• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar



Princess Platinum and Celestia's first student face changelings, a magical curse, the specter of war with the griffons, and the threat of arranged marriage in early Equestria.

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1-9

I-IX

The Hero

Celestia’s temple compound sat on a hill on the eastern side of Everfree’s rivers, near a huge stone wall that had been meant to encircle the city when it was founded and charted out. At the time, before the mass evacuation of the old Diamond Kingdoms to escape the threat of eternal winter, the city’s planners and architects assumed the old population would largely spread out across the new Equestria, as evenly distributed as they had been before.

These predictions were impressively wrong.

As mass migration dodecatupled the expected population, the city’s quarry workers, masons, and architects kept demanding pay, and as is typical with representative government, the promise of ‘stimulating the economy’ was enough to justify finishing paying them, without any adjustments to the planned shape of the walls. Thus, instead of offering much by way of defense, Everfree’s wall sat with all the value of a fifth knee, awkwardly dividing the so-called ‘Temple District’ from the rich stench of the paper mills near Lumber Way.

I always found it surreal to reflect on the fact that, only a few years before I was born, the number of ponies who knew of Celestia and Luna by intellectual fact, rather than religious faith, could be counted on one’s hooves. Thus, even though both sisters had gone on record claiming they knew nothing of any other ‘gods’, in those brilliant days of Everfree’s youth, one could still find shrines to the deities of the Cirran Pegasi, the old purely unicorn incarnations of Celestia and Luna, the ‘saints’ of the earth ponies, and some even stranger things still.

“Well,” I told Gale with a smile. “I guess that’s done, then.”

“I was hoping you’d make it better somehow,” Gale replied, before shaking her head. “I’m not mad at you, Morty; it’s not your fault they’re so shitty. Just… After having you there dealing with Wintershimmer and Silhouette and all those assholes in our trip…”

“I dunno, Gale.” I shot her my friendliest grin. “None of these ponies are trying to kill me. And honestly, I don’t think any of them actually even could if they tried.”

Instead of cheering her up, the comment made Gale roll her eyes. “I’d take Wintershimmer over this any day. Nopony ever expected me to fuck him, and I was allowed to cut off his horn and beat his face in with my bare hooves when we won.”

I swallowed. “Sorry. Um… what do you want to do now? Is there something that can cheer you up? I’m not the heaviest drinker, but if you want to drown your sorrows…”

“I wish,” Gale snapped, before dropping into a harshly formal voice. “Alas, a princess doesn’t get time like that. I have to go sit with Mom to get sized for a dress for the party. And since she’s invited like four different dress-makers, there’s going to be a huge shitshow if I show up drunk or something.”

“Do you have to leave right now?” I asked, hedging my bets and gesturing my hoof toward the various… well, in retrospect the temples weren’t the most interesting surroundings to offer a theoretical date. Gale, thankfully, caught the nuance to my point.

“I probably ought to go see her now…” I caught just the hint of a mischievous glimmer in the corner of her eye. “But fuck it; you haven’t really gotten to see Everfree yet, have you? Hurry up, and I’ll show you around Riverward.” No sooner had the words left her mouth than Gale’s hooves were clopping on the brick streets downhill toward the heart of equine civilization’s greatest city.

Since the once beautiful city is now covered in a demi-planar haunted forest that’s bigger on the inside, and also full of wooden golems—and frankly I haven’t the slightest clue how Celestia and I are ever going to fix that problem—I suspect I shall have to describe my late favorite city in the world assuming the reader has never even seen a map. Everfree was founded shortly after the events we now commemorate with Hearth’s Warming Day, at the site of a geographical freak accident. Two rivers, the Coltlumbia and the Delamare, meet in the center of the city. This, of course, is not unusual; rivers merge all the time. What is peculiar about the Coltlumbia and the Delamare is that they simply refuse to do so; instead, Everfree was built atop their fluvial ‘X-marks-the-spot’, where both rivers continued their separate ways as though the other simply did not exist. The division did make finding one’s way around rather simple, however. Since the rivers mostly ran northeast-southwest and northwest-southeast, the city had four easy quadrants to refer to: one for each cardinal direction.

