• Published 7th Jun 2014
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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 3

“That is, hooves down, one of the ugliest pieces of so-called 'art' I have ever seen,” Upper Crust said.

“Oh, I agree,” said her husband, Jet Set. “It's positively revolting.”

I think it's quite striking, Rarity thought. But she didn't dare say that out loud, not where the other socialites could hear her. Nevertheless, the statue commanded her attention: the exaggerated lips twisted in agony; the tiny eyes set beneath a brow raised so high it was anatomically impossible; the limp and drooping wings. It was hard not to feel a tug of sympathy for the sculpted pony. The exaggeration of its features only made the torment in its heart all the more apparent.

But Rarity's sense for a camera pointed in her direction was unrivaled among the Canterlot elite. She felt the photographer draw near and subtly angled herself towards him. She scoffed loudly to draw his attention. “If I wasn't so partial to this beautiful dress, I'd tear it off and burn it this very instant,” she declared, taking hold of its hem and holding it up where everypony could see. With delight, she heard the camera's shutter snap. Another moment in time, captured on film forever. For emphasis, she added, “That's how filthy just looking at this disgusting thing makes me feel.”

Thorny's words from that morning came back to her: We define ourselves through symbolic gestures. It was true, she mused. Of course, that didn't mean the gestures had to be genuine. Her company's marketing division had taught her that.

The other socialites murmured agreement with Rarity before shuffling on to the next exhibit. But Rarity lingered a moment to take in the room, now that all those prying eyes weren't watching. A very familiar swing song, with a raucous beat and whirls of spirited trumpets, came from a turntable in the exhibition room's corner. She knew it very well from her youth in the discotheque. The pitch and tone had been altered to make it sound harsh and piercing, almost unbearably unpleasant. Not at all like the smooth sound of the original recording at all. Paintings hung on the walls, all of them eschewing the clean lines and realistic composition the traditionalists embraced in favor of expressionistic figures and heavy emotional texture. Slogans in quotation marks were crudely scrawled around them in sharp and jagged foot-high letters: 'The mess of sloppy rhythm and melody called "swing" or "jazz" mocks the order we hold dear'; 'This alleged art is as lawless as the Winter Rising'; 'The sick mind infects healthy minds and drags them into the dirt'.

In front of the contorted pegasus statue stood a brass plaque. 'Titled "The Martial Spirit", this piece was deemed by its unicorn sculptor a "statement" about General Able Archer and his conduct during the battle for Khymerzj in 963. However, society at large only had question marks about the sculptor's own military valor. Fortunately for Equestria, the newly-formed Midnight Guard proscribed and arrested her shortly after this statue's unveiling in 967. All her works were destroyed except this, as an example of the sickness infecting civilization. See how the noble stature of the pegasus, defender of the civilized world, becomes twisted and limp, mocking their innate virtue. This is how the pegasus ideal is seen by warped minds.'

Laying it on a bit thick, aren't we? Rarity thought as she followed the group into the next room. As soon as she passed through the archway, a white unicorn standing off to one side caught her eye. The tall, sturdy-looking stallion was part of the group, but at the same time he stood apart. There was an edge to him, Rarity sensed, something imperceptibly wild and rebellious. Something most ponies would never notice unless they had their eyes wide open. The stallion gave her a sly half-smile, as if he had tuned into her thoughts and knew exactly how she felt about the exhibit. His wavy blue mane fell around his head artfully, and his mustache had an odd curl to it so that it was almost, but not quite, rendered comical.

She was about to approach him when Jet Set called out her name and waved to her from the other side of the room. Rarity glanced back at the white stallion, but he'd busied himself looking at the art. Rarity briefly entertained the thought of going to the white stallion anyway, but the stiff-looking gray-coated unicorn standing next to Jet Set did not look like a patient pony. She reluctantly trotted over to join them.

“Ah, Rarity.” Jet Set gestured to the stallion. “This is General Mace. He's been meaning to meet you.”

“So you're the little filly who'll soon be making tanks and planes for us,” the gruff stallion said, his cold eyes twinkling. “Just thought I'd size you up for a little bit.”

Rarity gave him a cordial smile. “Well, weapons manufacturing is only a small part of what General Horsepower does.”

“True, but that's the part that concerns me, so forgive me if I'm a little parochial.”

She glanced at his dress uniform, a slightly darker shade of gray than his coat, out of the corner of her eye. One of her subsidiaries had a contract with the High Castle to make uniforms for the Empire, but she couldn't place this one. There were so many different military and intelligence branches it was hard to keep them all straight by their uniforms. They all blurred together, and most of the designs had been drafted by the various branches themselves. She didn't have much of a hoof in her subsidiaries' manufacturing. Only the profits.

“Are you with the army?” she asked.

“The gend-armerie, actually.”


Seeing her lack of recognition, he said, “I command the Civil Force. Praetor Mace, at your service."

I should have known, she thought. That uniform does look rather the same shade as those gray fatigues the street troops wear.

"That means if something happens here on the homefront," General Mace explained further, "I'm the pony who puts it down. I keep our little herd together, heh heh. You've heard of the Winter Rising, of course?"

