• Published 15th Jul 2014
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Manehattan Madness - Ardashir

It's the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show! And for the first time ever Carousel Boutique wlll be there. Rarity and her models: Applejack and Fluttershy and a Changeling Queen searching for lost changelings -- who do NOT want to be found

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Aftermath: The Dungeons, Canterlot

Chapter 10
Aftermath: The Dungeons, Canterlot

Audra’s ear twitched at the sound of pony voices echoing on the other side of the bars. She half wondered if it was really just more of the empathic background feed of Vespid’s Hive. Ever since she’d arrived here in the Canterlot dungeons she could feel them constantly, so like-unlike her old memories of Hive Triscolia, whispering at the back of her mind. Part of her wanted to respond. Another warned her that she’d fought their Tame Queen and any response they sent would not be a welcome one.

No, these voices were from real ponies. Somepony was coming, several someponies. There was little enough else to hear down here in the dungeons beneath Canterlot Castle where she’d been for the past day, ever since those Royal Guard ponies showed up at the Tombs and removed her under heavy guard. Upon arrival she’d been given first-class medical treatment, put in this cell, and left alone for the past day.

Audra scraped one claw along the modified anti-magic shackle on her horn, normally meant for unicorns, to stop her from using her magic. She wondered who was coming. More guards? Or maybe her executioner?

Moving slowly, she rose to her feet, her claws and chitin scraping against the stone floor. She took a sniff and snorted at the faint reek of mold and unwashed changeling, but detected nothing else. She wished she could at least have groomed her mane and tail to look presentable. Audra smiled at that thought. I guess I have been in the theater too long. Real prisoners don’t get to attend their toilette before meeting their captors.

Beyond the bars, the corridor brightened, the sound of hooves on stone getting louder. A vaguely familiar voice spoke.

“Is she ready to see me?” Her eyes widened at the sound of the next words.

“Yes, Highness.”

No, it can’t be. It can’t be Celestia, can it?

It could and it did. Sunlight shone through the bars to reveal an Alicorn Major she’d always half hoped to see. From atop a stage, that is, and with safe distance in between. And looking like her griffin self wouldn’t have hurt either.

Princess Celestia stood in the corridor outside, bright as if she stood in full sun, the light coming through the barred door overwhelming that of the cell’s glowgem lamp. A pair of unicorn Spellguards in full barding flanked her, their horns alight with protective magic, watching Audra closely. She merely glanced at them, keeping her attention on Celestia. Standing this close to the Sun Princess made her feel like she stood outside on a pleasantly warm summer day. Even the nonstop buzz of Hive Vespid’s empathic feed in her mind softened, reassuring rather than annoying.

Celestia calmly looked into Audra’s eyes. The silence stretched on long enough to become uncomfortable.

“Highness,” Audra said, with only a slight incline of her head, like one reigning noble to another. And why not? She’d been the reigning queen of the Equestrian stage for years, after all. And be cursed if she’d beg. Speaking in her most regal tones, she said, “To what do I owe this unexpected honor?”

“So you are Audra von Adler?” Celestia asked her. Audra simply nodded. Celestia smiled and said, “I’ve seen you several times before, in your movies but never in the flesh. I suppose I thought there would be some hint of the griffin you normally appear as in this form.”

“It was a disguise, highness,” Audra said, extending her neck and bowing her head slightly deeper in Celestia’s direction, showing appreciation for the praise. She wondered why she still sought to act like her old self as she said, “It would be of little use were it to remind ponies and others of a changeling.” Her bitterness spilled out. She turned away, shutting her eyes as she said, “Even though I doubt I’ll ever get to use it again, except maybe once more.”

“Really?” Amusement rippled through Celestia’s voice as she said, “Just what ‘once more’ would this be, Miss von Adler?”

"At my execution," Audra said calmly.

Celestia swiveled her ears back in surprise. "And what makes you think I will have you executed?"

“Highness,” Audra said back, letting a hint of a snarl enter her voice. “Please don’t treat me like I was that fool Vespid, your Tame Changeling Queen.” She didn’t bother to hide the venom in her voice. The Spellguard unicorns lowered their ears and looked ready to let fly with magic, but at a glance from Celestia they stood back. Audra didn’t deign to notice them as she said, “I am a Changeling who has lived for over two decades as one of your subjects, in the public eye that whole time. I think I can say that I am better known in some quarters than you are yourself.” She stopped to see how that shot told.

“I wouldn’t doubt it in the least,” Celestia simply said, her voice filled with good humor. She gave a small laugh. “I know many ponies and other beings in Canterlot and beyond who simply cannot get enough of your movies and plays. My niece Cadence in the Crystal Empire is quite an admirer. She tells me that she and the crystal ponies especially enjoyed your performance in To Fly Or Not To Fly.” She stopped as though expecting Audra to say something. The Changeling Princess just nodded at her as though to say, “continue”. To her annoyance Celestia seemed unabashed at her arrogance, saying, “Queen Vespid’s indicated you’re more than an ordinary Changeling but not truly a Queen?”

