Being incarcerated was relatively new to me, having always been on the other side of matters. Equestria has few career criminals, and truthfully, most of the justice system is built around recompense and rehabilitation. Sticking somepony in a jail cell for long periods of time is considered pointless and wasteful, though I have always wondered why keeping them sealed in a celestial body or even trapped in stone is considered better.
It does make one wonder at the Princess’s collection of statues in the royal gardens. Perhaps it is something exclusively in the purview of the royal family. Perhaps higher ranks of guards are kept informed as well.
Being kept as a statue on display would be fitting, I decided. I could, in some small way, still serve. Of course, it would be by announcing my shame to forthcoming generations. A considerably less appealing prospect, albeit one beyond my control.
Although… I did not have to stay. I had been put here, true. But… I was no longer a guard. That was… was a raw thing, within me. The Queen had taken that from me, torn some part of me asunder. It is difficult to put into words. Was it merely my mind that fuzzed away from recollections of duty? My knowledge of… if not law, at very least most rules had been acute, I thought, but now… I saw a vast mass of conflicting rules and consternation and simply did not care. Did such things even still apply to me, or had I cast aside Idol Hooves and returned to being just a changeling?
Some might revel in such a thing. I grieved the possibility, but then… it was entirely possible there was no Idol Hooves to return to. I had failed in such fundamental levels. I had proven a poor friend many times over, a poor guard… even a poor caretaker. Cersus. The little changeling would be better off without my flawed input. She never truly needed me, only what I could provide…
And I could provide no longer. I would be of no use to anyone. I had failed my princesses, my obligations, my people, my friends, had even gone so far as to stand in opposition to the Queen’s will… and then there was Topaz. I could not fully understand how it had all gone so wrong.
I detested what was left of me. I rubbed the portion of my leg where my foreleg stopped being mine. It itched terribly. My rear legs were likewise replaced, one above the knee and one below, but for reasons I could not guess, they felt fine. Such a waste. I could not begin to imagine what the Queen’s reasoning had been to replace parts of me, to snatch me from the jaws in the darkness. Perhaps to leave me unaware of my own failings until it was too late? Perhaps to fail willingly and only become aware after the fact? Or perhaps she cared as little as I now did…
No. No, I did not dare think that she did not care. I had tasted so much emotion in that, and the recollection had left me shuddering in my cell, trying to deny it. But it left me with only one possibility that made sense. I knew precious little detail of what had happened in the days of my dereliction, only the vaguest understanding of events. Princess Cadance had been captured. Shining’s mind overwhelmed. An invasion by an unknown foreign nation. The Elements making a futile attempt to fight said invasion off. Princess Cadance and Shining, together, ejecting all said invaders from Canterlot. I had faith in Shining and the Princess being quite capable of that, but… a changeling invasion? That was unreasonable. We could not invade and harvest love in such a way, it would be… burning a field you had not even fully harvested. No matter how I considered, only one explanation fit everything I knew.
The Queen had gone mad. Perhaps not entirely, but… but there were signs even from my exile. I had never understood her reasoning for sending me out as she had. Why some exiles received more or less crystals, seemingly at random. Some recent exiles had left the hive for reasons that seemed increasingly petty and harmless. I had tried not to question, such was not my place, but now I had little else to do but question, without sure answers.
But that was an answer. Her choices and actions were random. And the Queen was slipping. Perhaps she had fallen utterly.
It is not a changeling thing to pray, in earnest. But I begged any that might listen to me that it would be not so. That it would not be so, that I could still just be wrong.
There were no answers. Which… to my understanding is a pretty traditional response. So be it.
Bah. I had been imprisoned less than a day and already I was aggressively tired of feeling sorry for myself. My oaths were gone. I could just leave. Start anew, someplace else. Exiled again. There was nothing that could stop me, and this cell was… well. It was stone. I was a changeling. Even half starved and possibly all-mad, I had been a shaper of dirt and stone all of my life. That would be easy.
With oaths in mind, I was not even sure I was bound by my Orders anymore; they felt… fragmented, in my mind. The prohibition on reproduction was, well, shattered, yes, but I knew with a certain horrible certainty that abrogating the Queen’s will in this regard would have lasting, hideous ramifications. The Frozen North? I dreaded the idea of exploration of it, but could likely force myself through the discomfort. Returning to the Hive... was a brief spike of agony. The mental equivalent of trotting through broken glass. That one seemed to have been reinforced, if anything. I had rather explicitly rejected that opportunity, it appeared. Still, then and likely forever, an exile. Twice over, perhaps. Even my memories of the Hive were difficult to examine. I knew it existed. Knew it was… vaguely south-ish? I could no longer recall drones I had met there, rooms. A location. Barely anything beyond my last interactions with the Queen, and what had led me to my initial exile. Surely, some of that was the passage of years, but it felt more like something denied than something lost.
