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A Forbidden Palace No More! (Sign-Up in OOC Thread)

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The only foot access to and from the Imperial Palace is a heavily fortified (if very aesthetically pleasing) drawbridge over the moat, connecting the palace island to the Forbidden Lake's southern shore. As far most people are concerned, the closest they'd ever get to the Imperial Palace is the gatehouse at the bridge's southern end: the Water Gate. An ornate tower situated upon a wall-like platform, the Water Gate is one of the most famous landmarks within Huangjing.

 

Lying in front of the Water Gate is the Imperial Square; a massive plaza lines with statues of Long Guo's greatest rulers and heroes. On occasion, subjects of the Dragon Kingdom gather within the square to listen to an address by their emperor from reviewing stands atop the Water Gate's platform. For many, such momentous events are the only time they ever get to witness their beloved monarch.

 

Today would not be such a day. Yet for a group of fillies and colts, something even more magical was in the works: a tour of the closed-off Imperial Palace itself!

 

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It was a half-hour past breakfast, and Kaze fidgeted impatiently as she waited in the Imperial Square with her golem companion Mr. Twig and the rest of the kids in her field trip group. Aside from them, there was little activity in the Square aside from well-to-do denizens of the capital city's Inner Ward mulling about or the occasional official passing through the Water Gate on imperial business. 

 

The little sister of the Neighponese Shogun was now of age to start visiting the world outside her home nation. But rather than visit Long Guo in the company of her distinguished brother or even Daddy, they had somehow inserted the young ryuma into a delegation of young Equestrian children; the first Nations of Harmony initiative of its kind.

 

Truly a historic day to be sure, but Kaze wasn't interested in all that. All she wanted to know was what was taking the Prince so long to get here. Gosh darnit, Kaze wanted to start exploring a forbidden palace that wasn't also her own home for a change.....

 

 

*OOC: Sign-up thread is here. As of this post, two child slots are still available.*

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(( Guess I'm first ))

 

Echo's close friends wouldn't be coming with her. That was a bit disappointing but at least she knew some fillies that were attending too. Well, kind of. There was AppleBloom... and the rest. That was about it. She didn't really pay attention in class to others with her introversion. The trip took a while, but she was sure it would be worth it. Her wings remained fixed to her side as she took in the scenery. Statues everywhere, of the heroes and rulers that she would eventually find out about. 

 

She took a moment to stop focusing on the scenery and instead focus on the group. In front of her, she saw the first native. A Longma, or Ryuma, that's what they were right? The ones with the wings? Not Qilin. Words are confusing. Is Dragon pony acceptable? Although that would be like calling pegasi bird ponies. The Longma was a filly and there was a mini plant with her. It wasn't in a pot it was like a golem. Maybe it was a golem. Why?

 

Due to her lack of hearing, she wasn't really paying attention to the rest of the group and turned back to look at the scenery. 

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With her parents attending an convention at Las Pegasus and all of her assorted siblings off doing an assortment of 'very important' tasks, somepony had to look after little Wind Walker! The little blue filly had suggested she go with her friend Sweet Cents to 'Whinnyland', the greatest theme park in all of Equestria. Her friend's parents were pretty darn rich and would spare no expense on their travels! She could even invite two friends along. That would be hard. Bebop? Scootaloo? Or Fast Track? She would never get to decide, since her parents wanted her to go somewhere educational! BAH! You could learn a lot in a theme park! Where else would you learn that the pirates who raided the Carriagebean liked to sing with they were doing pirate stuff? Or that bears look good in leisure suits? Not good enough for them! Her folks probably ditched the convention already and headed off to the casinos. Or the assortment of shows the great city of lights provided.
 
Being in the R.E.A provided its members and family excellent 'edu-tunities' to travel the world. Her father heard that the Y.C.N.H was taking young fillies and colts to visit the splendid Imperial Palace of Long Guo! She would get to meet an prince! This would be sort of cool, but she already got to meet a prince before and she doubted any pony not named Dunder could be as handsome as Prince Blueblood! And an Empress! Bah! How could an empress impress her after she got to hang with Princess Celestia!
 
Spoiler

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Along with her usual luggage, the Y.C.N.H also supplied her with a book called the 'Journey to the Dragon Kingdom'. A book she tried more than once to read, but after a few pages, she got bored and looked at the pictures instead. Thankfully it was small enough to fit in one of her saddle bags, along with a book of common phrases of this land. Being an 'Walker' meant she had to be prepared at all time. She was also told that she needed to act like a lady. No silly shenanigans. No horse-play and no fun. She was representing Equestria. And more importantly, if she acted up, her mother mentioned that it would not make Princess Celestia happy. And we don't want to upset the princess! Her mom knew how to push all the right buttons!
 
While she found the buildings and landscapes to be very pretty, she was also very bored. This was going to be one of  'those' tours. They would meander around an old castle, some bored tour-guide would ramble on about some old vase for two hours and then they would move on to the next chamber pot or odd shaped hat. So far, this had not happened, but she knew it would! Thankfully, there were kids her age here. Along with fillies and colts she had never seen before, there was an filly with an hearing disability that her friend Fast Track knew. Applebloom was also here, so listening to her try to pronounce Long Guo words with her thick country-pony accent would be amusing at least. There was also a little Ryuma girl named Kaze who hung around a walking stick thing. Weird.
 
Not wanting Echo to miss out on the boredom, she glanced at the filly and without speaking, mouthed the words, "They probably don't know you can’t hear. Do you want me to get their attention? They haven't said much so far."
 
