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“Sister. Fleur! You have to tell me what is wrong!”
Fleur Blanc felt her brother’s hoof land on her shoulder and give her a gentle shake. He had already tried making soothing noises and soft questions. Now came the demands. Fleur curled up on her bed. She didn’t cry harder, because she was already crying as hard as she could. Sometimes when she had hysterics she got violent, though to stuff rather than ponies. Mostly she just dissolved into noisy tears. It embarrassed her; she should have more self-control at her age. Knowing that only made her feel worse.
Flambé gave her another little shake. He was useless at this kind of thing, all awkward and at a loss and feeling useless. But he had never stopped trying to comfort her when she needed it. Fleur loved him for that even if his bone-headed attempts to console her got annoying. She’d never quite had the heart to tell him there wasn’t anything he could do when she was like this. Nothing but be there.
Most of her sobbed into her pillow but there was always some tiny part of her with nothing better to do than hang back and watch. If he followed the usual form, his next move…
“Did somepony hurt you?” Flambé said. “Who? Just tell me a name, sister, and they’ll never hurt you again.”
‘Right on cue.’ Fleur thought. ‘As if beating up the pony that insulted me would somehow undo the hurt their words caused. Gallant, almost charming, and very stupid. Which brings us to…’
Sure enough, Flambé turned hesitant and kindly and increasingly desperate for some way to help. “Is…is there anything I can get you? Glass of water, another blanket? Handkerchief?”
Releasing her death-grip hug on the pillow, Fleur sat up long enough to face her brother, pull him into a hug, and sob into his blue-black mane. He went rigid as a statue, of course, before he forced himself to relax and hug her back. Flambé was not a very huggy stallion.
A while later, maybe a few minutes, it was over. As usually happened, the storm broke apart all at once. One moment bawling like a jilted filly, the next moment calm. It never failed to startle her. Still shuddering, queasy, and leaking tears, but calm in her heart. Taking a deep, unsteady breath, she held it for a while and let it out in a long trembling sigh. Flambé helped her sit up when she began to. She took the hanky he offered without even looking. She knew he’d have one and even where his hoof would be. Blowing her nose with a sound like a trumpet half-plugged with pudding, she heaved a huge sigh that left her feeling deflated.
“Does rump need kicking?” Flambé said.
Fleur made a shaky little laugh. He was so formal. Serious. The laugh died in a hurry. Fleur knew all she had to do was say a name, and the one she named was going to suffer if Flambé could possibly manage it. It made her even queasier, but of course she would never ever point her brother at somepony like…like an attack dog. Never again. She wouldn’t just refuse for her, but for him too. There were things nopony should ever do, even for the ones they loved. Not even for a little sister who was his only real family. They had left that life behind when they came to Aura.
Smog had rescued them. He was a bad creature, yes. A criminal. They served him, yes. They did illegal things for him. Keeping a hidden surgery room where criminals could be patched up in secret. Hiding criminals who needed to run, providing them with disguises and fake papers. But he never asked them to do evil. He had promised, and kept it. Flambé’s special talent was knives. He used it to be a great chef, but there were other ways to use it. Smog could have used him for something besides the pony that prepared his meals. If it meant Fleur was kept safe, comfortable, and happy…Flambé would have done almost anything.
Fleur’s heart actually ached as she gave her nose another blorting blow. Patting Flambé’s cheek with a wing, she shook her head in answer to his question. He didn’t look convinced. “No sadness, brother. Just hysterics.”
“You don’t panic for no reason.”
“I know.” She bit her lower lip to keep from saying more.
Fleur would trust Flambé with her life. She would trust him with anything. That included the secret she had learned today. Smog had never really been a true dragon. He hadn’t been truly heartless, just with his heart locked up and buried. At some point his heart had escaped its grave and today the spell keeping him dragon-shaped had failed. There was a real danger the transformation would make certain agents believe Smog had been replaced or mentally compromised. They had orders for situations like that. Terrible orders. That was half of Smog’s armor: the consequences of defeating him were just too awful.
Serving Smog had downsides, of course. Half of Smog’s spies spied on his own employees. Including other spies. Making sure none of them were up to no good. Or rather, up to unauthorized no good. The spies also watched for ponies who weren’t being careful enough with what they said. Nothing kept a pony from temptation like knowing somepony might be watching. There were things she and Flambé never talked about. Not ever: no matter how impossible it seemed for anypony to overhear. It was the only way to be absolutely sure.
Fleur would tell her brother everything that had just happened in the Den. In a heartbeat. If only she could be sure nopony else might hear. But she never could be sure enough to take a risk this big. Smog was going to try and salvage this. Write messages and invoke code-words. Exchange signs and counter-signs. Invite in high-level employees one at a time and convince them he was still himself inside this new form. Ponies who were only one step below Smog in his criminal empire. Ponies with absolute proven loyalty. In a few days, he would have all those ponies announce what had happened. They would swear it was really him and the rest of the organization below them would have to accept it.
Smog would succeed. He had to. The result was unthinkable and not just because of what would happen to this twin city. Smog was…Smog. Fleur knew of things he’d done. Breathtakingly devious things. Ponies who had been sure they were defying him ended up doing exactly what he truly wanted. He was hardly ever caught by surprise and even then he had backup plans, and backups to the backups. Fleur found him terrifying, and as long as she stayed loyal she had nothing to fear from Smog. She feared him anyway. Scariest of all, Fleur knew she only heard a tiny fraction of it. He could handle this. Yes, he could: and he’d probably make it look easy and somehow end up profiting from it.
Her rickety confidence collapsed into rubble again. Smog was Smog, and he was always in control of himself. Cold, calm, confident, calculating, and cunning…and those were just the C’s. Not anymore. Smog had looked nakedly uncertain today. Announced that he would try but that he might fail. Then he had just…deflated. His neck had draped across the bar so his head hung down the far side. Washing smut out of the blackened cloud floor with his silent tears. Smog had made it clear he thought he might fail. Even that he would probably fail. The thought made her feel like she was caught in a nightmare. Smog…fail. Both words made sense but the combination felt like nonsense. It was like waking up on the ceiling or seeing the sun rise green with a big bite out of the side.
Fleur had gone into hysterics as soon as she was safe in her room because…well, if a mare couldn’t have a panic attack about the bedrock of her life turning to quicksand, what could she panic about? Worse, she couldn’t even tell Flambé what was wrong. Pulling the tear-soaked pillow into her lap, she hugged it tight. “I can’t talk about it.”
His hurt, confused look lasted less than a second before understanding replaced it. “Can’t talk about it?”
Fleur bit her lip to keep back the flood of words that wanted to spill out. She needed to share all this with somepony and she couldn’t do it. If Aura’s fate already hung by a thread, she wasn’t going to be the pony that cut it. She buried her muzzle down into the pillow and shook her head. “Uh-uh.”
“How about…” Flambé said. “…if I guess?”
Fleur gave a choked giggle. He’d never guess. Not in a hundred thousand years of guessing. Fleur had seen it with her own eyes and she had trouble believing it. The thought of Jindalee’s question and Smog’s…lack of answer…tried to invade but she shoved it away. If they survived the next week without a disaster she could start feeling horrible about the inevitable disaster when Smog just couldn’t stay awake anymore. More selfish thoughts circled like buzzing flies and refused to be banished. ‘What will happen to me and Flambé if Smog falls? We can’t stay in Aura, but where would we go? What would we do? Would we be arrested? We’d deserve it if we are. If we run we would have to spend our lives running from the law. We could end up homeless again.’ Old memories welled up and she felt her eyes sting with fresh tears.
Fleur raised her head and forced her eyes to meet her brother’s. She didn’t grow any less afraid, but something changed. Warmth filled her heart and crept out through her. It gave her a kind of quiet strength that made it easier to fight the fear. No matter what happened, they’d face it together. Now matter how bad things got, it wouldn’t be completely bad as long as they still had each other. Flambé inhaled to speak and paused when she pressed a hoof to his lips. “No. No guessing. I could use a mug of tea. With a dash of…no, no.” She bit her lip again, something she suspected she might be doing a lot. “Nothing extra. Just tea. Understand? No hardening it. I am serious, now. Really don’t.” Getting drunk right now sounded amazing, and would be an amazingly bad idea.
Fleur herded her brother out of her room to go make the tea. If she made it through the week without getting an ulcer she would be amazed. Pacing back and forth, she paused to rearrange the throw pillows on her love seat and then tried to make her face look less like she’d been crying. Then she resumed pacing. Maybe if she went out. She didn’t stretch her wings often enough. Maybe things would seem better out in the fresh air and sunshine. Or at least she might be able to pretend nothing bad had happened.
After what felt like forever, a knock sounded on her door. She hurried to open it, knowing it could be tricky to open a door while carrying a loaded tray. Her brother was certain to come back carrying a whole tea service with lemon, honey, sugar, cream, and a little bottle of brandy in case she changed her mind. Some sandwiches and cookies in case she was hungry. Honestly, if she asked for fresh milk he might show up with a cow, a bucket, and a milking stool.
Smiling a little from the image, she opened the door. Blinked, then looked a little lower down. Perth looked up at her, holding his stylish hat in front of his chest. His funny little paws kept giving it nervous little turns clockwise. Each one precise, like a weird hat-clock.
Fleur’s smile vanished. The koala flinched as if she’d moved to hit him. “Sorry, I was expecting my brother.”
Perth’s little brown eyes went blank. “Pardon?”
Smacking herself between the eyes, Fleur did the little mental twist that shifted her thoughts from her native language to Equestrian. “Sorry. I’m not unhappy to see you, ze not-smiling was just because I am surprised to see you.” She smiled again. It felt forced but it must have looked fine.
The koala turned very formal but under it she saw relief. “I need to speak with you, Madame Fleur.”
“Some things should not be talked about.” She gestured around her, glancing about, then tapped an ear and gave him a meaningful look. He looked confused and about to panic. “You can never be too careful about being overheard.”
“Oh! Oh, yes. Hm. Good point, excellent point. Can never be too careful. Excuse me.” He waddled off at high speed in the direction of his room. Fleur stared after him and made a silent vow. If she and Flambé had to run they’d take Perth with them. They could use the money his skills would let him easily make. He could use their help dealing with the ‘Outside,’ as Dustans seemed to call the world beyond their borders. All would benefit. Besides, it was bad form to abandon a friend.
Flambé turned up to find her still standing in the doorway. The tray was just as bad as she’d expected. By the time she got a mug of tea inside her, the cheddar-cheese and lavender-flower sandwiches started to look good. Flambé thought they were disgusting, but she had always loved them. She bit into one and somepony knocked. Flambé answered it, opening it a crack. He closed it again and looked back at her. “It’s ze teddy bear.”
“Flambé!” She swept the tray with her eyes, then chose a sugar cube to flick at him. It bounced off a wing and he didn’t even have the good manners to flinch. “Be nice! I like him.” His expression changed, one eyebrow going high. “Not like zat.” She flung another sugar-cube and missed. “Just as a friend. Let him in.”
Grumbling, Flambé made a big show of brushing imaginary sugar grains off his wing before opening the door with the sarcastic flourish of a proper butler. Perth waddled in like a drunk sailor on shore leave, leaning back against the weight of the…thing…he hugged to his chest. Three upside-down, dark-brown beer bottles stuck up from the top of a mesh-sided cube filled with gears, springs, and wires. Something in the heart of the jumble gave off a flickering glow in a disquieting shade of blue. “Sorry it took so long, had trouble finding a substance for the disintermediation matrix. Settled on crystallized sodium fluoride. Now I need a new tube of toothpaste.” Perth set the thing on an end table, stared at it, and then gave one of the beer bottles a tiny adjustment. They stood in a triangle with much less than an inch of space keeping them from touching.
