• 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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4-2

IV - II

The Dim Deception

“Umm… Mithter Mortal… when ith Theagrass gonna turn back?”

I glanced down at the filly standing beside me, and then back up at the calico kitten that had formerly been a teal pegasus colt. With each passing second, he grew further away, making an impressive show of scrambling across the palace district’s uneven rooftops.

“When I go get him,” I answered sadly, adjusting my jacket’s collar. “That spell would take a couple days to wear off otherwise, and somehow I doubt he’d survive that long on the streets.”

Graargh nodded eagerly. “Cats very tasty.”

At least one foal began to cry, and when I looked down to see that Graargh was looking back up at me with profound confusion, it was only the magnitude of my own staggering mistake that kept me from laughing. “Well, buddy… Can I count on your help again?”

Graargh beamed, and his grin… well, since I was still quite a bit taller than him and knew him longer than quite possibly any other living being in the world, I found it quite endearing. But to the smaller foals, he was decently sized for a bear cub, and showing quite a lot of teeth.

I guess the point is that even though the crying got louder, I appreciated his enthusiasm.

“I grow big?” Graargh asked.

I glanced past the fence of the schoolyard nervously. “No… I think you had better not. Somehow I don’t think an adult bear running on ponies’ roofs would go over well with the guards… Come on.”

As I walked toward a gate on the fence around the schoolyard, I discovered very quickly that not just Graargh (whom I wanted), but the entire class was following me.

“You can grow?” Cherry asked. “That sounds very useful! Sometimes I wish I could grow big; it would make my tabard fit better at church.”

“You’re still working at the church?” I wondered idly, before refocusing myself on the immense problem rapidly getting worse as the little kitten got further away. “Look, everypony… just, go back to playing your games or whatever. I’ll be back with Seagram before you know it.”

Seagrass,” one of the other students corrected.

“Can we come?” another small voice asked.

I looked at the foal, and then up at the roof. “You honestly think I’m going to try and drag…” A quick count gave me “...sixteen foals onto the roof with me?”

“Misses Aspiration says if not everypony can do an ac-tiv-ty, then nopony can do it.”

At that point, I’d had enough. “Misses Aspiration is a foalsitter with delusions of grandeur.” When I got blank stares from all seventeen of the foals around me (one of whom happened to be a shapeshifting bear in disguise) I dragged a hoof down my face. “No. I am not putting any more of you in danger. Come on, Graargh.”

The bubblegum pink pegasus filly of the group frowned, tugging at my hind leg as I tried to leave. “I’ll tell Mitheth Athpiration! You’re a meanie!”

I glared back over my shoulder at sixteen pairs of puppydog eyes. And while ‘you’re a meanie’ wasn’t the height of a rhetorical threat, unfortunately, telling the teacher—or any adult, really—was. While I was sure the pink filly was imagining time facing the corner or repeating phrases on a chalkboard, my mind wandered to the Everfree palace dungeons, or the trio of flung icicles from Commander Typhoon’s wing that had struck frighteningly true blows on a fountain in the gardens outside.

And then an idea struck me. A wonderful, awful idea. I’m still rather quite proud of it.

“Alright, fine; just Graargh is going to leave.” I patted Graargh on the shoulder. “If you’re willing to help.”

Graargh donned a massive toothy grin. “What I do do, Morty?”

“Haha, he said ‘doodoo’,” one foal helpfully added.

Another contributed with “Mrs. Aspiration says—”

“The next pony who brings up one of Mrs. Aspirations’ rules to me gets to join Seabiscuit on the roof as a cat.” Thankfully, I was at least self aware enough to realize in the pregnant pause that followed, that there were a great many foals in that moment mulling whether or not being turned into a cat would be fun, and before their respective infantile thought processes could run to fruition, I swiftly added an addendum. “And since I only have enough magic to turn one of you back, I’ll let Graargh eat the other one.”

Immensely helpfully, Graargh asked “Promise?” And it should be read to the little bear cubs credit that, when I sighed and massaged my temple with a hoof, he muttered “Aww…”

I made a mental note to ask Mage Meadowbrook about the throbbing of that particular vein in my temple; it seemed to be throbbing and bulging with growing regularity.

“Now, everypony, I have a deal for you." Reaching just one hoof into my left side pocket, I produced the envelope Queen Platinum I had provided me over breakfast. “These are letters of credit,” I explained. “Which basically means they’re money. Ten thousand bits, in fact. I’m somewhat wishing the Queen had given me a bag of coins for effect, but I hope you all understand anyway.”

“That many coins would weigh about a hundred and fifty pounds,” Cherry Tomato happily told me. When I raised a brow, he added “Or way, way more if she gave you anything other than gold bits.” When I raised both brows, he smiled. “Sometimes I had to carry trunks of gold for Sir Halo and the Church. A chest of a thousand gold bit coins weighs exactly seventeen pounds, but that’s counting the box.”

“Why do I even ask?”

“...Morty didn’t?” Graargh contributed.

Somewhere, a dentist turned in his grave at the sound of my teeth grinding. “Well, class, here’s the deal. I will buy each of you a whole candy apple, and all you have to do is go back to playing and promise not to talk to anypony about this. Deal?” I did not wait for an answer, turning toward the exit to the yard.

As those of you familiar with foals will know, not waiting for their agreement should have bitten me. Foals are insidious and treacherous creatures, and will gladly break any agreement not made explicit (or even some that are) if it serves their immediate, short-term interests. In that regard, one might note they are rather like fey. Still, I got a few solid nods, and it was enough for me to return my attention to Graargh.

