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The day was beginning to wind to a close, the sun dipping low along the western horizon. In the east the moon had already begun to rise, its faded form cast in hues of pinks and oranges by the twilight. To most ponies this was merely an oddity; a quirk of the sun and moon's orbit, or a mistake on the part of the little goddess of Equestria. The servants of Canterlot palace, however, knew that this was no mistake. The early coming of the moon meant that Luna wanted to spend time with her sister. Most of them had retired to their quarters, or returned to their homes in the city. Nopony wanted to disturb the sisters.
The halls of the palace were silent, save for the heavy hooffalls of the one pony who did want to disturb the princesses, echoing through the halls. This pony had had a very busy, and very stressful day. It was a day that she was supposed to have spent relaxing, but instead she had spent it running around the palace, trying to wring information out of any guard who would speak to her. Those had been few, and she had become more and more bedraggled as the day went on. Now, her mane was disheveled. It had been tied hastily to keep it out of her eyes, but the tie was beginning to fail. Her eyes were completely still as she walked, dead-set on the large, ornate door at the end of the hall. They did not betray the panic and chaos that raged behind them.
“Auntie!” Amethyst cried, throwing open the door to Celestia's bedchamber. She stormed inside, marching up to the two surprised princesses.
“Amethyst,” Celestia said after a moment, “Good evening.”
“Ah, yes,” Luna said as well, shying away from her niece, “Good evening.”
“Yes,” Amethyst said, trying to calm herself, “Yes, I'm sorry. Good evening, Auntie Celestia... Auntie Luna.”
“I assume there is some reason you've decided to join us tonight?” Celestia asked. Luna peered over Amethyst's shoulder, commenting,
“No doubt it has something to do with why a trained guard can't seem to keep up with you.”
Amethyst glanced over her shoulder quickly, seeing an exhausted looking Oak standing just inside the door. She shook her head, and turned back to her aunts.
“Yes,” She said, “I... Auntie, where's Blueblood!?”
“Blueblood?” Luna asked, looking between her sister and niece, “What's happened to him?”
“That's what I want to know!” Amethyst cried again, “I try to have a relaxing day, and what's the first thing I hear? That my son has gone missing!”
Celestia peered curiously at Oak, who looked at the ground.
“I'm sorry, your majesty. I know you asked me not to tell, but I... I couldn't keep it from her. She deserved to know, your majesty.”
“Oh, and my own Auntie was trying to keep this from me now!?” Amethyst demanded. She tried to glare at her aunt, but she couldn't muster it. She looked like she was about to burst into tears. “Oh, Auntie, what's going on? Why won't anypony tell me anything? What's happened to my son, Auntie?” She threw herself onto the grand pillow on which the princesses sat, pressing her face into Celestia's neck. The goddess cooed to her niece, and wrapped a comforting wing around her.
“My sister and I were just reading a report from my student – you remember Twilight Sparkle, don't you?”
“Of course I do, Auntie,” Amethyst said quietly. She had met the unicorn once when she was a filly – but even if she had not, there's was no way she could have forgotten about her aunt's prized pupil, savior of Equestria twice-over. She didn't see what that had to do with anything, though. She knew that Celestia was old and wise – far older and wiser than she could even imagine, let alone hope to be – and she knew that she always had a reason for everything she did, but she still couldn't how obtuse her aunt could be. Especially in a situation like this.
“Why don't you sit, and listen to it with us?” Celestia asked softly. “It might help you to relax.”
“Oh, auntie,” Amethyst said, before her aunt shushed her.
“I insist,” Celestia said. She levitated a scroll and opened it, beginning to read aloud.
Dear Princess Celestia,
I'm not very proud of what I have to tell you today.
Everything seemed to be going wrong this week. Applejack's special batch of cider went bad in the tank, Rarity's fabrics had been torn up, and ponies all over town were running into problems – apparently, problems with some fillies. Of course, we turned to the most obvious suspects – Applebloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. They told us that they were innocent, but we refused to believe them – until we caught another pair of fillies red-hooved.
I learned an important lesson today. I learned that no matter how obvious something may seem, and no matter how clear the course of action appears, there is always more than one side to a story. I learned that you shouldn't jump to conclusions – especially when it comes to something important. You need to be patient, and find out what really happened. It may be very different from what you think, and jumping to conclusions can hurt a pony's feelings very badly.
Your Faithful (and repentant) Student,
Celestia set the letter down, and smiled.
“There, you see?” she asked. “Don't you feel much calmer now? Twilight really has a way with words – I always love reading her letters at the end of a long day. They help me wind down. I always tell her she should try her hoof at fiction, but the dear prefers to read – I suppose it's just as well, she's already found her cutie mark.”
“Yes, she's very good,” Amethyst said impatiently, “But auntie, what does this have to do with Blueblood? What's happened to my son?” Celestia sighed.
“Oh Amethyst, I'm very sorry,” she said, nuzzling her niece gently. “We don't know what happened to him.”
“You don't know?” Amethyst choked out. He eyes had begun to water, but she blinked back the tears, refusing to allow herself to cry.
“No,” Celestia shook her head. “We know that Blueblood went missing two nights ago. He was seen leaving the opening ceremonies in the evening with Captain Iron, but he wasn't in the palace the next morning. Beyond that, we don't know what's happened to him.”
“Oh, my Blueblood,” Amethyst whispered. Her mind was moving a thousand miles a minute, trying to think of something – anything – that would point them to her son.
“The Princess!” she cried suddenly. The princesses peered at her oddly, and she explained, “Princess Golden Dreams. I heard one of the guards mention that she invited him to her chambers after the opening ceremonies. The Aloans must have done something to him!”
“Yes, we're looking into it,” Celestia told her, “But we don't know for sure yet -”
“Don't know for sure?” Amethyst cried, jumping up, “Auntie, what else could it have been!? You were there at the conference – Aloa is gathering allies against us! Auntie, they're preparing for war, and they've kidnapped Blueblood to use as a bargaining chip!”
