“I do not think it wise, Serale,” Libra said doubtfully. “It seems to be a stupid risk, and one entirely unnecessary.”
Serale rolled her eyes. “Please, Libra? I’ve read every book in the selection already, and I’m going insane cooped up like this. I can’t even feel the breeze on my face, even though I can see it out of the windows. At least I’ll be able to ignore it belowdecks!”
“But why would you want to keep watch over Cobblestone?” Libra asked. “She is in the middle of withdrawal! Do you really want to tend to her as she is? Not to mention she could still be dangerous, which is why I am loath to let you down there by yourself.”
“Then give me a guard!” Serale said. “Station one of the Magekillers outside the door with the guards already there. I’m sure they would love the chance to do something other than patrol the decks without speaking to anypony. I know they can talk to guards.”
Libra frowned. “Why the sudden urge to see her? Surely you could find something better to do than to watch over an invalid who is also a felon.”
“Like what?” Serale asked. “Practice my forms, or my rifle work? Until we leave this ship, there isn’t a lot for me to do. And besides, if I’m going to be honest…I feel a bit sorry for her.”
“Sorry?” Libra asked. “How so?”
Serale, for once in her life, was at a loss for words. “Well, it’s…hard to explain. When I saw her a few days ago, she looked like she had seen so much, been through so much, and so young…did you see the bags under her eyes, the ribs through her coat? She’s half-starved and I’m sure she’s got plenty of diseases and maladies we don’t know about. She was half-dead even before the guards at Baygate got to her.”
Libra considered her young charge. She did have a point. Libra had noticed the way that Cobblestone carried herself, like a wounded kitten that had trouble trusting anything to get too close, or a dog that had spent most of its life being kicked by its owner. The young unicorn was broken in more ways than one, and mending her would be a job for years, not days or months.
“And did you notice the way she looked when you spoke?” Serale asked. “She looked terrified. And I’m sure she’s still grieving over her friend, and in shock. Seeing her killed right in front of her like that. I’m not sure if I should be impressed by the fact that’s she’s still so composed, or pity her for it.”
Libra held up a hoof, forestalling her further. “I see your point, Serale. You want to care for her?”
The young Lady nodded. It wasn’t a lie, not really. She did want to care for Cobblestone, her being part of the reason she was still alive. Serale knew the assassins hadn’t been sent to kill her, but in the heat of the moment, anything might have happened, and it was thanks at least in part to Cobblestone’s action that she was alright. She did pity the poor mare, and that was no lie either. She wasn’t even lying about the reason she had initially decided to watch over her. If Cobblestone did something stupid and got caught, any chances of her being treated like…well, like a pony instead of just a prisoner went right down the drain. No apprenticeship, no chance to live a normal life, no prospects at all. She’d be in a reformation house soon enough, trained in some useless skill that wouldn’t make use of her talent, and turned out to try and find work with no references and a criminal past. She’d be back in a prison in a few years, if that.
So yes, she was caring for Cobblestone by covering for her in this instance. And who knew? Maybe she had just imagined the strange stallion giving her something last night, and all of her suspicions would have been for nothing. But if she was going to try something, it would be soon. There was only one more stop tonight, and then it was straight on to Starfall come morning. There’d be no chance for escape there.
“You understand what caring for Cobblestone entails, Serale?” Libra asked. “You’ll need to give her water, and get her to eat something, even if she has no appetite for it. You may need to clean up vomit or other bodily fluids. You might need to wet her brow or cover her up as required. You might need to escort her to the head, and help her there if she has difficulty. This is not an easy task.”
Serale nodded her understanding. “I think I owe it to her to make sure she makes it through this as easily as possible. I owe her my life, Libra. Any action I can take to repay that debt is an action I will take.”
“Very well,” Libra said, “But you will have a guard outside. I’ll go get Puzzle, and you’ll be able to go down and begin your duties. This shift is eight hours, so somepony will be along around midnight to relieve you. Will that be alright?”
Serale nodded. “I’ll be alright, Libra. I promise.”
Cobblestone’s fitful sleep was disturbed by the sound of the door opening. She grumbled, pulling the covers back over herself as another wave of chills crashed over her prone form. The throbbing in her head prevented her from hearing much, but the voice sounded familiar. Blearily, she rolled over to see who had entered her room. Her vision blurred at the sudden glare of light, and when she had finally blinked away the sleep from her eyes, she was much surprised and more than a little vexed to see Serale standing by her bed.
