* * *
by Jeffrey C. Wells
* * *
In the end, the cloud cover hadn't lasted that long after all.
Beneath the chilly light of a waxing gibbous moon, three little ponies – a pearl-gray, silver-maned earth pony, a little violet unicorn, and a somewhat disoriented-looking pale yellow pegasus tribesmare – skulked through the Canterlot sculpture garden, en route to the castle's westward walls.
Let me repeat this, for emphasis: I was skulking. Across my own lawn.
It is difficult for words to describe the oddity, but I will try, nevertheless: I have crept; I have snuck; I have sidled; I have tiphoofed; I have on occasion even, if one is to believe some of the more florid poets of my fair kingdom, Tripped Lightly, Yea, Not Unlike the First Sunne of Morrow 'Pon Well-Tempered Seas.
I have never, in my memory, skulked. And I have a very long memory.
"I trust that you two miscreants know where you're headed," I said, glancing up and about at the many towering and shadowy forms of art that I had myself specifically purchased or commissioned over the course of the past several hundred years. "Not that I don't perfectly enjoy my sculpture garden, but I'd hate to have gone through all this business just to spend an evening touring the castle grounds."
"Pah," said dear sister Luna, actually using the word "Pah". "You do not enjoy your sculptures, sister. You wander about nodding archly at them."
"I take a great deal of enjoyment in nodding archly at things," I countered.
"Don't worry, Princess!" said Twilight, grinning up at me effervescently; her absolute giddiness had faded not an iota since the first instant I agreed to this increasingly silly Calendar Prince plan. "Like I said, Luna and I do this all the time!"
"'Moonbeam', please," said Luna. "I am 'in character' now."
"Right, sorry," said Twilight, glancing over at me with a sly grin. "Me and Miss Heartfelt here will do our best to remember that. Isn't that right, Miss Heartfelt?"
"Of course," I said, already feeling ridiculous, a feeling I which expected would only mature and deepen over the course of the evening. I had shamelessly stolen the shape, cloth-heart Mark, and name of a unicorn pony I had made the passing acquaintance of earlier this evening for to-night's little outing, because, when placed on the spot, I am really not all that inventive. A flurry of superficial changes had assured that we would not be mistaken for one another: my yellow coat to her peach; an orange mane to her salmon one; and, of course, most concealing of all, pegasus wings instead of the alicorn. My own was still there, of course, cloaked beneath this phantasm, and I found it somewhat disconcerting to be able to telekinetically brush at the night-blooming Ipomoea vines that surrounded us without a corresponding glow from my own forehead. Luna's illusion was very good; I had underestimated the power my little sister possessed.
It was a mistake I had made before, a thousand years ago, on the broken white rocks of the Plateau of Twin Skies, and we all saw how that had turned out, and don't start this again, Celestia, for the love of your father in Eohippus, don't start…
"The groundskeepers' gate is no less secure than any in these walls," said Luna, thankfully heedless to my inner voice, "but it is away from prying eyes. When donning disguises and mingling amongst the common folk, it is important to be as secretive as possible for maximal fun!" Luna smiled at me, broad and white, a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
She's nervous, I thought, nervous to the core. I don't know what it is she expects me to do, what she's afraid of. I consider myself to be a fairly even-tempered pony; nothing robs the humors of their sting like several thousand years of perspective, after all. And yes, I once meted out justice upon her, but not whimsically, not with anger or passion. And she herself had agreed – once reason and sense had returned to her – that my sentence had been a fair one and that she would have done the same in my place had our roles been reversed. But always and ever since then, that distance in her eyes…
And, I expected, in mine as well…
"This is great!" giggled Twilight, momentarily halting that particular thought-pattern again, and thank goodness, because it never leads anywhere. "I'm so glad we had to go back and give Philomena her evening candlenuts! Now you'll get the entire experience, from 'sneak out of the castle' on down!"
"I'm so glad I'm able to make you this happy," I said, brightly, even as worries both named and nameless clawed at my gut. "Explain to me how this all goes, again?"
"Number one!" said Twilight, striding forward, her gait high. "Tell everypony you're going to be going on a long walk in the garden with your sister and your very faithful student and that you'd rather not be disturbed. Check! Number two… magic! Luna casts her spell on the two of you so you look like a couple of everyday average ponies. Check! And number three: one terrific night on the town, zero commotions. Guaranteed!"
"Dinner on the town," I patiently clarified. "Food. And then home. There are tax documents awaiting my hoof-stamp. Much as I would enjoy spending all evening with the two of you, this is an unplanned excursion, after all."
"Right," said Twilight, again sheepish. "Of course, Princess. We're not going to ask you to compromise the good of Equestria just to hang around with us."
"Yes, heaven forefend," muttered Luna. I shot a reproachful glance at her as Twilight, still oblivious, trotted on ahead, but Luna's eyes did not meet mine. I let the comment pass. My sister can be so uncivil sometimes.
"Don't sound so glum, my faithful student," I said, catching up to Twilight. "I am bound and determined to have a good time with the both of you, to-night. Although I don't know if I can take your guarantee of 'zero commotions' in good faith."
"Are you questioning the integrity of my disguises, sister?" remarked Luna, altogether too sharply. "They are nigh-flawless, of that I can assure you. Unless you go about magicking things with a nonexistent alicorn, but that would be your own fault, for 'breaking character', not mine."
"Not at all, Luna," I replied, as we left the sculpture garden behind and approached the curtain wall, the night city of Canterlot stretching out before us in twinkling glory. "I have every faith in the power of your illusions. It's just that the city can be a strange place at night. Royal commotions are not the only sort of commotions, after all."
"I wouldn't worry," said Twilight, with the easy confidence of the completely inexperienced. "After all, Canterlot's such a nice city, right?"
* * *
"OUT OF MY WAY, YOU CHOLERIC SAP-LICKING YELLOW-TAILED NAGS!"
