• Published 12th Sep 2013
  • 11,416 Views, 864 Comments

A Mark Of Appeal - Estee

Joyous Release has what she feels to be the worst talent and cutie mark in Equestria. She's approached Luna with a simple request: that the Princess rid her of both -- forever. A simple request which happens to be impossible...

  • ...

That Certain Something

Her sister referred to it as 'non-binding arbitration'. Luna preferred to see it as 'being asked to think for ponies incapable of doing it for themselves' -- and after nearly eight hours of having to do just that, wished never to think about it again. But there were still ten minutes left in her session, ten minutes remaining in a night which seemed to have been caught within the solitary (and lost) unicorn spell ever known to slow the passage of time. Ten minutes before she could find a solitary, reinforced place to scream and if the resulting lightning woke up half of Canterlot a few minutes early, then it would give those citizens incentive to restrain the other half from ever trotting into her throne room again.

The process sounded so simple. At least once per moon during peacetime over the course of several centuries, Celestia threw open the doors to the heart of the Solar wing and welcomed ponies to directly approach her -- no matter what their reason for coming might be. Problems of the law were sometimes discussed. Spectacular new feats of magic had been revealed during those sessions, innovations unveiled for the first time in the hopes that the palace would somehow be able to fund further production and distribution. Celestia, in trying to talk Luna into starting her own sessions, had been (in retrospect) extremely careful about playing up the wonders to be found in those meetings with the public, the miracles which Luna would get to see first, the occasional bouts of silliness as comedians used the chance to premiere their acts, or simply citizens who had heard a joke which they felt the Diarchy had to hear and were for some reason willing to stand in a slowly-shifting line for up to eight hours just to tell it in person. Or there were ponies who made a mad dash for the throne itself in order to declare their undying love for the older Princess, a statement they generally finished from the bottom of a ponypile made up of extremely reactive Guards...

Yes, her sister certainly had stressed the entertainment value of the meet-and-greets, along with the need to gently talk ponies down while kindly advising them to seek romance in other places. That last was an art form in itself, and it still ended with too many ponies scraping their hooves against Solar marble all the way out of the castle wing, heads dipped and tails drooping as they contemplated a future in which their ruler simply didn't love them that way -- a despondency which generally lasted all the way to the nearest bar, where attentive, attractive, and attracted Guards just going off-shift would escort them in apologies for the flying tackle, with an offer to buy the first two rounds. Marriages had been started at the bottom of such ponypiles. Celestia had even warned Luna about the need to turn down any and all invitations to serve as bridesmaid, in part due to the hideous cost of any Princess-fitting dress and mostly because nopony should ever have to suffer through fifteen servings of overpriced crabgrass per year. Luna, appropriately bemused, had finally agreed to begin hosting her own sessions while resolving to attend at least the first crush-inspired nuptials.

Two minutes before Luna's first meet-and-greet had begun, Celestia casually mentioned the arbitrations. And fled.

As it turned out, most of the ponies in line approached in pairs. Duos which were barely speaking to each other. They mostly had Issues, although there were a few generational conflicts which had reached the point where the same old problems were dropped off every moon under the guise of recycled covers, thus creating Subscriptions. And none of those ponies had thought to truly talk things over with the other, or seek the neutral judgment of a small-claims court. No, the one thing those ponies could agree on was that only a Princess could help them now. And so they would stand in line (barely) together as the shuffle of ponies moved forward hoofstep by hoofstep until they finally won their chance to step behind closed doors and tell a Princess just what was so important that a trip to Canterlot had been the only possible way to resolve it.

Luna had seen no need to reschedule her own waking times in order to host a session, and so those ponies had waited their turn under Moon. Hours of being awake during the time they generally spent in the nightscape, a requirement which theoretically should have cut down on the number of ponies willing to go through the process and left the majority too exhausted to fight when they reached the end of it.

Both of the assumptions which Luna would have made had her sister seen fit to give her more than one hundred and twenty seconds worth of warning had been proven false. Ponies were often prone to a degree of groupthink -- Celestia called it one of the perils of being a herd species -- and where one had assumed I'll just go to the Lunar session: nopony else will stay up that late and it'll be a much shorter wait, not to mention giving me the chance for an extended time with the Princess with nopony behind me demanding that I clear out already, hundreds more had come to the same brilliant deduction. And as for running out of strength before running out of line --

"It's my tree, Princess!"

