• Published 30th Mar 2021
  • 1,115 Views, 42 Comments

The Foundling - kudzuhaiku

After her success as the Princess of Detention, Luna has a half-baked plan to become the Princess of Home-Ec.

  • ...

Just before the sun sets, the moon must rise

The late afternoon sun was golden in hue and warm upon the withers. Luna, a giant, stood upon the train platform surrounded by those most precious to her, little ponies. Of course, the little ponies came in all sizes, with some of them almost as large as she, so calling them little ponies felt strange at times. Amidst the chaos, there were four small little ponies, who stood in a neat row from tiniest to largest. Almanac Avocado, the tiniest, remained close to Overcast, who was but a little larger. Beside Overcast was Top Notch, who was just about the same height as Overcast, but had a far more solid build and wasn't so slight. The tallest of the group was Wednesday Waterkey, though much of her height came from the riotous mass of flaxen curls on her head, coils of elastic chaotic insanity that had a mind of their own.

Of the four, the only one not enjoying the sun was Overcast, who had developed an aversion to it since the appearance of his mark. It was a curious condition, but these things happened. Everything came at a cost, but also had a benefit. What the colt had gained with his mark remained to be discovered. With time and maturity, useful traits would surely manifest. When Luna's mark had appeared, her power grew by leaps and bounds, and she gained shadow magic. Many said that she had been branded with a dark mark. It caused quite a few problems, because it was believed that shadow magic was inherently evil. Umbrathurgy was classified as dark magic and to suddenly gain such power after receiving one's mark was quite alarming for the scholars of the era.

Of course, even now, in the modern era, with more open minds, some still believed it had dark origins.

Deep within the shadowy recesses of Luna's heart, she hoped that Overcast would also develop such magics. Other than Sombra during his brief return—an event cut short by Twilight Sparkle—she was alone. What she wanted, of course, was reassurance. That she did not bear a dark mark. That good ponies could also be natural-born umbrathurges. There were ways to become an umbrathurge unnaturally, and this troubled Luna, because of the great evil involved in doing so. Luna wanted her sister to be right; Celestia's comforting words included cliché phrases such as, 'the sun casts a shadow', and other such drivel.

But Luna's ears longed to hear such sweet reassurance.

With nothing else to do, she began to fret to pass the time. This task would soon become complicated, and Celestia was to blame. What was she thinking, anyhow? The foundling would cause all manner of trouble, not just for the students, but for the staff. Then again, the foundling was no doubt causing trouble at the hospital. There was also the mother to think about, the poor mare who had endured eleven months of non-stop fear, unease, and a nagging sensation of dreadful apprehension, only to birth a bad omen into the world.

Saddened, Luna sighed.

"Princess Luna, a word if I may?"

Grateful for the distraction, she turned her attention to Overcast.

"I suspect that this… foundling, whatever it is, is two days early."

"What makes you say that?"

"Princess Celestia had me on her schedule two days from now," he replied. The colt went quiet for a brief instant, no doubt collecting his thoughts, and then, squinting, he turned his face towards Luna to finish what he had to say. "She said that fate brought us together sooner near the start of our conversation. I don't recall her exact words. But, just before we left, she said that fate brings ponies to tea… and it does. Because tea leaves develop concentrated magic during their growth and the Camellia Sinensis family of plants are naturally prophetic organisms. I have this… feeling, this sensation that everything happened the way it did because it had to happen, so each of us would be in the right place at the right time, so circumstances would align so that we could be ready for this foundling's birth. Whatever a foundling is."

"How peculiar," replied Luna, who now had something better to think about.

"On my first day of Tasseography Essentials: an Introduction to Tasseomancy, the teacher told us that tea is one of the few reagents capable of warping or influencing reality in a localised area. It is speculated that it is something about being boiled in hot water, but that's just a theory. It's not proven." The colt paused to clear his throat. "Princess Celestia spoke the truth: fate does, indeed, bring ponies to tea."

As the colt spoke his final word, Luna thought of her teatime with Twilight Sparkle.

"How can tea do that?" asked Top Notch, who seemed to be having some trouble wrapping his mind around such a concept. "That disturbs me greatly, that our lives can be somehow controlled by a hot drink."

"Not controlled," Overcast said to his friend. "Influenced. Certain events are bound to happen. Tea functions as a… well, it functions as… I don't know how to put it. But it is one of many things that influence our lives in some small but measurable way. Like the tides, star alignments, and the marks that manifest on our hindquarters."

