The Changeling of the Guard

by vdrake77

First published

Not all changelings are fit for life in a hive. But that doesn't mean they're capable of life outside it, either. Join one such changeling as he tries to find his place in Equestria, and what the difference is between survival and living.

Idol Hooves holds a special place in Equestria. He's probably the only exiled changeling to serve in the Royal Guard, or at least, that's what he expects, as exiles don't really broadcast that fact. However, it's well known that Princess Celestia loves all of her little ponies, and her guards perhaps more so, and that makes it one of the best ways for a changeling to discreetly feed.

But how does a changeling even get there, let alone get exiled in the first place? For that matter, why would it ever go to Canterlot? Set a number of years before the series proper, before Luna’s redemption, Idol details how he was exiled, the ponies he’s met, and the series of misadventures that led him to joining the Royal Guard, and should continue a good ways into the series, as something of an alternate perspective.

Soon, he’ll have to deal with a boisterous new princess to serve and a royal wedding in the works bringing a third to power. Will his old instincts bring this new life crashing down around him? What precipitates Chrysalis’s ill-fated assault on Canterlot? Is it really so wrong for a changeling to enjoy good craftsmanship to an obsessive degree?

New cover art provided by the fantastic Carnifex

And a TVTropes page here.

And an Ask Blog of questionable canonity!
Out of Idol Curiosity

Fanart by Norad2! Major thanks! Short For a Royal Guard

Art by Egophiliac of Idol and his Daring Duckie Please don't tell him what that brush is meant for.

Rating updated to (T), it's a bit darker than (E)
Comedy Tag added as well
And changed the character tags a bit.

Making The Wrong Choice

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Life in a hive is less onerous than most ponies would think. There is comfort. There is family. There is even enjoyment to be had in simple conversation between hivemates. That this communication happens in frequencies ponies can barely hear, at speeds they don’t comprehend, is largely irrelevant. And perhaps less… intimate. It is also different. A pony is considered themselves, part of their family, by their profession, of their hometown, their race, and then finally, a citizen of Equestria, under the rule of Princess Celestia. With our kind, the importance is reversed; Within the Hive of Chrysalis, in the nest near the Saddle Arabian border, amongst the drones that perform excavation and building, I exist. If I would not exist, another would simply carry on in my place. Ponies find this idea abhorrent, but truly, there is some comfort to be had, being part of something so much greater than yourself. There can be pride that it is not some other drone doing your task; that you, personally, are building something the hive will use, live in, and raise offspring in, potentially for generations.

A regular misconception about changelings is that we only feed upon love. Though we do feed upon it, and it will sustain us for a period of time with no physical sustenance, the truth is more complicated. Emotions are both currency and a fuel. One heartfelt declaration of love can heal a damaged exoskeleton, lift a heavy burden, allow a changeling foal a few precious minutes of delight as they play amongst the tunnels of the hive with their nestmates… or grant a warrior the will and mystical might to take down prey for the hive’s more physical nourishment. As such, emotions must be carefully marshalled. Each level of society stores some emotional essence. A drone shall hold it within themselves. A small group of changelings will have access to more, in total. A nest allows even greater. A hive possesses a vast quantity in comparison. The Queen can access power from any of these, and her personal capability to contain emotion is… substantial. Enough that she may afford a diligent drone a pleased smile that will lighten his spirit for days. Or a scowl to a foolish one that may haunt him for weeks... or the rest of his soon to be drastically shortened life.

You see. The Queen, more than any other outside force, determines the fate of a changeling, even from birth. She chooses which eggs hatch, which will not be allowed to, and in many cases, personally decides how to handle failures within the hive in matters that are beyond minor infractions. She is, as ponies would understand it, our Celestia and our Nightmare Moon. She is glorious and terrible, and she is ours. We love and loathe her for it. She has stood against dragons for the benefit of the hive, and she has shattered thousands of eggs, maintaining our numbers in the efficient, cold way that befits our kind. She also brings those hatchlings that survive adolescence into the hive, gives them the true understanding of our kind. She has our best interests at heart. She must. Without her, we are lost. In many ways, she is the Hive, mind and spirit. She also has the ability to ration out this emotional energy with far more talent and less waste than any mere changeling, even those who specialize in the task. As such, she routinely travels between nests to distribute energies to those who have been less able to gather.

I have always been… different. Special. Aberrant. I possess less of the ability to control my emotions. Curiosity compels me, and not merely towards outside of the hive. Amongst our kind, lack of fine emotional control is embarrassing, but tolerated in some respects. Hunters are allowed more leeway with anger, as it bolsters offensive capability. Nursemaids to the hatchlings are encouraged to be affectionate, to ensure that the young are well fed. Scouts are driven by curiosity, the urge to see more. Gatherers… Well. Much is presumed about the gatherers. But rarely do they spend much time within the hive. My curiosity, however, was for how things work. This may seem like no crime. However, the hive runs like the gears of a clock. Our tasks are completed in the manner they were explained, and no more. One does not simply alter the schedule. And the hive has little tolerance for unimportant questions. Curiosity does not warrant concern from a drone, especially one tasked to expansion of the nest, as I was.

Perhaps more damning, I was considered a prankster by my kind. Shaping stalactites to drip water on the back of changelings passing through a corridor is highly concerning. It distracts in an inappropriate, unacceptable way, for little benefit beyond allowing an observer to see how a changeling reacts to sudden chill water on their chitin. And then… I wanted to try new ways of building. Several of the chambers planned went up more quickly due to my ideas, but were deemed unstable after one particularly large section collapsed during a harsh storm. The strangeness of my work had caused concern, but the efficiency of building had seemed promising, even to the hive. After the failing, the hive recalled my ‘troublesome’ nature. It was briefly debated that I had done this purposefully. Delayed construction. Wasted hive resources. It was an ugly period. And it drew the Queen’s notice more firmly towards myself, and that is where my story truly begins.

It never occurred to me to ignore her summons. Nor did it occur to any other changeling to interfere on my behalf, or to speak out against me. The Queen demanded my presence. All of my tasks were immediately taken up by others... there was no gossip, no questioning, and if there was the slightest bit of satisfaction that my actions were finally being responded to appropriately, it could have perhaps been my imagination.

It could have been.

Walking into the Queen’s viewing chamber was a lonely experience. That is to say, when I crossed the threshold, everything became muted. I no longer had the benefit of the experience of hundreds of drones who had walked this path before… I could no longer hear the comforting sound of the many changelings performing their tasks. Then, the last time I had been so near the Queen, I had been very small, little more than a hatchling myself. Perhaps she tuned out the constant low hum of speech and constant access to the mind of the hive, and in so doing blocked me from it as well. A chilling thought. She was preoccupied, watching an image within a large crystal mounted in the center of the room on a pedestal. The image flowed and shifted, a royal figure standing before a throne on a golden dias within a marble room. I’d never seen the figure before, of course, as I’d never wandered so far from the hive, and the Queen had little truck with such gaudy nonsense. It took me a moment to realize that she had not even realized my approach, and I gave a faint buzz to gently announce my presence, just as flame leapt within the crystalline image.

Let it be said, one should never sneak up on royalty. Her neutral mask cracked for only a second, and the wave of rage, disgust, and pain that washed over me struck me so hard I thought my carapace would crack. I fell prostrate before her, suddenly certain that my foalishness had cost me my life, but uncertain what I had done wrong. I briefly began to send word to the others, to inform them of danger… but who would answer? The Queen was in pain, what had I done? I should be destroyed for such a failing. I should never have existed, that I had-

“Rise, drone. You have done nothing wrong this day.” And just like that, the Queen was aloof again. The Queen’s emotions were her own again. What had I witnessed? There had been ponies in the image. Was the queen planning some sort of harvest? The knowledge that she was annoyed by the gaudiness, that should have alerted me to her inattentiveness: The queen’s feelings had slipped into my mind with such clarity that I had simply not realized they were not my own… but her thoughts were still a mystery.

“My Queen, may I be of service?” I had not meant to speak it aloud. I knew why I was here. Though I wished to help, my wishes were irrelevant, I was to be punished for past transgressions, not to offer her… well, there was nothing I could offer her that she could not simply will from me and I would gladly give. Vocalizing it so was pointless.

A small, grim chuckle escaped her. The sound was grating, unpleasant and disconcerting. “Work ethic from a lazy drone. How interesting.”

Something rose up within me, and I looked up at her in shock and outrage. “Lazy, my Queen? When have I ever-“

“No, you haven’t… not lazy, then. Your chamber collapsed, drone. Why did you build it incorrectly, if not in an attempt to shirk your duties?”

“It… was not meant to be incorrect, my Queen. It simply seemed… better. To change the design, to make the arches differently. It seemed that it would be sturdier this way. And faster than the traditional method.”

“And who told you this thing, drone? Who authorized you to make the decision to change what has always been?” The question had been asked with more curiosity than it merited, but the Queen was known for her excesses, and in truth, the taste of it was tantalizing.

“I was not told, my Queen, nor authorized. I… thought there was a way to improve the hive. It was discarded, I attempted to prove it correct.”

She raised an eye at that. “You failed and it collapsed. A waste of time and effort.”

“I believe I can improve it. I believe I know what went wrong-“ Here, her eyes flashed with fury, and I trailed off.

“You would continue to stray from tradition? Your failed idea could have killed your nestmates, and for what?”

“I… only wish to improve the hive, my Queen. The chambers are all the same, they are time consuming, require much maintenance, are unpleasant to look upon-“ I silenced myself, wishing I had not voiced that strange last portion, but it had been said.

“…So. You find your hive ugly? You don’t care for the work of your hivemates over the generations?”

“It is… functional, my Queen. But if it can be made better without slowing down the construction or sacrificing utility-“ Again, I trailed off. That had not been said with the fury of moments before. But why?

“Have you ever spoken thus to another of this nest?”

“N..No, your majesty. I have never. I am… that is, it makes no sense. The aesthetics of the hive are irrelevant. But if it can be done, then why should it not be?”

The Queen chuckled again, but this time it seemed… different. Instead of grim, she was amused, and… pleased? Why would these flashes of mood be so different? Perhaps the Queen’s excesses were greater than I’d imagined. “You ask a question many of our kind do not, drone. Few of them give such things a moment’s thought.” She eyed me speculatively. “Are you not of the forty second generation? I have not seen much promise in the forty-first, or your kin, or even the forty-third.” Forty-third? I had not paid much attention to such things, but that would imply my own generation had taken to procreation. I had not, but then, our nest’s population was pleasingly stable, and changelings can live a very long time.

“I am, my Queen.”

“Have you bred?” I blinked at the statement. Then I began to see. I was an aberration. My thoughts were tainted somehow. It made sense. The Queen would have to remove this flaw from the hive, lest it spread. I was going to die. It was only… logical. Even so, I wanted to flee from her presence. Prove my worth somehow, convince her that I was not flawed. But no. This was done.

“I have not.”

“Hmm.” She began to walk a small circle around me. I drew myself up slightly taller, though still dwarfed by the Queen’s size. I had failed her and my hive, but I would not cower, would not waste more of the hive’s resources. If I could push out what little energy I had before I died, perhaps she could recover that, at least. “Do you like being an excavator? Would you prefer another duty? Have you talent with hatchlings?” My vision swam suddenly. A second chance? The Queen’s mercy was too great. I could hardly allow myself- “Or… would you perhaps like to go forth and harvest? Or scout the wilds for new nesting grounds? Would you like to leave the hive?”

“Leave… the hive?”

“To go out. To explore. To see the world, the things it holds. Or… would you prefer to stay here. I will find a use for you, drone, of that I assure you.”

It felt as though the world had gotten brighter around me. To leave the hive, to see that marble room with my own eyes? Perhaps I could learn from outside what my failings had been. I would make better chambers, bigger ones, ones that would do the nest, the entire hive proud. I would please the Queen, to show her how wondrous her mercy had been. “I would go outside, my Queen.” I should have known better. I should have let her choose my use. I should have watched her expression when she asked me that fateful question. I should have thought more on what she had asked. I had misunderstood.

And that is how I found myself, outside of the nest, banished from the hive, and cut off from the only home I had ever known and for the very first time in my entire life, completely and totally alone.

Good Intentions

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Outside. I was outside, and more than anything else, I wanted back in. A minute of desperate scrambling and buzzing at the stone of the entrance did little to improve my situation, and the boulder in the tunnel entrance was more antagonistic than sympathetic. But my accidentally self-imposed exile was just as clearly not open for debate. More frightening, my calls for sanctuary simply flew off into the void. I had no hive to call to. My nest was closed to me. Vocalizing my distress would only share it, and I had clearly done enough harm to the hive. I was banished, an exile.

Exile. It had never happened in my lifetime. Had it? Thinking back, I now wonder. I had been separated from the hivemind prior to my exile, but all punitive action against a changeling seemed to have started that way. Did some just never return to the hive after this? Their deaths would have hurt the hive had they been in contact with it, but was exile the more common punishment for a failed drone or was death? Surely death, or I’d not have been so stunned at my sudden fate. Were the elements meant to be my demise? Could I prove my worth, and earn my return?

With a sudden, almost blinding flash of insight, I knew that neither was the intention. I had been fed to satiation, given the barest of personal knowledge in survival, and shown the door. The stockpile of energy I’d received was akin to what a gatherer would take, only… greater. Which explained, if not excused, the show of panic and fear I’d made at the entrance, having more energy than I’d ever before held. I was expected to survive. My return to the hive was not expected, but my exile had not been an act of malice. It had been... I shook my head. The Queen had not simply explained matters to me. Talking would have taken time, and the hive was not a place for such idle pursuits. So, instead, she’d simply opened my mind and placed the knowledge within. I was no longer of the hive. I could no longer draw upon the knowledge, experience, or wisdom of my people.

To a pony, this is by no means the end of the world. Schooling, training, social mores, these are all things which a pony will have to base their personality and actions off of. Why does a farmer harvest apples? Because she was taught that apples are an acceptable food source, and has learned an efficient way to gather them. This becomes problematic for a changeling outside of the hive, and quickly. You see, a changeling will gather food in the efficient way of its predecessors. It would merely have to question the hive, receive word that this roundish, red thing hanging from a tree is in fact food that is safe to eat, and the knowledge, if required, would be granted on how to get it. It becomes less a matter of problem-solving and more one of tradition. A fallacious example would be if an apple tree were not present, and instead an orange tree that had never been seen, a changeling would be likely to bypass it because the orange is not recognized as food.

Meat, however. Is meat. And that is a thing all changelings are made aware of from an early age. It would perhaps horrify ponies to see a changeling foal eating roaches, but they are a fine source of nutrition and make for a good way to establish hoof-eye coordination in a foal. Besides, they are pests, and they, along with mice, will consume food intended for the hive. It is only fitting that their thievery is paid back. Cannibalism amongst our kind is… tolerated would not be the appropriate term. But if a changeling is dead, some of our kind would prefer not to be wasted and left to rot in a cavern somewhere. Though, in general, our dead are more likely to be used as bait to lure in a larger predator that may be taken down with magic or force of numbers. Manticore and the like are the preferred prey in such a situation, though occasionally smaller scavengers are an acceptable substitute.

As such, there were a number of animals near our nest by the border that would provide necessary nutrition. And I made vague plans to catch several, though it seemed a small pouch had been left by the entrance to the hive. A set of bags, in fact, of familiar shape. The queen had given me pouches, too small for excavation? What good would it do to move stones out here, and such small ones? Another flash of implanted insight struck, and I opened the pouches. Within were several small crystals and a supply of dried fruit. Why would any drone put food with the rocks- ahhh! Supplies! If one could not be certain of where to gain one’s next meal, one should carry another to allow greater time to seek it.

Let it be reiterated that I am an excavator. Not a warrior, and not a gatherer. My realization seems imbecilic now, but at the time, I was a foal in the woods. I had been stripped of my hive, and only these strange implanted memories and instructions were there to augment my own experiences. My saddlebags only ever held rocks. Food stores were centrally located, and generally meant for immediately prior to beginning the duties of the day. Carrying food was thereby a pointless endeavor… within the Hive. Which… I no longer was.

This was going to be difficult. All of it was. So little of my life had not been part of one hivebound compulsion or another. I no longer had a purpose. There was no hive giving me a task to perform. I was not even sure what was to be done. I had food. I had energy. But. What was I to do with those? Not continue digging tunnels, clearly, as the implanted thoughts told me in no uncertain terms that if I attempted to force my way into the nest by physical means, I would not survive… and also that if I did not leave the area by nightfall, I would be an intruder at this nest. That was more concerning. All hives have at least a few warriors to protect it. I would survive a very, very short time should one of them decide to ‘defend the hive’ me to death. This meant that no action was not an acceptable substitute for wrong actions… and that I had better start making the right ones. I knew, vaguely, where some of the hive’s gathered food came from. I turned in that direction, beginning to trot. I would go there, gather more- No. That food belonged to the hive. I stopped myself, thinking. I was not part of the hive any longer. My survival was not important to them. But… was their survival and comfort important to me?

Yes. It was. I don’t know why that thought comforted me so, but there it was. The hive was no longer a part of me. But I would still, in a small way, be part of the hive, acting in it’s interests. I turned in the opposite direction, buzzed my wings, and flew away from the nest. Then returned, because the saddlebags were still on the ground, and they had been intended for my sustenance. It would not do to insult the Queen by spurning such a gift. Placing them on my back was a familiar act of rote memorization, and it soothed my troubles somewhat. I was no longer part of the hive. But I would carve myself my own little nest, to the south perhaps. Perhaps I would make my own chambers, better chambers, and the hive would eventually expand into them and by then my own knowledge would be used by the hive. But not now. Now I would leave the lands I knew to belong to the hive, and I flew for a long time, stopping only when the territory began to change and the sun had begun to go down.

When I landed, the grass was still plentiful, although the trees were far less healthy looking. They were pitiful, ugly things, and the stony soil on which they grew seemed unsuitable for digging anything, let alone a chamber, proper tunnel, or even a cave. Traveling further did not seem to improve my situation. The grass and stony soil gave way to even looser dirt, that seemed to move with the breeze and my hooves sank into in an oddly pleasing, interesting fashion. But I could not fathom a way to dig into this new material, and though, with effort, I could sink my hooves in it up to my joints, I could not keep this new loose soil from falling back into the hole. I tried working up a decent slime, using magic to create the familiar green substance used to temporarily strengthen the walls of our caverns… and was quite put off that the soil simply mixed and clung to it, forming a disgusting messy clump that only rolled down into the loose pit. I tried the more dense saliva mixture that would make a more permanent slime, and was again displeased that the resulting goo ended up with almost identical consistency, even if it would last far longer. For building material, this would simply not do. Useless. But how long could the terrain be made of such a worthless material? And so, I continued on.

As it turns out, Saddle Arabia is enormous. And, though the Queen had instilled basic knowledge on food and feeding, as well as some minor survival skills, and even packed food and some basic necessities, she had neglected something that it turns out makes a trip into the desert exceptionally unappealing.

I had no water, and as drinking from the natural stream that flowed through the cavern was part of a daily ritual amongst my nest, it did not occur to me for at least the first day how strange it was that I could not create more of the special saliva for strengthening building material. And possibly the second before I began to grow concerned with the sensation in my throat. By the third, I realized that I was thirsty. And the dried fruit and little meat I had caught was not really improving that situation. Flying no longer seemed exceptionally worthwhile. My wings felt stiff, and most of the food was on the ground. Everything blended with the terrain, and my food stores would last few weeks if I relied heavily on my emotional storage… but then, how would I replenish that? Better to eat more and marshal my energy for necessity. The instilled knowledge told me that I would have to practice my shape-shifting, and I was very pleased to learn that the uncomfortable heat of this place was somewhat lessened if I took a lighter shade upon myself, and as an all-white pegasus, it made the heat much more comfortable… at first.

By the fifth, or possibly sixth day, I was no longer certain where I was. I had traveled due south, and the terrain had become even more dull than the hive had been. Now, things were becoming very strange. The grainy soil seemed to flow like water, though it certainly didn’t taste like it. And I was increasingly certain that this place was unsuitable for expansion of my hive. My not hive. The breeze was pleasantly strong, at least, and it was forming clouds of the loose soil. How fascinating. Clouds made of dirt. Though not as appealing as the sparse sky-clouds of days gone past, it intrigued the builder in me. Clouds could form shapes that stayed as they moved through the sky. Perhaps with the appropriate amount of effort, dirt clouds could be held on the ground and formed into a mobile hive. Which would then be able to harvest love and food simply by flowing over the pony hivenests. It was brilliant. I was brilliant. And thirsty. Very, very thirsty. Maybe I should try to drink from these clouds just one more time.

And that’s the last thought that went through my head before the sandstorm struck and I blacked out.

Lying By Omission

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I awoke an indeterminate amount of time later in what I took to be a very bright, unpleasantly small and fragile cavern that I later learned is colloquially referred to as a ‘tent’, covered in something wet and warm. Staring at the pointed ceiling of this very strange place did little to enlighten me, and would have extracted myself from this strange predicament had a firm hoof not pressed against my chest and held me in place.

“Ah ah ah. Lie still, lie still. Shhh, shhh.” A wet piece of fabric was removed from my head, and a blissfully cool one replaced it. I would have buzzed my appreciation, but something sweet and deliciously moist was pushed into my mouth, turning the buzz into more of a curious ‘hum’. I chewed without thinking, each trickle of the juice a welcome sensation. “We thought you dead, traveler. Generally when you find a pegasus buried in a dune with only a wing sticking out, it’s more about arranging to contact his kin.” The voice was lilting, forming a pleasant cadence with her words, but it made no sense. Pegasus? A dune? Why was I so tired? How had I gotten here? Sudden disgust struck me. Was I sick? The hive could not spare the resources for a damaged drone, and the contagion could destroy it. Whoever had made such a foolish decision would face the Queen’s own wrath… and then my isolation truly struck me. I had been severed from the Hive... and already, I was too sickly to continue my journey. I was disgusting. Pathetic. To even think I would earn my return was impossibly optimistic. Tears, more viscous than that of most ponies, began to roll down my white face.

“Now now, no tears. You’re safe now. Everything is going to be okay…” The voice was wrong, of course, and I only felt worse. I shouldn’t be here. I should have never failed my hive. I should have been a good, obedient drone. Instead, I was a useless- with a start, I shoved this new emotion away from myself. It had been insipid, a snake writhing around my thoughts, like nothing I’d ever felt before.

“Wh… why did you help me? I am… sick. Should… should not risk it.”

A turquoise mare with bands of cloth over her face and a strange cloth pad on her back laughed at that, her voice growing richer and the emotional onslaught receded, the new emotion being slowly replaced with warmth and amusement. “Sick, colt? You were half-starved and all dehydrated when our caravan saw your wings sticking out of the sand like a very sorry signpost. It took the better part of three days before we were sure you were going to wake at all, but you’ve been making a fine recovery.” Here she paused. “Do… do you have a name, young stallion?”

“A… name?” I drew a blank. Of course. Drones did not have names, as such, because we referred to one another within the hive’s mind, and generally without speech. Names are a terribly inefficient way of referring to someone when you can simply establish a direct link between yourselves or share that changeling’s exact ‘frequency’. Of course, changelings out gathering emotions for the hive would have to have some sort of moniker… More important for now, I had lost any chance of entering this society without suspicion, even though I had kept a pegasus shape the entire time. “I… must confess that I don’t-” I nearly gagged as the sensation roiled over me again. What horrid emotion was this?

The mare clucked her tongue sadly, shaking her head. “Thought as much. It happens, sometimes. It usually comes back in time, but you must not let yourself become overheated again until you’re better. Do you have any idea where you live?”

An odd question. “I do not.” It was simple truth. I had no idea where I would live. Nor did I know precisely where I was in comparison to the Hive, which was significantly more embarrassing, even if I had been inclined to tell this pony where the Hive was.

Another pony burst into the room, a gangly stallion with a dark brown coat, blazing red mane and a tuft of the same under his chin. He practically danced in place. “Ahhh, Auntie Zaimare, the new colt is awake! Was he set upon by bandits? Is he a bandit? Are we going to place him back where we found him? And, by we, I mean ‘I’, as I don’t recall anyone else digging him out of the sand.”

“Matter, I thought I told you to stay outside until I told you otherwise.” She snapped, stern and annoyed. “And I’m not your aunt. I’m your Tradesmaster. Now go back outside.”

“But Auntie-“

“Out with you!” When the younger stallion darted off, her irritated glare quickly turned to an exasperated smile. “You’ll have to forgive him. This is his first trading voyage, and if he were any more green he’d sprout flowers.”

“…But he is not green. His coloration was more … like dirt and embers.” Perhaps this mare’s vision was failing her. It sometimes occurred within the hive, to the oldest of changelings. The Queen would sing those to sleep, in a terribly beautiful voice, and then… when the song went silent, so too did they. But no, piercing violet eyes fell upon me, and she laughed, clearly amused.

“Well of course he’s not completely green. I’ve been talking him through the basics of being a good trader... but he still has much to learn. Like not to try getting every last bit out of a poor fellow down on his luck.”

Well, that seemed reasonable, and I nodded my approval. Amongst the hive, though drones were plentiful, they were not simply wasted. A lone hunter was often a dead one. But this… ‘trade’ and ‘bit’ business made little sense to me, though I had gathered the first seemed to represent some form of work. Clearly losing one’s bits was cause for alarm. Did they feed upon the weakened? I considered how much physical mass I could lose to the jaws of a nestmate and remain functional. Little enough. Had that been the energetic pony’s aim? To consume the fallen pegasus he’d discovered? It very nearly made me shiver. Changelings should not be food.

“Now then. You don’t know your name, you don’t know where you live. I don’t think it would be appropriate to leave you wandering the desert with a single saddlebag. I wish I knew what you’d been thinking.” I squirmed out of the bed, to her dismay, though the wet towels draped over me clung to my body. “…Even if you do seem to be much better than I thought.” A towel fell off my back, plopping on the dusty floor. Her face tightened in distress and perhaps… revulsion? I looked back, confused, and realized my other mistake. While wandering, I’d not thought to give myself the traditional pony markings. Usually the mark went unquestioned, but the lack of it made an adult pony stand out. “Oh Harmony preserve, I’m sorry colt. I hadn’t known how to do it.” I froze, concerned that this was about to be a fight for my life. Too many things had come across wrong. I was an obvious failure as an infiltrator. “I’ve never seen anypony lose their cutiemark.”

“Lost…?” I muttered, confused by the implication. It was apparently precisely the right reaction. The older mare gave me a sad pat with a towel, drying me gently.

“I can only hope that your condition is temporary, but… if I had to guess, you’ve forgotten who you were so completely that you can’t even recall your special talent. I’ve heard stories about such things, filly tales around a campfire, but to see that it can actually happen… I swear, this caravan will do whatever we can to help you. I beg your forgiveness, I did not intentionally hide it from you. But after Matter saw, of course the entire caravan knows… that colt will be the death of me, I swear.”

Condition? Temporary? Forgotten? Well. I had forgotten many things, but they had never truly been mine to know. Or I’d never known them personally. But the implications… perhaps I could fit in here. This mare was a leader of some sort, and she seemed to be under the impression that my ‘dehydration’ had caused me to forget a great many more things. But then, there were a great many things I didn’t know. Perhaps this was a prime example to learn. I had a perfect excuse for any failings of common knowledge. The question was, I realized, not a matter of how to gain energy, but of not getting caught. I was a gatherer! For a hive of one. Which also made me the warrior, digger, nurse, harvester, and Qu- well. Perhaps not that. But I found myself in need of leadership and training, and a teacher had appeared. Well. Dug me out of a hole in the sand. All the same, a fortuitous beginning.

“And so, though the Lunar Princess protected her people from those creatures who would do them harm in the night, they rejected her. In her desire to be accepted, the night princess grew more and more active in her pursuits, chasing monsters from the very minds of ponies as they slept at night. Soon, Equestria was safe from all but a few of the creatures that would prey upon it, but the ponies still did not love her or her beautiful nights. Finally, when ponies’ fear of her exceeded that of the monsters she fought, they went to the Solar Princess, begging her to contain her sister, to control her. The night was too dark, even with the moon, and they wanted the sun to continue to shine, replace the night with a sunset. It was the final straw, and the Lunar Princess raged uncontrollably, shaking the land with her fury and betrayal. If the ponies would not love her night, she would force them to accept it, and the night would last fore-“

“I do not understand. The dark is for sleeping in. The princess was a warrior, she fought monsters; this is her duty. Should she not have been commended?”

Zaimare sighed, glancing me up and down again, but this story had prompted some half-dozen interruptions of similar nature. “It amazes me, young colt, that you cannot remember this story, and yet you can claim things like ‘duty’ as if it were common sense to anypony. The princesses have-had- great power. What once took many unicorns in concert, the sisters could do individually. Alicorns are capable of great power. Without restraint to match it, the Lunar Princess could become a monster far worse than any of the beasts she fought against. And… arguably, she tried to blot out the sun for an eternal night. There are many plants that bloom after the sun has left the sky, but few crops can survive. A simple thing, but important.”

The argument was disconcerting. These ponies were ruled by fickle, strange Princesses, or had been. One was driven mad by the lack of respect her charges had for her. But… one had to admit, if the hive were to stop loving the Queen, Order forbid, she might be driven to similar desperation. The other Princess driven to destroy her apparent equal for the good of those same charges. The truth of the matter was apparent. Alicorns are dangerous and worthy of fear. But what did that mean of changelings? We possess both wing and horn, after all. A topic best left alone, perhaps. A disguise as an alicorn would likely dissuade predators, but if there were only two, and now perhaps one, it would be nearly impossible to wear such a form and maintain a low profile. Besides, imitating royalty seemed… very un-dronelike. Inappropriate. I am to serve, not give orders.

The mare rebuked me with a hoof to the head, a light ‘pop’ to the top of my head that did not hurt but was hardly pleasant. “You’re wandering again.”

“I am still sitting right here.” I stated, flavoring my tone with annoyance, as I deemed appropriate. I did not like ponies tendency to spice the truth of things with hyperbole and odd phrasings. The number of terms for copulation astounds and worries me to this very day.

“Your mind is wandering, young colt. Honestly, so literal. Did you even hear the end of the tale? That the Lunar Princess was banished into the moon she had controlled?” I had offended her, clearly. Zaimare loved history, and claimed that it was tradition to pass it on orally. Since I had no traditions of my own, and had been too weak to stand, the older mare had taken it upon herself to keep me company while they waited for news from her not-nephew. I had not been unwilling to listen, as her pleasure at my rapt attention was far more palatable than her pity had been, though even irritation from her was better than that. I was not actively feeding on her, but passive feeding was enough to speed my healing.

Still… “Forgive me, Tradesmaster. I meant no disrespect. I only considered that I do not recognize your story. Perhaps there is less for me to remember than that?”

All ponies hear of this at some point.” She hesitated a moment, clearly uncomfortable. “Though… most ponies of Equestria seem to forget that Princess Luna wanted to make them safe, too. There were more monsters in the old days, if even half those stories are true. But… Nightmare Moon would have probably killed us all. But you can’t live in the sun all the time, and the princesses had to work together to defeat both Discord and King Sombra.” The names meant nothing to me. None of my people knew of this ‘Discord’ or ‘Sombra’, and Celestia herself was only little more than a name. A ‘king’ was a completely unheard of, though I understood it to be the masculine equivalent of a Queen. Celestia’s ‘banishment’ of her sister, which I strongly suspected was in fact Celestia ridding herself of a maddened near-equal in a more permanent fashion, meant little to me outside of that she was a pony who understood duty. Madness was uncommon amongst adult changelings, but hatchlings and those about to join with the Hive were different matters.

Some drones become too attached to their eggs, and hide them instead of presenting them to the Queen for inspection. It was natural, perhaps. Parents love their children, even changelings. The chance of the Queen shattering your egg made some drones act against the will of the Hive. And sometimes that went terribly, terribly wrong, costing many hatchlings instead of the few. So, the Queen’s duty was as close to sacrosanct as my people have. It is a thing that must be done.

“Well, if Wasta returns today, we’ll at least know if any friends were looking for you. If not, you’re welcome to travel with us. Perhaps something on our travels will jog your memory, and if trading is good, we may travel as far as Canterlot. Doctors there have treated almost everything.”

“Yes, Tradesmaster.”

“Zaimare, please. And I can’t call you ‘colt’ for the rest of the trip, now can I? Or layabout. Or ‘The pegasus with his head in the clouds’, though it’s accurate.”

“Those are exceptionally ineffective names.” I agreed easily. Lay about what? And of course most pegasi had their heads in the clouds, they were always flying about. Even if I never had experienced such a thing, the few clouds I’d seen looked far too poorly constructed, and I did not want my name to reflect such fragility. Though I was beginning to suspect when she was poking fun without opening myself to her emotions, I never could be too sure with these ponies. I needed a good name, a reasonable name for a digger. Something like… Earth Pony. Wait, that was awful. This was going to be more complicated than it had any right to be.

Digging the Hole Deeper

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As it turns out, Wasta did not return that day, nor the next three, and Zaimare ensured that I spent my time getting my hooves back underneath myself and introducing myself to the rest of the caravan, as she claimed idle hooves only served to get ponies into trouble. Or perhaps I should say that she attempted to do so, as my lack of a name was beginning to grate on me as my attempts to choose one were failing miserably. This was a staple of daily pony life, to be referred to by name and respond to others by name. The idea that I would have to recall all these strange phrases was growing daunting. Silver Tongue, the caravan’s other lead trader; Travelling Bilberry, a perhaps overly friendly musician only joining because he had important reasons to leave the area that Zaimare quietly informed me involved two mares and one stallion who met very suddenly and equally unpleasantly; and Oaken Stave, camp quartermaster, cook, and ‘brew-master ordinaire’ were among those I found most interesting, though Oaken was given strict instruction not to allow me to drown my troubles. As I doubted I could find a pool or river deep enough to harm myself even accidentally, I decided this to be a pointless restriction, but I would have to confess that I had no idea whether I possessed the ability to swim or not.

There were precisely fourteen other members of the caravan, six of which I could not tolerate the presence of due to their immediate feelings of pity for me, three who were put off by my inability to recall my name and found conversation very awkward, and one who found my lack of a cutie mark ‘utterly disgusting’ for a stallion my age, and would not be put off of it no matter what was said to him by Zaimare. As I understood it, he was tasked with protecting the caravan and his bitterness was a defensive mechanism to prevent larger predators from devouring the rest of us. Out of respect for his efforts, I made little attempt to converse with or otherwise bother him, and he seemed to appreciate that.

On the fourth day, I found myself standing face to face with the red-maned pony from before, who grabbed my hoof with alarming speed and proceeded to try to rip it from my torso. He began chattering at me about a great many things I didn't know about with no introduction to speak of, and finally I had to interrupt him to ensure that I was correct that this pony was who I thought.

“Wasta Matter?”

“Not a thing, Wasta Matter with you?” The pony then began to laugh uproariously, and the shocking amount of sheer mirth pouring from him overcame me, and I began to feel an urge to reciprocate as the pony’s cheer overflowed my ability to store it. For the life of me, I could not understand how any pony could feel such joy at simply being questioned on their name.

I stared with the beginning of a grin that did not fit my confusion. “But you are with me. Right now.”

Wasta practically howled with laughter. “But you are with me, he says. Ohhh, Sandy, you are too much.”

I recoiled, but his laughter was completely overwhelming me and I’d begun with a wheezy sort of laughter that made it seem as if I could not breathe instead of merely trying to hold it in. “Sandy?” My name was not going to be this horrible useless dirt that refused to hold a decent shape.

Wasta nodded, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to name someone after such a terrible thing. “That’s where I found you, and I brought you home. That means I get to name you. Unless you’ve found a better one yet?” Realizing he must have spoken to Zaimare already, part of me seethed. Of course I had not. Still… he had claimed that he had a right to name me. It was as good a name as any for this shape, which was already beginning to irritate me with its lack of a horn. “Well, it’ll work for now then. Besides, Auntie Zaimare says you’ve tried six already and none of them fit.”

“Eight.” I offered, allowing myself to feel a bit foalish even as I contained the absurd quantity of mirth I’d been given. I’d been helpfully informed that my last attempt was more of a common first name for mare earth ponies in Saddle Arabia than one ever ascribed to pegasi, and I had been beginning to give up hope of finding an appropriate phrase. Sandy, though personally abhorrent, would have to do.

All things considered, I found Wasta to be a pleasant companion. The gangly stallion craved three things, I was to learn; Good stories, great deals, and very, very bad jokes that would inspire groans even if those in hearing range found it amusing. It was fascinating. I found that my direct, if bewildered, takes on his ‘puns’ and ‘wisecracks’ were considering to be a form of friendly teasing that actually made several members of the caravan find me more approachable. Beyond that, the jokes were interesting puzzles. The logic behind domestic fowl crossing paths seemed very reasonable to me, but then, I’d never before known our gatherers to ascribe wisdom to farm creatures. Perhaps they were so stupid that giving them logic was the joke. Convinced I had mastered comedy, I explained in detail the reason bears would be required to do their business in the woods, a joke I believed relevant to one of Wasta’s many odd comments.

It was apparently not funny. Wasta found that highly amusing for days.

Wasta’s trip to a nearby settlement had, of course, been entirely fruitless with regards to my identity, though he’d clearly spent much of his stay doing some additional trading, to Zaimare’s displeasure. Allegedly he had found several passable offers, and one very good deal on coffee, a bitter, crunchy bean that I found very satisfying. I spent the rest of that morning assisting with every camp project that an extra set of hooves would improve, marveling at my newfound energy.

By lunchtime, I quietly decided that I was dying. Wasta’s jovial insistence that I should have drank the beans was ludicrous and I stoutly informed him of such. As delicious as those beans were, the idea of mixing them in water, boiling or not, was too outlandish for me to accept and I continued to lift my nose at the idea for the entirety of our trip, preferring to chew one or two as the mood struck me, thankful for Wasta’s generosity. Sugar cubes I found reminded me of the slimy nourishment provided to me as a hatchling, and the sensation of homesickness was enough to make me forgo more of them, though the rest of the camp seemed to think they were a pleasant enough snack for day to day use.

I began to learn of other things that these ponies did to make the trip more pleasant as I helped pull their carts, finding this a much better substitute for sitting in a cart like some of the foals, as not only did it give me the chance to learn more about pony society, I learned several useful tricks. Oaken Stave, for example, had a cart that was oddly heavy and difficult to pull, which eventually lead him to show me a set of grindstones he’d a connected to the bottom of his cart. This allowed him to mill his own fresh flour just by turning the wheels of his cart, which explained some of the gritty fresh bread the quartermaster tended to produce. It was ‘a work in progress’ and he was quite confident that he would someday make it a useful device for carts everywhere, which would be just as soon as he found a way to make it in any way more convenient than buying flour or using a regular millstone. Still, the large earth pony was enthusiastic about his work, and though none of his products were exceptionally good, Wasta claimed it was by and far better than average travel rations, it was all freshly made and relatively cheap. The others found themselves agreeing, if with good-natured reluctance, especially after the ‘freshly milled’ flour Wasta had brought back from his own trip turned out to consist almost entirely of weevils. I found the insistence that this flour must be thoroughly sifted somewhat pointless, and ate the collected pests in secret.

Silver Tongue had been Zaimare’s business partner for years, the two of them making tidy profit. Silver knew when to lay it on thick, and Zaimare knew when to strike the iron when it was hot. Though I was not sure what was being layered on, nor what iron Zaimare was striking, this all seemed to mean that the two of them worked well together and had now mostly traveled out of familiarity than need, which wasn't the case for everyone in the caravan.

Rough Shod, for example, wanted enough bits to move far out into the badlands, live comfortably by himself, and never see another pony again for the rest of his life. For all that, when I helped him pull his small cart he begrudgingly offered to share a brown bottle with me that very nearly made me wretch, and I was disinclined to accept further offers. The irritable pony seemed pleased with my silence and work ethic, eventually accepting that my lack of a cutie mark was only a ‘bucking shame’, and that I was ‘less worthless than his own bucking sons’ even if I was a ‘bucking pegasus’. Having never kicked him once, I began to wonder if I misunderstood the term. The old teamster was quick to pick up on my discomfort when some of the other caravan members would try to help my ‘lost’ memory, and took to telling the ‘bucking vultures to leave me the buck alone and let the bucking colt think in peace’. I believe this was meant to be supportive. All the same, siphoning off some of his ready supply of anger seemed to bring the old stallion a measure of his own peace, and I’d like to think he was happier for it.

Things would have continued in this way until well into Equestria, if not for my growing realization that I could not possibly travel to Canterlot like this. My disguise would hold up to scrutiny, thankfully, but I personally would not.

There are two main ways for a changeling to disguise themselves. The first, and most common way, is to form a sort of ‘shell’ around themselves and use only enough shapeshifting to ‘fit’ within. This shape can be damaged or shattered without gravely hurting the changeling within, but it was also more fragile and required to be either renewed or repaired routinely. The other method was to shapeshift oneself fully into the other form. This was costly and time consuming, but provided more advantages such as a sturdiness and a direct connection to the outside world. Touching a shell is more akin to touching clothing; you may feel it indirectly but damage to it does not always alert you immediately. It also may not feel exactly like a pony’s hide. A full shapeshift, on the other hand, borders on undetectable, going so far as to bring a changeling’s body temperature up to match that of a pony, though this costs a small amount of energy to upkeep as well as a mental effort, as opposed to the shell which only requires the cost of repair or replacement as needed. Unfortunately, injuries to a shapeshifted changeling are real injuries that bypass our natural exoskeleton, forcing us to take steps to repair them, either with magic directly, which is costly, or by sealing the wound over with the green mucus in the same way we would seal a damaged cavern wall. Though this obviously defeats the purpose of a disguise, it’s preferable to bleeding out.

Over the course of a scant few weeks, I had fully charged my own capacity for the basic positive emotions, save love. Nonetheless, I could survive on that for a few weeks, though they would not last nearly so long as love, which I had almost completely expelled. More immediately concerning, I had never held a shapeshifted form this long, and it was beginning to exhaust me. I needed to return to normal, and obviously I could not do that in camp. That night, I snuck out of camp, wandering far out of eyeshot, and let down my defenses, dropping the form and letting out a soft sigh as knots seemed to come untangled. I examined my chitin for any damage, checking my joints and stretching. My body and especially my horn ached from the prolonged usage, and I was pleased to have the chance to be myself. I would put on a shell, sleep out here, under the stars, and go back in the morning after taking on a full form of ‘Sandy’. So, I drew forth the energy, pictured the form in my mind, and went to form the shell.

And nothing happened. Of course.


Bad Faith

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My initial reaction was to consider panic, then set aside the urge to use the emotion as, for right now, level headed thinking was more likely to succeed. That is not to say the urge was easily repressed, but it seemed exceptionally wasteful as a first response. If I could not shape shift, I was very likely doomed.

My horn felt exceptionally tender, and I touched it lightly with a hoof, only for my world to go white with pain. I sucked in a deep, hissing breath, forcing the pain deep into my reserves for the moment. Pain is interesting, for our kind. It has both physical and emotional aspects; physical in that you are injured and it is unpleasant, the body’s way of telling one to cease a current action, and emotional in that you are immediately struck with the possibility that the pain will not cease as quickly as your action does, among other things. Pain is not a good source of fuel or energy, and is, if anything, more of a waste product. Worse still, it has a tendency to seep, causing everything to feel unpleasant for a longer period of time. It can be used quickly, though sharp enough pain can even rip a changeling from a shifted form or shatter a shell.

The ability to adjust when one feels pain is a mixed blessing. An injured warrior can ignore a large portion of it until it overflows his capacity or until its body simply fails, but when their guard drops the shock of the pain all hitting at once can prove fatal on its own. The only other use for pain is to inflict it upon others. At least one hatchling in every brood tries it. The experience is… traumatic.

So, I made two assumptions. The first would be that I had pushed my body to its physical limits while in pegasus form, and only the fact that the form lacked a horn entirely had kept me from realizing it, as my sensitivity to magic was far lesser when bound by pegasus limitations. The second was that having ‘compressed’ my horn into a pegasus was giving me the rough equivalent of a cramp, or even what a pony would call ‘sleeping hoof’. As my body readjusted, I would regain control of my horn, though in a greater period of time than I liked, and for the duration I would be without disguise. I could hopefully restore my shape for a day or so at a time and rest in natural form at night, but the cost would be much higher. Having never done a long-term shift like this, I’d not fully considered the implications. Horns were a mixture of chitin and bone, very difficult to ‘compress’. Our wings, on the other hoof, were already thin and flexible enough that adjusting them was actually a matter of extending our shell. This made sense. And yet... and yet I was fond of the pegasus form. The feathery wings were needlessly complex, it would be a terror for mining, and for all that, I was growing fond of it. Besides, all changeling magic is a similar shade of green by nature, and I can imagine few things that would act as such an obvious giveaway.

My only path at the moment became clear. I’d have to wait this out. I was not tired, ponies seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time being busy at things that were unimportant as opposed to sensibly dozing, but they also seemed to require more time to achieve the comfort of sleep as well. It seemed a reasonable idea to further supplement my diet, as well, and the night was surprisingly busy in the sandy area. A cactus’s thorns were hardly enough of an issue to deter me from the sweet flesh, which Rough Shod had also informed me provided a fair amount of moisture. The thorns scraped off easily with my chitin, a bonus I had not considered, making the spiny plant far easier to harvest without the presence of a unicorn. A small lizard voiced its displeasure with my choice of snack and took an aggressive posture, but was quickly subdued and made into a very pleasing side dish, though I was unfortunately unable to procure another. Several of the ponies in the caravan had ‘pets’ which I had initially assumed were meant as a emergency food source if the situation would become dire, but I no longer supported that assumption.

Stomach full, I opted to rest, digging myself a shallow trench in the sand, lining it with mucus in layers to provide a shield from the sand, and settled in, weaving a cocoon which I decided I would not seal. The night air was pleasantly cool for a change, and clouds overhead blocked much of the moonlight, but sleep would not come. I looked up, pondering idly. The Mare on the Moon. Princess Luna. Nightmare Moon. I could relate, I supposed. Banished. I wondered if the ponies’ reactions to her exile were similar to how my hive would handle mine. I wondered if Celestia had ‘sent her to the moon’ as suddenly as the Queen had tossed me out of the hive. Did she regret it? Was it only duty? Ponies, I had found, tended to have strange views on truth, and easily let it color their experiences. I could see the shape of a mare on the moon, but had Celestia truly only banished her? It seemed amazing. How far was the moon? Was the princess entombed within it? If so, what did she do in her exile?

I suddenly became aware of how very, very alone I was, and how much effort I’d expended into avoiding the thought. I’d wandered into the desert, marched to exhaustion, slept, and marched again upon waking, walking headlong into doom, saved only by the kindness of a species I would feed off of… some of whom only helped me out of pity. I shuddered at even the memory of the emotion, cloying and almost slimy, horrible and disgusting. Sympathy I could tolerate. Rough Shod had shown me the difference in the two. He liked things quiet and simple, with little fanfare and only as many ponies present as required. An appreciatively changeling-like pony, though a little more anger than appropriate. I supposed he’d have made a fine warrior drone. And that thought only made me feel that much worse. I was a changeling, and so flawed that I was no longer part of the hive, and in the short time I’d been amongst a small group of ponies, I’d already found several more suited to my old life. This was what I deserved. A barren wasteland full of angry animals, thorny plants, and worthless dirt. I shouldn’t even go back to the caravan. It was a pointless charade. Being a pony hurt in ways I hadn’t expected. Ponies made things complex on purpose. I just did not understand.

I don’t know how long I grieved for my losses. I realize now that walking into the desert as I had was an attempt to flee from it, but as with all pain, it had to be felt eventually. It had finally caught up with me. To be truthful, I do not know that I could have put these realizations off for much longer before I succumbed to the emotional poison. Though the pain was still there, it felt… lessened by having recognized it. But walking blindly into the future was foalish and I would do it no longer. There were several truths I had to face. I was without a hive. I knew nothing of the details of a successful infiltration, and thus would have to watch my step. Perhaps the most painful realization was that ‘Sandy’ would have to vanish. I could not afford to draw so much attention to myself as Canterlot would apparently give me in their attempts to help me ‘remember’. By necessity, I would have to cut short my stay with this caravan. The very idea of being alone again in that way frightened me, but the pony I had established myself to be required assistance. I could even potentially put the caravan itself at risk if my secret were discovered. The thought of Zaimare, Wasta, or any of them being held liable for my incursion into Equestrian territory was appalling enough to make my chitin itch. And it was, unfortunately, entirely possible that the caravan members themselves would harm me. I did not relish the thought of bringing them harm, but I also saw no reason to allow them to do me injury either. Leaving, then, would be required. If I could restore my false form by morning, I would return and begin gathering my things. If I could not, they would have to be given up as lost… but the queen had given me that pouch. For reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, I did not want to leave it behind.

It was with these thoughts that I eventually drifted off to a troubled slumber, watching thick stray clouds roll across the late night moon. The cocoon was wonderfully snug, and I was vaguely pleased to nestle into one again.

I awoke with a splutter, now panicking without regard for propriety. There was fluid in my cocoon! Cursing myself for a foal with several very expressive phrases I had heard Rough Shod use, I burst out of my hiding spot, staring at the world around me even as the remains of the light rainfall rinsed the sand from my shell.

The sand, the horrible, horrible sand, had flowed. Into patterns. Swirls and dips and sprays, carried by the water. The sparse vegetation around me, previously brownish and much of it withered, had taken on a more vibrant cast. Several had even begun to flower, and I stared around me in amazement, wondering at first if my cocoon had been carried off. I took a tentative step into the wet sand, and paused as it settled easily instead of sinking in. I scooped some of the wet sand into a hoof, shaping it, forming a ball easily. Why, this was delightful. I wondered if there was some way to make material that shaped this easily on a constant basis while retaining some structural integrity. The way the ball began to melt in my hoof made me doubt it, but still. I looked up at the sky as the rain lessened still, the clouds drifting off. A stray rainstorm. Zaimare had said they were uncommon, but not unexpected. She had plans to catch as much of it as any pony could, and I hoped she succeeded… but that likely meant my disappearance had been noticed hours prior.

Cautiously, I braced myself and attempted to retake the form of ‘Sandy’. I felt the lick of flame as my body shifted and twisted slowly, filling into the pegasus form. The transformation slowed at my upper torso, and I had to close my eyes to concentrate. Compress the horn. Feather the wings. And…. Done. I looked down at myself and scowled. I wasn’t white, more of a beige. I liked the way the sand had changed, but this was unacceptable. Well. For now. Fur the color of sand might make for very effective camouflage, and I would have to recall this later. A minute later and pristine white fur again coated my body, and I felt that I was well on my way to recovery, as far as my horn went. Perhaps I had only overreacted. I shaped a bit of sand over my shattered cocoon, obscuring it from view, and began the flight back to the caravan.

I saw Rough Shod wandering over the wet sand, moving in the general direction of my cocoon. The grizzled older pony seemed quite displeased, and the rain clearly hadn't cooled his ire at the world in general. I believe I might have actually heard him muttering to himself even before I laid eyes upon him. I landed behind him and walked a few steps behind him, noting a few new curses and at least one allusion to someone’s mother and her inordinate fondness for stray animals.

“Sir?” I asked, realizing he had actually not noticed me.

The stallion kicked instantly, his hooves grazing my face in a motion that was astonishingly fast. “What in Celestia's glorious backside’s name are you doing, colt?! You have to know bucking better than to sneak up on an old pony like that!” The scowl he leveled at me felt like it should have burned off my false fur. “And where have you been? Zaimare thought you’d wandered into the desert again like a sun-addled idiot.”

I took a slow breath, glad the pony had missed. Changeling or not, disguised or not, two hooves to the snout would have very likely shattered any composure I had. “Well… I had, sir. Wandered off. Last night.” I hadn't even considered a good explanation for my disappearance. How did the gatherers even manage this? “I… was unwell.”

The stallion glared at me, dark eyes hard for a long moment before softening, if only slightly. “Too many ponies, too much bucking noise, eh? It gets to you. Sometimes you just want to walk off and let the night have you. Then the silence gets to you. Lets you think, or makes you. And then you’re back to wanting noise.” He sighed, offering me his little bottle again, which I declined adamantly. “Suit yourself. You find what you were looking for out there, or am I going to have to trudge out here looking for you every few days until we reach civilization?”

“I… I found something, I think. But… yes. A little time to myself would help.”

He nodded, mulling this over. “You tell Zaimare next time. She doesn't leave a thing half done, and she won’t half-start something. You apologize to her for this. Mother hen thinks you’re all her chicks.”

I frowned, perplexed. “She’s not a bird, sir.”

“It’s another bucking figure of speech. Now get moving. Caravan already started and Stave has some new slop for us. Weren't for the fact that you got Wasta and Bilberry to do some honest work for a change, I’d still be bucking irritated with you.” The waves of irritation, annoyance, anger, and relief rolling off the pony made me question that assessment, but together, we turned around and started at a brisk trot, back towards the ponies I knew, my temporary home, and food.

I would still have to leave, of course. This could not last, I had made too many mistakes. I had to escape before I failed one time too many, and revealed myself. And I would. But not today.

Today, I went home, to a small tent, with a small wagon, with a stallion gruffly grumbling about grown ponies wandering around playing in the sand like small foals, and the desert beginning to bloom around us. It was temporary, and it wouldn't last. But… for now, I would be Sandy. And maybe I’d be happy with that.

Being Economical With The Truth

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Being Sandy will always be a bittersweet memory. I was a foal, and knew very little of how my kind had to hide ourselves. The next weeks took us through a few small towns as we approached the border of the badlands and continued alongside them. I’d questioned the logic of staying in the allegedly inhospitable desert as opposed to more sturdy terrain, and was jovially informed by Wasta that ‘at least a desert sounds delicious, badlands just sound awful’. I began assuming that his sunny disposition was a result of too much sun, hence the term, and he chortled and took to telling everyone just that. It pleased me that my comment had renewed his humor, which had begun to grow somewhat stale as our trip continued.

As I understood it, the young stallion was not used to travel, and to hear him tell it, much of his youth had been spent carousing, flirting with older mares, and living off his many uncles. Zaimare was the cousin of an aunt’s sister in law, an extension of relation that I found bizarre. Changelings do not have ‘families’, but one generally recognizes their sire and dam, as well as any larvae they produce. Siblings are… well, we are all siblings. We are hive, after all. The idea of placing special attention to one member of the hive is very strange, and the mere suggestion that ponies in Saddle Arabia practiced some form of preventing young workers from… working was abhorrent. As Wasta explained that it wasn’t that he wasn’t allowed to work, more that he was not expected to work hard because of those his family knew. I began to despair of understanding at all when he finally admitted, with some odd embarrassment, that he’d become tired of it and wanted to be known for something he did and was practicing under Zaimare with the intention of surpassing her one day. This disturbed me, as when the Queen placed a drone in a position of some authority, that drone simply… was.

“Spurs and Saddles, Sandy. How do you think Zaimare became caravan leader?”

I hesitated. “Somepony… made her caravan leader?” I offered lamely. The princess, surely, or perhaps one of her chosen lessers, the ‘nobility’ I’d heard spoken of?

Wasta snorted, grinning broadly. “She just is.”

“What the bucking idjit means, is that she started doing this on her own with a wagon and some cactus chunks.” Rough Shod interjected with annoyance. “Ponies said she was crazy, that this path was the worst one out of the desert. Too close to the badlands. Not smart to cross. Better to head to the river and take a barge. Takes about a month longer.” He scowled at Wasta. “Should know this, colt.”

“But-“ The red-maned stallion lifted a triumphant hoof to the sky. “She was right!”

“Wrong at first. First three trips were complete failures, last one she got snakebit, and each time she took longer and made less bits. Probably not until the seventh or eighth time she was back early, with more bits, a map, and the biggest grin you ever saw on a filly.”

I stared at him, perplexed. Not one, not two, but potentially seven failed attempts? And this was the mare they followed? “I don’t understand. Why was she chosen after those failures?”

Rough Shod snorted. “Nopony chose her. She knew the way. She could be there and back before some of the slower caravans even made the first half of the trip. A few years later she started taking others through the passes she’d found.”

“But… but who chose her to lead them?”

Nopony did. Colt, they just followed her. That’s how these things start. Nopony points at somepony and just says ‘there’s your leader’, what kind of bucking sense would that make? She knew what she was doing and where she was going, they bucking didn’t. If they hadn’t followed her, there wouldn’t be a caravan. She’d still be pulling her own cart and these folks would be trudging along and waiting for a barge.” I tried not to interrupt, but the idea made perfect sense. If the Queen chose a leader, they were the leader. The Queen would have obviously had a reason.

“Or clouds. You could cloud-ferry.” Wasta interjected helpfully.

“…You ever seen cloud haulers around here? They dry out, and then you don’t have a wagon, cart, or wheels to keep pulling things. Plenty of pegasi have tried, and plenty pegasi have had to get help from the nearest settlement because their load of fine silks has been sitting in the desert for a day or three.” The stallion shrugged a wing into his saddlebag, pulling out his familiar flask without offering it to Wasta or myself. I’d begun to fear that my lack of interest had been insulting to him.


“Trains can work. But you have to lay track. And keep them clean. Sand on the track and you’re even worse off. No, Zaimare has it right. If you want to be fast, this is the way to go. Or you don’t much care for barges. Some ponies like the rest.”

I began to edge away, my interest in the topic waning. I had seen neither cloud-ferry nor train, and the terms meant nothing to me, though seemed common enough to both ponies. My excuse of lost memory seemed to be wearing thin for many of the caravan members, and I had begun to see other flaws. Many of the things I ‘knew’, while true, were false to my pegasus self. A mare with a young foal was being menaced by a scorpion at the entrance to a tent, and after I stepped on it, I was frantically informed that it was a ‘dangerous beast’ and that I was surely poisoned. I was clarifying that this particular scorpion was harmless when Zaimare arrived and spoke up, with some alarm, that it was known to be both aggressive and highly poisonous to ponies. To my kind, the creatures either lacked the appropriate venom or simply could not sting through our chitin. Regardless, I received a surprisingly harsh scolding from Zaimare that all strange scorpions, spiders, and snakes should be treated as dangerous, and that I could have endangered myself and others with bad advice and where did I learn such a foolish thing.

I could not tell her, of course, that my kind routinely ate them upon finding them, and that the tail was considered akin to a delicacy. Saving it had therefore been completely out of the question, to my chagrin.

She had not taken my intention to leave well. I should say, she had taken it extremely poorly. She was not about to let me go wandering off into the badlands, and for good reason. My memory had not returned and worse, some of the memories I had were apparently addled, if my supposedly near-disastrous encounter with the scorpion was any indication. So, my efforts to leave, while not actively opposed, were also not actively supported. In terms of exiles, I believe it preferable to finding myself outside of the camp with a saddlebag and the knowledge that I had until the next day to remove myself from their company.

Wasta, surprisingly, was far more supportive. As he understood it, doing what I had to do didn’t mean doing the sane, normal, or even the right thing. And so, in a strange change of pace, he assisted me in various tasks and procurements to allow me to make my own way. Zaimare’s disapproval began to fade by the third day, having observed my efforts as traded my labor of those days for various small goods such as a sleeping roll (rendered useless for sleep by virtue of a cocoon, but still a very important piece of equipment for ‘any traveler’), and one of Rough Shod’s spare flasks, which was larger by far than Wasta’s own canteen. Rough Shod, in a rare display of positive emotion bordering on an outburst, handed me another, smaller bottle of ‘the good stuff’. He said I could use it in place of antiseptic in a pinch. At this point, Zaimare and Oaken Stave became apoplectic and gave me a small bottle of liquid and made me vow not to use Rough Shod’s vile beverage on my skin. Having ingested it once, I was not inclined to do so, regardless. A good healthy coating of resin would do just fine, besides. I had been pleased to see that some ponies had such a sensible method of dealing with injuries, though their saliva was too runny and they did not mix it with a proper amount of soil before applying it.

My emotional needs were well cared for, to my surprise. Zaimare’s concern, Wasta’s eagerness to see a friend off, and Rough Shod’s pleasure at my decision to make my own way added up to a sizable meal. The mare whose foal I had apparently ‘saved’ had laden me down with enough gratitude that I was initially concerned. Gratitude is odd, to my understanding. My kind are assigned a duty and perform it until we are no longer capable. Failure is unacceptable but does not preclude continued efforts to reach success. Doing something outside of your duty may occur, but some duties require more physical might than one changeling is easily able to provide. All effort is for the benefit of the hive as a whole. Ponies, on the other hand, recognize individuality on a higher basis. Risking one life to save another is considered highly noble amongst their kind. What I had done had been something akin to the Queen chasing off dragons or hydras interested in changeling eggs. In lesser measure, of course. And not in truth, as the scorpion could not harm me, but many of the caravan had mixed emotions about that. Many clearly thought I had made a mistake, others still thought I had done something impressive. The duality of the response was confusing, but the focused emotions from such a small thing had ‘topped me off’ as Oaken Stave would have put it. Gratitude, as far as emotion tastes, seems like love in several senses but less… shareable, as though bound more strongly to a specific action the individual may have performed. I do not think a hive would be able to live on the efforts of a group of gatherers, though the gatherers themselves might be well-sated. Besides, love was easier to gather by my reckoning, as one simply had to replace another pony who was loved for a period of time.

The night I finally decided to leave was after we had finally crossed out of the desert and into the badlands, many miles out of range of my hive’s territory. Zaimare ensured the entire caravan stopped for a good meal, some music, and in general attempted to convince me not to go. Her efforts were transparent, but I admit, I had to appreciate the effort. The sendoff was cut short as Traveling Bilberry overindulged in cactus juice and began singing a song that I understood to be a very detailed description of anatomy until Zaimare hauled him off by the ear. She returned shortly thereafter with a chastised Bilberry, and began giving as much last minute advice as she could.

“-and you have to stay away from the black stone passes, the loose stone near the top can shift and when it does it rolls all the way to the base-“

“Yes, Zaimare.”

“And here, these flowers are all safe to eat.” She began stuffing a few more into my saddlebags. “If you eat anything that doesn’t agree with you, there’s mint in the pouch, it doesn’t have flowers so you’ll recognize it, and-

“Yes, Zaimare.” I stated, giving her a smile that I hoped was reassuring.

“And don’t forget you can always come back, we’ll be going a little more slowly through here and we’ll rest a day or so just to make sure-“

“Yes, Zaimare. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” I spread my wings to allay her fears and she trailed off.

“And you go to Canterlot, you hear me. I’ll feel much better if I hear that you’ve gotten some help and found some family. Or if you get everything back.”

“If I start to recall anything, I assure you I will be in touch.” Not a lie, exactly, but then, I had nothing to regain and thus would likely not see her again. The thought was an unpleasant one. The older mare had been kind and patient.

She sighed. “Oh, very well, Sandy. Celestia watch over you.” She offered her right hoof, and I shook it with a nod.

“Trade well, Zaimare. Have a pleasant journey.”

I trotted out of the reach of the firelight, seeing the dark shape of Rough Shod. I reasoned that the old stallion had already said his piece, but he nodded to me as I walked past.

“Sure about this, colt?”

“Not entirely.” I admitted. “But it must be done.”

The gruff stallion shook his head, but smiled. “Plenty of things in life like that. Plenty. Don’t be afraid to kick it in the head if it doesn’t go your way. You buck life a few times or you’re the one taking a bucking upside the head. You think any on what you’ll do if you don’t get it back?”

“No, sir.”

“Better start. Not saying you can’t wander around forever, Harmony knows plenty of ponies would love that. No cares, no responsibility save to yourself… but taurtarus, I know I can’t live like that. Structure, colt, something to do with yourself. You find yourself needing somepony to get you that, you go to Canterlot, you use my name with the guard recruiters. Somepony will remember me. I think you’d fit right in.”

That offer carried a wealth of emotion, none of it I could easily identify, but I could tell Rough had made the offer in earnest. I had not given the trade of goods or service for wealth more than passing attention before, and I was no guard drone… I doubted I was suited for such a life. Buuuut… the offer of structure was intriguing all the same. It would bring too much scrutiny, I decided. I needed to work on fitting in to Equestria before I considered anything of the sort. I thanked Rough Shod for the offer all the same, and went on my way.

Leaving was hard, and only slightly due to my more heavily burdened self, with my single pack from the Queen seeming small and secondary beside its much larger companions. I was not firmly familiar with the idea of personal desires, but I understood that much of my reluctance to leave was because I had found a strange hive amongst these ponies. It worked together, but for different reasons, reasons that I lacked. To live meant more to them than just surviving. Music, friendship, mentoring. Rough Shod was allegedly antisocial, but as a protector, he maintained that the small group would continue its travels. There was something to that I liked, but I could not put a hoof on it. Perhaps it was only how similar it was to changeling society.

I walked, not truly paying attention, into the badlands. I needed time to hone my abilities, and to rest my shapeshifting abilities until I was fully recovered. I’d sated my needs, managed to prepare myself for the journey far better than I had during my exile, and felt a good deal more optimistic about my chances. I needed to expand my stable of identities, and Sandy was most likely going to have to permanently retire. The thought saddened me, but now that I was away from the desert, a disguise that blended with sand and helped to alleviate the scorching sun was neither required nor exceptionally useful. I began to design a new shape in my head. A unicorn would be more useful. I could use my magic for typical unicorn things, I was already not exceptionally comfortable in the air, and my wings were far easier to cover. It would make sense to make this a ‘default’ form, one which I could slip into more easily should another be compromised. Perhaps a gray coat, like Rough Shod. Wasta’s red mane flitted through my head, and I dismissed it as too flashy. Brown hair. Blue eyes. All good earthy colors. I could mottle it with brown for the time being. Pintos were not exceptionally uncommon, as I understood it. I took flight again, intent on traveling well away from the caravan before settling for the night. The dark was hardly a concern, my night vision far better than that of most ponies, likely from a lifetime of living underground.

I found a large, smooth cliff, examining it for flaws from above before landing to begin to painstakingly carve a small niche for myself. If I was going to spend time here in practice, I should have a somewhat safe location to rest. In the morning, I would determine if this was acceptable… and for the time being, it would do.

I already missed the caravan. How very strange that was. I did not… miss the hive, as it was. The comforting hum, yes. The safety, certainly. But… I regretted that I would not be able to listen to more of Rough Shod’s grumbling, Zaimare’s stories, or Wasta’s strange jokes. But the short time I spent with them had been a lie. My life would always be a lie. Connecting to ponies like that wasn’t for me or my kind. I had risked my entire existence for that comfort, and that was foalish. I would do better. I had to. All the same… I looked to the sky, to the stars above, to the mare in the moon, and I wished them a safe journey, and I hoped they too found the things they were looking for.

Shoddy Workmanship

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My first days without the caravan were simple, engaged in preparing my small cavern for long-term use. Having spent more time in the caravan gauging my strength, I was pleased to determine the gratitude given to me by the mare whose foal I ‘saved’ and several of the other caravan members would sustain me for as long as several months alone, as I was able to determine that it was only truly useful for restoring health and as basic sustenance. I could ‘live’ off of gratitude, but without use of other changeling abilities. The other energies I had siphoned from the caravan were more useful, though I had siphoned off more anger from Rough Shod than even I had realized. The first days were spent in my own natural form as I expanded my own small cave into a workable nest for one, taking special care to place my sleeping roll over a shallow hole in the floor, which would hold a cocoon and be far more comfortable than fabric.

It is worth noting that my kind are capable of a sort of hibernation within our cocoons in which we use very little energy while still maintaining a sort of passive contact with the hive, allowing the Queen to wake them at her leisure. This is how the majority of warrior drones spend their time; mental training is shared and their physical needs are taken into account by short periods of wakefulness in which they feed and actively guard the hive before they replace another drone and return to a cocoon to rest. Beyond that, a cocoon provides a snug but not overly constricting way to rejuvenate oneself… for a changeling. I have come to understand that many ponies find the idea of being sealed within a tough membrane of warm gel to be somewhat traumatic, which only proves that most ponies lack the ability to rest properly.

My first course of action after ensuring that I had a safe place to store my belongings was to find a more ready supply of food and water. Scorpions and snakes I found aplenty, and a small reservoir of frigid water fed by a mountain stream made for excellent hydration, and the vegetation nearby produced several new flavors of berries and roots that I found equally satisfactory, and one that was so bitter and unpleasant that the simple odor of it when pulled from the ground and broken open had driven me away, and I was forced to assume Zaimare had inadequately described garlic to me and that I had harvested the wrong plant. Nonetheless, I determined food would only be an issue if I gorged myself overly, as there were apparently few predators of my size locally. There was, however, markings of a large cat in the area, and I determined that harvesting food should not be undertaken lightly if I were intruding upon its territory. There was also a variety of wildlife too small or quick to be of much interest, dragonflies and birds in abundance.

Having produced a very basic shelter, I soon realized that it had the same flaws as my old hive; it was visually unappealing. Taking some rock dust and chewed flowers, I attempted to crush it against the grey walls in an effort to simulate the more colorful walls of the tents, reasoning that the cave was small enough that anything entering would already be aware of my presence. These first attempts proved… unpleasant. Firstly, brown is not exceptionally better than grey. Secondly, any successful attempts to mimic any of the designs I had seen led only to runny smudges of color that left me feeling more irritated than accomplished, which I decided was more due to my overabundance from Rough Shod.

My attempts to improve my stable of false shapes were far more effective. I had made my grey unicorn with a brown mane, and had given it a cutie mark of a set of three stones side by side. It was completely unremarkable to my eye, and I was satisfied with it. Appearance-wise, I shared more of Wasta’s build than Rough Shod, and with some effort I tweaked it to fall more between them. Mottling my coat with spots to match my mane proved slightly more tedious, but served to hide my form amongst the stone of the badlands even more efficiently than a solid matching color had, to my interest. Over the course of the next few days, I came up with several other forms, a sky-blue pegasus with a white mane and a cloud for a cutie mark, a green and tan earth pony with a mountain for a cutie mark, and finally a silvery monochromatic unicorn with a lightning bolt, which I deemed reasonably appropriate. For names, I had come up with Stone Wand, Windy Clouds, Rock Hardtack, and Silver Spell, respectively. All far more suitable names than Sandy.

My next course of action, I decided, should be to familiarize myself with the terrain. Traveling up the mountain was much easier than it seemed to be for ponies, given my more lightweight frame and ability to cling to walls. As such, I made several discoveries, including that Zaimare had, at one point, carved that she was formerly present in one of the rocks. This pleased me for reasons I could not quite comprehend, and found myself visiting her impromptu sign when the mood struck.

It was upon the fourth or fifth visit that I was forced to recognize that my lack of a hive was disrupting my practice. I needed to ensure these new forms were second nature. But… I had been practicing for two weeks without much change in my daily routine. The time traveling with the caravan had instilled a… restlessness within me. New sights, new experiences... these are not things for a changeling. I stopped, considering the thought. They were not things for a changeling excavation drone. But… I was something else, wasn’t I? I was a gatherer. A hunter. An excavator. I was not adept at these other roles, but I was surviving. Perhaps some minor curiosity and restlessness was appropriate for my new life. This idea pleased me. I was entirely within my rights to ask questions and seek whatever I personally desired.

So… what did I desire? To live, obviously. But that seemed insufficient. Rough Shod sought a quiet place to live out his days. Wasta wanted to be a renowned trader. Zaimare wanted to pass on a legacy. But those were pony desires. Did I wish to start a hive? I could think of no means of doing so. I could possibly find a female exile? But that was disgusting. A female exile would be beneath even contempt- I examined that thought. I was an exile. Was I contemptible? Surely not. And I had never considered exiles or exile as an act prior to my banishment… the emotion did not feel… genuine. I realized with a sudden start and a burst of pain that the emotion was not mine. Something of the Queen’s? I considered the idea and shivered. Of course the Queen would not want me to start a hive of my own. If I were to challenge her authority in such a manner I would be destroyed. Regardless, having offspring held no interest for me.

To build. I wanted to create. To make. And yet, I lacked something I could not explain. I wanted to repair the hive, to improve it, but could not determine what had been wrong in the first place. So I would have to learn. Perhaps Canterlot did hold something of interest for me. But not yet. I had weeks to prepare. To grow used to these new forms, and to learn to live as if they were truth.

It was on one such session as Windy Clouds that I discovered a strange structure hidden in a valley in the midst of the mountains of the badlands, a set of large buildings with a massive one in the center, towers poking up from it at regular intervals. At first, I was concerned that I had stumbled across a small settlement of Equestrians who had sought to expand their borders, but if it was the case, it was apparently long abandoned. My curiosity piqued, I landed nearby, investigating one of these strange towers, which I noted was in fact an overgrown stone column, the greyish creepers all over it serving to hide it from casual inspection. Pulling some free, I was inordinately pleased to see that the stone had weathered the time very well, and more interestingly, was covered in intricate carvings. I was aware of reading, and could vaguely recognize letters, but these symbols were completely unfamiliar to me, though many of them seemed self-explanatory. They showed ponies, or something very like them, putting… something inside the much larger ramped structure. I felt a flicker of annoyance at the inability of the carver to accurately portray his meaning, then realized with more irritation that it was entirely likely that it was more a failing on my part.

Still, the implication was clear. Something had been placed within this enormous stone building, and I would be lying if I said I was not a bit curious as to what, but truthfully… I wanted to examine the structure itself. These stones were aged, possibly ancient, and it was fascinating. The wild weather on the edges of Equestria made above-ground hives a tricky prospect; these stones had not only survived, but well enough that markings made upon them had been mostly unharmed. Did the carvings serve some sort of purpose? Was it the strange stone itself that was exceptionally sturdy?

I had been curious before. This, on the other hoof, was the first time I felt my interest truly driving me, and I had to explore these ruins. I found disturbingly lifelike statues of ponies that made me think of warrior drones holding some sort of long-bladed staves, not quite the spears that Rough Shod had explained, and not quite swords, but a cross between the two. Not quite able to help myself, I fashioned a new earth pony shape after one of the ‘guards’, and felt markedly more comfortable; now I belonged here.

Finding myself drawn to the ramped structure in the center, I discovered a door near the top. Sealed, of course, but not nearly so well to prevent a suitably driven drone from tunneling through it. On the other side were more carvings, and I felt my interest grow still greater; these were not the somewhat crude carvings of before. These were beautiful, works of art in their own right. I could not grasp their meaning, but did not truly feel that I needed to; I was enjoying this place even without truly comprehending it.

Certain stones would shift beneath my hooves as I investigated the walls, having a strange tendency to cause said walls to emit spikes, in one case disgorging a veritable feast of snakes, confused and irritated by their relocation. After a stone slab from ceiling nearly crushed me, I decided with some annoyance to avoid putting my weight onto those loose stones anymore, having begun to grow tired of the shoddy work put into some of the construction. Regardless of the builders’ failings, it was wondrous. I doubt I would have ever left the hive had I been able to spend my days replicating such beauty, and even the Queen would have had to recognize the value. Even should changelings merely carve a daily experience on the wall, it would have perhaps added… something. I could not for the life of me determine what it was that I wanted at that moment. Something had lacked at the hive, something… something I could almost feel here, almost put a name to.

A certain disquiet in my thoughts, I continued on, pausing to give what appeared to be an eye carved from some gemstone a curious look. It very much resembled the Queen’s eyes in color, and to my surprise, another passageway opened, leading still deeper into the structure. Pleased that the builders had the good sense to dig deeper into the ground, I followed it, though could not help but be annoyed as another slab fell behind me. Torches lit nearby, triggered by an unknown source, revealing mountains of shiny yellow ore and smaller glittering faceted gemstones. I knew the material to be soft and relatively useless, whatever reasoning they had for gathering it completely beyond me, and the gemstones were of too small a quantity to be useful as material for anything I could think of. Besides, it was the design of the room that fascinated me, having been built of enormous blocks like inverted stairs, many carved with fantastic animals, including the odd fish poking its head out of the stone, mouth parted.

I realized there was a pattern on the floor, a collection of different colored tiles arranged to form pictures, and I found the concept immediately to my liking. I found many of its ilk as I wandered the room, pushing the yellow ore out of the way when necessary. Most displayed an odd green cup of an interesting design, surrounded by light and fire. One showed ponies lining up to drink from the cup, the warriors resembling the statue from outside, and on the other side of the cup stood guardians of red manes and enlarged builds. I wondered at that, finding several large images of the enhanced stallions beside the torch-bearing pillars, the head of each partially obscured by a pool of dark liquid. As I investigated, a torch fell into one of the pools, setting it alight. I quickly realized my misconception; the manes of the warriors were intended to be aflame, not merely red. To test the theory, I carried the fallen torch over to each of the other pillars, providing the room with a much brighter light with each lit pool, only startled on the last to realize that they revealed still another passage into the structure.

This final room was the most intricate of them all. The guardian statues here were of gleaming quartz, the armor of shimmering dark metal, the cut gemstone eyes refracting the firelight in an unsettling way. Between the guards was a dais of the same strange stone as the pillars outside, the cup resting in the center. The design was far more fascinating than I’d originally expected, its color almost an exact match for changeling cocoons, making me think of the nest again. Quite unable to resist, I gathered the cup into my hooves for a closer look, and was almost immediately reminded of the lack of craftsmanship shown by some of the builders when water began to pour in from the stone mouths of the fish, extinguishing the fires I had just lit. Slogging upwards through the darkened chamber was not exceptionally difficult, as most changelings are able to grip to a surface with ease even while in an altered form, but was not an experience I relished all the same. The piles of ore and gemstones were flushed into grates near the edges of the room, and I continued my efforts to leave with my cup, intending to examine it further in the light of day, even as the flowing water was mixed with sand, creating a disgusting slurry that made it even harder to travel, pouring over my head more than once, very nearly dislodging the cup from my mouth. To my great annoyance, the entrance to the passage began to slide shut, doubtless more lackluster work, and I was forced to shove one of the guard statues under it and crawl through the mud to leave the chamber.

Shaking the muck loose as I stepped out of the structure, I examined the cup as I walked in a three-hoofed gait, enjoying its carvings, color, and even the general shape. I had no idea what I would do with such a thing, but I was not about to drag it back into the building and put it back after all that, and it was apparently pony tradition to keep items that interested you somewhere that you could show them off and speak of them.

By the time I reached the center of the open area between the pillars, I realized something else; I was no longer alone. Cats, most large but several small, had surrounded me as a brown, black-maned pony with strange hat and a blue … well, I’m not sure what it was, bickered. When one of the cats yowled for attention, both of them turned eyes to it, and then to me, and I tensed.

“The chalice! Run!”

“BRING ME THAT GOBLET!” The blue one shrieked, and as one the ring of felines began to attack.

I did what any changeling with a hint of sense would do. I ripped my way free of my new form, and launched into the sky, leaving the husk of the shape behind. The effort also distracted me into loosening my grip on the cup, only to watch as it fell to the ground and shattered next to my discarded shell before I gave a buzz of despair and flew off, hoping to lose my pursuers before I was forced to seek shelter.


“Well. That was unexpected.”

“Indeed, it was.” The blue creature agreed.

“Tell you what. You were here first. I’m a big enough girl to admit it, and gracious enough to know that sometimes you have to give a little. You can have what’s left of the chalice.”

“Oh, no no no, I couldn’t. I didn’t even really want it that much. Besides, I would have never found the location if not for spying on you. It’s yours, I insist. And it’s a goblet.”

“Nahhh, let’s just let bygones be bygones. You take the chalice.”

“I’d never known you were so giving, Ms. Do. Please, accept the goblet as an offer of good will.”

“…I am not taking that stupid thing, which is a chalice, it turned that pony into a giant bug.”

“Well I won’t become a giant cockroach, if you’re hoping that I’m such a fool!”

“Ha! Too bad for that, it might actually be an improvement on you!”

The blue creature snarled, looking ready to do violence, then both paused as the temple collapsed in on itself, watching with mute disappointment. “…It has been a trying day.”

“Yeah… yeah, this is kind of disappointing. I was searching for this for months, find it, and it breaks into pieces and the whole temple collapses.”

“It happens from time to time. I suppose we could call this one a draw. Neither of us was able to retrieve the chalice. Let us just say that the temple was already destroyed?”

“I suppose that’d be fair. Neither of us really saw inside. Probably nothing else of value in there… I guess just once we could go our separate ways without you trying to kill me.” The brown pony mumbled with a shrug.

“All strictly business, I assure you. Nothing personal.”

She gave him an annoyed look, fluttering her wings, then smirked. “Welllll, I did get one thing out of this.”


“I got you to admit that it’s a chalice. I was right, you were wrong.” With that, she took off into the sky, heading towards her own home.



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I do not care to remember how far and long I fled before realizing my pursuers had, in fact, not pursued at all. Suffice to say, it was my first real experience with having been found out, and I… overreacted. That said, for the next three days, I studiously avoided my little niche out of a combination of fear of being discovered and shame at having been so easily startled… and, I must confess, my cup had been shattered into pieces, and that upset me more than was reasonable.

As the fear was managed and stowed, a surly mood took its place. When time had come to fight or fly, I had flown without plan or hesitation. For some reason, that disgusted me. I had never considered myself a coward, and the wasted energy of the fear response was something I could not easily recover by my lonesome. Worse still was that it forced me to examine other things. I had lost my first home, the hive, because I could not be what was required of me. I had to leave the caravan as a poor disguise wore thin. And now, a pony, several animals, and a… thing had very nearly frightened me into fleeing from another shelter. I was somewhat proud of this shelter, though it was not particularly attractive at the time being. It would be a waste to leave it. And the Queen’s gift, I had taken to leaving it in my cavern. The idea of not coming back for it was simply unthinkable.

What I needed was something more intimidating. Something that would inspire caution in an attacker, if not the same fear response I myself had given in to. I toyed with his for several days, keeping it in mind as I gathered food and tooled about with the walls of my cave. Ponies, I was coming to decide, simply did not intimidate nearly as much as more monstrous creatures such as the blue… thing. A burly earth pony would likely only dissuade an attacker with a show of force. A pegasus needed to prove speed and skill. A unicorn horn? Said next to nothing about the unicorn itself. Most unicorns lacked useful offensive magic, as I understood it. These were all reasonable, coming from what little knowledge I already had of ponies, possibly part of the Queen’s… addition to my mind. So, what would inspire enough fear or respect to give even a starving predator pause?

I thought to the Queen and felt my chitin shiver. Nothing attacked the Queen with impunity. But the idea of mimicking her, even for a moment, made me very nearly ill with the very wrongness of the concept. I further considered. The Princess Celestia and the Nightmare Moon, they were clearly beings of great power, feared and respected… but I had seen neither save for Celestia’s profile on coinage and the supposed ‘Mare in the Moon’ (which in my opinion seemed oddly changeling-like already). Not enough to make a convincing disguise, and it would draw far too much attention. Celestia was too well known for me to imitate on a whim. The Nightmare Moon? While her reappearance would no doubt inspire enough panic amongst monster and pony alike for me to escape, it would also draw Princess Celestia’s own attention.

As I began to replicate some of the designs from the ruined architecture on the walls of my cave, pleased at how well this carving business was going, I stumbled across another idea. The flame-haired alicorns from the temple. They clearly did not exist, but as I understood from Zaimare, ponies were often in the habit of telling one another stories based on things they had seen that were laughed off as ‘tall tales’, which Wasta had explained came from the length of a great storyteller’s own tail, though Zaimare’s glare put that to question, though I would be cautious not to grow my own tail too long for fear of becoming an untrustworthy figure. Claiming to see a random alicorn with a fiery mane could be considered one of these tall tales… and surely if the power of the alicorns was so widely known and the Nightmare Moon had truly driven monsters from portions of Equestria, even the vilest of predators would fear to attack one. A short stint as an alicorn, albeit with red and orange hair instead of true fire as the carvings from the ruins would have a viewer believe, would surely be enough to distract and frighten off foes. At least long enough for a single changeling to flee to safety.

The decision came as an immense relief. A pony with wings and a horn? How difficult could that be? I already possessed both, should I need to fly or use magic to prove myself, it would come naturally in the new form. Better still, I could use the statues of the structure for more of the design. So, in my head, I began to flesh out the new shape, with a heavier focus on a warrior’s build, though I studiously avoided shifting during this time.

The efforts served a dual purpose. Firstly, it returned some of my confidence in my ability to survive. Secondly, it served to distract me from being alone again, which was starting to creep into me. Confronting the sensation did nothing to alleviate it. Though I did enjoy the opportunity to do as I wish without much regard for the thought of others, I knew the situation could not last. My larder grew and shrank as I tried to assuage my self-imposed emotional fasting with physical foods, and then by distracting myself. I carved shelves into the walls of my cavern, stacking my meager belongings within. With some confusion, I noted that the crystals from the Queen’s pouches had begun to glow at some point, and I placed them in separate niches, wondering at the strange new light. I could not really think of a source for the new energy, and was confident they had not been glowing when the Queen had given them to me, and could not for the life of me determine if I had inspected them prior to leaving the caravan. I wondered idly if they were meant to establish trade amongst the ponies. The Queen must have had foresight that I would require the use of currency, or that in my future I would need to barter for some basic goods. If that was her intention, I was currently unable to accurately assess their value, and would not squander her gift by receiving less than full price.

I was able to duplicate the carvings on the walls of the ruined structures very nearly perfectly, I thought, taking into account the damage done to them and leaving spaces for the glittering stones and metals I had seen before. Perhaps if I found more, I could replicate the design in full, it was a shame that the entire thing had collapsed. I felt a certain kinship with those builders. My own workmanship had proven faulty, so clearly I was not the best judge of such things, but I wanted to be. I also began making duplicates of the cup I had found, and at that I proved far less adept. Annoyance was beginning to tinge my efforts, and I realized that part of the trouble was that some stone held a cup’s shape very poorly. A mixture of rock dust, finely ground beneath my hooves, and builder’s saliva made something a bit more like the cup, though I could not get it to hold shape properly. Even hardened, it ended up looking lumpy, almost melted, and eventually I recognized I was not yet capable of doing it justice, instead using these as bowls and making a much larger version of the cup that I did not hollow on either end, instead leaving it as a large altar-like table that I kept in the center of my cave, carving it appropriately, then arranging some of the Queen’s crystals on it. The effect was pleasing to my eye, lighting the entire cavern well with a color-changing light that seemed to fade when I left the area. I could not begin to understand the mechanism by which this functioned, and simply ascribed it to the Queen being far wiser than myself in such matters, as one would expect. All the same, things were progressing smoothly and I was growing more confident that I could make a permanent home somewhere more central in Equestria to keep important belongings or to hide, this would act as a secondary, and I could change my forms as I wandered, absorbing energy from the ponies in small quantities as my former hivemates did. It should prove far easier for me with practice, given that I would not need to feed ten to twenty times my number back at the nest.

And it was around this time my peaceful little valley in the mountains was intruded upon by the violent crash-landing of a pegasus, older than Wasta had been but not so old as Zaimare, in something of a fright, breathing desperately for no reason I could see… until the manticore burst from the clouds, its eyes red with rage. She quickly returned to her hooves and took back to the sky, her saddlebags spilling as she sought to flee the infuriated beast. To her great distress, her attempts to fly around it and return to the obscurity of the clouds was a failure, and the great winged feline slammed her with a massive paw, driving her back to the ground with a cry of pain, wing held awkwardly to her side.

I crept down on my rock outcropping, intending to return to the safety of my cavern, but I found myself watching the two with growing concern. It had limited her capability for flight with the strike. She grabbed several things out of her saddlebags, including what looked like a large slab of meat, flinging it at the creature to no avail as it again swatted at her, sending her rolling across the ground. I recognized this. A manticore might decide to toy with prey when it was certain it was in control, and the mare didn’t seem capable of escape. A desperate attempt to leap over the beast was thwarted by its tail very nearly impaling her, and she gave out a choked cry as she began scrambling backwards towards the cliff face. It was possible that she would survive the leap into the gorge without full flight available to her, but if she did not make the attempt the monster would almost certainly kill her.

I was not sure why this bothered me so. Her fear was contagious, her desperation biting into me from afar. She faced certain death, she wanted to be bold and it would not come. The powerful predator was going to bat at her with massive clawed paws until she was too broken and torn to survive… and she knew it. But this was of no concern to me; she had brought it here, far out of what was likely to be its normal territory. When she was gone, regardless of fled or dead, it too would leave. And yet. And yet, I could help. Possibly. A brief distraction might give her the time needed to slip around it. Was it worth it? Another cry of alarm as the tail struck the ground before her when she tried to dart to the side. This creature could kill me, a swipe such as the one that grounded the pegasus could crack my shell, teeth and claws could rend me even if my chitin provided more protection than the pony’s soft flesh, and the venom of the manticore’s sting had proven too much even for warrior changelings caught unaware.

Quite suddenly, I was disgusted with myself again. I was afraid. This was not the beast’s territory, I had made my little home here and it trespassed. My hive was a safe place, be it from pony, blue monster, manticore, or a bucking hydra. I would not allow this thing free reign here, not when all it took was a simple bluff. So I reached inside, shaped the form of the warrior alicorn, drew it forth…

And everything shifted and broke, something within my head wrenching. Suddenly, rage filled me, fury compelled me, power flooding through my veins, swelling my muscles and filling this new form to near-bursting. This mere beast dared to threaten one under my protection? The red and orange mane I had chosen burst into true flame, and I charged the brute, slamming a shoulder into it with all the power of an avalanche. It roared with startled fury and I screamed back, power lancing from my horn in arcs, tearing great gouges in the loose stone at my hooves. The beast took a step back, then lunged for the smaller, weaker pegasi, and I met it in the air, grappling it with what seemed like practiced ease and driving us both into the solid face of the cliff. As chunks of stone fell around us, revealing a large hole into my cavern, I flung the beast away, tossing my head with utter disdain. This pitiful creature had no idea what I was capable of, and as single bolt of green light struck it between the eyes it roared in pain, finally turning to flee, leaping into the chasm and flying desperately towards the jungle near my temple. I turned to my worshipper and- worshipper… temple? What… where was I… how-

I collapsed before the stunned mare, green flame eating at the form of the alicorn warrior in patches, the last dregs of weeks, if not months, worth of power flickering and going out as both orange and green flames sputtered and died. I stared unblinkingly up at her as the world slowly faded to nothingness, a horrid aching cold and emptiness filling me as my mind slowed. I had touched something. Something I was not meant for, and there was a price. I saw a vague shape rush towards me, but could not draw forth the energy to care or even truly be concerned. My last thought was of Rough Shod, and I wondered if he would have been pleased with me, and then the darkness was all I knew.

Polite Fictions

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I awoke to darkness, the press of cool earth on my head, only vaguely able to make sense of any of this. This chamber had collapsed, apparently. The queen would be displeased, hopefully I could free myself- The soft gasp and a small wave of fear as I twitched my hooves uselessly in an attempt to get them under me brought things into a bit better focus, and I froze with pain and sudden clarity. Not the hive, I’d been banished. Not earth, but a wet piece of fabric. I’d apparently passed out again. This was becoming a bad habit. I decided I should put a stop to it immediately. My energy levels were… Queen’s hooves and horn, where were they? I was almost completely dry on… on everything. I’d have to find somewhere to feed, quickly, if I could even draw a basic illusion I’d be lucky. A faint nervous sound came from above me, and I tilted my head up blindly.

“Uh… I… m… my Lord? Are… are you okay?” Lord? Was I still in the shape of that alicorn? I could not recall willing myself to leave it, but… that had not gone as I expected. Fear tore through me, and I was reduced to shuddering. That… that had not been me. It was as though I had been replaced by a vengeful power that was all too willing to throw itself into danger. I had no idea what I had been doing, and yet, I’d felt so certain of it. If I survived this weakness… Queen, my horn hurt, did I actually have a flaming mane? What ludicrous foal had thought that to be a good idea in the first place? The rest of me just felt… a sort of pained numbness, as though I’d been carrying particularly heavy loads without stopping until my body had failed. My stomach rumbled, because obviously I couldn’t simply be emotionally starved and too weary to move, the very concept of chewing food had to feel like an insurmountable challenge. Something bumped into my face and a drop of water splashed onto my muzzle. The piece of fabric was lifted from my eyes, and I got a glimpse of my captor.

It was the pegasus from before. Her coat was a yellowish orange, almost golden, with a mane of of a very light green. She startled as my vision focused on her, and murmured in a voice almost too quiet to hear. “Would… would you like a drink? I’ve been giving you water for the past three days, and there’s soup…” She tilted the misshapen bowl, one of my own, towards me, showing me the fluid within. I tried to speak, failed, and could only nod my head with the most pathetic of motions. I was able to hold my jaw open as she poured the deliciously cool water in, letting me drink it with greedy, shameful little slurps until the bowl was empty. Odd that the poorly formed edge had served a purpose, I would keep the little spout in mind for further endeavors… she brought me another until I felt a modicum of strength returning and was able to request food in a monosyllabic breath. The soup was little more than broth, chunks of soggy bread and some small soft bits in it that I was easily able to make manageable without chewing. It was the single most wonderful meal that I can recall having since leaving the hive. It was hot, it was nourishing, and it was actually quite good besides. I managed two more bowls of that, feeling the warmth flow through me and slowly restoring feeling to my limbs, a mixed blessing to be sure. There were ponies who did that routinely? I hurt. I was reasonably certain I had slammed my own body into the manticore’s, and that seemed exceptionally stupid in hindsight.

“I… I’m sorry if that’s not what you’re used to, um… your majesty. Sir. I didn’t know if you could eat anything else, and all I had was some rice and some of the food someone had been keeping in this little cave-“ Ah. So there went my food storage, apparently. What was this pony going on about? Perhaps I was weaker than I realized. I cleared my throat, swallowing the very last of offered soup with some remorse.

“What… what happened? Is… is the manticore gone?” The mare nodded slowly, hobbling over to a pot over a small fire – at the edge of the newly expanded mouth of my cavern, I noted, and stirred it quickly, mumbling something about potatoes burning under her breath and ‘getting it together’. She’d wrapped more of the fabric around herself, bandaging one wing and covering several places where the manticore’s claws had apparently scoured her coat.

“Yes, sir. You, ah. Chased it off. It was trying to make a show of dominance at you, and then you slammed it into the wall. Before you chased it off, it started to show submission, and you took an appropriately aggressive stance. I’m pretty sure it recognizes this is your territory now.” My stare must have seemed appropriately stoic, or perhaps baffled, because she continued in a rush. “They do dominance shows, they’re not like big cats exactly, they’ll try to scare them off first. That was a male from further south, it was trying to claim new territory. It’s been stalking another pride for a few weeks now, maybe this will make it think twice.” I continued to stare at her. “I’m, ah, I’m an entomologist. In training. On grant from CSGU? I’ve been studying them for… oh, two or three months now. Studying them up close, I mean, I’ve been researching them for years.”

“Why… was it… chasing you?”