A barred square of bright sunlight peeked into my cell. I watched it slowly begin to traverse down the wall.
But… if I was to be as a fresh exile again, I would do it the right way. I would do it my way. The way I would be proud of, regardless of the cost.
I looked out the barred cell window, where the sun was still making its trek into the sky, guided by the solar princess.
“I, Idol Hooves, do solemnly swear to uphold the laws of Equestria, the lawful orders of the Princesses-”
The oaths were not long. In spite of having them torn from me, the memory of making them once, before a similar rising sun, some ten years ago, with what was unquestionably the worst hangover of my life, remained crystal clear. They were not particularly complex, though they were powerful. Perhaps not powerful in spite of the simplicity, but due to it? I had no idea, nor did I truly care. They were a fundamental part of myself. Limiting perhaps… but also defining.
And yet… and yet that ‘self’ had failed. Had betrayed. It could not be fully trusted. If not myself, who?
Shining. Shining was exemplary. He had sacrificed immediate gratification to pursue his princess in the proper way. Above all else, he I could trust. I was making these oaths as a changeling, and as a pony. Breaking new frontier. I would need his judgement, if I was ever to even begin to make right of this.
“I swear that I will follow the will of Prince Shining Armor, abide by his decisions, and serve him in lieu of my own inclinations. And these oaths I will uphold until the day I die.”
I do not know that it hurt. Everything already hurt. But… perhaps it was enough. Enough for today. And having replaced one part of myself that had been torn away was soothing, in its own right. Or so I endeavored to convince myself.
I rested my head down near the bright patch, not quite letting it strike me, but along its path. If the Princess was offended by my oaths, she would, I hoped, strike me down as I deserved.
And if not, I would begin making recompense however I was seen fit to do.
And until that time, I would wait.
And apparently I slept. Or passed out. Regardless, I seemed to be falling into old habits.
Then again, I was chained now. An interrogation room, under the castle? A table and pair of chairs bolted down to the stone, it even had a candle in a jar hanging under a bucket-like sconce, very professionally done. My movement as I took all this in felt sluggish, I was not usually so drowsy; a sleep spell, perhaps, to keep me from getting excitable as they moved me? Not exactly standard procedure, but an understandable one given recent events. I was shackled to the table with chains that I did not think were steel, nor was it the alloy the guard used in our armor. Curious. Quite heavy. Not iron, surely?
The door to the small room opened, but the doorway itself was filled with pink light. A pony I could not make out stepped through, the shield seeming to ‘cling’ to them, puffing out into a small bubble only after they were almost fully through. A clear sign of Shining’s involvement, even if I could not see the newly raised Prince. The figure, now merely heavily obscured instead of entirely so, marched over and sat down in the chair opposite my own, the bubble phasing through the bolted down table and chair, though the candle and its sconce were pushed aside to hang slightly askew.
It showed an abundance of caution that I had not expected. Perhaps… perhaps things had been even worse than I feared.
The voice was gruff and hoarse, completely unfamiliar. “Alright. I’m going to make this simple. I’ll ask a question, you answer it. Say anything else, and you stay in here until we decide to come back. Understood?”
I gave a tight nod, feeling as though the slime in my saliva had suddenly gone dry.
“State your name.”
I blinked, then scowled.
“Are you able to speak like that?”
“Good. State your name.”
I scowled harder.
“Are you refusing to answer the question?”
“Then why don’t you?”
“...I was specifically told not to speak unless answering a question. That was not.”
“I-” A faint profanity escaped the bubble. The voice was considerably less gruff. “I-ignore that. What is your name?”
“What is your real name?”
“That is the only one I possess.” I hesitated. “I once went by ‘Sandy’, though I did not like it.”
The shield warbled around us.
The pony in front of me looked about briefly, but continued their questioning. “Where are they, and where is he?”
“Where are who, and…is whom?”
“Don’t buck with me right now, bug. The foals. Where are they? Now.”
“I legitimately have no idea. I do not even know which foals you mean,” I confessed, shifting my hooves. The chain rattled slightly, and the pony pulled back. I blinked, realizing suddenly that they were not just afraid, but afraid of me, even with all their protections. Carefully, I shifted into pony form, but my legs felt… wrong. The change had not fully come over them. I scowled at the maulwurf scar, then made a second attempt and everything felt right again. That… did not help matters with my interrogator, who had watched my shameful struggle.
“Y-you shouldn’t be able to use magic on that side of the table!”
Taken aback, I careened my head around as I tried to establish, first off, why I should not be able to do such a thing. The voice had slipped again, and I thought I recognized it. One of Blueblood’s crews, then. Sweetie something. I… probably was not supposed to know that. Quickly I dropped the disguise. It didn’t help.
“H-How many others are there in Canterlot like you?”
