• Published 8th Sep 2013
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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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Memories

Chapter Eight: Memories

Over one thousand years ago…

“I don’t see why you persist in this foolishness, Princess,” Star Swirl remarked in his dry, sarcastic voice. “You know very well that I am no fit mate for a mare of your stature and position.”

Even when he was being a complete and utter bastard, that voice! Luna felt her legs turning to jelly from hock to pastern. No. She would not give in.

“Funny you mention stature, Star Swirl,” she teased, flicking her sparkling mane at his ear in a way that highlighted just how much taller she was than him. (All right, she was almost a hand taller at the withers, but she was pressing every advantage, here!)

“That’s Professor Star Swirl…” he growled from behind that notorious beard.

“Oh, really?” Luna raised an eyebrow. “Funny, you don’t see many blueheaded professors these days.”

She still couldn’t get over his natural manecolor. When he’d tried to insist he was too old for her, she had devised an Age Spell and promptly shaved forty-some years of aging right off of him. It didn’t last very long, maybe a year if she’d done it right, but it had still been hilarious.

“You’re such a filly sometimes. That’s a preposterous stereotype that’s been dying out since well before you became Princess of Equestria.”

“It’s been dying out since I’ve been Princess of Equestria. I sometimes wonder if you’re the source for a few of those dumb-blue jokes.” The young diarch turned to face her former teacher. “Heard one this afternoon, in fact, did you want to hear?”

“Since I seem to spend more time indulging your nonsense than teaching you, why not?”

“Dumb blue goes into the Bank of Equestria with a brand-new chariot. It’s one of the ones Rolling Royce makes in Trottingham, with nickel hubs, horn-painted trim and all the bells and whistles. Says he wants a loan of five hundred bits, with the chariot as collateral. The bankers decide that the chariot is worth seven hundred, so they take it and park it in their vault. One month later, the dumb blue is back. He gives the bankers their five hundred bits and, since the loan was at five percent annual percentage yield, he has a bit of pocket change to cover the interest: $1.15. The banker turns to him and says ‘sir, while you were gone, we did some digging. You’re one of Canterlot’s wealthiest sorcerers and adviser to the Princesses. What on earth did you need with such a short-term loan?’ And the dumb blue –that’d be you, I guess,” Luna smirked at her professor, “he says to the banker ‘Where else in Equestria can I park my cart for a bit-fifteen for a month and still expect it to be there when I get back?’”

“That’s a base libel,” Star Swirl complained, before allowing himself a smile. “It was a bit-fourteen, I’ll have you know.”

“And not a bad deal, considering how often you used to go and see your mistress in…which one must that have been? Was it the baroness, the shopkeeper, or that actress who sounds English but is really from Bitsburgh?”

“It was Clover the Clever, if you must know.”

“See, that’s what I don’t understand, Star Swirl. You were her mentor and still managed to have a healthy relationship of two equals.”

“Clover the Clever was ten years my junior and a widow when we met. It was different.”

“So I’m forty years younger instead of ten. I’ve also been your student for nearly twenty years, Star Swirl, or had you forgotten?”

“It certainly doesn’t show, alicorn or otherwise! You’re still the same as the day I met you, while I’ve just gotten older and…and…”

“No, Star Swirl,” Luna glared. “I am not the same. I’m not that stammering, nervous adolescent anymore and I haven’t been for years. I defeated Discord and King Sombra with my sister, and I arranged the Treaty of Sparta myself. The Griffon Empire has been at peace with Equestria for nearly six months without a single incident, trade has picked up and the war’s over. You of all ponies know what I’m capable of…so why do you still treat me like a little filly? You know how I feel about you. Why can’t you even consider seeing where that might lead?”

She bent and gave his cheek a short, soft nuzzle.

And Star Swirl stiffened.

“You ask me why. After I’ve given you every chance a gentleman could to bury the subject while we both have our dignity.”

“You said it was your age. I can de-age you with a word. You said it was because I should make a marriage of alliance if I decided to have any mate at all and I think I’ve proven that I can handle myself in politics, husband, lover or not! I ended a war for you.”

