• Published 7th Jun 2014
  • 3,076 Views, 318 Comments

The Mare in the High Castle - ponichaeism

Under the eternal moonlight, a hoofful of strangers cross paths on the streets of Canterlot, capital of the Empire of the Moon, over the course of one eventful day.

  • ...

Chapter 1

The Land of the Eternal Moon was calling, and Donut Joe answered.

Ghostlike, he wandered through his empty and silent shop with a broom, sweeping the dirt and dust off the checkerboard floor tiles. On the other side of the plate glass windows, Canterlot slept soundly. But soon enough, the city would wake up and come alive for another day. His neon 'Open' sign would light up and beckon ponies in. As he moved among the tables, he imagined his regulars sitting at them, filling the place with smiles and laughter. He would move from customer to customer, taking orders and pretending he hadn't overheard them say this place right here, on this quaint little corner in Canterlot, was their favorite donut hole.

He swept out the final corner and leaned on the broom, gazing around the shop. His eyes went over the spotless white walls, the friendly knick-knacks hanging on them, the line of red-cushioned swivel stools bolted to the floor, the counter behind them fronted with pink-and-green tiles. Hadn't missed a single spot. Everything looked beautiful, and why shouldn't it? It swelled his heart with pride to think of how much effort he put into making this place look perfect. That was why ponies from all across Canterlot loved to come here: they could see his blood, sweat, and tears on every shining surface.

Metaphorically, of course.

The door chime's sweet song sounded. Joe realized he hadn't locked up after entering, but then again he rarely bothered to. The princess kept things nice and peaceful here in the city.

“Sorry, we ain't exactly open yet,” he said, frowning.

“Oh, I see," the unicorn coming in off the street said. He glanced at the unlit neon sign next to the door. "Entirely my fault."

As the other unicorn started backing out of the shop, Joe studied him: beige-coated; tilted fedora on his head; slick pinstriped suit jacket over an immaculate white dress shirt; shiny black briefcase sticking out of his saddlebag. Class act, all the way, Joe thought, putting the broom aside. Folks are so considerate round here.

“Nah, you can take a seat. The first batch of donuts are still in the oven, but I made some coffee if you want it.”

The businesspony sat on his haunches on a swivel stool. “That sounds real nice.”

Joe walked behind the counter and ignited his horn. He magically poured some coffee into a clean mug. “Cream? Sugar?”

“Two and one, please.”

While Joe poured them in, he asked, “So where do you work?”

“Oh, I'm a loan officer for the Bank of Equestria.”

“Sounds like a real cushy job.” Joe remembered the day some fifteen years ago when he dressed in his finest and slicked his mane back, then walked into a nearby Savings & Loan to borrow the money to open his donut shop. Borrowed it from a stallion just like this one, who made his living investing in honest, upstanding folks. As Joe magically set the steaming coffee cup down and slid it over, he asked, “How's business?”

The customer slid a coin across the counter. “Booming, thank you.”

“Sorry, I ain't got any change in the register yet.”

The stallion raised the cup to his lips and said, “Keep it,” before sipping the steaming coffee.

Joe slid the coin off the counter, then ducked down and came back up with a glass-covered tray of leftover donuts and set them on the counter. “They're from yesterday, but I eat 'em for breakfast and they taste just fine. Can't afford to waste 'em, you know? Take a few, on the house.”

“Oh, thank you,” the customer said, taking one and nibbling on it with his coffee.

Joe made one of the donuts levitate as he filled the register with coins and bills from the safe, occasionally pausing to take a bite from it.

The pony at the counter asked, “So, are you going to see The River Runs Wild tonight?”

“Nah, I never liked those musicals. They're so unrealistic. All that singing and dancing out of nowhere.”

“Well....maybe. But sometimes it's good to get your mind off things, though. When work is stressful, I mean.”

“This shop is many things to me, my friend--" Joe shut and locked the register. "--but stressful ain't one of them.”

