Obiter Dicta

by GhostOfHeraclitus

Songs Like Snow

Songs Like Snow

a romantic interlude

For Ferret

In defiance of natural law, the sky over the Crystal Empire is simply bigger than anywhere else.

Dotted stood on the snow-swathed steps, head craned up, his breath misting in front of him. He sighed, momentarily wreathing himself in vapor which streamed upwards. The conference had crawled into its third day, Hearthwarming loomed, and, as midnight approached, there was still no sign of accord. The Griffins—or was it the Yaks? Equestrians? The Diamond Dog Imperial Remnant which was unaccountably invited?—couldn’t agree on this proposition—or was it that one?—and felt insulted—or was it threatened?—by its mere mention, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

It was all rather a blur. One not even tea could make clear.

He didn’t leave the conference so much as he was spat out, chewed up and reeling. Was this why he joined the Service? Why he left home? He felt drained far more than sleeplessness and hours of arguing might account for. They weren’t making peace here. They weren’t making “steps” towards it, no matter what Spinny wrote in her increasingly imaginative dispatches. They weren’t making much of anything. Just running one step ahead of disaster, just like he always did.

He descended to the wide balcony below, thick coat bristling against the chill, and stood by the balustrade, scanning the horizon. There was not much on it. The ponies of the Crystal Empire were all asleep. Wise of them. He felt a pang, like something nestling uncomfortably in his breast. He missed Canterlot. He missed the fireworks. He missed the ponies there. He missed… something. There was an unexpected emptiness that unsettled him. He shook the feeling off. Tried to.

Dotted glanced back at the warmly glowing windows of the Winter Palace, and pricked up his ears. The shouting had stopped and now he could hear… yes. A distinct low murmur of somepony trying to explain. Oh dear. That won’t end well. More shouting. The expensive sound of a claw slamming onto a lacquerwork table. Dotted winced and looked away. He’d stay here a while yet. He couldn’t face the conference. Not now. Maybe out here, in the peace and the snow, he’d find the reason why he did this job in the first place. Why he left.

He wiped snow off the balustrade and leaned on it, inspecting the outlines of the Crystal Empire’s stark landscape, dimly visible under starlight. Sharp peaks and sloping valleys carved by glaciers. Desolate, but beautiful. He had been standing like this for a while when he felt a fluttering touch on his cheek. Then another. He looked up. It was snowing, the flakes tiny and bone dry.

He had spent a few moments looking up, flakes settling on his coat, when he heard a gentle hoof-fall behind him. He turned and saw, standing on the steps, Ambassador Mkali Walidahani, the leader of the Zebrica delegation. She was tall and ramrod straight and wrapped head-to-hoof in a cloak of sea-silk dyed in intricate patterns. In a scene all in tones of black, white, and gold, she was the sole splash of color. She descended a few steps, avoiding the drifts of snow with unconscious grace, and stood beside Dotted, almost—but not quite—close enough to touch.

She was as striking and beautiful as Dotted remembered her, but up close he could—just—see the tracery of fault lines and cracks in her facade. This place was getting to her too. Lost at the edge of the world, pushing the same damn boulder up the hill. The interests of Zebrica and Equestria didn’t always align but Dotted still thought of Mkali of being, fundamentally, on his side. On the side of not having a war for no damned reason. Of making peace. Of finding common ground. Of pushing that boulder, despite everything. Even when you aren’t sure why you are doing it anymore.

They shared a moment of companionable but brittle silence and then Mkali spoke.

“I can’t believe that I thought Canterlot was cold.”

“Mm. Pride as a Northisle native rather demands me to dismiss this as ‘a bit nippy,’ but just between us, it’s utterly freezing.”

“It doesn’t get any colder than this I hope?,” Mkali said, giving him a smile polished from constant use.

“Not anywhere ponies live, I don’t think. We just about ran out of north getting here.”

There was another silence as they stood, looking up wordlessly. Dotted was struck with how… sad she looked half in moonlight and half in lamplight. And how beautiful. There was something about it that reminded him of classical statues locked in poses of ostentatiously noble suffering, though he’d rather not say so out loud.