“Would you ignore the bells on my cloak for me? Tolerate the giggles of every mare in your sister’s Court as they gossiped about how I’d seduced yet another one? Even if we kept it a secret, you’re a royal princess regnant, diarch of the nation and I am your subject. I am also a debauched old village-bicycle of a stallion who’s known more lovers than you’ve known birthdays.”

“So I wait until I’ve had as many birthdays as you’ve got bells. That’s what, three or four more? And maybe, just maybe, you’ll let me court you then? I’ve wanted you since I was nineteen, Star Swirl. If this were lust, or just a schoolfilly’s infatuation, I think we passed that point some time ago. And it isn’t…” Luna’s breath caught in her throat. “It isn’t like we have all the time in the world. I can wait forever for you if I have to, but you can’t wait forever for me, unless you’re seriously trying to run out the clock by dying. And if you feel that way about me, well, you can just say so now.”

The sorcerer’s face was a study in confusion as he thought of an answer. Luna waited, her heart sinking. She had an idea of how he felt about her…a rough one, mind, from the dreams where he and she talked about subjects other than magic, history or the social sciences. But if he genuinely wasn’t interested in her as anything more than a student or a colleague, well…then this game of diplomatic brinksmanship, of her enticing and his dissuading, her attacking his evidence and his finding new faults or obstacles…this damned, delicious, never-quite-satisfying dance that the two of them had begun, it would all be over. If he was willing to continue this game of negotiations, the tension crackling between them, then sooner or later she’d have to win.

But if he really didn’t want her, all he had to do was say. She would abide by that.

“…I really don’t feel it’s appropriate for a stallion of my experience and reputation to become involved with a sweet, innocent Princess.”

Oh, thank the stars! Maybe he did care!

“Sweet? Innocent? Me?” Luna grinned. “Maybe I should tell you some of the other dumb-blue jokes I’ve heard and we’ll see about innocent.”

“You know what I mean, Luna,” Star Swirl used her first name in the way he only ever did when he wanted her to be serious. It was like a bridle he could throw around her head and yank, any time he wanted. And how she loved it!

There was that quivery feeling south of her hock again.

“So you know what you’re doing and I don’t,” she shrugged, then swiftly turned and came muzzle-to-muzzle, eye-to-eye with her professor. “Exactly what’s different there?”

She’d thought it might be enough to make him blush, stagger backwards and it would be another point to her side. Luna 3, Star Swirl 0. But he didn’t back down. Instead he scraped the floor with his hoof and let out a snort, his eyes locked with hers.

“There’s knowing what one’s doing and there’s being a master of it,” Star Swirl explained, his already-deep voice a growl. “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but I’ve mastered arts you’ve never even imagined. Do you know what I mean, little filly?” She could feel his breath in her nose and as he stepped forward, she found herself stepping back. “Do you know what I could do to you, horn or not, wings or not, and do you know how much I could make you beg for me to do it again? Have you considered exactly what you’re asking for, what a dalliance with someone like me implies? I wouldn’t take it easy on you just because you’re royalty or younger or…innocent.”

He pronounced the word as if it was a spectacularly salacious perversion just by existing and Luna felt her cheeks going scarlet and her legs actually shaking. Her knees felt weak and her heart was pounding so loud she couldn’t believe Star Swirl hadn’t heard it from where he stood. “I would expect you to enter such a relationship as an equal, exactly the way you’ve demanded, but I don’t think you have any idea what that would mean. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, my pretty little Princess, and I don’t think you really want this to end with me…teaching you. I’ve told you I’m a lecherous, depraved old sybarite of a stallion, but you clearly don’t know what that is or you wouldn’t be standing there.” Star Swirl’s left eyebrow rose quizzically, daring her to back down.

He had called her bluff.

She called his.

“I’m counting on it,” Luna breathed. Her eyelids were heavy and her forelegs quivering with the delicious tension between the two of them, but she would not back down. “I’m counting on you to be exactly the sort of depraved master I’ve been dreaming of.”

He stepped back and she stepped forward, maintaining the eye contact. Was he actually blushing? Oh, my. She let an edge creep into her voice as she pressed this newfound advantage.