It wasn't that the longshorepony was huge and ungainly, in and of itself. It wasn't that he was clearly a bit long on words and short on cognitive capacity. And it wasn't that he was ugly, exactly. I'm certain his dam loved him, at least, but motherhood admittedly does strange things to the mind. It wasn't any one of these qualities in particular that made him who he was. It was the perfect trifecta of them all, each one interacting and synergizing with the others until they reached new and startling harmonics of odiousness impossible for any single one of them to achieve in isolation.
My wing-feathers bristled. My eyes narrowed. "What," I asked, calmly, "did you just call me?"
The evening had not gone as planned.
The three of us had arrived at Song's Qilinese Bistro, a personal favorite of Twilight's for both the quality of its food and its proximity to the Royal University, only to find that the place was closed to diners. A brief conversation with the proprietor had yielded details: his chef, his very best chef, had been recalled to Qilin temporarily on family emergency. And while he was certain his profits would suffer in the meantime, he, Song Sung Blue, scion of the mighty Song family, who could trace his lineage back to both some of the greatest dragons and the greatest unicorns of Qilin, would not let his impeccable reputation suffer by serving substandard noodles. His high and formal manner made me instantly suspect that Luna's spell had gone awry, but Twilight assured me this was just Mr. Song's way. We tried to reason with him, but he would hear nothing of it. Typical of the exotic scaled unicorns of Qilin, who were the offspring of two very proud races from back in the ages of myth when miscegenation was solid biological fact rather than a matter of fairy-pony stories, his decisions, once made, were immutable. Indigo scales glittering with aggrieved pique, he bid us all farewell and shooed us out the door, leaving us confused and dinnerless.
"Oh, never mind," said Twilight. "Chopsticks are pretty difficult for an earth pony and a pegasus to manage, anyway!" She winked theatrically at the both of us, throwing into startling relief that it was not me Luna should be worrying about when it came to "breaking character". "C'mon, 'Moonbeam'! C'mon, 'Heartfelt'!" she said, trotting away. "Let's go find us another restaurant!"
The search had been a long one; it was still ongoing. With methodical, almost military precision, we had systematically knocked out all of Twilight's first-tier, second-tier, and even third-tier restaurants. At each one, we had been greeted at the door by a maître d'hôtel who informed us that, regrettably, due to the astounding number of public events being held in the city tonight, table space was at a premium, and would we mind waiting, say, upwards of an hour or so to be seated? So sorry, said Twilight, I don't think that's going to work for us. And after each graciously apologetic refusal, she would return to us with another suggestion, adamantly convinced each and every time that we would soon stumble across the legendary Un-crowded Restaurant of the Ancients. It was all a matter of faith.
The experience was bizarre. When I take my meals in public, they are like as often staged down to the tiniest detail. Entire battalions of servants are deployed to make certain of the perfect uniformity of every single lace napkin. On the increasingly rare occasion that I even visit a common establishment, it is immediately cleared for my personal use, patrons evacuated as though there were some sort of health crisis on, or perhaps, an imminent natural disaster. I had known of the concept of having to wait for one's table, of course, but it was the difference between being shown a picture of a thorn and being pricked by one.
Luna, who – surprisingly, as it turns out – had more experience with this sort of thing than I did, was merely irritated. As the minutes ticked away, she could not help but note that had we simply stayed put at the first serving restaurant we had tried, we would now be seated and enjoying our salads. Eventually her patience gave, and she broke into a mad charge toward one of the food carts lining the public square we found ourselves in, desperate for a candy apple or a falafel or something, but Twilight faced her down in much the same way she had once faced down Luna's corrupted shadow, explaining – in no uncertain terms – that this night was too special for vending-cart food.
"Tonight's dinner," she declared, "has to be memorable."
And so, by process of elimination, we found ourselves on the docks.
Canterlot's airship docks are a triumph of activity in any hour of the day, in any weather. They spread out in a broad arc across the face of the mountain like some sort of busy insect colony, stretching all the way from the luxury private yacht-berths of the west end, past the merchant marine piers with their massive cargo cranes, up to the shipyards themselves beyond. In a very real sense, the docks are a city unto themselves, a city filled with buskers, hawkers, fillies-of-ill-repute, sailors, stevedores and all manner of good solid salt-of-the-earth ponies, some of whom smelled better than others. Beneath the long, ponderous shadows of airship envelopes, lit up in this light like an assemblage of moon-jellies from deep beneath the ocean, we walked along, our hopeless quest continuing.
The docks were crowded. Occasionally we would run into somepony. Some took it better than others.
The longshorepony squared his little wool hat on his head. "Wot," he growled, "Do I gots to add 'deaf' to the list as well?"
"No," I said, even and calm. "I just want you to say it to me directly, please."
He trotted up to me without hesitating. I could feel his meady breath on my face.
"Choleric," he said. "Sap-licking. Yellow-tailed. Nag."
We locked eyes.
My face brightened.
"Oh, that's wonderful," I said. "Wonderful. More, please."
The longshorepony screwed up his already-questionable face a bit more. "Barren, clop-ridden diarrheic donkey's-foal?" he essayed.
I closed my eyes, shivering with delight. "More," I said.
"Oookay!" said Twilight, breaking in. "Princ— er, I mean, Miss Heartfelt, I think I see a tavern or something over there that might be serving dinner, let's check it out, all right? Ha ha?"
The longshorepony gave a snort. "Crazy madmares," he said, vanishing into the crowds.
Twilight gave me a look. "Princess," she whispered, "Is there something wrong?"
"Not at all!" I declared. "I'm being insulted by longshoreponies! It feels wonderful! Nopony ever talks that way to me!"
"Regard this, Miss Twilight and Miss Heartfelt!" cried Luna, returning to us after having slipped away during my little confrontation. "To distract myself from my aching hunger, I have just given two bits to a cunning 'performance artist' who stands in one of these public squares in the semblance of a bronze statue! I FIND HIS 'ACT' TO BE MOST INGENOUS!"
