Pinwheel looked down at the card, then up at the storefront. The sign above the door read ‘Karat’s Fine Jewelry’ in the same fancy, silver script as the business card in her hoof. Pinwheel hesitated outside the shop, peeking in through the windowpanes with a small frown. Rings, pearls, and earrings glittered in the window displays. The early afternoon light danced on the facets of each gem. Pinwheel paced back and forth in front of the windows, glancing every now and then at the shop door. Her mind wandered back to the cave Pale Hoof discovered with all the treasure inside it. There were more gems in that dragon hoard than Pinwheel knew what to do with. Somepony like Karat would appreciate them, though. That would be a good way to make things up to him, she thought.
The little bell above the shop door chimed. Pinwheel let out a surprised squeal. Mr. Karat stood on the front step, smirking as he held the door open with his shoulder. “Are you going to come in or not?” He asked. Pinwheel felt her cheeks getting hotter.
“Uh, sorry.” Pinwheel muttered. Karat motioned for her to come inside. Pinwheel followed him back into the store. A display case took up one side of the modest shop. Inside, gems the size of Pinwheel’s hoof sparkled under the glass. Pinwheel peered into the display case, marveling at the size and color of the gems Karat had for sale.
“See anything you like?” He asked. Pinwheel’s neck snapped up.
“They’re all really pretty.” Pinwheel answered, still blushing, “Must be really expensive.”
“Well, it depends on what you’re looking at, of course. I always try to keep my prices affordable.” Karat answered. Pinwheel nodded, staring hard down at the carpet. Karat approached her. He wore a visor and a pair of binocular-like goggles. Pinwheel assumed they were used to examine each gem. Gently, he placed a hoof on her shoulder, “But somehow, I don’t think you’re here to look at gems.”
Pinwheel’s ears flattened back. “Well, no.” She answered, looking up at him, “Listen, do you want to go get lunch or something? I’d just like to talk.”
Karat reached into his breast pocket and pulled out an antique gold pocket watch. Checking the time, he smiled at her. “Well, my lunch break is coming up. I suppose I could close up a few minutes early.”
“I don’t mean to disturb you.”
“You’re not disturbing me.” Karat walked behind the display case, removing his visor and goggles. With a ring of keys stashed in his coat, he locked the shelves behind the counter and sealed the display case shut. Once everything was locked, he trotted out to meet Pinwheel, “Shall we go to that café in the square?”
“That’s fine.” Pinwheel replied. Karat held the door open for her as she stepped back outside. The weather was growing hotter with each passing day. Just standing in the sunshine was enough to get Pinwheel sweating. Karat wore a finely tailored smoking jacket with a white dress shirt, yet he looked pristine even in the heat. Somehow, he and Rarity both knew how to avoid sweating.
They trotted side by side down the street toward the square, neither saying anything. Finally, as they turned the corner from Horse Tack Avenue onto Main Street, Pinwheel turned her head to speak, “Uh,” She stumbled over the words, “I wanted to apologize for dinner the other night. It turned out sort of…awful.”
Karat paused, staring at Pinwheel as though she’d changed colors. “Why are you apologizing? You couldn’t have stopped it. Besides,” His smile returned, “I can definitely say it was the most interesting date I’ve ever been on. I’ve never been questioned by Celestia’s guards before!”
“You talk about it like it’s something exciting.” Pinwheel frowned at the silvery stallion. Karat chuckled.
“Maybe it is.” He continued on down the street. Pinwheel trotted after him, “Compared to a young filly like you, my life probably isn’t very thrilling.”
Pinwheel opened her mouth to object, but quickly closed it. She’d dated the Grim Reaper, after all. Unless Karat had a secret fling with Princess Celestia, he was probably right. “Well, I’m still sorry it happened either way.” She finished, “I mean, it wasn’t even much of a date. We didn’t even get to eat.”
Karat chuckled. “Well, now you can make it up to me.”