Riverward was a neighborhood on the usually sunny banks of the Delamare. There, two streets: North and East Riverward Way, ran parallel to the water on their respective shores. Current-smoothed cobblestones underhoof defined the roads, lined with carefully groomed maple and birch trees that cast the streets in a speckled, soothing shade. In the wide gaps between the trunks, a few vendors had set up stalls and wagons, thankfully keeping their voices down as they tried to entice the wanderers on the roads and bridges to step over and treat themselves to a candy apple, a glass bead bracelet, or any number of other momentary delights. On the far side of the twin streets from the water, more permanent storefronts promised bookbinding, floral arrangements, and other artisanal luxuries.

I was panting when Gale’s hooves finally slowed on those smooth stones and turned to face me with a grin on her face and her meticulously groomed mane fraying onto her brow. “Here we are, Morty! This is Riverward.”

“It’s…” I had to pause as my heart pounded in my chest and my ears alike; I was in no shape for running around after spending so long in bed, and it was beginning to get hard to pretend otherwise. “It’s nice. The shade’s well-appreciated.”

“Not used to Everfree weather yet?” she teased. “It’s been a few weeks now.”

I casually loosened the collar of my jacket. It would show off the gaping hole in my neck if anypony looked closely, but that was a price I was more than willing to pay for the breeze. “And before that, eighteen years in the Crystal Union, where it snows most of the year. What do you wanna do?”

She shrugged. “Walk around? Look in the shops?” I think I must have been staring, wide-eyed and gobsmacked, because Gale took three solid steps and then turned around. “What?

“Sorry, I just… I guess I figured you’d want to go to a bar, or start a fight, or—”

“A mare can’t enjoy a fucking walk now and then?” Gale rolled her eyes. “You idiot. Come here. We’ll get some chocolate or something. Then maybe I’ll feel better.”

“Choco-what?”

“Holy shit…” Gale shook her head as she chuckled to herself and steered me toward a tall storefront with its door set on the corner, at a diagonal to the street. “Okay, let’s blow your mind.”

I began to suspect at least one reason Gale might have liked Riverward when the chocolatier earth pony behind the counter called out to greet us. “Ah, welcome to Ruffle’s Truffles, sir; ma’am. You’re both looking fine today; might I ask the occasion?” For those failing to follow, it isn’t something the mare said; rather, it was that she failed to recognize either of us.

“It’s my birthday,” Gale answered with at least a hint of enthusiasm, though I literally watched her face sour as she unerringly reminded herself of the obligations that came with that date.

The mare behind the counter, mercifully, either missed that expression or knew better than to ask as she stepped away from her stool and over to a large glass case. “Well, perhaps we can find you something to really spice up the day, then? Do you know what you favor, or should I make a few recommendations?”

Gale slapped me on the shoulder and somewhat awkwardly held her hoof there. “Well, it’s this idiot’s first time having chocolate, so you should probably start with something simple. But I love almond liqueur.”

“Ah, amaretto, yes.” The mare opened the case with deft brown hooves, nearly the same color as the darker chocolates, and pulled out a tray of delicate orbs, each topped with a fragile sliver of white almond framed in woody brown. “You have refined tastes, ma’am; these are Queen Platinum’s favorites too.”

Gale’s face instantly wrinkled. “Eh… maybe something else then. Let’s help Morty first.”

Morty?” the chocolatier inquired with a raised brow, meeting my gaze fully.

By that point, I was already beginning to get used to explaining the appellation. “Yeah, it’s a nickname. My full name is Mortal Coil—”

“You’re the Hero of Platinum’s Landing?” she interrupted, boldly leaning over the case of chocolates to get a closer look at me. “Here? In my shop?”

“Um…” I had to completely reframe my position in the world, and coughed into my hoof as I tried to find words. “Well, yes. Were you there, or…?” My question quickly devolved into spinning a hoof in a circle in an attempt to find my thoughts.

“Oh, no; no. I live here. But cocoa pods only grow in the warmer climate down that way, so we heard a few things from the suppliers. But no, it was all over the papers.”

“The… papers?”

