• Published 19th May 2020
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Rekindled Embers - applezombi

Hundreds of years after the death of Twilight Sparkle, a brutal theocracy rules over ponies with an iron hoof. A young pegasus mare slowly learns the truth about her world, and the lies her faith is built on.

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Interlude: Dark Words Fly Across the Ocean

Interlude: Dark Words Fly Across the Ocean

The sun was a complete plothole, Iodine Mark thought.

It didn’t matter that he’d been here in Zebrica almost ten years; no matter how long he lived here, no matter how acclimated he became, he would never be quite used to the intensity of the sun. Despite that, Iodine was nearly convinced that it was time to paint a symbolic stripe on his flanks like so many of the other Equestrian expatriates living in Jubilation. It was a sign of going native, a full renunciation of one’s Diarchy heritage, and a common sight in the oasis city.

City was a pretty strong word for the port town of Jubilation; Iodine still remembered New Canterlot City, and was fairly certain that about two dozen of the zebra merchant hubs would have fit inside the grand, extravagant Diarchy capitol. Iodine didn’t care about the size, however. He loved Jubilation dearly, except for the Celestia-blasted sun!

Iodine had to admit he was becoming accustomed to the sun, even though he would never be as acclimated as a native. Indeed, he often saw native zebras looking sympathetically at his coat, the color of which had inspired his name. Its blue-black hue was quite handsome, at least according to his husband, but it didn’t do him many favors when the sun was beating down on them like some sort of hellish sky oven. He had quickly taken to wearing full body robes, made of white cloth, like several of the zebras. While it seemed ridiculous to wear more clothing when it got hotter, the white linen kept the sun from overheating his dark coat and literally killing him with heatstroke.

Iodine absolutely adored the Jubilation markets, the chaos, the bustle, and the cacophony of a half dozen different languages being shouted by a half dozen different kinds of creatures, all mixing together, flying about, arguing, greeting, bartering, insulting, complimenting, and living.

It was a sharp contrast to his life as a foal back in the Diarchy. His dad had been a high ranking bureaucrat, working for the civil government, and his mother had been a secretary for a confessor; they had never bothered to shop in an open air market, bartering like common ponies. They had shopped exclusively in high class boutiques and organic food cooperatives. They would never have been caught dead in such a bright and colorful place. Iodine could count cloth awnings and tarps, in at least a hundred different colors, covering dozens of stalls selling food, jewelry, pottery, books, and everything else under the sun.

The horrible, awful, evil, rude sun.

The sellers were just as varied as their wares. Most of them were zebras, but there were also plenty of ponies, griffins, a minotaur or two, and even a crystal pony, a creature so rare that Iodine had only ever met three. Zebra police officers, carrying rifles resting on their shoulders, patrolled the market, keeping the peace with mostly their presence alone. Iodine had to stop himself from flinching with fear when he saw the officers. It had taken years for Iodine to get used to the armed guards; the officers here were not the symbols of oppression and bigotry that the Knights back home had become.

Shaking himself from his reminiscence, Iodine moved towards a particular stall; he had errands to run, but breakfast came first.

“Iodine! My favorite ink blot! The usual?” a griffon hen called out to him from behind the table of her appetizing-smelling wares, her Ponish heavily accented. There was a mix of fresh baked scones laid out on trays set on hot pads, sitting on the covered wooden table. Behind the griffon was a wood-fired stone oven. Waves of heat, completely unbearable in this weather, blasted from the open end of the oven. Iodine couldn’t understand how the griffon could stand to be so close to the fire all day in this heat, but he also couldn't argue with the deliciousness of the scones she produced. Given the volume she sold, neither could anypony else.

“That depends, Brunhilda. Did you add meat this time?” he asked, with raised eyebrows.

“The pony insults me!” Brunhilda protested. “When have I ever added meat to my world famous griffon scones?”

“Last Tuesday. Three Saturdays ago. Last month, when you ‘accidentally’ ran out of nuts and raisins and made your mincemeat out of… ugh… real meat.” He shivered at the memory. He’d almost taken a bite before Brunhilda had confessed her trickery.

“It was a joke! I would never really…”

“Brunhilda, please don’t tease me. Just tell me if there’s meat-free scones today, so I can move on with my life. And my shopping trip,” Iodine sighed. The griffon rolled her eyes, being deprived of one of her favorite pastimes of tormenting the dark coated pony.

