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Candlelight flickered off little brassy bits scattered over the stone flagstones beneath Bon Bon’s hooves and sank into the rich red-brown of the wooden beams above, filling the cellar with a warm, comforting glow. The brassy bulk of the fing-er loomed overhead, the whirring click of its gears occasionally interrupted by a puff of steam as it quietly chuffed along. Lounging awkwardly back in her padded armchair in the corner, one hoof curled around a mug of mulled cider, Lyra grinned as Bon Bon rose unsteadily to her hind legs, forehooves waving wildly as she tried to keep her balance—
—Shifted her left hind leg back, in a motion that would have helped her stay upright if she had been on all four hooves, but as it was just threw her even more out of kilter—
—And fell in a spinning tangle of limbs on a heap of cushions, laughing helplessly at how ridiculous the whole thing was. Lyra wriggled out of the chair and trotted over, laughing as well. “C’mon, silly filly, you can do better than that!” She helped Bon Bon to her hooves, and brushed a stray lock of navy blue hair back into place in her marefriend’s disheveled mane. “If I can do it, I know you can.”
Bon Bon smiled. “I don’t have your determination, sweetie, and you’re in better shape. I’m all pudgy.”
Lyra nuzzled Bon Bon’s mane, nickering softly. “Yeah, and I love very bit of that pudge. Ow! Ow! No nipping!”
“After making me try to trot around on my hind hooves like a chicken, I think you deserve a nip or two,” said Bon Bon primly.
Lyra chuckled, and gave her marefriend a gentle push. “Okay, you don’t have to try it anymore tonight. I haven’t given up on you yet, though. I’m going to keep you at it, and one day, filly, we’re going to walk out our front door hoof-in-hoof, marching along on our hind legs as bold as can be, and we’ll dang well out-awesome everypony else in town. We’ll be like some kind of awesome-plosion. They’ll be talking about it for—“ A sudden klaxon wail of sound, the rather-too-familiar screech of the fire alarm, echoed down from upstairs. Lyra’s face brightened. “Ooh! Dinner’s ready! Just a sec, Bon Bon, I’ll be right back. I’m trying a new recipe; you’ll love it.” She turned and galloped up the cellar steps, taking them two at a time. Bon Bon smiled, and began to clean things up a bit, picking lost cogs up from the floor and stacking loose sheets of paper neatly on Lyra’s work desk. Overhead the fire alarm lapsed into silence, and then there was a clatter and thud, followed by a muted “It’s okay! I’m okay!”
It was mad, it was chaotic, it was disorganized and impossible and strange. It was home. Bon Bon rolled her eyes, trotted over to the corner where Lyra had been sitting, and was reaching down to retrieve a cushion that Lyra had stashed in the back of the armchair’s seat (so that was how she had managed to sit there so comfortably) when a drop of cold water splashed on her nose. She glanced up at the labyrinth of copper piping overhead, sighed, and headed for the stairs. She wasn’t about to mess with the impossibly complicated innards of the fing-er; that was her marefriend’s territory, and for all Bon Bon knew the leak was something that the absent-minded unicorn had intentionally included in her design of the machine, without pausing to consider little everyday mundanities like water damage.
“Lyra? Lyra, I think the fing-er may be—“ She stopped abruptly, blinking. Another drop of water had fallen, splashing into her open eye. That was strange; none of the pipes extended this—
Drip. Drip. Drip drip splash plip splish. Bon Bon leapt back, shaking her mane. Water was falling from the ceiling in a steady drizzle now, pouring down on her and pattering against the floor. There was a rolling boom of sound from somewhere very far away, and nearer at hoof Bon Bon heard something very like the croaking of frogs…
Bon Bon’s eyes snapped open. She lay curled on her side in the middle of a stand of stringy yellow flowers growing on a small knoll of ground rising above the surrounding swampland. A vast, weighty mass of clouds was spread across the sky overhead, drenching the expanse of marsh grass and stunted willow trees with sheets of rain. The sun was still just below the horizon, but enough of the early dawn light had worked its way through the overcast sky to cast a dim light over the swamp, interrupted here and there by the unsteady weaving and bobbing of the will-‘o-the-wisps’ green lanterns.