"Of course. Though it was twelve years ago." She let out a coy, fillyish chuckle. "I was only a young mare then, more interested in dancing with colts at the discotheque than the family fortune."

"Well, not to brag," he said, his tone indicating he was about to start bragging, "but I'm the reason you blossomed into the beautiful mare you are now. The High Castle was so impressed with how I commanded the ground forces that put the Rising down, they promoted me to general on the spot. Right after they ripped the medals off my predecessor, that is." He gave her his attempt at a casual friendly smile, which was downright frightening and yet also somewhat hilarious in its incongruity. "So keep on my good side, you hear?”

The unicorn was starting to irk Rarity. 'Not to brag', hm? The Winter Rising had indeed been terrifying to live through, but in retrospect it was all rather obvious how it would turn out. The street fighting was mercifully short, as the Winter Brigade simply wasn't large enough to take the city. Most of them had died trying to hold the EBC radio station or the radio mast at the peak of the mountain, in a vain attempt to sound the call for revolution to Equestria at large.

Yet this stallion fancied himself a tactical genius for overseeing a foregone conclusion. She supposed he had spearheaded the closure of the discotheques too, which had nothing to do with the Winter Rising. Except for the High Castle's claim they encouraged 'moral perversity'. But to a young mare, the discotheques were the absolute best import from Unicornia, far more than the food or the fabrics. The joke was on this General Praetor Mace, though. Now, twelve years after the High Castle shut down the discotheques, the Midnight Guard was loosening up and letting swing-inspired music pass through the censors. 'Rockafilly', the radio called it. If a name like that didn't announce its intentions for so-called 'moral depravity' right up front, nothing did. Perhaps in time the discotheques would reopen, too. While she was still young, preferably.

Hoping to end the conversation quickly, she said, “I'll, um, be sure and do that."

But Mace wasn't so easily gotten rid of. “That's a beautiful dress,” he said. “One of yours?”

“Why, yes. It's from my new line.”

“My wife wears nothing but Rarefaction. She swears by it.”

Turning on the charm, Rarity said lightly, “Oh, I do so prefer hearing she swears by my dresses than at them."

Praetor gave a deep, booming belly laugh, but it didn't soften him at all. When he finished, he said, “Oh, no, not at all.” Trying to sound innocently curious, he asked, “So what made a fashion designer such as yourself buy out General Horsepower?”

“The merger isn't a done deal yet, general. They still might pull the deal off the table.”

“They're all a bunch of nerds and eggheads.” He smirked. “I'd rather deal with a fetching young filly like you any day, so if they do that, just give me the word and I'll do something about it.”

Is this his idea of being suave? Rarity thought. Ugh. But she flashed an effortless, well-practiced smile and said, “And as for the fashion designer part, with the profit my company is pulling in, I've decided to expand my investments. General Horsepower has been ailing ever since they sank all that money into their hovercarriage line. And then, when the war ended, they were left with all those brand-new fighter jets and nopony to buy them."

"What a dreadful waste to see those beautiful things scrapped," Mace lamented. "We bought some, but the treasury was just as cash-strapped as General Horsepower."

"The treasury might've recovered, but General Horsepower didn't. And so, when the firm finally declared bankruptcy, I thought to myself that ponies will always need autocarriages. It seemed like a sturdy market to go into. The arms division was just a....fringe benefit.”

“I see.”

“Don't worry, general. Your tanks and planes are in safe hooves.”

“And quite lovely ones at that,” he said. “Tell me, Miss Rarity, have you ever read The Empyrean Herd?"

She hadn't read the book herself, but in Equestria it was impossible to escape its shadow. That professor of hippology from Manehattan, he was the first to lay out the theory of degeneracy. That the biggest threat to societies - "entrenched herds", as he dubbed them - was not invasion by itself, but the gradual rotting of their morals and values from within, which left them listless and weak and unable to defend themselves. The constant threat of the 'hippoid', something in the likeness of a pony, encroaching on the pony form. Replacing it with a counterfeit that had none of the true pony's lunar divinity. It was enough to make Rarity gag.

But back in 958, with an inevitable war looming on the horizon, The Empyrean Herd was the book Equestrians needed to muster their martial spirit and face their enemy in battle. A war over the fate of the settlements became something much grander: a war for the very survival of pony civilization itself. In that capacity, the book worked a little too well. Her eyes flicked to the exhibits of degenerate art that surrounded her. For the past forty years, the Equestrians had used that book to face every 'enemy' since then. Could that hoary professor, with his thick glasses and tweed jacket, have foreseen what his little non-fiction book would become? The fervor it would inspire in ponies?

"I've heard so much about it," she said, "but unfortunately, I haven't had the time." Or the desire to read that wretched thing.

"It's a very insightful book," Mace said, his eyes aglow. "But don't take my word for it. Read it for yourself and you'll see. The Empyrean Herd will open your eyes to what's ailing our society, and what we need to do to keep it safe. As one of our city's premier businessmares, you, more than most, need to be aware of the truth."