"Then if it's your tree, you should be able to control where it grows, shouldn't you? And keep it out of my yard!"

"I'm a unicorn! My magic doesn't work that way!"

"So? Then just use your field to break off any branches which go over the border! Or better yet, find somepony stronger to rip it out by the roots!"

"You want to knock my whole tree down to keep it from happening again! What's so important about the air on your side of the fence that it can't have a single leaf poke into it? Is your precious atmosphere sensitive? Does it bruise?"

"Your leaves go all over my grass every time the Running races by! I cultivate that grass! Do you have any idea how hard it is to get Saddle Arabian grass growing in our area, especially when you're a pegasus? If it wasn't for having Stonebender living on the other side of my house..."

"My tree drops leaves -- once a year -- on one day -- and your entire snack factory is ruined?"

"It's delicate!"

"It's like eating phosphorous."

"If you had any taste --"

"-- if you had any sense..."

-- no, running out of strength didn't seem to be happening at all, unless Luna counted herself. Not to mention the slow fraying of her patience, which had reached parchment-thinness after the first hour, rice paper during the fourth, and was now the only solid in the world freely permeable to air, which had the side effect of letting every last bit of irritating sound through.

"If you would both care to listen for a moment." Luna patiently began, feeling the white trying to crowd in at the edge of her eyes and forcing it back with the last act of will she still had strength for, "I believe I can --"

"You want me to use my field to take care of plants? Then I'll pull your entire garden up by the roots!"

"We'll see how well your precious tree does when it rains on your property every single day! And that's if the completely coincidental lightning doesn't get it first!"



-- actually, there were times when patience was distinctly overrated.


Both unicorn and pegasus froze. The Guards, who were used to it, quietly waited for the echoes of thunder to die away.

"And now that you are at least pretending I have your attention," Luna just barely managed not to grind out, "I believe the reason for spending nearly eight hours in line was so that you could hear my opinion on the matter?" An opinion at least one of them was guaranteed to resent. "This session of the Night Open Palace is nearly concluded. I would prefer to deliver my thoughts before the Moon is lowered." And before the oddly pleasing vision of having those two under it --

-- yes, things had definitely been going on for too long.

"Princess," the unicorn tree-owner shakily said, "I thought that if you just heard what he was threatening to do --"

"-- and if you could see how unreasonable she's being!" the pegasus grass-gourmand cut in. "You can see what she's like! Everypony can!"

Luna stamped her left front hoof against the silver at the base of her throne, exactly once.

The silver conducted the sound. The onyx magnified it. Black opals flashed internal sparks.

Both ponies sat down. It was that or let all four legs go out from under them.

"My opinion," Luna began, "is this."

In my opinion, when I get out of here, I'm going to find Celestia and strangle her. Using her own mane. Only somepony might take that the wrong way, so I should simply wait until she's in the middle of her bath and then dunk her. Repeatedly. While going after that one spot just behind her right shoulder. She hates it when somepony tickles her in that spot. She's been working on an anti-tickling spell for more than a thousand years and hasn't gotten one right yet. So I'm going to dunk and tickle her until she screams for mercy. Only somepony might take that the wrong way, so I'll have to soundproof the area first. Also, since I get up before she goes to bed, I will use the opportunity to short-sheet her. Every night for the rest of her life. And after that, I'm going to get serious.

Luna looked at the unicorn mare. "You," she said. "Trim the tree." Turned to the pegasus stallion. "You. Move the grass patch to another part of your yard and on the single day of the Running, place a temporary tarpaulin roof over it, since your neighbor has no more ability to control where the leaves from the branches over her own property might blow than she has to initially determine where those branches grow in the first place." Both at once. "This is my suggestion, and as we are not in a formal court session, it is in no way binding. Neither of you has to do anything I have suggested. And the fact that I may be visiting your homes next moon in order to see whether that suggestion was taken to heart should in no way influence your personal and individual decisions."

They stared at her. Splayed tails vibrated.

"Leave," Luna non-bindingly opinionated, and the neighbors fled. Their exiting expressions stated she'd matched her high for the night: they both resented her opinion. And they would likely go along with it anyway -- mentally taking out all their petty frustrations on her instead of each other.