“Your Tame Changeling Queen spoke truly,” Audra muttered. She began pacing the cell, griffin-like, keeping her eyes on Celestia all the while. Celestia’s next words brought her to a halt.

“According to what Queen Vespid said in her message, you’re a Changeling ‘Princess’…” Her horn glowed and a light played along the top of Audra’s head where a Queen’s ‘crown’ would be. “What is your hive? Vespid can’t understand why they allowed you to do this.”

“They have nothing to say about it anymore,” Audra said. She closed her eyes, swallowed as the emotional memories flashed through her mind, the fear and panic and death of so many changelings, of her hivemates. “I am, was, of Hive Triscolia. Beneath Mount Gymkhana.” Celestia gasped, softly but enough to be heard. Audra nodded. “Until the eruption.” She looked at Celestia. Grief and sympathy showed in the Sun Princess’s eyes. Audra said in a tone of cool contempt, “I remember reading later how you and many pegasi worked for weeks to clear the air and channel the eruption away from Vanhoofer and the griffin aeries around the city. Pity about my Hive though, wasn’t it? Only nine hundred Changelings, counting the eggs.”

Celestia actually looked hurt, for Audra if not herself. Audra forced herself to smile and gave a small laugh. She turned and walked nonchalantly away towards the back of the cell. “But of such is life. I suppose you cannot be too badly bothered over the deaths of monsters that feasted on the emotions of your ponies for years.” She sneered. “After all, you have enough pet Changelings courtesy of Vespid, don’t you?” She wished she could dump that thought into Hive Vespid’s empathic pool. The response would be memorable. “I doubt you have any regrets over it.”

“I do.” Audra gave an affected sniff as Celestia said, “I regret the deaths of your hive. I thought the direction where we diverted the lahars was safe, that nopony or griffin would be hurt.” She stopped as though expecting Audra to take notice of her words. Audra simply looked away, neck curved and head held high. Celestia said, "Nopony can defend those who hide their existence from others, even when their lives hang in the balance."

In Secrecy lies Safety." Audra quoted the first words every changeling learned. Then bitterly, "Or not.” She shook herself. "But enough. Majesty, may we please get the execution over with? I do not wish to try and put the cooks to the trouble of making me a dinner I would lack the appetite to eat."

She started at the rusty creak of un-oiled door hinges, then the cell filled with the noonday sun.

Audra wheeled to see the door open and Celestia standing in the cell with her, the key hanging in her magical grip. She stepped back in confusion, only stopping when her rump struck the cold stone wall, feeling the damp chill even through her chitin. The Spellguards started forward, their eyes wide with fear. One of them called out.

“Highness, beware!”

Audra wondered what that Spellguard expected her to do. Attack Celestia with her claws and fangs? Still, it would certainly be a quick enough end. But no. No, she would face her end with dignity and – hopefully – one last time as Audra von Adler.

Celestia for her part took no notice of her guards. She just looked Audra steadily in the eyes as she approached, twice the size of any mortal pony. Not angry, not stern, just compassionate And more, regretful. Audra’s nose twitched at a smell like warm sunflowers. Mane flowing in a nonexistent breeze, Celestia walked up to Audra and gave a short bow, one foreleg extended and the other bent as she lowered her head, one noble apologizing to another. Audra moved back slightly to avoid the long horn.

“Audra von Adler of Hive Triscolia,” she said, her voice both formal and warm, filled with real regret, “I should have checked more thoroughly before I acted as I did at the Gymkhana eruption. The loss of your hive is on my head. I apologize to you for whatever pain and loss I have caused you.” She looked up. “Please forgive me.”

Audra looked at Celestia, bowing before her, apologizing to her, and wondered what she ought to say or do. Never in her wildest dreams did she see this.

And yet, and yet, she knew what was coming, what had to happen to a Changeling who’d done what she’d done.

“Stop taunting me!” Celestia looked up, confused, as Audra’s fury poured out. “I know what you have to do! I attacked your little ponies, was ready to kill them in a fury, just get it over with!” She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and said more calmly, “Just please, as you say you admired what you thought I was, grant me one last request.” Celestia just nodded, looking grim. “I want to die as I’ve lived, in griffin form. One last glass of Crystal Empire Icewine and…” She swallowed, “And… a hood covering my face. So…” She shook herself, wished she sounded braver, tried to remember every heroic character she’d played on stage confronting their own end as she said, “So… I can’t see it coming and I can keep some of my own dignity.”

“So like Grizelda Sleek Tail,” Celestia seemed not to notice her as she spoke. She looked down and sighed. In that moment Audra didn’t see the Sun Princess of Equestria, only a very old and tired mare. Celestia looked back at her, eyes twinkling, and said in a stern voice, “I refuse your request.”

“So that’s it then.” Audra felt the floor dropping away beneath her. She knew she babbled and didn’t care, saying, “Not even a dignified death. No heroine’s end for the fallen griffin, no last minute defiance, just darkness and an axe in a forgotten cell…”

She looked up as Celestia clapped her hooves against the stone floor.