The Ponyville Town Hall and pavilion loomed over the rooftops as they approached. The streets grew more crowded as they drew closer to the square. Ponies came out in force, enjoying the warm, seasonable weather. Pinwheel looked around at the crowds. Since the incident at the Bit and Bridle, pegasus and unicorn guards patrolled the streets and the air. A pegasus in polished gold armor watched the street from the gables of a nearby cottage. Nopony paid them any mind. Ponyville had no police force of its own, after all. Barely any crime occurred in their quiet little town, so the Mayor couldn’t justify hiring and training an entire police squad. Whenever anything went wrong, the Mayor just called in help from Celestia’s extensive Royal Guard.
Pinwheel was too busy watching the guard to notice the grey head bobbing rapidly toward her through the crowd. The grey stallion shoved ponies forcefully out of his way, coming to the screeching halt not five feet from where Karat and Pinwheel stood. Pinwheel jerked to a stop as the stallion closed in on them. His dark trench coat billowed in the hot afternoon wind. Green eyes alight with ferocity, the colt stared Karat down.
Karat stared back, frowning in confusion. “Erm…can I help you?” He asked. The grey stallion’s nostrils flared.
“YOU have STOLEN what is RIGHTFULLY MINE!” The stallion announced boldly. Pinwheel looked around. Here and there, groups of ponies were pausing to stare at them. To her horror, she realized they were standing right in front of Sugarcube Corner. Thanks to Pinkie’s parties, Sugarcube Corner was one of the most popular hangouts in Ponyville.
“Hey, let’s do this elsewhere.” Pinwheel interjected, pointing a hoof behind her. The guard on the gables was watching them. Pinwheel could feel his eyes on her back.
“NO, Pinwheel! My HONOR must be SATISFIED!” The grey stallion insisted. Karat’s eyes widened.
“Oh, Celestia. You’re the colt from the restaurant.”
The grey stallion huffed. “I am THE ONE who truly LOVES PINWHEEL!” He announced. Color sprung up in Pinwheel’s cheeks, “YOU, GOLD KARAT, are a PRETENDER.”
Karat stared at the stallion. “You know my name?”
Pinwheel grimaced. “Come on, do we have to do this in the middle of the street?” On the rooftop, the pegasus guard stood up, leaning over to watch them with his wings at full spread.
“I KNOW THE NAMES OF EVERYPONY IN THIS TOWN AND BEYOND.” The stallion replied, his voice reaching a terrifyingly loud crescendo, “GOLD KARAT, I HEREBY CHALLENGE YOU TO A DUEL FOR THE HOOF OF PINWHEEL! AS IS EQUESTRIAN CUSTOM.”
Pinwheel and Karat both stared at the grey colt. “…A duel?” Karat repeated, blinking slowly, “Dueling is Equestrian custom?”
Pinwheel rolled her eyes, sighing. “Maybe it was a thousand years ago.”
“A thousand years?” Karat frowned deeply, “What are you…” The grey stallion interrupted them. He bashed his hoof against the cobblestones, sending bright green sparks flying across the rocks toward Mr. Karat. The old jeweler leapt out of the way, nearly crashing into Pinwheel. Pinwheel let out a loud yelp. All around, eyes turned to look at them. Karat glared at the grey stallion, “Are you insane?”
“DUEL ME!” The stallion shouted. Tense whispers rippled through the crowd.
“I will do no such thing!” Karat answered. The grey stallion reared in anger, sending more magical sparks flying from his hooves. The guard on the rooftop swooped down, snatching Karat up out of the way. Setting him down a safe distance away, the guard landed directly between Pinwheel and the grey stallion.
“Back down or I will be forced to arrest you for assault.” The guard warned. Pinwheel peeked at the grey stallion over the guard’s shoulder.
“I WILL NOT!” The stallion roared. Flickers of green electricity danced over his body. The eerie green light created deep, skeletal shadows in the crags of his face.
The guard stood firm. “Then you leave me no choice.” But before the guard could make a move, Pinwheel tugged hard on his tail. The guard yelped, whirling around to face Pinwheel.
“Let me talk to him. Please.” Pinwheel begged, looking the guard straight in the eyes, “Maybe I can calm him down.”