There was sharp steel in his words. Rarity didn't doubt he would personally condemn every single degenerate to death if it came down to that. He would probably volunteer to swing the sword himself. His coldness shook Rarity, deep inside, but she kept her smile up nonetheless.

“I'll keep your recommendation in mind, General,” she said as evenly as she could manage.

"I hope so." Mace gestured to the tour group, who were heading for the next room. "Well, it looks like the tour is moving on. I wouldn't dream of keeping you from seeing all the wonderful degeneracy. Good bye, Miss Rarity."

He gave her a cordial smile, which was as unnatural as ever, and then turned and stiffly walked out of the gallery. Rarity felt like the statue from the last room, the Martial Spirit, after having to deal with him, but she suppressed her shudder. Jet Set, who had watched the entire exchange in silence, had a definite gleam of awe in his eye as he stared after the departed general.

“Quite a pony,” he said.

"Yes," she said. In her head, she added, But quite what?

She had a few choice words on the matter, but it wouldn't do her any good to elaborate. Instead, she cantered through the doorway and into the next room. Her eyes picked through the crowd, but she didn't see the white stallion anywhere. Spirits sinking, she walked over to Upper Crust and described him. When she was done, the other mare gave her a lofty, disparaging scoff.

“Oh, Fancy Pants? I did think it was odd of him to grace us with his presence. He doesn't usually run in these circles, if you catch my drift.”

“What sort of circles does he run in?” Rarity asked.

Upper Crust subtly nodded to the degenerate art on display. “Of course, nopony's proven anything,” she said. “He owned one of the most popular discotheques in the city. Some say his was the most immoral of them all. The very definition of what the High Castle was railing against. But owning a discotheque wasn't illegal then, so he got off scot-free. I heard the Midnight Guard investigated the art gallery he owns now, The Barnyard or the Stable or something, but he came up clean. All perfectly naturalistic and traditionalist. Yet still, rumors will persist.”

“My dear, you shouldn't believe all the rumors you hear. I've heard some whoppers about myself, actually.” She said that very pointedly, since she was certain Upper Crust had started a few of them.

“Be that as it may, I certainly wouldn't want to be seen frequenting his gallery. I would hate to have a few more rumors spring up around me.”

With that, Upper Crust turned and joined her husband in jeering at the art, leaving Rarity to spit silent curses at her. Her blood boiled under her skin. These ponies are so two-faced a-and duplicitious! Always putting on a simpering smile while they plot to destroy you! What felt like steel wires wrapped around her chest and squeezed her lungs and heart until she couldn't breathe and her blood refused to flow. Remember what the doctor said: take control of your lungs and focus on your breathing. Put everything else out of your mind.

In and out. In and out.

Bit by bit, serenity came over her and she could breathe again. She wondered what had become of Coco. After glancing around, she spotted her trusty assistant standing off to one side, staring up at a viciously ugly statue of an elongated unicorn that towered over her. Rarity joined her assistant's side and stared up at the snarling face. At this distance, Rarity noticed the statue was made of reworked tin cans patched together and welded into place. The plaque indicated it had been made around the same time as the Winter Rising took place. Light gleamed off its razor-sharp horn.

"Sorry, ma'am," Coco said, becoming aware of Rarity's presence.

"It's alright."

Coco pulled a pocketwatch out of her saddlebag and checked the time. "Um, we should leave. We're supposed to meet the executives from General Horsepower very soon now."

"Good," Rarity said. "I've had just about enough of this place."

Then she saw the photographer look around for a subject to shoot. Like flicking a switch, she effortlessly slapped that broad smile on her face and put a swagger in her step, offering herself and her company's beautiful new dress up as prime photographing material. Coco slipped out of the shot before the camera lens could find her. The photographer circled around Rarity to find the best angle, but it was only when the shutter clicked that Rarity realized the statue was now behind her. What would the other socialites think of her, smiling for the camera with that hideous imitation of her own kind in the background?

She should have looked disgusted, but it was too late now. The picture was eternal.

In the corner, a grandfather clock ticked away. Twilight's eye lingered on the second leg as it jerked from one second to the next. On and on. Counting the seconds she was paying for and yet not using. She let her gaze drift across the wood-paneled office to the window behind the sprawling desk. The shades were slightly askew. Between the slats, the city lights illuminated the night in spite of the thickening smog. Then her eye went to the impressive array of plaques and diplomas on the wall. And then she had nowhere else to look but at the white-maned and bearded stallion across from her, sitting on his haunches in a high-backed leather chair.

The doctor's eye studied her keenly. “Are you ready to tell me about your dream?”

Twilight drew in a long, deep breath, and when she exhaled she let her head loll until her eyes were pointed at the leather couch under her. She studied its creases and gradients, hoping to find some inspiration for how to begin. “I'm in the dark,” she said slowly, struggling to find the words to capture the faint impressions of memory. “I don't know for how long.”

After another lapse into silence, he prodded her by asking, “Can you see anything?”