He finished off his donut and went to the jukebox in the corner. When he plugged the cord into the outlet, its multicolored neon tubes lit up. He levitated a coin out of his apron, slid it into the slot, and hit the button for "Rockafilly". Stuttering guitar chords filled the shop. The song was the anthem and namesake of the whole rockafilly sound, a wild new style that took him right back to his discotheque days. Electric guitars had replaced the brass horns, but the swing rhythm had survived intact. Judging by how long the song had topped the charts, and by how many coins the jukebox had raked in for him, evidently he wasn't the only young stallion who missed strutting out onto the dance floor and cutting a rug with the pretty fillies. Although when he got a look at his face in the jukebox's glass, hovering among the stacks of sleek black forty-five RPM discs, he lamented that he wasn't so young anymore.

But hearing the old sound he'd loved resurrected for a whole new generation made him feel young again. Young and new, if only slightly. He tapped his hoof in time to the beat, feeling the old urge to give himself over to the dance boiling under his skin. But he didn't dare, not where his customers could see him. He had a professional image to maintain.

The patron took another sip of coffee. “I suppose it must be different, working in a cozy little corner malt shop like this. Well, we all have our duty in society. Our place, and our part to play. I suppose musicals have their place too, for harried accountants like me to unwind at.”

“The city takes care of its ponies,” Joe said, walking over to the neon sign. “And our princess takes care of the city. Everything flows from her.”

“Too true.” The customer put down the coffee cup and wiped the crumbs from his lips with a napkin. “Well, I have to run, but that was delicious. I really should swing by here again.”

“I'll look forward to it, friend,” Joe said, waving goodbye as his new patron left.

He flipped the switch on the sign. The neon lit up, broadcasting those beautiful words to both old customers and new: 'Open'. It would bring them inside, but he was the one who made loyal customers out of folks just passing through. Made them want to come back, again and again. Even if he hadn't literally laid the floor or erected the walls, and even if the chairs and tables came direct from the LeFarrier Corporation's restaurant division, and even if the knick-knacks were bought from the Whinnydom-Neighson catalog, it was his hard-earned coin -- along with a generous loan from ponies who recognized his rock-solid work ethic -- that paid for the construction and furnishing, and allowed him to paint himself onto every corner of the shop until the space was all his, an empty vessel he could fill up with the friendly and honest service he prided himself on.

Two regulars came in for their morning coffee and donut. Joe waved to them from behind the counter as he pulled the first batch of donuts from the oven and used his magic to sort them into the trays behind the counter. When the coins and bills started changing hoof, a few lines from his favorite book came to him:

'Just as there is a seed of the earth, there is also a seed of the mind, and the name we call it by is money. Every time a coin changes hoof, it is planted, grown, and harvested in a process that can only unfold in our higher mental faculty. The fertile ability to take a circle of metal and uplift it into something more, something celestial, is the line that demarcates equinekind from the lesser animals, driven by base passions intimately tied to the chthonic realm of the dirt and the tree. Unlike the seeds of the ground, the sowing of money can never be ceased, for its potential is infinite. Every time a coin lands in a pony's possession, they are free to sow their dreams by passing that coin on to the next pony, who helps bring those dreams into existence. We are, all of us, a chain of unicorns working together to build dreams by passing coins from one to another, like seeds sprouting ad infinitum. That is the covenant we hold with Equestria as it beckons us to its service, to build this eternal city of dreams.'

When he was young and just starting out on his own, The Wealth of the Wellspring and the ponies in it had been his best friends and his closest companions. Within the book's eighteen hundred pages he had found the blueprint for building everything he now owned. That included the epic three-hundred page speech, the length of a novel in its own right, where the book's mysterious central figure lays out the unquestionably true and, what's more, only path to success in Equestria, as if he had directly consulted with the princess on the matter. And since it was barely more than twice the price of a regular book, there was a tremendous sense of value as well.

He magically lifted two used cups off the 'dirty' rack and cantered to the sink at one end of the counter, flush against the plate glass windows. As he washed them out, he looked at the city as it came alive. Something electric thrummed in the air, a vibrant feeling of potential he couldn't quite explain, other than it made him smile with sheer optimism. The call of Canterlot was going out. Today, he could already tell, was going to be a good day for business.

And it was the High Castle that made that possible.