“Alright, Graargh. Do you remember what Gale’s big sister looks like?”

“Miss Com-ander,” Graargh replied with a nod.

I shook my head. “‘Commander’ is her title, Graargh. Her name is ‘Typhoon’.”

“Oh!” Graargh nodded. “Miss Commander Typhoon. Graargh understands.”

“Good. Now, I want you to try something. Can you…” I nervously glanced over my shoulder, and noted the entire class was still staring at us. Still, there was nothing for it. “Can you pretend to be her?”

“Graargh do!” Graargh agreed. “Easier than S’lestia. Miss Commander is much smaller!” No sooner were the words finished than my bear cub friend was engulfed in green flame. It took scant more than a second to pass, and produced no heat, but I winced back at the light just the same, and when I recovered myself, the spitting image of Commander Typhoon stood in front of me.

Graargh’s impersonation was uncanny. I’d seen him make a more than passable copy of me, of a crystal guardsmare, and even a decent stab at Celestia (though she came across both without the magic of her mane, and far far smaller than the genuine article). But what most surprised me about Graargh’s riff on Typhoon was that she came clothed—or rather, armored. Wrapped over the tan mare with the tri-tone autumn mane was the jet black crystal-coated cuirass most well known for being worn by her father. I knew its coating as void crystal, always hungry for unicorn magic and, to a unicorn, massively painful to the touch. Still, a part of the back of my mind whispered that it couldn’t really be; I expected on touch that it would feel like some kind of flesh, or maybe dense keratin like the claws he had as a bear.

On contact, it was neither. It felt like a gemstone, but it certainly didn’t hurt me on contact.

“Huh. Can you feel that?”

“Morty push me,” said Typhoon’s commanding voice, and I quietly took note of how unfair it was that even in Graargh’s ridiculous excuse for Equiish grammar, the leader of Equestria’s military could still sound so powerful. “But not feel touch; it armor, not fur. How this help catch kitty?”

“Hmm? Oh, right.” I shook my head. “No, I want to try something with you. Can you, uh, flap your wings?”

Graargh nodded. “Sure, but not see how thiiii—!” the abrupt, slightly nauseated screaming of a fully grown pegasus military mare as he launched into the air told me my guess had been correct, albeit in the worst possible way.

“Oh…”

To elaborate on my thought process: Graargh had briefly been able to hover when he had taken the form of Celestia, in open violation of everything that I knew about the laws of morphic transfiguration. Therefore, my hope was that with larger wings and a fully-sized pegasus body, he would be able to more effectively use whatever magic let him fly. If so, while I didn’t expect him to fly the way a real pegasus could, the combination of full-length legs and wings to help with jumping and gliding should have been enough for him to catch the kitten.

Rarely have I been more immediately disheartened by a hypothesis being proven correct.

“What was that?” Cherry asked, stepping up beside me and craning his neck toward the sky. “Did you cast a spell? I didn’t see your horn light up.”

“I’m very fast,” I lied.

Cherry chuckled. “Master Halo said the same thing. Is… is Graargh going to come back down? It will be very hard to play squares if he doesn’t land.”

“I would assume he’ll land eventually. It would be weird if he were better at flying than Typhoon.”

A pegasus youth from the class body stepped forward. “Um… sometimes when pegasi are very little, and they don’t have control of their flying yet, they do things like this. Just shoot off somewhere.”

“And they usually land safely?” I asked.

The foal shrugged. “I mean… they usually aren’t all the way big yet. So they don’t go that far.”

Overhead, in the figurative distance, the sound of a grown mare screaming began to grow audible again. “Ah… perhaps we should all take two big steps backwards?” I suggested, only taking a single stride myself due to considerable height advantage.

Commander Typhoon, or rather Graargh, plunged out of the sky directly towards where we had been standing, and landed with a rather disconcerting crunch. Foals screamed at the sight of Typhoon’s obviously broken legs—especially the one jutting off at a right angle to…

Well, leave it to your imagination.

What matters is that Graargh seemed not especially troubled by this turn of events. That isn’t to say he wasn’t hurting, judging by the expression the mare’s face, but Graargh maintained far more composure than a rather permanently crippled mare ought to have in such a situation. A moment later, I learned why: after a burst of green flame, Graargh was still to all appearances the leader of Equestria’s military, but he was no longer a rather sickening pile of her broken bones on the school yard ground.

“I fly!” he announced, before rather casually adding “It kinda hurt, Morty.”

“You… can regenerate?”

“I play good pretend,” Graargh answered. “I pretend ouch not hurt, and it not hurt.”

I blinked in shock. “On our trip… you could do that the entire time?

Graargh nodded. “Many time try tell Morty ‘I protect’, ‘I keep safe’. But always Morty say Morty be one who go in front, who get hurt, get punched by bad fuck or Winnershimmer or Tempest or…. well, everypony Morty meet. Never let,” and then he roared, which sounded even stranger than usual out of Typhoon’s throat, before continuing “be one who get hurt, even though it not hurt me bad. I strong. Er, I is strong. Remember, I carry Morty and Gale in tunnel under Morty’s house. I fight Winnershimmer too.”

Typhoon’s prosthetic hoof—which felt to all the world like metal to me—came to rest on my shoulder as Graargh looked me nearly square in the eye (I was a good bit taller than Typhoon, but the height difference was far less than I enjoyed when he was a bear cub) and offered me a smile. “I help. Morty trust. We family, remember?”