“Do you dream, Star Swirl? Because I do, and I walk through the dreams of just about everypony who’s ever needed my helping hoof and quite a few who…well…didn’t.” Luna managed to smile salaciously. “I’ve seen things in ponies’ dreams that would make my sister blush solid pink for a week and I’ve been having some dreams of my own, you know. Just because I haven’t tried it awake doesn’t mean I don’t know exactly what I want, and you’re exactly the stallion to teach me everything that I want to know. And I do mean everything.”

“P-princess-” Star Swirl stammered, sweat running down his neck.

“Don’t ‘princess’ me, Star Swirl. And don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m not deadly serious.” ‘And please don’t realize I’m half-bluffing and scared,’ the princess thought, levitating a bound manuscript from her saddlebag. “You wanted my report for the week? Here it is. Read it over and see just how innocent you think I am afterward.”

The report, a full fifty pages of the filthiest pastimes, fantasies and dark demands an alicorn mare could dream of (plus a three-page bibliography,) smacked Star Swirl in the chest as he caught it.

“I’m going to go raise the moon now while you read,” Luna explained. “Last sliver of the waning crescent, so I have tomorrow night off. But before I go-”

And summoning every last ounce of nerve she had, Luna leaned forward and kissed her hopeless crush, the stallion she’d loved and longed for, that insufferable bastard who was still somehow so perfect, at least for her.

Was she crazy, or had he just met her halfway?

“…Goodnight, Star Swirl,” she called, as suavely as she could manage despite trying really hard to keep her voice from breaking. Her traitorous wobbly knees were still shaking some, but she managed to get out of the room without looking like she had four left hooves.

And then she had to lean against the wall and catch her breath just a little bit. These weren’t butterflies in her stomach, they were thestrals. Her heart was still pounding and her thoughts had raced to places and scenes she shouldn’t even mention, let alone dream about. She bit her lip and breathed, remembering how sore her front forearm had gotten before she could get to sleep that morning and knowing there wasn’t time for a cold shower before the moon had to be in the sky.

‘Deep breaths,’ she thought. ‘Think about something else. Not about…oh, my stars.’

She’d finally kissed him. And unless she was imagining things, he had kissed her back.

The smile on her face lasted from Star Swirl’s office at the Academy to the tallest spire of the New Castle.

Soon it would be time for the Princesses to move back to the Winter Palace deep in the EverFree, and the first touches of autumn were starting to crackle through the air. Luna had already prepared a special new constellation she intended to rise with the Autumnal Equinox, but now she was thinking of redesigning it. She still couldn’t stop smiling. It was going to be hard to focus on the moon tonight.

It was a colder evening than usual, and sure enough, Celestia’s guards were waiting on the spire with hot cocoa for their diarch’s return from lowering the sun. Luna declined a cup, still thinking about the soft and slightly spicy feel of those lips, the tickle of that notorious beard, the strangely seductive smell of cinnamon and apples he still had on him…

Yes. It was going to be very difficult indeed to focus on the moon tonight.

‘Think boring thoughts,’ Luna instructed herself. ‘Chartered accountancy. Double-entry bookkeeping. Economic impacts of civic investment in constitutional as opposed to absolute diarchies. Not the way Star Swirl’s mane smells or how he –focus!’

And then that made her think of a time Star Swirl had told her to focus on a spell and gently guided her hooves to the correct placement between the runes chalked on the floor…and then of the time she’d managed to impress him with an essay on convex lenses for astronomical observation…and the surprised look he’d had when she’d called his bluff…

“Damn it!” she cursed aloud.

Celestia’s guards almost dropped the cocoa.

“…Er…I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten to return a library book. Twenty-centibit fine, you know,” Luna smiled sheepishly and rubbed the crest beneath her mane with her hoof as she shrugged. That seemed to mollify the guards.

“I’ve done that myself, Princess,” one of them nodded understandingly.

“Good evening, your Highness,” the thestral Darkwing remarked, bowing his head to his diarch as he ascended the stairs. The Lunar Guard’s golden eyes regarded her sheepish smile with concern.

“Evening, Darkwing.”

