To passersby it appeared that Luna veritably glided down the long corridors, her hoofsteps seeming a mere courtesy to gravity rather than a necessity.
Luna was quite conscious of her elfin stride. Her conversation with the good friar had done more than lift her spirits. It had lifted a palpable weight from her withers.
Still, precious few are the wounds that heal in an instant, and Luna had yet more steps to take. Her lightness was not for any lack of significance to her journey, but for the knowledge that she had reason for hope once more. Hope which would be further inflamed by speaking with the pony who had never given up on her.
The lunar princess’s strides took her to the Rosewood Room, an opulent if small meeting chamber favored for private meetings amongst the Royals, cabinet members, and other notables. According her schedule, Celestia should be there by now.
Acknowledging the salutes of the guards with a grave nod, she entered the room, causing the occupants to look up in surprise at her abrupt arrival.
Some concealed their shock better than others. Celestia appeared so calm that, if Luna hadn’t known better, she would have sworn her sister to be utterly nonplussed.
Aquiline-featured Minister of Trade Edmare Burke blinked in shock at the sudden entrance, but otherwise displayed no reaction. The fiery-maned, cream-coated unicorn was a savvy statespony, despite her youth, and acted with the aplomb expected of a seasoned Tory.
The grizzled old Minister of Commerce Gerhardt Griff, late of the Griffish Patriotic Movement and more recently a leading member of the Centrist Party, openly gaped, making no effort whatsoever to conceal it.
Chancellor Exchequer Plum Pit had been in the middle of sipping his tea when Luna swept in, and appeared to have bitten his tongue in surprise, though the venerable earth pony was doing an admirable job of hiding his pain. Luna mused that his self-control probably had a great deal to do with Whig pride, as the green eyes of the nearby Tory would bear witness to any impropriety in his reaction.
Senior Members of Parliament from the Crown Loyalist, Centrist, and Labour Parties – the three groups that made up the unconventional Tri-Party Government that had taken power two elections ago. They represented a compromise struck between former rivals in response to the growing power of the Primarchists, the Equestria First Party, and, of greatest clout, the Populists. Between them, the three MPs, and the coalition Government they represented, wielded considerable power. But they were not the only ponies attending to Celestia at that moment.
Mason Grey sat at the small round table across from Celestia. Though neither an MP nor a lord, the vast reach of his business empire and the deep roots of his personal connections made him a wealth of information, including information that Their Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition might not want the sitting Government to be aware of. As such, he was sometimes invited to Cabinet meetings.
Though his presence was not unusual, however, Luna had not expected to see her friend here, and found herself mirroring her sister in hiding her surprise.
Mason, for his part, reacted with a bluntness that put even Gerhardt’s open gawping to shame. “Alright, who put Princess Through the Mirror Darkly on the agenda and forgot to mention it?”
It took a great deal of effort for Luna not to burst out laughing at the scandalized horror displayed by the three MPs. Before Pit could have an aneurism or Burke order the businesspony shot, however, the younger princess replied coolly, “The same pony who failed to mention to me that we were inviting a disreputable peon such as yourself. How are you, Mason?”
“Oh, well enough, Luna,” he answered casually. “Pretty peeved that some strike-happy unionists have shut down half the shipping on the east coast and brought the economy to a halt and a good chunk of my empire along with it, but well enough aside from that.” Still ignoring the outrage from the MPs, he waved her over to the table. “Pull up a chair; we’ll fill you in.”
Luna raised an eyebrow. “I believe you are in my customary chair, Mason, being that it is across from my sister.”
Mason bounced experimentally in his seat. “Are you sure? Because this chair really feels like it’s perfectly conformed to my r—”
“Get out of my seat, Mason.”
He smirked. “Only for you, Princess.” Shifting to the next chair over, he gave her a searching look while she sat. “Say, you look like you’ve got something weighty on your mind. Do we need to postpone? Maybe go get a manicure and talk about our feelings?”
Luna glanced over at the grey stallion, taking in his quizzical features. I can’t tell how much of that was a genuine offer and how much was his typical irreverence. Still, he is an insightful pony, isn’t he. She turned her eyes forward, meeting Celestia’s intent gaze. And he is not the only one. “It’s nothing that won’t keep until after the meeting. Please, bring me up to speed.”
As it happened, the meeting had not been in session for long when she arrived and, beyond the specific details of which docks, which unions, and which ponies were in play, the actual briefing was fairly simple: labor unions all along the east coast, as well as non-union workers from a number of businesses, had shut down a full third of the harbors. Some of the workers’ grievances were admittedly valid, but the use of strikes, much less strikes on this scale, was entirely disproportionate to the grievances.
Luna frowned. If the reports are to believed, many of the union leaders opposed these strikes quite vehemently. In fact, with their connections to the Labour Party and the openness of the sitting Government and local businesses to talking terms, they’d been making significant progress getting some concessions before this started.