Nightwatch, one of the first hires among her Guards, looked up at her with open pity. "Princess," she wearily said, "you look like you've just been in the center of a bunny stampede. Thousands of little kicks which don't do much of anything individually, but when you put them all together..."

Luna sighed. "The observation is -- accurate. How many minutes more?"

"Eight," Nightwatch told her. "Unless -- actually, now that I'm thinking about it, that clock does seem a little slow -- yes, Princess, I'm completely certain that it's actually eight minutes later than we thought it was and everypony in line who feels we're still open just happens to be mistaken. I'll go inform them immediately."

Luna managed a tiny smile. "Nightwatch, I appreciate your willingness to fabricate on my behalf, but I can stand one more. Or two. Or perhaps even having an entire one of the desert settlements crowd in so they can argue about how having the sand blow across their homes is doing horrible things to the paint and demand the pegasi ensure wind never comes from that direction again..."

"Look down." It wasn't an order. Guards didn't give orders to their Princesses. But as suggestions went, it was about as strong as they came.

Luna looked. The onyx around her left front hoof was cracked. Wisps of vapor drifted up from the ice which coated the floor in a full body length's worth of radius.

"...it is eight minutes later than we had believed," Luna concluded. "Give those at the front of the line access chits and tell them I will see them tomorrow at moonrise. Should they require a place to stay in the city until then, grant them one along with Royal Vouchers for their food and lost wages. And give me a few minutes to myself, all of you? I simply need to -- reflect for a moment."

Nightwatch smiled and headed for the closed doors which granted relative privacy for each personal session so she could tell however many ponies still awaited the attention of the Lunar Throne that said attention was closed for what little remained of the night. The other three Guards followed her, and the time it took for them to pass through the briefly-open doors was more than enough for Luna to gauge the length of the line. Another forty ponies, all of whom seemed to either completely believe in her ability to get through everypony ahead of them in that suddenly-extinct eight minutes or who simply had even less of a true idea regarding the time than Nightwatch did.

The doors shut. The first sound of protest made it through just in time.

Luna sighed and curled up on her throne, plush dark cushions offering support without comfort.

...and after the short-sheeting, I'm going to speak to Anise. She was my head chef first: she'll listen to me. I suspect the Solar kitchen is about to have a run of traditional rock farmer dishes. The less flavor, the better. Does the kitchen have sufficient stock of grated shale? Then I'll have to do something about the perfuming of Tia's bath. It's more than past time for a change from sumac. Something she hasn't had before. Say, corpse flower.

There were times when Equestria's citizens truly needed their Diarchy, when the words from both thrones inspired and solved. Over the last call-it-eight-hours, none of those times had occurred. Ponies had approached her with problems which were petty and stupid and could have been resolved with their own efforts within mere seconds if any of them had cared to actually speak with the other. A nearly full night of being reminded just how self-blinding ordinary citizens could be, and that wasn't even figuring for the four she'd temporarily wrapped in shadow just to shut them up long enough for her to get a word in.

Luna knew Celestia hadn't foisted the worst cases off to the night shift: her sister undoubtedly dealt with just as many idiots during most of her sessions, and some of the problems were likely even more petty than what Luna had just repeatedly encountered. But a little warning would have been welcome: surely Luna wouldn't have postponed the first of the open sessions, not for more than a moon or six. And...

...I didn't hear or solve one actual problem all night. Just petty grievances which anypony with common sense could have dealt with themselves. And nearly half of them left feeling so good that I'd agreed with them, most of the rest resented my not taking their side and with those where I forged a third path, everypony wished they'd waited for the day...

I don't feel like I did anything real.

The doors opened.


The doors closed.

The voice was that of a mare. It was shy, gentle, had a wonderful tone to it, one which completely captured Luna's attention in a split-second and made her want to hear more of it. It was also unfamiliar. And the sounds of hoofsteps inching forward into the Lunar throne room numbered a mere four: no Guard had come in with her...

Luna sat up straight, her horn's corona surging to a full primary as she got ready to defend herself --

-- from a mass of sackcloth.

Literal sackcloth draped the mare's body: faded black ink suggested the dirty brown near-shapeless non-garment had once held oranges, although the scent stated it had later found a second career in hauling manure. Two bulges at what was probably the sides indicated either wings or a pair of oddly-worn saddlebags. There was just barely enough form within the bulges of stinking fabric to indicate that there was a single pony within, that wonderful voice had told Luna said pony was a mare -- but not a single detail of the stranger's body was visible.

