The Steadfast Sky : Chapter 5
The Grey Potter
It was only a few days later. I left the bakery just after noon, taking my time with the walk home, eying the sewer grates and wondering if one of them was an opening to this ‘secret underground’ Discord mentioned. I mean, it sounded like a hokey story from Apple-a-Day, and Discord clearly resembled the snakes that walked the night. Smaller, certainly, but clear. I wasn’t sure what conclusion to draw from that.
Anyway, I’m getting distracted.
That day on my leisurely walk home, a gray pony waited for my outside my home. A pony wearing the star of the Shadow Stallion. I thought it was something serious, maybe something to do with my parents. Well, I suppose it was, but not in the way I expected.
I was given an obligations mandate. Taxes, I mean to say. For my father. It wasn’t totally unexpected, but as I opened the letter I noticed a clear mistake. It asked for far, far too many bits! It must have been figuring in the land taxes, certainly beyond my means! But it was under control. I knew exactly what had to be done.
I tucked the letter into the saddlebags, deciding to resolve it tomorrow.
That night I was finally able to encourage Discord and Luna to play downstairs. Letting them vanish upstairs out of my sight… it worried me. I wondered to myself, wasn’t Discord too old for this kind of thing?
Of course the important question was still ‘what is he,’ but one thing at a time.
So now the foyer had become the playpen. And, since I was there, they both insisted on my audience. I saw no reason not to. Luna played the role of a warrior princess, and Discord controlled her army of teddy bears and ragdoll ponies. He’d pose them one at a time, but each one he left held its posture, no matter how bizarre.
“How do you do that?” I asked halfway through their show.
“Very simple illusion magic,” Discord replied. “It’s really easy. Just change the surface properties of the doll… Altering stuff that’s already there is way easier than trying to create it. I mean, compared to Luna’s crown decorations, I barely have to focus to do this.”
With a tap of his claw, the stuffed pony began to rise slowly into the air. Another tap, and it fell hard to the ground. It bounced sideways, flopping over my head and ricocheting off the far wall. I caught the thing with my magic before it smacked into me. He laughed nervously and took the doll back, posing it.
“See? Easy stuff.”
I wanted to get this tax business out of the way as soon as possible. No dillydallying around. No turning into a weight on my mind. I had enough on my plate already. After work, I head straight to Uncle Sollus’ mansion, on the opposite side of town. It would be quite a trip to get back home before dark, but I felt I could manage.
His home was large, probably had the same amount of square footage as our mansion. However, the house was built into one of the walls, and because of that, had more space vertically than horizontally.
I walked confidently up to the entrance and tapped the door knocker loudly, yet not too loudly as that would indicate an air of urgency I did not have. There are very concise rules to these things, and if I had a point of pride, it was my maintenance of appearance. A minute or so later, a bright blue butler charmed the door open.
“Who is it?” he asked, peering out of the bottom of his glasses.
“Baroness Celestia, to see my uncle, Baron Sollus,” I replied.
“Hn… do come in…”
I was lead to their drawing room and told to wait. I was offered tea, and gladly accepted the fine porcelain cup. I hated the drink, but it had been ages since I had been offered something so fancy. A while since I had been in a room so fancy as well. Luna and I had a threadbare couch in our drawing room, an old desk with a loose leg. This room had a fine Persian rug, two cushy couches, a fine rosewood table with a lacey tablecloth… Oh, I almost felt rich again just sitting in that room. I took another grateful swig of tea, hating every minute of its disgusting bitterness.
The butler returned after I had finished my cup. “I’m sorry, but it seems as though the Master has gone out, but he should be back within the hour. Would you like to wait or…?” He left his sentence hanging, in a drawl.
“Oh, it’s no trouble.” I set down the teacup on its saucer, making sure the handle faced to the right. “I’ll just come back tomorrow.” I was shown out the door and gratefully trotted out. The brevity of the wealthy taste merely made the moment sweeter.
Another night. I stayed up and watched as Discord, once again, refused to sleep, leaving the drawing room. Why did he feel the need to sneak out? This time, when he exited, I followed. He paused halfway up the stairs, frozen and staring at me.
“Discord,” I whispered, “May I ask you a few questions?”
“Um, certainly.” He skittered down the steps again, in his strange, awkward walk. “What do you want to know?"