 
 
 
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Apple Bloom was a pretty big fun of the Nations of Harmony. Yep. It was one of the better groups she had joined and she had joined a lot of fun groups, even if the Cutie Mark Crusaders was still better. She had signed up for it...maybe a little bit after everypony else had. They had announced where they were going and who was going to be there and she had been so very inspired by the beauty of...Long Guo...yes, Long Guo. She had joined a little later but for all of that she had done more than enough to earn her way in. She was a farm pony by experience and hard work came o her pretty easily, more naturally than others. And when she found herself really dedicated to what was in front of her and had a task of import, well, she could for sure conquer almost any task.

Okay, so there was a bit more than that. Fact is she saw that the destination involved certain Prince Lee-Ann and she couldn't say no. She didn't even really remember signing up, but she did remember getting Applejack to forward her allowance so she could buy herself a book on the language spoken there in an attempt to...familiarize herself with such a beautiful language. Spoken by such beautiful creatures. Creatures like the Prince, which- well, she wasn't lying to herself. Still, it wasn't like she thought the Nations of Harmony weren't cool. She had given it a few look-sees when it was announced but she was just so busy! She'd admit it took motivation but she didn't regret anything she had done since joining.

The Nations of Harmony was an international organization bringing together the youths of many nations in an attempt to build understanding and create positive cross-cultural contact to build a friendlier, better tomorrow for all. They undertook a lot of cultural classes and goodwill building exercises. She heard some of the older, near-adult colts and fillies even went on to build houses and deliver aid to those in need. It was all well and good. She would be more than excited to participate in the legions of academic and charity work that accompanied the Nations workload as long as she got to go on this trip. This delicious, delicious trip.

Apple Bloom would readily admit she had a deep, deep crush on the Prince and had since she first met him. They had shared around a dozen or five words and that was enough to know she needed more. So here she was in a foreign nation, surrounded by those who were similar to her and not so similar. It was a great time and she found herself feeling like the sky was the limi, and at the limit was the Prince, and his handsome, outrageously awesome self was obviously going to make this trip the best trip ever. Also, cultural stuff, yeah, that was cool too. "This place sure is prettier than any sorta book or picture coulda made it seem," she said to those gathered. "So, what're we doin'? When're we seein' tha royals? Can't wait ta get ta their big palace. Ain't never seen anything quite like it...well, from afar, at least," she laughed, walking alongside her compatriots in the Nations of Harmony and their chaperons.

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'Ichi, ni, san, yon, go, roku...' Sī Jīn, personal hoofmaiden, personal assassin, and now tour assistant for Prince Hēi Lián counted her charges to herself, her fan bobbing as she made sure the numbers added up.  When she'd ascertained that the numbers and general descriptions matched, she nodded to herself. "<I still think this is a bad idea.>" she said aloud in Long. The prince himself was likely the only one who'd be able to hear her, much less both hear and understand, from her hiding spot behind the gate, so she didn't bother with the vocal disguise. A bad habit to get into, but the walls of the Forbidden Gate were so ridiculously isolated even by Long Guo standards that even she wasn't that paranoid.

 

She didn't wait for a response however. Between her...personal reasons for wanting an eye kept on Apple Bloom and her very real concerns that princess Soyokaze's education might leave her with a similar accent to the one she'd established here as being from...somewhere else, the kunoichi had been busy since the trip was finalized making sure everything was ready without tipping her hoof to the entire court, and had explained her reasoning to Lian at least a dozen times. Today. Now there was nothing for it though, so she stepped out from the gate and walked over the bridge with the detached grace everyone expected of the personal arm-candy of a prince. Mane held in a bun with chopsticks, simple yukata with a discrete clutch in the sash that held her clipboard. Everything was ready.

 

She bowed elegantly to the group and, in clear view of all the foals, she snorted out a quick puff of pink fire that smelled of flowers and left a (carefully pre-arranged) scorch-pattern on the ground in the shape of the Imperial seal. THAT trick had taken her a week to learn, and still had required a thin layer of flash powder on the ground. "Welcome," she said in slow, deliberate Equestrian, as if it were her fourth language. It was, but there was no reason they needed to know that she was making sure Echo could understand her without trouble, even if it seemed that Wind Walker was assisting her, "to the Imperial city, Huangjing. Before we begin, there are just a couple of rules.

 

"You will be guided on the tour by Prince Hēi Lián, but the areas through which we are traveling are part of the Palace's daily life. Occasionally, the prince or I may stop someone to speak to them, or someone may come to us, but please do not interrupt anyone that looks busy. You are otherwise encouraged to ask questions, especially of the Prince, myself, or your chaperones, unless we indicate that it is not a good time. Part of the tour may carry us through the Court itself, and there are certain traditions that are followed there which are difficult to quickly learn. We will instruct you if so, but it is likely better to hold questions at that point until we have passed through. One other area may come up, though we will try to avoid it, and we ask that if the tour goes through the staff quarters you keep noise to a speaking level, as some staff may be sleeping for an overnight shift." she said, using her fan (and the notes written carefully on the back) to cool herself with lazy flutters well to one side so that her mouth was not obscured. She then repeated her spiel in Caribou. And once more in much smoother Long-accented Neighponese for good measure, though she suspected everyone who could understand Neighponese could understand one of the other two. Lecture out of the way, she folded her fan with an audible snap and stepped off to one side with the chaperones.

 

Sotto voce, while the Prince made whatever appearance he was going to make, she asked "I believe you can all translate for your charges, so I will focus on translating any questions from the group into Long, and then answers back into Equestrian. Can everyone handle the rest?" She knew the answer was yes, but she'd read that it was good manners in these sorts of things to allow the chaperones to speak for themselves.