Interference from the main Opposition parties further complicated matters. Primarchist MPs had, to the disgust of all, thrown their weight in behind the most openly corrupt of the business owners – the ones whom everypony else, including fellow business owners, roundly condemned. The Equestria First Party was supportive of the closing of the docks, nominally out of concern for the workers, but realistically because it advanced their nativist agenda by curtailing foreign trade. And, most significant of all, the Populists doing everything short of openly endorsing the strikes lent legitimacy to the protests.
Unfortunately, taking direct action was a dicey business. The legitimate grievances of some of the dock workers made it easy to paint the entire affair as being a point of Populist moral high ground, and EFP support brought many supporters to bear who might have otherwise remained ambivalent. As for the Primarchists, their absurd posturing only served to make everypony angrier.
And in the streets the Vox Mannorum, that gathering of passion and youthful potency that served the Populists as agitators, kept the train of outrage moving steadily along the tracks, silencing all attempts by moderate union bosses, workers, business owners, and Government officials to seek compromise.
These strikes are just impeding the negotiations and making ponies angrier, mused Luna. In fact, the conduct of the Opposition MPs and their lackeys seems entirely geared towards inflaming the situation as though somepony wants an outraged mob. She ruffled her wings. If that’s true, then the timing is rather… ominous.
Glancing at Celestia, it was plain that both sisters were of one mind.
Less obvious was the appropriate response. Burke and Gerhardt both wanted to crack down hard on the illegal strikes, and to resist the legal strikes with a firm halt to negotiations until the ports were reopened. Plum Pit, though plainly unhappy, pointed out that the moderate union bosses who opposed the strikes would likely be forced to back the strikes if the Government played hardball, or else be ousted in favor of more ruthless bosses. Mason Grey suggested blackmail, though he made it clear he’d been joking when the others censured him.
Luna largely restrained herself from suggestions. Though she was certainly capable of political maneuvering, the finer nuances of such things were more Celestia’s forte than hers. One thousand years in absentia for the lunar diarch had only made her sister’s deft mastery of statecraft grow, while Luna was still learning the unspoken ins and outs of modern Parliamentary decorum.
Instead, she focused on pondering the possible involvement of the Shades. The timing seemed just too great a coincidence to be accidental. But to what end? Political agitation was not the way of the old Shades. They were open practitioners of dark magic, not crafty political schemers. Then again, this new breed may be cut from a different cloth. Perhaps this is a recruitment tool for them – dissatisfaction with those in power and a desire to wield that power oneself are powerful incentives for crossing otherwise unthinkable lines, as I well know. Or mayhap the unrest is simply a distraction to keep us off balance while they concentrate on their true objective. But are they pulling the strings, or merely playing them to their advantage? And what of the various Opposition MPs? The Vox? How do they fit into the board? Are they pawns, kings, or a mix of both?
To her displeasure, she was unable to parse out their strategy without knowing more. Still, it might be worth our while to take a closer look at the major players in this exchange of fury, in case any of them are more than what they seem.
Eventually the meeting wound down, with Pit assigned to work his contacts in the unions, Gerhardt preparing to make overtures to the moderate bosses through intermediaries in the Griffish Isle unions, and Burke promising to wrangle the conservative MPs, both Crown Loyalist and otherwise, to push back against the Primarchists while still opposing the strikes. Grey, meanwhile, would see what he could dig up on the various faction leaders in the hopes of exposing the plans underpinning the entire affair. Celestia and Luna would keep the Crown at a distance for now, urging compromise and moderating meetings between the factions, ready to take more direct action if needed.
They dissembled not long after, with the MPs bidding formal farewell to the princesses and Grey casually saying, “Say, Luna, you’ll be sure to let me in on your deep introspection over a bottle of ’73, right?”
Luna couldn’t help but smile. “I’ll consider it.”
Once they were alone, the two sisters faced each other somberly. Luna felt a lump rise in her throat, and her ill ease began to trickle back in. Fortunately, Celestia sensed her mood and suggested that they retire to Luna’s private quarters, where she might relax. A quick teleport later, the two were seated on plush divans, their royal accoutrements cast aside.
Luna mutely opened and closed her mouth several times before the words finally came to her. “I spoke with Friar Jacques today, as you know,” she said. “He is quite an… insightful man. He helped me to realize something that I should have realized a long time ago.”
Celestia waited in silence, but her curiosity was palpable.
“I realized that I have long confused my experiences for my identity. I have looked upon my past sins and thought that those sins are who I am.” Tears welled in her eyes. “But they aren’t. They are my sins, yes, but they are not me. I…” she swallowed and looked up at her sister, who likewise had tears in her eyes, “I am Luna, not Luna’s sins, and I- I know you forgave me, but—” her voice became taut, “—but now I am finally ready for you to forgive me!”
In an instant, Celestia crossed the room and wrapped Luna in the warmth of her embrace, her tears staining her sister’s mane as she stroked her back and soothed her with words of love. There would be more tears on both their parts as Luna opened up, telling her the truth of the wounds she carried, the self-hate, even the Tantabus. And, sobbing, Celestia apologized over and over again for failing to see, while Luna repeated again and again that it wasn’t her fault – that she’d hidden the scars from everyone, even herself.