If he angled himself just right, he could see the fortress itself between two tall buildings across the street. It stood above the city proper, on the side of the mountain. The vertical and angular walls resembled the body of a bird of prey, wings folded tight as it stood on its perch, and the dominant central tower was the head, with hooked beak and heavy eye. Ferocious and protective, the princess watched over her nest from above, keeping them all safe from harm.

Everything Joe possessed flowed from her. Like his favorite book said, she was the wellspring of his good fortune. A bridge between the divine moon and the ponies in the city. Long ago, when dreams ended as the moon set, the princess blazed a path skyward for them, making the moon eternal. She showed them how to raise themselves ever higher, until they too could touch her moon. That ascent was marked on every coin in Equestria; the princess's profile was stamped into one side and the moon dominated the flip side. Through that association, the money became something more. A promise of prosperity for regular unicorns like him. He worked hard for every coin, and under the shelter of his princess's wings, those coins had been his reward.

He finished washing the cups out and put them on the 'clean' rack. One of his regulars called his name, a smile lighting up her face. There were a lot of nice folks who knew the value of hard work and how much he put into this place. And more of them streamed in through the door every minute. As the shop came alive around him, Joe couldn't wait to meet every single one.

He was right here for them, on this little corner in the city of Canterlot.

Rarity had only had time for four hours of sleep, and the burn was inflaming her already overstressed mind. Half-mad from fatigue, she felt like Captain Fairweather, protagonist of Cynic DeKey's Brave the Blue Sea. Dozens of draft schematics ranged far and wide over the table, overlapping haphazardly and pushing each other up along their fold creases like cresting waves. She was a captain of industry at the wheel of her ship, the S.S. Rarefaction, and everypony on-board depended on her to steer them right. But she couldn't escape the terror of being aimlessly adrift. Somewhere in this vast and treacherous sea, buried like sunken treasure, was the one design anticipating exactly what ponies would be raving about in a year's time. The dress that would symbolize an age. A product to blow her competitors out of the water. Now, the only problem lay in finding it. She scoured the designs, pushing the rejects away and pulling the potentials close, dreaming of making waves. One particular green dress came to mind, and she shuffled the diagrams around to search for it. The waves shifted, but she couldn't find the treasure she sought. Finally, in a fit of aggravation, she jumped atop the sea and walked across the water, her muzzle close to the tabletop, hunting the design like a mariner searching for whales.

The door opened and Coco Pommel called, “Rarity?”

“Quiet!” Rarity shouted, not looking up. “Busy. Ah, there it is!” She stalked over to the design she wanted, near the far corner. But after studying it for a moment, she decided it really wasn't all that great after all. Certainly not good enough to beat out the competition in a city already overfull with fashion. She turned to Coco, pushing her unkempt mane out of her eyes, and asked, “What is it?”

“It's almost 7 o'clock.”


And you need to go into the office before the tour of the art exhibit starts.”

Rarity reared back and then pounded her forehooves on the table. She'd forgotten all about the exhibit. In the corner, a forgotten turntable spun aimlessly, its needle stuck in the end groove, spiraling into infinity. Now that she noticed it, the static crackling from the speaker sounded rather loud. How long it had been since the record ran out? The only thing she remembered were dresses. An endless pile of dresses to sail through, searching for a safe port. She shuddered and shook her head, bringing herself back down from the dreamy heights of the moon to earthly reality, then hopped off the table.

“Walk with me,” she said to Coco.

She magically lifted the record off the platter. It hovered in front of them as they walked through the door and entered the sprawling, spacious, two-story living room of Rarity's penthouse, designed and decorated by Magnus LeFarrier himself. At the price she had paid, he guaranteed she would love every inch of the place. He hadn't disappointed her. From the fake rock and wood panels ringing the lower walls, to the tiered hardwood floor rising up to the lush indoor garden at the back, and finally the glowing chandelier in the image of the moon hanging from the faux cloud-capped ceiling, the penthouse was simply second to none. Her gardener, Smokey, tended to the palm fronds and bushes rising from the inky mulch, lending them vitality by touch alone. Pure earth pony magic. Rarity had never seen a room so alive and in touch with glorious nature.