“Apologies in advance for any discomfort.” Perth said.
“Wh-” Fleur said.
Perth gave the device a poke and the beer bottles struck a shrill glassy chord that made a cat sliding down a chalkboard sound like a professional choir. It didn’t just put her teeth on edge; it felt capable of putting an edge on her teeth. Her perfume bottles chattered and then joined the ghastly wailing. The reflection in her mirrors dissolved into a blur. Blue sparks danced up and down between the bottles. Then the broken notes of un-music all shifted, fitting perfectly together like the jagged fragments of a beautiful vase. The lovely tone faded at once to a faint dull hiss.
Flambé spoke and she couldn’t hear his voice. In fact she had gone totally deaf. Perth clipped a pair of tacky-looking earrings to his little rounded ears, like dream-catchers made of a brass ring and silver wire. The clip held a tiny clockwork thing with a little tuning fork that blurred with vibration. He offered her and Flambé a pair of the same, each. Fleur clipped hers on. After a brief buzzing whine, her hearing came back. Flambé clipped his on after she gave him a Look.
“Merde!” Flambé said.
Fleur gave his shoulder a smack, but it was pure sisterly reflex. Her ears felt…odd. Tingly, down inside. His voice had sounded strange too. Flat, as if they were outside. “Perth?”
His manner shifted back from eerie calm to honest anxiety. “Um, I made a little something to make sure no sound produced in the room can be perceived by any listening device or living ear not equipped with the…um, cancellation cancellers. I’m sorry again for the initial noise; the frequency divisor field takes a few moments to stabilize.”
“Huh?” Flambé said. He did not look at all fetching in his new earrings.
Perth looked as if he’d just bitten a lemon. “Ummm…I made a spell that fills this room. It shifts the pitch of all sounds made inside the room. It shifts them so high even bats cannot hear or to a pitch of equally inaudible deepness. The direction of the frequency shift is reversed at semi-random intervals. The earrings have…magic…that drops or raises the pitch back to where they had originally been. Mostly.”
“Anti-eavesdropping.” Fleur said.
“Just so.” Perth said. He had gone back to being distant and calm. “Even if someone had an ear an inch from your mouth they could hear nothing without the earrings. I regret to inform you that I shall be too busy for the next few days to pursue the deepening of our friendship. Mister Smog has given me a task of the highest importance and urgency. It must be completed before…” He trailed off to eyeball Flambé and his nervous side returned. “Um.”
“I can take a hint.” Flambé said. “I’ll be in ze cirrus-fluffing kitchen if anypony needs me.” He returned the earrings to Perth and stalked out.
Perth studied the ceiling, blushing. Fleur studied the device making their room the most private place to talk in Aura, with the likely exception of Smog’s office. “What is ze glow?”
“Err…do you know what a klein bottle is?”
“Is it for designer beer?”
Perth gave a nervous titter, though she was sure her horrible little joke had passed over his head. “No, no. Beer in a klein bottle…hah. Ahem. Pardon me. It’s a…thing…that has only one surface. Mobius loop?” He didn’t look hopeful.
“Them I know, it’s a party trick. You take a paper loop and give a half-twist before sticking ze ends together. You can draw a line on it that proves ze loop only has one side. Some magic rings are ze mobius so ze inscription on them has no beginning or end.”
“Well…this is like that, only…with a bottle. It’s self-contained but it only has one surface. Not an inside and outside.”
Perth sighed and rubbed at an ear. “It should be. To be crude, I gave the universe a wedgy. The glow…I suppose you could say it’s the universe trying to pull its pants-”
Fleur’s poker face dissolved into giggles. “Sorry, sorry! What is it you need to tell me, Perth?”
Perth had shaded from pink to red. “There will soon be deliveries of equipment and supplies to my room. I will be too busy to come to the front desk and claim them. I was told by Mister Smog that you could be relied upon to ensure they are brought to my room as well as ensuring I do not neglect to pause for meals. When in my…madness place…food seems unimportant.”
“I will do that thing.” Fleur said.
“The earth pony Lute is part of what I must do. I have been tasked to make him a mechanical leg.”
“…what. This is ze utmost-important thing?”
“I…I don’t un-understand all of what’s happening but I gather that Lute is a friend of Mister Smog. From…long ago.”
“It couldn’t be that long ag…oh.” Fleur was glad for the magical device ensuring their privacy. Her mouth opened and shut a few times before anything came out. “How?”
Perth snatched off his glasses and began to polish them. “I don’t know enough to speculate but the means employed appear to have profoundly undesirable aspects. My task is more than simply to make him a mechanical leg, but there are aspects of my work I promised not to discuss with anyone. You are safer remaining ignorant. As well, Lute is safer. I am sorry. Smog…wishes to ensure he can keep a promise he made to his friend. While still able.”
Fleur felt some very odd emotions at the notion of Smog having an old friend. Or any friend. There was that detail she’d heard of Smog being able to handle a certain cursed urn that only those in love could handle. A…special friend? Smog’s natural voice was feminine at least half the time. Smog might really be a girl? She pushed the jumble aside to untangle later. “Can you leave ze thing in here for a while? I would like to speak with my brother.”
Perth got very quiet. Then he gave the device another prod. The beer bottles stopped blurring and swapping static inchworms. A brighter flash came from that hidden blue glow in its heart. The clip-on earrings she wore went dead and her ears stopped tingling. Perth replaced his glasses on his face. “I’m very sorry, Madame Fleur, but I cannot do that. Anything you need such precautions to discuss, you should not discuss with him.”
Taking a sharp breath, Fleur gave her head an even sharper shake. Holding the breath until it was breathe or burst, she tried to let her anger slip out with it. “I understand.”
Perth took back her earrings and removed his own. All three sets went into his pocket. “I’m sorry.”
“Oui, thank you.” Grabbing the bitten sandwich, she crammed half of it in her mouth and chewed. Not hungry anymore, she kept chewing anyway. Perth almost spoke, hesitated, almost spoke again, and then sighed. He picked up the device and waddled for the door. Hesitated. Fleur made no move to help. She knew it was petty, but she felt petty. He started to set it down so he could open the door. Fleur tried to shout a warning but her mouth was too full.
The device dropped through the floor and out of sight.
“Um.” Perth said. “Oops.”
Morhoof’s galloping hooves carried him a good distance, slowing down to a brisk trot and then finally a slow walk. A half destination in half a mind, he wasn’t sure where he wanted to be at this moment but he knew where he needed to be at least in a general sense. There wasn’t much he could do now but wait, in both Umbra and Aura.
What…what was that kiss? Payback? A goodbye? Loco’s wry tone floated like an audible grin. A promise? Haha! As if; you couldn’t keep a promise if your life depended on it. But seriously though, throwing caution to the wind with such reckless abandon can be detrimental to your health; I mean even that pegasus back in the day got more tongue.
Morhoof looked up. The blue glow from the street lanterns only went so far up, and yet their combined glow managed to paint the underside of the massive cloud-bank on which Aura perched. It only made the clouds look even more menacing. The single star he managed to glimpse through one of the sizable pegasus-flying-access holes in it looked unspeakably lonely. Did those clouds ever rain? Would it be like walking on sticky cotton candy if they did? Morhoof leveled his gaze back down to earth, noting the drains set in the curb. He glanced up to note the gutters and drainpipes on the buildings. Drainage implied something to drain. Yes, it surely must rain, if only to give this forever-shadowed city a much-needed bath. Too often would just leave Shadowville unpleasantly damp. Mold and mushrooms.
Feeling eyes land on him, Morhoof sent his stare sideways across the street. A blue unicorn, barely out of foalhood, hurriedly went on his way, trying to pretend he hadn’t noticed Morhoof staring. Forte Presto might very well leave Fantasy alone, but that didn’t mean that the unicorn wasn’t going to pay for what he had already done. One way or another. Smog had promised to leave it to the police. Morhoof…had not. And Smog was willing to help Morhoof with that. In typical fashion, Smog kept his promise in his own way. Though out of respect for Fantasy’s wishes, Morhoof wasn’t going hunting. No, Morhoof had developed instincts over his very long life. He knew that he and Forte Presto would meet again. He felt it in his bones. Morhoof wasn’t hunting: he was being hunted. Veering off down a side-street, Morhoof headed for the hole through which he had seen a star. He would find the docking station under it and take an airbus up to Aura.
You realize you looked like you were about to start chasing after Little Boy Blue there with an axe, right?
The trip up was as mundane as could be, although this time he didn’t dare take a glance out the window. He had gotten more comfortable with the whole business of walking on clouds and flying around, but there were still times that it made him feel a little sick. He rested his head on his living hoof and closed his eyes. The gentle sway of the airbus was almost like being on a sea-going ship, except the faint sense of rising was wrong. So very, very wrong.
At the top Morhoof rented a sky-cab, riding a yellow-and-black-checked chariot pulled by two pegasi. It cost, but Morhoof was rolling in bits thanks to Smog. Once at his new apartment home in the depths of the city’s heart, Morhoof lit some lamps here and there, and one candle. He stalked over to his bare kitchenette table and laid out the equipment Smog had delivered. Taking a seat on an un-cushioned stool, Morhoof examined the vial of sungold dust. He didn’t know much about it other than what almost everypony knew: it was impossible to melt or even heat because it turned all heat it absorbed into something exactly like sunlight. Morhoof spent a minute or two just letting his eyes drink in the lovely glow as his living hoof warmed the vial. He almost understood dragons then. Their lust for gems and precious metals. The sungold was almost hypnotically lovely.
After a while, Morhoof set it aside in favor of a flare-gun charge. Boring into the tip with paranoid care, he poured into a teacup the powder that, when lit, would create a brilliant flare of red light. Tipping out a third of the sungold, he mixed the powders with cautious shaking and then muttered a curse. After a pause to fashion a small funnel from paper and tape, he poured the mix back into the charge. A small well-chewed spitball made from paper scraps plugged the hole and a dribble of candle wax sealed it well. The sungold would react in a splendid way to the brief-but-violent heat of the flare. The rest of the sungold went into the other two charges.
Very expensive fireworks. He had no intention of using them all, or even one of them if he could help it, but it seemed a better gambit to have three shots rather than one, even if those three were weaker. He hoped they wouldn’t be needed but feared they might. He loaded the flare gun and stuck the other two inside the hollow grip. It didn’t have room for another. The roll of duct tape, the hacksaw, and all the glassy spheres of knockout gas joined the crowd of unsettling things found under Morhoof’s cloak. The flare gun might have left him nervous, but it was nothing compared to the cockatrice eye he already carried. Anything more and he’d end up a walking department store. Hah, if the black market had department stores. Knowing Smog, they probably did: with warrantees and store credit and bad music.
Morhoof loudly exhaled, sat back on his stool, and stared at the ceiling. Silence. Well, almost silence. There was that constant white noise of a living city all around him. That and Loco’s inane chirping. It seemed that the whole of Aura and Umbra were a fast-sinking ship and the only thing that could stop it was a dispirited cross-breed with a shot glass instead of a bucket. Morhoof looked back down at the table, one hoof going to the flares under his cloak. ‘I wonder,’ he thought, ‘if Breaking Dawn needs these more than I do.’
Har har. But that brings up a good point. Everything flops. Everything turns into cow flops. What will you do then? The ‘dragon’ slain or jailed or fled and dearest Fantasy at the mercy of a deranged unicorn, because let’s face it: Fantasy is on her own if Smog needs you. That’s why you suggested for her to run, isn’t it?
Morhoof’s lips twitched as he thought at Loco: ‘I told her to be ready to leave so she will be prepared to run if things go bad. Things will only go bad if Smog fails, and if he fails he falls, and if he falls he’s beyond my power to help. I must still stand by him, of course. I must for the same reason I told Fantasy to stand ready to swiftly take her family from this place. That reason is something that you, spawn of malice, can never truly understand. I care about them.’