“Congratulations,” she said with a smile. She raised one hoof to her chin and said, “To Fly Or Not To Fly, I think? Said by the visiting griffin Duchess as she’s taken away by Sombra’s bodyguards right before the final scene?” Celestia added in an amused tone, “Rather depressing by my usual tastes, though Luna loves it.” She winked and said, “Don’t tell her I said it, but she always cries at that scene.”

“Their Highness’s secrets will be safe with me,” Audra said in a dull tone. Not enough to be slain, but she had to be mocked as well?

“One more thing,” Celestia said. “I won’t grant your request, because you won’t be executed as you seem to think.”

Audra stared, uncomprehending, until she found words.

“Then what?” She waved one claw to take in the cell. “Life in here?”

“Not that either,” Celestia shook her head as she spoke, little ripples of light playing along her mane. “You’ve done nothing wrong, after all. As I told Queen Vespid, there are no laws against appearing as a pony. Or a griffin either, for that matter.” She walked back towards the cell door, her golden sabatons clicking, as she said, “There is the matter of you abducting Sky Talon, but she was rescued unharmed and a Royal Pardon can take care of the griffnapping charge.” She turned at the door and said, “Your show is on hiatus in any case, as your minotaur co-star won’t be going back onstage for a few weeks.”

“I didn’t hurt him too badly, did I?” Audra wondered why she felt like blushing at Celestia’s surprised look. She pressed on with, “It was Discord’s Curse, it affects Changeling Queens and Princesses whether they want it to or not. I, I’m sorry I hurt him.” She sighed dramatically. “You’ll have to tell him that. I’ll never see him again.”

“I understand he will be perfectly fine,” Celestia said with a soft smile. “Minotaurs are tough.”

Audra sighed in relief at her words.

“As for the show, you’re a great actress, as you tried to display here.” Audra ducked her head, failing to hide a smile as Celestia said, “You could just ‘get temperamental’ as you’ve done many times before and seclude yourself until the re-opening.” The Sun Princess stepped through the doorway; the cell dimmed to what it had been before.

“But what after that?” Audra called after her. “How can I go back to my old life? And am I supposed to stay in here with this on?” She held her head forward to show the shackle on her horn.

“What about your old life?” Celestia looked at Audra. “Everypony saw Sky Talon transform into a Changeling at Dressage Hall. There’s nopony to connect that with Audra von Adler. There’s absolutely nothing standing between you returning to your identity and old career. You can spend the rest of your life as a griffin.. Or you can live as,” Celestia asked, honestly curious, “what would your ‘changeling name’ be? A pardon for ‘Audra von Adler’ would attract too much attention.”

“Changelings don’t have individual names,” Audra said, wondering if she was having this conversation. Back to being Audra? My chalet, my acting, my wealth and life? “Not ones ponies can pronounce, anyway. Except for Queens and Princesses, their name is that of their Hive, so I’d be,” she shuddered at the sound of it, “Princess Triscolia.” Ugh! Life as a Changeling Queen, spending half the year laying eggs? It’d be like a cell! She looked around her. Speaking of which… “What about this cell?” Audra asked. “Do I… have to stay in it?”

“You can leave whenever you wish,” Celestia turned and looked at her from the open door. “And I’ve given orders for the shackle to be removed. After you’ve healed, you can stay here in Canterlot with Queen Vespid,” she hesitated as Audra chitter-snarled, “though I doubt you’d both be invited to the same events. Or return to your home and your career and live the rest of your life as Audra von Adler, whatever you please. Or you can openly admit to what you are and show everypony that not all Changelings are monsters, and that some are highly admired. It’s your choice.”

Audra took a step forward, another, hesitated. She remembered every nightmare about what her discovery would mean, how she would be hated and despised, the emotion-sucking shapeshifting bug-pony.

Can I trust? Do I dare?

“Am I supposed to believe this?” She called after Celestia. “That you’ll just let me go?”

Celestia stopped just outside the door and looked at her.

“Believe as you will,” she said softly. “But unless you want to hide in that cell forever, you’ll have to walk out sometime. And I am leaving a guard here to remove that shackle if you decide to leave the cell. I’d personally recommend that you do. It’s a lovely day outside.” She turned and trotted away, the corridor dimming as she left. The clopping of gold-sabatoned hooves slowly faded; the door remained open.

Audra just stared after Celestia, unmoving, for a long time. She remembered every fear she ever had, and every joy she’d ever known as Audra von Adler, the second Filea von Herzog. She thought, can I trust her? Can I not be afraid?

Or can I go back to being Audra? I really like being a griffin. The accolades, the gifts, the admiration and the love those audiences give me for a performance. I don’t want to give that up! What will I do? What’s going to happen to me?

A voice like Megan’s seemed to respond within her. Unless you try, you’ll never know, will you?

Slowly Audra headed for the door to the cell and the larger castle beyond.

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