“Is aught amiss?” the serious pony asked. Despite his short fangs, nearly reptilian eyes and leathery wings, Luna’s Captain of the Guard was actually a bit of an old mare sometimes. At times, she frequently forgot which of them was actually in charge.

“I’d just forgotten to return a library book, is all,” Luna explained, her smile returning. Darkwing looked her over critically.

“I don’t like your color. Are you feeling feverish?” The thestral put out a hoof and felt Luna’s forehead below her horn. “You feel a little warm, your Highness.”

“I’ve…I’ve just been running. Had to hurry here from my tutor’s office,” Luna explained.

“Perhaps some ginger ale might help,” Darkwing remarked, his wing snapping outward and cracking like a whip. Another Lunar Guard disappeared and was trotting back up the stairs in moments with an earthenware growler of the stuff. “Very good for colds, your Highness, and you know how easily you get them this time of year.”

‘Veteran of three wars, tactician extraordinaire and purveyor of cold remedies,’ Luna thought. ‘I wonder if he used to bring Commander Hurricane her fluffy blankie during Pegasus bivouacs and make her put on her warm sweater.’

But she did accept a glass of the ginger ale.

“Thank you, Darkwing, that really does seem to help.” The battle-hardened old thestral fussed over her for a few more moments and Luna caught herself smiling again.

The look on Star Swirl’s face…

“Sister!” a voice called. Luna looked up and watched as her sister and co-regent landed with a soft clop of armored hooves on the parapet, the twilight shimmering all around her mane. Seeing as there were fewer than five ponies present, Celestia lowered her voice from the proper Royal Canterlot volume to a more conversational level. “You look happy this evening. Did Star Swirl appreciate your report?”

Was Luna going mad, or was that question a little suspiciously phrased?

“I left him to read it, yes,” she replied, letting a broad grin break across her face. “I also told him a dumb-blue joke.”

“…Really?” Celestia looked at once nonplussed and…was that relief? Then a smile broke across the features of the Sun Princess and Luna knew that her ploy had worked. “My dear little sister! No matter what we go through, you never change.” Celestia nuzzled her sister and Luna nuzzled her back…but it still stung a little to still be thought of as an eternal child. “Which one was it?”

“The one about the dumb-blue who leaves his cart at the bank.”

“Oh!” Celestia grinned and laughed, just a bit wickedly. “Star Swirl must have been furious!”

“More that I got the amount of interest due off by a centibit, actually,” Luna smiled.

“Well, he always did have a soft spot for you, the old rogue. It’s so good of you to be such a light in his sad old age,” Celestia smiled.

…And what a carefully calculated remark that was. Luna made a mental note to add a third padlock and some new warding spells to her diary.

“I also successfully met with the Griffonian ambassador,” she announced. “Our trade routes are unencumbered and given the anticipated surplus to our grain harvest, I agreed to renew the tariff abatement for another six months, pending continued peace.”

“Capital!” Celestia looked surprised and pleased. “Was there any discussion of that, -er, controversial issue?”

“Oh, the rodent industry?” Luna’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think we’ve made too much progress there. Ponies don’t like it when rats eat their crops or pillage their grain, right enough, but the idea of the local rats being rounded up, taken to Griffonia’s open market and eaten is still a bit touchy.”

“How delightful to have subjects with such empathy for even the lowest of creatures.”

Luna snorted derisively.

“It isn’t that, Sister. It’s that they simply don’t trust Griffon ratcatchers. ‘Spies and turncoats, the lot of them,’ seems to be the average pony-in-the-street’s opinion.”

“Did you and the ambassador think of any temporary measures?” Celestia looked hopeful.

“I have pledged a certain sum from my own coffers toward the purchase of several hundred Griffonian mousetraps, the finest ones I’ve ever seen. I have had the announcement made and shall be distributing them at sunrise this morning.”

“Griffonian mousetraps? Surely not clockwork ones; how can we expect our poorest subjects to maintain such complex devices?”