Loco fell silent, radiating sullen and somewhat baffled fury. It was an insight Morhoof had taken an inexcusably long time to have. Windigos weren’t just harmed by the power of friendship and love. They were confounded by it. Literally could not understand. To them it was madness, irrational, beyond all sense. So it always surprised them what a pony would do, if they did it for a friend.
Morhoof migrated over to his couch, nothing but the building across the street visible through the window. The bottle of nectar brandy remained where he had left it, along with his lute. It managed to look neglected. Morhoof opened the case and drew it out, probably the oldest individual instrument in the world. Technically. Parts had needed replacing now and then, and the shape had subtly changed. There wasn’t a scrap of the original wood left, but he was sure in his heart that it was the same instrument he had carried with him when he ran away from home to find his true destiny so very, very long ago. Rather than finding it, a windigo had given him a fate that was arguably worse than death. Irony of ironies, it was only the ambivalence in his heart, which found neither hate nor love easy to feel, which had kept him from quickly falling to evil and being consumed. Some papers had slipped free of the pocket inside the lid. One of them fluttered to lie in his lap. A monochrome but eerily lifelike drawing of a bouquet of flowers and the words I’m sorry. Morhoof looked to his lute and then back to the drawing. Strange emotions filed him.
Loco spoke with bitter sarcasm. Shall we buy him a dress and stand him on a balcony? Or her, as the case may be, though we both know that Smog has feelings for you either way. Only you don’t, for so many reasons. Like good taste.
Morhoof returned his lute to its case, slung it over his back, and filled his little flask with brandy. Half a mind still, but even half a mind could fathom half a thought. Breaking Dawn was going to do all he could to save Aura, and even though Morhoof wouldn’t be able to help with that, maybe some music could help keep Smog sane while he tried. Fantasy had claimed, what felt like long ago, that Smog had never stopped loving music. Just enjoyed it in secret. Morhoof could keep his spirits up; give him hope and strength of spirit. That was what true bards did. True bards and true friends. Morhoof would do anything he could to help.
Loco’s mental tone could have greased axles. Anything?
Morhoof spoke aloud. “Go away.”
Then Loco came as close as either of them had to breaching the subject of the miraculous artificial leg he would be fitted with. Of the very real possibility that soon Morhoof could open his heart to friendship and love without opening it to the long-denied ravages of Time. Of Loco’s destruction.
You’re going to miss me when I’m gone.
It sounded less like a threat than a prophecy.
By the time he got back to his room, Perth began to have second thoughts about dropping the noise canceller through the floor. Not moral ones. The best way to keep the device away from Madame Fleur was to remove any possibility she might gain it. She could no longer be tempted to steal it or, worse, beg him for it. While reasonably certain he could have made it unusable to a thief, he was by no means certain that he could have denied a passionate or piteous plea from the mare. Perth could have dismantled it but he hadn’t had the courage. Instead he pretended it was an accident so that the winged pony wouldn’t blame him for doing it.
Perth hoped the device had fallen clear down to the cesspool under the vast stalactite of cloud where airships roosted like pigeons in a dovecote. Rather than, and this was the cause of his second thoughts, upon some unfortunate creature’s head. If so…he had retained the cancellation cancellers. The device alone could do naught but plunge a moderate space into total silence. He hoped that any creature that discovered it surrendered to the urge to poke about in its workings. His devices worked on laws of nature bent to suit his mad vision of the moment. They were not particularly…robust…when inspected.
Like a flawed argument, his ‘magical’ machines could not withstand close scrutiny. Like a certain type of debater, their reaction to being prodded and questioned was violent. As far as he could tell, the magical energies bound up in making his impossible devices work obeyed the law of conservation of energy. In an odd way, but even so. If freed from their task of bending the laws of nature, the energies transformed into common forms of mundane energy. Light, heat, kinetic. Flash, flame, bang. Perth had learned that when he tried, while in his right mind, to figure out the workings of one of his earliest devices. He’d been forced to wear a mask until his facial fur grew back in.
The silver lining to that dark cloud, of course, was that any sufficiently impossible device he built came with an inherent self-destruct mechanism. If broken or studied too closely, it explosively destroyed itself. He usually tried to make them so that they didn’t destroy anything else nearby if broken and to shut down safely if prodded the wrong way.
Perth had bought a sketchpad of paper while out shopping with Madame Fleur. He sat on the little couch and stared at the first pristine sheet now, while his imagination ran wild with the various possibilities of his new project. An artificial foreleg for a pony. So many options. Not the cap bonded to the stump with the philosopher’s stone inside. He knew exactly how to do that, and of course making sure it self-destructed in certain circumstances was no problem. Avoiding it would have been the trick. The dark side of his mad genius kept obsessing about potential weapons he could stuff into the leg itself.
Touching pencil to paper, Perth began to write. Not draw. He was barely competent at drawing schematics. His Aberrant talent didn’t work that way, in any case. It was pure instinct. Perth could make tiny gears freehand with a three-corner file and no particular effort at precision, only to produce something that rivaled the careful efforts of the most skilled clockmaker. So rather than draw the device he would assemble he wrote down the things he wanted it to do.
In his madness place, Perth had a bad habit of getting distracted by rogue flashes of inspiration. He’d once made a device that could scramble an egg without breaking the shell. It had started out as an automated tea-maker, but then he’d discovered that mice had gotten at his tea. Halfway through turning the tea-maker into a mouse-repeller, he had recalled the old saying about needing to break eggs to make omelets. In a fit of whimsy he had decided to disprove it. The twice-repurposed device had looked positively demented, since he hadn’t bothered to change any details that didn’t require changing. Waste of time. It had made a quite edible omelet-in-shell. Then…it had spotted a mouse and given chase. The following events had been enough to give him nightmares for weeks, for it had caught the mouse.
An important lesson had been learned that day. If he put too much magic into something, which especially happened when he changed its purpose a few times along the way, the device developed signs of…awareness. The omelet-maker had retained a sense of purpose as a bane of mice, and somehow had the power to detect nearby mice even though he’d given it no means to do so. It had rearranged its parts to produce teaspoon legs so it could chase the mouse. He tried hard to avoid putting too much work into anything else, as the implications of living machines terrified him.
So, the list. A checklist, with little square ticky-boxes and everything. He’d learned that such a thing could help keep his mad half focused on the original task. There could be no halting halfway through to rebuild the whole thing in some even-better way. For one thing, he didn’t have much time. Perth nibbled the eraser of his pencil, paused, and looked down at it in surprise. ‘Why in the world,’ he thought, ‘would anyone put cherry flavoring in erasers? Oh, of course. A race that writes by holding the pencil in their mouth; that’s who.’ He shook his head and wrote a word in big block letters across the top of the page: SIMPLICITY. It was the key to durability. Every little thing that had to go right was another thing that could go wrong. Perth knew he could sell it to his mad half as a self-imposed challenge. Could he make an artificial pony foreleg that could stand up to hard use over a very long period, with only the most basic of unskilled maintenance?
Of course. A simple peg leg of hard material would manage that. The trick would be to make it as elaborate as possible while still leaving it durable.
The knock at the door caused Smog to go rigidly motionless, a fist of will around squirming panic. He’d ordered Headwind and Tailwind not to let anyone past the front room of the Den. In a written note left on the bar, of course. The twins were on the list of the ponies he would invite to see his new form, careful to ensure they wouldn’t remember seeing it if they reacted badly. He needed to convince his highest-level employees that he remained mentally unchanged if he wanted to convince the rest. But first he had to confirm that he was truly the Smog they knew. Laying the groundwork.
A copy of the famous ‘lost’ recording of Octavia’s cello solo played on his phonograph. Smog stared at his office door, not daring to ask who was there for fear his voice would betray his change. The knock came again. Then a voice.
Smog moved to the door and considered not opening it. He unlocked and opened it anyway. Not much. Jindalee didn’t need it open much to slip through. The sugar glider wore a burglar’s bodysuit made of black, thin, body-hugging material. It covered everything but his eyes. Pulling it down off his head to bunch like a turtleneck around his throat, he leapt onto the back of a chair. Smog settled behind the desk on hindquarters that felt unfamiliar. Such a garment could be packed into an amazingly small space, and that went double for a garment made for a creature as small as a sugar glider. No need to ask why Jindalee carried one. Smog knew the answer: just in case.
“How?” Smog said. It emerged soprano, to his disgust. He was physically genderless, and that had been one reason why he chose to be transformed into a definitely male dragon.
“I burrowed in through the cloud. Only into the public room, I figured security would be lighter. Once inside, I simply snuck past your twin ‘janitors.’ Being small has advantages.”
‘So,’ Smog thought, ‘does wearing a black suit in a room with black walls and floor.’ “Ah. Why are you here?”
Jindalee explained using simple sentences of short words how a very drunk Mithril had tried to follow him and what unfolded afterwards. “There I was, cuddled like a teddy bear and faking sleep. Then she revealed she had been faking sleep too. She snuck out. I kept pretending to sleep. She seemed angry and I wasn’t going to risk being turned into a crispy critter.”
“Thank you for telling me.”
“If you fall, Freeport will get all the Dustan refugees plus some from Aura. I can’t have that.” His tone didn’t match his words. It held sympathy. “She might be stupid.”
Smog half turned away. Opening his left eyelid wide, he delicately used a talon to pry the transparent orb free. It came out with a faint pop. Turning back, left eyelid closed over the empty socket, he polished the miniaturized crystal ball with a soft cloth before holding it cradled in his right claw. Jindalee sat up, ears high and forward with interest.
After a pause to consider it, Smog shifted the crystal ball to his blotter, using the polishing cloth for a nest. Jindalee hopped to the desktop and crouched. The ball flickered, dancing with faint reflections that mirrored other places and times. Smog focused his living eye on the crystal, along with all his still-formidable focus and willpower. The crystal flared bright enough that it should have cast shadows. But it lit nothing but itself. Smog focused on the present and filled his mind with all his memories and knowledge of Mithril. The orb changed, became a small light-framed porthole to elsewhere. Despite his different angle, Jindalee would see the same image.
After a moment, the crystal ball seemed to grow larger or at least grow nearer. It did neither, but the effect was the same: an expanded view of what it displayed. The same as bringing his eye close to a hole in a wall. Sound faded in like turning up the volume on a record player. Mithril sat in the back of a sky-cab, looking sullen. Smog turned his focus and the angle swung with it. He identified passing buildings. “She appears to be headed for her house.”
“Mmm.” Jindalee said.
Smog banished the image. The crystal ball went back to being small and dim. “She won’t arrive there for a few minutes. I might as well check on the others.” Jindalee shrugged but kept his eyes on the orb. Smog focused again with a different pony on his mind. The crystal flared bright once more and seemed to swell. Fleur Blanc was in her bedroom, pacing. Smog shifted focus again. Perth was in his room, writing on a notepad. Shift. Morhoof was in his new apartment. Slumped on a couch with a flask in one hoof and his other hoof, the wooden one, atop the cased lute beside him. He seemed to be brooding.
Morhoof spoke, sounding annoyed. “Go away.”
The crystal ball flickered back to its normal appearance as Smog’s concentration shattered. Jindalee gave a long whistle on a descending pitch. “How did he disrupt your scrying?”
“By startling me.” Smog said. “I didn’t know he could sense being the target of remote viewing.”
“I heard about a Forte Presto causing trouble.”
Smog’s lips twitched with the desire to snarl. “I tried to scry his position, of course. I got a very clear view of the page from a book. It’s a diversion spell, forcing any magical attempts at spying to lock onto the object instead of him. A sheet of music: an ancient familiar melody with unusual lyrics. They rhyme and scan, but their content is a recipe for dip.”