“We don't know that for sure,” Celestia said, trying to calm her niece, “We're looking into it.”
“You don't need to look into it,” Amethyst shouted, tears springing to her eyes once more, “you need to go to Aloa and make them give my foal back!”
“Amethyst!” Celestia said sharply. The purple princess shrank like a filly who had been caught with her hoof in the cookie jar. Celestia's expression softened, and she wrapped her wing around her niece once more. “Oh Amethyst, weren't you listening to the letter? We mustn’t jump to conclusions – if we're wrong, the Aloans will take it as a deep insult, and the divide between us will grow even deeper. We need to investigate it further, so we know we aren't wrong.”
“I'm sorry,” Amethyst sighed, “You're right. But... oh Auntie, I'm just so worried. My little colt is somewhere out there... he's probably alone, and afraid... he's never been on his own before.”
“I know, sweetie,” Celestia said, “I know. We'll find him, don't you worry. We'll bring him back. You'll see.” She nuzzled her niece, pulling her close. Amethyst didn't resist, letting herself be pressed tightly against her auntie's warm body. She was warmer than any other pony could ever be, and she rocked Amethyst gently, humming a lullaby in her ear. Soon the purple princess's eyes drifted shut, and she fell asleep, wrapped in the goddess's wings.
Luna had been silent all the while her sister and niece had talked, looking on softly. It was hard for her to be around other ponies after 1000 years of solitude. Everything about them – all their feelings, all their little quirks and traits – they all seemed so surreal to her now, and so magnified. Emotions made her uncomfortable, because she couldn't remember how to react to them, or express them.
She and Blueblood rarely spoke – almost never, in fact. Something about the stallion got on her nerves. There was just that quality about him... she couldn't put her hoof on it. It was like, whenever he walked into a room he expected every head to turn. It was hard enough for her to navigate a conversation with a normal pony, to weave around all the little twists and spins that they put in a conversation to make it go their way without getting flustered. But he was a master of it – any time the conversation was going a way he didn't like he could just give it a little tweak, and it was right back where he wanted. If she could have put a word to the feeling, she might have said it frightened her. Now, however, she felt something very different. This was a feeling she remembered, a feeling that had kept her company for very, very long time. She put her head down, closing her eyes and looking away from her sister. She felt guilty.
Blueblood moved slowly through the streets of Riverbank. He wasn't sure just how long he had been laying in that alleyway, but it was late in the day now. The sky was beginning to show tinges of twilight, and the air was growing cool. The stallion shivered – and wondered just how much of that was the cold.
He was feeling better now. At least, he was feeling stable. He could think again. In the alleyway, fear had gripped his mind and refused to let go. It had steered his thoughts, tricking his eyes. He hadn't understood what had been happening, all he could see was Iron. Now he understood. He knew that it hadn't been Iron in the alley – it was just some unicorn. If it had been Iron, there's was no way he would have still been walking free. Part of him wanted to be mad – at the stallions for mugging him, at the pony for leading him into the trap, at himself for being foolish enough to fall for it – but he couldn't muster the energy. All he could feel was a deeply rooted shame. He had been an idiot to think that that pony really wanted to help him. Especially here – here, where everpony had magic except for him. If there was anypony here who didn't look down on him, it was because they considered him a novelty.
Huh, Blueblood thought wryly. Common ponies, looking down on a prince... because they think he's too common. He tried to find a sort of bitter humour in that – he knew it was there. But the feeling burnt out quickly, leaving only more shame.
That was what bothered him more than anything, was the shame. He felt ashamed because he had no magic. He felt ashamed because commoners were looking down on him. He felt shame because, time and again, he had looked like a fool in front of those same ponies. He had given them all reason to look down on him.
Even just now, laying on the ground in an alleyway, crying and screaming like a foal in front of those unicorns, all because of some specter. Some imaginary pony. He may as well have been screaming about the gluemaker, for all it mattered. He sighed, and sat in the middle of the road.
An all-consuming sort of exhaustion wore at his bones. He felt almost as if he had been hollowed out, like all that was left of him was a thin layer of skin and fur. If it hadn't been for his hoof, he might have believed that. It ached miserably. After two trips into the river the bandages had long since come off, and whatever Seagrass had rubbed into it had washed away. Still, he was almost glad of it. At least it was something real. Something palpable. Everything else about this experience was beginning to feel surreal, like it really was a nightmare after all. He just needed sleep, he told himself, that was all. Real sleep, in a real bed. Not in a gutter, or on the floor of a carriage. He peered into a small puddle on the ground before him – he certainly looked like he needed sleep. His eyes were red from tears, his face sunken. His coat had begun to turn gray again, bruises starting to show through, and his mane hung limply over his forehead. He turned his head back and forth out of habit; he wasn't inspecting himself at all. He knew he looked terrible, but he felt far, far worse. As he twisted his head once again, his mane fell away, revealing the place where his horn had once been.
He stared at it strangely. All that was left of it was a red wound. He wondered vaguely why it didn't hurt at all. It certainly looked like it should have – but he was hardly a doctor. He sighed again and brushed the mane back into place, covering the red spot. Then, he set out in search of a warm bed.
As the sun slipped below the horizon, he still hadn't found any sort of inn. He was beginning to think that this town didn't have one at all. Perhaps all the travelers in this country were like the ones he had met, they made their homes on their boats and didn't need an inn. Still, he pushed on, forcing himself to keep walking. Just down the street, just around this corner, maybe something would come his way. Surprisingly, given the nature of his journey, he was right.
He hadn't found an inn, but he had found something just as good. It was a marketplace. Most of the shops were closed up, of course, but many of them still had their awnings open. If nothing else, Blueblood at least wouldn't be rained on tonight. He would be able to get supplies tomorrow as well, to prepare for the trip back home. He would still be sleeping on the hard ground, but he was too exhausted to care at this point. Choosing cart with a large awning, he lay down beside it, groaning miserably. To his weary body, even the cobblestones felt like a fine mattress. He fidgeted once or twice, trying to get comfortable, and bumped the cart next to him. An apple that had been left out shifted from its place, dropping off and rolling in front of his nose. Blueblood stared at it like it would bite him.