And they talked. Talked as sisters should. Talked about all the things they kept bottled up inside, out of the light of the other. Talked so long they had to tell Kibitz to clear their morning schedules. Their speech did not by itself erase the heartache, but it was a step along that path, a much-needed milestone on the journey of life. There would be more steps, more hardships, more milestones ahead. But, now that forgiveness had opened the floodgates of grace, the journey could be braved with hearts made strong by the reconciliatory power of love.
Both mares would be forever grateful to the noble friar who had given them such a gift.
Sweet Apple Acres, Ponyville
Training at the Acreage was indefinitely delayed while the assembled worthies observed the flight of Friar Jacques. Even with a head start, it was plain that the biped’s attempt to escape the dread wrath of the earth pony would be futile, but the audience noted with approval his skill at using the terrain to his advantage in thwarting the enraged Redheart.
“Ducking into the orchard and using both tree and undergrowth to slow her pace and force more turns,” noted Marble. “Not a bad maneuver.”
“Yeah,” agreed Applejack, “but Redheart’s weavin’ around ’em pretty well. Woulda made a good rodeo pony.”
“THERE IS NO ESCAPE FOR YOU FRIAR!” roared the pony in question.
“Still, I’m surprised how long he’s lasted,” said Twilight. “By my initial calculations, he should have been caught approximately one point three minutes ago. When Spike gets back, I’ll have to have him update my notes on human speed and endurance.”
“Your wish is my command, milady,” quipped Spike, who picked that moment to amble up with Medevac, the Lunar Guards, and a small cart of fabrics for Rarity in tow. That Jacques had lasted long enough for these stragglers to arrive was, the herd agreed, and impressive feat.
While Twilight dictated to her Number One Assistant and Rarity set about matching color to armor, Ironhide, who had been pushing Oaken’s wheelchair, set the parking brake and helped the injured stallion out so he could work on his exercises. “I’ll be honest with you all,” observed Ironhide, “after today, I think I’ll forever be more compliant with a nurse’s instructions.”
“Any nurse, or just Redheart?” asked Rainbow.
“RUNNING WILL ONLY MAKE THIS WORSE!”
Ironside swallowed. “Any of ’em, just to be safe.”
Oaken chuckled as he began stretching under the watchful eye of Medevac. “The real irony, of course, is that she’s angry at him for overexerting himself… and she’s chasing him across the country.”
“Maybe somepony should point that out,” suggested Spike.
An enraged and incomprehensible shriek ripped through the air, striking fear into the hearts of all present.
“Be my guest,” offered Medevac shakily.
It was then that the friar’s luck finally ran out. Redheart managed to flush him out the far end of the tree cover he’d been using, and in the open ground he had no chance of outpacing her. He attempted to slide down a hill to gain momentum, but only succeeded in giving Redheart the high ground.
“It’s over,” declared Fritters.
Redheart pounced like a panther, bringing him to the ground and pinning him to the dirt. Helpless beneath her hooves, he had no defense against her ire. The exact details of what Redheart exclaimed to him were too rapid and distant to make out distinctly, but Twilight still instinctively covered Spike’s ears. Fluttershy, who had the sharpest hearing of them all, flushed a deep red and mumbled “Oh dear.”
Fritters, like a policepony keeping a crowd back from a crime scene, started ushering them away from the impromptu viewing party and into the training arena. In a horrific Trottish accent, he called out, “Move along, folks, step lively now, nothing to see, nothing to see. Pay no attention to the massacre behind the curtain. Step lively now.”
“Aw,” whined Pinkie, shoving her box of popcorn back into her mane. “Spoilsport.”
“Yes, yes, the Sarge is evil for making us get back to work. Now marsz!”
Redheart’s pace was clipped as she and Jacques made their way back to the group. She kept her eyes fixed forward, refusing to look directly at the friar. Even so, she could see his contrite expression on her peripheral, and it took an increasingly active effort to maintain her anger.
“Merci ma, bonne sœur,” he said for the umpteenth time.
She grimaced. Especially when he keeps apologizing so genuinely.
“You are sorry,” she snapped. “You’re not a young man, Friar, whatever you may feel like. Act your age.”
“I did not intend to cause you grief.”
“Oh, you didn’t?” she asked sweetly. “Well, you did a superb job!”
“If it’s any consolation, when I was fighting the timber wolves—”
“When you were being an idiot,” she corrected.
“Yes, when I was being an idiot,” he corrected, complying with such speed that she almost smiled, “and I was about to be injured, like an idiot,” again, she almost smiled at his compliant statement, “I prayed that God may spare me the injury for the sake of not angering you further, and He granted me that prayer.”
The thought of Jacques, in the midst of fighting for his life, praying to avoid an injury because she’d be angry with him earned the briefest of fond smiles. Which she quickly smothered. No! Bad Redheart! You’re still angry!
“Well,” she said snippily, risking a glance in his direction, “you would have avoided my anger entirely had you not been an idiot.”