Jindalee’s eyes twinkled. “Good dip?”
“Very bad. The recipe seems innocent unless you know that two of the listed herbs combine to create a toxin in the presence of lactic acid, of which sour cream has plenty.”
Jindalee snorted. “The dip is to die for.”
Smog went deadpan, and not because he chose to be. “Yes.”
That sympathetic tone came back. “Back to Mithril?”
Smog nodded, focusing his eye and will back on the orb. Mithril was still in her sky-cab. After a while she arrived at her house, not quite on the outskirts but definitely not in the city center. Few apartment towers there; it was mainly individual buildings of modest size. The rent was higher than most ground-level dwellers would assume. That kind of stand-alone house, even on a tiny lot, afforded a level of privacy apartment-dwellers just didn’t have.
Mumbling and stumbling up to the front door, she eventually managed to get the right key into the lock. The struggle didn’t improve her mood. Smog sent his point of view swooping inside ahead of her and caught a glimpse of movement in the dim interior. Not sunset yet, but all the curtains had been closed. Smog pursued in a flicker of thought. The blurred view cleared to show Pick entering Mithril’s bedroom with the handle of a large carving knife gripped in his teeth. He spat it out and kicked it under the bed, movements betraying his own drunkenness as well as annoyance layered atop bone-deep fear. Crawling under the covers, head toward the bed’s foot, Pick curled up and went still.
Smog returned to Mithril. When she headed for the bathroom he kept his point of view outside the door. He was aware of Jindalee giving him an amused glance and ignored it. Mithril emerged again after a while with a damp face, looking marginally less inebriated. Instead of walking like a sailor, she moved with the over-precision of a pony balancing a book on their head. The unicorn mare entered the bedroom and slipped under the covers, seemingly unaware of the bulge of Pick under it. Then again, he and Jindalee could see better in dim light than any pony, and Mithril was not at her sharpest.
Pick had either passed out or had no idea how to react. Mithril shifted, kicked at the covers, and rolled over. She snuggled her head down out of sight. A long moment passed. Jindalee had begun to grin. Mithril went very still. Then, moving with great care, she folded back the blanket and conjured a weak and wavering glow on her horn’s tip.
She was nose-to-rump with the pegasus. Identification was easy despite that, given the cutie mark. She did nothing for a while, giving Pick’s posterior an owlish stare. Pick was far too motionless to be merely asleep. Jindalee grinned wider. Mithril pouted her lips, moving her jaw to one side and furrowing her brows. Then she put her hind hoof against Pick and shove-kicked him right out of bed. The pegasus squawked and flailed for anything to grab, only managing to drag the blanket with him. He flailed some more until he could fight free of the cotton cocoon and popped his head up to give Mithril a stare of wounded betrayal that put a kicked puppy to shame.
“You crack-brained shack of schtable schweepingsh!” Mithril said. “I told you not t’get drunk, you perverted schun of a vulture and a donkey! Your breath would knock over a diamond dog! Climb into my bed, will you? Schtick your butt in my face? I oughta plant my hoof so far up your butt you can chew on it!” After that she got really rude. Pick kept trying to speak only to have her flood of abuse wash right over it. Finally she stopped, possibly for breath or because she had run out of insults and threats.
“You schaid I could have the bed!” Pick said.
Mithril swelled with new rage…then deflated. “Uh…what? Oh.” She face-hoofed with an audible thunk. “Right. I did promise that. Schorry.”
“You’re drunk too.” Pick said. His eyes twitched toward the open bedroom door, then down beside him. The way he shifted his weight made Smog suspect Pick was thinking about that knife.
Mithril meanwhile had to visibly bite back a hot reply. “I know, and it wash schtupid of me. We’ve both been schtupid. Let’s jush move on and try not to be schtupid again. But why did you drink? How? Where’d y’get booze?”
“Uh.” Pick ducked down as low as he could and still see Mithril over the edge of the bed. Watchful and narrow-eyed, ready to duck or dodge. “Th’ box under th’ bed.”
Flames leapt from Mithril’s horn. Pick ducked out of her line of sight, fumbling a hoof under the bed with increasing anxiety. The knife appeared to be out of reach. Mithril finally regained enough self-control to remember how to talk. “My personal box!?” She lurched upright and Pick dove for the door. Mithril’s magic slammed it shut just in time for Pick to hit it nose-first. Concentrating on her magic meant she wasn’t concentrating on her balance. She went hooves over head backwards off the bed on the far side Pick had been on, crashing headfirst onto the floor. She was either too angry or drunk to care. She fell over on her side, seemed to take stock, and then rolled onto her other side to look under the bed.
Mithril went suddenly, ominously still. Pick, clutching his nose with one fore-hoof, moved back to put the bed between them. Mithril sat up. Her magic dropped the knife on the bed. Pick stared at it. Mithril placed a word with the same care as the knife. “Explain.”
Pick turned sullen but Smog saw the fear glittering through cracks in the mask. “I had th’ knife on th’ nightschtand. When I heard you I thought it was schumepony trying to pick th’ lock. I rekshinized…cognized your voice an’ came back in here. I kicked th’ knife under the bed.”
“You had the knife on the nightstand…why?”
Pick’s eyes darted left, then right. “I found a meshage in my shcaddlebags when I unpacked. Somepony in th’ Skulldiggers got close enough to put a note in my bag.”
Mithril clearly understood why Pick found that alarming. Even drunk, she was a cop to the bone. “Did you keep it?”
Mithril looked away from him, rubbing at her head. “That schtuff’s f’r when I have schumthing I need to forget I saw. You didn’t drin’ much of it, you’re upright and talking. Why didn’t you schay anything when I got in bed with you?”
Pick turned red. “I dunno.”
Mithril gave him a long, unamused look. Jindalee made a muffled snorting noise. Rising without a word, Mithril grabbed the knife and left. Smog elected to follow her. She dropped the knife by the kitchen sink, filled a glass with water, and drank it. Refilling it, she headed back to the bedroom. Pick hadn’t moved except to lower his face onto the mattress. She floated the glass in front of him. “Drink it. Nushing is goin’ to save you from a monschter hangover but this’ll at leascht mean the monschter is as big as a wagon instead of a house.”
Pick drank the water. Mithril set the glass on the nightstand and urged him back onto the bed. He stayed wary but let her. Settling the blanket over him, she sighed and turned away. “Schleep it off, Pick. I know I’m gonna.”
“Th’ bed’s big enough f’r two.” Pick said. She looked back over her shoulder to give Pick one of the top hundred evilest glares Smog had ever seen. Pick held up both fore-hooves and waggled them in a wait-a-minute way. “Not like that! I…don’t want t’be ’lone.” Pick had to force himself to admit that. “Can we talk a while?” Something flickered in his eyes, replacing the suspicion in their depths. Possibly compassion. “Y’were…were drinking too. Just…do you…want to talk about it?”
Mithril’s glare collapsed into pity. After a moment she moved to sit on the edge of the bed. “I can’t talk ’bout it. I don’t even really wanna. I want to pretend it never happened. Thanksch though. F’r asking. Yer-you’re okay, rookie.”
“Rookie? Y’haven’t called me that f’r a while.”
“I’mmmmmokay with it. I just-just want things t’go back t’normal.” Pick’s voice turned into in a heartfelt plea at the end.
The unicorn snorted. “Never happen. It’s all ruined.”
“Not all.” Pick clearly wasn’t sure he believed what he was saying. “I’m here, you’re here, Aura’s not gone anywhere…”
Mithril’s sudden sobs took Pick by surprise. They might have taken Mithril by surprise. She flung herself at him and sobbed some more. Pick tried to leap away but the blanket hindered him. Then Mithril draped across him hindered him even more. He wrestled a foreleg free and raised it with a grimace. He looked ready to shove her away. After a second, he gritted his teeth and used it to pat her back, clearly feeling awkward. Jindalee wasn’t smiling anymore. Smog felt the mountain range of guilt in his heart get a few boulders heavier. Her pain could be traced back to him. Minutes passed. Smog would have stopped spying, but once Mithril cried herself out…she might just fall asleep. Or she might confess what shouldn’t be shared. Especially not with a pony as unstable as Pick.
After a while Mithril regained enough self-control to crawl under the blanket. Pick held her, not looking so awkward but with the hint of tears in his eyes. More than a hint of disbelief, though. Eventually, Mithril’s sobbing quieted to sniffles. Then she gave a wiggle. “Quit jab’n me with yer hoof.”
Pick froze. “Uh…” Mithril shifted, reaching under the cover. Pick jumped and froze again, turning bright red. “Uh, schorry.” Mithril stared at him, expression impossible for even Smog to read. But it was watchful. Pick started stammering. Her eyes bored into him. “It doesn’t mean a-anything!”
Mithril, still unreadable, shifted to put her lips against his.
Pick jumped as if poked with a red-hot needle. “Whoa!”
Mithril hung on so he couldn’t escape and kissed him again, this time with a hunger that seemed more desperate than loving. The distance between their bodies vanished. Pick stopped struggling. He kissed her back. When the kiss broke he tried to talk but nothing emerged but panted gibberish. Mithril seemed to waver, but then her expression became one that Smog recognized. It was the dawning sense of wild freedom that sometimes afflicted the doomed. The worst was inevitable and nothing you did mattered anymore. So why not do what you want while you still could? “Pick, schut up before I change my mind. Y’said y’done want t’be alone.” Mithril took a breath and made the effort to speak without slurring. “Me neither. Sick of it. That’s all this is. Tomorrow, this never happened. Okay?”
Pick obviously had trouble believing any of this was really happening. He knew it was a bad idea, at least on some level. It was all over his face. Other parts of him were voting in the other direction. Mithril was right there and willing. Temptation beckoned and his glands outnumbered his brain. Thanks to the alcohol, his conscience didn’t have its usual veto power. The tension drained from him. “…kay.”
After a moment longer, Smog decided Mithril really wasn’t interested in doing any spilling of secrets. He let his focus disperse. The crystal ball went dark.
“Well.” Jindalee said. He watched Smog replace the orb in his socket, then tilted his head. “Why stop?”
“It would have been wrong to keep watching.”
“You’d already invaded their privacy.”
“There are degrees of wrongness. If Mithril spoke of my transformation, I needed to know with whom so I could move to plug the potential leak. I’m reasonably certain Mithril is determined not to speak of it. She wishes to pretend she doesn’t know it. I sensed her sincerity. I had no justification to continue watching, and no interest.” A depressingly absolute lack of interest.
“Fair enough. Think they’ll be…careful?” Jindalee punctuated his question with a waggle of eyebrows.
“No. I have bigger worries.”
Jindalee turned solemn. “You do. Shall I leave you to it?”
Smog almost asked him to stay. But he had work to do and just because Jindalee was being kind didn’t make him a friend. Or trustworthy. Smog had played that trick himself, acting kindly toward somepony on their knees and raising them back to their hooves. It was a decent way to inspire gratitude and often planted a seed of loyalty. “…yes, you should. Thank you for telling me.”
“Oh, you know. Enlightened self-interest and all that.”
Jindalee was lying, or at least not telling the whole truth. Smog knew it, and he knew that Jindalee knew that he knew it. The kindness was sincere. That didn’t mean Jindalee would ignore a chance to gain leverage over Smog. But…it meant something. Smog gave a tiny nod to acknowledge it. The record had ended while they spied. Once he let Jindalee out and locked the door, he replaced the needle at the start of the groove. There was much to be done and not much time to do it. Smog stared into space until the record ended again. Giving his head a shake, he reset the record once more and got back to work. After the city fell he wanted to be able to tell his conscience that he had tried as hard as he could to save it.
Smog was too cynical to hope for a miracle.