“Newspapers, Morty.” When Gale’s explanation only held my eyebrows suspended up by brow, she rubbed her own temple with a hoof and let out a sigh. “Do they still use fucking town criers in the Crystal Union?”

“No, Jade tended to do all the shouting herself if she wanted something.”

Gale frowned, and then turned back to the chocolatier. “You’d be amazed at the things he doesn’t know about how the world works.”

The other mare chuckled in the exact sort of good humor a merchant tends to practice with potential customers. “Well, I’m honored to be the one introducing you to the wonders of chocolate then.” Pulling out a tray from her display case, she carefully set a single truffle, dusted in cocoa powder, onto a tea saucer. “This one’s on the house, sir. That’s milk chocolate, which tends to be a bit sweeter, since purer dark chocolate can be a little bitter for a dessert if you aren’t expecting it. Put it in your mouth, but don’t chew; just let it melt, and you’ll get a much better sense of a flavor.”

“Treat it like you’re pleasing a mare,” Gale added unhelpfully as I dipped my head down and popped the morsel into my mouth.

The chocolatier stiffened. “I… well, um… ma’am, you must be a lucky mare to be that intimate with the Hero of Platinum’s Landing.”

“You haff no ide—” My awkward delivery around the chocolate in my mouth was interrupted by Gale’s mean straight jab, which both sent my chocolate flying out of my mouth, and left a smear of my drool down the facade of the glass display case, along with a wet slurping sound not unlike a yet-to-be-invented squeegee.

“Yeah, I’m so lucky to have found such a stuck up asshole.” Before I could even recover my hoofing, she hefted me up by the collar of my jacket, and started magically hauling me toward the door without even looking at my motion. Her attention was on the now horrified chocolatier. “Get us a box of six, please. Mint, orange blossom water, and daffodil. And I’ll toss in a little extra for the mess.”

“Y-yes, ma’am.”

—-

As I finally found all four hooves under me outside the chocolate shop, Gale tucked her chocolates into the small of her back, tightening her sundress with a few awkward lumps that she obviously could not have cared less about.

“What was that for?” I demanded.

“You’re not the only good thing that’s ever happened in my life, you know? You’re not ‘Celestia’s gift to Gale’.”

“I think I am.” I had the foresight that time, at least, to block Gale’s next punch. The process, unfortunately, proved that her forelegs were much stronger than mine, as I was left with a throbbing right fetlock and a scowl for my efforts. “I’d be dead if she hadn’t come to rescue me from Cyclone and Jade in River Rock, remember? And as much as she liked to play coy about it, I’m pretty sure she only bothered showing up in person because she thought you were happy running away with me. Or something. So saving my life was literally her gift to you. I didn’t mean it as some ego exercise.”

“Bullshit,” Gale replied, but the explanation did put a little grin on her face, so I counted it as a win. “Every word out of your mouth is about ego. Even a fucking idiot would realize that after a week on the road with you, and I had… what, two months?”

I shrugged. “Something like that. I didn’t exactly have a calendar.”

“Not like you could read one if you did,” Gale teased, taking my throbbing forehoof and pulling me into a casual saunter up East Riverward.

I watched the little rays of afternoon sun that made it through the maple canopy cast speckles on Gale’s hay blonde mane for a few seconds before my mind caught up to my ears. “I can read numbers, you know. I’m pretty good at math. It’s just Equiish text—”

“Morty, I’m just being an ass. I know you’re not an idiot… well, at least, not that kind of idiot. It’s just been a fucking long day, you know? Sorry if I’m taking it out on you.”

“You’re fine,” I told her with a smile that, blissfully, I didn’t think to force. “Just maybe lay off the punches? That’s, what, four today? I’m still a little fragile right now.”

“Right. Sorry…” Gale and I walked for a few more seconds in silence as that apology hung in the air, before she took the initiative to gesture around the streets with a hoof. “Well, Morty, anywhere you want to look around? Any shops interest you?”

I let my gaze sweep around the streets, but nothing caught managed to catch both my eye and my curiosity. “Gale, I’m just glad to be out of bed. Just don’t break off in another sprint, and I’ll be happy.” And then, nibbling on the inside of my cheek, I nodded to her. “What about you? Anything catch your eye?”

