• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,579 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven



A pony begins a journey to find his parents, lost heroes who vanished years ago.

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Bonds Of Blood And Honor

Chapter Sixteen: Bonds Of Blood And Honor
~BlackRoseRaven

Antares and his friends were gathered in front of Selene's reflecting pool, glossy-black young stallion unable to stop his eyes from roving up to the statue of Nightmare Moon and studying it as they waited in silence. They were tired, and they were sore... but they were also proud of themselves, for what they had done and taken part in. Even if they were a little scared, too, of what the consequences for their actions might end up being.

Selene had asked them to wait here while she and Discombobulation conferred with Celestia, who had returned twenty minutes or so ago. Antares admittedly felt nervous as hell: they had disobeyed orders, and while they had managed a good result, Discord was back at full power and had run off into the wilds, Cancer was apparently not destroyed, Subterra and its denizens had been the victims of a lot of collateral damage, and Twilight Sparkle had been very literally blown to pieces. Yes, Antares was proud of himself, and of his friends, his team: but after what Celestia had done to them, he also knew better than to expect that everything was instantly forgiven. For all he knew, they might just end up in even more trouble for all the things they had done wrong.

He shifted nervously, then smiled a little as Prestige wrapped a foreleg around him and dropped her head on his shoulder. Beside them, Meadowlark gazed at the two, but she offered a faint smile and a small nod, and Antares nodded slowly back to her. Rustproof looked calm as ever beside Aphrodisia, who was staring raptly up at the statue of Nightmare Moon as Avalon floated through the air and fidgeted, looking anxiously back and forth as she mumbled: “What about our armor? It's all scuffed and dirty... even you, in your stupid vests, Prestige, Meadowlark. And Rusty you got a big scrape on your breastplate... how'd that happen?”

“Demon. He didn't mean it none, though, he was just hurt and scared.” Rustproof answered quietly, then he glanced up pointedly towards Avalon, who grimaced, but then mumbled and sighed and nodded, dropping out of the air to her hooves. She started to pace a little, but quickly tired of this and instead flopped down to roll onto her back and gaze up at the cavern roof above.

“It's... weird here.” Avalon said finally, and Antares smiled and nodded a little in agreement. He knew she meant in a good way, even without looking at her, and a moment later Avalon continued quietly: “I don't think I've ever fought for anything before in my life. You know, other than myself and to prove I was the best at something. And honestly... how much fighting did we ever do in Ponyville? Precisely, pretty much none at all. And all our training there... was like games, compared to here. Not that I have anything against what Mom and Dad taught me, but...”

She laughed and shook her head, the tiny Pegasus closing her eyes. “Who would have thunk that Fluttershy would know more about fighting than my Dad and Mom combined? They're both brawlers but she's... I don't know what she is. Calling her a warrior feels like I'm insulting her these days. And I look back at us, Antares, I think of us like, only weeks ago... and we were all so stupid, weren't we? We got so wrapped up in ourselves and how we were all going to be the best at what we did that... we almost ruined everything.”

“You're growing wiser, Avalon Apple. It's good to see.” said a soft voice, and Avalon was immediately on her hooves, blushing deep red as she and the other ponies all hurried to attention. Celestia was walking towards them from the Thorn Palace, a measuring look on her face as Discombobulation and Selene strode on either side of her. Her own armor was scuffed and stained, splattered here and there with blood and gunk, but it only served to make her all the more intimidating as she asked in a gentle but serious tone: “Report, Antares Mīrus?”

“Yes, Baroness Celestia.” Antares bowed his head quickly as he stepped forwards, saying quietly and only stumbling a little over his words: “We followed the orders passed on from Pinkamena, but then heard another alarm going off nearby. I decided that we should check it out, and sent Avalon ahead to scout. We ran into Twilight on the way, and Avalon returned to warn us of the monster, which was actually Discord infected by Cancer. We engaged the monster and distracted it with the help of demons and then Discombobulation, and gave Twilight the time necessary to... defeat it and free Discord from Cancer's control. He, Discombobulation, and Allonym defeated Cancer and sent him... somewhere else. Discord left, Twilight Sparkle lost her physical body, and we returned here.”

“You disobeyed a direct order from me, Antares.” Celestia said quietly, her amethyst eyes locking with the young stallion's. “You countermanded it and put your untested team in extreme danger. Less than a week ago, had this happened, you would have all died. As it is, the cost is high: demons have been injured, some even fatally, Twilight Sparkle will again have to go through a painful and time-consuming process of regeneration, Discord has fled into the wilderness with full possession of his powers thanks to the blast of Ginnungagap energy used to cleanse his system. Do you understand this?”

Antares nodded, then he bowed his head and said quietly: “I do. And I take full responsibility, Celestia. It was all me: I won't make any excuses for my actions.”

“Good.” Celestia paused for a few moments, studying the six silently before she shook her head slowly. Then she glanced to the side when Discombobulation cleared his throat loudly: he looked down at her pointedly, and the armored winged unicorn looked back as Selene smiled slightly, before Celestia finally sighed and nodded, turning her eyes forwards and straightening slightly as she said quietly: “Antares, Discombobulation insists that I should apologize to you and your friends for how I treated you before. And I suppose in this instance he's correct: I was much harsher than necessary. I resorted to violence and name-calling like in the old days, dealing with things like a frustrated foal myself, and if my sister and brother were here I'm fairly certain I would not be standing right now. As it is, Pinkamena and Cowlick have shared some very choice words with me, as has Twilight Sparkle.”

“It's okay, Baroness Celestia, we... we needed to wake up.” Antares said quietly, bowing his head and closing his eyes. “It hurt a lot, but it was necessary. It got all of us on our hooves and... if we hadn't been woken up so quickly, so harshly, we never would have survived what happened today. And I'm sorry if I've disappointed you again by... not following orders and letting.. so much bad happen.”

“No, Antares, don't apologize for that: even with the perfect strategy, nothing ever goes according to plan.” Celestia said quietly, shaking her head slowly. “What you did was bold, and foolish, and yes, there was damage to both sides... but in the end, Antares, you minimized casualties and intercepted and helped stop a serious threat before it could push into the heart of Subterra. Cancer showed a much greater depth of cunning than I thought: it was a much smaller attack force that struck above than it seemed, but Canterlot was in a panic and it made it seem much more devastating because of that.

“Once Twilight Sparkle has regenerated and I've taken care of several things at the Royal Court, we will be leaving Subterra and returning to Ponyville.” Celestia smiled after a moment, as Antares looked nervous, visibly worried that this was a punishment or reprimand. “You've learned much here, and it's more important that you focus on mastering these new skills you've been given... and better learning to work together as a team. Pinkamena, Twilight Sparkle, and others will continue to train you, but we have duties to attend to at home, comfortable as Subterra has been for this last month... and if you'll permit it, Antares, I'll continue to train you myself, as well.”

Antares smiled faintly, bowing his head in respect and gratitude, and Celestia bowed her own in return as she murmured softly: “I also have other tasks for you to complete over the coming days. Things I feel you deserve to be entrusted with... because you and your friends do need the experience. I think you can handle it... I think you've all... grown more in the last few days, than you have in the last month, Antares.”

The young stallion blushed and dropped his head forwards, and for a few moments there was quiet before he finally looked up and promised quietly: “We're gonna do our best, Celestia.”