The night was cold as autumn deepened toward winter but the fire at Tradewind’s side kept the worst of it at bay. Tradewind sat by the lake, occasionally tossing a few scraps of bread into the water. Something out there slurped them down. He assumed it was a fish but if so, it was a big one. And shy. He’d yet to actually glimpse it. Moon Pie had given him a funny look when he asked her about what the fishing was like here. She had changed the subject. She had a fishing pole with her but he had yet to see her use it.
Tradewind sighed. This was his third night here. Luna had stayed with them for the first night. As Tradewind’s head cleared with the rising sun, she had summoned some camping gear from somewhere, asked him politely but firmly to stay put, and vanished. It was rarely more than a few hours between her popping back in but she never stayed long. Just dropped off wood for the fire, a basket of food, things like that. She gave the impression of being very busy, and that tracked. Moon Pie had excused herself on the first day. She flew back to the family of earth ponies she lived with now and told them…he had no idea what she had told them, but it probably included the phrases ‘gone for a while’ and ‘don’t worry.’ She had come back around sunset of the first day and hadn’t left since. Luna hadn’t asked her to stay but hadn’t seemed surprised by it.
The pegasus stared out over the gently rippling water of the big lake, holding a piece of former firewood in his fore-hooves. Moon Pie had been surprised and a little worried when he’d produced the wing razors from his personal belongings. Lighter by far than before. The cloud-whiskey was gone, but not because he drank it. Luna had mentioned in passing that it had been delivered to the one intended to receive it, named Cherie Onnatopp. The gleaming oiled blades moved over the wood, slowly and carefully carving it. They weren’t enchanted military ones, which could even damage dragons. No, these were little ‘utility’ ones, wafer-thin and hard-tempered. They held a wonderful edge but were too fragile to withstand hard use. He’d picked them up before leaving Aura for the final time, careful not to think too hard about what he was doing. In fact, he’d managed it so well he was briefly surprised to find them when rummaging through his saddlebags in a fit of boredom. Self-defense was how he’d rationalized it, but that hadn’t been all of it.
Tradewind wasn’t a good wood carver and he knew it. What he carved was crude at best. A fairly flat face of the wood chunk had a horseshoe carved on it, inside a paw with two wings crossed behind. Staring out at the lake while he carved by feel probably didn’t help. Tradewind sighed and stared down at the carving, his wings going still. That happened every time. If he looked at the image…he just stared instead of carving.
“May I see what you are making?” Moon Pie said.
Tradewind jumped. She was very good at being quiet even with her weird glamor gone forever. He looked sidelong across the fire at her now-familiar pale-green face, turned some nameless shade by the firelight. More dragon than pony aside from the oversized ears. Her orange eyes focused curiously at the wood he held. He shrugged, and tilted it for her to see. Moon Pie pulled out a monocle and fitted it to one eye. He hadn’t yet gotten used to that. She didn’t do it to look posh but because her close-up vision was as bad as he distance vision was amazing. She smiled a little and sat back, turning sideways to lean against a boulder that had a groove to fit her crest of spines. One claw-ended foreleg made a gesture of request. Tradewind tossed it over the fire. She didn’t move until it almost hit her and then her claw went from motionless to a blur to motionless again, gripping the carving. Another thing that still made him twitch. Unless she concentrated, all her movements were slow and languid or fast and abrupt.
As Moon Pie studied the carving, Tradewind carefully removed the little knives from his wings. The case came with a kit. He wiped them clean, wiped them on an oily rag, fitted them in their little blade-cap sheaths and tucked them away. Moon Pie watched him with little glances. Finally she said what she had clearly been Not Asking until now. Even now she came at it from an angle. “I didn’t think you were the type to carry weapons.”
“I’m not.” Tradewind said. “They’re a hobbyist thing. No good for rough work but useful if you need precision.”
“You weren’t carrying them when we…um. First met.” Her big ears were like semaphore flags announcing her every mood. He wondered if she was aware how much they gave away. Right now they drooped with apprehension. “If you had I would have taken them away. When did you by them?”
“Just before leaving Aura the last time.”
“Ahhh. Carrying the urn. I understand.”
Tradewind let the misunderstanding stand. He hadn’t had the urn with him when he left Aura. Nor had he talked about those times with Moon Pie except a few vague sentences.
Berta realized he wasn’t going to say anything. She went back to looking at the carving. “Interesting symbol.”
Tradewind softly smiled. “It’s just a stupid thing that me and my friends made up, back when we were young…” He forced a weak chuckle. “There were three of us, an earth Pony, a pegasus, and-”
“-Jindalee.” she said. He gave her a narrow-eyed look. Her ears proclaiming wounded innocence, she showed him the carving. “Horseshoe, wings, paw. Earth pony, pegasus, sugar glider. I’ve gathered that you and Jindalee were old friends.”
Tradewind nodded, feeling a little guilty about his reflexive suspicion. “We were part of this little…I don’t know, gang? Ganglet? We used to have little turf wars with other street kids, hang out, steal stuff, generally get under-hoof and into the rigging…” He chuckled with more ease this time. “Jindalee was the one who thought we should have a logo; that was the best we could come up with. The fights we had about it… You know, if it wasn’t for that, I’ll bet that I wouldn’t be here talking to you.” He would probably be dead.
Moon Pie tilted her head, ears high and forward. “What do you mean?”
Tradewind shrugged. “I gave the little medallion with that on it to Kirra, just before…um, before.”
Moon Pie somehow managed to find an ear-waggle that conveyed enlightenment. “Smog told me some things, afterwards. He knew you and Jindalee knew each other when young, thanks to…” the ears laid back as her eyes narrowed “…Agent Ravenor’s special interrogation technique. That’s why he sent me and not some mundane abductor. He wasn’t sure if it was genuine or a construct to a false identity installed as a back-channel.”
“If you were an Agent Unaware you could have sent out coded reports concealed as letters to an old childhood friend. All unaware you were doing anything of the kind.”
Moon Pie’s ears folded back and down in disgust. “Smog’s professionally paranoid. Give him this much, he only considered it as possibility. Worst-case stuff. But back-channel or genuine friendship, it meant he needed to be careful. Abducting a friend or agent of Jindalee was fine. Having Jindalee learn he had done it is another kettle of fish. If it wasn’t for that medallion of yours going walkabout, Smog wouldn’t have felt any motivation to treat you with care. If you were an Agent Unaware, he’d have made you vanish. If you were an innocent pony…he’d have made you vanish. Easiest way to make sure you never tattled about how he treated you. Probably not dead. Probably have your memories edited, then dumped in an asylum in some backwater nowhere, where your magic-violated mind would soon shatter for real…even if you were ever identified, the trail would be cold and not point to Smog. Ponies go mad sometimes. Doctor Stein is good at the Curse of Barking Madness, which would have left you under the delusion you’re a dog. Unable to talk or write.”
Tradewind nodded miserably. Moon Pie patted him gently on the shoulder. He took a startled second to realize that the fire was between them and another second to realize that her ancestry probably left her rather flame-resistant. Tradewind sighed. “And now…and now…I have all this to deal with. I went crazy all on my own. Sometime I think you should’ve just let me cave my skull in back in that little racing yacht.”
Moon Pie hissed, unnervingly snakelike. “Don’t speak like that, you’re on the mend! You’ve got your whole life ahead, and things are going to become much better from now on! Smog will be punished-” her voice gave a hitch as if her mind had run over some kind of speed-bump on memory lane “-and you’ll be able to be with your special somepony.” No hiccupping hitch there, just the slow warm smile of somepony who was in love herself.
Tradewind shrugged off her claw, bitter and angry. “Yeah, that’s not happening. There’s no way that’s ever going to happen. She might dream about me, but she dreams about lots of things. We all do. There’s no way I’m ever going to impress her now. Tartarus…the only way I got her interested in the first place was by taking her to the fanciest hotel in Aura. Twice.”
Moon Pie smiled, which made him angrier. It was clear she didn’t believe a word he said. “The Ivory Tower?”
Tradewind nodded with a sigh that came up from his hind hooves. The anger collapsed. Just too much effort. “First I lost all my money paying some donkey of a manager so he could pretend he managed to get her a free night, the second time…” He shuddered at the memory and rubbed the bruise on his chest. It should have healed, but whenever he touched where Fantasy had punched him, pain twisted through his chest like a knife. “The second time definitely didn’t go according to plan.” He laughed without mirth. “And then there’s her father…”
Moon Pie tilted her head, ears worried but sympathetic. “Father?”
Tradewind nodded, staring out at the rippling reflected stars in the lake. “Yeah, her father. He hates me. I think if I ever came close to her again he’d skin me alive. He seems to like Lute though. To be honest, I’m starting to think he’s a better match for Fantasy.” He was aware of Moon Pie suddenly going deadpan. “I mean…I’m always nervous and crazy, and I can tell she’s just trying to be nice for the sake of niceness. I make her nervous. With him? She lights up whenever he’s in the room!”
Moon Pie could have been a statue made by an artist in need of professional help.
Tradewind half-yawned. “So I think my leaving was the best thing possible for them. I wish them the best of luck, but they don’t need some third wheel always hanging around.”
Moon Pie sighed and reached across the fire to pat his shoulder again. The pegasus threw half a loaf of slightly stale bread out into the lake, mostly just to shatter the reflected stars. He hadn’t had much appetite the last few days. Something unseen sucked down the whole lump with a sound like a half-plugged toilet. Moon Pie made a noise herself, more like a cat hiding under the couch working on a hairball. But he didn’t ask and she didn’t explain. Her claw left his shoulder. They sat for some time, until the hiss and darkness of the fire’s sudden death made them both jump to their hooves. Princess Luna stood nearby holding an empty but dripping bucket in her magic. Tradewind bowed as she turned her eyes on him.
Princess Luna didn’t waste words. “It is fortunate you are awake. Pack your belongings with swiftness; we go to Aura with the dawn.”
“Already?” Moon Pie said. Her cracked voice, always swapping between high squeak and deep hoot, emerged as all squeak. “You said it would take a week, minimum!”
Luna looked briefly nervous and Tradewind abruptly felt terrified. “My plan for an official, announced visit to the twin cities is no longer viable. Several creatures connected to Smog have had nightmares that betray an…event. It appears that Smog’s fall is imminent. We go now or we stand by while Aura and Umbra fall.”
Tradewind dove for the tent to pack.
As Moon Pie appeared in the sky over Aura, she learned something: being teleported made her nauseous. Both her stomachs clenched and curdled. The change in air pressure wasn’t comfortable either. Now she knew why Luna had insisted they fly high into the air before transporting them. It would have been a lot worse if she’d come in from ground level.
Luna had vanished after telling them to pack, reappearing as dawn washed out the stars. She had spun illusion around them so that Tradewind looked like a griffin and Moon Pie looked like a rather tall and lanky pegasus. They kept their natural coloring for the most part. If Luna turned up with either Moon Pie or Tradewind visibly in tow, Smog would suspect Luna was here for him. The princess hadn’t been talkative. That didn’t change now. The alicorn plunged into a dive. Moon Pie followed, hoping their destination had a bathroom, a potted plant, anything. She heard the whoosh of Tradewind’s oversized wings as the pegasus followed her. Moon Pie smiled. She had wondered what he would do. Trying to run again seemed possible. Luna landed on…Moon Pie did a double-take at the restaurant taking up most of the towering building’s roof. It was the Ivory Tower.
Tradewind muttered, something even her hearing barely caught: “Oh, bloody cirrus. Not this place again.”
“Excuse me.” Moon Pie said. Her stomachs were no longer willing to be ignored. “Be right back!”