“I… yeah, sorry Graargh.” I shook my head, trying to force down a note of worry in the back of my mind. “Um… so the point of you being Typhoon was that she’s the first pegasus I thought of who actually has two wings. Hopefully if you sort of… maybe not fly like that, but jump and glide and run, you can catch Seabiscuit before he gets away, and bring him back?”

“Seagrass,” Cherry Tomato corrected.

“I try,” Graargh agreed, before turning around and giving a much more hesitant pump of his new tan wings; the force propelled him flying probably higher than was strictly necessary to jump from the ground onto the roof, but it wasn’t so out of control that he was likely to disappear into the wild blue yonder, as it were.

With my friend gone from sight, I paced over to the schoolhouse wall and glanced in a window. For just a moment, my heart stopped to find Aspiration completely absent from the building, but then I let caution and good sense pull me back; the teacher surely needed a break to eat too, and likely had only stepped out of the front of the building or something. After all, if she had seen what happened, surely she would have shown herself immediately. I chuckled at the thought of her trying to fix it herself—what was some schoolteacher going to do against magic as powerful as mine, even if she had some way to catch the kitten? No, I was certain, she couldn’t have possibly seen anything. Which meant, as long as Graargh and Soybeans were back before her, everything would be fine.

I was staggeringly wrong, of course, but that doesn’t make the assumption less rational with the information I had on hoof.

With a sigh of relief, I turned my back to the wall and collapsed to a seat against it. I thought I might have a moment to collect my thoughts in peace, but Cherry Tomato, ever the persistent optimist, refused to give me such a chance.

“Graargh said you were family; are you his dad? Or just something like a brother?”

“I’m not his dad,” I muttered on instinct. “So… big brother, sure, why not?” Then I chuckled at the irony. “He’s more my sibling than any of my real siblings, that’s for sure.”

“He’s not your real sibling?” Cherry asked.

“Cherry, it’s not like we’re different breeds of pony; he’s a bear.”

“The scriptures teach us love comes in many forms, and Her Holiness is happiest when we don’t judge,” Cherry recited to me.

I found myself gritting my teeth. “No. He isn’t my real brother. I don’t have any real full siblings, but I have a couple of half-siblings back in the Crystal Union. I barely know them though.” I leaned my head back fully against the wall of the schoolhouse and let out a tired sigh. “I met Graargh three months ago. He fished me out of a river to save me from drowning. I tried to help him find his real parents, but… well, I’m pretty sure either they abandoned him or they’re dead. I brought him to a group of bears, but he decided he’d rather stay with me, and we’ve been together since.”

“Oh. So you basically are his dad, then?” Cherry asked. “You look out for him, and keep him safe, like he said?”

“If we’re being honest, Cherry, I mostly put him in danger, despite my best efforts. Although apparently he was in a lot less danger than I assumed, if he can just heal all his wounds whenever he wants.”

“Well, sometimes we have to have a little bit of danger to grow, and we trust our parents to know what we can handle.” When I pulled my head up from the wall to look askance at the sudden wisdom passing the young stallion’s lips, Cherry only offered me a smile for an explanation.

“You’re a strange kid, Cherry. Is that from spending so much time at the Church?”

“Oh, I don’t really think the Church is that important,” Cherry noted. “But being a squire to Count Halo seemed like the best way to find an adventure, and that seems like the best thing for me to be doing. After all my special talent is that I’m special.”

“I… wait, what?” I cast a quick glance to Cherry’s hindquarters, where I found he wore the symbol of a gold star—not a magical six- or seven-pointed star, but more like the sort of five-pointed shape, colored gold, that might be attached as a sticker to the work of a foal who succeeded in class. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know,” Cherry answered with a shrug. “Good things just happen around me because I’m special. So I have to be where the most important things are happening, because that way the most important things will turn out good. That’s how you are too, right? Since you’re Her Holiness’ Chosen One?”

“I…” I frowned as my instinctual objection failed under the realization that what Cherry had presented was not, in fact, a foal’s complete misconception, but rather a potentially sophisticated philosophical conundrum. “Um… I wouldn’t use those words, but I guess so?”

Cherry nodded, making a mockery of the word ‘sagaciously’ by applying it to a thirteen-year-old head, seemingly against the word’s own will. “It must be hard balancing that with taking care of Graargh, whether he’s your little brother or your foal.”

“I… to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it until now.” I swallowed. “When we were on the road, it was obvious he was better off with me than me abandoning him and making him go off on his own. But now we’re in the city, and… Tartarus, I don’t even know what I’m doing with myself now, let alone Graargh.” I scowled, shook my head, and then let my eyes fall on Cherry. “Why am I even telling you any of this, kid?”

“Ponies tell me things because I’m special,” answered Cherry. “It’s part of the talent, I think. Or maybe not; who knows?” He shrugged, then apropos of nothing in particular, fixed me with big puppy dog eyes that should never have existed on a teenage face, yet somehow managed to work for him. “Can I join your party?”

“I beg your pardon, what?”

“You know, your party? Your friends that hunt monsters and save Equestria? In the church, a group of knights who go out to hunt monsters is called an ‘adventuring party’ - is that the wrong words?” Cherry cocked his head, making the wide-eyed effect even more sickening. “I read some about you and your friends in the newspaper, and it was all the talk in the city for a while.”

“I… What are you, twelve?”

“Thirteen,” he replied. “And you have to start somewhere, right?”