“Me not know how to smart think good,” he deadpanned.
That did it. The laughter bubbled up inside, and she couldn’t choke it down fast enough. “You’re impossible!” she managed through her chuckles.
“So I’ve been told,” he smiled. “Am I forgiven then?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she waved him off. “Just do me a favor and try to keep the stupidity to a minimum.”
“Me do best.”
As they approached the sparring arena, they saw that all the others (sans Medevac and Oaken) were hard at work with various weapons and stances or, in Spike’s case, with taking notes. Jacques explained that, after last night’s events, it had been deemed prudent for them all to learn martial arts. Redheart sensed there was more to it than that, but guessed that the friar would not be forthcoming were she to ask him about it.
When they reached the enclosure, Medevac waved to them with one wing while he helped Oaken through his physical therapy. “Howdy, Redheart, Friar,” he said innocently. “Did ya’ll have a nice jog?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Jacques calmly. “It was quite bracing.”
“Glad to hear it.” He gestured to their surroundings. “For me, I just feel privileged to have witnessed it.”
Jacques tilted his head inquiringly. “Yes, I had a question about that – how is it you two are able to spend so much time out here? Does it not interfere with your work?”
Medevac and Redheart exchanged a glance. “Funny thing about that,” said the retired Marine, “we got a very nicely worded ‘request’ from the princess to be on call for the lot of you as much as possible. Which set off my Above-My-Paygrade-O-Meter something fierce, but hey, I’m just a lowly medic. Who cares about the big picture?”
“I do,” grumbled Redheart.
“That will fade with time.”
Jacques addressed Oaken. “And how fare you, good fellow. Healing well?”
The stoic Oaken’s face remained neutral, but both Redheart and Medevac winced. “It’s slow going,” replied Oaken, “but I’ll get there.”
“The dark magic is proving trickier to untangle than we’d expected,” explained Redheart. “Even its lingering effects are preventing him from healing properly, and we’re not entirely sure why.” She snorted in frustration. “This is why I hate horse pucky like this – it doesn’t play by the rules.”
“Yes, how dare the evil magic not follow the law,” remarked Jacques dryly. “Still,” he mused, walking over to crouch in front of the injured earth pony, “I… might be of some assistance here.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully as he studied Oaken; the guard bore his scrutiny with the same stoicism he bore everything else. “Yes, yes I believe I can,” murmured Jacques. “Twilight?” he called.
The purple mare excused herself from the training and trotted over to the rail. “Yes?”
“I thought you might want to witness this. With Oaken’s permission, I’m going to attempt to heal him of the residual dark magic.”
“Really?” asked Twilight, beaming.
“Really?” asked the nurses, skeptical.
“If you’re willing to trust me,” Jacques was saying to Oaken, “I believe I can remove whatever lingering effects plague you.”
Oaken quietly mulled the question over, then nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
Medevac blinked. “Wait, really? That’s it? Some guy just says, ‘hey, I’d like to use experimental magical healing on you’ and you’re just all ‘yeah, okay’?”
The soldier shrugged. “Sure.”
Shaking his head, the retired Marine laughed. “Criminy, Red, we missed an opportunity to try all kinds of crazy nonsense out.”
“To be fair, Friar Jacques has been training with Twilight Sparkle,” interjected Redheart. “Still, are you sure you’re up to this, Friar?”
Redheart glanced at Medevac and received an acquiescent smile in return. “All right, then. Just don’t push yourself too hard.” Her gaze hardened. “Or else.”
The friar had the grace to looked abashed. “As you command, bonne sœur.”
She turned to go pull the medical bag from the cart that carried Rarity’s fabrics while Twilight loudly called, “Spiiiike! Friar Jacques is going to heal Oaken and I need you to take notes!”
By the time Redheart turned back to the group, everypony had arranged themselves on the fence as an audience to the friar and his patient. “You’ve drawn quite a crowd,” she observed.
“If they came to hear me sing, they’re going to be disappointed,” said Jacques, who had knelt down in front of Oaken. Bidding the earth pony to sit, he closed his eyes and reached his hands out to touch the wounds. In reverent tone he murmured words under his breath. Though Redheart could not hear what was said, she still felt a certain calm in listening.
Then Jacques’ hands began to gleam. It was a pale light at first, like the first gleam of dawn over the horizon. To Redheart’s surprise, she felt a warmth swell in her chest, soothing, as being held in a loving mother’s embrace. As the glow intensified, she felt the warmth spread to her hooves, and sensed the life germinating in the soil beneath her. At first she thought it simply to be a more intense awareness of her earth magic, but it wasn’t. Not entirely. No, this is… more somehow.
Brighter still the friar’s magic gleamed, and Oaken shut his eyes, gritting his teeth and wincing. Medevac started forward, but Redheart held out a hoof to stop him. “Wait,” she ordered. “Give it a moment.”
Medevac looked at her in confusion, but said nothing. Redheart was grateful for that. If he’d asked her for an explanation, she wasn’t sure she could give one. Not one that could be put into words, at any rate.