“Cobblestone? Can you hear me?” Serale asked.
Cobblestone nodded. “Yes,” she said, voice rasping, “I can. Why are you here?”
Serale smiled. “I’m here to keep watch over you for a while. Is that alright?”
The bedridden unicorn nodded. She swallowed before saying “Sure. Not like I could stop you anyway, right?”
Serale turned to Puzzle, who was standing by the door. “Thank you, Puzzle. I think we’ll be fine.”
Nodding silently, the Magekiller gently shut the door behind her, leaving the two of them alone. Serale sighed, surveying the room. It was rank with the stench of sweat and other scents best left undescribed, and the heat was oppressive. Though she wished she could air it out, Serale knew that Cobblestone’s temperature was likely dangerously low as it was.
“Could I have some water?” Cobblestone asked.
Serale nodded, fetching a glass and a pitcher from the small table by the fireplace. Gently, she poured a glass for the invalid before holding it up to her lips.
“Here,” she said, “Drink slowly. We don’t want you to choke.”
Cobblestone closed her eyes, focusing on getting water in without dribbling or choking. She was partly successful, with a stream of water spilling from the corner of her mouth onto the covers. Serale waited until she had finished before fetching a cloth, wiping the water away. Using the same cloth, she dabbed some of the sweat away from Cobblestone’s brow.
“Feeling better?” she asked. “Do you want to sleep?”
“Can’t,” Cobblestone said. “I’ve tried, but I just can’t sleep anymore today. I’ve been sitting here bored for the past few hours.”
“Would you like to talk?” Serale inquired. “Do you feel up to that?”
Cobblestone shrugged noncommittally. “Sure. If you’d like.”
Serale smiled, pushing the chair next to Cobblestone’s bed. “Perfect! What do you want to talk about?”
Cobblestone looked at her like she had snakes crawling out of her ears. “You suggested it,” she said, “I thought you’d know what to talk about.”
Serale was nonplussed, not used to speaking with ponies who were so blunt. “Well,” she said slowly. “What about your hobbies? Your interests? What do you like to do?”
“Aside from the thieving and Dragon’s Kiss?” Cobblestone asked.
Serale nodded, blushing a bit. She hadn’t meant to bring that up.
Cobblestone thought for a bit. What hobbies did she have? She hadn’t really thought of anything she did as a “hobby”, it was mostly practicing skills she would need later. For that matter, what of those could she say in front of a pony who basically amounted to a princess?
“Well,” she said, “I’m a fair hoof at sewing. Clothing’s hard to come by, so I make sure the things I do have are well taken care of.”
Serale’s eyes lit up at this. “Really? Do you make your own clothes?”
Cobblestone chuckled weakly. “I haven’t needed to buy or make clothes since I became good at thieving. I just maintain what I have.”
“Would you mind if I took a look at some of your work?” Serale asked. “Oh, it’s not me judging or anything!” she said, upon seeing the wary look on Cobblestone’s face. “I was taught how to sew from a very young age. Mother insisted, actually.”
After a moment of consideration, Cobblestone nodded. “Sure. My cloak is in the chest over there,” she said, indicating the blue-painted box near the mirror. “It’s nothing special, but I did a bit of repair work on it when I got it.”
Serale brought the cloak back over to the bed, turning it over in her hooves as she examined it. This was not entirely innocent, seeing as she was looking for whatever had been slipped into the cloak last night. She did find a pocket, but it was empty, much to her frustration.
“So…” Cobblestone said, watching her examine her cloak. “What else did you do from a very young age?”
“Hmm?” Serale said, before her eyes cleared. “Oh! Well, I think I covered most of the basics with my Mother. I learned about agriculture, helped to maintain an apple orchard, studied meteorology, learned to bake and cook, cared for animals, learned biology, and learned how to sew before I was six. I spent a good deal of time in the Library studying about magic and science, and how they could be used together. And I enjoyed learning how to use a rifle. I was on the castle’s junior rifle team before I left, actually.”
Cobblestone blinked. “You learned all of that?” she said incredulously. “There’s no way. Your head would explode.”