“Discord. Please, I hope I don’t offend, but why do you keep coming back every night, and why play with Luna? I mean, you seem closer in age to me than her. I hope you don’t mind… I’m the closest thing to a parent she has, and sometimes—”
“So, you’re her father!”
I stared at him for a moment. Thankfully my jaw wasn’t slack. He mumbled an apology, blushing.
“No, I’m just her sister,” I continued, “But if you want to compare me to a parent, I’d be her mother… I guess.” Mother… the word felt strange to say. Unnatural. I’ve been thinking of myself as her mother for so long, but just saying it tout loud… it didn’t feel right.
“Celestia,” he said “As her sister or mother, why don’t you play with Luna?”
“You spend way more time with her than I can, yet I never see you two playing any kind of game. Luna’s always alone with her dolls when I visit.”
“Why it’s…” I tried to gather my thoughts. “Well, its childish. I am trying to be a responsible mare to look up to.”
Discord always had the strangest questions! “Well, every pony has mature, take responsibility eventually. Act as other ponies expect them to, with grace and dignity.”
“What other ponies?”
“Discord, I am trying to ask you a question, and you’re just diverting my attention.”
“If you really want to know, I play pretend because it’s fun and everybody at home only wants to beat me up. It’s a nice change of pace here. So now, Celestia.” He dipped his head forward and made sure I was looking him in the eye, “What ponies here, in this house, are you trying to impress?”
Once again, I had gotten a day off early from work. I trotted to the opposite side of town, went to my Uncle’s house, and rapped the little knocker. I wondered if I would be able to have tea again as I was greeted by the butler.
“Is Baron Sollus here today?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, young lady. He’s usually out of the home around this time.”
“Well, I guess I can just leave a message this time…” I floated the unsealed mandate to the butler, already missing the horrible tea. “Can you see that Baron Sollus gets this? Since he is the manager of my family’s holdings, this is something he should be taking care of. It was just addressed to me by mistake…”
“Of course. I will get it to him, mistress,” the butler replied plainly.
“Thank you.” With a small curtsy, I took my leave. This should settle the matter for another year.
“AhahahahaHAHAHA!” Luna shouted from on top of her box, sheet wrapped around her like a cloak, “I am the Fright Wight! Fear my flow-y white cloak and tremble!”
Discord crouched low among a dozen weeping dolls, squeaking random pleads in a high pitched voice. He shoved a patched pony to the front with his snout, where it fell limp. His paw shot forward and he carefully posed its arms above his face.
“I’m so afraid, please, I’m just a simple rock farmer,” he squeaked, “If I give you a rock will you leave me alone?”
“NO!” Luna screamed.
“Shouting, Luna!” I snapped, startled.
“Celestia, I’m the Fright Wight. Not no-shouting McGee.”
“Wait, when were you ever—?”
I interrupted Discord, “Promise to use your indoor voice while enacting this façade, Luna.”
“Oh no. She’s pulling out the big words. We’re doomed.”
“Oh, hush, Discord. Now Luna…”
Luna pouted, flicking her mane back under her hood.
“The Fright Wight will use her indoor voice,” she mumbled.
“Good. Now.” I hovered my makeshift paper bag sword in front of me, posing from under my quilt coat. “Fright Wight, you can no longer oppress these poor ponies! Surrender or I shall have to bap you on the head.”
“Neveeerrrr!” Luna giggled.
I gently patted Luna’s head with the makeshift sword.
“Bap!” I declared.
“Nope! Not good enough.”
“Silly pony, I am far stronger than your silly sword!”
“Nooo we’re doomed!” Discord squeaked among the dolls.
“Oh. Well then, I suppose I’ll have to bring out my secret weapon.”
“Gasp!” Discord gasped.
“The Elements of Harmony!” With great care, years of practice, I poked Luna in the side. “Zap!”
She giggled again. It was working! “What, the Elements of, wait, hehe! No!”
“Zap zap zap!” Luna collapsed laughing as I tickled her into submission. I laughed along with her, caught up in the heat of the moment.
“Um,” Discord piped up, “Hooray, the evil mare has been defeated?”
“The Elements of Harmony was my favorite story book when I was little,” I explained. We all were bedded in the drawing room, both Luna and Discord tucked under their blankets and held in rapt attention. “I lost it several years ago… I probably dropped it on the street on my way home from school, but I don’t really know.”