Still, Luna was sure she'd never seen sackcloth worn so well in her life. And the smell could be ignored, anything could be ignored if it meant hearing more of --

-- I have a complete stranger in my throne room and the Guards are absent.

The sackcloth had pulled back slightly, with what was probably hindquarters pressed against the closed doors. Retreating from the flaring of Luna's horn.

"Your name," Luna tensely stated, and hoped to hear the answer in the most drawn-out of ways.

Unfortunately, once she allowed for the single stammer, it didn't happen. "Joy -- Joyous..."

"How did you get in here?" More words would have to come from that.

"I -- asked the Guards if I could -- have the last few minutes of the open session. They said it was okay if I just -- met them later at the bar..."

She meets them later? But she's here for me!

Luna blinked. Focused. "They allowed you in alone?" Words would have to be said, at least after all the possible ones had been wrung out of this meeting.

"...I asked nicely..." A long, sad sigh. It was a waft of a sigh, a sound which made Luna want to fly down from the throne and find out just what was wrong, fix it quickly in a way which would last forever and then get to the bar. "And I -- needed to be alone with you."

Her heart seemed to be beating faster than usual. Luna's wings were quivering at her sides. "Alone... because?" A thousand possibilities crowded into her mind, too many for casual examination and all sharing a single definition.

"I -- can't discuss my problem with other ponies around. I thought if we were alone -- it would be my best chance..."

How many ponies have thrown themselves at the base of the Solar throne and professed their love to Tia? How many truly meant it? How many sounded like this?


...Luna regarded the mass of sackcloth, quite unable to pick up the manure scent any more. What was under there? Surely no pony would be so hideous as to find need for total concealment. And if there were weapons beneath, if this was somehow an assassin who had tricked the Guards into giving her private access, with the most dulcet of voices as her primary armament...

...but what a way to...

...focus! She spoke! Told me she was here! What assassin would be stupid enough to give themselves away? No, this is simply a pony. One who wishes my help. Mine. A pony with the most wonderful voice, one I want to...

"Remove the sackcloth."

"I'd rather --"

"-- this is an order, citizen." Because I have to see... "Remove it -- or yourself." Which was a bluff, she would never allow Joyous to --

-- the sack came off the front half of the pony's body, and the surrounding onyx took on highlights of blue.

A pegasus -- and a metallic. With the crystal ponies recently returned, metallic-hued coats were the rarest type known to exist. Less than one in every five thousand ponies was a metallic: the trait ran in families, but didn't always surface. Some ponies found themselves more attracted to that scarcity than anything else and spent their dating years seeking a pony who would fit their tastes -- a quest which generally either came up empty or into direct conflict with the hundreds of other ponies who'd had the exact same thought. Magazines existed which featured metallics and nothing else, although most of the pictures were faked. Luna had never really seen the appeal herself, but...

This one was a dark blue, a near-match for Luna's eyes, but reflective in that way which only metallics achieved: not sparkling, but simply bright and beautiful. An obsidian mane, the most common shade for a metallic to possess -- as common as anything associated with such a rarity could be. Eyes of brilliant yellow, as if Sun had found an early way into the last moments of night.

...she'd never seen the appeal until now.

Fine features. Wonderfully proportioned forelegs. A snout she suddenly realized was perfect and no other snout in the world would ever come close. The mane had been pressed down by the sackcloth, but what was wrong with that just-tumbled-out-of-bed look? Very large wings, pressed tightly against her sides. Slightly full in the shoulders, with a wide rib cage: an endurance flier. Lots of endurance...

Luna swallowed.

"Thank you," she said. "And now -- your problem?"

Joyous took a deep breath. Luna watched that rib cage flex. "It's my mark," she sadly said. "Or -- my talent."

Which (very) temporarily brought Luna into full focus. "You are adult," she noted. At most four years removed from the completion of school. "Your mark has yet to appear?" For the back half of that beautiful form was still covered in sackcloth, and for any pony to still not have gone through manifest at Joyous' age... yes, that was a problem, and potentially a real one, a problem which Luna would strive for hours to solve, days, weeks, moons, all done in privacy with Joyous so that they could work on the problem together...

Miserably, "No -- it's present." There was an unspoken 'still' within the last word.