Serendipity was being unusually kind to him this evening. Everything had gone wrong for him since he came to Aloa. He had been wounded, dumped in a river, humiliated, and generally dragged through the mud. But now he had found a near abandoned street, an uncovered cart full of apples, and one had just fallen in front of his face. He couldn't leave it there – it would spoil on the ground overnight. Surely whoever owned this shop wouldn't be happy to see food had been wasted. Surely he wouldn't miss one single apple. Blueblood reached out and took it awkwardly, fumbling with it in his hooves. He could smell it – it smelled sweet, and juicy. He hadn't had anything to eat all day, not since the seaweed. He was starving – his stomach begged for food. But even so, he wasn't sure he could eat the apple. It wasn't his – he had everything taken away from him, but did that make it right to take something away from another pony? Even if he was starving to death? He could always pay for it in the morning – he would throw in a bit extra for the shopkeeper when he bartered for supplies, to make up for it. He probably wouldn't even know the difference. He sat up, still staring at the apple. There wasn't a mark on its surface. It was perfect.
Well... Blueblood thought, I do need to get home... I'm royalty after all, my country needs me. That's worth a simple apple, isn't it? He gulped, and looked to the left and right. There was nopony around. A faint smiled crept into his lips as he raised the apple to his mouth, taking a bite.
It was magnificent. Even the sound of it, that hearty crunch, filled him with glee. A part of him in the back of his mind scoffed at the idea of relishing such common food, but he ignored it. He had been right about the apple – it was so juicy that it leaked, dribbling down his chin and across his hooves. It was sweeter than any candy he had ever tasted. It was perfect. This apple was the best apple in the world – and the worst.
“Hey, you!” a voice shouted. Blueblood swiveled his head left and right, looking for the voice, until an apple core struck him in the back of the head. He turned to see an extremely angry unicorn standing in the doorway of a building behind the cart.
“Just what do you think you're doing, huh?” the unicorn demanded, marching up to Blueblood. The white stallion looked at the half-eaten apple in his hoof, and the cart, and the furious pony bearing down on him. His mouth hung open.
“Is that my apple?” the unicorn demanded.
“I... I... um,” Blueblood stuttered. The unicorn pulled the apple away from him, inspecting it.
“It is my apple!” he said. “You thought you could just help yourself because I wasn't around, huh? You dirty thief!”
“No, that's not it!” Blueblood exclaimed. “I'm not a thief, honest! I just-”
“Then what was it?” the unicorn asked sternly. Blueblood withered under his glare, trying to come up with an excuse. He couldn't. He felt the unicorn's magic take hold of him, and he sighed. He knew was coming. Another swim in the river, no doubt.
Strangely, though, the pony brought him inside his house. He was placed on a stool, and the unicorn called for someone to help him. A mare came into the room, and the pair inspected him critically.
“I found this pony trying to steal our apples outside,” the unicorn stallion said. The mare looked him up and down, nodding.
“He sure does look the part,” she said. “Grubby, shaggy, looks like he hasn't eaten in a while. You eaten in a while, colt?”
“N-not much,” Blueblood said. He leaned away from their gazes, but the mare circled him.
“Hm. So you figured you could just help yourself, then?” she asked. Blueblood didn't answer. There was no point. She huffed at him, and walked towards the door. “Well, we know what to do with thieves here,” she said.
Being a guard in Riverbank was normally quite easy. The only issues that ever cropped up were at the docks or in the slums, and the ponies there always preferred to do things on their own anyways. Most of the time, work as a guard was restricted to filing paperwork, or detaining the occasional drunkard. There was never any work after dark, either.
Well. Almost never.
A severely less-than-please guard stood glowering at the white earth pony before him. It was a bit of a stretch to imagine that this pony had ever been white, though. He looked like he had been dragged through the mud, in more ways than one. It was clear that he was at least trying to stand up straight, but all he managed was a miserable slouch.
“So,” the guard said impatiently, “You've caught this pony stealing from your cart, have you?”
“Yes officer,” the merchant nodded, glaring at Blueblood again, “he was halfway through one of my apples when I caught him. Probably would have stolen more if I hadn't caught him.”
“I wouldn't have,” Blueblood insisted. “That one just fell in front of me. I didn't think you would miss it, and I was hungry, so-”
“So you stole it!” the merchant said sharply. The guard sighed. It was just one stupid apple – but the law was the law, after all.
“So you want to press charges?” he asked, “Over one apple?”
“...No,” the merchant admitted, “but I want him to pay for that bloody apple!”
“Well, colt?” the guard asked. “You heard him. Pay for the apple, and we can all go home happy.”
“I can't,” Blueblood sighed miserably. “I haven't got any money. I haven't even got a place to stay tonight! I was just trying to sleep under his awning so I wouldn't be rained on, and the apple fell in front of me! It was just one apple!”
“Oh, easy for you to say!” the merchant piped up again, “It wasn't your apple! How'd you like it if I stole something from you, huh?”
“Look, there has to be some way I can pay you back!” Blueblood insisted. The angry unicorn was beginning to get on his nerves. He wanted this unpleasant business to be over as much as anypony, so he could go and get some rest, but there was nothing he could do.
“You can pay me back by paying for the apple!” the merchant shouted. Blueblood was about to shout back when the guard stepped between the two.
“Enough!” he shouted. “The colt obviously isn't going to pay you. I'll take him back to the guard house, and we'll have him searched and interrogated. If he's got the money we'll send it back to you.”