I slammed my hoof into my brow, painfully catching the base of my horn. He was right, of course; I’d been five years younger when Wintershimmer first began to bring me along on his journeys to the edges of the Crystal Union, dealing with the various magical threats that crop up on the fringes of civilized society. “Do you even know how to fight?”

Cherry took no offense at the frankly dismissive question; instead, he nodded eagerly. “I’ve been Count Halo’s squire since I got my mark; I know how to wear armor and use a sword and a mace and bladed hooves. And I’m really fast, and pretty strong too. Like how I beat you and Graargh so bad at squares.”

I winced, in part at the memory of my recent humiliation, and in part because he was unquestionably right again. “And you’d rather run around with me than Count Halo? Even though he’s already teaching you?”

“Oh, he retired. He said he lost his honor as a knight, and he was going to go live in a farm up north, and he’d be very happy there, and that I shouldn’t worry about him.”

I stared for about ten very long seconds as I wondered whether or not Cherry knew what the idiom ‘moving to a farm up north’ meant, and then feeling enormously guilty over what had happened.

“It’s a nice farm; he took me once. I think it’s his family’s noble domain. They grow sweet potatoes.” When I breathed out a sigh of relief, Cherry added “Why were you holding your breath, Morty?”

“Nothing,” I answered far too quickly to be believed. “It’s nothing, really. I swear.” Then, desperately searching for literally any other topic in the world, I returned my attention to Cherry’s question. “Assuming I thought you were able to keep up with Graargh and Gale and I, why do you want to be putting yourself in danger?”

“Well…” Cherry’s eyes ran away from my face. “Like I said, I’m special. So I need to be where things are happening. And you’re going to be where things are happening. I can feel it. Like, in my ears and stuff.”

I raised a brow. “So you feel like you’re obligated to follow me around? That’s it? There’s nothing in it for you?” Cherry was very obviously avoiding my gaze at that point, so I pressed. “You’re not looking to get paid, or get famous or something? Not looking to have your name in the newspaper?” I jokingly cast my across the sky as if framing a headline (not that I could have read it): “Cherry Tomato, hero of Everfree City?”

To my surprise, when my accusation was done, it seemed a weight was lifted off of Cherry’s shoulders. “Oh, is this one of those temptations of glory like Count Halo used to warn me about? No, you don’t need to worry about me. I don’t need anypony to know me; I just need to know that I’m doing everything I can.”

Perhaps the reader should be reminded that, for all the casual dismissal Cherry gave that temptation, it was still something of a fresh struggle and an open wound for ‘the Hero of Platinum’s Landing’. So perhaps you’ll understand, if not forgive me, when I snapped what could have been stated in far gentler terms. “I’m sure that’s very easy for you, Cherry.”

“Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m not looking for an apprentice,” I noted. “And I may be one of the best wizards who ever lived, but even I can’t teach magic to an earth pony.”

Cherry Tomato’s expression soured in an instant. “I thought you’d be different,” he muttered as he stood up and walked away. And for all that I decided I hadn’t liked the colt, maybe it was something about his talent that made me feel worse about what I’d said to him than what I’d done to Seagrass.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Auditoris Frostfall was not the second-in-command of the Cirran Legion, nor even the third or fourth, but I will hypothesize that she was perhaps the second most powerful pony in the military organization regardless. This power didn’t come to the white mare with the frosty mane by way of magical powers, hurling icicles or breathing fire like Commander Typhoon or her father. As already mentioned it didn’t come from rank. The power stemmed from two far more mundane reasons. Firstly, she was Commander Typhoon’s Auditoris (that is, essentially, her secretary). And thanks to Typhoon’s spite for paperwork (a quality no doubt inherited from her father and predecessor, Commander Hurricane), Frostfall, like her predecessor Pansy before her, was trusted with the immense responsibility of deciding what major decisions were even worth the Commander’s time.

The second reason Frostfall held so much power was that in addition to Typhoon’s secretary, she was also the Commander’s lover. And lest anypony worry that I’m telling you this to demean either mare or their relationship, I’ll make two notes: firstly, she achieved the rank of Auditoris first. And secondly, that concern almost certainly colored Frostfall’s reaction when, while walking down the streets of Everfree city carrying a messenger’s bag full of the day’s groceries, she overheard two Legionaries speaking in hushed whispers.

“Was that…? No, it couldn’t have been.”

“It certainly looked like Commander Typhoon eating a cat.”

“Hopefully just carrying it in her mouth.”

“Hey, I’m not one to judge. And you shouldn’t be either; she’s the Commander for a reason, no matter what she likes putting in her mouth.”

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you’ve heard the rumors about her Auditoris, right? Cause if anything, this looks like proof that the Commander likes licking pussy.”

Frostfall walked quietly up behind the two armored guards—though her present occupation was clerical, as evidenced by her quiet hoofsteps, she had once been a decently proficient scout—and coughed once. Not a real cough, mind you. More like a well enunciated “Ahem.” Then, when the soldiers jumped, she said “Legionaries.”

“Mobius have mercy…” one of them muttered as he snapped a salute. “Auditoris!”

“...for I shall give you none,” Frostfall completed with a bladed wink. “But I might, might forget what I just heard if you point me in the direction of the Commander. You said she was carrying a cat?”

“Uh… well, sort of trying to carry it, or catch it, or something,” the more forward of the two legionaries answered. “I don’t think it wanted to be caught. She was heading toward the palace.”