She led me briefly toward a vendor’s cart manned by a rugged pegasus in a checkered cap, his stand covered in little gray tubes that he served up to a few other pegasi in a short line. We were probably three strides from the back of the line when Gale shook her head. “Nevermind. Let’s find something else.”

“Something wrong?”

“Sausage is meat, and I know that’s not your cup of tea. Sorry; growing up with pegasi, it’s easy to forget.”

“It’s alright.” I had to focus more than I liked on swallowing before I spoke up. “How about this: is there anything here you’ve always wanted to get, and just… never felt like it was worth the cost?”

Gale looked at me like I’d grown a second muzzle for a few solid seconds before realization broke over her face like a wave does the face of an overconfident sailor. “I don’t need a fucking present from you, Morty.”

Of course, she’d hit my goal on the head, and it left me sheepishly staring at the surface of the river. “Gale, I can’t just show up empty-hooved, looking like—”

Gale sighed, and then her voice dropped to the kind of forced whisper that always reminds me of a tea-kettle just on the verge of a full boiling whistle. “Alright… I don’t want to come across like a total asshole, but if this is what it takes for you to understand: Meadowbrook told you not to do magic, right?” I nodded. “Right. And I know you don’t have a bit to your name right now. Now, remember, I’m the fucking crown princess. It comes with a lot of bullshit and baggage, like we sat through fucking all of today, but it also means I have ‘treasury privileges’. I can buy literally anything I could ever actually want. Frankly, Mom would probably be happy if I was more irresponsible with the money, too; she’d be ecstatic if I bought myself a ton of jewelry or something. So no, there’s nothing here I’ve ever looked at and said ‘eh, not worth it’.” Then she sighed. “Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t appreciate it if you bought me something someday, Morty, but right now if you showed up in front of the suitors and Mom and everypony with something you can afford, you’d probably just be embarrassing yourself for it being too cheap.”

“Well… assuming I could use my magic, what would you want?”

“No. Stop. Ok? What I want is for you to show up tomorrow, stand in the back, stay quiet, and be there if I need somepony to lean on—and ideally, to vent at when it’s over. That’s it. You’re not a suitor, you don’t need to make a scene, you’re just a friend. This party is going to be bullshit, I’m going to hate it, and I’m gonna be miserable tomorrow evening. End of story. No gift.”

“You really think I fought the strongest wizard in the world to death twice and I can’t come up with a gift?”

“This has nothing to do with how you look in front of the suitors! And you sure as fuck don’t have to prove yourself to me!” Gale slapped a hoof on her forehead, painfully striking the base of her horn, and then wrinkling up her face in a fury that only compounded with the self-inflicted pain. “If my plan is gonna work, it can’t be about you. So if your ego is that fucking precious to you, and you can’t bear to get shown up by my other suitors one goddamn time, then for my birthday, you can get the fuck away from me!”

I swallowed, and gave her a nod in silence. “I’m sorry, Gale.”

“So you can learn.” Gale rubbed her temples. “Fuck. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. Let’s just talk about something else.”

I was more than happy to oblige. “Alright… What do you do for fun?”

“What?” It was a question that found Gale blinking like a kitten having just discovered the function of its eyelids. “Morty, we’ve known each other for months; I’m not Tempest’s marefriend-of-the-week.”

“True,” I replied. “And in that time, I’ve learned you like drinking, running away from home, and starting fights, and you hate your mom. But I’m guessing by your lack of liver failure and black eyes that there’s at least one other thing you do for fun? A hobby? Do you just like to… wander around here?”

“Well, anywhere really.” Gale answered. “Anywhere to get away from the palace.” Then she rolled her neck, producing a few apparently satisfying cracks, unlike the ‘clinking’ mine still makes all these years later. “Let’s see… do you dance?”

“I—” I bit back my response. “I’m gonna go ahead and let you guess on that one. Do you think Wintershimmer, who was already eighty years old the day I was born, taught me how to dance?”

“Well, I dunno; maybe you had another friend. Maybe metal-leg… what’s her name, Silhouette?”