A faint, almost manic giggle escaped her. “Well! When, uh… when they start dominance shows, they sometimes start by killing a cub of the current alpha. It proves the old alpha can’t protect their pride. The others stand down sometimes, let the alpha sort it out. Only this one wouldn’t stay to fight when the alpha challenged him, he’d run away, he’s a little on the smallish side. Well, it would come back, kill another cub, get chased off again, and again, and again. It’s tried to pick fights with three other prides, and it just kept killing their cubs, and it started to get a little disturbing, and it was very hard to study the lives of the prides with a rogue male killing cubs wantonly which is not something they typically do, so, I, uh, decided to spray it with some manticore repellent I’ve been working on.” Here she flushed, becoming embarrassed but not ashamed. “It was killing all the cubs, I’d already assigned them all names, and there are only two left between all three prides, and he started going after Skippy and Hops and I just couldn’t let him so I flew down and dropped the repellent on him. Only, uh, it didn’t really work. Skippy and Hops freaked out and ran, but he started tearing up the bag and everything around it and… um… well… then he followed the scent back to me. I guess it’s not so much it acts as a repellant as they find it repellant. Meaning… they hate it.” She laughs again, looking wild. “Back to the drawing board for that! Ha. Ha ha.” She swallows noisily, looking distinctly ill. “He would have killed me. It. It was actually going to kill me.” Here she went silent, staring at nothing, though her mouth moved slightly.

I stared at her. These wild emotional outbursts were deeply concerning. One minute she was proud, the next terrified, then joyous, then embarrassed… I could not complain, as I was sucking up every bit of it I could, but I was rapidly wondering if this was a regular pony reaction to coming so near to death. The sudden wave of gratitude almost knocked me over as I shuffled to a sitting position, testing the little strength I’d managed to recover.

“And then… and then you saved me. You ran right into it, and you-“ She put a hoof to my chest, over my heart. “You fought through whatever… whatever curse they’ve put on you, and you saved me.” Ah, this emotion was familiar! Love was very complex, but lust was- oh dear.

“I… I assure you ma’am-“

“Topaz! My name is Topaz, you can call me Topaz. If you want. And you’re… um… Prince…?”

“…Excuse me, Prince?”

“Oh, Celestia, forgive me, I thought you were- I mean, if you’re a king, I didn’t mean any disrespect, I didn’t know, I just thought… I don’t know what your title is!” She gave a desperate little laugh, concern racing through her. “I mean, with this enchantment or curse or whatever it is, it’s hard to tell, but-“

“Wait, stop.” I raised a hoof. “I… cannot follow this conversation. I am… perplexed, and I do not like it.”

She took a few steps backward, away from me. “Oh, well I’m sure someone of your stature has had this sort of thing happen to you plenty of times. Being… you know, royalty and having to deal with us regular pony folk.” She licked her lips, eyes darting about.

I stared. Was this mare mad? “What… would make you think that I am royalty?” This was not appropriate! This was not appropriate at all, I was a drone, drones do not become royalty, they do not let others mistake them for royalty, only the Queen is royalty, the Queen leads!

Now it was her turn to stare, apparently. “Y-you are… you’re an alicorn, of course you’re royalty sir.”

I gestured at my grey chitin, at my blue eyes, the holes in my legs and horn, trying and failing to come up with proper words to express my confusion at her logical leaps.

She placed her hoof against my chest again, sorrow radiating off of her. “I don’t know who placed this sort of… of wicked enchantment on you, but I swear I’ll do everything in my power to help you lift it.”

“Wicked enchantment? Who would do such a thing? Why would anypony do such a thing?”

“Well, yes. Someponies and some things just seem to enjoy making others miserable. I figure you must have run afoul of some magic user that tried to change you into something monstrous. But your good heart fights against the enchantment and you're able to shake off the effects. If only for the briefest of times.” Hope beat against me, fierce pride in my apparent accomplishment of fighting off some… bizarre alleged curse. I could feed this, and feed upon it, but… no. This was too much. And I would require assistance to fully recover. And pretending to be royalty for more than a moment, let alone trying to be an alicorn again, frightened me.

“… I am terribly sorry. Truly I am, but this is not so.”

Her voice became small, frightened, like that of a lost hatchling. “W…what? Uh, my… my lord, maybe it’s my turn to be perplexed?”

“I am under no curse to my knowledge. The alicorn you saw was a lie. A falsehood, something I wore as protection.”

She drew her hoof from my chest as if burnt, then very gently touched me again, as if only just now really seeing me. “Wait, so… this is actually you? This is your true form?”

“This is the form I’ve had since I was hatched. Or very close to it, the Queen may have shaped me somewhat.” I frowned, unable to process the confused blend of emotions roiling within the pegasus as she stared at me. I tensed, preparing to leap away should she opt to attack me.

“This… is… AMAZING!” She bounced away then trotted around me in a small circle. “You’re built like a pony, but with insect features. I’ve done a brief study of breezies but they’re mostly just tiny ponies with antennae and soft wings, you’re more like an insect built to look like a pony instead of a pony shaped to be more like an insect, I’ve never seen anything like you-“

My confusion only grew. “You have been bringing me water. You have therefore seen me for at least three days now.”

“Huh, I guess that’s true. I’ve just been thinking of you as an alicorn under a curse. So you’re not? That’s… that’s fascinating. I’d have sworn you were until I was blue in the face.” She darted in close, peering into my eyes. “Do you see one image or multiple? I can’t really tell if you have compound eyes, it looks as though you have a pupil under some sort of shell. So you weren’t actually an alicorn, it was an illusion?” She went back to circling, and I began to feel something like prey.

“Well. No. I believe I actually took the shape. It was intended to be false. I do not think I can do it again even if I willed it. I… actually do not think I dare try.”

“Hey, you said ‘hatched’. What are you? Oooh, Equus Tabanida has a really nice ring to it-“

“I am an excavation drone. I dig holes.”

Topaz stopped circling, giving me a hard look, then a little giggle and a half-smile. “You’re a little absolute, aren’t you? What I meant was ‘what species are you?’ ”

I tilted my head, mimicking her gesture out of habit. “We… we are called ‘Changelings’. I would actually think you would have heard of us.”

“Oh, those are a myth- Oh. Those aren’t a myth. Uh. C-correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought they… ate ponies. And they’re not really supposed to be insects, they’re fae-ponies.”

“What? No. That is disgusting.” And it was. I couldn’t imagine eating a pony. Well. Perhaps if it was already dead. And I was starving. Which made me think that I would very much enjoy more broth. “I do not know what a fae is.”

“You know, a fairy pony- look, it… it’s apparently wrong.” She coughed. “I’ve been feeding you potatoes and soup and onions, and that all seems to be working just fine, so obviously you eat what ponies eat, which shows how little ponies actually know-“

“I also supplement my diet with other insects. Smaller ones. And snakes. Other things.”

“…So that’s not a smelly rope in the corner?”

“That was to be lunch before you arrived.” I watched her turn green, and noted that this was far more interesting than attempting to hide my nature from all ponies had been. I was concerned that I had made a poor choice; there was now a pony who knew my secret, but then… I required immediate assistance and she had provided it. I noticed that she’d placed the Queen’s crystals in a circle around me while I slept, and that their glow had faded almost completely. I prodded one with a hoof, and she looked from me to it and back.

“Something came out of it. I pulled you up in here in case the manticore came back, and they all started shining more brightly on the sides facing you, so… I thought you needed them for something.”

“The side facing myself?” I thought on this. It would have been difficult for me to notice that, if true. Perhaps they had been some sort of… healing crystal for our kind? Energy storage? I would toy with them, restore that shine perhaps. If that was their purpose, it would serve me well. Her hoof prodded my flank. I spun, startled.

“Oh, sorry. No cutie mark. And you do seem to have an exoskeleton, but there’s a bit of give to it. Not exactly a shell, more like a tough hide. Not bad at all.”

“This is pleasing to you?” I was not sure I understood this pony in the least. Her emotions, perhaps, but her attitudes and motivations were confusing me. As I understood, most ponies reacted to the sight of a changeling with fear and revulsion.

“Are you kidding me? I’m majoring in entomology.” I stared at her. “…The study of bugs?” I stared more. “You’re a big insect pony. You’re the most fascinating thing I’ve found since… since… Since the multiheaded millipedes! You have to let me study you, you’re like a walking talking source of wonder!”

“I… do enjoy wonder…” I admitted, tasting this emotion and finding it quite to my liking.

“Then come on, this could be fun. Wouldn’t you like having someone to talk to?” She started prancing in place, hopeful and excited at the prospect of having her very own changeling research subject, apparently. Some small part of me was absolutely certain that I would regret this.

But… I would enjoy companionship again. I truly would, and if nothing else, having someone around to keep my attention occupied would perhaps keep me out of trouble, which seemed to trail after me like moths to a flame. Perhaps Zaimare had been right. Idle hooves, and all that.

Tabula Rasa

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Topaz was always an… odd companion. My first days with her were subject to more prodding and poking than any pony could tolerate, and sometimes I caught her staring as though she were trying to reassure herself that I was real. It was almost embarrassing when I began to shed the outer layer of my chitin as the damage from the manticore slowly healed, as Topaz collected it with a sort of amused amazement, though to my relief she understood that prodding my new chitin would be unpleasant for me, if not damaging.

Beyond that, the mare was insatiable in her study of me, filling in some dozen pages of a notebook, pen held in mouth and as she scribbled furiously. To my chagrin, I could not understand the point of her efforts at first, having only rarely been subject to writing and always before able to call upon the hive’s understanding of the letters. I was able to pick up on the symbols easily enough, though stringing them together was more of a struggle. At first I resisted because I felt that any idea worth being shared could be placed within the hivemind or told to another, but the idea of leaving a semi-permanent log of one’s thoughts astounded me, and is probably the only reason I write to this day.

Topaz had, to my great interest, a more than passable skill at producing images on paper. She showed me my own likeness, and it was likely the first time I had ever truly examined myself. There is no call for mirrors amongst changelings, and if we were to desire to change our appearance, we only had to do so… though I do have to wonder how most of my kind would ensure they were doing a passable job without examining themselves. Perhaps the ability to perfectly mimic a pony was one of the criteria for being chosen as a gatherer?

I cannot help but feel that Topaz was disappointed in many of the answers to her questions. I did not know what the average lifespan of a changeling was. I did not know how old the Queen was. The idea of the Queen having a predecessor had never before struck me, but it seemed grossly incorrect and I told her so. I was very much unaware of the processes a changeling went through from birth, though I did re-correct her that we laid eggs. When she suggested that the Queen laid all of them, I actually laughed. The Queen does not lay eggs, what madness would that be? When Topaz explained how most insect societies worked and questioned why we even had a queen if not for that, I was unable to truly answer her beyond ‘because we do’.

She found my ability to convert emotion to food and fuel rather incredible, and we spent several nights of her working herself into one emotional state or another and then having me identify and explain what I could use if for. She tried huge, fake sobs at one point to simulate sadness, but I was only able to sit there and stare at her dumbfounded as her allegedly emotional tantrum provided absolutely nothing. She stoutly informed me that she wasn’t used to faking emotions and she couldn’t really think of anything to be legitimately sad about. I agreed that I had found little enough to be troubling since her arrival, and we sat in silence for a long while after that.

Topaz’s saddlebags and personal gear had been mostly savaged by the angry manticore. Several texts (all replacable except her journal, which she managed to mostly salvage and wrapped in the binding of another damaged text), a canteen was punctured but repaired easily enough with a shell of my own making, though she was cautious to rinse it out many times before drinking. Her personal tent and sleeping roll, however, were completely rent beyond repair. She lamented their loss until I informed her that had she not been carrying them, it would likely have been her flank with the manticore’s claws in it. Her scratches would heal nicely, but thin lines would always be present on her back and flanks for those who cared to notice such things, though she professed relief that it had not marred her cutie mark. Thankfully her wings seemed to have just been badly bruised, but enough to prevent her from flying more than a few minutes at a time, and she admitted that she should probably see a doctor back in Canterlot, just in case. Her limbs were sore, but mostly functional, and she pronounced herself travel-worthy in only a few days.

So, we began a trek back to Canterlot, slowly making our way into Equestria proper. The journey began well, but when I took the shape of one of my intended forms, the unicorn I had named ‘Silver Spell’, she stared at me, aghast.

“Silver Spell? Really?”

“Is… it not suitable?”

“Well, sure, if you want to be perceived as an intolerant bigot. I mean, Silver Spell!” At my stare, she winced. “Oh, right, right. Silver Spell was a character from a famous play. She was obsessed with ‘purity’ and made the life of her nephew an absolute nightmare because he was involved with a pegasus.”

“A play? Then, if I understand, this character does not exist.”

“It doesn’t matter, if anypony named their foal that in the last… two or three generations, it’s news to me. I wouldn’t do it. If anypony did, it would be a political nightmare.”

“Over a character from one of these ‘plays’?” I mused, quite stunned.

“Besides that, it’d be like naming a pegasus “Cloud Brain” or an earth pony ‘Mud Hoof’ or… something else offensive. It breaks them down to a stereotype.”

“And… this is inappropriate? Would not being generic be more effective at blending in?”

“What? Being generic? Among ponies? No, of course not. Wait, that’s what you were going for? I thought this is what your people do.”

“I am a tunneler. I do not gather energy.” I mumbled, a little sourly. “Much of this is new to me.”

“Okay, we’re stopping here for the night. I think… maybe I should look at what you’re going to use.”

“There is much time before-“

She lightly shoulder checked me. “I’m not used to walking this far and you need to show me some of these other forms. I’m telling you right now, lose this one.”

“But… the name-“

“The name’s only half of it. A pony like you will stick out like a badly bobbed tail. Besides, you can show off that rock-cutting skill of yours.”

“It is not really a skill as such, so much as a-“

“Oh come on, just show me again. Your hooves should be all chipped to pieces and I want to see why they’re not.”

“Ah. I harden them. And shape them to be more angular.”

“Like a chisel! That’s fantastic, I hadn’t even really considered that. I love how much easier it is to just ask for information instead of researching it for days trying to get a glimpse of how it actually works. How hard can you make them? Is it just your hooves, or is it your entire body? Can you-”

Roughly two hours later, I’d managed to survive another unstoppable onslaught of questions from the curious mare, and I felt bolstered again. I truly enjoyed curiosity, and indulged in it frequently myself. Her presence allowed me to explore the sensation in depth, which I found myself reveling in. Now in the safety of a small hole in the side of the mountains, Topaz began to inspect my new forms with a critical eye. She walked around me, investigating each, paying special attention to the cutie marks, wings when I was a pegasi, and horn when I was a unicorn. Though I had not practiced quite as much as I intended, I was quite sure she would find them-

“I really can’t lie, they’re all sort of terrible. I mean, none are as bad as Silver Spell, but none of them are very good, either. They all look like they’d blend into the background.”

I couldn’t quite help but feel disappointed, and yes, a little offended. “Well… yes. Of course they do. I don’t want to be noticed, if you’ll recall.”

“And that’s the problem! Ponies don’t just blend into the background. We stick out. We’re colorful, we’re loud. If you aren’t colorful like the rest…”

“…Then I’ll be noticed. Because I’m so unnoticeable?”

“Exactly! What was your first pony named again? Sandy?” At my grimace, she nodded. “It stuck. You were different, ponies talk about different, it started to wear thin.”

I nodded, amazed by this new insight. “So I must blend in… by not blending in.”

“Uhhh, that might be oversimplifying it a bit. Besides, there’s other things to consider.”

“Such as?” I questioned, doffing my latest form with some chagrin. She prodded me with a hoof.

“Such as comfort. You said yourself that ‘Sandy’ started to itch after a while.” When she saw the beginning of a protest on my features, she raised her hoof. “Alright, alright, not itch, but something, it didn’t feel right. So, wings or horn, which bothers you least to hide?”

“Wings are barely noticeable, but-“

“Alright, first step. Hide your wings, please?” I obeyed, flattening my wings against my bag and covering them under a bit of protective chitin. “Now, the horn. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t make for a bad earth pony, but you need something you can wear almost non-stop. So, I think the horn stays.” I took a form of an average unicorn pony, basing its coloration off of Topaz’s own. She blinked at that, then nodded, looking amused. “It’s like a weird mirror. Unicorn stallion me.” She shook her head, then continued. “Alright, your magic is green. So. Let’s start with the eyes!”

“Eyes? What does magic have to do with –“

“Fast and loose rule. A lot of ponies have magic the same color as their eyes. Heterochromia can mean having magic that’s two different colors. Or magic that changes based on how you use it. Or it could cycle between the two, it gets weird quick. Point is, green eyes, green magic. Most ponies will shrug it off as normal. Next, your mane. Now, you’ve got a blue tint to your wings… but that little fringe is gray, and so is your tail, so I think we could go with a dual color scheme. Maybe a light blue streak, if anypony sees your wings they might pass it off as their eyes playing tricks on them.”

I nodded, more than impressed. “For the eyes, perhaps I should just leave them blue?”

“Well… you could. It’s really your decision. If somepony gets a good look at your face without you being disguised, you’ve plucked your pinfeathers anyways.”

“I don’t have feathers.”

“It’s. No, it’s not- Sandy, please.”

“I have explained that I dislike that name.”

“And that’s another thing. Your own choices for names are… well, you’re trying too hard to be unnoticed. They’re so generic that they’re embarrassing. Silver Spell was sort of acceptable, it just had poor social connotations! And that leaves the cutie mark.”

“A symbol of maturity and your place amongst pony-kind.”

“A symbol of knowing what you can do that’s special. A pony with a cutie mark for storytelling doesn’t have to be a writer. They could be a journalist. Or an artist. Or a politician! Or anything else that isn’t related to that, and do writing in their spare time. Having a special talent doesn’t make you exceptionally prolific at it, unfortunately, or guarantee that what you can do is really something anypony wants. The problem is… well, you’re sort of assigning yourself special talents that aren’t really fitting for you. Someone asks ‘Silver Spell’ to cast a spell about… I don’t know, lightning, and you can’t, that would be really awkward. If Cloudy Skies gets asked to do weather patrol in a pinch, and can’t manipulate clouds very well…”

“I begin to see your point. I must choose a talent more suitable for a pony that digs holes.”

“No, no no no no no. No. No. You have a chance to pick something you want to do. You have the excuse of practicing your special talent. You must want to do something, go big!”

“…I am intrigued by architecture?”

“Thaaaat’s maybe too big. That’s going to require training, and an apprenticeship, and possibly schooling to get accreditation… “The yellow mare began peering around, then focused on one of my small attempts to recreate the cup from the temple that I had brought along. “You’ve been making these, right? They’re not too bad. The big flat one made a good table.”

I considered, then decided that I would find the cup to be an acceptable cutie mark. I practically dreamt of the thing, duplicating it with near perfection on my flank would be much easier than trying to recall the precise shape of the lightning bolt I was using for Silver Spell.

“Now that looks good. A golden goblet, you could claim you’re interested in recreating ancient artifacts. It’s the sort of thing you don’t have to actually know a lot about.”

This was entirely reasonable. If anything, it sounded quite interesting. “And ponies would find that of worth?”

“Welllll maybe. But if not, we can find you something to make a few bits. And I’ll help, I mean, I’m not about to let you run off alone in Canterlot, I need to document all this. A changeling’s integration into pony society.”

“I… don’t know how I feel about that.”

“Don’t woooorrrry about it. I won’t publish for years and years. This is a long-term study. Heck, I could make you a research assistant and then I’d be able to get you some pay. Not really much because it’s really meant more for ponies going to school and needing a couple bits to get by and needing on-the-job experience more than the money. Now, how about a good name? Maybe something to do with that cup…”

“Gilded Goblet?”

“We’re going to stay away from anything that sounds like that first word, you’ll thank me for that later.”

I sighed, feeling annoyed. This was complicated business, and talking of the cup disappointed me. I still could not believe I had dropped the thing. I distractedly drew it and the ledge it had sat on in the dirt at my hooves.

“What is that, some sort of altar?”

“Hmm? It was a stone in the midst of a room. The cup sat on it, in the center.”

“You know, I’m starting to think your explanation of that was lacking in some details. You said the building started to fall in… was that right after you got the cup?”

“Yes. Perhaps age had weakened it.”

“Did the altar happen to… oh, I don’t know, move at all when you took the cup?”

“Yes, of course, and then the rest began to-“She started snickering at me. “…What?”

“Oh, no, no, nothing. You just waltzed in, stole a priceless idol from a dead temple, and strolled right back out, not a care in the world, and the whole place just kept trying to kill you.”

“A priceless idle?” I frowned, not understanding why inactivity would be priceless. Worthless perhaps, but priceless?”

“Idol, not idle. It means something held in reverence, respect.”

Zaimare’s saying came back to me, and I couldn’t help but smile. “Then idol hooves got me into as much trouble as idle hooves have.”

Topaz’s head came up. “Idol hooves? Hey… I like it. Idol Hooves.”

I blinked. “Idol Hooves?”

“Well, you’re always getting into some sort of trouble, right? It fits you like a good shoe.”

I rolled it around in my head, shifting my form to fully fit Topaz’s suggestions, the green eyes, the grey and blue mane, and the lack of wings, then looking back to look at the goblet on my flank. The name fit. Not only fit, but fit comfortably. For the first time in my life, I had a name that I could think about it relation to myself.

My name is Idol Hooves.

Ignorance and Apathy

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I am Idol Hooves.

“Yes, Idol, I understand. Are you alright?” A tinge of concern flavored her words, and I started. The mare was currently kicking stones into a small circle, a few pieces of brush and kindling already between us. I nodded, rolling a log towards the firepit.

“Oh. Yes, I am, it’s just… I have never actually considered… this. I have a name. On a shape that looks… something like myself. Based on things I am… interested in. It is a much grander experience than I had anticipated. But I have to familiarize myself with it to keep it as a useful form.”

“Is shapeshifting really that complicated?” She stepped on some of the kindling, shattering it further.

“The less pony-like a form is, the harder it becomes to hold. Shells that aren’t pony-like shatter quickly. An illusion will hold, but… illusion or shell will not grant me the ability to mimic a griffon’s cry.” A wave of interest from Topaz, which I drank in eagerly, seeing no harm in drinking of the emotion whilst I used energy to adjust myself to this new shape. I sharpened my already altered hoof, bringing it down on the sides of the log, splintering off several sizeable sections, which I formed into a peak at Topaz’s guidance.

“Wait, so, as a griffon, can you use the talons?” She held up a front hoof. “I mean, apart from unicorns, most of us don’t have that sort of dexterity.” She fought with her saddlebag a moment, prying her pen and notebook free and settling down on her sleeping bag. I frowned, looking up to the setting sun. It was still early, we could both still be gathering food, even if Topaz claimed that our food stores were enough for several days of travel already. Nonetheless, her apparent eagerness to rest at every opportunity bothered me, given that she was claiming her injuries more tolerable as time went on.

“Yes, of course. If, as a griffon, I was incapable of reacting appropriately, the disguise would be an utter failure. A griffon without the ability to snatch prey from the ground would go hungry and be ostracized, besides.”

“I think you’re a little out of the loop, griffons haven’t been that bad in… a long time. I mean, sure, some of them are still a little on the savage side, but I’m actually pretty sure that… that they’re not all bloodthirsty anymore. They do a lot of trading with ponies, I’m sure some of them even do their own farming.”

“It was my perception that they hunted ponies?”

Here Topaz’s head jerked up to look at me more carefully. “That hasn’t happened in almost a millennia. Outside of very, very rare cases that usually get resolved by both sides. Princess Celestia is even looking into trying to get some younger ones involved in our flight schools, get ponies and griffons to be even closer.” She began furiously scribbling, her face a mask of concentration but her attention still unquestionably on the subject. Or, I suppose, she was simply trying to hold the pen still in her mouth.

I considered her words. The changelings as a species did not have much interaction with griffons, I was almost sure of it. But… when had the hive’s last interaction with them been? The little knowledge the Queen had gifted me with at the start of my banishment was almost entirely devoid of context; I knew the griffons did not like ponies. I did not, however, know how recent this information was. ‘Stay away from treasure mounds, flee from any cave you discover with one because it is a dragon’s nest. Avoid Everfree Forest. Griffons are a predator.’ And more information that I could not immediately recognize as my own, but had slowly begun to sink into my thoughts as fact that I had personally established.

“Have you spent much time among the griffons? Why else would you take that shape?”

“None at all, actually. As I’ve said, I am not a gatherer.” With a huff, I set the kindling alight, the logs quickly catching with the green flame before it turned a cheery yellow with vague hints of red. Topaz rolled an apple to me, impaling her own on a green stick as we started at our dinner. I confess, I have grown fond of cooking food, even if there is some energy wasted in the process. After a day of eating apples, there is some strange appeal to roasting one over a fire as opposed to simply devouring yet another. It did not hurt that I was flavoring mine with emotion flowing from Topaz. “…When we are hatchlings, we play. We shapeshift at will, into whatever we wish. Small dragons, griffons, even one-headed hydras, or giant spiders. The freedom is encouraged, I think.”

“So… so what changes?”

“Excuse me?” I rolled my own stick, adjusting it to keep the apple out of the open flame. Burnt apple was different, but not what I would call a desirable repeat experience, even if Topaz had laughed uproariously at the look on my face as I had diligently chewed the charred fruit.

“It sounds like… like when you’re foals, you’re all encouraged to be emotional, and happy, and have fun wasting energy.”

“I can’t imagine any creature would not want their offspring to be happy and healthy.”

“No, no, I mean. When you… get older, I guess, you stop being… outgoing. You act like you’re supposed to be just… just a drone, but you’re not.”

“I should be. I am aberrant.”

Something fell into the fire, and I frowned, peering at it, then glanced to my own apple. I had never known Topaz to drop one of her own, as this was a trick her father had taught her when she was just a little foal.

“But why… why would anypony… stop wanting… to be happy?” The flow of emotion from her cut off like a line had snapped, and I jerked my head up to her, then froze.

Topaz was staring dully at the apple in the fire, watching it as it hissed and burned. Even in the yellow light of the flame, her coat seemed to have lost its luster, and as I watched the very color itself seemed to be draining from her.

With a wordless cry, I bounded over the fire to her, shaking the pegasus. Her breathing was steady and even, but I expected that. The sound did nothing to her, and she only reacted at the violent shaking I was giving her. I hadn’t been paying attention, hadn’t even considered this possibility.

“What.” Her voice was dull, a monotone. She didn’t care. Couldn’t. But that couldn’t be, I couldn’t have drained her so far, could I?

A knot popped on one of the logs, sending sparks flying. One landed on her open notebook, and she watched it settle and burn as I desperately stepped on it, trying to be delicate and not damage her pages. I snatched the notebook up in a wave of poorly contained magic and tossed it to our gear, giving it no more regard once the immediate threat to it was dealt with. “Topaz, are you well?”

“Fine.” Her stomach rumbled, but she made no motion to react to it.

Order preserve. I had just reduced the only pony who knew me to a husk. Her interest, I’d been feeding on the complex emotion for too long, too deeply… and now it was gone. I had seen this, amongst my own kind, especially where hatchlings were present. They would latch onto a parent too strongly, too desperately hungry, and the parent would be drained. Drained dry, and unable to feel anymore. The hatching they had loved was just a hatchling, of no special importance to them. Even if they could recognize the tiny changeling before them as their own flesh and blood, they could no longer attach significance to that fact. In many cases in my own memory… that changeling died soon after. They stopped functioning, stopped caring about their own well-being, or that of the hive around them. It was why hatchlings were kept in the nursery, with a caretaker who was given exceptional quantities of love to dole out. But… even so, a parent could be drawn to their own offspring. Drawn in… and consumed.

And I had done this to Topaz. A pony who had helped given me name and shape, a companion. I was horrified. I was no hatchling, no foal to be unaware of my actions. How had I not seen? How had I not realized this? Would she recover? Could she? I looked about, trying to think of what to do. Her reaction to the loss had been sudden. I would take her to Canterlot. They could help her, perhaps. I cursed myself, the feeling of fullness suddenly disgusting to me. The chill of the night air did nothing to soothe my fears, and remembering the rumblings of her stomach, I recovered my own apple. Not quite done, but enough that she could eat. I held it down to her, but she continued to stare dully ahead, comprehending perhaps, but not compelled enough to eat it. I dumped her saddlebag out, taking a small knife from a pouch and cutting the lightly toasted apple into sections, putting them down before her. When she still did not react, I pried open her mouth with tendrils of magic and set one of the slices inside, holding my breath until she began to slowly chew, more as if trying to clear her mouth than to assuage her hunger. A trickle of relief swept through me, and I sighed. If I could get her to eat, I could get her to Canterlot. Breathing and eating. Functional was good. If she could walk, better still. If not… if not I would carry this mare on my back until we reached the city.

Shock Therapy

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The first days were the most difficult. Left to her own devices, Topaz would simply stand, or lay about, staring into nothingness. It took constant pressure to get her to walk, and after looping a rope about her shoulders and hauling her along for a few miles, I realized how devastating her silence was. I tried making idle chatter, briefly asking her about her family, her position at this ‘CSGU’ and anything else that crossed my mind. Her flat, simple answers only made matters worse.

“Fine. I study bugs. I’m not a unicorn.”

The last seemed an odd distinction to make, but I paid it no heed until I felt more resistance on the rope. Careless of where she was putting her hooves, Topaz had stepped into a hole and was clearly having difficulty pulling her hoof free until we adjusted her to not be pulling at such an odd angle. It was becoming apparent to me that this was possibly more crippling to ponykind, who were used to having access to their own emotions, as opposed to my kind who usually actively suppressed them.

It did, however, also bring to mind that others would likely question the rope and Topaz’s state should we encounter anyone, be they pony, griffin, or diamond dog. A member of my own kind would surely recognize her state, and though they would recognize it… they would very likely see my attempts as foolish. The most a husk could expect was for the Queen herself to set them to rest, but it was far more likely for them to simply continue on until they collapsed of exhaustion and died. In the few I’d seen personally and could still remember, it had not taken more than a few days.

The thought brought me up short. I did not really know how hearty I was compared to Topaz. I could travel for several days without food, yes, but I was not sure that I understood how limited ponies were. Or if they were capable of lasting longer than a changeling could, though I doubted it. More importantly, I had to preserve Topaz’s health until I could get her help. It would not do if she were physically damaged as well as emotionally when I returned her to her home. I wanted her to recover. I wanted to talk more about my hive, to determine more about who I was. In mere days, she had helped me… become someone.

It did not help, for that matter, that I wasn’t entirely sure which way we were going. Getting Topaz to Canterlot quickly seemed wise, but her thoughts were muddled. Asking her for directions was difficult. The sheer apathy she displayed towards the situation was disturbing, and she seemed quite content to lay in a shallow ditch all night if I did not roll her sleeping bag out. Getting her out in the mornings was a nightmare, requiring much cajoling and in one case I was forced to upend the bag and dump her unceremoniously on the ground.

The next morning, however, was of greater concern. My rationing of our food had left her hungrier than usual, so the protestations of her stomach woke her before myself… and led her to devour the entirety of our stock of food. I had expected it, but not so soon. The husks tended to live in the moment; she was very hungry, that meant she should eat to make that pain go away. There was food for several days; she would get hungry less if she ate it all now. Thankfully our supply had not been greater; husks had been known to eat until their bellies ached, then regurgitate to alleviate the new pain. Out of fear for the trouble she might get into should I leave her to forage food, I elected to go hungry for another day of our painfully slow pace.

When next we stopped, I found myself nosing through her own packs, looking to see if Topaz had brought any emergency rations of her own, as she stared dully at the night sky with those uncaring eyes that I had begun to dread. A few pouches seemed hopeful. One contained ground coffee beans, which I imagined to be simply a more efficient way to store them. Two of the others I could not recognize, the one emitting an odd spicy scent, and the other… I could not describe it more than ‘vastly unpleasant’ and to my chagrin, when I recoiled from the pouch, it fell from my grasp and scattered the powder everywhere, lost to the wind.

Topaz’s sudden heavy breathing startled me, and I spun to see her looking about with growing panic. “It’s back, it’s back, it’s here, it’s here it’s here it’s here it’s here!” Then she gave a little wail of fright… and took off into the night. I stared after her for what seemed like a long time, trying to parse what had been meant. Then it clicked. Topaz had… recovered? How? Was there some cure in this bag? Her fear had been so sudden that I hadn’t even felt it, though now I could feel it like a beacon of raw terror. I hesitated, unsure if my presence would make matters worse or better. Was it me she feared? She hadn’t bothered to look at me, so it seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, she’d left her saddlebags. Even if she wanted nothing more to do with me, I would return her belongings. Perhaps we could part ways and remain friends.

Finding her was embarrassingly easy. I just had to find the bush that was quivering the most.

Approaching only made her soft whimpers of “Please, make it go away…” more heartrending, and I set her bags down a ways away.

“Topaz? I have left your saddlebags here. I… I apologize, I did not mean to-”

“Get in here you buggy idiot, it’s back!” She snapped, sounding desperate, frightened, and now a little angry.

“It? What it? There’s nothing else out here.” I peered about, unsure as to what she might have seen.

“Just get in! The manticore, it’s back, it must have followed us, can’t you smell it-“

I did not dive into the bush with her. Changelings do not dive into bushes. I may have entered hastily, but the distinction is important.

“I can’t smell anything over this powder.” I sneezed, annoyed.

Shhh! It reeks of that repellant I threw on it and… powder?” Confusion warred with terror on her face. Then began to fade.

In panic, I tried to continue, to keep her emotional. “Yes, from your bag. It was the red bag. It stank, I dropped it while trying to put it away, it was-. Oh. Probably your repellant. It is good that I did not try to consume it then-” There was a wave of anger from Topaz, and then a hoof collided with my face.

Around half an hour later, a very emotionally confused Topaz and I had a mostly silent dinner consisting of several hastily gathered roots, ferns, and assorted berries. I was having minor trouble with depth perception.

“…I’m sorry. About the eye. It doesn’t look so bad.” She mumbled, nosing around at a large strawberry we’d found.

My eye, as it had turned out, had valiantly done its part to deflect Topaz’s anger-driven blow. She had let loose a string of profanities that would have made Rough Shod blush, then stumbled about and fell on her haunches, breathing heavily as her emotions began to even out, anger and fear giving way as her other complex emotions began to recover. My eye evened out to what I understand to be a lovely shade of violet. It also hurt, as they say, like Tartarus.

“It feels bad.” I offered, trying to be helpful. “You have a good hoof.”

“Yeah, well. Dad’s an earth pony. I shouldn’t have hit you.”

“It is fine. I should not have drained you emotionally.”

She scowled at that. “No. You shouldn’t have.”

And for that I had no answer. We sat in silence for a few more minutes.

“…how… how bad was that? From the outside. I don’t… I can’t really understand what I was thinking, everything was so… right now.”

“It was bad.” I admitted, sighing and shifting my hooves. “Within our hives, the only cure is understood to be death. You become a danger to yourself and others.”

“Then why? Why would you do that to me? I thought we were getting along!”

“It was an accident. I did not… I have never done that before. With changelings, we can feel if one is draining emotion from us. If we take too much, the other will stop us. I did not consider that ponies would not be able to.”

Her glare softened. “…Right, right. Not a gatherer.” She fixed me with it again. “You still shouldn’t have been drinking that much. Not without permission, at least.”

“I apologize again. I was hungry, and we have been traveling. Most of what I had stored before was lost with the manticore attack. You have been offering, so I did not think it would be problematic.”

She considered, then rubbed a hoof on her chin. “…Alright. If we’re going to keep traveling together, we’re going to need to establish some boundaries.”

“Boundaries? You… you wish to continue traveling together?”

She fixed me with a look. “After all that, you bet your telson I’m keeping an eye on you, mister. Besides, I think you owe me enough to let me do my research.”

I had to concede the point. “Fair enough. I shall not feed upon you again.” After a moment, I had to ask. “My… what?”

“I’m not actually sure you have one, it’s really more of a scorpion and sea-spider sort of thing, and hold on just a second. I’m not going to starve you, that’s not going to do anypony any good. We just need to… you know. Boundaries. Establish minimum limits. Maybe put some floodgates in.”


“You know…. Something to keep you from… what, husking anypony again?”

“I understand the intent, but not the term.”

She sighed, then rolled a shoulder. “Can you… I don’t know, do something to make it so you only absorb strong emotions that flow from someone else?”

I hesitated, not liking this idea. “I… might?”

“While still drinking in the ambient emotions, you know, the general feelings.”

“…I am not sure. Even if I can, my ability to read emotions may dampen. I don’t think I would like that.” She gave me a look of clear disapproval. “It would be like blinding myself.”

“Well not permanently, just… you know. A little barricade, so when you’re out among ponies you aren’t accidentally taking too much. Again.”

I winced. “I don’t know how to start, but I’ll try.”

“I’ll help. Besides, you shouldn’t be reading people the way you do anyways. You’re too good at it, it can make ponies a little nervous.”

“I honestly do not think another pony will pay me so much attention as you have recently. That may have been part of it.”

“Yeah, well… okay, I get too into my studies. You are fascinating, you know. A hidden culture of Equestrians, it’s just sort of wild.”

“Indeed. We are truly a thrillseeking, danger loving people.” I stated, attempting to be even more bland than normal. Topaz cracked a smile and chuckled, shaking her head as she settled down, still chewing the last piece of root she’d gathered. “…I am glad to have you back.”

She swallowed, giving me a tired smile. “I know. And I’m glad to be back. Just… give me a little time to stop being jumpy about all this. It’s not every day you turn into a zompony. Or back to normal.” Her tired smile turned into a wolfish grin. “And now I can write down a first person perspective, and you better believe I’m getting your version of this written down too. Maybe, just maaaaybe we’ll start calling it even after that.”

“Bargain struck, Topaz.” I yawned, using a phrase Zaimare had proven fond of, feeling settled again, and once more allowing myself hope for the future. “Bargain struck.”

Trust Exercise

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Our companionship was weakened by my failure, I am saddened to admit. Topaz would keep the incident in mind for a long time even after she had forgiven me. Though she would put on a strong face, she admitted that she would need some space, and her emotional recovery took time as she tended to rage or break into fits of manic laughter or tears at a moment’s notice. I honestly did not see what good it did to give her more space, but continued to do so with every outburst, opting to err on the side of caution.

After one of her outbursts, Topaz looked at me in confusion as I stood some thirty paces away. “Hey, Idol!” She called, sounding annoyed. “The hay are you doing back there?”

“Giving you space. As requested.”

Topaz murmured something about Celestia, strength, and all stallions being the same, then sat on her haunches to try to work up a good glare, but I could see a bit of a smile even from this distance. “Get over here, that’s not what it means.”

“I dislike this trend of ponies to say a thing that doesn’t mean what it means and then claim it to be a ‘figure of speech’.” I grumbled as I trotted up. How was one to request space around them or explain that they had in fact kicked a bucket out of the way or that a clock had spontaneously grown wings, as Wasta had explained was a serious issue in Canterlot especially.

“Oh don’t pout. We didn’t design you for it. All I meant is that I don’t want anypony hovering over me.” As I opened my mouth to protest, she cut me off. “Don’t you dare say you haven’t been flying. We went over that one.” I was quite sure we had not, but chose not to argue.

“I was under the impression we should head due north. We have been moving towards the rising sun.”

“North northeast.” She clarified, holding up her odd disc with the arrows on it. I glared at the device, quite sure that it was untrustworthy. “See? We have to stop at an outpost before we head back. I honestly almost forgot, but maybe we can get a coach. Find someone to look at my wing.” The mare stretched both wings, though the right twinged before reaching full extension. “It’s probably just a small sprain. I wouldn’t have minded having that shell of yours back then.”

“To be quite fair, my wings would have probably been torn to shreds, if not ripped completely off.”

Topaz screwed up her face at that. “Ewww. Do they… you know, grow back or anything?”

“I… do not know. With molting, perhaps? It will take a great deal more time.” I pondered aloud. “Shedding bits is not uncommon, but larger injuries usually require a full-body molt. It is both exhausting and wasteful.”

“You know, some insects eat their moltings.”

“I believe my kind will do so to hide them or in times of scarcity, but it’s rather bland and most likely not worth the effort. Better to use it as bait for scavengers.”

“What, ah…. What does meat even taste like?” She looked a little ill at the question, but I opted to be truthful.

Then I hesitated. How would one describe the taste? ‘Wriggly’ seemed an inappropriate choice. Most of the things I had consumed could only be compared to other meats. “It tastes like what it is.” I offered lamely, knowing this would not be sufficient. Changing the topic seemed wise. “Why is there an outpost here in the badlands?”

Topaz seemed all too willing to leave that conversation to die as well. “Well, we’re in Equestria proper now. This is just on the more remote side of things. It’s really for travelers, Saddle Arabia isn’t technically Equestria because nopony controls the mountains or the badlands. Why take territory nopony wants when it makes a fine border?”

“What about griffins and dragons?” I countered, reasonably sure my people had encountered both in the badlands.

“Dragons nest wherever they want and griffins are clannish. If one of the clans splits, then we might have to worry about that. As long as nopony bothers a dragon’s hoard, usually they don’t bother with ponies. Besides, that’s why the outpost is here. Keep an eye out. If things get messy, well, they can contact the guard with dragonfire. I’d be amazed if they didn’t have a jar set to the next town and Canterlot at minimum.”

“I… assume they will see the plume of fire and send assistance?”

“What? No.” She gave me a look, then laughed. “Dragonfire jars. It’s one of the few commodities dragons are willing to trade with, the littler ones anyways. Have the dragon breathe fire to move things into a warded jar, tweak it a bit and you have a jar to teleport small packages. It’s only been around for a few years but Celestia raised the pony who discovered it to lesser nobility. Outrageously expensive but great for important mail.”

Having no idea what any of that meant, I grunted in acceptance and continued on.

The… outpost was little more than a few stone buildings and wooden pickets, with a large odd ladder set on the ground that went far out of view that I could not begin to understand the point of. A few ponies lazily patrolled the area, and I could not help but feel disdain for their lackadaisical attitudes. Given that the two species they knew that were likely to be in the area were capable of flight and one of them was also capable of setting wood alight, I felt entirely justified. With little more than above-ground stone to defend them, I deemed the outpost ‘showy and useless’, leading Topaz to shush me as we approached.

There was some commotion when Topaz announced herself to the guardian at the gate instead of doing the sensible thing and flying over it, but as I was soon to learn it was considered a ‘courtesy’ to let the local outpost know you were leaving Equestrian territory and give them some brief information on where you were going prior to departure, if only so they would know where to send the search party in the event of your disappearance. Topaz, for instance, had been gone for weeks longer than expected and a search party had been sent out only that morning.

After some hurried explanations, she was whisked away to see the outpost’s medic and I was left standing alone in a courtyard, feeling startled and confused. This was an odd place, I decided. There was not nearly as much bustle as Topaz had warned me of as the few inhabitants of the outpost wandered about doing chores and patrolling the walkway above the wooden barricade. I opted to ignore my feelings of foalishness and helped a mare in armor gather water from a well, though she protested that travelers weren’t required to assist in daily chores, the idea that I should stand around and simply watch was preposterous and I would not waste my time thusly. After that I assisted a pair of earth ponies who were carrying square stones and buckets of stone-smelling powder and water to the roof of one such building, and was delighted to learn that the mixture of the two buckets provided a thick compound that was runnier than I approved of but apparently would dry into a rocklike mixture in a few hours’ time, keeping the stones in place. I dumped a small amount in my saddlebag, intent on asking Topaz about its other uses later.

I had begun an acceptable rhythm of hauling stone and buckets up the side of the building when my thoughts began to stray towards Topaz’s extended absence. I was about to go search for her (as soon as the work was done, of course) when she returned with an odd contraption on her injured wing and plenty of fresh bandages, and I thought I could hear her grumbling something about ducks. She seemed confused by my absence.

“Marefriend’s looking for you.” One of the earth ponies offered, sliding another stone into place. “Got it. Thanks for the help. Easiest way down is-“ I hopped off the building, pleased by my labor and landed lightly by Topaz, who gave a small scream as I apparently fell from the sky. This was oddly echoed from above.

“What- where…” She looked straight up. “Were you on the roof? Whyyyyy were you on the roof? Did you just jump off?!”

I stared at her, not quite comprehending. It was not a long drop. Only twenty feet. Thirty at most. “Yes. I did not mean to startle you. I was moving stone.”

“Well, fleas can leap- and grasshoppers, I suppose, crickets too… but not unicorns. Unicorns don’t jump from buildings!” She hissed at me under her breath, looking up to where two earth ponies were staring over the edge in shock. Oh dear.

Foalishly, I waved up at them. I had been caught up and had forgotten myself again. It was good that I had Topaz to remind me of these things, I considered. Who knows what trouble I’d be in?

“He has a featherfall spell memorized!” Topaz called up to them. The two seemed conflicted between annoyance and relief, but then went back to their work. I could not help but marvel at such quick thinking. I also did not know such a spell existed, but realized I should probably educate myself on that as well. “You,” Topaz went on, “- are a very lucky bug. And I can’t believe I didn’t think to ask how far you could jump. Anyways, they sent a message to the search party. We’re invited to dinner, and we need to get our story straight.”

“Er… story? I have never tried to be a teller of tales… that seems… quite pointless, actually.”

“Better get used to it, Iddy. We need to explain why you weren’t in the logbook and how I got away from a manticore before someone gets it in their head that I’m a battered mare. Come on, they’re giving us a night’s lodging. There’s a supply train coming with fresh recruits, they’re letting us ride home tomorrow with the ones who are heading back.” She started trotting towards another building.

“What is this thing on your wing?” I asked, finally unable to contain my curiosity.

“This?” She lifted the bandaged mass. “…It’s a splint. You’ve never seen a splint?”

“What does it do?”

“Keeps you from moving it wrong. What do you do when a cha- one of your people can’t use a limb? Just let them hurt themselves more?”

“I believe we eat them.”

“You what?!” Topaz cried in horror. I began to despair that I would truly never master humor.

After reassuring Topaz that my people did not practice casual cannibalism, she showed me that they had given us each a room, side by side. I found both needlessly spacious, having preferred the smaller barred rooms I had seen through a window, but Topaz explained those weren’t for guests. I supposed it made sense that the warriors would receive more comfortably snug accommodations, so did not argue. I could not help but be wistful, however. A small sturdy hole in the rock surrounded by nestmates would have been wonderful, the idea of metal bars between us instead of rock only felt like it would have improved the sensation of closeness. I wondered if the hive would consider it.

Topaz crafted a fine tale about me being a colleague who determined there was an incongruity in the mixture she had used to create her repellant that would cause it to fail by tainting the results. I then rushed after her, forgoing all but the most basic of needs in an attempt to catch her to prevent her from doing anything unwise. Topaz had clouted a young manticore with her sack when the repellant appeared to not be working, and it had attacked her in a rage. I had arrived and driven it off with a combination of the correct mixture and a few lucky bolts of magic.

All in all, I decided, things were looking up.

Cover Stories

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As it turned out, a small dinner was instead brought to our rooms (specifically the one determined to be ‘mine’, as Topaz and I were still discussing our story) and we ate in relative privacy whilst waiting for the return of the search team. I did enjoy the pony tradition of meals as opposed to eating only when hungry, and the prospect of a return to the large shared meals of the caravan had a certain charm to it. I was disappointed to learn that generally ponies determined their own schedules for meals, and only in certain circumstances did this warrant multiple non-family members eating together.

“Fillies and colts that are still in school do it,” said Topaz, “The university has a mess hall, but there’s a wide open lunch period and it’s usually not everypony eating the same thing anyways. Too many ponies, too many different tastes. So you get to choose a bit more-”

I continued listening as I cleansed my tray of the meatless slop I had been served. Though not exceptionally pleasant tasting, I was pleased at how easily I could consume it and it lacked the gritty texture of much of Oaken Stave’s efforts. Topaz had called it ‘vittles’, though the term ‘sod on a shingle’ had been the name used, with an interesting mix of disparity and affection. I had no sooner consumed my own tray of the brownish glop-on-toast when Topaz pushed her own towards me, which had been perhaps a quarter consumed. I would never understand how ponies could resist eating when so much food was present.

“-Not that I think you’d care, actually. How can you eat that?”

I peered up at her, cleansing my face quickly. “It is nourishing and not physically distressing.”

“…Really? That’s your minimum standard? Its food and it doesn’t make you violently ill?”

I tilted my head, fearing I misunderstood. “…Yes?”

She shook her head in disbelief. “I’m going to need to document your reaction to a market. Or the campus cafeteria.” The mare cleared her throat, turning quickly and walking over to her saddlebags. “Alright, so we have a story. You’re a colleague, you knew I messed up my formula. You came to stop me from doing something risky, got here too late, then chased off the manticore.”

“Yes. I flew after you from Canterlot.”

She nodded, then caught herself and shook her head. “Unicorn, you don’t fly. Although, then again, some do. Maybe if you had a spell to give you temporary wings...? I know there are a few. No, too risky.”

“I do not know that spell, besides. I actually have wings.”

Topaz pressed a hoof to her face. “Let’s… just stick with you traveling by foot below me? I didn’t take the train in, I flew myself, so at least we don’t have to explain that. Dear Celestia, I don’t even know if I have the bits for the train. I was traveling light.”

“You had more saddlebags than I do.” I protested, confused.

“And you were playing hermit up in a cave in the mountains. I was doing research and needed equipment, bugsy.” She gave a very faint un-ponylike growl. “All those notes. And I had a few rare samples in one of those bags!”

“We could go back…” I offered timidly. “I’m sure the manticore is go-“

“Yes-no-thank-you-that’s-quite-all-right.” Topaz babbled. “I mean, I don’t really need them. Besides, I don’t even know where I was anymore. I had charts, and I mapped out where the prides were located…” She began to slump. “…And their territory boundaries… and I had some good sketches of all of them… darn it, months and months of work because one stupid rogue and one pegasus who couldn’t keep her muzzle out of things.”

Unsure what else to do, I put a hoof on her shoulder. “There there.”

Topaz blinked at me, then burst out laughing. “Oh dear Celestia, that was… oh sun and moon that was terrible.”

I disagreed wholly. I had mastered ‘comforting’ on my first try. This was wonderful news, and I smiled to let her know that I had caught her good-natured sarcasm. “I traveled after you, inadvertently saved you, and then we returned here because you were injured. Yes?”

She nodded. “And if one of us has to make up some details, the other one should just agree. It’ll keep things from looking too suspicious.”
“Fair enough,” I agreed easily, and finished off the last of the meal.

“Then with that, I think we ought to head to bed. Don’t wander too much, this is a military post and they won’t approve of that-“ The door swung open as her hoof reached for it, and an orange pony with a black mane in a breastplate stood there, looking surprised. “…Heeeeeeey-!” Topaz stated with false cheer and a forced grin that immediately set me on guard. “Ember Blaze!”

“Heh… ah… hey, yourself, Tops.” The orange pegasus cleared his throat. “Sorry, I’m on KP tonight. Was coming to see if you were done with chow.”

“Greaaaaat! It’s been so long, how have you been?” The fixed smile never left her face.

“Well, you know, pretty good, all things considered. Married Firey a few years back, you know how it is. First foal on the way. Hoping we can get a Cloudsdale position after this tour is done.”

Topaz relaxed slightly. “Oh yeah? How is Fire? I thought her parents didn’t like you.”

“Oh yeah, well, just her dad and it turns out he’s a big fan of Pegasus heritage. When he found out I was joining the military? Complete turnaround. Might as well have been the son he never had after that.” The pegasus ducks his head with a sheepish grin. “Of course… we’d already planned to just elope by that point. Felt a little silly have a Las Pegasus ceremony when everypony was all for it.”

“Right, right. But once its set up you might as well, right?”

“Exactly, exactly! Hey, mind if I get those trays?” The stallion took a single step into the room and then halted suddenly. “You, uh. You don’t have any bugs in here, right?”

I froze. How did he know? How could he have possibly seen through my disguise-

“Oh Celestia help me, it was one time and it was a giant hissing roach. You screamed like a little filly, stepped on it, then passed out.”

“Come on Tops, a bug the size of a dog ran up to me and jumped at my leg!”

“It was playful. I still can’t believe you didn’t ask-“

Finally I recognized the name. “Ember Blaze. Topaz has spoken of you.”

Both ponies froze, mid-argument. Ember cleared his throat. “Oh. Uh. Yeah?”

“Indeed, she mentioned you in passing.”

“Oh. Okay…?” He looked between us, then his eyes widened and darted between us more quickly. “Oh. Oh, I… I’m really sorry, I hadn’t thought, geez and I just kind of burst in. Here, let me get those…” The pegasus scooped up the two trays, balanced them on his back between his wings, and began backing up for the door. “Sorry again you two. Glad you’re back in the game again, Tops! I’ll tell Firey you said ‘hi’!”

“W-wait, Ember, it’s not-“ The door fell shut before she completed her sentence. What an odd, somewhat rude stallion. “…So that happened.” She sat on her haunches, half-obscuring her ladybug cutiemark as her forehooves dragged down her face from the top of her head. “He always did jump to stupid conclusions.”

I frowned, at a complete loss. “Pardon?”

“Just… you never mind.”

“Have I done something inappropriate?”

“You? No, not really inappropriate. Awkward, maybe. But nothing I can’t take care of. Don’t worry about it, it’s really nothing.”

“All I said was that you’d mentioned his name…” I stated with concern.

“Yeah, well. Meeting old ex-coltfriends is always awkward. Finding out he’s married to a friend from high school is better, but still not great.”


“…It wasn’t a great breakup.”

“He… stepped on a roach?”

“While screaming and passed out immediately afterwards. Yes. I was doing a study of them compared to their smaller counterparts and one kept escaping the tank. They’re smarter than ponies give them credit for. They’re not the same as the ones that you find in trash by a long shot and they’re much more fastidious.”

I would imagine not. The idea of an insect that size made my mouth water. Or would have, except I’d eaten the majority of two meals already and was feeling content. Another pony habit that I found myself in agreement with. I watched Topaz heave a sigh.

“It wasn’t… you know, the only reason for the breakup. I’m too ground-based for most pegasi. It’s hard to study insects in the air. And most unicorns seem to think that if it’s not in a lab of some sort it’s not worth studying. ‘Back in the game’, he says. Dork. Not like I stopped dating after that. Gusty, Iron Will, Wild Meadows… Um… Bronze Charm, that one was badly thought out, the rest were all mutual. But I have not been out of the game. This is just a dry spell.” She finished even more defensively.

Sometimes, I decided, ponies were just confusing and there was no getting around it. “What game?”

“The ga-“ She heaved a huge sigh. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just blowing off steam.” She gave me a look. “Are you sapping this? No, wait, don’t tell me. That’s not fair. If you are… that’s fine. I need to get over this anyways.” She stared at the closed door for a long time, then pushed herself back to her hooves and started for the door. “I really should get ready for bed. Good night, Idol. Sleep tight.”

“Snug as a bug.” I offered, and she laughed a bit. Much more suitable. “Good night, Topaz.” After she left, I decided I should set about my own preparations, and began the task of rooting through my saddlebags and our shared gear.

“Goooood morning Idol Hooves~!” Topaz called, pushing open the door to my room as I blearily began to peer around. “…Idol? Are you in here?”

“Of course. Where else would I be?” I offered sleepily, trying to extricate myself from my sleeping roll.

“Well your bed’s made and- and… Idol. Are you in a tent?”

“Ponies sleep in tents.” I offered smugly.

“…You drove tent stakes into stone?” She asked, her voice confused. Perhaps I was mistaken? “You… hhhhow...why? There’s a bed!”


“It’s soft! Warm and comfortable. More roomy than a sleeping bag! Military bed, so… not much more but still!”

I poked my head out of the tent. “You told me to sleep tight.”

“…Celestia give me strength.”

After hastily taking down my tent and explaining that ponies slept in tents while outdoors (which I still maintain is a fairly reasonable mistake) and covering the holes I’d driven the stakes into, we set out to breakfast. This… this was far more lively than the night before. Ponies were leaving most every room, all congregating into a large hall with long benches and tables, most filled to capacity. While nothing like the feeding chambers of the hive, I still felt… comfortable, with the situation. Helpfully, ponies cleared a pair of spaces for us, more than a few smiling, several just grinning at us. We began eating quickly, and I focused most of my attention on the simple meal. A stallion with a more polished helm soon sat before us, grey mane more meticulously short. He reminded me of Rough Shod instantly, though perhaps more fastidiously groomed.

“Good morning, Captain. Sorry for all the trouble-” Topaz started, only to be quickly cut off.

“Not at all, ma’am, you went through the proper channels, you were injured, and you came back to let us know everything was alright. If you’d been along the same route you’d left, we might have even met you along the way. But it’s probably hard to fly a path when you’ve got a broken wing.”

“Sprained, actually, nothing serious. Just… you know, manticore repellant didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. Worked on some, but made one… let’s just call him ‘very angry’ and leave it at that.”

“I believe I told you not to get that close to the beasts. They’re dangerous, violent at a moment’s notice.”

“This was a rogue male. It’s… probably even more dangerous than you think, but in general they’re much more agreeable, really!”

“Should wipe them all out and be done with it. And what’s your story?” The captain spun on me, glaring. “This mare at least signed herself in and out. What’d you do, teleport after her?”

Topaz huffed. “He thought there was something wrong with my repellant and was in a hurry. I was flying, he had to travel on the ground.”

“I am not a navigator.” I offered helpfully. This was much more aggressive than I had been led to believe, and I found myself wilting under the officer’s ire. Had I truly done this thing, I would be in the wrong…but I had not. Bolstered, I straightened. “It was not my intention to break the rules.” Another truth. And I had not broken any rules, besides.

“So how’d you get away from the manticore, anyways?”

“Well, um. Idol blasted it.”

“You killed a manticore? Really.”

“It is not dead. I believe I simply frightened it.”

“Most likely. I don’t think it will approach ponies again, but most of them don’t anyways. Unless they’re very hungry, and there’s plenty of food for them out there.”

The captain snorted, disbelief evident. I caught a glimpse of orange pegasus as Ember made his way up to the table, bringing hoof to forehead and straightening all his legs. “Sir!”

“Yes, Ember?” The captain asked, not bothering to look as he continued to glare at the two of us.

“Can I have a word? It’s about this.”

“Oh horse apples.” Topaz muttered under her breath.

“You two stay put.” The larger stallion ordered, then trotted off a small ways out of hearing distance of the tables. I watched with interest as Ember spoke to his commanding officer, made more intriguing when the officer put a hoof over both his eyes and spoke slowly at Ember, who nodded in embarrassment. When the captain eventually turned back to us, I saw a few more of the smiles had turned to grins, the mare at Topaz’s side giving her a playful shove just behind her ribs, and I had apparently missed some conversation between them. Another looked at me in appraisal, much the same way Zaimare or Wasta would do when considering trading amongst the caravan, and I felt distinctly uneasy.

“So!” The captain barked, sitting across from us again. “I think I have a better handle on the situation now.” He rolls his eyes. “…Everypony does something stupid from time to time. This was a bit more stupid, but… no real harm done. And it was a good excuse to get together a search party for training. No more unauthorized rendezvous to save mares from manticores. Understood? The two of you keep this business in Equestria.”

“Yes sir,” I agreed easily. I had no intention of leaving ponykind, the idea of being a griffin, rhino, buffalo, or small dragon held no real appeal after all. “I will try to keep her in check.” Topaz made a choked sound and I looked to her with concern. Her face was close to neutral, though her emotions were… mostly embarrassed, I think. Such an odd mare.

“The two of you are on the first train to Canterlot, get that wing looked at again. Damaged wings are no joke. Train arrives in an hour.”

“Of course, of course. I think, ah…we’re done with breakfast. Idol, are you done with breakfast? I’m done with breakfast.” Topaz nodded to herself, then stood. I eyed her mostly eaten plate with dismay, but followed her with confusion.

“Well that was easy.”

She gave me a dumbstruck look, then rolled her eyes. “Oh shut up. It worked out. Let’s just… get our things and get ready for the train.”

“Yes ma’am.” I agreed, wondering what a ‘train’ was exactly.

As it turns out, a train is a noisy metal monster that eats coal and takes ponies to different places. When Topaz managed to pry me from the ceiling at its first blast of noise upon reaching the fort, I found myself immensely concerned. This beast was smoking like a dragon’s den, consumed rocks, and ponies were just climbing inside? Absurd. Disgusting. What if this ‘train’ decided to digest us? I adamantly refused to approach it, and Topaz settled for dragging me from my room as she explained that it was not actually alive, though I could very clearly hear it breathing.

Several armored ponies with bags climbed out of the train, one awkwardly in a three-legged gait, alternating between kicking the fourth leg out, shaking it erratically, and gingerly stepping down on it. As soon as they were out, Topaz hustled us in and took a seat by the wide aisle. I sat across from her, poking my head out an opening and taking a shaky breath. I did not trust this thing.

“Seeya later, manticore~!” The mare I’d helped carry water called with a wave, and I frowned in confusion, then waved back. There was a manticore on the train? I began to bring this up to Topaz, but she had her head in her hooves and radiated embarrassment. Perhaps later. It was clearly under control. Somehow.

“Canterlot.” Topaz stated firmly. “I am not doing field work until this blows over.” She settled into her seat. “Get comfortable, bugsy. It’s going to be a while.” I peered at her, then went rigid as the length of the train jerked into even louder motion. Topaz sighed as my head jerked from side to side in panic. “A long while. We’ll be in Canterlot by tonight. We’ll… we’ll just figure things out from there.”

I stuck my head back out the window. Canterlot. Finally. I wondered how much things would change at this point. Then I drew my head back in, settled down, and allowed myself a rueful smile. It would be fine.

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My relief when the beast stopped its journey was completely unfounded. Beyond the fact that Topaz claimed my escape through one of the windows into its stomach was ‘undignified and startlingly hilarious’, I learned that Stalliongrad was not Canterlot, even though it very clearly should have been because the train was going to Canterlot and not Stalliongrad. Clearly not content with having its meals march themselves right in, the metal monstrosity also could not be trusted to even travel where it was asked, most likely to give it more opportunity to digest these hapless ponies.

Topaz was in the process of hauling me back, telling me that I was being ridiculous and that everything was alright, when one of the train conductors who came to assist her offered me a large white block of something to ‘calm my nerves’. I popped the entire thing into my mouth, to his wide-eyed surprise, and began chewing desperately, hoping that eating would give me some idea on how best to convince Topaz not to return to the Train’s clutches. My concern and panic started to melt away, surprisingly, briny fragments of the cube easing my turmoil. In fact, I was so caught up by the block’s ability to ease my concern that I quite passively allowed Topaz and my new friend to escort me, and only when I heard the triumphant scream of the beast as it began to resume its travels did I realize they had betrayed me into its clutches yet again. Topaz had the audacity to suggest that I should be grateful they allowed us back onto the train without a new ticket, where I was horrified to learn that ponies paid for the privilege of risking digestion.

Several more of these blocks later, and a casual invitation to ‘Salt Lickers Anonymous’ by a fellow passenger, I could not even work up much more than a shamed whimper as I buried my head in the pillowy flesh of its internal seating. I woke, feeling more clearheaded though confused, as a sleeping Topaz had her head hanging off the edge of the seat across from me, a large puddle of drool beneath her. Hesitantly, I returned her to a position less likely to dehydrate her or finally start the beast’s digestive processes. I then peered out the window, gladdened that the sun was not quite so bright anymore as sun dipped below the horizon… and found myself gaping.

Canterlot, alleged capital of Equestria, seemed to be made of shimmering, gleaming marble, built into the side of a mountain in a clear defiance of any external force. The enormity of it struck me, and as we approached ever closer the alabaster and gilded spires were forever etched into my memory, Stalliongrad, for its apparent size, held not even a fraction of the beauty, not in simplicity nor in complexity. A soft snort from Topaz alerted me that she’d woken, and she smacked her lips noisily with a mutter of confused embarrassment at the state of her face and mane. A few minutes later, she joined me at the window and gave a pleased sigh of relief.

“Well Idol, that’s Canterlot. Home sweet home, be it ever so humble.”

I stared at her. Humble? This magnificence- she was being facetious, of course. “It is enormous. What portion of it do you live in?”

“Hmm? Oh, that’s just the top part, you can’t even see where I live. I have a little place near the university.” She pointed her hoof out a window, into the hillside, motioning past it. Then her hoof trailed off to the side just a bit. I was quite impressed that she knew where home was well enough to point to it so exactly. “Well. The outskirts near the university. They wouldn’t really approve of some ponies in the middle of the city.”

“You… own a portion of that?” Now I was confused. How did one own part of a hive? This is my hole in the rock and you may not have it?

“I had some bad experiences with renting. I like insects, but rats?” She gave a violent shiver, revulsion enough that I could feel it over my ‘walls’. “Too many ponies with too many special talents. Good fences make better neighbors. On the other hoof, it’s probably half the size of what I was renting, but sometimes less is more.”

“That is contradictory and cannot be true.” I protested, quite sure that this pony saying at least must be incorrect.

Topaz gave me a faint smile as she pulled back in her own window. “You know, I’ve never really gotten that saying either?”

“So where will I stay?” I asked, curious as to the location relative to Topaz’s own that I would make my home. When she didn’t point out the window again, I glanced at her to see that her mouth was half-open and her eyes darting about. “Topaz?”

“…I… didn’t really think about it. I kept meaning to work out the details but… heh… um… I have a spare couch, I guess? There’s always the basement. Short term, I mean. We’ll need to find you somewhere nearby to stay, of course-”

I tamped down my own concern. Was I expected to carve my own home? I looked back at the alabaster walls with some dread, now. How could I possibly be expected to compete with this? Did that mean the Princess Celestia had carved the ‘castle’ out of the very rock itself, and that was why she lived there? Of course it made sense that the Princess was capable of doing such a thing with such skill. But I could not make a structure in the style of changelings, it would stand out, neither as magnificent or as large as the buildings I saw. It would take me... Well, several years at least to make such a thing. And what would I do with it? Or was I merely expected to make it larger? That made far more sense, but… at the top of one of those spires? A shiver went through me. Too much sky. I wanted good, dependable stone around me.

The beast gave a shrill scream to announce its impending arrival, and I jerked my head free of the window, glaring at the opening. I was beginning to forget myself on this thing. Topaz may trust it, but I was certain it had ulterior motives. Perhaps the ponies were feeding it something. The idea that this creature was so lazy that it simply traveled, carrying others who would bring it food seemed more distressing than if it were trying to trick them, and hastened my exit all the same, to the point where Topaz latched onto my tail and yanked me back from the window again with a very firm look towards the door. She was right, the same trick would likely not work twice.

Canterlot is… more amazing up close than I had expected. Almost the entirety of it, city and castle, is a work of art. A master’s work, in fact. And then… you get to the university.

The university is perhaps the work of an apprentice. Who dabbles in modern art. This is perhaps an unfair comparison, but it seems as though much of the university has been… redesigned to fit changing requirements at a rapid rate. And as such, it resembles the structural equivalent of a patchwork quilt. At the same time, it is… charming in its own way. Topaz claims the whole arrangement of buildings has been adjusted overnight before, and I find myself believing her.

Topaz’s home was a stout rectangular building with a stubby second story balcony just off the university grounds, right up against the wall of the city, to my great pleasure, though I was confused to note that she had no fence. As I understood it, this would mean her neighbors were awful.

To further my confusion, just before we reached her door, somepony came out, a larger earth pony carrying saddlebags stuffed with jars.

“Honey!” Topaz exclaimed, pleased, then rushed over to the mare in question.

The mare gave a whoop, scooping Topaz into a hug. “Where have you been?! Gone three, four weeks longer? I was thinking you just said ‘to hay with Canterlot’ and decided to set up shop somewhere else. No wait, let me guess. You found some new insect when you realized that manticores aren’t bugs?”

“Well- I… no, and they do have a scorpion tail and their skin is chitinous up until about the torso, the rear fur is really more like tarantula hairs-“

“Ohhh, don’t start you know I don’t believe a word of it. Your house is fine, I’ve kept an eye on it. Pair of jokesters tried to paint ‘The Bug Mare’ on your wall again. I took care of it.”

“H-Deee. Did you sic your bees on them?”

“Whaaaat, no, I’d never. I might have suggested I would and tossed a few small rocks, but you know very well that my bees are delicate and very well behaved.” The mare stated with a sniff, turning her back on Topaz in a show of great offense. Her cutie mark appeared to be a fruit of some sort with hexagons inside it.

“Is that why you use those blue leaves in your smoker, or because of it?”

“That is a trade secret, I’ll have you know.” The mare turned back around with a grin, then seemed to notice me. “Friend of yours?”

“Oh! Honey Dew, Idol Hooves. Idol, Honey. Idol helped me out with my research.”

Honey gave Topaz a look of clear skepticism. “He knows about bugs?”

“I distracted the manticore that was chasing her.”

“Ooooh, big hero.” She smirked, then looked at Topaz and blinked. “He’s serious, isn’t he? You got chased by one? Are you going to agree now that the ones in Equestria should be relocated?”

“Ah ah ah! No way, we are not talking politics before I even set hoof in my house after being gone for two months. Not right now!”

The mare gave me a wicked grin. “I’ll get her later. Hey, Iddy, you hungry? Like honey?” She reached back into a saddlebag as I considered.

“Well… yes, you seem nice-“I was quite rudely interrupted as her hoof pressed into my open mouth and sweet, saccharine bliss poured over my tongue.

“Free samples to first time customers and friends.” My new best friend stated with some pride, pulling her hoof free of my gaping mouth. “Honey Dew’s Blue Tropical, best honey you can get in Canterlot. Can I put you down for a case? Also have mead~!” She sing-songed as I worked my mouth, trying to form the words ‘Yes, of course, I never want to stop tasting this ever’ when I heard Topaz from her door.

“Honey, what did I tell you about putting your hoof in pony’s mouths?! That is not a good business strategy!”

“And I tell you nobody complains when the Apples do it. Besides, blue honey, how else am I supposed to get people to try it. Right big guy? You approve.”

I was busily trying to clean honey off of my teeth, but my tongue seemed far thicker than normal, and my thoughts were sluggish with trying to suppress the urge to giggle.

“Uh. Idol? You there?”

“Isss reeeally good.”

“See! I’ll catch up with you later, Topaz. Have a fresh batch of honey coming. Trying for a red this time, something cinnamon maybe. Going to want details on that trip! Mr. Hooves, you stop by sometime too.”

I recall waving, though I was unsteady on my hooves. “What… is mead?”

Topaz snorted, giving me a look. “Something you aren’t allowed to have, apparently. Come on, looks like you’re going to have to take a break. Lots of ponies have that reaction when they meet Honey. Too much sugar in that mare’s diet. Might have to watch yours too, from the look of things. Alright, couch or basement? No windows down there but-“ I tapped a hoof on the floor, considering, nodding at the idea of being surrounded by stone. A basement sounded lovely! “Yeah, I guess that does sound like more your speed. Alright, it’s bit of a mess...” She admitted, pulling aside a thick rug in a corner and revealing a doorway built into her floor. “I mean, it’s not dirty or anything-“ She hooked a hoof through a ring and pulled it open, then trotted into the darkness.

I followed Topaz down the first three stairs, and then froze mid-step as I beheld her shrine to Death.

But They Don't Check Out

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I stared mutely, horror and confusion growing quickly beyond my reach and control. Hundreds of insects, large to small, in jars on shelves, pinned to boards with Topaz’s distinctive scribble around them, and arranged apparently haphazardly on a gigantic map of Equestria, hanging as if impaled on spikes above the ground, circles of felt around them displaying… what, I had no idea. Alongside jars were bulbs of various sizes, solid glass encasing several more… vicious looking insects, I decided. A scorpion roughly the size of a newborn pony, encased in glittering crystal and set on a desk, pincers wide and tail curled, the monstrous face absolutely nothing like a pony and yet still clearly capable of displaying hatred.

I almost fell down the stairs, unable to process the setting. Ponies did not eat meat, I understood. This… house of slaughter made no sense to me. A larger spike drove through four orbs of colored fluff, and I found myself reading aloud. “Parasitus Spiritus – Presumed endangered, rarely seen in Equestria. Subjects possess neither gender nor hierarchy, instead each individual will consume any normally edible substance before them given time. Study subject ate three apples, an entire jar of honey; glass and all, and the marmalade toast I was currently having for breakfast. Subject produced three more of its kind of identical size shortly after this astounding act of purest gluttony, through no means I could determine. Classification: Potential pest, contain at all costs. Consider to be vermin. Sorry little guys.”

I nearly screamed when Topaz lightly bumped me, my nerves rapidly fraying under the impotent glare of hundreds if not thousands of sightless eyes.

“You alright?” She asked, concern heavy in her voice as she lightly pushed the scorpion to the side of her desk, the huge insect not concerning her in the slightest. “You look like you took a bite of something and found a worm. Except, you know, I’ve seen you do that and enjoy it. Which is still gross, I’ll have you know.” She hung a saddlebag off the giant crystal stinger.

“What… what is this place?” I croaked, unable to fully express my concerns as of yet. Who had done this, why did it exist…?

“Wellllll it’s kind of my workroom, kind of a study… you know, have to preserve them when I study or they’ll fall apart long before that. Most of them are catalogued in the research wing but not all of it fits. I’m not about to let them throw out Stingsley here because he ‘can be better represented by a photograph’, not that he can mind you.” She huffed, patting the crystallized scorpion with affection.

You did all of this?” Visions of this mare with a giant spike, nailing me to a mossy board danced through my head before I could desperately squash them.

“Well, no, not all of them. Most of the time I only deal with what ponies bring me and I take steps to preserve and document it. And usually all they want to know is how to get rid of it or make it stop eating crops or how to drive them away.” She drooped a bit at that. “It’s kind of depressing when your special talent is how well you can work with bugs and your job seems to mostly consist of helping kill them, you know? Do you have any idea how many job offers I’ve gotten from exterminators? Ponies who do have a job killing them and driving them out?” At my quiet shake of a head, she scowled at her saddlebag. “Twelve. Twelve exterminators who all thought I’d be a ‘valuable asset to their business.’ Two of them even offered to make me partners. I don’t like killing insects, I want to study them. Like you! See, this is going to be great, because I can talk to you, and you can talk back. And you aren’t likely to try to kill me because I poked your stinger in the wrong way.”

And when she was done studying me, I would likely find a place on a wall somewhere. Delightful. I crushed the thought again. “So I am to stay… here?”

She looked around, as if really taking in her surroundings for the first time. “…Wow, that would probably be a little creepy, now that I think about it. I mean, for you. There’s another room right by the stairs, I just wanted to check on things. Sometimes things get in and… well, last time I lost months of work and a couple of rare species because a disgusting, grimy rat decided this was his own personal buffet. Honestly, it’s like it just knew when I’d be off visiting family. It was so bloated it couldn’t even drag itself away.”

I considered that with interest. Though I disliked the idea of being co-located with what amounted to a pet cemetery, the idea of relieving her of the burden of various local pests disrupting her work was pleasing, and if I would receive the bonus of a stout meal for my efforts, well, it would save Topaz the trouble of cleanup. All the better.

She lit a lamp, and I walked into the side room. Then adjusted, twisting around in place at the room, roughly the size of a large closet. Very snug, almost perfect with a few adjustments. Cooler than I liked, but the cocoons of a changeling would be warm in all but freezing conditions.

Topaz chewed on her lip thoughtfully. “Okay, so… maybe I could do something upstairs. We could make some arrangements, usually the sofa gets a blanket or something tossed on it when company shows up…? I don’t usually have long-term company, and this obviously won’t work- I think it was meant as a root cellar, I just-“

I balked at that. “It won’t? But this is entirely acceptable.” I did not know what a ‘root cellar’ was, but there were no roots edible or otherwise, and I assumed the alcove had served that purpose poorly. As a sleeping chamber, however, it would suit perfectly.

“Idol there’s an old mop in the corner that I don’t think I rinsed out properly, and the whole room just smells musty.”

“It reminds me of the hive, in truth.” I admitted. Rows upon rows of tiny niches carved in rock, each holding a single drone or, temporarily, a freshly mated pair. This was larger by far, but I could fill it in. Or expand it. I could hardly fit in should any expect to see my home and I displayed such a small abode. As Topaz’s home seemed to be built on good solid earth, it seemed entirely reasonable that I could expand it underground as well. Just in case. After all, who knew when some… wind or something would steal away all these above-ground structures.

Topaz frowned, but nodded slowly. “I guess I can respect that, but you absolutely can sleep upstairs. And you do still have that sleeping bag, I suppose.” Topaz gave a sigh and gathered up my saddlebags, hoofing them over to me. At the last, she frowned, hefting it several times. “Idol, what the hay do you have in here?”

“Building material.” I stated, quite pleased with myself as Topaz rapped a hoof on it.

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes as if pained. “It feels like a saddlebag full of cement.”

“And that’s what it is.” I agreed easily.

She gave me a flat look, then slowly shook her head and put her hooves over her eyes. “I… no, Idol. Idol, no. Just… just no.”

After a brief struggle to free the saddlebag of its contents (apparently cement would stick to the inside of a cloth bag, and the few items I had in that saddlebag were now permanently mortared to one another), I set about arranging my ‘room’ in much the same way as my cave had been. I set the crystals in a small pile in one corner, the various items from the caravan I’d used for travel in another, and after a moment’s hesitation, I put Rough Shod’s flask in a far corner. He had mentioned once that he’d had one explode in Canterlot due to a unicorn being a little too free with fire magic. Zaimare claimed that it had been Rough Shod’s breath that had ignited, not the bottle, and I again questioned the logic of consuming the brew at the memory.

Topaz again argued that I did not have to sleep in the basement, and… until I could fortify the entrance between my own room and the abominable rest of the below-ground level, I confess there was a certain unease to it. As we made arrangements, she offered the use of her ‘facilities’ which apparently meant a room to do ones business. After being reassured that I needed no business acumen, she simply explained that boiling oneself in bubbly water was considered the finest way to cleanse oneself. She provided towels, a block of something that smelled of flowers and tasted of pond scum, a scrub brush, and an inedible baby water fowl for my convenience. The sound the hatchling fowl made was unlike anything I had ever heard in nature, and I found it both odd and strangely comforting. Beyond that, it gave me something to chew whilst I scoured my chitin with the brush at Topaz’s insistence. The isopropyl rinse she gave me afterwards was surprisingly cool and invigorating, and Topaz cheerfully informed me afterwards that I was ‘clean enough to preserve’, a statement I determined to be meant to be reassuring, though it left me disconcerted while the sentiment itself pleased me. All in all, I felt clean, refreshed, and less… feral. I was actually inordinately pleased with my appearance as per her mirror; my chitin had a gleam to it that she told me was ‘very sharp’ and ‘indicative of good health’.

A bright ‘flash’ from behind startled me, and I found Topaz holding a large metal box with a single eye, which hissed as it expelled a black sheet from its mouth. “Sorry, need a few good shots. Can you extend your wings for me?”

I did, with a bit of unease, and she made a wordlessly pleased sound, adjusted the box, and another sheet was expelled.

“Turn please?” I did, and there was another dozen small commands, hisses, and several more sheets fell out though the last few times the box seemed to emit nothing. “Annnd that should be good. For my notes, you understand.”

“I… do not, actually.”

“Well, for my notes. I can’t really do a good study without them, and I should have some photographs. I mean, I’ll have to publish eventually. And it’s good to have something I can look at for reference instead of… you know, staring at you all the time. Can I get one of you mid-shapechange?”

“I… do not think I am comfortable with that.” I admitted.

“What, the photos or the publishing?”

“I… dislike the ‘referencing’. It seems… that if another pony saw, they would know what I am immediately.”

Topaz blinked. “…oh. Yeah, I suppose, but… nopony is going to see these but me. I mean, not anytime soon.”

“It makes me uncomfortable all the same.”

Topaz looked like she wanted to argue, but gave a sorrowful nod instead. “…Can I at least keep these ones of you? Nopony would even know it’s you. I won’t even put your name on them. Just… study subject number one. Idol Hooves won’t be on a single piece of paper in my study, I promise.”

Now it was my turn to consider. “If… you think that will be enough, then I suppose it will be enough for me.” I was not certain about any of that, but Topaz was sharing her home with me, and had been a pleasant companion thus far. I could hardly begrudge her doing her duties in the pursuit of knowledge.

And so, my first night in Canterlot found me curled into a ball of blankets in pony form at Topaz’s insistence, and we agreed that outside of the basement, it was probably wise that I spend most of my time in said form. After I made whatever adjustments would make me comfortable, I would have a safe place to sleep, where I could assume normal form out of prying eyes. Though most likely not out of reach of Topaz herself, I was coming to realize, but… I actually thought that I would like that. Being able to be truly myself with somepony would be far easier than keeping up the charade for the entirety of my life. I could do this. And in the morning, I would begin my life in Canterlot. The moon shone brightly through the window, and I smiled up at the Mare in the Moon. A failed drone, a failed pegasus, a failed hermit, and possibly a failed treasure hunter, if Topaz was correct. Surely, I couldn’t make a terrible unicorn.

Business Ethics

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I was a terrible unicorn.

The realization struck me quite harshly and very suddenly. Beyond that I was completely ignorant of all but the most basic magic manipulation, changeling magic and unicorn magic is completely different. Whereas a unicorn can apparently turn a frog into an orange, a changeling sees ‘frog’ and the idea of wasting precious energy to turn them into anything other than ‘food’ is appalling. Just eat the frog, stop playing with your food.

We can, if I am not horribly mistaken, mimic spellcasting at a far higher cost, but duplicating special talent spells are strictly hit or miss. I believe a truly good mimic simply knows how to go through the proper motions, but I had no such training, and thus could not claim my special talent had anything to do with magic.

Regardless, I quickly learned that I had no pedigree, lacked social graces, had incorrect thoughts, and lacked the wealth or status to make that ‘eccentric’ rather than ‘odd’. That aside, it seemed that the vast majority of unicorns in Canterlot actually fell outside these standards, and I again questioned the odd notions of ponies; if so few of them fell under this standard, why was the standard even upheld as an expectation? From what I saw, a great many unicorns of ‘lesser birth’ lived in Canterlot, and sought to uphold jobs outside of the nobility.

I myself decided that I would make pottery. An allowance of bits from Topaz to get myself started enabled me to procure my first bag of cement and a bucket for water.

Another allowance enabled me to purchase a potting wheel, which Topaz assured me would enable me to smooth and round my creations, and I was finally able to make a reasonable facsimile of the cup from the temple in shape, although the design was still beyond my skill.

Another allowed me to buy clay instead, because Topaz claimed nopony would buy small cement cups, so I made much larger ones, which left her speechless for a time.

Of course, then it was necessary to find a kiln, because she also explained that the clay must be fired. Since I was not a member of the Potters Guild, I was required to pay a guild tax. And a unicorn tax, because my magic could damage the set of other members’ clay. Also a Canterlot city tax, and the Celestial tax, because surely I couldn’t expect Princess Celestia to provide the city a decent kiln without taking some benefit, and of course there was also the tax because I had not bought my clay from the guild, and I would need to pay an entrance fee to the kiln.

I would have had to rent a cart, but as luck would have it Topaz had a small wagon meant for hauling, and with a little effort the two of us repurposed it to allow me to display my wares, such as they were. To my great chagrin, very few ponies showed any interest at all in my works of clay, calling them ‘inexperienced’, ‘odd’, and ‘quaint’.

I was somewhat startled and affronted when a mare bought a large quantity of flowers from the salesmare set up beside me and promptly dumped them in one of my large cement cups, then spent an inexplicable amount of time walking circles around it.

“How much for the pot? I won’t go higher than five bits.”

“It’s a cup.” And then I stared blankly, realizing for the first time that I had not assigned a value to my works. “Four bits then?” Wait, she’d said she wouldn’t go higher than five. Should I seek more?

She stared at me, then at the cup. “I… meant three bits?”

“Then three bits.”

She frowned, giving me a skeptical look. “Two bits!”

“We agreed upon three.” I offered hesitantly. Was this mare crazed?

She seemed oddly relieved, nodded, placed three bits on my cart, and with a little careful rope-work and my assistance, managed to leverage the cup-pot between her wings in a way that she seemed able to balance it.

I sold the entirety of my works of cement shortly thereafter, the mare running the flower stall next to me offered fifteen bits for the other four. Seeing that this was an improvement in value for the items, I accepted. It was almost a full week before I managed to sell the majority of my other wares, but I was quite pleased all the same.

Topaz informed me that my entire first month worth of sales would only barely cover the cost of materials used, and my hourly wage was something to the tune of two bits an hour, which I found reasonable, being more than one.

Topaz said I was mad. I refuted by claiming I had far better control than that. She spent a short time screaming into a pillow for reasons I dare not contemplate, but felt much calmer afterwards, and explained that I should see what other ponies charged for similar wares before assuming a price. I considered, trying to comprehend this.

“I do not understand. I have gained bits, this should assist in my survival, yes?”

“Idol… where do you think your food comes from?”


“I deserved that.” Topaz sighed, and shook her head. “I have to pay for it, Idol, from the pony who takes care of the trees.”

I stared, perplexed. “Why do we not just take care of the trees ourselves, then?”

“Because I accidentally killed a potted cactus by forgetting to water it. I’m not good with plants, and I doubt you are either. A pony who is better at it than me does it, gets more food, and then sells it. Didn’t you travel with a bunch of traders?”

“I do not think I understood as well as I believed.” I admitted, lowering my head. This ‘business’ was complicated. “I understood ‘barter’ well enough.”

“And that’s because most of them were operating in good faith. It’s a principle of Harmony. You trade a reasonable amount of one thing for a reasonable amount of the other. They knew roughly what your labor was worth, they made an offer, and you took it.”

“So… the mare whom I sold my first work to was not operating in good faith?”

No. She was taking an aggressive stance, but that’s fine; you could have laughed and told her your pots-“


“-Don’t start, were ten bits at minimum. Or twenty bits. Or fifteen thousand bits. You set the price, it’s your job to make it reasonable. Now, your work is… uh… a good effort, but you’re probably not exactly hurting the ponies who have been doing this for years. Or the ones who mass produce, but that’s not what you’re going for, you’re trying to have a bit of style, right?”

“…Would she have paid fifteen thousand bits for one?”

“Er. If you were a famous artisan, and… probably dead, so your work was limited… maybe? Um, there’s a lot involved-“

“Could I not duplicate the works of said artisan?”

Topaz stopped, took a deep breath, and stated very firmly. “That is called ‘forgery’ and it is a crime. Do not do that. You have to specifically make it known that it is not one of that pony’s works, only a duplication, and you will make a lot less bits.”

I wanted to protest, but sensed this was another matter of ponies being nonsensical. Still, there was something that still seemed incorrect…

“But you are paying for my food, then!" I sputtered, finally seizing on it.

“Well, yeah-“

“I owe you bits, by that reasoning.”

“No, no, I’m studying you-“

“I insist. How much have I eaten?”

Topaz mumbled for a bit, prodding one of my bits on the table. “...Two or three times what you have here?”

I stared. “…I have not gained bits.”

“Nnnnot really?”

“I have in fact, lost bits.”

“More or less, yeah…?”

“Bits that I can clearly see, right in front of me, existing. These bits do not exist, because I have no bits.”

She shrugged her wings, at a loss for words.

“…Ponies are crazy.”

“Sometimes we are. Honestly, I think you should have more bits than this… but really, you aren’t going to make much money the first time around. You need to network. I think. Or something, I was never all that good with business myself…”

“I… well, Honeydew has a stall nearby, and I…” I trailed off, feeling ashamed at my own lack of self-control.

“Idol, a honeyed marshmallow a day for a bit isn’t going to hurt anything but your waistline.” She frowned at my bits again, pushing at the loose pile.

"…Perhaps I should continue trading my labor instead.” I mumbled, feeling miserable and not being sure as to why. I did not oppose labor, but I felt… diminished, somehow. I had hoped that I would be able to live as a pony, doing as ponies did. I desired to be good at crafting these cups, and to be accepted for it, but for some reason I lacked some necessary ability. And all these expectations… “Nopony will even tell me what to do!” I blurted, unable to help myself. “I cannot understand why ponies do the things they do. I work and sell what I made for a month, now you say it was unacceptable and that I have in fact failed in this task, but you cannot explain to me what precisely I must do to better it. I cannot see for myself, I lack. The Queen was right to exile me.”

She put a wing around my shoulders, and I could feel her attempt to comfort me breaching the ‘walls’ she had me put in place. Though I knew I should not as a rule, her effort was just as clearly permission, and I drank it in, feeling the soothing nature of it as balm to my hurts. “Hey, come on now. This is a setback. Salesponies usually get a childhood of experience with other ponies before they try making their way out there, you’re starting late. It might be a few months or years before you really hit your stride. Until then, you just have to keep keeping on, alright?”

That was… not comforting. The idea of owing a greater and greater quantity of bits to Topaz seemed unfeasible. And then she would owe bits to somepony. Who owed bits to somepony else. Who owed bits to somepony else.

Dear Order, was I stealing bits from Princess Celestia? Had I created a chain of thievery?

“I cannot pay these bits I owe-“I started, horrified at the concept.

“Then we’ll call it a loan. You just pay me back when you can, alright? I’ve got some savings, it’s fine. We’ll figure out some way of getting you afloat.”

“I do not know if I can swim.” I hazarded, feeling hopeless again. How many other things would I fail at?

“No, no, that’s not… alright, look. Forget this happened. We’ll figure something out. Maybe we’ll keep the pottery as a… a side business! And we’ll find something else for you to do. Something you’ll make bits at and be happy with.”

“If such a thing even exists.” I grumbled, darkly. “I have only barely gotten enough emotion from the ponies around me, and what am I to do about that?”

Wow, grumpy bug.” Topaz snorted, giving me a light shove. “Look. Tomorrow is the Summer Sun Celebration. We’re going to go, we’re going to have a good time, and everything will feel a bit better, alright?” Teasingly, she offered. “There’ll be honeycakes~!”

My mouth instantly began to water. I did not even know what a honeycake was, but I desired very strongly to find out. “I cannot-“

“It’ll be my treat, and nopony does any business outside of food sales during the celebration.” She assured me, and I had to confess, I had no better plans. Her largess was the only support I had in Canterlot, and without her I would be forced to leave this marvelous city. Though I had precious little to celebrate… I would go forth into this celebration and would celebrate it as well as any changeling could.

Far too many ponies at a celebration, far too many, and none of them doing… anything worthwhile! There a mare creates… floating rubber clouds, and there a pony throws a ball at a target to drop another pony into water while all of them laugh, and… it is too loud, too noisy, and too pointlessly… busy-being-not-busy! And I was finding I didn’t care!

Topaz laughed at my consternation, and explained that this sort of thing is a great chance for ponies to cut loose, relieve some stress, and have a good time. I was clearly enjoying myself with the… festivity in the air, and she was absolutely right. I did feel better.

The honeycakes helped. Honeycakes are amazing. Honey is edible love. Drinkable even. Topaz still won’t give me back my mead. I must remember to ask for it again later.

I can’t begin to describe how incredible my first Summer Sun Celebration was. Topaz found two of my larger cups holding sugarcane treats for the older foals, which also bolstered my cheer, though the mare giving them out just as clearly didn’t remember me at all, but that could be attributed to the dim pre-dawn light. There was a certain… excitement in the air, like a buzz of the hive, as everypony waited for something, and Topaz refused to let me in on it.

And then there was the sound of horns, Topaz led me to look upon a raised platform filled with ponies in impressively identical garb all acting in tandem for the first time since I had seen ponies in masse... and I watched in sudden amazement as a wave of love and pride washed over myself and the rest of the audience, as Princess Celestia walked out onto the platform, gazing over her subjects with such strong emotion that I wondered briefly how she could manage it all by herself. All the while, I could only stare in awe at the majestic white alicorn as she took to her duty that defined daily… and raised the sun before a crowd of adoring ponies and one enraptured changeling.

Falling Into Step

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"Oh mighty Queen, blessed light of the sun that shines upon us all, to behold your countenance is more than this drone deserves. Let me grovel before you and kiss the sacred ground that you deign to touch with your glorious hooves. We worms who burrow in the dirt are as mere dust mites in your untrammeled presence.”

For what seemed a hundredth time since I had begun, I felt a sharp jab in my side, and finally could take no more, giving Topaz an exasperated glance, halting only at her frozen smile.

“Idol Hooves, when you’re done catching your breath down there, please get up you are embarrassing me in front of the Princess.”

I had not even realized ponies could speak while their teeth were clenched so hard. How intriguing, I’d have to experiment with that. I looked up, and found the Princess eyeing me with surprise and concern… and I could feel that the love that had been flowing to all her subjects, while not gone, was taking a secondary role for the concern towards one, and… embarrassment? Oh Order, I was no poet, what had I been thinking? How dare I wax on so poorly before her regal ears?

“Pardon us, Princess, he’s a little overcome, and I think he might have a bit of pneumonia, that wheeze definitely sounded bad! He’s not really from here, so he’s got some weird ideas on how to-” Topaz babbled, and I nearly scowled at her implication that I was sickly.

Then I realized that I had not spoken a single word in Equish. I had prostrated myself before the Princess Celestia and buzzed to the heavens about her glory. Shamefaced at my rushed failing, I began anew, this time ensuring my word would be understood, and was abruptly cut off by Topaz giving my tail a firm yank.

A small smile graced those alabaster features, and I felt truly blessed to be the recipient of such grandeur. “Please, get up. I have never stood well with the idea that any pony should show obeisance by pressing their face into the dirt.”

I tried to react as a good drone should. She did not want me touching the soil she walked on, that was good, that was fine, I should lift myself off of it, but this damnable form had no wings! I could adjust it but not immediately, the effort would take a minute or two to adjust- but by then she had moved on, and I felt shamed that I had not been properly prepared. I had been unable to comply with any command or whim she had of me, I had failed-

“Come on sir, buck up, it’s alright.” A hoof clad in shining metal lifted me to my hooves with practiced ease, and my limbs seemed to regain some strength. “Happens all the time, somepony gets a little weak-kneed when the Princess is about. There’s a good lad.” The figure before me was draped in armor, matching the Princesses own royal wear, though in far greater quantity. Unlike many of the ponies around me, he stood straight and surely, with none of the jubilancy of the other ponies marring his features. The metal was polished to a shine that I could almost see myself in, and I found myself fascinated with the ensemble.

“I… thank you.” I managed, trying to regain my mental footing as easily as I’d taken to my hooves, and the struggle was immense. I needed to find Princess Celestia, I needed to repeat my praise so all here would understand-

“Lieutenant Shielded, pleasure to see you again.” Topaz interrupted too loudly, cutting off my line of thought as I stared at her.

The officer stared a moment as well before recognition set in. “Oh hey, you’re the Bug M- ah. Topaz Showers, right?”

Her blink was not quite a wince, but came close. “Yeah… yeah, that’s me. Just Topaz, please. How’d that powder work out?”

“Fantastically, in fact. Nearly wiped out the whole infestation in that barracks in under a week.” He gave a small chuckle, but it seemed forced. “Bed bugs are bad enough, but honestly, I swear the lice on the Griffish borders are ten times as aggressive as Equish ones.”

“About three times, in fact. And more resistant to soap.”

“Well. Glad to see your friend is up and about again. You alright, mister…?”

“Idol Hooves. I am… fine.”

He seemed slightly taken aback by that, though I could not tell why. “Well, you get that wheeze looked at. Honestly, sounded like you had bumblebees in your lungs, can’t be healthy. And on that I should take my leave and get back to the others. Mr. Hooves, Ms. Showers, good day.”