And Lyra was gone.
Bon Bon clenched her eyes shut again, shivering, and curled her legs tightly against her body, tensing the muscles in her sides until her ribs hurt. She could feel a convulsive tightening in her chest, and a pressing at her throat, and tried to force the tears back without much success. She couldn’t show weakness now, not with the kelpie so close; she couldn’t.
But Lyra was gone. She might even be dead. Bon Bon’s self control cracked and collapsed, and she began to blubber into the brown sheets of bog moss, her body shaking as great heaving sobs forced their way out. She was scared, so scared, so very, terribly scared…
The rain fell, hissing and whispering as the droplets splashed from willow-frond to grass stem to sphagnum moss to stagnant pool. After some time had passed, the bedraggled changeling managed to rise to her hooves, eyes red and breath ragged. She swallowed, forcing one last convulsive sob back down her throat, and looked up, staring at the dim silhouette of Canterlot far above. Since yesterday afternoon it had been enclosed in a colossal, pale red sphere of magic—presumably the Princesses’ response to her warning. Most likely a shield of some sort. They—and Bon Bon—had been too late, of course; the enemy was already inside the fortress. The changeling mare drew a deep breath, bent down and gingerly nipped off one of the yellow flowers growing around her, wincing at the cold, ringing shiver of the stem against her teeth. It was Mage-Starswirl’s-wort, an ancient form of faebane that the Shee knew as chase-discord; she had purposefully sought out this little stand of flowers the night before, carefully weeding out a little poison-free hollow in the middle of the bobbing yellow stalks so that she could be sure that, here in the strange Unseelie Wild, she wouldn’t find herself slipping away into Faerie while she slept. With great care, she tucked the little flower into her mane, and even as her ears tingled, instinctively twitching away from the five-pointed blossom, she felt a little twinge of relief. It could have just been the steadily brightening light of dawn, but she thought that the drunken, whirling glow of the will-‘o-the-wisps had faded a bit. The world felt slightly more real.
She would not be too late again.
Bon Bon glanced around, taking stock of her surroundings. Aldrovanda was nowhere to be seen, and considering that she normally slept during the day in any case that probably meant that she was still fast asleep, curled up in the muck at the bottom of the pool into which she had descended the previous evening. Bon Bon’s bindle, which she had leaned against a nearby willow the night before to keep it off the wet ground, was gone; no doubt Aldrovanda had waited for her to go to sleep, and had then tossed it into the mire, or eaten it, or buried it, or…whatever the foul little thing felt like doing at the time.
Which meant, of course, that Aldrovanda would be expecting to be woken up by an angry changeling demanding to have it returned, and wouldn’t anticipate that Bon Bon might head off without it. Bon Bon shrugged. Well, if that was the price she had to pay to get rid of the kelpie, she was more than happy to pay it. Giving Aldrovanda the slip would mean avoiding the railway bed, of course, which would make her journey somewhat more difficult, but on the other hoof the Canterhorn was a landmark that was impossible to miss, and when all was said and done Bon Bon was still one of the Shee. She knew how to travel through the wilderness.
The Sun rose, reached its zenith, and began to descend again, dipping down towards the western mountains, and a lone changeling trudged on through the great sodden depression surrounding the Canterhorn. It was a lonely place, this swamp; a very lonely place. There had been no ponies here for uncounted years, that was plain enough, but as Bon Bon trekked through the mire, threading her way along the few patches of stable ground, she began to realize that even the Shee rarely ventured here. In between the willows and the marsh grasses lay stagnant pools ringed with sphagnum moss and lanky flowers. Early in the season as it was, their anemic stalks were already sending out sprays of flowers, daubing the landscape with tiny points of pale yellow, translucent white, and bruised purples so deep they were almost black. Scattered among the other flowers were yet more stalks of chase-discord, growing not in tight, paranoid clusters or in defiant hordes but just as any other flower would, as if they had no special properties at all. The long, low-slung hummocks of peat and moss that rose, here and there, above the slowly drifting waters and the shifting clouds of gnats were not barrows, raised in the paleopony period as burial mounds for gold-clad chieftains or as homage to the far greater kings and queens of the Shee; they were just hills of sod, no more and no less, overgrown with gnarled willows and riddled with roots. Other than the wisps, weaving their mindless, glimmering way through the mists, there was almost nothing fey about the place at all.