She sent the vinyl record flying across the room, past the enormous window taking up a whole wall. The record descended onto her sound system and, with a burst of magic, she flicked the switch and dropped the arm onto the groove. The intro to Sunday in the Park with Georgian Grande came from carefully concealed speakers, expertly placed to give the music the richest and fullest sound possible as it filled the penthouse. Of all Cynic DeKey's musicals, throughout the years this one had remained Rarity's absolute favorite, and how could it not? The struggle of Georgian Grande to create his art in the midst of every other pony trying to tear him down was something Rarity could relate to very well indeed. Pausing in the center of the room, she closed her eyes and opened her ears. The string section swelled up to a grand and bright brass blare. Oh, how energetic and inspiring! She swayed to the sprightly brumph of the horns, which lent the song such a propulsive patter. The pitch perfect sound of inspiration. How many times had she listened to this album while creating her dresses? The music had a way of pouring into her ears and burrowing into her brain, allowing the ideas and emotions buried inside it to escape and flow forth.

Her private cook stood in the open kitchen, off to one side of the living room. She gestured for him to bring over her oatmeal. It was seasoned with exotic and expensive spices that, like the fragrant and aromatic cup of coffee he also brought, came directly from the territories. But no amount of imported food and drink could ever replace the deft hoof her cook used. She had recruited him from one of Canterlot's finest restaurants, and he'd been worth every bit.

While scarfing down breakfast, rejoicing in the divine music, and waiting for the coffee to wake her up so she could face another day, she asked Coco what else was on her itinerary.

“Work at nine, where you'll select your second favorite dress from the new line and wear it on the gallery tour from eleven until two, when you have a quick meeting with the CEO of General Horsepower to harry him into accepting the merger. I've drawn up some arguing points for you, by the way. After that, you see your shrink at three, then head back to the office to get your favorite dress from the new line and wear it to the premiere of Cynic DeKey's new musical, The River Runs Wild. Curtains up at seven.”

Gulping down the last of her oatmeal, Rarity asked, “What would I do without you?”

“Get a new assistant.”

Rarity studied the skyscrapers of Canterlot through the window. Those towers of light, built and powered and maintained by thousand of ponies working in tandem. Full of ponies like her, running businesses, building dreams, reaching for the moon. She spared a thought for all the unicorns running around without such a wonderful assistant who made all that possible. Her eyes went higher, to the High Castle above the city. Did the princess herself have an assistant half as capable as Coco? Sturdy, dependable Coco Pommel.

A framed oil painting of Rarity's lovely parents hung on the wall. Gone long before their time, sadly. But the words of advice they gave her remained in her memory. When Rarity was young and just learning how to spend the family fortune wisely, they admonished her to always treat her workers well. If she did that, her workers would treat her well in return. That was her duty, how she kept the promise of Canterlot alive. And so, for the past twelve years she strove to live up to their words. Perhaps it was her way of keeping them alive. And she must've done something right, because now she had everything a pony could ever dream of.

Except a few more hours in the day, obviously.

“Another assistant, yes," she said finally. "But a better one? I think not. Now, I'm going to freshen up. Be a dear and tidy up the designs, then pick one to go into mass production.”

“Which one?”

Rarity grinned. “Surprise me.”

After a moment of apprehension, Coco, too bashful to smile back, simply nodded. “Will do, ma'am.”

But before Rarity left, she took one last look out the window at the buildings of Canterlot, the gleaming city that sat at the heart of the eternal night.

Where dreams came true.

“This is Canterlot calling.”

Twilight Sparkle woke up shouting. Every nerve, every instinct screamed at her to gallop away from the raging fire torching her coat and mane and burning her body to ashes. She pushed herself off the sweat-stained pillow, panting and terrified, her legs so tense and taut they hurt. She couldn't think with all the blinding panic consuming her. But the longer she stood on her bed, the more she wondered where the heat had gone. Why it was so cool and dark, and the ground below her hooves was so soft. Gradually, her dream dissolved into fragments that mixed with the real world around her. The two ran together and became thoroughly confused as they dueled for control of her senses, but gradually reality reasserted itself.

