The sun hovered a short distance above the lonely dirt road, making the trees that rose up on its eastern side cast long shadows over its surface. The morning atmosphere was fuzzy with the light mist that arose from the grass beneath the trees.
Birds sang, leaves rustled in the gentle breeze, and the world was otherwise silent. Then came the soft padding of hooves – not a so much a disruption of the silence as a carefully-measured, respectful step around it.
The two ponies and zebra had not been walking for very long, but they felt that they were already quite far removed from the hustle and bustle of their city lives. Fillydelphia was no Manehattan, but the contrast between it and their current surroundings was jarring nonetheless.
A rabbit skipped across the path and disappeared into the underbrush – a rare sight even in rural Equestria, as most animals were almost completely helpless outside of domestic situations. Sibwashie smiled at the sight of the wild rodent, thinking back to the lions and cheetahs that roamed the plains around the village where he was born.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" whispered Sky Wave.
Her companions nodded in agreement, unwilling to further harm the tranquillity of their surroundings with even the softest words.
The journey continued in this fashion for a time, until White Noise finally spoke: "If you wouldn't mind, Sky, I think now'd be a good time to fly up and see if there's anything up ahead that we should be aware of. A fallen tree, or a broken bridge, or maybe a fork in the road: something like that."
"On it," Sky replied briskly, rising into the air before the words had fully left her mouth.
With a few soft flaps of her slender wings, Sky rose up above the tree to survey the path ahead. It twisted and turned in places, but as far as she could tell there were no upcoming forks, broken bridges or trees obstructing any part of it. Raising a hoof above her eyes to block out the sun's glare, she saw Hoofington's pretty wooden houses lying on the horizon.
Sky flapped her wings once more and rose several feet higher. The whole of Hoofington now spread out at the edge of her vision, and turning east for a moment, she could see Manehattan's majestic skyscrapers of steel and concrete rising up to touch the sun. It's a shame we're not heading in that direction, she thought. I've always wanted to see that city at night, all lit up like it is on the postcards.
With a sigh, Sky bade farewell to Manehattan's towers and swooped down to rejoin her earth-bound companions. She gracefully folded in her wings as her hooves touched the dirt and brought her trotting into step with the pace of her companions.
"The way's all-clear from here to Hoofington, guys," she said. "And Hoofington's not too terribly far away either – if we speed this trip up with a nice gallop, I'm sure we can get there within a few hours."
"Guess I could use the exercise," White Noise said nervously as he noticed Sibwashie nod eagerly at Sky's suggestion.
"Great!" Sky exclaimed. "On your marks... getsetgo!"
At that, all three ponies broke into a gallop. Sky's nimble legs carried her light frame swiftly along the path, and Sibwashie's thick and powerful ones did an admirable job of speeding his large body along at a relatively similar pace. White lagged slightly behind the others, hoping that the few times he'd been jogging since he got to Fillydelphia would pay off and help him to keep up with his companions.
"That was good and invigorating run
I cannot recall when last I had such fun," smiled Sibwashie.
"You did pretty well, boss," Sky Wave said to the panting unicorn that lay sprawled on the path just behind her. "Most unicorns I know probably couldn't gallop half that distance."
It was hard to tell through his heavy breathing, but Sky thought she saw White mouth the word "thanks".
"We're pretty close to Hoofington now," Sky said. "It wouldn't be a bad time to take a short break for lunch."
With that, Sky reached into her saddlebag and brought out some daisy and daffodil sandwiches she had packed for the journey. They were not as artfully made as the ones at White's favourite Fillydelphia deli, but right at that moment they may as well have been, given how appetising they appeared to his hungry eyes.
"Let's dig in," Sky said cheerfully, shucking her saddlebags to one side and slumping down on the grass. "I brought enough for everypony – and zebra!"
"Thank you for your thought, but I'm afraid I must decline
Your flowers disagree with me, and I find the grass quite fine," Sibwashie apologized politely, bending his head down to the grass and taking a bite out of it.
"My father got me to eat grass on a camping trip once," said White, having recovered his breath somewhat. "I can't say it agreed with me."
"It's quite nice once you get used to it, White," Sky replied. "In fact, I think I'll do some grazing for dessert."
With no further words, the ponies and zebra started eating their respective lunches. Sky Wave and White Noise each had three sandwiches (two daisy and one daffodil and pansy), and Sibwashie had enough grass to fill up his stomach. Sky joined him in grazing once she'd finished her sandwiches and White gingerly bit into a single blade of grass and turned quite green.