"Cutie marks, you mean!"

"I hate that term, Alma. Don't say that. There's nothing 'cute' about it."

"So, what you're saying is, Overcast"—Top Notch's mind, while some might consider it rather slow, was in fact quite keen in spite of its glacial pace—"don't drink tea on a ship full of cheese during high tide beneath the stars?"

"I haven't said a thing about cheese, Topper."

"Not yet, no. But given time, you no doubt would have, Overcast. You can't fault me for anticipating potential conversation."

"You're very weird, Overcast."

"Thank you, Wednesday. One day, the world will know my weirdness."

"What are you planning? Do I need to set you straight in advance? Princess Luna, he's planning something!"

"No, Whinny. I was just thinking that tasseomancy might also apply to coffee dregs. I have ideas… notions. The world is full of secrets. There are hidden messages in everything. It is my intention to read them."

Wednesday visibly relaxed a little. "Well, that's a relief. I'll allow it."

"How gracious of you, Whinny."

"Once, I ate a bag of coffee beans," Almanac said to her companions. "They were covered in chocolate. I just couldn't stop. Ate the whole bag. They were crunchy and delicious and nummy-nummy-num-nums in my tummy. I swear to Princess Luna, I could see through time and space by the time I was done, and I could feel the vibration of the world's heartbeat."

"How horrifying," Overcast deadpanned.

"Quite," Top Notch agreed with an amicable nod.

"Will the two of you quit acting like upper-class twits?" asked Wednesday.

"But we are upper-class tw—"

"I protest!" Top Notch protested, protesting profusely and profoundly before Overcast could finish. "I object on the grounds that there is no evidence for such a statement."

Beneath such lawyerly scrutiny, Wednesday could do naught but roll her eyes skyward.

"Oh, thank goodness, I think we're ready to board! The door's been opened!" Excitedly, Almanac pointed with her hoof. "All aboard?"

"All aboard!" the conductor shouted.

"I forgot my ticket!" Almanac cried.

"You don't need a ticket, you little imp." With her patience in a winepress, Wednesday Waterkey was almost ready to whine. "Behave, Almanac. Act like a lady. To be seen in public with Princess Luna is a privilege."

"Aw, you're no fun at all, Whinny."

"Just get on the train, Alma, and we can have fun once we're going! Now get your things!"

Upon his release Placebo immediately claimed the plush, cushioned window sill bench, flopped over, and purred contentedly in the way that cats sunbathing near windows do. He kept a wary eye on Almanac—again, the way that cats do—because she was a confirmed pest and a disturber of the peace. When she did not rush over to hug him, squeeze him, love him, and most curiously of all, call him George, Placebo relaxed just a little.

"I think I'm happy we brought my cat along," Overcast said with no small amount of uncertainty, "but it's very hard to tell."

"Placebo has that effect." Then, perhaps realising what he'd said, and that he'd been taken for a ride, Top Notch cringed—hard. Afterward, still scowling just a bit, he shook his head while heaving a silent sigh of regret before saying, "I just squirked myself."

"Squirked?" asked Luna.

"An irked sense of squick." The colt took a moment to consider his words. "I just said what came to mind."

Drawing herself up to her full height, Luna had herself a look around. This car had been remodeled since the last time she occupied it. A little less royal opulence and a bit more common comfort. Had her complaints reached the right ears? It now looked a bit more like a billiards room, with green on green felt wallpaper, red velvet cushions on the couches, and all of the wood had a dark, rich stain to it with high gloss. It was, in the modern parlance, swanky.

There was a bar stocked with soda pop of all kinds, which Luna appreciated. Enormous glass jars filled with enticing candies adorned the shelves just behind the bar. Overhead, there were skylights, which would offer a lovely view once the sun had set. Near to the bar, sitting on an ornate wooden pedestal cabinet, there was a phonograph. That they could fit an entire orchestra into such a tiny box was a miraculous accomplishment of the modern age.

Sauntering over to the bar—it felt good to saunter, but also to sashay, mosey, and pootle, depending upon her mood—she had herself a good look around. There was enough liquid sugar here that Canterlot's dentistry guilds would report substantial gains. Fizzy drinks of every description, including some peculiar flavours that piqued her interest. One stood out, perhaps because of the glowing, swirling rainbow liquid within and a warning label of a flaming pony skull; it was called Burning Painbow and the label promised it was made from the finest pegasus pony rainbow extracts.