“Welcome to the EBC World Service," the radio on her night table said, “transmitting to Equestria and beyond at the top of the dial.”

Just a dream, she thought. Her shoulders sagged and her head lolled. Sweat beaded on her forehead and dripped from her mane. Her lungs ached as she panted heavily for breath. But it was alright, nothing was going to harm her. Here she was, back in the real world. She gently settled down and laid her chin back down on the pillow. Her eyes lingered on the wall across the bedroom, that familiar slab of bare gray that greeted her every morning. She knew its subtle paint variations and smudges very well by now. With one leg still in the dream world, it seemed so flimsy. Like she could give it a push and watch it fall away. Watch the whole room break apart. But what would she find behind the facade? The raging fire? Or a cold and empty void? The thought of floating forever, cold and alone, made her want to scream all over again.

The radio continued: “In the capital, the eternal night is looking lovely so far, but an alert from the coast tells us a nasty smog cloud is inbound from Las Pegasus. Pegasus crews are standing by, and we'll have an update on their status later on....”

Twilight dragged herself off the bed and stood dizzily in the center of the bedroom, her senses distorted by the weight of sleep. Her bones cracked loudly when she stretched. She reset the radio's alarm for 7am the next day. Another day, just like this one. And the last one. And the day before that.

She padded on unsteady legs into the combination kitchen and living room of her condominium-apartment, but when she reached the doorway she was struck once again by how lonely the conapt looked.

All the furniture came wholesale from the LeFarrier department store. The ads in the newspapers and magazines depicted a stallion relaxing in a recliner with a smile on his face, implying LeFarrier-brand furniture was guaranteed to make her so happy. But not once did the alleged 'living' room ever stop feeling utterly empty and destitute. An eerie stillness pervaded it, suffusing the air with dread, like a permanent vigil for the dead was being held. And since she was the only pony living there, that meant she must be the dead one. In fact, the only two signs of life in the whole place were the haphazard pile of books on her (LeFarrier-brand) coffee table, and the neon billboard across the street shining through her window shades, flickering an eternal advertisement for Lorca-brand Canned Watermelon. Twilight had bought a can from the supermarket once. It did not make her as happy as the smiling mare on the billboard.

The framed pictures on the walls were from the Whinnydom-Neighson vintage gallery, a matching set of 'authentic reproductions', the mail-order catalog informed her, of theater posters from almost a century ago. The set was promised to add a touch of class to any room. But the performances were all dated from long before she was born, and after hanging them on the wall she came to understand she had no reason to commemorate shows she hadn't attended and had no memory of.

Records lined the bottom shelf of her (LeFarrier-brand) wall unit, right under her sound system. All ready and waiting to be slid out of their sleeves and spun on the turntable. The music wanted to be free, set loose to impose an artificial, pony-made harmony and melody on the chaotic, lifeless static of real life. She had all the records that topped the charts, each with its own unique emotional texture designed to stimulate and simulate a distinct emotional reaction: Rockafilly, by the Swinging Colts; Sunday in the Park with Georgian Grande and Brave the Blue Sea, by Cynic DeKey; even her own giant-hit discotheque album, a relic from before the clubs were shut down. And good riddance, she thought viciously. As a young mare, how many times had she gone out to dance at the discotheque, only to end up standing against the wall, feeling miserable that she couldn't be like the others? That she couldn't move as smoothly and gracefully? That her hyperliterate young self couldn't speak with the kind of dumb wit those idiotic other colts and fillies found endearing? As envy slowly poisoned her young heart, she couldn't see any reason to go out when she could stay home, put the record on, and feel the exact same way.

The ads told her she needed all these things, furniture and art and records, to be happy. Yet the conapt resisted her every attempt at making life from lifelessness. It remained silent, sterile, sullen. Nothing suggested any areas for improvement. It was the most passive-aggressive apartment she'd ever seen.