Topaz watched him go, looking a little annoyed. “Yeah, no second date there either.”

And I had clearly missed something. “Beg your pardon?”

“Oh, nothing. And you-“ She hissed the last, “were buzzing at Princess Celestia! What were you thinking!?”

I sighed, then quietly translated my ‘buzzing’ which had in truth been more desperate praise to a goddess than poetry, and my mood began to rise as Topaz’s eyes widened with my explanation. When she started giggling hysterically, I knew another moment of panic. “What?”

“Oh my…pffft, glorious hooves? Never thought you for a hoof-stallion.” She took a deep breath, calming herself and then pitching her voice so that others in the throng would not hear. “…And you called her a queen, not Princess, and even referred to yourself as a drone?! I thought you wanted to keep a low profile, not reveal yourself in Canterlot’s main square!”

“She very clearly already knows!” I protested, hurt by Topaz’s inability to see. “She is-“

“Not. Omniscient. Don’t make that mistake, Idol.”

I gave her a slight frown, displeased at her irreverence. She actually gave me a faint smile, meant to be reassuring, I believe, and I let the matter drop, for now.

“What is the purpose of… Lieutenant Shielded? There are enemies in Canterlot? That would harm it?”

“What? No, of course not. The duty of the Canterlot guard is to protect the citizens, keep the peace, and protect the princess. It’s sort of… you know, a public service. I mean, you said about their being warrior drones, they have to do patrolling from time to time-”

“No, they generally sleep unless a threat is detected. They do not perform duties of regular drones.” My interest was piqued, however, and I looked at the guardsponies, armor glinting in the light of the sun I had watched the Princess herself raise. “Protect the Princess? Public service…?” I found myself quite liking the effect, and realized that I was having difficulties distinguishing one guard from another. So caught up was I, that I realized with a start that I had been ignoring Topaz’s response to my musings.

“-and sometimes things do happen in Canterlot that require them to put their lives on the line for the sake of the citizens, so… yeah. It’s highly respected, but not everyone is eligible and a lot of ponies aren’t willing to give up so much freedom.”

“Fascinating…” I mumbled, looking around. Why, they had been stationed all over the square in patches, and I was only noticing them now that I truly looked. The armor provided a false mane and covered a large portion of the body. This made sense, I realized, given that ponies would be incapable of growing the thicker shells of warrior drones. It was very pleasing to me, I found. “I am going to have a look around. There is… much emotion in the air.” I admitted, carefully siphoning it off. I wondered briefly if I would be capable of dunking myself in that river of emotion, or if I would be swept away by it. I decided not to find out.

“Go for it. I’m going to go grab some caramel apples. Want one?”

“A what apple?”

“Oh you’re going to looooove this. Don’t be afraid to spend a few bits, have some fun.” She smirked, trotting off. I took that as my cue to wander about.

I found myself circling a group of guards. It was quite interesting, watching them interact with the population. Many held stolidly neutral expressions, but several held smiles and chatted amiably with the community, but for the most part… the community paid them little mind. It was as if they were part of the scenery, a living extension of Canterlot itself. I wondered how this subset of pony formed. Were they, like my kind, raised as foals for the task? I could not tell, and decided I would ask Topaz later.

Tearing my attention from them was difficult, but manageable. There were still other things to witness, and ponies involved in some of the gaming seemed excellent sources for cheer and desire. I saw one filly win a stuffed pegasus that looked remarkably similar to the one I had met when I dropped my cup, and I scowled at the toy, knowing instantly the feeling was foolish.

I found one tent where one had to manipulate a ring without touching a strangely curled metal pole. This was easy, and I did it several times before being asked to stop, receiving another inedible waterfowl for my ‘efforts’. As I slipped it into a saddlebag I noted that it too had a domed head-covering similar to that pegasus, and decided I would let Topaz have her own waterfowl back, the idea of chewing on this one much more satisfying. There was a book signing, also apparently with a similar theme, but I had no interest in such a thing.

There were many other tents, and I decided to walk through them all. Many were games of chance, one pony offered to read my hoof, which I found ludicrous as I had never written on my hoof and never will; there is no possible way the writing will not get smudged, and having somepony who makes it their job to read such things is proof that it is a wasted effort. Another offered to guess my weight, and I was startled with how wrong they were, as I assume they were as well. Oddly I received another prize for this, and I resolved to give the enormous stuffed butterfly to Topaz. She would doubtless find it amusing.

There was one small tent at the far corner of the square, somewhat apart from everything else. As I approached, I could hear shouting, and I assumed it was another pony claiming a game was ‘rigged’. Still, I had decided to see everything, and approached the tent, only to be disappointed as it turned out similar to the ‘book-signing’ across the field.

“-You two slackers haven’t gotten even a single signature, not one pony interested! Honestly, how the buck are you supposed to win someone over with pamphlets and paperwork, in my day-“

“Sir, with all due respect, it’s a fair, not many ponies are really thinking about joining today, it’s really more of a formality-“

The grizzled stallion spun, seeing me for the first time. “YOU!” He barked. “You want order in your life!?”

I blinked, startled to have been involved in this conversation so quickly. “…Yes?”

“Want three hots and a cot!?”

“Well, yes…” Three hot meals sounded very reasonable, I didn’t quite understand the point of asking. Who wouldn’t want that?

“Want to serve your country!?”

“Yes.” I stated, more interested. If this was a guessing game, I was clearly doing well.

“Are you willing to stand for the folk of Equestria at a moment’s notice, waiting for the first provocation to the safety of her citizens!?”

“Yes!” I stated more firmly, finding myself pleased at how straightforward this conversation was going. I liked this stallion, he was making this all very simple.


“YES!” I practically shouted back at him, not entirely sure why we were shouting but understanding that perhaps he was a little deaf.


I staggered out of the room, stunned and amazed, barely hearing the words behind me.

“Sir, you can’t just-!”

“-not an authorized form of recruitment, the guard can’t just-“

Topaz found me wandering about as I tried to fully process what just happened. That had been… sudden! It had been intense, and I had been firmly ordered what to do, where to do it, and exactly when! It was incredible! I was still trying to comprehend it as I handed Topaz the butterfly I’d won.

“Awww, it’s adorable~! I mean, it should really have a proboscis, not a mouth like this, but still it’s very cute. Thank you, Idol. Anything else interesting happen?”

“I won a…. duck… and… did not have my hoof read…”

Uncertainly, she nodded as if to urge me on. “Sounds… like… fun?” She got into her pack and began to retrieve something of her own.

“…I think I just joined the royal guard?” I offered, not entirely sure that was what just happened but feeling rather confident of it.

The saddlebag rolled off Topaz’s side as she spun, hitting the ground.

“…you WHAT!?”

A Pyle of Ponies

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“You cannot join the Royal Guard, are you insane?!”

I was beginning to grow weary of Topaz repeating this opinion. “I did not ask to join. They told me to.”

“They can’t just ask you to- Celestia’s beard Idol!” I mouthed the idiom to myself as she continued, trying to comprehend it as she continued. “-can’t just walk up to a recruiting station and… and… and just sign up, it’s not that simple, they look into ponies who are willing to join, it’s more of a… a… a… um…”

“Formality?” I offered, hoping to be helpful. “That was the argument being offered before I was enlisted, that nopony signs up during a celebration. But I did, so that proves them wrong, does it not?”

Topaz’s eye twitched. I had begun wondering if this was a reaction to something. I never have understood how ponies manage with their soft eyes. “Yes. Formality. You can’t go.”

“I… was under the impression that I must?”

“But you can’t!” She flung her hooves up, as if trying to throw something into the air. “You can’t join the Guard, you haven’t even… existed as a pony for a whole year!”

I hedged, believing I understood her concerns. “Perhaps this will assist me in fitting in.”

“Or you’ll get found out!”

That… I had not been considering. “But… it sounds very suitable for me. And… it seems that it would be exactly what I’m looking for.” I looked at her, hoping she could instruct me in a better course of action. “What am I to do?”

She relaxed a bit, shaking her head, then flopped over onto her sofa, to spread her wings over the furnishing. “I… I don’t know, Idol. This probably wasn’t a good idea, but… you just went ahead and did it. We could have talked about it, you know.” She sounded disconsolate. “I didn’t even know you were thinking about the military.”

“I was not, actually. As I said, I walked in and… informed that it was what I wanted.” I rubbed at my neck. “It was rather sudden, and I was caught up in the moment.”

Topaz gave a heavy sigh, flapped once, and drew herself off the couch and back onto her hooves. “So I could tell.” She shook her head. “...Do you really want to do this?”

“It holds a certain attraction, I admit. And it will provide me something to do whilst I try to determine another means of achieving the bits to pay you back and my meals will no longer be at your cost!” I confirmed, pleased at this last part.

Topaz stared, her jaw hanging open just slightly. Then she put a hoof to her temple, took a deep breath, let it out, and drew in another. “Idol, they’ll pay you to do this.”

“Guards get paid?!”

That delightful discovery only bolstered my interest in the guard, and Monday seemed to arrive with cheerful speed. Topaz was happy to see me off, wishing me well even as she complained that in a perfect world she’d be able to document my integration into the guard more thoroughly. Unfortunately, as it was, she had a lecture to attend and pestpony to harangue for ‘excessive use of force in the Princess’s Garden’.

To my understanding a tree had been infested, and the solution was to make the tree cease existing. Pestponies are apparently a force to be reckoned with.

I entered the Castle for the first time hesitantly, but the guard at the door dourly informed me that I was to report to the gardens. I barely had time to take in the lush greenery and the many statues before I was quite suddenly deterred by a familiar pair of guards, the two from the Summer Sun Celebration. I had barely seen more than a glimpse of them in the confusion, but now I saw them to be a grey mare with a shaggy blonde mane and a white pegasus stallion with a mane cut short enough that it was little more than a sky-blue dome to his head and a streak on his neck.

“There you are-”

“-worried you wouldn’t come!”

“Quite worried! Very nearly-

“-just an absolute catastrophe of paperwork that we can resolve right here-”

“-and right now. Now, I’m sure you were quite startled-”

“-Absolutely irregular, not how a good recruiter does business-”

“-Technically not a valid enlistment at all, the Princess would have our heads-”

“-figuratively speaking of course, she’d really be very displeased, in fact, that we’d allowed such a mishap.”

“And so, we can just tear up these enlistment papers and you can go on your way.”

I looked from one to the other, as impressed as I was dismayed. I had not been aware that the Royal Guard was possessed of such wordless communication, that was very reassuring. I would doubtlessly be quickly educated. On the other hoof, it seemed that I was… if not unwelcome, not needed. “But… I wished to join. It sounds entirely acceptable to me.”

“What, the hard sell actually worked? Huh, most ponies don’t really go for that. But look, it’s nothing personal, Mr. Hooves.” The pegasus continued, looking to his comrade for support.

The mare nodded, tapping a hoof on the stone with a hint of impatience. “Just so, just so! There’s a fair amount of pre-checking, and references, and a number of other matters to attend to before we contact you, and it will be… well, perhaps half a year before the next session starts, we really can’t simply throw you in without any warning. We’ll look into it and let you know by… oh, start of winter at the very latest. It’s going to be a nightmare fixing this paperwork-”

“An absolute Ursa Major, really-”

“Ursa Minor, maybe, with a stomach ache and a sore tooth.”

I had no idea what they were talking about. “References? Pre-checks?” My spirit sank. “Winter…?”

“Yes, yes, we need to get some ponies willing to vouch for your character, it’s really a formality, and of course you need time to make sure you truly wish to join, you can’t just walk away, after all!”

“Or fly!”

“Or teleport, no. We might be able to hurry things along if you wouldn’t mind giving us a few references, we could have you in by… oh, harvest-time?”

I balked, distressed. “I… truly have none.” I admitted, feeling a hint of shame. “Rough Shod told me I was only half-useless.”

“That’s not very good-”

“Bucking Tartarus, High Drill Rough Shod said you were half-useless?!”

“What? Who?”

“The old training commander for Canterlot! Miserable stallion, you’ll hear some of the older ones telling nightmare tales of him. Told me I was about as useful as a pig’s tail and half again as likely to be covered in- nevermind. From him, that’s high praise. Where the hell did you see him?”

“Ah… on a caravan from Saddle Arabia? We traveled together.” I was pleased that this pony knew Rough Shod. The old teamster had apparently been well respected.

“And he said you were only half-useless?” The pegasus had me confirm, the pen gripped in his mouth only muffling his words slightly.

Surely you aren’t writing that down!” His companion sputtered, clearly horrified.

“Well… he… said I was ‘less bucking worthless than his own bucking sons’.” I clarified, unsure if I was actually improving or worsening my situation, but it was the truth.

His pen paused, and he hesitated. “...I probably shouldn’t put that on paper. Does sound like Rough Shod. But…” He looked to his companion. “...Teeth of Tartarus, Marigold, maybe he should go in?”

“But… but the paperwork!” She cried, stunned and, I thought, quite reasonably upset. I realized my enlistment had apparently interfered with her own duties, and wondered if I could assist in remedying it.

“I’m not telling anypony that Rough Shod sent someone to join the guard and we botched the paperwork. He wants to join anyways, don’t you?”

I almost didn’t realize he was speaking to me. “Oh, quite.”

Her face puckered interestingly, and I took the expression for one of concerned indecision. “...Well… he did join of his own volition, technically…”

“And we tried to warn him off!”

Her expression softened and she nodded slowly, thinking it through. “We did, we did.”

“Due diligence!”

“Precisely that!” She agreed, more cheerfully. “Well! If that’ll be all, Brassica, I say we’re done here.”

“A good outing!”

“Worked well for everyone.”

“Good show, Mr. Hooves. Wrapped this all quite neatly. You’ll make a fine soldier.”

“Very fine!” Marigold cried, slapping me cheerfully on the shoulder with an armored hoof.

The stallion looked hurt. “Not too fine, I hope.”

“Ohhhh, hush Brassy you know what I mean. Off you go, Mr. Hooves, Celestia help you if you’re late, you’re already pushing it.” She gave me a playful shove in the same direction I’d already been moving, and I found myself trotting into the muddled confusion of several dozen ponies milling about in a rough squares. One such square seemed to have less than the rest, and I cautiously joined into it, milling about aimlessly as the others were.

A younger unicorn stallion seemed to have found a decent place to stand, frowning at me, finally offering “Are you lost? We were told to form up evenly.”

I sighed, recognizing that I was, in fact, late. “Yes, I think I am. I was detained.” His displeasure was apparent, but as of yet I had no idea what to do. A few of the other ponies had started standing in the same fashion as the guards I had seen in the days prior, and I decided to imitate them.

The stallion continued to stare, but now he looked baffled. “...Uh. Wrong way.” He motioned me to stand beside him, and I did so, wondering what the point of this was. As the others made their way around, I began to see the charm of the straight lines as opposed to the haphazard mess I’d wandered in to. Why ponies would not normally stand about like this I could hardly fathom. It made it far easier to see all of them, and…

“ATTENTION!!!” The others all froze in place, some still in mid-step and eyes rolling wildly as they tried to determine what was going on. “Sweet mother of magic, this is the sorriest formation I’ve seen in fifteen years. Not one of you thought to go to a pre-training session?” I felt a faint wave of annoyance from the stallion beside me, but ignored it. Oddly, for all the anger in the voice of the pony before us, I sensed… little actual emotion. He bellowed at the square to the right of us, ordering them to take a step backwards, which completely destroyed the cohesiveness of the group, but at least put the front line of them somewhat closer to falling in with our own sorry string.

“AND WHY ARE YOU EYEBALLING THEM, RECRUIT!?” Another pony I’d not noticed roared into my face. I blinked, tilting my head down as I looked forward.

“Because I want to know what I am doing wrong?” I offered hesitantly. The pony beside me winced, but if anything, actual anger came from the short, stocky earth pony before me.


“Sir, he said he wanted to know what he had done wrong, not what they-”

The stallion snarled at the unicorn to my side. “DID I GIVE YOU MY OPINION, RECRUIT?!”

“Sir, no sir!”


“Sir, no sir! I’ve never met him before today, sir!”

“And what about you, hmm? You think you’re too good for the Guard? Wander in late, too busy with your books and tea and hoity toity to keep an appointment? Too smart for all this nonsense, huh?” The pony snorted and began to walk off.

I frowned. “No, of course not. I did not know what to do, my paperwork was-”

“Just say ‘sir, no sir’.” The unicorn hissed under his breath, sounding terrified.


“Sir! He doesn’t know, sir!”

“Ohhhh, and you just know eeeeeverything, don’t you? Why don't you put on some chevrons and come right up here, show the class how it’s done.”

“He knows more than I do, sir.” I admitted, no longer sure of that. We seemed to be the focus of this one’s ire, and each of the squares had their own pony screaming at them.


My companion shouted “Sir, yes sir!” at precisely the same instant I stated “Sir, no sir.”

The armored pony glared at me, and I tamped down the urge to fidget. “Are you an idiot, recruit?”

“No sir?”

“That sounds like you aren’t sure. You don’t know what a bucking push-up is, recruit?”

“I have no idea, sir.” I admitted. Was this some pony ritual that I was until now unaware of? Topaz truly should have warned me of this, I decided.

“WELL THEN, IT’S TIME FOR SOME DEMONSTRATIONS!” The joy I felt in that statement concerned me. “EVERYBODY GET DOWN. HOOVES SPREAD.” There were several groans as we did as told, and I could feel several ponies directing a surprising amount of fury my way.

“BACK HOOVES TOGETHER. ANNND UP! Down. UP! Down.” Though I could not quite understand what was going on, the few ponies I could see just seemed to be pushing themselves into an incline with their hooves. The repeated commands were to raise and lower oneself, and there appeared to be a beat to it. On the next command to rise, I joined, marveling at the simplicity of it. One command and we all reacted with mindless obedience.

I already felt like I had come home.

We repeated the gesture perhaps thirty times, and I heard a number of ponies being roared at to ‘get off the ground’ and I realized that touching one’s belly to the dirt was not part of the exercise. I cheerfully continued, the labor not precisely easy but also not as taxing as some of the tasks I had performed back in the hive.

“You picked that up quickly, recruit, I think you were lying to me. What’s your name?”

“Idol Hooves.” I stated, then belatedly remembered during my next rise “Sir.”

“Lazy Hooves. Yeah, I can see it. Well, Lazy, you better smarten up if you want to go anywhere in my Guard. If I think you’re smartmouthing me again, then I think I’ve got just the thing for you.” I was about to correct my name as a puff escaped from the unicorn beside me, and I realized that by this point many of my companions had begun to sweat from exertion. I tried to mimic this, but the change of concentration made me wobble. That seemed to be a sign to this pony, and they nodded firmly. “ON YOUR HOOVES!”

There was a scramble of all present to get back into the standing position. Some sagged, others rolled their shoulders uncomfortably as they stood. A fair number radiated displeasure, and much of it was directed towards me, I realized with chagrin.

“AT EASE. I don’t even know what I can do with you bunch of nothings. Just stand there and for buck’s sake don’t swallow your tongues in the meantime.” The four armored ponies seemed to glare at all of us in disgust that I didn’t feel, then stomped off as if that would express their disdain.

The unicorn gave his head a barely perceptible shake. “Don’t want them learning your name on the first day. That’s what everyone told me.”

“Well, then I am apparently in good shape. He does not know my name.”

The blue-haired pony snickered tiredly. “Funny.” I had not intended it to be so, but accepted his interpretation. “Think you got me lumped in with you.” He grumbled accusingly..

It was hardly arguable. “That seems so. I apologise for that.”

He was silent for a minute, watching the two. “Yeah, well. I probably shouldn’t have spoke up. Wasn’t right, though, you said you wanted to know what we were doing wrong.”

What I had been doing wrong, not ‘we’, but it seemed a little thing. “Thank you. It was appreciated.”

“Kept up pretty quick when we dropped. I think we’d have been pushing until you did.”

“I truly did not know what to do.” I sighed as he nodded.

“Well then, thanks for being a quick study. Don’t let it get you, somepony was going to get us dropped before that formation ended.”

Throwing caution to the winds, I extended a hoof. “Idol Hooves. Idol is fine. Please do not call me Lazy.”

The stallion sighed heavily, but smiled and shook the hoof. “Not supposed to be moving around while at ease, you know. But you can call me Shining.”

Fall In

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Thankfully, as it turned out, Shining was the only one to have attended any sort of pre-training training, which is another pony absurdity. To require education in how to be educated seems complex beyond the point of my ability to understand. If one cannot be educated, how does one educate them in the ability they lack, given that they lack the ability to be educated? But I digress, the concept makes my head hurt.

Shining proved to be very adept at most of the basic drill maneuvers we were taught, and I quickly found myself emulating his example. It was all very simple, it turned out. Walk at a very set pace. Your hooves should fall in unison. Turn on the beat of a command. It was all so very changeling in the action, but so very pony in how they managed it. The idea of standing in formation, ignoring all things around them and actively not working? It was… very strange, and I did not like it.

That there were no less than three commands that amounted to various states of ‘not moving’ from a spot, at least two to enter formations, and one to hold absolutely still, only served to further my confusion. That I could do these things was to be lauded, apparently, and more than one pony was unable to obey these very simple orders once explained. A sergeant gave me a hard push that nearly toppled me, but thankfully I was able to adhere myself to a large stone that I had the luck of standing on, all without moving limbs. I was given a firm nod for my apparent lack of efforts, and they moved on.

The rest of that day was spent focused on ‘drills’ which, again, are also an earthmoving and rock-piercing apparatus, as well as a term for various forms of march or running movement.

We were taken to a small building at the end of the day, told these would be our sleeping chambers for the beginning of training, and ordered to keep the barracks clean. After we had passed our first physical tests and inspections, we would be given more thorough instruction.

After the sergeant left, there was some claims of ‘top bunk’, and a few pegasi scuffled for those few small bed-pairs that were near windows. Shining took the bed nearest the door, and began to collect his gear on the bottom bunk.

“Might not want to be first bunk,” He cautioned. “Everyone says first bunk and last bunk gets the worst of an inspection.”

“Interesting. Would you not prefer the top bunk?”

“Figured you’d called it. Doesn’t really matter to me, actually.”

“If it is all the same, I would prefer the bottom.” It was not that I had any real difficulty with the height, but the idea of being between two beds instead of open to the air thoroughly appealed to me. I wondered if I could arrange something similar at Topaz’s. Obviously I could simply sleep in a cocoon, but for appearance sake that would not do. And here I could not do that at all.

“Oh… really?” Though he tried hard not to sound pleased, I felt that he was. The idea that he had purposefully taken the lower bunk to appease his… shared-bed bunk pony pleased me. This pony would have done very well as a changeling, and seemed to have a good mindset. “Well… thanks Idol. Come on, we start first physicals in the morning. Crack of dawn, you know how it is!” He was positively cheerful at the idea.

I crawled into my bed, and began the process of clearing my mind that usually led to a pleasant rest. I had not been as prepared as I should have been… however, I had also not been less prepared than some of the others. I decided, with some comfort, that I was roughly in the middle. A good place to be. The schedule for the next days had been passed out, and I found it interesting and very much to my liking that we would have plans for almost a month of training even before it began. And so, my training began in earnest.


Running was a simple task, and though I did not excel at it, nor was I exceptionally winded. Being lighter than the average earth pony seemed in my favor, though I stood no chance against the pegasi, who were also given an ‘air course’ to determine their placement. I learned that this was to be a training exercise completed daily; we would either run or we would do something akin to the ‘push ups’ of the previous day until it was time to enter our first meal of the day. Unicorns were expected to keep up with the earth ponies, which seemed grossly unfair to a number of the others, Shining Armor not included, and one unicorn even argued that ‘no unicorn ever had to run when teleportation was an option’. As I understood it, he was still alternating between ‘running in place’ and ‘push ups’ long after the rest of us took a break. Pegasi would have a more complex rotation, involving the flying exercises.

The rest of the morning consisted of being given the rest of our various gear we would need for training, though to my disappointment this did not include armor.

Shortly before dinner, we received a second physical endurance test that I had not anticipated, and I stood in a line before a large hole cut in the earth and filled with water.

"Okay, first row! Jump in."

And so I went. Soon enough, my hooves touched the bottom of the pool. Resolutely I made my way forward to the opposite wall, ignoring the muffled screaming I heard from above me. Apparently there was another recruit in the process of drowning... I looked around, but could not see anypony else. Oddly, I also found that I could not reach the ladder that stuck in on the surface of the pool, and though I tried to leap to it a few times, I found that I simply could not get a good leap under the press of water. The sides of the pool were also too slick to climb. Confused, I sat down and stared up at the ladder, wondering why that seemed like such a complex problem.

I apparently dozed off while contemplating, as I found myself waking on the surface to a very thorough kiss. Unsure why this was so, but not wanting to seem rude, I responded in kind and found my sergeant coughing and spitting water, rubbing a hoof over his tongue and making displeased sounds. Apparently I was more suited as a passive receiver of such affection. Still, it seemed impolite to bring it up. “Did I pass?” I mumbled, spitting out more water. I found that I did not like ‘swimming’ much.

“Pass?! Colt, you sank like a stone! You… went the designated distance, yes, but you didn’t come back up!”

“...was that required?” I asked, in a moment of dread.

“Not… technically, no.” The drill looked annoyed with himself, but scowled at me. “Sleigh bells in Tartarus, colt, you don’t weigh more than a wet rag. We’re putting you on double rations starting tomorrow until you meet weight. And extra training. Celestia’s beard, you fall out in formation because you’re undernourished I’ll be celebrating my golden years on the sun. But don’t you worry, Lazy, we’ll get you floating.”


"You're kidding me."

"No, sir. He ate six MREs and requested another. Celestia's own truth."

"You're sure they were MREs?"


I stared back and forth between the two officers, who seemed confused for reasons I could not fathom. I had never been fed so thoroughly in my entire life. And it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I’d been led to believe.

Shining stared in unabashed awe. “Where? How? Why?”

I wondered if it would be rude to lick my plate clean. With sadness, I decided it would be; Topaz had never approved. “I was hungry. And ordered to eat my fill.”

“When you die, who do we send your body to?” He asked, still stunned.

“Topaz Showers. She lives near the university.”

The others seemed taken aback by this, but there were a few chuckles. “I guess we should have a scientist look at you.”

“Are you going to eat that?”

Even the officers cracked a smile at that. It was disappointing, but I did not receive a seventh MRE. Ah well. Perhaps the order to ‘eat my fill’ was another pony term for ‘eat more than normal’. Still, it was a nice change not to nose about with such small rations.



This training seemed mostly focused on the abilities of individual ponies. Earth ponies were being taught a variety of grappling moves, their enhanced strength considered their means of choice for subduing the unruly or aggressive. Pegasi had their speed capitalized on, and were taught mostly lunging strikes. Unicorns, such as myself, were being given a combination of both, having neither the agility nor the raw strength of the other two kinds of ponies. Anypony found more capable in one area or another would be moved as best suited them, but unicorns had a fourth option they could do in tandem with their other training; because of the tendency for unique abilities to present themselves in a unicorn’s magic, combative magic was a possibility.

Shining Armor, I found, had the impressive talent of making a sturdy dome around himself. More than that, it was capable of withstanding more than the one or two blows that average shield spells could manage, and our Sergeant swiftly determined this was a damned impressive skill, but not likely to end a fight. Another pony had the ability to sharpen things on contact with his horn. Another had the skill to create ‘fireworks’ with her magic, and seemed quite confident this would be very useful, but admitted she had a tendency to set things on fire with it and that maybe it shouldn’t be used too close to ponies. Or the ground. Or fields where embers could land.

It was determined her ability would better serve as a last resort.

The first test we received was of our telekinesis. Several could lift things of far greater weight than themselves, though several were forced to admit that even their telekinesis only allowed for simple things they could just as easily manipulate by hoof. Shining was above average, able to lift me easily, but I found my own ability was disliked.

“The buck are you doing, Lazy? Who taught you how to pick things up like that?” The sergeant snorted, annoyed. “You aren’t wrapping it. You have to wrap it, colt!” He motioned with his hooves as he shouted, like he was cupping something in them and pulling it to his breast.

“It is… how I’ve always done it.” I shrugged, unsure if I could manage the ‘full lift’ that most ponies did.

“Try lifting Shields.” I went to correct him on his misuse of another’s name, but saw Shining shake his head. Nonetheless, I did, and could not quite get a grip on his shield, though I saw him shiver. “Problem, Shields?”

“N… No sir!. It just feels… it feels eerie, sir! Like having claws running over me!”

“That’s because your friend here doesn’t use a full wrap. He talons it. Probably a slow learner, happens from time to time with unicorns who don’t have the strength to spare for a good grip, they learn other ways to do it. AND STOP FEELING YOUR DAMNED SHIELDS. You do that to test them, not all the time. You block that out, Shields, or one good blast of fire will get you to drop it!”

I frowned, experimentally lifting a rock. I supposed he had a point; my magic was more like a talon than a cloud of supportive energy. “Is this a problem?”

“Problem? No. Makes search and rescue operations a bit tricky, but most of the time you’ll have pegasi for that anyways. Means we won’t need to teach you how to do it later, so that’s good. You work on doing it right and we’ll come back to it.”

‘Teaching us later’ was, I found, a reference to one of the two final options for unicorns. Being that most of us were less sturdy than pegasi or earth pony, we had the options of either a magically-enhanced physical ranged style or a purely magical combat style.

Javelins were a preferred ranged weapon for pegasi. Unicorns, on the other hoof, were traditionally the royal archers. As it turned out, so long as a pony could lift about forty pounds with their magic, they can be taught to use a bow. I was able to wield the weapon easily, but found that my ability to target was… well. It was suggested that if they wished to use me as a weapon, they would be best suited by having me aim at the thick of our own lines; I would be more apt to hit the enemy.

The non-equipment assisted version relied on the capability of a unicorn to throw magic about. As stun spells tend to be effective, most ponies simply assume they will be the mainstay of unicorn guards. The truth is, though combat spells are generally quick and easy to cast on a target… many ponies end up simply throwing raw magical force about in the form of telekinetic bursts, which are roughly akin to a hard shove or a long distance punch in most cases. To the surprise of our instructors, I was able to inadvertently destroy one of of the training dummies by blowing a hole through its torso when I was startled during the training exercise.

As it turns out, most ponies lack the capability for ‘damaging’ combat magic. Stunning is one thing, and more than half of unicorns can see it through. Setting another being on fire or putting a hole in it that could kill? There is a far lesser chance of a pony being able to bring themselves to do so. Having a trainee default to it was practically unheard of, and I was deemed ‘a natural’.

There was some argument about this, and it was explained to us that the inability to use combat magic or draw a bow was not considered grounds for expulsion; it did, however, mean that they would be placed into a non-magical class unless they could manage to fire a bow or to cast a stunning spell on a target. Self-defense and the ability to subdue another were requirements, not suggestions, and no guard is to be helpless in a fight, and no unicorn was allowed through with no physical training to go with the magical.

One of the sergeants pointed out that few young ponies had the wherewithal to immediately make a killing strike on instinct, and asked how old I was. I, of course, have no idea.

This is apparently not an acceptable answer.

There was some chatter about this, and as I allegedly ‘had no memory’ before a certain amount of time, it was deemed there was only one option left available to us.

I would have to visit the dentist.


This was a day devoted to personal training, cleaning the barracks, and preparing for the weekend. As this was our first, most of us would be allowed to return home. I deemed this an odd choice, but Shining saw my confusion and attempted to explain.

“Gotta feed that special talent, right?”


“You know. They don’t give us much time to ourselves. Most of us haven’t gone this long without doing something with our special talents. They’ll eventually make us go longer without.”


“I mean, most ponies don’t even think about it! But Harmony, I put things in bubbles and roll them around from time to time if I get bored. About drove mom insane, me making domes for bowls and stuff. I’d get full, let it go because I lost focus, and boom. Soup all over the table. Dad said it was ‘good practice’.”

“What did your mother say?” The family unit of ponies had begun to fascinate me. I wondered if I would ever meet Topaz’s family. Or Honey’s.

He gave me a sheepish grin. “She agreed and gave me a mop, told me she had plenty of that when she was in.”

“Your mother was in the royal guard?” I found that very interesting. He’d never mentioned it before.

“Not...exactly, and not for very long, said she just got into it for information on one of her books.” He seemed faintly uncomfortable, and I decided not to pry. I did that fairly often, I found, and it seemed to please Shining. It seemed to me that he was very used to answering questions, and would answer even those he did not like. “So... dentist!”

“Dentist.” I agreed.

“How’d that go?”


I watched in mute confusion as the pony’s voice trailed off as they continued to haul him off, promising him a nice warm bed, and that overworking himself was terrible, they really shouldn’t treat him like that.

I cautiously ran a tongue over one tooth. I had ensured my shifted shape now covered even my teeth, which was a complicated thing to accomplish and would most likely only be done in emergencies. The second dentist had proclaimed that I was ‘probably’ in my mid to late twenties. “I received a clean bill of health for a pony of my years.”

“Huh. Little old to just be getting into the guard, then. Ha! Knew it.”


“You talk like you’re… what, forties? Early fifties?”

“Late. Twenties.” I stated a bit more frostily than intended. I was not entirely sure why I felt offended, but it seemed appropriate.

“You’re kidding, right?”

I tried to glare. I really did. But his amusement was infectious, and I found myself grinning all the same.


Though Saturday was scheduled to be the beginning of our leave, it started with exercise and inspection. Shining warned me that we would be receiving punishment for failing to upkeep ourselves properly regardless, yet I was still displeased that it was my bed that was determined to be insufficient. Perfection is the goal to be strived for, and once more I redoubled my efforts not to cause trouble for my nest or ‘platoon’ again. Being that this was no less than the fifteenth time in the week that I had been called out as the reason for our extra exercise, I was unsure how much that was.

“Exponential increase. Twice, then four times, then eight, and so forth. I think you’re at like… a hundred thirty thousand? Seventeen times, so yeah.”

Thank you, Shining.”

“No prob. So what are you doing with your weekend?”

I had not considered it, having not suspected I would be returning so soon upon entry. “I will likely find Topaz and tell her how things have gone. I believe she would like to know.”

“Yeah. Yeah that sounds like a real good plan.” He nodded sagely. “Think I’m going to visit the family. Little sister apparently doesn’t like me being gone. You know how it is. Er. Maybe. Do you?”

“I am unaware of any blood relations I may possess.”

“That’s... kind of depressing.”

“Perhaps I did not like them, or they did not like me? That way, forgetting is better.”

“Eesh. If you say so.”

We were trotting towards the wall of the castle, and I heard a… muted explosion, followed by an outcry I was more familiar with. Shining had nearly cut me with his shield, and I eyed the perfect circle cut out of my saddlebag with distaste as the other portion of the fabric drifted lazily down inside. Hopefully I could repair it. “And I believe that is my cue. Farewell, Shining.”

I was correct in my assumption. What looked to be the remains of a tree was standing in a garden, smoke wafting from its charred remains. Topaz was haranguing two ponies who seemed nonplussed by the whole situation, and one who seemed to be smiling quite broadly.

“-And maybe from you, Beam, but Agaric Spackler, I know you know better than to be using high explosives-”

“They’re not technically high explosive, it’s more a matter of rapidly spreading enough low explosive to thoroughly char-”

“Topaz, sweetheart, we’re both entirely too attractive for you to be this angry. Look, we were paid to do the job, we got the job done, the parasites are taken care of.”

“Wane, shut up. I’ll get back to you in a second.”

The second pony cut in. “To be entirely fair, Miss Showers, we believed this tree to be containing both an unwanted grub infestation and a class three fruiting fungus. Time was of the essence if we wanted to save the rest of the garden.”

“Couldn’t you have just cut it down and burned it normally?” She fumed. I was beginning to find myself somewhat used to ‘angry Topaz’. For someone who loved her job as much as she clearly did, it also seemed to upset her immensely from time to time. She was not truly ‘angry’ so much as upset, but she displayed both similarly.

“I suggested that.”

“Thanks Agaric, way to show that team cohesion. Come on, Topaz, nopony got hurt, the bad bugs got dead, good bugs didn’t, and we all get paid. All this stress is not good for you. Tell you what. I know a guy, he’ll turn that frown upside down. Over drinks. My place. I’m the guy.”

I was quite sure I heard Topaz’s teeth gritting even from the distance.

The taller pony cleared his throat. “Wane, I believe we’ve inflicted enough damage on the princess’s garden without this nice mare fitting your head into a knothole. Perhaps we should just go.”

“Alright, alright. Topaz, you know where to find us!” The smiling pony waved good-naturedly to her, and began strolling off with his companions.

“I’ll inform the guard.” She snapped at his back, finally noticing me and beginning her own rapid trot in my direction. I could not help but listen in to the retreating trio with interest. The smiling one had apparently considered this some sort of a contest.

“Ha! Classic Topaz.”

“You know Wane, she really does hate you.” The taller one claimed in a very matter-of-fact way.

“I think I’m wearing her down.”

The other laughed. “Maybe her teeth! You can’t win ‘em all, Wane!”

Topaz finally reached me, her own mumbling under her breath about ‘pest ponies’ and ‘three idiots’ informative but not exceptionally useful to me. She took a deep breath. “How’s training going?”

“I am officially off-duty until the beginning of next week.”

“Oh. I didn’t know it worked like that.” She admitted. “So, uh. How much of that did you hear?”

“I believe I heard you correcting them on their use of high explosives.”

“The morons blew up a tree.” She grumbled. “Wait, let me rephrase that, another tree. Princess Celestia is going to have kittens.”

“The Princess will have juvenile felines?” I asked, surprised once again by the strange habits of ponies.

“What? No. Nevermind. What about you? Are you fitting in? Any problems?”

I allowed myself a smile, telling her of my day. She protested loudly that I had indeed failed to ‘swim’ but I had been told otherwise. Her vast interest in my doings and findings in the guard continued throughout my entire retelling of my week, and by the time we had reached home she admitted that her own fears that I would not like it seemed to have been entirely unfounded. We ate a light meal, I asked of her week, and she told me of the various mishaps that ponies had brought to her attention. Honey Dew, I was warned, had a new variety (Buzzing Volcano Red) that had peppers mixed in and was both sweet and frighteningly hot, that I should stay away from if I disliked that sort of thing. For the most part, we had little of import to say, and yet I found the experience very comfortable.

And so, as I snuggled into my cocoon in my small room in her basement, I began to wonder at what I needed to do with myself. I needed to make this room my own, as she’d explained before, and I needed to be prepared for my next training. For all the strain, all the yelling, the confusion and the noise, it had felt wonderful, and I could not help smiling as I settled down. As Topaz had said before, I was finding that I was, in fact, a lucky bug.

Spit and Polish

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Each weekend that I was home was a chance for relief from the rigors of my false form and an opportunity to flex my wings. Once I completed my training, my duties with the Guard would usually not extend longer than a week, and almost never longer than two unless a war of some sort began or some other emergency required our extended presence. This allowed me to return to Topaz’s home, rest in the coolness of the cellar, and recover my strength for the next portion of my training. We are allowed to stay instead in our training barracks, but as it was only required of us during the training itself, I decided that I owed it to Topaz to continue allowing her to study me, and her home was far more private than the open barracks. I did not think shaping a cocoon in the barracks would be easily hidden.

I used this time in my native changeling form to improve myself. Topaz found a number of books on working clay in the library at the university, and I painstakingly read through them from cover to cover. Herein I found the flaw of the written word; it can describe a thing as it is being done, but knowing how a thing is to be done and doing it properly are unfortunately dissimilar. Nonetheless, as I began learning more as to how these designs were accomplished, I began experimenting on both the clay and the walls of Topaz’s basement. In the process, I also began to expand my rooms, accidentally breaking through the floor to find a small tunnel, reminiscent of our own. Unfortunately, Topaz was apoplectic at my discovery, claiming that I was ‘mining through the walls’ and making some fuss over ‘structural support’, but much of it seemed unreasonable. Her house remained standing, after all. Beyond that, the ‘tunnel’ was one of the abandoned mines under Canterlot, an offshoot of a far larger one that would lead through the mountain. She admitted that it was a poorly kept Canterlot secret that most of the nobility had bolt holes through the mountain for whatever activities they wanted kept clandestine. Telling her that she now had one as well seemed to amuse her, and she told me I would refer to her as Mistress Topaz from that point on to distinguish her ‘new station’.

Mistress Topaz went on to explain that Canterlot had once been well known for supplying a number of metals and unique crystals, and that the tunnels were essentially now a vault in cases they were needed. To my immense surprise, we found one large growth on the wall whose facets reminded me of those the queen had given me.

Our explorations were interrupted by the arrival of Honey, inviting Mistress Topaz and myself out for brunch (a meal which fell between ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’. I entirely approve of this concept). However, upon learning of Mistress Topaz’s new name, she burst into giggles and Topaz turned an alarming shade of red, dragging me aside to explain that the ‘mistress bit’ was a joke and I should keep calling her ‘Topaz’. Why she was so upset by Honey’s enormous grin, I could not begin to guess.

“I’m only saying, I never would have taken you for a guardspony, Idol.” Honey admitted, pouring a dollop of her own honey into her tea and offering the jar to us. Topaz refrained.

“I think it’s working well for him. He likes the structure.”

“And I think we should let Mr. Hooves speak for himself, Topaz.”

“Honey, I did not drive him-”

Reluctantly, I lowered my marmalade sandwich, looking between them. There was an odd tension between them that I could not quite fathom. “But… Topaz is correct. My enlistment in the guard was, in truth, an accident, but I find myself quite fond of it. I… prefer being told what to do.” I shrugged.

Honey tilted her head, giving myself and then Topaz a suspicious look. “...Nothing wrong between you two, then?”

“...What would be wrong?”

“Oh, well, you know, Topaz gets a little possessive and then she gets a little too intense-”


“Well, you were!”

“It… we… that isn’t what’s going on here!” Topaz was beginning to turn red again. It was a fascinating reaction, though I could not understand the discussion.

“There’s nothing wrong with it, I just didn’t want you chasing the first stallion in-”

“I’m not chasing anyone-”

Ponies were strange, I reaffirmed to myself, returning to the marmalade and emptying the last of Honey’s jar onto my sandwich. Mares were stranger still.

Topaz and Honey seemed to argue through our entire brunch, but I could feel that they were, strangely, enjoying it towards the end. I remained quiet for the most part, enjoying their positive emotions. After the brunch, Honey wished us well and went about her day, giving ‘Mistress Topaz’ another playful elbow before leaving.

Topaz, on the other hand, expressed concern at my eating habits and asked if the Guard had been feeding me properly. I admitted that my physical needs were being well taken care of, and she seemed amused by my hearty recommendations that she try military rations. She was distressed at my admission that my emotional needs were almost completely unmet, but she’d been expecting as much and had come up with plans for when I returned from training.

That evening, I found myself ‘properly groomed for a night on the town’ which did not involve rooftops in any fashion. Topaz made some odd alterations to her face with powders and combed her mane differently. Though these alterations were, in my opinion, pointless and barely noticeable, her emotions, particularly those I had taken to signify 'confidence', were improved dramatically. She seemed... more in some inexplicable way, and though I could not put words to it, I approved of this change. I could find no fault with more Topaz, I decided, and that was all I needed to understand. She appeared radiant to my senses, and I told her so; for some reason she seemed pleased by that.

Her ‘plans’ apparently involved to go see ponies pretending to be other ponies for bits. I… confess I found the idea ridiculous. They had no reason to do what my people did to survive. In truth, I may have found the idea somewhat offensive. The room was crowded, many in similar dress to Topaz and apparently, myself, but all focus was on an uplifted stage towards the front of the room. I settled in beside Topaz to watch, trying to keep most of my objections to myself.

The first act of ‘Mareio and Luigette’ stunned me with how… absurd it was, and the emotions being poured forth, not by the actors, but by those watching. There was no point in becoming involved in the foolish antics and posturing on the stage.

“Topaz,” I began, concerned. “... why do they not just speak to one another, and forget about this… senseless bitterness between family?”

“Shh.” She corrected, a hoof to her lips.

“But much of this seems based on misunderstanding and posturing!” I protested. This time she only held a hoof up, but another pony from behind hushed us. I ignored them, trying again. “If that one would only be faithful to the oaths they have sworn-”

The hiss of another voice behind me interrupted me, and I turned to face them, confused as to why they were interrupting me. The suit clad pony narrowed their eyes at me, and startled, I mirrored their expression. After a moment, their eyes widened, they sank into their chair, and resolutely focused their eyes on the stage. I had no idea what transpired between us, but decided I would keep such observations to myself, and instead focused on the outpouring of emotion from the rest of the audience, allowing myself to be carried along on its currents.

By the final act, I was wretchedly lost in it. Tears streamed down my face, and I neither wanted nor thought myself able to control them.

“Nay, eat not the poisoned mushroom-” I began, and Topaz’s wing muffled the rest of my cry that the lover was not yet dead. It went unheeded, and the deed was completed with not another in the audience that attempted to halt it. I wept profusely as the curtain fell, the inevitability of it drowning me in sorrow I could scarcely comprehend.

Afterwards, when the excesses of emotion from the audience were under control (and Topaz had given me a blanket and salt block), I admitted that I had, perhaps, gotten too involved in the play. But I had to also admit that her idea had been sound and I had been well fed by the performance. A little too well, Topaz pointed out, and I was forced to agree. Coffee and scones did much for my shaking body. The green-clad actress who had consumed the ‘poisoned’ mushroom thanked me heartily, saying that seeing such emotional outbursts was one of the most rewarding parts of her career, to know that she’d made the experience real for somepony. My shame was palpable, but… if such was her duty, then perhaps I had not wasted emotion pointlessly.

Nonetheless, I was glad for us to hurry home, and to swiftly seclude myself in my own lodgings in the basement. Topaz proclaimed with a bit of her own mirth that there was nothing wrong with a stallion being in touch with his feelings, and I walled off the entrance to my room with resin in response. Thinking on this afterwards, I decided it would be better to wall off a small portion of the tunnel below and make it my own that to arbitrarily claim a piece of Topaz’s domain for my own permanent use. Beyond that I would take up less of her own room, I would have a more hidden arrangement that ponies, visitors, and colleagues of Topaz’s would be unlikely to stumble over. Given a few hours, I had crafted a far better nest for myself and a cocoon that would withstand more use than my prior more transient attempts.

My second week of training went much the same as the first had, though the physical aspects of our training were expanded to include such tasks such as ‘rope climbing’ and ‘wall scaling’, both facilitated by binding the wings of our pegasi comrades. These I found more troublesome. Not because I was poorly suited to them, but because instead I was far too skilled. What difficulty is there to be held in clinging to precarious footholds in a large wall when you can simply walk up it? My only option was to pretend that I had the same inabilities as much of the others… but even in that I was unable to resist the barked commands to move faster, and found myself often nearly all the way down before the majority of the others had reached the top.

In this, Shining Armor had true difficulty. It was not that he lacked the ability to climb; if anything, he seemed to grow more unsteady as he rose higher in the air. To make matters worse, the wood of the tower was unusually damp and slick this day; the local pegasi had been delayed in bringing about rain to restore the grass of the training grounds, and had been overzealous in ensuring the area was properly treated the night before. It had been a soggy, miserable day of training by the standards of the others, though I was far less concerned about that. Few things were as comfortable as a good coating of mud on a hot day, and seeing us coated with sweat and dirt always brought good cheer to the drill instructors. The only cheerful part of the day to the others was that our next pass would begin at the cessation of the day’s events. Unfortunately, the additional mud made it difficult for even me to cling to the climbing tower, and I made my way down with far more haste than was seemly. Shining Armor, just cresting the tower, discovered a far faster way down; losing his grip. He scrambled with his magic, his default reaction of a defensive shield doing little more than propelling him away from the wooden construct and neatly severing his climbing rope in two places.

I confess that I was not thinking properly. A good drone knows how to anchor themself, to flex the thorax and legs to catch large heavy objects. It is good to be able to leverage oneself to prevent a room from collapsing. Shining Armor was neither properly rigid nor falling from merely ceiling level when he crashed onto me, splaying both of us in the mud with a burst of agony that very nearly shattered my concentration.

Paying attention was very difficult for the next few minutes. The training instructors rushed about, verifying that we were alright and that no lasting injuries had been received. With effort, I assured them that the mud had broken his fall far more than I had, as was apparently the intent of the large pool of mud at the bottom of the construct, which we had collapsed at the very edge of. Shining was clearly shaken, but was nonetheless loudly grateful at my assistance. A number of the other ponies eyed me differently, seemingly pleased and impressed by my attempt. I rejected the attempt to take me to the medic, claiming I would be fine.

The truth was more frightening. Something was broken, I could feel it, and internally I quailed at one of them discovering it. Thankfully, Shining and I were given early leave to get cleaned up and gather our things. He seemed startled by the concept, and was eyeing everything with a sort of wonder.

“Are you certain you are alright?” I grated, feeling the mismatching of my body and shell driving a wedge of pain into me at every step.

“Heh. Y...yeah. I just… wow. That could have been. I mean. Wow. That was so… dumb!”


“Oh, not you, not you! You were… uh, awesome, I guess, but… wow, I nearly killed myself with a shield. I don’t… I don’t think I ever really realized I could do that.”

“They will not protect you if you fall?”

“Moon and Stars, no! I’d splatter like a bug inside it. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how to do a featherfall spell and there’s not enough pegasus in my family that I can fall from a cloud and just sprain something. If I’d hit the ground wrong, that could have been… well... it. The mud might have prevented anything fatal, but a bad break could mean the end of the guard.” I refrained from mentioning that he had nearly splattered a bug. My injury again twinged, and I feared the depth of the damage. “Are… Are you alright? You’re walking funny.”

I frowned. It was true, I realized with distress. I truly was broken. My right hip was jerking slightly with every step, and the pain was most evident at the height of the motion; I could not even turn enough to reach it. The shell of my pony form was trying to match what my body beneath was doing; I did not know what that was yet... only that it was not good. Shining insisted that I see a medic just in case, and I promised I would go the first one I saw, knowing that he would turn me over to them if I did not make the oath.

Naturally, this promise involved not being seen and not seeing one of them. Escaping the castle grounds with a pronounced limp that was causing an increasing amount of pain without being hauled to a medic was a harrowing experience. My earlier experience with the dentist had led Topaz to warn me to try to avoid any medical scan I could unless I was certain my shape would hold up to intense scrutiny. I confess, were it possible, I would have discarded my current form for that of a pegasus, but… without knowing what damage was done, I dared not. Embarrassingly, this led to me taking a long, painful route through Canterlot as I avoided anywhere I thought I would be able to lay eyes upon a medical professional.

Topaz was only just arriving home as I met her, and she immediately took in my haggard expression and the battered look of me before panic set in and she hauled me inside.

“What happened?! Did someone find out, were you caught? Who was it, did they do this to you? I knew this was a bad idea, I just knew, but I can’t believe-”

“Queen save me, Topaz, can you hold?” I begged. My pony shape burned away in a gout of emerald flame, leaving my changeling shell and a bit of baked mud. “I… have not looked. How bad is it?” My nervousness led one wing to buzz. The other only twitched, and did not move further.

“Oh… Oh my.” She tenderly touched the spot on my back. “Definitely cracked your shell here. Is… is this blood?” She rested her hoof on my side, and the sensation of the disconnected plate moving without the benefit of the pony shell very nearly made me scream. “Oh! Oh harmony Idol I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to-” She broke off with horror as I vomited resin onto her clean floor. “Celestia’s beard! Idol, we need to get you to a hospi-” She trailed off as I held the green ooze towards her.

“Cover… cracks. Please.” I hissed weakly, a scooped mass of resin dripping from my outstretched hoof.

Thankfully, she scooped some up in her hoof and began dabbing at the wound without argument. “The shell of your back is almost completely split in half, what happened?”

I collapsed, fear at the new discovery that I could not lift my wings draining my strength. “Shining fell off the tower. I caught him.”

She continued filling in the cracks in my exoskeleton, and the soothing combination of resin and magic began its work. “Caught him? H...Hold still, I don’t think this is right.” I felt a blinding new pain and- oh Queen’s blessings, my right wing fluttered. I was not crippled, I realized with a delighted agony. Something caught and I felt Topaz press a hoof to my wing immediately. “Stop, stop, there’s a little shard missing of the shell on your back. You’re snagged on it.” She freed my wing again and rushed off. Upon returning, she slapped something over the chunk of damaged shell, and the next thing I knew there was something wet being slathered over it, and then blessed cool relief. I looked at her in surprise, a strange brush, a can, and a roll of something beside her. She winced at my confused look. “Uh…. shellac and tape. It was the only thing I could think of.”

“We… could have used my resin.” I offered.

“Oh, is that what that was? I was just thinking that I had some of this, and it’s not toxic, and I’ve used it on my hooves before- nevermind. Are you okay?”

“I... believe so. This is not an exceptionally dire injury, only a very painful one.” I carefully lifted my wings, moving them both cautiously, relieved that my initial fear that they had been destroyed was completely unfounded. Still, the resin and… shellac Topaz had smeared on my wound and damaged shell would need to dry. Fanning my wings would aid in that regard, and I did so carefully, but the pain was already back to a tolerable level.. “I… believe this minor damage will be completely removed by next molt.”

“Good.” Topaz stated with a bit more vehemence than I’d expected. “No offense, Idol, but I don’t think I’m cut out for that.” She began pacing a small line, the combination of ichor and resin leaving a trail of prints behind her.

“How so?” Personally, I felt she had done a fine job.

“If I were meant to be a doctor I’d have a doctoring cutie mark! I’m an entomologist, not… not a bug doctor, I mean, I’m working on a doctorate but that’s not the same thing, I can’t treat ponies- or bugponies! Breezies or changelings! What if I’d made it worse?!”

“Topaz.” I stated firmly, sitting up and putting a hoof to her shoulder to halt her pacing and her tirade. “I have no alternatives. And I have utmost faith in both you and your abilities.”

“...Idol… alright, alright.” She waved a hoof at me. “But no more injuries without checking with me first.”

“I shall endeavor to obey your commands.” I swore with a small smile, and we both laughed as relief swept over us.

After a minute of awkward silence, Topaz sighed. “You can’t put your hoof down without hurting yourself, can you?” I gave her a weak shrug and nodded as she groaned. “I could have gotten another blood sample, I could have had a little chunk of your exoskeleton, what was I thinking, honestly, you know I need these things, you should have reminded me-”

I could not begin to understand the maelstrom of emotions battering at my walls at this point, but thinking back to the empty shell I had once created? I would always prefer this confusing, enigmatic Topaz, strange though she was.

Under Armor

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Ponies have very strange ideas as to what constitutes a suitable environment for healing. For one thing, Topaz refused to allow me to perform any work save to tread downstairs into my root-cellar-sleeping-chambers with her by my side, insisting that if I was in shock and having trouble getting about and that if I fell down the stairs I’d only make matters worse. I opted not to take offense at the insinuation that a mere injury would weaken my grip on the planks below my hooves, but her next insistence was beyond absurd. She claimed ‘bed rest’ and ‘relaxation’ were sure ways to recovery and that I should spend my short period away from training to get just that.

I had never before considered such a horrendous waste of my time. Even injured within the hive there were tasks that could be accomplished, and I attempted to rise from my cocoon no less than four times before her glare pinned me into the spot as firmly as any of the smaller insects in her collection. Perhaps not quite so firmly as the glass-coated Stingsley, but I was hesitant to challenge her resolve and risk the same fate. I did try to rise again once she had left my room, but that proved a flawed decision when she returned only a moment later with a number of books stuffed in a saddlebag.

“Here.” She stated judiciously, herding me back to my bedding. “As the lady in charge of my home and lawful superior to you as a guest, you are hereby ordered to obey my medical instructions of letting your back heal.”

“You cannot do that.” I protested lamely, but I realized with some concern that she very well could. I had not been aware of such house-rules, but Topaz had been very understanding of many of my misunderstandings before now… her insistence that I obey her now was, if not welcome, understandable. And, I decided, she was the pony who I had gone to for medical assistance. It would be terribly hypocritical for me to refuse her advice after seeking it specifically.

“Can and have. You’re here until further notice. I brought you a few books, and I’ll bring you down something to eat. Let’s see… calcium carbonate… lots of calcium in general, broken bones… eggs for protein… lots of broccoli… lots of cellulose too...”

“Do not trouble yourself, Topaz, I will recover soon enough-” I tried to protest, but she was unstoppable, as always.

“I don’t think you’re eating properly. Enough, sure, but not the right sorts of things. I mean, you’ve said you’re supposed to support the weight of the nests, one pony shouldn’t have cracked it that badly! We’re going to have to come up with something to hide that, or explain away any tenderness, maybe some deep bruising-”

I neglected to correct her that Shining Armor had fallen from nearly the top of the tower. Given how she was overreacting, I doubted that revelation would make the treatment any better at all. “That is hardly necessary-” I tried again as she prodded me with something else and was cut short. Her hoof was cold, and I shied away from it, startled.

“Now, I couldn’t remember if it was hot or cold you put on a sprain for swelling, I think it’s cold, so we’re going to put an ice pack- ah ah ah, don’t you hiss at me!” She hefted a strange pouch in her hooves and I could feel it sucking the very warmth from the room. I glared balefully at it, but when Topaz tried to touch it to my back I sucked in a pained breath and kicked it out of her hooves, intent on getting the chill as far away from myself as possible.

At her offended outcry, I was able to get my breath back. “Hurt. No cold.”

“Warmth it is, hold on, I have an idea!” And with that that, the mare raced up the stairs again. I scowled at the bag of cold. What a horrible thing for ponies to have. The hive was never cold, cold was a slow death of the body seizing, and ceasing function. Those afflicted usually slowed to a halt, dwindling until their mind left the hive’s consciousness if they were not swiftly recovered. My nest had not suffered from extreme cold in a number of years, but I could recall a powdery coating of discomfort on the ground as a larva and did not wish to ever experience such unpleasantry again.

Topaz returned with some sort of red round rubber rectangle which she very promptly dropped on my back. My hiss of pain was drowned into a sigh of relief as heat began soaking through my shell, relaxing muscle and melting my pains away. I marveled at the ingenuity of ponies and allowed myself to enter a quiet doze, returning to awareness only when Topaz gave me a hard prod with a hoof and ordered me to eat a hastily created ‘stew’ of eggs, broccoli, and cheeses that would provide what she hoped were the proper nutrients. I dubbed it ‘Egg-Shell stew’ and she hesitantly agreed she might have dropped one or two in there by mistake. Regardless, it was not distressing and regardless of any additional crunch, it was also hot. She lamented that I probably needed much more protein in my diet and that there had to be better arrangements made. After that, she left me to my own devices while she went to do some research while I took to reading some of her offerings.

I considered the books on pottery before reluctantly setting them aside. I was to be a guard now, not a craftspony, but… I did want to continue working on my craft. I did not actually have a special talent, but I reasoned that I would have to continue the craft to keep up the facade of my cutie mark. Which I again considered; could I explain the significance of it in relation to crafting? Unlikely. But now I could not change the cutie mark; the symbol was part of my training uniform and had been drawn on my training gear by a fellow recruit. Any alterations would be instantly noted. Perhaps I could claim it was intended to be a cup coming out of kiln? I recovered one book and noted with interest that it was not about making useless knickknacks that Topaz had suggested I sell at one point, but instead started with an explanation for making firebricks that one could use to make their own kiln. I eagerly devoured this information, finding the knowledge fascinating. This was followed by ‘traditional bricks’ and ‘glazed bricks’ and more information on building materials. I had nearly forgotten what had led to my expulsion from the hive, and marvelled at the usefulness of this book… though it made much note of quarried stone as a building material, and any drone could tell you that if you found a vast quantity of solid stone, you were far better suited to build into it as opposed to moving it elsewhere. But then, ponies prefer to walk about with things like ‘natural sunlight’. Topaz herself claimed it was good for a pony, and had more than once dragged me to the surface to enjoy a sunny day and have lunch outside.

I wondered idly if Topaz had made arrangements for us to see another play or concert. I had rather hoped she had, but now had to admit that it was unlikely I could attend such an event. In lieu of myself, I decided, she should still go. I had left the matter of my expenses wholly in Topaz’s hooves, and after much coaxing she had agreed that I could pay for these experiences with my own coin, being that apart from food I had relatively inexpensive tastes.

I still do not know why anyone would bother tasting things that weren’t food, though I could recall vaguely that starving drones would chew or suck on small bits of the red or grey ores that we sometimes found while excavating to trigger the hunting instincts on the off chance they could find prey. Regardless, that is no explanation for why ponies would do so. One does not hunt the wily grain field and I have yet to find a better way to find apples than a merchant’s cart or an apple tree, neither of which require heightened hunting instincts. Unless the merchant is fleeing from you. I made a mental note to carry a small quantity of powdered metal, just in case.

When Topaz returned to check on me and not-feed me with a glass rod filled with some red fluid (which had no taste that I could notice, leading me to again question the logic of ponies), she verified that she had indeed bought tickets for both of us. I faltered before deciding that she should take Honey with her; Honey had more than earned my friendship and the giving of gifts was much a part of such an arrangement. Topaz tried to argue this with me, but I was adamant that if the tickets were for a specific time and place, it was a waste not to use them. To my immense surprise, she eventually agreed with this assessment.

Honey was delighted, claiming she’d been wanting to see a show for ages while at the same time offering a great deal of true sympathy towards me, fussing over false bruises that Topaz had instructed me to create, which was appreciated. I had honestly believed that the false bruising would be too much, but it was gratifying to know I had made them realistic. She also snuck me a ‘care package’ which was essentially a half-dozen jars of assorted honeys whilst Topaz was otherwise busy. This was also appreciated.

Waking up with a jar on my snout in my cocoon was, I decided, an odd way to sleep but the faint taste of the amber bliss was enough to maintain a good mood. My back had settled comfortably during my extended resting period and I grudgingly admitted that perhaps this ‘bed rest’ had something to it and I would have to say as much to Topaz. Gingerly climbing the stairs left me with an odd sight.

For one, the door wasn’t fully closed, and I took care of that.

Secondly, and perhaps more strangely, Topaz still appeared to be ‘cleaned up for a night on the town’ and had her head partially buried in the armrest of her couch, making vaguely displeased sounds and shifting her wings as if to burrow into the fabric. Very peculiar.

“Topaz? Are you well?” It was not entirely unusual for her to sleep late on weekends, but I had never recalled her purposefully sleeping on her couch. Or in this position, but perhaps she did the same with her bed. Her only response was to wave a wing in the general direction of me and the window.

I reasoned that, with pony love of sunlight, perhaps what she wished was for me to raise these blinds, which were all unusually shut. With a bit of magic, I threw open all of them.

The noise she made was neither expected nor, I think, entirely polite, and she rolled over holding a pillow over her face with her hooves, making a loudly muffled noise that I could not quite make out.

“Gill you?” I repeated in confusion.

She repeated it back, a bit louder this time, into the pillow.

“...I’m near you?”

She stated it more firmly into the pillow, but for all I could tell, made no move to remove the pillow and make her intentions known. Her failures of diction would have to wait. Unsure if she could hear me any better than I her, I enunciated clearly and loudly.

“Would. You. Like. Breakfast?”

She made a series of noises and wafted misery. Clearly hungry, then. Luckily she had made much of her ‘Egg-Shell stew’ for me and I simply heated it in her kitchen, taking care to vigorously whisk it with a metal device she kept for just such a use. Topaz continued to make noises, and I heard her stomach clearly. I feared I was running out of time, and increased the temperature. Soon, the mixture came to a frothing boil, and I poured some for Topaz and myself, bringing it to her.

She now had her wings around the pillow over her face. I could not begin to reason what the problem was. Cautiously, I lifted the edge and held the bowl towards her muzzle. “Would you like some?”

Five minutes later, I scowled at the spilled bowl before glaring up towards the bathroom where Topaz had fled as I scrubbed at the floor with a sponge, cursing the ‘five second rule’ as she had previously explained it. Honestly, I would never understand ponies.

Topaz had been apologetic about her sudden onset of illness and the wasted food, but thankfully was much recovered later that day. She’d inspected my hardened extra-shell and told me that she didn’t think I was in danger of damaging it further now that the resin had hardened, but warned me to keep the bruises on my pony-shell to let others know I had not been entirely unscathed. Truthfully, her cautious prodding was both painful and disconcerting, but regardless of my health, I was required to return to training the following day.

Shining too had a number of discolored spots on his midsection, though his were less evident due to an enormous amount of cloth wrapped around his torso that made him look quite rotund. Apparently the younger spawn of his parents had sought to provide him with medical assistance and he hadn’t had the heart to tell her that bandages don’t work that way.

“Had to stop her anyways when she started tying a tourniquet around my ribs. I don’t think that works. For that matter, I don’t think Smarty Pants has a real medical degree.”

“It would seem unlikely.” I agreed, wondering if Smarty Pants was the name of his younger sibling. It seemed very suitable for her, from what little I’d been told of her. At her age she should be more focused on play, I thought. “I would expect graduating magic kindergarten would be prerequisite to a medical degree.”

“Well, no, not technically, I mean, magical training isn’t required of every unicorn. A lot can’t really do much or don’t have those particular talents. The school for gifted unicorns is really more a matter of refining magical abilities.”

“Topaz claims there is all sorts of study there.”

“Yyyeah, and some ponies would prefer it to be more focused on the unicorns who need help with their gifts. Some don’t really need the training, some just need the basics explained to them, and some need more assistance to reach their full potential. I mean, I went, did a little hoofball, but for the most part my shields are just… a thing I do.”


“Oh, sure. I have a heck of a pass, but I kept popping shields on the field. It’s grounds for disqualification; no magic allowed that interferes with the game.”

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Sometimes I wonder if ponies have secret languages made to discuss matters that are only important to those who understand the language itself.

The training period was the first of our extended weeks. We still received one day to ourselves at the end of the first week, but we were not to return to our homes. It was during this time we had the first case of derangement, in which an otherwise very stable stallion started throwing random food items together in a large cooking pot to try to make a stew that didn’t ‘taste like broiled cardboard dipped in mud’ and wailed that there wasn’t decent broth stock to be found. The sergeants managed to talk sense into him with a combination of canned soup and letting him perform ‘kitchen patrol’ which I recognized as ‘KP’ from Topaz’s friend on the border. The pony seemed unnaturally grateful for this opportunity, and Shining admitted that he’d rather never be neck-deep in pots if he could help it.

This was, of course, overheard and we found ourselves joining our comrade for the rest of the day. I delighted in the extra food, even if it was slightly less than fresh. Shining scrubbed his pots more disconsolately while the pony previously in question bounced around the kitchen as if he had been born to it, finding random spices amongst the clutter and making something of much improved flavor compared to our normal meals.

For the most part, my false discolorations seemed to please the ponies around me, and Shining enjoyed showing his own off. A number of our comrades inspected them and found them pleasing to the eye, one of the earth ponies actually telling me that it was ‘nice to see that unicorns could bruise like any other pony’. Shining looked rather taken aback, and there was an odd bit of hostility in the air for a moment before I pointed out that blood had to run to our flesh like any other pony, obviously, what sort of creature didn’t have that happen?

I may have panicked. Regardless, the others snorted and shared a chuckle over that, and we moved on to our next item of training. Before the combat training began, one sergeant brought me aside and suggested that I be put on light duty. I was pleased until it was explained that ‘light duty’ was less duty, and I vehemently refused on the grounds that I was perfectly fine and pain was an absolutely natural part of life. Albeit the part where life tries to kill you.

I do not think I won the argument, but the sergeant claimed I made his head hurt and he’d consider it more later. Perhaps it was a victory after all.

I immediately had cause to regret my efforts, as I was swiftly and firmly introduced to the sand of the sparring grounds by my partner for the day.

“...Ow.” I firmly declared, wondering briefly if the large earth pony was going to crack my shell again.

“Good throw, Bigflank.” A sergeant congratulated from across the yard. “Now get his tail up and get him back to it.”

The large stallion hefted me with one limb, dropping me back onto unsteady hooves. I was beginning to wonder if being taught to wrestle with earth ponies was meant to teach the unicorns humility. I was at least certain that I was learning how not to hit the ground. Mostly. I was at least aware that I shouldn’t do it.

“Sir yes sir!” Bold replied with far more cheer than I felt. The earth pony, a huge trapezoidal black mark with white numbers on his flank, was always at his best mood during this training, which was always far too jovial by my opinion. We went through the proper motions, and I darted forward for a grab. This turned out to be foolish, and I swallowed an unfortunate amount of sand upon landing face-first.

“You know, you got a lot of spunk for a unicorn. Ain’t afraid to get dirty. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken.” I agreed. Dirt was hardly something to be feared. Sand was more annoying than anything, and I spat more out, attempting a jab next.

I had not been aware my foreleg could bend that way. It was an illuminating and painful experience. Tapping the ground with my other hoof meant another faceful of sand before I was released.

“Some of the others, they take this sort of thing awful personal.” He gave a bit of a grin. “Think I’m doing it on purpose.”

“I would rather hope you are. Otherwise this would be embarrassing.”

“Well, I am going a little easy on you, shortstop. You bein’ hurt and all.” He flipped me over himself, slamming us both in a pin and wrapping a foreleg around my neck. I tapped again and Bold released me.

“Praise Celestia.”

“Course, not everyone’s so giving. After that stunt you pulled last week, Ol’ Shiner ought to at least let you have the top bunk.” He threw a heavy blow of his own that I barely ducked out of the way of.

“I have always preferred to be on the bottom.”

The larger stallion almost missed a step, and I grabbed the other front leg and pulled, nearly toppling him. Before I could take advantage of his predicament, the bay rolled back a step and returned to a proper stance. I cursed my overabundance of zeal.

“And if Shining prefers to be on top and I below him, I see nothing wrong with that. If anything, that makes us a good pair.” This time, he did miss a step and when I went for the back leg, he reared and ended up crashing to the ground with a thud that cast sand out of our circle in a cloud. I was beginning to get the hang of this, I thought.

The reddish stallion stared up at me, clearly in shock at my newfound prowess. “Ah. Not judging, you understand. Just… surprised, I think.”

“Of course. I just got lucky.”

“S...Sure you did! I mean, no designs on him or nothing, just didn’t think. Uh. Let’s get back to it, then?”

To my immense disappointment, I did not manage another point for the rest of the session. My jest seemed more true than intended, and I cursed myself for drawing attention to this odd bit of luck.

At the end of this training period, we received our first set of armor. It was bronze instead of the traditional gleaming gold alloy, but still retained a fine shine… unfortunately, we had them tossed at us and were told to have them polished and fitted up properly for inspection upon return the following training cycle.

I had rather been hoping to receive guidance in how to assemble and wear the various metal shapes. Shining pointed out that we were very likely supposed to either figure it out or fail, and that would be an excuse for extra physical training. I fear for my sanity, as for just a moment, I understood the logic behind such an act.

Regardless, I took my weighted bag of various metal plates and hobbled back to my home. Topaz demanded to check my shell as soon as I entered the door, making clear sounds of vague disapproval at the shell and crack. For reasons I could not fathom, the idea of dirt in the coating distressed her. She seemed… very much uninterested in the metal plates of my armor, but admitted she’d only had a bit of experience taking a set apart, never putting one put together, and she’d try to help if need be. Truthfully, much of the armor I was able to figure out from the various other guards I had seen. Still, she had a large mirror in her room and allowed me the use of it. The room itself was rather nice, for something so far above ground. I did not like having only a thin layer of wood precariously balanced upon others to support me. It felt unnatural.

What I had not been prepared for was the fact that it kept falling off. I had struggled into the loops of woven material that were attached, but for the life of me could not fathom how to attach it properly. Perhaps the fault lay in my form. Ahhh, that explained why my rations were increased; I was not of a proper size for the armor! Unwilling to accept this, I began making several minor adjustments. Torso needed to be thicker. Legs longer? Heavier. Add a bit to the ribs. Bold had made for a decent example, more like that. The armor began to snug, and I admit I may have preened a bit.

There was a knock and Topaz entered the room with little other fanfare, looking up and stopping dead.

“What. What the buck.”

“Topaz? Are you alright?”

“I haven’t had a stallion up here in better than six months.” She mumbled, sounding a little dazed. Then she shook her head, vehemently. “Bad Topaz. Idol, what the hay are you doing?” The last sounded more exasperated than curious.

I paused, feeling suddenly like I had been caught doing something inappropriate. “...Fitting my armor?”

She gave me a baleful look. “By giving yourself the musculature of a champion weightlifter?”

“Well… it didn’t fit.” The words sounded lame, but I could not think of a better reason. It was true enough.

“Oh for… look, let me see.” She prodded my armor with a hoof. “Here, look, there’s straps.”

“I thought you did not know how to-” My breath caught as she cinched the belt, pulling a strap with her teeth. “Put this on?”

“Well… um… no, not really. I mean, I helped somepony take some of it off once. Or twice. I'm working in reverse here. Look, drop the muscles, you can’t go back there looking like a Tommenjerry dancer.”

“A what?”

Nothing, none of your business, just go back to normal.” Her grumbles were slightly muffled by another strap. “Changeling can’t be doing that to a mare, honestly…!”

I deflated rapidly, the false musculature melting away so suddenly she nearly fell over on me. Oddly, she felt a little disappointed. I’d never understand ponies. I winced as one strap tightened over my cracked shell, but made no other complaint. Proper fit was more important than minor pain, I decided.

“There!” She spun me to face the mirror again. “What do you think?”

The stallion in the mirror was me. But wasn’t, precisely. It was the form I had chosen as my personal one, but… I rather liked the change the armor seemed to bring about. I straightened, taking a properly attentive stance. I felt pride swell within me. For once, I saw no reason to disallow it. I’d built camaraderie with my fellows. Between Shining and the others, I’d actually received a reasonable share of emotion, enough to have gotten me through the week without difficulty.

This wasn’t just something I wanted to do, I finally realized… it was something I could do. I could be a changeling and a member of the royal guard. Looking at my bronze armor, I knew without doubt I was not yet there… but one day, and soon, I would be.

Mourning Woods

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“In other words, recruits, there’s only two ways timber wolves die; they burn, or something larger eats them. Thankfully, under most circumstances, they’re not aggressive.”

There was a plethora of information that was deemed important to being a guard, I was finding. The physical aspects of the training were intense, true, but the education was, according to Shining Armor, something of a ‘crash course’, though I could see no concern amongst the pegasi. While we rested tired and sore muscles, polished our armor, or otherwise were not employed in a task that required our utmost attention, we received a great deal of information of varying usefulness.

Hydras could not be killed by decapitation directly, but they could be suffocated by tricking them into eating rocks too large for them to swallow. Ursa Minors and Majors could be lured with music, preferably classical but they had shown a surprising interest in tamborines, though it seemed to make them more excitable than sleepy and unless one wanted to flatten a hillside, a dancing ursa was rarely desired. The rare windigo was to be dealt with by newlyweds, the newer the better in most cases. Manticores were usually dealt with via sleep spells, and a brave half-dozen guards would milk the stingers for antivenom.

Buffalo were both peacefully nomadic and fiercely territorial; they ranged in and out of a large portion of southern Equestria and had no issues with any who traveled with or past them… but often grew restless if any of their ranging territory had new permanent structures built on it. Many of the long and winding paths went for decades at a time without being roamed before suddenly becoming absolutely necessary to their trail, and woe betide those who had foolishly built homesteads, but generally they held no ill will towards the builders of such... temporary obstructions.

Griffins, unfortunately, were a different matter. There’d been peace, officially, for centuries. That didn’t make the borders any less dangerous. There were always problems on both sides; ponies who thought it would cause no trouble if they started farming the fertile land on the edge of the Griffin borders, and Griffins who took offense to hooved mammals in their sky. Bloodshed, while not common, was too often an occurrence to call it ‘rare’. As a rule, those on the border didn’t care a whit for Equestrian law; and ponies in their territory were expected to walk softly, and fly at their own peril. One of the pegasi in our class pointed out that there was some sort of ‘exchange program’ going on in Cloudsdale, but most weren’t exactly hopeful with the results. A handful of griffin chicks had been sent and every pegasi had been rebuffed as ‘not worth their time’. Not that any sane parent would send their children to Griffinland anyways.

Our trainer snorted derisively. “Celestia has a lot of sway with most, but you’d be surprised how much weight she can throw around there. If Celestia says she’s watching out for those foals, any sane griffin would give their life for their safety. They’ll croak and caw and roar at any fool who thinks they’re getting one over them, but when Princess Celestia comes to call they’re a bunch of songbirds. That aside, you use magic on a griffin, you better be ready for a tussle. They take offense, and they take it hard. Lot of them don’t think it’s natural, unclean or some such.”

After a moment, Shining raised a hoof. “Sir, then why do we make so much effort with them? It sounds like they… well, hate two-thirds of our population.”

“Not all of them, recruit. There’s the rub. As a rule, they don’t like having magic used on them. Doesn’t feel right and might even hurt them a bit. But there are plenty that like ponies just fine, like seeing magic shows and watching the Wonderbolts. And a lot of those live on the border, travel in when they feel the need. What you need to watch out for are the ones who are viciously against. Griffins don’t have a governing body like we do. Griffins might say they have no trouble with ponies, and as a whole they don’t. But the rare few that do? They have beaks like shears, talons that can puncture armor, and every last one of them can fly. One griffin out to make trouble can ruin a family’s day, and troublemakers flock together. No real government means only the rest of the griffins being decent keeps the troublemakers from being a blight to those that can’t protect themselves… and even the ones that like us don’t see much cause to interfere on our behalf. Fly or fall, they call it.”

“Had a king years back but even then he was more figurehead to the rest than a ruler. About every big mountain out there has its own hierarchy, the higher you live the more important you are. Leader lives at the peak, and bigger mountains mean more bragging rights. Any laws laid down varies from mountain to mountain, and if you see one that says ‘No ponies allowed’ you better understand that they aren’t wanting to be friends and the crown itself will have to intervene to get you out. So please. Those of you who go to the Griffinnish border? Don’t be that pony. Celestia might not give you the hoof upside the head you deserve, but the rest of us will, and gladly.”

And so it went. Much of the information seemed unlikely to be useful (About one in a thousand ponies was allergic to Breezy dust and could go into convulsions when presented with the tiny fairy-ponies), and others were absolutely worthless, as far as I could tell (apparently ponies only eat three spiders a year, which is an absolute shame) , but then we’d receive information that was stunningly useful in my opinion, only to be treated as unlikely to come to any use at all! Chewing charcoal to absorb poisons fascinated me, but most ponies expressed disgust at the very idea.

I had finally determined the proper way to shine my bronze hoof-shell for the perfect amount of reflectiveness when I realized we were discussing the Everfree Forest. “-which is why it has the highest concentration of monsters in the Equestrian borders.”

“So why don’t we just… you know. Burn it down?” Bold commented, sounding bored. He usually did, I found, the large earth stallion was quite good at most guard duties, showing his best during combat training, but seemed to feel he had something to prove in matters of education. “If all these problems come from it, why not?”

“Damn good question, Bigflank. Tried something like that once, round a thousand years ago.” The sergeant drew a map down from the wall. I eyed it with interest, trying to trace my travels through the desert, badlands and to Canterlot, but Stalliongrad did not seem to appear on this map. Disappointing. I frowned, seeing a large forest that should have been on the way but I could recall no such thing. “This. Is where Everfree used to be. Once that one started to die because ponies tried to cut trails into it, the new one popped up. So they burned that one too. The next one…” He pulled a second map down. “Grew right around the Castle of the Royal Sisters.” Here he scowled. “And it grew fast. New trees came out of nowhere, daily, according to records. The Princess herself eventually moved the capitol to Canterlot because it became untenable. Forest didn’t like it, apparently.”

“Alright, so… what does it matter? No Royal Guard with any sense at all would set a single hoof within ten miles of that forest, and- s… sir? Why are you smiling?”

The following day, on the edge of Everfree Forest, Bold retained a very sour mood and it looked as though it would continue for at least the rest of the day. I, myself, was hardly filled with great cheer at the prospect of entering this wretched place for any reason. This appeared to be shared by the twenty-odd ponies and even their sergeants.

“Alright recruits, groups of five, each group stick to an officer. You will rendezvous out here, no later than dusk. This is a border patrolling. Unless you are ordered, and specifically ordered, you do not enter this forest. Start pitching tents.”

“Oh praise Celestia.” Bold murmured, sounding vastly relieved.

“Armor, Bigflank, pick a recruit each and prepare to enter the forest. We roll out in five.”

Bold only barely managed to hide his curse with a cough, but the glare he cut at the rising sun was bordering on treasonous. He then looked about, finally settling on a navy blue pegasus mare with a brown mane. I recognized her as one of his preferred sparring partners; she too had a tendency to fling me about in an undignified manner. She seemed pleased by the attention, and strutted up proudly.

To my great distress, Shining aimed a questioning look towards myself. Still, he was ordered to pick a pony, and apparently chose myself. I could not for the life of me guess what logic the sergeant had in delegating the task of choosing, but decided that it was simply not my place. I marched up, though I maintained a more suitably neutral expression than the mare had. The opportunity for obedience was its own reward.

“Sir!” Shining Armor stated with a salute, just before we entered the forest. “I hate to bring this up sir, I really do, but… my marefriend is pretty vehement that I shouldn’t ever set hoof in the forest. Absolutely not, she said. Personally I’d love to, but you understand-”

“Recruit, do I look like I give a buck what your marefriend wants? I’m giving you the order to do just that, so do it.”

“Sir, gladly, sir!” And with that, Shining Armor trotted several yards into the forest before turning around, grinning widely. “So, where to?”

The sergeant looked dumbfounded. Then, with a sigh and a shake of his head, he muttered. “I feel like I’m going to regret that.”

“Most likely, sir.” I agreed, finding the forest… even more forbidding than expected. I could sense… maliciousness to it. As though the forest itself did not want my presence. Or, for that matter, any of our group.

Our sergeant spared me a quick scowl, but stepped after Shining and swiftly took the lead down a path of sorts, overgrown and covered in vines. “This is just a quick run to get your hooves under you. One of the tasks of the Royal Guard is to rescue the bumpkins who get lost in here from time to time. With luck, we bring them back. With more, alive.”

“And we’re going in?” Bold squeaked, which seemed odd coming from him.

“Tartarus, recruit, this isn’t even through the border. There’s a guard outpost here, kept stocked with supplies. It doesn’t get dangerous for the first few miles, and for that you’ll be fine during the day. Don’t eat that, Hooves, it’s poisonous. Keep up, and don’t touch anything blue.”

“...Why not anything blue? What’s wrong with blue?” The mare questioned. Her name eluded me. I attributed that to the consistent head trauma when I sparred with her. It did not make me more confident. Thundercloud, I thought.

“Don’t ask questions, just obey. If it’s blue, it might be worse than poison. Stay away from blue. Now spread out a bit, keep an eye out. Anything starts coming for you, scream and get out of its way.”

I followed them, avoiding anything that even appeared blue, which seemed to be a disturbing amount of things. Something splashed in a stream nearby, and when I investigated briefly, wondering if it was perhaps a fish, I saw something bubbling just beneath the surface… and then something dark streaked through the water and the bubbles stopped. I swiftly returned to my group, feeling distinctly queasy. Still, the shadows were growing disturbingly long before our brisk pace slowed.

“What in the deepest pits of Tartarus…?” The sergeant groaned, then picked up his pace. We were perhaps five feet away when I recognized the shack for what it was. The walls were covered in vines, moss grew everywhere, and, in general, I could not tell if it had been intentionally camouflaged or if it was simply terrible maintained. “WOODS! MEADOWS!”

The door cracked only a bit, enough for a pony to peer at us with one frightened eye. Then the door flew open and a green hoof gestured us in, armor stained. “Get in, get in!”

“The buck have you been doing out here, Woods?! This outpost is falling apart!” The sergeant practically roared. He stormed inside, glaring. “Wha… you don’t have any supplies? Where’s your rations? Where’s Meadows?!”

“Sir, forest is in a very bad mood, sir. I recommend we abandon the post. Now. Immediately, if not sooner.”


“Shhhhh! They’ll hear you!”

“Soldier, where is your partner?” The sergeant growled, gritting his teeth. Again, for a non-carnivore species, pony growling was always remarkably intense.

“Haven’t seen him in days. A week. Maybe two.” The green pony whimpered. I stared at the shaggy, unkempt pony in dismay. Even his armor had stains on it. “Can’t leave, things out there, hear them at night, big things, manticores and hydras and everything. Have to lock the door so they don’t get in. Can’t stay out long, can’t get provisions, and Meadows had our dragonfire. Can’t get provisions, had to graze.”

“You’ve been grazing in Everfree?!” This time, the sergeant sounded almost as horrified as he was furious.

“It’s actually really good grass, sir.”

The sergeant’s expression bordered on murderous. “Clearly.” He took a deep breath, calming himself. “We’re getting you out of here, and we’ll send a search party for Meadows. Recruits, settle down. We’re in for the night.”

The green earth pony stared at us, then at him. “You brought rookies into the forest? What’s wrong with you?”

“This was supposed to be in and out. Recruits, Dank Woods, one of the wardens of Everfree.”

Shining looked distressed. “You’re one of the wardens? You… aren’t what I expected.” He lit the darkening room with his horn. Moss had spread even under the doorframe, amazingly. As I watched, a tendril grew across the glass, thickening until what had been a strand was now a thick rope of vine that seemed to be quickly hardening.

“Try spending six months in this horror story forest.”

“Tours are three months, soldier. Everypony knows you don’t keep anyone here longer than that, the forest gets something of a taste for them.”

Woods giggled. “Who are we supposed to complain to, exactly?”

I stared into the growing darkness. “Sir, is this the best time for discussing logistics?”

The stallion grunted, eyeing the four of us. “No. But right now leaving isn’t an option. Shouldn’t have taken us this long to get out here… Forest might be moving again. If that’s the case, we need to let Canterlot know and verify it isn’t spreading towards Ponyville. If it is… relocation.”

Bold stared at all of us. “Wait. Wait. We’re staying here? In this shack? Not… not behind fortifications or something?”

“Best defense here is not being noticed. But the point of the outpost is that you have to be able to find it. Fortifications would mean cutting down trees. Cutting down trees is… dangerous, here. Things start paying attention. For now, we’re bedding down. You do have spare bed rolls, Woods?”

“Of course, sir.”

And so, we bedded down for the night, my first in the Everfree forest. I will not say we slept, as every unnatural sound, from the creaking of the shack to the screams of the myriad of horrors that forest had to offer kept us unnecessarily alert. I couldn’t help but resent my fellows a bit, in this. After all, if they could stop feeling so much fear, surely I too wouldn’t have had so much distress. I chalked it up to the whims of ponies, but when Shining finally put up his shield, silencing the outside world while bathing us in its soft glow, I couldn’t help feel a bit guilty. We, at least, had the dubious privilege of this shack and Shining’s shield. Poor Meadows, wherever he was, had to do without.

The next morning, I learned that finding a manticore on your doorstep was not the worst thing that could happen to a pony.

Finding half of one is actually more disturbing by far.

A Fibrous Diet

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Waking up in Everfree does make one thankful to be alive, I must admit; some part of me had been certain I would not be waking.. That Shining’s shield still cast a lavender glow over the room was a welcome reassurance, but also a reminder that we were still contained within this very strange forest. Most of the others were already making their morning ablutions to some extent or another, and I hastened to join them. Shining shifted restlessly, but did not rise. My sense of him was muddled through the haze of his magic, and it occurred to me that he could probably lower his defenses now that the sun had returned to the sky. Shaking him brought him out of the apparent trance he’d put himself into, and he groaned miserably and slurred something incoherent but not apparently thankful.

“Rise and shine, soldier. Good idea with the shield, but we need you on your hooves.”

“Sir…. yes shir… sergeant…” The unicorn’s bloodshot eyes flicked open, one after another, as if they had been sealed shut and prying them open was too monumental a task to do all at once. Even Bold winced and shook his head, looking disturbed.

“You look like death warmed over. I thought magic was free or something.”

“No, that’s… it’s a mental discipline. Like walking, for your mind.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Are you alright?”

Here Dank interjected. “He’s burnt. He’s been using magic all night. In his sleep, no less. Point is, almost everypony can walk here and there without getting tired, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require training. Most unicorns just use magic so often that it seems free. Even cheap magic gets tiring after a while.”

The sergeant nodded. “Probably one of the best explanations for it I’ve gotten from a fellow earth pony.”

“Meadows has a few that weaken him so... she had to walk me through that. Can’t overexert too much or magic goes on the fritz. Pretty straightforward.”

“Roger. Shields, drop it.” And with a look of absolute relief, Shining did.

The stench of feral cat and blood overcame us only seconds later. My own panic was thankfully hidden by the panic of… well, just about everyone.

Shining, already shaken and not entirely well, made a gagging sound that was duplicated almost immediately by Bold, which seemed to spur Shining on and so forth. When the mare made something akin to the noise, the sergeant scowled at all of us but was cut off by Dank.

“Oh for Celestia’s sakes, are you all that green? It’s just a little blood, you get used to it-” He threw open the door… and a large portion of a manticore rolled in, having been huddled against the door. The source of the stench of fresh death, now no longer blocked by walls or shield, permeated the building and filled it with the spoor of the big beast. Shining’s shield, apparently enough to prevent us from hearing the commotion outside and the beast from entering… had also made us blissfully unaware of the potential danger and left us blind to whatever had slain the monster. In the meantime, Dank’s own scream at what he originally mistook as an attack likely frightened off anything within a few hundred yards.

We could easily identify that the cause of death was ‘loss of upper body’, as we had only the rear of the beast to study.

“Dear Harmony, it stinks!” Bold groaned, looping a rope around it as he attempted to haul it back out of the shack. “What the hay happened to it, do you think? Where’s the rest of it?”

Dank took one loop of the rope in his mouth and helped get it back into the clearing “‘orest ‘appened. ‘omethin’ ate it.”

“Woods, that much is obvious.”

The dazed pony dropped his rope and shook his head. “No, I mean, look at it. Top half is gone. Ain’t here no more. So, the rest of it, the meaty top half? It’s gone. Meaning something big took it, and look here.” He worked at something in the tear, and a large hunk of something fell free, roughly as long as my foreleg. “That. Is a tooth. You start learning to recognize teeth here. Pretty much everything has teeth. The flowers here have teeth.” He started to tear up. “And Meadows is still out there… Celestia, I’m sorry buddy, I shouldn’t-” And then the wave of misery from the stallion nearly took me from my hooves as he began to collapse.

The mare rushed to his side and checked him over swiftly. “Shock, sir. Think the first time he’s felt safe since whatever happened was with that bubble. I… I don’t think there’s anything we can really do for him here. We need to get him out of here-”

He surged back up, though I wonder if the others knew what it had cost him. There was a glimmer of something in the stallion, a loyalty that was to his credit. He had lost his partner, knew on some level that it was a lost cause… and had not abandoned his post or his friend, to the detriment of his own health and possibly sanity. “Not leaving Merry! My best friend, and he’s not… not himself…” His strength left him, and he fell, barely conscious. The start from discovering the beast, the poor diet, and his recollection of his friend’s situation had been too taxing.

We arranged him back in the shack, and while searching for anything to make him more comfortable, stumbled on a spare suit of armor… and a pouch stuffed with blue flowers. Bold went to move them, only to have the sergeant squawk and slap his hoof away.

“Bigflank, what did I say about blue? Don’t touch that.” He snarled, giving Dank a sharp shove. “Tartarus is this, soldier?!”

“That… that’s Merry’s, sir.”

“I don’t care who it belongs to, you have poison joke, a full spare suit of armor-”

“Sir, some of this armor is for a mare.”

“Who the buck collects poison joke!? Soldier, I want a full report, now-”

“I… oh Harmony, sir, I…” He deflated, looking devastated. “It… it made him happy, sir. It was an accident, at first. He fell in a patch while going for supplies, and… the forest played a trick on him. You know how the others treated Merry. What it sounds like. And… you know...”

“Yes, soldier, I know, but rumors are just-”

“They weren’t rumors, sir. Well. They were, but... look. Merry hated it. And I always thought he just didn’t like being called a mare, but… when he fell into that poison joke… it made him one! Not just looked like one, he was one, he felt like it, smelled like it, and he was… she was happy, sir. We couldn’t just leave…! You guys understand, mare or stallion, Merry is my best friend, and… here it didn’t matter so much. I mean, she was happy, and proud, and she liked herself, sir. And his-her parents, they couldn’t have said anything, bunch of stuck up unicorn prudes, but who can call you a colt-cuddler if you’re a mare!?”

The sergeant stared at him in utter disbelief. “...Recruits. Out. I need to get the rest of this from Dank in private. Anything you heard here never leaves this forest, understood?”

Outside, staring at the remains of the beast before us, the others seemed to treat this new information as some sort of revelation. I, on the other hand, didn’t quite see what had been revealed. Or why it was worth noting at all, for that matter. It was, I decided, A Pony Thing.

“So… those flowers turned Merry Meadows into… what, Mare-y Meadows?”

Shining grunted. “That… that seems to have been the ‘joke’, yeah.”

Bold scuffed his hoof in the dirt firmly, as if trying to clean something off of it. “So why keep the junk? Wispy?”

“Because, you big idiot, those two were best friends.”

“Yeah, so?”

She closed her eyes, hung her head, and muttered with a groan. “Stallions.” She then gave him a piercing glare that I was quite glad not to be on the receiving end of. “Look, go move something heavy for a while, you’ll feel better. Armor, why don’t you help him?” The two looked at each other in confusion, then shrugged, taking it upon themselves to begin hauling the carcass away. I cursed my luck; there was still a bit of eating there. I’d find it later. “Come on, Hooves, let’s do a once-over. Place gives me the heebiejeebies.”

“The whats?” I pondered, and she blushed instead of responding, radiating embarrassment.

“Yeah yeah, laugh it up. Everything about this place feels off. I mean, look! There are two cumulonimbus clouds going in opposite directions, and then spiraling. It’s like there are two tornadoes that keep each other in check, but they’d have to be large and I don’t see anything else that would suggest any of that. Flying around this place would be a nightmare.”

“I shall endeavor to keep my hooves firmly on the ground.”

She gave me a pitying look, mixed with a bit of hurt. “Hey, I’m only trying to help distract you. I heard the marefriend thing. I’m sorry about that.”

“You’re… sorry?”

She kicked a small rock over an embankment. The pebble hit the water and skipped twice before plunking in. She gave it a puzzled look, then sidled away from the edge, continuing to walk away from the camp. “Yyyyeah. I mean, you’re always following him around. Pretty obvious, really. Kind of a jerk thing for him to just throw it in your face like that.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “And here I thought all the pretty ones were… well, like you. Turns out that one’s just taken.”

“Like me?” I was a little startled. My form had never been called ‘pretty’ to my knowledge. Perhaps Topaz had designed it to be attractive. I’d have to ask her later. I faltered, looking for the appropriate response. ‘Thank you’ seemed woefully inadequate.

“Yeah, but you know what? There are plenty of other fish in the sea. Lots and lots, and you’re still young! Can’t let yourself get discouraged, am I right?”

I’d lost track of this conversation entirely, and wondered if I had drifted off. “Oh, certainly. A great many.”

“And let’s be honest, there are tons of nice stallions out there just waiting for the right pony.”

These compliments were very oddly phrased, but I thought I understood the style. “There are also plenty of nice mares as well.”

