As she walked home in the twilight, the cool wind slowly returned Zecora to her senses.
What in the world had possessed her to tease poor Fluttershy like that? The sweet mare had gone out of her way to make her comfortable, and this was how she repaid her kindness? That Pinkie Pie had played along with the joke was no excuse for her careless behaviour.
And that was just it, wasn't it? She had been carefree; drunk with happiness, even. It was an unfamiliar feeling and, while pleasant, not one she was sure how to react to. She saw herself as a sensible mare. It was her shield against loneliness, but did she need that shield any more? Her afternoon with Apple Bloom had shown her beyond doubt that she was no longer alone. The filly and her sister's group of friends had opened up to her like nopony had before.
Hopefully, she hadn't ruined it all with her actions at Fluttershy's cottage. She had half a mind to go back and apologise, but couldn't muster the courage. After having been together with ponies all afternoon and evening, the current void made her realise how tired she was.
She entered the Everfree Forest and let its sounds fill her mind. For a few breaths it worked, and there was nothing in the world but the forest and the placement of one hoof in front of the other, but soon her thoughts surfaced again. She had let her tongue slip when Apple Bloom had surprised her. She had spoken in the spontaneous prose of the Equestrians, yet she was not embarrassed. Were the ponies starting to rub off on her? If they are, will they rub off my stripes? she wondered. Could she become part of Ponyville and still be true to her origins?
A fearful gasp. A face painted with sorrow. The zebra filly didn't understand; she had been so happy. The sun had shone through after weeks of cloudy weather. She had frolicked in the warm rays and seen how the animals did the same -even the flower buds slowly opened up and turned towards the bright orb. She had loved it. She had loved how every animal, every plant sang the song of life in its own voice, and she had realised that nothing could be more beautiful than learning to understand these voices.
But it was wrong, they told her. The sun was nothing to celebrate. The beautiful radiant spiral mark that had appeared on her flank did not mean life. It meant death. A thousand years ago, a mad pony Princess had taught the zebras that. She had stopped the sun and moon in the sky, threatening daytime eternal on the Zebrabwean hemisphere. For weeks, the sun didn't set. The plains had been burnt to deserts and the rivers and lakes had dwindled. When night finally fell, the zebras knew to never trust the sun again. They started worshipping the stars and built their homes into the mountainsides, giving refuge from the Burning Eye.
The only zebras who studied the sun's cycle were the shamans, and even they did so with caution. They would know when were the best times to sow and harvest different plants, and they would pay their respects to the sun, but never their love.
Zecora shook the memory out of her mind. This was not what she wanted to remember Zebrabwe for. The semi-religious fear of the sun was not what defined her culture.
The filly was beaming. The mosaic she presented to her grandmother had taken her hours to make, and she had been able to feel the “ser-ene state of mind,” her mother had told her about as she had sat beside her, patiently encouraging her to do her best, but never interfering in her hoofcraft. This was something she had made herself, and the pleased look on the elderly mare's face when she received the present made the feeling of accomplishment all the sweeter. She could feel the love it was made with, she said, and hung it on her mantelpiece along with the beautiful items that told the story of her life. As the reflection of the flames shone in the coloured stone and glass, grandmother and granddaughter sat watching it in silence, a large forehoof resting on the filly's shoulder.
Yes, the contemplative mindset, the deep conversations, the dedication to craft, the unity of purpose- those were zebra values worth recalling.
Only unity isn't always a virtue, a traitorous voice in the back of her mind said.
No, not that...
Another town without a shaman had turned the mare down. In the year since her graduation, she had wandered the mountains, looking for a place to call home. Zebras saw her soul mark and whimpered, called her cursed, or flat out chased her away with threats of violence. It was getting worse. An old prophecy said that The Mad Princess would return, and the year of her reemergence was drawing closer. Even her old hometown did not want her back. When she had last visited her parents, she had been met with cold stares everywhere, and in the dark of night, somezebra had thrown rocks through her parents' windows and set fire to their crops. The two had feared for their daughter's life, and when they parted, they all knew it was good-bye forever.