"I wonder if there's any signal out here," said Sky Wave, retrieving her portable radio from one of her saddlebags. "Oh, the battery's dead. White Noise?"
White Noise motioned with a hoof for Sky to place the radio in front of him. Closing his eyes, he lit up his horn and focused on the radio, sending his magic between the device's vents until it glowed even brighter than his horn.
The radio-powering spell was a slight variation of standard unicorn telekinesis, simple enough to be cast by any unicorn. The tricky part came in severing the portion of magic powering the device from one's own magic supply. A student of Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns had no trouble doing this (severing was the second thing they were taught in General Magic), but some younger and less magically-inclined unicorns would wear themselves out powering a radio for extended periods of time.
Sky Wave's radio came to life with a flare of static.
"Guess we're out of range of K-FILY," she said. "I mainly listen to them for the early morning music anyway."
White Noise turned the dial on the radio to its second channel. The static persisted. He went to the third channel. Still only static could be heard. The fourth and fifth channels yielded similar results, and then White had to turn back to the first channel because he had run out of options.
"So Hoofington doesn't have any radio stations," he concluded. "It makes sense. This radio thing is a pretty new technology, after all. Canterlot just got its first station the other month, and I don't know of anywhere other than Manehattan that actually uses all the channels."
"Every village in Zebrica has a radio station
Dedicated to relaying important information
"And it's largely thanks to the unicorns of this magical land
I'm surprised your system isn't more grand," Sibwashie said slowly.
"As am I, Sib," White Noise responded. "But I guess it's an issue of familiarity. Sure, we gave you guys the magic to really get your radio system into widespread use, but it's your invention. You've been using radios since the days you had to squeeze magic out of Poison Joke to power them, so you're just more accustomed to the idea of listening to disembodied voices all the time."
Just then, the three found their ears filled with the sound of trumpets, tubas and clarinets, belting out a stirring patriotic anthem that none of them could readily identify. The sound seemed to be getting louder.
"I don't think that's coming from my radio," Sky smirked.
And indeed it was not. In a few short moments, the source of the noise turned a bend in the road and stepped into view. It was a marching band.
The band was outfitted in cloaks, saddles and hats of dark purple and black, with a few patches of red here and there to lend the outfits some assertiveness. They marched stiffly, bearing serious expressions on their faces as they blew into their instruments. Attached to some of their saddles were large purple banners with the letters "NLR" written on them in bold black letters.
The dark ensemble was led by a proud-looking grey unicorn wearing a flowing black cape. Her striking red eyes flashed with acknowledgement as she saw White, Sky and Sibwashie, and she held out her left foreleg to signal the band to stop.
The instruments fell silent the moment the grey mare's leg left the ground, and the band stopped dead in their tracks. They stared at the three ponies before them without changing their serious expressions for a split second.
"Warmest greetings, travellers!" exclaimed the grey mare, her face breaking into a pleasant grin. "I am Quickblink, leader of this contingent of representatives of the New Lunar Republic, and my companions and I would like to extend our best wishes for your trip, wherever you may be headed."
"Uh..." White Noise began. "New Lunar Republic?"
Quickblink's face took on a look of shock. "You can't mean to tell me you haven't heard about the New Lunar Republic, the future haven of all forward-thinking equines – and might I say, Sir Zebra, on behalf of my countryponies, it is an honour to host a guest from the mighty empire of Zebrica."
Sibwashie noticed that Quickblink had very nearly said "ponies" and smiled inwardly. Outwardly, he gave the unicorn a polite nod and a far less sarcastic smile.
"Nope, I'm afraid 'Lunar Republic' really doesn't ring a bell," offered Sky with a shrug.
"Then please," began Quickblink, her horn glowing, "take a flier!"
The unicorn's cap flew up with a flourish, and a glossy black pamphlet floated out of one of the pockets and deposited itself at Sky Wave's feet.
"Now while I'd love to stay and chat, the band and I have a very busy schedule to keep to. Please take the time to read about our movement during your journey, and if you have any further questions, you should be able to find satisfactory answers at one of our offices – you'll find at least one New Lunar Republic outpost in most towns and cities in Equestria. Good day to you all."
Quickblink lowered her foreleg and the band behind her resumed playing from the very note they'd left off on. White Noise and his friends cleared out of their way as they marched along the dirt path and off into the distance.