The reason for Oaken’s pain revealed itself a moment later. Thin tendrils of blackness smoldered from his wounds. They looked like smoke, but Redheart knew they weren’t. There was a wrongness about them that words could not describe. The light in Jacques’ hands drew them forth, searing them white until they were vaporized into nothingness. The instant they were gone, Oaken’s face visibly relaxed, as though balm had been applied to burned flesh. He let out a long, relieved breath as the light soothed him. Then Jacques withdrew his hands, the light dimmed, and both opened their eyes.
“Well,” said Jacques, sounding breathless, “how do you feel?”
Oaken stood, experimentally moving his limbs. Smiling, he answered, “Like someone just gave my blood a good cleaning.”
“Bon,” grinned the friar, shifting his legs to a sitting position. “Because that was a very strange sensation and I wasn’t sure how to describe it myself.”
The pair chuckled, and soon the crowd was congratulating Jacques on his work and peppering both healer and healed with questions. Ironhide in particular was ecstatic to have his ‘battle buddy’ back in ‘working order’, and thanked the friar even more heartily than Oaken had.
Redheart, for her part, silently pondered what she’d felt when the friar used his healing magic. She laid a hoof on her chest where the warmth had first touched her and wondered what it meant.
And if she could ever do the same.
Jacques’ newfound ability did delay the training somewhat, as the ponies pressed him for details. Mostly it was Twilight, which he expected, but Medevac and Redheart also had their share of questions. In the former’s case it seemed to be simply a professional interest – one healer to another. In the latter’s case, however, Jacques was not so sure. There was a contemplation to her gaze that seemed more than mere technical curiosity, and he made a mental note to ask her about it later if she did not bring it up herself.
Still, a day’s work could not be gainsaid even for such good news, and soon Jacques and the soldiers urged the others back to their labors. Oaken was instructed in no uncertain terms not to overdo it, as his muscles were out of shape from two weeks of hospitalization, but under Redheart’s watchful eye he was permitted to assist in the training. Medevac, freed up from needing to so closely monitor Oaken, likewise assisted.
The drills shifted back and forth between group and individual training, but mostly consisted of grounding the trainees in the basics of spearfighting, grappling, and bare-hoofed techniques. For several hours they labored in the sun until Grannie Smith and Applebloom came out with food and drink for the weary combatants. A halt was called to the training so that they might sit and eat in the shade of the orchard.
While he reclined and ate beneath the boughs of an apple tree, Jacques felt Redheart’s gaze upon him. He endured her scrutiny patiently, waiting for her to break the silence.
He did not have long to wait. “Friar Jacques, if you don’t mind my asking, is that healing magic of yours… exclusive?” she asked. He raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Unique to you as a human, I mean.”
Jacques set aside his food and shook his head. “Not at all. True, I was granted some special gift for it, though whether as a priest or as a man I cannot say, but it is not unique to me. In fact, many of the early practitioners of such arts were earth ponies.”
Redheart blinked in surprise. “Really?”
“Indeed,” he replied. “Many of the great healers of the pre-Equestrian and early Equestrian era were earth pony monks. And, as their more intuitive use of magic mirrors mine, the technique I used was more heavily informed by theirs than any other race.” Though, the priest added mentally, the annoying tendency of earth ponies to do things intuitively and thus to be light on the specifics of their abilities did make for somewhat confusing research.
“I never knew that,” admitted Redheart. “I mean, there were plenty of earth pony doctors and nurses I studied, but most of their advances were in medicine or surgical technique or technical invention, not straight magic.”
“From what I read, it appears largely to have become a lost art,” lamented Jacques, “practiced mostly in isolated communities or amongst the Orders. It is little wonder you never heard tell of their methods.”
“Still, it’s a shame.”
Redheart fell silent, but Jacques guessed she wasn’t done with her inquiries. Sure enough, after a moment’s hesitation she asked, “Friar, do you know if it’s normal for bystanders to… feel something when you’re working healing magic?”
Jacques’ bushy eyebrows went up. “From what I understand it is most uncommon.”
“Oh,” she murmured, lips pursed.
The friar canted his head to the side. “Am I given to understand that you felt my power while I worked?” Redheart nodded. Jacques sat back and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Then it is probable that you have a natural affinity for it. Who knows,” he smiled, “perhaps you are meant to restore this ancient art to the region.”
Redheart glanced away. “I don’t know about that,” she deflected, “I’m nopony special.”
“I disagree,” he said with a kindly smile.
“Flatterer,” she smirked with a blush. Then her face sobered. “Still, I would like to learn it, if you could teach me.”
Jacques chuckled. “My dear little sister, I barely understand what I’m doing, let alone how to teach it!” Her ears wilted and tugged at his heartstrings. Oh, how wretched their adorable features, he thought ruefully. “Still, I suppose we could always learn together.”
Instantly, she brightened. “Really?”
He spread his arms genially. “Who am I to hoard magic, bonne sœu—oof!”