“Not at first.” She closed her eyes, recalling the moment that shadow shroud was pierced, when light bloomed like a cosmic eye opening. “After awhile, there's a light, far away.” A primordial flame, wearing a majestic corona, kindled itself on the edge of the world, where it could survey the infinite waters of its domain. “That's when I realize I'm flying, and really fast, towards it.”

How could she fly without wings? It puzzled her as she hung in mid-air between the sea and the sky. Her reflection floated below her, fragmented by the churning ocean. In the dark, unable to see or hear, she had no reason to believe she wasn't on the ground. But now the light revealed she was rushing towards the threshold of the burning magnificence.

“And how do you feel when you see this light?” the doctor asked.

“I know it's not right. Unnatural, somehow. But at the same time, I can't turn away.” She had no wings. How could she divert her course? “I'm stuck heading for it.”

“And what happens next?”

Was she even flying? Maybe the ocean was a calm waterfall and she was falling down. Or perhaps, since there were so many universes she visited in her dreams, in this one ponies fell upwards. A sudden conviction had come over her. Though the laws of physics in the real world told her that objects rising straight up from the surface of a globe would diverge, in her dream everything would converge at the lynchpin around which the cosmos revolved. All things drawn to the center by some magnetic force. Towards that light, the apex of the dreamworld.

“The light grows brighter,” she said. “I can't stop flying towards it.”

She headed for the brilliant oblivion that painted the sky orange like an avant-garde artist working some surreal charm. The sky was never orange. She wanted to scream that this world was wrong, but the light blazed so bright. An intense, high-pitched hum and an ear-splitting roar drowned out her voice. She narrowed her eyes against the vivid splendor, but the light pierced them regardless. Tears of blood trickled down her cheek from the twin lances of heat and light searing her eyes. The droplets landed on the face of the waters, turning the sea red in an instant, which mixed with the orange sky until the whole world blended together into the same color, a dizzying, electrifying vermillion. Everything, water and sky, wave and cloud, melded into a monochrome void surrounding the one fixed point in the entirety of the cosmos: an orb shining brighter than the rest.

Twilight started to choke up as she remembered crossing the event horizon. “It starts burning me, but I don't care. I just want what's at the....the heart of the fire. That's all I care about.” The fire reached out and enveloped her. The darkness had been so devoid of warmth and vitality, but here, in this burning heart, she felt alive. That pain was a small price to pay, and she didn't even care about her coat catching fire; everything else bowed down and gave way to the magnificence of the celestial fire radiating life. It was too massive to comprehend consciously. Her body was as tremulous as a bubble against its ferocious majesty. It burned through her as she fell upwards into the divine inferno, stripping away her flesh and bone to reveal her inner spark.

“And what do you find at the heart of the fire?” the doctor asked.

“That's just it: I don't know.” Dark shapes flew all around her, keeping abreast of her, shadows against the light. The things she wanted to leave behind refused to let her get away. She galloped on the aether to make it to the source of the fire before she was ensnared, but the shapes were too fast. Before her eyes, they assembled themselves around her. She was trapped. Her hooves hit against the hardwood floor. A ceiling arched overhead. Cobalt-blue walls blocked the light. She was in a labyrinth of shelves, among the thousands upon thousands of dusty books in the stacks. “I'm in the Canterlot Archives.”

His notes rustled as he checked them. “Your place of employment, correct?”

Twilight nodded. “And I run and I run, but....”

She galloped through the maze as fast as she could, but despair was seeping into her heart. She ran through the rows in search of that vibrant light, still faintly shining through the cracks and seams of the walls, trying to break free of the world that had erected itself around her. But the light faded just as gradually as it had brightened, leaving only a cold and empty void lurking behind the walls and ceiling and floor. She stopped, tears streaming from her eyes, lost in the twisting maze and unable to feel the light.

“....but you can't find the sun,” the doctor said.

A chill went through Twilight. She lifted her head, and the dream world dissolved like a wisp of cloud in the wind, leaving not a rack behind. “I never said that!" she protested. "I didn't say 'sun'!”

He raised a hoof. “Twilight, this is a safe place. You can speak freely here. I want to help you, not turn you over to the Midnight Guard.”

If she couldn't trust her doctor, she would never get better. So she took another deep breath and nodded in assent. Her voice shrill, she said, “Yes. The sun. And I charge at the wall to break through, to get back to the....to it, but it's gone. There's only the darkness. I-I start falling down into the void. And that's when I wake up.” She put her head in her hooves and rubbed the bags under her eyes and the tears welling up. “Tell me, doctor. Why do I want the sun so badly? Solara Invictus used it to scorch the planet and destroy anypony who defied her, but in my dreams it just feels so warm and welcoming.” Her face cracked as she started sobbing. “I don't know what's wrong with me, Doctor. I mean, I do. I'm a....”

"Yes?" he asked, a fount of calm.

"I'm a degenerate," she wailed. "I'm sick."

“It's alright, Twilight. Have you ever had anti-lunar thoughts before?”