“Aunt Tia, I think he means.” Discombobulation said mildly, glancing at Celestia, who sighed and gave the Draconequus a flat look... but then she nodded slowly, and the chimerical creature smiled slightly as he reached up and gently squeezed her nose. “Doesn't that feel better? You don't have to always be such a hardass, Tia. You take speaking gently and carrying a big stick far too seriously with that nasty sword of yours and your bad habit of killing everything that looks at you wrong.”

Celestia only shook her head slowly at this, smiling despite herself before she turned her eyes towards Selene, as the Nephilim said gently: “I would like a moment to speak to Antares, if that's acceptable, Celestia. Alone, preferably.”

“Of course. Antares, you and your friends should get some rest when you can... but Prestige, I'm going to visit Twilight Sparkle first, ensure she's not having any trouble renewing her body. Would you like to come with myself and Discombobulation?” Celestia asked curiously.

“Oh, look, subtle orders that are subtly ordering me to come with you, Tia.” Discombobulation said mildly, and then he frowned a little when the winged unicorn smiled up at him, her amethyst eyes meeting his inverted black irises before he mumbled: “Please don't look at me like that. It chills me to the bone. I'm trying to make you angry, work with me a little here.”

“For some reason, I never really get that angry with you... Bob.” Celestia replied easily, and Discombobulation puckered his mouth as he glowered down at her, before the ivory winged unicorn turned her eyes forwards and smiled over at a nervous-looking Prestige. “I think it would do good for Twilight Sparkle for you to... see her like this, and not be afraid. You've... grown perhaps most of all in the last month, Prestige... but I want to see how much of what you've learned has truly been sinking in.”

“I understand, Celestia. Of course.” Prestige nodded, then she smiled a little over at Antares, saying quietly: “Don't wait up for me if... I end up being a little while. I want to find out how Burning Desire is doing as well.”

Antares nodded, and then he cleared his throat as his other friends looked at him, blushing a little but still managing to sound fairly confident as he said: “Go get some rest, everypony. We did good today, but... remember, we still have to practice the basics and work our way up. But this proves that we can do more than just be a bunch of ponies on a battlefield, we can work together as a team. Let's all remember that and do even better next time.”

The others nodded, Avalon saluting and Aphrodisia shaking her head with a smile. The two young mares turned to head away, joined by Rustproof, before all three looked over their shoulders curiously as Meadowlark stayed awkwardly behind... but before even Antares could ask what was going on, Selene said gently: “Of course. You may stay and listen if you like, Meadowlark, perhaps we can use the help of your knowledge.”

“I... okay, if it's something like that.” Antares said awkwardly when Meadowlark looked at him for confirmation, and she smiled before the glossy black young stallion looked pointedly – and admittedly, with a bit of confusion – over his shoulder at the others. Aphrodisia only shrugged, however, then continued on her way, Avalon and Rustproof both following automatically after the demon despite their own visible curiosity.

Celestia was already walking away with Prestige and Discombobulation, although Prestige seemed almost nervous and was visibly resisting the urge to look back at them... but Selene quickly drew the attention of both young ponies that remained with her as she asked curiously: “Why do you struggle to remain friends despite all that has occurred between you both?”

Antares and Meadowlark both blushed and shifted awkwardly, tossing nervous little looks at one another as the Nephilim studied the two with her endless, dark eyes, and then Selene smiled calmly before saying quietly: “Of course. I understand, then. What bonds mortals share. What foolish instincts they have. What idle thoughts and odd rules...”

They both looked at her apprehensively, and then Selene calmly turned her eyes to Meadowlark and said softly: “Still, you hold onto him fiercely. Still, you hope, don't you, that he will turn to you... yet somehow, your love does not become bitterness. It merely is.” The red Pegasus flushed, but didn't answer as Antares winced before Selene turned to him curiously. “And you. Comparing one to the other. Wishing it were simpler. But you are not as selfish as your mother and father were, nor would either be as willing to... indulge. Strange and pretty... like the ornaments and tinsel of Hearth's Warming Eve. And like Hearth's Warming Eve, meaningful only to those who choose to celebrate the event.”

“I... don't know if you just complimented or insulted me.” Antares said finally, and Selene's response was just to nod, which only served to confuse him further. He grimaced a little, rubbing awkwardly at his face before asking finally: “Okay, uh... what... what is it, Selene? I know not to question you by now, I just mean... you... wanted both of us here, didn't you?”

“Your ability to read me is getting better, Antares. I'm glad for this.” Selene said softly, and then she paused and looked up before murmuring quietly: “Above, in Canterlot, a medical clinic has been set up to treat those hurt in the attack by Cancer's doppelganger and infected minions. They all carried disease, but the unicorn healers have developed spells and medicines to counteract all but the worst illnesses and injuries. Among the infected are your parents, Meadowlark.”

Meadowlark looked up in shock, breathing hard as she stared in disbelief, and Antares stiffened immediately: for years, Meadowlark had been tracking her parents after they had abandoned her with her aunt. But Ameliorate and Engelhart had always moved fast, staying ahead of the guard forces that were chasing them: scared and ashamed and unwilling to pay their dues for the fraud they had committed, they had abandoned everything to live a life on the run. And Meadowlark, meanwhile, had spent only a few months with her aunt before she'd moved first to a community shelter in Ponyville, and then out on her own into a little apartment in Ponyville.

Twilight Sparkle had always helped Meadowlark out whenever she could: the Pegasus made a piddling wage at the local newspaper that was barely enough to buy groceries, let alone pay for her apartment, but Antares knew that Twilight often asked Meadowlark to help her with research projects and paid the Pegasus as much as she could hassle the Canterlot Magic School or the Royal Courts into giving up. Meadowlark was always grateful for the money... and perhaps just a little bit ashamed, even though there was no need for it.

But even after all these years, Meadowlark had been tracking her parents, had been searching for them, wanting answers, validation, an apology... something from them, anything. She stared across at Selene, then leaned forwards, asking weakly: “Wait. But... but last I heard, they had been sighted in Saddlehorn, way out west... if they're here now... were they caught?”

“You'll only know if you go and find out for yourself. The medical center is only a short journey away... it should be no problem for you to reach through the exit west of here.” Selene gestured calmly to the side with a smile, bowing her head as her eyes glimmered with all the darkness of space. “Go ahead.”

Meadowlark turned and ran to the edge of the pyramid, spreading her wings as she leapt into the air, and Antares winced before he stumbled after her. He tossed one last look at Selene, then leapt up high and flapped his wings hard, wheezing a bit in pain: after flying so much during the fight with Jabberwock, he could feel them starting to stiffen up...

But he looked ahead, focused on Meadowlark, who was flying clumsily but quickly through the cavern ahead, and he gritted his sharp teeth, promising mentally: Not this time, no matter what... “Meadowlark, wait! I'm coming with you!”

For a moment, there was no response, and Antares cursed, calling her name again as he pushed himself harder, forcing himself to fly forwards even as pain radiated through his back... and then Meadowlark looked over her shoulder and nodded hurriedly once, reaching a front hoof back towards him and calling: “Come on!”

He flew forwards, taking her hoof with a smile and then grunting as she flapped her wings hard, half-pulling him along. Their speed increased as they flew through the air, hooves locked tight together, and it made Antares hurt more as he pushed himself harder... but at the same time, it made the flight all the easier, it made the pain diminish, it made everything have more meaning...

They sailed upwards into a tunnel near the roof of the cavern, flying up the center of it past several Nightmares and other creatures that watched with interest before they ascended up through a broken, steaming grate and into the depths of an abandoned, empty well. But high above, like a beacon, Antares could see the moon glowing in the night sky... and it gave him strength, let him push himself harder as he and Meadowlark flew side-by-side up the wide gullet of the well and then shot out and into the air of Canterlot, surprising a patrol of passing Royal Guards.