Twilight went to the kitchen counter and juggled getting a pot of coffee burbling and pancakes frying on the stove. When she opened the cabinet to get the flour out, last night's bottle of hard cider drew her eye. About a fifth was left, and her taste buds immediately salivated for it. It whispered to her that it, and only it, could take away the ennui plaguing her. Could let her enjoy music and art again, without her meddling and over-analytical mind getting in the way. Could make the pain stop and let her be happy as long as the buzz lasted. There was magic in that bottle.

But she had work to do. She took the flour out and slammed the cabinet door on the hard cider. To drown out the alcohol's call, she focused on humming a tune to herself until the blobs that would soon be pancakes merrily sizzled in a pan. That accomplished, she wandered to the coffee table, distantly aware of the radio still playing in her bedroom. Her mother's beautiful leather-bound edition of Starswirl's Storm lay open on the table. Her favorite play. On the page facing the text, a woodcut illustration showed the famous sorcerer harnessing the spirit magic of breezies to work his illusion on the vain, greedy king. Twilight wished powerful magic like that still existed. Magic that let great sorceresses and sorcerers wield amazing spells more powerful than simple levitation. Spells capable of changing the whole world.

On a whim, Twilight hoofed to act five, scene one, and started reading from line one hundred and five:

I lingered in that twilight state of grace

Where such dreams did appear to me anon,

Whisp'ring sweet revelations and ideas

And of a way to end all suffering.

But there was no twilight anymore. In the eternal night, the word didn't refer to anything. It had become an abstract concept learned through description rather than experience. Just like 'morning' literally meant the time after the sun crosses the horizon to the point it reaches its apex in the sky, yet now it simply meant the time after ponies awoke but before they went to work. 'Year', as well, was an outdated construct. How could there ever be a year without the moon moving? Yet all through the centuries the concept had been maintained for tax cycles and production quotas and because it fit how natural getting eight hours of sleep a day felt. All these words survived by warping and mutating from the meanings they originally referred to. She lived in a world where nothing meant what it said it did.

Once, long ago, Twilight asked her mother about her name. "I named you Twilight because 'twilight' meant hope,” her mother had explained, smiling down at Twilight and warming her little filly heart. “Ponies used to long for twilight, because it meant the day was over and their suffering would end.”

But what hope did Twilight have now? Tears welled up in her eyes. Her chest felt like it was being wrenched apart. Across the room, the cider called out to her again. Resisting the urge, she instead stared at the living room, at all the things the ads told her to buy. But she couldn't quell memories of all the happy times with her mother, and her father, and....

“....Shining Armor's unfortunate death,” the radio in the bedroom said.

Twilight gnashed her teeth and ignited her horn. She swung around to face the wireless through the open doorway and magically twisted the tuning dial to 108.5 so hard it almost broke off. Radio Free Canterlot was the one and only station she could rely on to drown out the creeping dread, the knowledge she was all alone now. Alone with all these things that were supposed to make her happy and were failing miserably. Sure enough, a familiar voice came from the speaker grille. Twilight smiled in gratitude as she twisted the volume dial to fill up the conapt, then went back to the stove and tended to her pancakes.

“Hello, hello, hello, morning folks and bedbound slowpokes,” a mare with a low, husky voice said, “this is Thorny Bends and her Lovely Friends coming at you live on Radio Free Canterlot. So, we're coming up on the thousandth year, huh? I just hope the High Castle set their clocks right. I'd hate to find out the millennial was really last week, and we all missed it. Ha! But seriously, we all trust the High Castle here. After all, it's been almost a thousand years since our beloved princess ushered in the eternal night. Where does the time fly?”

“Probably somewhere out of transmission range,” Freepony Young, her sidekick, quipped, “so it doesn't have to listen to this awful show.”

“Very funny, Freepony.” Thorny's voice was droll. "You're a real jokester."

Lightly and airily, he replied, “Not as much of a joke as you, Thorn. Problem is, I can't figure out if the joke is on me, too. After all, I'm stuck in here with you.”

“Tell you what, the joke is on all of us. The biggest, grandest joke of all. The one you spend your whole lifetime trying to figure out, until you're old and gray and gnarled. Then, and only then, do you realize what the punchline is.”