It felt immensely strange. The settlements and cities of the ponies—Canterlot, Manehattan, and even Ponyville, at times—had always felt rushed to her, as if they were tumbling madly towards the future with little inclination to pause and savor the past. The Shee, on the other hoof, hoarded their past with a dragon-like jealousy, proud of their antiquity and immortality but suspicious of every new, untested moment of time. This sunken wetland, though, was different. Growing, rotting, and growing again in the shadow of the Canterhorn, old beyond reckoning—older than the Unseelie Court, perhaps older than the mythical Seelie Court, maybe even older than the Shee themselves—and yet it still wore its age gracefully. Almost carelessly, in fact. It existed, and that was enough for it. Into the Universe it came, and why not knowing, nor whence, like water willy-nilly flowing: and out of it, as wind along the waste, it knew not whither, willy-nilly blowing.
Bon Bon came to a stop, and shook her head, irritated and amused with herself. Poetry! It might not be a haunt of the Shee, but something about this place was still getting to her. Reciting poetry—pfeh! She wasn’t normally that flighty. Best be getting on.
Odd as it was, though, she found the swamp almost comforting. There was, quite simply, nothing here that was actively trying to foil her. It made for a welcome change. Perhaps, the changeling thought, things might yet turn out well…
Bon Bon froze at the sound of the distant voice, ringing shrilly out above the soft susurrating hiss of raindrops on willow leaves. No. Surely not. The kelpie would have followed the railway, if she even bothered pursuing at all; she should be miles away by now.
“Mendax! Oh, smelt it—Bon Bon!”
That sense of confidence, Bon Bon reflected, should have been her first warning sign that something was wrong. A sense of complacency and well-being anywhere within a radius of several hundred miles of Aldrovanda spelled doom. How had the miserable creature even tracked her this far out—
“Bon Bon! Please! Please! Where are you?”
Something resembling a train wreck took place in Bon Bon’s mind. Various lines of thought—A notion that finding a hiding place right now might be a good idea, a general distaste for kelpies, a particular distaste for one very specific kelpie—were suddenly thrown into disarray, whipping and snarling around one another like high-tension cables that had been suddenly cut. The changeling blinked. Yes, that had been Aldrovanda’s voice. Definitely.
But “please?” Aldrovanda didn’t say “please,” and Aldrovanda certainly didn’t say “please” in a plaintive, desperate tone. Aldrovanda didn’t do plaintive or desperate. She did snarky and belittling. What in Celestia’s name—There was a rustling amongst the nearby willows, a spreading of ripples through the scum-glazed pools. That puzzle could wait for later; she had to hide, she couldn’t let the kelpie find her again, couldn’t be slowed down by—
Branches cracked, foliage parted, and a kelpie-shaped heap of bog grasses, willow fronds, wooden splinters, pebbles, and other miscellanea tumbled out of a stand of reeds almost directly in front of the changeling. “Bon Bon! Bon Bo—“ Aldrovanda stopped short at the sight of her quarry, who was currently staring right back at her with a complicated mixture of fury and utter bewilderment. “Rust and leaf beetles, I can’t believe I found you! I was terrified, you have no idea, I thought that I’d be—“ The kelpie realized what she was saying and stopped abruptly.
For a long moment, both of them were silent, and then in a voice colder than a wendigo’s breath, Bon Bon said, “I’m taken.”
Aldrovanda blinked, sending a feather glued to her right eyelid fluttering madly. “’Taken?’ I’m afraid I don’t—Oh. Oh. Epona, no! Believe me, I have no interest in your particular brand of perversity. The Beast has utterly failed to be charmed by, ah—“ She eyed Bon Bon doubtfully. “—Beauty. So to speak.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Well, uh, not much going on in this place, you know. Once you’ve seen one rotting lump of moss, you’ve seen them all. I crave entertainment, and your antics are—“
Bon Bon’s eyes narrowed. “Liar.”