“So, what’s the story?” Discord asked. Luna, even though I had told her this story several times, didn’t object. I worked up my best mysterious voice with several careful ‘ahems.’
“No one knows where the Elements came from,” I began, “They represented the will of Equestria… or did in the story. As long as the six bearers of the Elements worked in Harmony, Equestria would know peace eternal. The story talked about the six friends, all unicorns with wings, who ruled with love over every creature in their domain. Though,” I laughed, “About halfway through it stops telling the main story and focuses more on little parables about friendship.”
“Can you tell us one, pretty please?” Luna asked, excited.
“I mostly looked at the pictures at that point, but I guess I could try…”
“The Shadow Stallion is a unicorn with wings. An alicorn.”
Discord looked at his hands, thinking. Ignoring both Luna and I, and the fact that the mood of the room just dropped twenty degrees. He was in silence for far too long, especially after a statement like that.
“I. I didn’t know. I’ve never seen him” I spoke up, “Does he… often visit the Draconequus… underground?”
“Not really, but when discipline comes up, when you’ve been really bad… I saw him once, punishing a guy. He was a really tall pony, with a horn and wings. Ruin called him an alicorn.” He glanced up at us, “I was just… maybe the Element guys came from the same place?”
“It’s just a story. Alicorns aren’t… I didn’t think alicorns were actually real. Or the Elements.” I looked at the thick curtains, finding no other comfortable place to look. “Let me just, just tell a few of the parables, alright?”
Weeks later, I found myself at my Uncle’s door once more, actively trying to control my posture and poise. Another knock, this time politely urgent, and the butler arrived once more.
“I’ve just received a notice that my taxes have gone unpaid.” I show him the invoice I had received. The guard who delivered it was wearing armor this time. Armor, as if they expected me to attack. “Baron Sollus should have paid this by now. May I speak with him?”
“I’m sorry, but the master is out right now…”
“I’ll wait. I really need to speak with him.”
“I’m sorry, but he will not be back for the next several days, which may be why he hasn’t addressed this issue… Calm your nerve, mistress. He will take care of this, I assure you.”
“Alright… but, make sure you tell him this is urgent?”
“Certainly.” The door shut on my face before I could say anything else. I walked home, head looking directly at the cobblestone the whole way. I barely made it home before nightfall.
“What do you think is beyond the last wall, Discord?”
I spoke with Discord while Luna slept. We’d been talking more and more as time went on, and I grew to trust him. There were still certain things he was lying to me about. It clearly wasn’t dangerous for him to sneak around at night, for one. But I began thinking more that he had his reasons, and not that he meant to hurt us.
“I dunno, but they gotta grow the food somewhere, right? What I’m wondering is, ponies run shops where they sell produce. Do they get the produce from the castle?”
“I’m not sure, but Hot Cross buys his ingredients wholesale from a government provider… Then they turn right around and tax him. Really, what are they pouring those bits into?”
“No idea. Not into Draconequus upkeep, that’s for sure.”
“Anyway… we know there’s at least some farms beyond the walls. You think the clouds go beyond it too?”
“Definitely. Pegasus cloud generation isn’t exact enough to cover a single city.”
“Um… yeah. Winged ponies.”
“No, I know what a Pegasus is. I just thought they were a legend. Controlling the weather, I thought it was a fairy tale.”
“Well I’ve seen them. Or… yeah, seen them.”
He always hesitates, in the strangest places. I let it go.
“Pegasus,” I said. “I wonder if they grow the food.”
“I’d still like to see what’s out there, you know?”
“I guess I would too.”
“Do you think we could just… leave?”
“I don’t know. They don’t make it easy, if we could. Why this all of a sudden anyway?”
“Just… thinking of options.”
“But you seem, or seemed, so comfortable here...”
I looked the strange creature up and down, what I could see of him sitting under the blanket. So intelligent, inquisitive. And yet he still plays kiddy games with such heart. I doubted I would ever understand Discord, but I felt… he could understand enough, I suppose.
“Can I tell you something?
“It’ll be a pretty long story.”
“I’m okay with that.”
I nodded, breathed a bit to steady myself.