“Never! I love our princess. She freed us from the ravages of the sun. She founded this city, where we could reach for the moon. She's our savior.” However, even as the words, those stock cliches from a thousand books, slipped from her lips, they rang hollow in her ears. She made an attempt to wipe the tears away, but they kept coming. “I just keep thinking about my favorite play.”

He glanced down at his notes again. “Starswirl's Storm? Which part?”

“When Starswirl is about to appear onstage, playing the part of the king. I can't stop thinking about what he says to Clover the Clever, about how an illusion can be realer than the real thing if the crowd wants it to be. What if I only believe in the eternal night because I tell myself to? What if it's just a role I play to fool everypony else? Everything is so abstract. So many words that don't mean anything. I recite them on command, but they don't feel true."

“Do you remember the context of that scene?”

“Of course. I know the whole play by heart. Starswirl pretends to be a better king, hoping the real king will follow his lead.”

The doctor smiled at her, an island of shelter in the violent tempest of her emotions. “He creates an ideal for the king to live up to. The perfect king. Yet despite the obvious brilliance of the playwright, he was writing for an audience in Manehattan during the Reawakening. He couldn't have foreseen how the same ideals he preached would lead to disaster years later. But you're the scholar, so you tell me: how did the Reawakening start?"

"It was, uh, the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The dragons were raiding the countryside and burning crops. The farmers couldn't grow food fast enough to replace the losses, even though the knights were going on yearly dragon raids. So the Duchy of Manehattan started importing food from overseas. From Unicornia. They grew very rich from the trade flowing through their city, and ideas from overseas started to follow, ancient knowledge from the ancestral pony homelands."

"Go on."

"Uh, the sons and daughters of lords who had little to no chance of inheriting, they headed for the cities and started managing the city's economy. That was the origin of the urban scholar class. They started all the guilds of craftsponies and artisans and the philosophy societies. 439, that's the date they say the Reawakening officially began. Soon, the royal family of Manehattan became patrons of the movement. They adopted Unicornian ideas about free trade that allowed the city to prosper. From there, the knowledge spread all throughout Equestria."

"And yet in the end, it sparked a civil war that split the nation in half."

"Because Ermine Dew, the Duchess of Fillydelphia, died young and without issue in 512. Both the Duke of Manehattan, Noble Sail, and the Duke of Hollow Shades, Albus Rex, were related to her through her mother and father, respectively. They both tendered a claim for her throne."


She suddenly realized her tears had stopped and her sorrow had abated. What a brilliant trick, she thought. "Albus Rex was a reactionary. He feared free trade would take away the power he had. To keep the dying feudal system going, he went to the High Castle, who backed his claim. The incensed Noble Sail accused the High Castle of stagnating society and pledged to raise the sun by any means necessary. He imported 'companies of adventure', big mercenary armies, from the Pegaponnese. They clashed with the princess's knights all across the eastern part of Equestria, burning the already fragile crops to cinders. The two sides fought each other to a stalemate.

"But after five years, the treasury of Manehattan ran out. The high taxes and harsh living conditions stirred discontent among the scholars who had been his biggest supporters, and without payment the companies of adventure refused to fight and the city couldn't import food. The princess's armies, driven by notions of fealty and duty instead of money, marched on Manehattan. Noble Sail stowed away on the last departing ship, too broke to even pay for his fare, and good thing, too: Albus Rex was the first Duke to reach the city. He and his vassals sacked the city, flaying ponies alive and hanging them from the walls. It took a bill of attainder to make him stop, threatening another dynastic dispute over the throne of Hollow Shades. Meanwhile, Noble Sail lived the rest of his life in obscurity as an accountant in Unicornia. They only found out what happened to him after he died. A brooch from his father was found in his possessions. His only heirloom."

"Spoken like a true scholar. Now, what happened after the civil war?"

"Um, everypony just kind of agreed that the feudal system was broken. Unable to rule the country effectively. The lords who started the conflict protested, of course, but the whole nation was sick of war. The princess turned to the disaffected scholar class. She decreed a new kind of government in 523. The country would be run by bureaucracy, which would replace the system of duchies and vassals."

"From the ashes of the two warring sides arose a fusion of them. A stronger, better nation emerged from conflict. Struggle is the way we become stronger, and our modern nation is the result of a thousand years' worth of it. When we won the war against the Griffons, did we adopt any of their theories on government?"

"Of course not."

"Their loss proved how disastrously wrong their ideals were. When two nations go to war, we determine which one's ideals are superior by whichever one survives the conflict, and how they did it. Which one had the willpower of an inspired citizenry behind it. Because this process of conflict also works on an individual level. When our princess was young, the tyrant Solara Invictus filled her head with terrible, unspeakable lies. She wanted to chain our princess's potential for her own selfish ends. But through the princess's struggle she discovered her own convictions and found her inner strength. If she hadn't, she never would have been able to stand up to the tyrant and free herself. Thus, the so-called 'unconquered sun' was brought low and struck down. The eternal night began. And since the eternal night and the ascent of the pony race has lasted for a millennium now, weathering all kinds of disputes and grievances, it must be superior. Do you see? This is the world she made."