Thankfully, they weren't pursued: in all likelihood purely out of luck and the fact they vanished quickly into an alley as quickly as they'd shot out of the well. Their hooves finally unlocked as they both dropped to the earth, and now it was Antares who took the lead, glancing over his shoulder at the Pegasus mare and saying firmly: “We'll find them, Meadowlark... I promise.”

Meadowlark only smiled faintly, breathing hard through her mouth: but she didn't seem to notice either her own visible aches, nor her exhaustion, as she ran quickly after the glossy black unicorn. They hurried through Canterlot, tracing out the path that Antares' sharp eyes let them on as he looked back and forth and somehow found his way through the night streets of the enormous city as if it was familiar to him as the back of his own hoof, as if he'd always known where to go despite the fact he hadn't even been up in Canterlot for more than a week now with all the time they'd been spent training in Subterra below.

Then they stumbled off a side road and onto a main street, tall buildings looming around them but one in particular lit up by magic and spotlights, tents set up in the wide square in front of his structure as a pony's voice called over the milling crowd: “This area is under quarantine! Please, stay back, and your loved ones will be sent out to you when their illness and injuries have been treated! No pony may enter this area unless they have permission from the medical staff and have already been immunized!”

“Come on.” Antares murmured, carefully striding forwards and beginning to gently push his way through the crowd, and Meadowlark followed with her head nervously bowed. A few ponies were calling worried questions out to the sentries guarding the tents before the two young ponies managed to wiggle their way to the front of the group. Immediately, a guard frowned at them, but Antares only had to look at him for a moment before saying clearly: “We've been sent from Subterra. We need to take stock of what happened for the Baroness, we're both immune to the disease.”

The guard hesitated, but Antares didn't flinch, didn't look away, and then the soldier grunted before waving them past. Antares and Meadowlark both hurried forwards, the young stallion smiling as a few shouts of worry and question came from the crowd behind them, but the guard only stepped quickly back into place.

They passed into the tent beyond, and a medical pony frowned at them from where he was making notes amidst a cluttered desk of papers. But then an aging unicorn called out to Antares, and the young stallion looked with relief to see a teacher from the magic academy approaching, asking sharply: “Antares Mīrus, is Celestia on her way? What about Twilight Sparkle, why hasn't she come here?”

“My Mom is... incapacitated at the moment.” Antares said carefully, and the graying unicorn's eyes widened in surprise before Antares shook his head hurriedly. “No, don't worry, she's... she'll be back on her hooves by tomorrow. Prestige and Celestia are both helping her right now, but... we heard that... I mean...”

He cleared his throat as the unicorn frowned and leaned forwards, and then he gestured quietly to Meadowlark as she bowed her head silently, Antares saying quietly: “We're looking for my friend's parents. It's very important we find them... they... might be under guard.”

The older unicorn frowned, shifting nervously... and then he shook his head quickly and gestured through the tent at the rows and rows of ponies laying in various states of illness on cots and blankets and anything they could find. “Most of the ponies here are from the poorer Crescent District at the edge of Canterlot, which was attacked first. No... prisoners, to speak of, but there was a refugee shelter that was attacked. They're in the far corner, keeping to themselves.”

“Thank you, sir.” Antares smiled and bowed his head, then he turned and quickly trotted after Meadowlark, who was already working her way carefully down the aisles of sick, mumbling apologies as she stepped over people here and there and brushed up against doctors and other workers. Antares followed after her, looking back and forth, feeling eyes on him and feeling a strange chill in his body: for some reason, it felt like Selene wanted him to see something here. That Meadowlark and her parents were just the lure, and there was some other ambush laying silently in wait.

The refugees were from all across Equestria, it looked like, and many bundled tightly up, hiding their faces, their scars, their illness. Some of them didn't seem to even want to be treated, while others were simply watching everything anxiously, suspiciously. Meadowlark looked back and forth desperately as Antares drew his eyes slowly over the crowd, and then the Pegasus asked quickly: “Have any of you seen... a large Pegasus, tan-colored, broad shoulders, or... or an earth pony? She would have a cutie mark of a stethoscope...”

The refugees were silent as Antares looked nervously back and forth, and then he frowned a little as his eyes locked on one. One who was sitting a little apart from the others, who had his hood up and didn't seem to quite belong, the body language of the ponies around him tenser, distant... and slowly, the glossy-black unicorn leaned forwards before asking quietly: “Why are you hiding?”

There was silence from the shape as it fidgeted nervously on the cot it was sitting on, and Antares stepped forwards. The moment he did, the pony turned to try and run away, but Antares pounced forwards as the refugees only looked on curiously but a doctor shouted, guards starting to hurry towards the disturbance as the pony yelped beneath Antares.

The young stallion pinned the shape easily, then winced at the sound of crackling and crunching before he rolled the pony onto his back, and the cloak concealing the haggard-looking stallion tore open, pills and medical supplies spilling out in a pile all around him. Antares glared down at the pony, and the earth pony grinned weakly before he said lamely: “I got a bad cold?”

“Where are Engelhart and Ameliorate? You know them, don't you?” Antares asked sharply: at first, the earth pony only gritted his teeth... but when a pair of angry-looking Royal Guards stepped up to either side of Antares and glared down at the earth pony, he paled and hurriedly held up his front hooves in a gesture of surrender.

“Okay, okay, calm down! Look, they slipped out the back and went to grab some more medical supplies from where they're storing them, just take it easy!” the earth pony babbled, shaking his head hurriedly. “Weren't my idea, okay? I'm just a mule!”

Antares opened his mouth, and then he cursed when Meadowlark took off behind him, the young stallion hurriedly shoving himself off the pony and turning to hurry after her. One of the guards began to turn to follow, but then the earth pony thief hurriedly scampered away, yelping as he evaded the other soldier's grab at him and drawing the attention of both Royal Guards.

Meadowlark moved surprisingly fast, jumping over a pony doctor that ducked with a wince before she turned and leapt out through an open flap in the tent. Antares grimaced as he followed sharply after her, sprinting the short distance to the open doors leading into the lobby of the hotel that the guards had commandeered for their clinic services.

Medical staff had taken over the lobby, using it to sort and distribute supplies and to keep themselves organized, and a few ponies frowned in surprise at the sight of the red Pegasus that ran into the building, followed by the leather-winged unicorn. Meadowlark looked frantically back and forth, ignoring the frustrated-looking soldier on security duty that was approaching her, and then her eyes locked on a pretty-looking, if gaunt, earth pony wearing a dirty lab coat. “Mom!”

The earth pony mare looked up in shock, eyes turning towards Meadowlark... and then she forced a weak smile, raising a hoof as more ponies looked up, Ameliorate saying hurriedly: “M-Meadow... this... this isn't what you think...”

“She's a thief and a liar!” Meadowlark shouted, pointing at her mother even as tears formed in her eyes, and now all eyes looked sharply towards the earth pony as Ameliorate winced and gazed back and forth, shaking her head wildly. “I trusted you! I thought you and Dad meant it when you said you were going to come back, you were going to set things right... but you're just taking the easy way out again, aren't you?”