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The elder Apple sibling supposed he asked for this.

 

While not opposed to the company of wee ones, he was surprised Applejack took him up on the offer. Sort of. She was busy with little Zap so the normally overly responsible Applejack, who often took it upon herself to accompany Apple Bloom to these sorts of things, was unable to choose between the two. Mac was off for the season, having done cleared several acres on his own. The rest were for AJ to take care of so that left him with plenty of free time to pursue the hobbies he normally did. Like his singing or O&O games. This time of year the farm was quite busy preparing for the fall. Cider season was coming round and that was always a game changer for things. Seems a few fillies and colts from the schoolhouse and other places were given opportunity to visit a palace in the Far East, as if they had a lot of those. Being a good big brother he accompanied Apple Bloom so AJ needn’t choose.

 

He wasn’t quite sure what the gig was, some sorta -- what AJ had called it: ah right important delegate. To what he wasn’t sure. Harmony, he supposed, with a name like Nation of Harmony. He figured that was something Twilight or Princess Celestia were supposed to do, but young’un were important for teaching other young’un. Stubborn as they were they did seem to have a herding mentality and gather up to do all sorts of neat stuff he sometimes found himself missing doing when he was a colt with a lot less responsibilites.

 

It was a good time to brush up on his Long, having dabbled in the language a few times trading with visitors. He knew basic greetings but not much beyond that. With a helpful little translating guide the Equestrian chaperone followed along.  “Hhmmm…” The larger stallion responded to Apple Bloom’s general question. “Whelp…” There was sure a lot to do according to the guide, but if they were going to be sorta messengers of Harmony maybe it was best to start at the beginning. “Here.” Was his suggesting.

 

At the beginning was a good as palace as any to start and wait for the touring help, somepony from the Palace was supposed to meet them. A guard maybe or a tour guide? Mac made sure to get in a head count, though one of the little ones looked to be from even further than they. Reckon they were also here to learn, which was good. He would follow behind the herd of young’uns. Knowing them as he did if even one crawled out of sight the country could kiss a classic artifact goodbye. Now to say they would do that -- but it was one of the many worries one sorta had with a rambunctious little sister like Apple Bloom. There was a voice that called from -- somewhere. Suddenly a flash and smoke! Mac was up and ready to act, but it seemed they found the welcoming committee. Sure was a lot of rules, not that he expected much less from such an important looking place but you would think they’d separate the tour groups as to not interfere with cas-- palace activities. What did he know? He was a farmer and businesspony. Sure as heck was his job to make sure everything was efficient!

 

“Howdy.” Mac greeted the maiden. “Oh.” A prince huh? He bowed his head politely. “How’d ya do.” He’d tried to say his greeting a bit more formally but -- what did you expect from a farm pony?

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Lián hadn't agreed to this! Had he? Surely he didn't? Yet there he was getting dressed and ready in the appropriate Imperial attire anyway. Nothing as extravigant as what he had to wear to actual boring and proper Council meetings or their ilk, but he was certainly dressed to impress. The stallion had chosen an outfit similar to the one he had wore to the Grand Galloping Gala some time ago. A white and gold vest made of the always beautiful shimmersilk adorned with the imperial crest. While the the front part of the vest stopped at Lián's chest, the tail of the garment continued down his back past his flanks much like a cape. His wavy mane was left to hang freely, rather than kept up in the stuffy, and frankly uncomfortable, braid and knot that were 'required' when attending court. Showy, but not showboaty. Enough to turn heads without being overly distracting...He hoped anyway. After all this ordeal wasn't about him! This was a much more special kind of day. After all, how often did the 'Forbidden' Palace open up? Especially to a collection of foreign youth?

 

Lián had to admit that this wasn't...the best of ideas. The Prince had, on multiple occasions, suggested that his sister should work towards being more open with not only herself but with her people as well. Being as young as they were, they had a chance to make a real positive change in the Long Guo Empire, to bring it more to speed with the rest of the world. He expected her to act on those suggestions at some point...but not quite like this! Inviting other royalty or important political figures over, sure! But a tour of the palace with children? And Lián was to be the tour guide??? The Prince wasn't an irresponsible qilin by any means. Nor did he dislike children. But of the options available was he really the best one to be teaching anypony about the palace? Let alone youths?...Well at least he was one of the least boring choices for the job.


As he and Sī Jīn arrived near the gate, his friend once again for the...twelfth? Thirteenth? time today (he had lost count) voiced her concern about this whole thing. Lián didn't entirely disagree with her. There were quite a few risks with this. Not for the children really, the palace was quite safe. But many of the council members and even some of the Empress' guards found this to be...irregular to say the least. "<I am aware.>" he replied in kind. "<It's too late now however, we'll have to play by ear.>" With that, Sī Jīn made her entrance to greet the group and explain the rules. The Prince had also lost count of how many times he had heard her go through this spiel in practice. Once the threefold speech was over, it was time for Hēi Lián to make his own entrance.


