• Published 17th Mar 2013
  • 906 Views, 106 Comments

The Devil's Details - Carabas

Three stallions are hurled to the other side of the world from Equestria, and must survive the journey home across a vast and perilous continent. Worse still, they may even have to become friends.

  • ...

The Long-Term View

It was a matter of a half-hour for the headmistress to be appraised and for Skewbald to be brought before her. Mancery, a rose-coloured mare with crossed wands on a chalkboard for a cutie mark, began the meeting hoping that the situation was some grievous misunderstanding that could be resolved with a little peaceful mediation and minimal punishment. She finished it with a little less faith in pony nature than she'd had before.

Skewbald tried to pass off the incident as a harmless misunderstanding, playing to what he knew of Mancery's expectations, and took care to include the expressed hope that Caballus made a total recovery from whatever Skewbald may have thoughtlessly done.

The words themselves weren't bad. It was just the lack of anything like emotion in the tone with which they were uttered that let them down.

The headmistress was unmoved.

Sensing a cooling of attitudes, Skewbald decided that the story had to be amended. The misunderstanding between students turned into a misfiring ritual, the energies of which had violently thrown Skewbald into a wall and Caballus out the window.
This too would have been fine enough, if not for the fact that there wasn't a hair out of place on Skewbald's coat and mane, it was contested by the eyewitnesses who'd seen the unicorn at the window, the neat stacks of books in his room hadn't apparently been touched, and that it directly contradicted sentences spoken a few minutes earlier.

The headmistress was yet unmoved.

Aware that his future at the school was now on the ropes if not out for the count altogether, Skewbald hurriedly tried to shift some measure of blame to Caballus, implying that the other unicorn had threatened him into performing a rote spell they didn't have the magical muscle for. This did less than nothing to smooth over past contradictions, went against everything on Caballus's record, and wasn't helped by the fact that Skewbald only remembered about emotions and injecting them into one's tone in order to convince near the end.

A mountain would have envied the headmistress’s immovability.

Mancery called the meeting to a halt and ordered Skewbald to be put under guard by the school's security while his room was cleared out. Once her office was emptied of others, she pulled out a sheet of paper. With no satisfaction, but with a certain grim determination to see justice done, Mancery began drafting a formal letter of expulsion.

She debated briefly whether to get the Canterlot Guard involved, but decided against it. She'd just take the finished letter to Princess Celestia for her approval – for it was, technically, Celestia's school – and see this whole matter dealt with and over.

In a wide, well-appointed office at the top of the Lance, Canterlot's tallest tower, Princess Celestia battled with the collected paperwork that would see Equestria continue to function.

The paperwork, she felt, was winning. Goodness knows what its eventual triumph over her sanity would look like, and she didn’t especially want to find out.

Despite the best efforts of Equestria’s Parliament, bureaucracy, and multitude of ambassadors, Celestia managed to devote the largest amount of her attention to keeping the sun moving. Light streamed in through the open windows which filled the walls on all sides, setting surfaces aglimmer and the armour and lance tips of the two waiting Dayguard blazing.

A speaking tube by the door thumped, and one of the Dayguard made to pick it up.

"Let them in, whoever it may be," said Celestia, grateful for the brief distraction. The paper and quills fell into organised piles around her.

The door opened, and Celestia brightened when she saw Princess Luna, with two Nightguard pegasi in tow. Luna looked somewhat dishevelled and windswept, but an infectious grin on face managed to light the room even more.

"Did the Nocturna's maiden voyage go well?" asked Celestia.

"Well, for a given value of 'well', sister mine." Hoarseness crackled at the edge of Luna's voice, evidence of recent use of the Royal Canterlot Voice.

Celestia looked askance at her sister as Luna trotted to a stop before Celestia's desk, a teapot complete with cosy and cups being drawn out from below the desk. The Nightguard took up their own positions next to the Dayguard.

"What given value applies in this instance?" Celestia filled the cups, and passed one to Luna while sipping from her own.

"I confess myself to be no expert on these airship contraptions. But is it reasonable to assume that the engine falling out the bottom halfway through a flight indicates a design flaw?"

Tea wasn't sprayed across the room thanks to centuries of learned self-control on Celestia's part. "What? Was anypony hurt?"

"No. I was able to arrest the fall of the craft with magic and guide it to a flat surface. Many of our subjects below looked most appreciative when the deed was done. I received cheers. And a flower from a foal." Luna indicated the battered daisy stuck behind one ear. "The engineers and pilots aboard insisted on apologising a lot. They assured me they'd iron it out in the beta, whatever such referred to."

