Red Apples

by billymorph

Red Apples

The apple was red.

I still stared, struggling to understand what I was seeing.  The fruit was as red as freshly spilled blood and so grossly oversized I feared it was a cleverly painted rock as a jest. The tart smell convinced me otherwise, but there were none of the little nicks and tears an apple picked up on the way to the market, nor the little bumps and growths of a wild fruit. It looked to all the world like some unicorn's perfect image of an apple, a hologram. It was not something plucked off a tree and sold in a common village market.

"Well, Princess," the farm-mare, Applejack I believe her name was, said conversationally. "You going to eat it or just stare at it?"

I couldn’t say. Was it a trick, a common jape played by merchants to attempt to sell what amounted to a sign? Was it a carefully husbanded treasure, only on offer to the nobility? I stood paralyzed by indecision, staring at the proffered fruit. Around me I could hear ponies begin to whisper as the awkward pause lengthened.

“Mine,” Celestia cut in, her magic snatching the apple from her hoof. She tittered as she took a bite. “I believe they say these days: ‘you snooze, you lose’, sister.”

I could have kissed her, but instead allowed myself a small sigh of relief. “Thou art a pest,” I pointed out, earning another chuckle from my sister. The crowd, following in the wake of their princess, joined in and within moments the party was back in full swing, my faux pas forgotten.

Applejack chuckled, rubbing the back of her head. “Seriously though, Princess, you want one?” She held up another of those unnatural apples. “Red Delicious straight from the orchard. Sweet Apple Acres’ special and the best in all of Equestria. You can travel all the way from Stalliongrad to Appleloosa and you won’t find an apple like it.”

I had never heard of either of those places. “We... Of course,” I said, my voice still sounding alien to my own ears. The apple wobbled into the air, lofted by my shaky magic. It would be many dozen moons until I was back to my former strength.

“We thank ye–” I petered out struggling to find the right word to address her. I would have guessed a common peasant by her mannerisms, but, despite her lack of fine cloth, her coat had a luster that suggested she was at least a freeholder. Then again, nopony around me seemed to have bothered with clothes so she could have easily been a yomare or even a itinerant lordling for all I knew. That last one seemed likely, who but the nobility would be brave and foolish enough to chase after a mad alicorn? I decided to err on the side of caution. “–fair Applejack.”

“Ah shoot, it ain't nothing.” She gave a curt bow, more appropriate for a burgher, which only further confused our relative rank. “Enjoy yourself now, Princess.” She waved me on my way, and turned to her next customer.

For a moment I stared, unused to the sudden dismissal. Tia made no comment though, so I did not press the issue. “Much has changed,” I observed, under my breath, as we stepped away from the... Applejack’s stall.

“Much for the better in many cases,” Tia replied, with a faint smile on her lips.

I grunted. Around us Ponyville was celebrating, stalls and games had been set up and great tables of food laid out for all to enjoy. Banners proudly proclaimed ‘Happy 1000th Summer Sun Celibra–’ though, every so often, a drunken band would raise a toast to the defeat of Nightmare Moon instead. Those were hastily shushed when they spotted Celestia and myself in the vicinity.

The revelry was refreshingly familiar, though little else was. Everywhere I looked there were little things that were wrong, yet nopony seemed to care. Why did none of the pegasi have a single scrap of armour? Where were the nobility and their fine clothes? When had such a riot of coat colours become the norm? There were alien foods laid out next to drinks I didn’t recognise and served by ponies who bore strange, unidentifiable cutie-marks on their flanks.

A scream echoed across the square followed by an earsplitting bang. I hurled my wings out, spinning around, a hazy shield forming before me as I searched for the monster. Nothing came, instead bright sparks hung in the sky, shining all colours of the rainbow.

“Yahoo!” a little pegasus filly next to me exclaimed. “Fireworks! Awesome!”  

It was the the lack of reaction from the crowd that convinced me that no monster was coming. More of the filly’s ‘fireworks’ screamed into the air, howling like banshees and exploding like battlespells above the village. The peasant ponies cheered, but I found my breath growing short, the world growing cold around me as adrenaline surged through my body.

I startled as Celestia draped a wing over my shoulder.

“Relax,” she said, so softly only I could hear. “Everything is fine. You’ll be fine. The nightmare is over.”

Shuddering, I leaned against my sister, struggling to keep my breathing under control. The apple bobbed in front of my nose, held aloft by Celestia, and I took a shaky bite.

I paused. The taste was awful. The flesh turned to a dry, tasteless powder in my mouth and the skin was so bitter it was chewing on willow bark. Taking the apple in my magic I looked in confusion at the perfect–terrible–fruit.