Prince Hēi Lián was many things. Was graceful one of them? Oh absolutely. The prince strode onto the scene with an elegant confidence so strong that if somepony didn't know better, they'd swear he never touched the ground. Taking his place where Sī Jīn, the Prince bowed his head in greeting to all present. Among whom were a pair of faces that he quite easily recalled from his time in Equestria! Apple Bloom and her older brother, Big Mac. He had to wonder, was Apple Bloom here to learn? Or just to see him? Either way he would be sure to thank them both for visiting personally when everything was said and done! "Hello everyone. I hope you haven't been waiting overlong, if so I humbly apologize for the wait." he said in clear Equestria, dipping his head once more before speaking again. "As Sī Jīn mentioned, I am Prince Hēi Lián. Please feel free to call me Lián. Allow me to personally thank all of you for coming. I'm certain that there are likely more exciting ways that some of you would like to spend your day. That you would choose instead to come and learn of Long Guo, its Palace, and its people is very humbling. So thank you all very much. I will do my best to keep the journey through the Palace as interesting as possible and have already taken the liberty of requesting a meal be prepared around lunch time for a nice break! If there are any questions before we begin the tour, I would be more than pleased to answer them as best as possible." Lián smiled brightly to the little crowd and waited. They all seemed like good kids, and responsible chaperones. Maybe today would go more smoothly than expected!

 

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One thing about being the Shogun's little sister was that it was much harder to be outright awed by structures. Let's not forget that Kaze lived in a giant 21-story pagoda castle for Pete's sake. However, she would admit that the way everything in Long Guo's capital was spread out had an aweness factor all its own. Yet that didn't stop the prideful ryuma from responding to an older earth pony girl's excited exclamations with heavily stilted, accented Equestrian; "...I have!" Kaze was not yet of age where speaking in either Equestrian or Long came easily to her. If only she took classes in general more seriously.....  

 

Kaze had to hoof it to the Long Sun; they knew how to make an attention-grabbing entrance. Why couldn't her big brothers hire aides who puffed out breath spells that left behind the Shogunate's emblem? That would be SO COOL! The young ryuma also couldn't help but notice how familiar the dress on the Prince's attendant's appeared; a hallmark of Neighponese fashion, a yukata seemed rather out of place compared to the clothing that was in style in Long Guo's capital.

 

But then came the boring part: *sigh* .....rules. Blah-blah-blah, don't be a nuisance, blah-blah-blah; Kaze's heard it all before. More often than not, she treated rules more like friendly guidelines, although the filly suspected her flexibility with interpreting said guidelines would be limited being away from her. Big Brother certainly wouldn't like it if his kid sister caused trouble today... and Kaze knew for sure that somehow, he'd find out about it. Shogun Ryuichi always seemed to know what went on beyond their doorstep.

 

As for Hēi Lián himself, he looked like a prince lifted straight from the pages of a romance manga, shimmersilk and all. Kaze found herself unable to cast her gaze off Prince Lián; she couldn't articulate why. Ryu once told his sister that he and Lián were good friends back when they were her age, so maybe the Prince had some stories to tell about Kaze's brother. Wouldn't that be fun!

 

But there was another royal qilin still that Kaze wanted to meet most of all. "<Oh, will we get to meet your sister too?>" She blurted out in her native Neighponese, having been assured that Long Sun royals were comfortable speaking in that tongue; "<And is it true that we can get in deep trouble if we say the Empress's name out loud?>"

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The Ryuma didn't seem as impressed, but she reckoned that made sense. She was some sorta bigshot, the sister of the Shogun she heard. The Shogun was like a Princess except this Shogun was a fella and not so immortal. Overall it was pretty cool and it was always nice to have royalty along for the ride. When she was young Apple Bloom would have been a bit more awed but she had rubbed fetlocks with Princesses of many types and had found herself still respecting them mightily, but having their unbroken mystique and myth not so effective anymore. “Well, Ah gotta see where you live, 'cause this place is mighty impressive and Ah've been inside every Equestrian Princess' castle,” she replied with all the pride of a collector of card games might have after picking up a particularly cool card to complete a set.

Somepony came out to greet them all and Apple Bloom felt immediately jealous for reasons she couldn't really put hr hoof down on. Like some sorta deep down jealousy that was more confusing than angering since the pretty mare hadn't done much of anything to earn it. She was elegant and the pink smoke was so pretty, one of the coolest features of this land and the unique creatures who inhabited it. What followed was a veritable flotilla of rules to bash them over the head with manners and mannerisms. Most of it made all sortsa sense as opposed from Twilight's castle she wasn't aware of a royal residence of any kind that didn't demand a bit of silence to the proceedings. Still, she was pretty excited by it all. This was such an educational trip and she was here almost entirely for the education. Yes, that sounded much better than the truth. “Sounds like a lotta fun! Ah can't wait ta see everythin- well, everythin' we're allowed ta see. Whats yer name, Missus?” Apple Bloom asked innocently, certain that the fan wielding hoofmaiden had a special someling or such.

And then he appeared. He was in a white and gold vest with shimmersilk, the imperial seal beautifully woven in, stopping at his chest but continuing down across his flank...like a cape, around the flank. His amazing mane was free, and he looked like every bit the hero of every romantic novel written about the land. She had read a few after seeing him for the first time and had to say that those books did a pretty poor job of describing just how warm she felt throughout her body when she saw him. A vicious tingle of energy shot through her and she felt all four of her limbs grow weak and watery under his gaze. She blushed, but did her best to try and look respectable. She took a deep breath, her tail wagging of its own accord.

He was the most handsome creature she had ever seen, come the sun or moon, and it took every bit of hr not inconsiderable will power (thank you Apple ancestry) to not collapse into a pool of drool. Then he started to speak- his voice had all the delightful timber of a young noble, but she knew that he was as playful and kind as anybody else. She had seen so during Nightmare Night! She nodded along excitedly as he spoke. And lunch- well, she wasn't that hungry right now but she was sure that she would be hungry at some point. Hungry for food, anyway. “Sounds like a fun day ta me, Prince Lee-Ann! Ah've been lookin' forward ta this for a long while!” She said with unbridled joy, her face a picture of excitement and her tail wagging behind her.

