• Published 8th Sep 2013
  • 799 Views, 20 Comments

At what price? - Cozy Mark IV



Only Star Swirl the Bearded knows how to save her friends from the reaper, but he has a dark secret of his own. Twilight knows something he doesn't, but could it be enough? And why did Princess Celestia just send a new Guard Captain to Ponyville

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Pressures

Chapter Seven: Pressures

Twilight Sparkle really needed a break from socially-challenged mages, rodents and the relatively shocking revelations of otherwise normal (for a given value of normal,) couturiers for a while. The visit with Rarity hadn’t really been so much stressful as heart-to-heart once Star Swirl had left, but it had still yielded a lot of new information about her friend that Twilight really needed to mull over and mentally organize. The fact that Rarity was a bit more…cosmopolitan in her personal life was actually relatively unsurprising, but the fact that her background was almost entirely different than from what she’d implied and her elemental generosity almost certainly among the results of a loving but deprived fillyhood, well…

It begged a lot of questions about nature, nurture and what really made ponies tick. Also, exactly how much of an effect did your background have on you, really?

Twilight found a seat at the café in Ponyville and ordered a daffodil sandwich and a bottomless coffee, knowing that she would be there, thinking, for at least half an hour.

Twilight’s own parents had never really indicated anything one way or the other about money. She had never wanted for anything growing up, certainly, but then, she had never asked for anything really expensive save the School for Gifted Unicorns, and tuition wound up not being an issue thanks to her scholarship. Her mother Twilight Velvet was a reasonably successful author and her father had a reasonably high-level management position in Princess Celestia’s meritocratic civil service. She knew that her parents didn’t work with their hooves for a living, weren’t nobility and weren’t really either poor or rich…and yet, she realized now that they had raised their colt and filly on an income probably four, maybe even five times that of Rarity’s family, with a lot more free time after work.

That was a harsh realization, but the arrival of her coffee helped smooth the blow.

Was it really any wonder that Rarity, who had grown up with so little, took such delight and pride in sharing whatever she had? How might less or more in the way of resources change a pony for good or ill? Twilight suddenly realized exactly why Rarity had intentionally changed her speech (it was obviously not a natural accent, given how her parents and Sweetie Belle spoke by comparison,) gone to such extremes to be accepted in Canterlot’s high society and why, perhaps, she placed such a high emphasis on etiquette and gentility.

For a pair of retail drudges’ whelp to even dream of owning her own business and moving in ‘the better class’ of social circles must have seemed nearly unthinkable even in the Princesses’ allegedly-egalitarian society. Rarity had also seen, first-hand, the difference between wealth and nobility. Wealth was building a fourteen-bedroom mansion while one’s employees lived in squalid hovels. Nobility was investing one’s wealth in such a way that even as it grew and enriched one’s own coffers, it gave fair wages and decent employment to many. Surely the real nobility of Canterlot must be better than the wealthiest family in Ponyville, and as such, Rarity affected the mannerisms and etiquette appropriate to whatever conception of the former could be found in books.

(The waiter refilled Twilight’s coffee.)

Of course, not having actually been to Canterlot until she was an adult and having only the class-flattering novels such nobles enjoyed and never quite lived up to for her template, was it any wonder that Prince Blueblood’s entitled idiocy or the profound superficiality of the Canterlot elite had come as surprises to the white unicorn? She had expected goodness to match the manners, respect to match the etiquette and for being ennobled to mean one actually was noble.

Poor Rarity couldn’t possibly have known, prior to actually going to Canterlot and seeing what passed for nobility, that there were more noble qualities to be found in the dirt of the Apple family’s farm than the entire Grand Galloping Gala.