She was in motion even as she spoke, hoping the illusion was as good as Luna claimed. It didn’t make Moon Pie look different to herself. She felt horribly exposed as she headed for the bathrooms of the restaurant. She fitted her monocle as she went; not wanting to trip on a table leg or fumble for the door latch. Nopony gave her a second glance until she neared the pair of doors marked with silhouettes of a mare or stallion. A pegasus stallion, approaching them as well, paused when he saw her headed toward him at a trot. He looked as if he’d been dipped in golden luster dust before being stuck in an ivory tuxedo jacket. Standing aside with a gallant motion, he smiled at her. Moon Pie was more used to being noticed after her time with the Heartwoods, but there was something different about this that confused her. She glanced back as she pushed open the mare-marked door. She caught the golden pegasus looking at her cutie mark.
…no…not at her cutie mark.
Moon Pie moved without thought, betraying reflexes faster than any pegasus should have. The door slammed shut between them, pushed shut despite the piston trying to slow it. For a breathless moment she stared at the door with her cheeks burning. Then her insides gave a heave that propelled her to the nearest stall. It was a good thing that porcelain was resistant to fire and acid. When both her stomachs decided to jettison their cargo, the result would have been banned as a weapon by international treaty. Foul steam and smoke boiled up. She flushed, waited, flushed, waited, and gave it one more flush before heading to the sinks to slurp water from the tap. Swishing, she spat and then belched. Noticing a paper cup dispenser, she snorted and grabbed one to fill and drink.
Looking up into the mirrors covering most of that wall, Moon Pie froze. It wasn’t the sight of the tall, slim pegasus in the mirror, though that was an unusual sight. A pale green body, zebra-styled white mane, and carrot-orange eyes. A distant corner of her mind considered that the illusion was to make her not look like herself, rather than make her inconspicuous. No, the sight that froze her was the female griffin, white of head and tawny of body, who sat on a cushion in the corner behind the door. Bathroom attendant, wearing a vest in the gold-edged-ivory livery of the hotel.
The griffin didn’t look much calmer. She kept looking up at the tendrils of grey smog rolling outward across the ceiling, then down at Moon Pie, then back up. The griffin forced a grin and a chuckle. “I had some jambalaya like that once, miss.” Ingrained training took over with an almost audible clunk of gears. Her smile became even less sincere but far more polished. She motioned to the shelving that lined her little corner. “May I offer you a breath mint? Six flavors, individually wrapped, made in Canterlot.”
Moon Pie estimated the volume of the jars and calculated how many mints lay in each. Then the cubic volume of the room, the number of hexagonal tiles in the floor, and began trying to work out the combined weight of the fixtures and the amount of floatwood needed to keep it suspended before she forced herself to stop. Turning away, she washed her claws to give herself some time to regain her composure.
The griffin approached. Moon Pie heard her coming but still jumped when a fluffy towel appeared in the corner of her vision. Moon Pie took it. After a moment she bobbed her head in a hopefully grateful way. Going through the world like a solid ghost hadn’t left her with much personal experience in being polite. Obviously she got it wrong. Nods were full of nuance that most ponies handled without even noticing. The attendant had sharply inhaled and then stopped breathing.
Moon Pie looked over, then down. The towel draped over her fore-claw showed the digits underneath. Her eyes lifted to her altered reflection. The reflected towel clearly had a claw, not a hoof, under it. Moon Pie dropped the towel as if spiders had boiled out of the folds. “I’m sorry.”
The echoes that came back to her off the tiles were a musical feminine soprano utterly unlike the broken squeak-honk she heard vibrating her head from the inside. The griffin shook her head and smiled, but she backed away as she did. “No need to apologize, miss.”
“CITIZENS OF AURA AND UMBRA, SUBJECTS OF THE EQUESTRIAN EMPIRE, HEED MY WORDS. I HAVE COME TO SPEAK TO ALL OF YOU ABOUT A MATTER OF SOME IMPORTANCE.”
Princess Luna’s voice seemed to come at Moon Pie’s ears from the inside. The attendant gave a squawk and bolted for the door. Moon Pie acted without thought, catching her in a chokehold that swiftly brought unconsciousness. Moon Pie let go and leapt back, horrified. But while her conscience had a panic attack her old training took over again. This was a situation she knew how to handle. Moving the griffin to the cushion in the corner, Moon Pie grabbed a heavy wooden box of small decorative soaps off a high shelf and used it to give the griffin a thump on the head. Just hard enough to raise a bump. Dropping the box by the griffin, she gulped down her panic and slipped from the bathroom. Hopefully the griffin would awaken and assume the box had fallen on her. Hopefully she would be sufficiently hazy about recent events to pass off what she’d seen as imaginary.
Luna, meanwhile, had continued to deliver a speech in a voice that wasn’t so much loud as penetrating. Moon Pie found the contents of the restaurant, staff included, standing in a ranks-deep semicircle around Luna. They didn’t crowd her, though. Luna stood at the edge of the roof, looking out over the city. The griffin with Tradewind’s coloring crouched by her. Literally in her shadow, he looked as if he would have given his wing-feathers to be far away from here.
Moon Pie hung back, easily able to see over the crowd. Her ears were up and swiveling this way and that. Luna’s voice seemed to be coming from everywhere. After a moment she realized that wasn’t true. It was coming from multiple but distinct sources. The more distant ones had a hint of lag to them. Moon Pie tucked her monocle behind an ear and stared out over the pre-dawn-lit city. Other high towers had figures standing at their peaks. They looked like…Luna. Dozens: and those were just the ones in sight. Whether she was just projecting illusions of herself for this public address or actually in multiple places at once, the spell had to be incredibly difficult.
Half-heard details poked at her and she realized Luna had begun repeating her speech. Boiled down from the formal speech, she essentially said she wished to address the citizens of both cities regarding the recent tragedy in Dust. She’d give them until noon to get ready and gather around her various ‘appearances.’
“You came with the Princess?”
Moon Pie’s left ear swung toward the whisper. Her left eye swiveled to follow and she beheld a golden blur. She set her monocle in place and saw the golden stallion from earlier. To her horror and dismay, she felt her cheeks heat. The illusion mirrored her blush. “I have a special somepony, thank you.”
Even as she said it, she realized it had been far too blunt. His golden eyes widened, but then he smiled. “Of course you do. Such a lovely mare as yourself could have her pick of stallions. No doubt you tire of the constant suitors, so I will forgive your abruptness. Perhaps you will forgive me for saying that you are lovely as a star?”
Moon Pie sent an inward glare at her stupid heart, which was racing. But…she had never had anypony look at her that way before. Not even Turpentine did. He loved her, and looked at her with love, but that was for who she was. He saw the beautiful heart inside the ugly wrapper. He didn’t find her physically attractive. It would have been weird if he had. This silver-tongued stallion looked at her and liked what he saw. Of course, he wasn’t seeing her true form.
The giddy feelings died a quiet little death. All a lie. She felt a longing, a darkly seductive pull. Find a way to make this illusion last long-term. Walk down the street, not just seen but admired. But she would know she was living a lie. Hiding her true self, winning acceptance through deception. A friendship rooted in lies grew poison fruit. Suddenly she understood Smog’s decision to lock away his true self and live the lie that he was a full dragon. It was straight from the tale of Discord’s first escape from stone, which she now recalled her father reading to her. When all the truth does is make your heart ache, sometimes a lie is easier to take. Smog had chosen to deny his heartache and ended up heartless.
“Excuse me, miss…?”
Moon Pie gave the golden stallion an annoyed glance which seemed to take him aback. Not used to being disregarded, maybe? Or maybe it was her sudden failure to be charmed by his charm. He didn’t say anything else. Moon Pie just wanted to tell him to go away. “Yes? Do you need something?”
The stallion appeared to notice how much taller than him she was. But he hid his reaction quickly and well, barring the flutter of his heartbeat and the hint of nervousness in his sudden faint sweat. “I asked if you arrived with Princess Luna.”
“Yes. I did.”
“I am Gold Star.” He swept her a graceful but not overly deep bow. “My father, Five Star, is the hotel manager. I’m certain he would be absolutely delighted to welcome Her Majesty to stay here, gratis of course. Unless she insists on paying; we would never argue with Princess Luna. Who might you be?”
Moon Pie hunted for an alias, but that was another thing she’d never needed to bother with. Something hoity-toity sounding popped into her head and she went with it. “Brise Soleil.”
“Ah, mais oui.” His expression went from smiling to dread-laced disbelief. “Your name is Sun Breaker?”
Moon Pie almost clapped a claw across her eyes. ‘Stupid.’ she thought. ‘Why not just call yourself Dragon Slayer?’ At least her memory contained an innocent definition for the term. “A brise-soleil is a sun baffle of vertical or horizontal louvers outside the windows or extending over the entire surface of a building’s facade. A sun-screen.”
“I see.” He huffed out a breath, looking embarrassed and annoyed about it. Then the smile returned, too easily to be sincere. “In what capacity do you serve Her Majesty?”
Moon Pie gave him a long deadpan stare. The last tatters of his charm had evaporated for her. She finally recognized his type, sometimes seen wearing garish sports jackets while selling used farm equipment. Gold Star was just the upmarket version. He had probably never had any real interest in her, but wasn’t above pretending it if it helped him pump her for information. This was probably the ‘donkey of a manager’ Tradewind had mentioned. She kept up the stare until his easy smile finished wilting. Leaning down to put her face into the cloud of cologne hanging around him, she saw him perk up, eager to hear what she was about to whisper. A flash of temper made her irises glow orange before she clamped down on the emotion. She saw the dim flicker of her eyes reflected in his.
He noticed, and it scared him.
“Go away.” Moon Pie said.
Dangerous as he knew it was, Smog had fallen back more and more on mental disciplines gained during his centuries of self-delusion. He locked his emotions away. Not just from physical expression but from inner perception. Suppressing them was the only thing that kept him from a full-fledged rage-tantrum and the certain ruin of any slim, hopeless hope of averting disaster. He needed to stay calm and do the smart things that might actually do some good. The alternative might have been worse, but not by much. The deeper he slid back into that icy, detached mindset…the less he cared about things like all the suffering he worked to prevent. In its place he put the old selfish draconic urge: Aura was his and he would keep it. It was possible he could lose himself again. Too deep into the dark and he would never escape because he would no longer desire it.
Worse, he had been lying to Morhoof. His friend had come twice a day to report on Fantasy’s continuing good health and…just to be there. Smog lied to him. Not outright lying but in every other way possible. Pretending emotions he couldn’t afford to let himself truly feel. Hiding his inner slide back into the dark. But…what were his options? Let his emotions run free? Disaster. He had always had a temper. He had no experience controlling it, only suppressing it. Better for Aura to be ruled by old heartless Smog than for Aura to be destroyed by new angry Breaking Dawn. Of course he had regrets, though the selfless aspect helped him live with it. And as he sank deeper, the regrets stopped seeming so important.
Things weren’t going well. The long autumn night he’d just endured in particular. A series of disastrous meetings. Corresponding through messages? That part had gone fine. He had chosen Headwind and Tailwind as the first to see his new transformed self. They hadn’t reacted well at first but Smog had managed to talk them around. He had convinced the pegasus twins that it was really him, sane and not mind-controlled. It had taken some real creativity, spinning technical truths into a tapestry of not-quite-lies. They had been left with the impression that an enemy had gotten hold of Smog’s missing eye and used it to curse him. Smog implied they had tried to turn him into a pony but the curse had only half-stuck. After they were in on the secret things got considerably less perilous.
