On the northwestern-border of Equestria and The Undiscovered West, at the edge of Luna Bay, rested a small forgotten village by the name of Moon Shine. It did not feature on most maps as there was nothing remarkable about it beyond twenty houses, a run-down shop, a small school, a tiny post-office, and an inn older than all of the villagers combined.
If somepony had asked North Ridge when was the last time he'd stepped into an Equestrian town, the only truly accurate reply would be thirty-two years ago. Though he'd recently shaved his beard, the wrinkles on his face betrayed his age. Many would say that the earth pony was not elderly by any stretch of the imagination, and yet, he felt old.
Thirty-two years of travels had aged his soul.
Nighttime had fallen long ago, and the frigid wind and snow from the northern mountains fell down upon his dirty cloak and the sleeping village. He had hoped to find a settlement in daylight and ask for guidance, but life had taught him hopes were a bit a bushel.
It was odd to be back in Equestria, he thought as he walked the main street, looking for some sign of life. Had things changed? Or were they all the same as when he left? He yearned for familiarity, and yet the idea of nothing having changed was disappointing somehow. No last adventures, no secrets to be discovered.
Finally, he saw some promise in the distance, in the shape of what seemed to be an open establishment, lights shining out the windows. He could not see too clearly through the snowfall, but he'd travelled enough to recognize an inn when he saw one.
As he approached, the inn door swung open and out stumbled a young unicorn stallion. It seemed somepony had drank more than they could handle.
He trotted towards the stallion and waved.
"Excuse me!" he called, straining his voice so as to be heard despite the wind and snow. "Sir!"
The stallion blinked at him, and North's nose crinkled at the stench coming off him. "Huh? You're talking to me?" he asked, studying the older stallion with wary eyes.
"I am, yes!" North replied, finding himself happy to converse with a pony despite the circumstances. He looked around and asked, "Where are we? I've been travelling, and this place isn't on my map." He looked southward, where a shore was visible in the distance. "That is Luna Bay, isn't it?"
The stallion snorted. "Hah! Figures Moon Shine wouldn't be on any map. Nothin' good ever happens in this good-for-nothing place. Sick of it." He coughed once, twice, thrice, and rubbed his runny nose with a hoof. "You should go somewhere else."
North smiled sympathetically. "I suppose drinks don't heal all wounds."
The stallion grimaced. "I didn't go there to heal any wound, old-timer. I went in there for a nice time, and then the prettiest mare I've ever seen tells me to get lost when I asked her to join me, and then the innkeeper throws me out for that!" He stopped and groaned, rubbing his forehead. "Ugh." He looked back at North. "You're not from here. What's your deal?"
"I've been away from Equestria!" North exclaimed, standing up straighter. He was a remarkable traveler, if he said so himself. "And I've just come back after thirty-two years of travels! I'm heading to Canterlot. How is Princess Amore, if I may ask?"
"Deader than my chances with the mare from the pub," the stallion bluntly replied. "And her daughter's gone crazy. Bad time to come back, old-timer."
A pang shot through North's heart. Princess Amore was an older pony when he left Equestria, so it made sense that her child—Princess Denza, she liked to be called?—was now the ruling monarch.
"Crazy, you say?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "She always did seem a bit rebellious, I suppose. What did she do to make you say that?"
"Grab a newspaper, pops. You wouldn't believe me even if I told you," the stallion replied, walking away and rubbing his no doubt throbbing headache. "I just hope Seeking Night wasn't your favorite holiday 'cause we don't need it anymore."
North watched him go. Strange things said by a strange stallion, he thought before walking towards the inn.
A sign swung above the oak door, proclaiming the worn down building as The Moonlit Inn. What a delightful name! With renewed interest, he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
As to be expected from the late hour, the dimly-lit establishment was nearly empty save for a few patrons drinking the night away. He took his cloak off, put it on the nearby rack, and when he turned towards the bar, was surprised to see no innkeeper in sight. He approached the counter and rang the deskbell.
"Give me a minute!" a voice called from inside the kitchen.
"Of course!" he called back.
That done, he turned around to find a spot to sit and, if he was lucky, somepony to share a drink with. A stallion sat by the bar, his face resting against his crossed forelegs, and the snores coming from him quickly crossed him out as a viable option. He looked to the left, saw a couple snuggling their youth away at a booth, and an aching heart forced him to look away. Finally, upon glancing right, he found the ideal candidate.