Consumer magics had advanced considerably during Luna's absence.

The train trundled westwards into the Unicorn Range, towards the Smokey Mountains. A strange magic turned the windows into the most picturesque paintings, with lush, green farmland as far as the eye could see. This was the heartland of Equestria, and might have been called Unicornia had things gone differently. Luna, a mare lost to time, was still catching up on the history of Equestria, all that happened during her long absence. In a sense, she was a student too, just one of the many things she had in common with the legion that bore her name.

"I'm bored. Play with me!"

"Almanac, I have to study—"

"Play with me, Overcast! Please! Or else I'll die and stink up the place! Let's see if you can study then!"

Thoroughly annoyed, the colt leveled a stern deadpan gaze on his companion. "You should study as well. It's quiet. Perfect. Calm." He gestured at Top Notch and Wednesday, who studied together. "You're the only one who is bored. The rest of us stay busy."

"Please?" The filly's tone was pleading in a sincere way. "I'm having a rough time. I've never spent the night away from my parents before. Ever." She blinked, fidgeted, and then shook her head hard enough to make her ears waggle. "Well, I have. But that was different. Sometimes I stayed with my grandparents or my aunts and uncles, but my parent's house was just a short walk away… back when we had a nice house and not a closet apartment over the smelly apothecary that stinks of medicine and farts. I'm scared and freaking out and if somepony doesn't pay me some attention, I'm going to misbehave until somepony does."

"Alright, alright." Closing his book, Overcast offered his precious attention to his distraught companion. "What are we doing?"

"Tunks?" Ears twitching, Almanac seemed hopeful and she nodded her head up and down.

"What is it with you and tunks?" asked Overcast.

"I didn't grow up with it," she rapidly replied.

If history could be believed, Celestia had invented the game of tunks at some point during Luna's exile. While Luna had never actually played it, she was familiar with it, and had a base understanding of the rules. Unicorns, both old and young, played to keep their telekinesis in fine fettle. It was a simple game, at least easy to learn, but the fact that unicorns spent their lives playing it hinted at its difficulty.

To play, one had to first construct the corral, the playing area. This was done with pieces of wooden planks, or sometimes with miniature fences. Sometimes, the students used cardboard. The game was played with a collection of small, slippery, perfectly smooth balls that were actually two magnets held tight together. Each of the balls were of a different size, some small, some large, and each ball had a magnetic heart with varying degrees of different strength. Pulling the two halves apart was fiendishly tricky. It had to be done within the corral and if one used too much force, the two halves would fly apart and knock down the corral fence. But if one failed to pull them apart enough, they would reconnect back together with a solid TUNK! sound, which gave the game its name.

One simply could not slide the two halves apart, as one might expect. Like puzzle pieces, they fitted together with raised bits and recessed crevices that prevented one from just sliding them apart. They had to be pulled, and in just the right way to prevent disaster. Making the game even more challenging was that it could be played in teams, with two unicorns attempting to pull the halves apart. Luna could not help but wonder just how many friendships this had ruined.

If one somehow progressed through the entire collection of magnetic orbs, then began the pairs portion of the game, where two balls were pulled apart at the same time, requiring even more concentration. Very rarely, the game would progress to threesies or foursies, but as far as Luna knew, the game never went beyond that.

"The star ball gives me fits," Almanac said with a wary frown. "It's more slippery than the others."

"Strange," Wednesday said without looking up from her textbook, "I have trouble with the ursa major. It's slippery and kind of heavy, being the largest. Hard to get a grip on. And the weird bear shape in the middle makes it difficult to pull apart. You have to work from the legs side first for some reason."

"Oh, I'm making a note of that, I am," said Almanac, who now paid attention.

Lifting his head out of his book, Top Notch said, "I always wreck the corral with that one. I go to pull it apart and it never fails. I bang the fence and down it goes."

"It's the legs, Topper. Something about them."

"I'll be mindful of that in the future. Thanks, Whinny."

"Don't mention it, Topper."

"I can deal with the large ones just fine," Overcast said as he began to dig around in his bag for the game. "More surface area. They're slippery, sure, but there's still more grip available. I have the most trouble with the tiny ones. They're my bane."

"That's strange"—frowning intently, Top Notch's forehead became a plowed farmer's field—"the little ones are the easiest ones to manage. I cannot imagine them giving a pony trouble."