“And if not?” the unicorn demanded. The guard sighed, and said,
“Then he'll be put in prison.” The merchant stared for a moment, and nodded, apparently satisfied with the outcome. Blueblood groaned internally as the guard's magic picked him up. He was carted out the door, where the guard set him down. For a moment Blueblood thought that the guard might be planning on letting him go, but he felt a tug around his neck.
“Come on colt, let's go,” the guard said, “Don't make this any harder than it has to be.”
“It's already harder than it has to be,” Blueblood moaned. “Please, can't you just let me go? It was just one apple, and I was starving. I haven't hardly had anything to eat for two days, and I woke up in a gutter this morning -”
“No, I can't just let you go,” the guard sighed. “The law's the law, colt. You stole, we gotta take you in for it. That's how it works.”
“But I haven't got the money to pay for it,” Blueblood told him, “that's why I had to steal it in the first place. I can't go to prison – I need to get home!”
“I thought you said you didn't have anywhere to sleep?” the guard asked. He was clearly only talking for the sake of having something to do, disinterest clear in his voice.
“I'm not from here,” Blueblood said, “I need to travel back home – it's important!”
“The law is more important than you, colt,” the guard sighed. Blueblood groaned again, in place of an objection.
“Look, it isn't so bad,” the guard sighed. “At least you won't have to sleep out on the street tonight.”
“You won't have to sleep out in the street tonight. You'll be in a cell, but at least it's a bed, right? Better than a gutter.”
“You're going to give me a bed to sleep in?” Blueblood asked incredulously. The guard looked back at him strangely, like he had just asked how many hooves a pony has.
“Yeah,” the guard told him, “if you need one.” In spite of his exhaustion, Blueblood began to grin. It wasn't much to look forward to, but at least it was something. A real bed. He spent the rest of the trip in silence, keeping up as best he could with the guard, in spite of his sore hoof. The reached the guard house within a few minutes, whereupon he was led inside and sat down again, this time on a small seat in front of a desk. The guard sat behind the desk and took out several pieces of paper.
“What's this?” Blueblood asked, “Where's the bed?”
“Soon, colt, soon,” the guard told him, shuffling through the papers. “I need to ask you a few questions, first. Clear up this whole thing with the merchant.”
“Oh...” Blueblood said, his head sinking. He wasn't sure that he even had the energy to do that, but he tried to straighten back up. It didn't work.
“Now,” the guard began, “The merchant's report says he found you stealing one apple... is that right?”
“Yes, it is,” the white stallion answered.
“And he claims that you refused to pay for the product?”
“I didn't refuse,” Blueblood objected, “I can't. I was robbed earlier today – and once before that!” The guard slumped, and gave him a you-aren't-making-this-easier-for-either-of-us sort of look.
“You refused to pay for the apple?”
“Yes,” Blueblood sighed, giving up.
“So. Are you going to pay for the apple now?”
“I can't pay for the apple,” Blueblood repeated. The guard nodded, and scribbled something onto his papers.
“Would you mind if we searched you?”
“What?” Blueblood asked, leaning back. His hooves instinctively went up, covering himself. Even if he had been raised to be used to servants helping him clean, there were just some things a gentlecolt did NOT let others do. Searching sounded like it was one of those things.
“We'll just give a pat-down, see if you're hiding any silver. It's nothing invasive.” The guard looked at him gently. Blueblood nodded slowly, and got to his hooves. The guard circled around the desk and gently prodded the stallion, searching through his mane for any hidden purses. He paused when he saw the great red mark on his forehead.
“Eesh,” the guard commented, “What happened to you?”
“I...” Blueblood said weakly. Part of him wanted to tell this guard what had happened to him, who he was, and why he needed to get back home so badly. The guard seemed nice – maybe he would believe Blueblood. But, the white stallion knew it was a bad idea. If the ambassador wanted him gone, he likely wasn't too popular in Aloa. Even if the guard actually believed him, he could kiss his chances of ever seeing home again goodbye.
“I got in a fight,” Blueblood lied, “I don't really want to talk about it.”
“If you insist,” the guard shrugged. “So, you haven't got any silver on you. That means you can't pay.”
“That's right,” Blueblood said, “But I can still pay it off. I could trade something for it, or work it off...” he looked entreatingly at the guard, who shook his head.
“It doesn't work that way, colt. Silvers or nothing.”
Blueblood moaned, laying his head on the desk. “For how long?” he asked.
“A few months, maybe?” The guard said. “It's not a severe crime. But really, it depends on what sort of a mood the Duke is in when he sentences you. It's not like we can just get you off on a fine.” Blueblood groaned again.
“Fine... can I just go to sleep now?” he asked. Maybe in the morning he would be able to come up with something approaching a plan. The guard just shook his head.
“We're almost done here, don't worry. I just need to see your citizenship, so I can get everything mailed off tomorrow.”
“My what?” Blueblood asked weakly, looking up at the guard, who frowned at him.
“Your citizenship. You know – name, cutie mark, this thing?” his horn lit up, and the medallion that bound his wrappings floated off in front of the prince. On the back of it was inscribed the guard's name, a date that Blueblood assumed to be his birth date, and a small copy of his cutie mark.
“I... don't have one of those,” Blueblood told him. The guard sighed.
“Well, just give me your name, date of birth and cutie mark. We'll get you from the records.
“No, you don't understand,” Blueblood said. “I told you, I'm not from here. I'm not Aloan.” The guard raised an eyebrow at this.
“You aren't a citizen?”
“No... I'm Equestrian.”
The guard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well,” he said, “If you aren't a citizen there's nothing we can do.”
“Nothing you can do?” Blueblood asked eagerly. The guard stared at him again. It was clear he did not have high opinions of Blueblood's intelligence.
“No, nothing we can do. Foreigners aren't treated with the same laws. We can't send you to prison, we just eject you from the populace.”
“Really?” Blueblood asked, suddenly as ecstatic as his exhaustion would allow, “You mean you're going to kick me out of the country!?”
“Close enough,” the guard said, shrugging.