The guard glanced over at the grey stallion, still alight with static, and then down at Pinwheel. “Ma’am, that stallion is a dangerous individual. It would be against my oath as a guard to put one of Princess Celestia’s subjects in danger.”
Pinwheel snorted. “You don’t understand. I know him. I can handle this.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but…” The guard never got a chance to finish. Pinwheel shoved past him and made a beeline for the grey stallion. The guard lurched after her, but missed. Pinwheel stopped short less than a foot away from the grey stallion. Their eyes met. His electric green irises flared with a kind of unholy inner light. Pinwheel didn’t falter, though. She gazed at him steadily.
After a long silence, she spoke. “You’re acting like a jerk.” She said. The sparks surrounding the stallion’s body began to fade, “If you’re trying to get me to take you back, this isn’t the way to do it.”
The stallion’s face sagged, the anger fading away. He lowered his head, letting his long, dark hair fall in front of his face. Pinwheel leaned a little closer, trying to catch his eye. He turned away.
Karat watched from behind the pegasus guard. Despite standing in the middle of a busy street, everything seemed to hover frozen in time. “Pinwheel, be careful.” Karat warned. Pinwheel turned to look at him.
“It’s fine, all right?” Pinwheel replied. Twisting around, she looked back at the grey stallion, “You’re no good at disguises, you know. You didn’t even change your colors.”
The grey stallion lifted his head slightly. “It…it is not a disguise.” He whispered, his voice dropping decibels, “Not entirely.”
“What?” Pinwheel squinted at him. Sighing, she pushed her bangs back with a hoof, “Why did you come back? Princess Celestia said she’d punish you if you came back.”
“I have already endured punishment far worse than anything Celestia can concoct.” Pale Hoof replied, “I could not stop thinking about what you said.”
Pinwheel glanced over her shoulder. The pegasus guard remained where he stood, leaning forward with the muscles in his legs pulled taut. He hadn’t moved, but only because Pale Hoof hadn’t moved either. She looked up at Pale Hoof. “What do you mean?”
“You told me that I could not treat mortals like numbers.” He replied. Looking down, he gestured to his fleshy body, “That is why I did this.”
Pinwheel looked him up and down. The skin still seemed to fit poorly over his body, but it was clear he’d tried his best to look mortal. Aside from his abnormal tallness and the strange expressions on his face, he could blend easily into any crowd. She gazed up at his slightly saggy face. His long, stringy mane covered most of the imperfections in his disguise. Even if somepony got a good look at his face, they’d probably just assume the wrinkles came from age. With the skin, muscle, and hair, he barely looked like Pale Hoof. Were it not for voice and behavior, Pinwheel might not have known it was him.
“You made yourself mortal?” Pinwheel asked, “But you can’t just be a normal pony. I just saw you work magic without a horn.”
“I can never be mortal.” Pale Hoof replied, “But you said that I could not be with you unless I understood the value of mortal life. To achieve this form, I suppressed my powers. I may perform some small acts of magic, but the majority of my powers are locked as long as I am in this form. I will live as a mortal if I must, for you.”
Pinwheel stared at him. “That’s not what I meant at all! I never wanted you to change! I just…” Pinwheel stared down at her hooves. Looking into his eyes somehow upset her. His face wasn’t ugly – not handsome, but certainly not ugly. Even so, she didn’t feel as if she was talking to Pale Hoof. It was like she was hearing his voice coming out of a shoddily stitched puppet, “I just wanted you to understand how I felt. Seeing you reap all those ponies. What if you’d never met me when that happened? I could have been any one of those souls.”
Pale Hoof frowned deeply. “I would never do that to you.”
Pinwheel let out a growl of frustration, stamping her hooves against the cobblestones. “You just don’t understand!”
“Then HELP me!” Pale Hoof demanded. Pinwheel fell silent, gazing up at him. His chest heaved and his nostrils flared, “Mortal lives fly by so quickly. This town, this country, even the lives of your beloved Princesses…all of it is but a grain of sand in an endless desert. Perhaps once I knew the world as you do, but it has been too long for me to remember. How can I care for each and every grain of sand, Pinwheel?”