Frostfall groaned. “She doesn’t need another scar.” Then the Legion officer nodded to said guard and unslung a bag from her shoulder. “I’d better go help her. You can take these groceries home for me; it’s the red house on the north end of the Via Dioda in Cloudsdale.”

“You… want me to go into your house, ma’am?”

“It’s a friendly neighborhood. And I know nopony respects it, but Auditoris is an officer’s rank,” she answered as she set the bag down. “So that is an order, legionary. And you, cunning linguist: I still need a two bottles of marelot; you can expense them in my name.”

“You want us to do your grocery shopping?” the young stallion asked.

“Since you seem so invested in the Commander’s personal life, I thought you’d be honored. She and I usually prefer to drain a bottle after she’s had a trying evening dealing with her younger sister. And now that Gale’s the Queen, I thought two bottles might be necessary.” Her shoulders unburdened, Frostfall stepped forward between the two soldiers and patted each on their shoulders with a wing. “So the rumors you’ve heard are true. But if they stop being rumors, I’ll have you both crucified. Officer, remember?” And with that, Frostfall took flight.

There’s a reputation amongst former scouts that persists even to this day—that is, the day of writing—that pegasus scouts are universally hot-headed stunt-fliers. And while the stereotype is based in reality, like most stereotypes, it is hardly universal. Frostfall’s talents on her wings were less a matter of swift and agile flying, and more a tolerance for long, quiet glides. So when presented with the problem of pursuing Typhoon—a mare who absolutely had been a hot-headed stunt flier in her youth, and who was still known to outfly most of her subordinates into the increasing approach of middle age—was to gain altitude as quickly as possible, and then to simply glide, and look, and wait.

I could have, had I been so inclined, looked up and seen Frostfall adopting this position, had Cherry not still been holding my attention at that point in the schoolyard. And similarly, Frostfall had no particular reason to be focusing on the little school in the palace district when her eyes could instead focus in on the palace proper.

From there, it wasn’t hard to spot her quarry; magic-eating black armor and a tri-tone mane do tend to stand out even from a bird’s-eye-view. And sure enough, rather than flying like the genuine article surely would have in the face of such a threat, ‘Typhoon’ was sprinting and jumping in a sort of cat’s play, albeit with the actual cat filling the role of the prey in this particular exchange. Their battle had moved fully from the streets and into the gardens around the palace by the time her eyes found them, with the cat in question scampering up onto the dryer parts of a fountain depicting Private Pansy, Clover the Clever, and Smart Cookie—probably in hopes that the water would scare off the much larger predator. And, hilariously, it seemed to be working.

It really wasn’t like Typhoon at all, in Frostfall’s reckoning; something was obviously wrong. And when something was wrong with Typhoon, well, there might as well have been a spotlight in the sky with Frostfall’s quadruple snowflake talent mark shadowed across it. Angling her wings forward, the Auditoris let herself fall into a dive.

The cat never stood a chance. Frostfall’s hooves were swift and her wings were quiet, but her real advantage was that she actually owned a cat of her own, and knew the great secret of all skilled feline slaves—for what else could truthfully describe somepony with the hubris to claim that they are the owner in such a relationship?—that is, the fact that one can safely squish the cat without harming it.

“Oooh! Thank you nice pony! It hard catch.”

If there was any lingering question as to the invalidity of Graargh’s disguise, his grammar and distance to Frostfall cemented him as an impostor. “Who are you, and why do you look like Commander Typhoon?”

“I—” and then, of course, Graargh roared. “But can call ‘Graargh’; Morty say ponies not can—er, not is can make that noise.”

“Morty—the wizard kid from Platinum’s Landing?” Frostfall sighed. “I’m going to ask again: why do you look like Typhoon?”

“Hmm? Oh, I play pretend.” Graargh grinned with Typhoon’s face. Judging by the disgusted reaction that earned from Frostfall, his double-wide foalish bear grin was not an expression native to the pegasus leader. “You want I play pretend with—”

“Graargh!” Both Frostfall and Graargh turned as, panting and sprinting across the palace gardens, one Misses Aspiration approached. “Oh Celestia! I’m so sorry, ma’am. This isn’t really Commander Typhoon.”

Frostfall rolled her eyes. “I had gathered, Miss…”

“Aspiration; I’m Graargh’s schoolteacher.” Finally having reached Frostfall, Aspiration extended a hoof for a hoofshake.

Frostfall glanced down at the cat struggling in her forelegs, then raised a single eyebrow. “I know I’m out of uniform right now, but I’m an officer of the Legion. Auditoris Frostfall. Can you explain why this… foal, apparently… is impersonating Commander Typhoon?”

“Graargh help,” Graargh offered, and then—surely much to Typhoon’s continued embarrassment, despite her physical absence—bit down on the scruff of Seagrass’ neck to hold him like a mother cat. “Mmow oo cnn shk Mmph Affrtunf hff.”

Frostfall’s brow climbed higher. “Did you make that out?”

“He said now you can shake my hoof,” Aspiration noted with a sigh. “Look, I’m extremely sorry. Um… where do I even begin? Lady Celestia sent me two new students today: this little creature, who’s actually a bear cub under that magic—”

“You’re Morty’s bear cub?” Frostfall asked. “I heard about you. That makes a bit more sense.”

“‘Morty’ is the other student,” Aspiration noted. “I think he cast whatever spell did…” With her horn, Aspiration gestured to… well, all of Graargh. “This.”

“It does explain a few things,” Frostfall noted. “It also raises a number of further questions. The first of which being why?”

“Mm! Cnn Unnfwer.”

