It seemed as if all the ponies in Equestria slept safe in their beds, leaving the landscape rolling like a slow ocean while the hum of activity came to a slow burn. Discord needed none of it. He could not have it, for it was not in his being to rest and come to stillness. He did envy the ponies their dreams, though, the myriad of image and conflict crashing around in their heads all night.
And there slept Twilight, curled tight into the blankets of the royal chamber. A small golden orb hovered beside her and emitted sunlight that cut against the darkness and the shaded curtains, bringing warmth to the sprawl of violet bedsheets.
Discord let a sigh and tapped at it with a claw. A twist of ruby light, then orange, then blue pulsed from the little sun and twisted about in a swirl of color. He couldn't help but play with it. I don't think it's as harmless as it looks. I rather like that.
Still, it was a strange affection. He shook his head clear and turned his attention to the purple pony sleeping in front of him. I wonder what visions are whirling around in there now? Oh, if I could just have a little look...
Discord closed his eyes and unraveled, trying to thread his way into her mind. Just as before, he would reach her surface thoughts. And then he would dive in full force to see what kind of playground awaited him.
Except something was preventing him. An immense force pushed back against his will, so much that he reeled back at the sight of Twilight. There were no words, no deliberate charms, no work of any pony that he could imagine. Just a push that seemed to sear him with disdain the moment he touched her sleeping mind.
Not to be deterred, he sought out another pony who might merit less protection. He slipped to the lower chambers and tried to enter into the guards. He tried a sleeping cook and a courier and each time found himself ejected more fiercely.
“Fine then, be that way!” He swatted a poor colt on the flank, startling him awake. The poor pony gave him a confused look before he blinked away into thin air.
So it wasn't entirely a waste, he thought. But is it enough?
He wisped through room and corridor until he found himself amidst some of Canterlot's stained glass. The portrait of his first rule over ponykind somehow survived, and it delighted him to no end.
I think I'll take a walk.
Discord slipped sideways and inside the glass. His form contorted to the bent light and in spite of all rationale he became one with the glass. Then he stepped beyond, through the fibers of glass and everything that made it what it was. Away from Equestria, or inside of Equestria. Somehow both, but neither.
The realm pleased him. Shards of reality drifted around him like spires of glass against still stars and churning void. Each piece hummed with music and cast shadows forever, until they struck another shard—or anything else in the way. And each one he looked at chirped with the voice of a mountain or a bird, the taste of an hour. Senses blurred and faded there.
If any creature did not fear to tread there, then they did not show themselves before Discord. The draconequis strolled across the visions cast by the shards, and down them, as they turned to somepony or another's memory of rolling emerald hills and the sea.
Twists and turns forevermore, he thought. It's a wonder we ever leave this place. If only they could know the beauty...
“But they would go mad.”
Madness isn't such a terrible thing.
“Yes, but they cease to be amusing when they're naught but piles of mush. We're having a blast these days.”
I'm starting to think that you really like them. Are you going soft? You know you can't go native.
Discord paused between a tipped pillar of laughter and a sheer face of starlight. He frowned. Not since the old days did he have that voice nagging in his ear. Maybe it was the dragon side, but no, those sides were all him. And the other was probably him, too. That's what bothered him the most.
“Oh, please. You think those peace-loving nits got the idea for a coup all by themselves? They think they're being so clever... but ponies are terrible at keeping secrets.”
Admit it. They like you and you can't get enough. But they can't ever truly love you... not once they know you.
He bit his lip with vitriol and pushed the dark shape before him. It crashed down and splintered into wisps of smoke and a chorus of laughter that faded into nothingness. And in a moment he decided he was done, and it was time for it to be day in Canterlot again. Just a minute earlier, just like the time before that, and the time before that...
Plotting helped. Twilight might help, too. But more than anything every trip outward left him remembering the same thing.
More than anything, he hated being alone with himself.