“But Mendax, I assure you, I…”
“Go away or I attack.” The changeling bared her teeth, and hissed, “I’m not going to tolerate you anymore.” She cast one last venomous look at Aldrovanda, turned, and trotted away. The kelpie raised a hoof, held it outstretched for a moment, and then lowered it. She took a half-step forward, fear flashing across her narrow, bony face.
“But they’ll kill me!”
Bon Bon glanced back. “What?”
Aldrovanda lowered her eyes, shoulders slumped, and repeated in a quieter tone of voice, “They’ll kill me. The kelpies. The changelings. One or the other, I don’t know which will get to me first. This was…I wasn’t supposed to just give you the conditions of your pet—your marefriend’s safety. I was also supposed to keep you from messing things up, keep you under control.” She raised her eyes to meet Bon Bon’s, and gestured desperately with one detritus-encrusted hoof. “But you’re impossible! I try to convince you to give up, and you ignore me; I steal your saddlebag, and you head off with a bindle; I get you dumped in the middle of nowhere, with your marefriend somewhere at the top of a giant mountain and no sane way to reach her, and you just start walking! And then this morning you just ran off, and I thought I’d lost track of you completely, and that they’d do…do horrible iron-themed things to me. What is wrong with you? You just never stop!”
Bon Bon glared at her. “You’re my minder, then. Of course. With anypony else, I’d be shocked, but from you this doesn’t surprise me at all. What are you afraid of, though? I have to try to save her—I have to—but I know my odds aren’t good. The Court doesn’t care about me. If they did, they would have set somepony less useless than you to dog me—or they would have just done away with me, then and there. I don’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if you fail.”
“Yes,” Aldrovanda whined, “but my life is just as cheap as yours! I’m not actually a traitor, but I’m about as close as it’s possible to get. There were some strong objections in Queen Xubidu’s court to my lack of ferocity, and then there was that nasty thing with the kelpie crown prince, the deer, and the three hogsheads of molten beeswax—I really think the queen overreacted about that; he wasn’t even a very good prince, and she was always complaining about him—and then when I tried to hide and they found me, they let me live on condition that I look after you. And, well, I didn’t. Then that pair of changelings showed up, and told me to keep you under control or else—I was lucky they weren’t kelpies, otherwise they probably would have killed me then and there—and now I’m failing at that, too.” She moved a half step closer to Bon Bon, an unaccustomed pleading expression on her face. “I don’t want to die.”
“Doesn’t seem like it’s any of my business.”
“Bon Bon! Please!”
The changeling sighed. “Right, that was cruel. You deserve cruelty, mind, but I’m usually not one for doling it out. But what do you want from me? I’m not abandoning Lyra, not for you and not for anypony else.”
“Your strange obsession with her hadn’t escaped me, no.” Bon Bon directed a sharp glare at her, and the kelpie cringed back. “What? What did I say?”
“It’s not a—“ Bon Bon paused. There wasn’t any point. “Forget it. Aldrovanda, I’m sorry you’re in trouble—but I’m in just as much trouble, and Lyra’s in even more. I can’t help you.”
The kelpie nervously rubbed her left forehoof against her right, the pebbles glued to both clicking noisily together. “But if you just go off unwatched, I’m as good as dead. Suppose I, ah, tagged along with you? So that if you get caught, I can say I was doing my job?”
Bon Bon blinked. “Are you serious? No! I’m not going to let you keep on trying to stop me just so that…”
“No, no! No more shenanigans. I promise. I’ll be an extremely satisfactory pack mule—or pack kelpie, as the case may be. The ne plus ultra of pack kelpies.” She gestured at the saddlebag on her back. “Everything’s still here, too. Granted, it might be just the tiniest bit damp, considering I spent last night at the bottom of a pond, but I’m sure some of the stuff in there is still usable, probably. All I want, if things go wrong, is for you to vouch for my efficiency and professionalism as your nemesis. You know, go into hysterics about how this is all my fault, how you’ll hunt me down to the end of time, maybe tell me to bite iron a few times—you’re fond of that particular obscenity, so that should be a positive pleasure for you, yes?”