Serale frowned. “Well, what did you learn?” she asked. “Surely you’ve got a list of skills I’d find dizzying, having grown up on the streets and all.”
If she was offended, Cobblestone didn’t show it. “Well, there was the usual. How to run, how to hide in a crowded place. How to notice if you were being followed. How to find a warm place when it was cold, how to beg if you couldn’t steal, how to run on rooftops. That one was actually a lot more difficult than I’d thought it would be.”
Serale listened as Cobblestone continued on. “How to pickpocket, how to cut a purse, how to fight fair, how to fight dirty, how to test if food or drink was rotten or poisoned. Then there was how to fit in with a gang, how to work in a team, how to run a one-pony con, or a two-pony con, short and long. How to use a knife, how to drink…huh.”
“See?” Serale said. “You know plenty.”
“No,” Cobblestone said, “Not that. I just realized something.”
“For somepony who’s the daughter of the most powerful Mage in the country, you don’t use much magic. In fact, I haven’t seen you use any.” Cobblestone said.
Serale nodded. “I was raised to look at magic as a very powerful tool, only to be used when absolutely necessary. Libra says most ponies use it too frequently as it is, it’s like watching children playing with explosives.”
Cobblestone smirked. “Sounds about right. I’ve known plenty of ponies who got into more trouble than they could get out of with their magic.”
“Is what you told Libra true?” Serale asked. “Had you never used magic of that magnitude before? When you came to the inn, that is.”
Cobblestone’s brow furrowed. “Not that I can remember. I was always good with using spells like that, though. Using electricity, I mean. Nothing that big.”
She smiled. “I can remember first learning how to make that shock trap, the one I put on my chest back in the gang. It was easy to put on, but it took me forever to get it back off again. I remember Lucky had to get me to the healer we had because it went off in my face once, a few years back…”
Cobblestone fell silent, remembering Lucky. Her eyes blurred again, tearing up, she told herself, from the pain. She bowed her head, determined not to let the young noble see her cry. It took only a moment to put her mask back on.
“Apologies,” she said. “I’ve lost friends before; you’d think I would be used to it by now.”
Serale sat in silence, taking in the pony before her. It was really was almost like watching a wounded animal, she thought. Not only that, the wounds here were still fresh.
“So,” Cobblestone said, her voice entirely too steady. “What was it brought you to Crescent City? Some big party? Buying a boat? Or was it just a vacation?”
Serale fiddled with the green fabric of the cloak in her lap, suddenly uncomfortable. “No, actually. It was a trip. I had left the Regia for a year to go and speak with dignitaries from other nations, sort of show my face to them. It was my first real responsibility as a noble and a member of my mother’s House.”
“A member?” Cobblestone asked. “No offense, but isn’t it just…y’know, you and her?”
Serale laughed, a bit more at ease at the joke. “It’s true. It’s a small House, but one with a good record. And it was more for me than anything else. I wanted to leave the Regia for a while, see something new.”
“So Crescent City was a stop for you?” Cobblestone asked.
The young Lady shook her head. “No, it was my homecoming. This boat was sent to pick me up from Crescent City, seeing as the ship I came in wouldn’t be able to go upriver.”
“Some homecoming,” Cobblestone said. “Sorry about that. Crescent City isn’t a good place to live, but most ponies can go a week or two without somepony trying to rob them or kill them.”
“Or both,” Serale added delicately.
It was Cobblestone’s turn to laugh, the exertion of which caused her to wince in pain. “True,” she gasped. “True. Shadow be damned, but that hurt.”
“Are you alright?” Serale asked, leaning forward to check on her. “Do you need help?”
Cobblestone waved one weak hoof. “I’m fine. Nothing worse than a bad hangover, I promise.”
They sat for a moment in companionable silence, the only sound heard being the steady rush of Cobblestone’s breathing and the whisper of water by the hull. A thought occurred to Serale, but it took a moment more of working up her courage before she was able to give voice to it.
“Cobblestone?” she asked.
“Why were you there that night?” Serale asked, averting her eyes. “I know you were there to rob us, but...why? It had to have been dangerous, more so than cutting purses and picking pockets. So why were you trying to break into our rooms?”
Cobblestone was silent for a brief moment, and Serale had the impression that she had come very close to crossing a line, if she hadn’t stumbled over it already.
