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



Celestia's first student and Princess Platinum conspire to cheat the princess out of an arranged marriage.

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4-3

IV - III

The Awful Adoption

Water rose from the grotto’s pool in the shape of a sphere, wrapped in icy blue arcane energy. The hoof-width orb held for nearly a second before it splashed down into the ripples of the pond. I sighed, ignoring the twinge of mild ache in the core of my horn, not so much a proper pain as the discontent of an overworked limb, and lifted the water again.

Wintershimmer hadn’t taught the ritual to me as a way to find calm. Rather, it was a lesson tailored to my particular manner of horn; a way to try and develop some control over my magic without my horn flaring up. As a little foal, Wintershimmer sat with me as I raised marble-sized drops of water, listening as he lectured me on magical theory, or history, or whatever other subject struck our fancies.

“Why did you have to try and kill Celestia…” I muttered to myself as I remembered those days by the springs. They’d been one of the subjects of his lessons, the original reason the Crystal Spire had been built in the frozen north, long, long before the city was protected by a magical shield that kept out the worst of the winter storms. I’d asked him about shield spells, and over the next weeks he taught me not one or two, or even five or six, but a dozen variants on the common dueling shield.

I still remembered all of them.

“...unlike anything Aspiration tried to teach me…”

My bubble popped again, and I rubbed my temple as I made another. I couldn’t even convince myself that was fair; Aspiration was a pony with a job she was trying to do, and she’d been put in an incredibly awkward situation having to deal with me. Not that she’d handled the affair well at all. “Who expects a wizard to follow foals’ rules?”

This time, when my orb began to spill, in rage I flung it over my shoulder. I could practically hear Wintershimmer’s chiding voice at my lack of control over my emotions, but my mind kept coming back to the real problem: that behind this entire stupid affair, I couldn’t fairly blame Aspiration, and it certainly wasn’t my fault. No, the fault here lay with my new teacher.

And though it felt strange to think of the veritable goddess, Celestia was nowhere near a match for the standard Wintershimmer had set as a teacher.

A hoof gently settled on my shoulder, and I jerked at the presence. “Woah; no need to sneak up on a stallion like that. I thought I was gonna have this place to myself.”

“Perhaps if you had better control of your emotions, you would not have need to beg that others announce themselves to you.” The voice was instantly familiar, and in a lifetime of learning its forceful dry tones, I found my chest seize with impossible fear.

“M-master?!”

Where I looked, Wintershimmer stood, his hoof only slowly lowering back to the ground where I had lunged away from it. “Something wrong, Coil? I taught you better than to stutter from something as simple as surprise.”

“You’re dead!

“True,” Wintershimmer agreed. “And yet not an especially useful observation. Would you care to elaborate? Or are your emotions too heightened to understand?”

I scowled and lit my horn. “I ought to kill you.”

“As you just reminded us, you already have. But since I must evidently remind you, Coil, you have already cast two spells today: one, amusingly more according to my instructions than you would likely allow yourself to admit, was an attempt to frighten a group of foals into obedience and respect. The second was likewise wasted undoing that mistake.” Wintershimmer lowered himself to his flanks slowly; when not literally fighting for his life, it seemed he was still willing to indulge his sore, ancient joints with deliberate, controlled movements. “At the risk of rehashing a point you ought to remember, even if you did best me in our duel: if I had intended to kill you, and I had the advantage of my magic, and I was able to get so close to you silently as to make you jump by touching your shoulder, I would not have bothered announcing my presence before cutting you in half.”

“I dispersed your soul!” I snapped, but I let the magic fade from my horn regardless; this… whoever, or whatever this was, was right. “You can’t be standing here.”

“Ah, now we reach a useful observation.” Wintershimmer nodded. “Though I will observe that I’m seated now. Yes, you did disperse my soul. And yet, despite what you claim I cannot be, your eyes tell you that I am.”

I cocked my head for a moment at the pure logic my dead mentor’s mouth delivered, and then frowned. “I’m going insane,” I muttered. “I’ve lost my mind.”

“I taught you better than that,” Wintershimmer chided. “And, since it seems you require a hint, I know with certainty that you remember it. Insanity is a term so broad and reductive as to largely be unhelpful. Would you care to be more specific? Shall I ask you for three more intentionally chosen terms?”

The reminder of that exercise deepened the frown on my muzzle. “Psychosis?” I offered. “What difference does it make to you, if you’re just a hallucination?”

“Hmm… perhaps.” Wintershimmer nodded. “For now, it will suffice for an explanation. And tonight, when your curiosity has kept you lying awake, I welcome you to ponder if that reductive of an explanation is sufficient to explain your… symptoms, shall we say?”

“You’re claiming you’re not just a hallucination?”