“So enlighten us, you mad prophet, you. What's the punchline?”

“The punchline is that you just spent your whole life trying to figure the joke out, and now it's all over. Your life, that is. The question ate you alive, like one of those snakes nibbling on its own tail. Round and round we go, from birth to death, struggling to decipher the big ones: What's it all about? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? Why do I have to suffer all this pain just to get to the good bits? But have no fear, Freepony, because I think I've finally put my hoof on it.”

Twilight cocked her head and tilted an ear up to catch the coming revelation. A shiver of anticipation went through her.

“So what's the answer?” Freepony asked with considerable scorn.

Thorny chuckled. “I'd love to tell you, but first a little word from our sponsors, Horselover-brand Artificial Fat....”

The radio launched into an advertisement, making Twilight sigh loudly. Right when you think you're about to find out the answer, she thought angrily, they throw a commercial at you. Well, that's one way to stop ponies from tuning out, I guess.

She stepped away from the stove and poured herself a steaming cup of coffee. Unfortunately, it was brewed from locally-grown beans. She tried to save a few bits, and now she was paying for it. While sipping it and savoring the rush, if not the lackluster taste, she checked the daily planner hanging on the wall. Under 'Friday', she'd written: 'Work till 1:00. Session with psychologist at 2:00. Then groceries.' The stove timer went off, letting her know the pancakes were ready. She took them off the pan, dropped that into the sink, and shut the range off. As she sat down at the (LeFarrier-brand) kitchen table to eat, she checked the clock. Its arms pointed at 7:05. Two hours to go before work started. Two hours that were really meaningless, considering the unbroken night outside the window. Those hours meant nothing except what ponies agreed they meant. Her pancakes tasted meager and unsatisfying. She couldn't decide whether to blame that on the ingredients or her own incompetent hooves. But she finished them in a few huge bites anyway, after going through the trouble of making them. She looked around the empty apartment, feeling the boredom and despair settle over her like a shroud, and wondered what she would do until Thorny Bends came back from the ad break. In the cabinet, the bottle of cider called out to her.

It's seven in the morning, Twilight, she told herself, but the bottle called louder and louder, her only company in this lonely conapt. The only thing that gave her the courage to be carefree and to smile at the world. It filled her thoughts until she relented and thought, Eh, might as well finish it off. She drank the cider down swiftly, bracing herself to answer the call of Canterlot. But as the liquid burned down her throat, a lyric from the album Rockafilly came to mind:

'I've never felt so much a like-a....'

"....singing the blues!" the boutique's radio crooned. An earnest announcer then spoke over the rollicking beat. "Next month, the Able Archer Memorial Auditorium is proud to present the most rocking-est concert event of the millennium, the Swinging Colts! Buy your tickets now, before your rocking friends all roll away!"

Before the radio could continue, the salespony returned to the sprawling sales floor of the Guild, one of Canterlot's trendiest fashion boutiques. The store was done in a baroque style, with polished marble floors, soft electric lights inside fake candles, and gilded designs on the plaster walls, like a palatial guildhall from five hundred years ago, during the Reawakening. The unicorn salespony stopped and reared back, holding up a sleek and glittering blue dress in her fetlocks. Trixie Lulamoon stopped lounging on the couch and sat up. Her eyes widened by degrees as she beheld the curling, wavy accents inlaid into the fabric and the short, fluffy feathered train that curled like sea foam. The dress was the very image of an ocean wave.

"And this is the latest Rarefaction-brand design," the salespony declared.

Trixie imagined sporting that beautiful dress to the Chariot theater for opening night. Basking in the astonishment of the socialites. Blockbuster, the sensational star of the stage, would fall to his knees in awe of her grace and style. The thought made Trixie so giddy she trembled. With her horn aglow, she ripped the dress from the salepony's hooves, paying no attention the unicorn's flustered scowl. She was the one paying for the dress, after all, and the customer was always right.