Twilight glanced at the lights of Canterlot shining through the window. It's beautiful, she told herself. The height of pony civilization.

The world Luna made.

"In the play," the doctor continued, "Starswirl created a new ideal for the king to follow. Although some of the Reawakening's ideals were short-sighted and wrong, there is still some truth to them. Like Starswirl in the play, our princess has created the perfect ideal for us. One of strength and virtue and moral purity, tempered with a profound respect for the higher nature of the moon and the natural order that it shines down on us. The prosperity of our civilization proves that it is, indeed, the one true path. The ideals of the Duchy of Manehattan and the play written to lionize them did not survive the conflict they created, yet they still made enough of an impact to prove that they weren't unsalvageable. The conflict is what revealed it."

"So you're saying this struggle I'm having is....a good thing?"

"We all find ourselves tested, Twilight. Our unconscious mind is instinctive, untamed, prone to laziness and immorality. Left unchecked, it becomes the antithesis of the moon's divine rationality. That's why we need our princess to be our evenstar. Our guiding light. She gives us an ideal to live up to. Only through being tested do we find out how strong our resolve to become that ideal runs. The unconscious mind sometimes does things we don't intend, but that can end up helping us in unexpected ways. If you master yourself, you will emerge from the conflict a stronger pony.”

“But my dream,” she asked. “What does it mean for me and my conflict?”

“What do you think it means?”

She hung her head. “Bad thoughts. The sun is my own bad thoughts. They're trying to consume me, and I can't turn away from them.”

“You can, Twilight. Draw strength from the struggle of our princess. I believe in you.”

Twilight had never actually seen the princess, so instead in her mind she concentrated on pictures, which were more detailed. Her indigo body was regal, graceful, utterly without doubt. Inspiring. Her stellar hair streamed out behind her like the cosmos themselves. Twilight concentrated on the image she must aspire to. She had to put aside herself and attune to that image of the princess.

“Fight the impulses,” the doctor said, “and you will emerge a better pony.”

I don't know how much longer I can deal with this, Fluttershy thought.

When her hour-long lunch break came around, she gladly took to wandering the streets to put as much distance between herself and the Rarefaction factory as possible. Just the thought of all the ponies, all the strangers she had to come into contact with inside that place, made her sick to her stomach. She might have vomited that hoagie right back up if she still had it. But the cold air outside was bracing as it went through her mane and coat. It did her some good as she headed out of the industrial sectors, away from the red-brick factories and the enormous smokestacks spewing out smoke that thickened the gathering cloud cover. With most of the city at work, the hoof traffic was light and the checkpoints were almost empty. She breezed right through them and arrived at the edge of the city center by two-fifteen.

Ahead rose the massive marble Arch of Triumph, dominating the center of the massive roundabout at the heart of the city. Spotlights that were aimed skyward ringed its base and lit up its sides before continuing upwards to touch the underside of the growing cloud cover. The great war against the Griffons had ended in 971 with an overwhelming victory for Equestria after eight years of conflict. She hadn't been born by that point, but when they started construction of the Arch they told her very young self it was supposed to remind the nation of their victory and the unbridled prosperity that followed. But now, all it reminded her of was the work she carried out for the Bureau just to afford her little bunny.

The world she lived in was the cost of Equestria's victory.

Her stomach rumbled, bringing her back down to earth. Leaving the factory had done her a world of good. She just might be able to handle eating now. At the next intersection, a neon sign caught her eye, beating out the neon billboards that bathed the sidewalk and street in bright colors. 'Donut Joe's', the shop was called. A cozy-looking place, from what she could see through the windows. The door chime rang as she hesitantly crossed the threshold. The stallion behind the counter gave her a slight smile while cleaning the countertop with a rag. She wasn't worth a full smile, she knew, as she crossed the shop. No, it was infinitely better if he didn't bother too much about her. She preferred that to the hate and contempt that normally came her way. The swivel stool squeaked as she sat down on her haunches atop it. Her tense back itched with the brunt of all those accusatory eyes at her back from all the other customers. She hunched her shoulders and shrank in size as much as she could.

"Um, donut, please," she said.

"Sure thing. What kind ya want?"

The stallion moved aside and gestured to the rows of fresh donuts behind her. So many choices confronted her, frosted and plain and sprinkled and jellied. She pointed at a plain glazed, figuring a pony couldn't go wrong with the basics. He picked up a pair of tongs with his teeth, used them to slip the donut off the shelf and onto a plate, and slid it in front of her.

"Eat up," he said cheerfully. "Anything to drink?"

He's smiling and cheerful, but it's all fake, she thought, shaking her head to refuse his offer. He hates me, deep down, I know it.

"If there's anything else, just give me a holler," he said, moving on to the next customer.

Fluttershy bent her head down and took a bite form her donut in silence, set apart from the soft buzz of conversation that filled the donut shop. They were right to shun her. What could she offer to a conversation? Nothing. Just like she couldn't offer anything to the army or the weather patrol. The only thing she could offer, her job for the Bureau, was ripping her apart inside.