“Did you know, Discord? We used to have two parents. We also used to have a cook. A butler. Two maids, one who was here full time as a nanny, and another who was here every other day to tidy. Not to mention Father’s men, an accountant, a lawyer, guards and managers. Mother had a fashion adviser who came here every week, every Saturday, to style her mane and help her pick out dresses.
Then my parents were gone. Nobody really knew what happened to them, where they went. I like to think they were guilty of treason, had to be taken away because they were too smart. It’s almost silly to think that maybe they just stayed out too late. They couldn’t have forgotten about something that small.
I don’t think it was three days past the time they vanished. My aunt and uncle came right up to the door and said that they’d take care of the property we owned. I didn’t have a head for business, but Father’s accountant, Spit Shine, worked it all out for me. All he asked me for was my hoofprint. I was glad at the time to have everything settled. But I was an ignorant foal, thinking I would always be safe.
The butler left first. Then the cook, the part time maid. Our nanny was very sorry to leave, bobbing and nodding her head in apologies, never once looking back. More family members came to take dad’s things from his library, then mom’s dresses, then whatever they wanted. Spit Shine was always there, telling me that this was part of the deal. We had to find some way of making money since my Father wasn’t making business decisions.
Of course, I never saw a single bit. And once the house was stripped bare, nobody was around to even bring us food.
So I got a job. A respectable job in the shopping district my father used to own. I clung to my pride as I was forced to be a baker’s assistant. I took care of Luna, made sure she was safe, she was happy. Everything was fine for her; she couldn’t remember what life was like before. But I remembered. And I played it brave. I took charge. I was in control of my life, and I was keeping Luna and myself off the streets. Out of the shadows that took my parents.
But now…” I pawed my pillow, “After all that I’ve tried to do, Luna and I might be kicked out anyway. This is our house. We own it. But if my aunt and uncle don’t speak up, claim these taxes… Darn it.
I guess, with all this, I feel like I’ve really got to look at my options… you know?”
He looked at me for a minute, head in his arms. Perhaps he thought I had more to say, or was working out what he wanted to say himself. Finally, he spoke up.
“You know what Celestia, we both really hate it here. I’m sorry if I just realized that but… you, and Luna, you both seemed so happy. I think you do make this home a warm and fun place for her. But this city, this fortress, it’s not good. It’s not a nice place, for anyone. I guess, I’m kind’ve surprised I didn’t hear about your problems sooner…”
“I just didn’t trust you enough—“
“No, that’s not what I mean. If anything, the first place I should have heard this from would be Luna. She tends to be pretty straightforward with this kind of stuff.” He silently looked at me from his pillow, “Luna doesn’t know, does she?”
I straightened myself. “I’m the adult, the mare here. I can’t push this burden on Luna.”
With a great FWUMP of blankets, Luna shot up to her feet, holding herself tall and staring straight at me.
“Well I heard it anyway, big sis!” she declared loudly.
“Luna?!” I stammered, “What are you doing awake?!”
“Listening in.” Well that was certainly blunt!
“Well, yes, I get that… but Luna…”
“But Celestia! Do you think I don’t get it when you’re sad and lonely?”
I stared back at her solidly set face. I had no response.
“I’m not that dumb, Celestia, I knew that stuff wasn’t okay. But I don’t want you to be so sad about it, because I’m not!”
“That… that worries me, actually.”
“Don’t be a worry face, sis!” I felt a shift in the blankets, and suddenly Luna was pressing up against my side, hugging me with her neck, “We’re both here for you, and for each other too!”
“Me three?” Discord chuckled, and settled on the other side of me. Not touching, but close. I could see a hint of a smile on his face, through the darkness. “I haven’t known you guys for as long as you’ve known each other, but to me, you’re both better than family. You’re my friends, and I want to help any way I can. Let’s figure out a way out of the city. Or save the house, or something, all right?”
“Yeah!” Luna cheered into my ear.
I lifted my front legs and hugged them both close to me. Luna was comfortable, small and warm, the sister I had held for years. She nuzzled my face happily. Discord was strange to hug, almost recoiled from my touch. I felt his cold scales shift under my leg, feathered wing jabbing painfully into my ribs. But I held him close, forced myself to. I couldn’t afford to be afraid of him anymore. I wouldn’t let myself be scared of a good friend of mine.
“Yes… Let’s try.”