“I have made no such statement,” Wintershimmer countered dryly. “Do not put words in my mouth, Coil. Now, since you are clearly having a moment of distress, and if your own hypothesis is true, it has shaken you enough that you are hallucinating your dead mentor, perhaps I can be of some assistance—real or otherwise.”

I rolled my eyes and lifted an orb of water from the pond, again ignoring the ache deep in my horn. “If you’re a hallucination, you can’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”

“True,” Wintershimmer agreed, having the audacity to wander over and sit at my side by the pond, as if his real body hadn’t only mere weeks earlier been actively plotting to frame me for murder. “And yet, as you will recall, hearing what you already know from an outside voice, even in slightly different language, can spur new ideas or new approaches to problems. Even great wizards benefit from apprentices.”

“That’s a roundabout way to compliment yourself,” I noted, just before my magical orb again leaked out its water. “Stars, why can’t I do this today?”

“Because you are taking an exercise that is intended to be performed while you are already calm and in control of your emotions, and perverting it in an attempt to reach calm when you are far from it. Stop hurting your horn and speak to me, Coil.”

“Look for a comforting talk from a hallucination? And a hallucination of you of all ponies?” I scoffed. “Even with present evidence, I’m not that crazy.”

“And I, as you have observed, am not really Wintershimmer,” said Wintershimmer. “But I am the teacher you are longing for, and you are clearly in need of advice from somepony whose advice you trust. Humor me, Coil.”

It occurs to me, in writing out these words, that my figment of Wintershimmer might have come across as paternal, even comforting. But while I do occasionally refer to Wintershimmer as being like a father to me—and he certainly was the closest of anypony in my youth to a parental title, simply by the scarcity of the field—that isn’t to say his tone of voice was in any way comforting or conciliatory. As it had been through nearly all of my youth, any comment he offered that, in a friendly or comforting tone of voice might have been well-taken as a friendly or loving gesture, he preferred to state in the same tone with which he taught the mathematical lessons I had demonstrated a mastery of in Aspiration’s classroom. His voice was not a monotone; he spoke eloquently and with a mastery of the Equiish language in terms of both vocabulary and grammar, but whenever he spoke it was with the distance of a formal teacher and a deadly wizard; never the comforting rises and falls of the voice of a beloved friend or parent.

“Fine,” I grumbled. “But you already know what’s bothering me.”

“State it regardless,” Wintershimmer ordered. “Your piecemeal mutterings while playing with water haven’t forced you to put your objections into words. And the act of picking words—”

“—forces you to order your thoughts; given that you know it and you’re my hallucination, I obviously remember.”

“You can present yourself as only one of a wizard or a petulant teenager, Coil. Do not think killing me excuses that kind of tone.”

I grit my teeth. “At least you recognize I’m a wizard.” Then I forced myself to suck down a deep breath. “Even when you were trying to kill me, you at least respected me. Today, because I wanted to learn to read, I was sent to a school for foals, and expected to act like I was one of them—completely lacking an education or any kind of title or respect. Nevermind that I literally saved Celestia’s life!

“I do recall, Coil; I was there,” Wintershimmer noted dryly.

Though I would forgive anypony who didn’t know the bitter old stallion as well as I did for missing it, I caught in a slight twitch of his eyes that this was an example of Wintershimmer’s humor, and it broke through the hard outer crust of my fury with a muffled chuckle.

The old wizard gently dipped a hoof into the water beside him—completely failing to make any kind of ripple or splash, which struck me as a bit odd, given I ought to have been more than capable of hallucinating such an effect if I were hallucinating the attached stallion—and continued on. “Setting aside that refrained from using any kind of force to earn respect, in service to your ‘heroic’ persona…” I caught a scoff in my mentor’s voice. “...where does the blame for the disrespect you suffered lie? With the teacher who put you in this position?”

“No…” I noted, hesitantly, and dipped my magic into the pond again.

Wintershimmer lashed out with a hoof, not especially quickly given his age and general atrophy, and though it met my horn, I felt nothing at all—though the blur of violent motion got my attention back regardless. “Your horn is not healed, and you are being a fool ignoring its pain. Trading the momentary satisfaction of your mood for the health of the one thing that makes you a wizard will see you soon spoil both.”

“It’s a little ache from mana burn,” I countered. “I’ve lived with worse before. If something were wrong with my horn, I could hardly have cast something as complex as Fauna’s Feline Form.”

Wintershimmer actually coughed back a laugh at that—a rare show of amusement from the old stallion. “Forgive me my amusement, Coil, but even after I betrayed you and tried to kill you, that was what made you snap? A bit of schoolyard mockery?”

I glared. “It was a moment of weakness.”

“Indeed,” Wintershimmer agreed. “A shame it was not the realization of the path to strength.”

“This was literally the last thing we argued about before I dispersed you!” I snapped. “Do we really need to rehash it?”

“No, I suppose we do not. If the blame does not fall with Aspiration, then where do you assign it?”