“And in return, you’ll help me? No more nonsense? No more backchat?”
“Well, no more nonsense. A lack of backchat is going to be somewhat more difficult for me to manage.” The kelpie hazarded an uncertain smile, which slowly faded as Bon Bon continued to stare at her, face blank.
Finally, the changeling spoke. “I must be crazy. Fine. On condition that you do nothing to slow me down, you can come. The moment you start something funny, though, or the moment I even suspect you’re trying to stop me, you’re gone. Do you understand?”
Relief flooded across Aldrovanda’s face. “Perfectly. You are a paragon of lucidity, Mend—Bon Bon. You’ve made a wise decision.” She paused. “Well, to be entirely honest it’s really rather a stupid decision, considering precedent, but that notwithstanding it’ll still turn out well for you! You won’t regret this, I promise. Aren’t likely to regret it, at least. There is a greater than half-and-half chance that you won’t regret this. 70-30, we’ll say.” She paused again, considering. “Give or take.”
Bon Bon turned and resumed her march. “Just try to keep up.”
Somewhat to Bon Bon’s surprise, the kelpie was as good as her word, following with perfect docility as the changeling splashed and stumbled under the stunted willows, slowly making her way across the vast waterlogged basin towards the immense stone pillar at its center. Even better from Bon Bon’s point of view, despite the recent rain Aldrovanda seemed to prefer to stay off solid land, slithering through water weed-choked shallows instead. Occasionally she would kick her hind legs in the air and dive underwater, disappearing for tens of minutes at a time only to emerge from a seemingly unconnected pool a furlong or so further on, presumably having wound her way between the two through some watery, peat-walled tunnel beneath the bog’s surface. This meant, thankfully, that conversation was kept to a minimum—possibly intentionally on Aldrovanda’s part, reflected Bon Bon. The vain creature couldn’t have liked admitting that anything was capable of scaring her, and perhaps, for once, she suspected that she might come off the worse in a verbal spar.
This did not mean that Aldrovanda was completely silent, however; far from it. She seemed to feel that she had a duty to make at least some biting comments during the journey, but was obviously leery of angering Bon Bon—which meant that, at fairly regular intervals, she would pop up and express snide disapproval of an apparently randomly-chosen subject, after which she waited awkwardly for a moment for a response that didn’t come and then dove back underwater. By the time the first wisps had begun to show their eerie lights in the depths of the darkest, most thickly-clustered stands of willows, Aldrovanda had expressed her general dislike for ponies, the color red, the Sun, stallions, doors, mares, changelings (she didn’t seem to realize that this might be offensive until about thirty minutes later, at which point she suddenly surfaced almost beneath Bon Bon’s hooves and said “Not that you’re like that. You’re a traitor and a deviant, so much of that doesn’t apply, and to be quite honest the changeling stench is hardly noticeable on you,” and then submerged herself again), all kelpies other than herself, celery, air, all Shee other than herself, dragonflies (“Impossible to catch, and when you do finally get them, they taste absolutely revolting. Five years ago, I had to live off them from a waxing to a new moon. I don’t recommend it”), Queen Xubidu, glass (“So, when you say “never decays,” you don’t actually mean “never decays,” do you? It’s actually “takes a while to decay,” or “doesn’t decay unless soaked in water at midnight on the summer solstice under a new moon,” or something along those lines, yes?”), trains, cities, flint, and doorknobs.
Aldrovanda was in the midst of describing to Bon Bon the many, many aspects of clouds that offended her on a personal level (and Bon Bon was idly tossing around the idea of finding a dry stick, waiting until the kelpie had stopped talking, and then slapping the twig vertically across her closed mouth) when Aldrovanda suddenly came to a halt, her free ear springing to attention and her left ear straining at its moorings. She craned her head, sniffing suspiciously, and then hissed “We’re being followed.”