“What?” Frostfall rolled her eyes. “Hold him with your wings… if they’re real. Just squeeze him.”

Graargh in a body that wasn’t his own (not that bear form was technically his own either, but it was at least infinitely more familiar) was less effectual at holding a desperate kitten than Frostfall had been. Still, despite his discomfort (and the subsequent discomfort of its claws visibly drawing blood from ‘his’ wings—a pain he seemed completely able to ignore) Graargh held onto the little creature. “Morty say I need pretend pony with wings. Um… pegsus.”

“A pegasus,” Aspiration corrected.

Frostfall shot the teacher a glance out of the corner of her eye. “Is this really the time for a lesson?”

“Sorry,” Aspiration answered. “Go on, Graargh.”

“Need wings to catch cat. And Morty ask what pegasus pony I know. Papa Cane best, but not have two wing. Um… guess Morty could have say ‘Blizzard’, but maybe Morty not think that. Or Tempest.”

“Blizzard? ‘Papa Cane’?”

“Commander-Emeritus Hurricane, and his… a friend of Her Majesty’s,” Frostfall clarified. “Irrespectively. And Tempest is the Commander’s son. I had heard Morty and his friends were staying with the family, so I assume that’s who he means, anyway.” Frostfall sighed. “So Morty chose the single most high-profile pegasus in Equestria, turned you into a perfect copy of her despite lacking any kind of tact, and sent you to chase a stray cat through the streets?”

Graargh, bless his heart, may not have had a firm grasp of Equiish grammar, but he realized that, just perhaps, admitting why he had been sent to catch a street cat in front of both Miss Aspirations and a mare he would later describe to me as “scary friendly pegus” mare” would have been a terrible idea.

So he just nodded his head.

“That…” Frostfall sighed. “Sounds entirely believable. I’m guessing you have to go back to him to stop looking like that?”

“No,” Graargh answered, before offering Seagrass back to Frostfall. When the soldier took hold of the kitten (failing to notice that, just behind Frostfall, Miss Aspiration was fiercely cringing, shaking her head, and even gesturing a hoof back and forth across her throat), Graargh erupted in a quick burst of green flame. A moment later, he was back to his tiny ursine self. “See? All better.”

“Huh.” Frostfall shrugged. “Alright, I’m going to make a note to have a strong word with… Archmage Coil? Mr. Coil?”

“Morty,” Graargh suggested. “Everypony who call Morty ‘Coil’ mean. Like Winnershimmer or bad fuck.”

Frostfall snorted as her best effort at keeping a straight face for Graargh’s preferred way of referring to the leader of the Crystal Union’s military. “Not touching that one. Just ‘Morty’ works. Graargh, for now I’m going to have to ask that you not use whatever magic he cast on you. Just stay as yourself. Can you do that?”

Graargh nodded.

“And Misses Aspiration… well, I guess all I can say is that I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. Maybe keep a closer eye on those two?”

“I will be certain to, um… Adu… Adi…”

“Auditoris,” Frostfall completed. “Now, why don’t you two run along?” Frostfall handed Seagrass back to Graargh. “Um… don’t lose your cat again?”

“Not lose first time,” Graargh answered. “Morty lose.”

Frostfall nodded, turning toward the palace. “I’m just going to go set aside a drawer in our records room under ‘M’ now. Have a good day.”

“We’ll be sure to,” Aspiration answered, shuffling Graargh away from the Palace.

The first few dozen strides teacher and new student took were in total silence. It only ended when they had passed the walls around the gardens, and were back in the far less formal streets of the palace district.

“Are you insane, grub? What do you think you’re doing?”

“Nnmn Grb.”

“What?” Aspiration then glanced to see Graargh was still holding Seagrass in his teeth like a mother cat. Picking up the transformed foal in her magic, she glared toward Graargh. “Well?”

“Name ‘Graargh’, not ‘grub’.”

“I don’t give two…” Aspiration’s irate dismissal faded as some indescribably alien intellect crackled behind her green eyes. “I’m sorry, Graargh. Having to talk to the Auditoris was embarrassing for me, but I shouldn’t take it out on you. Before we go back to class, though I need to ask you a few questions. Is that okay?”

Graargh nodded. “That okay. What ask?”

“That isn’t really Morty’s magic changing your shape, is it?” Aspiration led.

The question put a nervous expression on Graargh’s ursine muzzle. “Morty not get in trouble, right? You not hurt him?”

Aspiration chuckled. “Your guardian is a wizard, Graargh. I’m just a schoolteacher. I don’t think I could hurt him even if I wanted to. But if it makes you feel better, I promise, Morty won’t be in any trouble. I’m asking because I’m worried about you.”

“Oh.” Graargh nodded. “It… not really Morty magic, no. Um… when I pretend hard, make green fire. Mom say green fire bad, not make. Very not make… not be make in front of ponies, she says.”

“You knew your mother? Were there many other gru—er, Graargh’s with you?”

Graargh cocked his head. “That my name. There not be more of me. That silly… well, no, I guess there more of Morty one time, so could happen.” Then he chuckled. “Moon pony make me good Morty. Talk just like him too!”

“Moon…” Aspiration’s expression shifted from confusion to worry. “You can’t mean Luna?” Graargh nodded enthusiastically, which only made the teacher’s expression more worried still.“You changed in front of her and you’re still alive?!”

“Of course! Why not? Moona mean about it, not like Morty much, but she help.”

