was the bulkiness of the luggage - it was difficult for her limited abilities to keep every part of the trunk balanced and contained within her field.
One end of the luggage dipped and dug into the sand. Perspicacity pushed harder, her horn glowing even more brightly, as the end rose once more. For a few seconds the entire mass hovered smoothly in the air, but then it began to wobble and the other side dropped to meet the ground. "Swirls! I managed that cabinet right up the stairs at home!" The cabinet had been heavier, and so had the bookshelf, but both had been smaller in overall contour, and easier for her magic to encompass.
Finally Perspicacity, sweating from the effort - and the desert heat - was forced to let the luggage rest again on the desert sands. Her horn dimmed, the unicorn panted from the strain. She wished she had taken her magic teachers more seriously during Basic Levitation. She was always more interested in Multiple Object Concentration and Fine Control. She was a natural at those, but when it came to heavy, large or bulky objects, Perspicacity had always just blown such matters off; she'd get somepony else to lift the bulky or wide stuff. She'd handle the little things, perfectly, of course.
She hadn't considered that she might marry an earth pony, and be the only unicorn in the family.
"I'm... sorry. I... I thought I could do it." Perspicacity looked down, embarrassed at her lack of telekinetic control.
"Hey, no sweat - I can't lift things with my mind at all!" The plump coppery griffon gave Perspicacity a wink. "Let's see what we can do, what'ya say there, stud?" Wildfire nodded, and together they worked to lift the luggage onto its side, so that the wheels could be unlocked, and slid back into the trunk within the little wheel wells built into it.
One of the wheels refused to go back in; the reason was a plug of sand, but with a little help from Perspicacity's fine control, the sand was swept out and the wheel set into place. When this was done, the luggage was laid flat once more, and Wildfire reached for the harness with his mouth.
In short order the luggage was ready to be dragged across the sand, with Perspicacity helping by lightening the weight of the trunk, and Piotre pushing from behind. "Where you two heading, anyway?" the griffon wanted to know.
"Well," Wildfire scanned the small town. "Can you recommend a decent inn? We need a place to stay for a couple of days, maybe a week."
"We have two inns in the town - one's the 'Starlight Starbright', it's kind of... unique. Built out of wooden wagons - they're kind of like caves on wheels, really - it used to be run by this young pegasus named Rogan, he left town though, kept going on about being the last skyflyer or something like that, his mom runs it now." The griffon fluffed his tail feathers and looked towards the other side of the town.
"The other inn is the Sunshine Hotel. It's old but comfortable enough. It used to have ten rooms, but somehow it lost one. Don't ask me how, The desert is a strange place. Just up and left, I guess." Piotre sniffed, thinking. "Or... you could come home with me. We have a double-roost just over there, on that low hill. We only use the one house, the other ended up empty. We rent it out during the dragon and the griffon fairs. The griffon fair is better, but I'm biased. The ponies don't have a fair, they do a rodeo. It's actually a pretty big deal. Not as cool as the griffon fair though."
"How... how much would you charge for..." Perspicacity began.
"Fifteen bits a night, and I'll get Lowess to make dinner for you tonight; she's a good cook, and knows a lot of pony recipes. Recipes FOR ponies. You know what I mean." Piotre grinned a wide, beaky smile.
Fifteen bits a night was less than half what any inn could be expected to cost in a small town, and a fourth of what they had paid in Salt Lick City. "We'd be honored, Mr... um... Piotre. Thank you." Perspicacity nodded to her husband, and together, the three of them pushed, pulled and levitated the heavy luggage to the hill that overlooked the town.
The hill was not large, though beyond it astonishingly tall and stony mountains rose precipitously above the town of Tacksworn.
The griffon's home was one of two on the same lot, both made of stones, with tiled roofs and a low, circular wall of stone surrounding the buildings. In short order, Wildfire and Perspicacity had been welcomed by Piotre's wife Lowess, and made comfortable. The seats in the home were round, stuffed leather constructions that roughly resembled nests, they were actually pretty comfortable, considering that they were not designed for equinoid bodies.
Lowess immediately set about making dinner. It was traditional in griffon homes for the female to provide the food, not unlike those old, extinct giant cats called 'lions', Wildfire thought, remembering old holoprograms from his childhood. While she was busy, Piotre kept the Starshines company, and talk ranged from his job at the rail station dealing with shipping and cargo management, to the surprise that Wildfire felt seeing the two dragons.
According to Piotre, the mountains surrounding the town were where the dragons made their homes. Dragons mostly kept to themselves, and all were very old. Being relatively solitary creatures there were no dragon families, as such, except for the short time that they mated and raised young, which had not happened in hundreds of years as far as anygriffon could remember.
By this time, dinner was on the table, which was a low, circular affair, made of stone, set within a chamber whose floor was made of smooth, fine sand. The griffons called it the 'bone room', a somewhat ominous name that Piotre was quick to explain was part of traditional griffon culture, and should not be taken literally, at least anymore.
"Oh, wait - there is one family; 'ol Sharptooth has a son now." Piotre munched on one of a pile of freshly roasted rabbits. For the benefit of the Starshines, his wife had made a very nice hay and cactus casserole. She had said it was simple to make, and a favorite when they had pony friends over for dinner. In a mixed community such as Tacksworn, learning to cook the meals of other species was only natural.