She blinked, then looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. “...Oh. Oh! You’re… oh. So there’s even more fish for you!” She laughed. “Well hay, you’ve got a better outlook than I would have after all that.” She lightly cuffed me with a hoof. “Just keep that stiff upper lip. Things will work out, I promise.”

“Indeed.” I agreed, hesitantly. Was she losing track of this conversation? Why were we discussing fish again?

She cleared her throat, then gave a look back at the cabin. “Shame about Merry and Dank. Sounds like they were close.” She put odd emphasis on the last word.

“It does seem so. It was good that Dank kept an eye on his friend while under the influence of those strange flowers.”

“I just want to know what went wrong all of a sudden-Ow, thorns, look out!” She pushed me off to the side away from the bush, then scowled at the drop of blood welling on her leg just above her hoof. And then held it in front of her face, staring for a long time. “...Weeks.”

There was a crash at the cabin, and we rushed back to find Armor and Bold standing by a large ditch with a felled tree blocking the opening. The manticore, from the muddy trail, was now buried, if inexpertly.

The sergeant and a skittish looking Dank Woods were already out, and the sergeant looked to be building himself up to a tirade.

“SIR!” Wispy saluted firmly. “I would like to ask Specialist Woods about the situation in the forest, sir!”

The decorated stallion deflated, if grudgingly. “I don’t see why, the forest went mad, Merry is gone.”

“Then it won’t hurt to ask.” She tried for respectful, but the tone sounded eager. “How long was Merry a… well, mare. Without turning back?”

“Recruit, that’s hardly relevant.”

“About a month, but yeah, I don’t-”

“Started being a little moody, wasn’t feeling well?”

Dank started. “Well. Yeah, actually. She thought she had a bit of the flu starting. And that’s when everything started going to hell. She was scared about something and then things started coming right up to the door.”

The sergeant looked impressed. “You think you know something, Wisp?”

“Sir. Predators are attracted to blood, sir.” I nodded at her words, it was common knowledge, after all. Ponies, not being predators, should be more aware of that fact, I thought.


She stared at him. Then blinked slowly, meaningfully.

Bold was the first to react. “Oh come on. You gotta be yanking my tail! It was just a flower, he was… he wasn’t actually-”

She spun on him. “We don’t know that! And it's as good an answer for why they started coming here as anything else. It’s nothing Woods did, and Meadows might not have known better.”

Shining cut in. “So they followed the scent here… to hunt. And that means…”

It was my turn. “Territorial disputes. Predators dislike other creatures hunting the same prey as themselves.”

“Doesn’t explain the manticore, though...”

“Sure does.” Bold grumbled. “It came here looking for something to eat, and something ate it. I don’t know how much more simplistic that can get.”

“I meant that it doesn’t tell us why it’s half-gone-” The underbrush rustled, and we all grouped together in a defensive formation. Dank, perhaps showing more wisdom than the rest of us, took the rear.

My estimation of him dropped dramatically when he, upon seeing a timberwolf lope out of the brush, went around us to embrace the growling monstrosity. “Moony! Harmony, it’s good to see you, where have you been?”

It was the sergeant who voiced our confusion. “The buck are you doing now? Soldier, please tell me you haven’t taken in a wild animal…”

“Well, er… technically… he’s Merry’s. I mean, kind of.” The creature seemed… tolerant of the embrace, but I had seen pets with their owners and this was not a creature that seemed to enjoy this sort of affection. It pulled away from the embrace with a bit of a growl, hackles rising as it eyed us.

It was, I realized, a battle-scarred old brute. Lines of growth and regrowth crisscrossed over its timbers, and much of its hide appeared to be overgrown with moss instead of leaves. The pronounced limp and what appeared to be recent damage suggested that the creature had been in some sort of fight recently.

More importantly, when those yellow eyes fell upon me, I became acutely aware that it did not like me, as evidenced by the deepening of its growling and the aggressive lowering into a stance for a charge. Dank giving it a corrective pat on the snout only seemed to include him in the beast’s ire, and he quickly backed away.

“Heh… Moonshadow here… uh… always sort of preferred Merry. She was the one who gave him treats...”

“So… what are the other ones named?” Wispy asked, eyes flicking around us into the forest.

“Oh, there aren’t any others, Merry figures this guy is the only member of his pack, there’s not enough prey around here to support a large-”

Two more of the beasts stepped out of the other side. It was like looking at a different set of creatures entirely. They were larger and of a different color of wood, true, but they had a gaunt look to them, and their eyes glowed in a fashion that seemed more sickly than angry. The elder wolf snarled at them, interposing himself between us. He began backing away as two more slunk in from the forest’s edge… and his tail began to go down as a quartet joined those. Woods was edging towards the cabin, but a firm shake from our sergeant stopped him.

“Can’t hold up in there. Too many. Can that one hold them off?”

“Sir, they’re probably after the manticore. Scavenging maybe?”

“That doesn’t make sense, they’re pack hunters, they don’t fight over prey like this, and a pack that size wouldn’t just suddenly range this far out of their own territory, that’s not how they-”

Another wolf, unseen to us until it decided to attack, charged… and had its jaws caught by a furiously terrified Bold Bigflank, who, with a scream of agreement, pivoted, wrapped his hooves around the monster’s throat, and proceeded to slam its head off the downed tree of the manticore’s grave. “THAT’S RIGHT, BUCKING BRING IT!” He roared, before flinging the dazed wolf into its pack, bowling over a pair as Moonshadow seemed to take his own chance to attack, leaping onto one of the larger wolves with great spurts of sap as they bit and clawed one another. One leapt for Shining, whose shield burst into existence, shrank almost to his body size with the confused beast astride the orb before it very suddenly expanded to fullsize, sending the creature through the air with a startled yelp.

Wispy dodged her own with grace only a pegasus could achieve, rolling and diving past them with uncanny speed, but served as more distraction than detriment to the creatures. Even shod with armor, she was incapable of leaving lasting damage any more than that the rest of us, and my own magic was poorly suited for combat against so many foes; I would likely expire before they did, to no lasting effect for my comrades.

Dank, on the other hoof, showed again his mettle, bringing forth some sort of rod with a crystal on it from his armor, which, upon shattering, lit the end of the rod with a spitting white flame. He jabbed it into one of the wolves circling Moonshadow, and its flank burst into orange fire as it howled in agony, but cost him the weapon. Another rod made an appearance, and he regrouped with the rest of us, panting with exhilaration.

“We’re outmanned and not well-enough armed for this, recruits. We retreat before this gets any worse. Woods, ideas?”

“Pack hunters, sir. If we run, they’ll chase us. If we split up, they’ll go for the easiest target. Most likely the smallest of us.”

“That would be me, sir!” Wispy asserted. “I could stay to the ground to get them after me, and take to the air after luring them off.”

“Can’t! Hard to see, but there’s… things in the trees, too. Spiders. Seen them catch hawks. An eagle, once. You fly into one and it’s over. We all make a break for it, if we’re lucky, they’ll stay for the manticore. We might be too much trouble.”

The sergeant gave a sharp nod. “Wispy Nimbus, your orders are to fly from here, get the others, and tell them to prepare more magnesium flares.”

“Sir, I’m not leaving you-”

“That is an order, recruit! We need extraction, not backtalk! GO!” And with that, our number dropped by one as Wispy Nimbus took to the sky, flying low over the trees.

“Sir. There’s practically no chance of an extraction team getting here in time.” Dank noted, sounding disturbed and certain.

“Better than losing all of my recruits, soldier. Better they get ready to deal with a bunch of poneaters before they leave the forest. Get ready to break for the cabin on my command. Hooves, Shields, I want the two of you making a light show. Shock and awe, burn if you have to. Keep them back as long as you can and-”

I have never been a good judge of pegasus flying talent. I have always considered myself a changeling who would prefer his hooves on the ground, and good solid stone above him.

So when I say that the skills exhibited by one Wispy Nimbus were nothing short of awe-inspiring when she changed directions in mid-flight to avoid the gaping jaws of a wolf that more resembled an Ursa in size, I do not not know that I do her justice. I do not know that flying in and out of the creature’s maw in rapid succession is a credit to her skill or her desperation, but I am fully aware that when the monstrosity landed on and subsequently through the ramshackle guard outpost, she was flying with most befitting haste. Nonetheless, I believe I may have thought poorly of her for causing our flimsy shelter to be utterly destroyed, and for that I apologize.

At the time, however, I was some hundred yards from a predator whose head was larger than the entirety of any other timberwolf I had ever heard of, and it was looking directly at us. And it was very, very hungry. I could sense that emotion even from the bestial mind before me, so raw and focused that it left me staggered and dizzy from the shared sensation before I could block it. When the beast lunged, I was so fixated upon the massive teeth that it only occurred to me a moment before they closed how pink they suddenly became.

Shining’s shield held, however, and the beast hefted us both into the air, rattling us violently around inside the orb as is tried to pierce the improvised magical structure, worrying it with shakes of the enormous lupine head. Thankfully, Shining’s maintained composure did him great credit, and though the shield developed an enormous crack with a sound like breaking glass, his only response was a low groan of pain.

When the beast released our protective enclosure, our composure may have slipped. Shining’s shield was, after all, not designed for flying over trees. And, though he had the presence of mind to make it somewhat flexible, this only led to our crashing through and off of more of them with all the force of those strange mottled balls I had seen foals kicking about. I made the rather poor choice of clinging to the inner surface to try to control my tumbling, and learned that, if the shield sphere is mobile, that means it is rolling. I proceeded to lose all form of balance and spatial awareness as I very rapidly orbited our means of defense in a most undignified manner. Thankfully, Shining was in no better shape to witness my humiliation.

We rolled to a stop at the edge of an embankment underneath a thick layer of cover, momentarily safe. Shining looked dazedly around, his horn lighting to reveal little of the forest and certainly not enough for us to retrieve our bearings. I, unfortunately, was treated to a spectacular view of the canyon and river below our precarious perch.

“That… that wasn’t so bad.” Shining tried, sounding as nauseous as I felt. “Wait, what’s that?”

A small orb flitted out of trees, hovering just outside the bubble. It was… cute, I suppose. Familiar… “Topaz has several of them in her collection. I believe… they are called ‘Parasprites’?"

Entranced by the light, the small insect flitted towards us, bumping into Shining’s shield.

Ground shifted beneath us.

“I hate it.” Shining announced. As we fell, I shared the sentiment with every fiber of my being.

Neither of us were functionally aware of our surroundings when we finally came to a complete halt, battered and bruised, and myself with a deep ache as the damage to my back again announced its presence. Our shield-turned-boat was tossed upon the shore by the rapids, and at that point, Shining finally lost his composure, and I was deposited face first into the mud.

I had never been happier to feel soil in my mouth or nostrils. It was an enlightening experience. I also swore never to be a pegasus for any reason.

“Sorry.” Shining mumbled, sinking slowly in from his position on his back.

I staggered to my hooves. “It… is nothing. We are alive.”

“That might be the worst news I’ve ever heard.” He groaned, shifting and trying to right himself with little success. “Help…?” I wrapped a forehoof around his own flailing one, and pulled him free with a sucking sound. We were both absolutely covered. He looked around. “Celestia. Where are we?”

“Judging from my extensive knowledge of geography, Everfree Forest.” I reminded him, sourly.

“...We’re totally lost, aren’t we?”

“Unquestionably.” I began slogging through the knee-deep mud, and Shining trailed after me. “The others?”

“Only had time to put a shield around you and me. I hope they’re okay.” We’d gotten no farther than the edge of the mud when he sat down, heavily. “Holy buck. Cady’s going to kill me. And then she’s going to break up with me.”

“On the positive side, you’ll be dead.” I offered. “You won’t feel a thing.” I chose not to wonder what she was going to break. Or why this pony would break anything after his death. “Beyond that, ‘Cady’ may not have the chance to do either. We’re still here.”

A snort escaped him, and he pushed back his hair, forcing a smile he didn’t feel. “Right. Right, other problems right now.” He looked up the cliff face. “...We aren’t climbing that. We need… a clearing. Somewhere to set a fire, get somepony to find us. So… I guess… we head back?” He pulled a sheaf of crumpled parchment from his saddlebag and a stick of something from a side pouch. To my interest, he very soon had a passable sketch of our surroundings, were they to be viewed from above. On another, he sketched something I could only vaguely recognize, which he then informed me was the trail we’d followed to find the outpost. I was respectfully impressed. “So. What we need to do. Is determine where ‘here’ is in relation to ‘there’.” After a moment, he drew a very straight line from the outpost. “Our probable flight path, I think. Few hundred yards in the air, but we slid over the treetops for a while after that, and…. with the hills and water…” He sketched again, this time perpendicular to the first line. “We’ll have to follow the water upstream. Try to find where we fell, and climb back up if we can. After that, due west. If… if we’re lucky, we can make it back by nightfall. If not…” He rolled up the map. “Ready?”

I did not relish the idea of marching back towards predators. But the idea of travelling deeper… possibly deeper, I realized with dismay, into the forest held no greater appeal. “Lead on, Armor.”

It was slow going. One side of the river or the other would be impassable, and we would have to travel back to safer crossing. I could have left my pony form, but with my injuries, I doubted flight was wise. There was enough trouble without those questions.

Shining and I attempted to eat what little rations we had, but decided we would have to do a bit of grazing of our own to supplement our diet. I found a pair of the small brightly-colored parasprites and felt no remorse at their fate. They were actually quite to my liking, in fact. I wondered if it would be possible to collect them for later consumption.

Dusk was falling as Shining and I completed our ascent to the position where we believed the second part of our journey had begun. Disappointingly, the parasprite that had so helpfully taught Shining of his ability to create a life raft was nowhere to be seen. Still, our mood brightened as we found a rock formation that would enable us to shelter from the night, hopefully with only one entrance to guard.

Finding a guard chestplate, covered in blood and sap, did not, however, inspire confidence in our newly discovered stronghold.

The first set of eyes appeared shortly thereafter. The monstrous wolf, slinking through trees only moderately larger than itself, growled, and the musty, earthy scent of the cave took on new meaning. New, hideous meaning. We had not found shelter.

We had found a den.

The den was not deep. The sheer amount of bones deeper within attested to our foolishness. The beast snarled, slashing again at Shining’s shield. The scores vanished in an instant, but the cost to my companion was great. Every blow staggered him, and I could see that the time between the beast testing his defense was growing shorter even as his need to recover grew. Defense was proving inadequate to our survival.

Once, Shining’s shield faltered, and it was only a burst of my own magic that startled the beast into halting, though did little more than cut a shallow groove into it.

“I think... “ Shining groaned. “You’re… going to have to hit it harder. Split it, maybe?” He nodded grimly. “Try… try right in the head.”

I nodded, drawing energy for the attack, pulling at the behemoth’s own fury to power the attack. It took minutes, minutes for Shining to upkeep the shield, and distract the creature.

When I finally told him to drop his defense, it sprang for us, and this time I was ready. The blast of magic sent me tumbling backwards, but Shining’s cheer told me that we had been successful. Blinking spots from my eyes, I beheld glorious sight; I had splintered the beast’s head, and it lay in a heap, limbs tossed about by the force of the blow. I may have preened a little. One does not fell such a creature without a bit of pride. Shining’s whoop and clapping a hoof on my back in congratulations was one of the finest sharings of emotion I had ever felt.

It was incredibly unfair, I think, that the beast did not have the decency to actually be dead. The whisper of wind became a rustling of leaves, branches dragging together became a clattering as they reattached, and a horrible mossy lump of something levitated into the torso as baleful eyes again lit within a snarling, newly scarred skull, and the nightmare began anew.

Renewed terror kept Shining’s shield strong at first. “Night! What the hay do we do now!?”

“Fire?” I offered, remembering our training.

“We’re covered in mud, it’s wet here, and you don’t set things on fire in Everfree! If there’s a search party, they might get caught in it.” Resignation began to flavor his words as his shield began to crack. “How many more of those do you have in you? Can we make a run for it?”

“Ah.” I did a rough estimate. “Two. No more than three.” I considered. “It has been an honor.”

“Oh shut up, we are not dying here. Not like this. I am not dying to an angry piece of rotten kindling.” The wolf snarled and scrabbled at the shield. “WE BUILD HOUSES OUT OF YOU!”

“Shining. Calm down. It is undignified.” I settled myself down, taking some of his fury and adjusting it to be more useful for my own efforts. I wondered if I could set the inside of it ablaze. Sap still streamed down its muzzle from the damage I’d done the first time; it was unlikely to light. “Shield, please.” He dropped his defense and I smashed the creature down a second time. It took longer to rise, I decided. Whole minutes, this time. If that increase held, we would be able to run for perhaps five whole minutes before it consumed the first of us, and the other would likely have that long again before they joined.

“When we get through this. I am going to practice this thing… until I can make a shield you could fit a castle in… and hold off an army!” He swore, furiously. “Going to have a big fireplace… in a nice house.. and it’s all going to be made of wood! You aren’t going to eat me you overgrown shrub!”

Something clicked from our training. “Shining. How… devoutly vegan, are you?”

Shining blinked, his tirade forgotten. Exhaustion was setting in. “I… well, not, really. Vegetarian. Vegans don’t drink milk or eat eggs, you know.” He frowned. “Is… this really the time to be discussing my life choices?”

“As good a time as any. It is really a matter of your viewpoint and morality.”

Shining stared at me. Then his eyes widened. “...I don’t think I like where this is going.”

“It is a plant, sir.”

“It’s a giant carnivorous plant, Idol!”

“Better it than us. Do you have a better plan?”

This is not a plan! How in the buck do you suggest we eat a timberwolf!?”

“In truth, I am not sure. I believe if we destroy the head or consume… I believe that large mass was the heart, it would be enough to stop it from consuming us.”

This is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas!” Shining screamed, and the reformed beast flung itself towards us again, and the shattering of Shining’s shield and my final blast of magic lit the den.

“That,” I stated firmly, “-was a trial.”

“I feel like a monster.” Shining managed, chewing morosely. He swallowed.

“Because we slew a beast that had developed a taste for pony, attacked guards, and is likely the murderer of one of our own?” I tried, hoping to ease his conflicted emotions.

“Well… no, I’m… kind of okay with that.” He licked his lips. “I… kind of want seconds.”

“Ahh.” I cleaned a twig out of my own teeth. It had been… not quite like meat, but a very meat-like vegetable, perhaps. With the texture of wood, I decided, but the flavor was almost right. “To each his own, I suppose.”

“...We never speak of this. Never not ever. Okay?”

“You have my word.” I promised, easily. He extended a hoof, and I took it with a firm shake. It would be too difficult to explain, regardless.

Our improvised dinner had been interrupted only once. One of the smaller timberwolves had appeared, but kept its distance, actually crawling forward on its belly towards us until Shining grabbed a fallen limb (part of the large wolf’s leg, I believe) and flung it towards it. The beast fled with a yelp, and we had been left to our own devices after. It had taken a great deal of effort to start a fire, but several of the limbs of the beast had been dry, and now that it was dead the sap seemed to leak rapidly from it, leaving wood that burned merrily. More disturbing, it had a number of other types of wood inside it. Shining came to the conclusion that, out of desperation, this one had taken to consuming its own kind. It was simply too big for the ecosystem it resided within. A shame, really. Perhaps not even the creature’s own fault. Oddly, the feeling of maliciousness had lifted, and the forest felt more… welcoming. Almost pleased, and the rest of the night was spent in surprisingly good cheer.

Regardless, when Wispy flew overhead trailing red smoke in the early hours of the morning, we were overjoyed. At Shining’s insistence, we strapped the head as a makeshift sled and began dragging the remains of the beast with us towards the outskirts of the forest and safety.

To our immense shock, we were outside in less than an hour’s brisk walk, beating even Wispy, though she demanded we explain how we had both lost her and beaten her back while dragging anything, let alone that. Personally, I think the forest’s maliciousness had been sated, or perhaps it had grown bored with us. Regardless, I was glad to be free of it.

Our companions had been largely ignored by the beasts, who had all been immediately entranced by the flying pink orb that their larger number had cast deeper into the forest, and were largely unharmed as they fled. Dank’s timberwolf had, upon the arrival of the first, seized him by the leg and fled into the forest with him; the limb was dislocated, but he would live. His grief when Shining revealed the shattered armor was a personal thing, and I will share no more of it.

Our homecoming was, all things considered, a somber thing. Bold clapped each of us with a hoof, seemed marvelously impressed, and told Shining he had more guts than he’d given him credit for. The two laughed, and for once, there seemed to be no tension between them. The Outpost was left as lost, and the guard decided to instead monitor the edges of Everfree for the foreseeable future to determine if it was, in fact, moving again.

But it was in returning to Canterlot that the real show began.

Military Cadance

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Our march back to Canterlot was an interesting thing. The other recruits looked to myself and Shining Armor with a great deal of surprise and wonder, though quite obviously his own efforts with the shield had been of far greater import than my random attacks. Any unicorn of sufficient strength could have filled my role with ease. Several of our number seemed to find that ludicrous, but my adamance seemed to convince them by the time we arrived at our barracks. By the time the story circulated around to the rest, I was almost an afterthought, having been part of the fighting but of lesser import than Wispy and Bold, who had managed to rescue one Dank Woods from Everfree with the help of a friendly timberwolf. Merry Meadows was officially missing in action, presumed dead. Unfortunately, the bloody chestplate we found was not legally enough to be considered remains, and there was no means to gather more, Merry’s status would be in flux for at least several years.

I found the concept disturbing. A missing drone was a dead drone. If they returned, they would be set back to work and the hive would find itself with a small surplus of labor for a period of time, as the Queen controlled our numbers stringently. But... it was the nature of ponies to grieve such events. I watched Dank with some concern, but any attempt to soothe his emotions was for naught; they were too confused, too convoluted and self-sustaining. He felt like less of a pony, as though something had been torn from him, and though I could not understand it, I reasoned that it was as though they were a hive of two all of their lives, and now he was alone.

In truth, I think he handled the situation better than I would have. My respect for him grew, though I understood he took a leave of absence. Shining explained that such trauma could ruin a pony; Dank’s recovery would be slow and he would need a lot of support. I fervently hope he received it.

In the days that followed, the four of us that had gone into the forest found ourselves something of a spectacle, to my chagrin. Our education was coming to an end, it seemed, and most of our training now was purely physical, and I found that being rattled around in a glowing ball of condensed force had left a spiderweb of shallow mostly-harmless cracks in my shell now that I had the opportunity to truly feel the minor injuries. Still, every stretch and flex seemed to bring about well-earned pain, and I took some pride in that I could continue to ignore it even as the others compared their bruises with good humor. Shining regaled the others with how Bold had ‘grabbed a timberwolf by the jaws like a wrestler, screamed in its face and given it a ‘piledriver’ into a fallen tree’, which… seemed accurate but at the same time embellished, and Order knew what a ‘piledriver’ was. Bold countered that Shining had leapt into the mouth of the giant timberwolf when it attempted to eat me, plugged its mouth with a shield, and nearly suffocated the monster as it flailed its head around, with some cry of ‘choke on it’ that made the other soldiers laugh uproariously. I had heard no such battlecry, but reasoned that I had almost certainly not been paying attention.

All that aside, I was quite looking forward to relaxing in my native form as we prepared to leave when we were ordered to form up for a surprise inspection. This was not an uncommon occurrence, though it had happened less and less often as training went on and we began to meet the sergeant’s demands. I had nearly been apoplectic when during one such barracks inspection my rack had been found wanting and therefore overturned. Shining warned me that it was likely nothing I’d done, merely meant to keep me on the tips of my hooves, but I recognized my failure and sought to rectify it with greater efforts. Shining attempted to point out that the intention was uniformity, not perfection.

I decided that one day he would understand that the goal should be uniform perfection.

Still, I was reasonably confident that we would pass a parade inspection in full gear, regardless of the myriad of dents to ourselves and our armor. The armorer would repair the worst of the damage over the weekend and it would be our duty to refine his work during the following training. Not ideal for an inspection, but supposedly acceptable in the situation.

And then power incarnate walked onto the parade grounds.

I am incapable of expressing what I saw, what I experienced. This was no simple being, no sentient creature of mere physical flesh and bone. Celestia, praise her, is many things, powerful, beautiful, and wise, but even at her strongest, I am able to look upon her.

When Princess Cadance first stood before me and was introduced, I knew the truth of how insignificant I truly am. This was no mere sunny warmth from Celestia, it was a molten inferno of raw, unimaginable might. Power poured forth from her like a tsunami, and it was all I could do to weather the storm that was she. My body hurt from the pressure around it, and none of the others so much as noticed. When I was told she would be performing this surprise inspection to allow her to choose two ponies to have the privilege of escorting her around Canterlot for the day, I knew terror. I would be found wanting, must be found wanting, and had never had any right to stand in her presence. I was no warrior drone, no defender of the realm by blood, and-

She stopped beside me, staring at Shining Armor imperiously. Amusement wafted from him. Amusement. He’d been driven mad by her presence. I would attempt to put his mind together again later, when it would not displease her or draw her attention.

“You. And you.” Her rosy hoof lifted at Shining, and then myself. Ah. We were clearly inadequate, and to be destroyed. I wondered if I could will myself to death so as not to further upset her. Perhaps he had known we would fail, and sought to meet his doom with a smile. I tried my own, but it felt weak and foolish. “The two of you will do.” She started off, and Shining took a single step backwards, leaving formation gracefully, and I endeavored to do the same, now utterly and completely confused. How could we of all ponies be worthy of… she had surely heard of the slaying of the timberwolf, perhaps had been misled, we could not-

I marched resolutely alongside her and just behind and to her left, mirroring Shining armor on her right, mind ablaze with how to correct all of this. I would serve as well as I could, and perhaps she would show mercy.

As such, it was with great consternation that I froze when she spun on Shining as soon as we walked into an empty hallway and proceeded to try to consume his head.

To my despair, he was attempting the same. I wondered briefly if I should assist one of them.

It only made me even more stunned and horrified when I realized the sounds they were making were entirely inappropriate before she shoved him away, nearly tipping him over. He had the audacity to grin at her.

“The hay were you thinking, Shining! You promised you wouldn’t go into Everfree, do you have any idea how scared I was? Do you have any idea how mad I am?!”

“Well, I might. I think you bit my tongue, Cady. What was with the inspection thing? I thought you said you didn’t like doing that?” My breath caught at his familiarity. He had shortened her name! It was… I had trusted his judgement! This could not be allowed to stand!

She huffed. “I don’t, usually, but my coltfriend doesn’t usually get himself into trouble and kill giant monsters against my orders. You promised!”

“Oh, come on Cady, I told them you said I wasn’t allowed-”

“Don’t give me that-”

“He did.” I finally interjected very quietly, horrified that I was interrupting this divine being. I cleared my throat, trying to speak with the deference she deserved even as my mind reeled from these new discoveries. “Specifically said that you wouldn’t allow it.” My own audacity was horrifying. I had defended my… squadmate, and this was good, but… against his Queen! Order, perhaps the timberwolves had shaken something loose within me.

Her glare cut at me, and it felt like my armor was being pared away by the intensity of it, but then she laughed, and the music that came with it was havoc on my senses. “I bet he told them exactly that, too.” She looked me up and down. “...You must be Idol Hooves. Shining’s told me all about you.” My ichor felt as though it had turned solid. What had Shining said of me, what- Her forelegs wrapped around my neck and I obligingly stretched it, allowing myself to be strangled. She was doing so gently, and so instead I held my breath. It was entirely inappropriate for me to force this divine being to work on my behalf, after all.

“Hey!” Shining cried in alarm. “What the hay?” Compassion from Princess Cadance flowed into me, and I was intensely aware of how incredibly concerned for Shining she had truly been. I had, according to some stories, kept him alive. My concern spread to the fact that I’d never held so much of the emotion in my entire life. My shell felt as though I were long overdue for a molt and I wondered if it was possible that I could simply burst under the strain.

“I’m sure he’s kept your tail out of trouble, and for that he gets a hug. Also I’m hugging him so I don’t strangle you. I have a lot of emotions right now and I’m trying to sort through them. So you told them I had forbidden you from going into Everfree. Did you even mention who I was?”

“It’s not my fault they didn’t verify the orders were from a higher authority.” He gave a small sigh. “But you know how this has to work, Cadance.” He shifted restlessly, just a touch of jealousy wafting our way.

She pouted, and I was forced to question what madness allowed him to deny her anything. “No, I don’t. Auntie even said I could just declare you my captain and that was my right. You don’t have to do this.” Her forelegs tightened around me, forcing my head into her chest. I stared resolutely at Shining and tried very hard not to think.

“I bet she said it’s ‘technically’ your right.” Shining snickered, bizarrely immune to her expression. Strangely, I was the recipient of his distress. “Come on, Cady, you hate it when ponies just do whatever you tell them too. I need to earn this. And quit hugging Idol, that’s not fair, I’m being reasonable here! If everypony only does what I tell them because I have your authority, then I only have authority when you’re around!”

“Well... maybe I want you around all the time.”

“And I want to protect you. And Equestria. And I don’t want to be some… trophy stallion.”

“Well, I would like to have you mounted…” She blinked, then blushed, seeming to recall my presence and quickly pushing me away. “Forgive me, Mr. Hooves, that was… very inappropriate of me.”

“You are the princess and determine what is and is not inappropriate. I need only acquiesce to those whims.” I tried to parse what I’d been able to understand of those statements… he was in clear disobedience to her, and oddly she… approved?

Princess Cadance slowly tilted her head, eyeing me with clear bemusement. “Is he always like this?”

“More often than not, yeah. It’s nice, right? Blunt like getting kicked in the head.”

“We should keep him.” She stated cheerfully, clapping her hooves together.

“Keep me where, your majesty?”

“Please, call me Cadance. I think after what you’ve been through with Shiny, you can drop the formality.”

Call her Cadance. Drop the formality. She was Princess Cadance. Formality. A princess of Equestria. Call her Cadance. Formality. I was a drone. So far beneath her that I should not have had the right to speak to her without first being addressed, and to speak to her so rudely…!

Shining blinked, giving me a shake. “Idol, are you alright? Tartarus, it’s not that big of a deal!”

In a strangled voice, I managed. “I… do not think… I can do that. It would be… unworthy.”

“Well, I think it’s absolutely fine. You’ve earned it.” She looked to Shining with confusion. My distress was upsetting her. This only made the distress increase.

“Maybe… only in private. You should keep calling her Princess in public. Same as I do.” Princess Cadance nodded.

That seemed far more reasonable, and I felt myself begin to relax. “Yes, sir.” I swallowed, my mouth surprisingly dry. I could obey that, I thought. She… wanted to be insulted, perhaps? I could think of no other reason I should sully her name so. It… pleased her to be treated unpleasantly? No, that was unreasonable. Was it? Ponies were crazy, after all...

“Or even just Cady.” She offered, hopefully. I decided I would never call her such to her face. I would… attempt to refer to her as such with Shining Armor, but doing more would be too great a sin.

“Ah… Yes… Cadance. I shall endeavor to do so.”

She stared at me, and I managed to resist the urge to fidget under her glare. I still felt too much energy within my shell from our brief contact, and I would have to do something about that. I had to admit though… it felt rather nice. My aches and pains had faded to nothing after she had released me, and I wondered if I would even be able to see traces of those cracks upon my shell.

“...Eh. It’s a start. Now. Shining. I want to know what happened in that forest. No exaggeration, no embellishment. I just… want to know if you’re alright.”

Shining gave me a look, then nodded slowly, and I found myself mimicking the gesture. “Alright. Truth, and nothing but.” He bit his lip for a moment. “We went in to check on a guard post. One guard was a little disturbed, and the other was missing. We spent the night, intent on looking for the missing guard in the morning if possible. After that, found a dead manticore outside, buried it, timber wolves started showing up, we fought. A… larger one showed up, came after me and Idol, they all got distracted by my shield, and everyone escaped into the woods. We found its lair by mistake while looking for shelter, and we killed it in self defense when it showed up. The others backed off and we were safe until the next morning.”

A very succinct telling, I decided. I nodded my agreement.

“Well… that doesn’t… sound too bad… was it, though?”

Shining scoffed. “Nahhhh, it was really nothing. Soldier talk, you know, make it sound like a big deal.” He noticed her eyes narrowing slightly. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was more dangerous than I liked. Rather not go anywhere near Everfree again if I can help it. Right Idol?”

“Only if ordered, sir. And… reluctantly, at that.” I admitted.

She seemed mollified. “Well. Alright. But no heroics!” She waved a hoof at him. “If you die, I’ll kill you, and then I’ll be a necromancer and a murderess, so where would that leave us?”

“...A graveyard?” I offered, hesitantly. That was where necromancers traditionally did their rituals, Shining had explained. Though, it would be more convenient for putting him in the ‘grave’ again, I supposed.

“A coliseum is more likely.” Shining admitted. “It’s like a fancy indoor graveyard.”

“A mausoleum is not a fanc- it’s more complicated than that, it-” Cadance began, and I began to relax as she smiled, seemingly exasperated.

Somehow, he had won this entity’s favor. And serving him had in fact earned her favor for myself as well. I pondered this, understanding most of what was being said was not intended for me.

“-and you’d know that if you paid more attention. Honestly, what sort of paladin doesn’t know the difference between a mausoleum and a coliseum-”

“And I’m not sure what sort of ranger pays so much attention to the dark arts. You’re getting an alignment shift next time we play, I’m telling you right now.”

“Oh no, no GMing off-table!”

And, I was also reasonably sure, it was in some sort of personal code.

“You do still owe me for Everfree. You did promise.”

“Aw, Cady, come on-” He lolled his head from side to side, rolling his eyes comically. “I told you-”

“No buts! You… are coming with me to the Grand Galloping Gala this year.” She lifted her nose into the air as she walked, a pristine example of grace, I decided.

Shining only blinked, having missed a step in his concern. “...Oh. Well that’s not so bad.”

Cadance sucked in a breath through her upturned nose, coughed, and then started laughing. There was pure, wicked joy in the tone. Ohhh, poor foolish Shining. Even I knew better than to tempt fate like that.

Hot Dam

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Our escort mission ended up being postponed, to my reluctant relief. Princess Cadance admitted that she was not quite feeling up to trotting around Canterlot, and would prefer a day in instead. I cautiously disagreed with the initial idea that one guard would suffice in that regard, but Shining was able to convince me, with an odd amount of exasperation, that staying within the castle would mean Princess Cadance would have dozens of guards at her side in a moment’s notice. I admitted that Shining was probably the best protector she could probably have, regardless, and took my leave. Why that pleased him so much, I cannot begin to guess; he was performing a duty he had been trained for and would do it well. Otherwise was unthinkable. Besides, I had been the beneficiary of his shields and had found them to be more than satisfactory.

The rest of my training unit had already been dismissed by this time. Apparently our parade formation had been used for the week’s final one. Unfortunately for myself, the armorer was no longer on duty either. I would have to return my gear in the morning to finish the repairs, or likely deal with an ill-fitting suit of armor for the next week, which was absolutely unacceptable. In the meantime, I would simply make minor adjustments to my shell so that it fit more appropriately.

I suppose I could have simply waited for his replacement to arrive in the next hour or so or for him to return from his dinner, but that would be horribly impolite to Topaz. We did, after all, tend to eat the last meal of the day together if I returned from training early enough. She took great enjoyment in my comparisons of life in the Hive to life as a trainee of the royal guard, and I found that I also found pleasure in the retelling of the events. Of course, that required me to arrive relatively soon. The armorer could work on Bold and Wispy’s gear. Shining and I would likely not turn ours in until the following morning.

That brought me to a pause. I had promised not to tell anyone what had happened in Everfree. I considered this as other ponies heading home for the day strolled by, one with a rather irritated grunt at the ‘new guard post’, which I realized was most likely meant as an insult to keep me mobile. It was fair enough, though the concept intrigued me. Was the ‘post’ in guard post meant to signify the order, the position, or simply that the guards themselves would be an immovable object in the way of an invading force? I rather liked that last idea.

I was still considering what information I could relay to Topaz when I approached the door to her house. Not telling her was still an option. The means of dealing with the timberwolf had not even been relayed to Princess Cadance. And that was another issue; she had given me orders to call her ‘Cady’. And Shining had asked me to keep his relationship quiet. That was simple enough, I realized. I would refer to her as Cady to everypony else. This would fulfil the order of calling her by the horribly inappropriate name while not insulting her to her face. And I would tell Topaz much the same as Shining had told Princess Cadance - Cady.

I rapped politely at the door and was startled to find that Topaz had changed her manestyle. And her coat color. And she looked a bit heavier than usual. And I was reasonably sure she hadn't been wearing her glasses, which, while not unheard of, wasn’t common either, though she was squinting at me. And then the door slammed shut. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that it was not Topaz at all. The facial structure was very similar, so it was not a completely foolish mistake.

Still. I trotted out to the mailbox, verifying that it was indeed Topaz’s home. How very odd. There was some clamor from inside, and I could not withstand my curiosity and so neared the door again.

“-your stash, there’s a guardpony at the door! Honestly, Topaz, now is not the time to be coy!”

Stash?! Mom, what the hay are you talking about, I don’t have a-”

There was a loud sound of disbelief. “College has changed over the years.”

“Oh whatever. Wait, guard? Oh Harmony, it’s probably just Idol-”

“Idol?” There was a strikingly ominous silence. “You…. never mentioned any Idol.”

“No, no, I did, I told you I’d taken on a boarder, you know, a friend who needed someplace to stay. Idol Hooves is that friend.”

The was some bit of dialogue I missed, unfortunately, as it had been much more quiet.

“...Mother don’t you dare-”

The door flew open. “Helloooo~! Mr. Hooves! My daughter has told me… well, practically nothing about you, but come in, come in. Topaz and I were just about ready to sit down for dinner.”

I blinked. Then, because it was polite and I did live here, I wiped my hooves on the welcome mat before entering the dragon’s den.

“Viridian Virga, it is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hooves. You’ll have to forgive me, when Topaz mentioned she had a roommate again, I was assuming a mare.”

“There is nothing to forgive.” I managed. This mare’s emotions were delighted, and I could barely read anything beyond that. I had heard amongst the others that many a pony liked a stallion in uniform, and I still wore mine. I’d found the idea interesting at the time and reasoned that it was because the duty of the guard was to protect Equestria and ensure the rule of law was followed. I decided this mare was likely a firm believer in such an orderly existence, and my opinion of her raised even higher than her status as Topaz’s mother had already placed it. “It is also a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Virga.”

“Please, call me Vivi.”

“Yeah, yeah, everyone’s acquainted now.” Topaz muttered, staring at me. It occurred only moments later that my armor was a mess, and I felt a moment of shame. I had heard a number of the other ponies talk about ‘getting niced up’ to meet the parents of a mare or stallion, and here I was in tarnished, dented armor. “...What in Tartarus happened to you? You look like you were playing hoofball with a team of buffalo.”

I hesitated. “There… were no buffalo involved. Or hoofballs.” I did not think so, at least. I still wasn’t sure what a hoofball was. “We were sent on a training exercise to Everfree forest." There was a moment of silence. When it stretched long, I cleared my throat and began again. “There was an incident with a timberwolf.”

“Wait, a timberwolf?” Topaz managed, aghast.


“As in, one of those monsters made of sticks?” Her mother gave me an appraising look. “What happened?”

“We disagreed with its idea of where it belonged in the food chain. It was very emphatic.”

Celestia…” Topaz breathed. “Was anyone hurt?”

“Not in my presence.” I admitted. Wispy and Bold had seemed fine. It had been excessively rude of me not to ask. Though then again, Dank had been dragged to safety by his own timberwolf. I was not sure if that counted.

“Well! It sounds like this is quite the story. I’ll make us some tea and you can tell us all about it. Do you prefer sugar or honey, Mr. Hooves?” Viridian questioned. When I indicated the latter, she smiled. “Good. Honey is better for you. I’ll let you and Mr. Hooves have a minute, dear.” She trotted into the kitchen, beaming. It was a good expression on her.

Topaz’s eyes were closed, and she breathed a few times, heavily. “I’m… I’m sorry about her, she’s… don’t worry about it.”

I nodded, not understanding but accepting anyways. I recalled a bit of advice, that one should compliment a mare’s parents to the mare. Some sort of ritual for good luck, amongst ponies. Shining had supported the idea, and that was enough for me. “She seems very nice. And fine to look at.”

“Yeah, well she means well enough, she’s just-” She coughed suddenly, staring at me with her mouth half-open. Perhaps the compliment was insufficient. “What?!

I panicked a bit. “She has a symmetrical frame and a visually appealing facial structure.”


“Well…. Yes! You share it as well. You have good cheekbones.”

“My-” She raised a hoof to her face, staring at me. I wondered if I should lower my emotional defenses a bit; perhaps I was misreading the mare. Her face was starting to redden, as it usually did when she was upset.

“Topaz! Where are your teas, what is this junk? Hibiscus? I raised you better than that and you know it!” At that, Topaz bolted off. I’d have to apologize later, I knew. I had no idea how to give a proper compliment. I’d have to ask one of the others for more advice.

I suppose I should have known. Wane had often complimented Topaz to my knowledge, and it only seemed to make her angrier with him. Perhaps he, too, shared my failings.

The rest of the dinner was pleasant, though Topaz showed much more interest in my discovery of parasprites living in Everfree forest, and I was glad that she had apparently decided my poor excuses for compliments had not been too insulting. She suggested the fuzzy insect orbs were likely a prime food source for smaller predators and were likely instrumental in the existence of the much larger ones. Topaz’s mother was kept peppering the conversation with questions I did not quite understand the relevance of.

“So where did you first meet?”

“On the border of Saddle Arabia.” Topaz interjected. “Now, did you see any other insects that could be in the same genus-”

“Ahhh, Saddle Arabia! Lovely country, I’m told. Good-looking stallions, eh, Topaz?”


I nodded, supposing that was true. I was no great judge of appearances, to be fair, but that seemed a reasonable assesment. “There are… plenty of good-looking ponies here, too.”

Topaz put her head in her hooves. “Oh Celestia.” Darn. Another failed compliment.

“What do you think about children, Mr. Hooves?” Topaz’s head jerked from her hooves, to stare at her mother.

“I am rather fond of them. They are a blessing.”

Her mother nodded, giving Topaz a pleased look. Maybe I was getting the hang of this. Though I could not imagine anypony not liking foals.

At the conclusion of our meal, Mrs. Virga claimed it was about time she took to the sky. She admonished a strangely resigned Topaz to come visit her poor parents more often, and told her to feel free to bring me along. Topaz, with a sigh and a promise to do just that, hugged her mother in farewell and saw her to the door.

Oddly, the older mare stopped right around the mailbox, sitting up and making an odd waving motion with both of her forehooves. “Graaaaannnndfooooaaaaals.”

Topaz rolled her eyes, waved a final time, and slammed the door.

“...What was that?”

She cut her eyes at me, and I felt myself retreat a step. “The old witch was trying to curse me. The hay was that!? ‘Fine to look at’!?”

I blinked. “The other guards had much advice for things to do when meeting a mare’s parents. Shining suggested I compliment her.” I had to think for a moment. “...I believe casting curses is unlawful. She should not do that. Is it the casting of a curse, the laying of it, or the attempt the part that is unlawful, or do all three portions warrant punishment?”

She closed her eyes, and began counting something. “Alright. I may have to kill Shining. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

It startled me that she would consider murdering one of my few other friends. That seemed a higher crime. “...I… made a good first impression?”

Topaz gave a snort of laughter, then proceeded to scoop a pillow off of the couch and swat at me. “Idol! You can’t just tell a mare that her mother is hot!”

I tilted my head. “...But I made no mention of your mother’s temperature. Was she feeling ill?”

Topaz’s only response was to fling an entire couch cushion at me.

My shell bordered on pristine, save for the healed crack caused by Shining Armor’s fall all those weeks ago. Whatever Princess Cadance had done, it had healed all of my recent injuries to the point where even I could not identify them. This was actually rather strange; normally, small cracks and the like leave noticeable markings until a moult while larger ones would remain part of our shells for the entirety of our lives. That the raw power the princess had poured into me had forestalled a natural biological event seemed very much out of place. I would have to endeavor not to require such things of her in the future.

I explained briefly that I had met ‘Cady’ and that Shining Armor was apparently her coltfriend whilst assisting Topaz with an aquarium of some new species of arachnid with an uneven amount of multicolored eyes. She called them ‘Eyeders’ and claimed they would actually duplicate things they could see, spinning colorful flowers or berries and essentially making images from sticky silk. They would then climb into these lures and wait for butterflies, hummingbirds, mice, or occasionally curious ponies. They were largely harmless, but the webbing was exceptionally sticky and it was very difficult to get the false flowers off of one’s snoot. As her interest was otherwise preoccupied, she only became moderately interested when I explained that Cady did seem very interested in the goings on in Everfree, though out of any concern for others beyond Shining Armor, I could not guess.

“Cadydid, huh. Any knowledge of insects that you could tell?”

“Oh, I’m sure.” The idea that a princess of the realm could be ignorant of any subject was absurd.

“Well, I’d love to meet her sometime. It’d be great to talk shop. Who knows, if she’s in the higher nobility, it might help me get a hoof in the door. Having a good patron lets you do research that requires a bit higher of a budget- oh, colts, one of the Eyeders is copying your face, I can’t have that… Idol, you’re going to have to shoo until they get settled and start making things I can study and show ponies.”

I took my leave, settling down into my cellar to find that Topaz had restocked my supplies of clay. Quite pleased, I set about working it immediately. Unfortunately, one of my smaller chisels had chipped at some point, and I sighed, setting it back down. After a moment’s consideration, I compared the edge of it to my own hoof. Carefully, I began shaping the edge of the hoof to mimic the chisel as I recalled it. A smooth edge. A taper… and a single tooth on the side… yes. Yes, that would work far better than my awkward holding of a chisel in magic or teeth. Why, I could duplicate the chisel with both hooves, even the rear pair, though I could hardly imagine how I would do much of anything like that. A little tweaking and-

I hadn’t made the cup. I had been lost in my experimenting with the new chisel-hooves and had made something else, instead, with a tapered base and grooves all around it. I almost began again, but suddenly, I realized that I actually liked this variant. It wasn’t what I had set out to make, as I usually did, but… It was something new, that I’d never seen before. And… it struck me that I could do more of that. I took in my lump of clay, suddenly realizing how many shapes I could potentially make with it. I shaped a lump into a brick like those I’d seen in several Canterlot buildings. Then several more, and stacked them in various ways. One of the clay structures collapsed, and I realized that this could help me learn about building. I sat back, amazed. I could create things. I’d never truly thought so much about it, even before my expulsion from the hive. I’d been trying to alter something, not create something new.. With renewed vigor, I took to the clay.

By the time I was done, I’d created several cups, bowls that did not look like cups, and a clay flower whose petals only looked a bit like something I’d seen before. I had tried to make a clay pony, but the small one I’d made had looked absolutely nothing like Topaz. I would need to learn to make better tools. In the meantime, I felt remarkably good. I was proud, I realized, and tamped the emotion back down to a more allowable level. Hubris was unbecoming. Besides, I realized with some disappointment, I rarely had the time to sell my wares anymore. This had become a ‘hobby’, which Topaz explained as work one did while not working.

So be it. I would have a hobby.

Unfortunately, I was so involved with my new experiments with clay and Topaz’s delight at her new Eyeders that I quite forgot to bring my new creations to the city kiln before I was required to return to training. Topaz, seeing my distress, offered to cart them to the kiln herself. She actually seemed rather pleased with the idea, as she would otherwise be hauling an empty cart about in the morning.

I personally think her qualms were more due to the fact that she needed mice for the Eyeders, and Topaz appeared to be very disconcerted by the creatures. Ponies had no idea what they were missing out on by not being omnivores.

Shining, Bold, and Wispy were all in hushed conversation when I arrived at the barracks. Upon spotting me, they furtively motioned me to join them.

Wispy started. “Hooves, you still have your armor? Something’s up.”

I blinked, lifting my still battered helmet off. “Of course. I had not given it to the armorer, I’m afraid. I was… distracted, this weekend.”

The pegasus groaned. “Then you don’t even know!” She pointed to the armorer's room where our names were associated with the numbers of our training gear. To my consternation… none of our names were on the list.

I blinked. Then read the list again. “...We do not have gear?” That seemed… inexplicable. I felt myself clutching my helm. Had Princess Cadance seen the truth of my lack of worth? Were the others being punished for not seeing it themselves?

Shining put a hoof on my shoulder. “No, looks like we don’t. Go turn your stuff in. I think the four of us should face whatever this is together.”

“I get into a life or death fight with a pack of rabid trees and lose my armor.” Bold groused. “Colts, Shining, I’m thinking cover-up.”

“The guard doesn’t do that, Bold.”

“Oh, sure, you say that now. But when we’re scrubbing toilets in an outpost in the middle of Diamond Dog territory, we’ll see who’s laughing.”

I frowned. “Why would scrubbing toilets be funny?”

Bold paused, clearly having been ready to go on a rant. “Well. I. I guess I wouldn’t be the one laughing, but somepony will be.”

I pondered that whilst turning in my armor, and even having been prepared, I was distressed when no replacement gear was forthcoming. My ichor seemed to chill as I returned to the others.

Shining was the first to notice my lack of equipment. “No go. Stinks like Tartarus, too. Something is up, but I’ve never heard of them doing anything like this. Lockers were emptied.”

Wispy rolled her eyes. “Oh come on, you two act like this is the end of the world. If this is some blame shifting crap, we’ll bust someone’s head and take it to Celestia herself.”

“Why would we take their head to Celestia?”

Metaphor, it’s a metaphor, damn it. And it’s not their head, it’s the problem, it-”

“But what is meta for?”

“...You’re messing with me.”

“Humor is good for reducing tension.”

“Hooves, you are the weirdest unicorn I’ve ever met, and believe me, you’re all weird.”

“It’s something with the magic being too close to our brains.” Shining confided. “We’re all a little crazy.”

Bold pointed a hoof at him. “I knew it. They all said I was the crazy one, but I knew.”

“We went into Everfree forest and beat the sap out of tree monsters. I think we’re all crazy.” Wispy reminded him, with a bit more cheer.

“Never said they were wrong. Just, you know, wanted to make it clear they’re in good company.”

A voice rang out. “We all laughing?! Got jokes?” We all went to attention, startled by the sudden appearance of our sergeant. “Better. Pretty good mood for a bunch of ponies that aren’t part of my unit anymore.”

Shining blanched. “Sir, wait, what? What’s going on?”

“You’re gone! You’re done! Can’t stay in this barracks anymore!”

“B...but sir!”

“I’ll say it slower! You. Aren’t. My. Trainees. Anymore.”

Wispy tried again this time. “But-”

“Royal Guard doesn’t share barracks with the trainees.”


“Training’s done. You four are becoming full fledged members by week’s end. Tell your friends and family.”

“...B...but you said we were done!”

“Yeah. Done training. Congratulations.” He grinned broadly, and this time, I felt the truth in the expression. “See? I got jokes too.”

Final Boarding Call

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“...Which part is the joke, exactly?” I queried, not entirely sure I ‘got it’.

“...That you’re done.”

I slowly nodded and confirmed his response. “So we are not done?”

“No, Hooves, you are done. That was the joke.”

“If you insist, sir.”

The sergeant gave me a sour look, then turned with a grumble. “The four of you, follow me. The rest of you lot, get presentable in five and form ranks for inspection.” He stalked out, and we obediently joined him.

“Won’t lie. This is irregular. Whole situation is. But the four of you showed well out there. You all have some talent, and I’m sure you know it. But talent means beans if you can’t do anything in a fight because you’re too busy watering your legs. And now you four are blooded. By right, you can claim membership in the guard with your oaths. The rest, right now, is… mostly for show.”

Wispy blinked. “I… thought that was only a viable means of entry to the guard in times of war.” The other three of us gave her a curious (and startled, I realized, quickly imitating Shining and Bold) look. “What? I like military history.”

“Not sure what you’d call a pony-eater other than an ‘Enemy of Equestria’, cadet. You four are going to be interviewed, but sounds to me like it’s already done. Command wants to know what the buck happened in that forest for the official story.”

Shining tilted his head, hesitating. “...Official story, sir?”

“Celestia’s beard, we lost one of our own. A unicorn, from one of the noble families. The family is going to have our various reproductive organs in a bucking vice.”

“Sir, it… sounded to us like Merry Meadows was in Everfree to avoid-

“That is bucking hearsay, cadet. And you will not spread that around. The guard does not tolerate bigotry or buckle to it. And if Merry Meadows fled Canterlot to avoid just that, then we failed him.”

“Her, sir.” Wispy mumbled.

Also hearsay, cadet. The only pony to make any claim of that sort is now being treated in the wards for physical and mental trauma and both his judgement and recollection are questionable. But the guard will do its damnedest to do right by him and her memory. But it’s a damned shame all the same.”

Wispy looked up, and anger wafted from her. I took a cautious step away from her, unnoticed. “But… what about-”

“The truth of the matter is that we don’t know. It would be great if we could arrest some bad guys, throw them in a cell until they repent, but it’s not the way things work. And… it looks like Merry may have filed for an extension of their tour.”

“Why would anypony do that?”

“Because, cadet, maybe somepony thought it was worth the risk. Maybe somepony else thought they were doing the right thing. And it is above your rank, soldier, regardless. The higher ups will look into it. The four of you are no longer involved in that part of the situation. Frankly I don’t want to be any more involved with it myself. Heads are going to roll. Hopefully heads of ponies who deserve it, but if life were fair, we’d live in a land made of gumdrops and spun sugar.”

I refrained from questioning how that would make life ‘fair’ more than ‘sticky’. Mostly due to the rumbling of my stomach. We were, uncharacteristically, skipping our morning meal. This seemed a sacrilege, given how many ponies claim it to be the most important meal of the day. Which is yet another pony absurdity. Your most important meal is always ‘the next one’. Any changeling can tell you as much. And I was apparently missing more important instructions.

“-don’t tell them more than you have to. Keep it short, concise, and to the point.”

“Should we also make it snappy?”

“Don’t get smart, Bigflank, you’re not good at it. Don’t bog them down. Give them the important details, and let them move on.” He rapped his hoof sharply on a door, and stuck his head through. After a brief discussion with the occupants of the room he withdrew and motioned to Wispy. She swallowed, the brief bunching of her wings a clear display of tension as she rolled her shoulders… and then relaxed, striding into the room as though she owned it and called them for a meeting herself. That was more like Wispy. Bold paid far more attention to her peculiar strut than any expression the sergeant was making before the older stallion followed her in, and as the door closed, he caught Shining’s smirk just before it faded.


“Nothing, I didn’t say anything.”

The larger earth pony’s eyes narrowed, the challenge plain. “You thought something.”

“Maybe I think things from time to time.” Shining replied, looking… insufferable. Yes, that was a good term for it. There was a certain smugness to it.

“Well you’re wrong.”

“Guess I am.”

“Nothing going on there.”

“Never said there was.” Shining agreed, drawing something from his saddlebag.

“Good. Because there wouldn’t be. She wouldn’t be interested.”

I frowned. “That is questionable. She has commented favorably upon your posterior at least once.”

Shining separated the packet of little rectangular sheets, flipping them a circle. “Anyone want to play cards while we wait?”

“Wait, she what- when-”

“Five bits against what we know?”

Bold’s glares were beginning to lose their potency. “Oh you are on, Shiner.”

“And I summon the Eater of Planets, sacrifice your island to it and destroy Idol’s Ritual of Consumption. Sorry, Shiner. One down. Idol?”

“...I have tapped all of my lands. What can I do?”

Shining groaned and put his head against a wall. “Die of mana burn?”

“Ah. I do that, then. Congratulations on your third straight victory, Bold.”

“I still don’t think you get the point of this.” Shining mumbled,

“I’m absolutely certain of that. Shall we play again?”

“Could. If you colts want your bits back. Or have a couple more you’d like to donate to my dinner with Wispy.”

Shining blanched at that, clearly not so confident. “Go easy, he says. I can’t believe you used that old chestnut. Can’t believe I fell for it.”

“Works more often than you’d think. You’re sure about the neighponese thing?”

“She has spoken very highly of mango wraps.”

Bold nodded, but looked nervous. “Suppose those are pretty good. I dunno about the whole rice and seaweed business. Not really a big fan.”

I put a hoof to his shoulder. “Consume whatever is placed before you. If you do not like it, get something else next time.”

I did not understand Bold’s neutral expression. “Thanks, Idol. You’re a big help.”

“You are welcome.”

“NEXT!” Came the muted bellow from within the room. To Bigflank’s enormous disappointment, Wispy did not appear, and he went in with a much less confident swagger.

Shining took the opportunity to explain the rules of the card game to me again. I lost the next two games. He was in the middle of explaining a third time when he was called, and I spent the rest of the wait in silence.

When it was finally my turn, the questions from the trio of uniformed ponies seemed rather simplistic. I explained in detail the events of the initial attack, paying careful attention to the actions of the others. They had comported themselves exceptionally well, and I made sure to detail their efforts. Other details, such as my own contributions, were too minor to warrant much mention, and, with some discomfort, I left out the entirety of our means of finally dispatching the timberwolf.

One of the ponies, in a very fine velvet uniform with a number of shiny bits on it, settled a clipboard back to the desk before them and pushed up her spectacles. “Mr. Hooves. From the… depth of your report, and your views upon things, one could assume you view the others of your team as… heroes. Particularly young Shining Armor, whom you have attributed almost the entire defeat of the rogue timberwolf to.” She shuffled the paperwork, searching for something. “You also seem to discuss the actions of Cadet Bigflank akin to one describing a professional wrestling match and the actions of Aeronaut Nimbus as worthy of ‘utter amazement’. Would you agree?”

“I do not know what professional wrestling is, ma’am. But I stand by my statements.”

“And,” stated the older stallion to her left “you recognize that this statement says practically nothing about yourself. The other three members, if half of what you’ve said is true and we can confirm from their own stories and that of your sergeant, would warrant the three of them for commendations. Are you sure you wouldn’t want to, say, elaborate on your own contributions?”

I tilted my head, considering, but could think of nothing more to add. “No, sir. That would not be truthful. I performed my duty to the best of my abilities. That is all.”

“And your opinion on the situation with Dank Woods and Merry Meadows?” It was the first question, indeed, the first words I heard from the stallion on the right. “What is your take on the matter?”

“That it is largely irrelevant. There was a duty to maintain that outpost. The two of them held the post until forcibly removed, regardless of the side effects and personal trauma that was endured. This is commendable. A fine soldier was lost, and if Dank Woods’ effectiveness in dealing with the timberwolves is any indication, a very capable one. We are all made lesser for it.”

The three ponies looked to one another, and then one by one, they began to nod. “If your statement were to be declared the official one, would you sign to the truth of it?”

I would, of course, and very oddly, they provided me with a pen and I did just that, though I admit my signature was very blocky.

Nonetheless, answering questions and sitting quietly before had been a tedious exercise and I was eager to be done with it and return to training… which I suddenly realized I would no longer have. The idea tore at my focus, and I was guided to leave by a door on the other side of the room, doubtless the same way my compatriots had gone. The trio was waiting for me, curious but just as eager to be done with all of this as I was… and, I noted, Shining did not appear to have his cards out any longer. Unfortunate. Perhaps later.

Wispy raised her hoof suddenly as I approached the hallway, warning me too late that another pony was leaving around the same corner I had intended to enter. Our meeting, therefore, was abrupt, unpleasant, and short. I rubbed at my own nose, then looked upon the pony whom I had nearly run over, a cape of some sort on her back, fluttering then stretching out-

That was no cape. It was, in truth, a fascinating set of wings, unlike any I had seen upon a pony. They were covered in fur instead of feathers, clearly, and were just as plainly very different. I could make out the structure of bones within the wings, and immediately realized that these would make for for more secure ‘grasping’ than the mere ‘hook’ that pegasi wings were capable of. I marveled at the improvement, at this… simple complexity. Why, this was so much better than the feathered wings, if I ever took a pegasus form again it would be far easier to create these, and I made note of every contour, intent on at least attempting this shape later.

“You know, if you take a picture, it lasts longer.” The grey pony before me seethed, pushing a dark blue mane out of slitted eyes. Her armor was not the gold of the guard or the bronze of the trainees, but an interesting silver material, polished to nearly mirror quality. It was a very impressive contrast, quite to my liking. “You act like you’ve never seen a bat pony before.” Wispy, in the corner of my eye, had her hooves over her mouth, eyes wide.

“This is true. I never have. Forgive me, I was startled by your wings. They are… incredibly elegant. I had never imagined the like. May I see?”

Now she looked taken aback, for some reason, and her face darkened as she spread her wings. “They’re… just my wings.” She muttered this time.

“And they are very fine wings, at that. Idol Hooves.” I offered my hoof, and after a confused moment, she shook it, responding with a glance up and down my own form, followed by a nod of approval before her cheeks dimpled and she smiled… revealing a set of teeth that belong nowhere near a species that thrived on plant matter.

I cannot explain the sudden, irrational need to flee from this pony, who named herself as ‘Mothchaser’, but I may have stammered out a few pleasantries before we parted ways, and she walked off looking rather pleased with herself. I attempted to compose myself and went to rejoin the others.

Wispy had a huge grin as I approached. “You smooth bucker!” She drove a hoof into my shoulder, not lightly, but apparently not wanting to cause harm. “Complimenting her wings? You saucy devil!”

I blinked at that. “Saucy devil?”

“Is that really such a big deal?” Bold asked, utterly confused. “I mean, you have nice wings.”

Wispy’s chortling choked off, and she rolled an eye at the big earth stallion, but there was still mirth in her tone when she told him “Thanks Bold, nice try.” She missed Shining making a tentative patting and a negative motion to Bold behind her back, and I saw little need to draw her attention to it. Her glee was surprising. “And flirting with one of the Night Guard cadets! I love it! You totally threw her off” She pranced in place, overcome with the emotion. “Ohhh, this could be fun.”

“I’m not even sure what I did.” I admitted, and Wispy laughed uproariously.

We parted ways shortly thereafter, our sergeant coming across us and ordering us home to inform our families and to ‘stop lounging around like bumps on a log’.

I don’t think bumps on a log are capable of doing work. Or even having mobility. This metaphor, I decided, was exceptionally nonsensical, even by pony standards.

I decided to take a long route in returning home, intent on seeing a bit more of Canterlot’s architecture. The spires were lovely, if… far too high. I could not think of a good means to drive such a thing into the safety of the ground without depriving the view, however, and I regretfully decided that they were simply not for me.

Even some of the lower class shops were surprisingly well designed. There was a small shop that produced paper of a rough quality and a cheaper price that seemed frequented by a large number of local students, directly beside a coffee shop and a bakery. All three shops were apparently open ‘all night’ and did very impressive business; the coffee shop and bakery helped to mask the odor of paper production.

It was behind the bakery that I saw my first other changeling, and I was not well pleased by it.

They were a ragged individual, slinking around behind the bakery. Their disguise was barely held together, a random conglomeration of other ponies that seemed to shift and twist with every passerby. Entirely unnoticed, but I doubted it was by design. I was staring when they noticed, and the blast of fear that hit me as they fled my sight made me question their activities.

Perhaps the Queen hadn’t been entirely wrong about exiles. This one clearly gave no consideration to appearances, and seemed to have no particular duty.

My mood soured, I returned home. Topaz was not present, to my disappointment, and after an hour of waiting by the door I grew restless with my new concerns and wandered away. Her eyeders were doing well enough. One had apparently perished, though another had made a rather impressive block of cheese and had somehow captured a mouse.... the rest seemed content with the butterflies she had released into their chamber. Quite cross with the perished one, I opted to remove it so as not to trouble her.

I was working on my clay when she arrived and almost bit my tongue when she knocked my seat out from under me, not to mention nearly choking on my lunch.

"Idol." Topaz stated sweetly, a smile that did not match her emotions or her tone fixed in place. "...Why am I missing one of my research subjects?"

I blinked. "...It died?" I offered after a moment's hesitation.

"I assume it did. Where did it go, Idol?"

"I..." I began looking for an escape route. "That is to say..."

"Idol. Did you eat my homework?"

"...Perhaps?” I considered the possibility that I had made a mistake. Unlikely though it was.

“Don’t. Do that. Again. If I have spares, I’ll let you have them when I’m done, okay? Now, what are you doing here, you’re supposed to be at training. Are you playing hooky? We all need a day here and there, but that’s not like you.” Her annoyance had turned to concern, and I relaxed. “And I’m not sure you can just take a day off, are you allowed to do that? Won’t your trainers be upset?”

“I am done with training. Apparently I have succeeded and will be a full guard soon.”

Topaz blinked. Then she brightened. “Idol! Why didn’t you say so?! This is great; when?”

“I believe in a week or two. The details are somewhat uncertain, but I feel we will know more soon.” I took a deep breath. “I have seen another exile, I believe.”

“Exile? From-” Her eyes lit up with clear excitement. “Where?! Another changeling, that’s great, with multiple subjects I could-”

“I do not know where they are now.” Not… precisely a lie. I did not like the idea of Topaz studying another of my kind, though I could not quite say why. “And they were filthy. Their disguise was failing and they seemed to be in hiding. I do not think they were trustworthy.”

“Idol. That isn’t very nice.”

“We are exiles for a reason…” While true, the words fell flat in my own ears. Her disappointment, evident on face and stance, cut to my core. “...We are not to interact, Topaz. I do not think that is allowed. The Queen...” I trailed off, not sure what I could tell her about this.

“If you say so. I just thought better of you.” Those words struck like a physical blow. “I’m going to go check on the eyeders again.”

I sat there, in silence, for an indeterminate amount of time, long enough for the little natural light that filtered in from above to begin to fade, and sat there still. In the darkness, with only the dim lights for company. Suddenly, that seemed exceptionally strange; I looked about, only to find that the Queen’s gift to me, the few stones that had apparently held enough emotion for me to leave the hive, had returned to a dull glow. Though, before they had been a multitude of colors, they now appeared rosy, similar to the Princess Cadance, and I touched one in surprise… it contained Love. Startled, I withdrew from it, and checked the others. Unquestionably, they were the same, yet I could not determine how such a thing was possible. Perhaps the excess from my one meeting with her had overflowed and… been absorbed? Had I been so wasteful, truly?

I could think of nothing to do with such excess. I had been fed, and fed well indeed. To be truthful, I rarely went without thanks to Topaz’s ideas and my own duties… I rolled one of the rough cut gems from hoof to hoof, lost in thought.

I felt a fool. Perhaps I was, at that, wandering the streets of Canterlot at night looking for a fellow changeling I had never met and truly did not want to meet in the first place. I was unlikely to find them, and even if I did, they were just as likely to be justifiably suspicious of me. I had collapsed a portion of the hive. I deserved no companionship of any kind.

I found them, of course. They had not had the strength to flee far and were still by the bakery. Their disguise covered their sleeping form, a weak illusion, pieces fading in and out even as I watched, and would probably not hold until morning… but I found that I could respect the desire to try, even as exhaustion set in. I prodded the drone with a hoof, and they woke instantly… and immediately backed away, the buzzing pleading almost too fast for me to understand.

Will not interfere, did not mean to draw attention, the Queen’s will be done-

“Silence.” I said aloud. The drone fell silent, startled that I would use the pony tongue. I offered one of the stones. “A trade, if you have them. Mine are too full.”

They stared. Confusion, weak, flickering hope, and disbelief evident. “No. Not… not for me. For the Queen. For the little ones.”

“I am like you. Alone.”

The disbelief turned to disgust, but it was too weak to work the emotion properly. “Exile.”

“Like yourself.” I agreed, and they flinched. I pushed the stone closer, and was impressed when they continued to refuse.

“You… took the shape of a pony warrior. But are no warrior drone.”

“Ponies are very strange about such things. They… choose roles for themselves.”

A sort of awe settled in, and I agreed fully. “That… is nonsensical. Inefficient.”

“Incredibly. It makes them…” I struggled for the proper word. “Content. They take pleasure in their roles. I was an excavator. I am an acceptable guard, by pony terms. And I find I can enjoy that.”

They scoffed, but eyed the stone. A stone came from a pouch, as dull as my own was brilliant. It had been drained entirely. “You… want this one…? Why?”

I hesitated. I did not, actually. I did not wish to give up my own, but it occurred to me that this drone was very likely as confused as I had been upon my first meetings with ponies. Making these things clear would assist them. “It would be more valuable to me. Ponies call this ‘trade’. They do this often, trading bits for things they desire or need. Including labor.”

They dropped their stone, and I caught it in mid-air, pushing mine towards them. The energy was gone in a flash, but the contents were enough. The drone… solidified. Their disguise, a well-groomed unicorn, was now complete. The pain in their eyes was gone, replaced with wariness, but relief as well. They were not full, by any measure, but one meal is better than none.

I smiled thinly, for the first time since Topaz’s scolding feeling like myself again. “Come, friend. Let us see about getting you a ‘job’.”

Crawl of Duty: Black Hops

View Online

I did not scowl as I led my new acquaintance from the restaurant. It was, I reasoned, decidedly unfair to expect a changeling to assist in food preparation without sampling. And this odd fascination ponies had with washing the hooves before said food preparation was likewise absurd. Plants grew in dirt, it made little sense that it would harm any dish. My new companion had made an understandable error. It would not do to allow them to sense my dissatisfaction with the situation.

Anyone can lose three jobs in a week. The first attempt was with a carpenter, and they had proven to be entirely mad; good wood was expensive, certainly, but I was equally certain it did grow on trees. In fact, I wasn't sure where else it would grow. Perhaps some unicorn manufactory?

I had suggested the Guard, having found it very suitable, but the new drone was too horrified to consider the idea, and became increasingly disturbed that I would take such a role. The next attempt required me to ask what their previous position was. I reasoned that if I could have become a miner, as Topaz had suggested, perhaps they would think similarly.

"...No. I am a failed gatherer." they offered, with a bit of a flavoring of moroseness. It was rather interesting; they associated emotions with flavor in a way I never had. Sorrow tasted like the grapes Topaz had declared 'inedible'. "I cannot be trusted with such again."

"Failed in what way?" I offered back. Interesting, curiosity was 'minty'. Refreshing, but too much was overpowering. Perhaps a reasonable connection, looking back on my own banishment.

"My focus," they went on, "was to gather food for the hive. Plants. Animals. Find them, seal them, consume. I found a new plant, with thorny leaves and berries. They were... different. Sweet, but also bitter. The mouth felt strange. Like eating bees, and then numbness. It was interesting. But there were not that many, a few mouthfuls... I thought the little ones would like them. They always liked new things. And the berries were red."

It took me a long moment to understand the implications. "You poisoned the larvae?" I had poor hold of my emotions; the horror and disgust were too powerful to completely mask.

"I ate them and was fine! But... the little ones... some of them became... lethargic. One fell into a stupor, and I cannot be sure they awoke. I... think I saw that one when I was escorted out, but it was days later."

"Surely you could have explained yourself to the Queen. It was an honest mistake." One that reacted poorly with at least several of the larvae, but... if my cavern had collapsed on a fresh brood, or even eggs, my failure would have certainly killed them. It was not my place to judge.

Here, they scoffed. "Petition the queen? When I was clearly in the wrong?"

Now I was confused. "But. The Queen surely demanded to know your reasoning, some explanation?"

"She was furious at what I had done. She ordered me to defend my actions, and I could not. Sneaking treats to the larvae, when their caretakers have the duty of seeing to their nourishment? I woke outside with a single crystal shoved inside one of my hooves." Here, they lifted a leg, motioning to a hole roughly the size of the gem I had traded them for. "I have carried them before. It was only slightly brighter than those we carry when scouting for new foraging, but I knew I was no longer welcome."

I considered. Perhaps I had not displeased the Queen so much. My small collection of crystals had not been so large, but definitely more numerous. And I had been given a saddlebag. Their own was truly little more than a burlap sack strapped to their side. It looked uncomfortable, and more importantly, far out of place on a delicate unicorn of nobility as they had first been trying to appear when we first met. I had suggested trading my own for theirs, but it had been bestowed upon them by the queen; burlap would do.

Still, becoming a more rough-looking earth pony instead of a fastidious unicorn did much to enhance their disguise. I had seen a number of unicorns walking around with stunned looking ponies, and I understood these unicorns to be called 'tour guides'. I seemed passable at it, but could see definite benefit to the role; one could introduce emotional sights to a pony and be well fed... but I also knew that it required one to be familiar with said sights. Even if I was reasonably certain some were utter falsehoods designed to make eager ponies gawk at street corners and spend bits at the local eatery.

Appearance aside, the drone before me still wasn't quite pony enough. "Ponies are more... forgiving of such indiscretions, particularly ones made in earnest. However, there is also still the matter of a name. Your... last choice was perhaps less than subtle."

"I thought it suitable on short notice..."

"Food Pony?"

"I also may have panicked. Waiting Staff seemed inappropriate for an earth pony!"

I sighed. "True. Staves are more associated with unicorns, if Shining Armor is to be believed."

"I question his veracity."

I gave them the cold stare such an accusation deserved. "Do not. He is knowledgeable and honest to a fault, by pony reckoning. We must find a fitting name for you."

They looked appropriated chastised, and nodded their agreement slowly. "A number of ponies have referred to me as 'Hayyu'. Usually when they wanted my immediate attention."

For a moment, I considered. Then grimaced at the implication, hanging my head with closed eyes. "I have suddenly become incredibly sympathetic towards Topaz."

As it turns out, 'Hayyu' is a neighponese name, and, we reasoned, good enough for the time being... a sheaf of wheat adorning both flanks made this earth pony disguise more fitting, and it became their default form. I purchased a newspaper,and we returned to Hayyu's hotel room, which was an exorbitant amount of bits. A week in a hotel was roughly equivalent to a month of rent, but until we found a good final form and name it was unwise to establish permanent residence. And I found that I liked my privacy. I had tried to show Hayyu some of my pottery, but clearly his interest was less than piqued.

To be fair, I believe I made him feel uncomfortable, even as he appreciated my efforts. It was a large change in lifestyle, and I had adapted over a number of months. Perhaps I was rushing him faster than he could accept. Looking back, even I had found the idea of joining the guard ludicrous before seeing Celestia and understanding what it meant. Beyond that, my assistance made him feel lessened; changelings have the hive, but one must be capable of fulfilling their duties. He had failed so miserably as to lead those in charge to threaten to set him ablaze on two different occasions, and 'let go' on a third.

We parted ways while he studied the paper for more offers of work. I suppose I could have invited him to the underground, but that seemed a dangerous precedent. There was no way the Queen would tolerate a false hive being formed under Canterlot, and it seemed disloyal to Celestia to even consider it. And that meant it bore no further consideration; I may not have said the words of my oath before my leaders, but they echoed in my heart all the same. Equestria asked the blood of my flesh and the faith of my mind, but otherwise allowed me the sweat of my brow. They neglected to ask the color of that blood, and I decided that meant Equestria didn't care.

I spent the rest of the day with Topaz, though I was careful to carry around the dulled stone to try to recharge it somewhat. There was a very strange small play being performed in the street, and Topaz seemed bemused with my interest. A number of foals did as well, and somehow I found myself in a spirited argument with the boggle-eyed sock-actor on the virtues of cleaning your plate. Oddly, this delighted the foals, and they too began to argue with the creature, who turned out to be attached to the leg of a pony. Afterwards, that pony thanked me for the audience participation, for sometimes it was hard to get young ponies interested in the educational shows. They rolled their eyes when I suggested dispensing candy.

Topaz said I was adorable. I don't know how she'd come to that conclusion, but I accepted the compliment gravely, deciding that it was perhaps another pony word with multiple meanings, as I was quite sure I was not by the standard definition.

She suggested we celebrate my upcoming graduation into the Royal Guard with another play. I was more than topped off from my interactions with the Princess Cadance…but still, I decided it would be better to maintain good habits and continue to go through the steps of ensuring I could feed myself. And Topaz enjoyed the shows as well, which was also a fair reason to continue. It was what friends did.

Unfortunately, the show was not as…fulfilling as some of the previous ones. Some nonsense about a pegasus foal, trapped in the frozen north and raised by wild penguins. All in all, save for the final battle scene against the sea lion, Sheer Kold, I found very little of interest in the Tundra Book, and admitted that I would probably have preferred to simply read it... only for Topaz to claim that she didn't actually think it existed in written form. I cannot even begin to describe my thoughts on that matter, but somehow, I wasn't truly surprised. Worse, 'Whale Requirements' was jaunty enough to continue playing in my mind long after the play ended, a true nuisance.

I received a letter stating that our commencement would be three days hence; Topaz fussed over how strange it was to have an early graduation and how little time she had to prepare. The note mentioned that we had a mandatory training for the commencement itself the day prior, and then went on that the following weekday we would officially begin our duties, starting with several weeks of travel to various posts, intent on showing us our options should we not wish to stay in Canterlot while our assigned duty location was determined. I marked Canterlot as my preferred location, Stalliongrad as my second, and finally Manehattan as my final. I reasoned that the more populated areas would suit my needs best, if Princess Celestia deemed me unworthy to be in her presence.

The training was rather simple. It was an open ceremony, the Princess would oversee from on high, and we would give our oaths to her before the rising sun. The oath itself resonated strongly with me: to protect those within our borders, to uphold the Law and Order of the nation, to enable the citizens to live in Harmony, and to Obey the Princesses. I found all of that to be completely acceptable, particularly the parts about Order and Obedience.

When we were deemed capable of shaming ourselves to a minimal degree before the Princess Celestia, we were given our final task as recruits with a surprising amount of glee.

We would perform the traditional High and Low Crawl through Canterlot. I perked at this, even as the others seemed to cringe. Then it was explained that it was highest tradition for the last night of civilian life to be explored, somewhat wildly, by the young cadets, who would visit a chain of whine houses and pubs from the highest of the high class, to the lowest of the seediest pubs in Canterlot, which was, coincidentally, underground. After this, all of our actions would be judged on the basis of our being members of Canterlot's Royal Guard. The others found this a wonderful idea and swore to make it a crawl like none had ever seen before.

I found myself questioning the very idea that unicorns could sell whining. Bold swore he'd buy me a good Earth Pepper Stout, and I found myself wondering if that could possibly be as terrible as it sounded. Shining drew up a quick map that hit the various highs and lows, and we set out upon our quest.

Wine is not whine, though both can make one maudlin. We sampled everything available at the first and were well on our way to the same at the second before Shining pointed out to myself, Bold, and Wispy that we were supposed to spit the wine into the bucket. Bold giggled at our foolishness, and Wispy and I maintained our hooves only by virtue of being of a size with one another and able to maintain reciprocal force towards each other. I quickly recovered, but Wispy and Bold took the next two stops to begin to sober.

And then we hit our first pub. They had been forewarned, and the regulars cheered us on, buying us more drinks than was entirely reasonable. My tragic downfall was Honey Dew's Old Fashioned Mjod. Bold made good on his earlier threat, and it was actually sharp and hot enough that I required more mjod to wash it down with. This became oddly cyclical.

Three pubs and an unknown number of bottles later, I was no longer entirely sure who or where I was when I apparently was able to drink no more of Chaos's ambrosia. In fact, the lot of us were holed up at a table. And I was... merciful Order, I was Shining Armor.

"Do Wispy!" Bold cajoled, obviously delighted. Shining had his head on the table, staring blearily at nothing. Wispy was fighting the mechanical lasso and by all accounts would have been winning if she wasn't upside down and trying to flap through the floor.

I felt myself applying the illusion, as if out of habit. Shining hiccuped. The other patrons cheered, and I was told 'do Princess Celestia!' by one of them; I glared him down immediately, which seemed to put an end to the show. Bold wrapped a hoof around my neck.

"Na' bad, na' bad! Wispy ain't a uuuuney-corn though." He stared at me for a long moment. "An' I'm pretty ssssure she's not a ssstallion, either."

"I heard that, you drunken mule!" Wispy groused as the loops of rope neatly tied a bow around her legs. A scoreboard listed her time near the top. One patron gave half-hearted protest, and Wispy told him to 'stop staring at her flank and get her out of this', and laughter ensued as the patron cheerfully untied her.

"I... believe I am done." I stated, feeling sick as my coloration returned to normal slate grey instead of Wispy’s stormy blue. Had I revealed myself? What had I done? Eyeing the bottles stacked neatly beside me, I was forced to admit at least one of the things I had done was 'drink heavily'.

"Awww. That was a good show! Never seen someone... change color like that before. Without dye, I guess. Neat lil' trick. Could be better. But Hoovsie, you... are no lightweight. Didn't know unicorns could drink like that." A fresh bottle approached the table. "No, no. I'm done. We're done?" He looked at Wispy, who by this point smelled like the floor of the pub. Which I was suddenly concerned at my intimate knowledge of. Yes, yes, there was a definite memory of being face first on the floor. How inappropriate. When Wispy nodded, he waved the the server away. "We're done. Almost closing time. We got... we gotta get home. Shine. Shiner! Can you get home?"

Shining lifted his head. "Bwah...? No, no more salt...." Bold gave him a few light bats with a hoof, and Shining managed to focus on us. "Why are you in my house...?"

"We're not in your house. C'mon." He hefted the smaller Shining... only for Wispy to collapse into the vacated chair, snoring. "Aw, Nightmare's hairy fetlocks, you two! Least Dol can hold his own...!" He hefted Wispy and with some assistance got the two of them situated before nearly falling over himself. I caught Shining before his boneless descent to the floor, and Bold caught Wispy while putting enough bits on the table to settle the remains of our bill.

"I believe I can get Shining home if you can do the same with her." I managed as a not-quite limp-legged Shining managed to open the door.

"I... think she lives on a cloud." Bold admitted,

"...Well, good luck! Come along, Shining. Which way is home?"

Shining pointed back towards the bar. That seemed unlikely, and I led him a short ways away, supporting him with my shoulder. "Lower... lower nobility district. Mailbox with moon and stars on it."

Inwardly I groaned. We had started this night in that district, and had wandered to the far end of the city to continue our carousing. Shining's map proved useful, once we returned to the scene of the second and intended final bar on Shining's map. Shining began to sing cadence as we marched, and though his timing was drastically off in the tune, his hooves still fell on the beat, which meant our pace varied wildly.

A pair of mares from the other direction approached, and Shining brought a hoof to his mouth. "HEY! THAT DRESS LOOKS LOVELY ON YOU AND I REALLY LIKE YOUR MANE! IT'S VERY PINK!" One blinked, then looked cautiously pleased. The other scowled.

"Shining!" I warned, somewhat crossly.

"What about me?" Asked the very not pink mare. "This dress was hoof-stitched by Haute De Consignour!" She ruffled the colorful silk that was tied from her hair to a very strange dress.

Shining stared for a long moment. "It looks like there's a peacock’s butt on your head." He admitted with a chortle. Fury bloomed on her face, and her friend put a hoof to her mouth and giggled into it.

"Well I believe it is past time for us to be somewhere else." I choked, nearly pulling Shining into a nearby alley that should lead us to his home in a more roundabout fashion.

Shining's chortling turned into a sob. "CAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADYYYYY, I'M SORRYYYYYYYYYYYY! I didn't mean it, she's nothin' to me!"

"Shining, you only complimented a mare. Not insulted her honor. Though her hair was more mauve than pink."

"I'm the worst pony in th'world!"

"I am quite sure there are worse." I managed, keeping us at a brisk trot

"Cady deserves better. She can do better!"

"The first is unquestionable sir, the other is debatable. You are, like it or not, worthy enough for her acceptance."

Shining sniffled. "...yeah?"

"And hopefully you will be sober soon." He hiccuped. "Though maybe not soon enough." I admitted, seeing what seemed to be a mailbox with stars and a moon. The first pony had been very cross with us, though I argued that it did not look like a cutie mark detailer. Apparently it was not unheard of for unicorns with more ‘plain’ markings to make them a bit more gaudy. Whoever did mine, he claimed, did damn good work, but was a little over the top. I took the compliment in stride and got us on our way.

This house, Shining decided, looked like it. I wasn’t sure his judgement was currently sound, but I rapped politely on the door. Shining made a valiant effort to stand, looking as though he expected to be hit with a cart any moment and had resigned himself to the impact.

The door burst open and a pair of ponies bustled out, one either a very light grey or white, with violet stripes in her mane, and the other a more solid blue. They looked to be very concerned, and I could only make out a bit of it.

“-have you been-”

“-worried sick-”

“-smell like a distillery!”

“-what were you thinking-”

Shining held up a hoof, partially to block the questions, perhaps to forestall further questions. “Graduation is tomorrow.”

I stared. “...You didn’t tell them?”

“Ssssurprise!” He slurred, nearly falling forward.

His matron, which she could only be, stared. “But… but that’s early! That’s much too early! We wanted to prepare, to call your cousins, to- you can’t mean it’s tomorrow!

“Well… yes.” I put in. “We were given special dispensation for our efforts in Everfree Forest.”

“But… that would make this… Shining Armor! Did you just do the High and Low?”

I hesitantly defended him. “It was order and tradition.”

Here she laughed, and her husband seemed more than a little put out by it. “Nightie, don’t worry, this is normal.”

“Normal?! He’s been waiting for this ceremony since he got his cutie mark, and now he’s going to show up for it stinking drunk!”

She gave him a wicked grin. “The ceremony is at dawn. Facing the rising sun.”

“Dawn?” He asked. Then considered. “...Oh that is evil.”

“It is a fantastic way to teach moderation. And you must be Idol Hooves. Shining had told us all about you. Oh, it’s wonderful to finally meet you, I’ve been wanting to thank you ever since I heard about Shiny’s fall. I’m terribly sorry, you probably need to get back.” She frowned, tilting her head. “Surely they didn’t make you refrain during this?”

“No ma’am, I believe I handle it better. Shining, in truth, had less than I. I think. It does get blurry around… dusk?”

“That sounds about right.” She admitted, laughing. “I recommend you have coffee ready for the morning then. Come on, Nightie, let’s get our son to bed.”

“Honestly thought we’d never get the chance to tuck him in again.” Nightie seemed slightly mollified. “Did you do this?” The two of them braced Shining between them.

“Of course, sweetheart. It’s tradition.” And with that, the two ponies let the door swing shut. How very peculiar.

Changelings, it seems, get drunk fast and sober faster. This does not prevent hangovers, it only shortens the duration at the cost of intensity. Several pots of coffee made me functional, and I could not thank Topaz enough, even though I expected she had been up most of the night trying to determine exactly how much I had drunk.

Even so, the pre-dawn light had never been quite so harsh, and the idea of looking towards the rising sun was unpleasant. All of us felt astonishingly awful; given the general queasiness and misery I felt from my left and right, I imagined the sun was going to be torture.

I was right.

I barely heard the words being said by the captain. Knew them by heart, and repeated the oaths all the same. I looked up into the lancing rays of sunlight to see Princess Celestia smiling down on us, with Princess Cadance by her side. Love and hope radiated from both of them, and I tried to use the emotion to press down the rising sense of illness from the others… and oddly, it seemed to work. The others stood straighter, a bit more pride in their stance, and Shining finally smiled. Satisfaction began to form in all of them.

The last lines of the oath, our promise to obey the princesses, rang out, with the four of us speaking the words with utmost confidence. Celestia nodded her approval to us, told us we all made her very proud and she hoped we would continue to do so, and then left the stage with Cadance trailing. No sooner had they done so than our captain grinned and motioned towards the barracks. We marched stiffly to the barracks, where a trough of water and a large, empty barrel sat. It would not be empty for long.

Twilight Velvet was wise. Our first actions as Royal Guards was to void ourselves of the urge to be drunken revelers in the most humbling way possible. And thankfully, out of the eyes of Princess Celestia. We maintained our pride, if only barely.

All in all, not a bad start to our first day.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

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Freshly purged of the evils of potential alcoholism, we were propped up and given a few minutes to cleanse ourselves. From there, we received a half cup of coffee, all the orange juice we could safely handle, and a small piece of bark from one of the willow trees in the royal garden - which was also part of this tradition of the High and Low Crawl. The bark was bitter, unpleasant, and… surprisingly effective at making us willing to continue living. Or perhaps it was some combination of all of the aforementioned things.

Regardless, there was a small breakfast to be had with our kith and kin, and it would not do to keep them waiting much longer. Besides, I could recall eating very little during our exploration of the various Canterlot pubs, and I, for one, was ravenous.

Shining Armor’s parents were there, obviously, and Topaz was my only attendee. Cadance made herself seen from the ramparts, but her strange arrangement with Shining kept her from making a truly ‘public’ appearance. Nonetheless, the love she sent the way of the blue-maned unicorn was a truly welcome perk, even if I was amazed that none other had been smothered in the sheer breadth of it.

Shining’s parents apparently knew much of me, and seemed approving in general. Shining made a strange statement about me being willing to jump off a bridge if ordered, and I corrected him that if there was just cause to jump off a bridge, anypony would. He argued that if I could find one, he’d join me.

Shining is ever a good friend and worthy soldier. Shining’s mother took a picture of us as ‘Battle Buddies’. I think it’s an old term.

Topaz, to my surprise, was not entirely unknown to the other ponies. Her expertise with insects had made her a somewhat common alternative to traditional pest ponies amongst the palace gardeners; very recently she’d arranged for a combination of lacewings and dragonflies to be delivered to the garden and often provided support for one of Honeydew’s best behaved beehives, also located in the garden and routinely visited.

Those she did not know, she introduced herself to with aplomb that I found admirable. Still, I felt it appropriate to introduce her to my companions personally, and she took to Wispy rather well.

“So how do you know Idol?”

“Oh, well… technically I suppose I’m his landlady. I’m not sure how much he’s told you-” She offered cautiously, getting a measure for the other pegasus mare.

“Found wandering the desert in Saddle Arabian border, yeah, yeah, but how did you meet him?”

“Oh, well. I, um… met him just this side of the badlands and… well you know how it goes, he saved my life, he didn’t have anywhere to go-” She rolled her wings in a self-conscious shrug. “Couldn’t just leave him where he was.”

“No memories of his past, yeah, I get you…” The stormy mare gave me an appraising look while Topaz cleared her throat and rubbed the side of her chin with a hoof. I felt a moment of inexplicable dread, and was relieved when Bold ambled up.

“Ladies, Idol, how’s it going? Who’s your friend?”

“Ah, Bold Bigflank, this is Topaz Showers. She studies entomology.”

"Oh. So, you’d be in charge of designing those? Seems like they’re either heavy and a pain to carry or they're thin and don't keep out the rain or bugs at all."

“I… what?”

“You… study… tents, right?”

“En-to-mology.” She enunciated carefully. “The study of insects.” She frowned, looking him up and down and tilting her head, biting her lip in thought,. “...Haven’t we met before? You look familiar.”

“I don’t think so. Not too well known in Canterlot.”

“No, no, I’m sure of it. Bouncer?” She adjusted her glasses, peering up at him.

Bold’s good natured snort clearly proved that to be a poor guess, but his voice seemed oddly tense. “No, no, I don’t think we’ve met.”

“One of the night spots, maybe? I mean, there’s the Night Mares-”

“No, no, I don’t think so.”

“Maybe somewhere with more dan…cing…” She stared. Bold’s eyes grew wide. “You were a To-” Her own eyes darted to myself and Wispy. “-Top Hat’s waiter! That fancy bar, the one that shut down a year or two back.”

The relief in Bold’s eyes made me think that Topaz might be lying. How very unlike her.

Here Wispy’s interest piqued. “You worked in a bar?”

“It was a club, not a bar.” He stated stoutly. That… wasn’t precisely a lie, I thought, but Topaz nodded quickly, as if to affirm the inaccuracy. “Wasn’t a bartender, just… part of the wait staff.”

“Right, right. Like I said. Fancy. They wore little bow ties.” Here Bold glared at her.

“That… sounds kind of adorable.” Wispy admitted. “Place sounds fun.” She looked up at Bold, a hint of a grin appearing on her face. I tried to imagine Bold in a tie, and found myself quite incapable. That was probably for the best, I decided. I did not need that sort of trauma.

“Oh, yeah. I hit it up every so often. Too bad it closed.” She cleared her throat, and my concern at her dishonesty morphed into one over whatever was wrong with her respiratory system. Perhaps she could explain the purpose of cough drops.

A pair of stallions ambled out of the crowd, and I was stunned at their similarities to Bold. Topaz clearly was as well, because her mouth fell open. “BOOOOOLD BIGFLANK!” The one called, obviously delighted. The most notable difference, I decided, was that this one had a blonde mane of length and luster that I doubted any changeling could replicate properly. “You are looking well, friend!” He announced, clapping a hoof to his shoulder before hauling Bold into a firm embrace.

Bold looked almost as startled as Topaz, truthfully. “Andesite Rock, Hard Place, the tartarus are the two of you doing here?” I wasn’t sure which of the two went by which name. Truthfully, I doubt anyone present could; they seemed equally suited to either.

“Ahhh, we heard you were joining guard, and wanted to show our support. The others, they could no make it. But we all chipped in, and got you a little something to remind you of your roots. And you can show them how a uniform really looks.” The second one, darker haired and a bit stouter, dug into a saddlebag and produced a long thin box.

“Guys, that better not be a watch, you can’t-” When the box opened, it was… well, it looked to be a small gold ribbon on white fabric. I had to admit, it would match our armor magnificently, but hardly uniform. “Aw, guys… these were only for the ones who-”

“And this one is for you. You make us proud.” The other stallion grunted. “Is very impressive.” He looked at the rest of us, then smiled. “But you are not the only one from the old days. Miss Showers, it is good to see you.” This one didn’t enunciate well. I disliked his inattention to his ‘r’s.

Topaz let out a little squeak. Her respiratory issues would need immediate attention, I decided.

I turned to face her. “Topaz, are you well?” And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wispy gleaming grin as the golden mare turned to meet me head on… right before Wispy’s flank caught hers, and Topaz’s snout was pushed into mine.

The flow of emotion began immediately, and more intensely than any I had ever felt outside of Cadance. It was too much, one moment inscrutable, the next there was confusion, and fear, and there was- gone, in an instant, Topaz taking a shocked step back, her cheeks now red as apples.

“Topaz… I…” I tried to form words. Order, had I done it again?

“I… I’ll be right back!” She managed, fleeing to the buffet. I tried to process what I’d managed… the quantity of emotion transferred had not been great. It had, however, been faster than I’d expected anything to be, and had been… direct.

The anger I currently felt, I decided, was wholly my own. “Wispy!”

The mare shook her head. “I set you up and that’s all you give us? That’s a five, Hooves.”

“F- what?” My anger was deflating into confusion, which I wasn’t so certain belonged to me.

Bold took a protective step closer. “Come on, Wisps, that’s at least a seven. Looked like she was struck by lightning.”

“Six maybe, seven absolute tops. She’s a pegasus, anything higher than a seven would cause localized weather effects.”

What in Order are the two of you talking about!?”

Wispy shrugged. “Not a great kiss, Iddy. I kind’ve expected better from you.”

“B-Better…?” Why in the Queen’s name would she expect that?

“Oh yeah. She’s got a cloud with your name in it. I can tell. Honestly, how can’t you? You’re usually better at reading ponies.”

“What does that even mean?!” I burst, throwing my hooves in the air. Topaz owned no clouds.

“Colts, I’ve never seen you this flustered. You really like her, don’t you?”