An ugly mark? Surely not... "Are you hiding it? Joyous --" should she have used a 'miss' there? Was she being too informal? No, she was a Princess and certain benefits had to come with the title, or at least they had better starting right now. "-- show me."


Luna had never heard her own voice so soft, was surprised she had been able to hear it at all. "Please?"

Reluctantly, the pegasus wriggled her hindquarters, a process which had Luna's total attention and kept her from seeing the expression which suggested Joyous was trying to remove her own skin. The sack slid off.

And there was the mark, distinct, fully visible, and not at all ugly. But it was -- unusual. Luna had never seen one like it. Joyous' flank was bearing an icon of a pony's rump. A full rump sporting a simply gorgeous tail to match Joyous' own wide spread (a tail nearly as full as Fluttershy's, but higher off the floor), both also metallic, but red and white so as to be better set off against the blue coat. A rump which didn't move in any way, as no mark was ever animated -- but seemed to suggest that if the viewer watched long enough, the impossible just might come true, and the theoretical wriggle of that backside...

...when did I fly down from the throne?

But she had. Luna was within a mere two body lengths of Joyous, an endless two body lengths which would still be so easy to cross. She wanted to inspect the mark. In private. By touch. Long, careful nuzzles with her muzzle. Which would be followed in time by questions about the talent. About the problem, the problem Luna would spend the rest of her existence working to solve just as soon as she smiled at Joyous and told her just how very special she was to Luna as a citizen of Equestria and a pony who needed her help, a pegasus who looked like nopony she'd ever seen and there was a scent, something which the sackcloth had tried to hide, something Luna couldn't identify and didn't want to because as long as she didn't know what it was, she could spend her life in breathing the delicate aroma in and pretending she was still working on figuring it out --

She took a step forward. Her eyes were half-closed. Nostrils slightly flared so as to catch more of that wonderful scent. Heart pounding...


Luna jumped. A full body length straight back, her wings spreading to steady her landing. And then she found herself stepping forward again, slowly, shyly, needing to know what she'd done wrong...

...and she realized Joyous was shaking. That the metallic coat had the first signs of sweat appearing within it. Of froth. The beautiful body had shrunken in on itself, curled up in a way not even Fluttershy could achieve, retreated in something which could only be seen as terror.

She was afraid. Of Luna. Or of...

"Please," the pegasus whimpered. "Please, think..."

It seemed to be very cold in the Lunar throne room. Too cold. There was vapor everywhere --

-- she'd iced most of the floor, and didn't remember having done it. Nearly all of it, going up to her throne -- but with the cushions free of it, and the floor around herself and Joyous still clear. But it was cold and getting colder, Luna had done it without meaning to because

if it's cold, she'll be looking for warmth and that sackcloth won't be it, I'll destroy the thing and she'll have to cuddle up against me to get warm, I'll spread a wing over her and tuck her in close, I'll

The dark blue corona around Luna's horn, that full primary threatening to go double, shot through with stars, flared again --

-- and her own wings were coated in ice.

She was resistant to cold -- almost immune, in the same way her sister could casually operate in most extremes of heat: one of the minor gifts granted by their respective marks and the ties they showed. But that was with normal cold. This was ice created by the same magic which allowed her to ignore the ordinary levels -- magic which got around that resistance and sent bolts of chill directly into her bones.

Luna yelped. Jumped backwards again. Slipped on the ice.

Went down.

When the twisting, spiraling skid finally came to a stop, her own rump was pressed against the base of her throne. She was shivering, the ice coating her feathers refusing to break. She would not let it break. She'd just barely managed to find herself long enough to pull off the magic once...

She could have felt humiliated, sprawled out on the ice like a filly who'd just failed her first attempt at ice-skating. Stupid for looking so idiotic in front of Joyous. And later on, she probably would. But as long as the coating was intact... unless her own body heat started steaming it off...

"Your talent," she forced herself to begin, and was glad for the tremble of cold in her voice, for it was no longer a tremor of something else, "is sex appeal."

Joyous trembled, and Luna fought the urge to warm her.

"Yes," breathed the most beautiful pegasus Luna had ever seen. "And I want it gone. I want you -- to destroy my mark. To take my talent away forever. To kill my magic. Please...."

Luna blinked.

And for a long time, as she listened to the pegasus' story, she could do almost nothing else.

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