"There's just not enough to grab, Topper."

"I suppose it just goes to show how we're all different," Top Notch replied with a sage nod of his head. "It's funny though, because you can use your magic to manipulate locks, and they're tiny."

"They're also not interlocking magnets with distinct shapes inside of perfectly crafted orbs of precious metal designed by unicorn craftmasters to be as slippery as a hot buttered cob of corn."

"That… that is a fair point, Overcast."

"Thank you for playing with me." Almost on the verge of tears, Almanac's gratitude was on display for all to see. "You're my besties. All of you. I don't know why you put up with me. I mean, I'll probably turn each and every one of you into hamsters at some point, and I know that it will all be fine, because you'll forgive me and we'll grow up together and stay best friends and laugh about the time I turned you into hamsters when we're all old and boring and no fun."

Nopony responded; not a word was said.

Overcast pulled out a long wooden box with silver hinges from his bag and then set it down upon the floor. He slipped from his seat in the boneless manner possessed by the young, and eased himself down to the floor where he opened the box. Inside, upon a bed of black velvet, there were sixteen silver orbs of different sizes. In the lid, the four sections of the corral fence could be found.

It occurred to Luna that this toy, this plaything, probably cost more coin than Almanac's parents would see in the entirety of their lifetimes. There had to be several pounds worth of precious silver, a king's ransom used to make a toy to teach a unicorn to use the powers of the mind. This was also a reminder that Overcast—for all of his ill-repute—was an aristocratic noble, while Almanac was not. Doors would open for Overcast that would never open for Almanac, and the young colt was protected from failure in a way that Almanac might never comprehend.

Her parents had sacrificed everything for the sake of social mobility, as it was known in the modern parlance.

Saying nothing, Luna lifted up one of the midsized silver orbs, hefted it several times with her magic to get a feel for it, and then brought it up to eye level. It was, indeed, slippery. Magically smoothed with metal-shaping. Which is to say it was smooth even on a microscopic level that the naked eye could not see. When she went to pull it apart, she encountered difficulty that she did not expect. Her first attempt failed completely, because gripping the spherical shape was quite difficult. Attempting to pinch it resulted in her grip just slipping off of the smooth curve.

She did find purchase though, and tried again. The orb resisted her efforts to slip her telekinetic influence into its middle. This was… annoying to say the very least, but that was no-doubt the point. She finally pulled the sphere apart into two pieces without any embarrassment, and much to her surprise, there was a crescent moon inside. On either half, it had a bas-relief of her beloved moon, with one side raised and the other recessed. She wasn't sure what sort of metal made up the heart of the orb, but she suspected that it was highly magnetic star metal, an incredible rarity.

The two halves went back together with a metallic tunk!

"Do the sets matter?" asked Luna. "I mean, surely, you have your own sets. Do the difficulties remain constant?"

After a moment spent in thought, Wednesday nodded. "Overcast's tunk set and my own, the ursa major is the one that gives me fits. There are some differences, I suppose. Topper's set uses gold instead of silver, and it's a bit more slippery, all things considered. Also heavier. That makes the biggest difference. The pieces gain more momentum when you pry them apart."

"Interesting." Levitating the orb right in front of her face, Luna continued her intense examination of the curious plaything.

"Gold vibrates differently when touched by telekinesis," Overcast said. "More intense. Because it is, well, I don't know what is going on. Because it is more dense than silver? But the thrum of magic causes an exaggerated reaction that makes it hard to hold on to."

"I think Overcast is on to something," Top Notch remarked. "Do you think it is worth noting that my telekinesis is the strongest and I've got the gold set?"

Overcast nodded his agreement. "Perhaps, Topper. That is something to consider."

"I am going to teach you something, so pay attention."

All four heads turned to look at Luna, and she delighted in their response. This felt good. Felt right. It was easy to understand why her sister liked teaching. This was a fair exchange; all Luna had to do to have their rapt attention was to give them something, and as it turned out, she had a lot to give. With great care so she wouldn't drop the orb and embarrass herself, she floated it back over to the case, gently set it down upon its velvet bed, and then thought about where to begin.

"Unicorns have a unique sensory organ," Luna began. "I am sure that you know this already, but I'll mention the very basics. A unicorn's horn is connected to every other sense they have. The eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Skin, too, but in a strange, less-defined way. Unicorns are unique in that they have a special network of nerves. Most unicorns passively develop their unique sense through ancillary connections to their other senses. When you look with your eyes, for example, your horn lends its abilities to them. For a pony like Overcast, this is what allows him to read tea leaves in the bottom of a teacup. Other ponies cannot do this. A unicorn's magic changes their vision and how they see."