“Well… I think Celestia.”

Grayed brows pinched together on a sickly yellow-green brow. “I did not teach you such indecisiveness.”

I closed my eyes and drew in another breath to keep from snapping. “Celestia knew where she was sending me; otherwise, she wouldn’t have prepared the letter that introduced Graargh and I. Either this was her misguided attempt at some lesson in humility by way of humiliation, in which case I suppose she didn’t last very long as my teacher, or there’s been some kind of mistake.”

Wintershimmer nodded. “And given the way you phrased that, I don’t need to ask you what plans you have for each possible answer.”

I chuckled. “Yeah… I guess not.”

“Let me observe something you already know, then, but may not have considered: Queen Platinum gave you considerable wealth; more than enough to simply purchase the services of a private tutor. And that is assuming you don’t know somepony who would provide such a service—which, in fact, you do.

“I do?”

“Much as we both agree the mare is a sorry excuse for an archmage, Clover’s pupil’s school proves she may be a profoundly effective teacher of basic skills. Of which literacy certainly is, your special case notwithstanding. And you will recall if you think back, that when you first arrived in Everfree City and had to explain our Summer Lands’ portal ritual to her, she made an offer to the effect of mentoring you personally.”

“She did?”

Wintershimmer scoffed. “I—that is, the real Wintershimmer—was not present for that discussion. I pulled the memory from your mind, which it seems is my mind too. I am certain you will recall it if you focus. The only advantage I can claim to have is that, while your temper is still incensed from your day in the schoolhouse, I enjoy the objectivity of calm.” Then the old wizard stood up, slowly and rather achingly for a figment of imagination. “You could also tap your predecessor; Solemn Vow may not be a teacher of any particular talent, but even judging only by the fact that his home includes several libraries, the stallion was obviously literate, and his fate is quite literally in your hooves. But those are options for another day. Today, I would advise you to deal with the ‘changeling’ child you have been dragging with you on your adventures. And if possible, confront Celestia; that will settle your mood one way or another.”

“Where are you going?” I asked as he began to stride out of the grotto.

“Well, in a moment I imagine you will stop thinking of your late mentor, and the hallucination of me will fade; at least, I would be very surprised if it did not. So the strictly most truthful answer to your question would, I imagine, be ‘back inside your mind.’ Or, I suppose, your soul would be a more accurate descriptor.”

And with that, seemingly at his own behest, Wintershimmer faded away into nothing like a mirage in heated air as one approaches. And, wondering whether I would be considered less sane if I were heeding some real fragment of Wintershimmer that had survived his dispersal, or just a figment of my imagination and/or fading sanity made manifest, I too rose to my hooves to fetch Graargh and confront Aspiration.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

“Morty back!” I heard shortly before being slammed into the schoolhouse wall just beside the door by the weight of a young grizzly.

“You’re late, Coil,” Mrs. Aspiration observed drly from behind her desk, slowly lowering a quill into a pot of ink and letting it rest there. The rest of the classroom was utterly empty.

“You didn’t say when class ended, in my defense.” Not that I could have known regardless, given the pocketwatch had not yet been invented.

Aspiration’s temple throbbed visibly. “In this case, I would have been asking for more time to catch Graargh up to where he ought to be in his education anyway, so the time wasn’t wasted… but in the future, I endeavor to end class three hours after lunch. If you choose to return.”

“Well, I’ll need to pick up Graargh regardless.”

“Yes…” I watched Aspiration’s expression turn gentler as she turned toward my friend. “Graargh, could you step out in the yard for a few minutes? Mortal—” When I visibly winced, the teacher sighed. “Mr. Coil and I need to talk privately.”

“What you talk about?” Graargh asked with a pronounced frown.

After a moment’s hesitance, Aspiration answered “The future.”

“Oh, can see future? Use magic? Like Morty? What happen tomorrow? I can have good honey?”

“What?” Aspiration asked with less confusion than worry. “Coil, you can’t actually—”

“I can, in theory, but doing so is walking a fine line between useless and incredibly dangerous magic. That, and at least if you believe the legends, the reason the royal family is diseased with the Scourge of Kings is that Celestia punished King Electrum for his hubris overusing that kind of magic.” I chuckled. “So no, Graargh, not like that. She just means we’re going to talk about plans for the future. It’ll be boring, I promise.”

“Oh.” Graargh’s face fell. “Well, call if you fight with eel; not want miss funny.” And with that somewhat bizarre comment, Graargh pushed his way out of the room.

“Fight with eel?” Aspiration asked. “Do I want to know?”

“Some guardsponies in Lubuck were… well, I didn’t know Gale was the Princess at the time, I just knew they were basically trying to foalnap her. One of them came at me with a sword, and the first weapon I could find on hoof was a barrel of fish.”