“That's fantastic!” Blueblood exclaimed. If he had an ounce of energy left, he would have jumped up and clapped his hooves together. As it was though, he simply gave the guard a very tired, but very earnest smile. “Do you need anything else?” the prince asked. The guard shook his head.
“Naw,” he told Blueblood, “there's no point now. You just get some sleep, colt. You'll need it. The next few days aren't going to be very kind to you.”
“Trust me,” Blueblood chuckled, “Compared to what I've been through, anything will be an improvement.”
The guard shrugged, and got up from his desk. He lead the prince to a wing in the back of the guardhouse that was comprised of several cells packed tightly together. Each cell contained a small sink and toilet on one side, and a cot big enough for a single pony on the other. The guard ushered Blueblood into a cell across the room from the door, closing and locking the cell door behind him. Blueblood wished the guard a goodnight and flopped happily onto the cot as he doused the lights. He sighed, snuggling into the hard, lumpy mattress. For a moment, his mind was consumed in a war between exhaustion and excitement. He was finally going home! It was amazing how just a few short days had seemed to stretch out into an eternity for him, but the nightmare was finally over. He began thinking of all the things that he would do when he got home – hug his mother and aunt, greet his servants, and then have them help him to relax. A nice hot bath, perhaps, and a proper pedicure to fix his hooves. A trim for his mane, as well. He would also ask a pegasus to try and find that merchant again, so Blueblood could repay him for the apple. That could wait, though. The bits weren't going anywhere.
It seemed as though his excitement had the upper hand in the battle, but exhaustion had been there longer, and it was a crafty foe. It overcame the excitement quickly, and Blueblood drifted to sleep. It was the best sleep he had had in a long while, completely devoid of dreams or stirring. It was the sleep of the dead; more than that, it was the sleep of an inanimate object. He was so still that when he re-awoke, he was stiff for lack of movement. Among other things.
Despite his peaceful slumber, his awakening was anything but. He was completely unable to move – his body felt like it was made of stone and steel. In his half-awake state he imagined that he could feel every tiny piece of air brushing across his skin. The place where his horn had been felt tight, and tingled strangely. It was almost pleasant, in stark contrast to the rest of the experience. Every fiber of the mattress gouged into him, every sound was a drum in his ears. Light pierced through his eyelids, blinding him and filling his mind with white. He was, for a brief instant, acutely aware of everything in the cell room. Soon though, the feeling subsided, to be replaced with a pleasant tiredness. The sort of tiredness that comes from sleeping too long, rather than from not sleeping enough. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. Waking to that... feeling, was strange, but he was getting used to it at least. So, despite the harsh wake-up, he was in a good mood.
Now that the world was once again tolerable, he could make out sounds coming from the main room of the guard house. He tried to open the barred door to his cell to go and see who was talking, but it was locked tight. Frowning, he decided to call out to the guard.
“Hello!” he shouted. “Guard! Can you hear me out there?” The sounds from outside paused, and the door across from him opened up. The guard from the previous night entered, standing aside for two stallions.
The two stallions stood in the doorway for a moment, the light of the main room haloing around them. The first pony was a small, lithe beige unicorn. His mane was a dark shade of blue, sweeping handsomely across his face and down his neck. About his neck and shoulders he wore heavy wrappings of a deep, rich blue, similar to his mane. He moved constantly, bobbing to the left and right, showing Blueblood his cutie mark – a silver coin on a tongue. As he moved closer Blueblood could see that he was not actually that small – he was perhaps only a few inches shorter than Blueblood – but he was dwarfed by the pony who was with him: an enourmous, deep purple unicorn with jet black hair. He too wore wrappings, but his were creme-coloured and much more extensive, covering his flanks as well.
“This is the one you told us about?” the first pony asked. His voice was almost surprisingly smooth, and had a rich quality to it. The guard nodded.
“Aye,” he said. “Took him in for robbery last night.” The blue-maned unicorn nodded, moving back and forth in front of the cage.
“Get him out of there,” he said finally, “I'll need to have a better look at him.” The guard nodded, and unlocked Blueblood's cell, opening the door. The purple unicorn moved into the doorway to the main room silently, completely blocking it off. Blueblood stepped out of the cell, eyeing the beige unicorn carefully. For his part the beige unicorn ignored this, instead circling around him. His head bobbed up and down, and he occasionally made small grunting noises. He reached out and prodded Blueblood's side.
“Excuse me?” the prince said indignantly, jerking away. The unicorn smiled at him gently, and explained himself.
“I'm just doing a basic inspection,” he said, “You know, see how strong you are, getting a decent look. I'm not going to bite, you know. You don't need to worry about little old me.”
“Well...” Blueblood said, glancing suspiciously at the unicorn. The beige pony simply smiled back at him. Somehow, in spite of all that had happened because of trusting the ponies of this country, Blueblood relaxed. “Alright,” he said, “inspect away.” He straightened up, lifting his head proudly for the unicorn.
“Now, that's what I like to see!” the unicorn commented, “Nice and confidant.” He moved closer to Blueblood, prodding him gently in the sides and legs. Blueblood flexed for him as he prodded, and the unicorn smiled. He inspected Blueblood's face and mouth, before moving onto his hooves. He tapped each one gently without incident until he came to the injured hoof – Blueblood flinched away before he could even touch it.”
“Well, that's no good,” the unicorn tutted. “What's the matter with it?”
“I... hurt it,” Blueblood said, “a couple of days ago. It's still sore.”
“We'll have to get the doc to take a look at it,” the large unicorn commented from the doorway.
“My thoughts exactly,” the little one nodded, “We can't have him going lame.”
“Thank you,” Blueblood said happily. Finally, ponies were starting to treat him properly. Perhaps the guard had looked him up while he slept, and realized who he was. He decided to ask. “This seems like a lot of trouble to go to for escorting somepony out of the country, though.”
“Out of the country?” the beige unicorn asked. He looked to his partner, who scratched his chin.