To Twilight, the nobility had just been among the other ponies her parents sometimes had over for dinner or went to parties with. Some of them were complete assholes, some of them were kind, competent or some combination thereof, and some were just a bit boring. The fact that Fancy Pants was a baronet simply never occurred to her. She thought of him as the nice practically-uncle who’d brought her a complete set of the Baroness Orczy’s novels for her tenth birthday and whom her father was always posed next to in the picture postcards they sent home from business trips. The fact that Prince Blueblood was a prince-of-the-blood and Equestrian minor royalty only mattered insomuch as that after meeting him for a playdate arranged by their mothers, ten-year-old Twilight had completely rewritten her very first adventure novel so that the handsome prince died of amoebic dysentery in the first act and the heroine instead wound up with the pirate captain she had previously intended for comic relief.

(The waiter, coming to refill Twilight’s coffee again, asked if she might like to try the zucchini fries with her sandwich. She thought that sounded delightful and requested a side order of same and a bottle of ketchup.)

And the ambassador Grand Duke von Cloppinghof, while a bit dull at times, could be counted on to furnish more than three-quarters of one’s homework if one merely listened to him, took notes and remembered to look up every book he recommended. Twilight’s mother had shot her so many grateful looks for keeping the pony other nobles regarded as ‘the old bore’ busy, but with everything from history to military tactics to tax policy to learn, how could Twilight not enjoy such a knowledgeable old pony’s company?

That reminded her of Star Swirl. While Twilight had never, as far as she could recall, entertained a crush on dear, grandfatherly von Cloppinghof, she did, in moments of complete personal honesty, have to acknowledge that she didn’t really see age as a barrier to interesting conversation or, perhaps, a bit more than that. She routinely had far more interesting conversations with little Scootaloo, who was trying valiantly to read anything and everything Rainbow Dash had read the preceding week, than with the ponies her own age who came in for various different books and never seemed to want to discuss any of them. And she looked forward to the Thursday night murder-mystery book club, populated almost entirely by senior citizens and headed by Matilda Donkey and Granny Smith, more than any other social activity in which her best friends weren’t involved. (And Rainbow Dash really did stand a good chance of joining that, as soon as ‘Daring Do and the Cat Among the Pigeons’ was published. Twilight Velvet had been letting her daughter proofread her manuscripts for some years now.)

Age really wasn’t a barrier to friendship, Twilight knew, but if one wasn’t necessarily going to die, exactly whom but an immortal sorcerer really entered into one’s dating pool? Star Swirl the Bearded had been a hero of hers for many years. Then he showed up and turned out to be a flawed, equine pony just like everypony else. Obviously he wasn’t right for her now, but really, what other choices did she have, when normal lifespans and immortal ones were contrasted? Sure, she had considered it, been briefly kinda-sorta amenable, then realized exactly why that would never work…but after another thousand years or so of loneliness, who knew what she might consider just to end the feeling of being so totally alone?

“Princess Twilight Sparkle,” a voice intruded upon her dismal reverie. Twilight looked up and almost flinched at the sight of an orange, blue-maned pony bowing with his Royal Guard helmet removed and tucked under his hoof. “I apologize for intruding. Might this be a good time to present my Royal Warrant and place myself at your disposal?”

“Dis-disposal?” Twilight gasped.

Flash Sentry, Lieutenant of Princess Celestia’s Royal Guard. Inexplicably orange and unspeakably handsome guardspony about whom (in moments of complete personal honesty,) Twilight had to admit to having entertained certain…thoughts about, especially after the confusing and frankly worldview-altering events of her Quest Beyond the Mirror, as the palace historians were so fond of terming it.

And why, exactly, did she still hear the sound of that weird electromechanical instrument the human Flash Sentry had been fond of, every time she saw the pony version?

“Yes, ma’am,” the pegasus replied. “I am to present my credentials as Their Royal Majesties’ appointed Commander of the Guard here in Ponyville.” He grinned shyly and gestured to the scroll. “But we don’t have to go through all the fuss now if it isn’t convenient. May I meet you at the Golden Oaks Library, at a time of your choosing?”

“Er…no.” ‘Why did I say that?’ Twilight thought wildly. “That is, won’t you…join me for lunch, Commander?”