Behind her, the door chimes went off and a quick rush of noise from the city slipped into the shop. "This is all very, ah, quaint and all, ma'am, but why here? Wouldn't someplace more upscale be appropriate?"

"I did a bit of research on the sly, and apparently this is Lead Sell's favorite place to eat. I took a gamble and assumed if the meeting happened someplace he feels comfortable, he'll feel less threatened and cornered, and more likely to sell."

"But what if he feels the opposite? What if he feels too secure and decides not to accept?"

"That would be the definition of a 'gamble', Coco."

The two ponies who'd entered moved towards a booth at the edge of Fluttershy's vision. She couldn't help but glance their way. One of them, a silver unicorn, looked maddeningly familiar. Judging by her beautiful outfit, she was some influential mare about town whose pictures often graced the newspapers. But Fluttershy didn't have much use for newspapers these days.

She looks so beautiful, Fluttershy thought. Such poise.

When a young stallion in an apron asked for their order, the mare casually flicked her head back, allowing her purple mane to flow out behind her like water. She gave him a broad smile that made his knees wobble. The unicorn mare had never had a trace of doubt in her life, and why should she? She was bold and confident and commanding, everything a unicorn should be. She breezed through the world effortlessly, and on the weekends, she probably got into crazy adventures involving garden parties and parasails. To her, affording that adorable little bunny in Perky Pet would be a trifle. Everything always turned out alright for mares like her. Mares who weren't degenerate, like Fluttershy. Mares who had to push papers for the Bureau of Harmony and go out on assignment just to feel like they were contributing something to civilization. Just to feel like they earned their place in the eternal night.

Fluttershy ate the rest of her donut in dour silence and laid a coin on the counter. She dragged herself off the stool and towards the door, where two more unicorns in business suits entered. They took one look at the degenerate little pegasus and dismissed her in favor the booth with the beautiful mare.

"Interesting choice of locations," one of them said.

"Oh, really?" the mare asked lightly. Her voice was the height of self-assurance, playing on the other unicorns expertly, reading them like open books. "I just wanted to choose someplace casual. We're just having a little talk, after all...."

Feeling slow and clumsy and awkward, degenerate to the core, Fluttershy pushed the door open and walked out into the night, where the smog gathered and rolled through the streets in wisps.

Twilight kept her eyes focused on the wood-paneled walls as she dredged up the twelve-year-old memories. "At the discotheques, I always felt so...." She sighed. "I don't know. I just hated that I couldn't move as gracefully as the other fillies."

"Why would that bother you so much?" the doctor asked.

"I just wanted them to notice me," she said softly. "I mean, aside from 'Oh, wow, let's all gawk at the terrible dancer!' With all the other mares out there who were much better dancers than me, who would....care about me? Who would notice me? Who would want me around? I tried and I tried. I struggled, like you said, but I never got any better at it. My brother would've helped, but he...." She squeezed her eyes shut and dipped her head. When she spoke again, her voice was choked with grief. ".... he was busy working for the Midnight Guard. His duty to the city came first."

"I see," the doctor said. Then, abruptly, he asked, "When's the last time you had a drink?"

She sensed the trap, but he had taken her by surprise. She had no time to prepare herself and could only respond by instinct, and that instinct was to cover up how degenerate she was. She was so pathetic she couldn't deny the bottle for a single day. She still felt the faint dull throb of sobriety inside her head.

The lie surely sounded false and hollow, but she committed herself to it anyway: "Last week. I haven't touched the stuff since the Wednesday before last."

The doctor checked his notes. "Ah, an improvement, I see. Would you say the temptation to drink your troubles away is getting stronger?"

"I....I suppose. Now that I'm trying to kick the habit."

"Earlier, you expressed the feeling that you don't know what's true. Would you say the alcohol helps you with that?"

"I guess. When I'm intoxicated, it feels like I....don't care so much about what's true. That I can lie to myself better."

"And yet you haven't had any since last Wednesday. You've resisted the temptation." He stood up and laid a forelimb on her shoulder. “That's why I have faith in you, Twilight: you're stronger than you think.”

She wondered if he was lying now, but she concluded she didn't care. It felt good to have somepony believe in her, even if she was lying. It gave her the feeling she might actually be able to succeed. To make the lie come true. She wiped the remnants of her tears away and found the courage to smile at him. “Thank you, doctor.”

He checked the grandfather clock. “We'll talk more about how you can sublimate these impulses into socially acceptable forms at our next session, alright? For now, just focus on recognizing them. And, of course, avoiding the temptation to drown your sorrows.”

“Yes, doctor,” Twilight said.

She rose off the couch, the smile still on her face. I can do this, she thought as she headed for the door. I can make the ascent, like the princess did. I'm strong.

When Twilight walked into the waiting room of the doctor's office, she met a silver unicorn coming in through the door, an earth pony in tow. Twilight recognized the unicorn. Radiance? Charity? Something like that. A useless socialite who sucked up attention by looking and acting like she was better than everypony else.

"Looks like you were right," the fawning earth pony said. "Excellent call, ma'am. They folded like laundry."