A full-length mirror occupied the back corner. Trixie trotted past the dummy mares and stallions modeling the boutique's expensive wares, forever frozen in perfect poise. At the mirror, she held the dress against her body. The colors accented her coat and mane admirably. On her, the dress was bound to turn heads, especially with the Rarefaction name attached. There was no fashion designer in Canterlot whose brand commanded more respect and opened more doors for little old Trixie Lulamoon. Today, she was an insignificant archivist. But she knew, deep in her heart, she was destined for great and powerful things. It was her calling.

"I'll take it," she declared dramatically.

The salespony smiled. "Do you have credit with us already?"

"Oh, Trixie always pays cash for her dresses," she said casually. The salespony, caught off-guard, named a very large price for the dress, but Trixie merely replied, "It won't be a problem. I'm going to see if this one fits."

Without waiting for a reply, she cantered towards the changing rooms. When she passed through the doorway, the baroque decor gave way to a bland, thoroughly-modern hallway with linoleum floors and white drywall. The radio played through a round speaker grille in the ceiling. Trixie was delighted to hear the station was done with the commercials and had returned to the rerun of The Galloping Gossips she'd been enjoying. It was her favorite radio sitcom, and this was one of her absolute favorite episodes, too. Her idol, the quick-witted and even quicker-dismayed socialite Blanche Shockley - "It's pronounced 'Bee-lan-shay Show-clay!'" as the good old mare herself often corrected - was advising her galpal, the perpetually neurotic and terrified Rose Wilting, on how to carry herself while talking to the stallion she had long admired from afar for the first time.

"Just remember when to strut, and you won't be in a rut," Blanche explained in a singsong voice. "The strut, Rose, is the best weapon in a mare's arsenal. Use it wisely, and all the stallions will be rushing over to talk to you before you can say what's what. You'll emerge from your cocoon like a beautiful social butterfly."

"With those great big bulging blood-shot eyes of hers," their irascible and acid-tongued friend Sally Lander said, "she'll be more like a social cicada."

While pushing open the door to dressing room eight, Trixie cackled along with the studio audience. Even through she knew the line by heart, it was the waspish and near-shrieking delivery that made it so uproarious. Oh, how she wanted to run in those high society circles, gossiping to her confidants about everypony else and living the comfortable life. She gazed into the mirror, picturing herself strutting into the latest garden party, being the envy of every mare and the object of desire for every stallion. Even Blanche Shockley herself, the very definition of poise, would bow down before Trixie's fabulousness. In her imagination, it was such a glorious sight having the Galloping Gossips in awe of her. She would be the mare at the head of the herd, and every pony would lag behind her, sick with envy.

"You're late," Lightning Dust said.

Trixie glanced at the reflection of the other mare, dressed inconspicuously, standing in the corner behind her. Nonplussed, Trixie shrugged herself into the dress. "It takes a while to find an outfit that really says 'Trixie!'"

"Here," Lightning Dust said. "Your monthly allowance."

She reached into her saddlebag, took out a wrapped roll of coins, and placed it on the shelf that ran along the dressing room wall. With a flick of her fetlock, she sent it rolling along the counter until Trixie stopped it with her hoof. Trixie lifted it up and examined it, feeling the heft of all those bits. They had a satisfying weight. A sturdy weight.

"I'm afraid I'll need a little more," Trixie said. "This won't quite cover the dress. The rich life isn't cheap, you know."

Expectantly, Lightning Dust pulled out another roll and sent it along the counter into Trixie's outstretched hoof.

"Much obliged." Trixie smiled at Lightning Dust's reflection, then went back to admiring her own. "Do you have any special instructions for me?"

"Same as always: observe and report."

"One of many things Trixie excels at."

Lightning Dust flashed her a fake, indulgent sort of smile, eerily like the one the salespony gave her.

"If you say so," Dust said.

Trixie twirled around with a flourish to face the other mare and struck a pose. "How do I look?"

"Great," Lightning Dust said with an utter lack of enthusiasm. She headed out of the dressing room, pausing at the door only long enough to say, "If there are any developments, we'll get in touch."

Then the door slammed shut behind her, and Trixie was left alone with her beautiful, beautiful new dress. Yes, do be in touch, she thought. As long as you bring me some more of those wonderful bits, I'll be looking forward to it oh so very much!

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