“I’d be delighted, ma’am. Though it is, technically, Lef’tenant, until such time as you accept my credentials and provide my first assignment as Guard Commander.”

That voice. That mane. That orange coat…

“Credentials accepted. You are hereby assigned to order something and then we can go from there,” Twilight gasped, tucking the scroll into her saddlebag and speaking so rapidly she was both surprised the Lieutenant could understand a word and a little offended at the knowing look the waiter gave them both.

“A daffodil sandwich and zucchini fries, please,” Flash Sentry informed the waiter, with a nod.

“Anything to drink, sir?”

“Carrot juice, if you have it.”

“Very good, sir, right away.”

And they were once again alone.

“So…Commander,” Twilight began, “did Princess Celestia mention what duties she had in mind for you here in Ponyville?”

“Surveillance of the EverFree Forest was part of it,” Flash Sentry explained with a smile. “I’m also to examine the badlands south of town for signs of Diamond Dog incursions, there’s a small budget for improving the Ponyville Volunteer Fire Department and she mentioned that conducting a series of fire, earthquake and disaster drills with the citizens would be a good idea.”

“Ponyville could certainly do with some better preparedness,” Twilight agreed, thinking of a few incidents in just the past year or so.

“I expect so. We’ll be seeing a lot of each other, then.”

“…We will?”

“The best organizer Winter Wrap-Up had ever seen and co-savior of Equestria, the Element of Magic herself? Really, Princess, I’ve been looking forward to working with you ever since Her Majesty issued my marching orders.” The dashing pegasus grinned. “If nothing else, it’ll be nice to have a second pair of eyes on the paperwork. You wouldn’t believe how many lists there are in disaster preparedness…”

“I’m good at lists,” Twilight agreed in a tiny voice before really wishing she hadn’t.

“Your reputation as a civil planner does precede you. I did want to ask, though, is there anything you consider an especial priority, public safety-wise?”

“There is a Timberwolf problem in the EverFree,” Twilight explained.

“I see,” Flash Sentry’s expression went serious and he withdrew a map from his saddlebags. “Do you suppose the landowners adjoining the EverFree might be amenable to installing some safety fencing and perhaps a few surveillance towers? I have a rather larger budget at my disposal for funding such works, but I find that obtaining property owners’ buy-in for necessary civic improvements tends to help. We installed windmills on the surveillance posts near Bitsburgh and the ponies there were so happy, they granted the Crown a perpetual lease on the posts and adjoining fence.”

“Well, most of the land adjoining the EverFree Forest belongs to the Apple family,” Twilight gestured to the map with her hoof. “I’d almost guarantee they can be persuaded to allow fencing and surveillance towers, provided it doesn’t interfere with their crops or cost them too much out-of-pocket.”

“What if I arranged for the new metal-pipe fencing? If we plumbed it together just so, we could give them far more in the way of irrigation options in addition to greater protection from the creatures of the EverFree?”

“That might work really well.” Twilight was pleasantly surprised by Flash Sentry’s grasp of both politics and technology. It hadn’t occurred to her that a pony so handsome, with the dashing armor of the Royal Guard, might also be remarkably interesting to talk to. “I didn’t know the metal-pipe fencing could actually be plumbed to carry water.”

“Oh, it can,” Flash Sentry agreed. “We hit on the idea when we were forced to improvise a blockade during the last Changeling invasion. There wasn’t time to fabricate straight tubing, so we acquired some off-the-shelf plumbing pipes and fittings from a Canterlot hardware store. The resulting fence was a complete circuit, so to give it additional weight without a corrosion risk, one of the Royal Corps suggested filling the pipework with a combination of water and chromium.”

“Trivalent or hexavalent?”

“Oh, trivalent. There were civilians nearby!” Flash Sentry smiled. “It turns out that the Changelings’ magic is just ion-reactive enough to cause an electroplating reaction and just vampiromorphic enough to rebound off a chromed surface, though, so the plumbed fencing was actually far more effective than expected. We can actually block some of their attacks with the new mirrored shields they’re developing in Q Branch now.”