Bon Bon, who had been perhaps half a dozen paces ahead, turned and looked back at the kelpie. “Are you sure? I don’t hear anything.”
“Hear? Who said anything about hearing? Can’t you sense—“ She stopped abruptly and gave an exasperated snort. “Of course you can’t.” She trotted up to Bon Bon and swatted the blossom of Mage-Starswirl’s-wort out of the changeling’s mane. “There. Now?”
Bon Bon shivered as the underlying threads of unreality surrounding her, vitiated and starved but still present, reasserted themselves. The shock was much less than she had been expecting; here in the depths of the swamp the flower had hardly any effect at all. Worrying about the pull of Faerie in this surreally real place, it seemed, was like being afraid of drowning in a puddle.
A puddle rippling, she realized, with the thrashings of a creature far too big for it. Bon Bon whipped around, staring back the way they had come. There was another Shee here, disturbing the drifting wisps of lost time as it attempted to hoard them to itself. Bon Bon strained her senses, trying to parse out the nature of their pursuer from the feel—the taste—of the shuddering twitches rippling through the thinly stretched tatters of mislaid time around her. There was a hollow, rattling touch of old, dried blood about it, the texture of deception, all drenched in the taste of stagnant water and decaying leaves. It felt almost like…
Aldrovanda’s eyes widened. “I can’t stand family reunions. Toodles.” There was a splash and a sloshing of floating sphagnum in a nearby mere, and the kelpie was gone. Bon Bon edged back up a weedy slope into the shadows of small cluster of willows, wincing as stray stalks of Mage-Starswirl’s-wort brushed against her skin. A kelpie wasn’t quite as bad as a changeling would have been—with any luck, this one would only be looking for Aldrovanda, and with the changelings all massing for the attack on Canterlot it was just possible that the kelpies didn’t know her as anything other than “that deviant that Queen Sponge-For-Hooves convinced Xubidu to keep an eye on.” Still, she wasn’t eager to meet any other Shee. There was a rustling and splashing off somewhere in the gloaming, and the changeling waited, silently peering out through a curtain of willow fronds.
More rustling, more splashing…and clattering? Bon Bon’s brow furrowed. That didn’t sound like a kelpie; most of them rarely left the water, thus avoiding Aldrovanda’s sticky situation. If anything, though, this newcomer sounded like it was even more buried in detritus than Aldrovanda; it approached with an almost musical clicking and clinking, as if it had somehow managed to attach several thousand skipjack beetles to its hide and none of them were happy about it.
The reeds parted, and something very aged stumbled out—a stallion, Bon Bon thought, but considering that she wasn’t even sure what kind of beast it was, identifying its gender posed some problems. It was covered in a coat of freshwater clam shells, pointed and disc-shaped snail shells, mussel shells, and the shucked exoskeletons of crayfish and freshwater crabs, some still brown and glossy but most bleached bone white, with a glaze of green algae seeping from their crevices. What little of its wrinkled skin was visible was encrusted in fine pebbles, grit, and the shells of newly hatched snails, and its mane and tail were thin and ragged, trailing tattered, half-rotten brown strands of waterweed decorated with fragments of eggshells. It tottered on to the patch of sod where Aldrovanda and Bon Bon had been standing a moment before and sniffed at the air, craning its neck and peering into the shadows around it with rheumy eyes. In a croaking, raspy voice (definitely a stallion, thought Bon Bon), it—he—called out, “My name is Manchineel! I am a shellycoat—I know my place. I will not speak ill. Please, is there a kelpie here? Please?” He waited for a moment, and called out again, “I will speak no ill! Please? Please?” The creature half-turned, stumbling as he tried to see in the dim light, and then seemed to catch some scent. He turned around, and stepped towards Bon Bon’s hiding place. “Is there someone there? Are you a kelpie? I know my place. I know it, truly. I am just a shellycoat.”