A unicorn mare sat alone at a table in the corner of the bar, and though he'd long ago stopped caring for love, he could still appreciate her beauty despite the obscuring shadow of her chosen spot. The lights were off around her, and yet she did not seem to be bothered.
The first thing he saw was her well-kept indigo mane which fell over her face, as if hiding her away. His eyes traveled down her pale gray coat, searching for her cutie mark. The sight of it torn away by three jarring scars gave him a start.
Well, well, he thought, it seems I have found the infamous heartbreaker.
He saw no drinks on her table, and though he'd been interested in approaching, he now wondered if it that was a wise decision. The last thing he wanted was for her to assume he had ill intent. It seemed he would be drinking alone that night.
Or he thought he would, until she turned and looked straight at him, and he had the sense she'd known he'd been watching her. They stared at each other silently, both waiting for the other to react, and so did North approach her when she finally smiled at him.
"Hello!' he greeted brightly, nodding his head towards the spot opposite her. "Is this seat taken?"
The mare smiled. "That depends entirely on what you seek to gain from sitting there, sir," she said, voice melodious.
North chuckled. "I can promise you I don't seek what the stallion that just left was looking for," he assured. "I only want to hear a story I've never heard before, and you look like somepony who has interesting stories to tell!"
Her smile grew, apparently pleased by his statement. "You are a flatterer, aren't you? But you're also quite right. I have stories ponies would hardly believe." She tilted her head. "You seem interesting yourself, sir. Please, do sit down."
"I will, but first, a drink! It's been a long day," he said, having noticed the innkeeper’s return. "What will I be bringing you?"
"Nothing, I fear," she replied. "I don't have my bitbag with me at the moment."
North smiled. "You can repay me with a story, then," he said, and again asked, "What will I be bringing you?"
Finally, after a moment's hesitation, she accepted. "Whatever you're having will do."
Though the innkeeper had returned, his attention was hardly on his customers and more on the newspaper floating before him. The younger stallion's words echoed in North's mind, and he found himself trying to catch a glance at the front page, but only succeeded in reading as far as "Princess Cadenza Armor the Tenth's Shocking—"
"Evening," the stallion said, putting the newspaper away and giving North an expectant stare. "What can I get you?"
North hummed, looking upwards and scanning over the menu hanging on the wall. His first drink in Equestria! It had to be a very important and unique drink befitting such a momentous occasion.
"Black coffee, please!" he said, licking his lips. "Make that two of them. One for me and one for my new friend!"
The bartender's brow furrowed slightly, and North saw him glance at the mare for a moment. When she smiled, he replied.
"Black coffee it is," he said, finally. "Anything to eat?"
North hummed again. "A daffodil and daisy sandwich should do."
The bartender nodded and headed off towards the kitchen, giving North time to idle around. His new friend was still at her table, now entertained by examining her forehoof. What an intriguing mare, he thought. There was something about her, like she were trying to hide something away in that dark corner of the bar.
His mind wandered towards the newspaper again, and his curiosity clawed at him. He'd seen the innkeeper stash the newspaper away inside the counter, so… a quick peek at the front page surely wouldn't hurt? He'd once outrun feral lions; he could certainly read a newspaper before the owner came back.
He walked around the counter and spotted the stashed object. He inched towards it, taking a moment to inspect everything else behind the counter, and froze when his eyes met the wastebasket.
Inside it were a dozen or so scrunched up newspaper pages, and though that wasn't an altogether shocking sight, there happened to be a single page that had simply been thrown away rather than crumpled into a ball. It was because of this that he'd caught the word "MISSING" printed at the top in large red letters, and yet it was not that fact that caught his attention, but the photograph printed below it. Blinking, he grabbed the paper and found himself staring at a wrinkled photo of the very same mare still inspecting her hoof at her table.
At that moment, North Ridge learned three important details about his new friend.
One: Her name was Rarity.
Two: She had last been seen several days ago near a place called Dodge Junction which, if memory served, was entirely on the other side of Equestria.
Three: A mere two days ago, Princess Denza had launched a kingdom-wide search for her.
And yet there she sat, admiring her hooficure with unusual interest.
A sound came from the kitchen: hoofsteps drawing closer. North quickly threw away the page and returned to his spot in front of the counter. It had been quite some time since his heart had last beat as fast as it did now. There had only ever been one mare he'd found more fascinating than this Rarity, and that had been his own wife.