The waiter appeared and set a large glass of carrot juice before Flash Sentry and their sandwiches and zucchini fries before them. Twilight and Flash both thanked him before he officiously disappeared once again.

“But I don’t mean to bore you with a lot of technical details,” Flash looked at his sandwich sheepishly, a blush starting on his cheeks.

“Not at all!” Twilight interjected, before blushing and looking down at her own sandwich. They remained like that for a second or so before both attempting to talk at once.

“You first,” Flash nodded.

“No, you.”

“Well, er…I…I suppose that’s one of the more immediate applications of recent Corps technology,” he explained.

“Corps? I thought you were a lef’tenant in Princess Celestia’s Royal Guard.”

“Oh, yes. Specifically, the Royal Corps of Engineers,” Flash explained. “I had the privilege of helping to introduce modern plumbing, drainage and …sanitary facilities to the Crystal Empire recently, so…you’ll pardon me for having pipes and pressure valves on the brain just a bit.”

“Is that why you were there during the Summit?”

“Yes, exactly. My specialty is actually surveillance and early-warning defense systems, but some of the Corps’ best ponies haven’t quite recovered from injuries sustained in the Changeling Invasion yet. I was only brevetted to Lieutenant Commander during the Siege of Canterlot, truth be told, and I’m fairly certain I’d never have been Acting Commander for so long if it weren’t for the hoofpower shortage.”

“I’m familiar with lieutenants; they outrank warrant officers and are just below a captain, correct?”

“In the land-based services, yes; though the Corps of Engineers uses the naval rank system. Lef’tenant is equivalent to Captain, Lt. Commander is like a Major and Commander is the same as Lt. Colonel.”

“I think I understand it now,” Twilight agreed. “So you’ve had two promotions recently.”

“Yes’m.”

“May I ask a completely rude question?” she tilted her head to one side.

“Absolutely, ma’am.” Flash Sentry smiled. He really did have a nice smile.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of the Royal Guard have white or gray coats. I’ve never seen an officer with an orange coat before. Why is that?”

“Coat powder, ma’am,” Flash smiled. “Not a rude question at all, actually. The Royal Guard, the Royal Aerial Battalion and the Royal Coast Guardians all wear coat powder on dress occasions and when serving at the Palace. The Royal Navy and by extension the Royal Construction Battalion and Corps of Engineers, do not. It was actually one of the reasons I chose this particular service branch.”

“Really?” Twilight Sparkle restrained a giggle. “I never realized the guardsponies powdered their coats. It makes sense of course, though Shining Armor never did mention it. But given that he’s already white-coated…”

“Yes’m,” Flash agreed. “It’s a tradition, and while it started for mere aesthetic reasons, I understand that it does provide a certain anonymity. Guardsponies could be bribed or their families targeted by enemy combatants or attempted saboteurs, but not if nopony knows who they are. So the coat powder is actually fairly important to national security.”

“So…why is it that the Corps of Engineers and Construction Battalion don’t wear it?”

“The Royal Navy doesn’t, and the Corps and Battalion are part of the Navy, officially.” Twilight gave Flash a look and he clarified. “I expect coat powder and moist sea air are somewhat incompatible.”

“Oh! So it washes off!”

“More like ‘turns into a sticky mess akin to bread dough,’” Flash explained. “And as for why I do not personally wear it, even when I am temporarily assigned to the Court of the Crystal Empire where inter-service dress uniform is appropriate…” the military pony shrugged and swallowed a bite of sandwich. “Fact is, Princess, I’m allergic to coat powder. Break out in a rash within five minutes, welts and throat-closing, the works. I was offered a place in the Guard after the Academy, but chose the Corps for my health and the good of my brother soldiers. No sense dragging the unit down with my own failings. Sometimes we simply have to be what we are, and if that changes what we become, well…so be it.” He took another bite of sandwich, chewed and swallowed. “I’ve shocked you, haven’t I?”