Apparently, Redheart took the spreading of his arms as an invitation to hug. She zipped over and, as near as he could tell, did her level best to compress his ribcage.
“Ohthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!” cried the nurse.
“You’re welcome,” he wheezed.
“Aw,” moaned Pinkie nearby, “I wanna hug!”
Marble Slab chuckled. “Did you just get her a present, or is this part of your ongoing punishment for scampering off into the woods last night?”
Redheart, beaming, released the poor friar and eagerly exclaimed, “Friar Jacques and I are gonna learn healing magic together!”
Most of the ponies nodded approval, but Twilight appeared offended. “Friar!” she wailed, “You were going to learn magic without me?” Her lip curled in an adorable pout.
Jacques shut his eyes a moment so as not to fall prey to her cuteness. “You are, of course, welcome to sit in, Lady Sparkle.” Like Redheart, the purple pony lit up, to the point that he could see her excitement through closed eyes. “But,” he said firmly, cutting off the questions he heard forming on her lips, “I believe it is no longer my turn to face your inquiries.” He opened his eyes and, with a wicked smile, pointed out a certain brown-coated unicorn. “That honor, I remind you, now belongs to our dear friend Fritters.”
Fritters looked up from the fearsome sight that was his half-demolished mound of food, a pair of pancakes loosely flopping from his open mouth. “Mmgbh?” he inquired, hearing his name. Seeing Twilight’s knowledge-starved gaze upon him, a resigned Spike putting quill to parchment at her behest, and the interest of the other ponies backing the lavender mare up, he slumped and grumbled, “Kghfrgbh,” which likely would have been quite inappropriate if it had been spoken firstly in Ponish and secondly without a mouthful of pancake in the way. He held up one hoof, saying “Whn mhmhnt,” before tilting back his head, swallowing the pancake as though throwing back a dram of hard liquor, wiping his hoof across his lips, and sighing contentedly. “Ah, Grannie Smith, I’m going to need to Shanghoof you for the campaign trail. Your grateful nation thanks you in advance for saving us from the tyranny of the regimental cooks.”
Grannie cackled. “Yer a charmin’ one an’ no mistake, young’un.”
“I try,” replied Fritters before turning to Twilight. “Okay, I’m going to give you the very abbreviated version and just direct you to peek at my medical file for the specs. Sound good? Sounds good,” he asked and answered without waiting for reply. Then he launched into his explanation:
“Basically, I have a messed up magical field and, by extension, a messed-up physiology that I’ve learned to turn to my advantage. It started with my twin sister, Dozorca. When we were still in the womb, we started having weird bleed-over between her magic and mine. And I mean a lot of bleed-over, way more than is typical in cases like this.” He scratched the back of his mane. “Doctors still aren’t entirely sure what happened, but the end result is that we both wound up with a lot more magic to call on than unicorns typically get, and we sort of ended up sharing our special talents.”
Twilight happened to be taking a drink of water right then, which led to Fritters getting a faceful of spray, an event which Spike helpfully transcribed to the parchment. “Wait, what?!” she exclaimed. “B-but two ponies don’t just share a special talent!”
Fritters gratefully accepted a towel from Fluttershy and, after thanking her, answered, “We don’t share a talent. Or don’t exactly share one, or maybe sort of do, or—” he shook his head. “It’s complicated. In simplest terms, we each have our special talents separate from the other, but the aptitude for each other’s skills we more or less share. Or, maybe we do partially share a talent because we’re twins, and our destinies are linked or some such. Like I said, the doctors really aren’t sure what happened, and I do not want to get into conversations of Providence or cutie marks right now.” He winked at Applebloom. “Sorry, kid.”
“Aw, shucks!” she pouted.
“Whatever happened, it wasn’t full-power,” he continued. “Dozzie got some of the fire in my belly and head for bloody-minded charges, especially with spears, and I got her ‘True Sight,’ which helps me see through illusions, deceptions, deceit, and Morning Song’s wickedly believable bluffs when we play poker or fight.”
Morning Song nodded. “It makes him equal parts perfect and infuriating as a sparring partner.”
He winked. “You know you love me. Anyway, before any of you start gushing how good Dozzie and I got it, this power boost is not without some serious drawbacks. You see, we both ended up with more magic drawing on our systems than our systems were actually supposed to handle. It’s not quite as pronounced as if somepony with, say, Twilight’s power level was to draw on an ordinary unicorn’s magical field, but… it’s still not pretty.”
Twilight and Rarity both made exclamations of horror, as did the nurses. The rest of them looked on blankly. “Um, somepony wanna clue the rest of us in?” demanded Rainbow Dash, who, in typical fashion, was flapping in a hover above the rest.
Medevac looked up at the other pegasus. “Rainbow, when you work out, your body burns calories, fat, and so on, right?”
“Yeah,” nodded the stunt flyer. Then, striking a pose for him, “Not that I’ve got much fat on me.” Jacques noticed that Redheart’s expression soured.