"Here you go," the innkeeper said, a tray with a plate and two cups of coffee floating behind him. "Enjoy."
"Th-Thank you!" North sputtered, trotting to the coat hanger and pulling his bitbag out the pocket of his cloak. "How much will that be?"
The bartender again glanced at Rarity before saying, "Don't mind that. It's on the house."
North blinked. "I—Really? Are you sure?"
"Yes," he said. "Just don't upset her, or I'll have to ask you to leave."
"Of course not," North said, bowing his head before taking the tray and walking back to his very interesting table companion.
"Here you are!" he exclaimed after setting down the tray, subsequently sitting across from the mare. "On the house, too! Lucky day for both of us!"
"Glass Drops has been quite kind to me," she replied, levitating the cup from the tray and placing it before her. She then fluttered her eyelashes and added, "Though I do appreciate your intention." She leaned back a bit and tilted her head. "So, Mister…"
"North Ridge," he filled in. "And you?"
"Princess Rarity the First," she replied simply.
North blinked, raising an eyebrow. "Really?" he asked, and so did she giggle.
"No, but you cannot deny me the simple pleasure of making a stranger believe I'm royalty," she replied. Her ears then flickered and her brow furrowed. "Then again," she continued, and she lifted her hoof for a moment as if to grasp the pink broken crystal hanging from her neck, until she stopped and lowered her hoof. "I was hoping to be princess-consort. Or I may yet still be. I'm not quite sure anymore."
Rarity fell silent, staring down at her coffee, lost in thought. What was she thinking, he wondered.
"So, North Ridge," she spoke up, lifting her gaze towards him. "What is your story?"
North grinned. "Miss Rarity, I asked you that first."
"Indeed you did," she replied, "but a lady does not divulge her secrets to just anypony."
"Fair enough," North said, taking a big gulp of his coffee. When he put the cup down, he rubbed a hoof against his muzzle, deep in thought. "I am a traveler, if that tells you anything. I left Equestria as a young stallion to explore the lands beyond the western border, and thirty-two years later, I've finally come back home."
"Well! That is quite the story, if a bit too brief," she said, but the smile she wore clearly showed she was pleased. She leaned in a bit, her ears perked towards him. "Thirty-two years is quite a long time. What brought you back to Equestria?"
He did not hesitate. "My wife, Frost Flower."
Her eyes suddenly sparkled with life. "Really? She sounds lovely," she exclaimed and then giggled. "I can imagine she'd be quite worried if you've been gone for thirty-two years."
His heart twisted a little, and though it was a subject he did not share with others, he felt inspired for once. "Those who are gone do not worry about the living, Miss Rarity," he said carefully, and felt somewhat bad when the sparkles in her eyes vanished. "She was my companion not just in life, but in travel. Sadly, she's gone now."
"Oh. My condolences."
He waved her off with a hoof. "It's all right. As they say, time will heal all wounds."
Again, she seemed lost in thought, staring at her coffee. "You must miss her terribly," she said.
"All the time," he admitted. "I thought it would ease with the years, but it hasn't. I see her everywhere. It's like she's haunting me."
Rarity looked up at him, suddenly amused. "Love makes ghosts of us all, it would seem."
"How about you?" he asked in return. "Do you have somepony you love?"
It was the right question to ask for the intensity of her sudden smile surprised him. The sparkle in her eyes returned, yet something else was there, something sad, he could tell. But that smile. It was not the largest smile he'd seen, yet it was by far one of the most sincere smiles he'd ever gotten from a stranger.
"I do," she replied, sitting up straight. "I do, and I'm embarrassed to think about just how madly in love I am with her. My only consolation is that I'm quite certain she's just as madly in love with me."
A grin pushed itself onto his lips. What a painful yet heartwarming sight. It made him think of his wife, and he wished she were there. He was sure Frost and Rarity would have been fast friends.
"What's her name, if I may ask?"
Without hesitation, and with a smile, she replied, "Twilight Sparkle."
He thought about remarking on what a lovely name that was, but another question drifted into his mind. Those missing posters clung in his memory, and so did the answers he sought, prompting him to carefully ask, "And does she know you're here?"
"If you ask because of the missing posters—yes, I saw you looking at them—then no, she does not know I'm here," she replied. Her eyes softened, and the sadness in them deepened—as if that very fact of keeping secrets from her beloved wounded her.