Things hadn’t continued as they began. The ex-soldiers were loyal but not particularly smart. Or rather, they weren’t devious. Too…straightforward in their thinking. Unfortunately, while they were trusted with the Den’s security they weren’t actually that high up the ladder of his organization. The bureaucracy that did the bulk of the day-to-day managing of his criminal empire petered out above the high-middle levels. Most of them didn’t do anything much different from legitimate office work. The tasks were often illegal but it still amounted to collating, copying in triplicate, and adding up columns of numbers. The pay wasn’t even that much better. Living beyond your means was a good way to invite an audit. Smog ran a hole-in-the-wall bar and lived modestly for very good reasons. Where Smog beat out less risky employers was the benefits package. Pensions, dental, scholarships for their children, and more. Smog made sure that crime really did pay. It wasn’t like he was spending his fortunes on huge diamond-encrusted statues of himself.
For leadership positions Smog needed more than paper-pushing rule-followers. He needed a bag of other traits: not all of them morally objectionable. A willingness to get their hooves dirty when they had to. Loyalty to their underlings as well as Smog. Initiative countered by caution. Leadership skills. A strong work ethic. And a brain. The score or so ponies and griffins that answered directly and only to Smog…most of them could have thought their way through a corkscrew in a hurricane without touching the sides. At least five of them had a doctorate in something, and earned them. They were the kind of minds that looked at his tapestry of not-quite-lies and spotted the holes. Asked the questions he couldn’t answer. He’d had each one don a spider amulet before meeting him, and had the amulet removed afterward to remove their memories of it. Nothing suspicious in itself. Sometimes he did that. Not one of them had been allowed to remember meeting him.
Smog could convince them he wasn’t an imposter. He had all the countersigns and passwords. His knowledge of them and their jobs was too detailed. He couldn’t convince them he was the same old Smog, because he wasn’t. He seemed to be sliding back into being him but he wasn’t there yet. One by one, they had all come to the same conclusion: somepony had rearranged his head as well as his body. Denying it did no good. They believed that he believed what he was saying. That wasn’t the same as believing what he said was true.
Smog stared at the object on his blotter. His one true success these past three nights and two days. Perth had made a foreleg and hoof that looked as if it had been cast from the mold of a real one. The joints had plates that slid over each other, not naked hinges. At a glance, in poor light, it could have been mistaken for real. It didn’t gleam. The brown enamel or whatever-it-was matched the shade of Morhoof’s body. Even so, the mechanical limb radiated the same quiet menace he had seen in devices used to extract information from the unwilling.
The socket on the end held a plug with levers and knobs covering its exposed side. Used to test how everything worked. Smog picked up the leg and flicked a lever. The hoof split in half, cleaving like a goat’s. Each section pivoted sideways and unfolded to make the hoof into a pincer-style claw. Morhoof would need to learn how to control it but Perth promised the leg had a ‘feedback’ loop. Morhoof’s stump would be fed signals that his brain would interpret as coming from his missing hoof. He would be able to feel how much pressure the mechanical pincer exerted, for example. Working another lever made it open and shut. Turning a knob made the pincer spin clockwise. Turned the other, clockwise. A button pivoted the pincer halves so they lay side-by-side and crooked them both over. The result was a hook. Probably useful for climbing ladders or hanging from a branch or similar.
Smog flicked the first lever again to fold the pincer back into a hoof. He pushed a button and a circular saw blade no bigger than a bit coin popped out. Tiny diamonds sparkled along its fine-toothed edge. It sat above and behind the hoof, where a spur sat on a boot, but half-recessed more like a table saw. He turned a knob and the blade began to spin. This testing plug had a power source too. Among other things, the saw was self-sharpening. He turned the knob more and the whirr became a dentist-drill whine. A shackle placed on the limb’s ankle could be cut right off. Then the blade could cut free the other legs. It could cut ropes, small branches, whatever. The placement would make it an awkward weapon. That seemed deliberate. Smog put the saw away, aware he was trying to avoid thinking about other things. The next button did nothing. He made the pincer unfold and tried again. This time lightning arced between the blunt points. Again, not lethal. It would leave most creatures twitching on the ground but they’d recover. It could be used to light a candle or ignite kindling for a fire. Or a pipe.
The air-cannon was nothing he cared to test in his office. It wasn’t really a weapon either: it literally fired air. The shape of the muzzle formed the burst into something like a smoke ring. A high-speed, powerful, and invisible smoke ring. It might do some damage if shoved up against a pony, but the ring spread fast. From a pace away it would be like a hard hit from a soft pillow: an unpleasant jolt that left no bruise. Good for breaking glass, though. Not noisy, or rather most of the noise was canceled out. It apparently sounded like a pony trying to stifle a cough. An intricate grille kept anything solid from being shoved into the tube. Except perhaps for confetti, it wasn’t firing anything but air.
A baffle could be engaged to turn the sharp burst into a somewhat gentler blast that lasted about a second. If a small fire needed putting out or a cloud of smoke dispersed…or a pony’s mane badly mussed…Morhoof would have a tool for the task. The recoil damper didn’t work on that setting, though. On the ‘burst’ setting it was needed to keep Morhoof from dislocating his shoulder. The considerable recoil of the longer blast was a feature rather than a flaw. It could be used as a brake. Morhoof merely had to point his hoof ahead of him as he ran…or downwards as he fell…and trigger it. The recoil could launch him into motion, too. If fired when pressed against the ground it would be as if a powerful spring had come unsprung under Morhoof’s fore-hoof. It would take practice to keep that assisted leap from becoming an uncontrolled tumble.
Three seconds for the compression chamber to refill. Plenty of time for most peaceful applications, but eternity in a fight. Certainly not capable of continuous running, though trying to ‘fly’ while balanced on a fore-hoof would be tricky indeed. Probably for the best it wasn’t possible, then.
And that, surprisingly enough, was it for even vaguely offensive capabilities. There was a lot more: the limb was definitely larger on the inside than it should have been. But nothing anypony could argue was a weapon. Smog suspected Morhoof had given Perth an order along the lines of ‘don’t add anything that would get me arrested in Equestria.’
Smog removed the testing plug from the socket and set it aside. He put the real cap, the one with the philosopher’s stone in it, in the socket. They locked with a complex drum solo of clicks. The leg went back into its plain wooden case. He’d present it to Morhoof when he visited around midmorning. Perth had made the cap so that it would fuse with Morhoof’s stump without need for his guidance, though it amounted to surgery. It would be fuse to the bone, hook up to severed nerves, and take a sample to use for the stone’s age-resetting function. There wouldn’t be any pain thanks to some kind of local numbing device built into the cap. It worked by vibrations…somehow. The leg could come off if Morhoof willed it, but never the cap.
He wasn’t a total failure. Smog tried to take some comfort from that. Morhoof would gain a fine new limb and the ability to defy old age without a wendigo larval spirit battened onto his heart. Morhoof could embrace the warmth of friendship fully and destroy the parasite. Smog felt happy for him but bitterness more than countered the sweet. Morhoof would lose his old friend Breaking Dawn yet again. Burying his face in his claws, Smog felt his half-buried emotions start to burn their way up through the ice. He let them. Dawn was breaking over the twin cities, and instead of lifting his spirits it crushed him.
“I failed.” he said. Somehow that struck him as deeply unfair. He had sincerely tried to do the right thing, and for all the right reasons. Smog realized he’d had hope after all. Just not admitting it to himself. Creatures who sincerely tried to do the right thing had an improbably high success rate. But not him. No, Smog was going to reap what he had sown. He could accept that, except Aura and Umbra would pay the price too. He had tried everything he could and he had failed.
Then…a glimmer of light in his mind. It swelled into a burning incandescence that outshone the grandest dawn. He hadn’t tried everything. The answer was so simple. The blind arrogance of his failure to realize it was staggering. Humiliating. Sickening. And so very typical. It had taken admitting defeat before he was humbled enough to see the solution right under his snout.
‘I haven’t tried asking for help.’
There was a pair of powerful beings, alicorn sisters: rulers of an empire far greater than his little web of secrets and crimes. The true rulers of Aura and Umbra. He’d arrogantly assumed even they couldn’t defeat his insurance policies. If they could, he had reasoned, they wouldn’t have left Smog alone for so long. Arrogance as well in his assumption that he didn’t deserve their help. This wasn’t about him. It was about the fate of twin cities. If he sent them a message, promised to surrender to whatever punishment they chose, only please help him prevent Aura and Umbra’s fall…they’d help. They’d try. Possibly fail, but their track record suggested they were past masters at pulling off improbable gambits.
Another blind spot ambushed him like a mugger in an alley. Why, in the name of all that was good in this world, hadn’t he just lied to his generals? Told them outright that he was the same old Smog? If ever there was a time to cash in on centuries of reputation for ironclad truthfulness and fib like a drunken sailor, it was now. He hadn’t once considered it. Was he really so arrogant that he’d considered keeping his precious vow not to lie more important than the fate of Aura and Umbra? “Tartarus swallow me, I am a moron.”
Smog smacked his skull down onto his desk. The blotter softened the blow a little but the crash still rattled his brains. He could salvage this. Hope burned through him like wildfire in the grasslands, clearing the old growth so new could thrive. It burned like fire, too. This epiphany left him feeling humiliated and ashamed. The generals didn’t remember those disastrous meetings. He could call them back one by one and lie his pink pony rump off. ‘Smog never lies’ was up there with the sky being blue in their minds. That would avert the immediate crisis. The crisis of what happened when he finally slept…yes, he’d need help. And he’d ask for it.
Frantic pounding rattled his office door. Not the heavy measured blows of a break-in but the knocking of somepony who need the door answered now. Smog leapt the desk, a dorsal spine scoring a groove in the ceiling, and landed badly on his unfamiliar hooves. They skidded out from under him, knocked over one of the guest chairs, and then he was lying on his side with a bruised flank. Staggering up, he almost unlocked the door. He forced a word to emerge as bass. “WHO?”
“Tailwind! Sirocco rabbit!” That was the password, and not the ‘help, I’m being coerced into doing this’ one. He unlocked the door and opened it, careful to stay out of sight of the hallway. Tailwind leapt inside. He slammed the door shut, then turned to lean back against it, wide-eyed and breathless. He gulped out words between gasps. “Princess Luna arrived in Aura! She just…she’s everywhere! She repeated a speech three times, Headwind wrote it down, you could even sort-of hear it in the Den. Heard it clear once we turned the music off.” Tailwind didn’t slap himself but he seemed to shake off the panic. Defaulted to his military training. He dropped to all four hooves and stood at attention. “Sir, what are your orders?”
Smog felt a prickle shoot all the way from his head to the tip of his tail. Between his mid-back and tail it turned into goosebumps and raised hair. “Explain further. What do you mean, she’s everywhere?”
“I went out to look. I saw her perched on at least a dozen tall buildings. Flew over a hole to look at Shadowville, sir, and she was down there too. I don’t know how she’s doing it, but the speech was coming from all of them. Loud as a foghorn. Sir, I have no idea which is the real one, or if they’re all her, or if none of them are.”
“She has come for me?” Smog said. He realized he wasn’t surprised. If he had gone ahead with his original plans, he would have set things in motion in distant lands by now, causing chaos. He would have also made Aura’s stability essential to Dust’s continued non-starvation. That would have kept the Princesses too busy and too reluctant to move against him. Still a risk but an acceptable one. Now? He’d abandoned those plans and left his rump exposed. It appeared Dust had finally pushed them past their tolerance for him.
“Not officially, no sir.” Tailwind said. “She claims she’s here to talk to everypony about something important. Some of the parts suggest it’s about the refugees from Dust. Only if that was the case, why not do it official-like, with advance warning so we can break out the bunting?”
Smog nodded. He smelled a rat too, but it filled him with an odd mixture of dread and delight. He actually hoped Luna was here for him. But he hoped she had a really good plan. Plans of his own spun through his mind. Here was an opportunity to ask for help in person. Dropped in his lap on the heels of a realization that made him willing to take the chance. Fate or destiny, it appeared his epiphany meant he was finally acting with pure enough intentions to deserve some help.