Ameliorate flinched... then grabbed a wild hoof-full of pill bottles from the cart and turned to bolt towards the back doors, even as the entire room filled with yells as ponies leapt to their hooves. Security guards shot after the earth pony mare and doctors yelled and others grabbed at her, but it didn't matter: Meadowlark was sitting down, trying her hardest not to sob as tears leaked down her cheeks, and Antares had his focus only on her, hesitating only a moment before he hugged her tightly and she buried her face against the side of his neck, clinging to him silently as she cried quietly.

It only lasted a few minutes, though, before Meadowlark silently pulled back and Antares carefully guided her over to one side of the room. They sat for a little while, Meadowlark calming down little by little before the old unicorn Antares had recognized from inside the tent came and found them, and shook his head with a small smile as he looked down at the two.

“Thank you, young lady. I... understand it must have been hard for you, but you did a good thing here. Their patsy inside already confessed to what they were doing... Ameliorate and her friend were stealing medication and passing it to Engelhart, who was dressed up as a guard. He stored it in a safe place, so they could come by at the end of the night and pick it up to later sell. They slipped in with the refugees... they came back to Canterlot after they heard about the plague. Greed, it sounds like, since Ameliorate knew she could slip in with the crowd here in all the chaos...” The graying unicorn shook his head slowly. “I'm sorry, young lady. I imagine this isn't want you wanted to see.”

“No, but...” Meadowlark fell silent, and Antares closed his eyes, squeezing her gently around the shoulders. She smiled faintly, looking up before giving a weak sigh, and the aging unicorn looked at them quietly before he turned to leave.

Then he paused at the doors and hesitated, before adding over his shoulder: “Would you two mind lending us some help? Meadowlark, you could stay here and go over the inventory, and Antares, you can help me heal the seriously injured. You can perform healing magic, yes, you learned about that in Subterra?”

“I can do some basic cleansing spells now, at least. I should be able to heal infections and weaken the disease enough for pills to take effect.” Antares replied quietly, and the aging unicorn nodded slowly before Antares glanced at Meadowlark apprehensively, but she looked up and met his eyes with a faint smile, and he nodded hesitantly again before murmuring: “Okay. But if you need me, I'm here, okay?”

“Thanks, Antares...” Meadowlark closed her eyes, dropping her head against him for a moment before she carefully stood up, smiling faintly at him. He smiled back, and then they drew apart before Meadowlark slowly made her way towards an inventory desk as she shook herself out a little.

Antares turned his eyes towards the aging unicorn, nodding hesitantly, and the teacher motioned for him to follow: and while it was a bit of a strange experience actually working alongside other unicorns like this, Antares found that he enjoyed the work. He hated seeing ponies in pain, but he liked knowing he was helping them, smiled at their gratitude and even more, their relief, when he was able to stop the pain or help calm their suffering.

It was hard for him, but it was worthwhile, too: it made him wish that he'd worked harder to learn and develop his magic, even if that wasn't his field of expertise or where his talents laid. And the unicorns seemed to appreciate his help, which was nice: often, Antares didn't get the most pleasant reception from the magic academy and its staff. He had never attended, after all, and even if he was taught by one of their most accomplished graduates... said alumnus was also a Lich whom all kinds of rumors floated around Canterlot about. He was well aware that Twilight wasn't the only one who there were rumors about, too... but for once, no one was looking at his transmogrified wings, but only at the fact he was putting his best hoof forwards.

After some forty minutes of work, however, as Antares was taking a short break, a unicorn strolled slowly through the crowd, dressed in a black, armored vest and with golden cusps on his shoulders. He had stony, rough features, and Antares frowned nervously as he looked up, feeling a strange chill as the imposing stallion approached him: one of his eyes was covered by a thick cloth patch that almost mixed with his drab chestnut coat. The color of his body, and his short-cut, deep black mane and tail told him that he was likely from the rough, traditionalist north... not to mention the proud stance of his form.

There was a short sword sheathed over his back, and Antares looked awkwardly into the hazel eye of the unicorn. For a few moments, there was silence between them, and then the unicorn stated more than asked: “Antares Mīrus. Son of Her Highness Luna and Scrivener Blooms?”

“Yeah... I mean, yes, I am.” Antares sat up a little, looking back and forth before he studied the unicorn... and he winced a little mentally at that calm, solid gaze. Whoever the unicorn was, he was hard to read: Antares could tell that he was growing older but still strong, that his family probably had a strong military background, that he believed strongly in tradition and likely superiority. He was unflinching and a little scary, and Antares asked awkwardly: “Do... you... who are you?”

“Colonel Scutum, head of Baroness Caprice's security detail.” the unicorn replied calmly, giving a quick nod, and Antares tilted his head curiously at this before the unicorn gestured shortly behind himself. “Let's walk. Baroness Caprice is feeling under the weather and requires a healer.”

“Oh, I... there's a lot of ponies here that are way better than that, ponies who are... you know, much better than me...” Antares began awkwardly, and then he winced at Scutum's gaze: that single eye seemed to look right into the depths of his soul like a laser, and Antares leaned nervously to the side, awkwardly inspecting Scutum's cutie mark of a shield before he said lamely: “I'm really more... of a soldier myself, you know.”

“No, you're not.” Antares wondered dumbly for a moment if this was how ponies felt when he called them out with his own talents, as a blush rose in his cheeks. “Shall we? I've already cleared this with your superiors and I would like to go. Baroness Caprice is secure in the hotel and awaits our presence.”

There was no arguing with Scutum, and he nodded finally, turning to follow the one-eyed stallion, and Antares mumbled a little as he dropped his head a bit. He looked back and forth uneasily as they made their way out the back of the tent and into the hotel, and Meadowlark frowned in surprise from where she was working as Antares crossed the lobby, the young stallion shrugging in response before he winced when Scutum said calmly: “You won't be long. Your friend can wait.”

“Who the hell are you?” Antares asked incredulously, and Scutum paused in front of the elevator at the back of the lobby, then slowly turned around and looked down at him, as Antares looked nervously back and cleared his throat, saying embarrassedly: “Sorry. Long... long day. Giant monsters and... disease... and... I'm a little tense. I'm sorry.”

Scutum only regarded Antares for a few moments, then he nodded shortly before turning around, hitting the call button for the elevator. It dinged quietly open to reveal two Royal Guards already standing inside, and the colonel gestured moodily at Antares, who winced and squeezed in beside the large, armored unicorns before Scutum slipped in as well and hit the button for the seventh floor.

The elevator rose, and Antares felt the short ride was tied with the time Twilight Sparkle caught him staring at the centerfold of a particular type of magazine he'd happened across for 'most awkward moment ever.' When it dinged open, he hurried out into the hall after Scutum... then winced at the sight of two more guards standing down the hall in front of a closed door.

The young stallion couldn't help but notice these guards were also unicorns, and they both bowed their heads respectfully when Scutum approached. The colonel shoved the door open, then he looked back over his shoulder when one of the guards reached towards Antares, saying curtly: “Not necessary. Let him pass.”

The guards both settled and nodded, and Antares smiled lamely as he hurried past the two unicorns and into the luxurious room beyond. He stared dumbly back and forth around the posh suite as he realized that it was probably even nicer than a lot of the rooms in Canterlot, before Scutum announced calmly to the hyperventilating mare across the room: “Antares Mīrus, as requested, Baroness.”

“Oh, oh, oh good!” the mare rambled, blushing deeply beneath her pale coat, flailing her hooves a little as the silver-maned unicorn beside her winced away with a look of distaste... and Antares stared stupidly as he realized that sitting calmly beside Caprice, apparently in the role of secretary, was none other than Prestige Luster's mother. She had the same silver mane, except hers was coiffed back much more elegantly, and the same fleck in her eyes... but her coat was a pretty pink, and her hooves polished and painted silver, and everything about the unicorn was prim, perfect, and neat.