“Actually, not at all.” Twilight suddenly felt as if she’d known Flash Sentry for years. “I’m allergic to some kinds of nuts, myself, rash and everything. And I didn’t learn to like formal ball gowns until I met Rarity –she’s the Element of Generosity, you know, does beautiful couture designs even I can love.
And it sounds like you’re a perfectly splendid fit for the Corps of Engineers, Commander.”

“It is kind of you to say, Princess.”

“Call me Twilight.”

“And you must call me Flash. The food here is really quite splendid, isn’t it? Makes the castle commissary seem fairly bland by comparison.”

“I remember the castle commissary as the most boring place I’ve ever eaten,” Twilight smiled. “Shining Armor invited me to lunch sometimes and we’d eat there between his drills and my classes. The mashed potatoes were fairly good, but what they did to grilled mushrooms!”

“Someday I must prepare my old drill sergeant’s Portobello pub sandwiches for you. He used to marinate the tops of two mushrooms per cadet in butter, fresh garlic and cracked pepper with just a splash of red wine, then grill them and serve them on whole-wheat buns with hand-cut potato fries and such a sauce: honey mustard and four different kinds of cheese. It made up for everything dreadful he ever made us do in training and tasted, I promise you, like something the Princesses made.” Flash Sentry sighed wistfully. “The old devil’s retired now and finally opened up the café he always wanted in Bitsburgh. Serves the fries right on the sandwiches, and a glass of lager this big to go with it,” the Commander gestured to indicate a glass as tall as the distance from hoof to elbow.

“Do you like cooking?”

“A little; that is, I can make a few things.”

“I’m really not very good at it,” Twilight admitted. “Spike, he’s my dragon, he loves to bake, but that’s mostly recipes with gems in them. I mostly eat in cafés or make up a batch of noodle soup.”

“Do you mean hoofmade noodles or the hard kind you can get in stores?”

“There’s a hoofmade kind?”

“Oh, yes. Hoof-rolled noodles are actually one of the things I used to make in the Academy after…various infractions. Between rolling noodles and peeling potatoes, your average Guardspony is actually quite the scullery foal.”

“I’m going to remember that,” Twilight smiled. “So we have to ask Applejack about the plumbed irrigation fence; how about the Ponyville Volunteer Fire Department?”

“I’d like to see their building and facilities. It may be that they don’t need much, or we may need to increase the enrollment and improve their equipment substantially. Hard to say at this point; all I had to go on was the annual reports.”

“Are those not comprehensive enough?”

“They gave me a good idea of the organization’s accomplishments, budget and resources, but that’s only on paper. No substitute for seeing it in person.”

“That’s a good point,” Twilight nodded. “To go by the annual reports, the Golden Oaks library was perfectly organized before I got here.”

“I take it the library…er…wasn’t?”

“Well…for a given value of organized. The librarian’s position had been empty for so long, and since the only volunteers were senior citizens and students from Ponyville’s public school, they’d decided to organize the books alphabetically…by title. Fiction, nonfiction, reference, they made no distinctions. The biggest section they had was Books that Begin with ‘The.’ I found adventure stories next to medical reference books and dictionaries next to fillies and colts’ genre fiction.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope! It was pretty bad. Took Spike and I almost a whole week to sort it out properly, and then the card catalogue…” the alicorn trailed off with a rueful smile.

“Could you use a directed shuffle spell?”

“That’s what I wound up having to do, but those are only about eighty percent accurate at the best of times. Still, we got it done. Annual reports, my hoof!”

“Suddenly, I really feel like going to meet your friend at the Apple farm and letting the horrible revelations wait awhile.”

“I think that sounds like a lot of fun,” Twilight sighed, before realizing how silly her tone sounded and coughing slightly. “And if you’d like, I could give you a proper tour.”