“In this case, Sister, ‘mousetrap’ is a bit of a translation lapse. The Griffons have no clockwork, spring or gravity-powered mousetraps, and as such, they have no separate word for ‘housecat.’ They do, however, have a remarkable surplus of the creatures due to the long summer, and rather than let them resort to euthanasia, I felt I would distribute them to our farmers, brewers, millers and bakers, where they can do some good and enjoy loving homes.” That made Celestia smile and Luna felt contented. “Besides, they had such a lot of black ones, and I’ve always thought them the prettiest.”

“That was well-done, and kind of you, my sister,” Celestia beamed. “I’m sure your black cats will grace every harvest feast and autumnal celebration for years to come.”

Okay, Royal Canterlot Voice notwithstanding, was it really necessary to talk like a regal proclamation was stuck in one’s throat?

“I’d best be raising the moon, then,” Luna nodded.

“Yes. You know how much I love to watch your nights, dear sister, but I find that I am simply exhausted. Would you excuse me?”

“…Get some sleep, sister,” Luna smiled, biting the inside of her lip a little so Celestia wouldn’t notice her disappointment. “There will be kittens tomorrow morning for you to pet.”

“Oh, how lovely!”

And with a last nuzzle, Celestia was gone with her retinue.

“…Does everyone still think of me as a little filly?” Luna accidentally groused out loud.

“Not I, Princess,” Darkwing reassured. “It makes me happy to take care of you as if you were, but you did end the war with Griffonia and are in the process of potentially averting both famine and plague with one hoof even as you make diplomatic hay with the other.” The old battle-thestral smiled. “I merely ask that you drink your ginger ale and wear your good sweater on cold evenings. No matter how old you get, how many spirits of chaos you banish or evil kings you defeat, you can still catch cold, and you can still forget that there are ponies who care for you.”

Luna impulsively leaned over and hugged Darkwing. He was so good to her. Nominally a bodyguard, he had managed the Royal Household’s night division between conflicts since she was a tiny filly, and been a kind of butlerish father-figure to her for years. That, and unlike so many other members of the Royal Staff, well…Luna always had the impression she was his favorite.

“That, and if you don’t get a little better at hiding that crush, your sister is going to start asking bad questions,” Darkwing grinned. “Whomever the lucky stallion is, I highly doubt he wants the Princess of the Sun interrogating him as to his intentions right away.”

“…How did you know?”

“I’ve known you since you were a little filly, your Highness. You haven’t looked this chipper and dreamy-eyed since that phase when you first started reading salacious novels –and attempting to write them, as I recall.” Luna blushed scarlet. “Given the advances in printing and the decline in tolerance for the more decadent arts, it is simply to be hoped that you’re nursing a bit of a crush rather than composing some masterpiece which will undoubtedly provoke scandal in the court. We’ve had quite enough trouble with that awful marquis and the soldier-author from Prance. Both libertines, to be sure, but they can’t abide one another and their works are all so shocking to the court’s sensibilities.”

…Both of said ponies’ works were among those Luna had cited in her report to Star Swirl, incidentally.

“But I’m sure you’re too busy with affairs of state to read epistolary novels and luridly-illustrated accounts of debauchery,” Darkwing smiled. “Though that epistolary one you really might enjoy. I loved it. You should have tomorrow evening off from your duties with the moon, might want to check it out of the library.”

“I think I might,” Luna nodded.

“And now let’s see that moon. I spend almost all day waiting for your constellations, my dear Highness.”

Sometimes Luna felt like he was the only one who ever did.

But then, as she was raising the moon that night, she glanced down over the city of Canterlot. Sitting in a chair on his balcony, her report open in front of him, was Star Swirl. Even at his busiest, he didn’t miss her night.

It was enough to make her smile until sunrise.

Over a thousand years later…

Star Swirl knelt before the statue of Nightmare Moon and sobbed.

And far away in Canterlot, Luna cried herself back to sleep.

It is one thing to have loved and lost, but quite another to know that your love is lost forever.

Author's Note:

Someday, you must really write Luna's 'report,' complete with bibliography. -Jan. McNeville

I might say the same of you. Which one of us does the spell-checking around here? -Cozy Mark IV

...Would it be MLA or APA format, do you think? -J. McN.