"Oh, it was nothing, Coco. You just need to have a knack for understanding how ponies think."

"Of course, ma'am."

Twilight felt a swell of rage at the mere sight of this pompous unicorn. All these high class ponies, with their smiling faces slapped on billboards and neon signs as they shoved their wares into her face, set Twilight's teeth on edge. She slaved away in the Canterlot Archives for the good of the Empire, an essential but thankless task, while these mares could gallavant around having garden parties and galas. This was what she was struggling for? This was the height of pony civilization?

The other unicorn artfully tossed her mane out of her eyes, then noticed Twilight. “Hello."

Why Twilight was so angry, she couldn't say. Was it because she wanted to waste her time with cocktail parties and grand galas and looking fabulous? But she would never have the opportunity. She was stuck being Twilight Sparkle, a clumsy archivist who couldn't dance or command attention. She could never walk into a room and have everypony stop and fawn over her. The loss of all the things she would never do or be gave Twilight a forelorn heartache.

"He's a miracle worker, isn't he, darling?” the other unicorn asked.

Still, best to put on appearances, as fake as they may be. “Oh, yes,” Twilight gushed, smiling. “He works wonders.”

Pieasov Mind pulled open a drawer in his desk, revealing his bulky portable radio. He magically lifted the microphone out and planted it on his desk, then flicked the switch and twisted the large dial until he got the right frequency. The radio's innards clattered as the scramble modulation circuits kicked in, making the signal a distorted mess to anypony without a keyed decoder in their own radio.

“This is Agent Alphane,” he said.

The speaker crackled, then a voice broke through. “Shadowbolt HQ. Go ahead.”

“I have an update on case file F121, codename Clayhooves. You asked me to keep an eye on her specifically.”

Over the radio came the sound of fumbling paperwork. “Alright, go ahead.”

“In today's session, the subject displayed unconscious, deep-seated anti-lunar tendencies. She doesn't seem to have made the connection consciously, but I feel these may be a displacement of her feelings about her brother's untimely....accident.”

He spat the last word out with disgust. As a healer of ponies, he had no love for the Directorate. But they had the power to ruin his practice and his life, in deviously creative ways the Midnight Guard couldn't even dream of. The Guard - the ideological police - at least possessed a fervent dedication to the Empire and its ideals. His position would be secure. State security had no such qualms. He suspected the reason the Directorate was headed entirely by pegasus ponies was to circumvent the nobleness of the Guard and create competition among the intelligence agencies. Now, everypony in Equestria was caught in the middle of their power struggle. There were even rumors the Shadowbolts assassinated the former head of the Midnight Guard, which was most likely why they wanted his sister surveilled.

Forget the war with the Griffons or that folly from twenty years ago, he thought. The deadliest battlefield is right here on our doorstep.

“Is she....terminal?” the voice asked.

Pieasov rubbed his cheek, wondering what to tell them. He couldn't display too much autonomy, or they would think he was undermining them. But if he told them too much about Twilight, she might end up dead. He was on the precipice now. “She's not terminal. Not yet. I may be able to save her. Inform the Colonel she should be placed under surveillance.” Pieasov nodded to himself; that seemed good. Tell them to do something, but something that was also nothing.

“Will do,” the voice said. “Who's next?”

Pieasov Mind leaned back and stared through the shutters at the High Castle, standing guard over the eternal night. Thick smog was rolling through the city, obscuring everything. “Codename Golden Mare. She's in for social anxiety and panic attacks.”

Shadowbolt HQ snickered. “Let us know if there's anything juicy.”

“I'm here to help these ponies,” Pieasov said. “If you want gossip, attend a garden party like on The Galloping Gossips.” He snorted with disgust as he magically turned the radio off and stuffed it back into the drawer. He didn't even care if there were recriminations. He felt sick to his stomach at the callous arrogance of the Directorate.

Where's the compassion? he thought.

He hit the button on his intercom and said to his receptionist, “You can send Miss Rarity in now.”

The highest of high society came through the door, beaming like the moon and fluttering her eyelashes at Pieasov. “Why hello, doctor. How are you?”

As Rarity took her seat on the couch, he felt a stab of anger at her. He knew such an animal instinct was beneath him, but he couldn't help it. He read the papers and was familiar with the sitcoms that glorified and idealized high society antics. And now he'd spend the next hour listening to one of them whine about how hard her fabulous lifestyle was with all the other ponies gossiping behind her back. As the Shadowbolt Directorate's unwilling agent, who could get his patients killed with a single wrong word, he wasn't feeling charitable towards her problems.

Or maybe he was just jealous. After all, he wasn't sure if any of his patients had been or would be killed because of him. Maybe he was just using that as an excuse for his jealousy over her life glamour and high society. A life he would never have, and income he could never dream of.

Perhaps he couldn't stop his bitter feelings from coming, but he could control them with his lunar rationality. His duty to the Empire was to help ponies overcome their problems and contribute to their city, not to be jealous of those who had fame and success. Everypony all had a part to play in the collective upward ascent of the city, and his part was as a trained psychologist.

Where's the compassion, Pieasov?

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