"I could send over some of the engineers who worked on the Diurna. They'd be able to see that sort of problem gone."

Luna made a face. "In all honesty, I'd wish for a chariot over an airship. Chariots hold an unmatched swiftness and … well, stateliness. And 'tis known that their means of propulsion aren't like to suddenly fall out."

"Always an important factor when crafting any such vessel," said Celestia, smiling.

The Dayguard and Nightguard, while their princesses spoke, settled into their routine of each trying to look more alert and fit for duty than the other. Wings flapped, peytrals creaked, and necks and spines stiffened for the sake of their old rivalry. Even though the Nightguard hadn't actually existed for any more than a year, everypony agreed that it would have deserved to be an old rivalry if not for that trifling detail.

The speaking tube thumped again, and hooves scuffed on the floor as one of the Dayguard succeeded in getting to it first. Words distorted by distance and metal crackled out, and the guard coughed to get the attention of the princesses.

"Princess Celestia, Headmistress Mancery requests a moment of your time," he said. "Shall she be given entry?"

Celestia frowned. The headmistress didn't make a habit of pressing for Celestia's attention. "Let her in." She turned to Luna, smiling wearily. "Business always calls. This shouldn't take too long."

The doors opened to admit Mancery. The headmistress bowed briefly and then trotted briskly forward, a folded sheet of paper drifting by her side.

"I apologise for disturbing you, princesses," she said, presenting the paper to Celestia. "A small matter's arisen in the school that needs to be resolved as quickly as possible. A student's warranted expulsion, and that needs your approval and signature."

"Expulsion?" Celestia frowned. The sort of students who earned a place at the school weren't those who usually earned lines, let alone anything more serious. She took the paper and scanned down it. Luna craned her own head to read it as well.

"What condition is Caballus in?" Celestia said halfway down, her voice briefly hard and cold.

"Very stable. There are wards placed around the tower levels in case of such or similar cases, and they prevented serious harm from being done. With assisted healing, his leg should be as good as new within a few days. Not that that should excuse Skewbald to any degree," replied Mancery.

Celestia finished reading and placed the paper on her desk.

"Skewbald Doul," she said. "The name rings a bell. Coltsburgh? Scholarship student?" She made a point of meeting each student after they'd earned entry, and tried to visit the school as often as her duties allowed.

"So I understand," said Mancery. "Do you wish to see his records?"


Mancery focused briefly. A flash of red about her horn summoned a small binder to her with the crack of displaced air. It was one of many in the school's offices, kept for the sake of potential posterity and security. She passed it over, one brow slightly raised.
Celestia took the binder in a telekinetic hold, and absently finished her tea as she opened it and started reading.

The next minute passed in silence as Celestia flicked through page after page. Luna watched her sister with an impassive gaze and Mancery frowned.

Eventually, the binder was closed and placed on the desk, and Celestia stood still, her expression thoughtful and her gaze elsewhere.

"I feel I have to amend this punishment, Mancery," said Celestia. "And I give you fair warning that you're probably not going to like it."

She explained, and she was right; Mancery didn't like it. But the princess's word was final, and Mancery put reluctant trust in what she proposed.

"I'll explain it to him after I'm finished here," said Celestia, casting a glance back at the paper stacks and mentally estimating how much would yet be sent to her before the paperwork portion of her day was out. "Send him up to me in … three hours. Keep him held by school security in the meantime."

"Shall his belongings be moved to the airdocks?" asked Mancery.

"Only if he accepts what I'll ask of him. He is perfectly free to accept expulsion, and he'll probably want his things nearer at hoof if he does."

Mancery bowed and left, the door slamming shut behind her. With a sigh, Celestia rose and paced over to the other side of the room, to the open terrace facing west. Luna followed after her a few moments later, and rested her hooves up on the stone ledge.
On this terrace at the very top of the Lance, Canterlot's tallest tower, there were few things to the west Celestia couldn't see. There was no place touched by the sun in Equestria that was truly beyond her sight if she put her mind to it.

From the streets of Canterlot, there came bustle and rattling wheels and distant chatter. From the skies around, there came the rush of passing chariots and weather teams. Outside, looking west past the mountain into which Canterlot was set and down into the rolling plains, a silver river fresh from the mountain snaked its way through patchwork farmland in the middle distance. Past that farmland, on the very edge of the horizon, towers and factories began to grow up around the river.