"Honestly," said Twilight, trying to herd the both of us together and toward a long, low row of dockside shanties. "I don't know what to do with the two of you. Here, let's look at this place." She scrutinized a shingle nailed roughly to the lintel of the little house we found ourselves near. "'Cap'n Horsefeathers,'" she read. "'Deep-fried mountain rockweeds and turnip chips'. That sounds… delicious? Doesn't it?"
"I will eat rockweeds!" exclaimed Luna, desperately, a somewhat eccentric look entering her eyes. "I will eat anything that grows on land! Sister, this sounds quite ambrosiac, do you not agree?"
I did not reply.
"Sister?" she tried again, trying to locate me.
* * *
I did not respond. Suddenly and in an instant, I had been taken away.
* * *
Luna eventually located me a few yards away, standing alone amidst the bustle, my head high, my ears pricked.
"Sister?" asked Luna a third time, cautiously coming to my side.
"That voice," I said, quietly.
And a voice it was. I was almost certain; the only thing that made me doubt was the fact that it was doing things that no mortal pony voice should be able to do. Carried to me on an errant breeze over the noise of the dockside crowd, it rose and lilted like dandelion seed and then fell like a hammer-blow. It obeyed no harmony, no rhythm. There were times I was convinced it was singing two notes simultaneously, two notes in one voice.
It was, not to invoke bêtes noires, a voice of perfect discord. And it was beautiful.
In another moment it was gone, lost to the calls of the throng. Frantically, like a cat after escaping prey, I spread my capable wings and took to the air, giving silent thanks to my wholly capricious choice to dress as a pegasus pony to-night. Twilight, who could not follow, and Luna, who dared not, stared up at me, confused. "Heartfelt!" shouted Twilight.
"One moment!" I shouted back at her, my eyes flicking desperately from place to place to place, trying to find the source that hypnotic noise. "I've – I've got to look for something!" Picking a direction, I lowered my neck and charged forward, quite disrupting a gang of pegasus riggers from the crew of a nearby dirigible.
The next few minutes were a bit harrowing. The airspace above the docks was no less crowded or treacherous than the surface had been, filled as it was with shifting balloons and weatherponies and massive moving crates dangling precariously from cargo cranes. I swooped and dove, narrowly avoiding collision at least a dozen times, straining my ears as I flew for even the barest snatch of that entrancing melody. Every time I caught one, I would pivot in a breakneck turn and rush off in that new direction.
Hopeless, I thought after a time, as I beat my aching wings and executed another hairpin reversal at a hint of sound. Hopeless and ridiculous. Here you are, lunging about like a flight-camp filly, trying to locate a single noise in an entire city of cacophony, but oh, Father, what a noise it had been…
Eventually, I broke free of this dramatic mess and, in a single moment of quiet serenity, I found my voice at last, in the most logical place I hadn't thought to look.
I hovered, transfixed, outside the open clerestory windows of the lobby of the old Civic Festhall, unable to speak, or clearly think, unable to do anything but keep beating my wings at an even, steady clip, a cadence that alternately synchronized and violently desynchronized with the ancient, rhythmless music coming from within.
The music was earthy, and sensual, and above all, painfully old. There were moments that sounded like storm, and moments that sounded like the mewling of the primitive Dawn Ponies that inhabit my father's country beyond the shell, and it was all the product of that single small voice. It was like nothing I had ever heard before, which really is saying something.
After a time, I sunk to the front portico steps of the old Festhall, steps that had decades ago borne innumerable upper-crust ponies up to the warm yellow glow of chandeliers beaming out through wide-open and welcoming doors, doors that were now tightly shut and locked. I alighted next to the tasteful little brass sign on the portico which explained the building's current, somewhat more humble, function.
Twilight and "Moonbeam", who had undoubtedly been tracking me from ground level this whole time, edged up behind me as I stood there staring straight ahead at the Festhall doors.
Twilight looked up and around at the high pillars and the ancient classically-styled statues of armiger ponies that stood guard at the entrance. "Huh," she said. "I've never seen this place before." She frowned, deeply, tapping her chin with one hoof. "Or maybe I have. Where are we?"
"This is one of my sister's mistakes," said Luna, simply and accurately. "An error in judgment committed during the years I was not present to keep her frivolous side in check."
"What is it?" said Twilight.
A little dream, my faithful student, I said to myself, as the faint music from within continued to wash over me. Just a little dream I had, once.
"Behold," said Luna. "Mercy Stable."
My eyes were still fixed forward, but I didn't need to see my student to hear the gleam in her eyes. "Mercy Stable!" said Twilight. "This is it, huh? I always kinda wanted to see this place, but I hardly ever come down to the dockyard quarter!"
"My old Civic Festhall," I explained, walking up to the doors, the music growing louder as I did so. "But yes, Moonbeam is correct. This is Mercy Stable, the remains of the old Festhall being put to good use." I raised one hoof and rapped sharply against the stained old doors.
But for the blessedly ceaseless singing, there was silence from within for some time. Then, a steady clop as of approaching hooves, and the noise of bolts being drawn back. The door I had knocked at opened a hoofbreadth to reveal a petulant roan-colored earth pony face, topped and framed by a rather remarkable bright red mane.
"Mercy Stable is closed," explained the voice, in drab tones. "I can't imagine that there's any good or virtuous reason a pony might have for adopting a foal that won't wait until dawn, so, off you go and good evening. Shoo."
The stallion turned away, beginning to close the door behind him. I wedged my forehoof in the aperture before he could. "Wait," I said. "There's somepony singing inside."
The roan stallion rolled his eyes. "Well, yes," he said. This is a conservatory, after all. Dwell within these walls long enough, and you'll beg for the singing to stop, not gad about seeking it."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand," I said, shaking my head. "This is Mercy Stable. It's an orphanage serving the dockyard quarter. Or at least it used to be."