“Forgive my rudeness,” she said quickly. “I shouldn’t have asked that question, it was impolite and foolish.”
“I did it for a simple reason,” Cobblestone said. “I did it because I needed to.”
Serale frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Tell me, Lady Serale,” Cobblestone said, “Do you know how much one of those pieces of Gryphic art is worth, just in materials alone?”
“They’re priceless,” Serale said, “Older than almost any nation in Equestria.”
“Wrong,” Cobblestone said. “They’re worth a very definite amount. One of those could keep a family fed for years. It could buy them all sorts of clothing, give them a good home, send their children to be apprenticed, or to a school if they’re thrifty. If I had one of those ‘priceless’ pieces, I wouldn’t need to be a thief anymore. None of us would have.”
She stared straight ahead. “Do you know what it’s like, to not know if you’ll freeze or not in the winter? To wonder where your next meal is coming from, if it’s coming at all? To wonder how much longer your ratty old clothing can hold together and keep you warm? Do you know what it’s like to wonder if you might need to start taking jobs that are even more demeaning than thieving? To look at your body and realize it’s the only thing you have of value?”
“Of course you don’t,” Cobblestone said, “But I do. I know it too well. I’m lucky to have had two friends I could trust enough to help me in what I attempted. But I don’t have them anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Serale said. “I didn’t realize.”
“Most ponies like you don’t,” Cobblestone said. “I don’t blame you for it. You spend so much time up in your big houses and high towers that you hardly even see us. Why would you notice us?”
Cobblestone shifted in her bed, drawing the covers over her shaking form. “I tried to steal what you had because I thought I needed it more than you. I was out of prospects and desperate, and Lucky thought you looked like you could afford your losses. So it was you we tried to rob.”
“Cobblestone,” Serale said, “I-“
And it was at that point that the back half of the boat exploded.
The shock of the explosion threw them both from their seated positions against the bulkhead, where they collided painfully with the wall, sliding to the ground.
“Cobblestone!” Serale said, picking herself up off of the floor. “Are you alright?”
The unicorn groaned. “I’m alright,” she said, “Just dizzy. What happened?”
The door flew open, revealing Puzzle, whose sword was out . “Lady Serale!” she bellowed. “Are you alright?” Smoke from the corridor began to fill the room.
“We’re both alright!” Serale said. “What happened?”
“The engines blew out!” Puzzle said, rushing over to help them both up. “Thankfully we had just docked. It’s a general evacuation, everypony off. We need to go, now!”
Serale nodded, snatching up Cobblestone’s cloak and fastening it around the younger unicorn’s neck, helping her up as she did so. “Understood!” she said. “Are you ready to move, Cobblestone?”
Cobblestone nodded weakly. “I’ll keep pace,” she said, “Let’s go!”
The trio toppled out into the hallway, as the ship began listing hard to portside. Thankfully for them both, Cobblestone’s quarters were starboard. The general quiet of the ship had been replaced with chaos and noise, orders being shouted and the screams of the frightened and wounded filling the air. Serale choked on smoke, coughing as they stumbled down the corridor towards the stairs.
“Go on!” Puzzle shouted, shoving Serale towards the stairwell. “Go!”
“Cob first!” Serale said.
The young thief, seeing no use in arguing, scrambled for the steps, Serale and Puzzle close behind. She almost slipped once, but it was with remarkable speed that she burst into the clear air of the deck above, struggling to keep her footing.
The sight of the ship filled even Puzzle with fear. Massive flames, fifty feet high at the very least, clawed towards the sky, the heat enough to be felt even from midway down the deck. As they watched, transfixed, another explosion rocked the deck, sending massive clumps of wood and metal skyward. A fresh round of screams filled the air.
“Lady Serale, get off of the boat,” Puzzle said. “My assistance is needed here. Find a guard, and do not leave their side. Magus Libra will be along shortly to collect you.”
Serale found herself unable to move, her hooves frozen in place.
“Go!” Puzzle barked. Without looking back, she lit her horn up. A massive column of water rose from the river, playing over the inferno near the stern, causing steam to rise into the air in billowing clouds.