I glared at them both. “No. Topaz deserves better than that.” I stormed off, intent on joining her, regardless of understanding what was going on. Confusion wafted from both of them, and I did not care.

I was still trying to process the rest of the stolen emotions as I went to join Topaz at the food. She was currently stacking strawberries on a plate, and I noted that odd little detail for further consideration.

Lamely, I began “I… am…”

“Soooo sorry.” Topaz finished. “Look, I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t thinking… I guess I tripped…I.. .sorry. It’s… it’s been a while.”

“Been a while for wha- no, that does not matter. Are you well? I did not mean to… take… from you.” I looked around, hoping nobody was paying us too much attention. Wispy and Bold were, but they were far enough away that I doubted it mattered.

“What? No, I’m fine. You looked as though you were going to be sick.”

“I had been… distracted. All I knew was that I was draining you, and I…” I tried to recall the order of events, precisely. Had the flow cut off and then she stepped away, or had she stepped away, and thus the flow was cut off? My attention had been only on the sensation…I could not recall.

“Well… I think I’m fine?” She sounded uncertain. “How do I know if I’m not?”

“I don’t think you’d care.” I admitted slowly, considering. How does one recognize that one no longer has emotion? “You likely wouldn’t have left?”

“Oh. Well, I thought. Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought.” She raised a hoof to her muzzle, and I found myself watching her mouth. Odd. Inappropriate, I decided. “I mean. It’s just… yeah, been a while.” She gave a little laugh. “I think… I think I need to start dating again.”

Dating. The pony means of finding a mate. I found I didn’t like it. It was, however of benefit to Equestria. Of benefit to Topaz. “Perhaps that would be wise.” I agreed, a strange clench to my jaw.

She seemed to look at me for a long time. “...Yeah.” She cleared her throat and drained one of the cups. “Anyways! How does it feel? Being a guard, finally?”

“Sobering.” I stated, as she pulled a face. “Truthfully. It is somewhat amazing that I am to be entrusted with the defense of the realm.”

“Part of it.” She quickly corrected. “You’re only responsible for your part in it. Take too much responsibility and you burn out. I mean, you’re not one of the ponies whose calling is to be a soldier.”

That was true enough; less than one in a thousand apparently had marks with direct combat applications, but that was the case unless the ponies were at war, according to military history lectures. “I will take as much responsibility as I am ordered to.”

“And I’ll order you to take it easy from time to time. So, did your… other friend make it?”

“I do not realize I was allowed to offer multiple invitations. Or that I could invite Honey Dew.”

“She’s traveling to Ponyville to try selling the Apple family a hive or two anyways. But you know the Apples, everything has to happen naturally. But that’s not who I meant.”

“...Shining is already here.”

“No, Idol, your other other friend.”

I considered, blankly. “Oh! Heyyu. As I said, I did not think to offer the invitation to others.”

“Maybe once they let you out, we could meet him? Celebrate a bit on our own terms?”

Topaz’s ploy was obvious, but I could not help but be amused by it. And my relief at her well-being was such that I could deny her nothing. “I believe we could make the time.” I cannot say why her trotting in place pleased me so.

Heyyu was gone.

At first, I was confused. Surely the front desk was misinformed. But upon inspection of their room, I found it to be so. In the meantime, Topaz had accepted what Heyyu had left behind from the rather confused hotel staff; an envelope and all of the crystals the Queen had given to me. Within the envelope was a section of the previous day’s ‘Help Wanted’ ads and, unfortunately, most of them crossed off. Heyyu had been busy. Of those left, I noted that all of them were under the subheading ‘Out of Town’. One was marked in red.







I sat, stunned by the implication. Heyyu was gone. And, unless Topaz was horrifically mistaken, by train. There was no other explanation. No farewells. No wishing of luck. These were pony traditions, true.

But the logic still felt hollow. I had failed my fellow changeling, and they had left the city with no more than that. I had even managed to disappoint Topaz, even if she gave no outward sign.

I truly hoped Heyyu would find their way in Equestria. Perhaps I had been too focused on my own? I wondered if they would even retain the name or form I knew them by. Impossible to know. Impossible to find out, short of traveling to this… Dodge Junction, and I now had other responsibilities; I could not simply leave them. Dereliction of duty was one of the most dishonorable things a guard could do, and I couldn’t, even if I truly wanted to.

I was lost in the quagmire of my thoughts until we returned home. It had been a thoroughly intense day, I decided. Intense, confusing, tiring. I would do better, I decided.

I would not fail another of my kind again.

I climbed into my cocoon restlessly, that night. I rubbed my nose, where Topaz’s own had made contact. It settled me somewhat, but troubled me in new ways.

Still. The memory was an oddly pleasant one, and through its soothing I fell into a slumber to await the dawn of a changed day.

Abridged Version

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Apparently, the change of the day also brought with in the news that I would be temporarily relocating. It was tradition that new recruits not receive their first weeks of on-the-beat-training in the same place they would later patrol, I soon learned. It had something to do with not being seen as ‘too green’ to those we protected. I pointed out that none of us were green, and was quickly corrected that, whatever had gone on out in the forest, we had been tested and found worthy, but still needed a little experience of day to day guarding. Since none of us had expressed interest in Manehattan, that meant that the four of us were to be shipped off to exactly there, albeit only for a few weeks. Our armor would arrive before us, and when we returned or went to whatever permanent duty location we were assigned, we would be polished, prepared, and ready to impress.

I do not think the sergeant’s emphasis on the second syllable makes that ‘the three P’s’. And honestly, it bothered me immensely that the others did.

Topaz promised me that everything would be exactly as I left it in my ‘lair’. I appreciated the sentiment, and promised to bring her something from Manehattan, as I was led to believe was custom. She assured me that wasn’t necessary, also as was custom; this ensured a better gift. Somehow. The staunchness of her assurances, therefore, suggested that I must get her a very impressive gift indeed. She also gave me a small pouch of bits to pay for a dragonfire transmission when I arrived, and a large block of salt for the train ride, which I had not previously been aware was necessary.

I cautiously asked for permission to travel by hoof. Alas, it was denied, and I again ventured into the beast, fortified with salt. This made me drowsy, which in turn made me paranoid; I did not want to fall asleep in the infernal machine when it required such constant vigilance. I was relieved when the others seemed to naturally fall into shifts of wakefulness and various games to pass the time, with Wispy getting frustrated that the pieces on the boards kept shifting, which apparently ruined the game as she was about to win. I found this amazing, as she had perhaps three of her total pieces left on the board. Shining agreed that it was a shame that he hadn’t seen her amazing counter-strategy, which apparently involved throwing a piece at his head. Beating Bold and myself in succession seemed to greatly improve her mood, though Shining admitted my strategy had the advantage of being unique. Apparently moving every piece one move ahead at a time regardless of openings is unheard of. I would have to refine it.

Manehattan is not as… mountainous as Canterlot. By which I mean it both lacks a mountain and lacks the good marble construction of towers that appear as spires. I found myself immediately disappointed, but I supposed brick and mortar would suffice away from their Princesses. The barracks was reasonably cozy, I decided; instead of having a large open space with bunks as did our first barracks, it had small two-pony rooms. Shining and I were given a room, and Wispy and Bold both shared their own with other new recruits; apparently it was either improper or uncomfortable for unwed ponies of opposite gender to rack together.

Oddly, Shining seemed slightly disappointed that the first day of actual servitude in the guard consisted of almost exactly the same early morning exercises as before, excepting that those who were considered the 'most fit' were allowed to see to their own training; roughly a quarter of the pegasi and earth ponies in our assigned group fell into this category, and perhaps half as many unicorns. Of our little quartet, Shining, Bold, and I opted to join the most vigorous group because it would be beneficial to us. Wispy chose to do something called 'free running' that apparently involved a very spirited run across the various peaks of the city with her wings loosely bound. While this sounded odd to me, it was apparently not totally unheard of. Perhaps I would enjoy the experience, and I made a note to try it at some point.

The following training was a brief tour of the city, as led by one of the senior Guard. Our duties would consist of ‘a great deal of grunt work’, taking part in the various patrols of the city, and seeing how the old Guard dealt with trouble, which we had already been trained to do, as I understood it.

“Have to keep your eyes peeled, fillies and colts. This town never sleeps. Could be the crack of dawn or the stroke of midnight, and ponies are out and about, buying, selling, seeing theater or museums. And then there’s the bat ponies; Celestia knows pegasi can get in enough trouble when there’s light to see by. Bat pony gets all salted up and the only way anypony finds them before morning is one of our patrols, so keep those eyes roaming!”

Given that we were in the midst of what I believed to be the exact same lecture for the third time on the third day of this tour, which happened to coincide with our crossing of a suspended bridge (a horrible architecture that involves the use of very little material that is subject to the motion of wind and excessive travel. I disliked it immensely), I found that it settled my stomach to keep my vision focused on the ponies in the market below us, which was usually far more bustling than even Canterlot’s own. Too many ponies, I had decided, finding this place to be perhaps too full of emotion for my palate. It was almost suffocating. I’d initially found that I envied Wispy for being able to patrol above the crowds with her fellow pegasi, but she admitted that it mostly involved something with zoning restrictions and cloud homes being subtly shifted into more expensive neighborhoods, which was frowned upon.

So it was with some relief that my attention was drawn to a pony arguing with another very loudly at some sort of jewelry stand, and both were becoming clearly upset. Pony anger has always interested me; it rarely had decent cause for the most excessive expressions. However, I was quite certain something was amiss when the salespony turned away, only for the buyer to shove the necklace they had been discussing into a saddlebag and quickly trot away.

I hesitated, not wanting to directly draw attention to the scene which the others did not seem to have noticed, as one of the seniors would have surely already seen it. The pony was approaching us from beneath. I shifted, and realized that our senior guard was glaring at me even as he spoke.

“Sir,” I began, not wanting to interrupt as the new sergeant first class seemed to be telling a very important detail of an encounter with a griffin that was, again, larger than the day before and therefore evidence that a third griffin had assaulted him at some point. “If I may-”

“Celestia’s beard, Cadet, can it wait?”

I considered, trailing the pony who was still making impressive headway through the crowd and was very nearly underneath us. The keeper of the stall had meanwhile noticed the absence of their item and was looking increasingly upset. “I do not think so, sir.”

“Then go, be quick about it. You have five minutes.” I nodded, pleased that I was being given an opportunity to enforce the Law of Equestria, though the time constraint was troubling. I would have to make haste to the lower level. “The rest of you, take fi-” The last of his words were lost to me as I poked myself between the bands of the bridge and dropped out of hearing range, recalling too late that ponies seemed to find this disconcerting. As it was, my fall was ‘cushioned’ by the thief-pony in question, who had actually stopped to gawk when somepony nearby had noticed my approach.

Their shock allowed me to quickly wrap them in a hold that I had once managed to use on Bold himself for a period of almost a full ten seconds.

“The buck did you come from!?” they demanded, struggling in a way that was most unlikely to get them free. Training, it seemed, actually did assist one in these matters. Up close, it was clear the thief in question was a mare.

“I bring justice from above,” I announced, wanting her to be aware that I had been witness to the crime.

She stared, mounting horror on her features. Clearly, the realization that she had performed an illegal act had not fully occurred to her. This was good; I could scarcely believe a pony would purposefully do something knowing that it was morally and legally wrong, whatever the others suggested. It was almost unthinkable.

Thankfully, her struggles abated when two other guards separated us. The salespony was delighted at the return of her family heirloom, which had not been for sale and had been the cause for their earlier argument. The thief-pony said some very discourteous things that I will not repeat and claimed the necklace was hers. The lie displeased me and I believe my glare silenced any further outbursts.

Unfortunately, the process took considerably longer than five minutes, and I was ashamed to see my assigned squad hurrying down an alley to get to me.

“What the hay were you thinking, Cadet?!” the senior guard sputtered, looking as though I had done something out of the ordinary. This had been duty, clearly. “You jumped off a bridge!”

“Forgive me, sir. The time constraint given-”

The roar nearly set me back a step. “Buck the time constraint! You jumped off a bridge! We had to secure Shining Armor to keep him from bucking going after you! Are you insane!?” I noticed Shining Armor looked shamefaced at this, and I nodded my appreciation at him. He was indeed a very good friend, and true to his word. He seemed to brighten slightly at that.

“No sir. I had noted a crime, and you told me to go. It was the fastest way to the lower level.”

The senior sputtered, furious beyond words, though I could not reason why. Perhaps tackling a pony from a bridge was excessive force. Ponies were fragile in some ways, I understood. And not very good at landing. It was probably for the best that Shining hadn’t joined me; it was lower than our training climb had been, but not by much. The bridge was intended as a scenic view, and was clearly not meant for such a sudden departure by non-winged ponies.

“I have been said to be the beneficiary of some form of ‘feather fall’ spell,” I recalled; Topaz’s earlier claim, while untrue, could be truthfully repeated. It seemed to ease the senior officer’s mind, but he was clearly still upset. “I am not sure how such a thing works, but these drops do not concern me.” And, it allowed me to approach good sturdy ground more rapidly. I liked that very much.

He groused nonetheless. “Tirek’s teacups, lad, that would have been nice to know before you jumped off a Moon-cursed bridge.”

I was familiar with neither of those terms, so instead lowered my head as a show of deference. This seemed to finally appease him, and we continued on our trek around the city.

Apparently, I had made my first ‘collar’, which I would assume to be another term I had not been familiar with, and this was cause for visiting a bar for a ‘sensible’ amount of drinking. I was initially resistant, but this too was apparently ‘tradition’.

It seemed a lot of guard traditions involved alcohol. I was beginning to grow slightly concerned with the direction they seemed to be going.

However, my fears were unfounded. Only I was to drink more than I should during this event, and even then it was to be only to the limits of moderation, as was appropriate for celebration.

Princess Cadance’s arrival in a low bar made my mouth far more dry than any beverage, salted or alcoholic.

Not only should one so high never sully her hooves in such a place, but she was entirely without escort. More disturbing, she was wearing some form of disguise. Her appearance was completely wrong, and the magic surrounding her was… hard to explain. It was oddly disappointing, a glamour that changed her color to a rich dark green and altered her features only slightly, as well as hiding her wings… but smoke does not hide a volcano.

Except, apparently, this smoke did. Shining spoke to her and seemed to have absolutely no idea that it was she. That was intolerable; I would have to correct his misconception at the first opportunity. In fact, none of the ponies seemed to recognize her innate majesty. My horror at the unfolding scene led me to stare, unable to speak.

I could not even break eyes with her when she met my own and suddenly blushed, and I realized how horribly inappropriate that had appeared. Order, how was this to be fixed?

Shining politely returned a flirtatious comment, but soundly rebuffed any other invitations, which seemed to annoy her. I would have to make him aware of the disaster he was brewing posthaste, and I found myself following her when she left and took a seat elsewhere with a bit of displeasure on her face.

“Ah… excuse me, this is horribly forward of me-”

She blinked, then blushed deeply, looking away. “Oh, um… this is awkward. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a catch and all but I’ve… actually got my eyes on somepony already.”

“Princess, I-”

She spun so quickly she nearly knocked over a pony carrying drinks, and I could swear I saw a glimpse of pink wing as she did so, though whatever she had done to cover it quickly reasserted itself.

“Princess?! Where? Princess Celestia, here? That’s crazy! She’d never come here!” Princess Cadance laughed, her voice sounding just slightly off. “Surely you don’t mean me!”

Perhaps this was an implied order to use that name. “Er. Cady, I-”

At that moment, one of the Princesses of all Equestria shoved me into a corner. “Sh sh sh sh shhhhhh!” She looked frantically about to see that nobody had noticed us. Wispy had, damn the luck, but she nodded in approval and gave me a small salute. I was beginning to mistrust my friends' judgement at times. “Oh Harmony, how did you know? Does Shining know? Does he think I’m an idiot? Oh Harmony, I’m an idiot. I should have just told him it was me, now he thinks I’m spying on him or-” I do not think he does,” I admitted, now completely lost. How could a Princess of Equestria be this… uncertain?

In a small, hopeful voice, she murmured. “He doesn’t…?”

“To my knowledge, he does not, Cada-”

“Emerald Glen,” She corrected, firmly. It was… suitable. Actually, it was a pretty good name, all things considered. Did all ponies find these names to be second nature?

“...Emerald Glen. He does not.”

“Oh thank goodness,” She looked at me, then sighed. “You’re going to tell him, aren’t you? Oh, this is such a disaster, I just wanted to surprise him and I thought it would be fun to flirt a bit and-”

“He did not realize it was you, and therefore turned you away.”

She looked embarrassed. “I wasn’t testing him or anything, I swear.”

I had no idea what she was talking about now, so I simply blinked.

“Okay, maybe a little, but I was going to tell him, I just didn’t expect him to be so firm about it. I was going to tell him in private.”

Ahh. This I understood. “Your honor is at stake. He holds your affection in so high a regard that he does not recognize those who would encroach upon your territory.”

She scrutinized my face, then met my eyes. Those she had left almost completely unchanged. Had Shining met those, he would surely have realized the truth. “You do not need to talk him up, Mr. Hooves.”

“Your ma-Emerald, it is true, and I swear it. After the traditional drinking before our induction, he was truly intoxicated to the point where he told another mare her dress was appealing. Then he was nearly inconsolable with the idea that you would be displeased with him for noticing even that much.”

Cadance-Emerald blinked. “Well of course I don’t want him to be blind. That’s not healthy for a relationship.” Still, she looked significantly more cheerful. “He is a good stallion.”

“One of the best,” I agreed.

“If I don’t tell him I came to see him, are you going to?”

“He has sent you a dragonfire letter every day since our arrival,” I noted. Those, I had found, were prohibitively expensive. A letter was a single bit; dragonfire was fifteen. The price one paid for instant communication, I supposed, but still extravagant. “It would please him greatly to see you.”

Now she winced. “I… haven’t been at the castle to receive them. I didn’t know he’d be sending anything dragonfire. Do… do you know what they said?”

“Reading another pony’s mail is a felony, your… Glenness.”

That near slip seemed to amuse her. “Alright, alright. Look. Do… you happen to think I could get into your barracks? I could tell him there. In private.”

I considered. That seemed reasonable. “We are the corner room. Number one-zero-eight. I believe we are allowed to have visitors.”

“Alright… yes, yes, I think this will work. So… please don’t tell him until I get a chance to?”

“Er. Yes, ma’am.”

Returning to my companions had never felt so awkward. Wispy seemed amused by my ‘nova’ ways. I was finding Manehattan to be a very complex place.

On the Rocks

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Leaving Princess Cadance in a bar was unthinkable. In truth, leaving her unescorted bordered on treasonous, but… her need to see Shining Armor was plain even as she adhered to this mad ‘plan’ of his. I found myself annoyed with him for putting his princess in such a position, for I could see no greater good in his attempts to ‘earn his position’. Princess Celestia could give him any position she chose and the ponies would respect it. It would be absurd otherwise.

My own soured feelings were somewhat muted as he checked hopefully for any missives at the quartermaster. The quartermaster informed him, in no uncertain terms, that if he asked again he would be put to work peeling onions until his eyes fell out and then no letter would do him any good. It was only through Shining’s own sheepishness that I was able to contain my urge to be quite cross. Being one of the few who were aware of whom would be sending Shining Armor a message, I found that these efforts to maintain secrecy in their relationship seemed to be more stressful to both of them.

Finding Princess Cadance in our shared chambers, however, drastically increased my stress. Especially with her languishing on my cot. Shining only blinked, staring at ‘Emerald Glen’. Then he looked to me. “Damn, you do make an impression. Should uh… should I go?”

I sputtered. “Why on Equestria would you go?”

Shining’s face reddened. “You know. So you can… I mean, you invited a mare back, I get it but I’m not going to stay-”

I closed my eyes and let a slow breath through my nostrils. Topaz did this often and I found it fitting for the situation. “Sir, while I appreciate what I can only assume was intended as a compliment… I am not the one she is here for.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Idol, that’s… that’s really cool of you and all, but that is completely not okay. I thought you understood-” He began trying to rather nervously push past me.

‘Emerald Glen’ rolled her eyes and dropped her disguise, clearing her throat.

Shining turned, got a glimpse of his beloved, and did something I completely did not expect.

That being, shriek like a frightened nymph and attempt to climb over my face. Neither of which made this situation better. Also he made it rather difficult to breathe, clinging to me like that. Perhaps this was another pony thing.


Cadance became Emerald Glen again. Shining stared. She turned back into herself. Shining’s grip loosened as his mouth fell open. Air filled my lungs, and speech returned to me. “Sir. If you please?”

“Wha….what’s going on? Cady? Wha… you’re supposed to be in Canterlot! Why are you on Idol’s bed?!”

She blinked, looking from one identical bunk to the other, cheeks coloring, before she threw caution to the wind, smoke in her voice. Raw emotion poured off of the pony princess as she slipped off the shoddy bed that had never been intended for such grandeur. “Why Shiny, I just thought that I’d come see you in your new armor up close.” She circled him even as he still clung to me. “And I have to admit.... Very, very nice.” Shining’s short tail curled slightly as if to cover him, and she burst into giggles. “Oh come on Shiny. I’m only kidding. Not about the nice part, I’m definitely liking that, but is it really that much that I came to see you? I’m just checking on a few things in Manehattan for Auntie Tia when she shows up in a few days. She has a meeting with the mayor. Tax stuff.” She waved a hoof dismissively.

“But… you should have guards!”

“Thank you, sir.” I sighed, relieved. Somepony had to say it.

“So I snuck out. That just makes it fun~!”

“If you will both excuse me…?” I managed, successfully extricating myself from Shining, though getting out from between the two was strangely more more complicated, as they seemed to circle me. I did not need to be between the two of them to draw in the love that was in the air, after all.

Shining was… surprisingly terrified. He’d faced the timberwolf with more certainty. What was this all about? Cadance was not, to my knowledge, a very large predator… had I misjudged her somehow?

Suddenly, he blurted “CHAPERONE!” and the two of us stared at him, uncomprehending.


“Idol! You need to stay.” I was quite sure that was incorrect, but the desperation in his voice gave me pause.

I cocked my head, hoping he would elaborate, though nothing was immediately forthcoming. The princess did not seem pleased by this, but… “...I do?”

“Of course! We’re an unmarried couple. In a bedroom. Cady has her reputation to worry about, can you imagine what ponies would say?”

“...It is not a bedroom. It is our quarters.” I wasn’t entirely sure what I was arguing about, but the princess’s ire was slowly becoming begrudging disappointment. Better, but still dangerous.

“Right, and you know that and I know that and she knows that but they don’t know that, and that’s why they’ll talk about it!”

“Our… quarters?” Were they truly that far below standard? For a princess, certainly, but with a little bleach… some wax… maybe ripping the walls out and replacing them with marble...the candleholders were made mostly of tin, I think, that was embarrassing…

“I believe he means ‘us’, Mr. Hooves.” Cadance admitted. “Our relationship is still relatively unknown outside of our old school friends. It was never really newsworthy, as I’m not a real princess-”

“Are too.” Shining countered, seeming to finally be calming down. “And it’d be a scandal if word got out that you were found in this situation. Without someone to verify that it’s absolutely innocent. Which is Idol.”

“Me?” I frowned. “Why would my word be required to validate the princess?”

“It… just would?”

I glared at him, not because I disagreed but because I believed somepony needed to be glared at. That had made about as much sense as anything else ponies did. “So what… duties do I have as a chaperone?”

Shining’s relief was palpable. “Just make sure we don’t do anything wrong. And vouch for us if we get caught.”

Of course. I was to judge their private interaction for propriety. Obviously I knew what those rules were. Ponies are crazy. “I… shall endeavor to do so.”

Apparently a chaperone’s main duty was to watch-but-don’t-watch ponies cuddle and it is a very odd experience. Cadance had little enough time to spare, and Shining’s armor was still to be polished for the next day, so they mostly discussed their day while working on whatever tasks they could. Albeit with as much physical contact between as was deemed appropriate by myself.

I figured they’d stop before it reached anything untoward. I was still uncertain on this whole business. Perhaps they were making sport of me. I’d verify with Topaz. And Cadance admitted, she might not be able to steal the time to do this again. Though filling, this was all rather boring. I do confess, her giggles at Shining’s retelling of my ‘Justice Bellyflop’ were rather charming, and I was beginning to enjoy these ‘war stories’ and how there was an element of truth to them with padding that both parties were well aware of. Though I had no idea what they meant when they mentioned a strange nearly-solid streak of rainbow in the sky that had passed over the city. I had apparently missed it, though I doubted it could have been anything important.

Two days of training later, I had my response from Topaz, and a letter from the Sparkle family besides, to be delivered to my roommate.

Obviously, Idol, if your friend is asking you to be a chaperone with a mare he really likes, he’s asking you to do a bad job.

I stared at the missive. Do a bad job. On purpose. What.

Now, I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. The two of them want some alone time, but her parents are probably real suspicious types. Believe me, I know the sort, and you’re really just providing a buffer for their virtue. Gotta go through you before they can be accused of anything.

But the point is, they don’t want you watching them all the time. Didn’t you say his marefriend dragged him into a closet once? It’s like that, only less crowded. Maybe. So, what you do is you wander off when you’re chaperoning and give them benefit of the doubt. Easy, right? He just can’t ask you not to do a good job. Plausible deniability.

Anyways, I can’t believe you made your first arrest! I hope they throw the book at her.

That seemed excessively violent for stolen property. And I think it would be deemed assault, after she had already been arrested. I would have to check the law again.

Now don’t waste any more bits on dragonfire if you can help it. I’ll see you when you get back. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and go see some of the Manehattan night life! The clubs are amazing.

Carefully re-sealing the scroll and tucking it into a saddlebag, I made a vow to do just that. Topaz’s advice had never been wrong before, but… her suggestion to do a poor job as a chaperone? Could that have been what Shining actually wanted of me? As for not doing anything Topaz wouldn’t do… well. I’d never seen her do anything she wouldn’t do. So that seemed… vast? Perhaps I was mistaken. She had also not brought up the topic of a gift, which was code in this strange way of not asking for gifts, meaning that she expected one to be grand indeed. I was beginning to grow concerned; I had never purchased a gift before. Perhaps I would enlist Shining’s aid in this.

Shining was delighted to receive his letter, cheerfully informing me upon opening it that the little smarty pants had gotten her cutie mark during her entry examination for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns; he’d had ten bits riding with his father that she’d get it dealing with something book-related and he was pretty sure a cutie mark in ‘magic’ counted. She’d even done well enough to warrant being made Celestia’s protege, the little showoff. Unfortunately, Shining was rendered dumbstruck by the next revelations, and it took several attempts to draw him out, finally resorting to mimicking the princess’s voice, calling his name. At his start, I cleared my throat. “Shining, what news from home?”

“...I have a little brother.” Shining stated, sounding mystified.

“...Yes, Shining, you have mentioned your younger sibling.”

“No, I had a sister but now I have a little brother.”

I frowned, tilting my head. “I did not know that was possible.”

No, you… I have a little brother too now!” He levitated a photograph over in front of my face. I stared a long moment, the small purple pony one I had seen before, but maybe...

I hesitated, not sure where to begin. “Shining Armor. That is a dragon hatchling. I have met your parents. That hatchling is exceedingly unlikely to be related to you. Not that I judge your parents external relations. They seem to be very nice ponies, but perhaps some… education on reproduction is in order.”

Shining turned the photo back around. “She hatched him during her test. And… he doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Dragons need magic to hatch, and… that makes us almost family to the little guy.”

That was plausible, I supposed… “But that does not make you siblings.”

“It does now. Mom and dad just adopted him. Said it was the easiest way to make sure he always knew where he stands with us. I… have a little brother.”

“Who is a dragon.”

“I have a dragon for a little brother. That… is kind of awesome, isn’t it…?”

“I… suppose?”

“I get to teach him… like, bro codes, and all kinds of things, and knight stuff and-” he stopped, looking stricken. “Can I teach a dragon knight stuff? Is that okay? That’s not… y’know, specist or anything, is it? I mean… knights fight dragons.”

I… thought this was a reference to their Ooogers and Owl-blats game, and I searched my little knowledge on the topic. “Perhaps knights fight evil dragons?”

He brightened, scribbling something on the corners of his letter. “Hey, that works!” He scrunched his nose. “You don’t think I have to teach him to breathe fire, do you?”

“Do you breathe fire, Shining Armor?”

“Well, no.”

“Then I would presume not.”

“Still… hey, this calls for a celebration!”

Oh Order no, not more liquor. “Perhaps… you should share this good fortune with the Princess?” I offered, hopefully.

The alabaster stallion brightened still further. “Hey, that’s a great idea. Cady’s gonna love hearing about this. She’s staying in the Mareytrott on Bridleway until Princess Celestia gets here, I bet she doesn’t even know yet.”

Shining and Cadance were so delighted by the news that Twilight was going to be Princess Celestia’s personal student, I do not think either of them truly noticed that I did not return after excusing myself. Truthfully, I had little concerns; Shining Armor was already trained to defend the Princess’s honor, I could not imagine he would have any significant difficulty with her virtue.

Finding a club was not exceptionally difficult. For a city that prides itself on never sleeping, there are a fair number of businesses that at least rest their eyes for a few hours. As for the club itself… I had not expected pandemonium. There was the same charge in the air as I had felt before my first meeting with Celestia, though less focused.

And there was far more… gyration. Ponies bounded over cut tiles on the floor with a spherical ball of mirrors above casting strange light and shadow over the room, and I found myself mesmerized. I had no exceptional urge to join in this particular frivolity, but I could see that many of these moves were practiced. It was something akin to our own drill and ceremony, though… I believe this was being done for simple enjoyment, the complexity of motion apparently a matter of pride. However, it was such an outpouring of… raw emotion that I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, as though I were witnessing something that should have been private.

I watched for perhaps an hour before I became vaguely aware of another presence off to my side.

“Hey.” The figure stated. I noted a number of mares behind her seemed to be cheering her on.

“Hello. How may I be of assistance?” Then realized I was not wearing my armor, and I was unlikely to have been recognized as a guard. Still… if duty called, I was required to answer it regardless of preparation.

“Do you want to dance?”

I hesitated. “No,” I offered truthfully. “I do not know how.”

“Oh. I don’t know how either. My friends were insistent that I should ask you. It was a foolish thing to do.” I couldn’t help but marvel at this pony’s control. Everything felt so… wonderfully neutral. Was this a changeling infiltrator at work? I had to admit, I was fascinated and more than a little impressed.

“I see.” I considered. “Would you like to stand here and watch the others dance with me?”

A delicate eyebrow raised. “I would.”

And so we did.

“...Was that supposed to look like a seizure?” I questioned of one very strange set of motions.

“I think they were trying something new. If this floor wasn’t made of polished travertine he would have damaged something.” She said disapprovingly.

“It’s not marble?” I asked, surprised.

“Marble is too expensive and soft. Granite would be better, but it’s harder to polish.”

“I have always preferred granite.” I admitted. “It holds up more securely.”

“Ah. You’re a miner?”

“At one point.” I acknowledged. “Though I recall little of that time. I would like to try my hoof at construction at some point. Please, go on.”

She gave a slow, deliberate blink. “I’m not boring you?”

“The pursuit of knowledge is rarely boring.”

The corners of her mouth quirked upwards slightly. “What do you know about andesite?”

“More soon, I hope. Is it comparable?”

The pony dancing was soon forgotten amongst scholarly discussion, or at least listening on my part. Topaz often talked at length about her studies, and there was something charming about seeing her lost in a topic that I had no real knowledge of. This mare shared that trait.

“And that’s how the crystalline structure of mythril is comparable to that of diamond.”

I stared, dumbfounded. “I was unaware.” We stopped, the entrance to her apartment having been reached. We had been ejected from the club due to ‘closing time’ and it had seemed a shame to leave the conversation incomplete… so we simply opted to walk together. And it was polite to escort a mare to her domicile, as I understood it.

“This was… enjoyable.” She admitted, seeming somewhat surprised. “I only came because my friends insisted.”

“It was a rather pleasant evening. I was not sure I would approve of the club myself.”

She stared for a long moment. Then she tilted her head slightly. “Would you like to come in for a drink?”

I considered my options. Then nodded, firmly. “That would be wonderful.”

Maud Pie makes fantastic coffee. I do not think words do it justice. As she explained it, the only way to make good coffee was with mortar and pestle, and you had to use real stone. Ceramic was alright. Wood was pitiful and would be too easily damaged, and grinding coffee with metal? You might as well drink mud.

I had been startled when she showed me a picture of her family. I had been thoroughly convinced this was a changeling infiltrator earlier, but… no, it seemed that her neutrality was carefully cultivated. From the family photograph, she seemed mostly alone in that regard, and one of her sisters was very… pink. I doubted I had ever seen a pony quite so pink as Pinkie Pie, and in that regard her name was exceptionally fitting.

“-And that’s Limestone guarding Holder’s Boulder.” She finished, with another small upturn of her lips. “She’s always been a little overprotective of it, but it keeps the farm safe.”

“...And you grow stone?” I asked again, still incredulous.

“The stones gather minerals from the soil as we roll them around; each kind of rock draws more like it. So we make small rocks into bigger rocks of the same sort.” Maud explained. “Holder’s Boulder is special; it’s perfect. No imperfections. No flaws. Hard. It’s almost family.”

“But… could stone not be quarried…?” I was sure that this was a thing ponies did.

“You could. But you’ll never get traditionally quarried stone in the same quality as a Pie family stone. We just can’t produce as much by comparison. That’s one of the reasons I’m working on my rocktorate. If I can figure out the exact mechanics of how we get rolled stone to work, we might be able to expand.”

I nodded slowly, considering. “I can see potential in it, certainly. A house chiseled from a single stone, placed on top of a mountain, as if it were part of the very rock itself. An amazing view and as secure as stone can be.”

Maud’s eyes widened slightly as she contemplated the prospect. “...I have never before considered that. But it is now exactly what I want. Not made of stones, made of one stone. Carefully done with the proper material, you could carve everything out, polish it perfectly, but it would be a masterpiece. A culmination of a life’s experience.” There was a fervor in her eyes. “...I’ll do it.” She drew a piece of paper from a saddlebag and began sketching. “Something like this…”

I leaned forward for a better view, but as soon as my mane brushed hers I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head, and a small rock clattered to the table. “...Where did that come from?”

Maud’s eyes widened, and she looked up so suddenly that her muzzle nearly struck my own. “I’m sorry. Boulder is usually better behaved. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”

I peered at the round stone, confused. It… could have fallen from a shelf, I supposed… but how it fell on me I could not begin to guess. Perhaps Maud’s apartment had shifted somehow. More concerning, however, it drew my attention to the window, where the horizon was just starting to shift from starry black to orange. I had duties to attend soon, much though I had enjoyed this meeting.

“I’m afraid I have to be going. Perhaps we can meet again before I return to Canterlot?”

Maud paused, then shook her head, regretfully. “I’m heading back home to see Pinkie’s cutie mark. However…” She carefully wrote her address on the rock-house sketch before pushing it towards me. “Keep in touch?”

I took it with all the care it deserved. “With pleasure.”

I attribute my wakefulness solely to Maud Pie’s coffee skills. Even so, it promised to be a long day. To my vast surprise, Shining Armor only managed to stumble in a few short minutes after I did, looking disheveled but also enormously pleased with himself.

“Yyyyou left me.” It was vaguely accusatory, but mostly it seemed to be a statement of fact.

“I did.” I acknowledged with a tilt of my head. “If I am required to vouch for your honor, I hardly need to be present for what I already know to be true; if you both claim a thing did not happen, I have no further need for validation.”

“...Good stallion.” He offered a hoof, and I lightly rapped my own against it. Topaz was right, apparently. Ponies were crazy.

Shining Martyr

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Unfortunately, Shining Armor lacked the bolstering of Maud Pie’s coffee concoction, and seemed further distracted most of the day for reasons he would not elaborate on. Most dishearteningly, he appeared to be daydreaming. It was quite unprofessional. That said, the love wafting off of him was exceptionally delicious; Cadance had cultivated a fine batch indeed.

Our sergeant of the day, however, had absolutely no tolerance for Shining’s lackadaisical attitude and after finding Shining’s attention wandering for the third time that day, sentenced him to KP for the next two nights of our stay in Manehattan to ‘get his head together’.

Shining’s devastation was disproportionate to the extra duty, I felt. I quite enjoyed having access to the leftovers, should they not be burned beyond recognition.

“Darn it, Idol, you just don’t get it.” Shining groused, scrubbing a thoroughly blackened pan and stoutly refusing to allow me to assist him on the grounds that he was being punished. He scowled at a thick layer of viscous grease, dropped the pan into scalding water, and then lifted it and a sizable amount of soapy water out of the sink in a shield-bubble, setting the sphere to violently churn the contents as he applied physical might and a green pad to another pan that was probably more scorch than metal after years of improper care.

“It is very likely I do not, as you have not explained anything to me.” A shield burst as several foamy forks dropped into the sink. I eyed the half dozen other floating bubbles, beginning to think he was showing off.

“I’m supposed to meet Cady tonight. Celestia shows up tomorrow-”

I gave him a firm glare. “Princess Celestia.”

He had the grace to look abashed. “You’re right, you’re right. I get so used to Cadance doing it that I forget. But she shows up tomorrow and then we just… won’t have time. And then it’s back to Canterlot, where we have to be… you know. Circumspect.” He bit back another yawn. I doubted he would be functional after his extra labor was complete.

“Will we not be tasked with her protection here? There are few royal guards in Manehattan.”

Shining shook his head. “Mostly the Canterlot guard takes up that role. The local guard fills in but the Princess prefers not to cause too much of a disruption to the lives of the ponies in the places she visits. Guard is usually understaffed by a fair bit anyways.”

Now that startled me. “It is?”

“Sure. Ponies like having protection but they also like doing something with their cutie mark on a day to day basis. The ones who have a mark for something that relates to the guard directly are few and far between. You get a few like Bold or Wispy whose talents are general purpose but have their own reasons, but yeah, mostly, we’re short-hooved.” He gave me a look. “And frankly you’re the only potter I’ve ever met in the guard. It doesn’t really… carry over, I guess?”

It was true enough, I supposed. Ceramics were rarely called for, though Shining had claimed to be vaguely aware of ‘ablatives’ that could be used to defend against magical attacks, though a good shield was far more effective. And he was still talking, I should have been paying better attention. My own lack of rest was taking a toll.

“-So would you mind?”

“Of course not.” I agreed, certain Shining would not ask me to do anything too unpleasant.

“Great! Cady keeps on prying, I told her you just take a little time to open up. This’ll be her best opportunity. And maybe she’ll forgive me for not showing up.”

And… the princess wanted to split my shell, apparently. “S...sir?”

The princess did not intend to crack me open and consume my tender innards, and Shining Armor was not sacrificing me to appease her fury. That was more of a relief than I expected it to be. That she had taken interest in me was of far greater concern. Apparently she had been more put off than I realized by my ability to pierce her deceptions; Shining assured her they were remarkably adept, but… to be truthful, any illusion that cannot withstand sudden motion cannot be trusted with one’s life. True, shapeshifting was more exhausting, and shells deadened the senses. However, given that my duties involved contact with other ponies, illusions were likely to be torn away..

Besides. My armor didn’t fit with an illusion, and it was hard to get the bindings to work properly on a shell as opposed to a shifting. One could not be slovenly, and thus I accepted the extra workload. That said, not being emotionally starved made what would have seemed a monumental task considerably easier, though I did look forward to stretching my wings a bit when we returned to Canterlot.

Shapeshifting did unfortunately have one very unpleasant downside compared to a shells, be it a changeling’s natural chitin or a magical false pony body.

It did nothing for rain. It was rarely much trouble for a changeling as the water usually just slicked off a piece of chitin, but for ponies it clung to the coat and mane and just made for a cold wet mess. I do not know why ponies insisted on rain being cold; it has always seemed that if one must deal with the downsides of water falling uncontrolled from the sky in a semi-scheduled fashion, you could at least alter it to be comfortably warm.

And apparently, it rains heavily and often in Manehattan. The city was allegedly famous for the inhabitants' ability to utterly ignore these storms.

I refuse to contemplate what that says about ponies. But my thoughts were not entirely charitable as I dried myself off in the lobby.

There was still something disconcerting about approaching the lodgings of Princess Cadance without Shining Armor. I wished I had armor. But no, armor was not to be worn while one was off duty; we were not to perform guarding functions during those times unless in the case of emergency. To my understanding, in these situations all members of the Guard would hasten to an outpost and don stored armor. It would fit less well, but was well maintained and would mostly function as intended. And kept the ponies of the guard from needing to carry a complete set of gear at all times.

I was stalling. Inappropriate. And, should I be late in reaching Cadance to inform her of Shining’s inability to arrive, would only upset her further. It would not do to have my friend cast from her sight the next time they met. This tower-hotel was tall, and Shining did not fly well.

I announced myself at the front desk, and learned that ‘Emerald Glen’ was staying in one of the Royal Suites. I flushed; even the innkeeper had seen through her disguise and sought to treat her befitting royalty. A bell and a speaking tube informed Cadance that her gentlecolt caller had arrived on schedule.

Oh Order. I tried to explain the misconception, but the mare at the front desk gave me a wink and urged me into an elevator. Maybe Princess Cadance would throw me out a window. Odd that now I found that a preferable outcome. Order, what if she thought I was taking on airs? Was my pony form sweating? No, that was likely steam. Perhaps the elevator would drop me into the abyss and save her the trouble.

The traitorous contraption refused to be accommodating. More proof of the wickedness of these new technologies, as it brought me to the top floor with little more fanfare than the cheerful hiss of steam.

Rapping on the door with a hoof was difficult, but Shining Armor’s date was to begin shortly; he could not be late by proxy. I had been offered the task and I, fool that I was, had accepted.

“Come in~!” Came a lilting voice, full of eagerness and mischief.

Death awaited me. It seemed exceptionally cruel that it was so lovely. I opened the door.

Princess Cadance awaited within in a robe, with her mane concealed by the wrappings of a towel as she lounged on a large pink bed. “Sorry Shiny, I lost track of time and-” Her eyes widened as she took in her ‘caller’. Then she scrambled, falling off the bed and behind a changing station, popping her head back out immediately. To my surprise, her mane was actually far drier than my own. That was useful magic, but now the former need for the towel was lost upon me. What was she doing?

“What are you doing here?!” She sputtered, face remarkably red.

I wondered briefly if one could drown in embarrassment. Unlikely, but a valiant attempt was made. “Forgive me, Princess. Shining Armor was unable to accompany you tonight.”

The rosy eyes narrowed from her vantage around the barrier. “And why couldn’t he be here?”

“He was given extra duty because one of our commanding officers found him to be… distracted.”

Her embarrassment changed flavor. “...Oh. Um. Excuse me, would you?” She withdrew behind the folding screen, and the robe tossed over it. I never did understand this; Topaz found the idea of being watched changing inappropriate as well, but often wore no clothing, as did most ponies. And she had never professed difficulty with helping me into my armor or watching me put it on. Another odd pony paradox, I decided, and one far beyond my understanding. A case levitated out from under the bed, unclasped loudly, and after a minute, I heard it clasp again before being tucked back in the same place before Cadance pushed the screen away, now clad in her more traditional accessories.

She hesitantly crossed the room, as if expecting a scolding. “So… Shiny’s in trouble?”

“No, your Majesty. His mind was elsewhere for most of the day, his attention to detail suffered, and he was ordered to correct himself with manual labor. He is scrubbing pots.”

Now she looked offended. “Actually, it would be 'your Highness', we only use 'your Majesty' when you talk to visiting kings or queens, but I told you, call me Cady. They ruined a date because they wanted him to do dishes?”

“I do not believe they were aware of any such thing. There is much work to do, however.”

“I should just go down there.” She muttered, wings ruffling. “Just order them to assign him to me for the day instead.” She took a step for the door.

“I… forgive me, your… Cady.” The word felt like ash, but no lightning struck this time either. “I… do not think that would achieve his intention.” I direly needed to yawn. Another cup of coffee, perhaps.

She shuffled, looking annoyed. “And what is that?”

“He wishes to be worthy of you. It is a fool’s errand, but he attempts nonetheless. He-”

Excuse me?” The embarrassment was gone now. There was something cold. I blinked, senses awakening.

“Shining Armor seeks to be worthy of you.” I reiterated, confused. “He is not, obviously. And it is inappropriate for him to court you, knowing this. That he seeks to improve himself so far beyond his station is also inexplicable and impossible.”

She stared, anger beginning to cloud those delicate features. “Shining likes you. I can’t believe you’d say something like that…”

“It is true, regardless of Shining Armor liking me or not.”

“Oh, is it? If not him, then who? You?” There was scorn in her tone, though I could not imagine why.

The implication, however… “Order, no. I am so far beneath you both that I should not stand in your presence, and only do so at Shining Armor’s request.”

“The very pony you just declared ‘unworthy’?”

“He is unworthy.” I confirmed. “He… seeks worthiness. Impossible, but… if any pony could. I would believe Shining Armor to be such a one. He is a good pony.”

Her anger was giving way to confusion. “I’m not sure I understand, Mr. Hooves.”

“He is not an alicorn, nor is he a... Prince?” That was the supposed male equivalent, after all.

She gave a choked laugh. “Well thank Harmony he isn’t. Have you even met Prince Blueblood? He’s a patoot.”

I froze. “I… did not actually know there was a prince.” Had I sworn oaths to him? No, I didn’t think so… “A… patoot?”

Her eyes went wide. “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”

“I… will not?” A ‘patoot’? What even was a patoot? Was it like a pinto? A strange coloration? Everypony had preferences, I supposed, but that was excessive.

“Aunt Celestia would wash my mouth out with soap. But… maybe I’m misunderstanding. You’re saying Shining isn’t… worthy of me, but he’s trying to be?” She tilted her head, biting her lower lip. “ doing dishes.”

“Yes. And that is impossible; one cannot reach the unattainable. By definition. You are an alicorn. A goddess by some description.” And Celestia would cleanse her mouth with soap? Order, why would she do that?

She gave a disdainful snort. “I’m not even a real alicorn.”

I stared.

She did not elaborate.

“...I am sorry, your Highness, I do not see the humor.”

“It’s not a joke. You and all these noble ponies act like I’m supposed to be some… goddess made flesh. And I’m not. I’m not even as strong as Shiny is. Celestia carries the sun and moon, and me? I make ponies remember the love they have for each other. Some ponies think that’s just some sort of mind control. They’ve tried to legislate me. So I can’t use the one thing I can do without permission. I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to. I’m a nopony, Mr. Hooves.”

“You are the Princess of Love.” I sputtered. “What is more important than that?”

“The sun? The moon? Tides and food? I’m hoping that’s ringing a bell.”

“We cannot live without love.” I countered, forgetting myself.

She blinked. “That’s… surprisingly romantic.” She stared at me for a long minute. “...State your piece, Idol.”

“Shining is unworthy of you, but seeks to be as… close to worthiness as is possible. He would demean you as little as he can with his presence.”

“And what if I don’t care about that?” She asked, now honestly curious.

“Then… I believe you would have a lesser Shining Armor. One who would always question himself. But he would accept that, if you asked him to.”

She continued to stare. “...I think I might have misjudged you. I… I’m sorry. Keeping all this quiet, dealing with some of the nobles trying to insinuate that I should go walking with someone’s cousin or so-and-so’s nephew…”

I stared in horror. “Surely not!”

“Ohhh surely yes. You’re not saying Shining is beneath me and I should dump him. You’re saying that Shining is beneath me but trying his best. And that’s why he’s doing dishes instead of saying he had a date with me. To prove that. Because he loves me.”

“Yes!” I stated, pleased.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you aren’t great with words.” She noted, a bit of humor in her voice.

One could hardly argue with that. “I am not great with a great many things.” I agreed cheerfully.

Cadance snorted once, then started to laugh. The tension drained from her, and all was well again. “And here I was worried we were going to have to fight because you were trying to steal Shining from me.”

Wait, what?

A Knight with Princess Cadance

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Why on Equestria would you think that?” I sputtered, trying to regain control of the horror that was trying to escape through the nearest window, for fear that I would follow it moments later.

Well~!” Cadance managed through her giggles, “The maids do talk. And the castle walls just haaaappen to overlook the training grounds. Some are willing to use their breaks to enjoy a bit of a show.”

I blinked. “I… do not…?”

A pink hoof prodded me in the chest. “You, sir, have a reputation,” Princess Cadance seemed to be delighting in this revelation. “They think you’re shameless. And hopeless. And, if I have to be honest, they’ve got you paired with every mare and stallion in your unit. Including mine.”

I swallowed fear. “I… swear I have never attempted to pursue your… Shining Armor.” Should I have called him Shining Armor, or said ‘your stallion’. Which would offend her less? I briefly wondered if the ground opening beneath me would have to consecutively breach every floor to the penthouse. Likely. I resolved to wish for a death less troublesome to the owner of this establishment.

“And… I think I believe that.” She tilted her head, causing multi-hued hair to drape over one eye. “Honestly, I can’t get a good read on you. No offense, I’m sure Shining has told you all about it-”

“I… no, actually. Shining rarely speaks of you in terms of your duties and skills as a princess. And usually we interact in a public setting; to my knowledge you wish your interactions to be clandestine.”

She looked, I decided, much more like a foal with a hoof in the cookie jar now. Or how I expected one to appear. “...oh. Well… I can… sort of… tell when ponies are in love. Usually. Well. Not really anything as nebulous as that, I can sort of see it. Not really with my eyes, but. Darn, this is hard to explain. When I see you, it’s all… fuzzy. I think I see a few lines, but…” She blushed heavily, looking away. “It’s not completely unique, but rare enough that I’d like to get inside your head a bit, if you don’t mind.”

I took a nervous step towards the window. Perhaps my horror had the right idea…

“Now don’t be like that, I just want to talk and see how you feel about some things. I mean, usually I can get a feel for ponies through seeing them with family, even discussing their family can usually give me something-”

“I have no family.” I admitted. At least, not in the pony way of seeing things. The concept of ‘adoption’, as Shining Armor’s family had done to the young dragonling was still foreign to me, as the hive does not have ‘parents’ in the pony sense. I suppose one changeling could consider an egg ‘theirs’ regardless of true lineage and then sneak extra love into that nymph and risk their own destruction doing so, but… that seemed… wrong? Confusing, certainly. One would have to completely disconnect from reality. The changeling way of the hive caring for all offspring en masse was better.

Now she gave a start, looking at me with new interest. “Oh… well, we’re in the same boat, then.” She gave a shrug of forced casualness, as if this wasn’t an old wound torn anew. “I’ve actually never met my own.”

Lying about emotions to a changeling who is seeking any escape is… less than advised, if not always an exercise in futility. Sympathy may not be a strong trait amongst my kind, but one does not snub royalty. “I truly do not know if I have blood family, your majesty. I… do not recall them. My first recollections of Equestria involve a team of traders. Of the rest…” I considered. “I haven’t a single memory of other ponies before that. I can’t even tell you where I hail from.” All true, the last if only technically. I could neither point it out on a map nor tell others of its location; the nest itself was forever forbidden to me. Still, that the princess saw this lack of ‘parents’ as such a painful truth... perhaps I simply lacked the context to realize what had never been offered to me, and the loss that entailed?

The princess sought to strangle me for my misdirection. No, wait. This was another hug, though far more sympathetic than the one she had forced upon me after Everfree. “That’s right, Shiny mentioned that you said you had amnesia. If I had to guess, I’d say you were from a border somewhere. Maybe Saddle Arabia? You have just a bit of an accent.” Which… was not entirely accurate. I had been said to have amnesia, and I told Shining Armor as much. And… accent? I had an accent? “Have you had a chance to seek help? There’s no shame in seeing a psychologist.”

“I… no?” I wasn’t even sure what a psychologist was.

She brightened. “Then I’ll introduce you to the very best shrinks in Canterlot.”

Good heavens. She was going to make them fit me in one of Topaz’s specimen containers. I was beginning to consider that Equestrian mares had their own hive mind of sorts.

“One hopes that would not be necessary, your majesty. I am already quite compact.”

Her grin was a blessing. “Cute. They’re right, you are a shameless flirt.” She made a vague motion with a hoof. “Teach Shining some of that. It’s a good skill for trying to disarm somepony, if you can do it right.”

“Can one flirt incorrectly?” I imagined that Bold was a reasonable example. Or perhaps Wispy. The two of them were absolutely incapable of recognizing one another’s interest at times. Still, it would do to know precisely what the princess thought was-

Princess Cadance of Equestria gave me a smoldering look through her bangs that seemed to be nothing short of unbridled lust. I took half a step back and froze, wide-eyed, desperately fighting any and all other reactions as my very chitin seemed to char under the intensity. Then she relaxed, and I, thankfully, did not explode, though it was a near thing, rude or not. “See, that was entirely inappropriate. Can’t have Shining doing that to a mare.” She considered. “Well, maybe. Not without my say-so, at least.”

My heart beat again. “That was… unkind.” I had never been quite so directly targeted with such lust, even feigned… Shining truly was an amazing stallion to be able to withstand such focus. Had the Queen ever looked upon me thusly- I slammed a door on the thought. Then sealed it in a chest. Then dropped the chest into a void. And promptly threw myself into an adjacent void. Better.

“At least you notice. Shining doesn’t even react when I do that.” She pouted prettily. “The adorable dork.”

“I assure you, he is very much aware. I can easily tell when you have accosted him during his rounds, Princess Cadance.” There was an obvious hitch in his step after such meetings, but propriety demanded I not mention it.

“Cady.” She corrected, though she was obviously quite pleased.

“Yes, Princess Cady.” Her mock glare was only slightly spoiled by the overwhelming warmth from her. The insolence I’d displayed had not been intended; trying not to be insolent when commanded to be rude was proving exceedingly difficult. I was beginning to consider my concern that she enjoyed being treated thusly was not, in fact, so far fetched. Something else had my attention. “You can… ‘see’ love?” The changeling sense of it required a certain proximity. Vision, however, was far better at range.

“Hmm? Oh, it’s not like that exactly. It’s… hmm. You know how...if you’re looking at something through a piece of colored glass, everything looks that color and you can’t really tell what color things are beneath it?”

“As far as such things matter, I suppose?”

“Okay, good! It’s nothing like that.”

I nodded, then frowned. Tried to form the question. Failed.

Cadance saw the struggle and acquiesced to my unspoken confusion. “...Celestia makes this teaching thing seem so much easier. Let me try again. I ‘see’ the link, like another set of colors between ponies, but without making it harder to see the actual color between them. It’s more like other colors that aren’t the ones you see but they’re there, and they’re just as complicated as the colors we see, but most ponies can’t see them. Even I don’t know what it means half the time!”

It sounded much like how I would describe the sensation of emotions, I realized… though she could do so without being targeted or feeding upon those emotions, and only in relation to those linking ponies. Fascinating, really. A changeling with such a gift would always know precisely what form to take.

She mistook my expression. “And of course, I sound crazy. Which is why I don’t talk about it any more than Aunt Tia talks about the way the sun feels about things. But I can. I can even tell if there’s trouble in a relationship, I can see those connections fraying. And then I can help. I… I don’t know how it works, exactly, but I make them remember that connection. Sort of… remind them why it’s there. Ponies who are fighting get this… moment away from themselves where they can see it objectively, and most of them sort of... Laugh it off, and things get better.”

That… sounded like she was pushing love into them. She didn’t simply radiate the emotion, she restored it. Perhaps even created it. I was awestruck anew.

“But then… why are you even remotely worried about Shining Armor? Surely you know better than any how he feels about you. And if not-”

And then I saw something heartrending. A glimmer of doubt, of fear, perhaps even desperation, quickly smoothed over. “It doesn’t work that way. If I ever did that to Shining, I don’t… I don’t know that I’d ever stop. If you can make everypony love you… would you even bother trying to deserve it? So I don’t do that.” She took a breath, trying to cover her disquiet. “...I can’t see Shining.”


“I can’t see him like that. At all. I can’t see how anyone feels about me, and ponies I get close to, I stop being able to see them at all. Once their links start to relate to me, they get fuzzy all around and then I just can’t see them. It doesn’t matter what it is, exactly. Ponies that just don’t like me for whatever reason have it the same way.”

“So… you, who can see love, can never see that you are loved?” I murmured, startled. Could such a thing be?

She blinked, giving a startled little laugh. “Aunt Tia put it almost exactly like that. It’s easier to reason that nopony really feels that strongly about me, though. I can’t see her, either.”

“Reasonable but incorrect. I am perhaps uniquely situated to tell you that Shining Armor cares for you deeply.” I hesitated. “...why do you call her ‘Aunt’ if you are not family?” Wasta had done the same for Zaimare, and Zaimare had not been appreciative, precisely.

“It’s not that we’re family, it’s just…” Her smile was wan, slightly sad. “I didn’t have anyone else, and being the only other alicorn…” She gave me a look. “This doesn’t leave this room.”

“Your majesty, nothing you have said will escape my lips. I believed that was implicit.”

She nodded, firmly, every inch imperious for just a moment longer before she softened again. “...I asked Celestia if she was my mother, when we first met. It made sense, she was the only alicorn Equestria has known for a thousand years, and I was a foundling. Every orphan wonders if their parents were someone special, and when she took me under her wing like that...” She wasn’t looking at me anymore. I could see that she was picturing the moment, when she was before Celestia herself. “...She told me that if I were her daughter, I would have never known a moment alone. No force on Equestria, Tartarus, or beyond would have separated us, and anything that dared would have known the full fury of the sun. She was not my mother… but she could try to be an… interested aunt. So, Aunt Tia.” Her smile warmed, finally. “It’s funny, I asked her once if I should stop calling her that, and you’d think I’d hit her. Publicly calling her by title was fine. But privately, she hoped I never had to.”

“And you have considered she felt nothing for you?” I gave it the skepticism it deserved. Princess Celestia was elevated again in my estimation; any who would seek to harm the young needed such swift and decisive punishment, though ‘fury of the sun’ seemed an odd idiom for a people who associated the sun with such happiness.

“I was unwanted once.” She shrugged, defensive. “I might be a little more familiar with the field of mental health than I let on.”

“Hmm.” I let it go. “It does not sound like Princess Celestia approves of your birth parents.”

“I think if she ever met them, I’d make a fortune selling tickets. It would be a tongue-lashing for the ages.” She laughed. “An aunt’s prerogative.”

I was vaguely aware that a ‘lashing’ was an exceptionally barbaric punishment from the olden days that involved whips. Doing it with a tongue sounded painful and humiliating. All the more reason to serve well, I decided.

Still. I was finding the Princess of Equestria much less terrifying a conversationalist than expected. Intense certainly, but not frightening.

“So what have you thought of Manehattan?” Cadance asked. “Only have a few more days, I hope you aren’t considering leaving Canterlot; some ponies just fall in love with the city.” She admitted wryly. “The nightlife is amazing here, I’ve heard.”

“It is singularly unique, yes.” I found myself agreeing. “But I have much unfinished in Canterlot. I am due to bring Topaz a gift as well. One cannot visit a city such as this without acquiring one.”

“Topaz? Gift~?” Everything I have said about Cadance being less than terrifying or predatory is a lie. A firm magical push forced me into a seat as she instead sprawled on her bed, pressing her hooves together under her chin as I fell under the full weight of the Princess’s attention. “Please… do tell.”

Oh dear.

Tone Deaf

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I could not fully understand why Princess Cadance seemed so disappointed.

"Your landpony."

"Yes. We have an arrangement. I am able to use excess room and-"

"I'm aware what a landpony is, Idol. Which is why I'm surprised you're so worried about getting her a gift."

"Because... that... is a thing... ponies do?" I asked, feeling a little foolish. "Isn't it?"

She peered at me, as if trying to gauge that I would dare to mock her. "...Hmm. Shiny's right, you do have a very strange way of looking at things. You saw right through an expert disguise-" Here I nearly laughed at her jest, choking it back only when I realized she believed herself to be serious, "-and yet you're a little off on other things. A landpony is someone you pay, Idol. You don't... generally get them gifts. I mean, you do pay her, right?" She prodded, apparently verifying my understanding of the situation.

"We have an arrangement, yes." I nodded. Truthfully, Topaz provided for all of my financial planning, as far as I knew. Checks were a complicated business that I wasn't sure I understood, but it involved not making paper bounce. Having never accomplished such a feat in the first place, I was uncertain if I was doing something terribly wrong or quite correct.

The princess's skepticism about our 'arrangement' made me concerned. Did she worry that I was not paying Topaz the correct amount of bits? Was I paying a reasonable rate? Heyyu's rent had been excessive, I thought; was I instead being undercharged? I felt a hint of panic. That would have to be rectified, obviously. Her gift would need to be fine indeed to make up for my earlier failings.

I wondered if explaining that I had promised Topaz my body would enable her to understand our situation. Oddly, I felt that it would only muddle the issue further. Besides, it would not do to have the princess believing that Topaz Showers did business trading cadavers.

Though now that I thought about it, she sort of did. Put them on display no less. But that seemed to be an... entomologist thing. It would be rude to draw attention to it.

"I... did not know much about Canterlot." I admitted slowly. "And beyond that, she is my friend, I would like to show her appreciation for her help. In truth, she is the main reason I came to Canterlot. I had no other ideas as to where I should go, and thanks to her assistance, I am now part of the Royal Guard. It is... important that it is a good gift." I explained, though it felt as though the explanation was lacking entirely.

"Ahhh." The pink princess agreed with a knowing look. "Well! There's always the standard travel gifts. You know, souvenirs; magnets, mugs, mats. But I'm feeling you want something a little more elaborate." I nodded quickly. These were things I had seen and been disappointed by. Not to mention the general feeling of betrayal that came from the apples in Manehattan.

I chewed thoughtfully, listlessly. Incredibly disappointing. Still, I gave the staring shopkeeper the bit he had requested and put the awful fruit down before him with a shake of my head.

Local produce was hardly nutritious at all. And it certainly did not make me feel love towards Manehattan, whatever had been drawn upon it. Truthfully, I cannot imagine how anypony would enjoy them in the first place.

All in all, Solid Oak Paperweight apples were a terrible gift and far too wordy of a species, I decided. A simple Red Delicious was far juicier. And resulted in less splinters. It was a wonder anypony in Manehattan could eat at all.

The shopkeeper continued to stare as I left, and I later found that he had changed his career. I was happy for him; I could not imagine there was much future in his produce.

"-Which isn't to say a bit of jewelry doesn't make a decent souvenir, it just isn't my thing, personally. And you can always go with flowers. You can say practically anything with the right bouquet. You can express gratitude, affection... everything from 'I can't live without you' to 'you are a great friend'."

"...or, 'are you hungry?', I imagine." It was really the only thing I could think flowers would say.

"Well..." Cadance tilted her head from side to side, weighing that before giving a slow nod of acceptance. "I mean, if they're her favorite flavor, it's always a good choice. But then you have to make sure you're presenting them as a snack. I like yellow roses, but I certainly don't want Shiny giving me any publicly. Some of the meanings there are pretty unpleasant, and even the better ones don't work well for ponies in a relationship."

"And what does it mean if I give somepony red roses?" I'd seen ponies doing that, at least. I had not paid much attention to other flowers.

"Obviously, that you're thorny." She stated with a little wink. I stared, unsure how to respond to that; she might have simply had something in her eye. She wilted slightly before continuing. "More romantic than friendly, actually. But honestly, flowers probably wouldn't even make a good souvenir; they usually don't last. Much better as something you plan for in advance or get on short notice." She considered thoughtfully. "A small piece of costume jewelry might work. If it isn't too gaudy, it could send the right message, be a souvenir, and leave things open for another gift. Plus, usually the top ponies from the incoming Guard in Canterlot get stuck with Gala duty, representing the Royal Guard. You could take her as your plus one. You know. As a friend." She gave me a winning smile that seemed exceptionally predatory and I was tempted to mistrust. Still, her highness had given me many ideas. That would be another to keep in mind.

Beyond that she was one of my Princesses, and that she was far above me in all things, I found myself quite liking Princess Cadance, and she seemed pleased with my company as well. I will not deny that her entire demeanor changed when Shining Armor finally arrived, and our ease with one another seemed to please him to an extraordinary level. We chatted briefly, but the lovers clearly wished to make the most of their time away from the public eye, and so I excused myself on the guise of souvenir shopping.

There truly is no place like home, I decided, marveling at the simple truth. Manehattan is a wonderful place, as anyone can attest, but it is no Canterlot. No building of brick and mortar will ever match the majesty and translucence of marble. Truly, I thought, only the hive's resin could compare. Nothing quite says 'safety' like black and blue with just a touch of bioluminescence. Still, I found myself trotting eagerly through the city with hardly a thought towards the appreciation of the beauty around me. I found that I truly wanted to know if I had chosen well. After I had ceased being near-bursting with love, I had begun to worry my gift was, in fact, too elaborate. Perhaps gift-buying after dealing with Shining Armor and Princess Cadance was not, in fact, entirely wise.

"Well, well, hello stranger!" The familiar form of Topaz Showers called moments after I made the final turn to her home. For a moment, I felt instant concern; had she forgotten me?

Then I scoffed. Topaz, forgetting an insect. Impossible. I swelled at her brief hug, enjoying the warmth and affection as she led me indoors, then quickly proffered the gift which had been impressively wrapped by the jeweler. He had suggested a velvet box, but anypony knows that gifts come in a package with wrapping and a bow. I found the ribbon far more appealing than the twine I recalled in various other packaging, and decided it had been bits well spent.

"Idooool, I told you that you didn't have to get me anything!" She was, however, immensely pleased, and I found that I was as well; I had cracked this particular pony puzzle. "Should I open it now?"

I frowned, suddenly concerned. Was there a sense of timing to these? Had I broken some sequence? I nodded hopefully, and she continued. Another test passed, and the ribbon and paper, expertly binding the small box, were torn aside by golden wingtips.

"Well thank you and-" She froze, and I tensed. "Oh wow, Idol..." Gingerly, she lifted the necklace out of the confines, admiring the jewels. "Idol this is beautiful...!" She tore her gaze away, quickly lowering it. "No, no... no, Idol. I can't accept that, it must have cost you a fortune!"

"Is that relevant?" I blinked, staring at the gift. Price was a factor in such things? Oh dear. Did that make this gift expensive, but in the future, or did it count as multiple gifts over the course of the next two years?

Both, I decided. And neither. I could be irrational too. It was one gift with a growing price, but not one that I had paid upfront. "It was not cheap, but I have paid for it. I did not possess a fortune, and therefore it did not cost one." That it might cost a fortune in the long-term was absolutely irrelevant. It hardly even mattered; I had little else to spend bits on beside food, lodging, and ensuring I could pay my tab for guard-related drinking events. The last might prove a challenge, I feared.

She glared, but as I am capable of reading emotion, her wavering was plain. "...If you're sure it wasn't too expensive..." Delicately, she lifted it again. "Where did you find something like this?" She prodded gently at the delicate red wings. "Who even makes ladybugs out of... oh Harmony, it's a ladybug made of topaz, isn't it?" She seemed more amused than affronted; Princess Cadance had been proven correct again. I vowed never to question the mare.

I couldn't help but explain cheerfully. "I felt it was practically made for you."

She gave a good natured snort, then lowered her head. "I, um... got you something as well. To celebrate your first arrest."

I blinked. "That is not-"

"Oh no, Bugster, you got me something after I specifically told you not to, and now you don't get a choice. Those are the rules."

I would have protested, but that sort of circular gift-giving sounded precisely 'pony', and since Topaz was a pony, I could hardly fault her for it.

She rushed downstairs, coming up again with her glasses lightly fogged. "Now... I've been thinking; we had a bit of a problem with your diet. And we've been covering for it with eggs and things, but really that only goes so far. Soooo I decided to take a bit of a trip and got you something I think you're going to like." She deposited a wax-covered box on the table before me. Though less festive, I did note with some disappointment that hers was larger than my own had been. "Now, I've kept it in your room, because... well, the griffin said best way to store it is in a cool dry place for a week or so to age, and the cellar where you stay was that, and..." She frowned, then lifted her glasses, peering at me. "...It's surpringly humid down there."

I poked the box, curiosity beginning to get the better of me. I could smell... something. "I have been adjusting and sealing my room. I prefer warmth and humidity, and it makes it easier to work the clay."

"Oh... I wasn't really paying attention, but it's a hydra chop, hydra live in swamps, I'm sure it's fine-" Her voice took on a nervous edge, and she broke the box open and lifted the lid... then gagged, dropping the lid and fleeing the room as the only partially desiccated meat slab became visible and the associated smells filled the room like no bouquet or aroma ever could.

I was transfixed. A single, long breath through my nostrils told me everything, tears coming to my eyes.

It was perfect. I had no idea that griffins enjoyed treating meat in such a fashion, and truly; changelings rarely had the opportunity to partake. Prey rarely had time to 'age' before it was consumed by the hive, but a single mouthful told me all I needed to know. Such a thing would have been brought only to the queen herself; delicate, without so much as a hint of chewiness, practically melting pure flavor into my unworthy mouth. I could hardly contain my delight; savoring this instead of consuming it and licking the box clean was taking every ounce of self control.

Self-control I found that I did not possess, getting the last bits of hydra out of the box. A sigh of contentment escaped me as I lounged back from the table, drunk on fine griffish dining and wondering where Topaz had gone. Her necklace was not fine enough a gift by half. A third, even.

I would have to do better.

Vignette 1 - Clandestine Offerings

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Well. It was a light rain. And honestly it wasn't even that dark; the moon was shining as brightly as ever. Still, it was close enough, I thought. You didn't do these sorts of things on regular nights, right?

Most ponies didn't do these sorts of things at all. I could see why; these stupid robes were miserably uncomfortable when soaked and frankly, I imagined I looked like a drowned shadow.

But I had greater purpose here. Hesitantly I knocked at the door, marveling at the occult symbols that showed up by moonlight. I'd never noticed them by day, their faint glow ominous and forbidding. A slot opened.


"Salisbury sent me." The slot slammed shut. Moments later, the door opened, revealing a hawkish griffin with red splattered over their chest feathers. I was late, apparently. A number of other hooded figures were already present, milling about. One pushed past me in his or her hurry to escape. I hadn't expected this many other ponies, though it was hard to gather exact numbers by candlelight.

The griffin pinned a scrap of paper to my robe; the number reading 'twenty-six'. "When called, come forward." I nodded, then, realizing they probably couldn't see, made a more exaggerated nod before joining the group. Most were silent; a few skittish. Having nothing better to do, I meandered towards the front.

The bits of meat and bone were horrific to look at, seeming almost to move in the flickering light. I wasn't sure I had the stomach for this sort of thing after all.

"Twenty." Intoned the head. A hooded figure approached, peering about desperately.

"One... one bagel, please."

"A... bagel." The figure at the counter sneered, derisive.

"A... a bagel... with lox." The pony corrected, voice desperate. "And plenty of cream cheese, please-"

The figure raised a talon, considering. "Ten bits." The boiled bread was offered, perfectly sliced with plenty of white and pink to go with. I nearly fainted as the pony snatched it, dropping the bits and heading to a small table in a shadowy corner. I could hear soft moans of enjoyment even as I fled back to the crowd.

It came all too soon. Tuna salad, with eggs? My stomach threatened to rebel and rumbled. Could this place be changing me? No, no. I was already pragmatic. Besides. Salad. Come on, you've done this before...


I jolted forward, finding myself the focus of entirely too much attention. "I... I want something special."

"We have rabbit, shark-"

I desperately tried not to look for the poor remains of a rabbit. "Uh, no, umm..." I took a deep breath. "It's for a friend. Something... you know. Unusual. Something he'd be unlikely to get himself."

"...I have just what you are looking for." The griffin nodded, grinning wickedly. A slab of... something was dropped onto a scale. "Hydra chop."

The room went utterly silent.

"Is... is it good?"

"Hydra meat is rare experience. Imbued with flavor, acid imparts unique tenderness. One hundred percent poison removal, guaranteed."

I stared at the price. I could have a fancy dinner with wine for less than that. Good wine, too. But... it was for a celebration.

"How... how do you make it?"

He frowned, then slowly made a motion with his talons. "You... you take hydra... and you chop-" He brought the talon down in a slicing motion.

"No no no no, I mean, how do you cook it?"

"Well, for best experience, buy large portion, keep in cool dry place for one week. Is already mostly done, but little longer will bring out full flavor. Then, cook to friend's preference." He cut his eyes down in a furious glare. "If you cook hydra chop well done, do not come back. You will not shame meat so." He then looked about, then motioned me close, whispering. "Sorry, Topaz, didn't realize it was you. Is this for your bugs again? I told you, scraps are fine, most griffins in Equestria won't bother and these folk won't touch them, no keratin off my beak. You know, if you come during the day I don't raise the prices like this..."

"Gris!?" I sputtered, then looked around. "How did you know it was me?"

"There's only two ponies who ever come here during the day. You're one of them. Recognized your voice, and I can see your glasses glinting under the hood. Nice effect, by the way. Anyway... you should know, if you're shopping at night, you're paying night-shopping prices. These idiots will pay double for the same things they could get during the day, and I am overjoyed to assist them in that endeavor."

"Oh. I guess I didn't think about that. So... you're joking about me never coming back if I cook it well done...?"

His eyes went cold. "No. No, I am not." The smile returned. "Don't worry about it, just make it right."

I swallowed, nervous again. Idol, I thought, you had better appreciate this.

The Kin of a Skiller

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It was good to be back in Canterlot.

Topaz had made a fuss about getting me a better gift after I had to dispose of her prior attempt, and I became incredibly concerned. This matter of escalating gift-giving was a contest I could not hope to win. Assuring her that her gift was accepted and in the proper spirit seemed to only raise her concerns. And then led her to question how I had disposed of it.

‘Internally’ was apparently not the answer she hoped for, as she turned almost as green as her mane and had to excuse herself and return with a bottle of mouthwash, which she ensured I tasted vigorously and often but did not drink.

It begins to concern me that ponies have so many things to taste that you eventually spit out. Fine wine. Gum. Mouthwash. I have heard discussion of other things, so I assume this is fearfully common.

Afterwards, I treated myself to the usage of Topaz’s bathtub and my own bedding. It seems exceptionally striking to me how, though a bath is just water and soap... using your own as opposed to one shared is an exceptionally refreshing experience. The cocoon is simply the best sleeping arrangement possible; pony beds, sheets, and blankets are an inferior substitute. Topaz assures me that thunderpedic clouds are without doubt the best things a pony can sleep on, but I continue to be skeptical. Still, Topaz and I had set up a small rough bed in the corner of the original room I had been assigned; I maintained it dutifully and was quite pleased that I could bounce a bit off of it, as had been shown during one inspection. The cocoon we had wisely decided to place in the underground cavern that I had broken into and then sealed off externally. Hiding the entrance was something I continued to experiment with; I tried to explain to Topaz the mechanisms of the pony structure in the mountains, but we both accepted that we knew nothing of their construction. Eventually, we had decided that a tapestry on the wall would serve as an acceptable means of concealing the entrance.

My clay stockpile was doing well in the warm humid environment, and I may have begun to shape a likeness of Boulder out of simple amusement. Topaz would enjoy hearing about a fellow academic that I had found in Maud, I figured, and I would need a visual representation of the pet rock; it was such an odd part of the story, I felt it could not be overstated.

This is not to say there were no issues with my return; I found that I had a few concerns. Now that I was a full fledged guardpony, we were expected to keep our living quarters clean and tidy. Topaz’s house was... well, not, really. It was mostly a matter of dust and clutter, as Topaz tended to bounce from one insect-related study to another and her papers tended to be strewn about. Apparently, in my absence, she had opted for forgoing attempts at organization short of small piles. The concept was deeply troubling; I lived there, but it was Topaz’s home. Moving her things seemed inappropriate. And yet such things would be required of me. Surely there existed some compromise.

Our integration with the rest of the Canterlot Guard was... somewhat disconcerting. Though I cannot argue with their polish, there seemed to be less saluting and standing at attention than I had expected. If anything, the general atmosphere seemed a bit lax.

The food quality, however, was much improved to our usual fare, though Topaz had clearly spoiled me. As it turned out, our basic fare came from the castle chef who would also serve her majesty. Princess Celestia found the idea of a personal chef ludicrous and required any who came to serve her be capable of seeing to the needs of palace staff as well as her own glorious self. I approved of this to some extent; her majesty should be able to pick of the finest meals available; if only one was prepared explicitly for her, she would not have the luxury of choice.

Shining opined that this mindset was probably a little too worshipful. I condemned his heresy and we shared a chuckle. Mine was only slightly forced. Shining is a good stallion, after all, even if he is heretical. Though his worship of Cadance was more profound... perhaps leeway was justified.

I was surprised to learn that we would have rooms for as long as we were members of Canterlot guard by decree of Princess Celestia herself; apparently during some disaster or other, a number of her guards found themselves with little more than the issued tents and cots for themselves and their families. She had deemed this to be absolutely unacceptable; for so long as the castle stood and she had ponies willing to put their lives on the line to defend Canterlot, they would always have a solid roof over their heads.

The general consensus among the guard was that the Princess was always exceptionally kind and tolerant, even when such things were... potentially unwarranted, as was often the case with courtly matters. The guard was ‘officially’ above such matters, but it was not unreasonable for us to show extreme deference to the Princess as a means of rebuke to those who seemed incapable of such humility. Our day to day lives were to be part of the scenery, patrolling and protecting but otherwise interfering with the lives of other ponies as little as possible. As the palace was filled with things of beauty, gold and marble alike, we were, by extension, just part of it. I quite liked this; it was very changeling. We hid in plain sight by being beneath notice.

Within a week, I had already grown quite accustomed to the system. I found that ‘pony watching’, as some of the others called it, was a fascinating hobby. This one thinks she’s the most important pony in the room. This one worries his fashion sense is suspect; he’s the only one wearing green today and keeps looking about for someone else in similar attire. This one has written a ballad for the princess and is deeply concerned that her efforts will not be enough; she’s repeating lines to herself and changing the wording at will, scribbling out alterations as they come. These foals are here because today they could either be learning from a book or learning by seeing and they chose the latter with manic glee; keeping these with their groups was... interesting, but broke up what could otherwise be a rather placid patrol or guard posting.

I still don’t know how the one colt got onto the chandelier. If he were a pegasus or even a unicorn, I could at least hazard a guess. He claimed he fell. If any being could manage to fall upwards, I decided, it would be a pony. His teacher seemed to agree with the sentiment with a sort of muted resignation.

Nonetheless, the warmth and love flowing from the Princess seemed to energize the entirety of the palace with a sort of comfort, calm, and awe. To my understanding, there was very little trouble in the castle, and only slightly more in the city itself.

As such, the sudden influx of misery and shame I felt from one of the spare council rooms during one such patrol was both unusual and highly concerning. I cannot blame the others for not noticing; room checks are done on a case by case basis. Seeing to the well-being of her majesty’s subjects, however, was part of the duty of the royal guard. None had ever specified ‘emotional well-being’ but by the same token it had not been explicitly denied either, and thus I felt justified in including it for this matter.

The source of the sorrow was not immediately evident, but with the door opened, one could hear the faint sniffles of someone trying very hard to stop being sad. Not being a changeling, they were doing a poor job of it, and a faint hiccup escaped from underneath a table. Cautiously, I lifted the ornate tablecloth to discover a small purple filly clutching what seemed to be a day planner and trying to muffle her tears into a... rag...pony... thing. I scowled; I had heard tales of tour groups accidentally losing a foal or two to various mischief, but this one had clearly been misplaced. The little one, through some sense of another’s presence or simple bad timing, looked up at this moment and gave a little squeak, hiding herself behind the planner and... I assumed it was a doll, but quite honestly it disturbed me. Perhaps some sort of protective totem. I schooled my features; she seemed troubled enough and it would not do to worsen her situation.

“Begging your pardon, little miss. Are you lost?”

She sniffled, looking up at me again over the planner. “I... I think so. I’m s’sposed to meet Princess Celestia here an hour after dawn, and I can’t find her... she’s gonna think I’m a bad student and tell me to go away...” Here she buried her face in the doll-monstrosity. “S’only my first day...!”

An unlikely story, but not an uncommon one. Just about every lost foal claimed they were trying to meet the Princess, to my understanding. Some actually were, but I had never heard of one claiming to be summoned- and then I recalled that Shining Armor’s sibling had been made the Princess’s personal student and had been utterly delighted by the prospect. Shining had mentioned her name several times... Smart... Sparkle? I thought it was her, at least, comparing her coloration to one of Shining’s mementos. I have no idea how ponies can use photographs for identification; they are emotionally dead. Might as well chisel your likeness into rock.

“I see. Well, let us get you to that meeting. I would have thought your parents-”

“I wanted to get here all by myself.” She murmured, burying her snout in her hooves again. “I woke up extra early. So they wouldn’t have to help me.”

And... that likely meant ‘before her parents’. This was going to be... interesting. Still! I could not fault her work ethic. I gave her a small smile. “We shall have to ensure they know where you are, then. I am surprised you were not escorted to the Princess by one of us.”

“There... There were a bunch of foals coming in with a group, and I just followed them until I found this room. But... she never came. D... did I do something wrong?”

I suppressed a sigh. Apparently the idea of counting children didn’t occur to ponies. Perhaps that was a changeling thing. “Not... exactly, no. Somepony should have noticed you were not with the group. Come along, we’ll see where your benefactor has gotten to.” I stood back to full height, letting the tablecloth drop back into place.

“’m not s’posed to go anywhere with strangers.” Came the tiny response.

Ah. That was probably a teaching of her parents. Though I could not imagine anyone intentionally hurting a foal, this was apparently a wise teaching all the same. I poked my head back under the table, finding it easier to reason with her when I did not feel as though I were addressing a piece of covered furniture. “I am not a stranger. I am a friend of your brother’s. Shining Armor is my roommate, in fact. My name is Idol Hooves.”

She blinked, skeptical. “I thought you were supposed to be scarier.”

Now it was my turn to blink. And feel a bit of combined offense and pride. “Shining Armor told you I was scary?” Smarty Pants! That was it, I was almost certain.

“He says you’re scary good at being a statue.”

And now I felt immensely deflated. “Did he now.”

“Uh huh.”

I rolled my eyes a bit, but nodded grudgingly. “He is probably correct, at that. Well! Now we know one another, how about I show Smarty Pants to the Princess?”

She started as though shocked that I actually knew her name. She looked at her dollstrosity and gave a hesitant nod. “I... think that’s okay? She’d like that, thank you.” And with that, she rubbed her face and surreptitiously her nose on the doll, dried her eyes, and then got to her tiny hooves. “We’re ready.”

Now I was concerned that I had Shining’s eldest younger sibling speaking in third person, as I understood that to be something of an annoyance to most. With any luck, such a thing wasn’t habit forming. Still... her nervous smile was adorable, and hope sprang from deep within her. I would have to ensure I did not allow either cause to wither.

Lifting the tablecloth for her, I allowed the filly and her apparent protector to precede me to the large doorway to judge her pace, and from then I led her through the palace, making careful note to return to my patrol as soon as I was able.

We found Princess Celestia in extended court, and I immediately felt sympathy for the monarch restored. A number of the nobility, I had found, were exceptionally certain of their own importance regardless of any evidence to the contrary. One had even attempted to walk through guards who were protecting Princess Celestia’s private luncheon from unwanted intruders. After disabusing her of the notion that she was always welcome anywhere in the palace, we dusted her off and sent her to the great hall to wait properly. I found Lady Highbrow to be most polite after that, if skittish. Still, I did not have to deal with them on a personal level, and I found that entirely to my satisfaction. After all, if they were so far above me in social caste, it would not be proper.

That some were unquestionably rude to the princesses, however, made me seethe. How dare they? Schooling myself was ever the challenge; I did not wish to upset Ms. Pants more than necessary. And again, it was not my place to judge them, though judge them I did all the same. Most unprofessional of me.

Celestia stood, imperious as ever, and finally told them that the decision had been made. “Forgive me, my little ponies, but we have discussed this to the point where there is nothing more to be said. The crown will continue to purchase produce and preserves as we have always done. If any of you wish to contribute to the common good or distribute your own efforts, by all means, I support that wholeheartedly. But there will be no more discussion of ‘appropriating’ farmland for use of the crown, regardless of whether it was initially granted by said crown.”

There was grumbling, there was always grumbling, but grudging acceptance as well. For that I had to give them some credit; they might hiss and spit like angry larvae, but at least they obeyed. I maintained composure and a neutral expression as the nobles filed out past us in a disorganized mob of rank, waiting for Princess Celestia to formally acknowledge myself and my charge- I blinked, looking for the little pony, but she had hid behind me, clearly embarrassed. A warm smile from the princess quickly coaxed her out, and I felt the introduction was in order.

“Announcing Lady Smarty Pants, your Highness.” I offered, not entirely certain of the terminology. “And companion.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow at that, a hint of bemusement to the smile. “Smarty Pants, is it?” She raised a hoof to the doll gently, as if greeting a foreign dignitary. “How do you do?”

The filly giggled, delighted, but then cleared her throat. “I’m... I’m sorry I was late-”

“Why Twilight, whatever-” Now it was Celestia’s turn to blink, and I went still. Twilight? Then who was Smarty Pants? Order, was I a fool? “Oh... I am terribly sorry, Twilight. I’m afraid I was quite caught up with...” She made a vague motion to the door the petitioners had gone through. “I hope you weren’t waiting long?”

“N-no! Only a little while.” She beamed, clearly so pleased that the princess was not disappointed with her that she was almost bouncing.

“Well then, we have some catching up to do. Would you like to join me for a late breakfast?”

“Would I?! I... I mean ‘yes’. Yes I would.” Twilight stated, very properly. I found I quite liked this little filly. A good strong sense of decorum.

“And you, Guardspony?” The princess deigned to favor me with that warm smile, and I felt my chest swell. I had expected years before I met with her approval in this task, regardless of previous interaction or what others had said. I would have to strive to be worthy of it. Vaguely, I wondered if that was how Shining started... no, I decided. His aspirations were far different than my own.

“I must return to my duties, your highness.” I admitted with what I hoped was a good bow. It was a poor grovel, but she had explained once that she did not care for such and it would not do for her to tell me twice. “Enjoy your breakfast. Miss Twilight, Miss Pants.” I gave a careful nod to both the purple filly and grey totem. If the Princess was going to treat it with caution, I would certainly do no less. Twilight gave a cheerful wave, a faint purple outline surrounding the hoof of her doll to make it do likewise, and then her attention was focused entirely on the princess. Good, she had a firm grasp of priority as well. I quite approved of her.

I liked reassuring her surprisingly frantic parents approximately an hour later considerably less. They had apparently upended their home, perhaps literally, and scoured every inch of Canterlot up to the palace and were initially informed that Twilight was ‘not here’. Thankfully I arrived just in time to hear the inaccuracy and correct it; the verification seemed to restore sanity to them. They seemed amused and relieved by my further assurances that Smarty Pants was with her and that the Princess was currently overseeing both breakfast and tutelage. I wondered if they were so overprotective of Shining in his youth but I somehow doubted it; Shining’s defensive abilities likely made the little harms that befall the young utterly impotent. I could scarcely imagine how they would handle the knowledge that their son was reaching so far above his station... then again, they might already know and approve of his relationship goals.

I promised to let Shining know his sister was on site at first opportunity, and also to keep an eye on their youngest offspring.

A hiccup of green flame erupted from a bundle on Velvet’s back. I did not jump, but I may have damaged the mortar of several floor tiles in my zeal not to do so. The fabric-clad bundle began to squirm and fret with a hiss that would do a changeling larva proud.

“Second youngest, now.” Twilight the Elder cooed to the fussing baby dragon. “It’s alright, Spike, it’s alright~”

Night Light gave a chuckle of his own as he rubbed the back of his head. “Never thought I’d be raising another son. Never expected him to have scales and set my coffee table on fire either, but who can predict the future, right?”

“Does... he do that often?” I had to admit, he seemed to have taken to said dragon hatchling rather well.

“The fire or the coffee table? Because... the two coincide more often than you’d think. I think it spooks him.”

“And I think the furniture polish makes him think he’s supposed to set it on fire. Instinctually.”

“Dear, none of the books the princess sent make any mention of baby dragons incinerating coffee tables out of instinct. With or without mahogany-scented oils.”

Velvet rolled her eyes as she unstrapped her bundle and drew a bottle that seemed to be filled with a thick slurry of shiny substance. The baby dragon latched onto it with predatory hunger, but his growls and hisses continued even as he drank. “He’s just fussing because he misses his big sister, isn’t he?” She nuzzled the frilled form affectionately. A glow surrounded the feeding reptile as his adoptive mother began rocking him in mid-air, humming softly. The noise began to die down almost immediately and within half a minute, the little fellow was back to sleep and perched again on his mother’s back.

“Wish I could do that...” Night groused, good-naturedly but with some real jealousy. “Your magic must be closer to Twilight’s.” He lightly reached in to tuck the blanket back under the drowsing dragon’s chin.

Spike latched onto his hoof. With his teeth.

Night Light held very still, save for the sharp inhale and the muffled scream in a closed mouth.

“He’s got you again, doesn’t he?” Came the tired question, Velvet not even looking back.

Mr. Light's voice was closer to a whimper. “Mmhmm.”

“We have got to get him past this ‘biting’ phase. I will not have my son wearing a muzzle.” Velvet proclaimed. “I still think it’s your aftershave. If you’ll excuse us, Mister Hooves, my husband and I need to make another trip to the doctor. Honestly, Nightie, he’s never bit the rest of us, even when I brush his fangs-”

Could be teething-!” I heard faintly from the blue stallion. I watched them go with amazement. A very odd, but charming family. And both children chasing a princess, but in their own ways. And a dragon; I vaguely recalled them having some interaction with princesses in some story or other. I’m sure young Spike would follow in their hoofsteps.

I also had also deigned not to mention that one of Shining and Princess Cadance’s discussions had involved wearing a muzzle, but I was reasonably sure neither of them bit one another. I considered, then decided it was none of my business, and that I wasn’t entirely sure about the biting thing regardless. Who really knows, with ponies?

From my dealings with Shining I understood that Twilight Sparkle was obliviously precocious and eager to please, but Harmony help anyone who stood between her and knowledge. Being trampled by a tiny overzealous bookworm seemed an adorable end, if somewhat ignominious.

All that was good to know, I soon discovered, as the Princess’s Purple Protege (now code-named ‘Three P’ which only managed to annoy me further now that there were two things related to three of the letter to remember, one of which was nonsensical) became a permanent fixture. She was ever polite, eager to please, and unwaveringly loyal to the Princess. Her only foible became apparent when she learned to levitate books in front of her as she read; this led to a number of bumps, bruised noses, and startled personal students until we learned to gently nudge her along the proper path and around those paying even less attention to their surroundings. As Twilight was actively seeking to better herself and was, in general, adorable about doing so, the guard tended to be a little more tolerant of her than most.

She was also far less likely to curse those who interrupted her than the Princess’s previous apprentice, whom had disappeared not long before my enlistment after some heated words. I could not imagine the Princess becoming so upset, and could hardly believe that any would speak harshly to her besides. I had to agree that Twilight Sparkle seemed like a far easier student to work with. Initially, Shining Armor received teasing that his little sister would soon be ordering us about, but he pointed out he wouldn’t be surprised if she was helping run the country in six months.

In the meantime, she became an impromptu messaging service amongst the guard; simply attach a note to the outside of her book and it would be surreptitiously removed at her destination, usually without her even being aware of its presence. It became both tradition and enormous in-game to see how many notes the ‘royal messaging service’ would attain in a day. It also served as a means of ensuring the little filly got where she was going without forcing her to use an escort within the castle, though her trips to and from it were generally undertaken with her elder brother or parents.

Most often, however, her schedule and Shining’s only briefly coincided. In truth, even Shining and I only shared shifts once or twice in a week, though this was apparently to make us better roommates; his section of the room was usually unoccupied while I was preparing or resting between shifts, and mine likewise when he was. This turned out to be agreeable; Shining and I decorated our split room as we saw fit, and felt no real need to install any sort of divider as some did. This meant we were able to share usage of a plush chair and desk. Truthfully I rarely had any sort of paperwork to do, but Shining, for all his teasing of his sister, was... if not as studious, at least more so than I. While Twilight sought inspiration and the greater secrets of magic, Shining studied leadership and tactics. The former came naturally to him, though the latter he claimed educational assistance by ‘tabletop games’. He suggested I join him sometime; ever seeking self-improvement, of course I accepted. He approved of this effort and seemed elated.

Shining’s side of the room became a personal shrine to the Royal Guard. A number of books traversed from his parents home to his ‘study’, ranging from ancient military history to Zebrican battle strategies. My own side consisted of mostly my equipment, polished to perfection, and a few shelves that I chose to store the Queen’s crystals on. While no longer radiant enough to be used as light sources for most ponies, it seemed the constant influx of love from both princesses kept them at a comfortable glow. Shining found them to be fascinating even if he didn’t know precisely what they were, and we ended up setting extras around the room in various places as ‘Feng Shui’ which I’m reasonably sure is some other language for ‘clutter’. But I had to admit, it did make the room feel exceptionally comfortable, which nopony can really complain about.

I thought myself very content.

Tail as Old as Thyme

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I pushed on, the my limbs alternating between stinging pain and deadened numbness, a single tatter of fabric all that stood between my body and the elements.

How could it be so wrong? Where was the sun, to drive this horror away? Was the Princess weakened, hurt? Ill?

Wards were placed. They inevitably failed, and the encroaching doom continued to find ways past even the most stalwart defenders. I was powerless against the might of this foe, but I had no time for bitter tears. Duty remained, even amongst this misery, this constant gnawing as both food and water were stripped from pony reach by uncaring hooves.

Even the grass was gone. No flowers bloomed. Darkness grew with each passing day. I began to wonder if I would ever know warmth again. I slammed the door of the small room, and began the laborious task of sealing it off from the outside world.

"You know," Shining said, "You might have a seasonal disorder. I bucking love winter." He idly flipped a page of his military history book, looking up from where he resided on his bed in full armor. "...And I'm leaving for patrol in five minutes. I'm just going to open it again."

I continued shoving a towel under the door. Shining was mad, of course, but I knew that. I had been horrified when he had been assaulted by foals with balls of this sky detritus, but he'd laughed and attacked them in turn, scooping perfect spheres and returning them. He claimed by the end of winter, the guards would have secretly constructed small forts around outposts for use of these missiles for purposes of amusement, and they and the children would wage a small war upon one another that would probably end with someone being reprimanded and children being ordered to apologize for throwing snowballs at guards.

Both sides would politely agree never to do it again, and eagerly await the next winter, where the players might change but the battle never would.

The fact that he still expected the world to exist after this hellish cold gave me pause. Perhaps hoping for warmer days to return was the only way to survive? I still had trouble believing this was in any way a natural event; pegasi positioned the clouds so as not to allow too much of the cold white deathpowder to fall upon us, but I still maintained that it should be taken out of the city.

Shining claimed it was important, and perhaps he was right. It was good for ponies to understand that there must be lean times as well as times of plenty.

He was absolutely right about one thing. As soon as I finished weatherproofing the door, he finished his chapter. Unfortunately, he almost ran headlong into a pony as soon as he opened the door, which meant it had to be open longer, damn the luck.