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Wind Walker watched as the others ambled about the Imperial Square. While she really did not want to be here, her father had mentioned that the military school officials in Canterlot would look for other things in young cadets beyond speed, agility and strength.  They would want to see that she really cared about those she would be protecting, and joining the Nations of Harmony was the right thing to do! And while she was here she was not only representing Equestria, she was also representing her family! So not only did she need to look presentable, she could not dare make any of the noises that were currently floating around in her head. So no sighing, groaning, snorting or neighing! She would also be wise not to stare or ask embarrassing questions. She was curious about the little Kaze. Was she a dragon? Pony? Deer? Goo-Goo-Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast? Did she have a navel? Did she pop out of an egg? And what was the deal with that stick she was with? Was it normal for kids here to have sticks? Nope, she couldn't ask these questions! She was here to be a young lady!
 
This was not going to be too bad. There were interesting sights to see and unique foods to eat. She needed to be positive. Keep an smile on her face, but do not overdo it. Apple Bloom would be a good example to follow. She seemed pretty upbeat. Of course, she was able to bring her brother along. And while he seemed to be only able to squeak out an 'Howdy', he at least was family. If only she could have brought along Cordy, Walk or Fire. One of them would at least would have kept her from getting homesick.
 
Her mind stopped wandering when the good Prince Hēi Lián spoke. Being the polite sort, she turned and gave him her undivided attention. He did rather well for someone who probably did not speak Equestrian on a normal basis. There was the palace and there was a meal. This would all make for a decent day, just as long as they didn't have someone drone on about some old Long Guo rug or their favorite mid-century vase. She wanted to see Zhanmadaos and Dadaos! Her eyes wanted to spy upon old armor and unique bows! They needed to have at least one storyteller mention a few cool battles. There were bound to be tales of heroes facing the greedy Taotie or even the monstrous Xing Tian who could survive their own beheading! While flora and agriculture bored her to tears, tales of cool heroes and nasty monsters kept her snout firmly planted in the book her mother had given her. The 'Big Book Of Monsters' was filled to the brim with tales and pictures of monsters from all over and was a favorite of hers.
 
Yesh! Apple Bloom was gamboling about and acting like a happy little puppy dog! If only the little blue Pegasus could match her enthusiasm! And while she had nothing much to say, the filly kept a smile on her face. That's all she needed to do. Listen and smile, and everything will be okay!
 
 
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'Baka wa shinanakya naoranai!' Her NAME. Of all the stupid things to forget! Sī Jīn cursed herself inwardly as she listened to Lián's introduction. The prince had, of course, hit the major points he needed to hit and had added the details she'd neglected. She did hope it wouldn't be TOO interesting, though. Interesting meant unexpected. Unexpected meant unpredicted, which was dangerous. She wasn't paranoid enough to think the foals themselves or their chaperones were likely to cause problems, intentionally anyway, but she wasn't naïve enough to think the Empress's enemies were above...inconveniencing her guests to maintain their status quo and strength. Think like the kunoichi you are, Hitomi.

 

She smiled broadly to the large red stallion when he acknowledged that he could handle his charges, not that she expected otherwise, and was joined by the other chaperones. It was good to see dependable ponies being chosen as emissaries, even for such a relatively minor event as they likely thought this was without knowing how many snouts were being tweaked by inviting foreigners...other foreigners into the Palace itself. She wasn't sure how many of the court had guessed she wasn't actually a native but she didn't count in either case. Droit du seigneur as the Prench would say.

 

Then princess Soyokaze spoke, and Sī Jīn translated automatically, every nerve in her body relaxing with the realization that her accent was going to be much more heavily Neighponese than Sī Jīn's was. Kami be praised, the princess hadn't been taught both languages together and her pidgin accent was still safely exotic. Where had she gotten that idea about the name of the Empress, though? Granted, courtiers tended not to use it, but...though, come to think aside from herself and the Prince she hadn't heard anyone use the personal name since Yu Yue's ascension to the throne, and neither of them were the BEST sources for courtly etiquette. She'd need to inquire discreetly and relay her findings back to the Clan, their Long court training might need to be adjusted.

 

What relief she'd felt at Soyokaze's accent, however, froze in her heart when she saw Apple Bloom's reaction to the Prince. Perhaps not immediately, but it looked as if the filly was likely to grow into the sort of mare that drew Lián's eye when he thought he wasn't watched, and if her puppyish excitement developed into devotion...'Then you will do your duty, silly girl, and not interfere.' her second thoughts chided her. She shook the embarrassed flush out of her face and translated the Apple's comments into Long with only a slight delay.

 

All those responses out of the way, she waited for Lián to reply (which she'd translate to whichever language he didn't use), and then let her gaze settle on the other Equestrian filly. The little pegasus had a look about her the kunoichi recognized from her own training period: a determined set to the jaw, eyes a little sharper and a little harder than the ponies around her, and a stance that suggested ready energy. A guard, likely, was her future. She doubted the Equestrians trained shinobi, or that their foals knew how to spot one, but it wouldn't hurt to adopt the stances that better hid her equipment. She was one of the best-armed Kirin in the Palace, but there was no need to advertise that fact either. 