"Still is," confirmed the stallion. "And, it's a conservatory of music! Miraculously, the two are not mutually exclusive. Are we quite finished?"
"Forgive my sister," said Luna, stepping forward while giving me a smug, sidelong glance. "Sometimes she has a shocking deficit of knowledge about matters that take place in her own home town."
"Oh, sweet Celestia," said the stallion, his oath causing me to flinch just a bit, despite myself. "Then you're music students, aren't you. Damned if you aren't a persistent lot. We have our hooves quite full training our own, thank you very much. Good evening to you."
The stallion within gave a mighty earth pony heave and actually forced my hoof out of the door. From within, I could hear bars being thrown once more.
As I stood there dumbfounded, Twilight trotted up, a tiny smile on her muzzle. "Don't worry, Heartfelt," she said. "I got this one." She approached the door and, just as I had, gave a few sharp raps on it with her forehoof.
Again the noise of bolts being thrown, this time angry instead of merely petulant. Again the earth pony appeared.
"Yes?" he hissed. "What more can I do for a trio of relentlessly irritating music students?"
Twilight smiled brightly into the opening. "Hello!" she said. "My name is Twilight Sparkle. What's your name?"
"If I tell you, will you leave?"
"Eventually, yes," said Twilight.
"Chanticleer," sighed the roan pony. "First Choirmaster and Chief of Strings. Can 'eventually' mean 'right now'?"
"In a minute," Twilight replied. "You were right that I'm a student, but I'm not a student of music. I am a student of Equestria itself and of the magic of friendship; and the one thing I enjoy more than anything else is finding great teachers and learning new things from them. And I know almost nothing about music or your school."
"Orphanage," I reasserted, trying to keep a grasp on this conversation.
"I have a sort of a sixth sense about these things," Twilight continued, "and you strike me as a very good teacher. I was wondering if you might allow us to bother you for a few minutes so that we can learn about your home and what it is you do here."
Chanticleer's features softened, and just like that, my faithful student had made another friend. How had she come about so quickly? How had she transformed herself from an adorably polite-but-acerbic academic who wouldn't give ponies like Chanticleer the time of day, to this creature I now saw before me? In little more than a year, no less? Friendshp was, in fact, magic, I supposed.
"Well," said Chanticleer, pulling open the door and ushering us inside. "It is a bother, but I suppose there's no lasting harm in it." We entered into a dimly-lit colonnaded lobby, its now-darkened chandeliers suspended from a high-vaulted ceiling adorned with frescoes of clouds and cherubic pegasus foals. As we came into the space, shaking the evening chill from our coats, Twilight brushed past Chanticleer and glanced in passing at his Mark: a cockerel exultant.
"A rooster!" exclaimed Twilight. "That's a beautiful cutie mark you have, Mr. Chanticleer. Love the green on his tail."
Chanticleer laughed, hard and crackling. "Oh my, indeed, a learned pony in our presence. Knows what a rooster is and everything!"
"Roosters are a common sight in Ponyville," said Twilight, beaming. "And everywhere else, for that matter. I can hardly imagine anypony not knowing what one is."
"You'd be surprised," said Chanticleer, wearily. He reared up and spread his forehooves wide. "At any rate, yes. Welcome to Mercy Stable Conservatory. Concurrently the Mercy Stable Orphanage, and formerly the Civic Festhall, misguided boondoggle that that was, all praise to the Princess's wisdom and whatnot."
"'Boondoggle'?" I inquired, politely, even as Luna glanced nervously over at me. "As I recall, the Civic Festhall was a good and profitable venture for at least a few years."
"Oh, yes. Back when the dockyard quarter was the 'Gateway to Canterlot'. Build a whacking great jewel of culture in the middle of a shipping district so that everypony would gasp in awe at our level of urban sophistication the second they touched hoof to land. That was the aim, I imagine?"
"I shan't speculate as to the Princess's motives," I said, lying obliquely.
"Hm," said Chanticleer. "Well, rail travel changed all that, didn't it? Why bother fighting your way through crowds of hawkers when the Canterlot Express can deposit a pony right smack-dab in the middle of the Acropolis? No mess, no fuss." Chanticleer wrinkled his nose. "No smell," he added. "Gradually, ponies stopped attending the recitals here. The Princess herself stopped attending. And, eventually, the performances themselves stopped."
"Maybe the Princess was exceptionally busy," I said, irritated beyond measure that the voice that had seemed so clear from without was barely audible now, and anxious that every minute we spent conversing with Chanticleer was another minute closer to my losing it entirely. "Or maybe she felt there wasn't much point to flying against an airstream, that the cultural patterns of the city should shift and change as the city itself did."
Testy, testy thing, my inner voice commented. Spend two hours with a mask on and the real Celestia comes to light, all those gentle smiles and false pleasantries stripped away. Bitter, spiteful old mare...
Quiet, I snapped at myself.
"Oh, certainly," continued Chanticleer. "She could, mind you, have saved this place in its original incarnation with regular attendance. She is the most important pony in all Canterlot, after all."
"Only just surpassing her sister, the noble Princess Luna," prompted "Moonbeam", helpfully.
"Hm?" said Chanticleer. "Oh, yes. Very kind of the Princess to take that wretched creature back under her wing, all things considered."
"Oh, hey, look at the time," said Twilight, backing toward the door. "Well, thanks for the chat, Mr. Chanticleer, but I think maybe we should—"
"We're not done here!" Luna and I said, in unison, our eyes locked on the choirmaster.
"My point is," said Chanticleer, inspecting a small blemish on one of the polished brass rails that lined the room, "that I don't begrudge the Princess that. If the people want to attend concerts uptown – and why wouldn't they? – let them attend uptown. But then by all means, raze this beast. Put something useful up in its place. Dockside property is ravenously coveted. We could have had a wonderful jam cannery here, for instance. Anything other than a decaying, shuttered eyesore in the middle of the busiest district in Canterlot."