"I am here to see Idol Hooves." A mare's voice came. Though the voice wasn't familiar, I certainly recognized the tone.

"Ah. I am Idol Hooves. Shining, if you please?"

The stallion gave me a look of frank amazement as he left, though he also seemed vaguely displeased as he did so. I would have to see why my callers always made him so uncomfortable. I motioned the mare in, then carefully placed a leg garment on the latch.

"It will ensure we are not interrupted." I explained to her confused look.

"...That it... probably will." She admitted cautiously. She was looking about, determining escape routes... and then her eyes fell upon my collection of crystals and her shock became plain.

"It is some pony tradition. But I do not think that is why you are here." I drolled.

"I still cannot believe you collected so much... the others have mentioned that you have a reserve, but..."

"Please, take your fill."

She gaped at me, and I frowned. "I...I could not!"

"Of course you can. The crystals are full. If you will not feed yourself now, I will accept drained stones in trade for full."

"...You are mad." She whispered, and I scoffed.

"I am well fed. Surely the others have told you...?"

"I have been... outside of the hive for years now. I have never seen so much..." I marveled at the revelation as she trailed off... and then, as if she simply couldn't resist anymore, she drew upon the stones.

It was always a wonder to watch. As if glowing mist was pulled from the glittering crystals, rendering most of them almost completely dark, to swirl around her and finally flow into her mouth and where I could only assume the porous parts of her changeling form would be in a multitude of vortexes.

She staggered, and I assisted. "Never... never so much... how?" She looked at me with hope and fear. "Did the Queen send you for us...?"

" I am also banished."

She did not wince, but the hope faded. "I... have five crystals. Can you... can you fill them?"

"It shall be done. And if you wish to keep any of them here, so they may allow others to regain strength..."

She nodded, and I smiled reassuringly. Not the first. Not the last. I would help my people.

I sighed, exploring one of Topaz's closets in search of something to, if not organize her mess, at least contain it. This entire situation was beginning to grate on me; it would be rude to touch all of her things... and yet as a guardspony, I was expected to present a certain orderly existence. Minor organization, I reasoned, did not fall into the purview of rudeness, as I was only protecting her studies from inadvertent harm.

And then, in the back of a walk-in closet, I made the discovery that would resolve all of my problems.

It was so simple.

It was so elegant.

And best of all, it was not rudeness, but the height of propriety and class. I could finally resolve Topaz's mess!

Finally, I thought, with utmost relief, as I began sweeping dust away clad with the uniform most befitting of the task. If it was good enough for Celestia, it could not be beneath Topaz. It was with almost palpable joy that I was able to brush away dust, remove clutter, and begin organizing her notes. I had discovered the loophole that I was sure no-pony could argue with. It may have taken hours, but I was quite confident that I had made great leaps to the service of order and cleanliness on Topaz's behalf. Even I could not help but smile at my work, so pleased was I with my efforts.

I heard chattering from the other side of the door moments before it opened, and I turned my smile towards Topaz and Honeydew as they entered, and was warmed by their shock at the scent and sight of Topaz's freshly renewed home.

Then I realized they were staring at me.

Honey broke the silence. "...Well now." She tilted her head, as if seeing me in a new light. It was the uniform, I decided. She broke into a slow, wide grin.

Topaz seemed almost horrified. But I was sure this was acceptable. She let out a soft wheezing noise, and I worried that she might need a drink.

Honey's grin broadened as I bustled over. It was slightly more difficult than I had always expected. The uniform was rather bulky, but still, that seemed a flaw in the design. "I didn't know you were into that. Didn't even know the two of you were into..." She motioned with a hoof, "...this." She tilted her head, rubbing her chin with the same hoof. "...I didn't know I was into this. Colts in maid outfits. Yeah, that... that might be the exception to the rules."

"Please wipe your hooves. I've been cleaning all day." I informed both of them, considering Honey's words. I had seen maids in the castle... but, I realized with growing shock, I could not recall seeing any stallions in the uniform. Was this a gendered position? I had been quite certain ponies didn't have those...

Topaz finally sputtered to life. "T-Take that off!" Her face practically glowed, and she seemed... embarrassed? Order, I had misread this situation. I endeavored to swiftly comply.

"No, no... slower." Honey chided. I blinked, but slowed down. Apparently she did not wish me to risk damaging the garments. Frilly things did seem to be more expensive...

"Honey! Out!" Topaz commanded, trying to take control of the situation.

"Oh come on! At least get a picture, he is rocking that!" Her friend whined, even as Topaz laid both forehooves on her to escort her out the door. "You look great, Idol, don't let anypony tell you different!" The door slammed, and Topaz put her head against it. From outside, I heard "Why the buck are you walking with Wane if you're coming home to that?" Topaz responded by pounding once on the door, face redder still.

"Have... I misjudged?" I tentatively questioned.

Topaz began laughing near hysterically. It was so infectious I could not help but join her.

After a vigorous series of explanations of both my logic and how I had fit into an outfit she had 'purely for personal use', which I did not pretend to understand and she did not deign to explain, we set about creating a 'chores list' that would include such permissions as 'can clean up any mess in a manner the choreholder sees fitting' we seemed to have come to a great understanding. Topaz did, however, make sure to establish that when it was my turn to do dishes, I would always use soap. Unreasonable, but again, this was a pony thing and the purpose of the agreement was to maintain a clean domicile. I would accept the terms as stated.

A more important matter had come up afterwards, and now Topaz flustered.

I am not entirely sure it can be used in that form. She was flustered, but did she fluster? The term seemed unfamiliar.

Regardless, fluster she did.

"Hearthswarming Ball? That isn't even a thing! I thought you were making a joke! The Gala is the ball, Hearthswarming is a pageant!"

"True, however the Gala was cancelled this year due to..." I hesitated. The memory of an orange tidal wave of cheese and flat-bread discs sent a shiver down my spine even now. The princess's apprentice had been seeking to assist the cooks at the time, and had very nearly been carried from castle grounds on a flatbread raft. Chef Sous Vide's experimenting with self-heating food had proven as disastrous as it was delicious once again, but even I could only eat so much cheddar. A number of castle inhabitants had begun to dread even the color. "...Reasons. Regardless, tickets were already sold. It is considered one of Equestria's foremost charity fundraisers; both the pageant and the ball may be attended if one intends to see both. And this year I am required to attend. And I distinctly recall you speaking about the gala once."

She scuffed a hoof on the floor sheepishly. "Well. Yeah. I mean, budget concerns are always a thing, and the Gala has always been considered a phenomenal place to beg for money in high society."

"That sounds... " I trailed off, trying to determine what it sounded like.

"Very mercenary? Bean-countery? Avaricious?"

"Yyyyyes, those things." I accepted, relieved that ponies did have terms for this.

"Research costs money, and that means knowledge isn't cheap. And then we distribute it for free, which makes it even more expensive."

"I have long since given up understanding economics, Topaz." I stated sternly. "It is pony madness."

She snorted, but the argument dropped as she reached for another tack. "I won't even know anypony there."

"You'll know me. And you have met Shining."

"True. Will this Cady of his be there? I've been dying to meet her. Someone to talk shop with while I hobnob? If she's going, I'll go." She bartered.

"That seems reasonable," I agreed, seeing that Cadance was expected at every formal function. She had actually been excited by the prospect of seeing Shining in one, but I expected she could not spend the entire night focused on him.

Beyond all of that, this was not so onerous a task, I felt. Many guardsponies sought to avoid the Gala in its entirety, and the replacement 'Hearthswarming Ball' was being looked towards with only slightly less trepidation.

"So... do I need anything fancy?"

"I believe 'nice' will suffice."

"Idol." Topaz growled. "This is fancy."

I considered escape over a railing. Or under a table. She had chosen a somewhat secluded table in a corner, and my options for flight were considerably lessened. "Perhaps we should have clarified the difference?"

"Fancy requires a gown. This is a dress."

I blinked. "...Perhaps... we should clarify the difference?"

Topaz sighed. "Idol, this is only slightly more than I usually wear." She murmured, plucking at her two-tone green dress. "Even you're better dressed than me." She pouted at my golden plate armor.

"...You're usually naked. Do glasses count as clothing?" I eyed her outfit, and then that of other ponies of higher wealth or standing. "...Is... is there a difference?"

"Of course there is!" She whined, putting her snout on the table. "..look at everypony! Do I look like I belong here?"

I considered carefully, looking from her to the others and back again. "Yes."

Topaz gave a snort at that and looked up at me. "Huh. You're actually getting better at lying."

Shining's arrival saved her from my affront.

"Heyyy, Ms. Topaz. I... didn't know you and Idol were still... uh... yeah." He seemed oddly uncomfortable, which was most unusual. His dress armor was polished to the same golden mirror-like shine as my own, and I had to admit, it made for a striking appearance. I considered roughening my appearance; when Cadance arrived, it would not do for the princess's chosen mate to be comparable to a lesser. Ponies would talk.

Order, maybe I was beginning to understand fashion and high society. I shuddered.

Topaz, already self-conscious to an unreasonable degree, seemed more than a little put off by his uncertainty. "It's... good to see you, Shining Armor. I'm to understand I'll finally be introduced to that marefriend of yours tonight."

And then Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, in a gown as elegant as anything I had ever seen with color flowing from a matching pink of her body to the purple of her wingtips, flopped over his back. "There you are! I don't know how auntie does it, Shiny~! My forelegs are numb to the knee. How many hoofshakes can you even give in a night?"

"Cady, people are going to stare...!" Shining murmured, likely as embarrassed as Topaz had been. I schooled myself. He had a duty to provide support, after all.

Topaz went absolutely rigid. "Pri-... Cad-" She stammered, eyes widening as she jerked them from me, to the princess, to Shining, to the princess, to me, and finally back to the princess. "-Cady is Princess Cadance?!?" She then covered her face with her hooves and slammed both hooves and face down on the table in what was perhaps an aborted attempt at a bow.

Cadance looked up, surprised. I doubted she'd even truly noticed us, as was her right. Then her face blossomed into a smile more joyous than I'd ever before received from her as she rolled off her beau in a single graceful twist. "You didn't tell her?"

"You... told me to call you Cady. So I did. In private."

"I thought it was short for Cadydid!" Topaz wailed into her hooves, mortified. Princess Cadance chortled at that, looking even more delighted.

"You call me Cady, in private, to your friends, but I have to fight with you every time to convince you to do it to my face," came her mirthful cajolations. I had to clarify this.

"I have never fought with the princess!" I assured Topaz. "She is a dear friend and I would never incite violence upon her. I simply cannot bring myself to be rude out of habit!" Cadance burst into peals of laughter as I tried to salvage Topaz's sanity.

Cadance pounded a hoof on a table. "Wait, wait, I've seen you before." Topaz looked up, dread in her eyes. "I had no idea you were dating Idol. I thought you were with that pest pony who blew up one of Auntie's trees."

Topaz numbly seemed to mouth the word 'Auntie'. "Oh... oh! Uh... yes, yes. I... I was. Am. Sort of. It's... complicated?"

Now it was Shining's turn to blink, and he looked from me to Topaz and back again, as if he couldn't tell which of us to be appalled at, though I could hardly guess why he would be upset with me.

Cadance did the same, though dawning comprehension turned to absolute delight. "Oh... my... Faust. You're swingers!" Came her gleeful whisper.

Topaz's mouth fell open.

Personally, I felt that the night was going wonderfully.

Fruitful Conversation

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Topaz sputtered. “It’s... that’s not... I mean-”

Cadance nodded her understanding. “I get it, I get it. Keeping that quiet. I take it you’re not completely one hundred percent out there about it. Makes sense, I suppose. But wow. Idol, I’d have never thought it of you. You seem so... straight laced.”

I nearly froze. Was there some rule against the thing she was claiming we were doing? What was a swinger? Was I breaking a law I did not know of?

Topaz came to my rescue. “Well it’s not like that exactly,” she managed, “It’s just more that we’re... not exactly... serious with one another! That’s all.”

“Oh.” Cadance sighed, clearly a little disappointed. “I was hoping you could explain how something like that worked. Plenty of ponies are interested in that sort of thing, but I haven’t found any who make it happen long-term. I try to keep up to date but honestly ponies expect me to know things that just aren’t talked about. Like relations with griffins-”

“What, like their ‘interesting’ ideas on romantic grooming?”

Exactly! They claw at each other’s wings? It sounds... horrifying.”

“No, no, it’s more like light stroking... with knives.” Topaz explained, taking on a somewhat dreamy expression. “Honestly, the talons make it a little more exciting, sure, but you’ll never get preening like you get from griffin claws. Minotaurs maybe, because their claws are almost soft, but they don’t really know what they’re doing. You need someone with feathers to really know how they’re supposed to be treated. But that’s not really all the surprising, half the spas in Canterlot don’t know what to do with feathers. It’s downright criminal.”

Cadance groaned. “Tell me about it. Hot towel wrapped around my wings with mint oil.”

“Right?! Because I want my wings to taste like toothpaste.”

Shining nudged me. “...What are they talking about?”

“I think... wing care? I don’t see the point. I would simply dip mine in water.”

Shining snorted. “You’re a card, Idol. I don’t think that works.” He eyed the chatting mares, beginning to smile. “Thanks for bringing her. Was worried Cady’d be spending this whole thing chatting to nobleponies and Harmony, I think if someone else tries to discuss tax code with her she’ll push them off one of the towers. That’s on Celestia, you know? The most Cades can do is talk to her aunt, and even then Celestia knows them inside and out-”

Cades.” I croaked, unwilling to let this slip.

“Just testing that one, what do you think?”

I gave him a firm look at that. “I think you should call her Cadance. But I am sure ‘Cades’ will delight her, Order knows why.”

“So... is that a religious thing, or just something you do but don’t remember why?”

I blinked. “...Pardon?”

“Order. You swear by Order. You’ve done it a couple times, never known anypony else to do it. Griffins do it by deity, Minotaurs swear by land, and I’ve heard that dragons do it by the name of the dragonlord. Ponies do it by Harmony, and sometimes by Celestia.”

I stared, considering. Why did I do that? Other changelings did as well, I’d found, but... as for having a reason... “I do not actually know,” I admitted, slowly. “But it feels natural.”

“And those crystal things you collect, you-” Shining stopped. “Crystals. Order. Holy sunspots, Idol. What if you’re from the Crystal Empire?”

“The what?” I wasn’t even sure I’d heard of the place. But there was something...

“Stick with me, stick with me. You don’t know where you’re from. You say the first thing you remember owning was these crystals. You’re all about order. And you’re old-fashioned as buck.”

“Language. There are mares present.”

“Case in point! What if you’re like... a crystal pony who was abroad when it vanished? They said ‘all traces of the empire disappeared’. I mean, it was under siege and all but you’d think that there would still be a few crystal ponies still around, right? But there isn’t.”

I tilted my head, not sure where this was going. “And so I cannot be from this place.”

“Could be worth looking into. Every so often Celestia asks for volunteers to check on the frozen north for any-”

“I am not to wander the frozen north.” I responded automatically, and both of us froze.

“...Why did you say that?”

“I... I do not know.” I considered, trying to push into this sudden haze of confusion. I had never considered... never wanted to go to the north, certainly not the frozen north, but I suddenly felt a strange dread at the prospect. I knew so few things for myself, but I had never quested for information about outside of the hive before my departure. The memories forced upon me by the Queen, perhaps-

’Do not wander the Frozen North’.

I nearly collapsed under the recalled intensity. I understood. This was not choice or preference. This was an order, from the Queen herself. One I could only recall now that the prospect had been brought up. No mere suggestion but a true Order. To be Obeyed above all. I could go to the North, I saw, but only so long as I had purpose in mind. Location. Duty. But not to wander, never to wander. The very idea of doing so felt as though it filled my innards with ice, freezing and stabbing, and demanding that I not continue.

And suddenly I was afraid. It was not my place to question, but... why was this order placed in such a way that I only now recalled it? What was in the North? Who was shaking me?

“-dol. Idol!” The shake became rougher, and I peered at the source blearily. Sources. Shining and Topaz had each taken a place by my side and placed a hoof to my shoulders, jostling me roughly. The two ponies and princess looked upon me with deep concern, Shining looking exceptionally shaken.

I looked at the small group of my party, mouth feeling dry and not only at the prospect of upsetting the princess. “I... forgive me, your majesty. I do not... think my mind was where it should have been.”

“What was that?” Topaz demanded, propriety clearly be damned.

“A moment of... forced introspection. I’ve never considered going north before. And... perhaps that is some part of why?”

“Wait, am I right? You’re a crystal pony?”

“What? No. I cannot say why I do the things I do, but I am certain of that much.”

“Shining, he can’t be a crystal pony. He’s not even translucent. I think we’d have noticed.”

“He could just be really opaque.”

“Their bodies were crystalline, dear. He’d be hard as a rock.” Cadance laughed uneasily, giving Topaz a playful jostle.

Topaz chuckled, shaking her head. “Only in his head, and only sometimes. It’s not his fault; it’s coming back.” I took Topaz’s comment about my sturdiness with a pleased smile. Sometimes was better than never, I decided.

“He does swim like a rock.” Shining insisted.

“It is not my fault that water is so... challenging.” I grumbled, quite cross. “I am getting better.”

“Idol, they put you in a duck-shaped life preserver.”

“And my skills have vastly improved thanks to this new equipment. I do not sink.”

“I’d be terrified if you did. Seriously, buddy, are you okay? You need some air or something?”

I considered the question. I was thankful for the chairs and table, because I doubt my legs would have been supporting me. This was damned inconvenient, and I was quite done with it. Unfortunately, my body was slow to comply. “If you believe that would help.”

Topaz sprang to her hooves. “I’ll go! Cadance just got here, you two relax. I’m sure he’ll be fine, just needs a few minutes.” She then began ‘assisting’ me, and I recognized her expression as one that I had begun to think of as ‘Scholarly Topaz’. Perhaps the table was safer.

Cadance gave a slow nod. “Think about that offer from before, Idol. It... might offer some insight?” She finished, looking slightly embarrassed. Shining gave her a curious look, but I had already been dismissed. If she did not elaborate, it was clearly not my place to do so.

Topaz had hauled me into a relatively empty hallway. A passing maid gave us a smile and a pair of mugs filled with some combination of egg, sugar, and a fair amount of liquor. I found it bracing against both internal and external chill, and Topaz agreed that it was ‘surprisingly good nog’, which I am very nearly certain is not a real word.

“Spill, bugsy,” she finally demanded after the drinks were gone and I had begun to settle. “I’ve never seen you shaken like that. The hay happened?”

“I cannot say for certain. I believe that the queen may have... ordered me to stay away from the north. But... I cannot remember what context that order possessed. It is simply... there.”

“Geez... how many orders like that are there?”

“I... did not know there were any. There are explicit ones, but none I know of that were hidden.”

“Wait. Orders? You have orders?”

“Of course. I am not to return to the hive or lead others to it. I am not to form my own hive. Obviously I could never be a threat to the hive, but it would unquestionably irritate the Queen if I were to dare attempt it.”

“But... you wouldn’t.”

“An exile might!” I countered, exasperated. “Truly, Topaz. We are exiled for good reason.” She scoffed, loudly, and I shook my head. I would never understand how ponies could so easily question those above them. Maybe it was easier for her to mistrust my Queen’s judgement, having never known her? Perhaps the simple lack of empathetic and mental links among ponies made this ability to question more help than hindrance in some fashion? I simply couldn’t conceive of how, but surely there must be some reason. None that I would discover this night, surely. As I was rolling my own eyes, they focused on something I knew could not be.

“What is that?!”

Topaz looked up, and her mouth fell open. “I. Uh. Well. That’s... um... mistletoe.” Her eyes darted uncertainly back and forth. “You... uhh... know what that is?”

“Of course I do!” And I did. Our survival manuals were very clear about it’s toxic properties. How dare someone make such a blatant attempt to poison ponies? By... hanging berries on the ceiling. Where it could potentially fall into drinks, I supposed? It wasn’t a very good attempt, but still... A quick glance around told me we were alone, and I sprang to reach it, perched there for a moment as I tore the offending vine down, and offered it down to Topaz, who was... leaning forward with her eyes closed. Ah! Listening for our discovery to have been noticed. Very wise.

She carefully opened one eye, blinked, then looked about, seeming surprised to find me above her. “Wha... what are you doing?!”

“Removing this poisonous shrub, of course. This assassination attempt will not go unthwarted.” I dropped and twisted, landing carefully on my hooves.

“Idol! It’s... no, it... you can’t- Idol. There’s mistletoe everywhere.”

By Order, she was right. “Then we must find it all.”

“Find all what?” Cadance asked, coming upon us with Shining Armor in tow. “Oh good, you’re looking much better.”

“Topaz and I have discovered mistletoe. And now we will find it all.”

Cadance blinked. Her mouth dropped open in clear shock. “...Well. That... does sound like a... busy night ahead of you!” She then nodded firmly. “That... is a damned good idea! Shiny, we’re doing the same! We’ll start in the west wing!”

Normally, I would resist allowing the princess to endanger herself so, but... Shining was incapable of flight.
She could likely put a higher vantage to use, and in light of this blatant attack, his defensive capabilities should be put to good use by staying near her. Princess Celestia had an entire squad of guards in attendance; doubtless she had suspected something like this could happen. “Excellent. Topaz, we head east!”

I know little of what else happened that night. Shining and Cadance apparently ran into one of our seniors at some point, and from there others must have become involved, though he refused to say any more on the matter. I assumed he had been sworn to secrecy on the guard’s findings, and accepted that I would never know the fate of our would-be assassin. Topaz had been horribly upset about the whole thing, and could not find words at any point that evening to express her disappointment at anypony attempting something so awful, only helping me in relative silence.

I would keep a better watch at the next ball, I decided. Just in case.

“I’m telling you, Idol, it’s going to be fine.”

Princess Cadance did not lie. Lying was beneath those of her glorious nature.

She could, however, be incorrectly informed. I silently and bitterly cursed everyone who had led her to this misconception while carefully excluding her from those curses.

“I do not want ponies in my head. Especially ones I do not know.”

Soothingly, she interjected “And that’s why I’m here. if he does anything untowards, I promise I will blast him.”

Shining coughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Cady, I don’t think we should let you blast anyone. As royal guards, it’d be... probably not allowed. Even if we are off-duty.”

“See? Even better. Shiny will do it.”

“I don’t recall promising that, but fine.”

“Again, this is not truly neccessary-”

“This is the sixth shrink you’ve been to. Not one of them so far has done anything more than say you have problems with your father!”

“Whom I have never even met to my recollection, so it is fairly unlikely for them to have much impact on my life.”

“And one other who thinks you have a problem with authority figures.” Cadance grumbled. “That one was... maybe a bit more quack-y.”

Shining had needed to hold me back at the deadly insult. I was still grievously offended. I may have made unkind statements about that particular medical professional, but thankfully my insults only made him cry, not fear for his life. Rude, therefore, but not illegal.

“As opposed to a hypnotist, who is probably not actually a real psychologist at all?” Shining murmured skeptically. “Who we are now trusting to actually do... anything?”

Cadance blushed. “Hypnosis is a real thing that real ponies do. Really. And Doctor Mentasmo has degrees in both psychiatry and psychology.”

“And a talent for hypnotism that he used at stage shows. Which, again, were probably staged, hence the name.”

“It has legitimate uses!”

Shining only pursed his lips and gave me a skeptical look, but ceased his arguing with the Princess, and my urge to flee abated.

Well. Lessened.


The waiting room was plush and well-furnished. Several thick chairs dotted the room, almost trapping ponies in their embrace and quite honestly rather difficult to climb out of. Shining and Cadance found them far more satisfactory than I; I began to wonder if I could find some way of marketing cocoons to ponies to give them true relaxation. In lieu of a good cocoon, I patrolled the room while we waited. Even so, I was entirely unprepared for the door to slam open and a wall of fog to roll out into the nearly empty waiting room.


A pony strolled out in a tweed vest and... very, very strange glasses with large swirls on them that seemed to be rotating.

Cadance clapped politely, though Shining and I only stared. I was not sure what to do in this situation.

"...Ah, the consultation was today. Party tomorrow. Sorry, foal's birthday party in the works, lost my planner."

Surely it wasn't too late to leave.

The pony quickly tossed his glasses off to the side, inviting us in. "Please, come in, come in. Ah, sorry, only two seats. If you wouldn't mind, mister...?" He closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. "Shining Armor!"

It would have been impressive if we hadn't signed in. Shining, apparently with similar thoughts, sighed and settled back down next to a rather large pink begonia. Likely to feel less lonely with Cadance gone, I decided.

It did not go well. I was not pleased to start off with another round of 'tell me about your mother' and 'how did that make you feel', and was quite ready to start the 'hypnotist' part. Unfortunately, a larger wheel with the same design as his glasses certainly didn't seem to do anything, nor did a number of other attempts to 'prepare my mind'.

"You willllll find yoursellllllf getting very slllllleepy..."

"... Are you doing that on purpose?"

"It's a Llllllullllllamoon famillllly tradition. Miiiiight woooork."

I continued to stare at the dangling watch, but I could feel a scowl threatening to escape my control.

"...Alright, I give up. I suppose ordering you to moo like a cow and start grazing isn't going to work." He sighed, putting the dangling watch away.

"It will not." I informed him frostily. He had wasted my time and that of my companions, including the princess. This entire adventure had been intolerable.

"Honestly, this does help most ponies. I really am very sorry." He lifted his forehooves in a shrug. "But that's the way it goes, I'm afraid. I couldn't help her highness, either. It's like trying to mine stone with a tack hammer."

Cadance gave a vigorous nod, but looked disappointed as well. "It's true. I just assumed it's something with alicorns having stronger mental defenses."

"Not that I'd ever dare try to hypnotize Celestia, Harmony, no." The pony dragged a cloth over his forehead and tried to repair his hair, which I suddenly realized was now plastered down from sweat. I blinked, looking to the windows where I had to note that at least several hours had gone by that I could not really account for. And he did seem exhausted... perhaps there was something to this. Regardless, it did not seem a valuable use of my time, and I truly hoped the princess did not insist on further visits.

"No charge, of course. I'm afraid you'll have to see yourselves out, however. I'm... I'm quite wiped out, if you don't mind my saying so." A pained motion was made to the door, and I could sense this, at least, was unfeigned. Whatever he did had exhausted him, and he clearly intended to collapse on his own couch.

"Very well. Your highness?" I opened the way for her, disgruntled.

No sooner had the door closed before she sagged, even her wings drooping. "I really thought this would work. Hypnosis is supposed to be a fantastic way of restoring memories. I mean, it didn't work for me but surely it would work for you."

"Shining claimed he was probably a fraud. Perhaps he was right? It's entirely possible that I simply need to find a real hypnotist."

"I suppose that's possible, but... well. I've heard good word-of-mouth about him."

We stopped. Stared.

“Well,” I eyed the drooling Shining as he moo’d lazily and continued chewing the former contents of the flowerpot beside him, “I suppose he could have some small talent?”

A Broken Clock

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I didn't mind being assigned the watch as night fell, most nights. Some were more disconcerting than others, but I found that I preferred the time when both predator and prey seemed most likely to overlap. The dead of night, however, belonged to the night guard alone.

"Hey, Hooves! C'mere!"

I sighed, bracing myself. The... night guard tended to leave me particularly uncomfortable. I wasn't alone in that feeling, I knew, but most ponies just found the bat-winged thestrals to be unusual.

I found them borderline predatory. The few unicorns in the night guard also tended to be a little odd, but who was I to judge?

"New filly has a challenge for you. The New Moon thinks you Sunshiners can't handle it."

Sunshiners, Soldats, Dayknights, there were so many casual nicknames bandied about between our groups. Nightknights, Lunbats, and Moonshiners were the Night Guard's variation, but the last led to some confusion and fell out of use years prior. I sighed, looking from one batpony to the next. "And the challenge?" I queried, glancing from one fanged mouth to another.

A smaller batpony tensed. Obviously the new filly mentioned. The 'New Moon' in thestral parlance, and would be until she made a true nickname for herself or established her real name worthy of respect to her peers. "...They say you can handle anything."

"That is the duty of a guard, yes." I agreed, cautiously.

"You're the go-to day guy," she verified, growing more bold.

"As are we all, should the need arise." There was chuckling all around as a few of the other day guards ambled over, interested by the prospect of a new game. The rivalry between the Day and Night guard tended to be a little extreme, but amongst those who routinely took dusk or dawn-watch, it usually amounted to little more than friendly competition. A wager here and there.

She yanked something round and spiky out of her saddlebag, and the batponies went silent. "I bet you can't." Arguments erupted in their number instantly.

A male thestral with a cutie mark of a half-moon quickly held up a hoof for silence. "Challenge withdrawn. Nevermind."

"Oh come on!" The challenger cried out. "That's not fair, Moontrotter, you told me I had to come up with something!" A few of the day guard also joined in her protest, though for different reasons.

"It's just a fruit!" One yelled, disappointed. A few others grumbled and put coin bags away.

"Durians don't count."

"Why not?!" The smaller batpony was clearly deeply affronted by the unfairness of all this. I found myself eyeing the new fruit with interest.

"Can't do it. Doesn't even know what he's in for."

"...You're challenging me. To eat a fruit."

"Yeah, I am!"

"No, she's not." Moontrotter immediately disagreed.

"Challenge accepted."

"Not if everyone else doesn't agree! You are not prepared! This is a batpony thing, some pegasi like it but I've never known a unicorn who can handle it. It's... it's a thing."

A few of the day guard cheered their approval. One or two of the older guard saw the fruit and began to flee the room. That... was ominous.

Moontrotter hesitated, but rolled his wings and addressed the crowd. "...Alright. Alright! You want it, you got it! The challenge! Is three. FULL. BITES!"

One of the older guard stopped, shocked. Shook his head, came over, and patted me on the shoulder. "Celestia save you, son. You'll be remembered." Then followed his compatriots. I was already regretting this.

Mothchaser snorted. "Ten bits says he does it." She grinned, showing both dimples and fangs. "Make me some money, Hoovsie."

"Please do not call me 'Hoovsie'."

"Win me these bits and I'll think about it." She teased with a wink.

And then Moontrotter cracked the fruit open on the table. It smelled like the hydra. I stared, shocked.

More than a couple of the day guard retched. A few drew back, and one met my eyes and just shook his head, clearly wishing to free me of this obligation.

Ponies were strange, I thought. Food was food. And so, I scraped a hoof into the soft fruit innards and took a large bite.

It was soft, almost creamy, and had a faint taste of decay. Perhaps mango. And raw egg?

"...I love it." I admitted, amazed.

And then I cleaned out the rest of the fruit, to the weak cheers of my fellow day guard and more rowdy calls from those of the night.

The thestrals weren't so bad after all, I decided.

Which was good, as most of the day guard couldn't stand my presence for the rest of the shift.

Not all nights were so exciting, however. Most nights, I simply watched the Princess's room, and occasionally fulfilled minor requests.

"Guardspony, would you please return this to the librarian and ask her not to involve Twilight in any more of her little 'pranks' again?"

Hesitantly, I took the floating book from her with my own magic, cautiously checking the title. "The Ponisutra, your highness?"

"That would be the one. Not appropriate bedtime material. And you may inform her that she did, in fact, 'get me again'." The unusually red-faced princess admitted, closing the door behind her.

Having nothing better to do with this guard post, and aware that a bit of light reading could restore wakefulness, I opened to a random page.

Tilted my head.

"...The Royal Scissors...?" An interesting label for the diagram, to be sure. But I could not help but be aware that no reproduction was likely to take place in this particular pairing. Doubtless this book was not educational enough for the princess's perusal. I would indeed talk to the librarian about her choice of recommendations for Twilight the Younger.

Topaz flopped over the armrest of the single large couch we typically reserved for guests. "I'm only saying, I've taken almost all the available courses. I just don't know that I want to just do research all my life. Ponies don't understand insects, and so many of them just don't want to." Topaz groused, face down in the cushions. A number of conversations had occurred over the years through this medium, and difficult though it was, I was becoming surprisingly fluent.

"If you don't want to just do research, then what do you want?"

"I want to change things! Make ponies more aware. Show them the ways insects can be more helpful! So they aren't just 'icky bugs'."

"I believe I would appreciate that as well." I considered. The guards had a saying, I tried to recall it... Those who cannot do... teach? "...Could you not become a teacher?"

Topaz's head lifted from her cushion. " A teacher."

"I see no reason why you couldn't. Ponies don't know. Why not resolve that?"

Topaz seemed to be rolling that about in her head. "... I don't really know that there would be that much of a calling for it... but if we get Honey Dew involved to include some beekeeping lectures... it might have potential. Ponies could actually try something other than 'call a pestpony' when there's trouble... Yeah, that's not a bad idea!"

"I have many good ideas."

"Uh huh. What's up with the spiky things in the cupboard?"

"Oh, you have to try some!"

Mothchaser assured me that these were at 'peak freshness', and I could hardly wait to share in this bounty. Topaz was some pegasus, after all.

"How dare you!?" Roared the white stallion in a fury. "Call me a... a..." He floundered, and I had to wonder if he'd already forgotten.

"A patoot, sir. I did not mean to claim that you were one, only that I had been informed of your status as such, claimed by another." Clearly he knew what the term meant. It had bothered me for years, and I simply had to ask.

What concerned me was that none of the emotions I felt from this pony seemed genuine.

"I should have you hauled up on charges regardless!" He blustered. In fact... he seemed... amused?

"I do not think you will, Prince Blueblood." I disagreed with a small bow. "In fact, in all the time I have served, you never have. You never follow through on your more outrageous claims unless they are sure to be crushed in open court."

He fumed for a few more minutes, eyeing me up and down... then smirked when I didn't respond. "I don't believe it. One of you actually does pay attention. And, to play it up, you know damned well I can't go to court and claim one of the guards called me a patoot. Schoolyard insult. Damn well played, if a little roughly."


"Soldier, I'm going to give you a few brief tips on the fine arts of... political misdirection and shaming."

A not-pony sat on the steps of the royal palace. The problem was not that the individual wasn't a pony, but that the sheer amount of misery he was expounding was enough that I had no doubt even most of the ponies could feel it.

"Bit for your thoughts, friend."

"Keep the change." The donkey grumbled. "It's not worth it for a run-down jack like me. I give up. I've gone from one end of Equestria to the other and back here again, and I just... can't. I give up."

"This sounds like a story." A grunt in response. "I have time." I confessed. As I've said, emotional well-being should be considered.

And so I got his story. A gala years before. A jenny. A dream. Loss. And the decision to follow her, find her, tell her everything. And throughout all of it, under the misery I could feel the fading embers of love, sweet and bitter in a way I was not familiar with, but could hardly stand to see destroyed. I pondered, trying gingerly to push my own emotional stores into this donkey. If Princess Cadance were present, she would do a much better job, but she and Shining were on a diplomatic mission to Prance. Somepony had to do something, I knew, but... apparently that pony was not to be me.

"Sounds like you've had one hell of a journey, old-timer." I continued shoving the emotion against him. It could be done for my own kind. Surely somehow it could be done for ponies; we drew from them after all.

"Journey's over. I'm tired." He sighed, and those embers faded just a little more under the weight of sorrow.

"Tired." I scoffed. "If you can walk, you can travel. But if she isn't worth it-"

"Not worth it?" Anger pushed at the cloud, almost enough to stoke the embers... and then merged with my offered emotion. "She's worth it if it takes me another ten years! Twenty!"

Suddenly faced by a roaring bonfire of emotion, I realized that directing it away from the anger I'd stoked and back towards love might save me another purpled eye, if not worse. "Then for the sake of love, Cranky Donkey, you go out there and you chase that ass!" I pointed to the horizon, and his eyes snapped to it.

"Yeah! I will!" The jack surged to his hooves, hesitating only a moment. "You know, that's kind of our word and- oh, nevermind. Matilda, I'm coming!"

I let out a sigh of relief. That could have turned out poorly. I turned, schooling myself, and met the staring faces of my fellow guards. "...What?"

I stood before her royal highness, unsure of what I had done wrong but shamed that I would waste her time so nonetheless. Perhaps I had been too informal with Princess Cadance too often in her presence. If so, I would accept the punishment; there was no other way to obey conflicting orders. If anything, it was a relief to finally have this addressed.

"Private Idol Hooves. May I just call you Idol?"

And we were already dispensing with formalities. I wailed internally, but nodded, as was proper and polite to allow the princess to do. "Of course, your highness."

"How long have you served with the Royal Guard?"

"Nine years, two hundred twenty seven days, four hours and-"

"And in all that time, how many days have you taken off?"

I blinked. Considered. Two to three days per week, as scheduled... but then I felt a moment of dread. "I... fear I do not know, your highness. I obey the schedule as it is given. If I have not been serving satisfactorily..."

"It's honestly very surprising that you can't answer... given that, in all the time you've served me, you've never taken a single personal day. Outside of one incident with a hydra where you tried to use your days off to recover from a venom burn."

Ohhhh, those! I bowed low. "My apologies, your highness. I misunderstood." I stood straight, feeling a bit of pride, though it was soured that I had been instead given 'medical leave'. "That is correct. I have never used a personal day."

"That's a problem, Idol."

Oh Order take it all. "Your highness? How... how would that be a problem?"

Celestia sighed, sitting back in her throne. "Because personal days are extremely important. And in all honesty, the guard has never had to deal with somepony not willing to use them here or there. You, on the other hand are up to..." She checked a report in front of her and her eye twitched. Oh dear. "Fifteen days per year. Ten years. Idol, you could spend roughly half the year not serving and still receiving a paycheck."

"I would never do such a thing, your majesty." I assured her quickly. It would not do for her to think I intended to explore such laziness...!

"Well, you had better. If you do not use at least twenty of these days off by the next Hearth's Warming, I intend to see to it that you are put on extended leave."

I blanched internally. "Your majesty, I cannot simply abandon my duties..."

Celestia nodded, regal as always. "A fair point. Then let me consider..." She tapped her chin. "If you do not use at least two of those days each month... I will have your rank increased to corporal that very month."

This time I may have blanched externally. "That... your majesty, I have turned down all offers of rank. Those more deserving than I should-"

"You set an example already, Private Hooves. The rank of corporal is almost equal to that of sergeant, and will be transitioned into such swiftly, I'm sure. Regardless, this is not an offer of rank. This is an order. You have served your time, proven your worth, and you are not to languish under-utilized on the bottom of the guard ranks. You will accept the next rank advancement when offered."

"Your highness overestimates my worthiness." I admitted, lowering my eyes. I felt a hoof under my chin and lifted them to meet her sparkling ones, which I dared only for a moment before averting my own ever so slightly.

"This is how we become better ponies. By facing adversity. I do not know and will not pry into why you fear to be raised to a position of leadership, but you are well-liked, respected, and have served diligently for years. The only complaints I have ever heard are that you set an unreasonable expectation for work ethic... and are perhaps a little overzealous about obeying your orders, but even I can attest to the former. And so can other observers, who have taken to your example. Or used it as such."

"Your highness?"

"My apprentice."

Ah. I needn't have even asked. The precocious little filly had, at some point, grown into a dedicated young mare. Too dedicated, some of the guard had joked, though I had always treated such jokes with the disdain deserved.

"Twilight is going to go far in this world, I can practically feel it, Idol. But no matter how beautiful the sapling, all ash looks the same. She cannot be allowed to burn out. So, I am ordering you to take at very least the day of the Summer Sun Celebration off. And I would like it very much if you made a bit of a show of taking the day off. She is also on break, and knowing her, she's using it to work."

"Perhaps young Spike will distract her?"

"I love Twilight dearly, as I am sure all of you do as well. Have you ever known the... Royal Messenger to be deterred? She explicitly used your example, which led me to realize there were two ponies in need of correction. Though truthfully, I expected to review your record and prove her wrong. A decade without missed work or sick days may be an accomplishment, but your allotted time off is expected to be paid and used accordingly. You are throwing off future budgets if you do not use your days in a timely fashion," came the gentle admonishment.

Betrayal by well meaning praise. Only a pony could accomplish such a task. And once again, finance managed to befuddle me. A flash of green flame made me jump. It never failed; it was too close to the green of changeling magic. The message burned into existence before the princess, and she sighed fondly before reading it. "Case in point. Guardspony, please, take the rest of the day off. I shall inform your commanders and make it known that none of my guard is to work themselves to exhaustion. You may be needed in the days to come."

I saluted, then saw myself to the door, properly shamed. I had not realized that taking the appropriate amount of time off was also part of my duties. I would correct myself forthwith.

"-simply must stop reading those dusty old books!"

The offended noise from the neighboring tower could only have come from the royal protege's room.

I was not surprised to find her at the base of said tower, looking shocked. I nodded a greeting, and she jolted aware. "Guardspony Hooves, are you busy? This is important."

"I... am taking the day off." I announced, as per Princess Celestia's orders. The words felt like ash.

"Excellent, this should only take... a few hours, at most!"

I slumped in relief. It was good to know that somepony understood me. I followed her, hoping to avoid as much 'free time' as I could if it meant I could be doing important work.

"So the evidence is clear! Nightmare Moon is coming back!"


"It's been a thousand years. That's an important number in magical terms."

I nodded. "Makes sense."

"The stars are moving in strange patterns." She pointed to the sky, where... well, the sun was up. Still... maybe the stars had looked a bit strange the night before...

"Stars, strange patterns, truth."

"And Princess Celestia refuses to talk about it."

"A troublesome subject, I'm sure." Twilight hadn't even broached the fact that Nightmare Moon was apparently Celestia's own sister. Likely in the interest of saving time.

"And there was a prophecy, which is a legitimate source of knowledge about future events."

"Of course, which is why they're logged."


"Maybe they're all just coincidences."

Twilight's face hit the table. I cautiously steadied her teacup.

"Coincidences happen every day." I argued. "If it were truly a concern, the Princess would be acting on it."

"That's what I told her, but she doesn't listen!" Came Spike's voice from a nearby shelf. The not-exactly-baby-dragon was rearranging several tomes from the protege's personal library. I considered briefly that Twilight herself might expect too much from the young dragon; it was not the duty of the youngest to labor. Perhaps this was why the princess had been so insistent that I be seen 'relaxing'; not only was I setting a bad example for my fellow guard, I set unrealistic expectations for servants with those who would emulate the princess. I made a note to force myself to relax very hard indeed and slumped in my chair just slightly. A fine start, though it felt awkward.

"Twilight, allow me to reassure you. The Princess has insisted that I take the day of the Summer Sun Celebration off. If that does not tell you of her confidence, I imagine nothing will."

Twilight groaned. Being fluent in pony faceplant, I had to admit that her heart was in the right place. If one needed to disobey one set of orders to obey those to protect one's charges, such a thing simply had to be done and punishment accepted. It was accepted fact: ponies were flawed, and so could their orders be. And that is why there is Law.

"Yes, yes. I am certain she would not send you to Ponyville without just cause. If she wants you to oversee preparations, it must be important." Another grunt, but this one was just a grunt. "I'm sure it will be fine. Beyond all that, what would you do if Nightmare Moon were to return?"

Twilight looked up at me and gaped. " I don't know."

"Then you are not prepared, regardless." I stood, stretching. "Enjoy the rest of your break, young Twilight. Lest they become mandatory."

I rubbed my chin, staring at the moon in consternation. It should be day, I was almost certain of it. Topaz's clock might be wrong, I supposed. Still... I had promised to take the day off. It was still night.

Therefore it was completely justified that I put on my armor and report to work, I decided.

The frightened crowd was a bother, but hardly worthy of that much trouble. Cries for the sun to raise, demands for the princess to explain herself, fear because the Mare in the Moon was gone- well. Twilight might have been on to something. She was a very smart mare, so I was hardly surprised.

"Everyone, please calm down. The Princess surely has a reason for the sun not to rise. I am sure everything is fine."

"What, is she taking the day off?!" Someone from the crowd roared, clearly upset.

I blinked, weighing the possibility. The Princess never had been a hypocrite... "She may very well be! When is the last time any of you knew her to take a personal day?"

The crowd stopped. A few muttered. "Sun's risen every day for a thousand years without fail!"

"That is correct. One thousand years without a single day off. I believe we can all agree not to mention it if the princess decides to sleep in just one time in all that?"

A few of the ponies looked embarrassed. One actually had the wherewithal to look properly shamed. Another chose a different emotion, and I met his eyes directly. "But what about my flowers?! They're dead because she isn't raising the sun on time!"

"Sir, if I come to your home and your flowers are not withered husks, I shall haul you before her majesty to defend your slander."

"...They're not quite dead," he admitted, trying to blend back into the crowd.

I sighed. If there were somepony in Equestria having a more vexing not-day than I was, I thought, I should very much like to meet them.

The Clock Strikes Moon

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Dealing with the crowds was no small task. An hour after what should have been dawn was concern. By noon, however, it approached pandemonium. The Guard discussed martial law, and Shining Armor (Lieutenant Shining Armor, I reminded myself firmly) argued that citizens should be advised to remain in their homes until the princess resolved matters with the sun, but that ordering them to do so would only turn the pandemonium into panic. Even the older leadership agreed with this assessment, and I was quite proud to see that he was growing into a worthy mate for the princess. Worthier, I suppose. Maybe I should start pushing him towards that-No, no, Princess Cadance and Shining Armor could work that out themselves. Order, I was picking up on the princess's habits. Soon I'd start making her goods-transportation charts.

Of course, some ponies refused to be advised of anything, and an ever-growing number began to fill the courtyards as the not-day wore on. Princess Cadance, it seemed, was trying and largely failing to move the moon or sun; if she managed to adjust one of the heavenly bodies, the other seemed to follow it. The closest she could accomplish would be an eternal eclipse, which would probably do more to frighten ponies than reassure them. Worse, touching the sun left her nearly grieving, though she swore there was neither exhaustion nor pain involved, apparently just an unmentioned side effect of the spell.

Still, it was both relief and concern when the sun popped into the sky quite without warning and settled into a reasonable position. At first, ponies worried that it was simply going to fly off into... wherever, the sky, I supposed, and Cadance was able to reassure them that both heavenly bodies had resumed their proper places, and that everything would be fine. I had intended to doff my armor immediately, but so many ponies continued to require reassurance. The thestrals had tried to establish that things would be fine, even without the sun, but their efforts had proven... less appreciated. Mothchaser had a blackened eye from a panicky young colt who apparently mistook her for Nightmare Moon, and had in fact called the rest of the overworked Night Guard 'an army of Nightmare Moons.'

One would think ponies would be able to keep their own legends straight. How could there be multiple Nightmare Moons if there was only one moon? I digress. Most of the thestrals set about returning to their homes, but with Mothchaser's injury, she claimed she'd prefer not to worry her family by showing up with a swollen eye and instead asked my assistance with getting her to the bat-pony barracks, which... I realized I had never actually seen.

Assisting Mothchaser to her quarters led to a great deal of stumbling, and eventually I had to resort to her softly murmured directions; their barracks was, to my great shock, below ours, in one mostly sealed-off section of the caverns beneath Canterlot, accessible through a secret door in one of the walls. More concerning, the passageways were almost completely black, even to my own eyes. She took strange pleasure through her pain as she whispered directions to me, and I soon found myself in a rather spacious room she had claimed all for herself. She offered to let me stay until someone else came to see me out, but I promised that I could retrace my steps without fail; she should focus on rest.

It pleases me that she was disappointed. I could understand; surely she expected that I would eventually be talked into allowing her to return to work, but I was confident rest was all she sorely needed. Thankfully she had not been concussed, and seemed entirely aware beyond her minor injuries and being briefly dazed at the strike.

Unfortunately, when I exited, I strolled almost right into the Princess's procession. I blinked rapidly at the bright light, bowing low. "Your Highness."

Celestia's words were cheerful, but I had known her long enough to recognize tension in her voice. "Idol Hooves, to what do I owe the pleasure? Have you been working?"

"Only until the sun came up, your Highness," I responded. "It is my day off."

"Your... day... off." She repeated, flatly. "Your day, as in the time between dawn and dusk, or your day, as in the twenty four hours designated as the Summer Sun Celebration?"

I hesitated. "...The... former, your Majesty?"

She brightened. "Well then, Corporal Idol Hooves, you've missed the introduction of my dear sister Luna, returned to us after so many years." She beckoned to her side, and I blinked, taking in the small blue alicorn beside her. Purpleish, maybe? I still hadn't adjusted to the light.

I bowed again. "Your Highness, it is a true honor. I apologize for missing your introduction, I swear it will not happen again. I will serve more faithfully in the future." The smaller alicorn blinked, staring at me as if I'd grown a second horn. Something stuck in my head, and I winced, looking towards Princess Celestia. "...Corporal, your Highness?" Perhaps this course of action could still be reversed.

"Let it never be said I don't carry out my promises. And as I understand it, you've earned it." Warmth radiated from Celestia, though for the life of me I could not guess why.

Her smaller sister (and she was significantly smaller... Celestia's nutritionist was likely to have an aneurysm) smiled nervously, as if seeking approval. I saluted sharply, realized I was supposed to be off duty, and decided that the damage was already done, and that if anything, I had just confirmed my acceptance of my new position. So be it, there was more to report. "If I may be so bold, your Highness, the Night Guard should be commended for going above and beyond their duty. They did not call off their shifts until the sun arose, and most were forced to seek shelter immediately. I fear they will have also been absent for the return of Princess Luna."

"Night Guard?"

I almost didn't hear the voice, and I certainly did not expect something so timid from the sister of Celestia who had so terrified the populace in her day.

"Yes, your Majesty. The Night Guard protects ponies during the night so they may rest, while the Day Guard handles most affairs throughout the day. I tend to pull both. I enjoy the contrast."

Whatever I said was clearly wrong and I regretted it instantly when the smaller alicorn's eyes shimmered. "Ponies... want to experience the night...?"

An alabaster wing stretched over Princess Luna protectively. "Much has changed in your absence, dear sister. Ponies realized soon after your absence how much you did to defend them, and hastened to establish a force to ensure that they could continue to keep their families safe. And, interestingly enough, it's led them to be less afraid of the night."

Luna surreptitiously wiped her eyes in her own wing, but nodded. "You will have to explain when the royal guard stopped being merely a position of honor..." She seemed to stumble slightly, but that was absurd. Goddesses did not stumble. Her wings stretched and she tried to hold back a yawn.

Celestia smiled, though this seemed a bit forced. Luna did not seem to catch it. "Other matters, but that can all wait. I've tried to keep your room as you left it, but... I also felt you would have liked certain parts of it to be updated. Come, sister. You should rest. You have been gone so many years... it will be more than one afternoon for you to see it all."

"You may have a point, Celestia. I do seem to be out of sorts. All feels... Surreal. 'Tis like a dream yet unmade..."

A pony oddity. It had taken me years to distinguish that ponies had strange visions in the night, sometimes assigning meaning to them. And, of course, they also used the term to describe hopes for the future.

I took that as tacit permission to leave and bowed again. "Forgive me, your Highness. I have kept you from your rest too long already. Good evening to you, Princess Celestia. Princess Luna, I look forward to serving in the future."

"And I, all of you," the moon princess responded, formally. It had an air of tradition to it, and I was flattered to be so included.

Topaz swatted me with a newspaper again. "-sun never comes up and you go straight into danger! And you leave me a note?!"

"You are aware that doesn't hurt?" I verified, cautiously. Topaz's worry was plain, and truthfully I appreciated it.

"It makes me feel better! 'Gone to work. Nightmare Moon may be returned' and you don't even wake me up?!" A band of hair escaped the professional bun she had taken to wearing.

It was strange. Topaz changing her look upon being inducted to professorship had troubled me, but it was very appropriate for her new position. Still... I found that seeing the old Topaz breaking free of this imposed restriction pleased me immensely.

"I also opined that you should exercise caution. It is my duty to take unsafe action, not yours."

"The university is better protected than anywhere other than the castle." Her wingtips poked the bun, and I knew that my attention had been noted. "And what's this about Nightmare Moon?"

"That had been meant as a joke. But... she has actually returned. Not what I expected, to be honest, but it is not my place to judge, only to obey and protect."

"You're going to serve Nightmare Moon?!"

After Topaz finished hyperventilating and I had explained that all was well between Princess Celestia and her reformed sister, of course she focused on entirely the wrong event of the story.

"A promotion! Good for you! Cady and I had a bet going. She was going to cheat; going to have Shining tell you he was turning down his captaincy if you didn't accept. I honestly thought you'd never go for it unless someone ordered you to." She grinned, buffing a hoof on her chest. "Well. Someone more important than me, anyways."

"That is not how it went. And... corporal." I admitted with shame.

Topaz blinked, tilting her head, clearly trying to recall rank. "What's wrong with corporal?"

I sighed. "I have been promoted as punishment, Topaz. Not reward."

"Oh, horseapples. They don't promote people as punishment. Cady says they've been pushing you to accept for years now, and finally you didn't get a choice. If you weren't wanted, they give you terrible jobs or kick you out. Face it, Idol, you're the best pony for the job."

"But I am not a pony," I reminded her.

"Yeah, yeah, we know. But look. More rank means more work, which means more pay and more you can do to help ponies. What's wrong with all that?"

I hesitated. "I should not be telling ponies what to do."

She turned and began trotting away, continuing the conversation over her shoulder. "Well newsflash, you've been doing that for ten years. Congratulations, Idol, you were good at it and they want you to do it more. And it's cause for celebration. When's the last time we saw a musical?" She grinned through the rail to her upstairs balcony at me as she ascended.

I blushed, horrified. Of course I remembered that, it had been over the top. Plays, dancing, I could stand. But singing? It was... a glorification of pony emotional output. Anypony could sing. Anypony would sing. At very least when ponies danced in public, it was usually choreographed in some fashion or practice... but a pony could just decide to sing and others might join in. Topaz herself had sung along with the musical. I had been unable to meet her eyes for days. She'd delighted in the whole thing, and had even gotten me to try to belt out a marching cadence for her. I had made two lines before shame overwhelmed me and I stuttered to a halt.

Still. She said I was pretty good.

Regardless! "Perhaps just a play. I do not think I can do a musical...!"

I could hear her rustling upstairs. "Ohhhh, fine. A nice, safe, normal play. 'Mareio and Luigetta 2, the Lost Lovers' is playing. How about that?"

I did enjoy a good sequel... "I thought we already saw that?"

"No, no, they thought the original was a bit too free-spirited for Canterlot. There's a musical number, but only one. Think it'll be okay?" She trotted back down the stairs, and I may have stared. Her dress was emerald green, cut with gold embroidery. It did not match her coat, but somehow highlighted it. Her mane was freed of the bun entirely, hastily arranged but still every bit the Topaz from the day I'd met her. Older, perhaps, but just as intense and incredible. The ladybug necklace I purchased her all those years ago dangled and bounced as she made her way back to my level. "What do you think? Cadance insisted."

I shoved my emotions aside and smiled, offering her my hoof. "I think it suits you perfectly. To the play, then?"


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Princess Luna was... not what I expected. It should be reinforced that I recognize that I have no right to expect anything of the royalty and am in no way inferring that any of them should act according to my personal preference, I only mean to state that I was expecting something more... Celestia-like.

Ergo, I was not expecting to walk into a storm the very next day.

"Thou wilst explain thyself, sister! Thou knowest full well I have not conceived, and if the child was thine, claim her as such!"

"Luna, I've been trying to explain-"

"She even has thy pink coat from long ago!"


The smaller blue alicorn flinched, but seemed to be trying to hold her ground. Still, all Princess Celestia needed was a moment. "Princess Cadance is not related to us by blood. She's... adopted. If she were mine by blood the world would know, I promise you that."


A hint of exasperation from the princess. I doubted any of the ponies could have even noticed it. "Of course, sister. There is so much to tell you about, and Cadance was going to be... a surprise."

"Well. I am indeed surprised." Luna admitted, looking more and more abashed as her righteous anger faltered. She gave a small cough that did not seem entirely forced. "...Why is she a niece, then...?"

"...You used to be pink?" Cadance queried, intrigued and far more amused than the situation called for. I admit, it was an odd thing to consider. Pink Celestia. Pinklestia. My brain seized at that, but only momentarily. I was growing used to the betrayal of my mind when odd ideas were introduced. Pony things, I decided. I was being corrupted. I wondered idly if stating the term 'Pinklestia' would be an act of disloyalty.

Maybe I could relay it to Topaz.

"More off-white than pink, I'm afraid. Pinkish? Regardless, Luna, I promise to explain later."

"Tis surprising, all the same." Luna murmured. "If she is not thine-... your daughter, then who? The sun and moon were wrested from our hooves several times during the long night. We would congratulate our foe on a battle well-fought."

Celestia smiled. "That would still be Cadance, Luna."

Now the truly pink princess blanched. "I didn't really-"

"Nonsense! You managed, however temporarily, to wrest control of the celestial bodies from... Nightmare Moon. Tis an accomplishment! My own special talent, and that of my sister, and you were able to snatch control. Twas a fine effort and a distraction that may have done much for the new Bearers."

"No, no no, I... I don't know anything about fighting, I didn't even know what I was doing-! I mean, my talents aren't-" Her desperate eyes fell upon me and I was dragged unwillingly into a discussion amongst goddesses. "Idol, tell her!"

"Truthfully, your majesty, I have heard love and war have similar rules."

"Hear hear!" Luna grinned. "Majesty? Thou art taken to grandness, we see."

"That's... that's just Idol. He's... got a much higher opinion of me than I deserve, I promise."

"Nonsense. We look forward to sparring in the future." Her countenance changed, becoming less certain.. "If... that is amenable?"

Cadance hesitated, but nodded slowly. "I... think I can find some time for a little training. I certainly don't think I was doing as well as you're implying."

"Nonsense! Thou art a gifted beginner. We shall make a warrior of you!"

I was perhaps the only one to catch Princess Celestia giving a fond sigh. As a true guard, I drew no attention to it, but allowed myself a moment to revel in the shared joy and camaraderie of those who fell under my watch.

Princess Luna's return was not without external strife, however. Certain individuals used the opportunity to cause trouble, because of course they did, and there were a few small protests calling for the 're-banishment of Nightmare Moon', which only seemed to further crush Princess Luna's spirits and confidence back to what she had been that first day.

A griffin had decided to commit theft in the market, having decided that her time spent arguing with a pony was at least worth some of his wares. Annoyingly, this seemed to be some grand griffish trading strategy; she could simply fly away and keep the items but didn't. Still, most businesses detested the practice and it was technically stealing, even if the stolen item was to be brought back and 're-negotiated'.

The guard, of course, did not belong in this transaction from the griffish perspective. From the guard perspective, we politely, if firmly, disagreed.

Cornering an angry griffin in an alleyway was hardly what most would consider to be a pleasant afternoon. Griffins, it should be noted, are made of sharp things. The beaks are like shears, the talons like spikes, and the even the claws on the rear paws are exceptionally... claw-like. I have heard them likened to knives but this seems an inaccurate connection; most pony knives are actually rather dull. Beyond that they lack the 'ripping' characteristics and I believe it to be an important feature.

Still, her 'negotiating tactic' for the guard was mostly to puff herself up and try to look intimidating. Which, to be fair, mostly worked... on those of us who recognized the potential threat of a griffin.

Bold, however, chose to flex right back at her, taking what I could only assume to be 'classical body-building stances'.

I face-hoofed. It seemed like the thing to do. Shows of physical prowess and intimidation were part of griffish courtship rituals. It was very likely this would only escalate matters- I was suddenly alarmed at a sharp 'ping' from Bold. I stared at the russet stallion as a further series of the pings occurred as he popped the rivets of his armor. How strong was this earth pony? Did he realize that he was damaging his own armor like this? The armorers would have a field day.

This sentiment was shared at least somewhat by the griffin, followed by waves of shock and intrigue.

Bold, misunderstanding entirely, relaxed. "Now, are you going to come quietly?"

"...wherever you take me." The griffin mumbled, dazed. I would have to explain what he had done. Later. For now, she could cool off in a cell and pay her fine. Perhaps we could nip this 'tactic' in the bud before it became commonplace.

It had been six days, almost seven and therefore this meeting was unavoidable.

I rapped a hoof on the granite block, then twice more in rapid succession. Then once more, and thrice. Silence greeted me.

I began to worry. Nightmare Moon's return had caused some chaos, true, but... my instructions had been explicit. But could one blame someone for fleeing during what some thought to be the end of the world?

I could, I found. "Nymph?"

"It's supposed to be three knocks then two!" Came an indignant cry.

"And you are not supposed to answer without the proper signal." I agreed, now somewhat cross. "If I am doing it wrong you aren't supposed to respond."

"You don't have any rhythm, it's not my fault." The gatherer protested, wriggling her way out of a hole that... honestly, I hadn't even seen. She sat in front of me, looking eager. "Is Nightmare Moon really back?! I heard she's pretty."

"I'm afraid you missed that. Princess Luna has returned to rule alongside the others, however. And I suppose one could say she is attractive."

"How's her wingspan?"

I sputtered. "Nymph!"

The young changeling grinned up at me. She was entirely too young to make such jokes, I decided. I couldn't understand how she learned such things; most of her interactions were with colts and fillies roughly her own age. Defeated, I offered her a crystal, which she traded out for one that was surprisingly still well lit.

"You are being careful with your playmates, I hope."

Nymph bounced in place, eager to relay her tales. "I'm imaginary. They want me to be a unicorn, I'm a unicorn, they want me to be a pegasus, I'm a pegasus! Most of the parents don't pay much attention so long as everyone's having fun."

Nymph was a sweet 'ling, I thought. She'd have done wonders as an infiltrator and gatherer. Practically self-sufficient, even at her age.

"And your new forms?" The Nymph had, by my count, something like two dozen. If anypony started noticing them, I had no doubt Canterlot would be in a frenzy to determine the source of all these apparent orphans. Thankfully, she discarded each set as soon as she got bored with them.

"Ooh, ooh, look at this one!" She turned into an orange filly with a blue mane. "Redshock!" She stated proudly.

"Except that you are not red." I pointed out.

She blinked, looking at her foreleg with consternation. "I feel red." She argued, defiant.

I sighed. It had been a trial to convince the nymph that I was not simply making up things, but usually she accepted my criticism. Sometimes it bothered her. I could hardly blame her. How did one truly explain that half of her friends were more visually complex than she knew?

It was an odd feeling, knowing that she should have been destroyed. It was a physical aberration of some sort. The Hive did not allow for such things. As a gatherer, she would be incapable of performing her duties; become a red version of a green mare and everypony would see you as an impostor within moments. Turning this flower-loving fun-seeking nymph into an excavator drone, where her disability would be irrelevant...? Unthinkable... but still preferable to her assured death.

Fleeing with her and bringing her to a changeling exile to care for and possibly teach her that color existed? Treasonous.

The Nurse had been a truly terrifying creature. An old changeling in any position was uncommon. Her 'losing' a young 'ling would have likely cost her more than her duty, but I was forbidden from revealing that to her last charge. It was not unheard of for the larvae to wander and get lost, needing their nursemaids to retrieve them from whatever peril they were in.

Escaping with one, however, went against everything we believed in. I could not fathom how she had managed the strength. I had not argued against her return, and the punishment she would assuredly endure. She had detested me, and truly I could not blame her. But I was the Nymph's only chance, and better the young than the old. If she could bear the shame of betrayal, I could carry the guilt over not telling her final charge of her fate.

"Nonetheless. I assure you that you are orange. Now yellow. Green. Pink. You are entirely aware that you are violet right now. Orange again. Red."

"Red," she confirmed, eyes closed. "Red. Red, red, red, red... red!" She changed back to green. Then red again, if a slightly different shade. "...Red?"

"Still red," I congratulated her. It was impossible for her to practice without me. It would have been so much easier to involve Topaz... I truly had no idea what I was doing here. She was already irreverent and behaved in strange ways. I could not imagine reintegrating her with the Hive.

She buzzed, quite pleased with herself. "Awesome!"

"Quite groovy," I assured her.

"You're ruining it!" She pointed a chitinous hoof at me, dropping her disguise. "Nopony says that anymore! It's an old pony thing!"

"Topaz does occasionally." I argued, though she was probably right. Apparently infiltrators were given lessons on up-to-date pony terminology in accordance with their age.

"You and Topaz are old!" She countered. Cut to the quick, I sank backwards with a hoof over my chest.

"I may not share my apples with a comment like that."

"Well, I have a chicken." She stated proudly. I gave her a look, and she deflated. "It was a pigeon but pigeons are good too! I only ate half of it. That's worth an apple or two."

"Then we shall eat and then practice a bit more." She looked up at me hopefully, awaiting more. I sighed. "And after that, I have more of those... books."

"You found Daring Do and the Marked Thief of Marapore!?" Her excitement shown like a beacon, and I sat up sternly.

"Contain yourself, Nymph!" She stiffened, then looked away, shamed. Damn it. "You must be careful. You are doing well for yourself but our emotions are a finite thing. It is not right for us to be wasteful."

Her agreement was respectful, if slightly sullen. "Yes, sir."

I would not tell her that revealing herself to others from the Hive might mean her death. It was my duty to protect her from that fate. She knew not to do it, and knew that she had been forbidden from returning to the hive. Not, however, exiled. Her Nurse was the highest authority she had ever had to recognize, and she had been ordered not to return and to heed my guidance... with caveats. Caveats I knew precious little about.

Apparently, secret orders were in our blood.

The moment dragged on and I huffed. "I also have the Cursed Chalice of King Cookracha."

Her eagerness returned, though she attempted to maintain her composure this time, quickly taking the books from me lest I change my mind and make her wait until after practice. "...Hey, doesn't this thing on the cover kind of look like you?"

"I am sure you are imagining things."

Bard at the Moon

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Princess Luna's acclimatization to Equestria was not without issue, even in those first days. There was some vying for the dusk and dawn watches to get a glimpse of the new princess, and I found my new rank made me exceptionally viable to both. Though truthfully the younger princess did not hold court, there were still ponies doing everything from climbing the walls (these we treated to an elaborate tour of the dungeons and a firm admonishment to not seek to extend that tour), to less unlawful attempts to curry her favor. And it was thusly I was introduced to a truth of the world. Love is many things, and life itself to changelings. It inspires acts of valor, of sacrifice, and of hope.

"Oh Princess Luna, oh Luna, your mane is so fair~"

It does not, however, grant one musical ability. I was coming to, if not hate, at very least feel a deep antipathy towards self-proclaimed 'bards'. "Sir, I must insist that you do not croon at the princess."

"I can't help myself, she's the moon and the stars, she's-" He strummed at his lute as he built himself back into it. Or maybe it was even a citole. I admitted some fondness for the one who arrived with a chitarrone, but one very industrious mare sought to woo the princess with a glass armonica, and her grief at cracking it attempting to get it over the wall was such that I promised to ensure her an actual audience if only to forestall such a wave of misery.

"Sir, call her your light in the darkness and I am authorized to beat you soundly."

"...Been said?"

"At length. You are the third this week. I would not be adverse to your continuation, but be forewarned of the consequences."

"...Oh... but... but she's so..."

"You don't even know her, sir, you're only-" I considered a moment, rubbing my chin with a polished gold-clad hoof. "...Starstruck."

The pony gave his instrument a mournful look, then blinked and scowled at me. Then winced, finally showing a sense of shame. "Oh, tell me we don't all sound like that...!"

"You do." I informed him mercilessly. "The princess is not even in this tower tonight. She has guests who, unlike yourself, went through the trouble of registering and having themselves formally announced. I am only here to ensure there was not a griffin who had flown into the tower again." It had been an unlikely possibility, but... it had happened once. Griffins were not known to be charitable or jovial in general, and one who was concussed was apparently considerably more aggressive than usual. It had taken four strong guards and a trail of seeds to lead the poor fellow to a hospital. We later learned that he thought he'd died and gone to Tartarus upon seeing the thestrals.

It consistently amazed me how few individuals actually interacted with the bat-winged pegasi, and other species seemed to doubt their very existence. And those that did... well. Thestrals did not generally approve of being called 'vamponies'.

The self-proclaimed bard wilted further. "She's not even here? Who have I been singing to?"

"Mostly the rest of the Night Guard. She is being entertained in the courtyard. If you are willing to remain quiet, you can at least see her before I will escort you from the castle grounds." Another bit of pony oddity. They all wished to see and be seen by the new princess, and refusing them outright never worked and only inspired greater acts of bardic insanity. However, letting them see her and escorting them out was usually victory enough to soothe wounded pride and gave them a tale for their friends.

Princess Luna was typically shocked at such brazen actions, but also flattered at the attention. I suppose having so many seeking to court could be a heady experience. None of us had the heart to tell her that her sister had received such courting attempts probably once every few months and had for as long as anyone knew. The Night Guard was somewhat infamous for making sport of them and had, on occasion, been called to task for their antics.

Princess Luna, being newer, younger, and perhaps a bit less unapproachable in such matters, was therefore the current center of romantic attention for every pony with a dream. I could respect that.

The courtyard was abuzz with activity, and I could sense a strange growing wonder from the courtyard as I approached with my charge... and then music. Order take it all, I was gone for mere minutes and they had broken into song.

"-and as you can see, our fine machine brings tears to the eye-"
"-Giving you your very own little starlit sky~!"

Out of self-preservation, I tuned out the rest. But the courtyard, I had to confess, was amazing. There were stars, clear constellations, spinning and swirling over the ground, a large box on a pedestal apparently, yes, creating the night sky on the world around it. Suddenly, I was at one with it, a longing so strong and joy so unexpected that I was swept away, stars I had never before taken note of blazing for my attention, and all over the world was made of diamonds-

There was a click, the courtyard was dark again, and then the braziers were lit once more, filling the courtyard with flickering light that burned in a much less pleasant fashion. My escortee was staring at me, and I quickly regained composure and looked to Princess Luna, who was wiping her own eyes with a kerchief. The other guards looked impressed, true, but none were quite so taken with the spectacle, and like myself, quickly distracted themselves from the Lunar Princess's emotions.

"A truly wondrous show. Would that I could show it to the world..." She began, taking a breath to calm herself.
"Why, your highness, but you can!"
"In fact, this one is a gift from us to you. Our very first Box of Stars! But then, we're going to go across Equestria!"
"One of these in every household, two so the kids don't fight!"
"And every one of them special and unique, like the night sky itself!"
"Of course! But we'd need your approval, of course."
"We couldn't imagine selling without your blessing, of course."
I felt a sense of disquiet. There was something... unpleasant about these ponies. I could not put my hoof on it, but I sensed... something, certainly. Not wickedness, but certainly nothing I liked.
The princess, quite overwhelmed, nodded eagerly. "You have it, then!"
"Now, about the box, there's a few things we need to mention-"
"Very delicate. Complicated inside, you can't imagine."
"One-in-a-million precision work."
"Can't be left in the light-"

I found myself scowling. I would have to look into the business of these lookalikes. Something about 'Bilkmore Incorporated' did not sit well with me.

Princess Luna did not entertain for several nights afterwards, and the Night Guard had little difficulty maintaining the peace of the castle.

"I'm just saying, it doesn't make sense. She pays her fines. She apologizes to the store owners. She even helped replace the stools after that barfight! She's a good chick; why does she keep breaking the law?!" Bold complained, aggravated.

"Riiiight, you keep saying that..." The on-duty officer, Lieutenant Sharp Tack sighed, pushing stew with a telekinetically-held spoon. "She only seems to get in trouble when you're on shift. It's looking kind of bad, Sergeant Bold... you've arrested more griffins than any other guardspony in history. There's implications."

"But I'm not a specist! It's just the one griffin, and she's actually breaking the law!" Bold slammed a hoof down, and I caught my drink, giving him a brief scowl.

"Well then, explain what's going on here. Because honestly... I'm starting to wonder. If it walks like a duck..."

"Actually, I can answer that, sir." I cut in. "Bold's first... arrest involved a... unique circumstance. I fear she may have misinterpreted it as heavy flirtation."

"Ex-cuse me?" Wispy barked. I hesitated... were she and Bold dating again? Still? Or was this another 'break'. It was a weekday... the second week of the month.... and it was after the Summer Sun Celebration... yes. Not together. But considering it, as I'd 'not' caught them in a supply closet yesterday. Which was a full two days earlier than they usually got back together, officially. Something to ponder, I supposed.

Courtship rituals between pegasi and earth ponies are beyond strange. Cadance had declared she would accept no more bets for the two of them because they were exclusive, even when they claimed they wanted to see other ponies. It was honestly more intriguing that some of the plays Topaz and I have seen. She says they're 'playing four dimensional hard to get'. I can't even begin to guess what that means, but Shining agreed and was oddly pleased by the terminology.

"...Yes. Bold damaged his armor showing off. Griffins enjoy physical displays of prowess as courting. Sergeant Bigflank did not so much... ah... push her buttons, as it is that he... typed a very improper letter with a great deal of bad grammar." I nodded, thinking this a decent allegory.

The others stared. Perhaps not.

"Wait. You're saying she thinks I'm into this? But I'm not. I mean, maybe. But no!"

Wispy cut her eyes at Bold, rear hoof beginning to tap a sharp beat. Have a care, Bold... "Either way. Not sure you should be egging her on."

"I'm not! Idol, back me up!"

"If Bold were egging her on, I believe that would be a hate crime."

The other stared again. Wispy groaned, putting her head in her hooves. Lieutenant Sharp Tack tilted his head, giving off waves of amusement and shock in almost equal measure. "Really?"

"I'm not gonna egg her, I don't even know the mare! Bird! Whatever!"

"Oh my Faust." Wispy murmured into her hooves. "See what you've done, Hooves? See, Tack? You never know what sets these up."

"You! Gretel!" There was a squawk of acknowledgement from down the cell block. "Stop breakin' the law! I'm seeing someone already!" I perked up. Perhaps they were back together again. How nice. I would have to update Cadance. Princess Cadance.

"You son of a-"

"YOU!" He pointed at another regular of this cell, the offspring of a donkey and a pony. Daniels, oddly named, tended to... not get in trouble so much as invent it? "Stop wasting our time and just bring your stupid soda through the front gates! If I catch you in the mines one more time I swear to Celestia-"

"I am an honest businesspony," He argued. "It's not my fault my clientele wants something spicier."

I gave him a curious look. "It's cola. If they want spicy, give them peppers. Your entire method of business relies on your customers thinking they are buying something illicit."

"And their expectations need to be met. Not my fault this isn't technically illegal."

"You are smuggling something that isn't contraband in as contraband to charge contraband prices to ponies who want the experience of buying contraband because when it isn't contraband most of them have no interest in it." I verified, once again amazed by the depth of insanity ponies would go to for a point. "And because it isn't actually contraband they break no laws for buying it and you break no laws for selling it. You don't even need a still."

"Exactly. Being arrested every so often actually makes things easier for me. Same time next month, Tacky?"

The lieutenant sighed. "The crown does not choose to pursue legal action against your trespass and once your cargo is searched I'm sure we will find the contents of your cart and fake still to be legally documented and against no law. Your mask and cape are to be returned to you when we're done." There was rote familiarity with the phrasing. "Please find another way to conduct your business that does not involve the guard."

"Find me somepony willing to buy homemade cola for a reasonable price in this economy!" Came back the cheerful reply.

There was something imminently satisfying about the hiss these bottles made upon opening. A sweet aroma, slightly bitter, but still quite saccharine. The burn left something to be desired, perhaps too much carbonation, but... just sweet enough for my palate. Probably half sugar per volume; that was the sweet spot. Hopefully, it would keep in these bottles and I could use it as a sort of 'icebreaker' when others of my kind came to call.

Shining said I was going to rot my teeth. So be it; I'd grow new ones. Besides, I needed something after Topaz cut off my maple syrup. A bottle a week is hardly excessive. And pancakes only existed as a vehicle to transport more of the sweet amber.

Still, I made a mental note to limit the Nymph's intake of the beverage. I could barely keep tabs on her without giving her liquid sugar.

"Ponyville, your highness?" I tilted my head, not entirely sure I understood the order.

"Yes, yes. I'm planning on making a visit and spending some time with Twilight. I think she's been stressed about her position there. Things seem to have been..." Princess Celestia hesitated, looking for a delicate way to express what was known to all of Canterlot. "...Excitable."

"All Tartarus broke loose." I acknowledged.

"And she and her friends nearly started their own excitement when she met her first Zebra..."

"...The rhyming is unusual." I admitted. "I was unaware that there was one living in Ponyville."

"Everfree, actually."

I stared. "I... see."

"Within the safer section, it seems, but I'd like to make sure there's no problems preventing her from leaving. Curses are no laughing matter. Just... make sure she knows that the Crown will offer support if she needs it. If we aren't providing a presence monitoring Everfree, then I feel we should reward those who do."

"I shall inquire with the expert." I promised. Dank Woods was now the foremost authority on Everfree, to the point where even Celestia herself would discuss any matters on the subject with him. He had a focus borne of tragedy, but I found him far more relatable now. He, like myself, knew failure, and was determined to prevent it from happening to another.

"But that is not your primary instruction. I want you to explore the town. I'd like to prepare for any further disasters, and I want to know how to recommend Twilight and I relax on my trip into Ponyville."

"Your highness?"

"I'm ordering you to provide reconnaissance of the various eateries and locations within town. Get a feel for it and the inhabitants."

And it would ensure that Princess Celestia already knew what she was doing when she came for her visit. Twilight would be relaxed by the existence of an itinerary and the entire thing being out of her hooves.

Princess Celestia, as always, was brilliant. "I shall see it done, Princess."

"Wonderful. Your train leaves first thing in the morning." Brilliant, yet cruel. Every day my respect for her grows. Surely, this was another facet of my punishment.

"So what are you doing for your anniversary?" Lieutenant- no, Just Shining Armor asked, taking notes from yet another military manual on monsters. It was terribly difficult to keep straight when the two of us were to ignore protocol.

I sighed, looking up from the guide to clay and various muds that Maud had sent me as a gift in her last missive. "My what?" I had been distracted again. I needed to pack a small bag for my trip and I had a theory that if I could distract myself, the train could not kill me.

Do not laugh. No foal has been eaten by a monster while hiding under their sheets. Delusion has some power, I had but to tap it.

"You know. Anniversary. It's been like... ten years since you met Topaz, and you haven't mentioned anything. So what are you doing?"

I blinked. Anniversary? Ponies did all sorts of things to celebrate that required gifts... birthdays, and Hearthswarming, and yearly celebrations of marriage I knew, but... ten years as friends? I bolted upright. It was precisely the sort of thing ponies celebrated. It was... two. No. Three weeks away? "I have done nothing." I murmured, horrified. "I have been a fool."

"Probably ought to," He responded. "Thought about asking Cadance officially to get engaged for ours. But... I'm pretty sure there's a law about how long a princess can be engaged."

"There is. You should do it anyways. It is improper to make a lady wait."

"She tell you to say that?"

"I have been given ample coaching to ensure that you get moving in the matter. From many sources. Your mother. Cady herself. Cady again, through Topaz. Honey Dew. Wispy. Bold. Princess Celestia."

Shining fell off his bed, book forgotten. Not a military monster manual, but one with the numbers. "What did she say?"

"Nothing I will repeat." I told him, disapproving. "You know full well that we do not reveal that which is discussed in confidence."

"Cady discusses all sorts of things with you!"

I nodded. "To my everlasting horror. Please marry her before you both go insane."

"Workin' on it." Shining gave me a roguish grin. And he was, I had to admit. The four of us were among the fittest and most well-trained of the Guard, and Shining could list every major military operation in Equestrian history, every Captain of the Guard to the time before Equestria existed. His captaincy was fast approaching. "Why not give Bold that advice?"

"Because Wispy will tie me in a knot if I spoil her fun." I hesitated. "Before I go on my business. Could you look into these... star boxes?"

"Sure thing. You want one? They're all the rage. Mom was going to get dad one as a joke, 'til she saw the price. Seems like they keep going up."

"Your father who works in the observatory and sees stars literally every night?"

"Yeahhhh, not that funny. Seriously, though, if you want one for Topaz, I can see about getting one before they go up again."

"Just... find out what people know about them."

"Alright, alright." He offered a hoof, and I gave him quick brohoof in return. "Good luck; hope the train doesn't eat you."

I glared. Some things just weren't funny.

Musical Notation, Piano and Polka

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The cocoon behind me pulsed. Six hours, fifteen minutes.

I was not putting off my train ride until the last minute. I simply... had other things to do. To prepare.

My orders had been clear and relayed well; survey the town. Examine the inhabitants. Patronize various businesses. But, the most important detail, and the most interesting, was the final.

I was not to reveal my orders to the citizens, and especially not to Twilight herself, even if speaking with her was entirely allowed and possibly encouraged.

The Princess was being downright Queenly. I wasn't entirely sure what to make of that. It did mean, however, that I could not carry my armor; such a thing would reveal that I was on duty and under some form of orders.

I carefully scraped at the bowl on my potting wheel with a talon. Then plucked a feather to carefully wipe a stray bit of debris away. This design was coming along wonderfully. I wasn't sure what it meant, but ponies would come up with something. Wind, perhaps?

Six hours, twenty minutes. A hoof burst from the cocoon, followed by a sputtering pony, gasping for air. Now that was odd, cocoons were soothing and provided rest like nothing in the world.

Topaz jerked upward, gasping raggedly, eyes wide and frightened even as she splattered slime all over my workroom. "I can't do it, it's too tight, it's too enclosed, it's too dark! It's-" She stared at me, eyes growing still wider. "...What the buck...?"

"Still me, Topaz." I tilted my head, working my new beak. I didn't quite dislike it, but... speech was slightly off. The complete lack of lips as opposed to chitinous ones. I'd need more practice.

She dragged her hooves down her face, wiping slime from her mane and eyes. "Why the hay are you a griffin?!"

"I wanted to work on my pottery while you slept. I had this idea that griffins are more dextrous; the claws are uniquely suited for holding things, and it's easier to manipulate two at once than multiple magic fields." I was right, but the claws needed practice of their own. Still, it held promise.

She looked hurt. "You said you'd watch to make sure I was okay."

"And you were resting within moments of being sealed in. Good morning."

"...Morning?" She looked at the clock, one of the few things I kept in this 'spare room'. "...Wait. What time was it?
Is that right? Seven hours?!"

"Only six. Do you feel rested?"

"I feel...!" She paused, then pulled a face, twisting her head as she mulled it over. "...I feel great, now that I don't feel like I'm going to die."

I tried not to puff up. I really did.

"Don't you start! Yes, great night's sleep, I'll give you that. But eeuuugh, this stuff is everywhere." She pulled herself free of the cocoon with what ponies would consider a rude noise. "And it- oooh, that's soft." She marveled, taken aback as she tried to wipe more of the slime from her coat. "You didn't mention that. That's not bad...!"

"I... never really considered that it might have an effect on fur in the first place, as I do not have any when I use my own cocoon." I considered. "...leftover digestive enzyme, perhaps?"

"Yep! Didn't need to hear that. Taking a shower!" And with that, she fled to the upstairs, trailing cocoon slime.

I sighed, but had to relent. Perhaps cocoons simply weren't for everypony. However, I decided more firmly, if Topaz was going to track slime up the stairs, she could be the one to clean it up. It was one of the established Rules. And if she wasn't going to use it... I carefully settled my unfinished work into the cocoon. At very least, it would remain workable when I returned.

The train obeyed its handlers, so the day began well enough. I had created a rough itinerary of the ponies I needed to meet. Mayor Mare was to be avoided; this was an unofficial official investigation. I would find my bearings, look for the Elements, and patronize as many stores as my allowance of bits would allow.

Still, I had no desire to taunt the beast with its failure to consume prey and made my escape from the platform as quickly as I was able. I was distracted, shamefully, but that is no excuse for running headlong into a pegasus flying at ground level, causing her to crash to the ground and scattering her saddlebag's contents of envelopes and what looked to be a sandwich of some sort.

Oh dear Order, I had accosted a mailmare. The fines for such a thing were prohibitive, but only for willful negligence or malice. I resolved to pay the fine regardless as soon as I returned to Canterlot, because I should have damn well known better. I was, after all, an officer of the law. It was my duty to set an example.

I scooped up the disorganized mail, resorted it by address, and offered it to the stunned grey pegasus, and started as her right eye seemed to roll about to stare in different directions before settling on me. I confess, I may have stared. It was a fascinating ability; most ponies could only look in one general direction. To be able to see all incoming threats... this was a pony to be respected, clearly.

"Ma'am, are you alright?"

"O-oh, I'm fine. I just... wasn't watching." I understood. She was on the lookout for dangers while doing her duties. I had disrupted not one, but two tasks. "My bad."

"Not at all, ma'am. I was... trying to get away from the train." I admitted. I still felt a hint of shame at my fears. Everypony told me that the trains weren't alive, and on some level, I knew I believed them. The horn screamed, and I flinched; on some level, yes. On every other level, however, they struck me as a vicious, predatory leviathans. And it was only a matter of time before they grew tired of their hideous game.

She nodded sagely. "Yeah, the whistle is really loud on the platform."

"Still..." I noted a cart of apples and various baked goods, the pony inside giving me a displeased look. Clearly my unintended assault had not gone unnoticed. I gestured in it's direction. "If I may, I'd like to replace your lunch?"

"Ooooh, apple crumb... I really shouldn't..."

The longing belied any desire to resist, and we had a pleasant conversation before our orders were ready. As a perk of our meeting, if anypony would know their way around Ponyville, who better than a postal worker?

The directions the mailmare provided were surprisingly apt. The Carousel Boutique was a strange building, by pony standards, but eyeing the strange pony-shapes speared on the second floor, I decided that Topaz should see the decor.
Then again, she might decide to put her largest insects outside. Stingsley would be likely to deter unwanted guests. Or any guests at all, I supposed, finishing off my crumble-topped muffin with some relish. I made a note for the princess: 'Buy some apples'. Good enough.

Still. One of the Elements of Harmony lived and worked here. Meeting her and patronizing her business would likely go hoof-in-hoof. A most prestigious place to start, as I wasn't quite sure that Sweet Apple Acres was officially part of Ponyville. I would only visit there if I was absolutely unable to find the Element of Honesty. The others, I was to understand, could be found around Ponyville on most days.

A musical 'Come in~' was the only response to my careful knock, and with that I let myself in. If anything, the inside of the place was even more odd. There were stuffed ponies that seemed... very close to life-size, sitting on large metal spikes mounted in various places around the room. One was wearing a particularly dashing hat very like one worn by the hero of one of the plays we'd been to see recently... the urge to try it on surprised me. The rest of the faux-ponies were wearing random other bits, including a set of saddlebags I dismissed as too flashy and complicated to be properly sturdy. A mixed review, then.

"Darling, I see you seem to be in the market for a saddlebag...?" And this must be Rarity herself. Roughly Twilight the Younger's age, white coated with a rich purple mane. She was, I realized with some displeasure, every bit as posh as the nobility of Canterlot. I resigned myself to fate. "Feh, not that one. It would be simply garish on your coat. No no no, something in silver, or black, maybe a midnight blue even..." She considered me, eyes seeming to sparkle. "There's so few ponies here in Ponyville with dark coats, it's a shame but there's only so much floorspace to work with. Do forgive the mess, I'm still recovering from the parasprites. Terrible things."

I looked around, bewildered. Then spotted, amidst the otherwise pristine business, a cat swatting at a bobbin of golden thread. Yes, yes I could see the mess now. I was used to Topaz's lack of organization, but this was a very neat and tidy mess. A proper mess, I now realized. Perhaps I was wrong about this Rarity. And though I knew quite nothing of fashion... I recalled that Topaz had mentioned that she would have to find another dress, as the ones she had were embarrassingly out of style. A dress by the Element of Generosity, to my benefactor? I could think of nothing so suitable.

"Not a saddlebag, madame. But a dress, perhaps?"

She paused, momentarily, then nodded. "Hmm, maybe. I feel like something in a jade green might accentuate your cutie mark, but perhaps something of a lighter blue would make a wonderful contrast to your coat..." She pulled a measuring tape from a cabinet, and began making notes as it whipped around me. "Legs apart dear, I'll need your inseam."

I took careful note of these judgments, obeying the orders without a second thought as she quickly measured, then looped the tape around my barrel. "Not for me. For a friend."

"Oh of course, darling, no judgments here." She chirped, measuring around my neck. "Now, this friend of yours, do they have any preferences for style?"

"No, everything is out of date. There was one, emerald green, very soft, but plain, that she's rather fond of."

"...Ohhh, you actually mean a friend. Well why didn't you say so?" She frowned, then went to the next sheet of her notebook. "Now, what are her measurements?"

"She is smaller than me. Her legs are slightly longer."

Her pen did not move. "...Darling. I hate to be a neighsayer, but... that's not much to go from. Actual measurements. An ill-fitting dress simply cannot be allowed leave my shop, you understand. Not unless I have a chance to tailor it a bit. It's a matter of professional pride. If your friend could come here...?"

"I am afraid not. She is in Canterlot." I admitted, dejected.

She gave a great, theatrical sigh. "Then I'm terribly afraid I can't help you with that. A shame, really, I would love to hear my work being appreciated in Canterlot..."

I considered. "Might I borrow your measuring tape and my own measurements?"

"Of course, darling." She tore the sheet from her notepad, levitating it over to me and allowing me to take it. "But I'm afraid that won't do you much good-" Her voice trailed off as I examined the tape, comparing my knowledge of Topaz's frame and build to the various lengths. "Darling, I don't think." She examined my alterations, tilting her head. "...Those seem like reasonable guesses, but-"

"I assure you, they are accurate."

Her skeptical look was surprising. This could not be that hard. "Really. Darling, simply from looking at somepony, you cannot expect me to think... I mean, if that were the case, you'd be able to determine my inseam."

I pointed at a spot on the tape. She blinked, then nodded.

"A good first guess. Wither height?"

I motioned again. She looked more intrigued.

"Neck length." Again, she nodded when I pointed it out on the tape. "Well now, you'd make a lovely assistant with a talent like that. Barrel?"

I motioned.

"Oh... darling, that's very close, but not quite right."

I hesitated, considering her again, then began to move my hoof slowly to a higher number, only for her to swat it away.

"Close enough, close enough!" She made a shooing motion, face reddened. "I believe I can work with those measurements after all." She cleared her throat. "Now, please describe her coloration, and I believe I can have something for you in... perhaps six weeks."

"That should work. Our anniversary is in three." I resumed looking at the notes, checking my numbers. These did, in fact, seem accurate, but maybe I had read the barrel wrong...

Something cracked, and I looked up to note that the mare was holding a broken feather quill. "Darling. Did you say three weeks?"

"I did." I noted, curiously.

"...Anniversary. Three weeks."

"A ten-year anniversary." I announced, proudly. I had my very own friend and landlord for ten years. Soon I'd have to get something for Shining and Cadance, but that could wait. Bold and Wispy too, perhaps. I wasn't entirely sure when I became friends with those two. I would have to start a calendar.

Her eyes were widening. "And you... want to give her this gift in six."

I realized the problem. "It would be late, wouldn't it? Could I get a... rush order?"

"Oh, I wish I could, dear, but I'm going to be swamped already, and at Rarity's Boutique, I simply cannot allow a pony to pay for faster service. A proper businessmare does not allow money to influence how she serves her customers! I would love to help you, but... I simply can't."

"And... I should make sure that her gift is on time?" I clarified.

"Absolutely! A ten year anniversary must be something truly special!"

"Well... it would be. Just... late."

"Flattery will not get it made faster. Though I do appreciate the gesture."

"So... I should get her another gift, that will be on time, with the dress, which will be late." I decided.

"Are you sure you're still interested in the dress? It's quite alright, I've had cancellations before and I've never held it against anypony. Well. Anypony early on."

"Absolutely, the dress is important. A second, smaller gift will suffice in the time being."

"Hmm. I don't usually do this, darling, but you've won me over. I have just the pony to help you with that."

And that's how I was led to Sugarcube Corner, where I met the Pink Demon.

The Pink Demon, or 'Pinkie Pie' as she is known, is a ball of glee, manic energy, and sugar.

Her gasp at our entrance to the bakery seemed to echo unnaturally in the small building, and then she was there-not-there.

I do not know how to describe her motion. One moment, she was holding a tray behind the counter. The next, the tray was falling to the counter while she herself was nose to nose with me, and I felt a moment of terror. I had seen teleportation; it was heralded with a flash of light and twisting of space.

This mare simply wasn't one place, and then she was.

"Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh, you're new, I didn't even know there was somepony new in town, do you have any idea how new that is, I always know when somepony new arrives but I didn't even have clue how new you were and I'm pretty sure you've never ever ever been to Ponyville and that makes you reallyreally new!"

"Pinkie, down dear. My friend Idol needs something special."

In a near-panic, I stuck out a hoof, not sure if this was a greeting or an attempt to push the demon away. "Idol Hooves."

"Pinkie Pie." She blinked. "Wait. Idol Hooves? From Canterlot?"

"Wait. You know him? Pinkie, you just said you didn't-"

"Are you Maudie's Idol?"

"M-wait. You are that Pinkie Pie? Maud's little sister?" I stared. Maud had mentioned her sister on several letters, and had mentioned that she moved, but... that she was the same pony who had defeated Nightmare Moon, and was an Element of Harmony?

Rarity's brilliant blue eyes were flicking between us. "Dear Celestia, there's two of them. What is going on?"

"Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh, my big sister Maud knows him! He's one of the Royal Guard!"

Rarity fainted. I do not know where the couch came from.

Second Verse; Strings and Stripes

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"-cannot believe you didn't say anything, darling! But I should have known! The poise, that attention to detail!"

Hers was exceptionally curly and perfectly coiffed. The quip was barely restrained; comments about a lady's tail were rarely taken at face value. "It was not relevant to the matter at hoof," I confessed. "I am not acting under the command of the Guard this day." I took a bite of a cupcake, and blinked, looking at it. It was sweeter than I had been expecting.

I routinely eat raw sugar. That seemed disconcerting. I took another bite, just to be sure.

"Extra extra sweet cream, what do you think?" There was pride in that, more than it warranted.

"I think it is likely an abomination, the result of powers that ought not be meddled with," I admitted, trying not to lick my hoof.


"Oh, yes please."

"Then why are you here, if I may be so bold to ask?" Rarity pondered, shooting the Pink Demon an aggravated look. I was easily distracted, I'd found. Maybe there was some history of food preparation in Pie family talents. I considered what I knew of Maud, and her family ability to affect minerals. Perhaps this Pinkie Pie was able to enhance her own control over sugars to- I was distracted again. Maybe I had eaten too much sugar. Last one. And one for the road. Two. Not three, definitely. Self control.

"Well. I had hoped to get Topaz a dress..." I admitted, hesitantly. "And then you brought me here instead." I should get an extra for Topaz- no, it'd be dry. Or I would eat it. Probably the latter.

"And Pinkie Pie is the best party planner and gift-giver in Ponyville." Rarity clarified. "But that isn't what I meant. Why is a Royal Guard gracing Ponyville? Should we be... expecting somepony?" Eagerness lapped at me like water at the banks of a raging river. The Element of Generosity clearly thought herself a refined lady and she had a mind for intrigue that would do any noble house proud. I was beginning to see that she was right in her efforts to be seen as such, even if it was not for the reasons she would assume. Indefatigable gossip was their purview, I supposed.

"One should always be prepared to accept guests and treat them with utmost respect and courtesy," I reminded her firmly.