The Baroness was much the opposite: she had too much makeup on, her blonde mane was in a rumpled bun held in place by a few large golden hairpins, and she was wrapped in messy furs as she smiled a little too much at Antares as he hesitantly stepped forwards, before wincing a bit as she hopped off the bed and almost staggered into Scutum. The colonel didn't even flinch, however, only continuing to stand at attention as she veered just past him before skidding to a halt in front of Antares, reaching out to seize one of his hooves and shake it wildly as she declared: “A pleasure, such a pleasure, an honor to meet you, Antares Mīrus! Look, look, oh, do get a photo, Rosewood! Look at me, here, shaking hooves with Antares Mīrus, the Baroness's nephew, what a perfect specimen of pure unicorn heritage!”

“Yes, Baroness Caprice.” Rosewood said tiredly, putting aside her clipboard and gesturing irritably at one of the several large, burly security guards standing around the area. The unicorn soldier quickly turned to a traveling bag, lifting out a camera and passing it with telekinesis to Rosewood.

Caprice smiled brightly as she posed beside Antares, throwing a foreleg around him and making him wince, and Rosewood moodily lifted the camera with telekinesis and snapped a few pictures. Antares only winced and fidgeted, and then he cleared his throat when the pink unicorn put the camera aside, saying lamely: “You said you were... sick, Baroness Caprice? I... I'm really no healer...”

“Oh, now, now, there's no need to be so modest here!” Caprice said kindly, looking up at him and nodding rapidly. “Why, you came most highly recommended from another unicorn healer, and oh, I feel dreadfully under the weather but I'm sure that you can get rid of this awful achy feeling in my head and stomach.”

She looked pitiably at Antares, who sighed a little before he said finally: “I can... cleanse your system, at least. Give your immune system a boost, but-”

“Splendid! I feel better already!” Caprice declared, then she sat herself down in a large armchair nearby, smiling warmly over at Antares and making him wince a little at the fervor she studied him with. “My assistant, Rosewood, tells me you know her daughter Prestige Luster. But then again, Prestige has a great future ahead of her, doesn't she, Rosewood? Her father is the mayor of Silver Hoof, and he's my personal choice as successor! What an unrivaled mind, what a sharp wit, how forwards-thinking he is.”

Rosewood shifted nervously, and Antares looked up, catching a glance from her before Scutum said calmly: “With all respect, Baroness, perhaps you can speak to Antares after he heals your... illness. We wouldn't want it spreading, would we?”

“Oh, oh, no, no, no...” Caprice shook her head at this, looking nervous again as she wiggled in the armchair, and then she gestured a few times at Antares. “Go ahead, then, we can speak afterwards of course... Rosewood, do be a dear and put on tea if you can manage to squeeze into that atrocious little kitchenette.”

Antares couldn't help but lean a little to the side to gaze past Caprice and the separator that divided bedroom suite from the kitchen.... and he stared a little. What Caprice thought was 'tiny' looked larger than the kitchen in his cottage home, and like it had more appliances, too. Then he quickly sat back as Caprice looked at him nervously, and the glossy black young stallion smiled awkwardly before he mumbled: “Uh... just hold still, and I'll be done in a moment.”

Caprice beamed at him as Antares concentrated, breathing slowly and wincing a bit as magical recoil shocked painfully over his horn... but he had just enough strength left for a simple cleansing spell that washed over Caprice, making her squeak a little before she sighed in relief and hugged herself as the glow began to fade, saying cheerily: “Yes, I feel much, much, far better already! You have my gratitude, young Antares, why, what a fine young stallion you are! Now please, sit, sit!”

She gestured almost frantically around at the other furnishings, and Antares hesitantly took a few paces backwards to seat himself on a footstool. He glanced nervously at Scutum, who was still standing calmly nearby at attention, but Caprice had eyes only for the young stallion, leaning forwards and speaking again, her voice fast, overeager, making his nerves feel frayed. “So, tell me, Antares, how is life treating you in Canterlot? Do you live with the Baroness or are you simply visiting? Do they treat you with proper respect? I swear, the nerve of some of these slave-hooves you meet on the street, daring to speak the names of their superiors without being given permission, looking us in the eye, talking to us like commoners and ruffians like they themselves are! Ridiculous!”

Antares bit his tongue, only managing to grunt a little in response: Scutum's eye clearly flicked to the young stallion, studying his reaction, but Caprice only nodded violently as if Antares had heartily agreed with her. “Precisely! But what were we talking about before... oh, yes, Prestige Luster! A true pureblood unicorn... and her noble family; oh, Rosewood, where have you gone, come speak to Antares Mīrus!”

Caprice looked back and forth, and then Rosewood strode back into the room, looking nervous more than anything else. Her eyes drew apprehensively over Antares, studying him, sizing him up, and Caprice smiled and waved hurriedly at the pink pony before she asked the young black stallion curiously: “So do you know Prestige well? Oh, it's too bad she isn't here, we could have such a nice little chat if she was, but I understand her studies require much time and effort... Rosewood, dearest, you said she wasn't just apprenticing under Twilight, but another unicorn sorcerer, yes?”

“Yes, yes, she told me his name was Burning... Flame or something like that. A... a professor at the Magic Academy. And Prestige has written to me about you, of course, Antares.” Rosewood looked awkwardly at Antares, and Antares looked lamely back as he picked up on her emotions, feeling a turbulent mix coming from her... but yes, there was genuine affection and concern for Prestige in there as well. “She tells me you are a... pureblood unicorn. That you and her share... much in common.”

Antares hesitated... and when Rosewood looked almost pleadingly at him, he forced a smile and nodded slowly as he looked at Caprice, saying quietly: “Prestige and I are very good friends. We... we work together a lot, and I trust her. I trust her.” He repeated, looking directly at Rosewood, and the pink unicorn grimaced but nodded slowly.

Caprice looked delighted, clapping her hooves before she said slyly: “Well, perhaps we can interest you one day in coming to visit the proud north... what a handsome suitor you'd make for Prestige, no? Pure of blood, very handsome, many talents and so modest! Why, I'm sure you'd quickly garner the approval of the mayor, too, yes?”

“My husband... would... approve of his pure blood.” Rosewood said awkwardly, and Caprice smiled benevolently, waving a hoof even as Rosewood started to look strained.

“Now don't be like that! Antares is a fine catch, is he not? I'm sure he knows all about our traditions, and approves.” Caprice nodded firmly, and Antares shifted awkwardly before the Baroness asked almost too eagerly: “You haven't been paired off yet, have you? I know the Baroness Celestia can be 'equal thinking' and all, but I expect that she and her marvelously-talented unicorn apprentice both desire to see you with another pureblood, to continue to make the line stronger...”

Antares shifted, blushing a little, but Rosewood interrupted quickly: “There are more factors to consider in partnerships than just talent and attractiveness of course, your ladyship. Antares and Prestige are already very close friends. It might not be proper...”

“Oh, fiddlesticks. I know your husband well, Rosewood, and he's always telling me about how hard Prestige has been trying to follow in his hoofsteps. I'm rather surprised she hasn't already tried to chase you down, young Antares, magnificent specimen that you are, and of such royal heritage!” Caprice crowed, and Antares felt his blood chill a little as Rosewood forced a weak chuckle. “I'd be careful if I were you now, Antares Mīrus. If you were to end up in a romantic situation with Prestige in the heat of the moment, you'd compromise her dowry.”