I frowned, convicted. Chanticleer was right – save the statues, save the art, of course, but the place hadn't lasted long enough to be historically important in and of itself. Why had I left the Festhall hanging there, dead on the vine?
Well, because it had been such a beautiful dream…
"Anyway, that's all in the past," said Chanticleer. "Thankfully, somepony eventually found a use for this place and put an orphanage here. If there's one thing that the dockyard quarter has in spades other than ships, it's orphans. The crews making runs to Cloudsdale and the Sky Kingdoms are the worst. Two-thirds of the ponies aboard can't even disembark when they make cloudfall there, lest they fall thousands of feet to their assured deaths, so by the time they get back here to terra firma they are, shall we say, 'hot to trot', and all ready to begin – " (and at this, Chanticleer gestured vaguely,) " – orphan-making. The Sisters take the resulting lost fillies in, feed them, clothe them, and then they hire ponies such as Yours Truly to teach the little joy-bundles a useful trade. This city has an unquenchable lust for good music, and we prepare our young mares well for a life in that world, lest they grow instead into a life of fulfilling… other unquenchable lusts. Ones not so intellectually stimulating, you understand."
"And in just a short while, the Mercy Stable Conservatory became one of the most respected schools of music in all Equestria, right?" Twilight finished. "I know that much because my good friend Vinyl Scratch has a Very Special Somepony here in Canterlot who talks about being a Mercy Stable orphan." She grinned, then, saucily. "They're both girls," she said, in tones of delicious scandal.
"Yes, quite," said Chanticleer, yawning.
"One wonders if the Princess realizes she's bankrolling an entire world-class conservatory on public funds," I said, delicately, all the while probing at this absolutely inexplicable gap in my knowledge like I might a missing tooth. It was downright silly; I felt like a chess grandmaster who had casually managed to forget the location of a pawn. "One wonders if she should be reviewing her tax documents a bit more closely to-night to find what expenses might be hidden beneath 'shoes for orphans'."
"My, somepony's a loyalist," said Chanticleer, tutting. "We do fit the young fillies with treated electrum shoes, if that's what you're asking," he continued, raising his own hoof to reveal an arc of magically-enhanced amber. "These are mine, of course, but yes, they're an absolute necessity. How else can we expect humble little earth ponies to hold violin bows? Otherwise, we'd be raising them all to be virtuosi of the 'Mouth-Harp' and the – " (Chanticleer visibly shuddered,) " – 'Wash-Tub Bass'. I must profess a certain degree of ignorance as to how they even work; I suspect something about the amber 'remembers' when it was sticky tree sap, a long time ago."
"Not exactly," said Twilight pouncing. "It has to do with static electric charges. You see, once the amber is subjected to a fluid catalytic cracking process, it breaks down some of the—"
"I'm sure it's very interesting," interrupted Chanticleer, "but it's not something I care to know the specifics of."
"…Oh," said Twilight, a bit befuddled, doubtless hearing in Chanticleer's words the phrase "I'm sure oxygen is fine and all, but I don't really partake."
"Well!" said Chanticleer. "When you fillies interrupted, I was in the middle of listening to a little impromptu recital, and I'd like to get back to—"
"Yes!" I fairly shouted, having been put off for too long. "Yes! There's a student rehearsing somewhere in here!"
"Ah," chuckled Chanticleer. "Yes, yes, that's what brought you to darken my door in the first place, wasn't it."
"My sister appears to be quite enthralled by one of your pupils," said Luna, giving me an amused glance. "I am certain she will wish to attend the inevitable performance."
Chanticleer shrugged, turned, and walked deeper into the lobby, heading toward an arcaded hall leading off of it. He bade us follow. "No performance has been docketed," said the pony choirmaster. "It's just something that Beloved sings while she dusts."
"What is it?" I asked, trying to restrain myself from jumping on the poor stallion. "What is the song?"
"Strawinsky," explained Chanticleer. "Adoration of the Sun. Very new, very modern stuff. Not to everypony's liking, I'm afraid. One typically hears it in Manehattan, along with many other bright lights of earth pony culture."
"But it's so... old!" I said, trying and failing to come up with a better, or at least more varied, descriptor.
"Strawinsky incorporates a lot of Pre-Deocratic pagan motifs into his work," said Chanticleer, as we entered the arcaded hall. "Hymns to the old demiurges. The Grower, The Wolf, and so forth."
"My friend Applejack still swears by those guys!" said Twilight.
"Let me guess," said Chanticleer. "Unsophisticate earth-tribe farmer. Likely speaks with a twang. Many amusing novelty dialect choices."
"Um, sort of," Twilight said, tapping the tips of her forehooves together.
"Ah, cultural stereotyping," said Chanticleer. "Offensive, and yet, so, so accurate."
To my relief, the singing grew louder as we proceeded down the hall. "It sounds as though the little miss is nearby. Let me just see if I can…" Chanticleer gazed up at the arches above, searching for something. "There," he said, gesturing. "There she is. Miss Beloved."
The three of us looked up. Far above us was a little filly, a tiny seafoam-colored pre-Mark pegasus, barely hovering in mid-air on a pair of stunted little wings. As we watched, she squinted profoundly, bringing her muzzle ridiculously close to one of the ceiling arches, searching intently for something. On having found it, she turned about and gave it a little "paf" with her flowing white tail. Satisfied, then, she moved on. Throughout the whole little dance, she had not stopped singing the Adoration.
"She so enjoys taking down cobwebs," explained Chanticleer in a low voice, leaning over toward us. "And we're more than happy to have her help out with the high dusting. As I implied earlier, pegasi are a bit more of a rarity here, inasmuch as orphans of that tribe get spread out over the entire Sky Kingdom Run."