Cobblestone tugged at Serale’s collar, forcing the stunned noblemare into motion. Together, they both stumbled across the tilted deck, leaning on one another for support, headed for the docks on the port side of the ship, where a crowd had begun to gather. Together, they approached the edge of the dock, only to be stymied by a gap of at least twenty yards of water.
“We can’t make that!” Serale said, aghast.
“Of course we can,” Cobblestone said. “We just need to get a running start, is all. Watch!”
She grabbed Serale by the shoulder, backing them both up a good distance away from the gap. “With me!” she said. “Don’t stop running once you start, and kick off near the edge! Ready?”
Serale swallowed nervously before nodding. “Ready.”
“Go!” Cobblestone said, breaking into a dead sprint.
Together, the two of them thundered down the deck, rapidly approaching the edge of the dock. Faster and faster they flew, until, all at once, they both leapt for their lives, soaring through the air.
They cleared the dock with a few inches to spare, stopping themselves short before they collided with anypony.
“See?” Cobblestone said, panting hard, “It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump.”
Serale nodded. “I suppose you were right. Let’s find a guard.”
Cobblestone grinned. “Sorry. Don’t think I’m amiable to that.” She held up the pin that Serale had been carrying, the one that let her control Cobblestone’s collar. “Took it when I pulled you towards the dock. No offense, your Ladyship, but I’m not going to rot in some minor’s prison on the off chance something better comes along.”
She inserted the pin into her collar, which detached, clattering to the dock. “My copy was downstairs, in my pillow, so I’ll thank you for the loan of yours.”
Serale crept toward her, but was brought up short when Cobblestone held up a knife. “From Puzzle’s belt. She looks like the type that has spares.”
She pulled the hood over her head, obscuring her features. “All the best, Lady Serale. Tell your mother I said hello.”
And just like that, she vanished into the crowd.
Serale moved quickly, scooping up the collar, pin attached, before fastening the thing around her own neck, seeing as she had no place else to put it. Roughly, she began to push her own way through the crowd, seeking Cobblestone, but hoping not to draw attention to the thief.
It was no easy task. Though she was sick, Cobblestone still moved with admirable skill, nearly impossible to keep track of in the throngs of ponies gathered to render aid or gawk at the spectacle, the crowd moving in all directions at once. Serale realized that when she was well, Cobblestone would be impossible for all but a trained observer to spot, if she didn’t want to be spotted. It was only by dint of the green cloak on her back that Serale was able to spot her at all.
At last, Serale burst free from the crowd, looking about wildly for the escaped invalid. It took a moment, but she was able to see Cobblestone, who was climbing a pile of lumber that was resting by one of the buildings near the river, evidently having decided that the roads were too dangerous for her. Or possibly to discourage being followed.
Serale’s eyes narrowed. She charged towards the woodpile, scrambling up the precarious pile of pine as Cobblestone made the roof, her cloak waving a sardonic farewell to her pursuer. Growling, she leapt from the pile, her hooves finding purchase on the roof. With a titanic effort, she managed to make it onto the roof, only to see that Cobblestone was two or three roofs ahead of her.
Sprinting headlong at the edge of the building, Serale pushed off of the edge, plummeting towards the next roof. She landed with a grunt, scrabbling for a bit on the slick tiles before continuing forward, hooves rattling on the roof as she pursued her quarry.
This building was a bit taller, and Serale barely managed to make it up before she realized that she was gaining on Cobblestone. The mare was smaller, slower, and sick. As she watched, Cobblestone stumbled to one side, nearly falling off of the roof as Serale leapt to the next building, now separated by a single rooftop.
Cobblestone shot a panicked look her way before making her next jump, barely managing to clear the thirty yard gap between her and the building before tumbling and barely managing to catch herself. She grinned, sure that Serale wouldn’t dare make the jump on her own.
Her grin vanished as Serale picked up speed, waiting until the very last moment before making the jump. She seemed to soar on invisible wings, hooves outstretched as her face contorted into a determined grimace, lips curled in defiance of Cobblestone’s escape and the laws of gravity, before she landed on the roof, losing her footing almost immediately.
She slammed into Cobblestone, who only had the most tenuous of grips already, and together, the two of them tumbled off of the roof into a nearby alley, where they landed on top of what appeared to be bags of flour. Serale felt Cobblestone shift under her, groaning.