Discord drew open the curtains of the royal bedchamber and raised the sun. Celestia always made such a show of it, but all it really took was a nudge and a push to get the thing going. Yet somehow, that one simple change brought waves of relief and contentedness from every pony. Little voices all across the land whispering thank goodness. And a few, thank Discord, and that always made him smile.
Those thoughts did not live in Twilight, who only seemed at ease when asleep. As she stirred he felt waves of anxiety and uncertainty wash over her, and while it tasted delightful, he couldn't help but feel like he still owed the poor filly a little solace.
“What are you doing in here?” Twilight muttered darkly. She did expect her privacy, but Discord couldn't help himself.
“I want to try that court thing that you talked about,” he declared.
“Good for you.” Twilight tugged a pillow down over her head, wanting nothing more than to go to sleep again. But she soon found that there was no bed and no pillow beneath her as Discord brought her into the air and thrust a brush upon her.
“Now I want this to go over well,” he said. “I don't know all your weird pony tricks, and it'll make me look good if you're standing there beside me. You ponies love your princesses.”
Twilight said nothing. She was somewhere between gathering her thoughts and forcing herself into lucidity when he dropped Celestia's crown on her head and set her on the floor. Oh, she wanted something, he could sense it, but it was so guarded that he would have a difficult time coaxing it out of her.
“The way I see it, everypony gets to ask for anything they want. And I'm sure you'll get a turn, too.”
“Just... get down there and I'll try to talk you through it.” Twilight sighed.
Discord tried not to smirk. It was adorable when she tried to boss him around. He wished she'd try a little harder, though, as she hung her head and remained in a haze all the way down to the throne room. Then she sat mute at his side. He waved his hands and the doors opened abruptly, catching the guards by surprise.
When the first petitioners came in, Twilight managed a smile. It might have been for show, but it's an expression no pony would have seen in Nightmare Moon's presence. The ponies bowed and said nothing. They waited. A scribe stood twenty steps away and scribbled on a scroll furiously. And the guards, as usual, were about as lively as statues.
“And I have to see them all one at a time?” Discord muttered, staring at the pair of unicorns in front of him.
“That way everyone gets a chance to be heard,” agreed Twilight.
Discord clapped his hands together. “Well, that's just tedious! We can make it a lot more interesting.” He snapped a couple claws and every pony waiting in the pavilion appeared in a crowd. At least fifty of every cut and cloth, forced to share the carpet together.
“I believe you all had something to ask of me?” He tipped his head up and cupped his lion's paw to his ear. “Don't be shy!”
At first they only whispered amongst one another. But soon they realized the nature of his instruction, and for better or worse, began to speak up.
“The bridge in Fillydelphia is in dire need of patching up...” piped in one demure pony.
And then another spoke up. “Begging your pardon, but the malt storm...”
Discord cleared his throat. “The proper term is 'maltnado.'”
“Y-yes, well, it happened to blow over a few of our homesteads. Deliciously! But we still need some help patching our homes up.”
Discord lifted an eyebrow. Ponies cowering was one thing, but they weren't cowering at him. They cowered at the memory of Nightmare Moon's madness. “Oh, I suppose so. Fixing things up isn't really my forte... but don't look so squeamish! I assure you, eating you is not on the list of terrible things I might do to you.” He laughed, and the crowd laughed with him. “A sight better than that dark old mare you had, I'm sure.”
A rousing agreement circled through everypony present. Then they began to call out their requests in unison. Their voices lost in the din, they began to shout over one another. Some even pushed at each other. Repeating. So many voices clashing together in perfect cacophony. He drank it right in.
Their desires parsed more easily to him through a sea of noise. Most of what they requested came for mundane fare. Local repairs he could fix in a snap, and a few he would. Others he pretended not to notice, and only later would his supposed favoritism, he hoped, take root. Matters of currency bothered him, so he dropped a bag of bits on an unfortunate garden growing filly and had done with it. She strained under the weight of it but gave him thanks nonetheless.
Twilight rubbed her temples. “You can't just keep throwing bits at them. You'll ruin the economy.”