“What?” Antares asked in a strangled voice, looking up as Rosewood clenched her eyes shut and grabbed at her face in vexation, but Caprice looked both surprised and delighted. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh come, unicorn tradition! Arranging marriages between noble born to ensure the pure-blood line continues.” Caprice said firmly, before she lit up as Antares stared at her. “Oh, or did you mean the dowry, do they no longer have that tradition here? Why yes, you see, the lesser-born family – and of course, Rosewood, I mean no disrespect to you or the mayor – pays the higher-born family a tribute, and pays for the costs of the wedding itself, which is done as soon as all payments are made in full and a formal promise of marriage has been declared and signed. I must say, I'm surprised you aren't seeing suitors already... you would be highly-prized up north. And no matter what a shrewd businesspony your husband is, Rosewood, even the Mayor would have to pay quite a handsome fee... but every bit and treasure paid would be worth it, Antares, don't ever doubt your value!”

Antares could only stare, breathing slowly in and out before Caprice continued cheerfully, even as Rosewood continued to just sit with her face in her hooves: “But of course, the dowry is decreased, even waived completely, if you have sexual relations with the bride-to-be before you're married. And I'm sure the Mayor would seize on this... why, we called him the Mayor long before he was made Silver Hoof's actual mayor, after all! He is such a genius investor, buying up land and lots, and shows such wonderful dedication to his work... even when those slave hooves refused to sell their silly... school? Shelter? What was it, Rosewood, I can never remember.”

“It was an orphanage.” Rosewood mumbled, and Caprice nodded a few times before frowning at Rosewood as the pink pony looked up listlessly.

“You look as if you've caught an awful chill. You'd best go fetch the tea for us, Rosewood, then make yourself a nice cup and sit in the kitchen for a while. Wouldn't want to get anypony sick now, yes?” Caprice asked kindly, and Rosewood slowly pushed herself to her hooves as Antares only sat back, not knowing what to think... and he could only listen in disbelief as Caprice continued easily, as if she was telling a happy story about puppies and kittens and moonbeams: “In any event, the Mayor wasn't deterred at all by their refusal to sell. He simply dug up some ancient land use laws and figured out how to apply them in civil court! A load of unnecessary work, I dare say, since no unicorn court would ever side with a filthy slave hoof, but all the same it showed his character through and through. His work ethic is just incredible, truly admirable. And he plowed down that ugly, nasty spectacle of a mudwalker's nest and put up the prettiest memorial you ever saw, dedicated to the many unicorns that died during the brutal but failed slave-hoof uprising some seventy years ago.”

Caprice sniffed at this, then smiled when Rosewood returned with a cup of tea, taking the saucer in her hooves and inhaling the steam with a smile. “Fitting justice, isn't it? And how irresponsible, isn't it, to make all those foals and then simply toss them on the streets. Mudwalkers have always bred out of control, just like animals, though, and then they blame us for it, the unicorns, like it's somehow our fault those foals don't have mothers and fathers who love them, like it's our fault that they end up out on the street.”

Antares could only stare, feeling hollow inside as Caprice calmly sipped at her tea, and Rosewood looked at him with mixed feelings in her eyes. He slowly turned his gaze to her, and he saw anger, and contempt, and maybe even bitter relief... but at the same time, he also saw longing, and sorrow, and pain, and strangest of all, what seemed like a plea.

The young stallion shakily stood, and Caprice looked up curiously. She started to open her mouth, but Scutum said calmly: “Antares Mīrus has another appointment to attend to, Baroness. I believe he's going to meet Baroness Celestia now.”

Antares looked dumbly up at this, and Caprice squeaked as she almost threw her teacup into the air, quickly shoving it aside onto the arm of a chair. She didn't seem to notice as it spilled over the edge of the furnishing to land on the floor below with a clink, leaping to her hooves as she said hurriedly: “Well, I'll go as well, then! Always a pleasure to meet with the Baroness of Canterlot, after all, Celestia is such a dear and-”

“I would not advise it, Baroness Caprice. You may become sick again, the illness is still being dealt with in the hotel.” Scutum replied calmly, and then he gestured towards Rosewood as Caprice immediately halted in mid-step towards Antares and stared anxiously past him at the closed door, as if Scutum had informed her there were barbarians and demons sitting outside instead of a sickness that so far had proven to be little nastier than a flu virus for all its resilience. “If I may, I would suggest that your assistant could carry a message for you.”

“What a wonderful idea!” Caprice clapped her front hooves together as she sat back on her haunches, nodding rapidly before she gestured quickly at Rosewood, smiling over at her before she enunciated carefully, looking down at her as if she was a child: “Tell Celestia that I would very much like to meet with her, and that it would be very nice if she could bring your daughter, Prestige Luster. Send her my best regards and ensure you treat her with proper respect, Rosewood, can you remember to do all that for me?”

“Yes, Baroness Caprice.” Rosewood said in a mumble, looking dejected, and Antares shivered: now he could see some of why Prestige Luster had taken so long to get used to the idea of equality, had been so viciously defensive of her 'superiority;' now he saw how even amongst unicorns, there were those treated as 'superior' and 'inferior...' and Rosewood's clear pride in her daughter, her conflicting emotions over her and Antares, were beginning to make more sense.

“Excellent.” Caprice said cheerfully, and she reached up and patted Rosewood condescendingly on the head before adding almost dismissively: “And oh, on the way out, ensure that you give whatever mudwalker decreed this hotel of all places should serve as the grounds for their silly medical clinic a firm reprimand and inform them I will be making note of this at the next Royal Council meeting. What idiocy, quarantining this hotel! I bet all the other unicorn and Pegasi are as enraged as I am!”

“The disease was detected here, Baroness Caprice, this is all part of an effort to minimize its spread. But the unicorn doctors informed me that by tomorrow morning they'll have enough vaccines for every pony in the hotel.” Scutum replied calmly, and Caprice wilted a bit at this before she paled visibly as he added with the same unflinching seriousness: “I'll make sure that you are among the first to receive the vaccine in the morning, ma'am. I believe it only requires two needles.”

“Oh my.” Caprice shrank down a bit, trembling before she grinned weakly and asked: “Do... do you think there's any chance we could get our fellow unicorn brethren to mix me a potion or elixir of some sort? Skip that nasty process of needles?”

“I believe it has to be injected directly into the liver, Baroness, for full effect.” Scutum answered, and Caprice stared at him before she slowly turned green as she turned away, and the colonel nodded politely to her. “If you'll excuse us, then. Antares Mīrus, please.”

Scutum politely gestured towards the door, and Antares took the lead, glancing awkwardly over his shoulder and not wanting to admit how nice it made him feel to see Caprice looking so harried, despite the many fears, pains, and that... that sense of emptiness inside of himself.

They made their way out to the hall, and the moment the door closed behind the trio, Antares opened his mouth... and Scutum simply gave him a curt look, the glossy black young stallion awkwardly closing his mouth. They walked towards the elevator, Antares wincing a little before Scutum hit the call button, and the doors again slid open to reveal the cramped compartment and the two guards still standing as stoic and stony as ever.

The three forced their way in, and Antares winced as Rosewood pressed close to him, muttering under her breath as Scutum squeezed in front. It was by far more awkward riding down than it had been riding up, and even Scutum gave a breath of relief when the doors opened and the trio were able to pile out and back into the lobby.