Tia tittered. “Beauty is only skin deep sometimes.”

It was quite an effort to swallow the dry mass, but it would have been rude to spit it out. “Why dost thou allow such a thing in your orchards?”

“Well, dear Applejack would protest me claiming her orchard as ‘mine’ for one, but the Red Delicious is a very popular fruit. I expect one day soon ponies will realise it has little apart from a pleasant shape, but I’m not going to tell my little ponies what they can put in their fruit bowls.”

I stared at her, my jaw slightly open. Celestia, the pony who had once alphetablised every pantry on our estate in the aim of increased efficiency, was willing to just live and let live? Forget the sparkles that set the sky aflame or the bloated, inedible fruit, Celestia deciding to let things fall as they may was the most shocking thing I could ever imagine.

Chills raced down my spine once again. It was beginning to sink in just how long a thousand years really was. Tia and I had only been in our second century when my incident had taken me from her, now she is more than five times my age. Forget the world, how much could a single pony change over the millennia?

“Celly,” I murmured, trying and failing to keep the petulant whine from my voice. “I want to go home.” Wherever home might be in this crazy world.

She cocked her head. “This is your party, sister. Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine. You’re already home and safe. Come, how about a little music to soothe your nerves? I heard they were setting up a stage.”

She set off at a brisk trot, forcing me to keep up or have the crowd sweep me away. I struggled to keep my breathing under control as the mass of ponies parted around us, trying to focus on the familiar, music would be a good start. I was once known as the Princess of Revelry as well as the Night and there was nothing quite like a fine bard to sooth an injured spirit.

It didn’t take long before I began to regret the decision. I felt the music rather than hear it, the ground buzzing a staccato rhythm like a wild stampede as we approached the makeshift stage. A mare stood behind a pile of black boxes, her eyes obscured by violet eyeglasses. The steady throb paused a moment, then the world exploded with sound. There were no words, nor was there an instrument in sight. Notes spun out of the aether, each crescendo slamming into me like a body blow.

I took a step back, reeling, my breath coming in short, sharp gasps in time to the insane rhythm. I’d never before thought anything could match the din of battle, but the music doubled it at least. My ears pressed flat against my head, a half hearted muffling spell blown away by the sheer volume. The ponies cheered and bobbed and danced amidst the cacophony, their moves as unpredictable and mystifying as the so called music itself. Celestia was smiling, so I assumed that it was intentional, but I had seen ponies under the chaotic lash of Discord move with more grace.

Then, as soon as it had begun, the sound vanished. The pony on stage held up her hoof, and brought it down to point at a second mare. The slate grey pony was far more familiar to my weary senses, holding herself with the grace and poise of a noble-scion, despite her lack of horn. For a moment I was confused, was she perhaps the white mare’s patron? Then, she took up a ridiculously size wooden instrument and a bow and began to play.

The song started slow and put me in mind of a sonorous harp, but no words accompanied the melody. I waited on tenterhooks, hoping for some epic tale to burst form from her lips, but instead, the mare attacked the instrument with her bow. The volume never reached the same deafening levels as her colleague, but I still found myself adrift in a sea of sound as the tempo doubled and doubled again. I shot a pleading look Celestia’s way, in the vain hope she might be able to make sense of the audio assault.

“Oh dear, not even classical?”

“We want to go home,” I repeated, grasping her hoof. “I... I can’t. I can’t do this.”

She stared into my eyes. I feared she would dismiss me, but instead she said, “Okay.”

The next few moments saw me at the center of the politest whirlwind I’d ever seen. Celestia seemed to have mastered the more subtle arts of diplomacy in my absence. Before I really realised what was going on, I’d been placed in front of all the important ponies in residence, said polite nothings to my saviours and shaken more than my fair share of hooves.

It was mystifying, I observed as Tia guided us between two vast peasant houses, how readily she’d taken to diplomacy. I’d always been the patient one when we ruled together, building allies in the noble houses and flattering the yeomarery. My focus on backroom dealings was one of the reasons I fell. Celestia had never had the time nor the patience to manage other ponies, she’d always just brought a keg with her wherever she went and was instantly beloved. Yet here she was, the master diplomat. It was another terrifying realisation of the how far removed I really was.

“Well, hop on,” Celestia said, pausing before an ornate chariot. I’d expected a carriage, but perhaps it was the current fashion. Much to my surprise two pegasi, in the ridiculous golden armour they seemed to favour, buckled themselves in.