“I would like a tour very much. But first, Prin- Twilight,” Flash smiled again. “May I ask you an exceedingly rude question also?”

“…Of course.”

“How good are you with those new wings so far?”

_______________________________

Star Swirl had never been so upset. And the day had been going so well, too…

The innkeeper was perfectly happy to extend his stay and accepted the bits for two weeks’ reservation gratefully. However, the younger colt with a receptionist’s bell for a cutie mark who wrote up his receipt had rather tactlessly asked about the reason for the veil, and rather than risk the innkeeper’s firing the young fellow, Star Swirl had quickly insisted that he took no offense. He decided to be as honest as was reasonably possible and explained that he’d sustained some serious injuries and needed to keep them away from light and public view. “So as not to offend lady mares’ sensibilities,” he added confidentially, and the two ponies at the desk nodded and expressed their sympathies.

They also insisted on treating him to a complimentary drink in the hotel’s tavern, even though it was barely lunchtime. Star Swirl knew that most ponies no longer drank alcohol during daylight hours unless they were on holiday and that the ubiquitous ‘small beer’ of his day had been replaced by clean water and a plethora of soft beverages. But he was in a hotel, why not accept the kind gesture and enjoy a bit of a holiday? So he accepted on the condition they each have a glass as well, and when they’d each shared a story, he shared a perennial classic of an old anecdote that soon had them both laughing.

Fermentation and especially distillation technology had improved wonderfully in the past few hundred years. Only the rats nearest his veil’s edge could sip the delicious liqueur, but by feigning a sore neck and rubbing the place where they were rotating out with his hoof occasionally, and taking very tiny sips, Star Swirl was able to spread the effect over enough of his component rodents to retain the greater part of his sobriety. Strangely, this was also how the innkeeper and bell-captain sipped theirs slowly. His manners must be up-to-date then.

The Innkeeper was soon prompted to share a story, then the young bell captain shared an amusing little tale of a mishap with the elevator. It had been the colt’s own fault, which he readily admitted, but the funny part involved explaining to the inconvenienced guests that it was his second day on the job. It seemed the service professions were no longer treated with the respect Star Swirl had been accustomed to, so he expressed the opinion that the guest who’d insulted the bell-captain’s mother over the incident was a bad hat.

“Still, you must get all sorts in your line of work,” he observed with a bit more cheer. “At the hotel where I stayed in North Zebrica, I saw a perfectly dreadful pony haranguing the zebra at the desk be-cause the travel brochure had neglected to mention that international travel frequently puts one into contact with ponies and zebras one might consider foreigners and that the sand of the desert can get into one’s shoes if one’s not careful. Dreadful bad show, I thought, and rather a stupid thing to say.”

“He seriously thought everypony would look like him?”

“Yes. I don’t think it was a case so much of specism as profound culture-shock. It’s very easy to start feeling hostile when one’s in a new place and out of one’s depth. They managed to calm him down, thank goodness. But still, it’s funny to think of a tourist being so very clueless as to what travel might be like.”

“We had a group in from Manehattan who were simply shocked at the lack of streetcars in Ponyville.”

“And the Griffons are always so disappointed when we don’t have any meat on the menu –well, except for that one fellow, you remember, the thin Griffon?”

“The vegetarian, yes!” the innkeeper agreed. “Delightful fellow, comes to Ponyville every so often to buy apples and the like. Spends an absolute fortune on food when he’s in town, and last time he brought three other Griffonish vegetarians on what I think was a gourmet tour.”

“They spent enough at Sugarcube Corner for the Cakes to replace the roof.”

“And so good-natured!” the innkeeper gushed. “Half our waitresses were out with the ponypox and Prompt Service here was filling in for as many as he could, when he mixed up the Griffon party’s order. They told him not to worry, they’d eat it as well, and then they tried to pay for all three entrees.”

“They must’ve been really hungry.”