She paused, waited, and allowed some time for her words to settle in.

"Very, very few develop the horn and its unique senses." Another pause, a short one, and then she continued, "Every sense can be developed to extraordinary ability. Including the horn. It doesn't have to passively contribute to your perceptions. When you are playing your game, cease using your eyes. Close them. Deny yourself your sight. Pull the orbs apart and rely entirely upon what your horn tells you. Can you sense the tug and pull of magnetism? Pull the halves only as far apart as you need, until the pull can no longer be felt. I've watched you play and I've seen how you use your eyes to measure distance, approximating what you think is a necessary space between the separated halves. You wait and see if it will wiggle before you let go."

"It's true"—speaking in a low whisper, Top Notch nodded his head—"I do exactly that."

"I do it too," Wednesday said. "And sometimes, I'm wrong. The pieces don't appear to move while I am holding them, but will snap back together the moment my focus lapses even slightly. It's very frustrating. I will say, it's taught me to be very deliberate with my actions."

"Is that what I'm doing wrong?" asked Almanac.

"I don't use my eyes—"

"Oh, here we go," Wednesday said. "Overcast gets to tell us why we're all wrong."

"No, Whinny, I wasn't going to do that. Honest. Give me a chance?"

"Sorry, Overcast. My apologies. Do continue."

"I listen," Overcast said. "I guess maybe I use my eyes a little. Probably without realising it. But if you listen… when the two halves are close together and the magnets tug on them, the sound is different. The tone, the pitch changes. The metal hums differently. When the two halves are far enough apart, they don't sing together. But bring them closer, and they ring together."

"Alright, I'll admit it, I was wrong," Wednesday said. "Overcast had something to say and he wasn't smug or annoyingly superiour about it." She turned to face her friend and offered up a sincere apologetic smile. "And that's really interesting. I'll have to give it a listen. I'm told I have a good ear for music, so maybe this will help me."

"Sometimes, I hate learning new things." Inhaling, Top Notch wore an expression of annoyance and he let everything out in a long, enduring groan. "Just when I think I have everything figured out and that I can get on with things, something comes along that upsets everything and then I have to get everything sorted out again. And that takes time. And effort. I have better things I could be doing."

"Cheer up, Topper. Could be worse."

"How could it be worse, Alma?"

"I have no idea. It's just a thing you're supposed to say to make somepony feel better."

Again, Topper groaned, but had nothing to say.

"It has become increasingly difficult to teach about how unicorns are different," Luna began, "because some might see it as proof that unicorns are somehow better. I've encountered this during my studies so that I might acquaint myself with the modern age. The knowledge is there. But for whatever reason it is kept from impressionable young minds. There is so much focus on what makes us all the same and anything that sets us apart is frowned upon. I get it… I do… necessary sacrifices on the altar of unity. Overcast and I have had several discussions about this very thing."

"Overcast gets teased because his mom is a pegasus and—"

"Shut up, Almanac!"

Wounded, the bespectacled filly cast her pained stare upon her friend. "I'm trying to help."

"You can help by just shutting up about it. I'm not in the mood to discuss this."

Quite without warning, Luna gained a painful awareness of a problem. Impassive, silent, she watched as Almanac squirmed. Every other instance of Overcast telling her to shut up just bounced off of her, but not this time. It wasn't hard to guess why. While Celestia was the sort to jump right in to sort things out, Luna was not. She took a different approach, though perhaps one that some might consider outdated. It was important for juvenile herds to sort out their differences on their own terms. If all else failed, Wednesday would get this sorted out, because that was her role. Beyond that, Wednesday would get irritated if Luna interfered. Which was, in Luna's mind, exactly how it should be.

Of course, Celestia would have a very different opinion.

Saying nothing, Overcast excused himself, bowed his head, and then hurried out the door. Luna watched as he departed, no doubt to either use the water closet or to find a space where he could collect his thoughts. The game of tunk seemed abandoned, at least for now, and little Almanac appeared to be on the verge of tears.

As for Luna, she could feel the tides going out.

Author's Note:

I wrote a short chapter. I feel accomplished.

The next chapter has Luna in the kitchen. Be prepared. That is all.