I raised a brow as high as it would go. “Seriously?”

“You must have had some friends, right?”

Stars bless the cricket who somehow got confused about the time and started chirping in the middle of the afternoon that day.

Really?

“I had Wintershimmer and Angel. Who were, basically, my dad and my… not especially well-trained butler? That’s really it.” I waved a dismissive hoof. “So no. I don’t know how to dance.”

“It’s not that hard; I’ll teach you sometime.” Gale nodded, casting her eyes across the street to a bigger building set between a haberdasher’s and a pet shop (that at the time, from the sign, I assumed was a butcher’s). “That’s the Sordid Affair; it’s a music hall. Most weeknights they’re playing mom’s kind of boring music or earth pony polkas, but on the weekends you can get something good to move to. Tempest and I used to go when we were younger. Sometimes Ty would even come along…” There was a wistfulness in Gale’s voice as she let the thought fade away in the summer breeze.

“Ty?”

“My big sister? Commander Typhoon?”

“No, I… I know who Typhoon is; my apologies. It’s just that she doesn’t seem the type to enjoy dancing.”

Gale chuckled. “You’ve only met her in uniform. She’s gotten stiffer as she’s gotten older, but there was a while there when she got over herself and started actually dating Frostfall, when she really loosened up like she used to be when I was really little.”

“Before she was the Commander?”

Gale shook her head. “Dad retired when I was born. Ty’s been in charge of the Legion my whole life.” Then she scraped her hoof on the street and kicked a rock down the road. “What about you? I assume that old bastard didn’t keep you busy with magic bullshit your entire life?”

I chuckled. “No, he did not. But at the same time… You only knew him when he was actively trying to kill me, so this is going to sound insane, but… he wasn’t my ‘friend’, but he was the closest thing I had. We used to love playing board games, and we’d grow bonteks…” I think I must have slipped into a wistful voice by the end of that, at least until I realized how incredulously Gale was looking at me. “What?”

“Well, one, what’s a ‘bontek’? But two, you and that old bastard actually just sat around playing chess and making golems all fucking day? Seriously?”

“No, Wintershimmer hated chess.” I lifted my hoof to gesticulate a board, and then paused. “I think he hated the idea of chess as the ‘kings game’ or whatever more than he actually hated the rules. But any time I mentioned it, I’d get another earful about how real conflict is never, ever symmetrical, and how King Lapis was an imbecile for pretending… No offense to your grandfather, Gale.” Then I made a brushing motion in the air with my hoof. “A bontek is a magical miniature landscape. See, way east of River Rock, the feline empires have this idea of a ‘bonsai’, which is an art form made by grooming a dwarf tree. And Tectonic was a unicorn archmage who figured out how to push earth to cause small earthquakes and make mountains and that sort of thing; really he couldn’t make much more than a molehill, but the theory was what mattered. So now it's traditional for wizards to make little replicas of the sites of famous battles or cities. It was really a lot of fun; Wintershimmer would animate these little tin soldiers and we’d ‘play’ old battles .”

Gale silently stuttered for a very long moment, her lips and tongue moving rapidly without making a single sound. Finally, she just shook her head. “You are, without a shadow of a doubt, the weirdest pony I have ever even heard of, let alone met. You’re telling me you and your ninety-year old asshole teacher sat around and played with tin soldiers like you were three? And that’s honestly what you did for fun?”

“Oh, come on, Gale; be fair. Half the fun is ‘growing’ the canyon or the forest or the plains. And tin soldiers are a lot more interesting when they move on their own and their lives are in your hooves. Believe me; you’d love it if you tried. Just imagine the thrill of watching your enemy’s commander conquered, your siege-engines pounding on his fortress walls, as you watch his little tin intestines spilling out on the miniature battlements…” I, thankfully, had enough foresight to realize that a few ponies in the street were staring at me and nervously moving to the far side of the street to keep their distances from us. “Maybe I’ll tell you more later. In private.”