“Sure, sure,” continued Medevac, paying the posing no mind. Redheart’s sourness faded, and Jacques’ lips curled in amusement. “So, knowing the need for energy, if you’re working out a lot, you carbo-load for that energy boost.”
“And you do that because if you don’t, and your body needs to burn something for energy, it starts burning things you don’t want it to burn.”
“Right,” nodded Rainbow. Then, with widening eyes. “Oh. Oh.”
Twilight took over the explanation. “A creature’s magical field is part of the body, but also partially a separate system with its own energy level, consumption, and recovery. Generally, while the two interact with each other and can help or harm the other, one doesn’t empower or draw from the other at a grand level. However, if the magical field isn’t up to the task, it will sometimes ‘borrow’ energy from the rest of the body, leading to exhaustion and hunger as those calories are burned by casting instead of physical exertion. I’ve burnt myself out with magic use more than once on our adventures,” she turned to Fritters, wincing, “but what you’re describing sounds like your magic is constantly overdrawing on your physical body.”
“Yup,” grimaced Fritters. “Now you know the secret to how I stay so stylishly thin. I literally can’t put on weight, because my magic is in a perpetually hyperactive state and consumes energy too fast for me to store much of it as fat. Dozzie didn’t get it nearly as bad as me, as her magical field was more powerful to begin with, meaning she’s not under as much strain, and she didn’t absorb as much of my power as I did of hers. Even so, she’s never had any trouble staying trim.”
The listeners sat back in awe. “So that’s why you eat like a starving hog at a Hearth’s Warming Feast!” exclaimed Applejack.
Fritters chuckled. “Pithily put, but yes.”
“That… sounds rough. Ah’m real sorry, Fritters.”
He shrugged. “It is what it is. And it’s not without advantages.” The unicorn winked and engulfed another pancake. “I have an excuse to eat more of your family’s fabulous cooking without worrying about my glamorous figure.”
Pinkie looked up from inhaling a plate of pancakes. “Who worries about that?” she said around a mouthful of pastry. Rarity, Morning Song, and Redheart face-hoofed.
Twilight leaned forward, intent. “You mentioned other advantages as well, earlier? ‘Turning it to your favor’ you said?”
“Ah, yes,” smirked Fritters. “That. Well, funny thing about your body constantly shunting energy to your magic field – you get used to doing it. Eventually it hit the point I could do it on command, and with far greater efficiency than most. At first it was just a way to make it so I wasn’t as painfully hungry all the time – more energy getting through means I’m less undernourished.” He grinned wolfishly. “Then I figured out I could weaponize it.” He reached into a pouch on his armor and pulled out a small cube of some edible substance that Jacques recognized as the singularly unappealing emergency rations the Guard issued. Having tasted one out of curiosity a few days before, he thought of them as ‘penance cubes.’
“Get me a good hearty meal,” bragged Fritters, “or at least some ultra-dense E-rats, and I can supercharge my magic for a short skirmish. Also, because magic can provide physical enhancements, I can make that supercharge a two-way street.” He sat up and spread his forehooves dramatically. “Behold! Krucjata Włócznia, the Konik Juggernaut!”
Jacques and the ponies chuckled at the display, especially when Applejack poked him lightly and he immediately blubbered, “Owie!”
Twilight, still intent on science, continued her questioning. “Even if you’re used to it, though, that’s got to be painful to do.”
“Oh, it is,” he replied bluntly. “But it’s a worthy sacrifice as far as I’m concerned. There are a lot of ponies, griffons, zebras, and more who are alive today because of what I can do. What’s a little discomfort in the face of that?”
“Life is about figuring out what’s worth sacrificing for,” added Song soberly.
“Exactly,” agreed Fritters, taking a bite of an apple. “But then, you all know that, ye grand Bearers of the Elements.”
The friar found his estimation of Fritters had increased considerably. However much he played it off as ‘the way things were,’ the unicorn lived with what amounted to a deep illness. Rather than let it inhibit him, however, he’d found a way to turn it to a strength.
Jacques reflected on his own crosses – how grief at his sister’s death had taught him compassion, how defeat at the hands of the Saracens had taught him humility, and how helplessness before and after his rescue from Philip had taught him gratitude.
What strength would we have, if never exercised by trials? reflected the old monk.
Twilight finished up her notes on Fritters’ condition. “Fascinating, all of it!” she gushed. “You’ll definitely have to let me see your files.”
“Happy to help,” he replied. “We done now?”
“Not so fast,” said the mare with a predatory look. “I believe we’re still owed an explanation of how you know Celestia personally.”
The Konik drew back. “Oh no!” he said defensively. “I was promised food and booze for that story, and all I see here is food! No story!”
“Fritters?” said Applejack mildly. When he looked at her, she held up a bottle with no label on the side. “Ah got booze.”
“Oh,” replied Fritters, deflated. “Well, ponyfeathers.”
“Cider?!” exclaimed Rainbow Dash. “You’ve been holding out on me, AJ!”