“Oh, hush,” she said, taking the pendant from her own neck and re-fastening it around Cobblestone’s, “You’ve nopony to blame for that by yourself.”
“Hoy!” a voice called from the mouth of the alley. “Is somepony back there?”
“Yes!” Serale called back, thinking fast. “Just my sister and I.” She rolled off of Cobblestone, who got to her hooves shakily.
The voice turned out to belong to a rather burly looking Earth pony stallion. “Are you two alright? You ought to be more careful, there’s some dangerous types around here. Either of you see what made that horrible racket?”
“Hey, Tin!” a voice called from the alley. “Who’s that back there?”
“Just a couple of young ladies who wandered off path a bit!” Tin replied.
“That so?” the voice replied, and the owner of it came into view, along with another stallion. “Well, they must be lost, right?”
Serale realized that the three stallions now blocked their path out of the alley. “Yes, we’re just looking to get back to the river is all. Could you gentlecolts let us past, perhaps?”
Tin’s compatriot, a dun brown Pegasus, gave a leering grin. “Sorry, miss, but we just wouldn’t feel right letting two young mares such as yourselves wander around this part of town alone, especially if they might get robbed! Somepony might take a shine to your valuables!”
“I assure you, gentlecolts, we’ll be quite alright,” Serale said, “But we really must be on our way.”
She stopped when the third pony, also a Pegasus, with a scar across his eye, pulled out a knife. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, “Why don’t you two just leave what baubles you’ve got here with us? We’ll take good care of ‘em, right, Tin?”
Tin nodded. “Sure we would. I think you best do as he says, miss. Give us what you’ve got, starting with that pretty little piece around your sister’s throat.”
Cobblestone’s face twisted in fury, and her horn lit up, but her face contorted in pain and she sank back down, her magic once more inhibited by the pendant. Serale realized she was on her own.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Serale asked. “What if you’re caught?”
“All the police are down helping that ferry, miss, “ Tin said, “But that’s not your concern.”
His voice hardened. “Necklace. Now.”
Serale sprang from her back hooves, landing on her front and springing neatly over his back, catching him on the back of the head with her hind legs as she tumbled gracefully through the air. He stumbled forward, his legs spreading wide to catch himself just in time for Serale to land behind him, aiming a sharp kick directly in between his rear legs.
The dun colored Pegasus lunged for her, and Serale hit the ground, bending her legs as he soared over the top of her, colliding with the wall of the alleyway. She rolled to once side, springing to her hooves and spinning, kicking the knife out of the scarred Pegasus’s hooves before turning to avoid the wild punch he had thrown at her, flattening herself against the wall. She retaliated with a smart punch to his throat, causing the unlucky Pegasus to collapse in a heap. She hadn’t collapsed his windpipe, but he wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon.
“You bitch!” the remaining Pegasus cried, launching himself at her. She rolled away from the collapsed Pegasus, putting herself between the trio and Cobblestone. The Pegasus rebounded from the wall, not giving her any room to breathe. Serale put a hoof wrong, and stumbled, landing on her back just in time for the Pegasus to come down on top of her. She winced, anticipating a blow to the face or body.
It never came. Before he could land his punch, something massive and howling like a demon came barreling out of the darkness, like a bolt of black lightning. Serale caught the brief impression of claws, teeth, and two pointed ears before the thing latched itself onto the Pegasus’s face, growling and spitting up a storm as it clawed at his soft spots.
Angrily, the Pegasus tossed the beast away, but Serale had come to her hooves at this point. It took only a quick barrage of punches in the right locations before the Pegasus collapsed, unconscious. Serale swept the alleyway as she had been taught, looking for any further assailants before determining that she and Cobblestone were safe for now.
“Are you alright?” Serale asked, helping the unicorn up. “That looked like it hurt.”
Cobblestone’s eyes were wide. “Where did you learn that?” she asked, awestruck.
“That trip of mine wintered in the Quilinese islands. I found myself with little else to do, and an instructor agreed to teach me. Four months with him garnered the results you just saw,” Serale said.
There was a growling sound from the darkness of the alleyway, and Serale set her hooves, ready to face whatever it was that had come out of the back of the alley to aid them. The noise grew louder and closer, causing Serale to tense up, before a black cat came sauntering out of the shadows, sitting in front of them with its tail curled around it. It looked incredibly pleased with itself.