“Well, sometimes I like to eat a bit more than usual when I’m taking a special holiday,” Star Swirl agreed. “Speaking of, this is some of the finest brandy I’ve had in years. Notes of cinnamon and even clove, with a lovely aroma of apples.”

“It’s the Apple Family’s special reserve,” Prompt Service explained. “They make it right here in town, distilled from hard cider made of locally-grown apples. You can’t get more authentic or more local.”

“It’s like pouring a glass of Ponyville,” the innkeeper nodded. “They do make some that’s even better, but the Apples never sell it. They give it away for Hearth’s Warming Eve each year.”

“That’s awfully good of them.” Star Swirl smiled.

“Just their way of saying thank-you to all their friends and folks they do business with,” the innkeeper nodded. “I know you’re not from around these parts, but if’n you like it here and decided to stay in Ponyville or maybe purchase a summer home, my daughter Cotton works for our local realtor. She and Closing Cost could probably find you something just right.” The innkeeper took out a business card with a picture of a cute young mare in the corner and Star Swirl accepted it.

“Actually, that does sound pretty good. Does she ever handle leases?”

“I believe she does, though there’s not as many properties to let as there used to be. She might also be able to arrange a vacation rental if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Perfect. I’m enjoying the hotel very much, but it seems as though my business may keep me in Po-nyville for some time longer.”

“Are you going to be in town for Nightmare Night?” Prompt Service asked.

“…What is that?” Star Swirl was confused. “I’d heard it mentioned, but I’m afraid I’ve never been to such a celebration.”

“Oh, you must be from pretty far afield not to know about Nightmare Night!” the innkeeper clapped the table with a hoof, grinning. “It’s a wonderful holiday, fillies and colts look forward to it all year long. The whole town throws a carnival with games and food, candy for everypony, there’s music and dancing for the grown-ups…”

“And everyone dresses up in costumes!” the bellpony added.

“So a kind of autumnal masquerade,” Star Swirl nodded, feeling a bit more on familiar ground. “That does sound rather nice.”

“Yes, all the little fillies and colts dress in costume and go door-to-door, pleading for candy. Everypony gives them some, and at the end of the night they go to the statue of Nightmare Moon in the Park and leave an offering of half their take or some proportion-”

“Miss Colgate wishes they’d leave it all, I bet!”

“She’s our town dentist,” the Innkeeper explained. “But yes, they dress in costumes so she can’t find anypony to gobble up, then leave an offering of candy and treats to fill her tummy up so Nightmare Moon won’t eat anypony for another year. It’s adorable.”

“…What?”

“It’s terribly frivolous, of course, but the children love it so,” Prompt Service sighed nostalgically –an incongruous observation since he couldn’t be much past pleading-for-candy himself.

“But…they think Nightmare Moon would…?” Star Swirl gasped. He was thankful for the veil so that they couldn’t quite see his shock and horror. The very idea of it…

“Oh, not really,” the innkeeper sipped his brandy and smiled. “It’s all pretend, of course, just something they play at for the fun of being frightened. They all know that Nightmare Moon is no more.”

There was a sudden, shocked silence.

“…No more?”

“Gracious Celestia, sir, how long have you been away?” Prompt Service inquired. “Nightmare Moon was defeated ages ago.”

“…Ages…”

“Well, thirty moons ago, give or take a month,” the Innkeeper nodded, picking up the brandy and look-ing like he was about to pour Star Swirl another glass. “Since then there’s really been nothing to fear at night…well…excepting maybe Ursa Majors and Timberwolves.”

“And the Princess Twilight Sparkle and her friends generally take care of such matters,” Prompt Service agreed.

“I see,” Star Swirl said shortly, before covering his glass with a hoof. “I’m so sorry, gentlecolts, but would you please excuse me for just a moment? There is something…someone I need to see.”

In a blur of cloak, the bell softly jingling, the veiled pony was gone.

“…Wonder what that was about?” the Innkeeper asked.