No sense in trying to hide further. Bon Bon raised a hoof and pushed aside the willow fronds, stepping forward into the reddened dusk light. “I’m a changeling, not a kelpie. What—you said you ‘know your place.’ What do you mean?” The creature was about to respond when the dark pool nearby hissed, “Don’t make eye contact!” There was a moment of silence, during which Manchineel stared fixedly at the water’s surface and Bon Bon rolled her eyes, and then the pool said, “…Smelt it,” and Aldrovanda’s head broke the surface, ears flattened and mane drifting around her in weedy tangles. Manchineel immediately spoke up. “Please, my name is Manchineel, I am a shellycoat, but do you know of a kelpie named Pinguicula? She is my—I knew—I wonder, do you know—“
He stuttered to a halt. Aldrovanda stared at him for several long moments, eyes half-lidded. “You knew her?”
“Yes. No! I—it is a kelpie name? I know my place. It is a beautiful kelpie name, and I—I hoped to hear of the life of such a kelpie, if she should exist, with such a beautiful name. Nothing more. Have you ever met with a kelpie with that name?”
Aldrovanda yawned hugely, teeth gleaming. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve never been much of one for Trooping. I tend to stay away from the lochs; I’m a bog kelpie. Haven’t talked to one of my eternal kin—“ She laid a heavy stress on the word, ”—in ages.” She hoisted herself lazily up out of the pool, water dripping from the interstices of the pebbles on her hooves and gleaming on the glass in her mane.
The shellycoat stepped back. “But you wear a coat! Not a full one, but a coat! Are you—is it that—I will speak no ill. No ill. But…” He trailed off again under the force of Aldrovanda’s withering glare, and then added, so quietly that it seemed as though he was afraid to hear his own voice, “She was my daughter. You have heard nothing of her?”
The kelpie froze, eyes wide, and then oozed into a predatory slouch, her habitual smirk distorting into a snarl. “’Is it that’ what? I’m a kelpie, and you’re a shellycoat, and we are not kin, although I am flattered, in a wholly disgusted sort of way, that you would think otherwise. Your perversities notwithstanding, I am immortal—and you too, for that matter, and all Shee, although you deserve eternity even less than my august companion here.” She gestured dismissively in Bon Bon’s direction, apparently too angry to remember that she had been trying not to insult the changeling. She lashed her tail viciously, and brought her fanged face level with Manchineel’s. “Shall I tell you something? I have heard of Pinguicula—but marvel of marvels, she was a kelpie when last I heard of her. Moreover, I strongly suspect that she will continue to be a kelpie for all eternity, and has been one ever since her hatching. Not a shellycoat. A kelpie. Forever. Just as you will always be a shellycoat, and always were one.”
“You have no—“
“Aldrovanda!” The kelpie stopped. Bon Bon stepped forward. “I don’t know what this is about, but you’re going way too far. Leave him alone.”
“I don’t care what he did or what he said. I’m adding another condition to you tagging along with me, you understand? You will not be abusive to anypony—or anyone, I’m not leaving you that loophole—while you’re with me. Is that clear?”
Aldrovanda blinked. “But Bon Bon, be reasonable. Surely you realize that he was implying—“
“I am being reasonable. Tell him what he wants to know, politely, and then we’ll be on our way.”
Aldrovanda slid a thin tongue across teeth like knapped arrowheads. “I see. Politely.” She paused. “How, exactly, does one…?”
It took some doing, but eventually Bon Bon managed to extract something vaguely resembling common decency from Aldrovanda, and after a bit of further pushing and pulling got it aimed and fired off in the general direction of the wrinkled little shellycoat, who had seemed to be at a general loss to understand what was going on ever since Bon Bon had intervened. Even as Aldrovanda was talking, he kept on shooting little uncertain sidelong glances at the changeling, as if she were some strange alien thing whose nature he couldn’t quite grasp. He didn’t get much opportunity to figure her out; Aldrovanda was uncharacteristically curt in her description of the life and times of the kelpie Pinguicula, and Bon Bon herself was hardly in the mood for delays. Scarcely more than thirty minutes had passed since Aldrovanda had first scented his approach before the shellycoat had paddled away again, apparently satisfied with what Aldrovanda had told him, and Bon Bon had continued her march towards the Canterhorn, followed closely by her “pack kelpie.”