Serale relaxed. “Well, I suppose I should thank you,” she said to the cat. “You saved me a lot of pain.”
The cat looked unimpressed, instead choosing to pad over to the restrained unicorn. It rubbed itself against her legs, twinging in and around her hooves before settling against her side, where it began to purr.
“I could have sworn that cat was a lot bigger,” Serale said. “Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know,” Cobblestone said, “But I think he likes me.”
“He?” Serale asked. “How do you know?”
“It seems to fit,” Cobblestone replied.
It did indeed. The cat stood straight, the late afternoon light gleaming off of his pitch-black fur, which glimmered with an almost unnatural sheen. He yawned impatiently, exposing needle-sharp teeth before his tail began to twitch.
“Do you suppose he has a name?” Cobblestone asked.
Immediately, the cat lay down, stretching his paws out in the self-satisfied manner that only cats could manage. His mouth opened. “Haaaau…haaaaauuuu…haaaaaauuuuub…hooooob.”
Serale blinked. “Did…did he just say Hob?”
Cobblestone nodded. “That’s what I heard. Is your name Hob?” she asked the cat.
The cat chose not to dignify that with a response, choosing instead to resume his purring.
“I’m keeping him,” Cobblestone declared.
Serale nodded. “He does seem to like you. And he’s brought you good luck, despite him being a black cat and all. I think he’d be a good companion for you.”
“Serale?” Cobblestone said.
“For what it’s worth…I’m sorry. For running, I mean. But I don’t know what’s going to happen to me if I make it to Starfall, if I’ll end up in prison or worse. I can’t…I can’t take that kind of risk. I had to run,” Cobblestone said. “But you caught me, fair and square. This was kind of my last opportunity. So I’m sorry, and I’ll understand when you tell about what happened here.”
“What happened?” Serale asked. “You have a strange way of looking at it. If I recall, you were so frightened by the explosion, you wanted to put some distance between us and the ship, and so I accompanied you on a walk up the road. We didn’t want to disturb the guards, who had their hooves full with evacuation, so we didn’t bother with an escort.”
Cobblestone blinked. “But…why?”
“Because I get it,” Serale said. “You’re scared, far from home, everything you knew is upside down, and you feel like you’ve been dragged into something much bigger than yourself. You feel weak and helpless, like you’re going to slip up and have no way to recover from it, right? I know how that feels.”
Cobblestone nodded jerkily. “Yes, but…why would you know how that feels?”
“My mother is the next best thing to a goddess, and she rules against three actual goddesses. Next to her, I’m almost nothing. That’s why I left the Regia a year ago, to find a way to make myself feel like I could do something,” Serale said. “I needed a break and some perspective.”
Her tone grew serious. “So I see a bit of me in you. And you know what? I will personally guarantee that you do not end up in a prison after your testimony. If I need to, I’ll pardon you myself, understood? I’m going to be here for you, Cob. You can trust me. You’ve got a friend. Just don’t try to stand alone, alright?”
Cobblestone nodded, wincing in pain as she did so.
“Come on,” Serale said, supporting her. They began to hobble down the alleyway, cat in tow. “Let’s get you back to the ship.”
“Serale?” Cobblestone murmured. “Thank you.”
“You don’t need to thank me,” Serale replied.
“I won’t tell anypony,” Cobblestone said, “I promise.”
“About what?” Serale asked.
“You didn’t use magic back there,” Cobblestone said. “Even when your life was in danger. Every unicorn does that, even the young ones. You can’t use magic, can you?”
Serale stiffened. Cobblestone continued. “It’s ok, I understand. I was a late bloomer, too. Didn’t learn magic until I was nearly eight years old. So I get not having it. And I won’t tell.”
Serale sighed. “You are part of a group of very few ponies that know that. I’m not joking when I say that the information you have is worth your life.”
“Great,” Cobblestone said, “Another thing.”
It was then that they both began to laugh, loud and long down the street, hobbling towards the waiting crowd, for a minute at least. It was only when the laughter died down that Cobblestone spoke again.
“I won’t tell, Lady Serale, I promise.”
“Just Serale, Cobblestone,” she replied. “And I won’t tell anypony either. After all, that’s what friends are for.”