“Maybe he’s a secret agent, or a scarred and badass mercenary who had hoped to defeat Nightmare Moon himself,” Prompt Service remarked hopefully, “or maybe he was banished from wherever he came from and can only return once she’s defeated, or perhaps he’s one of those batponies-”

“Or he’s a stockbroker who’s just gone to invest heavily in candy,” the Innkeeper smiled. “Or, better yet, in toothpaste futures.” The guess-the-guest game was, of course, their favorite part of their industry. “My guess? He’s going to see Miss Rarity about a costume.”

“That’s a boring guess. I can’t even place a bet on a guess like that.”

“A bet, gentlecolts?” a voice asked.

***********

She normally slept during the day.

Somehow, though, she was awake, and tiny rays of sunshine pierced through gaps in the curtains and shone onto her bed, dust motes sparkling in their light like tiny particles of magic. She rubbed her eyes and reluctantly sat up in bed. She was tired, thirsty…and heartbroken.

It was the dreams again. For a pony whose only dreams could ever be, technically, daydreams, it was strange how very many of them seemed to become nightmares.

She looked at the beams of sunlight as they struck the sheets, remembering another time when she had seen little bits and scraps of light seeming to dance across the bed. The blankets had been softly moving then, too, but now it was because she had awoken in a cold sweat and the sheets felt funny.

Then, there had been another hoof, softly stroking her from barrel to flank as she awakened, another arm around her and its shoulder beneath her head. She’d actually thrown a leg over him and slept that way so her horn didn’t poke him in the muzzle, and when she’d first blinked upon waking up, he’d playfully given her horn a lick…and then the sunbeams had really danced.

That was before the nightmares, though.

The dream she had woken from had been one of the worst yet. She had tried so hard to forget, and at times, it had seemed like she’d finally managed to put the memories out of her head…and then a gesture, a word, something as silly as a little bell or as commonplace as a book…reminded her.

She could banish the memories from her waking mind, certainly, but the minute she fell asleep, or let her thoughts wander, back they would creep like Changelings across the borders of her consciousness. And the memories somehow almost always came back wrong, twisted, broken, with holes in them and details that were never quite right…

It was comforting, in a way, to write them off as nightmares when they were wrong. The dreams of him calling for her, of freezing cold and bitter winds, the cruel sun beating down on him despite the horrific cold, the dreams where he was dying, dead, eaten…clearly those were just nightmares. As far as she knew, he had lived a long and happy life and died hundreds of years ago. She certainly hadn’t heard otherwise when she asked at the library, and if anypony deserved nightmares, well…

But just now, that hadn’t happened. Instead of the warped and broken nightmares, half memory and half shrieking, howling terror, just now she had dreamed of him exactly as he was when she last saw him. And as she slept, unconsciously tensing against the moment when the dream went wrong, her memories went nightmare and her love was not merely ripped away from her but…destroyed…

Well, this time the dream went…right. She hadn’t woken in a cold sweat because of fear, for once. This time she had simply experienced a particularly vivid dream.

Very vivid.

And all at once, the times they’d spent together and …together, the memories she had spent a thousand years banishing and driving away…they all came rushing back.

Luna, Princess of the Night, got up and poured herself a glass of water from the bathroom sink. She looked in the mirror and realized her coat was wet around her eyes with half-dried tears she had shed while still sleeping. She knocked back the glass of water as if it were hemlock, replaced it on the coun-ter and slipped back into bed only to shudder with the cold of a sudden chill.

It was like somepony walking over her grave.

******

Author's Note:

As for the general feel of how Star Swirl and Luna are reacting to the events so far, we think ]this song sums it up fairly nicely. -Cozy Mark IV

And given that there are no less than three different versions of said song available, you should've heard us debating which one to link to. I really prefer the Pandora's Box cover, but Cozy pointed out that the one from 'Bat out of Hell III' sounds like both of the fanfic characters reacting separately. Oh, well. It was really the best thing about that album. -Jan. McNeville