 

Instead, she counts the charges again, comes up with the correct number again, and pulls out her clipboard to check the itinerary. First stop after the Imperial Courtyard was the atrium, then sweeping through the serving sections of the palace to show the group how the castle was maintained and operated, and then down the Hall of Emperors for a short history lesson. That would be educational, at least, and likely one of the more entertaining portions of the compound since the tradition was for those portraits to show what made each ruler great, and several displays held regalia that had been retired. The place was crawling with Watchers of course, but she assumed they'd be well-behaved. Maybe the foals too.

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The fluttery hoofmaiden gave him a bit of a chuckle, a nervous one anyway. While he may not speak Neighponese or rightly understand enough words ta string along a coherent sentence: Mac sure as hay knew when somepony had caught a fit of annoyance, having had a few of himself after tried and tested trials against his mile long patience. He folded his ears back against that honeyscukle mane as he let a throaty chuckle escaped him. It much reminded him of Applejack after one too many apples to the head. It was endearing in a way. Good to see that somethings were culturally similar, at the very least. Frustration was pretty universal. The prince had a full on introduction that made Mac feel like he was back in Equestria during a big parade instead of some diplomatic type fieldtrip. He had to wonder if this was what AJ felt all the time or if’n she’s gotten used to the whole parade of royals and dignitaries always coming and going thanks to Twilight’s role as Princess of Friendship. He was sure he’d be a bit more understanding come her flustering over these events from now on. Even if he was just a chaperone it was mightily overwhelming to be around royalty. At least he had met this fellow once before so it shouldn’t be too much embarrassment in introducing himself.

 

His brows arched, Apple Bloom going off, looking about ready to take a bite outta poor Lian's ear. “Now, now…” He proceeded. “...settle down.” Apple Bloom didn’t mean to offend. She honestly never meant anything but good intentions, but as her older brother he knew she sometimes went way above and beyond duty causing a bit of trouble. “The young’un’s is excited is all.” He assured, looking back to the others making sure they were all together and not touching things they shouldn’t.

 

Seems Wind Walker was good in eye’s sight, but she seemed a bit unimpressed. He wasn’t too surprised. She always seemed into big and amazing things like Apple Bloom. If it wasn’t goin’ boom, twas hardly worth noting. He didn’t know Kaze personally, a course, but he had to watch the tyke nonetheless and sure would be easy to spot with such a white coat, an’ bespeckled with scales and such. The one he’d likely have most trouble spot checking would be Echo. Quiet as quiet could be and awful timid. He moved round back to raise a hoof and tapped their side to make sure they stayed with the group, the big fella gentle when it came to herding the wee ones. Seems it was about time they start! Hopefully. Mac thought a moment and nodded to Lian.

 

“All counted.” He offered, ensuring they were all ready to go!

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The prince chuckled softly at Kaze's enthusiasm, Ryuichi and his family must have their hooves quite full. It made Lián wonder if Ryu was just as rambunctious at this age! Apple Bloom's enthusiasm too was showing, but where as Kaze was more interested in seeing the palace, his sister, and learning a thing or two? Well Lián was pretty certain what really brought the young Apple on this trip. "Yuè has been rather busy as of late. Had she the time I'm certain she would have been the one leading the tour rather than I! But that's not to say that we won't get to see her, if time permits we may yet!" he answered with a smile. "As for any trouble with saying her name, no. That stems from ancient tradition where Long Guo's subjects avoided uttering the name of the Emperor, Empress, or their family out of reverence for their leader. While some of the older, more traditionalist, members of the court still abide by that tradition, it has been slowly falling out of fashion since my father was Emperor. So none of you should get into any trouble for saying her name." Great! Simple questions, easy ones to answer. Ancestors, he hoped that he wouldn't be quizzed on ancient Long Guo history, his teacher as a child was so boring he could hardly remember a thing. And this certainly wasn't a 'fake it til you make it' sort of event.


"Ah, I mentioned her name as I was introducing myself, but allow me to more properly introduce her." the stallion bowed to the group and motioned to the qilin to answer Apple Bloom's question. "This is my friend and hoofmaiden, Sī Jīn. She will be acting as co-guide and translator for the tour. If everyone's ready, we can head on in and begin the tour! Oh, and don't worry. I promise there won't be any lectures on ancient Long Guo pottery. There's a museum in the city for that, after all." Lián gave the group a playful wink and bowed his head to Big Mac in response. If anyone had the patience to keep track of the kids, surely it was him. Once everyone was ready to continue, the prince bowed once more and turned on a hoof towards the castle. "Then let us begin! You've probably heard this one before, but remember, there are no stupid questions. Anything you feel the need to ask, please feel free!"

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Aspen

 

Late.

 

The young gryphon was late, had woke up late--was, in general, late, and at this point, his parents goal to have him 'make friends and learn about new cultures' was such a low priority it made his craw ache. He flapped his wings as he fluttered towards the meeting spot his parents had instructed him to go to. They were here, in Long Guo, despite themselves not actually being chaperones. The two feigned innocence when he had questioned their motives, saying they were here to see the sites, but in reality, it was all too clear taht they were simply being overprotective of their only child, as they had smothered Aspen since they had gotten here...

 

He looked over his shoulder, where his parents waived in the distance. It was a miracle he had gotten them to release him with a block or so to go. He sighed and turned towards the palace in front of him, where the group of young ones was already gathered with the large red stallion who was the actual chaperone, and he fluttered down as quietly as he could at the back of the group, sidling over to Big Macintosh.

 

"M...mister Macintosh...sir...I'm sorry I'm late...sorry my parents are here...sorry, I..." He whispered the words to the stallion softly, nervously, his voice a soft hoot, stuck in the back of his throat, "Um...Sorry."