“You got in a fight with Legion guards?” Aspiration pressed.

“Well, that was hardly anything compared to being accused of murder by Commander Typhoon, but I suppose so. It’s all water under the bridge now; they figured out I was right, and everypony learned their lessons.”

Their lessons?”

I nodded. “Don’t get in the way of wizard trying to save the world,” I explained. “Which, I believe, brings us to the point you’re about to make. Let me make this less painful for both of us: I’m not coming back tomorrow.”

A look of mild relief washed over Aspiration, and she nodded. “That… certainly makes things easier. I would be willing to tutor you privately in the evenings, after class lets out, but—”

“Can I go get Graargh now?” I interrupted, making my position quite clear in my tone.

“Actually…” The same relief that had swept over Aspiration was in turn swept away as her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “The other future we need to talk about is his.”

“Graargh?” I asked, and a sudden wave of nervousness found my belly as well—what did Aspiration know? Had she caught on to his part in our misadventure during the lunch break? “Is something wrong?”

“Presently, no.” I watched the mare’s throat tense as she forced herself to swallow what was surely about to be a painful topic—I suspected, perhaps, more for me than for her. “From what I understand, while Graargh may view you more like a sibling than a parent, he is currently your ward. Is that correct?”

I nodded. “I meant to find his parents at first, but…” As memories of our encounter with the bears north of River Rock came to the fore of my mind, I realized there was no real way to explain their rejection (or my suspicion that they had killed Graargh’s real parents—possibly even justifiably) without giving away his secret. “I’m almost certain he’s an orphan.”

“Then before I continue, let me say: if what he says about living alone in a cave is true, it was admirable of you to take him under your care, Mr. Coil. I’m concerned about the amount of danger your care put him in, but given he is alive and safe now, he’s obviously better off than he would have been alone. So when I say that I don’t think it is responsible for you to continue to be his guardian, it isn’t because I condemn the job you’ve done.” Then the mare sat down behind her desk, and gently steepled her hooves.

“I know,” I answered with a heavy sigh of my own.

“You do?” Then, with a shake of her head, the teacher smiled. “I’m sorry; it’s just that you’re defying the expectation I had built up of you this morning.”

“I think you’ll find I function better when I’m not asked to pretend to be an ignoramus or a foal.” A hint of an edge snuck into my tone. “Beyond my age, the life of a wizard is by definition dangerous.”

“It is?” Aspiration asked with more curiosity than confusion. “I thought most of the wizards were higher academics.”

“If you don’t use your magic to defend ponies from magical threats, you’re not a wizard,” I answered. “At best, you’re a hedge mage with delusions of grandeur.” When that comment prompted a raised brow, I nodded. “It’s a catch-all term for self-taught mages; unicorns who practice magic as a trade unto itself, but haven’t been through the formal training and apprenticeship process with a proper wizard or archmage, and who wouldn’t be expected to use their magic if, say, a monster attacked their city.”

“I see…” Aspiration answered in slow reply. “Regardless, it seems we’re in agreement about finding Graargh a more suitable guardian.”

“I was considering asking Hurricane,” I told her as I wandered over to the classroom’s windows. Outside, Graargh had found a dragonfly, and was chasing it rather more like a predatory cat than a bear. He paused for a moment to wave at me through the window when he noticed me watching, then went back to his stalking and pouncing.

Commander Hurricane?” Aspiration asked, incredulous.

I nodded. “He’s, uh, been hosting us. I know it sounds strange if all you’ve heard about him are the stories from the Weather Wars, but he’s rather friendly—especially with Graargh, and—”

Aspiration cut me off with a lifted hoof. “I’m quite aware that the… shall we say venerable ex-Commander is a friendly stallion. But… well there are two problems with his guardianship.”

“Oh?” I raised a brow, before letting out a small chuckle at the sight out the window: Graargh had caught the dragonfly, and managed to do so gently enough that when he opened his paws to check, it darted away again. “I didn’t see anything wrong.”

“The first is that Hurricane isn’t…” Aspiration visibly bit her cheek in hesitation before she found words she was satisfied actually uttering. “Hurricane’s track record as a statestallion and a soldier are both legendary, but as a parent? He leaves something to be desired.”

I rolled my eyes. “Because Cyclone turned out to be a problem, what, twenty-five years ago?”

“That is one example, yes.” Aspiration then sighed somewhere behind me. “You aren’t from Everfree, are you?”

“No. Why?” I turned at the question, leaving Graargh to his hunt.

“It’s easy to forget; you don’t have much of a crystal accent except when you’re upset. If anything, you sound like you’re old enough to have been born in River Rock, before Equestria was founded.”

For just a moment, in my mind, Wintershimmer faded into view over Aspiration’s shoulder, staying manifest just long enough to offer me a sardonic wink before fading from my view again.

“Something wrong, Coil?”