“Any progress in there,” he asked, mentally changing the subject.

“No. Maybe,” Mkali sighed, “I do not know, Mr. Secretary. I fear we are accomplishing very little little. Here and… Well. No. No progress. No sign of it, either.”

“Yakistan still won’t give up the claim over Meltwater Gorge?”

“Point of honor,” Mkali said, a familiar sharpness cutting through the fatigue, “It’s in everyone’s best interest, of course, but the Yaks won’t allow it because they imagine a fortress there lets them project force into Whitefeather. Idiots. The Griffins keep at least two regiments there at all times.”

“Three now,” said Dotted, nodding. His brain was working a bit better now, tracing the well-worn paths of intelligence reports and speculation. He was certainly not thinking of classical statuary, nor of that very peculiar glint Mkali’s eyes got when she thought carefully about something.

It was probably for the best.

“Mm. 643rd Hussars,” Mkali asked, eyes slitted with concentration.

“Information or educated guess?”

“Now? Both,” she said, with a tight smile, “my compliments to your advance scouts. Either way, if they try to move past the Border of 889 they’ll cause a war—a real war, not this posturing nonsense—and lose terribly to the ruin of us all. Meltwater is, I believe, forty percent of the nickel trade?”

“Forty-three according to my very worried economics advisers,” Dotted said nodding. He had lost the vision of Mkali as some mythological beauty, caught halfway between shadows and light. It was like one of those optical illusions Spinny was so obsessed with. He’d blinked once too many times, perhaps, and now he couldn’t see it anymore. Just Mkali doing what she did best, eyes gleaming as she teased some measure of truth out of chaos. Dotted found he could not tell if he missed the vision or not.

“A nightmare. Especially for the steelworks in Griffonstan. And if they bloody their nos—beaks there, they’ll seek to make good the lack. If the imbeciles at court win—always a safe bet—they’ll do it by attacking you. You win but at the cost of general mobilization which means the food production drops, which means we can’t import it, which means—,” Mkali cut herself off, waving a hoof, “It never stops at just one place, does it? And even if we get them to agree this time, what’s the point? We’ll be back at this same table before long. This is the fifth time we’ve met over this, after all.”


Mkali made an expressive though difficult to describe gesture indicating something between resigned acceptance and august dismissal.

“Sixth then. And there’ll be a seventh time, too. Tenth. Hundredth. On the matter of peace on Epona, Mr. Secretary, I am past cynicism and hurtling towards utter apathy. Sometimes I wonder…”

She stopped herself, and made a short twitchy nod, as if shooing a thought away. There was more silence as they both looked at the snow, sneaking the occasional glance to the side, as if to confirm that the other hadn’t left.

The snow was picking up now but Dotted found he couldn’t take the same measure of solace in watching it as before. Mkali’s words wouldn’t leave him, nor the sight of her with her flames banked, her eyes oddly cold. She was right. That was the worst of it. How many times had they met like this? And what had they done? If anything the interminable, terrifying, Northern Griffonstan crisis had gotten worse, and all they did was prolong it all. Draw out the inevitable war. He glanced at Mkali and saw that she was looking at the snow with an oddly wistful air. She seemed herself again, and Dotted found himself sneaking a glance more and more often.

“They used to think they were songs, you know,” Mkali said suddenly. Dotted started and looked away into the falling snow, feeling as if he had been caught in something.


“The snow. Zebrica is too far south for any significant snowfall,” she said, looking out at the snowflakes with a wistful air, “in the lowlands, at least, but it does happen on the taller peaks, Nyeupe Kilele especially.”

Dotted Line stayed silent, but turned to look at Mkali as she spoke. Her eyes were half-closed, eyelashes glinting with snowflakes, but her ears were pricked up, and she was tense as if she was listening intently for something. Voices from within? Some response from him? A fragment of song on the wind? Dotted suddenly felt cold.