"Well there's something you don't see every day," snarked White, once the marching band was out of earshot. "I wonder what this whole business is about: must be quite a big deal to inspire that kind of a performance from those band ponies."
White Noise remembered his short-lived marching band days back at the Princess's school. The band was made up of very talented and creative musicians, and also it had him in it. Needless to say, the creative differences everypony had with everypony else didn't win them any accolades. It's hard to be gifted sometimes, he thought, smiling wryly to himself.
"I wonder who does these pamphlets," muttered Sky Wave, admiring the pamphlet's shininess and pleasing layout as she unfolded it and spread it out in front of her with her hooves. "I should get some like this for my performances, that'd really snazz them right up."
"What does it say?" asked White Noise.
"There's an interesting-looking write-up about the movement's inspiration in the centre of this page," Sky replied, scrunching her eyes up with a look of concentration. "Let's see here..."
More than one thousand years before, when the Royal Pony Sisters ruled Equestria from their stone castle in the Everfree Forest (long before the word "Everfree" had taken on its present-day meaning and connotations), a group of brave pony travellers set out with large wood ships to explore the seas beyond Equestria, in search of new lands to explore and colonize.
A few days into their travels, they happened upon a lush tropical island, brimming with plant and animal life. The moment the ponies stepped of their rowboats, they knew that their short-lived quest had come to an abrupt end, for the island seemed to cast a spell upon anypony who set a hoof on its sandy shores.
It is said that in those days, whenever a pony lent down and put her ear to the ground, it was filled by the low, earthy tones of the very grass growing. Ponies who planted trees and crops experienced drastically-shortened wait times before their produce was ready for consumption.
After some months of prosperous pony living, the Royal Pony Sisters heard about their citizens' new settlement in the middle of the sea. It was decided that the younger sister would travel to the island and extend her congratulations and an offer of aid to the settler ponies, while the older sister stayed in Equestria to take care of matters there.
The younger sister took a ship to the island, and discovered its secret as soon as she disembarked. After a brief rendezvous with the island leaders, she called an urgent meeting of all the island's citizens, scheduled for dusk that very day.
When everypony was gathered in front of the royal alicorn, she thanked them all for coming and told them that she was about to reveal the reason for their new home's abnormal fertility.
Her horn began to glow as the gathered ponies watched her, riveted. As the glow became stronger, the ponies started to notice shimmering purple mist all around them. The mist was slowly settling on the grass, the trees and the crops of the farmer-ponies.
With a sudden flick of her head, the younger sister motioned for the assembled ponies to look up into the sky – up to the source of the purple mist.
When the ponies saw the moon that night, it was not the usual grey moon that they had become used to. The moon appeared solid purple. As comprehension dawned on the crowd, they bowed down to the younger sister and shouted their adoration and gratitude to her.
"My dear friend the moon has long smiled upon your island, my little ponies," she began. "Every night, it casts its spell upon the land, so that plants might grow, and the harvest of this island might be bountiful beyond imagination."
The island's leaders had a short conference, and it was decided that the island state would henceforth be called the Lunar Republic, in honour of the younger sister and her kind and gracious gift. A deafening cheer rose up to the heavens as ponies shouted the name "LUNA", their hearts overflowing with joy.
"Thank you, good ponies," said Luna, once the cheering had died down. "It pleases me to see you all so happy, but please remember one thing – remember what you saw tonight. Please remember what I have done for you and your families on this island."
"The rest of the story is actually pretty depressing," said Sky. "The ponies grew old and died; their children forgot about the moon and failed to give Luna any kind of respect or even thanks. And we all know what came of that."
White Noise and Sibwashie nodded. Given how much was generally known about Nightmare Moon and, by extension, Luna, it was hardly surprising that this story had fallen through the cracks of history. It shed a further light on the circumstances that led to Luna's fall and put an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of White Noise's stomach.
"What's also interesting is that after Nightmare Moon was imprisoned on the moon, it stopped fertilising the Lunar Republic," Sky added, reading further. "Apparently the effect has resurged slightly in the year since Nightmare's defeat, but it's nowhere near what it was in those ancient times."
Sky turned over the pamphlet and let out a startled gasp.
"Oh my... do you know what the Movement's ultimate plan is? They want to crown Princess Luna as the ruler of the Lunar Republic, so that everypony can, and I quote, 'escape Celestial tyranny'."
"Well that's not very nice," scowled White. "I'm inclined to go give these ponies an earful at their office – honestly... insulting Princess Celestia like that!"