“Hm? No, no; I was just remembering. My, uh, my late father-figure was almost one hundred when he passed, and that’s where I got most of my diction.” I waved my hoof dismissively, as if warding off a foul smell. “Is there something I should know that I don’t because I wasn’t born in Everfree?”

“They’re just rumors,” Aspiration explained hesitantly. “But… Well, suffice it to say, Commander Typhoon’s youth wasn’t exactly happy either.”

“Even if we assume they’re true, I’m inclined to argue Gale turned out alright, and given the other two were foals while the old stallion was still running the army, I’m inclined to say she’s a better example.”

“She may be, but that raises the second of my objections: Her Majesty has just ascended the throne. She will likely want all the support she can get from family, and I fear… well, no, I shouldn’t say it that way. Hurricane would be right to focus his attention on Her Majesty’s growth as a ruler over a surrogate foal dumped on his doorstep.”

“Okay,” I nodded. “I don’t know if I buy that Gale’s going to magically take up all of Hurricane’s time, when it’s Queen Platinum—the older one, I mean—who’s actually running around everywhere with her. But for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m convinced; who do you propose?”

“I don’t know, yet.” Aspiration answered. “Let me be clear: I’m not trying to steal him for myself. School keeps me too busy for a foal of my own in the long term. But in the short term, I think having him stay with me would be the best option. That will let me keep overseeing his remedial lessons, and address any social lessons he’s lacking as well, in a more natural context.”

“You think I can’t teach him manners?”

Aspiration shook her head at that. “You are his friend, Coil. You would have to give that up to be his teacher.”

“Why?”

“Friends don’t discipline one another. Friends look past one another’s mistakes. For a simple example, consider how you would feel if Her Majesty corrected you any time you used a contraction. For a foal of Graargh’s… I suppose ‘equivalent development’ would be the best term, since I don’t know how bears age in comparison to ponies… regardless, for a foal like Graargh, adapting to see you as a teacher or a proper, parental guardian instead of a friend who happens to provide some basic needs could be damaging, both to your relationship and to his development into a young stallion. Or rather, a young adult bear.” Grabbing her quill from her inkpot with magic, the teacher took a quick note that, I only later learned, read ‘look up terms for bears by gender and age’.

“So you want him to stay with you?” I asked.

Aspiration again nodded, once and with pronounced finality. “If you’re willing. Not tonight; I wouldn’t have anywhere for him to stay set up even if I did bring him home. But more to the point, I wouldn’t want to spring that on him. Can you explain the situation to him tonight?”

I took a deep breath, and then offered a curt nod. “I will.”

“He’ll likely have questions and concerns; remind him that you aren’t abandoning him. You’ll still be welcome to see him, of course, and I’ll ask you to make a point to do so, daily at first. It’s important a foal feels stable, so however you choose to explain our decision, I urge you to be honest.”

The irony was lost on me at the time, thick as molasses though it may have been; I nodded once and turned toward the door. “What time tomorrow morning?”

“Seven. By the city clocktower, in case you have a clock that isn't set to match it. Please ensure he isn’t late.” Then, with a short breath in, she found final words. “Thank you for being understanding, Mr. Coil.”

“I do my best,” I answered, and opened the door. “Thank you. For… caring, I guess.” And with that delightful, painfully uncomfortable parting thought, I stepped out and slid the door shut behind me.

The dragonfly was not very smart, it seemed; Graargh was still chasing it, to the point that he didn’t see me leave. His rear claws dug into the rough, occasionally grassy dirt of the yard, and then he hurled himself at the insect. And, much to my surprise, he snatched it.

I spoiled the scene with a laugh when, bringing his paws up to his muzzle, Graargh moved to bite down on the thing. My distraction gave the little insect time enough to fly away again, and Graargh donned a pout on his broad brown muzzle. “Morty! Why laugh? I hunt!”

“You clearly did; I’m surprised you caught it twice. But it wouldn’t have tasted very good.”

Graargh shook his head. “Like bugs; they tasty! You done talk teacher? We go home now?”

“We’ve got a couple stops,” I told him, pointing my hoof to Equestria’s skyline, and more particularly to Diadem’s academy.

“What that?”

“It’s…” I paused to consider my phrasing, and then explained “Wizard school.”

“Oh! I learn be wizard?”

“You’d have to pretend to be a unicorn most of the time,” I answered. To which Graargh promptly erupted in green fire, and I found myself staring my own face. “Not…” Damn it, he was so distracting… “Do you have to be me?

“When be pegsus, Morty pick best pegsus for flying. Well, Morty best unicorn for magic, so I pick him,” said my own soothing, dulcet tones in Graargh’s broken grammar.

“Just go back to being a bear, Graargh. We’re not going to the Academy for you. I need to ask Archmage Diadem to teach me to read. And you wouldn’t want to learn to be a ‘wizard’ there anyway.” I gestured down the road and started on my way, making a point to look away from myself as I did. “They’re not real wizards; they don’t protect anypony.”