“Not cider,” corrected Applejack. “Whiskey. Along with the last of Fritters’ excuses. Out with it, you scruffy reprobate! Ah’m sick o’ seein’ Twi sittin’ there like a dog whining for a treat.”
“I am not!” whined Twilight.
Fritters sighed. “You girls don’t let up, do you.”
Pinkie trotted over and patted him on the back. “It’s okay, Fritters. Just think of it as a supplementary story. Besides, even Friar Jacques is interested in your backstory!”
Jacques nodded. True enough.
“Fine,” relented the Konik, taking the bottle in his hoof. “Once upon a time, in a magical land a fair ways east of Equestria…”
The blue-coated unicorn gritted her teeth in impatience, pulling her hood farther down against the sweltering sun at the dig site while she waited for the laborer to fetch his boss. Three years ago, she would not have endured the wait, nor the scorn with which she’d been treated by the dig team.
But that was before her life had been stripped from her by that little witch! Before all her hopes and dreams had come crushing down around her and left her ragged and wandering, with only one thing keeping her warm against the chill of the night.
So the mare endured the biting sands, the sweltering heat, the indifference of the locals. Travel had long since hardened her to physical discomfort, and hate had steeled her against wavering. Years of searching and sacrifice had led her here. She was not about to abandon her prize when she was so close!
After what seemed in interminable wait, the laborer returned with a curt instruction to follow him to meet the boss. Ordinarily, the mare would have been offended, but it actually served her designs better to meet the stallion in private.
The worker ushered her into the portable shack that served as the office for the dig site and left, leaving the mare alone with the site boss, who was sitting at a desk littered with diagrams, charts, and forms. He was a thin, middle-aged stallion with unremarkable features and trustworthy features. At first glance, at least. The mare had known enough disreputable ponies to spot a shifty character when she met one, and her research ahead of time only confirmed what she could tell by looking at him.
“What can I do for you, miss…?” he asked, plainly seeking her name.
“You can answer a few questions,” she responded, ignoring his implied question. “Starting with who you hock the antiquities to on the side.”
The stallion recoiled from her cold bluntness. “I- I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
She sneered. “Don’t play coy. Your workers were quite happy to tell tales all about your little ‘side business’ once they’d been plied with coin. Honestly, it didn’t take much,” taunted the mare. “You’re not especially popular here, and your wages are a joke.”
“I pay a fair wage!” huffed the stallion. “And I don’t know the first thing about this illegal trade you seem to be insinuating—”
“Not ‘seems’,” she interrupted, “‘am’ insinuating. And it’s less of an insinuation than an accusation. Most recently you made off with a black and silver amulet set with a red stone. It had the figure of a winged unicorn.” His eyes widened and she smirked. “Your employers likely wouldn’t be happy to know you’re selling the artifacts they’re paying you so handsomely to unearth.”
To her surprise, the stallion laughed. “And who are you going to tell about it? The authorities? We’re not in Equestria, little mare, and the locals barely have enough of a government to enforce their own laws, much less run down the petty thievery that you accuse me of. As for my employers, who do you think they’ll believe? Some surly local workers, or the contractor they’ve trusted for years!”
The mare shrugged. “True enough, which is why this isn’t a threat. It’s an offer of trade.” She pulled aside her cloak to reveal a bulging money pouch. “Money for a name. Business for you, business for your fence. Everypony wins.”
His eyes lit up at the sight of the money pouch, but he quickly quashed his enthusiasm. “Sorry, lady, but I don’t know you. I’m not about to give you the name of a hypothetical business partner just because you flash some coin and a load of hearsay.”
Her eye twitched. “Very well then,” she said calmly, “how about a trade of a different sort.” She lit her horn, and an ornated begemmed cylinder roughly the length of a writing quill floated from her pouch. “One artifact for another.”
The stallion regarded the item with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. “What is that?”
“It’s easier to show you,” she replied, striding around his desk. When he pivoted his chair to face her, she struck, grabbing him with her forehooves and slamming him against his desk. With a flick of her magic, she extended the blade concealed in the cylinder and brought it within an inch of his eye. He cried out in alarm, but was silenced when the dagger came within centimeters of his eye. “It’s a negotiating tactic,” she snarled, bringing her face close to his. “Now, you can answer the question and we can both go our separate ways with the knowledge that we’ve made a wise business decision, or you can make this difficult for both of us.” He whimpered as she pulled him muzzle to muzzle. “Who. Is. Your. Fence?”
“C- Curio!” he shouted. “The guy’s name is Curio! He runs a shop on the lower east side of Manechester!”
For a moment, she held him close, ensuring that he was telling the truth. Satisfied, she let him fall to the ground and stepped back, dusting herself off and retracting the blade. “There, was that so hard?” she asked pleasantly. “Fear not – you’ll soon be getting your cut from the sale of that amulet you traded to him. No hard feelings, eh?”
She left him cowering on the floor and stepped out into the sweltering heat. The wind had picked up, sending the biting desert sand to whip in her face. Even so, she smiled as she strode back to her cart.
Everything was coming together. Soon, Trixie Lulamoon would have her revenge!