I watched them dolefully, unable to help trying to make out the figure behind the shield. “I would hope there are none like me.”
It was too much. My interrogator fled the table, and I sighed. This was not how I hoped this would go.
The door flung open again as Shining Armor stepped through, looking even more haggard than earlier. “Where is he?!” His hooves pounded the table, and I was startled to see it crack. His emotions were… magmatic. Fury. Hatred. Disgust. All under a crumbling veneer of barely maintained professionalism. It was anything but fair that he had been put through so much. “Where is Idol?!”
I sighed. “Gone, I fear.” I looked up at the light, finding myself melancholy already. “I do not think I can be him anymore, can I?”
“He’s not gone until we have a bucking body. Where is he? Where did you put him?” He choked on the words, and I felt grief and misery wash off of him
“...Ah. There is a matter of confusion. There is no Idol Hooves. He was, and always has been, myself.”
“You can’t be Idol Hooves. I’d… I’d have known.”
“With respect, sir… you would not, and you did not.”
“Prove it,” he spat, absolutely livid. “Something only Idol would know.”
“I cannot say what I know that no others do.”
“Then you’re staying here until you do think of something!” He surged out, a living thundercloud, and I heard his demands of the guard. “Back to his cell. No one sees him. You tell nopony about this. It’s a matter of national security. I’ll… arrange relief.”
I listened to my friend leave, and knew not what I could say to relieve his pain. It was fair. I had betrayed him, even if he did not fully understand my failings. I would give him time. A pair of guards entered, my shackles removed, and I was again given the benefit of soporific magics.
I awoke some hours later. Hay had been provided, and water, but precious little else. The guards did not speak to me, and their obfuscation was maintained even as they checked on me from time to time. At the moment, they were apparently dealing with something, but the voices did not penetrate stone well enough for me to make out.
I did, however, recognize the familiar sound of distinctive metal shoes on the stone. I bowed, and stayed lowered.
I lifted my face, only to be immediately beset with a sinking sense of dread. “Princess Cadance. You are well?”
Her voice was hoarse. “I’ve been better. I…” She looked me over, flinched, then looked away. “What… what happened? I remember you telling me things, but then…”
“You do not remember?”
“I remember someone trying to stomp on my head. I’ve had nightmares of it! I thought… I wasn’t sure what was going on. It was… just so fast. None of it made sense, so I thought… I thought I made up some of it in my own head because I didn’t even want to remember what actually happened. You… you fell apart…” She sounded lost. “I thought you… I thought you were dead. I thought she… or maybe that I…” She trailed off.
I considered my leg again, holding it up for her inspection, though I realized with some embarrassment that it would mean little to her. “I did. I do not know the mechanism of my survival, your Highness. Or if it was even intentional. Whatever you did, it did not seem to cause me any harm beyond discomfort. I do not think you were responsible for the rest of it. As for what happened...” I considered a long moment. “A drone approached you, I intervened. I saw a second, tried to bring you to a location I thought might throw them off until I could deal with the matter. The Queen had somehow gained entry to my room and was draining my stockpiles. From there… I disobeyed her. The rest is mostly the result of that.”
“Cady, Idol. Please, at least give me that. We’re friends. So… she didn’t… turn you into this? I… I thought she did.” Unlike Shining, she seemed desperate for reassurance. “It really is you, right?”
I hesitated, but this was a sworn liege lady, “I do not… actually know. I am not entirely myself, anymore, I do not think, your Highness.”
“What do you mean?”
I wanted to dissemble, though I had sworn obedience. That felt… wrong, but I could not explain why. “I know you, your Highness. But I do not know you.” I continued to look at her, feeling my heart sink still further. I looked at her, the princess of love. Someone I… could remember befriending. Could remember joking with, sharing some small secrets.
I felt nothing but hunger at such a bounteous meal, awe at her presence, though not nearly so much as when I first met her. But this mare was as a stranger to me. For her, personally… I felt nothing. “I am truly, truly sorry, your Highness. But… I think maybe some part of me has died.” I hesitated. “Or maybe I am not Idol. Much is… wrong with me, right now. I do not even trust myself. I have done things I would not do. I think things I would not think. I feel things I am not allowed to feel.” I do not think I could have hurt her more if I had reached through the bars and slapped her. “Forgive my offense, your highness. You wanted reassurance. I… cannot give that.”
She only watched me, tears in her eyes. I hated that I had made one of my princesses grieve. For a friend… for a friend, I felt… almost nothing. I could recall many events with Princess Cadance, but they were without emotional context. As though I witnessed them happening to another. I knew that once this would have devastated me, and yet, today… merely an annoyance. I had no explanation for any of this, except the alicorn. Except feeling myself drained and falling apart. “I think… I may have used it to save you. From the Queen.” I admitted, chagrined, but a shiver went through my chitin. “It was important to me at the time, but I do not think I am supposed to be able to do it in the first place. I believe I have been corrected on my impertinence in the matter.” The shivering would not stop. “...I do not think anything would be left of me if I tried it a third time. Even if the Queen deigned to intervene on my behalf again.”