"I... see, darling." She considered those words with gravity, and I decided she had taken my meaning. It did not matter if the Princess was expected. The preparations for such should always be made, in case she came unannounced.

"Who's Topaz?" Pinkie asked, and I suddenly realized that in the brief time I'd been in the company of these two Elements, I had completely lost control of both my schedule and my intentions.

"His marefriend-" Rarity blinked. "...Wait, wait. Then how are you and Maudie-"

"Maud." I corrected, quickly. 'Maudie' did not seem the sort of nickname Maud would accept from any save Pinkie Pie. I had been briefly informed of both Limestone and Marble Pie, and Pinkie's nicknames for them. That I had not been given 'Maudie' struck me as a choice that I should suggest others follow until they had proper consent.

"-Maud, involved?"

"We are 'pen pals'." I frowned, checking my saddlebags. I had one such letter, I was sure. I had been trying to get another sample of the minerals it had been dusted with, they went phenomenally with a good dark roast and even Maud herself had difficulty locating more. I held up the proof, neatly contained in the envelope it had originally been sent in. "And Topaz is a friend who is a mare. Not a marefriend." I pointed out. At least that bit of damage to Topaz's reputation could be avoided, here.

"Oooh, a letter from Maudie? Can I see?"

I hesitated. Reading another's mail was an offense... but this hardly seemed inappropriate. "I... suppose. Do be careful." Maud had mentioned once how she and her sister were close... this could do no harm.

"Darling, you can't just go around buying dresses for friends-"

"Twilight did it for us." Pinkie disagreed, reading the letter eagerly. She blinked several times, rapidly, then held the page up to her nose and gave it a sniff. Her eyes went wide and she read it again. Odd.

"That's different, Pinkie! And she paid for materials, not the dresses, and refused to allow me to charge anything less, because of all the changes all of you wanted in the first place."

Uncertainly, I looked to the fashionista. "Why can I not buy a friend a dress...?"

"Well there's different connotations to doing such a thing. It's a thing, dear, ask anypony."

"Then I shall. Miss Pie?" We both turned to the baker.

The pink mare was no longer pink. She was also, for that matter, not paying us the slightest attention anymore. "Oh... my... gosh. Rarity, read this!" She wrapped a hoof around her friend's neck and pulled her in from a distance I did not believe should be possible. Now, that was inappropriate, but it was also too late to do anything about. I should have erred on the side of caution, I decided, having inadvertently given permission for Pinkie to offer the contents of the letter to another.

Rarity scanned said missive and tilted her head. "...Pinkie, I don't know anything about geology."

"Rarity!" The Pink Demon hissed, and whispered something frantically into her friend's ear.

"...Are you sure? I'm honestly not..." She read the letter again, a delicate hoof under her chin. "Well... maybe. But if..." Another bout of whispering. "...Pinkie, I'm not even sure pumice perfume is-"

I decided I wanted the letter back before it was any more crumpled by the Element of Laughter's odd zeal. "...Ladies?"

"Ohmygosh you two would have the cutest foals!" The Pink Demon gushed.

I blinked. Foals? Why would there be foals involved? With Maud? They'd be changelings, obviously, not foals, but caught off guard, I could not help but imagine what foals with characteristics of both my pony form and Maud would appear like, if such a thing were to occur-

Agony. My head was ablaze in fire, innards roiling at the very concept. My vision dimmed, tendrils of darkness from the corners of my vision until I was able to push the idea from my head, drained as though I had run for miles.

The entire event had taken seconds, and I was trying to get my hooves back under me. I'd fallen to a knee. Inappropriate. Perhaps. Was kneeling before the Elements of Harmony disallowed, or merely unnecessary? Not forbidden, certainly. I shook my head, cautiously examining the process that had led me here.

Finding it was easy, and I felt painfully stupid for having never found this. 'You shall not reproduce'.

An Order, after all these years. One I hadn't even really known existed. That would require further examination. But... a number of things suddenly made sense.

Order, but I was a fool. The others would know more about this, I was sure.

I was knocked over onto the couch, the Element of Generosity lightly batting me with her hooves, and she appeared to be glaring at her compatriot as I came out of the trance.

"-terribly, terribly sorry for her; honestly Pinkie, you can't just... they aren't even... ooh!" She checked my forehead just below my horn with the back of a foreleg. "You're warm, dear, how are you feeling?"

"Better. I fear... I fear I need to walk. My apologies to you both. I have... other business I need to attend." And thoughts to consider.

"But you can't-" I don't know which disagreed first, or if both had done so in tandem.

I raised a hoof. "There is no help for it. Please."

They shared a look, but let me leave, and I did so slowly, after gathering my belongings and carefully tucking Maud's letter away. I may have frightened them.

So be it. I had frightened myself. But there would be time for trauma later.

Everfree Forest had changed, and yet had not. It was larger, more ominous, but every bit as disturbing as it had been the first time I had laid eyes upon it. All of that seemed as it should be.

The strange part was that it seemed to welcome me like an old acquaintance. Few places seemed to have emotion, but the forest... the forest was a living thing. Not in the way that communities are, or the sense of emotions put into a building give it a radiance of those same emotions... no, the forest definitely had a will to it. And I was going into it, because I was ordered to.

And for some reason, I feared trains more than this forest. I wasn't sure if that said more about myself or your average pony.

Life was strange, I decided, sticking to the path that was supposed to lead to the Zebra mystic. It wound around, to the very places I'd been before and was quite certain should have been far, far deeper into the forest. The cave that Shining and I had shared when facing the timberwolf. The guard shack, overgrown to the point where it was only vaguely recognizable by the sunken place where the giant beast had crashed through the roof. The cliff, with a lone parasprite buzzing nearby.

I captured it with relish that the poor creature certainly did not warrant. Justified or not, they were still delicious. I suggested breeding them once as a food supply and Topaz had made me swear to just eat the little beasts on the spot when given the opportunity. I confess, I had no qualms with those orders.

I think I walked around Zecora's tree. Possibly twice, when I got a faint hint of annoyance from the forest after looping around a different tree for the Nth time. I was not, I decided, an exceptional navigator, but I was almost certain those bottles hadn't been there the first time. The mask... I found I could not look directly at it. When I tried, my vision seemed to blur... perhaps I wasn't quite so terrible at navigation as all that.

I knocked lightly at the door, to no response. I waited patiently, then Guard-knocked, which is much like knocking politely, but it conveys enough force that it becomes very clear that a door is only an impediment to those who allow it to remain so.

"Who comes crashing to my door, are you pony or are you boor?!"

I blinked, thinking back to our training. I had little interaction with zebras, but... their rules of etiquette involved rhyme and pacing. I should have prepared for this.

"Forgiveness I ask, but I come with a task. If I may come in, then we could begin?"

There was silence from the tree. Then the door creaked open, and a very skeptical Zebra tilted her head at me.

"And who are you to act so rude, then promptly change your attitude?" She looked me up and down, frowned, rubbed her eyes, and did so again.

"I bring word from above, will share what they say, and with your permission I'll be on my way."

"Then I suggest we meet for tea. One cup apiece and then we'll see." She raised a hoof. "And by the way, please do not strain. I know rhyming for most can be quite a pain."

I sighed in relief, following her inside the cozy little tree. I was more than a little impressed; she had little alcoves for everything, and I wasn't quite sure what was natural and what, if anything, had been carved out. She motioned me to have a seat and I awaited the tea politely, examining her domain. I found the cauldron in the center matched the aesthetic surprisingly well, though I could not begin to guess what was bubbling within. As for Zecora herself, she seemed uncertain of my intentions, which was fair, as most ponies tended to be in matters concerning authority. Ah, and I had yet to reveal the details.

"Thank you for your hospitality. My name is Idol Hooves, and I bring word from Princess Celestia. She wanted to... officially apologize for young Twilight's... misconceptions. She has a tendency to panic and jump to conclusions when confronted by too many things beyond her control. She means well, but needs to be... tempered, with more real world experience."

There was a spike of shock from the zebra, quickly controlled. I glanced at her, through the fumes of her cauldron, but she had spun, getting together a kettle. The shock, I realized, was likely from the Princess's apology. Good, she had the understanding that such things should be rare. The kettle had been boiling already, and my host prepared two cups of tea with practiced efficiency, though I noticed more than a few different containers going into the mix. Pity, a connoisseur; she'd be quite proud of the flavor of this particular mix of leaf water and there would likely be very little honey involved.

"The apology is unneeded, we've both made our peace. But I feel there is more, let these little games cease."

"Fair enough. The princess would like to extend an offer of credit and support to you for your time in the Everfree. Our information on this place has been... outdated, as most of our incursions tend to lead to injury, if not outright tragedy." I took a sip of the tea, and only barely hid my blanch. The drink was so bitter it bordered on acrid. Rude or not, this needed a healthy dollop of honey. Maybe it was a health drink. No honeypot to be seen, I suppressed a shudder and lowered the rest of the beverage after a final sip that proved no better than the first.

"Your words are well met, if they are not lies. But state your business again, and without the disguise."

"I am sent by the princess, and told not to reveal myself as a Royal Guard or that this was part of my mission." I frowned, rolled my traitorous tongue and tried to rise from my seat. "...I cannot dispel my disguise and I cannot move." It was a very strange feeling. My limbs simply... stopped working. Had they gone totally numb, I would have made assumptions, but they seemed to be supporting me just fine. They just... didn't relax or tense when I told them to. More to the point, I realized with growing alarm, I had admitted to wearing a disguise. That was very unlike myself, to be so forthcoming.

She accurately interpreted my expression, and panic rose within me. "You cannot move and you cannot lie, dear Idol Hooves, can you not see why? Please, take a while, stop and think, exactly what was in that drink."

Ah, a potion then. Interesting, if deeply, deeply concerning. I tried to adjust myself, couldn't. Couldn't even strain to do so, in fact, which was a useful trick to have, even if I could not expect most criminals and monsters to obey the niceties long enough for a spot of tea. "You would drug a messenger? From the Princess herself?"

"I doubt your word, for it's revealed to me, that you are not who you appear to be. And while I remain unsure of that, we'll enjoy this lovely tea and chat." Her tail flicked in the direction of her cauldron, and I noted that the things seen through the vapor rising had a strange shimmer to them... apparently it had revealed something about myself.

"I mean no harm, and my reasons are true. And your tea is awful, no offense to you." I tried to strain again, but my muscles refused to budge. It wasn't even a comfortable position, but... how to move, how to move... an idea began, but I was loathe to try it...

The zebra frowned, looking at her own teacup and taking a sip, then eyeing mine. "Our tea is the same, save potion, true... but that should not affect the brew." She gave me an apologetic look, then shrugged. "You may think me a bit uncouth, but all I seek, sir Guard, is truth."

"And am I not to fear this potion of yours? For all I know I've been poisoned."

Zecora chuckled. "Poison? Why, sir, I am quite offended! Harming guests is never recommended. The first part is only peel of orange-"

I shapeshifted. That is to say, I shapeshifted my musculature to be tighter in my upper legs and looser in the lower, and promptly kicked myself away from the table, to the startled Zebra's surprise. Shift the legs. Twist. Bones creaked as I forced myself to my hooves, glaring at her as I rounded the table with stilted motions. She fell back in utter disbelief, staring up at me as various muscles cramped and seized with this rapid combination of small shifting. It was, to no great surprise, excessively unpleasant.

"And I believe. I have had enough of that." I growled. I hadn't even been sure I could do that, and I was very certain I didn't want to ever have cause to do it again. "I came to pass along a message, and I have done that. I came to express the princess's apology and offer of support. I have done so." A hoof jerked into a saddlebag, pulling out several odds and ends alongside one of Dank's journals that he had insisted I give to the 'new warden'. The various bits scattered on the floor, but I ignored them, dropping the journal. "With that, my duties are fulfilled. I am done here." I tried to 'stalk' out the door, but I confess it was more of a shamble.

Zecora was now sitting up again, no longer looking so self-certain, but her momentary fear quelled as well. "Wait a moment. Sit once more. No need to hurry out my door. I promise, time provides a cure." A pause. "You're duty-bound, of that I'm sure."

I considered, temper cooling. "...I respect that you have acted with caution towards what you believed to be an unknown threat. In your horseshoes, I likely would have done the same."

The zebra had the grace to duck her head at that. "In this wood you must beware, not all you see is all that's there. For some paranoia one must strive, to have any hope to remain alive."

"Everfree can do that. I had my own... adventure with a very large and unpleasant timberwolf. With that, I hope that you will continue to act in the best interests of Ponyville and the Crown and that we will never meet again." My limbs twitched. This time under my own power. Finally. My everything hurt, and all of it felt unnatural.

"While I apologize for my actions, what will you do about those said infractions...?"

"Miss Zecora. The law only explicitly forbids one pony drugging another. That... particular event... did not happen this day. While I understand that may not suit the intent of said law... that is the letter. Your intentions were... agreeable, in this particular circumstance, and as the offended party I choose not to pursue it." I cut my eyes at her and she winced. "...should this happen in the future, I will not be making such decisions from the perspective of one whose duty it is to keep the peace. Good day, ma'am."

Not a great first impression. Still, I found I could respect a pony without liking them. Miss Zecora would make a fine warden of Everfree, and the Princess had made a wise choice in procuring her services. That said... I was past ready to continue my mission away from this blasted forest.

Chorus, Bells and Woodwinds

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The damned forest was smugging. I do not know if that is a real word, but it fits phenomenally. It was smug, it was growing more smug, and then it was even more smug at how smug it was.

A trick of my own troubled mind, I was sure. I needed to regain composure.

If ponies were crazy, Ponyville was their madhouse. No wonder the Everfree moved here. I paused, considering that. Was Everfree drawn to the oddness of the ponies here, or were the ponies who were so odd drawn to the strangeness that was Everfree? Something to look into, I supposed, feeling myself beginning to calm.

Zecora knew I was not a pony.

So much for calm.

I was just relieved the forest left me a single straight path out and- well. If my guidance was anything to go from, this strange mushroom-like building covered in greenery must be the home of one of the other Elements. Order preserve, I could go back to duty. And, thinking to the advice given by the mailmare, I had to admit it probably would be nearly impossible to find from above, not that I had ever had any intention of flying anywhere in Ponyville. I eyed the clouds dubiously. In Canterlot, ponies tended to prefer their shade more carefully regulated. But, with Everfree so close, I supposed random cloud formations were not completely unheard of.

We'd had a small issue with ponies trying to sell mattresses stuffed with Everfree clouds a few years back, and I knew Wispy tended to swear viciously at anypony who tried to 'air the clouds out' because it usually led to lightning in the middle of Canterlot, which made the local weather teams cross as it always led to unicorns questioning their work ethic. But I digress, there would be no flying for me.

The structure definitely had an element of subtlety to it, yes, but I wasn't sure it was structurally sound. Even from the ground, one could mistake it for an odd hill, if it weren't for the windows and the like. That aside, the place was stuffed to the brim with life. Birdhouses hung in aplenty, nests in every tree I could imagine, a water-weasel of some sort in a small river under a bridge, and beyond that, more animals than I could possibly differentiate. The Element of Kindness either traded in pets, animal care, or was, as according to tales in Canterlot, a flock of songbirds in a pony suit. There was humming from inside the cottage. I knocked lightly, and the sound cut off with a squeaky intake of breath. Concerned, I knocked again, though still lightly. I had been corrected on my own rudeness by Zecora, and had absolutely no desire to upset the Elements after dealing with the Pink Demon.

"Ma'am? Is everything alright in there?"

I heard a faint whimper, then there was a snarl and something clattered by the door, but no other response. Now overwhelmed with concern, I tried the door, found it unlocked, and flung it open.

"That is a bear." I stated inanely, my body disbelieving what my eyes assured was present just beyond the doorway.

The beast roared, and I readied for combat as the creature threateningly stamped enormous clawed paws.

"Mr. Harold Bear!" came the outraged voice from behind the towering beast. "I know you didn't just claw my floor!"

The beast's shoulders hunched as it winced, lifting one paw gingerly from the wooden flooring. Sure enough, there was a set of grooves where he'd stamped and torn at the ground in his display. Gingerly, the behemoth seemed to try to smooth the wood back out, accomplished nothing, and gave the saddest look I had ever seen to the pegasus I had barely registered as existing behind him. A series of growls that certainly sounded apologetic escaped 'Mr. Bear', and he cut his eyes to me again.

"No excuses, you promised, if you're going to claw things up you'll have to wear the gloves."

Another growl and small roar, this one distinctly whiny.

"No buts. Put them on."

The bear stood to an even more imposing height, but reached into a high cabinet delicately and put on oversized pleated mittens with... what appeared to be young cats stitched onto one and dogs on the other, in different colors. Afterwards, he resumed his threatening stance, but it's very hard to be afraid of a an embarrassed bear in mismatched mittens. And, now that I had a better look, what I had taken to be a baring of teeth was actually closer to a swollen cheek.

"I'm terribly sorry for him, he's only trying to help. And he should be, after getting into a fight with the bees." She scolded gently, tapping the massive creature on the nose. "Just keep putting ice on that, and when you're feeling all better, you're going to help the bees put their hive someplace safer than that old tree, and they're going to give you some of their honey for helping them. And no more fighting, please. I'm sure this nice pony didn't mean to scare you like that."

The bear, at this point, sounded an awful lot like Shining when Twilight the Elder scolded him. Enmity forgotten, I began to sympathize with the massive ursine. I gave it a comforting pat.

The growl informed me in no uncertain terms that my sympathy was not required nor requested, and I withdrew my hoof. The bear forced its bulk through the doorway, and ambled down a path to the stream, where it promptly stuck its swelling cheek in the water.

"Well. I believe all is well in hoof here, Miss Fluttershy. If... you want, I could assist with the bees?" I offered, hesitantly. "I have had some experience...? Idol Hooves." I offered my hoof. She didn't take it, actually beginning to shrink back.

"Um, no thank you, I don't want to hurt the little dears..." Her boldness was quickly dwindling as she realized the bear was no longer present in her defense, and she was talking to a relative stranger. I sought to mentally fight her growing sense of nervousness to prevent it from coming to the fore, but I could already tell this was a shy pony; it was like grappling smoke.

"Of course not. Neither Honey nor Topaz would ever forgive me for that."

The buttery pegasus blinked. "Oh... I'm not sure I've ever met them. Are... they new in town?"

"Not at all. Canterlot."

"...That wouldn't happen to be Honey Dew and Professor Topaz Showers?"

"Well... yes, I suppose it has to be." I had always liked 'Professor Showers'. It had a good ring of authority to it. It was no 'Mistress Topaz', but I suppose it was more formal and, from what I understood, better for polite society. The whole name gave it... gravitas, as Shining would put it.

"Oh my. I've written to them several times, Miss Honey has the best instructions for a good honey poultice, and her instructions for how to help the bees in Ponyville really help with the flowers... oh, and I kept meaning to tell Professor Showers about Parasprites, and how they react to music-" Nervousness was lost as she fell into a familiar topic. This one had much to say about animals, but that last part...

"Music?" I blinked. "They react to music? In what way?"

"Um... yes. My friend Pinkie could tell you more-"

Any time safe from the Pink Demon and her eldritch cupcakes was time blessed. I fought the craving even now. "That is probably unnecessary. I will relay the information to Topaz. I am sure she can find a good use for it."

The Element of Kindness caught my interruption and smiled slightly, and warmth flowed from her. "Pinkie just takes a little getting used to. She can be..."


"Well... yes, sometimes." Here she made a wavering gesture with a hoof that turned into a hesitant shrug. "...Are you really good with bees?"

"I have been enlisted by Honey Dew several times in moving her hives." Honey Dew's hives were her pride and joy. She had, for a short time, considered that I might be interested in picking up the trade. I tended to be more focused on the amber bounty before me, and shamefully was less than skilled. Still, the Guard had instilled upon me a steady enough trot that the hives were not unduly irritated, so I sometimes moonlighted in hive delivery for a delicious discount. Or free samples. The honey gathered by the bees in the Royal Gardens was particularly divine, as they had a wondrous bounty to gather from.

"I was going to have Harry do it, but after his fight with the other bees, I don't think that's such a good idea. If you wouldn't mind, Applejack's farm isn't far, and I can pay-"

"Unnecessary. I would be heading that way regardless. Do you use a smoker?"

She gasped. "Oh no, of course not, I just tell them everything is going to be alright, and very politely ask them to stay calm, and ask if I can have some honey, pretty please. And if I'm moving them somewhere, I just tell them to be patient with the locals."

I may have stared, as she seemed to try to hide in her mane. "...I believe Honey Dew would be delighted to meet you, Miss Fluttershy."

"Oh... really?" She blinked, as if surprised by this.

"Absolutely. As a fellow beekeeper, your talents would unquestionably delight her. To say nothing of meeting the Element of Kindness. Though I'm sure that grows weary."

"Not really. I mean. Everyone in Ponyville knows, but nopony really pays it much mind... it's not that interesting..."

I stared. "You fought with one princess and in so doing saved two of them. You say that is not interesting? You are heroes." Her squeak told me all I needed about that. This mare had no interest in heroics, and the limelight was something she'd flee more eagerly than pursue. I bowed. "Forgive me, I have spoken out of place."

She blushed, but nodded quickly. "I'll... I'll go talk to the bees, and then draw you a map." She fled her own cottage. Well. Now I felt like a monster.

A light tap at my leg. A rabbit stood there with a small carrot in his paws, wiggling his nose. I had never been quite so weak to 'cute' as many ponies seemed to be, but this little white fluffball seemed particularly adorable. It motioned me down to it's level, and I leaned close, curious.

The fuzzy little bastard kicked me in the nose, and I recoiled in shock and pain.

The no longer so cute rabbit gave a firm nod, waved his carrot like a sword, and bounced into a hole in the wall. It took every ounce of my self-control not to go after the vermin, and I sensed that he was quite aware of it. I hissed in fury regardless, and considered walling up the hole. But no, that would be rude.

I settled down in the now silent cottage, waiting for Fluttershy. There was too much food here for my liking. And it was much too bold.

The farm belonging to the family of the Element of Honesty was only a short haul from that of Kindness, but I could not think of a non-intrusive way to approach the Element of Loyalty short of inquiring with the mayor and making this an official investigation, which had been explicitly forbidden. I could possibly use magic to ensnare her cloud home and bring it to ground level, but such a thing was likely to be very difficult, costly, and rude besides.

Learning that Twilight was living in a library surprised me only in that Princess Celestia had always been insistent that Twilight did not sleep in the Royal Archives. Young Twilight had, upon getting out from her mentor's wing, immediately set about doing the very thing she'd always desired. I respected her dedication to the dream, and would congratulate her on finding success.

I was considerably more surprised that I had actually already patronized the Element of Honesty with the mailmare, buying us each a muffin made from Apple family produce. Still, I had paid her little mind; it was a gentle rebuke, I decided. None may be beneath my notice. Princess Celestia, as always, is wise beyond my understanding.

The apple farmer, for her part, was not entirely sold on the idea of having a hive of bees installed in her orchard. "Reckon I appreciate you hauling this out here for Fluttershy, but ain't got time to chat, stranger. Spent this afternoon ungumming the crusaders, and I'm plum out of time to waste, no offense."


"Mah sister an' her friends thought they could make maple syrup. Usin' a pine tree. And a bellows." She grumbled, leading myself and the cart to the safety of a tree.

I tried to comprehend that combination of words, and decided it was better that I did not. "Is there anyplace in particular you'd like the hive?"

"Right there's fine, Fluttershy probably knows exactly where she'd like it. Don't quite know if it's all that necessary but Flutters knows her critters. Now, 'less you're willing to buck some apples, gonna have to ask you to have a nice day." She quickly trotted to a nearby tree that hadn't already harvested and gave it a firm kick. Apples rained into bins, and she nodded in satisfaction before moving to the next.

"I believe I could do that." I agreed, slightly interested. I had never gathered professionally, after all, but... I truly had little else to do.

"Ah... that is... sugarcube, Ah didn't mean-"

I gave one of the other trees a measured buck, and found that it was not so easy as I had expected. A second knocked a fair few loose, and a third accomplished my goal.

"Technique could use some work, but Ah ain't gonna just put you to work like that."

"Ma'am, if I may be so frank, I would relish the opportunity to do manual labor on this farm. After the day I have had, nothing would please me more than good wholesome labor."

"...Well shoot, Ah've been there. Alright, ya'll go west field. Big Macintosh could use the spare hoof. If ya'll are still willing to talk, Ah'll chat about whatever you want at supper. Deal?"

Dinner and work? I quite liked this mare. "That would suit me to the core, Miss Applejack."

I was vaguely surprised when she spat on her hoof, but did likewise. Luckily, I did not adhere our hooves together, but it was a near thing.

"..." Big Macintosh stated with a skeptical look, but pointed out the section he'd prefer me to work. The section wasn't excessively large, but I intended to surprise him.

An hour later, I moved to a second section with a 'Hmm' from the red stallion.

By the second hour, I'd hit a comfortable rhythm and had exceeded my section, to the complaints of my tired legs. An 'Eeyup' from Macintosh soothed those hurts with a wealth of satisfaction, and the two of us continued the field in companionable silence.

If ever a pony understood the lure of a good day's labor, it was Big Macintosh. He'd gone from disapproving to pleased with little more than a show of effort, and even as we crossed paths, there was always the firm nod of approval, a single word of praise, and moving on without further ado.

The only surprise came towards the end of the day, when one of the apple trees loudly and irritably cried out upon my kicking it.

I blinked. That was a first. I peered up into the greenery, but saw nothing, and gave it another firm kick.

"...c'mon mom, five more minutes..."

I deliberated a moment longer, trying to make sense of this, then gave the tree a final kick, harder than the others. This time there was a rustle, a distinctive 'oof' as the owner of the voice apparently landed on one particularly thick branch, and finally an exceedingly colorful pegasus crashed from the branches, upended my bucket, and managed to impale an apple on my horn.

Suffice to say I was cross.

And then she was airborne and in my face. "What's the big deal, buddy?! You just randomly kick trees and wake ponies up?" Anger awoke suspicion, and both flared white hot. "Waitaminute, who the hay are you?! Does Applejack know you're here, stealing her apples?!"

"Now see here-" Unlike the Pink Demon, I saw this one move. However, I hadn't the slightest chance of following said motion, and then I was upended, legs tied with... my own saddlebag straps. Wonderful.

"You stay right there. I'll be back with Applejack, and then we're gonna decide what we do to apple thieves!"

And with that, the rainbow pegasus was gone. I flexed my legs. I could cut the strap, or even just bite through it, but it was a good saddlebag and I wasn't going to ruin it.

"I hate this town."

Thankfully, Big Macintosh found me some five minutes later, raised an eyebrow, looked to the tree, shook his head, and said nothing as he untied me. Applejack came rushing up with the tree-pegasus moments later, and the pegasus looked like she was about to have words with Macintosh for untying me. Macintosh, for his part, looked nonplussed. Or resigned. Or, for that matter, maybe he just didn't care. He felt amused, but he was hiding it well.

"Goldarnit Rainbow, I told you-" Rainbow? Ah. This, then, must be the Element of Loyalty. I was less than ecstatic.

"Why in the heck would I think you'd get a unicorn farmhand? You don't even let Twilight work the fields unless something's going on! And he was wearing an apple on his face."

"Cause Twilight uses magic and we don't use magic here and he was willing to buck like a normal feller. An'... Ah... don't rightly know why he'd be doing that but Ah reckon that's between him and Celestia." She finished with a resolute nod.

Wonderful, now I was the deviant. "It hit me in the face when she fell from the tree. She upended the bins." I had obviously already removed the apple from my horn, but lacked any sort of towel or napkins, so short of shapeshifting it off, I was stuck with it. On the positive side, Mac had let me have the apple, and I was surprised to note they seemed even better fresh off the tree. It was an interesting idea; some food grew increasingly bland until it reached an apex of neutrality, then began to improve in different directions. No pony wanted sour milk, but cheese was different; aged cheese grew steadily better the older it became. Celestia herself had a cask of some sort of cheese stashed away that she had been aging since her youth, and once a year she would make grilled cheese sandwiches for those who had served her particularly well or distinguished themselves, because anything worth having was worth sharing.

Whatever it was, it had reduced Shining to tears when he tried to describe it.

"...Consarn it, Rainbow, you could have mentioned you were in one of the trees."

"Well it's not like I fell from the sky, what kind of lousy flyer do you think I am?" The pegasus stamped, offended by the very implication.

"That ain't the point and ya'll know it. Ah've told you once, Ah've told you a hun'erd times, stop sleepin' in the orchard if y'all are gonna wake up grumpy!"

"I'm not grumpy, I'm legitimately in the right here! He could have been stealing your apples."

A drop of apple juice dripped down onto my nose, and I cleaned it away. "To be fair, they are delicious."


"...Rainbow Dash. He ain't a thief, he's workin'. Ah understand that you're bein' protective and all, and you're allowed to nap in the orchard as long as you ain't impactin' business, but ya'll need to apologize."

"Come on, AJ, I'm objectively right! Mac, what do you think?"


"See, he agrees with me!"

Big Macintosh blinked, raised a hoof, reconsidered, and settled back down. I couldn't blame him, I supposed.

"That weren't what he were sayin', Rainbow!"

"If I may interject. I believe her efforts were from a good, if incorrect, place. And I was thoroughly shamed by the ease with which she defeated me."

"See? I kicked his flank, and he's cool with it."

I have never before actually tasted ego. But this source seemed as infinite as the Princess was a source for love. I shudder to consider what that amount of self-importance would do to me. But... this was Loyalty. She put utmost value on herself... and her friends were both extensions of and important parts of that 'self'. She had been angry with me for interfering with her own rest, but the very concept of my stealing from her friend had driven her to extremes. I could appreciate a fanatical zeal towards loyalty.

But then, I am a changeling. I do not think any of us have much room to make mock.

"That. Ain't. The point, RD. He's helpin' out on the farm and you're insultin' him. All the more complicated it has to be. He even helped Fluttershy."

The prismatic pegasus paused. "...Wait, he helped Fluttershy? Why didn't anypony tell me that?"

"Y'all never even began to ask, and what does it matter?!"

"Obviously it matters. Whatever. Look. Sorry I kicked your flank and called you a thief."

"Apology accepted, on one condition."

She snorted, looking as if she wanted to withdraw said apology already, but she refrained. I approved of her restraint. "Fine, what?"

"...How did you actually do that?"

"What, tie you up with your own saddlebags and leave you in the dirt?" She grinned, and I felt her ego impossibly swell yet further.

"Yes, that in particular."

"Here, lemme show you-"

Curiosity has always been my most dangerous emotion. And I have the bumps to prove it.

Guitars, Conductors, and Coda

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I spat dirt from my mouth, trying to disentangle my legs. "Again."

"Sure!" came the cheerful response. I had ingratiated myself to the Element of Loyalty at some point in this exercise, oh great joy of joys. By the time I got to my hooves, the blur of color began again and this time I managed to get a hoof out- and I flipped over the length of my foreleg in yet another movement that I was only able to determine was vaguely different before I crashed face-first into the grass and had my legs bound.

"Rainbow Dash!"

"What?! He went for a grab, I just reacted!"

I stood up, sore but thankfully not dizzy. "It... is true. I attempted to interfere with the lesson and have received an education." Here I shook my foreleg, which had gone rather numb- and now hurt. "Specifically, 'do not do that'."

"Ain't much training if you can't tell what's going on. Slow down, RD."

"Hey, he's picking up on the basics, this is going great. It's what you expect when you learn takedowns from the best." Pride burned through the mare, and once again I steeled myself at the flow of ego. Her pride wasn't even completely unwarranted; she was taking down a guardspony without breaking a sweat. "Alright, here we go!"

I braced myself for the blur, and was shocked when the pegasus crashed to the ground with a loop of rope around her barrel, and watched in mute confusion as the apple farmer hauled her in with perhaps less speed but greater determination, tying her friend's legs with a few well-wrapped coils. Now that was a trick.

Rainbow Dash blinked, tried to wriggle free, and then had the grace to look abashed. "But I've learned from the very best?"

"Flattery ain't gettin' you untied," the farmer announced, finishing her loops with precision and care. "Y'all go getting too bold and somepony's gonna get hurt. He ain't learnin' nothin, you're just showin' off. And y'all need to understand that ain't nopony but Pinkie Pie catching up to Rainbow Dash." She finished, giving me a stern glare. "Ain't no shame in accepting you ain't meant for some things."

Grass-stained and thoroughly cowed at the prospect of keeping pace with the Pink Demon, I could only lower my head. I was a sight... and the Element of Honesty was absolutely right. Hoof to hoof, I could not hope to keep up with anypony as blindingly fast as the Element of Loyalty. But... a stunning spell to her smug face would have probably worked at any given time. I tamped down the thought. This had been educational. It was unlike me to be bitter.

I refused to think more on that emotion.

"C'mon, sugarcube. Promised you dinner and Ah intend to see you collect."

"What about me?" Rainbow wiggled, trying to loosen the ropes to little avail.

"Reckon you need to cool your head. If y'all need help, y'all can just ask."

From the scowl on Rainbow's face, I expected that would be a very cold day in Tartarus.

The library was surprisingly large for a small town. I had heard it was a tree, but I had not expected it to be quite so... unusual-looking. Various enormous knots had been turned into a windows, there was a balcony coming off of one, and it all looked rather lopsided. One exceptionally ugly branch stuck out past the foliage at the top, and somepony had mounted a telescope on it. I could not say it was well-designed, but at least it was being put to decent use.

I had to admit, there was something vaguely cannibalistic about using a living tree to hold books, however. Using the living body of a thing to preserve its dead relations. Order, that was a grim thought. I strove to move past it, and finished a delicious morsel of apple pie. It helped that the innards of the tree were far too bright and cozy to be a proper mausoleum.

Twilight didn't even appear to notice me, engrossed in some new book. Deeply engrossed, I realized; her lips were moving, a habit her brother shared when he was committing pages to memory. I was loathe to bother her, but this was part of Ponyville.

"Pardon me, but do you happen to have a copy of 'Diamond Buff's Guide to Perfect Polishes'?" I hoped she would. It was an old manual, but it was considered the most informative for creating one's own glazes.

"Sorry, we have four copies that have been in circulation for five years now, three of which are overdue and one of which had only half of a library card filled out, so it's just missing. I've put out notices for all of them but honestly, if they've been gone that long they're lost in someone's attic or their personal collection. If you fill out the form by the card catalog, I'll send a letter as soon as one makes its way back or I can get another copy on loan." She flipped a page. "It's probably out of print, so I'm afraid that isn't very likely."

I sighed and nodded. "I was afraid that would be the case."

"Feel free to browse~!" the purple protege cheerfully offered. "We do have a copy of Platinum Sheen's 'Gold Gilding Guide for Spectacular Ceramics'."

My interest piqued. The only copy of that we had in Canterlot had been, unfortunately, dropped in molten gold. I was to understand that contents were fine, saved by spell of preservation at the last moment, but now the book itself was considered a work of art and thus, not available to the public. I had always been interested...

"I believe I will. Thank you, Twilight."


I turned, recognizing the voice of her sibling immediately. "Ah, Spike. How are you finding Ponyville?"

"Me? Great, but what are you doing here? Is..." the dragonling cut his eyes at Twilight, then motioned me down close. " know who, visiting?"

I would not have considered this tactful, but the Royal Messenger was as happily oblivious as ever with a new book. "Not immediately, no, but she does have vested interest in her apprentice. I am simply visiting to ensure everything is settled after the last incident."

Spike made an odd clicking noise with his tongue, flashed me a claw-sign that he'd picked up from some griffin ambassador. "Gotcha. Everypony's cool. I mean, the ursa didn't cause that much trouble."

"There was an ursa? In town?"

"Oh, yeah, Snips and Snails woke up a baby ursa- wait, you meant the thing with the dragon smoking out town?"

"I was actually talking about Zecora-"

Spike started snickering, eyes lighting with mirth. "You should have seen it. Twilight's horn was all floppy, Rarity's coat was out of control, and Flutterguy...! Applejack was so small you could put her in a bucket-"

"Spii-iiike, we're in a library-!" came Twilight's gentle admonishment from her desk.

"Sorry Twilight!" he cleared his throat, continuing in a quieter voice. "Zecora fixed everyone up, but it was pretty funny. Wish I could have gotten photos..."

"I... see. And what do you think of Ponyville so far?"

"Oh, it's great. Tons of stuff to do, I hang out with the Cutie Mark Crusaders sometimes-"

"Trying to keep them out of trouble, I assume?" Applejack had regaled me with several tales of the Crusaders' escapades, and it astounded me that the fillies, and the town, remained largely unharmed.

"Oh yeah, sure, all the time-" the youngster eagerly lied. "And then there's all of Twilight's friends... and then there's Rarity..."

I was quite taken aback by this sudden outpouring of emotion. Why, the young dragon was thoroughly smitten, but... "Rarity... the dressmaker? The unicorn?"

"Yeahhh..." Spike confirmed, dreamily. It was a wonder the little dragon didn't float off.

"...The one your sister's age," I clarified.

That knocked him out of it, and he scowled with all the fierceness he could muster. "Hey, don't make this weird, dude. There's only one Rarity, I mean. It's in the name!"

Bemused, I ducked my head. "My apologies, Spike. The young lady is fortunate indeed to have caught your eye."

"Well. I mean. She's amazing, but... I haven't, you know... told her."

Order forbid, he was half her age. At worst, that revelation would lead to a broken heart, and at best a wounded one. A few more years to harden his scales, though... I ruffled his headscales, and the dragon swatted my hoof away by reflex. "She seems to be a smart mare. She'll figure it out." And, hopefully, given time, so would young Spike.

In truth, I could hardly believe that Ponyville even had a spa. Certainly, Manehattan had them in abundance, and Canterlot had a few, but I'd never really seen the point. If I wanted a hot bath, I simply took one. But... it was supposed to be good for stress, somehow. And, if there was one thing I had acquired in abundance on this trip, it was stress. It would not do to bring it home with me.

The bell tinkled merrily upon my entry, and the proprietors cheerfully welcomed me in what I assumed to be a reasonable facsimile of a Prench accent, but without the nasal intonation typically used for all such pronunciation in Canterlot. Still, it was much less grating on the ears, and I was not about to correct them.

"Bonjour, 'allo~! Welcome to ze La~ Te~ Da~! Ponyville's premier day spa! We guarantee~ you'll be stress free~!" the pink-coated one with a blue mane sang, while the blue-coated one with a pink mane only gave me a weak smile and an abashed shrug.

"How are we to help you today, sir? I am Lotus, and this is my... musical... sister, Aloe. If you are here for ze first time, may we recommend one of our service packages?" She motioned to a list, and I eyed them curiously.

One grabbed my attention almost immediately. "The Royal Treatment?"

"But of course," Lotus agreed. "A full steam, hooficure, massage, and your choice of facial or clay bath."

I had no idea what a clay bath even was. But, I realized, if I intended to recommend a place for the princess to relax, I would have to find out. And a good roll in some mud would be rather relaxing, I decided. It had been entirely too long since I had been covered in dirt.

The clay was not what I had expected, but honestly not bad at all. Nowhere near as thick as what I traditionally worked with for pottery, but with a pleasing scent to it that left me feeling relaxed and comfortably warm, as though I were in a changeling stew. I refused to let the concept ruin this for me, but there had been too much in my head for me to truly relax. The steams were pleasant enough, but one could only sit in a hot, humid room for so long, and when it had been time for a hooficure, I had been told my hooves were almost pristine, gotten the briefest of polishes, and a somewhat embarrassed Lotus had suggested I enjoy the clays while her sister prepared for the massage. I took a deep breath and sank into the muddy embrace of the clay soup, briefly allowing my pony shape to falter and feeling the heated clay-water soak into my changeling joints, through the holes in my legs, and around my wings.

This, I decided, might actually be better than a cocoon.

Luckily, I maintained presence of mind to assume my normal form as soon as Aloe came to inform me that I could receive my massage 'whenever', though the flame of transformation had the side effect of creating a thin shell of 'changeling' out of dried clay. I took care to crush and return the clay to the bath as soon as possible, thankful it had not been noticed.

The massage, unfortunately, did nothing for me.

"Monsieur, please, you must... relax," the pink earth pony grunted, shoving her hooves into my shoulders. "This much stress, non, it is unheard of. It should not... be!" She took a deep breath and jabbed both hooves into my upper back, trying to work what she had to think were bunched muscles.

"I have been rather relaxed," I informed her, a bit testily. This had been going on for fifteen minutes, and frankly I was beginning to think 'massage' was some pony insanity. The mare was compressing my shell under my disguise, and it did not feel particularly pleasant or unpleasant, simply... a thing that was happening. Her focus on my back made breathing difficult, and I did not like it.

"Hup!" she responded, and I found the spa pony trodding upon my back with all fours. Again, not an improvement. "I do not understand, zis is... you are so tense, it is frightening."

I should have never relaxed my shifted shape in the baths. Foolish, really. And I was feeding upon her stress, which was, if anything, making me stressed, which I was sure was only making her more stressed. Finally, I sighed. "I can think of something that may help."

"At zis point, I shall do anything," Aloe swore, and I finally smiled.

"Oui! Oui! Right 'zere, is magnifique~!"

"Aloe! What in Celestia's name!?"

The spa pony froze "Lotus! Zis... zis is not what it looks like! Ooh, s'il vous plaît, do not stop!" Her body arched.

I obliged, continuing to focus on the pony's back. This was very informative. I was pushing at one section of her spine, felt a hint of pain, followed by vast relief as she slumped back into the table. I made a note of it, through an almost drunken haze. This was far better than receiving a massage.

This only served to outrage her sibling further. "You are getting a massage from one of our clients!" She sputtered, face reddening. Her accent seemed to have slipped slightly. Her voice was very pretty, regardless.

"'e has magic hooves!" Aloe announced. "And it is like 'e can find every tense muscle and hurt, and with just a bit of instruction, it goes away~ my hocks have never felt so good."

The pastel blue mare shook her head in open-mouthed despair. "But... Mr. Hooves, I deeply apologize, this is absolutely unprofessional of her-"

"I disagree. I find I do not much enjoy being on the receiving end of this." I placed my hooves to Aloe's shoulders, twisting gently until there was a soft pop and a gasp. Excellent. "But I have always been at my most relaxed when working with my hooves. I found this to be wonderful."

"But... but...!"

"But... I believe my time to be over. This was an experience I am not likely to forget, and I thank you both for it." I bowed to the blue mare, gave the pink one a pat, and began trotting out. Still, I caught a faint words as the door closed.

"Sister... sister... we must hire a stallion. A big strapping one, mares will pay for this, I promise you-"

Ponyville Spa was receiving a thorough recommendation. I couldn't remember the last time I had felt this good. I would return to Canterlot thoroughly physically refreshed. I imagined Celestia would greatly enjoy it.

I could not wait to get back to work.


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It was with no small amount of pleasure I returned to Canterlot. In terms of non-traditional guard duties, that could have been worse. I had survived it; accomplished all missions; and returned with trinket, trophy, and treat, the last of which I had resolved to share with the Princesses as proper tribute. Still, I was relieved when the last train from Ponyville allowed me to reach the castle in time to join the line of petitions and reports to the Princess. I would hate to interrupt the Princess's other business to deliver this report. It involved the royal protege, so I was not quite sure of the importance that should be assigned to it. A typical verbal report would do for now.

When it was my turn, I caught a flash of emotions as soon as I walked in, quickly smothered. Surprise, certainly, but other things as well. Exasperation, perhaps? The petitions must have been extraordinarily taxing this day. “Princess Celestia, I have come to report.” I bowed low to the Solar Diarch, and gave a smaller bow to Princess Cadance, who seemed more bemused by my arrival, and did far less to hide it. Curious.

The Solar Princess tilted her head, raising one perfect eyebrow. “...Idol, I believe you were tasked to investigate Ponyville. And to patronize it.”

“And I have, your Highness. I visited every business of note, though found little of real interest in many.”

“… You’ve been gone for two days.”

“Of course, your Highness. I left immediately the morning after receiving my orders. The mission is accomplished, and I would like to report.”

The Princess’s smile seemed more forced, though I could hardly imagine why. “I see.”

“You will undoubtedly be very pleased with Twilight the Younger. Her friends are…” I searched for a good word. “...Diverse in their mentality. In truth, I could not have imagined her befriending any of them before leaving Canterlot. They will be good for her. Though I do hope she will not become too much like Rainbow Dash. She is a little more… aggressive than I am used to.”

Cadance tilted her head. “Um… how?”

“A small misunderstanding, resolved quickly. Her heart was in the right place. I would recommend being more cautious of the one known as Pinkie Pie, but I believe unpredictability is her nature, so I cannot presume what would be done in that regard. I quite liked Misses Rarity, Fluttershy, and Applejack, and assure your Highnesses that Twilight has done quite well for herself. As for Miss Zecora… the Everfree could not be in better hooves. I believe she is uniquely prepared to handle the wardship of the forest.”

“And the businesses?”

“Quills and Sofas sells… quills… and sofas.”

“And everything in between, one assumes?”

“No. The name of the store is as concise as it is accurate. The rest are of above average quality but with little else to distinguish them, with several exceptions. Miss Rarity is the proprietor of Carousel Boutique, and both her work and ethics are unquestionable.”

“Her… ethics?”

“Indeed. The Sugarcube Corner is far above and beyond the average, and I bring some of their finest. Miss Pie delivered her some of her ‘Extra Scrumptious Double Cream Sweetcakes’ on the train, and it is only proper that I share this bounty.”

“She delivered them to the station? Well, that was certainly nice of her-”

“No, your Highness. She delivered them to the train and left. She claimed she did not have a ticket.”

“...While it was at the station?”

“No.” I cleared my throat, not wanting to draw the attention of the Pink Demon, and certainly not wanting to think too much about her. “Sweet Apple Acres provides fantastic produce, and, while not a business per se, Miss Fluttershy is amazingly adept with animals. I have no doubts she would be utterly entranced to meet Philomena. As for myself, I made few other purchases.” I began laying out my findings. “A set of chisels from Rich’s Barnyard Bargains, a preorder for a dress, a few other things of minor note, and one… Pinkie Pie Party-in-a-Box. I have not opened the last and may never.”

“And that?” She raised a hoof to point at one of my items.

“It is a chicken composed of rubber. I purchased it at the local ‘joke shop’. It is hilarious.” I stomped on the creature and it made a goose-like honk, followed by a squeaky wheeze. I smiled at the very absurdity.

Princess Celestia opened her mouth, then closed it. She started to say something, stopped, and gave a small snort of laughter. “I… suppose it is!”

“Yes, your Highness.” I agreed.

“Well! I… I should commend you for a job well done. Perhaps you should take some time to relax-”

“Ah, yes, I nearly forgot the Ponyville Day Spa. It was a delightful experience. I laid hooves on one of the proprietors and learned a few things. I truly cannot recommend it enough.” I nodded firmly and gathered my belongings, silencing the large rubber poultry by stuffing it deeper into my saddlebag. “I will prepare a formal report as soon as possible to ensure I have missed nothing.”

I looked up to see both of the princesses staring at me, mouths ajar. The room seemed oddly warmer. “Is there anything else?”

“N...No! I believe I’ve heard more than enough. Ponyville sounds… lovely.” Celestia blinked rapidly. Odd. Perhaps she was daydreaming about a longer visit. Good, she could use the time off.

“Permission to speak freely?”

The Sun Princess looked hesitant but nodded. “Permission granted.” I could not begin to fathom her look of concern. I was the last of the reports for the day, and there were no more petitions.

“With respect, your Majesty, in the future? If you wish me to take a vacation, you have but to ask.”

I left quickly, intent on receiving my orders for the following day.

“...I told you that wouldn’t work,” Cadance giggled, as the door closed.

“Oh hush- oh my Faust that’s good, you have to try one of these-”

“Captain, I do believe this is borderline fraternization.” I offered as Spitfire planted herself across from me in the mess hall. The room, as usual, was relatively quiet. The mess hall was not known for exceptionally good food at the evening meals, as most ponies with a talent for cooking preferred not to waste it where ponies wanted to generally ‘eat and retreat’... if they didn’t already intend to go to home-cooked meals with their families. To me, it was a fantastic place to write a report while having a meal. I found that I rather liked my new quill; perhaps I had misjudged Quills and Sofas quality. That would have to be annotated. Page ten. Or perhaps I should rewrite the whole report.

Spitfire snorted. “No offense Hooves, you’re not my type. This is just coworkers having a few cold ones together at the end of a long day at work, all Harmony approved and everything.” She switched from wheedling to sing-song. “I got the goooood stuff~!” she pulled the neck of a bottle from her saddlebag.

I grunted, but she had me. Salted Caramel Whiskey was a wicked creation, but the Wonderbolt Captain knew my weaknesses far too well. “Burn your pinions. What do you want, Spitfire?”

“Heard the Princess ordered you to take a tour of Ponyville. Got a prospect going there.”

“I presume you do not mean Fluttershy.”

Her snort was as impressive as it was impolite. “Near as I’ve heard that one barely flies more than the Bug Mare.” Her eyes narrowed. “...Do you know something I don’t know?”

“Topaz dislikes that nickname, and… I have no idea how to safely answer that question. I saw nothing to make me judge her skills as anything other than ‘graceful’.”

“Sorry, sorry.” She waved a hoof. “C’mon, give. You did a checkup on Ponyville. I’m sure you got a good impression of the folks Sparkle hangs out with, because that’s what Celestia would have wanted. You had a chance to meet that Rainbow Dash filly, and it wasn’t when she was squealing like a fangirl or freaking out over her performance...”

I gave a small nod as she poured the delightful amber beverage. “She is brash, aggressive, willful and uncouth."

The pour slowed, but only for a moment as the flame-like pegasus shrugged. "Damn. Thought we might have some potential in that one. She’s got the speed, and she certainly has the reflexes..." She swirled her own mug in a practiced motion before taking a sip. Her shoulders and wings relaxed as she did so, and a waft of pleasure emanated from her, slightly tinged with disappointment.

I hesitated. I did not particularly like the Element of Loyalty, but I felt that clarification was in order. "...Spitfire, you are brash, aggressive, willful and uncouth. And you are the best leader the Wonderbolts have had during my lifetime."

She nearly spit out her drink, coughed and pounded a hoof into her chest. "...Damn it, Hooves, usually I have to buy a stallion dinner before he kisses my flank like that. What about Wind Rider?"

"Case in point.” I rolled my eyes. “And Wind Rider retiring raised the overall level of tolerability of your group immensely.”

She scoffed, waving that away, "You never did like him. But then, you don’t really like the whole ‘showpony’ thing. You know, most ponies would think all of that ‘brash and uncouth’ stuff was an insult."

"I believed those were all required traits for joining the Wonderbolts. Order knows how Soarin got in."

She gave a broad grin at that. "Someone had him try on the tights and none of us are willing to go without that ever again. And he’s one of the best long-distance fliers we’ve ever had, but mostly the first thing.”

"You are a wretched lech, Spitfire."

"I’m not wretched, I’m the best there is. I just call them like I see them. Any luck convincing Wispy to try out?"

"No. She has bribed me to stop bothering her with it."

"A fighter, knew I liked that one. You up for a counterbribe?"

"I believe that was a counterbribe."

"So it'd be a counter-counterbribe. I want her in the 'Bolts. I get Agility from her and Speed from Dash down in Ponyville, Endurance from Soarin, and I’m on my way to making my own Elements of Air Superiority.”

“I do not think that is a thing.”

“It could be a thing! I’d barely ever heard of the Elements of Harmony, you’re telling me there might not be some super secret forgotten pegasus elements of something or other?”

“I think ‘air’ is an element.”

Spitfire considered it, cursed, and downed her own drink. Mine had become empty at some point, so she refilled both. “Alright, alright. So how’d you run into Rainbow Dash, anyways?”

“She threw me into the dirt a few times.” I admitted, shrugging. “She is fast.”

Spitfire choked. “She’s like half your age!”

“She tied me up first, I had little say in the matter.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’d hate you if I didn’t fear you. You were there for like a day and a half!”

“And I had much to do, so much was accomplished.”

“Ugh. I just don’t see it.” She shook her head. “No offense.”

“None taken. I was surprised myself.”

“I don’t know why anything you do surprises any of us at this point.” She downed her second shot. “Alright. I’ll keep an eye out for her name on the list of applicants. She’s clearly going to be a good fit if she can get her tail up here.” She heaved herself to her hooves and trotted out, and I followed her.

“Are you sure that you should be flying after imbibing?”

She scoffed. “Please, Hooves, I’m a professional. I had more than that in my morning coffee.” She stretched her limbs, grinning at the setting sun. The grass at her hooves began to brown as she lowered herself into a crouch. I backed away quickly.

“I feel that should be more concerning!” I called out as she rocketed from the ground, hooves leaving flaming grass in her wake as the mare left a smoke trail behind her. I sighed, stomping out the smoldering grass. Blasted showboat. But I had to admit… nobody could beat Spitfire out of the gate. Rainbow Dash would be in good hooves.

I returned to my room to find Shining in a mood. “...Have you-”

“I have not asked her to marry me yet. More importantly- well, less important, more relative chronologically-” I nodded at this correction. “-you were right about there being something up about those star box things. A mess of shady business.”

I gave my bed a wan look. No rest for the weary. “Go on?”

Shining shrugged. “Okay, first off, you’ve met my father.”

I nodded. “I have found Night Light to be surprisingly well-composed for somepony who has been gnawed upon by a dragon so often.”

“Ha. Seriously though, he’s spent more time in the Royal Observatory than anyone, including Twilight, even if it’s only because he’s got years on her…” Shining’s face fell at this. He, like the rest of us, had originally expected Twilight’s trip to Ponyville to be a short-term assignment. He was still getting used to the change of plans. “...Guess he might keep the title for a while, huh?”

“It does look that way. Your sister is doing well enough in Ponyville to have established a squad of...interesting friends. Young Spike has even developed a crush.”

No! There’s another dragon in Ponyville? I had no idea. Good for him.”


Shining looked at me, perplexed for just a moment before realization sank in and he facehoofed. “...We ruined him?”

“He is utterly twitterpated with one of the Elements. Cadance will be delighted.” I had been uncertain if romantic entanglements belonged in my report. They probably did, I decided. Though this was less an entanglement and more of a one-sided crush. An annotation, perhaps. Princess Cadance would never approve of it being a mere footnote.

“And that, my friend, is why we don’t tell her. She’ll meddle.”

I felt the need to defend her. “...It would hardly be meddling…” And that was hardly a defense. Bah.

Shining recognized the attempt and allowed it. “Fair enough. She’ll be excited when she finds out or she’ll be heartbroken with him; you know how she is,” Shining assured me with the same faraway look he always adopted when thinking of his soon-to-be fiancee. He regained focus, however. “Anyways. The boxes. Dad. He recognized parts of the lightshow almost immediately. They aren’t just random star patterns, they’re actual constellations. Not the famous ones, obviously, but a lot of the ones that lost their shape.”

“...They what?”

“I don’t get the exact idea of it, but the night sky used to be a lot more interesting and organized. I think Princess Luna had something to do with it? Anyways, the boxes are just projecting a bunch of those old constellations. They’re all jumbled and not where they should be, they spin and stuff, but dad says it’s so blatant it ought to be obvious to anyone with even a passing astronomical inclination. His words, not mine, but he was pretty offended. Maybe a little disappointed that I didn’t catch it, but...”


“And I could absolutely prove all that… if the Book of the Night Sky wasn’t missing pages.” He finished, heat in his voice. I could understand this strained fury. In his family, damaging books was tantamount to treason. And stealing pages from a book- I was suddenly grateful Twilight the Younger was elsewhere. There would have been consequences.

“You suggest thievery, then?”

“And fraud, don’t forget fraud.”

“Then why have you not arrested them?” I sputtered, furious.

Shining sighed. “Because they have Princess Luna’s blessing.” I blinked, and he continued. “Basically, the only way to charge them is to say they stole from the Observatory and duplicated Luna’s works… and that she just gave her blessing to the theft. The first thing she’s provided patronage towards is someone who just abused her trust,” Shining shook his head. “It’d mean scandal. Besides, we don’t know they stole from the Observatory personally, only that there are pages missing that happen to coincide with some of their imagery, because a lot of them are just random dots. Oh, and it gets better!” He pulled a padded box out of his pack, revealing one of the devices.

I steeled myself as Shining activated the contraption with a small switch. To my disappointment, the room did not darken and the lights were not nearly so beautiful as they were for the princess… in truth, it was somewhat blurry, and it hardly did more than provide a slightly pleasant light show. Still, I could see several patterns of ‘stars’, though I could identify perhaps one of them. The sky had never been particularly noteworthy to me before the most recent Summer Sun Celebration. The light cut off as Shining flipped a switch, and then gave it a casual shake before offering to me. “You try.”

I flipped the switch, obligingly. Nothing happened. I frowned, activating it twice more. A faint grinding noise, but no lights. I lifted the box, looking it over skeptically, but could find no immediate cause for the failure.

Shining held up a bound scroll. “Oh, my apologies~! I forgot to mention the ‘Care & Agreement’ section of the Star Box instructions!” He unrolled the scroll… and the end fell to the ground. “Failure to obey the following voids the warranty of your Official Star Box. Protect from loud noises. Protect from sudden impact. Do not shake. Do not apply heat. Do not scry. Do not open. Do not apply excess magic. Do not eat. Do not wear. Do not bounce. Do not-”

“I believe I understand.” I frowned. “So what is wrong with it?”

“It’s broken. Junked. Take it back, it won’t work anymore. Except you can’t because you broke your agreement. This is the third freaking one I’ve gotten. I didn’t even read the agreement the first time and spent hours trying to fix the thing on my own. Do you have any idea how much they’re selling these for? If it weren’t for the mess hall I’d be eating grass this week.”

“...Are they truly so fragile?” I stared at the box in utter disbelief.

“Near as I can tell, you get a dozen uses out of it and the thing burns up. There’s some kind of mechanism in it that breaks the blasted thing if you open it, and I’m pretty sure the innards are made of glass. Some kind of magic-light projector in the box itself, glass panes for the stars, and a fancy bit of metal in there to wreck the whole thing at a moment’s notice. Of course, it’s all ‘proprietary’ so talking about it will bring the full legal might of the Bilkmore Brothers and their Patron down on you.”

“If you are not to open it, how do you know that?” I queried, more than slightly impressed with his diligence.

Shining held up the box with his magic, his horn glowed, and a tendril of light seemed to wrap around the center of the box, then formed an orb around the entirety of it. Shining casually took the shield in his hooves, and twisted in opposite directions. The shield split from one orb into two identical domes, each with half of the box inside. The contents were mostly preserved, from what I could tell. “I mean, it’s still closed, technically.”

I considered it, eyeing an oddly faceted metal orb that had likewise been split, if not perfectly down the center, enough to make out that Shining was indeed correct. “Show-off.” I took the one dome and looked closely. On the remains of one darkened glass plate, I could see light spots that would coincide with that of the ‘constellation’.

“This seems…” I hesitated, searching for the words. “...Unlikely to have provided the show that the Princess received.”

“Oh, hers is probably something completely different. They don’t say they’re selling what they gave to Princess Luna. They just say that they’re selling something like what they gave to her. It’s legal. Barely.”

I considered, then felt my carapace heat. “They sought her patronage because it provides defense. Princess Celestia-”

“Already knows. She’s forbidden me to act on it.”

“Order preserve,” I growled, then considered. “Forbidden… you… to act on it?”

“I can’t exactly order someone to act on it in my place, either. I’m just telling a friend who happened to be interested in the situation. The guard is going to have its hooves tied on this one.”

“And… what about the ponies with these broken products?”

Shining grunted. “Nothing good. The Bilkmores sold a bunch, but they make a show of claiming how ‘delicate’ the things are. Nopony wants to admit they don’t have the newest and latest bit of royally approved… whatever. Even Celestia is careful not to show too much interest in anything or she’ll cause a run on the market. Remember that tea from Neighpon?”

“Matchstick.” I gave him a look for his failure to adhere to her appellation, but he was used to such things.

“Close enough. Celestia really enjoyed it, and suddenly boom, it’s everywhere, tea markets had everything else overstocked, ponies who didn’t even like it were still drinking it, and coffee places had problems with business unless they added it to the menu.”

“Except Donut Joe.”

“Donut Joe’s will live forever.” Shining swore. “That’s not even worth mentioning. Coffee, near a university and the guard barracks? But the point is, Princess Luna gushed over it, and now it’s popular and nopony wants to admit to breaking something so expensive and complaining might damage the opinion of the princess in question. Economics!” Shining stated, raising a flask his beau had given him, which I knew he only filled with water. Hardly a proper toast.

“Ponies are crazy,” I confirmed with a sigh.

Still, I decided… something must be done. When Shining left for home, I set about for the only obvious option.

Princess Luna was still a new feature to the castle but maintained a timidness that none of us had expected. Most of her time was spent alone or in the presence of her elder sister, and I confess, the guard was of two minds about her.

Some of us saw her as another princess to serve. Others, a potential security breach in progress. Any suggestion by the latter camp of putting her in a tower for her own security, or outside of the castle entirely, had been met with firm opposition from the Sun Throne, and the admonishment that the Lunar Throne was to be treated with equal authority.

A small number of guards had retired in protest. I, like the Solar Princess, was most disappointed.

It was extremely surprising how cautious many of the thestrals were being of the new Night Princess. To many of them, she was far more likely to support their needs, but at the same time, her precarious place in current politics apparently made it dangerous to reciprocate such support. As such, they seldom offered public announcements of their loyalty for fear of making her ‘the bat pony princess’ and further relegating her to obscurity.

Even so, I was very pleased that Mothchaser had publicly sworn her guard oaths a second time to the Lunar Princess, and her example was followed by a number of the most loyal of the Night Guard. Nonetheless, the thestrals still gave the Princess her space, and she had taken to roaming the castle at nights on her own errands, whatever they might be until her control of the moon was fully recovered.

I found her outside, in the same area of the castle that had previously been where she had been gifted the true Star Box. She sat on the grass, looking to the night sky, box on a stone pillar, deactivated. Her horn had only the faintest of glow, so I cautiously reached my senses towards her and barely recoiled in time. Longing, loneliness, and guilt poured from her like a waterfall.

I had sensed as much from her sister, though far more restrained, on the darkest of nights by her door, when young Twilight was elsewhere.

“Your Highness?”

“Hmm? Oh, pray, excuse me.” The Princess composed herself quickly, drawing a hoof over her face. Exhaustion. Order, what was this? Had the Princess been in the midst of a working? I spared the sky a glance. The moon was unmoved, but… were the patterns of stars more intricate? Brighter? I could not be entirely sure. I hoped I had not interrupted anything.

“Your Highness, I have troubling news.”

“And… thou do not wish to bring such news before mine sister?” The Princess had a tendency to slip in and out of old Equish. It had a certain charm to it, I found.

“Nay. I am afraid it concerns thy patronage. We have reason to believe the ponies in question are abusing thy good name.” I gingerly gestured to her gift, and frowned, giving it a good look.

The box was activated. And nothing was happening. I was suddenly furious; not only had they provided poor counterfeits to the masses, but even the gift to the Princess had failed.

The Princess caught my expression and her face contorted in shame. “Prithee, wait, I can explain-” She took a step forward, staggered, and I moved to catch her before she struck the ground. The Princess convulsed, retched, and went limp in my hooves, shivering. Stress, weakness, pain roiled within her. The body of the immortal Moon Princess was too warm to the touch. There was only one possibility that sprang to mind.

“Fetch a healer!” I bellowed, augmenting my voice with all the magic I could muster. “The princess has been poisoned!”

A Flu Moon and an Empty Heart

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“Well, first and foremost, it isn’t poison. Nopony is trying to hurt your sister.”

Princess Celestia’s entire body seemed to relax, and she sat heavily by the entrance to her sister’s room. In all the time I had known her, she had never looked so haggard before; even her naturally wavy mane was moving erratically, as if whatever breeze typically energized it was replaced by a strange tempest. One curl flared to orange before fading back into the colorful mass, to my immense surprise. “Oh, thank Harmony. If not poison then, what has happened to her?”

The doctor wiped his brow with a hoof. “It seems to be exhaustion, a severe case of the flu, and perhaps some anxiety. Certainly stress. Your sister needs time to rest and recover.”

“The flu…? Luna has the flu?!” Celestia sputtered, disbelieving. “Tender Care, she’s an alicorn. We don’t-”

“Yes, yes, I am well aware that you don’t get sick. My predecessors have been aware and there are a number of books written about it. I’m to believe you’ve even read some of them. Between unicorn magical resistance, pegasus environmental control, and earth pony hardiness, alicorns simply don’t get sick often enough to matter. Fine. I am aware. I am also aware that guardspony Hooves had to scrub his armor because your sister sicked on him. Now, are you going to argue with me or listen to my supposition?” While true, I had mostly burned it off with magic and only rinsed the remainder. It was also grossly impolite to bring it up.

The Princess glanced at me, lowered her head and nodded. “Forgive me, doctor. I am at a loss. Go on, please.”

“I believe that Princess Luna’s access to magic was severely limited by the Elements of Harmony. Her magical protections, as an alicorn, were torn away entirely. At this moment, I fear she is at risk from… well... almost everything. Even a common cold will play havoc until she fights it off naturally or her magic recovers.”

“And how long will that take?”

“I… do not know, Your Highness. I would recommend isolation for at least a month while we run some tests.”

“I see. I must speak with my sister about this.”

The doctor stepped in front of the door. “Your Highness, I must refuse entry.”

There was a pop and a sizzle from Celestia’s mane, but she smothered down the complex mixture of emotions. “You can try.”

“No, Princess, please. Your sister’s… condition is an edge case scenario. Put simply, she could make you sick.”

“Doctor, I believe we have discussed this. May I ask when it was that I last came to you for anything but information or a checkup?”

“Miss Sparkle caught a cold after one too many late nights in the library and you panicked.”

“I did not-!” The Princess cleared her throat, looking sheepish. She lowered her voice to a more conversational level, and I believe all appreciated it. “I was not panicking; she said she felt too tired to read.”

“That is a reasonable cause for alarm.” I agreed.

“Be that as it may, Your Highness, it is not for your health, but for your sister’s. Anything your constitution could safely ignore may take root in her, and then through her return to you, empowered by access to what little stores of magic she has access to. And anything with that level of power could be incredibly dangerous to the citizenry. And you, as I recall, were just visiting a children’s hospital.”

Celestia glared down at the doctor, and for once I felt the full weight of her displeasure settle on someone. “You are asking me to abandon my sister, so soon after she is returned to me, when she is at her weakest?”

“I am asking you to exercise restraint and allow us to do our jobs. For her well-being and your own.”

“Your Highness, may I offer a question, and possibly a suggestion?”

“...Yes, Corporal?”

“Would a shield prevent this... transmission of illness?”

The doctor frowned, pensive. “It would have to be one Tartarus of a shield…”

“I believe Lieutenant Shining Armor to be up to such a task. He is skilled beyond my own comprehension.”

Princess Celestia raised a hoof to her chin. “That would be… possible, I suppose… I will speak to him. I will need ponies I trust to watch after my sister in this hour of need. And who better than the pony who has never used a sick day and is already beyond passingly familiar with Lieutenant Armor’s shields?”

I did not wince, but the honor was unbearable. “Your Highness there are many ponies-”

“None who were by her side at that moment, and none who carried her to the medics. Idol Hooves, you have my gratitude, but I must ask more of you. May I trust you with this?”

“I… yes.” I bowed my head low, lowering myself on forelegs. “Your will be done.”

“Thank you, Idol.” There was relief in her tone, and some of her fear abated. The gratitude washed over me in a wave, and my exhaustion burned away in that warmth.

“With your permission, Your Highness… I would like to take the rest of the day off. I have much that I must do.”

She blinked, then gave a small laugh. “Of course. You have not left her since waking the castle. Go, see to your business and rest with my blessings. I will have need of you on the morrow, when we will discuss your new roles.”

I hurried off, leaving the more composed Princess to discuss how she could see her sister without chasing off her doctor. A runner was sent to find Shining Armor, and I...?

I had much to do.

I took care to put my armor away. I scoured it once more with green flame, heating the metal and ensuring that nothing still clung to it, though Topaz had suggested that my own physiology was too different from a pony’s for most illnesses to make the jump from one species to the next. Our nature as omnivores and apparent scavengers protected us from the rest.

I entered the darkness of the tunnels below Canterlot, though I did not seek out the Nymph. For the first time in so long I could barely recall, I created a new pony form. An Earth Pony. Sturdy. Light coat. Elements of Bold Bigflank and Blueblood. Aristocratic. Powerful. Possessing of wealth and refinement. It would have to do.

I found the Bilkmore Brothers as night fell.

They were packing for the day, but the prospect of money drew them more surely than the promise of rest ever could.

“Flim and Flam Bilkmore, at your service, my fine stallion. Sellers of many fine products. Fine silverwork, exotic plates, why, this saddle came all the way from Saddle Arabia, and it would suit a fine gentlestallion like yourself, wouldn’t it, brother of mine?”

I raised an eye. It was gaudy and terrible. I could imagine nopony from Saddle Arabia wearing the thing. Wasta, perhaps, but even so...

“My dear brother, without the matching ensemble, it would be an absolute shame, but we have the saddlebags right here as well. But let's get right to business, for a pony of your refinement, you can only have come for one thing; a Bilkmore Brothers Amazing Starshow In A Box, Version Two!” The younger of the two grinned, holding one of the black contraptions. This one had various constellations drawn over it, and I must admit, it was nicer than a plain black box.

I gave a nod, examining the device. Apart from the stars on the outside, it looked identical to the previous models. "So this is one of the star boxes that Princess Luna was delighted over?"

"Well, it's not so great as hers, I'm afraid. That was our absolute finest model," the mustache-bearing brother claimed.

"Pity. I would have very much liked to have one of my own."

The younger perked up. "Well... we could retool our manufacturing process and produce one of similar quality, though it would take a great deal of time and expense."

"One," I smiled. It was forced, and I disliked falsifying the emotion beyond what was required for the sake of politeness. Still, I was very rarely so… investigative, and smiling apparently made ponies talk.

Both nodded eagerly "Only one, of course, of course! All of our models are absolutely unique, impossible to replicate," the first brother agreed, cheerfully.

My smile widened. "And one."

"You'd like a second? We could arrange that, but they wouldn't be the same. We can't help it."

"That is fair." I nodded slowly, smile plastered on. "And you stand by the quality?"

"Absolutely! The Princess herself gave us her blessing. There are some minor usage and care restrictions, but there’s no reason you wouldn't be able to pass it on to your grandfoals, a piece of Equestrian history in the making."

"Two." My face twitched. The emotions roiling from these two were making me ill. There was a hunger to them, a disquiet. Not merely dishonest, then. Enjoying the game. The challenge.

"Two?" The Flim-or-Flam said, looking confused. A vague sense of unease was building. That was fine.

Still, I needed more information. "How did you come up with such a wonderful invention?"

The Flam-or-Flim ignored his brother's concern. "Oh, it came to us in a dream! We can barely understand the spells ourselves, it's why we needed the princess's blessing!"

"Two. Again."

"Brother of mine, just hold on a second. Two what?"

"That is twice each of you has lied to me." My smile stretched further. I questioned the guidance that had led me to believe ponies were more talkative when confronted with a broad smile. If anything, they seemed to be rethinking matters.

The first (Flim, I decided, for I did not truly care) bristled. "How dare you, sir! Are you calling me a liar to my face?" Both brothers were now facing me, each off to one side, too far apart to watch both together while so close to me.

"I am. Please. Continue." The stretched feeling changed slightly, and something dripped from my right cheek. This smile was beginning to feel very unpleasant, and my cheek ached. Perhaps I needed to practice this grin more, I was unused to such blatant shows of emotion. I felt… brazen. I did not like it.

The younger brother, Flam, flinched. Good. I hoped his conscience pricked him terribly.

“We work at the behest of the princess herself, friend. And if you question our product we shall see that she hears of it. And we are the very first under her patronage-”

I ground my teeth at that, and I fear it was audible. “You are not my friend, peddler. I have served since before her arrival in Equestria. Her Majesty’s will shall be done.” Damn, my face was slipping. I had damaged my disguise with misuse in my anger. I briefly considered readjusting but hoped they didn’t notice. Control. It was sure to be a minor thing. I stepped forward, intent on revealing their lies. I would crush one box, show them the contents, and accept my punishment for destroying another’s property, but I would not allow this farce to continue unchecked.

Both took several steps back and away. “Now wait a second! Wait a second! Is there...displeasure… with our products?” asked Flim, staring at my lower jaw. A fang had shifted slightly, I realized. Barely noticable, it probably just looked odd. I schooled myself, kept smiling. Flam appeared to be turning green. That was past strange.

“There is great displeasure with your products. It reflects… poorly, on my mistress.” I widened my smile. Flam made a noise, but he seemed unwilling to talk anymore, so I ignored him. “I am here to discuss recompense.”

“I… ah… that is… we would… assuredly… provide refunds for anyone… displeased! But… but you don’t seem to have a box on you, frie- sir.”

“I do not. But that pleases me. I would like that. In writing.”

“E...everyone has a recei-”

“I would like that… in writing. Explicitly.”

Flim bounded to a table, snatching up a piece of parchment and scribbling his promise of a refund on the page, and signed with a shaky flourish. “Will… will that suffice?”

“It will,” I accepted, pleased. “Be in the market square tomorrow. Let us say, first light. When my mistress’s other duties are done.” The two shared a look, and I felt fury boil inside me. “Do not make me find you. Compounding your crimes will displease us greatly.” I was already loathe to tell my Princess that she had, indeed, been the victim of fraud. A return of what was owed was a start.

I left them then. Their cart stank of emotions I wanted to be away from.

My trek to Topaz’s home was a quiet one, with too much introspection. I knocked on the door, as it was getting late and if she was already asleep, I would enter by underground. Politeness dictated that I at least try to come by standard means.

The door flew open, and Topaz stuck her head out, peering at me. “...Idol? What did you do? Why are you somepony else?”

“I...nothing.” I blinked “How did you know it was me?”

“You’re dripping ichor and it’s obviously you. I mean, either you or a very confused changeling. What did you do to your face? Sit down. Stay here.” She pushed me down onto the sofa, and perplexed, I sat. Topaz’s concerned haranguing continued from the kitchen, “Where have you been? You were supposed to visit Ponyville, you came back yesterday, immediately went to work, don’t come home last night, there’s a poisoning-”

“The princess is merely sick; my diagnosis was in error,” I admitted, shedding my disguise with a flash of fire. My face hurt horribly.

She would not be deterred. “-knew you were involved in that, you still don’t come home, your shift ends, you still don’t come home, you’re gone all day, and then when your shift should be starting-”

“I took the day off.”

“-you finally come home instead of… you took the day off..?”

“I… yes.” A deliciously warm, damp towel pressed against my face, and I sighed in relief, relaxing into the chair. Peppermint, a bit of my own slime, and a hint of honey all mixed into hot water. It was a delight on par with the spa, and I finally felt at home again as my split cheek seemed to soak up the soothing balm.

Topaz hesitantly sat beside me. “...Wanna talk about it?”

And so I did. I told her of my misgivings, of my assumptions that the Princess had intended to send me upon a forced vacation, of the unnaturalness of the Pink Demon, of my disconcert with the Bilkmore Brothers, of Shining’s findings, of having my morals questioned by the very Element of Loyalty. Of Princess Luna’s illness, of how I had failed her, of how I had sought to make things right. Of how I was now to be partially responsible for her recovery.

And I told her of my newly discovered orders.

She nodded, having a better understanding of the matter than even myself. “...It actually makes some sense. No reproduction outside of the hive permitted. She’s controlling the population of the changeling exiles. Too many people out of her control. It’s… very, very harsh, but… it might explain a few things.”

“We are not a people, Topaz. We are an aberration of the changelings.”

“Idol, that isn’t fair.”

“How is it not? We have no future. We have a fragment of a past. We all grow old, we all die, and there will never be a new generation for us.”

“There hasn’t been a problem with new exiles before, though. One every… what, few months or so?”

More than that, but not by much. “We are reliant upon more exiles. A generation with none and we cease to exist. Not even a memory to guide the next. Everything I have tried to do for us… it means… nothing.” Putting that into words… hurt. Hurt more than I had ever expected. The hive would not, could not, benefit from my actions.

“Oh, Idol…”

“...I love my queen. I cannot not love her. She is the Queen, and she knows best.” A tear escaped me. I could grieve, at least. “...But I think I hate her a little, too. In this too, I have failed.”

Topaz said nothing but embraced me. Warmth flowed from her, emotional and physical. She offered sympathy, with only a little pity. She shared my pain, and that made it bearable.

It wasn’t much. But to a changeling whose world had been shaken so badly over the course of so few days, it was everything.

Cold Brew

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The next days were something of a blur. Shining Armor was able to work with the Royal Physician to create a shield that would provide some measure of protection from harmful elements in the air, though the doctor insisted on some additional effort being put into it to ensure the air did not become ‘stale’. That, along with untreated air, could be harmful to the returned Princess’s recovery.

Shining explained that the cost of creating this shield was immense, and I soon learned that the effort of creating an active shield that filtered air and prevented entry to some, but not all, had run the ragged edge of even his abilities. To my understanding, the first attempt had literally put him to the floor. Upkeeping it, on the other hoof, was considerably easier. An interesting quirk of Shining’s skill with shields allowed him to pass on this upkeep; another pony with a modicum of understanding of his talent could perform said upkeep, if they had the power to do so even with the efficiency losses.

As I understood it, there were actually several shields in concert, and then multiple attempts to create them. One that stopped anything living above a certain size to prevent unauthorized ponies from entry, one that provided air filtration but did nothing to stop ponies, and one that oscillated and only affected air to provide a ‘pumping’ mechanism to ensure adequate flow. Shining somehow managed to tie all of these together into a single enhanced shield. He’d even managed to create a small ‘bubble’ effect around anypony who entered the ‘defending’ shield, which could be detached from the whole without being unlinked, though it would lose any benefit save air filtration. This had been mostly intended for Princess Celestia’s own benefit, as this initial design had simply been a small bubble around the younger Princess, whilst the final design had allowed Luna more access to the contents of her room, with a visitor.

I, having spent so much time with Shining and having attempted to file away his occasional ramblings as he tested a new shield for further consideration, was able to understand and adjust his shields to some small degree, though I could not hope to recreate them. There is a vast difference between maintenance or repair and construction, after all. Whilst I could follow along better than most, any shield I could manage on my own was best suited for an impressive physical and a far lesser magical defense. Shining, on the other hoof, could manage shields that would make the inhabitants feel warmer, or protect from intense heat, moisture, or even, as tests with Wispy had proven, a lightning strike.

I should note in the last, the shield protected those inside from lightning, excepting the one holding the shield, who received a sizable redirected charge, regardless of whether they were within the confines of the shield or not. Shining himself looked as though he had been stuffed in a dryer, and Cadance had delighted in her staticy lover’s ‘fluffy’ appearance. As Shining’s friend and confidante, I dubbed him Stuffed Armor, and dealt with the blow-back as a friend should.

My new duties were actually rather simple. I was to watch over the Princess Luna, guard her room from well-meaning if foolish intruders, and was, very specifically, to prevent Princess Celestia herself from countermanding those orders under any circumstances until her sister was better.

Simple, I have found, does not always mean ‘logical’ to ponies. Obviously, now I had a set of orders that I am not to obey, because it should never be ordered of me... but it might be, all the same. This is a very rational and sane thing to expect of somepony.

Order, had life ever actually been simple? In the meantime, my duty was mostly to maintain a shield of protection held by Shining Armor.

Princess Luna has had many titles. Dreamtrotter, the Moonlit Mare, the Starcaller, and the Dark Watcher. None of these, I should note, imply that she is a gracious patient, and for good reason.

“Fie upon you and your potions, physicker! We are tired. Our heart beats, our tongue is unspotted, and our coat is unlathered. Thou demandest that we rest, and then bother us with trifles. Away, away!” The last sounded more plaintive than demanding, but the Princess’s strength had yet to recover from the very unpleasant bout of flu. She grumbled something unintelligible and covered herself with her blankets, radiating displeasure and discomfort.

“Very well, your highness.” The doctor sighed, putting away stethoscope. “Your lungs sound fine, no hint of pneumonia, thank Celestia.” He cleared his throat at the look his patient gave him, then hurried on. “Take your medicine, and I’ll leave more with the maids or your personal guard.”

I waited for the doctor to leave the protective barrier of the shield and cautiously took his place, pushing a fresh cart of… breakfast or dinner, I could not entirely be sure which it was for the typically nocturnal princess. “Your highness, I bring you soup and some fresh produce.”

The mound of blankets shifted. “Fie on soup. We are not hungry.”

“Be that as it may, you must take your medicine. The doctor has made such clear.”

“‘Drink this, it is grape-flavored’. ‘Tis not grape, unless the grapes of old have changed to some new, cloying variety. ‘Oh, then try cherry’, if cherries taste so foul ‘twould be a blessing if they were scoured from Equestria. Feh!”

“Your highness is merely in a bad mood because medicine tastes of dishonesty and false fruit.”

The comforter came down at that. “In our day we would have dragonscale soup and at least that was supposed to taste like copper and lizard.”

“The cooks have scolded young Spike enough I doubt any would ever convince him to climb into a hot stewpot again. He used to rather enjoy swimming in, and subsequently ruining, supper. Perhaps I could convince him to donate a molt.” I gave her a tight-lipped smile. “At least it isn't leeches.”

The Princess’s face contorted in disgust and she shivered. “Ugh. We always hated the leeches. Has that quackery been expunged?”

“By almost everypony, your highness. Now, drink your soup. The doctor says it will help if you eat everything on your tray.”

Princesses do not pout, though she put up a convincing facade. "Fie on the doctor. Thou wouldst not eat this swill.”

“If I were ordered to do so, I certainly would.”

“Then we do indeed order it.”

I calmly lifted the bowl to my lips, then drank the still steaming hot broth in one extended pull. I then ate the banana slices, and noting the cloth napkin, tore it to shreds and ate the lot of them. “You are correct, that was indeed foul. I presume he did not intentionally mean the cotton napkin. Shall I get you another tray, your highness?”

The princess was staring at me, misery forgotten. A success then. “...You may.”

“I shall inform the cook that your napkin is to be properly seasoned in the future.” I bowed, and I caught a twinkle of something in her eye.

“You may. Inform her that in the future we take our napkins with honey and lemon.”

“Her highness’s wisdom and taste are boundless. Unfortunately, there has recently been a run on lemons, and grapefruit is explicitly banned from your table for the immediate future."

She bolted up in her bed, outrage evident. I noted that she swayed slightly from the sudden effort, and made ready to catch her if needed. “What?! What madness bans the noble grapefruit?”

“It interferes with medication.”

She settled, looking annoyed. “We do not even exceptionally like grapefruit. And now we want some.”

“That is unfortunate, your majesty. If you would, is there anything else you would like with your meal?”

“...Something not tea, nor soup, nor other malodorous sludge. Everything is either minty, bitter, or bland. If we have one more bite of tapioca we may scream.”

I considered. “I shall see to it, your highness.”

Cook Cookie was understandably displeased that I had taken it upon myself to consume the Princess’s entire dinner, and her annoyance was made all the more evident by the force with which she chopped the ingredients for another bowl of stew. Her mood was not improved when I mentioned the Princess wished for more seasoning, which was met with the admonishment that her meals were currently designed around ease of digestion and not introducing anything that she was not already used to. This meant simple ingredients with less seasoning, and Cookie was already displeased by the hobbling of her skills. I imagined Sous Vide would be beside himself with apoplexy at the notion of 'less seasoning', so perhaps I was lucky for her presence.

I was banished to a small section and allowed to see to my own needs, and the order to provide something in excess of my charge’s meal came to mind. I considered. Topaz had certain traditions when she was sick, such as ‘hair of the dog’ and peppermint oil in a boiling pot of water. The first seemed counterproductive, the second pleasant enough, though with her hair in a bun I was no longer required to help hold her it away from the boiling water. Her other tradition… I decided that one could do nicely.

I found the chocolate with ease, some heavy cream, butter, and a bit of cinnamon. I cheerfully ground up the harder ingredients, doused them with honey from my own hidden flask, and mixed the entirety into one concoction that I set to simmer. By the time I was done, so too had Cookie, and she soundly tore into me that I had forgotten the single most important part of a hot chocolate, placing several enormously large marshmallows into the pot.

Cookie is quite possibly a genius. I could not imagine why Topaz had never done the same.

I took the resulting mixture to the Princess with her restored meal. I was somewhat gratified that Princess Luna downed her entire first cup with a muffled sound of true pleasure, drawn out until the mug was nearly vertical above her.

The rest of her meal was quiet, but the Princess cheerfully allowed me to refill her mug several more times, and ordered me to enjoy a mug or two myself.

I had to admit, I do good work.

“Hooves, the buck are you doing?”

“...Patrolling, sir?” I blinked rapidly. I had been less attentive than usual. I would have to correct that.

The captain took a deep breath through his nostrils, eyes closed. “I can see that, Corporal Hooves. Allow me to rephrase. Why the buck are you patrolling? You’re supposed to be on Luna duty.”

“Because… that is also my duty?”

“Hooves. You are on special duty. Is special duty extra duty?”

Damn. “...Yes?” I asked, hopeful that it would be allowed to be such.

A wide grin split his face “Tartarus, no, it isn’t.” The grin vanished. “You’re working nights for Princess Luna. Your duty right now is to rest up and be prepared to serve appropriately when Shining Armor is off shift. Get your armor off, go… sleep, or rest somewhere, or... do something relaxing that you do! Dismissed.” And with that, he briskly trotted off.

Disappointed, I looked around the palace gardens. Topaz was teaching, and her hours would not coincide with mine. I had not purchased clay for use at home, and I had been explicitly forbidden from working off shift. What was a Royal Guard to do if not… Guard-ing something?

I eyed one of the statues, considered its state of disrepair, and made my decision. A trip to the market, and I was ready to begin.

I started from the bottom, working my way up. I cleansed every inch of it, doing my best to remove the ravages of time, nature, flora and fauna alike. Moss and mildew stains were easy enough to remove. Lichen could be scraped off with a bit of care, and the occasional crack could be filled in. That was fine… until I reached the bust. There… it became more complicated, the detail more intricate.

I very, very delicately scratched a bit of lichen away from the horn, wiping away at it with a sponge dipped in a mixture of soapy water and just a touch of vinegar. Almost done. A bit of marble crushed to a fine powder, just a bit of slime, and… perfect. The horn was done. Finally was the part I had dreaded above all others. I took a deep breath, peering at the beard. There were bits of moss, chips of material, bird detritus, and everything else in this beard, and I could scarcely believe the detail that had gone into it. I retrieved my finest pick, as this would be the greatest test of my talents; I would not damage this statue, and it would be something the princesses could be proud of again. Quite honestly, this was a masterwork of whatever sculptor had done it, and if I did damage it, I did not think Equestria would see its like again.

As such, I feel that I should be given a little forgiveness for becoming quite cross when I was interrupted after several hours of work.

CORPORAL HOOVES!” My sponge squeezed, letting potentially damaging amounts of vinegar dribble down the beard. I gave a grunt, catching them as fast as possible and very, very gingerly scraping the tip of my pick through the fine marble hairs one last time, breathing a sigh of relief.

“My apologies, your highness. How may I assist?” And then I noticed a squad of my fellow guards in full armor, leveling various weapons at me.

“Please get down.” She ordered, terse, but not angry. I began to consider that I had lost track of time, but no, Shining should still be on duty.

“Of course, your highness.” I eased myself down, taking a good look at the statue. No, it was still misshapen, lopsided and ugly… but it was still an amazing piece, and the detail was all the clearer for its new cleaning. Her tension was clear, and I was aware I had overstepped, bowing low. “Forgive me, your highness. I was told my duties for the day were relegated to assisting your sister, and having nothing better to do, decided to work on one of the statues. With the Gala coming, I felt it was important to do some minor work that might be overlooked. The statue is a most impressive piece, after all.”

Princess Celestia marched around the statue, inspecting it closely for even the slightest flaw. I bit my lip. Inappropriate, true, but I had never had my work so carefully scrutinized. “It… seems unharmed. Better than it was, truth be told…” Her stern visage softened, and she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “...Corporal, in the future, I would prefer to be advised of any future desire to repair the castle statuary, but… honestly, it’s like he’s here again. I think he’d have appreciated my heart attack.”

“...Your highness?”

“Nothing, nothing.” She took a deep breath. “You may disperse, gentlecolts. I believe all is well. Corporal, I believe Shining Armor is due to be replaced shortly..?”

“Of course, your highness.” I trotted off, giving a backwards glance at the statue. I then blinked, then peered at it more closely. A trick of the mind, I decided. I should indeed have slept.

Why would the statue’s taloned claw have clenched with one thumb pointed towards the sky, anyways?


I found Shining leaving his post early, but could not begin to bring myself to be cross with him.

“Shining. You… seem to be carrying a fireball.”

His eye twitched and he forced the words through clenched teeth in a ghastly smile. “Philomena. Decided to come visit. And hacked up flaming pellets in Luna’s tower.”

I winced. “...Perhaps… someone should talk with Princess Celestia about letting her go. She seems to have taken a harsh turn.”

“Princess Celestia. Really wants Fluttershy to see her.” He gave me a pointed look, and I recalled that my report had suggested as much. “I can only assume she wants her to see Philomena as she is now.”

Not, I decided, something anypony actually wanted to see. I didn’t say it, but Shining clearly agreed. “It will likely be the only chance she gets to do so,” I allowed, regretfully.

Cryptically, he only muttered “I wish.” Given the extra hours we had been working, I decided not to correct him for wishing multiple deaths on Celestia’s pet bird.

“And how is Princess Cadance?”

“...Idol, can I be frank?”

“Of course, sir.”

“I am absurdly angry with the world right now, and you’re kind of included in that?”

“Excuse me?”

“This,” he motioned to the tower, “-is actually pretty great. Cady’s happy for me, I’m happy, and that’s all great. Also, I am in a position, right now, where I can’t go visit my marefriend for a little affection.”

I blinked, then considered the implications. “Princess Luna is compromised. And you might share that with your fiancee.”

“Bingo,” he sighed heavily, settling down. “The shield’s secure for a couple hours. It can be charged a bit more now, I’ve been tweaking it. This is torture.”

“You look awful,” I admitted. “Perhaps you could make one of your shields for your personal use-”

He waved the idea off. “Nice idea, not really good enough. It’s like… hugging through a fence. It’s awkward, not bad, but it just reminds me how much I want to…” he trailed off.

“You should marry her.”

Another sigh. “Yeah… can you even imagine if she had to go somewhere now and we couldn’t… ugh, this sucks. I mean, I bought the ring-” his eyes went wide and he glared at me. “No, shut up.”

“You already have the ring?!”

“I can’t-!”

“Just. Do it!” I was aghast, but… oddly bemused. Finally.

“I can’t do it now, I can’t even touch her!”

“I am telling her.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“Try to stop me.”

“I’ll put you in a bubble and stick you in front of a train. You’ll be the world’s most eligible hamsterball-pony.”

I gasped, faking affront. “You bastard. Nopony should have that much power.”

His eyes narrowed comically. “I am, and I do!” The effect was ruined by a huge yawn, and some of the flaming pellets nearly slipped his grip. “Ahh, we’ll talk about it tomorrow. Dead to the world right now.” He gave me a closer look. “You need coffee too.” He announced, then wandered down the hall.

I fought my own yawn, and had to admit he was right.


Luna had not been very talkative that shift, but had been pleased that Shining had offered her a book of Ogres and Oubliettes, and she was currently lost in her studies of the rules and manuals. As I understood, that was how most players began. And, as I understood it, she had asked not to be disturbed.

“Wow, Idol, were you run over by a cart or did you just decide to work a triple shift?”

I looked up, but I was too tired to be afraid of the thestral’s grin. “Good evening Mothchaser, no, and… yes, I suppose I sort of did.”

“You can’t do that! How are you even alive?!” She gave me an appraising look. “Coffee. My treat. I know a place.” She waved at the other thestrals, several of whom looked at me with some concern.

“Pony Joe’s.” I agreed, automatically.

“Meh. Pony Joe’s is rookie tier. Come on, it’s on my way home.”

Traitor,” I gaped, amazed at the brazen lie. “And… I thought you lived under the castle.”

“Joe has good coffee, sure. But you want great coffee, you come with me. And I don’t live in the Night Guard barracks, I just roost there from time to time. You don’t live in your barracks room, right?”

I supposed I didn’t. And… follow a potentially dangerous predator to a second location for the promise of free coffee? What could go wrong?

“Hey Hooves? Did you really polish that statue of Discord in the garden today? And totally ignore Princess Celestia and a bunch of guards?”

“Yes, I think I might have.”

She gave a screechy laugh, delighted. “You’re a wild stallion, Idol.”


“...The Grindhouse.”

Mothchaser had the grace to blush. “Look, so it’s not the best name.”

“And it’s closed.” I looked into a window, and noted the place was rather dark.

“Oh, well, yeah,” she acknowledged, fiddling with the door with her wings. “Quarter turn, and- open~!”

“Did you just break in?”

“Don’t be silly, Hoovsie. It’s just a little finicky. Come on.” When I didn’t immediately follow, she sighed. “It’s my place. And my brother’s. Pristine Grind, so… the Grindhouse.”

I followed her into the dark shop, watching her make her way around to the various strange machinery. “What is all of this?”

“We’ve got espresso, cappuccino, and mochaccino makers, and over there we’ve got a bobaler.” She counted the devices off as she turned them on, and soon the building began to smell of freshly ground coffee. The last just… shook. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“A what?”

“Bobaler. It makes boba tea.”

“Amazingly, that is not exceptionally helpful. What is a boba?”

“Tapioca balls suspended in fruit tea. We’ve got dragonfruit, mango, couple other things. We tried durian, but the neighbors filed a grievance.” She leaned against the counter, batting her eyelashes. “So, what’s your pleasure?”

“Hmm.” I eyed the complicated list on the wall. “...House special?”

“Coming right up!” She adjusted several valves with her wings, peered at them carefully, nodded, and then vaulted back over the counter. Quickly, I realized that a pegasus would never be as agile in this kitchen, and even a unicorn might not have the delicate touch. “Come on, I usually do a little to set the place up in the morning. Promise, you’ll get your coffee. Might even throw in a boba to sweeten the deal.” She winked at me, heading towards a table.

I tried to follow, but whether it was simple exhaustion or something sticky on the floor, I missed my step and tumbled into her, knocking both of us to the ground.

Mothchaser stared up at me, eyes wide, mouth half-open. I tried to get up, but our legs were tangled. A sudden inrush of emotion from her, trepidation, uncertainty, eagerness? “...Be gentle?”

There was a noise from above, followed by a choking sound and hysterical screechy laughter.

“PRIS, YOU ABSOLUTE JERK!” Mothchaser shrieked, flinging me aside and charging up a stairway in the corner of the shop, leaving me to the faint hiss of steam and my own confusion.

What in Tartarus had that been?