"Can she not see well, or some such thing?" inquired Luna. "Regard how she strains."
"Can't see well, can't fly well," said Chanticleer. "During the summer molt, she's completely earthbound. The girl is just not built quite right, you understand? But oh, can she sing. We expect to keep her here until graduation, a curse for her, but a blessing for us. It's not as though we throw the girls out when they get adopted; they are welcomed and in fact desperately encouraged to continue their studies here even when placed with a family. Once a Mercy Stable child, always a Mercy Stable child. But the fact is, few families in Canterlot are truly prepared to take in a foal from her tribe, much less a 'special-needs' one. Any tender-hearted would-be 'peggy' mommas would likely come from Cloudsdale, which is, of course, one hell of a daily commute."
Chanticleer sighed, gazing up at Beloved. "And, of course, she's nearing marehood. Once a filly is cutie-marked, their odds of adoption drop astronomically. Parents like to feel as though they've shaped their sons' and daughters' special purposes in life, and when they're already defined, that particular appeal fades. Once Miss Beloved receives her cutie mark, and let me tell you how shocked we all will be when it turns out to be a music-related one, she's likely ours until she can make her own way in this world."
While Chanticleer spoke, Beloved's music had grown wilder, even less constrained than it had hitherto been. She began punctuating her dusting with great jerks and flourishes, less a matter of drama and more one of it simply being all too much passion for her fragile little body to contain.
"What is that interval she's doing?" asked Twilight. "It's totally crazy!"
"It's a diminished seventh," whispered Chanticleer, "but hush now, or you'll miss the best part."
The four of us stared up at Beloved as her primal hymn grew loud and brutal. She twitched and shook with the effort of birthing it, until it seemed like she would be torn in two by its raw force. She began striking her hoof against a blessedly durable wall-mounted iron candelabra, the violent clanging laying another sheet of dissonance and disharmony to the already decimated musical structure of the Adoration, until it seemed as though the entire piece would just fly apart into its component harmonies and vanish forever into the void…
…and then, the Sun came out. Beloved threw back her forehooves, arched her spine, and emitted a single pitch of utter beauty, a piercing clarion operatic C that practically drew frost from the air, a note that single-hoofedly took the chaos and confusion that had gone before, threw it to the earth and ground it to dust beneath its tread.
We did not speak because there were no words; Twilight's jaw had fallen slack. The movement continued, quiet and serene and harmonious now, like dawn falling across the plains. Hope had been restored. Life would prevail. Joy and harmony throughout the land, from the sky above to the sea below. All… was well.
"Twenty minutes of horror," whispered Chanticleer, at last. "Broken to smithereens by that one note. And that, dear fillies, is the genius of Strawinsky, in the mouth of a virtuosa. Dedicated programmatic Royalists such as yourselves will typically choose to interpret this moment as the victory of our Princesses over the villain Discord, but I suspect that it's a much older tale than that, the Sun itself conquering the primordial darkness, or, perhaps, enlightenment conquering the darkness of our animal souls." Chanticleer shrugged. "Stories repeat," he said. "Over and over again." He sighed. "I don't know. What I do know is that it is pure musical heaven. Of course, we do not fawn over Beloved in her presence this way, as such unadulterated praise can only lead to divaism, with its attendant sloppiness and lack of technique. But when she is not looking, I am free to enjoy as I please."
"Mm," I remarked, placidly. "Sister," I said, then, looking over at Luna. "A word, please? If you'll excuse us, Chanticleer, Twilight?"
"Of course," said Chanticleer, still soaking in his private rapture. Twilight was still incapable of speech.
Luna and I quit them and walked, sedately, a rather long ways away, finally tucking ourselves behind one of the many arches that lined this hall.
I turned around.
"MINE," I said, snarling and pointing upward.
"Oh, dear," said Luna. "Not this, please."
"Why not?" I said, boiling beneath my illusory hide. Damn these costumes, how they lay my ugliness bare. "That girl needs a mother. You heard the stallion."
"I do not know how better to put this, sister, so I shall speak plainly and perhaps stare at you a bit to lend gravity to my words." She did so. "You. Are not. The right mother. For this child. Do you. Understand."
"Of course not!" I snapped. "I'm far too busy to raise a foal! But being Sovereign of the Realm should come with a hoof-full of perks now and then. I can buy her a mother. I can buy her ten mothers."
"And oh, witness how healthful a relationship would emerge from that," said Luna, dryly. "Sister, let us hie us from this place. It is giving you fevers, and in addition, I am now quite ravenous."
"You're functionally immortal," I said. "You don't actually need to eat."
"My belly gets rumbly," said Luna, looking downcast.
I snorted at my sister. "Regardless," I said. "A talent like that, and they have her dusting the arches."
"Master Chanticleer reports that she enjoys dusting arches, Heartfelt."
"Stop that," I said. "I am not 'Heartfelt'. I am Celestia the Unconquered Sun of Equestria. Five hundred years ago, I founded the charitable order that runs this school as a lark to while away a snowy weekend. And to-day, I find that I have been rather generously funding their entire operation behind my own haunches. I WILL DO AS I SEE FIT WITH THIS PLACE AND EVERYPONY WITHIN."
"Celly, stop," said Luna, cowering down and backing away, her buttoned demeanor utterly demolished. "You're scaring me."
I looked down at my little sister, huddled in the skin of a gray little earth pony. She could have cast us as anything, I thought. Made us look however she pleased. The illusions came from her own hoof and alicorn. And yet, she had still made herself so much smaller than me…
"I'm sorry," I said, audibly shaken, wondering not for the first time how close was my own Nightmare. "I'm so, so sorry, Luna."
"Moonbeam," said Luna, piteously. "I remain 'in character'."
"Of course," I said.