Discord glanced up from the polite mob and quirked an eyebrow. “What are they spending it on, anyway? It's not like they're going to starve.” There was little point in investing, owning anything, when what you bought or even the money itself could be gone in the span of a moment. But ponies liked spending it, and he did have a fondness for shiny things, so he at least entertained keeping the market around.
“And you can't just give them everything they ask for,” she continued, voice low beneath the din. Even if anyone else was listening, only he could have made picked her out. “Otherwise you'll have thousands of ponies beating down the doors asking for favors.”
The draconequis frowned. “And what's so wrong with that?”
“Did you want my help or not, Discord?”
The draconequus deflated, though restored the fullness to his tail quickly enough. What was the point of asking her if he wouldn't listen? To waste her time. An added bonus, but he actually wanted to make use of her sense of 'etiquette,' at least long enough to make his reign stick. Playing by the rules didn't stick well with him, so he would have to leave it. The whole affair was starting to feel old, anyway, and so he lifted his hands and brought an end to their wave of demands.
“You have spoken and I have heard you,” he said, and then tapped a claw against his face. “I think. If you don't get what you want, well, you'll just have to come back next time. Who knows? It could go better. And one more thing....” he twisted and snapped his fingers. “Bonus round!”
Streamers and colorful bobbles showered from the ceiling with the ghostly fanfare of trumpets. Tiny cakes shaped like ponies and bits of gems showered the ponies. It never ceased to amaze him how much they loved to be beaten up with shiny things and food. But who was he to judge? As they scrambled to either get out of the way or pick up what caught their eye, he pulled Twilight away. Tired, as always, she nudged her crown to one side or the other and stared at the floor.
“Not bad for a first time pony king, huh?” Discord thumped himself on the chest. “They seemed to enjoy themselves.”
When the unicorn looked up at him, it should have made him happy to see the frustration on her face. Instead it just made him tired. Weary. Longing for something... else. Something he couldn't put a claw finger on, no matter how many he could muster.
“They were happy,” said Twilight, none of that joy in her words. “So you must have done something right.”
“I know, I know. What other rulerly things do we do around here? Preferably a little something with more fresh air.”
And he paid utmost attention as Twilight told him about the celebrations, the banquets, the galas, the political meetings... everything full of ceremony and a million little details he could turn on their head. Equestria had just gotten a taste of what he could bring to them. But he had to move slowly, to make them understand what their ancestors missed out on. He wouldn't make that mistake again.
Blossoms of fire kept Ponyville lit throughout the night, no matter how brief or long. Glass lamps, torches, and the occasional enchanted stone hung from post and rooftop along every road and stretch of the city. Ponies put them up during Nightmare Moon's reign in an effort to bring some light back to the city. Now they'd either gotten used to them, or feared the onset of dark enough to take them down again.
The layers of heat and light made it almost impossible to sneak about, but the cover of night was not a reliable thing anyway, since dawn could spring up at any moment. So Pinkie bounded through Firefly Street, the closest thing Ponyville had to a seedier part of town. The ponies Rarity wanted found did not make it easy. But it was like playing hide and seek, so Pinkie was having a good time of it.
“Now, where are you hiding out?” She wondered to herself, glancing between curtained window and latched door. “I know it was around here somewhere...”
Then like the distant trickle of water through rock she heard music, faint notes singing through the cracks of somewhere. With ears upturned, she followed it between a pair of familiar cafes. A wooden fence stood in her way but she neatly wiggled beneath the frame and popped into the sparse garden behind the shops.
There the music was just a little louder and a faint rhythm reached her ears. She traced it to a cellar door which appeared to have no discernible lock or latch. She pressed against it and could hear the sound of ponies below, muffled music amidst a cheerful din.
“Hello, anybody home?” she tapped a hoof against the door and paused. No change. She knocked again, and when that failed, she tugged at it experimentally. She chewed at the wood and pondered.
It's pretty deep... It would be kind of rude to show up unannounced, but I just can't let Rarity down!