“Well,” he said, “Mihaan has good sales lately, but they're a long ways away. El'bia has decent trade, but the country isn't exactly rich... We'd turn a better profit on him on the peninsula. He looks like he'd be good for a noble.”
“What?” Blueblood asked, confused. “I thought you were escorting me back to Equestria?”
“Equestria?” the beige pony laughed. “No way, they've got no trade! No, colt, you are now in the service of the happy hooves trading company!”
“The happy... hooves... trading company.” Blueblood said slowly. He recalled vague stories of ponies being press-ganged, but he had always assumed they were myths. Is that what was happening to him here?
“That's right,” the beige pony said cheerfully, “We'll take you upriver and on to the peninsula, find a nice big city full of rich ponies, and set you up on auction!”
“Wait...” Blueblood said again. Slowly, the pieces fell into place in his mind, and he realized what was happening. “What!?” he cried, leaping away from the unicorn. “You're going to SELL me? To who? Why?” His head whipped around frantically, and snapped to the guard. “You!” he cried. “You told me you were just going to kick me out of Aloa!”
“I told you you were getting ejected from the populace,” the guard said ambivalently, “You just assumed.”
“Why... you... I... how can you do this?” the prince asked, backing away from the ponies before him, “I'm a pony, just like you! You can't just sell me like, like I was some apple!” His heart was pounding in his chest, but none of the unicorns appeared to care much. The beige unicorn approached him again, still smiling happily.
“Oh, now don't be that way son. That's just the way things work. It's the law -”
“But you said I was immune to your laws! I'm not a citizen!”
“Most of our laws don't apply to you,” the guard corrected, “but we have special laws. If a foreigner commits a crime, they work of their debt to the country. Trust me colt, private service is a lot better than public. At least you won't be working down in a mine somewhere.”
Blueblood's eyes darted madly. He had been so close! He had almost made it home, and now this? He needed to escape. He wouldn't be locked away again, tossed in the back of another carriage to be carted off to who knows were for who knows how long. He needed to get out of there and get home, but how? There were no windows in the room, and the giant unicorn blocked the only exit. Blueblood thought that he might be able to surprise him, get the drop on all of them. He allowed himself to be backed into a corner by the beige unicorn. The unicorn came closer still, offering him a friendly hoof, and Blueblood lashed out. His head struck the unicorn under his jaw, stunning him. Blueblood's ears rang from the impact, but he ignored it, dashing for the door instead. The guard started, leaping out of Blueblood's path, but the giant pony held firm. His horn lit up and Blueblood felt his hooves give out from underneath him. He crumpled in mid-stride, a tangled mass of legs and pony, and skidded to a stop still feet away from the door. The giant just shook his head.
“Now, there's no need for that,” the beige unicorn said as he picked himself up. His smile had dimmed a little, but it was still present. “Running isn't going to do anything for you now – we've got the cart parked out front anyhow. You'd just have been running into more of us, and not all of our ponies are as gentle as big ol' Crown here.” He patted his partner's shoulder gently, and leaned down in front of Blueblood. “There's nothing you can do now, son. You broke the law, this's the punishment. Just think of it like prison – 'cept if you do a good job, nopony's gonna try to beat you, right? So it's better than prison!”
“But I shouldn't have to go to prison in the first place!” Blueblood objected. “I was just a stupid apple! Look, please, there has to be some way we can work this out!” He lay his head down on the ground, and shut his eyes. “I just wanted to go home,” he said sadly. The unicorn shook his head, and sighed.
“Then you shouldn't have nicked the apple. I hope you know, colt, it isn't personal.”
Blueblood looked up at the unicorn. He was still smiling, like that was supposed to make him feel better that he was about to be treated like a commodity. It wasn't personal – was that supposed to make it easier? He scowled at the beige pony, who seemed to ignore him.
“Help him into the cart, Crown,” the beige pony said. The giant called Crown nodded and picked Blueblood up, placing him on his wide back. Whatever he had done to Blueblood, it has stopped his legs from working. They all moved into the main room, and the beige pony took a sackful of silver out of his wrappings, giving it to the guard.
“All of it?” the guard asked, surprised.
“Yup,” the unicorn nodded. “He's a good one. Young, strong, good-looking – and an earth pony! That'll look exotic, good for a price spike.”
Blueblood seethed on Crown's back. He had gotten sick of that – calling him an earth pony. Treating it like it was some sort of novelty. “I'm not an earth pony,” he growled at the unicorns. The beige one looked at him in surprise. He trotted over, and took hold of Blueblood's head.
“Hmm...” he said, turning it left and right. He brushed away the mane and rubbed Blueblood's forehead, raising his eyebrows in shock. “Well, blow me down,” he said, “You're right!”
“What?” Blueblood asked. He hadn't expected anypony to believe him.
“Yeah – crown, have a look at this! There's a hard patch on his head, right where a horn should be!”
Crown set him down and did the same as his partner, rubbing Blueblood's forehead. “Well I'll be,” he said, “Look at that. You can't hardly see it at all. If he hadn't told us, we never would have known.”
“What?” Blueblood asked again, “But... the wound! There was one there just yesterday!”
“That doesn't surprise me,” Crown said, “I've seen a few de-horned unicorns before. The wound always heals unnaturally fast. Probably something about the leftover magic, who can say? They always heal right up in a day or two.”
“Boy, somepony must have really not liked you,” the beige unicorn commented. Blueblood scowled at him, but he was speaking with his partner.
“So what do we do with him?” he asked. “Can we still sell him as an earth pony?”
“Well, he won't be as strong,” Crown replied, “but they probably won't know the difference.”
“Aye, but what if they find us out? We could get it for false advertisement...”
“Nopony will know – what, they're gonna believe him? Anyways, even if they do we can always just give them a refund. No big deal, he'll sell for enough for being big.”
The beige pony contemplated this for a while, then nodded. “You're right,” he said, “earth pony it is!”