“Because her Night Guard eat—” Aspiration cut herself off with a sharp breath. “Graargh, do you know what you are?”

The question, as usual, soured Graargh’s mood. “Why ponies always ask this? Am bear! Can big bear or small bear, sometimes play pretend when Morty ask, but am bear. Ponies not have name like,” and then, of course, Graargh bellowed out a roar that in no way matched the size of his body.

Aspiration cast a rather nervous glance around the streets of the palace district—for in the course of their discussion, the duo had passed the walls that separated the palace’s extensive gardens from its surrounding streets. A few ponies had turned at the noise, to no surprise, but nopony seemed inclined to stick their muzzle where it wasn’t wanted.

“Alright… What I was trying to ask about before: did you have any brothers or sisters?”

“No. Just mom and dad.”

“You knew your father?” Aspiration asked incredulously.

Graargh nodded. “Why you ask like weird? Lots of pony know dads, right? Gale know dad; Papa ‘Cane very friendly, make good fish.”

“I… nevermind, Graargh. I’m just wondering if you have a proper guardian besides Morty. Somepony who looks out for you?” Then, that same grim intellect behind Aspiration’s eyes faltered for a moment. “This ‘Papa Cane’ is Commander Hurricane?”

Graargh nodded enthusiastically. “He good.”

“Perhaps,” Aspiration answered. “But I’m not certain he’s a good fit for a little… bear… of your life experiences.”

“Well, have Morty; Papa Cane just nice.”

“You seem quite attached to Morty. You… do understand he’s barely an adult himself?”

“Morty save world!” Then, with some momentary hesitance, Graargh added. “I help!”

“Yes, I have read the newspaper,” the schoolteacher observed. “And it’s obvious he loves you, in his own way. I can smell it on you, and you certainly aren’t starving.”

“That silly!” Graargh chuckled. “Love not smell. Not eat it either!”

“Ah, no, I suppose not.” Aspiration then looked away from Graargh to see her own schoolhouse fast approaching in their path. “Before we go back in, two last things, Graargh: where are you actually from?”

“Graargh and mom and dad live in cave by river. At least, before they leave.”

“A river,” Aspiration repeated flatly. “Do you know which river?”

“By where Morty come from. He say… um… Oh! Crystal Onion!”

“The Crystal Union?” In a quieter voice, very much to herself, Aspiration noted “There’s no hive near the Crystal Union anymore...” Then the teacher’s eyes slowly widened. “Wait, so you… you really don’t know anything about who you are?”

“Am,” Graargh offered before a roar that caught a few eyes of ponies on the street who had otherwise not paid much mind to the unicorn leading a bear cub at a distance. “Morty family. Gale family. That all.”

“Right…” Aspiration sighed. “I’m going to need to have a word with Morty in private about how best to make sure you’re being taken care of. But for now, can you keep a secret?”

Graargh nodded. “I keep secret good. Why?”

“Well, I promised you that Morty won’t get in trouble for any of this, right? Well, in order to keep that promise, I need you to make a promise too. I need you to promise not to talk about what we just talked about—not even to Morty.”

“Why not tell Morty, if Morty one in trouble?”

“Because if Miss Frostfall that we just talked to knew that Morty had turned a foal into a cat—” At Graargh’s wince, the teacher chuckled. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t notice a student was missing from recess, did you?”

“I… not think of that.”

“Well, I can keep a secret for both of your sakes. You can trust me. But only if you keep it secret too. Got it?”

“Graargh understand.”

“Good.” Aspiration patted Graargh on the shoulder, and then handed over the still-transformed Seagrass. “Now, you take this one back to Morty so he can get changed back, and I’m going to go in the front door and pretend I didn’t notice anything was wrong. And then we’ll teach you some math; does that sound fun?”

“Graargh not know,” the bear answered enthusiastically. “Can eat ‘math’?”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

When Graargh came marching back into the schoolyard alone, I was left to assume our plan had succeeded with perfect subtrefuge, and seeing that Graargh was carrying the subject of his mission in his bear teeth, I took it as a small miracle that he’d managed to catch Seagrass without harming the foal-turned-kitten—or, stars forbid, eating him. I didn’t even bother to question why Graargh wasn’t still wearing Typhoon’s form. I just took Seagrass aside, restored him to his natural form (with an unusually deep twinge of pain in my horn), and made him the promise of two candy apples in exchange for buying his silence.

The little runt bartered me up to three, but I got what I wanted. We returned to the mass of the other students just as Mrs. Aspiration announced our recess had ended—a timing which, at the time, seemed like another spat of good luck.

The class returned to our seats (or in my case, the floor), and looked at the board to see not Equiish prose, but a list of basic arithmetic equations. Addition, subtraction, even a set of multiplication problems involving fractions for the older students. “Now, students, this afternoon we’re going to be working on some basic exercises…” I tuned the teacher out as she described the full directions.

My mind wandered for some time as she set out wood framed slates and small pieces of chalk in front of each student. I recall reflecting on Wintershimmer’s method of teaching arithmetic when she reached my desk. “Am I boring you, Coil?”

I shook my head out of my daydreaming recollection, and then my mind caught up with my ears and my momentary interest, by virtue of shock, fell away. “I’m illiterate, not completely uneducated.” Then I glanced over Aspiration’s shoulder at the board. “Three. Twelve and a half. Three thousand nine hundred—”

“I will ask that you not spoil the lesson for the rest of the class,” Aspiration interrupted. “But point taken.” She gently nodded to the slate on my desk. “I’m curious; can you read the last one aloud?”