As she made camp for the night, the day's failure nagging in her mind, she saw torches in the distance. Fearfully, she snuck closer, and heard the angry murmur of excited zebras. One let out a shout and pointed at the dim light from her camp fire, and they trotted in her direction. She shrouded herself in the darkness with a potion she'd hoped she'd never have to use, and saw the mob tear apart her belongings and throw most of them on the fire, yelling insults tauntingly into the night. With naught but a few saved mementos in her saddlebags, she left the mountains of her homelands, never to return.
Well, their fears had been at least partly justified, Zecora argued with herself. Nightmare Moon had returned, and had it not been for Twilight Sparkle and her friends, the Zebrabwean sun would have stood still in the sky once again.
Twilight Sparkle and her friends. Zecora's friends. She had met many beings in her journeys, but ponies were the first she would call friends.
For years, she drifted, never staying in one place for long. As she got farther away from Zebrabwe, the fear of the mark on her flank lessened, but it was replaced with other kinds of distrust. The griffins mocked her wingless body, the giraffes were fearful of her herbal skills, the elephants had no place for outsiders in their nomadic groups, and the okapi, despite their superficial likeness to the zebra, were solitary and fiercely territorial. In Saddle Arabia, they considered her small, stout body a curiosity, but while they were at least polite towards her, she was treated as little more than an interesting savage - a second-class citizen at best. When she saw a ship coming in from the faraway Equestria, she saw ponies for the first time, and was drawn to them by their almost-familiar shapes.
The Captain was called Salty Winds, she remembered. He was the first to address her as an equal since she left her apprenticeship. His crew was a friendly sort, informal and gregarious, and they convinced her to join them on their month-long return trip to Equestria. She never found her sea legs, however, and whenever the ocean was less than serene, she was hanging over the railing, cursing the stars.
Zecora smiled. The pony sailors had taught her more than just risqué drinking songs; they had reminded her what it felt like to be a part of a community. Salty himself had vouched for her when she petitioned for Equestrian citizenship.
The palace was easily the most wonderful structure she had ever seen. While some zebra buildings were impressive, majestic even, they were dim and sombre. In Canterlot, the sun was celebrated. Grand open places, huge stained-glass windows through which the daylight playfully kissed her grayscale coat with multi-hued colours. The corridor she had been directed down had beautiful mosaic windows depicting highlights of Equestrian history and she remembered wondering, as she reached the guarded, ornate door at the end, what kind of clerk had such a grand office. As the door opened and the guard announced her entrance, she stood in shock, staring at the mare who was to sign her citizen certificate.
The Princess of the Sun was more than beautiful, she was transcendent. Her coat was impossibly white, barely containing the glow of pure, uncontained power in her tall, slender body. No, more than power: life. The same sensation of life, of love, that had once filled a young zebra filly with awe stood there, personified. As Zecora regained a sliver of control of her body, she fell to her knees, overwhelmed by the presence of the monarch.
"Rise, my little zebra," the alicorn said as she looked at her guest with gentle eyes filled with understanding. She had heard Zecora's story, she told her, and she felt partly responsible for her troubles. Zecora started to protest, but the Princess continued. There was a small town to the south, she suggested. The ponies there, though far from perfect, were honest and friendly, and she believed that Zecora would fit in amongst them. The nearby forest of Everfree was rich in flora, and an herbalist could find much of what she needed for her trade there.
As the Princess set her hoof mark on Zecora's certificate of citizenship, the zebra was too overwhelmed to formulate a response. A town. A home. A chance. She hadn't even noticed the Princess move before the elegant mare touched her shoulder and, with a playful wink, confided:
"After all, we sun-buns should stick together."
Even after five years - had it really been five years already? - the Princess's words still filled Zecora with a mix of pride, belonging, amusement and embarrassment. So much time had passed, and she had been disheartened by the initial attitude of the citizens of Ponyville, but this evening, she finally felt that she was on the path to the life that Celestia herself had sparked the hope for.