For a few moments, the three just gathered their wits... and then, as the doors of the elevator slid closed, Rosewood straightened a little and said grudgingly: “Thank you for not telling Caprice that you're banging my daughter, splinter-horn.”

“Oh, so you're a nice pony after all.” Antares mumbled before he could stop himself, and then he winced back when Rosewood glared at him, grinding her teeth together loudly as he leaned awkwardly away from her before he felt his emotions twist inside him. And in a moment, he stepped forwards again as all his emotions spun on their head, surprising her with his sudden aggressiveness as he asked sharply: “So what exactly am I to you, then? Splinter horn or pure blood or what? Because you know what, you're not the one here who gets to be angry!”

Rosewood rose a hoof as if to slap him, and Antares steeled himself before he blinked in surprise when Scutum reached up and caught her foreleg. For a moment, Rosewood only breathed hard, and then Scutum said quietly: “Cool down. I don't want a repeat of your last big mistake on my hooves.”

“I am calm, and... this is different.” Rosewood muttered, and then she glowered when Scutum only shook his head slowly, the mare growling under her breath as Antares continued to glare and the one-eyed stallion kept a firm grip on her foreleg until she finally slumped and jerked herself away with a mumble. “Fine. You're getting soft, though, colonel, protecting this mudwalker.”

Antares growled at her under his breath, and Scutum only favored Rosewood with a mild look, saying quietly: “I'd rather be seen as soft by our kind than cruel and stupid by theirs. I'm not your husband, after all, Rosewood.”

The pink mare flinched at this, and Antares opened his mouth before he leaned nervously back when Scutum's single eye turned to him and locked on him. Then the colonel grunted and jerked his head to the side, and Antares and Rosewood both dropped their gazes with grumbles before following when the military unicorn led them away from the elevator and towards a quieter corner of the lobby. The medical workers gave them space... but as Antares looked around, he couldn't help but note in the short time he'd been gone, they'd already packed up most of the supplies that had been here and quite a few of the staff were missing, including Meadowlark. It made him feel nervous for a moment, but he figured that they were likely packing up the clinic: he had faith that Meadowlark wouldn't just leave him.

Then he shivered a bit, thinking of how he'd had faith, too, that Prestige Luster actually cared for him, and he looked slowly towards Rosewood as she surveyed him silently, asking quietly: “So what am I to your daughter? I thought... I thought she actually gave a damn.”

“She...” Rosewood hesitated, and when Scutum looked at her seriously, the pink unicorn sighed grudgingly before looking moodily over at Antares. “My daughter, Prestige Luster, is a pureblood of the most noble rank. She is not only a unicorn, and not only an aristocrat with her father's heritage, but capable of great feats of magic... and she deserves, deserves, a suitor that is her equal.”

“You didn't answer my question at all.” Antares studied her, forcing his emotions down so he could concentrate and summon up his abilities, and Rosewood shifted nervously before the glossy black stallion's eyes narrowed. For a few more moments, there was silence... and then Antares gritted his teeth before he asked sharply: “Why the hell do you look at me with such disgust and yet... Caprice was slavering all over me? I don't understand what's going on!”

“Because you're a splinter-horn mudwalker, and I don't want my daughter being exiled from Silver Hoof and losing everything she could be because she's apparently decided to waste her life with you instead of a proper unicorn!” Rosewood spat out, but she was trembling as she glared furiously down at Antares, pain and sorrow in her eyes as much as anger.

Antares fell silent, staring up at Rosewood as she breathed hard, glaring challengingly at him, and his mind slowly processed her words before his instincts kicked in, as he frowned and lowered his head. The silence drew out, and then Antares looked up and asked quietly: “If you really didn't want me in her life, then why... you saw how upset I was, I know you did, when I thought Prestige was using me. You could have lied a hundred times and driven me off, you could... why are you here, Rosewood, if you think I'm scum?”

“I didn't say I think you're scum, Antares Mīrus. I said you're a splinter horn.” Rosewood replied quietly, bowing her head and closing her eyes tightly, and Antares frowned at this before the mare sighed quietly, then looked up and said in a tired, weak voice: “You have no idea what it's like to be a mother. My daughter is beautiful, and talented, and she's as snarky and rash as me and as calculating and smart as her father. She has his mind... but she has my heart. Antares, most ponies know that your parents were a slave hoof hornless unicorn and the Champion of Equestria, Luna Brynhild... but unicorn blood can flow through the veins of a slave hoof just as water can be pumped through bad piping. Sure, to mate with such filth is wretched and disgraceful, but... the rare blooded slave hoofs are dragged into bed by desperate unicorn mares more often than you think. They're scum... but prized scum. As long as they have pure blood, for whatever defect took their horn from their heads...”

Antares shivered at this, shaking his head slowly, disbelievingly, before Rosewood continued distastefully: “But I know all about you, Antares. Not just your physical deviancy, which unicorns wouldn't be so eager to overlook up north if you weren't known as the Baroness's favored nephew... but how you're no proud pureblood.” Rosewood gave a shiver of disgust, shaking her head slowly. “Preaching equality and that proud unicorns should lower themselves to the level of their servant-class brethren...”

Antares frowned at this: both in revulsion and in thought, as he heard something in the unicorn mare's tone, the structure of her words... “But that's not your problem with me, is it? I mean, it is, but... it's not the fact I believe we're all equal, it's because-”

“Because your beliefs are tarnishing my daughter!” Rosewood spat, glaring furiously at the glossy-black young stallion. “Insolent whelp! You're going to make her lose everything she's ever worked for, spent her entire life trying to become!”

“Maybe, but maybe she can earn something with real value now instead. Maybe I can give her more than the 'proud unicorn north' ever could, here in Equestria, where everyone actually earns their place instead of just being... born lucky or not.” Antares replied sharply, shaking his head. “The old ways aren't good simply because they're old, Rosewood. Traditions like unicorn superiority should die out... should have been dead a long time ago. How could you not see that?”

Rosewood only glared at him dangerously in response, breathing hard in and out, before Scutum cut in quietly: “Don't you believe in your own superiority, Antares Mīrus? From a purely logical standpoint, we unicorns are better, stronger, more equipped to deal with the threats of this world than our kin are. How can you argue that we're equals... how can you not be a hypocrite when you yourself possess wings as well as a horn, making you truly exceptional even among unicorn elite?”

Antares shifted nervously at this, and then he looked up and met Scutum's eye, evenly, saying quietly: “I believe it, though, Scutum, from the bottom of my heart, that we're all equals. Just because someone's stronger, or can do magic, or... anything else, it doesn't make them better. I have a friend who's the smallest Pegasus you'll ever see, even if she's only a little younger than I am... and yet she's the best young athlete in the region and she could take down a platoon of Royal Guard with her hooves tied behind her back. And I have another friend, an earth pony who's little more than a colt, who looks like a big dumb brute... but he's the gentlest, kindest pony you'll ever meet, and he's so smart and talented that it makes me... it makes me jealous sometimes.