“Yeah, that might be a good idea.” Gale sighed, and cast her eyes up to the sky. “You want to grab a candy apple before we head out? I probably ought to start heading back to the palace soon.” In accompaniment to her question, Gale pointed with her horn across the river to another vendor serving delicious red caramel-coated apples on thin wooden sticks.

“Absolutely.” I took two confident steps toward the river as my eyes searched for the nearest bridge before sighing when I realized that, as we were talking so blankly under the leafy shade, we had left the last good path a solid few blocks behind us. “You want to just teleport us across?”

“Morty, I’m still not that strong at teleporting. Last time we tried I nearly threw us both down a cliff; you do remember, right?”

I shrugged. “That’s true, but I also remember a certain wizard catching us in time, no worse for the wear.” As I said this, I placed a hoof on my own chest. “This time, there’s no danger to be worried about, so you can be calm and take your time. And even if you don’t make it, the worst that happens is we get our legs a little wet. The river isn’t even that deep here, is it?”

“Deeper than it looks,” Gale countered. “And I’d be getting my dress wet; Mom would be pissed.” Then, her concerned expression slowly morphed into a grin. I watched as scarlet magic built on her horn. “You know what, fuck it.”

The pop and the lurch of teleportation sent my gut twisting before I could even tell her I was ready, and a moment later my head was underwater. I gasped, brilliantly exercising the survival instincts of a fish, and then began flailing as I tried to swim upward.

This motion had two side effects; the first was that I punched Gale in her shoulder with most of my body weight. The second was that my other hoof almost immediately kicked me up out of the water; it was barely a couple of hooves deep.

After a few seconds of hacking and choking, I managed to get the water out of my lungs and gasp in a breath of fresh air. A moment later, I heard Gale do the same, and then I had just flicked my mane out of my eyes when I found a hoof flying for my face.

Ow!” I gasped as I managed this time to catch myself before I fell in the water.

“Teleporting was your fucking idea!” Gale snapped. “I told you I probably couldn’t make it. Why the hell’d you hit me?”

“I wasn’t trying to!.” I flicked my neck like a wet dog until I could see properly again. “Sorry, Gale. I was just trying to stand up. I wasn’t expecting my head to be underwater.”

Gale huffed, sending a spray of water from the hair around her nostrils, and I quickly realized that she too was completely soaked—not just her legs, but mane-to-tail. “Yeah… I think I got us turned sideways. Sorry for hitting you again.”

“It’s fine,” I answered. “Just remember I’m still not back to my usual self.” I took a few tentative steps on the river bottom to make sure I had my balance, and then reached back to offer her a hoof up out of the deeper part of the river toward the shore. “Well, you got what you wanted about the dress.”

After Gale took my hoof and found her own stance, she glanced back at her body. “I… oh shit…” I caught a hint of laughter in her voice. “Yeah, this is fucking ruined…” Then she laughed a little more, and suddenly the cracks in the dam broke outright. On the one hoof, looking back, the thought of Gale having ruined her dress just to spite Queen Platinum is a bit amusing, but more than that I suspect our laughter was her way of letting go of the day’s frustrations. By the time we climbed up the bank of the river and onto the far street, laughing together the whole time like a pair of complete idiots, it was already obvious that Gale’s movements seemed… lighter.

I couldn’t put my hoof on what single thing had changed then, and even now with hundreds of years of life experience behind me, I’m still not sure I can say. I just know that somehow I felt a little lighter myself too.

We put in our orders for the candy apples, dripping and getting strange looks from the vendor the entire time. I picked out a caramel apple with little stripes of white icing, while Gale opted for a brilliant red ‘fireball’ candy apple, dusted with cinnamon and a few flecks of pepper. Then we walked away from Riverward, her holding both apples in her magic to spare my horn, hardly even saying anything; just crunching bites of our respective treats and occasionally letting a little chuckle slip.

It didn’t take us long to return to the palace, and we parted ways after she led me to the kitchens. Though the chefs in the palace were some of the best in Equestria, and their food exquisite, all through the meal my mind lingered on that caramel apple, and as I made my way back up to Celestia’s bedroom for a night’s sleep, I found it hard to come by; my mind was still wandering the streets in Riverward, side-by-side with my thoughts of Gale.

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