“Fantastic,” Blueblood growled, “So it'll be official now, then? Everypony's been calling me that since I got here, may as well be.”
“Looks like it, son,” the beige pony said as Crown picked Blueblood up once again, “I'd get used to it if I were you. Or, hey, get it out of your system. Either way, owners don't tend to like their slaves correcting them, so I wouldn't go around advertising your, ah, condition.” Blueblood just growled in response.
The two unicorns carried him outside, where a large wagon was waiting for them. He was dumped unceremoniously in the back, and the door was shut. He lay there on the straw-matted ground for what seemed like ages, consumed in thoughts of his indignation. Anger flared up within him, accompanied by that same hollow exhaustion he had felt yesterday. Eventually feeling returned to his legs, and he could stand and move again. When he did, he noticed for the first time that there were other ponies in there with him. Many of them ignored him, staring sadly at the floor. A few looked at him sympathetically. Most of them just looked... gray. Like sadness had literally washed over them, dulling their coats and sagging their heads. For a moment, Blueblood felt afraid. Would he end up like these ponies? Just some sad shell being carted off from sale to sale? Would it even go that far? Maybe he would just get sold to one owner, and be stuck there for his entire life, serving under some rich unicorn. How would they treat him? Surely they wouldn't respect him – they would treat him like a servant, or worse. He began to pace nervously, moving to the windows at the sides of the wagon. He peered out, and noticed that they were passing through a crowd.
Dozens of ponies flowed around the wagon like water, paying it no heed. Did they even know what it was for? What was happening to the ponies inside it? They were simply commoners, Blueblood thought. Surely they couldn't know what went on. Then Blueblood had an idea. If they didn't know what had happened to him, then he would tell them. It would never stand – he was a pony, flesh and blood just like them. They would never let another pony be bought and sold like this.
“HEEEY!” he shouted out the window, “HEEEEEEEEY! HELP ME! These ponies kidnapped me, and they're trying to sell me as a slave! Help! Go get somepony!” he paused for breath, but nopony seemed to be paying attention. He tried again, harder. “Please!” he cried, “I need your help! They're going to sell me to somepony! Please, You have to help me! I'm a pony just like you, you can't let them do this to me! Please, please help...”
Out in the crowd, a mare looked at the wagon. Blueblood's heart leaped – somepony had heard him!
“Yes!” he cried out, “Yes, yes, please help! Go and find somepony who can help me! There are other ponies in here to!” But the mare simply frowned at him, and looked away. Blueblood's mouth fell open. “Hey...” he said, “Hey, hey! Wait, come back! Please, don't just leave me in here!”
“Oh, sit down you stupid colt, nopony's going to help us.” The voice was familiar. Blueblood turned to see the old pony from the alleyway. For a moment, Blueblood wanted to ask what he was doing there, but he didn't want to give him anymore ammunition. He knew what was coming.
“So, they got you too, huh?” the pony laughed. “Shoulda' figured. What'd you do, piss off the wrong pony? Or maybe you harassed those sailors at the docks, huh? Or were you just so stupid they picked you up so you wouldn't hurt yourself?” He gave a wheezing laugh, and Blueblood slid down the wall, taking a seat.
“Why do I keep running into you,” he asked nopony in particular. “What do you want?”
“Well, I don't know. Misery loves company, doesn't it? Maybe it's just nice to see you brought down to your proper place.”
Blueblood snorted. “My proper place. What, beside you? This isn't my proper place, you old goat. My proper place is in the palace in Canterlot, beside my mother and aunt. Not here in some... dank old wagon with a smell old pony.”
“Well, if that's your proper place why ain't you there, huh?” the old pony asked pointedly, “How come you're in here with a dirty old pony like me?”
“Haven't we done this before?” Blueblood asked disdainfully, “I don't feel like doing this again. You obviously don't care to listen.”
“Huh, listen to some rock-headed earth pony? What would you even have to say, huh?” the old pony laughed again. “No wait, let me guess, let me guess. You'd say, 'I'm not an earth pony, I'm a unicorn!'”
“Well, at least you can learn,” Blueblood said. He tried his best to stay angry at the pony, but the exhaustion was creeping over him again. He fought it down, trying to become indignant, if only for the sake of having something to do. Not that the old pony made it very hard.
“Looks like you don't, though,” the old pony wheezed. “Still trying to feed everypony that same stupid story. You really believe it, don;t you? It'd be sad, if it weren't so damn funny.”
“Like you know what's funny,” Blueblood said, “Have you looked in a mirror lately – now there's something funny, the look of you. I don't suppose you would have though, not many ponies throw away mirrors.”
“If you're so high and mighty, how come you don't have any better jokes, smart colt?” the ancient stallion taunted. Blueblood fumed, and barked at him.
“I shouldn't have to – you aren't worth the effort! You don;t just sleep in trash, you ARE trash! You deserve to be in here, at least!”
“Maybe I do,” the pony shouted back, “At least I've got a reason! What's mr. high-and-mighty's reason, huh? I bet it ain't so fancy, I bet you done got caught stealing something!” Blueblood glowered at the old pony, who burst out laughing, knowing he had hit his mark.
“Haw, you did! You got caught stealing, cause you ain't got no money! How can you be classy if you ain't got no money, huh? If there's one thing I know, it's you ain't worth nothing on your own, colt! You gotta have money to be fancy. You ain't got that, and you're just some old bum like me. So where's your money? Where's your fancy fortunes? You're just some common trash like me! You deserve to be in here just as much as I do, what do you think about that?”
“YOU SHUT UP!” Blueblood screamed, leaping to his hooves, “You shut up, you stupid old bum! I'm not like you! I'm NOTHING like you! I don't sleep on piles of garbage, I don't beg for scraps, and I don't taunt my betters! I've never done anything so degrading in my entire LIFE until I came to this pit of a country! I AM ROYALTY!”