“The first zebras who lived there believed each snowflake was a fragment of a song,” she said turning to him, “because when you sang your song would stream heavenward. In time, they thought, winds would swirl the songs around the peak of Nyeupe Kilele, and they would freeze the breath in it into jewels that reflected the beauty of the songs. The snowfall was important to them, as their orchards and downlands were irrigated by meltwater, and so every winter they would form up on the slopes, they would look up, and they would sing. Their descendants still do it, in the more remote valleys. I’ve seen it as a student. More than once. I… I never sang with them, though.”

She opened her eyes, and fixed Dotted with a look he could not decipher. The sight of her, though, flushed, coat glittering with stray snowflakes, with her misting breath curling around her like a shawl would stay with him, flitting through his mind at the oddest times.

“I didn’t think about it for the longest time, but I now live in Equestria and every time I see snow I remember them. I remember the songs, and I have to fight the urge to throw open the windows and sing. To make good the lack. To make up for how timid I was, back then. I was… afraid. Self conscious. I didn’t know the songs, the people. I was afraid of what the mountain might say. Foolishness,” Mkali sighed, “But, ah, an ambassador can’t be seen singing to an empty sky like a madmare, now can she? There would be talk. And I’m older and—in theory—wiser, and we all have our roles to play, don’t we Mr. Secretary?”

An unutterable sadness passed over her face, then, like a cloud over the moon. Gone before you noticed it. That sadness, too, stayed with Dotted, even longer. We all have our roles indeed, he thought. We all sit here parroting the right words in the right manner. In the interests of peace. In the interests of diplomacy. In the interest of propriety. Trapped in cages of occasion and circumstance, drowned in so many compromises we can’t even remember why we do this. He sighed.

“It must have been quite a sight, Your Excellency,” he said, the quiet brittleness of his voice surprising him, “All those zebras, singing, the sky vast and open above them, the songs, like snow, settling thickly around them. “

“It was.”

More sadness. Even quicker, this time, more like a shimmer on the surface of still water, but unmistakably there. Just look at her, Dotted thought. Torn over a song. All that power, that brilliance, that drive, and yet trapped all the same. Over a song! Every night in Canterlot, a thousand ponies—at least!—staggered drunkenly home pausing to serenade the Moon, but not Mkali. Not me. Not us serious ponies, Dotted thought. Ours is to do what must be done and—that’s it.

There was a long silence, as they stood, looking sometimes at each other, sometimes through each other, as if looking for something. Dotted found himself lost for words.

The wind picked up and howled in the gorges below them. Having stormed up the mountain, it broke over the walls of the palace walls with a sound like a giant’s sigh. The lamps set in their wrought-iron holders shivered at the force of it, and behind Dotted and Mkali their shadows danced in the snow for just a moment.

To hell with it, Dotted thought, resolved. We’ve got souls too.

Without warning, half surprising even himself, Dotted looked up at the sky and began to sing. His mind reached for a song and the first thing it found was his childhood and misty mornings, standing atop a green hill, looking east.

Adoramus te, Sol
et benedicimus tibi
quia per sanctum cornum tuum
illuminavisti mundum.
Quae passa privationem es pro nobis
Domina, Domina, miserere nobis.

Mkali started at first, surprised, then it seemed that the weight of years fell from her shoulders suddenly, and she looked up, too, and sang. Dotted could not understand the words—he did not speak the Nyeupe Kilele dialect—but it did not matter. The song was beautiful. And eyes dancing, coat gleaming with refracted lamplight so was Mkali. She sang with abandon head thrown back, grinning fiercely.

Baldly ignoring the rules of harmony, the two songs—a half-forgotten hymn directed at a goddess who did not want it, and an ancient call to a god who could not hear it—meshed together perfectly, all the same. They spiraled up to the heavens, together, and, in due course and according to legend, they made snow.

When they were done Mkali turned to him and smiled—and that smile was nothing like the one he’d seen earlier. It was warm and playful, containing equal measures of humor and glee. The sight of her: smiling, cheeks flushed and eyes afire—that never left him.