I squeezed my eyes shut and walked a few steps away. "I will patronize her," I decided. "She will never again want for anything. I will always be over her shoulder, the mysterious angel watching from the shadows."
"Such a comforting thought," Luna said. "Celestia always watching, from the shadows."
"Anonymous letters," I tried again. "Guidance. Wisdom. I am more than capable of taking on another protégé, albeit pseudonymically. You must admit, Twilight has turned out quite well."
"In spite of your influence as much as because of it, at times. You are a fine teacher of magic, sister, which is exactly what Miss Sparkle needs, but you cannot raise a musician, and you cannot raise a pony. Your hoof on this child will transform her into another statue for your sculpture garden, another beautiful and court-friendly piece of art for you to nod archly at instead of the disconcerting and radiant thing she is clearly meant to be."
"What do you want me do?" I demanded.
"What are you most frightened of?"
The briefest of pauses.
"I'm going to lose her," I said, then, words spilling out from me as from an upended pitcher. "If I leave this place to-night, I'm going to lose her. She'll get adopted by a virtuous and self-sacrificing pegasus family who will spirit her away to Cloudsdale and I'll never see her again, except perhaps as a nameless face in an adoring crowd. Or she'll remain here and study music and some day I will see her on stage at one of these dreadful public functions and she will bring the entire house down and the world will be at her hooves amidst all the roses and I will come up to her and congratulate her on her beautiful performance, and… and…"
Luna waited, patiently.
"…And she'll be honored," I finished, hanging my head. "Just like anypony else would be."
Luna rose, walked over to me, and nuzzled my neck.
"Sister," she asked, her breath warming my skin, "do you trust me?"
The moment was there, suspended between us. I felt so close to her, and could see my own feelings mirrored in her eyes. It was the sort of bond neither of us had experienced in over a thousand years. Not even our embrace at the moment that the Nightmare had been banished had felt like this, and my heart fluttered in my breast, because finally, at last, again, we were like the icons of ourselves on our standards and banners: two ponies, one dark, one light, two halves of a circle, going 'round and 'round and 'round.
I… told the truth.
"No," I said.
Luna backed away and the moment was gone. "I… see," she said, her dismay piercing me like an awl.
"I have restored to you everything that was yours," I said, hating the truth with every fiber, desperately pleading with myself to return to the comfortable lie. "Your title. Your retinue. Your throne. Your beloved moon. But I cannot restore my old faith in you, because it is no longer mine to restore, broken as it is on the rocks of Twin Skies, one thousand years gone."
I will never know what might have been had I answered differently. It is best that I never know.
"But," I said, shaking my wings out a bit, "I would hear your advice to me."
"My advice," said Luna, stacking bits of her own composure together. "Very well, you shall have my advice. Dear sister," she declared, gazing blankly at me, "my advice to you is to lose little Beloved. To-night. Now."
"That's not advice," I said. "That's what I'm trying to prevent."
"IMBECILE!" Luna suddenly exploded. "YOU CANNOT!"
Luna was shaking, now. "How many years have you lived, sister?" she said. "And yet still you prance through life pretending that there is a single thing on this earth that you are not going to lose."
"You dare lecture me on the topic of loss?" I said, quietly.
"AND YOU DARE LECTURE ME?" shouted Luna.
A brief standoff ensued.
"At least I have learned to do so with grace," said Luna. "A hard lesson, one that came about through great pain and time. You have never. For Father's sake, get some practice in losing well instead of poorly!"
Luna gestured angrily in the direction we had left Chanticleer and Twilight. "Tell me, sister: Once the Solar Throne relaxes its grip on your prospective Vicereine, however many hundreds of years in the future that may be, will you be prepared to lose her, then? Or will she become another Civic Festhall to you, abandoned and empty but propped up by some unholy spark of your will? It is within your power to preserve her vital functions after the land and the Throne will her dead."
"Behind me, Discord," I muttered. "Never would I do such a thing. You dog me with future worries, sister; I shall cross these bridges as I come to them."
"Fine words from a mare who has never learned to cross a bridge!"
"'Scuse me," came a small voice from nearby.
Luna and I jerked our heads up in startlement.
Standing there, shy and folded, was Beloved, the little green pegasus whose voice had proven to be just the spark to light our ancient powder-keg. So caught up had we been with the shouting that I hadn't even noticed the end of the Adoration.
Luna attempted a smile first. "Yes, little one?" she said, swallowing hard.
"Um, 'scuse me," Beloved repeated. "Who are you?"
"My name is Moonbeam," said Luna. "This is my sister, Heartfelt."
"Charmed," I said, the word tasting like wet ash in my mouth.
"Why are you fighting?" asked Beloved, twisting one hoof awkwardly against the flagstone floor, her eyes fixed on a point somewhere to the left of us.
"Sisters fight, sometimes," I said.
"It's an old argument," Luna clarified. "We… got mad at each other, once."
And nearly sundered the kingdom, I added, to myself.
A dramatic consequence, commented my maddening inner voice, but I'm not certain it makes the fight itself any more meaningful, does it?
I don't know, I replied.
Beloved nodded, taking this in. "Sister Milkweed says that it's okay to get mad sometimes," she said, eventually. "'Cause sometimes it helps the other pony know what you're really feeling deep down inside. Just so long as you make up afterwards."
"That's… good advice," said Luna.
"Yes," I said, quickly, amidst full psychological stagger.
"Wisdom… from the mouths of foals," came the sudden voice of Chanticleer as he strode casually up, my faithful student in tow. "The old chestnuts keep getting proven, time and time again."
"'M notta foal," protested Beloved. "Gonna get my cutie mark any day now."
"Indubitably," said Chanticleer. "In any case, it's about time somepony injected a little reason into this fracas over here. Well put, Beloved."
"Thank you Mr. Chanticleer," said Beloved, her myopic and half-blind eyes shining nonetheless bright.