I forced the emotions down, then met her eyes. “I must beg forgiveness, your Highness. I will serve you better in the future. I swear it.”
“...We’re going to fix this. I’m going to fix this. I’m going to… I just need to…” And in a move very much like Twilight Sparkle, she wandered off on the conversation.
“Cadance just vouched for you. Said you saved her life.”
“She remembers, then?” I was growing used to ponies appearing out of nowhere. I could not decide if there was some magic at play or if the cell was truly just so boring that I was able to get completely lost in my own melancholy.
“Said it all came back to her; you fought other changelings and tried to hide her, ran right into the Queen. In our room. Eating those damned crystals of yours.”
I hesitated. That was not… entirely accurate, but… “...That is roughly correct.”
“Why didn’t you say something, damn it?!”
“I fail to see how traumatizing the princess with my failings is a proof of my identity.”
“...What happened in Everfree? When we were recruits?”
“We swore not to talk about it.”
He nearly exploded. “You dumb bucking-”
“It would have been a very poor fresh start to begin by breaking an oath we swore.” I hesitated. “Meaning no offense, sir. Your Highness.”
The white stallion stared at me, and then the fury in him… collapsed, like a house of cards. Now he was just tired. “Tartarus. It’s you. Nobody else would sit here in a cell because they promised they wouldn’t talk about something, when that something could have remained absolutely confidential because I already know about it!”
“It is me,” I agreed. “To some extent or another. And you said ‘we never talk about this’. Which we are still doing.”
“Faust’s fetlocks. Topaz was here, you know. Wanted to talk to you. I told her to go home, you were involved in an investigation! How could you do that to-” His face went blank. Then he slowly put his face in his hooves. “Oh, Discord and damnation, she knows, doesn’t she?” The hooves dragged slowly down. “Of course she knows. She’s one of you, isn’t she? That explains a bunch of things-”
“She. Is. Not. Sir. Her oddities are purely her own.”
He looked up at me in clear annoyance. “How in Tartarus am I supposed to believe you? You walked into the office you helped me achieve and set the place on fire. ‘By the way, Shining, I’m a spy for the people who just invaded the nation we swore to protect!’”
“That is not at all what I said.”
“Is it true, though?”
“I… do not know, actually. Not willingly, but I cannot say for certain that it is not so. The Queen has a level of control over my people I am not sure I can fully explain. I am… reasonably certain I could not truly stand against her.”
“Then how did you help Cadance?”
“...What the Queen was doing did not serve my kind or yours in any way I could determine. Stopping the Queen was ultimately for her own benefit.”
“You can disobey her to protect her,” Shining stated flatly, in clear disbelief.
“Would our oaths not permit you to assault Celestia in the course of getting her away from an assassin?”
“Assault no, but I could definitely use reasonable force…”
“The difference lies purely in intent. I had no desire to harm the Queen; only to stop her. It was a… grey area. If you slap a foal’s hoof away from a hot stove, have you abused them?” I hesitated. “I am unsure if more knowledge of the situation would have improved or impeded my efforts. If the Queen had an unassailable reason why this was beneficial for the changelings, I may not have been able to intervene. Nor am I at all certain I could do so again, even in the same circumstances.”
“You don’t know if you’re a spy. You do know you’re bound by conflicting allegiances. And you don’t know what the rules are…” His face went slack. “That thing, at Hearthswarming! The thing about the north, what was it?”
“An Order. It was, until recently, something I was incapable of breaking. There are several. Some are broken. Some… damaged. Still others are even worse than before. I cannot even think of the Hive anymore. It is… like grasping sand. Even my own life there has become… vague.”
“I would disagree, sir. It is actually quite upsetting. I fear for the stability of my own mind.”
“Welcome to the club.” Shining grunted, and there was nothing more to be said on the matter. He simply watched me for a long minute. “...I have to verify this. I can’t trust your word.” A small shrug. “Or maybe I just don’t, anymore. I don’t know. One of my best friends turned out to be a lie. Doesn’t even exist. How am I supposed to feel? Huh?”
“I… do not presume to know, sir.”
“Wish you did. I’d at least have something to go against out of sheer stupid spite.”
“That does not seem productive.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess I’ll let you know if I can corroborate your story. And if I can’t… I suppose you can get comfortable. Or don’t. Celestia might order you exiled for treason.”
“With respect, sir. The royal guard is immune to exile.”
“Well, fantastic news for you.”
“Not exceptionally. The law for treason amongst the military actually calls for hanging.”