“We have never seen pegasi so keen to bind themselves,” I murmured, stepping up alongside Tia. Usually, it would take six strong ponies to bring a pegasus to the ground for more than a moment.

Celestia’s enigmatic smile, the one I was already beginning to loathe, returned. There was a cry from the pegasi and, before I could even wrap my head around what I was seeing, we were in the sky. My wings twitched as the ground fell away beneath us. My horn sparked as I tried to find the spell that had my senses enthralled. When that failed I shifted to try and find the spell that had us a thousand feet in the air.

“Like it?” Celestia inquired, sweetly. “It is made of luftwood, a little pegasus magic and it lifts a dozen times its weight.”

Another shudder wracked me. “Please, just tell us that ye have a bed for us.” I did not care that it was barely two hours after sunrise, I wanted to put my head down and sleep for a week. “How far is our castle? Where is Everfree from here?”

Celestia blinked, then looked away.

A growing dread gripped me. “Sister,” I pressed. “What happened to our seat?”

She shot a guilty look towards the vast forest at our back. It took me a moment to realise why. The mountains were more or less unchanged by the millennium and, despite the smothering carpet of trees, I picked out familiar landmarks. With horror, I stared at the dark and foreboding forest that now blanketed the domain that was once called Everfree.

“I was not a very good caretaker.”

I was sure I’d be angry one day, but instead I just felt numb.

There was nothing left.

There was no hint of the world I once knew. The ponies had moved on. My land had vanished from memory. There would be no bards to sing Cookie’s Lament in great halls. I was lost, like a ship tossed about on the capricious sea of time. Even my sister had left me. Gone was the bawdy warrior princess, gone was her armour and physique. Instead an alien statesmare regarded me.

“I hoped at least that one thing would have remained the same,” I murmured. The ruins I’d so blithely dismissed as some lost barony now came back to me in a rush. It had once been our home. “I’m... I’m somewhat lost, Tia. Where do we head now?”


“That little limestone hillfort?” I asked, frowning. “What possible reason do we have to go there?”

“We–” Celestia paused a beat, before a slight smile overtook her. “–we must see the High Princess.”

“We have a High Princess as well now?” I demanded, rounding on her. “Since when did the Equestrian confederation ever put a single princess above all the others? Since when did you bend knee to anypony?” What mortal had earned Celestia’s loyalty when I could not?

“You’ve missed a lot,” Celestia admitted, with a sigh. “There was once a time when we could just play the Princesses of Everfree, galloping around Equestria righting wrongs and defeating monsters. Equestria was just a bunch of arguing little polities when you left, but now she straddles the continent. We had to have a ruler and I dare say the High Princess filled that role adequately enough.”

“And she rules from rude Canterlot?” I pressed, unable to keep the disdain from my voice. “Do tell me nothing has happened to the bold Bluebloods.”

Celestia winced. “Nothing permanent, no. Though I fear my brave guards may have taken offence to your description of Canterlot. A pony always has a soft spot for their home town.” I let out an annoyed chuff, and an impish smile spread across my sister’s face. “And I do think Canterlot has changed since you last saw it. Look, we’re almost there.”

I looked and my jaw dropped. Canterlot was the biggest city I had ever laid eyes on, bigger even than a dragon’s hold, and far more impressive for its construction by pony hooves. Perched impossibly on the mountainside tall fluted towers reached into the sky, capped with burnished bronze. Each layer of the city reached higher and higher into the sky and there were more turrets than I could ever hope to count. The chariot came in low, darting between those reaching towers and under skybridges. Pegasi flitted in our wake, darting as close as they dared to the carriage and ground bound ponies were cheering, leaning out of windows and leaping up and down in excitement as we passed.

“Very well. We are impressed,” I said, as we, at last, approached the palace. The building could be nothing else, it was vast, easily four times that of The Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters and, much like its city, a medley of towers. The chariot came into land in the broad garden adjacent, coasting to a stop with practiced grace. I found my neck craned backwards as I tried to take it all in.

Celestia’s smirk grew. “I thought you might be. Now follow me, the sooner you meet the High Princess the sooner we can find you a nice soft bed.”

“Ah...” My mood dropped once more. “Yes, that.”

We made our way into the palace and I found myself regretting my earlier dismissal of this High Princess. Anypony, or any family, who could build such a grand city perched on the edge of a mountain deserved no small measure of respect. I found my worries resurfacing, the rapture fading away as we made our way through marble hall after marble hall. How was one even supposed to address a High Princess?

“Tia, why must We meet this High Princess?”

She smiled. “You must be introduced, if we’re to bring back the diarchy, and it’s best not to keep her waiting.”