Graargh—in my voice—scoffed. “So not good friend pony like you? You right; I want learn help. Be like Morty!”

“You… seriously? I mean, I suppose I can understand; I’m sure most ponies want to be like me. Speaking of which, can you stop? Go back to being a bear, please.”

“No, it fun!”

I briefly grit my teeth and kept my eyes pointed dead forward, trying not only not to stare at myself, but also to ignore the discomfort of all the ponies staring at the two uncannily handsome, uncannily identical twins walking up the street. At least, mercifully, because my coat covered my talent marks, nopony was likely to notice that we impossibly actually matched even in that truly unique regard.

“Where we go after wizard school?” Graargh asked.

“Well, we should grab some food.” Then, after a moment of horrified imagination of what ponies would think seeing ‘me’ (that is, Graargh) using his rather ursine table manners while ‘wearing’ my body, I let out a shudder. “Maybe see if we can take food back with us to my house.”

“Morty has house?” Graargh asked. “But… not from here?”

I chuckled. “No. Gale’s mom gave me a house for dealing with Wintershimmer. You remember the key she gave me at breakfast? It goes to the house we went to when we were hunting Wintershimmer.”

Graargh nodded. “Graargh save Morty and Gale! Run fast in tunnel.”

“You sure did.” In blind instinct, I reached to pat Graargh on the head and only narrowly to miss punching my much taller alternate self, whose head was well above the height of a grizzly cub’s ears, square in the face. Instead I lowered the hoof to take another step toward Diadem’s academy. “Well, that’s where I’m gonna be living now.”

“Ooh! I get cave?”

“What?” I asked as I pulled open the yard’s fence with my hoof.

“Well, bear not live in house; but I help fight Winnershimmer. I get cave?”

“Where do I even start…? Graargh, the bears we met north of River Rock had beautiful houses. You remember that log cabin we stayed in when we met… Smokey?”

“Her name—” and then Graargh belted out a slightly different roar than his usual. “But yes, I remember. Er, I am remember.” Graargh beamed a smile. “I is learn!”

“Stars…” I muttered, but I couldn’t help wearing a bitter smile as I did. Graargh looked so proud of himself, (mis)using the word I’d taught him. “Graargh, there’s something we need to talk about, and I don’t want to put it off, okay?”

“Okay?” Graargh answered, with that upward tilt in his tone that suggested maybe a hint of worry; they learn so young.

“For at least a little while, instead of living with me or Hurricane and his family, you’re going to go live with Misses Aspiration.”

“Why?” Graargh asked rather suddenly and forcefully.

“Whoa, buddy, easy. I’ll still be around, you’ll still see… well, honestly I don’t know how much you’ll see Gale anymore since she’s busy being Queen, but I assume you’ll run into her some. And it’s not forever. It’s just, there’s some things you need to learn about how to live with ponies if you’re going to stay here with me and… well, everyone.”

“Family,” Graargh agreed. “But why Morty not teach?”

“Because I don’t know some of them myself, like how to read,” I answered off the cuff; the answer sounded funnier in my head than it landed on ‘my’ expression. “Aspiration is a teacher; I… well, I didn’t actually take a good look at her talent marks, but I assume it’s her special talent to teach young… well mostly ponies, but young creatures of all kinds. I’m a wizard, and if you want to learn magic someday, we can talk about teaching you that. But for just one example she’ll know how to teach you to talk better than I can… well, better than I can teach you, anyway; I doubt you’ll come out with quite my practiced diction or vocabulary even at the end.”

“But… I want Morty,” ‘Morty’ said; it really was getting quite distracting that he wasn’t the little bear cub I’d been imagining having this talk with.

“I know. And I promise, I will be around to see you and check on you and spend time with you, Graargh. You can come over to my house, we’ll go get food… whatever else young ponies who aren’t wizards do for fun… but it’s like you said; I’m like your big brother, right?”

Graargh nodded enthusiastically with my face.

“I can’t be your dad too.”

After a moment’s thought, and to my considerable surprise, Graargh just… nodded. That was his agreement, and though it was obvious he wasn’t happy, neither was he heartbroken over the decision.

If anything, I felt worse. “Look, Graargh, you wanna ride on my back? Like we did when we were traveling?”

Graargh cocked his head. “But… all morning Morty grumpy about it. ‘I hurt’ you say, ‘I fight Winnershimmer, not all feel better yet’. You okay now?”

I shrugged. “Maybe I’m just feeling sentimental. But it didn’t hurt me this morning. You just have to be a bear again if you do; I can’t carry me around.”

“Pppfff…” I rolled my eyes at the especially undignified noise leaving ‘my’ lips. “You try trick me, but it not work! I too smart! More fun be Morty! Two Morty! We play game! Get eels and fight!”