“Yeah, because I am some... 'superior' unicorn. But I can't do magic like Prestige. I can't put together or even get technology to work that well, like Rustproof. In a million years, I could never be as fast or as sharp a flier as Avalon. I can't think around corners the way Meadowlark can. And my cousin... little sis, Aphrodisia, I've got nothing on her raw, glowing passion and strength.” Antares closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards. “My friends never, ever give up. But I do, all the time. My friends don't fixate on the past that they've lost, they move towards the future. And I get jealous and envious of all the things they can do but I never will, mighty unicorn or not. What the hell does superiority mean, Scutum? What's strength, really? What about honor, where's the honor in tyrannizing all these talented, wonderful ponies who are each special in their own way, have strengths that no matter who or what they are, we unicorns can never achieve by magic or theft or all the dirty, filthy things I've learned our ancestors did for power... how can you still think you're superior when the only way we Equestrians have ever gotten anywhere is by standing up as equals and working together, not as unicorn or Pegasus or earth pony, but... just as ponies?”

“I didn't say I was superior, Antares. I said I was stronger, and that I'm better outfitted to survive in this harsh world we live in.” Scutum replied calmly, and for a few moments the two studied each other before Antares smiled faintly, feeling something clicking into place in his mind.

“The strong have to protect the weak, right?” Antares asked quietly, and Scutum nodded calmly. The glossy-black young unicorn smiled wider after a moment, studying the unicorn before he turned his eyes to Rosewood, who had her head lowered, looking uncomfortable. “Prestige is... she's learning a lot here, Rosewood. She's learning that ponies are equal, no matter what she was taught in the past, even if... she slips a little now and then. And... I... I care about her. And I want to believe that she cares about me.”

“She does care about you.” Rosewood said quietly, looking slowly down, and Antares leaned forwards, heart thudding in his chest before the pale pink unicorn looked up and shook her head slowly. “She tells me everything, Antares. She told me about your first kiss, and about all her training in Subterra... under a demon, of all things. She told me about how close you are, and she writes in her letters all about how her world view is changing, but Antares... Antares... I don't want her taken away from me. I don't want her disgraced, do you understand that?”

Rosewood trembled a little, leaning forwards and shaking her head. “If word of this got out, the Mayor would tell Caprice, and Caprice would exile her. I would be shamed and become a laughingstock. They'd run me out of the baronies and my daughter and I would have to start over... would be left with nothing. I grew up from nothing, Antares: my family is not noble-born, and there are no powerful magicians... only... servant unicorns. But I was the most feasible option in Silver Hoof, and the Mayor married me, and I... bore him a foal, and that sealed our partnership. I have everything I've ever wanted, and even if the Mayor only looks at his daughter as an heir to be paired with another noble unicorn and continue the pureblood lineage, I love her. I love my daughter, Antares, so much so, and I don't want her to have to live as a poor, worthless soul, in an Equestria where no pony will look at her for the shining perfection she is. When her training is done, Antares, and she comes back home, they'll treat her like royalty, they'll give her everything she wants, unicorns will bow to her-”

“And none of it would mean anything! Open your eyes, Rosewood... what would you prefer, Prestige to earn real respect and admiration and friendships, or do you want to turn her into something fat and slovenly and as entitled as Caprice?” Antares shot back, and then he winced when Rosewood snarled at him and lunged forwards, Scutum gritting his teeth as he grabbed the pink unicorn and held her back.

She grabbed wildly at Antares, but he leaned out of the way as Rosewood shouted furiously: “My daughter is nothing like her! What the hell is worth living for down here, Antares? Do you really think their kind will ever forgive our kind for what we've done to them? Better to sit at the head of a table of unicorns than it is to spend every day getting looked down on by mudwalkers because you're trying to fit into their society! You don't know what it's like, pure little 'hero,' for me or for Prestige, or how they hold all the crimes of every unicorn over our heads... I... I...”

Rosewood trembled, then slumped and dropped her head, whispering: “I don't want Prestige to go through that. She can be a queen of the north, even if the north is just a lie... or she can stay here in the Canterlot Barony, and spend the rest of her life as some nameless unicorn magician, stuck in your shadow, and smeared by everything her family's done in the past. No pony will ever forget that, Antares. Slave hooves have long memories and angry hearts. Or do you want to wake up every morning beside a miserable wife to find angry letters and graffiti telling you and your kind to go back to where you belong?”

“Prestige has to make the decision herself.” Antares said quietly, and then he hesitated before looking across at Rosewood and saying softly: “And... Rosewood... I'm going to take care of her. I promise that I am. Equestria isn't like you think... or at least, it's treated Prestige a lot better than... I'm guessing it treated you.” He quieted, studying her as she slowly looked up, before he smiled a little, bowing his head silently. “I'm not going to steal her away from you, Rosewood. I'm... I want to help.”

Rosewood looked at him for a few moments, then she slowly shook her head and muttered: “Slave hoof. Don't patronize me... I'm not so desperate that I need the help of you or your kind. I... I only want the best for my daughter.”

For a few moments, there was silence... and then Antares looked up in surprise as Meadowlark's voice said quietly, the Pegasus approaching from the side with a faint smile on her face: “He is the best thing that could happen to your daughter, miss. He's... he's the best thing that could happen to a lot of ponies. And Prestige... she was hard for all of us to stomach at first, but she's... a friend now. She's smart, and she and Antares... are good together.”

It caused Meadowlark visible pain to say this as she looked quietly at Antares, who smiled back, swallowing a little. Rosewood and Scutum both observed them silently for a few moments, and then Scutum glanced over at the pale pink mare and said quietly: “Don't be an idiot, Rose.”

“Screw you, Scutum.” Rosewood retorted, and then she shook her head slowly and looked moodily over at Meadowlark, saying moodily: “A shorn-wing just walks up and gives me advice on my own daughter, this-”

“Don't talk about her like that.” Antares said sharply, and Rosewood looked surprised at this before the young stallion blushed a bit, even as he straightened and said quietly: “She's my friend, and a friend of Prestige... shouldn't that... isn't that proof enough that maybe her life here can be a good one? That unlike you... she's escaped?”

Rosewood hesitated for a few long moments... but before they could further argue, Scutum said calmly: “Caprice will be whining by now for the guards to come find us. We should return to the room, Rosewood.”

The pale pink unicorn stuck her tongue out at him childishly, but then she nodded grumpily before turning her eyes to Antares. The two looked at each other for a moment, and then he yelped when she slapped him across the face, Meadowlark staring and Scutum only sighing before Rosewood said moodily: “Treat my daughter nicely, mudwalker. And don't get her pregnant on top of everything else.”

“We're not even doing that yet!” Antares said in a strangled voice, a little louder than he meant to, and then he blushed as several ponies turned to look at him. Rosewood only ignored him, and the glossy black stallion sighed before he looked up awkwardly as Scutum studied him silently.

Then the one-eyed stallion nodded once before saying calmly: “Baroness Caprice has business here for the next few weeks. I would request that we meet at some point during that time, I have something I want to talk to you about.”

“I... uh... okay. I'll be in Ponyville shortly, though...” Antares said awkwardly, but Scutum only nodded before he turned and strode off, and Antares looked blankly after the large stallion before he mumbled to Meadowlark as she winced a little: “Let's... let's just head back to Subterra. And... thanks.”

Meadowlark only shrugged and smiled a little, turning to follow him quietly to the doors, and the two young ponies stepped out of the hotel. Antares blinked in surprise as a white flake of snow landed on the end of his nose, and Meadowlark laughed, then blushed when Antares gave her an amused and surprised look as she reached up to cover her mouth. Then both ponies looked skywards, gazing into the cloudy night sky as more flakes of snow twinkled slowly down through the air, Antares murmuring: “First snowfall of winter... real late, but... better than never, right?”

“Late... is always better than never. And sometimes waiting makes it better.” Meadowlark agreed, and she smiled softly as she gazed quietly at Antares as he looked up into the night sky above.