"For what it's worth, they can't be that harmful if this is the first we've heard of them," Sky replied, cracking a smile. "I'm okay with them so long as they don't decide to replace their instruments with weapons and their marching bands with army platoons."
Sibwashie's eyes widened in fear at this remark, and he nearly choked on the mouthful of grass he'd been chewing lazily.
"I think she's just joking, Sib," White Noise said. "Ponies aren't known for their ferocity or willingness to fight at the drop of a hat – most of us, anyway. And I hardly think Princess Luna would approve."
"I wonder if she even knows about this," Sky pondered. "I hope she has a good laugh at it, rather than getting frightened."
One brisk canter-verging-on-a-gallop later, the travellers found themselves face-to-wood with a delightful painted sign depicting a grizzly old farmer pony shaking hooves with a young pegasus. Carved into the sign, above the picture, in large, easy-to-read-letters were the words
"The friendliest place in Equestria!"
"I am quite fond of the detail and colour in this work of art
It makes me feel that my home and here are really not so far apart," commented Sibwashie, staring appreciatively at the fuzzy edges that made it obvious that the sign had been painted by a mouth rather than a horn.
The sun had just shifted west from the middle of the sky when the travellers entered the town. They were greeted by a cul-de-sac of small wooden buildings with thatch roofs, arranged in a horseshoe pattern. The houses surrounded a large patch of land that was currently being used as a farmers' market, evidenced by the neat rows of various produce stands with their hastily-assembled wooden frames and striped awning roofs.
"We should find an inn to stay the night at," White Noise said. "We'll rent two rooms – I'm happy to share a room with Sibwashie, and then Sky can have her own."
"That place looks good," replied Sky Wave, pointing a hoof at a dark wooded building with swingy saloon doors and a sign that christened it the "Noble Manticore Inn".
More interesting than the writing on the sign, however, was the painting of a manticore wearing a top hat, walking with a cane and looking positively distinguished underneath it.
"Regardless of the quality of the rooms, I'd like to go in there just to ask about the name," quipped White.
The Noble Manticore Inn's check-in room was very small, but in a cosy sort of way. This atmosphere was aided greatly by the sounds of laughter and animated conversation coming from the dining room that it lead into, and by the warmth of the torchlight illuminating the staircase leading up to the rooms.
"Two rooms please," White Noise asked the plump, middle-aged mare at the counter. "One for the lady, and one for us stallions."
"Alright, that'll be –" the mare began, forgetting her words as she looked up and saw Sibwashie.
Sibwashie looked away as the mare gaped at him with wide, confused eyes. He'd been afraid of this kind of treatment in Equestria's small towns and villages. Most of the ponies there had never even seen a zebra, and of that number, the majority weren't even sure what zebras were. Or so he'd been told.
"Oh my, you're a zebra!" the check-in desk mare finally stammered out. "I've always wanted to meet a zebra! I've heard so much about Zebrica – you know, we ponies can sure learn a thing or two from you zebras. What's your name?"
"My name is Sibwashie, kind keeper of this fine inn
I am happy to hear such kind words about my kin," Sibwashie replied, trying not to let his surprise show on his face.
"So you do talk in rhymes!" the mare exclaimed excitedly. "Oh, how beautiful!"
Sibwashie smiled awkwardly and looked away. This hadn't been what he was expecting, and in some ways, that made it more difficult to deal with. To be honest, though, it wasn't entirely unpleasant.
"I'm going to give you a discount on that second room, considering how far your companion must have travelled already," the excited check-in mare told White Noise, turning her face back to him, "a two-bed room for the same cost as the one-bed room. That'll be thirty bits, please."
"With pleasure," replied White, levitating the bits out of his left saddlebag and placing them on the desk. "And thank you for the discount."
"You're welcome, my dears. Now do go and get something to eat – or at least to drink – in the dining room. Everypony will be thrilled to meet a real, live zebra and his real, live friends."
The check-in mare gave the group their keys, and one exchange of mutual gratitude later, they found themselves in the dining room, much to the apprehension of Sibwashie. I'm not sure I like all this attention, he thought. It makes me wish I didn't stand out quite so much. But I guess ambassadors get a lot of attention too, so maybe I'd better start getting used to this kind of thing.
Sibwashie, White Noise and Sky Wave soon found a three-place table to sit down at and were swiftly brought menus by the inn's efficient catering staff. In a few short and very efficient minutes, the ponies and zebra were all drinking cold, freshly-made lemonade.