They trudged along through the dusk in silence for some moments, and then Bon Bon said, “So. What in Celestia’s name just happened?”
Aldrovanda sniffed. “You interfered most high-hoofedly in what should have been a strictly kelpie-shellycoat affair, for reasons that, frankly, elude me. Honestly, Bon Bon, I’m not entirely sure I approve of this whole ‘altruism’ thing you appear to have picked up among your little ponies. Doesn’t strike me as being in very good taste.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t. What did he say that was so offensive to you?”
“Offensive to me?” The kelpie raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t offended. Basic decency was offended, and I had no other option but to gallop boldly to its rescue. Any sensible being doesn’t come across a slander like that and let it lie. It might take root.”
“A slander like what?”
Aldrovanda came to a stop, and stared at Bon Bon as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. “Why, the implication that any Shee, much less kelpies, might be capable of aging, and presumably, eventually, even being killed by a surfeit of age. It’s a common perversity of shellycoats; the race as a whole is completely bonkers, convinced that they’re all kelpies who have, er, grown old—if you’ll pardon the bluntness of my phrasing—and Tartarus-bent on pestering any kelpie they come across for details of old family members and suchlike. Occasionally you even get a shellycoat who infiltrates their way into the clan, does away with a kelpie, and then impersonates them, slowly adding on shells and detritus over time to give the masquerade verisimilitude. They’re promptly exiled, of course, as soon as they’re discovered.” She cocked a detritus-covered head, her glass and wood-filled mane clinking slightly, and eyed Bon Bon, who was processing the implications of this and trying not to scream. “I must confess I’m surprised at you not knowing this, Bon Bon. I suppose changelings aren’t similarly afflicted?”
“N-no. No shellycoats for us. We do often have problems with ponies infiltrating the hives and claiming to be changelings, but—“ Bon Bon came to a halt. Sun and Moon. Sun and—Epona and Danu!
She had noticed that her transformations had seemed far more tiring than she remembered from the bad old days, but she had chalked that up to a lack of practice, and nothing more. It had never occurred to her to suppose that her own abilities might have deteriorated in some way. She was one of the Shee, after all, and therefore eternal and unchanging. Any suggestion to the contrary would be, well, blasphemous. Obscene. All Shee knew that they were an exalted order of beings, above and beyond mere mortals, and that those creatures who did creep in, claiming to be family and troop-mates, were simply envious of the high position that the true Shee held. They had, she recalled with a shudder, always been treated as such, at least among the changelings, who had never been kind to the ponies—and occasionally, other creatures—who slunk into the great gatherings, pleading their Unseelie nature and claiming that they were changelings whose bones creaked with age and whose ability to transform had faltered and eventually failed altogether. Some had cried for their sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers, even as they were dragged, bound and marked with woad, off to one of the great dolmens. Blasphemers to the very end.
But suppose they were telling the truth? Before she came to Ponyville, she would have rejected the idea with disgust, and after she had settled in with Lyra—well, she hadn't liked to think of the Shee or of their ways. It was a world she no longer wanted to belong to, and any time spent pondering it was, from her point of view, time wasted. Now that she thought on the immortality of the Shee from the perspective of a pony, though...well, there were holes in the Canon of Danu. Gaping holes. Holes easily large enough for an immortal being to tumble through unawares, plunging down in shocked terror towards an unexpected mortality.
Bon Bon had never relished her immortality, and after she had met Lyra it had seemed to her like a positive curse; her plan had been, for some years now, to simply not seek out another source of love upon Lyra’s eventual death, starving herself out of a world bereft of the pony she loved more than life itself. It wouldn’t be a pleasant end, but she had been resigned to it. It wasn’t the bookends that really mattered, after all, but the stories between them, and together her life and Lyra’s had been such a lovely story.
The whole matter bore more thinking on, of course—it seemed unlikely, to say the least, that so many Shee had been misled so completely for so long—but she suspected that, just perhaps, the conclusion to her story might be somewhat different from what she had expected.