A Slow Roast

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As I was not, apparently, an intentional participant in what was going on in the upper story of the business, I busied myself investigating the many odd contraptions The Grindhouse apparently used to make not-coffee. I had been initially concerned with what sounded like a large flyswatter striking something, but the screechy laughter and general mirth I felt from the other occupant of the house seemed to more than offset Mothchaser’s sudden inexplicable anger. Besides, I was aware that the bickering of siblings was held to be a time honored tradition in Equestria, and I would hardly interfere in such a personal thing.

Also, my ribs hurt and I did not look forward to her kicking me again. She could manage her kin.

The espresso machine was steaming merrily, and the whole shop was taking on a pleasant humidity, the rich scent of coffee filling the air. I had to admit… there might be something to this. A jet of steam came from a brass vent of one of the devices, and I settled into a nearby stool, closing my eyes amidst the various bubbles, hisses and steam. The warmth was a delight on its own, but the moisture, the hissing, and even the faint rattle and buzz of the various devices around me settled me. It had been years since I had been in the hive, and yet I found this strangely comfortable… it was much like being a nymph again…

There was a slight rustling, and one of the low whistles was muted. “Wow, you are tired. No wonder Mothy was worried about you. I mean, as a barista, I can’t help but be a little hurt when somepony just conks right out in my coffee shop.” I blinked rapidly, suddenly finding myself the object of scrutiny of an individual perhaps an inch away from my nose. I jolted, nearly falling off the stool. “Eaaasy, friend, easy-” the thestral coaxed, holding up a small steaming cup to eye level. “Breve. Steamed cream and espresso. You clearly need it.”

I inhaled deeply as ordered, enjoying the aroma. It took me a further moment to realize the cup before my nose was in actuality being offered to me, delicately held with wingtips by a small saucer. I couldn’t help but feel a moment of disappointment; Topaz and I had tried Prench food at a fancy restaurant once, and I had briefly considered eating the plates as a form of protest for the lack of real sustenance to the ‘dish’. Still… I took the beverage and quickly downed it. “...It is good,” I admitted, peering at the small cup, then up at the new batpony. “...Pristine Grind, I presume?”

“You may,” he acknowledged with a flourish of his wings and a small bow. “If I have the delight of meeting the lauded Idol Hooves?” He was not, I decided, typical of what I knew of the thestrals. To be fair, I’d met few that looked as tired as this one, but he had a slow smile to him and radiated a sort of contented cheerfulness. The bags under his half-open, slitted eyes appeared to be more of a permanent feature than actual evidence of exhaustion, but I assumed anypony dealing in caffeine would likely lack for sleep. He offered a wingtip instead of the usual hoofshake, and I gingerly shook it regardless. The slow smile turned into an actual beaming one, and he pumped my hoof vigorously.

I tilted my head, curious at the precursor to my name. “I was not aware I possessed any sort of fame.”

“Oh yeah, big topic around here.” He grinned, and now I saw a hint of something predatory. “So, what can I get you? Oranges, grapefruit, candied lemons? What’d Mothy offer you?” he paused, then shook his head. “Let me rephrase that, did you want to order anything?"

“I had ordered the house special,” I offered, uncertain we were discussing the same thing. “And she had mentioned something about a bubble tea.”

“House Special and a boba it is. Let’s see… you probably want… something bold. But sweet. Not a fan of lots of flavors, bet you don’t care about bean varieties and bitterness is a no-go. And a no on bat coffee, too.”

“I would think a lack of bitterness appeals to most ponies.”

“It’s coffee, you’d be wrong. Make it wrong enough, and you’ll get a bitter sludge that no sane pony should ever want to drink.”

“...They buy it, don’t they?” I offered him my cup, and he began twisting dials on one of the brass containers. He pushed down on something, and with a hiss more of the dark beverage flowed out, though he gave a surprisingly deft twist of his wings in the middle of the press and switched my cup out for another mid-pour.

“In barrels. Here, try this. See, a good espresso has parts. And a nice foamy top, see? Now, this middle part is what I think you’ll like, most of the bitterness out, gets a good aroma, nice full flavor-” he pushed the cup my way again, tossing the rest of the other cup back himself. I was beginning to suspect the cause of his apparent insomnia might be work-related.

Still, he was right about the coffee. “What was that about bats?”

“Pretty popular amongst the nobility. Y’see, fruit bats eat the insides of a coffee fruit, leave the seed on the tree with just enough cherry to ferment, and we do the rest. Good cup, but a little pricier and tastes a bit more like the fruit itself.”

“I honestly thought coffee was a bean,” I admitted, considering.

“Nope, fruit. Tastes like mango, raspberry, and a bit of jasmine tea. And that ‘bean’ is like a rock, hard enough to chip your teeth!” he grinned while turning his head, showing off his own sharp teeth on the side of his smile… where one of the typical thestral dental-blades was very obviously flat in a way that didn’t match the others. “Learned that one around the time I got my cutie mark.”

“We have all eaten things we should not, I suppose.” A bell jingled at the door, and I looked over to it owlishly. Apparently I had been too tired to even notice it on my way in. Several other thestrals began filing in, and they seemed to take notice of me with interest. Regulars, I assumed. “One would think coffee is the last thing on most thestral minds if they are preparing to turn in for the day. Night?” I peered at the horizon through a shaded window, the night sky only just beginning to brighten.

“Ahhh, but you’d be wrong. Most of them want a low caffeine cup of the good stuff to get them through a few bits of early morning shopping before it gets too bright. Most places are setting up for the ponies just getting up and starting the day, not for the ones trying to survive the last bits of a shift. Besides, most shops are bright and well lit. We keep it intimate here.” He flicked a wing out, gesturing to the entire establishment, then pointed at a sign reading ‘NO LIGHT SPELLS’. “Sometimes all we need during the day is a dim place to rest and get a bit of strength back before we fight through the rest of the day you sunponies love so much.”

“I see. And your regulars have decent night vision, so it works just fine.”

“Or good hearing!” He clicked his tongue at me, and I stared blankly. “...You know, like…” He made the expression again, without such a loud ‘click’.

I began to wonder if lack of sleep was taking an unusual toll on him. “I have no idea what you are doing.”

One tufted ear flicked, the other flattening. “Echolocation. Mine isn’t so great, but a lot of us, it’s like a sound photograph. Or… more like a short range topographical map?”

I was intrigued. “Like a plaster cast of your surroundings?”

The ears shot up. “Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it. The higher you can pitch it, the finer and finer the detail you get back. Like thinner plaster gets more detail. I mean, making sound models of ponies and things is a tradition. Foals collect them, a master craftspony can give you something that looks like a block but sounds like a pony.”

“Fascinating. Perhaps we should bring more thestrals into the day guard. A talent like that would likely enable them to pick up on certain details the rest of us could miss.” I wondered idly if I could learn to mimic such a skill. The idea certainly interested me.

“Huh. Could work!” He gave me an appraising look, heading towards the strange ‘shaker’ machine. “Let me get you that boba.”

I quite liked the beverage, as it turned out. There was something imminently satisfying about a beverage you drank and ate at the same time, the strange little spheres in the beverage having a pleasant chew to them.

Mothchaser bounced into a stool to my right. “Well, you certainly seem to be enjoying yourself. Double black for me, Pris.”

“You’re killing me, sis. This is a specialty shop and you just get black coffee? Where’s the love?”

“Hey, I brought you a customer, I’m being a good sibling!”

Her brother grinned. “Oh, yeah, ‘customer’. Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?”

Mothchaser’s own smile vanished momentarily. “Okay, customer slash coworker.”

“Poor guy was too tired to know what he was even in for. Sis, I am appalled.”

“I am quite enjoying myself, to be honest. It is… good to relax a bit.” I hesitated, then admitted with a hint of shame. “I am, perhaps, guilty of seeking too much work.”

“Like I said, he just pulled a triple. He didn’t even go home last night.”

Pristine gave me a searching look. “Your family must have been worried.”

“If I had kin willing to claim me, they have yet to do so.”

“That’s a shame. Around your age most ponies would be looking to settle down. Maybe start their own?” Pris grinned, looking towards his sister, who scowled at him.

“Duty always comes first.” I admonished, enjoying my tea.

“You know, it’s funny, Mothy tells our parents the same thing. I keep telling her with all the stallions around her in the guard she shouldn’t have any trouble finding one to her tastes.”

“She is a fine example of a guardsmare. I would tend to agree with you.”


His smiled widened, and I marveled at the sheer number of sharp teeth he could show off. “How about you? You know any mares with a good echo to them? I could introduce you to a few who wouldn’t be against meeting a nice military minded stallion. Know of one for sure who could use it-”

Pristine Grind!” I turned to look at her in surprise, then turned further when I heard one of the regulars mention me by name. Perhaps I was better known amongst thestrals than I knew? It made sense, I supposed. Nopony else sold durians.

“What? I’m having a nice little conversation with my new friend. He seems like a… gentle… sort?”

Mothchaser tackled her brother over his counter.

The walk back to the center of Canterlot found Mothchaser was surprisingly subdued. “I’m sorry about all that. I mean. I didn’t think you’d get an interrogation! Pris was just being...”

We were apparently not going to discuss the small brawl the two had, and I was not to bring it up. Topaz tended to be much the same with her mother’s antics. “A brother?”

“A bother.” She groused. I raised an eyebrow, and her cheeks flushed. “Sorry. Family. He’s just being nosey.”

We walked several blocks in silence after that. Mothchaser seemed as distracted as she was annoyed.

Finally she sighed. “So what does a mare have to do to actually get into your room?”

I shrugged, continuing to walk. “Ask?” I turned to look at her, then frowned and stopped, turning around fully. “Mothchaser? Are you well?”

“I… I mean… just… just ask? What if I… uh… wanted to visit?” Her wings were curled around her like a raincoat, and the little spikes mid-wing seemed to be twirling around each other in front of her chest. I made a mental note to ask what the digit was called.

“Absolutely. You are, of course, welcome anytime.” I tilted my head. “When we are not working, that is.”

She continued staring, and that confusing mixture of emotions began to resurface. “Well! I might take you up on that.” She began striding forward again, suddenly as confident as the Element of Loyalty herself as she passed me. How strange.

“I look forward to it.”

She stumbled, looking back, blushing heavily. She gave a little snort, then giggled, cleared her throat, and took off into the sky without another word.

Now that was beyond peculiar, even for her. Perhaps it was a thestral thing. Or even a pegasus thing. I would ask Topaz.

“Topaz, this is not helpful, and rolling on the ground is most unbecoming of a professor.” I eyed her with growing concern. “...Cackling is not an improvement.”

“So… so what you’re telling me... is all these years-” she struggled to catch her breath “-you’ve been putting… a sock... on your doorknob-” a most unladylike snort here, though her humor was becoming contagious at this point “-to keep… keep ponies from interrupting you… with other changelings? And that is why you’ve got this reputation as a casanova?”

“I do not know what reputation I have outside of being an upstanding guard. You are the second today to bring it up.” I tilted my head. “A casanova is a good thing, yes?”

“Oh, Idol." She rubbed at her jaw with a hoof, slowly getting herself back under control with a slow shake of her head. "It… kind of? Look, the sock on the door indicates you don’t want to be disturbed, yes. For reasons.”

I motioned her to continue, still not getting her point. “Reasons such as desiring privacy with a companion, yes.”

“I swear, it’s like you’re doing this on purpose. Reasons such as desiring privacy with a companion for intimacy, Idol.”

“...But that would be literally dozens of ponies. Male and female. Over the period of a decade,” I protested.

She nodded, too vigorously. “Yeah, it would. Ponies just lining up at your door. Waiting for it.” The mare wiggled her eyebrows suggestively, and I was again reminded how often she spent time with Princess Cadance these days.

Far from amused, I was aghast. “I am suspected of... lewdery?”

“Suspected? Idol, you’ve apparently been socking your doorknob for years. You’re a known lewdist.”

I stared, horrified at this misconception. I was not to do this thing, and I had been flaunting the exact opposite? “...But… but what does that have to do with Mothchaser?”

“You invited her to your room, Idol.”

“I did, yes. But how does that relate?”

“...She expects you’re going to tie the sock.”

“But she is not a changeling, why would I-” I stopped, understanding finally setting in. “...What?”

A wing laid on my shoulder. “She’s been hitting on you for years, Idol.”

“Mothchaser has only ever struck me lightly,” I insisted, uncomfortably shrugging off the wing. I did not like this teasing.

The look the golden pegasus gave me was withering, and I tried not to fidget. “You know exactly what I mean.”

I shook my head. “Yes, but I believe you are ludicrously wrong.”

“Based on…?”

“...Based on Mothchaser being an upstanding pony with no interest in lewdery.” I stated, feeling justified in my pride in defending a fellow guardspony.

Topaz’s breath came out in a wheeze before she fell over again, laughing all the harder. My concern grew.


View Online

Princess Celestia wiped her streaming eyes with a hoof, then stomped twice. “And then… oh Harmony, she did a pirouette on top of the statue, clutched her neck, and fell, the young mare dove… and Philomena… burst into flames. And a pile of ashes fell into poor Fluttershy’s hooves.” The Princess of the Day looked into her own hooves with an exaggerated look of horror before again bursting into laughter.

No!” Came the delighted response, Cadance’s hooves up to her mouth in mock scandal. Honestly, the two of them were having far too much fun with this.

“I almost died. Philomena, you are a terrible, terrible, bird!” The bird in question tucked its beak into its wing, but perhaps it took a changeling to recognize how proud of itself the now-beautiful creature was.

“Oh, poor Fluttershy had no idea what had happened, and I’m sure she had herself so worked up.”

“But Twilight had to have told her-”

“I may have wanted to surprise Twilight with seeing Philomena’s transformation. You know that Twilight tends to not pay attention to anything not properly bound.”

“It’s probably going to make her relationships interesting, to be fair?”

“Hmm?” Celestia’s eyes widened and her cheeks reddened slightly. “Cadance!”

“I’m only saying…” Cadance grinned, enjoying her aunt’s discomfort.

Princess Celestia coughed, not meeting her niece’s eyes. “Well… be that as it may! What… what was it that Twilight said?” She motioned to one of the guards who had accompanied her to Ponyville.

The guard, one Stout Heart, took a step forward and saluted. “Your highness. Imprisoned, banished, or imprisoned in a dungeon in the place you would banish her, your highness.” He dropped his hoof and took a single step backwards. I endeavored not to scowl; it was two half-steps and he knew it. Not that I could criticize, I was properly mortified; the Element of Kindness was the one pony I had been able to give a complete accreditation to, and she had foalnapped the Princess’s prized phoenix. Meanwhile, said princess was on her back, kicking her hooves into the air while Cadance held her sides. No amount of endeavoring could have prevented noticing that, but I was able to remain stoic.

“Where does she come up with these things…?” managed the Princess of Love as she wiped eyes dampened by mirth.

A sigh from the larger princess as she rolled back to her hooves, regaining a semblance of control. “I… may have let her cross reference bedtime stories and fables with books on law to verify some of the more outlandish punishments ponies received in them. Banishment, exile, imprisonment all seem rather tame when it comes to pronouncements about splitting a foal between two mares claiming to be the mother. And Twilight has quite the active imagination.”

A giggle. “It’s true. Do you know she used to try to suggest Shining should be my personal knight?”

“Where ever would she get that idea?” Celestia scoffed with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “But the important thing is… she told Fluttershy to let her take the blame. She was willing to take whatever the punishment was for her friend.” The princess bit the inside of her cheek. “That said, she also said I’d go easier on her. Just came right out and said it! I’m not that soft on her.”


The solar diarch snorted. “Corporal Idol Hooves, am I soft on Twilight? Be honest.”

“I would never lie, Your Highness.” I bowed deeply.

“...I note he didn’t actually answer the question.”

“...Alright, I’m a little soft on her. She’s precious and she means well. Regardless! Cadance, she was willing to go against me for one of her friends! They have been so good for her!”

“A few more years and you can talk politics with her and she might not agree with you on all of them!”

“Harmony, I want her to branch out, not start a revolution. Half the guard would turn on me and join the Royal Messaging Service.” One of the guards in question gave a sheepish half-smile and looked down, causing Celestia to laugh again. “Regardless, I must have your oaths that you’ll share this business about Philomena with nopony. Fluttershy is a dear and I’m sure she would be mortified if this became common gossip in Canterlot. I really must make all of it up to her… it bordered on entrapment, really.”

“Twilight invited her to the Gala, didn’t she?”

“That’s right, the Gala… Fluttershy and the rest of her new friends, in fact. You know, I think I could arrange for Fluttershy to have the garden to herself? Giving her the opportunity to enjoy the flowers and the wildlife, it sounds like exactly the sort of thing she would enjoy. Once the festivities have begun the only ponies who ever leave are to wander the maze and canoodle.”

“Prime canoodling spot, a thorny hedge-maze filled with creepy statuary,” the pinker princess agreed, without a trace of irony. I briefly wondered what those statues had seen, and just as briefly considered blindfolding them before discarding the idea. Knowing ponies, that would only exacerbate the issue.

“I’ll deign not to ask how you would know. Corporal Hooves, my sister?”

“I would know nothing of canoodling with your sister, your highness.”

“Thank Faust for small favors. But I meant how is she doing, really? Between the physician and her own opinion she’s either in danger of scurvy if she doesn’t eat a dozen oranges or so healthy she risks infecting others with immortality.”

“Ah, yes. Princess Luna’s recovery is moving along. Her highness has begun to express increasing dissatisfaction with her accommodations, but I feel that is only sign of her returning health; she is less miserable than she is bored. I hear that she was delighted with the mare with the glass bowls, but she is… less apt to extend her patronage directly, given current events.”

Annoyance marred the alabaster features. “If I could find the pony who convinced those two charlatans to leave town in shame I don’t know whether I would knight him or kick him. I wish I could have put those two in a stockade. Are you sure you’ve never seen him before?”

“Does Equestria even do stocks anymore?” Cadance asked, bemused.

“I swear I have never laid eyes on the individual, your highness.” It was true enough. Most changelings were confident enough in their stolen forms to not need the benefit of a mirror to check. Though I was mostly certain the description of ‘Lord DeFace’ was more than a little exaggerated, I had not been exceptionally circumspect making my way through Canterlot.

“Do you know the rumor mill suggests he lives in the canals below the city?”

I opened my mouth to admit that I did not, then frowned. I had definitely been seen, yes, but…

“Yes, I am aware there are no canals beneath Canterlot. And nopony living beneath the city.” She quickly raised a hoof to forestall any protest. “Canterlot Castle notwithstanding.”

I felt a moment of concern. While that was not inaccurate, I was suddenly concerned that my dealings on behalf of one Princess has put another of my charges at risk. If ponies were going to seek individuals beneath the city… they could very well put the Nymph at risk of discovery.

Something would have to be done.

"I have you now, your Highness. Your efforts are for naught, and you will rue this day." I intoned as I lifted the spike, prepared to slam it down in victory, crushing my foe utterly. "Sky-6."

"Thou hast enthundered my Cumulonimbus." Came the bitter response from my defeated foe. "Twas our favorite. I summon forth a typhoon, Air-1 through Cloud-3."

"And you have shattered my thunderhead." I sighed, now disappointed. "Victory is yours, but the international community will have words for your excessive use of force." I placed eight white pegs before placing the final red peg into my largest cloud and showing the royal highness her victory. Even if the Princess had only needed to find one remaining lone spot, having sneezed and knocked her own pegs from the board had become such a routine action over the last few days that I had suggested weaponized hurricanes as a weapon either of us could use but once to make up for the.. unusual circumstances. It made for a considerably more aggressive playstyle. We had also experimented with moving any cloud by one peg each turn, but that had extended the game far beyond either of our interest.

"Can this truly by called a victory without Commander Fallstar? After so many battles unscathed, beloved by his people as he was? We fear there shall be no graciousness in victory from our side after the loss of such a mighty hero."

"And I fear my own will be emboldened, and the war will continue." I confirmed, saddened by the warlike nature of the tiny cloud figures.

"How soon will they be able to rebuild their shattered armada?"

"I would estimate it will be several months before they are capable of the next engagement."

"Indeed? Then in the meantime, shall we turn our attention to the Chuting Ladders?" The princess wiped her nose, utterly destroyed a lace handkerchief, and gave a vigorous attempt at a sniffle.

"In the interest of prolonging peace, I would even accept the pursuit of trivia."

The princess perked up. "We could use the practice of the single Opoly." She pulled out her self-customized box for the latest game, ensured that the jail was labeled 'Of the Moon', and began doling out the credit tokens and various cards. "We shall become a railroad tycoon this day!"

I shuddered. "You are welcome to it, your highness. I would prefer the task of managing the public utilities."

"We shall make a bureaucrat out of you yet, Corporal Hooves. We must confess, the interests of the people have shifted greatly since our day. Games of chance and skill were less... complicated. Why, in the days of our youth, a foal could be entertained with a hoop of iron and a stout stick."

"Children always make do. Before the hoop, they would have found some way to entertain themselves with the stick."

"There is wisdom in that." She admitted. "Though with greater and greater advances come more and more interesting options. There were cards in our day, to be sure, but the games revolved around suits, colors, or numbers. The card games of today... collectible monsters and heroes in a game of combat? The imagination runs wild. The tastings on the bottom make me wish to hear all the legends of the world they portray."

"Flavor text, your majesty."

"Your highness, Corporal."

"Touche. We should find some means of allowing you to interact with Shining's games of quill and paper. An adventure for one is fine, but with a party..."

She grumped daintily. "We shall have to dangle our physician over the balcony if he continues to recommend this bubble. We wish to be out, introducing ourselves… myself, to the good ponies of Equestria. We... I... have so much to make up for..." She cast a longing look at the faint sparkles that surrounded her. The newest shield was properly mobile, but smaller than ever. A large stationary shield drew most power when others were going through it, as they would be scanned or rejected. A mobile shield, on the other hoof, had to constantly scan when the princess was in motion and either halt her forward progress or reject whatever was in edge of the space. Done once, it was merely taxing; done constantly, as needed during motion, was exhaustive. Recharging the spell was the main task Shining and I undertook most nights, and truth be told, Shining’s skill with shields was being challenged by the ever-shifting needs of the Princess of Night. Shining seemed to revel in the opportunity to experiment, though I rarely understood the mechanics of what he was talking about more than what was required to keep the magic operational.

Thankfully, at the recommendation from Luna's doctor, the shield no longer had to expel ponies. Now we sought to keep her from sick ponies and anything particularly unclean, but guests were becoming more common. Her magic had been recovering, though any night where she became too lost in her duties almost always resulted in a head cold the following morning. Still… on days where she rested, she was growing ever more hale. And that only left her still more restless. Thankfully, she could entertain a guest or two, and Cady was almost as eager to visit as Princess Celestia herself.

Princess Luna, you see, has a bit of a penchant for drama when telling her stories. Mostly about how a ‘young Celly’ was a notorious cookie thief. Oddly, Celestia seemed to recall that it was a ‘Lulu’ doing the thieving, and that she should finish her alfalfa, which left the younger sister sputtering with indignant fury.

The world, I supposed, would remain full of mysteries.

“Your highness, the royal physician knows well that you tire of this environment. I swear to you, upon clean bill of health, I shall personally see to it that you will see as much of Canterlot as you can handle.”

“Perhaps I shall take you up upon that,” she accepted. “But it makes my imprisonment no less onerous. And in the meantime, we must live vicariously through other ponies. Speaking of, Guardsmare Mothchaser seems to be absent yet again?” One royal eyebrow raised at me.

I fidgeted, slightly uncomfortable. Mothchaser had not been avoiding me, exactly. We ran into each other all the time… usually right as one of us was going on shift. It was… odd. Somehow I made her nervous now, and I could not guess why.

“Ah. She claims she needs to take a pair of thestral foals to make recompense to Honey Dew. They have been harassing her bees.”

Luna blinked. “...Harassing bees? Have they been stealing honey?”

“Not to my knowledge.” I shrugged. “To my understanding, they have simply been flying too close to the hives. I suspect there is more but…”

“But that is thestral business?”

“Precisely, your highness.”

She made a noncommital sound. “If thou insist. Roll the dice, that we may begin. And tell us more about this ‘Gala’.”

The Grand Galloping Gala; a time for the good ponies of Canterlot to be on their absolute best behaviour, to uphold all of the social niceties, and to enjoy themselves within the limits of propriety. Strangely, Princess Celestia never seemed to look forward to it, but this year seemed quite the exception. I too anticipated Twilight and her new friends visiting, perhaps a little youthful enthusiasm would enhance her highness’s experience. I was sure Twilight would have read up on the extensive social rules of the event.

The sheer number of ponies seeking entry to the Gala was always astounding, given how few of them actually seemed like they would enjoy the atmosphere of the actual event. It had become a strange tradition for non-attendees to watch ponies on the absurdly extended red carpet - and Twilight’s entourage had just broken into song. Surely not. I rubbed my eyes, prodded a hoof into my ear, and then re-dedicated my focus. Now they were dancing. Oh no.

They were just excited, I told myself. Surely this would go no further.

The Apple pony was selling pastries. In an event where most ponies don’t even bother with a purse, because all manner of pastry was provided.

I did feel… a little sorry for her, but that was... fine. A little eccentric, but fine.

The musicians chosen for the event have honed their skills to a razor’s edge, and the ambiance of the great hall was pleasant, soothing if by no means exciting. The pianist was almost incapable of laying his hooves on the grand piano; it had been a personal gift to Celestia from one of the finest craftsponies of his day. To my understanding, the world has never seen its equal, and the pianist’s motions are as masterful as they were reverent, as such craftsmanship deserves.

And now the Pink Demon danced upon it. Her heresy knew no bounds.

The Rainbow Dash did everything in her power to get Spitfire’s attention, but Spitfire was very familiar with her role at these sort of events; charity and fundraising. I could feel her desire to focus on recruitment, but she persevered. Rainbow was at least… nominally acceptable.

Oh dear Harmony, Blueblood had won the eye of Rarity. There was a wickedness in him this tonight; normally his tongue would be acid and more than one noble would receive a drunken barb that would lead to some defensive act of charity that more than made up for whatever perceived shame was exposed. I silently pled that the young mare would be left out of his political machinations; that she did not know of his reputation was unthinkable, but…

“Oh, Idol, calm down-” Topaz laughed, patting my armored shoulder as she hobnobbed her way by. “I thought you liked Prince Blueblood?”

I hesitated, not wanting to intervene, and yet… “He serves an important role in Equestria by shaming those who fall beneath even his pitiful standard. He establishes the minimum requirement for nobility and ensures that the worst ideas never receive much support by virtue of his own efforts to support them. It is not a role I would relish, but he performs it well.”

“That’s an awful nice way of saying really unpleasant things about someone.”

“I truly do approve of Prince’s machinations.”

“He could just enjoy being a jerk, you know. And… shouldn’t it be ‘the Prince’? You’re usually pretty specific.”

“I assure you that is not… entirely the case.” I could defend only so far, and I feared there were to be greater evidence to the contrary this night. “And... no. ‘Prince’ is his name. Prince Blueblood.”

Topaz grimaced. “I feel like I should have known that. I could talk to her, you know. I’d love the opportunity, this dress is probably the nicest one I’ve ever owned…” It was true, Topaz was a beacon of well-manicured academia. Rarity had great talent, and I suspected spending time with Twilight had given her an idea what a pony with a love of knowledge on a certain topic would enjoy. Topaz had been particularly delighted with insect-wing themed lace; I could hardly imagine how such a thing was even possible, but it was as if Topaz was hemmed with dragonfly wings. I found it oddly intriguing.

“I do believe Fluttershy is here as well-”

“Well then, I think should mingle and do a little damage control?” She gave a little grin.

I was about to offer Topaz my hoof and introduce her to several of the heroes of Equestria when a great many things happened in rapid succession. Applejack brought in a cake somehow made of apples. The Pink Demon, maddened by sugar and too little dancing, dove off the stage and somehow launched the confection into the air and towards the crowd. Blueblood used the Element of Generosity as a cake-shield. I believed he had finally gone too far, when in his faux-foppish attempt to escape Lady Rarity’s wrath, he managed to tip over one of Celestia’s… least favorite golden statues. The Element of Loyalty, ever one to live up to her element, caught the wretched thing… and proceeded to apparently bash it against every marble pillar in the room, destroying both the statue and a great deal of much nicer marble.

Thank Order, the Princess and the Protege chose that moment to arrive. This could be salvaged before the upper crust of Canterlot tore into her friends-

The great doors to the hallway burst open, and the residents of the garden became refugees of the hall. “You’re… going to LOVE ME!!!”

And then all Tartarus broke loose.

pɹɐnפ ǝɥʇ ɟo ƃuᴉlǝƃuɐɥƆ ǝɥ┴

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Celestia hummed cheerfully to herself, reviewing the latest in a long line of personal missives and documents requiring her seal. It brought me pride to know that though this duty could be tedious, it was one she never shirked. The humming, however, was due to her good cheer over another, more personally concerning matter.

“Are you sure this is… wise, your Highness?” I fidgeted, feeling exceptionally traitorous for questioning her, but... given recent events, I felt that perhaps I could use a bit of reassurance. I was, after all, rather certain I would be making this explanation known in the near future. Possibly to an angry mob; the day was young.

A polite chuckle came from the princess. “I know the rest of you are… a little leery of Ponyville right now. Since Twilight took up residence, it’s been rather excitable, but I assure you, this is just a field trip. Fillies and colts. What possible harm could they do?”

I hesitated but felt the need to remind her all the same. “Ponyville produces a strange breed, Your Highness. The Element of Kindness chased every animal in the gardens into the great hall during the most prestigious event in Canterlot, and according to some accounts may have been about to savage a squirrel with her own teeth.”

“The poor dear has had to deal with quite a lot of stress recently. Twilight assures me that is very much unlike her.”

“...Your Highness, I have personally seen her browbeat a grizzly bear. To say nothing of what the rest of her friends got up to during the Gala. Except for young Twilight, of course,” I allowed. “The damages and cleanup took almost a week to repair. Many complained it felt like the rest of the season.”

“Well, that’s… fair,” admitted the sun princess, begrudgingly. “But not entirely relevant. I’m sure Twilight will be more involved next time.”

I refused to even consider what that implied. “I am reasonably sure two of those fillies are in fact related to the Elements, and have it on good authority that they are considered exceptionally rambunctious even amongst the residents of Ponyville.”

“Oh, Idol, they’re children. Children will be boisterous and they’ll make a little trouble. Nothing your fellow guards can’t handle, I’m sure.”

“Twilight never made trouble.” I looked to a fellow guard, and he nodded eagerly before resuming typical stony silence. Spearhead, while not exceptionally bright, shared an interest in the arts. Unfortunately, he also tended to be rather… modernistic with his interpretations. Sometimes a splotch was just a splotch.

“Twilight was an exception and not the rule.” She gently chided me. “And can you really deny that she is happier now that her life is a little less… by the book?”

“I flatly refuse to accept that terminology for fear that she would never forgive me for speaking ill of literature.”

“Another good point. Let us agree to never speak of that little slip of the tongue, shall we? Besides, what could happen?”

I restrained my eyebrows. “After you offer the world a challenge like that? I shall set about reinforcing Princess Luna’s tower.”

A faint chuckle from the Princess as she shook her head and glanced back out the window overlooking the garden… followed by a look of displeasure and a sigh. “Some enterprising pegasus has put a message over the castle again.”

“...What does ‘reticulating splines’ even mean?”

“I… don’t honestly know,” she confessed. “...’Reviving dead memes’...?” She actually bit her lower lip, peering up at the cloud letters, which were slowly shifting into other messages. “‘Now installing’... What is that?”

“It… looks like clouds in the form of a face, perhaps?”

Spearhead hesitantly offered “A pair of shorts. You know, like some ponies put their pets in when they dress them up?”

“It could be a pig’s nose in a... broken frame…?” She mused, but her concern was clearly growing. “Spearhead, please fetch me a quill and ink. I am beginning to fear that I should contact Twilight and her friends.”

“Are we really sure that will improve this situation?”

Spearhead peered through the window, though not at the symbol. “Sky’s wrong color now, too. It’s kinda lavender. Or like… Blue-purple. Blurple, maybe.”

I scowled at him. We had enough trouble without an artist creating new colors.

“Better safe than sorry. And cancel my appointments for the day. Inform everyone to remain indoors until further notice. Beyond that… protect my sister.”

“By your command, Your Majesty.” I saluted, no longer feeling quite so certain. It was rare indeed that Celestia gave true orders. I would not fail her.

Princess Luna was running a mild fever, unfortunately, and was confined to her bed. Normally, this would lead her to be exceptionally cranky, but her doctor had allowed her a small dose of medicine as it was likely that allowing her body to fight a minor illness would actually help strengthen her.

Now, instead of cranky, she was simply sleepily delirious. Apparently being a dreamwalker and medicated made for an interesting combination. I wondered idly if any napping or near-napping ponies were having particularly odd daydreams.

Given that I was seeing pink clouds and brown rain through one of the windows, I rather imagined that they were. Or Princess Luna’s fever-dreams were spreading. Having never dreamed, I was actually rather intrigued.

“Well there you are. Honestly, I was about to turn this castle upside down looking for you,” came an unfamiliar voice. From a tapestry. My interest was waning; this was just odd. Talking fabric? There was an unusual design that I could not quite place but was quite sure had not been there a moment ago-

And then I fell to the ceiling. And stayed there. The window I had just looked out was… still the same, but the chandelier seemed to be pointing towards what now seemed like sky… but was certainly the floor of the tower. No, no, I was not enjoying this.

“Oh, who am I kidding, I should have done that an hour ago. And now I’m wasting it. Ah well, such is life,” said the tapestry, a serpentine figure moving on it. It looked vaguely familiar, but nothing immediately came to mind. The figure made a motion with its talons, causing a distinct ‘snap’... and the world rotated again, leaving me to catch myself on the ground, this time with a bit more grace.

I shook my head, hoping to clear it of the odd erratic mindset that was clearly still afflicting me. “Forgive me, sir, I seem to be a little out of sorts.”

A guffaw from the tapestry. “Sir, now? How very impossibly polite of you. Though, to be fair, most of your fellows just run screaming.”

I frowned. “I cannot imagine why.” And now I was talking to the tapestry. Or what I thought was a tapestry. I did hope this apparent delirium wouldn’t spread much farther. It would be bad for the Princess’s image.

“You really don’t, do you? Maybe this will help.” The figure posed, then turned gray. Though it was a bit more angular, I now recognized the image.

“Would that be your statue in the garden?”

Not exactly.” Came the rumbling response. Another pop, a flash, and the tapestry was again vacant. Before me was something that suddenly set my senses on edge. As a statue, it had bothered me, true. It was a patchwork, but a master patchwork, I had thought. Seeing the figure move, seeing those mismatched limbs function… it was wrong, in ways I could not put into words. A thing that should not be. Which was, I decided, a very impolite thing for a guard to think, and I crushed the thought ruthlessly. “Discord, God of Chaos, in the flesh. Formerly not in the flesh. Which actually brings me to the point of this little visit.”

“...Oh. I did some work on you, then.” I gave him another look and wondered if he had complaints. I gave the abomination a once-over, looking for flaws in my adjustments.

Before I could inspect his face or horns, the creature barked “NO EYE CONTACT. We’re getting this out of the way before it gets any weirder than it already is. Honestly, I don’t want it getting around that I had lichens picked out of places even I didn’t know I had. But look at this.” He aggressively flicked his beard at me before pulling the tuft, making it roughly half his body length. “It’s never been so soft. I can’t even complain about it. Believe me, I tried, but even I can admit a little manscaping goes a long way.” He gave his eyebrows a tug, and the long luxurious beard receded.

“To be truthful, it was more like landscaping at the time,” I admitted. “So… were you aware of when I-”

“You’re already making it weirder! Don’t ask!” Discord cleared his throat, adjusted a tie he hadn’t been wearing, and went on. “Look. You did me a favor, cleaned out my grout so to speak, and you gave me a good laugh. I don’t do owing ponies. So, just this once. What do you want? The sky is the limit, ask for-”

“Obey the law, and do not hurt anypony.”

He stopped, blinked, then scowled ferociously. “What kind of a stupid boon is that?! I am the God of Chaos! You could have asked for anything! Power! Wealth! Station! ENORMOUS ASSETS!” He snapped his talons, and a single gigantic coin began rolling down the stairs of the tower, cracking several as the enormous mass of metal made its way to the ground.

I considered, but shook my head. I did not bother collecting all of my pay as it was, and I was quite content with my role within the guard. Perhaps a lesser position would be more comfortable, but it was at the order of Princess Celestia herself that I was a corporal. “As your apparent imprisonment has ended, I only wish that you go about your business as a productive member of Equestria.”

The draconequus sputtered in outrage. “Ended!? I escaped!”

“Ah. I was not aware of the logistics. What were the terms of your imprisonment, then?”

“I… terms? For being imprisoned in stone by the Elements of Harmony for a thousand odd years?!”

“That does seem to be around the timeframe they traditionally allow.” I accepted easily. “Perhaps you were let out for good behavior?”

The grinding sound from the creature’s maw was truly amazing. “I am not hearing this. And it doesn’t matter. ‘Don’t hurt anypony?’ What absolute drivel.”

“Far be it for me to ask the impossible. My apologies, I will reconsider.”

The god blinked, tilting his head for a moment, then reeled back, obviously offended by the implication. “...Oh, you little insect. Fine. I’ll be a sport about it, give Celestia’s little errand mare a fair chance. No ‘hurting ponies’ until after I’ve won. Speaking of Sunspots, where is darling widdle Woona? Nopony’s even mentioned her in my presence except that she’s apparently back.”

I tried very hard not to blanch at the “insect” comment. I did not dare draw attention to it, but it struck closer to home than I liked. “Princess Luna is ill, and not receiving guests at this time.” I moved in front of her door protectively- and then Discord was the door, cheerfully opening himself and blowing me a raspberry. I rushed after him, horrified to find that he popped Shining’s shield like a soap bubble before leaning down over the drowsing moon princess and snapping his talons rapidly. I winced, but apparently, he was not using his strange fel magic; he was only being inconceivably rude. Still… in her state, she could scarcely defend herself, and I had failed to interpose myself!

The princess’s eyes opened, one pupil wider than the other. She made a single sound of incoherent protest and began snoring again. With her eyes still open.

Stomping around her, the draconequus seemed more annoyed than anything else. “She looked right at me and doesn’t even know I’m here! I might as well not even have bothered.” The dragon-creature seemed to pout at that for a second. “Bah. She did turn on Celestia and spend a few centuries in time-out herself. I only owe her a few months of torment, I suppose. But for now I shall be magnanimous!” He roared, and suddenly the princess’s bedding was replaced by finery beyond anything Celestia would ever allow herself, not that Luna stirred more than a faint sound of agreement as she snuggled into the now excessively plush bedding. “And the sooner she gets better the sooner I can avenge myself. It’s hardly any fun bothering her now. Honestly, this was just a waste of time...” He rolled his eyes and there was another flash, and now we were both outside of her room again, and the door was firmly shut. I scarcely dared breathe, in relief or otherwise.

“...Are you quite done, sir?”

“‘Sir’, he says” the self-proclaimed god groused. “Look at you, about to go hoof to cloven hoof with me. That might actually be fun… if you weren’t such a loyalist stick in the mud. Wasting an all-powerful favor on the public good.” A slow grin began to appear on his face. “Why. It makes me feel like giving you two rewards…” And then his eyes began to shift and change…

Discord scowled down at his former benefactor. “Is this even working? Well, I am out of practice… HEY. IS ANYONE IN THERE?!” When there was no response, he grumped. “Bah. Can’t make an omelette without scrambling a few brains, I suppose. You’ll be fine. Or not, I don’t really care.” A quick tug of his beard, the draconequus nodded to himself, and then vanished in a flash of light.

I snorted. Finally. “...Fraggin’ geek. Thought he’d never leave. Now then...” I began trotting towards the throne room. Some changes needed to be made around here.

I strode by a number of the mooks guarding the place, most of them strutting about in on their hind legs and crowing in pride. One of the losers got in my way, and I tumbled the squawking dork to the floor without a second thought. The night guards at least seemed a bit more rational. They just perched above the doors and cawed at me.

The squabble of frightened clucking came from my target, and I eyed the enormous double doors of the throne room with amusement. A few light taps on the door, followed by a quick spin and planting both of my rear hooves into them, sending both crashing open. “Knock knock.”

The frightened clucking the remaining members of the royal guard increased, Celestia staring at me in utter disbelief before giving her own confused ‘honk’. Well. Far be it for old Idol to check out a gift’s gums.

“QUIET!” I roared, firing a blast of magic into the air, the energy punching through the ceiling of the throne room and leading a bit of melted stone to splash beside me. The clucking stopped, and all eyes were on me. I licked my teeth.

“Ladies~! The Main Event has arrived~” My magic enveloped the doors, and they slammed back together.

The doors to the throne room creaked open, and I held them in place, staring blankly ahead of me. Carefully, I cleared my throat. “Ladies?”

The majority of the feminine members of the royal guard, day and night, quickly marched out of the room. Most were carrying more armor than they wore. Several were hauling plates of fruit, one even carrying a goblet of freshly peeled grapes. Only a few looked at me, and most were red-faced to some extent or another. Mothchaser was practically glowing, and I could scarcely blame her– from that point on, I endeavored to think very little and made no eye contact.

Celestia herself came out a moment later, watching them go. “It does seem that Twilight was successful,” she observed, neutrally.

“It does indeed, Your Highness. It was… good that you had so many of her missives handy.”

She shrugged. “Yes, yes. I… keep them close at hoof. Read one or two to lift my spirits on a rough day.”

“Mmm.” I agreed.

“I… believe we can agree this matter should remain the knowledge of only those present?”

“Yes. Yes. We… yes.”

“...What did you think of the throne?”

“It was considerably softer than I expected. But the ergonomics leave something to be desired. Perhaps… lounging on it was not the intended design?” I swallowed.

“No, no, I’d agree. Not the most comfortable seat in Equestria, no matter how one perches on it.”

We stood in silence for a few interminably long minutes.

“It was… unusual. Finding myself subject to the whims of another. Not making the choices. Obedient to a greater force of charisma, as it were. But it was… somewhat freeing, as well. If… by chance… you were ever again interested...” Even I could not fully quell my expression and she blushed. “Ah... nevermind. Lingering effects of Discord’s magic. I shall go to check on my sister. Take the rest of it off. The day! Take the rest of the day off. Yes. Do that.”

And then Princess Celestia, Ruler of Equestria, Princess of the Sun, scampered off like a misbehaving filly.

I wondered what Tartarus was like this time of year, and how one could reach it in the most expedient way.

After Math

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“So. That is a concise retelling of the events of my day.” I tried to lift my hoof again and found it was still damnably stuck. I still could not decide whether I should be more impressed… or annoyed. Annoyance was beginning to win out, but then again, it was impressive that this substance was able to resist my ability to adjust my body… so maybe they were still even. It was actually more than mildly concerning that she could do this in the first place.

“Mmhmm.” Came the muffled response. There was a low rumble of thunder from outside, unusual enough in Canterlot.

“...I believe I have earned an explanation for why you are wearing a helmet, cape, and a… gas mask? And why there are giant sticky pads all over the house?” I queried, feeling I had been excessively patient in this particular regard. Her murmured response was almost completely imperceptible and even more impossible to comprehend. “Could you speak up or remove the mask?”

The oddly painted mask was yanked off by a flushed Topaz, but her voice remained a mutter. “I…-sher.” I tilted forward and the... ‘unwelcome mat’ I was standing on slipped, and thus I found myself lying on my side, not quite glaring but certainly not pleased with my situation. Topaz bit her lip and put a hoof to her mouth, but I could only sigh as I lay my head down.

Aware that I was now stuck cheek first, I cut a look at her. “You may laugh, if you must.”

“I really shouldn’t.” I noted that her hoof did not move from where it hid her muzzle, though her rapid blinking belied her restrained mirth.

“No no. I insist,” I tried to shift my hooves and side to be more angular, but it proved a mostly fruitless endeavor. “And I also must beg your assistance in helping me up.”

Her voice was strangled. “You sure? You’ve almost got it!”

I gave her a flat look. “Do I really.” It was not truly a question.

“” And then her composure broke and gave a barely restrained snort before breaking into full-blown laughter as she went for the kitchen. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, let me get some cooking oil or something—”

“I am still waiting on an explanation for the gas mask!” I informed her retreating form, trying to wriggle after her, only managing to somehow fold an upended portion of the mat over me.

I decided that it might be best to leave this in her hooves, and waited patiently. I felt uncomfortably like a parcel awaiting shipment.

“Just give me a minute - how did you make it worse in the ten seconds it took me to get some vegetable oil - hold still, let me just pour some of this on your hooves…” Within minutes I began to pry free thanks to the slippery substance, though now mere tile became more troublesome. Greasing up the rest of me was an interesting feeling, though not one I desired to replicate anytime soon. “Honestly, just stay still, we’ll dry you off and a little soap will fix the rest and then I have to take down the rest of them—”

Topaz. Please tell me what is going on.”

A groan of despair. “Promise you won’t laugh…?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“...okay that’s fair. I was, uh… Topaz Showers, the Bug Mare, but by night I was The Bugisher.”

I blinked a few times. “...the what?”

“I… I was… convinced that… the government was being taken over by… bug ponies.”

“...Topaz, I believe I am what you would consider a ‘bug pony’. You’ve made that clear in no uncertain terms before and the comparison seems to be apt.”

“Yyyeah, there was some convoluted backstory and I think you were like a frenemy and… I had an arch-enemy, the Queen Bee…”

“Would that be why Honey Dew’s house now has stripes and a large crown painted on it?”

“Honey Dew was the Queen Bee?” Disbelief crossed her face, then annoyance. “Of course she would be. Why wasn’t that obvious?”

“According to Spike, it never is.”

“Look, it doesn’t matter. Dear Celestia, Idol. My basement is full of photographs and red threads and maps… I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t me who was the villain! I mean, I think I was stung as a foal but… I was never stung as a little filly? I can’t tell if I just don’t remember my backstory or if I made it up or if it was always made up or—”

I put a hoof to her shoulder, firmly. “Topaz. Calm down. All is well, Discord is… gone, apparently. I am under the impression that the Elements of Harmony have resolved that issue but the specifics are yet a mystery to me. Everything is mostly how it should be. The weather crews are trying to wash away what they can and were authorized to use localized typhoons if need be. Honey Dew’s home will get a good washing and hopefully whatever she used to decorate her home comes right off.”

“...I could have hurt somepony. Harmony knows what I’d have done to a changeling...”

“You would have done nothing. Whatever the...” I gave a deep sigh, "...Bugisher did is completely unrelated to things that you would normally do. Is Honey Dew your nemesis?”

“Of course not, that’s silly-”

“And yet, at some point the two of you would have fought to the death, unless by some happenstance she survived off-scene.”

Topaz gave me a suspicious look, and I found that I could not meet her eyes. “...I read the comics I get for Spike to ensure they are age appropriate. Some comic shops are less vigorous about maintaining such standards for their imported materials. The shopkeeper assured me that the Maneiac probably survived her last encounter, but a little implied darkness makes the day brighter.”

Her eyes twinkled behind her spectacles. “You know it’s fine if you like reading them, Idol. But what about you? It sounds like the whole thing in the palace was…”

“In my case, nothing happened that I can recall. It is murky, but it seems I was just fed grapes and fanned, mostly. I distinctly recall having grapes peeled for me, but I do not actually see the point of peeling them, honestly. It seems far more messy than it is decadent.”

“Oh, I know that one. Old grapes used to have a tough skin. Kinda like oranges, I guess. It’s a really old-timey thing. Maybe before Luna and Celestia’s time, even. I don’t even know how you’d do it, nowadays.”

“I think Mothchaser was the only one who really managed. At least, she was the only one who was still feeding me when things went… back to normal. It was oddly impressive, actually. She was holding her wings up over us and apparently dripping the juices from her wingtips into my mouth. Very dextrous. Wingstrous?” I twisted a bit, then held my foreleg in an arch above my head in an attempt to emulate the position, realizing after a moment that I could just become Mothchaser and show her, but I suddenly felt that would make the explanation awkward in some way. “I wonder if that’s why she was so embarrassed. One shouldn’t play with their food.”

Topaz scrunched her face. “Hmm. Sounds like there’s going to be a bunch of ponies not sure how they feel, honestly. I mean… I’m still kinda vaguely sure the government is out to get me? I wonder if this is how mother feels all the time. It’s going to be a problem, you know...” Topaz began peeling some of her sticky traps from around the windows, rolling them up to keep them from clinging to her feathers. I briefly attempted to help, but between my greasy hooves and the glue, it seemed a fool’s errand. “Ugh, Canterlot looks like we threw city-wide revel and everypony was wasted. And now it’s going to be wet and weird.”

I nodded out the window, surveying the damage as I made a mental note, again, to pursue why Topaz’s mother was so confident that the guard had some business with her. “A shame Shining isn’t here now. Weather shields would make the day far less irritating. Still, I should go, there is much for my ilk to clean up. Discord’s magic may be gone but clearly at least some of the damage he wrought is still in effect.”

“From the sounds of it, it’s probably best that those two were out of town. I mean… where would Cadance have been for this whole mess?”

I shuddered. “Fair point. I am simply glad Princess Luna slept through the entire event. Now, I wanted to make sure everything was well here before I returned to assist, and it seems you have it all well in hoof.”

“Lucky her,” Topaz called up the stairs, shuffling with her awkward bundle of oversized pest traps. “While I do appreciate that; you should-” There was a long pause. “Idol. Is there something you’d like to tell me?”

I frowned, thinking of a great many things I would like to express but nothing that I thought was immediately urgent. “...No..?” I would have to do a sweep of the city, ensure there were no fires or other strange damages that required immediate attention... I had caught a single parasprite on my way home bouncing next to a music box, but that was a problem quickly resolved… I would have to check on the Nymph; Order knows what she had gotten up to with a Discorded Canterlot.

The idea that she might have been caught up in the ponies who the draconequus had ‘altered’ was too frightening to warrant further contemplation. I would need to find her a better caretaker; I was too often called away on behalf of the princesses or the needs of Equestria. I was never trained as a Nurse, and while I could provide food, I simply wasn’t qualified to provide much in the way of education. Even after all these years, sometimes I still didn’t know what I was doing. I made do, and somehow managed well enough. I had a few exiles in mind that seemed relatively stable; surely with one of them she would be better cared for. It was doubtful any of them had been so thoroughly shamed by the former prisoner, regardless of what Topaz thought—

“...Nothing? Really?

“I… that is…” I frantically searched for anything I had forgotten to tell her as she made her way back up the stairs. I had neglected to mention any of Celestia’s comments after we were released from Discord’s power, but I could think of no way she’d know of them. Things I would like to tell her? Had she changed her mane again? Hardly a fair thing to ask when she’d been in a gas mask minutes prior, but I did like the ‘mussed’ look-

Topaz crested the stairs with a small bundle of rolled up sticky traps… with a small chitined face poking out of it like an embarrassed changeling burrito. Tears were rapidly forming on the tiny face. Topaz’s silence was deafening.

“...You said if anything happened I could come here and I’d be safe and I came here and I’m stuck and she’s mad to see me and things were changing colors and everything turned this weird wrong color and then there was loud crashing and there was water everywhere with weird shiny stuff in it and I just wanted to hide here for a few days-”

“Ah. You mean the Nymph.”

Topaz’s eye twitched.

Nymph sniffled miserably as cooking oil dripped off of her, soaking the thick towel Topaz had scrounged up for her. “I smell like hay fries...”

“But you are not bound in a prison of glue and fiber. A win, I would say.”

Topaz didn’t even look up from where her face was buried in her forelegs at the kitchen table. “Idol. You’re telling me. That you have kept. An actual child. In the sewers.”

“Technically, that portion of the underground is the aqueduct.”

That isn’t better!

I blinked. “...I would disagree. The sewer portion is exceptionally less pleasant, and inhabited by the undead.”

Wait, what?!

“Nymph, you were not to bother Topaz unless there was an emergency.”

The little changeling shrunk into her makeshift blanket and oil-rag. “I got scared. There was lots of water and all kinds of noise… I wasn’t even going to bother her, I just wanted to sleep near you, in case something was happening!”

I sighed. “Thunder is nothing to be afraid of in pony lands, little nymph. The weather patrol is trying to clean up the mess left by… a problem, and… bah. It is a mess. I was going to come check on you.”

“She’s staying here.”

I blinked, turning towards Topaz. “...pardon?”

“There is who knows what runoff going into those storm drains right now, and she needs a bath. She’s staying here tonight.”

Nymph’s hooves hit the table in impotent, slippery fury, nearly causing her to slide from both table and chair. “I can take care of myself!”

“I’m sure you can, but you’re staying here until things dry out. Idol, get her things. She'd better have ‘things’, or this discussion is going to get a lot more argumentative.” I considered pointing out that most changelings didn’t traditionally have property in general, but was saved by my sometimes-wiser charge.

Nymph pouted. “I already have my things. And I have a waterproof sack that I keep my books in.”

“Oh, you have books? Comics, or-”

Now distracted from her misery slightly, Nymph brightened. “I have Daring Do’s Adventure Awaits, Daring Do and the Marked Thief, and Cursed Chalice, and the Cave of Exalted Nightmares!”

“A good starting collection. I’ll tell you what. I have a copy of Daring Do and the Eternal Flower somewhere. If you stay here, take a nice warm bath and relax, I’ll let you read it. Deal?”


“Wait, where did you get the last one?” I sputtered, perplexed. I could distinctly remember not getting her that one yet, it was going to be a reward for good behavior-

“I did someone’s homework for it. I don’t understand why ponies don’t like math, but helping a friend is what a good Professional Imaginary Friend does.”

I stared in disbelief. “You are doing other ponies work for them?”

“Sure. She already read it, and I wanted to try doing homework. It’s kinda boring.”

“You cannot do that. It is… that is to say, the work is-” I was at a complete loss. It was one thing to do labor that needed to be done, but to steal labor assigned specifically to another, I could not begin to-

“You shouldn’t do that. The reason a pony has homework like that is to memorize a basic skill or to work through the process of figuring it out. Most of the time. Besides, if you start doing one pony’s homework, it means all those other ponies are going to get jealous because they still have to do their own.” Topaz gave me an apologetic look at her interruption. “Some teachers give way too much, Idol. Foals should have the chance to be foals.”

Well. I couldn’t argue with that. “...What’s this ‘Professional Imaginary Friend' business?”

Nymph grin was infectious and she hopped down and skated to her bag with a bit of flailing, pulling out a few shards of her own cast-off exoskeleton. She’d certainly grown in the interim between the Nurse bringing her here and today. Perhaps I overfed her but… bah. Spoiling the nymphs was a drone’s prerogative. Resisting was already difficult enough. She held up the shards, concentrated… and formed a small stack of cards with a flash of telltale green fire, perhaps a dozen cards altogether. Proudly, she offered myself and Topaz each one. “Professionals have business cards!”

Topaz was obviously impressed, peering at the cards. “‘Redshock, imaginary friend, care of the bush by the jungle gym’. I didn’t know you could even do that, Idol, you’re supposed to tell me these things.”

“That… would be very difficult, given that I did not know we could do this thing. ‘Sparkle Moonie of Dreamtime and Moonbeams’? Is ‘Moonie’ even a name?”

“Oh, that’s for when I’m helping with closet monsters and stuff. And it is a name because I say it is!” She stomped a hoof and then winced. “Oh, you better put those down before-”

Topaz gave a little shriek as her card burst into flame and she dropped it, stomping it a few times. What little remained seemed to be a smear of crumbling ash. My own card seemed to be fine until I carefully set it before me on the ground where it did the exact same thing, producing little heat but destroying the card entirely. “...Fascinating.”

“See? I can hand them out but they just vanish and nopony has any idea where they go.” She waved a hoof showily in the air, threw the rest of her cards into the air where they all caught fire and drifted to the ground as little more than emerald embers. “Prestigididi… presti… It’s imaginary friend magic, okay?!”

I glanced apologetically towards Topaz. “I just have… no idea… what I am supposed to do with her.”

“Well, you’d better figure it out. Come on, young lady, let’s get you that bath. Idol, you’re going to need to figure out what to do because I’m really thinking this sewer thing isn’t a great idea. Up the stairs, come on.” She halted and gave me a look. “And don’t start telling a foal there are undead monsters in the sewers. Dear Celestia, Idol, you’ll give her nightmares. You’ll give me nightmares.” She trotted up after the Nymph. “You better get moving or you’re going to be late.”

I frowned at her backside, trying to come up with an argument. “But… there are?” I finally mumbled to the empty kitchen, then shook my head and went back to the task of helping the city clean up after the short-lived reign of the God of Chaos.

In the Still of the Night

View Online

“-and I swear, if I find one more cloud with chewing gum in it I’m going to go to that statue, with a chisel, and even out those stupid horns!”

“You will do no such thing, Wispy,” I corrected, plucking some of the pink gunk from my armor. I was merely thankful that the indigestible substance did not cling to me as thoroughly as it would to a creature without the benefit of magical faux-fur. Wispy, on the other hand, was part of the crews assisting with removing the remaining pink clouds from Canterlot. Most, of course, had been cotton candy, and I allowed myself a moment of jealousy. A rare few, however, were what Bold had classified as ‘basically ABC Gum’. Essentially, anything Discord summoned purely by power alone vanished when he did. Anything he adjusted manually, however, simply returned to the non-magical state it was in. And at some point, creating clouds of the aether had apparently become interminably boring, and thus the inventory of the local candy shops had been… altered. Floating clouds of cotton candy had simply drifted down onto whatever happened to be the least easily cleaned thing sticking out of the ground in the vicinity, be it tree, roof, or telescope. Clouds of aerosolized chewed gum became… exceptionally messy. And the vast downpour that had been intended to cleanse Canterlot had made some sections miserably sticky. Even I was growing tired of the saccharine smell.

“I might! Ugh, gum is the worst, I hate that smell! It’s like he knew…”

“I doubt he intended any one pony to be specifically bothered.”

Bold grunted, rolling a boulder of dried sugar-and-street-debris past. “Don’t mind her. Her parents thought gum is the embodiment of everything wrong with youth. She also doesn’t like jazz.”

Wispy flustered. “Look, it’s rude to talk while eating, so why isn’t it rude to chew gum, it makes sense. And I like jazz just fine!”

“Sure thing Sugar-sus.”

I paused, looking at both. Each seemed abashed by the pet name, Wispy trying to hide it with a long drink from a flask full of lizard infused lemon juice or some such health nonsense that she swore by, while Bold merely flushed and continued rolling his chunk of defiled road candy. “Am I still to pretend I do not suspect what the two of you got up to in Prance with Cadance and Shining?”

Wispy choked on her lizard-ade. “We… I mean, they kept us busy…!”

“Shame, then. I am told Prance is a very romantic place. But to hear you tell it, the two of you are still ‘single’. It is beyond belief that a three day trip could be so busy that the two of you had not a single moment to yourselves.”

“Well I mean… that is, technically-”

“And that Prance would have been a phenomenal place to be married in secret.”

Bold’s eyes widened and Wispy seemed to be trying to consume her entire flask. “We’d never-”

“And, knowing Cadance, she would delightedly suggest marrying the two of you ‘as a joke’. Which, with Shining as a witness, would actually be legally binding.”

And there went the rest of Wispy’s beverage. “What? Shining wasn’t even there!”

I cocked an eye. “Shining left the princess completely alone? How… unlike him.”

Bold’s jaw fell open. “I knew it! The horns do make you evil! She married us!”

“You can’t just go around marrying people! Of course she didn’t! I mean, you have to have… there has to be a ceremony!”

Slowly, I nodded, giving that all the consideration it deserved. “Of course, you must be right. She wouldn’t have suggested that you assist her in practicing marrying ponies. Surely ponies cannot simply ‘elope’ to Las Pegasus. It must be a very elaborate affair,” I continued, nodding with growing emphasis.

“...She set us up! The nerve!”

“Wait, Hooves, how did you know-”

“I am privy to more plots than I could ever wish to be.” A pause. “Allow me to rephrase that.”

Wispy grinned, looking just a bit green as she tried to redirect the conversation. “No, no, that sounds right. Sounds like half the mares in the guard threw themselves at you while we were gone.”

“It was not like that,” I countered, trying to do the math. Considerably less than half, I decided. “It was only the mares on shift or in the castle who flocked to the throne room. Whether to protect or be protected, I cannot say, but I have avoided the conversation. And it was not like you suggest. And we were not supposed to discuss the matter.”

“And that’s pretty much why everyone who works in the castle knows about it, to be fair. Sounded to me like you were living like a king. All you needed was a crown. Or some kind of toga and some laurels…?” Bold lifted his hooves up around his head, mimicking the sort of ‘half-crown’ I had seen before in depictions of ancient equestrians.

And that… did explain why the drapes in the throne room were down in my confused recollections. Order, that fabric was not meant to be worn. It wasn’t even meant to be moved, really. “I believe the crown fits where it lies at the moment.”

“No kidding. That’s probably why Discord did it.” Bold snorted, pouring some sort of grease on his hooves before going back to rolling his ball of wasted sugar into a wagon. “Idol’s one of the only folks who never really saw any problems with Luna being back. Just another princess taking her place. So, he made Idol think his place was at the top instead of somewhere near the bottom. You need confidence, ‘Dol.”

“I am quite confident, I assure you. I know my place in Equestria, Sergeant Bigflank.”

“Yeah, you think you do, but it’s wrong, Corporal. You’re going to get promoted again soon. Just so you know. I bucking well shouldn’t be telling you of all ponies what to do. Not when you’re in the thick of things with Gonna-Be-Captain-Any-Day-Now Shining Armor.”

“I beg to differ. My position is minor and that is how it should be.”

“Sure, sure,” He repeated my earlier slow head nod, and I found it exceptionally aggravating. “You’re just one of a handful of ponies who provides for Princess Luna’s personal guard. You only spend more time protecting her than you do at home. How are those days off coming?”

I froze. Tartarus. “...There is… too much to do, as of late?”

“Called it. And Princess Celestia’s going to call you on it sooner or later.” He shrugged. “You do the crime, you get the time.”

“Bold, there’s something really wrong about that phrase being used for getting promoted,” Wispy snickered. I grunted, trying to get back to prying caramel off of a lamp post.

“Lunch break. I need something to eat that isn’t going to rot through my teeth. I’d kill for some hay fries. With enough salt to choke on.”

“Oh, Celestia, please tell me you aren’t eating this freaking road candy.”

“Come on, Wispy, I’m not Idol.”

“I would not do that.” The other two stopped, both looking at me with clear skepticism. “...This is far past the ten second rule.”

“Gross. And it’s five seconds.”

“It’s no seconds, food on the ground is disgusting.”

“It comes from the ground, it won’t hurt to be there a few more seconds. Besides, little bit of dirt never hurt anypony. Would you eat something you dropped on a cloud?”

“First off, clouds are just water and magic and they’re very clean most of the time. And most stuff would fall through them anyways. It’s not like clouds stick to your food.”

“There was absolutely not a ‘no’ there but fine. There is sugarwater on everything and if I can’t pick up something with my hooves I have to use my mouth. Pity the poor earth pony, please?”

“You get sympathy only, pity is beneath you. However... the hay fries are on me. It is the least I can do.” I motioned to one of the open air cafes. “I would like to hear more of your trip to Prance. How is their military?” A server quickly noted us, smiled, and put us in a sunny spot that looked like it had been at least modestly scrubbed free of the dregs of Discord’s holiday.

“We’re not going to war with Prance, Idol. Most folks would just want to hear about the sights. Gimme a sec to wash my hooves.” The bulky stallion ambled off.

“One can never be too well prepared. And I have seen photographs. It seems very Prench.”

Wispy nodded, bemused. “Suppose it’s Prench whether it seems to be or not, if it’s in Prance. Right?” She cleared her throat, and I felt a spike of nervousness from the normally confident pegasus. She leaned in very close and murmured “You are joking about the marriage thing, right?”

I slowly tilted my head. “Would I do that?”

Wispy groaned as a mare strode up to us with a vase, quickly turning towards her. “Oh thank Harmony, a distraction. Can we get three orders of hay-”

And then the mare dumped the vase full of not-entirely-fresh flower water on my head. Startled and more than a little displeased, I sucked in a very unpleasant quagmire of emotion from the mare; misery, righteous anger, despair. I had become entirely too familiar with this over the past few days. “Alright then. Whose would you be?”

The mare faltered. “Wh...what?”

“Whose lover are you?” I took a deep breath, sorting the emotions and various memories. Mare. Pink coat. Red mane, almost too dark. Perhaps a little bit of black dye in it. Eyes puffy. “No, not lover… fiance. You must be Ironsides’s?”

The anger slipped, turned to fear. Suspicion. “How do you know that? Ally-”

My assumption was accurate. Iron Allium, or ‘Ironsides’ to her fellow guards, was one of a number of mares who were avoiding me. For all her bluster and the strict persona she had adopted, the older mare was soft at heart. “Ironsides gets sappy the moment she touches liquor. She is quite taken with you. Told anyone who would listen about how romantic your Hearts and Hooves Day present was. Not that she told us what it was, so I imagine it must have been quite private,” I informed her, blithely.

Wispy’s head jerked to stare at one of us, then the other. As she seemed content not to interject, I simply waited.

“If you knew all that, why would you-”

“Stop. I. Did nothing. Iron Allium. Did nothing. Whatever you may fear happened between us… was nothing. It meant… nothing. I care no more for her than I care for any other guard.” I was growing tired of assuring various lovers that I was no threat to them. “Talk to her and deal with this. I assume you quite capable of doing just that.”

“But you… she won’t talk to me-!” The impotent fury, the fear that she was failing her lover somehow. I was so tired of it, this mix of emotion combined with the grey atmosphere of Canterlot following Discord’s reign. She wasn’t even the first today.

Sometimes it took a storm to clear away the clouds. “Then perhaps you are not mare enough for her. Perhaps I am her type, and I will take her from you. It is not like you can stop me.” And then I wrenched on her emotions, focusing on the anger. I had done something like this before, years back, and had been hesitant to do it again.

The things one does for the greater good.

The mare full on slapped me across the face, and I let go of her anger as I fell from my chair. She blinked, shocked at her own fury, then stared at her own hoof in absolute horror. Order help me, Ironsides would have to teach that one to throw a real punch. It barely stung, but I rubbed at my cheek regardless. “...Do you feel better now?”

“...No. Not… not really.”

“I am just glad you hit me and not Allium. I believe I would have been spitting teeth if I said something like that about you. But you are willing to fight for her. Are you going to let a mere god stand between you?” At her raised eyebrow, I clarified. “Discord. I already stated that I have no interest in being in your way. And I have no claim to divinity that I am aware of.”

Anger forcibly spent, she seemed lost. “I… I shouldn’t have hit you.”

“Lingering effects of external influence.” I told her, smoothly. “Forgiven, forgotten. Wispy, witness me in this?”

“Hooves, I don’t even know what the buck is going on. Sure, I’ll attest to putting this out of my mind as fast as I can.”

“The important thing is that you were willing to fight a member of the royal guard, in public, for your lover’s honor. You will get through this. You deserve each other. As I have said… she is quite taken with you.”

“I’ll… um… go get… you your hay fries.”

“And ice, please. If you do not mind.” I tapped my cheek lightly, and feigned a bit of swelling on my disguise. The mare flushed and fled.

Moments later, Bold sat down beside us, looking from me to Wispy, then frowning as he gave a sniff. “...Did I miss something? Hooves, are you wearing cologne?”

I jerked to the other side of the table, putting it between myself and the far larger stallion. “Order forbid, Bold, I have made absolutely no moves on your wife!”

Wispy burst into laughter bordering on hysterical.

Princess Luna spat her thermometer onto a tray, continuing to arrange her bizarre construction of glass and mirrors. “We art fine, Corporal Hooves! We simply had a bad reaction to our medicine. In our day, we chewed willow bark for aches and pains and-”

“Yes, your majesty. We note that you are without shield today?”

The lunar diarch sighed, allowing me to side-track her. “Our physician has decided to allow us the benefit of the doubt. If Discord bursting in like an arrow through a soap bubble was not enough to do us in, surely we are able to survive the vast horrors of the world beyond the tower.” To my skeptical look, she amended “To the confines of the castle with minimal direct contact.” At my firm nod, she gave me a piteous look. “Surely you do not believe that we would impose upon your honor by making you complicit in our escape from these marble walls?”

“Of course not, your Highness. As I believe it would be the pegasi patrolling the grounds to have greater chance of preventing your escape into the world at large.”

She grinned, looking through a telescope, then framing her hooves around the moon. “We have heard tale that lack of flight has never stopped you from pursuit.”

“It was one time. The bridge was not that high. No more than six stories.” I stabilized a chunk of curved glass with faintly shimmering runes with some concern. I was not entirely sure I should be touching it in the first place.

A scoff, but a fond one. “Besides. We have had evidence of our recovery.” With that, she ran a hoof through her short blue hair, tossing it… and it went strangely nebulous, much like her elder sister’s seemed to drift on a divine breeze. It lengthened, and for only an instant I could see the stars she loved so much… and then the effect faded, leaving her with a plain blue merely-phenomenally fine mane instead of an ethereal godlike one. At her expectant look, I politely clapped and she gave a bow. “As you can see, our powers return, if slowly. Our enforced rest has done its duty.”

Some of its duty, Highness. You are not fully returned to your glory.”

“Our ‘glory’?” She scoffed. “We were never glorious, but we… I… do appreciate the sentiment. I can keep that up for almost an hour.”

“Ahh. No doubt due to secret practice when you were supposed to be ‘taking it easy’?”

Her royal highness bit her lip and didn’t meet my eyes. “...Potentially. We may have… overdone it, which may have led to us feeling poorly.”

I gave her a stern look, but relented. “I shall not tell your sister if you do not. And if she does not specifically request it of me.”

“Thy loyalty and candor are most refreshing.” Luna assured me. “We shall not abuse such faith.”

“You are doing it again.”

A stomp of a hoof threatened to undo an hour’s worth of fastidious work. “Damnation and vexation! It was one thing to slip when I was not well. And now that I am trying to ensure I speak properly, I find myself adhering to a standard that exists no longer. I must get this right. I intend to go out among the people upon the next harvest festival. It is a tradition I would like to uphold. And I would like to see Ponyville again.”

I considered, then winced. “...That would be Nightmare Night, your highness. They have some… quaint traditions for the holiday.”

“All the more fitting,” she accepted. “I am, after all, the ‘reason for the season’, I fear. Perhaps I will be better accepted for it? But I must correct these vocal faux pas before that time comes!”

“Perhaps not?”

She gave me a delightfully imperious look, only slightly spoiled by the fact that she meant it in jest. “Explain thyself.”

“That, precisely. It is… charming. You are concerned that your people will see you as out of touch and an age apart, yes?” A potted mushroom that tended to have a faint green luminescence to it was placed under a round-bottomed flask.

“I did believe that to be obvious, yes.”

“...Then… perhaps make it clear that you are just that? It is not you who needs to be accepting of their era, but they who must allow you to join them in theirs.”

“You… think that I… we should play up our failures to adapt?”

“Given what I have heard of young Twilight, I begin to fear maladaptation is the norm.”

“Yes, sister mentioned a ‘want-it, need-it’ spell. At least she used it on a doll and not one of her friends.” I had truly no response to that. “But I will consider it. Perhaps… Royal Canterlot voice? Yes. It will be a fine nod to a shared tradition!” A beaker was rolled under a spiralling glass tube. After a moment of inspection, Luna took the tube, inverted it, then scowled, casting it aside.

Barely catching it, I looked up in time to see a near-identical tube curved in the opposite direction taking its place. “...Your Highness, might I beg to know what you are doing?”

“Tis a surprise. We have long wanted to thank those of you who have suffered alongside us. Weeks ago we overheard what was truly a remarkable idea from one of the Night Watch but could not begin to imagine how such a thing was managed. But during our fever, we were struck down with inspiration!”

This all seemed oddly familiar. “...Wait.”

“Hush! I have but a moment!” Her horn glowed briefly, lanterns went out, the moon suddenly seemed… brighter, closer as it drifted to finally be fully in the path of Luna’s telescope. The ethereal stars began to show in her mane again and I immediately grew more nervous as the enormous observatory telescope suddenly beamed a ray into the mass of mirrors and shaped glass. Something seemed to be congealing all around the equipment, as if the light itself was clinging to it all and leaving some sort of gelatinous glow. To my growing disquiet, it all oozed down into carefully placed beakers. The green mushrooms burst into flame very similar to that of changeling magic at Luna’s cheerful nod, and soon the strange substances began to bubble, the various tubes being piped off splitting out into several prismatic varieties before receiving other strange treatments around the room and finally coming back to merge together and drip down the spiral glass piping the princess had just installed. With a faint ringing, each individual droplet struck the final, fluted beaker. It was not merely tone, it was… music. Haunting, beautiful… much like the strange sound of the bowl-player’s instrument, finishing only with the last faintly glowing drop struck surface, leaving a hollowness to the room like the echo of a droplet from a stalactite to a cavernous lake.

When all was done, I sat in stupefied silence, stunned at the intensity of the moment. “That was… lovely, your Highness. I am honored.”

“That was not the reward, though the process was far more pleasant than I had expected.” She scooped up the container as though it were a chalice. “This is my thanks.” She flushed slightly. “We… we are led to believe that many in the Royal Guard partake in moonshine. While we know little of such things, nor how it was managed in the past, we felt that if it could be done by other ponies, surely we, the Princess of the Moon, could manage a far superior variety.” With that, she passed it along to me.

Dear Order. The Princess had turned literal moonlight into liquid and distilled it. My mind reeled. Not only could I not comprehend that this had been possible… I was entirely sure I was not supposed to drink such a thing. I began to formulate the words, looked to her again… and fell silent at her hopeful, nervous expression. I would rather die than dissuade her. Let alone correct this entire misconception. And with that, I toasted her, then took a long drink from the ethereal beverage.

Moonshine Down On Me

View Online

I blinked. My hooves coated in slip and glaze, and a clay pot careened off of my wheel. I tilted my head, looking at my frightfully coated armor. “What… am I doing here?”

From above, Luna’s voice came down, sounding vastly relieved. “Oh, thank Harmony.” Something crashed down next to me and shattered noisily. It appeared to be a clay figurine of one of the figures from a recent play I had been to; expression forever locked in confusion at its newly fragmented self- I scowled, using my magic to sweep the shards aside and dump it into a basket. Princess Luna fluttered down, looking quite sheepish. “We decided it might be best to keep thee in isolation after you began to become somewhat… scattered.” She peered over at a collection of admittedly amateur figures, though I noted that the later ones did seem to be far more accurate. I could distinctly tell Princess Celestia, Princess Cadance, Mothchaser, Shining, and at least a dozen other guards apart by various distinct features I had portrayed, though truthfully the biggest difference between the unfired and unglazed princesses seemed to be size and hairstyle, without their typical garb. They were clearly later works of greater skill and this lack of attention to detail was odd. I grew briefly concerned until I realized that beside them sat tiny versions of crown and shoes. “Board game night will no doubt be interesting. Art thou well?”

“How did I get a potter’s wheel into your room?” I was well, I found; well and truly exhausted as well as thoroughly confused.

“Thou art considerably stronger than we had come to expect, for one thing. For another you cobbled it together from various bits. That stone wheel is an heirloom and we would very much like it back unscathed whenst thou are done.”

Her majesty’s tenses were slipping more than usual, belying the truth of her concern. “I… can scarcely recall what all I have done this day.” I admitted, feeling a weariness sink into me even as the remains of the concoction I had drunk wore off. It was as if my thoughts were made of fog, slowly lifting. “I… feel indescribable.” It was not like being drunk, I decided. A hangover was a feeling of abject misery. This was… oddly comfortable while being somehow disconcerting. I had accomplished… something, I was sure, while being absolutely certain that I could have done far, far more, if only I were… more of me? I did not even know how to feel about that feeling, and thus I chose to ignore it.

The moon princess considered, still looking concerned. “Perhaps thou art a lightweight?” At my baleful glance, she amended. “Or perhaps we should have considered the size of the sample. It would appear that it is most… potent. Is all moonshine of such a nature?”

“I can honestly say that I have never known the like of the beverage you have given me. Twas as cool as morning dew, as crisp as a fall night, and as lovely as the moon at harvest.” I blinked, though the Princess only snickered fondly. “It… was quite good, I know that much.”

“It has certainly inspired you to poetry. And from what you have done this night, I would say it may be best that I dilute my efforts. One can only allow so much pentameter in their life.”

Poetry. From me? The absolute horror. “Fair, your majesty.” I gave the figurines a closer inspection, less for detail and more to distract myself, when I realized something appeared to be missing. “I do note that I did not make a figure of you. This must be rectified-”

“Say no more on the matter, Corporal. You did indeed create a shaping of me, though it was more… detailed than I had ever expected. It was a labor of one who has great familiarity with me and I confess… I was both flattered and embarrassed. I was suddenly fearful that if I allowed you to continue working on it, twould eventually develop a life of its own. There was a certain… feyness in the air, and I sought to distract you with work on making figurines of my sister and niece. But I would like to keep it. For myself. Perhaps that is selfish, to take from a creator that which they have made, but… it is difficult to describe the knowledge of how much care and focus was put into such a thing.” A wry smile tugged at her features. “Then when you began to carve individual feathers upon my sister, I suggested the others. I hope you do not mind…?”

“Think nothing of it, your highness. If your efforts led to mine, then consider the fruits of those efforts to be well-deserved tribute.”

“And I felt it best to contain you here as you were further distracted. Some business about convincing Mothchaser to teach you how to make some sort of figures one hears instead of sees.” Her countenance turned chiding. “Thou should not play with her heart so lightly, Idol. Though you do play a part in a number of dreams, hers are delicate things.” She paused, considering. “...mostly.”


“'Tis none of your business what her dreams are, Corporal. I only warn you that you can do her great harm. Thou… do have something of a reputation.”

I flushed. “Rumors and nonsense, your highness.”

“And… the business with the sock?”

I lowered my head, acknowledging my mistakes. “I… was under a mistaken understanding of what it meant. And none thought to correct me, as none have before brought the matter up in my presence. Much makes sense now.”

She looked skeptical, but let the matter lie. “Well. I suppose I truly cannot claim superiority in any such matter. Sister had quite a laugh when I complained how difficult it was to peel grapes nowadays. I had never even really considered that one simply didn’t have to. Still, it feels strange. Apparently there exist varieties that still require it, but...” A shrug. “Some habits are harder to break than others, I suppose.” A wan smile bloomed even as she yawned, taking note of the first rays of the sun breaking above the horizon. “Such as my being an unrepentant night owl. Get something to eat and rest. Your replacement will doubtless be here momentarily, and if you even open your mouth to tell me that I cannot be left unguarded I shall cast you out of this tower through yon balcony. I would love to see this featherfall enchantment you have for myself, after all.”

I gave the princess a tight smile that very clearly did not open my mouth, saluted at her good-natured wink, and went to see to her orders. One could always approve of being ordered to breakfast, even if I was not sure I felt like sleep. I wanted to make. To build, to… I don’t even know what. Not to sing, but to compose. Not to paint, but to design. And I knew… nothing of these things, I conceded, and thus knew not even where to begin. Very strange. But interesting. Luna’s Moonshine would have to be sampled in the future, though under far more controlled circumstances.

Early breakfast or not, I was not expecting to find another princess being accosted on my way to my room. Moreover… I rather didn’t want my machinations discovered quite so early. Given that this accostation was not a violent one but far more like the outrage Celestia often suffered from the nobility, I confess I may have tried to slip by more or less unnoticed.

“I can’t believe you married us!”

Cadance blinked. “I… what?” The pink princess’s face scrunched in confusion. “...What?”

Bold blustered. “Married me and Wispy.”

Cadance pursed her lips, chewing on the inside of her cheek as she considered. “Wispy and I, and… I didn’t? It was practice. There were no witness and I even specifically said I wanted to practice taking vows. There was no kissing of the bride or groom, so even if it wasn’t under false pretenses, I wouldn’t consider that legally binding. It’s part of the ceremony. An important part, that I very intentionally left out because I knew you’d probably do it.”

“I… well, Idol said that Shining wouldn’t go that far and he’d still be witness-”

“Oh, that’s very, very true, if he hadn’t cast a shield around us to keep things silent. It’s the sort of thing that starts rumors. I mean, yes, I told Idol I was probably going to be presiding over a few personal ceremonies and I was nervous and he- oh!” Her hoof went to her mouth, but she couldn’t quite hide the twisted combination of amusement and aghastness. I began considering making an escape. “That is sneaky! I cannot believe he insisted I take the two of you-”

“Waitaminute, he told you to take us-”

Yes, escape was becoming a very attractive option. If I scaled the wall and used a window, I might even make it. But… my impromptu breakfast was still uneaten, and I feared it would grow cold in crisp morning air. I would have to rely on being unnoticed in the commotion.

Wispy’s voice breathed in my ear. “You… bastard.”

Apparently so attractive that the option escaped me, as it turned out. I cursed its cowardice even as I prepared for both the onslaught and cold oatmeal.


“I may have willfully misinterpreted the situation. Also, I was under the impression you two were not in a relationship when I made such arrangements. It was the two of you who decided to go along with it.”

“I… am going… to kill you. This is not idle chatter. This is a declaration to murder. You’re going to die. I might even laugh maniacally. A professional declaration of intent-to-villainize.”

“It is good to maintain professional standards for such things, though I did presume I would be the villain in this role and you would be the disgruntled hero seeking to right a great wrong,” I accepted, a bit disappointed. “Might I recommend an axe?”

“No! No plotting!” the pegasus fumed, working herself into even greater stormclouds. Perhaps my meddling had been rather roughshod; I feared another physical correction was incoming. “For Harmony’s sake, Idol, I’d actually gotten used to the idea and now I’m not even-”

Bold’s ears flicked back at those words, though he truly looked more flummoxed than angry. “Wait. You’re... used to the idea?”

Wispy suddenly put me in mind of Mothchaser when I had invited her to my room. And a hundred other moments, to a lesser degree. I definitely had to resolve that matter. It was odd, seeing someone so bold suddenly so tentative, but now… the feelings between them were still strong, still passionate, but now there was a sudden shyness between them. Neither of them thought the other had considered this relationship ‘serious’, I knew, but they couldn’t keep their hooves off one another. It had been a longstanding game between them, played for so long neither knew how to break the stalemate. Cadance had once compared it to a strange game of removing and replacing blocks in a tower, forever raising the stakes and yet never quite tumbling it down even as they stripped stability from it.

More concerning, it was difficult for even me to be so willfully ignorant when faced with such a clear and obvious mirror. And yet… and yet I still relied on emotional feedback more than visual or audible. I had somehow never managed to note Mothchaser’s interest. Had, in fact, presumed that it could not exist because I would have felt it. But then… her interest was in Idol Hooves. The pony. Who I was, but since Idol Hooves was not a real pony, I could not be aware of the emotion? Or perhaps it was something closer to the curse that Princess Cadance herself suffered; unable to know what feelings were directed at her? But no, that did not track; I was aware of every other feeling directed towards me, I was sure. I feared it would have to be related to the Orders.

Damn, had Luna’s brew had made me introspective on top of inspired? A dozen projects started, nearly asking Mothchaser to teach me about sound sculptures, and who knows what else I had begun that Luna had either not noticed or not thought worth mentioning? Worse still, I was ignoring the results of my meddling with Bold Bigflank and Wispy Nimbus.

“-not so much that I’m not used to us as that I don’t think I really minded the idea that we weren’t just dating and that since I already figured out how I was going to tell my folks the worst part of it was--”

Oh good, Wispy was rambling. I hadn’t missed much.

Bold was considering all of this, nodding slowly. “So… what you’re saying is… you wouldn’t be against marrying me?”

“Well, no, I wouldn’t, I just-”

“D’you wanna get married?” Bold asked, blithely.

Cadance facehoofed with both hooves and glared at me so fiercely I began to wonder if there was a celestial body she could banish me to. Celestia banished Luna to the moon… Supposedly Luna could banish her sister to the sun… where would Cadance send me?

Not if you ask like that, you big-!”

“Oh, well then-” Bold took a knee and Wispy’s jaw dropped. Cadance’s followed moments later.

I allowed myself a grin. I did do good work. But I had to admit Bold’s proposal the second time was far better, and that might have swayed Wispy more than any of my meager manipulations. I chose to make my exit in the more appropriately dignified and standard manner, past the gawping Princess who was only now overcoming shock.

“You’re a jerk, I hate you, and I can’t believe that worked.” Cadance pouted prettily.

“Do not hate the player. Hate the game.” I quoted, with all the authority I could muster.

“It’s my game!” She stomped in mock outrage. “I had a whole thing planned. Roses, music, moonlight, they’d have been swooning!”

“Those two do not do ‘swooning’, Cady. They enjoy the scandal.”

“I’ll get you for this, Idol. Don’t you think I won’t!”

“That is two threats of villainy in one day. I feel strangely accomplished. A princess, this time.”

“Oh hush, go eat your sugar soup.”

“...There is more oatmeal than sugar.”

“Riiight, honey and sugar soup.”

I pursed my lips, but I no longer had an argument and she knew it. A point for her, then. We nodded, score understood, and we went on our ways.

The changeling before my door was a familiar one. Truthfully, few changelings needed to visit me more than once, perhaps twice a year, and many only came to refill because they had provided assistance to still other changelings, whom I then refilled in turn. Some never returned, and I hoped they were well, but knew that some mistrusted their fellow exiles far more than others. The crystals did not hold energy indefinitely, however, and it seemed that my constant interactions with an alicorn whose powers involved a… heightening, perhaps a purification of love, made me a relatively constant source of refreshment.

The mare ahead of me, however, had five crystals. Had been bringing those crystals to me… perhaps every season. She was no longer so frail, so frightened as when I had met her years ago, but… I feared she had never found what she had been looking for. There was a certain ‘hurt’ from her that was unusual for our kind.

I did not typically pry, but perhaps it was lingering effects of Luna’s moonshine, even as I replaced dim crystals with brighter ones, placing hers amongst my collection so that it was not too terribly noticeable. “Why… were you banished, if I may ask?”

She gave me a flat look, clearly unwilling to speak of it. I had asked once before, years ago, and she had been displeased then as well, and refused to discuss the matter. Still, years of quiet sympathy and assistance had accrued some sort of social debt within her, and she relented. “...I wanted a larvae. The queen deemed me unsuitable.”

I blinked. “That is… unusual.” Truthfully, to my understanding the hive was in a sort of constant growth, and refusing to allow any to reproduce would mean another would have to lay at least twice before even stasis in population was achieved. “I have never heard of such a thing.”

“My first egg was deemed unsatisfactory, and chosen not to hatch.” Bitterness seeped from her, outrage even. “I was told to choose a different sire and try again. Again I was deemed ‘unsatisfactory’ and told not to bother seeking a different sire.” She glared at me. “I sought to prove my third would be fine by hiding it.”

I blanched. There were few things the Queen was very explicit about. All eggs were brought before her. There were to be no exceptions. Without her guidance, absolutely no eggs were to be allowed to hatch. Any found outside of the nursery…

“I was caught with two eggs. They were… farther along than usual, but the Queen herself inspected both of them.” There was outrage, boiling over within her. “And… destroyed them. I tried to stop her. It did not go well. I did… not know what became of eggs the Queen decided should not be hatched.”

Well, that was… horrifying. And yet… “I… may have a task for you.” If she was this protective of the young, even in the face of the Queen herself…

“You have an offspring.” Her voice was stunned. Horrified, amazed, hopeful… and hungry. Yes, perhaps this would work.

“No. That is… not possible, for us. As I believe you know.” Nymph was cheerfully oblivious to us, reading one of her blasted Daring Do novels. I did not know how the bumbling archaeologist managed to keep surviving destroying temples and stealing artifacts, but she was certainly prolific. I had let slip once that I had met her and the hatchling had shrieked in absolute joy. Children were strange.

“Then how?!”

“Nymph was brought to me to finish her training and see to her health. She would have been… unsuitable for the role of infiltrator. She is…” I hesitated, not sure if Topaz’s claim of ‘colorblindness’ was as well known as she insisted. “...unable to see color. But if we can… resolve that somehow, she could return and be-”

“So it is a broken nymph.” She tilted her head, staring at me in disbelief. “Why do you still have it?”

I blinked, tilting my own head. “Because she needs me. But I am ill-suited to this. I do not know what I am doing. You, however-”

She scoffed. “If you want the broken nymph destroyed, do it yourself.”

I do not recall willing myself to move. I do know I had her pressed against the cavern wall, hoof over her mouth, and suddenly I had a fury that I did not know what to do with. “...Never. Speak that. Again.” I dropped her, backing away, shamed at my own outburst. “...I had been hoping you would care for her. It is… what you wanted, is it not?”

She only rubbed at her jaw, annoyed and not in the least cowed. “I want my own. What care have I for this pitiful thing?” She laughed, mockingly. “By the Queen’s commands, I cannot even purchase eggs at the market. If I buy a dozen chicken eggs, if I ever dare think of them as ‘my eggs’, I am compelled to cast them to the cobble and crush them all. It will be all I can think of until the deed is done. By all means, give me one that the Queen has deemed better than my own and still proven flawed.” The grin she gave me was wicked, chillingly so. “The Queen will get her back, I assure you.”

“...I believe we are done here.”

“Yes. I believe we are.” She left, surely navigating the caverns below Canterlot as only a subterranean species can.

I watched her go, dismayed, confused, and hurt. While I had never pried too far into the affairs of other exiles… this was the first who had shown open hostility towards the hive. Or the Queen. There was… something bordering madness there. I did not know our kind suffered from it. It was more troubling than I could put into words.

The Nymph was no longer reading her book. She merely stared at the page, and hurt flowed from her. “...Am I really broken?”

I settled down in front of her, lifting her chin and meeting her eyes. “I fear we are all broken, Nymph. But you are far less so.” My eyes flitted back to where the exile had gone. “I want you to stay with Topaz for a few nights. At least. Even if you do not come into the house, I want you near the entrance of her home so that we may check on you.”

She blinked rapidly, then seemed defensive. “Why? I can take care of myself.”

“Assuredly you can,” I accepted, “but I do not think I like that one knowing where you rest your head.”

Her response was quiet, but she seemed more relieved than belligerent. “...kay.”

To my great consternation, I had another visitor waiting in front of my door… and this one of my own making. Though, to be fair, she was waiting in front of my door, in an alcove, near the ceiling, so I am sure many would have been forgiven for not noticing her. Still…

“Good morning to you, Mothchaser. May I help you?”

The batpony fluttered down, wringing her wingtips. “You… um… you said that ‘all I had to do was ask’, right?”

I nodded slowly. “I did say that.”

“Well…” She took a deep, steadying breath. “...I’m asking. Can I come in?”

“...Certainly.” And with that, I held the door open, and the thestral slipped in.

I found her admiring the wall of crystals. “It’s… a little less spartan than I expected.” Her approval was plain, and I was honestly a little flattered.

“I confess much of it was Shining’s. When they moved him to officer quarters, he offered to leave some of it until I had a new roommate. But I have enough time in service to warrant my own quarters, and as such the room is mine and his spot is saved for whatever use he wishes to put it to.” I suspected it was canoodling with Cadance, but knew better than to suggest as much. “The crystals are mine, however.”

“They’re nice.” She agreed. “Is it like… a feng shui thing? The energy of crystals and stuff?”

“Ah… more or less.”

“Nice, nice...” Silence stretched between us for a small eternity before she finally mumbled. “So…. so how do we do this?”

I motioned to the bed, and her eyes grew wide and trepidation washed over her. She stamped it down, went over to the perfectly smooth, military-taut bed and cautiously rolled onto it, hooves held over her in front of her chest and tail wrapped around her leg. She shifted almost desperately from demure, to eager, to simply nervous, and I feared things were already not going as she expected. I did hate to disappoint, but I twirled a hoof and she flushed, rolling again so hooves were under her and wings above. She bit her lip, though she tried to hide it as she struggled to get her breathing under control again as I approached.

“I… ah… um… just… be-”

I smiled fondly, and she silenced herself. “Be at ease, Mothchaser. All you have to do is wish for me to stop, and I shall. I promise.”

She flushed even deeper, nodded, and resolutely looked ahead, waiting for my next move.

She did not expect me to lay hooves on her back, and her squeak of surprise made that very evident. Still, I knew roughly what I was about. I had wanted to try this again, and yet really, the only ones who came to my room were other changelings, who this did not seem to work on. I had convinced Topaz to let me try this on one of her legs after she had stumbled during a long day teaching, and she had been most grateful. But Mothchaser was here, and, in my opinion, she had earned this with her trust. She made a few muffled noises into my pillow as I continued to work on her, popping joints, deftly working hooves into spine and shoulders, haunch and hocks. Before long her noises became an almost chittering purr of approval, and I found that tension was almost completely removed from her body.

It was only when I began to work her wings that she gave any form of actual protest. “H-hey, those are delicate, you have to-” I took one of the wing joints in my hooves and gave it a very gentle squeeze until the joint popped and she gasped, tensing before going limp in relief. “Wait… whuh…?”

I continued, working her wings with deft hooves, feeling every bit of strain, every last ounce of tension was completely stripped from her. When I was done, Mothchaser looked as though she had run a marathon. And she was drooling on my pillow. That said, every outpouring of breath seemed to be a happy praise of my work. “Now, how do you feel?”

“I feel… wait, this… this isn’t…!” She seemed to struggle to find the words.

I put a hoof to her lips. “I know. But… I cannot give you that.” At her hurt expression, I clarified. “I cannot. Not in that I do not want to, but that I am physically incapable. It is… not my purpose.”

She seemed dazed. “Not your purpose…?”

“I am meant to serve, Mothchaser. It is truly all I am good for. I do work. I assist others. I obey. This is… what I am. I know what you seek of me… but it is something I cannot provide, and cannot be. My purpose is to do my duty, do it well, and be forgotten.” A trace of bitterness in my own words. I silenced it. She did not need to know the depths of my pain and I felt no need to share it.

“Ponies change who they are all the time. You could-”

“Ponies do,” I agreed. “...But I cannot. This is not a thing I can change. Nor, I fear, can it be changed.”

“So… wait.” She tried to sit up, trembling. “...It’s true then?”

I frowned, not sure what she was talking about. “...Pardon?”

“They used to joke that you were some kind of… golem-pony… thing. Is that… is that true?” She seemed absolutely dumbfounded. I did not intend to reveal myself, and… in truth I did not think I could. Somehow I had sidestepped my Orders, but not entirely. A side effect? Perhaps.

“I cannot say. But… no. I am not a pony.”

She sat back, stunned. “Damn. I mean. We always joked about it, sure, but… wow. You just came out and said it. Like. They said you were a construct, made to make the Guard look good. And maybe to boost Shining into being Captain so he could marry Cadance, I mean everyone knows about that-”

“You… joke about it?”

“Well… yeah. I mean…” She let out a chittery giggle, nervous. “The night guard has a joke that if it smells like coming home, it’s Idol Hooves coming on shift.” At my concerned look, she clarified. “It’s really a thestral thing. You don’t smell exactly like a pony, you kinda smell… um… good.” She cleared her throat. “Like. Really good. Nobody can really put a hoof on what it is