“You care for me, don’t you?” Pinwheel asked, “You said you loved me. That’s proof enough for me.”
Pale Hoof paused. His eyes flickered upward, travelling from the guard to Mr. Karat and then to all the faces of the ponies watching them. Finally, completing the loop, he looked down at Pinwheel. “I do love you. And while I fear I can never understand the mortal life as I once did, I still want to try. Because I love you.” Slowly, he lowered his head. Pinwheel reached up and brushed a few stringy strands of hair out of his face. Gently, she touched her forehead to his. His skin felt cold and dry, like the pages of an old book. He gave off the faintest odor of lilies and dust, smells Pinwheel had never been close enough to notice. She closed her eyes.
“Get away from her!”
Pinwheel’s eyes shot open. She jerked away from Pale Hoof, staring bewildered into the crowd. Dizzy Twist stood on the very fringe of the group, a dropped bag of groceries at her feet. “Dizzy!” Pinwheel barely had time to speak before Dizzy charged up, shoving Pinwheel out of the way.
“I knew it was you. I knew it! You leave my friend alone!” Dizzy spat, head butting Pale Hoof in the chest. He stumbled backward, nearly colliding with a mare in the crowd, “She’s done with you, so stop bothering her!”
“Dizzy, stop it!” Pinwheel cried. Dizzy ignored her.
The cream-colored pegasus whirled around to face the guard. She pointed sharply at Pale Hoof. “This guy’s here against Princess Celestia’s orders! He’s dangerous and crazy!”
“Be quiet.” Pale Hoof growled.
“Hey, wait...” One pony in the crowd, a brown stallion with a dark mane, spoke up, “I saw him at the Bit and Bridle the other day! He’s the killer!” Gasps and whispers trembled through the crowd.
“Yeah, he is!” Another pony added.
“Quick, arrest him!” A few ponies in the crowd stepped toward Pale Hoof. Pinwheel leapt in front of him.
“Wait, stop!” Pinwheel pleaded, “This is all a big misunderstanding!”
“Pinwheel, you told me yourself all the horrible things he did!” Dizzy retorted, spinning around to face Pinwheel, “This guy is dangerous. You’re smarter than this. Why are you sticking up for a murderer?”
“He’s not a murderer!”
Dizzy turned toward the guard. “Get the rest of the guards. Hurry!” The armored pegasus nodded, taking to the skies before Pinwheel could make a move to stop him. With the pegasus gone, Dizzy closed in on Pinwheel, “I don’t know what’s come over you, but there’s no way I’m letting a murderer run free.”
Pinwheel clenched her teeth. With a mighty shove, she knocked Dizzy to the ground. The pegasus fell hard on her rump, letting out a grunt of pain. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about!” Pinwheel yelled, her voice rising, “You don’t even know what Celestia will do to him!” Pinwheel jerked around to face Pale Hoof. Up until his fight with Celestia, Twilight and her friends had been extremely accepting of Pale Hoof. Still, with Twilight’s devotion to the Princess, they’d have no trouble turning the Elements on him if Celestia ordered them too. The thought sent icicles running down Pinwheel’s spine. The Elements had the power to seal an alicorn princess in the moon for a millennium. What horrible punishment would Celestia devise for Pale Hoof?
“Pinwheel…” Pale Hoof reached out to touch her face. His hoof felt cool against her cheek.
“Come on, we’ve got to go.” Pinwheel insisted. A few of the ponies in the crowd drew closer, as if to block their escape.
“Go where?” Pale Hoof asked.
“Anywhere. Just go.” Pinwheel replied. Pale Hoof nodded. With a sweep of his hoof, he knocked their assailants out of the way. The rest of the crowd shrank back, clearing a path for them. Pinwheel and Pale Hoof exchanged glances before breaking into a gallop. Behind them, Dizzy Twist pulled herself to her feet. The cream colored pegasus stood stock still, watching silently as her best friend vanished into the crowd.