"Yeah, hey," said Twilight, clearly frazzled. "Sounds like you two were having a little, I dunno, argument, or something over here, ha ha?"
"In all seriousness," said Chanticleer, positively glinting with that particular dread authority possessed only by secondary-school music instructors, "I think there might be better places to air whatever grievances it was you were just shouting about."
"Yes, sir," I said, automatically.
"Sorry," added Luna.
"Okay Mr. Chanticleer can I be 'scused?" Beloved asked, turning not quite in the choirmaster's direction. "Only 'cause I don't think I'm done up there." She grinned, eagerly. "I think I smelled some more cobwebs!"
"Yes, yes, go," said Chanticleer, waving her off. In a determined fluttering of tiny wings, Beloved was gone, trailing a new melody behind her, a sort of maritime plainsong, a chant of humble respect to the old Wind-Sea.
I watched her go, and then turned away and… lost her.
But it was all right: because, however short our story together had been, it had had such a good ending.
"Ladies," said Chanticleer, in a voice that would brook no retort, "I think it might be time for you to leave, now."
"Yes," said Luna, bustling me back to the lobby and the exit doors. "Yes, a thousand apologies for our behavior, good choirmaster. Some day we shall grant you many boons for your patient tolerance!"
"Or not!" said Twilight, hastily, dancing frantically behind us. "Or not! Maybe we could just do this kind of thing without boons for once! We can just thank Chanticleer here for putting up with us tonight and for teaching us so much about Mercy Stable, how about that?" She beamed. "Thank you, Chanticleer!"
"I have no idea what you people are talking about," said Chanticleer. "And I'll spare you the automatic 'please come again' sentiment, as that would make me a damnable spouter of lies. But yet, one final word of advice, students," he continued, undoing the bolts, pulling open the door and ushering us out into the night. "The first lesson of music, the very first, is control. Exercise it!"
"Thanks again!" said Twilight, even as she was pushed across the threshold by a petulant pedagogue and two very silly fillies indeed, pouring out all the magic of friendship she possessed into those last two words.
Chanticleer softened once more. "You're… quite welcome, young Twilight," he said. And then the door to Mercy Stable Conservatory closed behind us with the noise of a shutting book.
We stood for a time on the steps of the old Civic Festhall, a thing which had died despite all the denial a princess could muster; but which had then been born again into a much better thing. Then we walked back down to the docks to gaze out at the slow-drifting airships and the cold blue sea of clouds beyond them. From somewhere distant came the soft bellow of a boat-horn. And for a moment, despite all the energy and commotion of the surrounding docks, the entire world seemed still.
"So," said Luna. "To supper, then?"
* * *
We eventually resorted to the food-carts.
Twilight sat the two of us down on a public street-side bench as graciously as she could manage, vanished once, returned with a pristine white linen tablecloth (from where?), vanished again, and returned a second time dragging in her telekinetic field three massive paper-wrapped skewers of quick-grilled assorted vegetables: a mouth-watering collection of rough-hewn mushrooms, peppers, carrots, tomatoes and onions. Luna fell on hers with a passion. I ate a bit more daintily. Whatever my skin, I decided, I am a princess, not a spoiled little filly. And I will conduct myself accordingly.
And so there we were, three ordinary little ponies in a city of thousands, sharing a meal. It was absolutely everything I had wanted from this evening. Midway through her skewer, Twilight asked me whether or not this meal was memorable enough, her eyes gleaming with hope.
"Yes, my faithful student," I said. "I can honestly say that I will remember this dinner forever."
At that, she dropped her vegetables onto their paper wrapper, threw her hooves around my neck and hugged me hard. Luna, industriously working on a crunchy little onion, smiled at her, smiled at the two of us together, and just for a second there, I saw that smile touch the corners of her eyes.
It wasn't much. But it was a start.
I looked down at my faithful student, then, and tried to imagine her as a wizened old mare, Vicereine of the Solar Throne, one of those eminent potentates of the learned world who strode effortlessly through the currents of magic like a filly through daisies, power undimmed and eyes keen even as her mortal form failed her.
I wondered if I would be there at her side, at her final dimming. I wondered what we might say to one another. I wondered what the end would be.
I didn't know. But I determined right then that it would be a happy ending, whatever that might mean at the time. And I would spend every day I had together with her writing symphonies of love and mutual respect to make sure that it was so. I am Princess Celestia, the Great Unconquered Sun of Equestria. My heartbeats are the heartbeats of this land. My hooves have the power to shake mountains. I have made empires rise and fall at my whim.
I can do this thing.
And as Twilight held me close, her scent filling my nostrils, I inwardly composed another letter to her (my second of the evening), a letter that I vowed I would share with her in full once we arrived back at Canterlot Castle.
It went like this:
"Dear Twilight Sparkle: To-day I learned that losing things is inevitable, eventually. And that losing things hurts. But instead of trying to shy away from that pain, you should instead throw all your power and all your love into every moment you have with the ponies you care for, so that no matter how short the song is that you share, you can make certain that it goes out…"
Am I too good for this pun? I wondered.
There is very little for which you are 'too good', Celestia, said my inner voice, ever happy to play killjoy.
I let it wash off me like water from my wings. Too right! I shot back, munching cheerily on a tasty pimento. "No matter how short the song is that you share, you can make certain that it goes out on a high note.
"Signed, your faithful student, Princess Celestia."
Do you see what I did there? I said, holding my imaginary paper up for my inner voice to read. A "high note"! Do you get it?
Celestia, said my inner voice, in tones of utter boredom, do you have any idea how wearing it is to be you, day in and day out?
I think I rather do, I replied, smartly. On most days, at least. But to-night?
To-night – here on a makeshift table on the edge of a busy street at midnight, sharing some kebabs with my faithful student and my beloved baby sister – to-night, I feel just dandy.
Good for you, said my inner voice, laconically.
It is, I replied. It really is.