 

He sidled away from the big horse, ears drooping as the large hatchling tried to make himself appear as small as possible, despite being significantly taller than the other fillies and colts. He saw they were in the presence of two rather regal looking Qillin which must be their tour guides. Having missed the stirring introductory speech, the young gryphon wrapped a claw around the satchel wrapped around his chest nervously, swallowing hard and wishing himself even smaller.

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Kaze couldn't help but smile; she could never have enough potential playmates back home. Having learned to recognize the version of Equestrian taught by tutors, the Shogun's kid sister figured from the various "irregularities" in the earth pony's speech that she spoke in some sort of accent, which was loosely reminiscent of Neighponese countryside accents what with their colloquialisms and all. Plus judging by the filly's apple cutie mark, Kaze guessed the other girl came from such a background back in her homeland. To then have been able to visit all of Equestria's royal castles would indeed be something for a farmer filly to be proud of!

 

Of course, Kaze had been to her fair share of castles as well, but she had always been dragged their in order to meet the various noble houses of Neighpon and all. Not exactly boast-worthy material, sadly... unless there was unauthorized exploration involved.....

 

Anywho, the little ryuma turned to the earth pony filly and gave her an energetic nod of a head, something akin to a sloppy version of a Neighponese welcome gesture. "My name is Kaze," she began introductions; "Wh- what is your name?" Kaze was getting the hang of speaking Equestrian, she swore!

 

Huh..... speaking the name of the Empress was apparently no longer taboo in Long Guo. Kaze thought she remembered from a story how a tyrannical emperor sentenced citizens to lifetime imprisonment for uttering his personal name; guess there had been some historical truth to that. Alas, times change... probably for the better. Just think how silly it would be if Kaze was forbidden to call her brother "Ryu"!

 

Right before the group got underway, Kaze barely managed to catch sight of a straggler who was most definitely not a pony. What was that half-bird, half-cat species again... hippogriff? No no no; hippogriffs were half-pony, dummy... GRIFFON!!! Of course! However with the Prince leading the kids towards the Palace now, there wasn't time to chit-chat with the newcomer quite yet.....

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Apple Bloom ate up every word being offered her way. As the words came in, however, Apple Bloom was able to slowly calm herself down. The initial rush of adrenaline of meeting him again, seeing him, talking to him- it was passing from a sugar kick to her senses to a sense of heightened elation that made her feel airy. But that also meant she was coming down just a bit, and was able to slowly rein herself in. Barely. A little. Her brother was there to tell her to calm it down a bit. She turned beet red, imagining what the others might be thinking. "Sorry Mac, Ah'll- uhh, Ah'll try," she said honestly. She'd try. No guarantee of it working out well.

 

Meanwhile, the Neighponese cutie finally got to telling Apple Bloom her name as they followed the Prince. Kaze, was it? That name was mighty confusing for an Equestrian. Equestrian names were often very much indicative of personality, goals, ambitions or traits. Did Kaze stand for anything? Apple Bloom wondered that briefly before nodding. "Nice ta meet ya, Kaze. Ah'm Apple Bloom. Does yer name stand for somethin'?" She asked, her curiosity immediately needing to be satisfied by her new forign pal. Maybe they could be quill pals. That would be a delight. Then she could have quill pals in three different continents and that would be a pretty cool thing, right?

 

Speaking of cool, a particularly adorable griffon made her way to the group. She remembered hearing about a new member but truth be told she was so focused on meeting the Prince that it was all she could do to breathe, let alone remember who was supposed to be here and why. She waved to the bird, her friendliness matched only by her embarrassment when she heard a masculine tilt to the soft hooting. It was a boy griffon. She thought it was a girl griffon. Thank Celestia she hadn't embarrassed herself just yet by saying something. The group grew and she was excited to see just how many had joined to help spread the shared values of love and harmony. It was a great thing to be a part of.

 

"Howdy Si!" She said excitedly, unaware of the hoofmaiden's worry about her. So she was a hoofmaiden? Well, Apple Bloom didn't know much about the royal laws and such but she'd assume that meant that she and the Prince couldn't be a couple or nothing like that. And she didn't know why in that moment it made her feel relieved but it did. But really she was focused on the Prince, following him as closely yet respectfully as her competing heart and head allowed. Her mouth still worked, and he was asking for questions so...sh asked. "When was this made? What's it made of? Where's your wing of tha castle? Are there any hidden chambers? Do you grow your own food for the castle or do ya import it in?"

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As Wind Walker slowly pondered what was in store for her little group, she could not help but shake the feeling that she was being watched. Considering where she was, this did not surprise her. Even the colorful and inviting Canterlot Castle had its dark and hidden spaces. While no-nonsense uniformed guards marched about the hallways making sure all those who pass know of their presence, there were those who kept an watchful eye over the old palace in secret. Magic, stealth, or even simply wearing the clothes of an gardener or tour-guide was what truly kept the castle and its inhabitants safe.  There were bound to be a few hidden watchers making sure the visitors were not going to be involved in any shenanigans.
 
Still, she was curious if it was even possible to catch the sneaky peeper. While there were a few interesting individuals around her, the one who caught her attention was the pink Qillin who had spoken earlier. The one who had listed rules for the little blue filly and the other visitors to follow. Did she simply work for the castle as a guide or was she something else? Thankfully, her questions were all going to be answered by the prince. Her name was Sī Jīn and she was a hoofmaiden, which was an nice term for an attendant. Not as exciting as what her imagination could give her, but not everyone she was going to run into today was going to be an cool ninja or samurai.
 