Since Discord took over, she found that there were all sorts of fantastic new ways into places. Little slips between one stone and another that suddenly opened up into wide tunnels and spiraling walkways. A keen unicorn could detect them, and an earth pony could sense them. And if she was lucky...
“Aha! That'll do nicely.” She giggled as she pressed her hoof against a crack in the wall and it sunk into the wood as if moving through kneaded dough. It crackled and tickled at her like a little bit of static electricity, but she paid it no mind and hopped on in, hoping it wouldn't be a long journey to the other side.
More than magic, more than little twitches and shakes, and even a little more than the smell of a fresh baked pie (and only a little bit) Pinkie knew revelry. She felt it in the air as she weaved through the woods that was the wood, and stood within the hall beneath the saddle shop. And the place on its own probably wouldn't have been anything special. Just a salt 'n sugar setup with a few sarsaparilla taps. Rows and carved benches just enough to keep a pony's hooves of the floor. Tables for couples and tables for parties and tables for—well, anyone could duck into a corner and transform it. And oft they did.
But few ponies could stand to sit at the moment. They stood, tightly packed in the heat, stomping hooves and dancing on floor and table in time to the music. It came from up on the stage, from one minty green unicorn and her lyre. Well groomed, yet far from demure. The instrument was a lyre finest make, dark wood and strings glinting in the light from the lamps. It lilted but a little in the air, held by her magic and turned to emphasize each note, leaving her free to sway and twirl beneath it as she sung her heart out.
playing in the trees
we sung tales of victory
and dragons brought to their knees.
We loved a strong pony folk
heroes from long long ago
who ruled the sky and tamed the oak
and their deeds you all would know.
But a shadow fell from Canterlot
and swallowed all the land
from Ponyville to old Detrot.
We had to make our stand.
From shadow and shade, our hooves lift the flames
to drive the nightmare from our homes.
You can ties us all down and burn down the town
but you cannot take the fight from our bones.
Fair ponies, great ponies, now drink deep my friends
for evil shall fade and Equestria will rise again
At the end of the chorus she struck each note with passion. It seemed nothing could stop the ponies who abandoned their drink to surround the stage. The stomp of their hooves matched the step of Lyra's hooves--hers a quick clap and theirs a pounding beat that nearly shook the joint. They cheered and called about her as she swung herself about, the wispy white of her dress trailing flank and shoulder in each motion.
when what did she see
but a beast upon the throne
He chased her away,
and brought back the day
and made that wretched mare moan
But our land, she does ache
for her princess she waits
to save her ponies from war
Though taken away
she'll be back someday
to rule the land once more
Even her projected voice struggled to reach the corners of the hall. She lifted her hoof and a mass of voices followed in final chorus.
to drive the nightmare from our homes.
You can ties us all down and burn down the town
but you cannot take the fight from our bones.
Fair ponies, great ponies, now drink deep my friends
for evil shall fade and Equestria will rise again
A roar of applause drowned out the waning note of the song, and when the performance ended and the spell had dissolved, Lyra turned to face Pinkie.
“It's a mite rude to stare, y'know,” she said, crisp as day, then chuckled. “And tromping on a player's stage no less. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Pinkie looked around for a moment and realized that she had popped in just a few feet beside and behind Lyra, near the back of the stage. It only now occurred to her that she might have been interrupting.
“Oh, no! I'm just so sorry. I'll make it up to you, I swear, but you were so good that I just didn't realize where I was! You really are one of the best stringer slinger musicians in all of Equestria.”
Ponies hollered in agreement and smacked mugs of cider together. Lyra just smiled and tucked her lyre away in its case. “Kind of you, but be that as it may, you still gotta answer for your wrongdoing.”
“But I already answered you.” Pinkie shook her head. “Besides, I need to talk to you...”