That was about the level of conversation that occupied our journey to the academy, across both of Everfree’s rivers on wide bridges covered in carts. We passed the wide open booths and wide greens of the Market Garden district. We passed a few blocks whose streets were covered in wide glass canopies, two stories above our heads, where the barrier between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ storefronts was completely lost. On a whim, I bought Graargh a bag of rock candy from a hawker who’d been offering the goods to another foal about my guess of Graargh’s age, shopping with her mother.

I nearly cried when he cracked one of my teeth on the treat, though he quickly and casually re-generated the injury before it could cause him anything more than momentary pain.

Finally, we reached Lighten Heights, with its tall skinny buildings and fascinating storefronts, where casual enchantments were common. And though, compared to the enchantments Wintershimmer and I had wrought in our quarters of the Crystal Spire, the magic on view was quite pedestrian, each bauble and cantrip enchanted Graargh, and I found more than a bit of joy in explaining the enchantments and how they worked.

I’m certain my friend had next to no understanding of the nuance behind what I was saying, but he pressed me with questions just the same, trying question after question to really deeply understand how the little illusions that danced on signpoles worked without somepony’s horn to keep them moving, or how the water in the fountains at the intersections of the streets stopped and started in such elaborate controlled displays—at least, he pressed until some new minor wonder distracted his admittedly short attention span.

And then, altogether too soon, the wonders of Horntown ended at the edge of the wide green that marked the Academy’s property. Still, Graargh seemed optimistic at seeing some grand feat of magic in the ‘wizard school’.

I was more pessimistic.

Unlike a primary school like Aspiration’s, Diadem’s academy of magic did not simply let out—while lectures might have largely stopped as the day progressed toward a late summer evening, the magically insulated workshops and laboratories were still filled by the countless aspiring apprentices and journeymages not only well into the evening, but through all hours of the night. Thus, it was no trouble to find a student not much younger than myself (who, thankfully, only looked twice at the fact that there were two of me) before offering directions to the Headmistress’ office, as Diadem had styled herself.

Diadem gave us a triple take when I entered her office (completely unbarred by any kind of secretary or assistant, or even a good old-fashioned sentient door to provide some line of defense against distractions). Her first look up was to see who was entering after a knock. The second was when she realized it was me, given how openly skeptical I had been (and even now, centuries later, continue to be) about her approach to education. And the third, perhaps most justifiably, was when I entered a second time without having exited first.

“Um…”

“It’s Graargh; you remember him, right? He thinks it’s ‘fun’ to be me today.”

“Ah.”

I do so love dealing with other wizards; at least they don’t respond to such a simple explanation with slack jaws and failing sanity.

Diadem’s office was, as if taunting me, lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on literally every wall save the door I had come in through, and a pair of windows set on the tower’s exterior wall that could provide her light while reading and writing on her desk. And even those windows were framed, both above and below their panes, by further bookshelves. The room even smelled like parchment and ink and burnt wax, in a way even a library doesn’t—I’ve always found a strong but oft unmentioned scent of a library is the scent of the stain or shelves, and in Diadem’s office it was completely stifled by the weight of the paper.

Diadem herself had set her namesake—which I was certain was enchanted, because otherwise why wear something so profoundly tacky?—on the desk beside a massive pile of parchment, one page of which had been pulled aside to live under her quill’s attentions. I couldn’t read the text, of course, but I did recognize some of the symbols.

“Well, Morty and Graargh, it’s convenient you should drop by; I was just transcribing some of my notes from the Summer Lands ritual you taught me into a more academic format.”

I raised a brow. “Coincidences like that make me a bit nervous…”

“Ah, Skeptic’s Third Law.” Diadem chuckled gently to herself; whatever I might have felt about her fashion, she had quite a pleasant voice (and lest I give the wrong impression, that is a much older, wiser, and more honest Mortal Coil talking; not only was I too prejudiced against her philosophies in my youth to see her beauty as a mare, but she was also about a full generation older than me, and beyond even that, in virtually every conceivable way she was the opposite of Gale, and so quite removed from any sense of infatuation that might have befallen another similar young stallion). Unaware of my future self’s commentary on the sound of her humor, Diadem continued. “Does it make you feel any better if I tell you I’ve been working on this every evening since your confrontation with Wintershimmer, and that I probably will be for another few months before I’m satisfied?”

“Considerably,” I answered.

“I not understand,” interjected Graargh.

I could see Diadem preparing to explain, but I beat her to the punch. “Don’t worry about it, Graargh. It’s just an old wizard’s saying.” Then I (barely) managed to pull my attention away from my own perfect jawline and onto the archmage in the room. “You had offered to teach me to read and write when we were going through writing that down the first time. I was hoping I might take you up on that offer.”