"That's right!" Lowess bit with her beak into her own rabbit and chewed thoughtfully. Apparently, griffons had both beaks and teeth, a reminder of their curious, chimeric biology. "Nice little dragon. A little moody sometimes, or so Stew tells me, but nice enough. You can hear the little hatchling yelling when he flies with his dad, sometimes. Real screamer, or at least he used to be."
The griffons had three children, a hen and two cocks; Megaceryle, Keris and 'Stewmeat'. Stew was the youngest cock, but also the brightest. Perspicacity did not inquire as to the origin of the nickname.
"He's alright. For a dragon." Stewmeat volunteered.
Perspicacity and Wildfire had never tasted cactus before, and were surprised at the flavor. It was very mild, almost sweet, and reminded them of squash mixed with bellpepper somehow. Piotre's wife really was a good multispecies cook.
"He gutted the school bully!" Keris, the older fledgling cock, blurted in excitement. "Sliced him open like a rabbit, guts everywhere, spattering on the.."
"Keris! We have pony guests tonight!" Lowess rapped her sharp talons on the stone table and glared at her less intellectual fledgling.
"Sorry Mr. and Mrs. Starshine. Sorry Mom." Keris went back to munching on his rabbit.
The last member of the griffon family was the most interesting to both Perspicacity and Wildfire; he was a diamond dog, the very sort of creature mentioned by Willelmus in his manuscript. He had been 'adopted' after a fashion, by Piotre, having fallen on hard times. Apparently Piotre was a kind sort of griffon, as Baryon was without doubt the runt of his litter; small, even delicate for a diamond dog, and extremely cultured and well behaved.
Baryon was not as Perspicacity had been led to believe; he did not seem greedy nor vicious, and he did not seem to have a broken moral compass.
"Please, please, can Baryon have another rabbit, yes, we would like this yes?" The little diamond dog wore a leather vest and a collar with a single gemstone in it. He held his plate up and grinned a large canid grin.
"Of course, Baryon, here - none goes hungry at a griffon table, you know that!" Lowess lifted a roasted rabbit from the rapidly diminishing pile and placed it with her claw on the diamond dog's platter.
"Oh, we are thanking you so much, so much for the delicious dinner, Lowess! And grateful we are, yes grateful!" Baryon smiled again and began tucking in to the meat happily, his little tail wagging.
"So, Wildfire, what brings you to our odd little community? Business or do you have a relative here? It's usually one or the other." Piotre was munching on a leg; Wildfire found himself repelled at the sight, which surprised him somewhat. When he had lived on Earth, while animal flesh was reserved only for the mega-wealthy elite, nanofab replications of things such as chicken and beef were common, if expensive, treats for the working class. As a human, Wildfire had been one of the 2% with a job, and he used to save up to be able to purchase a nanofab turkey leg for Christmas, complete with carbon-fiber simulated bone.
Now, the idea of eating meat was revolting to him, and here he was, at the table with an entire family of carnivores. This was clearly another 'special' moment for Wildfire, only one not so much filled with wonder as disgust.
Only one member of the griffon family was not eating meat, and that was the young hen, Megaceryle. She wore glasses, which was of itself interesting - Wildfire didn't know that any other species used such instruments of vision, but then, he thought, why wouldn't they? - and he had just assumed that all griffons must be carnivores. Apparently they could eat plants, too. Today had been very educational for Wildfire.
"Well..." Wildfire paused. What should he say? He obviously couldn't just blurt out the truth; there was no way to know who might be a part of the incredible scheme to politically destroy Equestria. For all they knew, there might be other factions involved than just the HLF remnants. What if the griffons or the dragons themselves wanted things to fall apart? The possibilities dizzied Wild's imagination.
"We came here to try to find material for the book I'm writing!" Perspicacity broke in suddenly, with confidence in her voice. Wildfire stared at her in surprise, and admiration for her cleverness. "I want to do a book about the Pact, the Peace Of Equestria. This is where it all started, or so my research tells me, and we're here to see if we can find out for ourselves anything about the real history that led to the happy world we live in today."
Wildfire nodded at Perspicacity; she truly lived up to her name. "That's right," Wildfire joined in. "We think - well, my wife thinks - that there may be things of.... some interest.... that have not been... found out... about... uh..."
"About the original signers, and about the times in which they lived." Perspicacity gave Wildfire a quick look, the meaning of which was clearly 'let me handle this'. Wildfire suddenly found total fascination in his plate. Ooh, yum yum, look at that cactus bite, yum.
"You see," Perspicacity now had the griffon's full attention. "It is my thought that the Marketplace that once existed here was integral to the peace process. Well, that's kind of common thinking, I admit, but here's my angle..." Perspicacity thought fast - what would let her get the sort of information she actually wanted? Ah! "... instead of the big, famous personalities we all hear about, what about all the little ponies... um, and griffons and... dragons and... diamond dogs... that ran the Market? If the Marketplace was the key to the current peace, then..." Oh yes, this was perfect. They could use this story all over town. It was the perfect cover story. Perspicacity felt so very clever! "... surely the ordinary folk of that time must have been important too, because they made the Market! Nopony has told their story before. At least, not as well as I think I can!"
Whew. It was the fastest she had ever thought on her hooves. It was brilliant. They would buy that, anypony would.
The griffons looked at each other. They looked at Baryon. Baryon looked at the griffons. Suddenly they all burst out laughing. Baryon started to choke on his rabbit, and they had to help him.
"Looks like we have more silly treasure-hunters after the Learmount Manuscript, father!" Little Stewmeat said with a superior tone.
Lowess glared at her little hatchling. "Hush, Stew. Be nice. After all, they are guests."