Coltsburgh muddied the waters with the offshoots of industry, and spat nearly every manufactured good conceived of into Equestria by way of exchange. Factories blossomed, churning out steel and airship parts and magical synthetics and dyes and spun cloth on assembly lines beneath a forest of steam-venting chimneys and smokestacks. Houses and flats nestled around them, perpetually shrouded in a thin grey pall despite near-continuous work from the local weather teams. Narrow streets and alleys wound around and between the tall buildings, and steamboats and cargo-carrying airships gathered thick in the river and air.

"I would query thy decision," said Luna, as Celestia stood and regarded Equestria in silence. "What has the student done to deserve such clemency? That manner of utterly vicious reaction-"

"Every pony deserves a chance to atone for their mistakes. Whatever can lie within a pony that drives them to such deeds can be amended through their own efforts and a little help and luck." Celestia smiled softly. "Besides, I do have precedent on my side for this."

"...Not truly. When last thou effected such an action, the pony in question had a pre-existing special bond with others where you sent her, they faced an immediate peril that required them to bond through teamwork, thou weren't doing it partly as a punishment, and, and this is not an insubstantial and, she hadn't previously thrown another unicorn out of a window."

"It isn't a perfect fit for Twilight Sparkle. But then, I'll confess that I can't help but see … long-ago parallels with another."

Luna stood still there, and seemed almost to shiver. Celestia drew closer to her and nuzzled her gently.

"Not you," she murmured, and Luna relaxed slightly. Only slightly.

"You're referring to...?"


From where they stood, the endless Greycairn Mountains couldn't be seen. But in that moment, their presence loomed heavily in mind.

Luna glanced around briefly, taking in the waiting guards and the bustle of Cantlerlot below. Darkly-glowing magic coiled around her horn and spun out suddenly, drawing a veil of silence over her and Celestia. The outside world was muted, just as their own speech would be to any potential listeners.

Picking up on the action quickly, Celestia added her own magic to the veil, a golden aura distorting the air around them both. Any potential lip-readers would likewise find themselves thwarted.

Even when inaudible to the outside world, even with the very motions of her mouth indiscernible, Luna kept her voice low. "How often hast thou been able to ascertain his containment?"

"Once every five decades for the last three centuries, and more frequently before then. Each time, the mountain was quiet and unbroken. He remains contained." Celestia's soft murmur matched Luna for volume. "I was going to visit again during the upcoming state tour. It'll go as far as Bovaland, so I would have some manner of excuse to be in that region anyway."

"Good," said Luna, the lines of her face hardening. "Were a Princess were not needed to manage affairs here, I would go with thee and be certain myself."

Celestia didn't reply immediately. Silence pressed down for a moment before she said softly, "We shall have to attend to him in the end, one way or another. But not yet. Not until we can be sure to handle him between us."

Luna looked away and then briskly unwove the spells about them. The noises of Canterlot rushed back in to fill the hush, and the two sisters turned to trot back into the office.

"'Tis thy decision," said Luna, in the same ringing tones as if they'd been discussing the student all along. "But not all mercy is recognised and appreciated. Some are beyond it."

"If the student proves so, then it won't be the first mistake I've made about another. It likely won’t be the last. But I can't not offer mercy where it might grow into something better." Celestia heard Equestria's annual output of paper calling her name and pulled herself away. "Duty calls, my sister. Meet me at the dusk?"

"As always."

Skewbald had worn a groove in the room's floor by the time the summons finally came.

He had spent the first half-hour trying to assess his options for when he was inevitably kicked out of the school, and hadn't been inspired by any of them. The school had provided lodging, food, and entertainment in the form of the library for him for the past eight years while imposing very few annoyances, and he had nothing of value or contacts in the city to call upon.

Finding a job could have been easily done. Nopony else needed to know about the expulsion, and it would just be a matter of projecting the right image and giving the right assurances. Physical labour in the trainyards or workshops in the lower sections of Canterlot was all that was likely to be immediately available, however, and would be hard to do well with his small build. He wasn't some mule or an earth pony, after all.

He could leave the city. Indeed, he'd have to if he wanted any sort of work suitable for his talents. The Baltimare Arcane Institute might be looking for someone with fine magical control; though it occurred to him that they'd have frequent contact with the School for Gifted Unicorns and be warned off him as a result. Trottingham, perhaps? Or Manehattan, or San Franciscolt, or anywhere suitably large and filled with opportunities for a bright young unicorn. Plans at this stage tended to devolve into disconnected murkiness, but he saw no reason why they couldn't be devised as he went.

Getting to any of these places would have been a problem, but not an insurmountable one, and he was considering it when Mancery returned and crisply informed him that he would go before Celestia in a matter of hours.