I admit, I was a bit surprised at how enthusiastically Diadem’s expression brightened from that simple request. “Of course!” Then, with a moment of confusion she added “Not that this is me objecting, but just out of curiosity: I had heard you were going to be studying with Lady Celestia. Why not ask her?”

I tried to control the active twitching of my eyelid, to at least not give away my fading sanity in my very expression. “Celestia seemed to think it was a reasonable idea for me to learn to read by wasting my time in a classroom with a bunch of foals half my age. So pending a strongly worded conversation I might be between mentors right now.”

“I can’t believe Lady Celestia…” Diadem grimaced. “My apologies, Morty. I don’t mean to doubt your word. Stars know you’ve been disbelieved enough. I’d be glad to tutor you—privately, of course.”

I nodded as I reached into my jacket with a hoof. “Is a thousand bits suitable payment?”

Diadem actually frowned at that. “One of my most fundamental beliefs, Morty, is that education should be free to anypony who pursues it. That might even be the meaning of my talent mark. And while that usually involves teaching in groups instead of one-on-one like the apprenticeship system, in your unique situation I do think an exception would be appropriate.”

I shook my head as firmly as I could manage. “I insist, Archmage, on paying something. If you would prefer some sort of magical debt, I’m not completely unwilling, but I do have a preference for payment in currency.”

Diadem raised a brow. “May I ask why? Is this something Wintershimmer taught you?”

“If I accept your lessons freely, that makes me your apprentice,” I explained.

“Ah.” Diadem sagaciously dipped her head and behind her glasses, held her eyes closed for just a moment in some sort of moral conundrum. “Well, now I’m torn. On the one hoof, unlike what Wintershimmer apparently taught you, I’m not an adherent of the lessons in The Isolation of Tutelage. Frankly, I think the world would be a much better place if those ideas died out. On the other hoof, I’m already making an exception for your very unique case, and those funds would go a long way to finishing off repairs to the grand lecture hall… So to ease my conscience, let’s say you’re offering some compensation for the damage your duel caused.”

I rolled my eyes. “I literally died in the process of saving the world; I think a few broken benches is a small price to pay. But if it lets you sleep at night, fine. I guess we’re both compromising a little.” I glanced down at the bills of credit I had pulled from my pocket, and passed her a note Queen Platinum had made out for one thousand bits from the treasury.

“How did you know this was the right amount?” Diadem asked.

I scoffed. “I can read numerals, Archmage. And, as we discussed, I’m quite familiar with magical notation. It really is just Equiish. Now, when should I join you?”

“Tomorrow at…” Diadem’s horn ignited and she pulled out a little booklet that I would later learn was her personal planner. “I don’t appear to have any lectures in the afternoon, so perhaps just after lunch you can join me here?”

I offered a flourishing bow. “I will speak to you tomorrow then, Archmage Diadem.”

“There’s no need to be so formal, Morty.”

“Yeah,” Graargh added helpfully. “Like you say, she not even real wizard.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Diadem sighed and steepled her hooves as I drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out.

“I suppose I should not be surprised that Wintershimmer the Complacent was an adherent of the Complacency of the Learned—do I remember correctly that his archmage’s epithet comes from that old… doctrine, I suppose?”

I briefly bit my tongue when Wintershimmer—or at least my hallucination of him—materialized standing behind Diadem and peering over her shoulder. “Do you remember my stories?”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Though it wasn’t as if Wintershimmer was actually ‘complacent’ in the sense that he didn’t know how to fight. When his research trying to cure the Scourge of Kings by grafting new horns onto earth ponies was unearthed, Star Swirl went to face him. Wintershimmer plead ‘complacency’ to avoid the duel, and rather than forcing Star Swirl to push the issue—knowing if Star Swirl lost, Wintershimmer would probably usurp the throne—King Lapis issued banishment instead.”

“You tell the story as if I feared Star Swirl,” Wintershimmer offered, a hint of a snarl sneaking into his normally unflappable tone before he vanished. It was an odd comment, I thought at the time, since I didn’t know—or at least, didn’t remember—any evidence to the contrary.

Diadem nodded. “You made quite clear in your meeting with Grayscale that you feel I ought to be teaching my students here how to deal with magical threats and spirits. And, though I strongly disagree, I do respect your opinion.” I found myself honestly wishing the mare had just gotten mad as she spoke. It would have left me less on edge. “I propose that, at least for now, we agree to put that debate aside and focus only on your literacy. Is that acceptable?”

I offered a single nod.

“Then I will look forward to beginning your lessons tomorrow. Hopefully, if my recollection from speaking with Master Star Swirl is right, you should be getting a clean bill of health tomorrow morning, and I can teach you a few charms to help you pick things up quicker.” With a final smile and a wave to… well, ‘me’ again, she added “It was a pleasure to meet you again, Graargh.”