I frowned. “Why, what would happen if We kept her waiting?”

“That’s best left unsaid.”

“She is not a patient ruler, then?” I inquired, as twinges of doubt gripped me.

“She rules a nation of over two hundred million,” Celestia said, fixing me with a level gaze. “Would you be?”

I blinked first. Two hundred million. I couldn’t even wrap my head around the number, let alone the idea that a single ruler could wield the kind of power. Twenty thousand gryphons had once brought our confederation to its knees. What could even an alicorn do against such numbers? How could the land support so many?

The lofty halls suddenly seemed to gain a threatening air. I couldn’t begin to imagine how anypony conceived of such an edifice, nor what resources the builder could bring to bear. The princes and princesses of Equestria were always a fractious lot, who was to say I wouldn’t just be another monster to banish in her eyes. The chills returned with renewed strength and I found my feathers fluffing.

“Sister,” I began, after a short moment. “Is she a fair ruler?” I was unable to keep the anxiety from my voice.

Celestia frowned, considering for a moment. “Sometimes.”

“That doesn’t sound encouraging. Is she a tyrant?”

“She has been accused of such in her time.” Celestia shook her head sadly. “Don’t worry though, nothing will go wrong.”

I shuddered. “That ye have to say that does not fill us with confidence.”

We paused before the grandest set of golden doors I had ever seen, Celestia pushed me to one side with a wing. “Now, on approaching the Princess. Keep your head low, do not use any magic and bow when you reach the foot of the throne. Understood?”

“Yes,” I said, swallowing the lump in my throat. “Sister, I–”

“No,” she cut in, holding up a primary. “I have to go now to... lay the groundwork. Just wait for us to call you.”

She slipped through the golden portal, barely opening the doors a crack before they slammed shut behind her. I stared at the closed doors, worry bubbling up in my stomach. Within moments I began to pace, my fretting watched only by the pair of guards who stood either side of the door. I had no idea what I would say to this ‘High Princess’, an apology for attempting to bring night eternal perhaps? Would she understand the magics involved and how the Nightmare had claimed me, or just see me as a threat to be disposed of? Once I knew how every pony in Equestria would have jumped, but how did one keep track of two hundred million?

A small waiting area had been set up by the doors and my pacing drew me inevitably to the soft chairs and the low table. A fruit bowl had been set aside, full of those damnable, inedible, apples. In an effort to calm my nerves I took one of the fruits in my magic and split it. A speculative nibble found it to taste just as vile as ever and I tossed it aside before going back to my worry.

Would all of this strange future be like the apple? Cities had vanished. Nations had fallen. Music, once my great love, had passed me by. Even my sister had gone. The calm, pristine princess that had replaced her was just like the apple, a fine veneer, but I missed the brazen mare who wore her heart on her sleeve.

“Princess Luna,” a guard cut in, startling me. “They’re ready for you.”

I took my place before the door, drew and deep breath and bowed my head. The guards swung them wide and I advanced down the red carpet, not daring to look up. I tried vainly to keep my mind focused on the weave and not what awaited me. I wished I had my sister at my side. Not the statesmare, my real sister; the prankster, the warrior, my friend.

I reached the foot of the throne and I dropped into a deep bow.

“Rise, my little pony.”

My head shot up. There on the throne, grinning like a cat that had got into the cream, was Celestia. “Tia!” I exclaimed. “Where’s the High Princess?”

She snorted. “As they say in these modern times. Got'cha!”

Moments later she was on her hooves and fleeing for a side door, her foalish giggles echoing through the empty hall. I was hot on her heels and bellowing profanities and threats, much to the bemusement of her guards.

I should have known it was a trap. I burst through the doorway and ran head first into a cloud of hovering apples, stumbling as I managed to spit one on my horn. Celestia’s infernal laugh filled my ears as I staggered on three hooves, trying to dislodge the fruit.

“Tia, I’m going to–”

I found myself swept up into a broad hug, pressed between the cool metal of Celestia’s raiments and the comforting warmth of her primaries. “You used to duck,” she pointed out, a wry smile on her face.

“You...” I began, sputtering with rage. I couldn’t hold onto that anger, though, not in the face of Celestia’s infectious laugh and apple bobbing around on my horn. “You... Menace.” Chuckles began to escape me and I wrapped my forelegs around my sister, holding her tight as if she might vanish into the mists, like everything else.

“I’m so happy to see you home, Luna,” she said, her voice catching in her throat.

I nodded, scrunching my eyes shut so she wouldn’t see the tears welling up in them. “I’m so happy that it's still here.”