“No meat, Mister Iodine. Not today. I swear on my feathers and claws.”

“Well enough,” Iodine nodded. “I’ll take four. Two almond, two blueberry.” He handed over four bits, and Brunhilda handed him a paper sack, stuffed with his scones. He put the paper bag in his saddlebags.

“Tell your husband I said hello. And sorry for the teasing about bugs in his last scones. They were raisins, I swear.”

Iodine shook his head at the griffon hen, moving on to his next stops. He was looking for something special for his husband today. Their anniversary was coming up, and Iodine wanted to cook something amazing. He’d found an ancient copy of an old Prench cookbook in the market last week, and had been fascinated by something he had found inside called ‘ratatouille’. The ingredient list was simple enough. Iodine moved through the market, bargaining with various zebras and ponies for the eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, onions, and zucchinis he would need. The trip took only a half hour, before a new stall he’d never seen before caught his eye.

The pony running the stall was a crystal pony mare. She was light blue, with a smooth purple mane. She was wearing a gorgeous dress, horribly ill-suited to the heat and clearly marking her a newcomer. Her stall was made of brand new wood, and her wares were bolts of cloth, beautifully dyed. He approached out of curiosity.

“Good morning. Long life to the Empress, and her daughter,” he said formally to the crystal pony in greeting. She looked at him in surprise; Iodine Mark imagined it was rare for ponies to know the social cues and mores of other cultures besides their own. He had always believed it to be useful to learn as much about other cultures as he could, including traditional methods of greeting. He didn’t personally understand the crystal ponies’ religion, or how they seemed to worship their ‘Empress’ and ‘Princess’, while at the same time not worshiping them, but it often helped in bartering when you left a good impression on the merchant before the bargaining even began.

“You… you’re not a crystal pony,” she said, shocked, before appearing to realize her unintentional rudeness. “Oh, yes, and long life and warmth from the snows to you, as well.”

“I noticed you were new to the market. Is this your first time in Jubilation?” he asked, politely. The mare nodded.

“Yes, I recently arrived. The city is… not what I expected,” the mare said, then glanced at him with a panicked expression. “Not that this is a bad thing! It’s just hotter than I thought it would be.” He laughed at the sentiment, so similar to his own.

“You’re not wrong. I’ve lived here ten years, and I’ve never gotten used to it,” Iodine said. He held out his hoof for her to shake. “Iodine Mark. My husband Bolero and I live near the marketplace, so we’re here often.”

“I am Fine Thread. So you’re not a native? Husband…” She thought about that for a moment, then gasped. “Are you… a refugee from the Diarchy?” There was a kind of horrified fascination in her voice at the mention of the Crystal Empire’s southern neighbors.

“Not a refugee any longer, actually. Bolero and I are full citizens of the Republic. Their citizenship process is pretty gentle, especially for expatriates of the Diarchy.” He understood her confusion; the centuries-old magical barrier in place protecting the Empire from the Diarchy was as strong as it was mysterious; there was no traffic or communication between the neighbors, despite their physical proximity.

“Sorry if I offended,” Fine Thread said, her shoulders slumping.

“Not at all,” Iodine said gently. “So, what brings you to Jubilation?” The inquiry served to perk up the shy seeming mare.

“My sister is a cloth dyer, and we’re looking to expand into new markets. Like this one. So I volunteered to act as her seller in the Zebrican Republic. Today is my third day.”

“And how is business so far?” he asked, rifling through the bolts of cloth. He wasn’t idly browsing; Bolero had said they needed new curtains for when the autumn came, and the cool sea breezes became too uncomfortable for open windows.

“Wonderful! Everypony… er… every… uh… creature has been so nice,” she stammered, nervously stumbling over the terminology. “I’ve sold tons of bolts already. Is there something in particular you’re looking for?”

“I need some material for new curtains, actually. And what kind of material is this?” he asked, his eyes drawn to a glistening, shimmering violet fabric.

“We call that Empire silk. It’s made from silkworms that live exclusively in the crystal berry plants that are native to the empire. It’s nice, right? But not good for curtains,” she replied.

“Yeah, I figured that. I was thinking more for a new house robe for my husband,” Iodine said, running his hooves over the material. Bolero would love the feel of it. Iodine would love to feel Bolero while wearing it… he shook his head before his imaginings could become too lewd, but not before Fine Thread noticed his blush and giggled. “How much would I need?”