Another voice snatched up her interest. There was an griffon kid standing near Big Mac. And by gads, he sure was so cute and fluffy! The filly wanted to rush over and give the hoot-owl a big ol' hoot hug, but that would be both rude and not becoming of an officer to be. Still, it would be nice to have someone to talk to during the tour.
 
After she made her way over to the bird's side, she smiled and waved a hoof at the furry guy. And being the polite sort, she also nodded her head at Apple Bloom and Kaze. The mini-farmer asked what her name meant. Kaze! The filly had heard that name before. But it was not an Qillin it had addressed, but the filly herself. She was also Kaze and there was another word she had heard...Hokō-sha?
 
"Kaze means Wind.", the blue Pegasus was keen to meet her possible doppelganger. She had to be fast to earn such a name. Maybe they would find time to race each other? "I'm Kaze too.", she whispered, "Well, sort of. I'm Wind Walker.", she smiled back at the little gal. It still pained her to the very day that her namesake was a no-good and dirty cheat. But it was her name and not his, so she needed to live as heroic of a life to restore honor to all Winds and Kazes from all over the world!
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Sī Jīn nodded gracefully to the bright red stallion, conceeding to his assurance that the filly was excited. Granted, she had been too when Lián came to visit after she'd gotten to know him in the monastery. He had an air about him that tugged on the mares around him. Stallions too, sometimes. The hoofmaiden didn't have time to contemplate this too much, or to answer Big Macintosh, before the group was joined by a griffon owlet. This...was an interesting turn of events. The kirin frowned at the cub, and checked her list. Aspen, most likely, but the docks hadn't listed him among the foals who had disembarked.

 

A second or so later, her cheerful façade was back up as she decided he couldn't be a threat in and of himself, at least not one she couldn't handle, "Goodness, our little group grows!" She waves a hoof at the collection of foals, indicating to the griffon to join them. 

 

Then she turned her attention to translating again, getting everyone's questions out into the three other languages she was using. Kaze's question would likely best be answered by Apple Bloom herself, who seemed to be doing her utmost to fill the role of an ambassador at least, even if the ninja suspected that these weren't the sorts of 'foreign relations' foremost on her mind. Or maybe she was projecting, as the filly's questions were the sort of thing one might expect her to ask, though she pretended not to hear the query into the location of the royal quarters.

 

"The Imperial Palace was built over a period of many hundred-hundred-moons, bit by bit. It began as a fortress in the Huangjing Valley, but the Emperors eventually began using it as an informal summer palace, and then as the official palace after expansions and the refortification of the walls. The Water Gate, through which we are about to pass, was originally stone, but ice damage during a great winter many many years ago prompted the Imperial Architects to replace them with enchanted wood, as it is more supple but just as strong. There is a mixture of palace-grown and tithed food that makes up a majority of the Imperial Household's diet, but most of the food for the staff, the watchers, and a portion of the food for the Empress and her family are purchased from the city outside these gates." The hoofmaiden said. She'd actually researched all three questions, and others, to be able to answer them easily, though she already knew about the food sources and some of the secret passageways and tunnels. "And of course, what palace is complete without a few hidden paths and chambers? I'm afraid I only know of a couple though, and those are mostly just side-passages that the serving staff use to stay out of the way of the Court while they are discussing important matters." Like gossip, or lunch, she thought uncharitably.

 

She elected not to translate names back and forth, and so left 'Kaze Hokosha' to bond in peace. It seemed the filly would be able to distract herself well enough, and Sī Jīn folded the little fan she carried and tucked it into her bun, careful not to cut the ribbon holding it in that shape on the blades hidden in the silk. Yes, they could probably actually manage this event without losing or maiming anyone.

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Now what in tarnation? Big Mac had only turned his eyes forward for a second and these tykes are spawning all over which way! Now he was sure he counted them up right! This one was way too big to be the same age as the others, least he would consider. It weren't more than a moment that he took to consider his own youth. He had shot up taller than a sapling by Apple Bloom’s age. He'd seem a monster in primary school with his size alone! It helped ya get picked first for sports, but didn't count for much else when the younger ponies right felt you was some otherworldly giant!

 

Now ta count again… he had Kaze, Wind Walker, Apple Bloom, Echo and now Aspen. “Alright.” The older Apple nodded to the griff. “No harm done. Stick close.” He soothed the apologizing bird’s worries.

 

There wasn't a thing to be upset over! So they were a bit late? He was out there… Long Guo was sure a challenge navigating. The Palace may have stuck out but finding the front door was like finding a parent trunk in an orchid's root system! Mac looked to Sī Jīn apologetically. It wasn't the youth’s fault. Maybe it was even a bit his. He could spared another hour to wait for the type, but being tardy didn't hold to his reputation none either. He'd make it up to Aspen a bit later in the day.

 

As they began the tour Mac seemed impressed by the knowledge the hoofmaiden was able to carry! He was interested in books, but much of his literature of choice were books on things like singing, ventriloquism, and all manner of curious so it yourself projects. And that was with what little time he could spare to leisure. Maybe he ought to pick up a history book while here. It seed a sensible thing. He made sure to walk along the middle of the tiny hers so he could keep an eye on the back and front of their little group. He arched a brow at the mention of hidden passages. Honestly it sounded something out of one of his O&O campaigns. We're places like this the fact for the play on fiction? Stranger as fact seemed it was reasonable.


What really interested him the mention of food outside the palace. So they did barter and it wasn't some closed off, self sustaining ward… “Uhhh what about apples?” If they were short a few good golden delicious’.. he'd be glad to supply.

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