“The circle one?” I asked, earning a nod from the teacher. “Not really, given most of it’s a diagram. But I can describe it.”

“Go ahead,” Aspiration prompted.

“Given an isosceles triangle whose base is overlaid on a circle of radius three… uh, arbitrary units?” Aspiration nodded encouragingly. “Such that the arc of the circle intersects the height-line of the triangle. And the triangle’s leg length is five of those same units. I’m supposed to find… well, I’m guessing ‘X’ with the line to the shaded area means you want me to find the area of the triangle that isn’t covered by the circle?”

“That’s correct,” Aspiration noted. “The ‘ticks’ next to the numbers is a shorthoof way of indicating that the units are hooves of length. But more importantly, you know what X is.”

“Well, not quite yet...” I did a bit of brief mental arithmetic, and nodded. “It’s a little less than eight. The triangle has total area of twelve square hooves, and the arc of the circle we’re subtracting is about fifty-three degrees.” When I earned a look of astonishment, I decided to slow down. “Divide the triangle in half and you get a three-four-five right triangle, and then you can do the inverse sine of the height of the triangle over the three units of radius that make up half the base of the given triangle, or the full base of the divided right triangle we’re using.”

“Uh…”

“So… Seven and eight-hundred-seven thousandths should be the answer, I think. That’s as close as I can get without a quill and ink anyway, and if it’s good enough for magical work it ought to be sufficient for this exercise that’s devoid of any practical purpose.”

If you aren’t a wizard, that probably reads like I’m trying to brag about how smart I was most of a millennium ago. If you are, what you just read is a stupid parlor trick you can probably repeat, if not best. But that was hardly the point to Aspiration, who actually staggered back.

“You did that in your head?”

“When you’re a wizard and you screw up your math, ponies die. Well, usually that pony is you, but occasionally it’s somepony else. Did you have a point, or did you just want me to go through the ordeal of playing along that the rest of my academic skills are on par with a bunch of foals ten years my younger?”

Aspiration glared. “Mortal, I’m sorry I can’t drop my entire class to tutor you, but frankly, you’re nearly an adult, and of everypony here you ought to be the one pony I can trust to look after himself.”

Nearly?”

“Be happy about it; life’s all downhill from where you are.” Aspiration, who didn’t seem that much older than me, shook her head dismissively. “Play along with my rules until the end of the day, or excuse yourself. Either way, when class is over, we’ll talk. You are not my priority.”

Given the choice, I saw no point wasting any more of my or Mrs. Aspiration’s time, and let myself out of the classroom entirely.

The summer air didn’t exactly leave a native of the Crystal Union comfortable, but open air, and more than a bit of wandering just for the sake of stretching my legs, cooled my temper a bit. I cleared three city blocks in the palace district, just listening to the city, before I realized my usual trick—a habit I hadn’t learned from Wintershimmer, for once—wasn’t going to cut it for my current mood.

Fortunately, the palace gardens offered a calmer and more solitary place yet for those with boiling tempers. And as I glanced through the open gates in the tall stone walls and took in the sight of the gravel-lined paths and wide greens, dotted with topiary, my memory flicked to a hidden grotto in the southwest corner of the wall. And, with a slight smile of fondness for the memory of a shared kiss with Gale, I set hoof.

At the time, you may be amused to note, I assumed that the reason the guards let me through the open gate was because literally the previous day I had ripped a stallion’s soul out of his corpse and showed it off in a room full of the city’s rich and powerful. In fact, the reason the guards let me through was because the gardens and most of the ground floor of the palace were open to the public most weekdays, barring major restricted events like diplomatic meetings with foreign governments. Still, since I didn’t actually talk to the guards (and to be fair to my assumption, they did glance at me nervously, only to look quickly away when I met their gazes), I might well have been right regardless.

When I passed the gardens’ hedge maze, whose walls were made the more beautiful and the more interesting by interweaving flowering plants in the trellises that guided the growth of the hedges to form the walls, I plucked a purple hydrangea flower that reminded me of Gale, much as the lilac I had chosen on my last visit. It tucked nicely into the lapel of my jacket, and though the gently toned flower clashed with the utter black and the harsh red lining, I hardly cared what it looked like to anypony else; it was the thought that mattered. Finally passing the wall of the hedge maze, I came upon a statue of Hurricane and the divine sisters; I scowled at the marble expression on Celestia’s face, so benevolently joining the older soldier in their return to equine society, and wondered if perhaps she was just as cruel a would-be god as her sister, merely playing a longer game than Luna. Still, the point of the statue was not to stand and talk to stones, but to mark the hidden entrance to a private grotto.

The rose bush behind the statue, already growing up to entangle Celestia’s legs, was a thorny problem, at least until I remembered that Star Swirl had enchanted my jacket for my fight with Wintershimmer. If the garment could stop a blade, it could no doubt withstand a few flowery thorns. That, at least, would spare me the need to use more of my magic. And indeed, it worked; the fabric held like steel armor, letting me brush aside the branches of the bush with my foreleg and slip through into a quiet place, filled with gentle birdsong and the bubbling of water.

Though I wished for her presence, Gale was nowhere to be found—not that I had expected her. She was off becoming Queen, or being recognized, or whatever little else I could say I knew about the system at the time.

I walked up to the little pond in the grotto, lowered myself to sit, and then laid down fully on my belly, even resting my chin on one of the wide stones beside the water. And there, not to put too fine a point on the issue, I fumed for the better part of the afternoon.

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