The green pony paid her little heed though. She sifted through a mess of cloth bags and cases until she produced a golden viola. “Tell you what, filly. We have a little contest. If you can outplay me, you've got my ear.” She then gave the viola a toss. Pinkie caught it between her hooves and nearly fell over getting it upright. “And if y'lose, well... I figure the party will take right and proper care of you.”
Pinkie should have been worried, perhaps, of being thrown out on her flanks. But she didn't have time to be afraid. She had a mission. “I love games!”she said cheerfully, whipping out a bow. “Let's see you do this!”
And while she wondered what she would do with Lyra's ear, since it was a silly matter to give a pony just a part like that, she vigorously slew the bow across the strings. It produced a series of squeaks and trills and while nothing terribly offensive, it was a slurry of high pitched sound that one would be scarce willing to call a melody.
Lyra laughed until tears splashed her cheeks and delicately tugged the instrument away from the pink pony. “I was just tugging your rope, Pinkie. Good for a show, that one. Thing's not even real gold.” She tapped the base with a hoof and nodded. “So how did you... no, it's better I don't know. What do you want me for?”
The two left the stage and while they kept mild interest from Lyra's audience, most were content to reminisce in the ballad and banter amongst themselves. A gray mare wiped a pair of mugs and filled them with fresh spring water, setting them nearby.
“It's kind of a big super secret,” Pinkie said, looking around frantically, and leaned in close rattle out a mess of whispers. “Prince Blueblood is trying to take over Canterlot which is kind of silly because Discord would totally kick his flank but he's still going to raise a fuss and Rarity wants to prevent it and she needs you and a bunch of other amazing ponies to come to the castle and help her put him in place so that everything is ready when Celestia finally comes back to save us all.”
Lyra drummed her hoof against the bar and stared as Pinkie sucked in a breath, followed by an entire mug of water. “Rarity, huh... and the hayseed bucker to boot. Sounds a story worth in that, but what exactly am I supposed to be doing?”
Pinkie Pie shrugged. “You'd have to ask her. But I'm sure you'd have to play for all the fancy ponies and fit in.”
“A court musician gig... in simpler times I would have done some unseemly things for that. But now, I dunno.”
“But it's really important that you be there and everyone loves your music and the fate of Equestria could depend on you. I just can't take no for an answer!”
Lyra took a moment and drained her mug slowly. “I believe you.” She slid her mug back across the counter and turned. The cheer burned on without her, if not with quite as momentous volume. Old bucks and fillies scarce out of fillyhood sharing space and enjoying themselves. “We put this place up when Nightmare Moon took over,” she said without looking up. “Just some place we could speak our mind and have a bit of fun, forget about how miserable it was. Should have come down but I know we were all doing what we had to, to get by. Y'ever want to get in, just knock twice at the door, and say 'I'm looking for a friend.' Might do everypony that favor. Think you spooked them earlier just popping in.”
Pinkie bobbed her head, rapt at attention. “So...”
“I guess I don't have a choice.” Lyra laughed and threw her hooves up on the bar. “But on one condition. 'm not going anywhere without my better half.”
Pinkie followed her lifted hoof to a filly at the other side of the bar, chatting up patrons and laying down food. She knew Bonbon on sight, though hadn't seen much of her lately. And now she knew why.
“Sure,” said Pinkie. “Rarity is making sure everything is paid for, so take whatever you want!”
The unicorn minstrel looked about, as if considering relocating the whole venue to Canterlot. But when she leaned back, she just gestured to the mare behind the bar and sighed. “One more for the road, would you, Holly? Get us... hm, the Sweet Apple Special Dark.”
Soon, two mugs of fragrant cider, stacked with a thick foam sat in front of them. Lyra picked it up and tipped the mug towards Pinkie. “Well, you got me. Let's give old Prince Blueballs what for.”
Pinkie toasted and slurped down as much cider as she could manage. She couldn't believe that a barrel could even last that long out of season. But she knew she couldn't drink it all, and that she couldn't stay long. An all-night party would have sent her spirits soaring, but she had work to do, ponies to find, and friends to help. That always came first.