That had given him a lot more to think about. He had met the princess briefly after passing the test to get into the school in the first place, and he'd seen her only at a distance since then. Did she just want to lecture at him before he went, or was she changing whatever his punishment had been? Were matters being treated more severely by the authorities than Skewbald had thought?

Lecturing didn't seem like her style, though. The impression Skewbald had gotten was all warmth and gracious smiles and stooping down to the eye-level of the foal she'd been speaking to. To him, it had almost been like ...

No. Let those memories gather dust.

Skewbald had paced, and tried to plan for a number of eventualities his imagination had thrown at him, and had used his magic to order objects in the room as much as he could past the magical inhibitor tied around his horn, and cursed the stupid inability of lie-crafting to be as easy as composing a simulacra. It had almost come as a relief when one of the Dayguard finally opened the door, gruffly ordering him to follow.

Skewbald did so, out of the room, out of the building, across the courtyard, and up the great winding stair that led to Celestia's office. Finally they reached the tower's top, where the guard silently ushered him in.

He saw the princess waiting on a terrace across from the door, where she was watching the growing dusk. The colours of her mane and tail bled into the sky, the edges of each marked by where the stars started to dot the darkness. Her face was turned away; he could read nothing.

Skewbald trotted in cautiously past the guards on either side, and got no response from her. He ventured, "Princess Celestia?"

She turned, and there was little about the merciful princess in her countenance. Her mouth was a hard line, her spread wings eclipsed the dusk at her back. Skewbald bowed, as was proper, and when he rose after a few seconds, her expression hadn't changed.

The memory of warmth vanished like a candleflame in a blizzard. Skewbald found himself reflexively looking for a place to shrink away to, and forced himself to stay standing.

"You know why you've been summoned, Skewbald Doul."

It occurred to Skewbald on an intellectual level that trying to lying to or manipulate the princess would probably be a really bad idea. Bad on levels inestimable by pony science.

"I do, Princess."

"You will explain your actions."

"Caballus interrupted me in my room, Princess," Skewbald said. "He'd been pestering me in the library, hallways, and after lectures for a few weeks, in the name of getting me to 'loosen up'. In his own words."

That wasn't entirely untrue. Caballus was a happy social butterfly who attracted and returned smiles and conversation wherever he went. He'd taken notice of Skewbald and had tried to engage him in cheerful pleasantries. Upon being told where he could go and annoy somepony else, he had seemed to regard Skewbald as something of a challenge.

"He hid in my wardrobe earlier today, and when I was studying, he thought it would be amusing to jump out at me."

It was a well-meaning and ill-judged attempt to amuse Skewbald as well, but he wasn't inclined to spare Caballus any sympathy regardless. Celestia still looked as cold and remote as a mountain's peak.

"Which was when you assaulted him with magic, not caring how badly he was hurt. Nor for the ponies below who could have been injured by falling glass." Ice all but fell from the Princess's voice.

"It … was a hasty reaction on my part, Princess. I wasn't thinking in that moment." A lie that galled Skewbald slightly in the telling. He prided himself on always thinking clearly in every moment, even if, he was forced to confess, he was usually too busy thinking in each moment and not normally the ones that would follow.

"Had you reacted with more care, more discretion, more thought, then you wouldn't be in your position." The Sun-Princess leaned forward, her magenta eyes gleaming like steel. "And I do not like the sort of reaction that comes forth to hurt one of my little ponies."

Skewbald closed his eyes and braced himself for expulsion.

"Thank your stars, then. I am prepared to offer you a chance beyond expulsion, which may help all of us in the long run," said Celestia. Skewbald's eyes slammed open again and he looked straight up at her.

"What is that chance?"

"You will be suspended from the School for Gifted Unicorns. You will not live there, learn there, access the materials there, or be permitted inside. And for as long as your suspension lasts, you will be banished from Canterlot."

That was much better than expulsion. Skewbald had no wish to leave the school forever, and being obliged to leave temporarily was better than the alternative.

"In addition, you will be taken by sky-chariot to the town of Fort Livery, where you shall be able to seek out lodgings and employment."

That wasn't so good. Being stuck in some pathetic town out in the middle of utterly nowhere with the chance of re-entry to the school was still better than outright expulsion, but a city would have been much more preferable. He still wasn't complaining too much. For all he knew, he'd be in and out of the town in an eye's-blink.

"How long will my suspension last, Princess?"

"It will be conditional. While you are in Fort Livery, you will make the company of other ponies. You will report to me regularly on your progress. And you will be admitted back into the school when you have learned about the magic of friendship."

"…What?" said Skewbald.