Tears rimmed his eyes. Some part of him wanted to stop shouting, to stop fighting. Some part of him didn't believe in what he was saying any more than the old pony did. Perhaps some part of him really believed that he was some common pony who had gone mad, and his whole life was just his imaginings. Or maybe some part of him thought that he did belong in here. But he couldn't stop fighting. He couldn't stop fighting that little part of him, and he couldn't stop fighting the pony before him. He needed to fight, he knew that. If he ever dreamed of seeing his home again, he needed to fight. He shook his head, and yelled again.
“I am Prince Blueblood of Equestria! Go ahead and laugh, I know none of you believe me! I don't care! I know who I am, why should I care about your damned opinions? The opinions of slaves, of beggars and commoners? What do they mean to me? I'm better than any of you will ever be! Before I got dragged out here... before I got dragged out here, I was everything that any of you ever aspired to be! I was better! I was a prince! The nephew of a goddess! And now here I am, off to be sold... all because stupid, selfish ponies like YOU can't handle the fact that I was better than you! Well, I was wrong. Some ponies deserve to be slaves – all of you! I've done NOTHING to deserve ANY of this!”
“Don't you dare say that,” Another voice piped up. Blueblood looked to the source of the voice. It was young mare – scrawny, all knees and elbows. She looked like she had barely gotten her cutie mark a few years ago, but more than anything her most vivid feature was her eyes. They were filled to the brim with raw, seething hatred.
“Don't you dare tell me I deserve this,” she yelled at him. For a moment he was speechless, taken aback by this little pony. “Don't you dare tell me you've done nothing to deserve this. You know what? I believe you! I believe that you're prince Blueblood, and you know what? I DON'T GIVE A DAMN! How many of you do you think I've ever served under? I was BORN a slave! Do you think I deserved that? You think I deserved to be raised on rags and scraps, under pissheads like you? You think I deserved anything I got? I've known nobelponies before, and you know what? I believe you're one of them. Because you're just like them. You're a spoiled, selfish brat!”
“That's... that's not true!” Blueblood objected, but the little pony kept on screaming.
“You shut the fuck up! Do you know how long I've wanted the chance to tell one of you this? You aren't as great as you think you are! You aren't some gift from the goddesses to ponykind, you're all just foals with power! Every single one of you! You're all completely self centered! Here you are, whining about how your going to get sold off, well you know what? You'll be fine! You'll get sold to some pony who's just as evil as you are, and you'll get along famously!”
“N-no,” Blueblood said quietly. The ferocity of the little pony stunned him. It completely quelled the anger he had worked so hard to build, leaving only that hollowness. Only now it found a strange, cold companion. “No,” he said again, “I'm not... I was never that bad. I never had any slaves -”
“Oh sure, not in name maybe. But you had servants, didn't you? Well, we had servants too, and you know what? They were treated just the same as I was! You treated your servants like damned slaves, and they just bent over backwards and took it! I'll bet you didn't even notice half the shit they had to put up with from you, did you? All the crap you demanded on a daily basis! Do you have any idea how much they hated you? Well!? Do you!?”
“No,” Blueblood said, shaking his head, “No, that isn't true!” his mind returned to Iron's words – they echoed in his mind even as the filly lay into him.
“Yes it is, don't you lie! You know it, don't you? You know how miserable you were to them. Well guess what, Blueblood? You're one of them now! So don't you dare stand there, yelling at us like you're some kind of saint. Don't you dare talk to me like you're better than me. You aren't any better than anypony is this wagon, not any more. As far as their concerned, we're all the same – just another slave to buy and sell. But you know what? I know the truth, and so do you. You aren't better than me, or any other slave. You never were. You're WORSE. You're an arrogant, self-centered, spoiled, selfish, stupid pony. You're a waste – a waste of a perfectly good pony. Somepony else could have been born instead of you, somepony worthwhile, but they weren't. You were instead. Congratulations.”
“No,” Blueblood said, “no, no, no, non, no, no!” He lay on the ground, covering his ears and scrambling away from the screaming filly. He curled into a tiny ball, covering his head and crying out, “No, no, no, no, no! That isn't true! None of it is true! They didn't hate me... Iron was just insane! It wasn't my fault! I said I was sorry, but he didn't listen! He wasn't mad at me, he was just insane! He was a psychopath, that's why he did it! He just wanted to hurt somepony! The ambassador didn't hate me, he just had plans! Auntie didn't hate me, that isn't why she never talked to me, she was just shy! They didn't hate me! Nopony hated me!” Tears ran down his face, and he sobbed. The filly had stopped screaming at him, but he didn't care. He hadn't been listening anyways. He had sunk into his own mind, flashes of memories dancing around him, taunting him. He remembered Iron's irate tone, the tone he always used when Blueblood was around. He remembered the chambermaid's stunned expression when he had tried to compliment her. He remembered all his servants exasperated expressions when he had asked things of them. But surely they hadn't hated him? He had never given them cause to... had he? Had he truly been so horrible? He never wanted to be... but did that mean it was natural? He was a terrible pony without even realizing it?
“No,” he cried again, sobbing, “No, that can't be it! I'm not a bad pony... I'm not, I swear... I swear... oh...” He broke into unintelligible sobs, unable to form words around his screaming. But in his mind, he could still lash out. He cursed the ambassador, for taking him away from his comfortable illusion. He cursed the family on the boat for giving him a chance to be miserable to them. He cursed the old pony for not getting through to him sooner. He cursed the sailor and the muggers for beating him, and he cursed them for not beating him hard enough to kill him, and spare him from this. He cursed everypony. He cursed his servants for listening to him. He cursed his aunt for fooling him into believing that he was important enough to get away with what he had done. He cursed everypony who had ever talked to him, and not told him what he was doing. He cursed himself, for being miserable. For being selfish, and stupid, and cruel. He cursed himself for ever denying what he was, for ever fighting it. Still sobbing, he leaned against the wall. The filly was right. He was never going to make it home. This was his home now, and he deserved it. He cursed himself, and he cried.
Then, he gave up.