"Miss Rarity, if I promise to keep your secret, will you tell me the story behind that poster?" he asked, having found an entryway into what promised to be a tale to remember. "I won't be leaving for Canterlot until tomorrow, and it's been some time I've shared an Equestrian coffee with a friend."
She hummed, inspecting him with her gaze. "I won't be leaving for Ponyville until tomorrow night," she said eventually, and with a tilt of her head, agreed. "All right, then. Have you heard of the Myth of the Four Princesses?"
"When I was a foal," he replied. "Once upon a time lived four beautiful princesses who slighted a terrible beast, and as punishment, he trapped three of them throughout the land, doomed to live as spirits while the remaining princess and her descendants were cursed to never find the others."
"And which princess is your favorite?" she asked, and the sudden seriousness in her expression was jarring considering the foalishness of her line of questioning.
"Is that relevant?" he asked.
"Absolutely," she replied.
He chuckled. "Then I would say the answer to be Princess Dusty Scrolls. I don't know what name you know her by, but that was the name for her in my hometown."
She frowned. "Princess Dusty Scrolls? That's the youngest of the princesses! What wonderful taste you have!" She grinned at him for a moment and then hummed thoughtfully. "Hmm… That would mean you're from Tall Tales, are you not?" she ventured, and so did she give a winning smile when he nodded. "I'm from Ponyville! We refer to her as Princess Booky back home, and—yes, yes, I know it's not the most original of names, don't laugh!"
North grinned at her. "And what does Princess Booky have to do with your missing posters, then?"
"Why, everything," she replied, and then leaned in, looking to either side conspiratorially. "I found her," she said completely and utterly seriously. "I found the lost princess, North Ridge!"
He stared at her for quite some time.
"Did you now?" he asked, amused. He didn't know what Rarity was getting at, but he could admit it was entertaining.
"I did! It's true!" she insisted, nodding her head. "I found her inside the Everfree Forest, and she now walks upon Equestria, free of her forsaken library. We've become very close, you know."
"Are you now? I must say I've met and seen all manner of creatures and beings during my travels, but I've yet to befriend an ages-old lost princess," he admitted, delighting in playing her silly game. "You have to tell me, then, what is her real name?"
And again, without hesitation, and with an even broader smile, she replied, "Twilight Sparkle."
North Ridge stared at her for what felt like years. He lifted his cup of coffee and took a lengthy drink before putting it down and looking at her again.
"The very same Twilight Sparkle that you're madly in love with, and who is madly in love with you?"
Her grin widened. "The very same, yes."
"Miss Rarity," he said, leaning forwards, "the conviction with which you say these lies is very impressive."
"Now, North! We're such frightfully good friends, and yet you doubt me?" she asked with mock-offense. "What reason could I possibly have to lie to you about such things?"
He thought about his answer to that for quite some time, staring at her coffee and noting she'd been talking for so long, she had yet to have a single sip.
"To be honest," he finally said, "I can't think of any reason, and more than that, I think I actually want to believe your fantastic tale." He gestured for her to continue. "You found Princess Twilight Sparkle, a spirit of olde, and then you freed her from her prison?"
"Not at all," Rarity replied, and in her voice he detected a great deal of pride. "She freed herself. My beloved escaped her personal Tartarus by fighting the fiercest of her inner demons, and she came out all the stronger for it."
He hummed. "I've learned in my travels that the fiercest of creatures were often forged in the harshest of fires."
"Precisely," she replied. "And my privileged role was simply to light the flame."
North took his cup for the third time, and finished it off in one go. When he put it down again, he examined her with the same curiosity as she had earlier regarded him with.
"You tell interesting stories, Miss Rarity."
She fluttered her eyelashes. "We are all stories in the end, North. I will be a fairytale, just as you will one day. Better make them interesting fairytales, wouldn't you agree?"
"I do! Very much so! That same ideology is what drove me to explore the west!" He licked his lips, wondering how many more cups of coffee would he be drinking that night. "So then, our fairytale princess saved herself from her terrible demons? What happened next?"
Rarity's response was simple. "She fell asleep."
He blinked. "She fell asleep," he repeated. "And what happened next?"
Rarity giggled, raising an eyebrow. "Isn't it obvious?" she asked. "She woke up."