"How are you folks enjoyin' my inn so far?" asked a gruff voice, as an older earth pony trotted up to their table.
The earth pony was pale brown, with a shock of fiery orange mane sticking out of his head as if it were about to burst off. His green eyes had a kindly expression in them, and his demeanour was so calm and slow that the travellers barely noticed him pulling up a seat to make their three-place table a four-place one.
"It's very nice so far," replied Sky Wave, taking another sip of her lemonade. "And this lemonade is absolutely delicious! How do you get it so sweet, Mr...?"
"That's a family secret, I'm afraid, and I didn't get this lemonade glass cutie mark for nothing. But what isn't a family secret is that you can call me Mr Hos-pit-ality!" grinned the brown and orange stallion. "No seriously, that's the name my wife – I assume you've met her, she's at the front desk – and I took for ourselves when we married. My original name is Grassfire."
"Grassfire?" asked White Noise, having not come across any similar names before.
"I was born during a dry winter, to a nomad family in the Plains," Grassfire replied, a wistful look coming into his eyes. "It was hard times – enormous fires had chased us from our last camp, and the horror of the flames bore heavily on everypony's minds. And then I was born."
Grassfire took a deep breath and looked down at his hooves.
"It was always hard times on the plains, to be fair," he continued. "Guess that's what civilized me in the end. That, and my dear Petunia. But that's a whole story of its own – a right exciting one, mind you, but it's a little long in the tooth, so let me stop before I keep you here all day with my rambling. Where're you folks from?"
"We came here from Fillydelphia, but only Sky Wave is actually from there," White Noise replied, motioning to Sky as he mentioned her. "I was born in Canterlot, and Sibwashie here is all the way from Zebrica, over the sea."
"Heh, I always thought a Canterlot pony would be above coming to my humble little inn."
"A lot of them probably would be," White Noise smirked.
"And a zebra all the way from Zebrica! It's not often that we host folks from so very far away in this inn; I hope the service is to your satisfaction, Mr Sibwashie."
The three travellers hit it off with Grassfire and ended up talking with him until dinner was served, talking through dinner, and then having cups of tea with him after dinner. He told them the long story of how he had met his wife and the shorter story behind the inn's name. They tried to tell him their own interesting stories as well, but they lacked the practice that comes with so many years of managing an inn and making lemonade.
Eventually, everypony decided that they were too tired to listen to any more stories, or drink anymore tea and lemonade. With some rounds of thanks and goodnights, the ponies and zebra ascended the staircase to their rooms – numbers 210 and 212 – and finally got into bed.
"Hoofington's a pretty different place from Fillydelphia, isn't it?" White Noise asked Sibwashie, as the two of them lay awake in their beds on opposite sides of the room.
"The greatest mistake for which a traveller can ever take the blame
Is assuming that all members of one race are exactly the same
"The culture of Equestria changes from town to city to town
Just as it does everywhere the sun comes up and goes down," Sibwashie said, after a slight pause.
"Well I guess so. Goodnight Sib."
Princess Celestia and her sister Luna sat in their private drawing room, deep in serious conversation.
"I really don't know what the story with these New Lunar Republic ponies is," Luna said, her voice strained with anxiety. "I promise I didn't know anything about it before you told me, Celly. I've never even met any of the ponies that are running this crazy thing!"
"Relax, Luna, I believe you," Celestia said soothingly, putting a hoof on her sister's shoulder. "Nightmare Moon might do something like this, but not my dear sister Princess Luna."
"Thanks Celly. That means a lot to me," Luna replied, her voice noticeably less stressed. "I don't know what to do about it. These ponies really love me, but they blame you, my wise older sister, for doing what you had to do all those years ago. They're calling you a tyrant and a trickster."
Celestia sighed deeply and let go of it with a little smile. She'd been the ruler of Equestria for over one thousand years and had spent the majority of that time as its only ruler. She'd seen her popularity wax and wane, and she'd had her share of criticism as well as praise. This was nothing new to her, but she could understand Luna's distress.
"I have an idea," Celestia said, after pondering the dilemma for a minute or two. "I think the time has come for you to pay another visit to the Lunar Republic, dear sister. Perhaps then you can straighten out your part – or lack thereof – in the minds of the ponies there and here and put a stop to some of the wilder rumours going around."
Luna nodded at her sister's suggestion, her good mood renewed now that she had a clear course of action. She turned around and stared out of the drawing room's largest window. She had made it a full moon that night.