The two ponies began haggling in earnest, and Iodine Mark realized that though Fine Thread was shy while interacting socially, she was a shrewd demon when it came to a bargain. No wonder she was doing well. After fifteen minutes of haggling back and forth, Iodine not only had enough material for their new curtains, but also enough Empire silk for two house robes, one violet and one a deep emerald that Fine Thread simply insisted would go amazingly with Iodine’s inky coat. He’d spent quite a bit more than he’d intended, but overall was quite pleased with his purchases. He dropped the cloth off at his favorite tailor shop before returning home with his fresh vegetables.

By the time Iodine got home, however, he felt like a mess. Even with his robes deliberately designed to stave off heat, he was practically lathered in a sweat. His single story home, constructed of adobe, had large open windows and wide roofs, specifically designed to invite as much breeze and shade as possible into the dwelling. He pushed the door open into the shaded interior and stepped through the front door into the kitchen of the home he shared with Bolero.

“Boo,” said a soft voice right at his ear.

Iodine couldn’t help himself; he launched into the air at least three inches, spinning to face the impishly grinning maw of his yellow-coated husband.

“You… you complete brat!” Iodine stammered mock indignantly, holding back a smile. He shook his hoof at his husband, and Bolero promptly caught the limb in his own hooves and kissed it. It instantly evaporated Iodine’s frustration at Bolero’s startling greeting, which was further alleviated when his husband began nuzzling him, their cheeks rubbing against each other in loving affection, before helping Iodine out of his saddlebags.

“You left before I woke up. Did you bring breakfast?”

“Brunhilda’s scones! They’re really blueberry this time,” Iodine promised. “I checked.”

“You are a sexy stallion,” Bolero purred as he retrieved the bag of breakfast from his husband’s saddlebags. He set the bag down on their kitchen table, leaning over to kiss Iodine on the cheek.

“Don’t, I’m all sweaty and gross,” Iodine mumbled, loving the feel of his lover’s lips on his coat. Bolero moved to nibble at his ear, giving it a teasing lick.

“I don’t mind sweat,” Bolero whispered, his hot breath teasing at Iodine’s sensitive ear, which flicked involuntarily. Bolero laughed, backing away for a moment. “There’s a letter for you on the table. It came from Golden Willow.”

Oh. That meant it was important. Golden Willow was a Knight Discordant, one of the freedom fighters who still worked in Equestria to undermine the Diarchy and the other Knight orders. Golden was a friend of his brother’s, and the only rare point of contact between Iodine and July Blaze. He moved over to the letter, inspecting it. It was marked only with his name, and sealed with a wax seal in the shape of a butterfly. Nervously, he broke the seal and unrolled the letter, scanning the brief note.

No. It was impossible. It was wrong. There was no way… the words became more and more blurry, before suddenly the letter was moved away from his hooves and he was buried in yellow fur, crushed against his lover and husband’s chest as Bolero held him.

“He could have come. He could have been safe. He could have lived here, with us. With me. Why did he stay? Celestia damn it, Bolero! Why did my brother have to be a bucking hero!?”

His hoof pounded against his husband’s chest as he sobbed, his body shaking as the other stallion held him tightly. Iodine could tell that Bolero was reading the brief note as well, and he could feel the other stallion’s sobs as Bolero also wept for Iodine’s big brother.

“Ten years, he’s been helping ponies like us,” Bolero said, his voice rough. “I’m sorry. I had no idea what the letter was. I wish…”

“Could we have done something? Said something to stop him, make him come over the ocean with us?” Iodine asked, and felt Bolero’s head shake.

“That’s not the kind of pony he was,” Bolero said. “You know the stallion he was. So brave. So noble.”

“The letter… it said he’d be buried in an unmarked grave. That’s… that’s not right. We need to do something. A memorial, or a shrine. My parents won’t give a buck, so we have to do something. Do you… do you mind?”

“A shrine to immortalize the hero who gave us our life together? Who made it possible for me to spend my life with my true love?” Bolero held out his husband, looking Iodine straight in the eye. “Why would I mind? I’m going to compose a song in his honor. No… an entire symphony. For as long as my music is played, nopony will ever forget the name July Blaze.” He kissed his husband firmly on the lips, and the two of them settled into a comforting embrace, weeping softly for the stallion they had lost forever.

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