“Bring me the copy of the speech.” Smog said. “Then you and Headwind leave. Bug out. Grab your go-bags and make for the horizon. The password to access your pension account is zero-zero-seven-golden-eye.” Tailwind looked ready to argue. Smog silenced him with a glare. “You and your brother are fired. The best thing you can do for me now is to live out quiet lives in a non-extradition country. That way you won’t be pressured into testifying against me.”
“It’s that bad, sir?”
“Am I prone to overreaction, Tailwind?”
The pegasus audibly swallowed. “No, sir.” His fore-hoof lifted to the broken lens hanging from his necklace. Shards of red glass gleamed in the metal frame. “Thank you, sir. For taking us in. And for seeing that monster Redeye in the grave. We’ve been sleeping better since you told us.”
“You were loyal to me.” Smog said. He had a lump in his throat from emotions that he didn’t dare show. Not even now. “Even if many would argue I didn’t deserve it. Go. Enjoy your retirement. Even if I somehow come out of this still in power, stay gone.”
“Yes, sir.” Tailwind saluted him. “I’ll tell Headwind what you said. Here’s the speech.” He pulled a small page from under his wing. “You’re not running, are you sir?”
“No.” Smog said. “Running was never an option. I made no preparations for leaving Aura.” Dragons didn’t abandon their hoards. “Oh, one final thing.” He snagged the box from the desk. “Deliver this to Perth. Put it directly in his paws. He should be in the Avec Noir. If he’s not, get it to the Wandering Lute. If he can’t be found at his apartment or the Brass Hoof, toss the box in a hot fire.” That would soon trigger the safeguards and smash the Stone. It was possible Perth and Morhoof had taken Luna’s arrival as their cue to drop everything and run.
“Yes, sir.” Tailwind looked as if he wanted to say something else, something he didn’t think cold, passionless Smog would care to hear. “Goodbye, sir.”
The echoes finally faded away. Fantasy stared at the far wall of the common room without really seeing it. She had heard the phrase ‘deafening silence’ before but now she got to experience one. The ever-changing but ever-changeless hum of the city was something she rarely noticed. She noticed the absence now. Like a hat that had been taken off but felt like it was still there, the absence of the ever-present sound packed her ears like cotton fluff. It left her feeling unbalanced. Nor was she alone. The speech had sobered up an entire room full of drunken ponies faster than a long brown envelope from the I.R.S. At least urging the crowd out the door wouldn’t be as difficult as usual.
It was long past the two-in-the-morning official cutoff for selling alcohol, but there was a general understanding between the publicans and the police that the latter turned a blind eye and the former kept things from getting too rowdy. Umbra was unique in the Equestrian Empire. What with the eternal shadow of Aura above and the eternal light of the blue-burning lamps, ponies found it just as easy to work during the night as the day. Was it fair to deny a hard-working mare or stallion a drink after work just because their shift ended at dawn? That was a law just begging to be broken, and enforcing it would just mean the pay of those honest but thirsty ponies would go to unlicensed alcohol-peddling crooks that didn’t pay taxes or obey the public health and safety laws.
The police let it slide as long as the publicans didn’t abuse that slack, and everything worked. Fantasy surprised herself by yawning. It was a jaw-creaker, too. It was almost bedtime and she’d had a busy night. It somehow refused to seem quite real. Princess Luna arriving with the dawn. Just turning up unannounced and declaiming a speech in the notorious Royal Canterlot Voice. Luna arriving with the dawn seemed wrong, somehow, but after a moment she realized this was when Celestia was guaranteed to be busy. After another moment she realized that Luna was mostly on the ‘night shift’ and that it was her bedtime too.
That soothing sense of unreality started to show cracks. Arriving unannounced at what was her usual bedtime. Fantasy wasn’t quite sure what that implied but it didn’t sound good. Princess Luna was here for something urgent. Fantasy’s mind drifted to the warning Morhoof had given her, about it being a good idea to pack some bags and be ready to leave the city. Looking down, she realized the glass mug she polished was already sparkling. Setting it aside, she pulled another from the stack left upside-down to drip-dry after their wash.
Not all ponies tonight. A pair of diamond dogs had the corner booth Morhoof used to claim. She had chatted with them when she had a spare minute; they had just seemed so lonely and uncomfortable. Scratch and Sniff, a pair of brothers coming to the city to visit family. They worked further north in a mine, being understandably vague about the exact location and sort. They were rather nicer than most miners Fantasy had met. Rough around the edges but they were quiet and hadn’t gotten too drunk. She’d had to suppress an urge to give them scritches behind the ears. Yawning again, Fantasy wondered why everything was so quiet. Sure, during the speech everypony had kept still and listened. There should be speculation now. Discussion, if not arguments. Excitement, if not worry. The city should be humming again.
This…wasn’t right, was it? Fantasy frowned at the mug she dried. A pony left. It was Old Smoky. The faint sense of unease strengthened. Old Smoky was the first in and the last out, most nights. The door clicked shut behind him. Another pair of earth ponies shared a glance, then got up and left. That was the signal for a general move to leave. Less than half of them finished their drinks before they went. Fantasy watched them go, frowning. Nothing felt wrong. There were still details that seemed to add up to something being wrong.
The diamond dogs hadn’t left. Fantasy looked over to see Scratch shuffling closer. He was a little smaller and a darker shade of grey than his brother. Neither was huge. They had a sort of terrier look. Scratch looked nervous. He kept fiddling with a gem dangling pendant-style from his collar. Most diamond dogs wore collars. Just a thing they did for fashion, it didn’t mean what some might assume. Fantasy found herself looking at the odd gem. A lot of diamond dogs kept gems on their collars. It was, as they put it, the best way to show them off while keeping them safe. This gem wasn’t odd because it was a gem but because it was glowing. A rather pretty bluish-purple.
“Is that amethyst?” Fantasy said. “Why is it glowing?” Scratch snatched his paws behind his back with a guilty expression. Fantasy smiled. “It’s pretty.”
“Tell her.” Sniff said. He stood by the almost-shut door now, looking out through the crack. “Nice to us, she was.”
“In a mithril mine we work.” Scratch said. He had the air of a creature admitting something he knew he shouldn’t.
“Well, that’s dangerous.” Fantasy said. The metal was only ever found in rocks that lay dangerously close to a leyline.
“Protects us, the gems do.”
“Wow. That’s…really expensive.”
Scratch fidgeted, grimaced, and then gave one pointed ear a vigorous scratch with a forepaw. “No. Natural magic crystal, not enchanted. No good against direct spells it is.”
“Umbrella,” Sniff said, “not armor.”
“Eat magic it does.” Scratch said. “A…lightning rod?”
“Ohhh. It keeps the wild leyline magic from affecting you so much. Hrm, so it’s glowing because it ate some magic?”
Both diamond dogs nodded as one, despite one of them peering at her and the other looking out the front door. Scratch fidgeted with his glowing gem again. “Nice you were to us. About us you asked and to the answers you listened.”
“Tell her.” Sniff said.
Scratch spun, bristling. “Go eat grass!” Sniff gave a snort. Scratch turned back, smoothing down his fur. “Magic here now. Like rain. Hits everypony. Makes them…”
“Sleepy?” Sniff said.
Fantasy stifled another yawn. “It’s so late it’s early.”
“Not sleepy.” Scratch said. “Is Luna. With her voice the stones glowed. Rise fall, bright dim. Not harmful magic. Luna is good. Calm, ponies are. Stupid, they are not. Not mind, mood. Making ponies calm she is, why? Calm they not be, otherwise?”
Fantasy leaned forward with her forelegs crossed and braced atop the bar. “So…you’re saying Princess Luna put a spell in her speech, a glamor that makes everypony who hears it feel all calm and peaceful. And you’re worried that she’s worried that we ponies have something to worry about.”
The brothers took a moment to work through that. Scratch nodded, fiddling with the gem. “Leave the city we will.”
“That’s a shame, what about your family?”
“With us they will come. Smart, sometimes panic is. See a dragon coming, run. Not sit there and watch.”
That got through. They weren’t talking about Smog. Miners north of Aura, in the rich volcanic mountains, had problems with dragons. Most of them saw no problem with letting them do the hard work before swooping in to take all the gems or precious metals. But his example had reminded her of Smog, and she had yet to have a thought about him that didn’t come with a wagonload of un-peaceful emotions. Once she seriously considered whether this might be a glamor, she sensed it. Like a beautiful moonlit spiderweb hung with dewdrops. Fantasy gave her head a shake so hard her ears flapped. The glamor had no force. Once she consciously rejected it, it withdrew.
Scratch studied her expression and gave a slow nod. “Awake you are. Good. Go we do.” Sniff slipped out. Scratch crossed the room, gave her a final over-the-shoulder look, and closed the door between them.
Fantasy realized she was breathing too fast, almost hyperventilating. She tried to slow it. Luna was here unannounced and dropping a city-wide glamor of gentle but incredibly effective…calm. Any extreme emotion was just too much effort to kindle or sustain. Rather nice, actually. Like those diamond dogs. Ugly-cute. Fantasy shook her head again and bit her lower lip until it hurt a little. If her concentration slipped, the glamor slipped back in. Luna was here and heading off any panic before it started. Therefore she appeared to think panic was a possibility. Fantasy was prepared to bet quite a lot that Luna was here because of Smog. Smog had known something was coming, too. Fantasy was sure of that. It explained the way Morhoof had acted and the things he had said. He hadn’t come back after giving her a little kiss and running away. She had sometimes thought she sensed him around, watching the Brass Hoof.
It was like walking a tightrope. If she let her emotions run free she’d start running around like a headless chicken. If she tried to calm down the glamor crept in to help her. It calmed her down so much she forgot why she was supposed to be upset. Most glamors stopped working on a pony after they stopped seeing or hearing the thing to which the magic had been attached. This ongoing glamor resonated with Fantasy’s memory of hearing the speech. That was sophisticated magic. Just thinking about that speech was enough to threaten her precarious mental balance. The wavering between too calm and not calm enough gave her the hiccups. She did a hasty cleaning-up, gathering all the mugs and stuff and wiping a cloth through the more egregious spills. Locking up, she trotted her hiccupping self into the back room.
Berry Jam stood at the sink. Not dreamy or sluggish, but industriously washing mugs was not the proper reaction to hearing one of the co-rulers of Equestria shout a speech from the rooftops. Fantasy opened her mouth…and slowly closed it again. She hated when her mind did this. Twisty, devious little flashes of inspiration. Insights into how to manipulate a situation for her gain. Her encounters with Smog had corrupted her muse, or maybe going dingbats had done it. She refused to let the darkness into her heart but she’d had her eyes opened to the dark. She could see possibilities in situations she never would have before. Not too many months ago, it never crossed her mind to shortchange a customer. Now she caught herself judging a drunken pony and working out how much she could get away with. No urge to do it, no desire, no temptation. Just…awareness.
“Mom?” she said. “I closed up.”
“Everypony cleared out without a fuss? That’s good, sweetie.”
Fantasy hiccupped. She would lie if she had to, but that didn’t mean she would lie if she could avoid it. “Punchy is in” hic “trouble.”
“He popped in for a visit, did he?”
Fantasy carefully avoided nodding. “He pulled a prank at school and got” hic “got caught. He wanted to get in his side of the story before the sch-” hic “school sent us a letter.”
“That little scamp.” Berry said. She sounded vaguely annoyed, mixed with a kind of exasperated fondness. “He gets that from his father. And he approached you instead of us? That’s understandable. What did he do?”
“The kind of prank that gets talked about for years.”
Berry Jam stared into the suds. “Oh…poo.”
“I can han-” hic “handle things on my own for a few days. You and dad should both go, yeah, but closing the tavern” hic “for a few” hic “days means lost profits. I don’t want to leave. Tradewind might come back. I think if he came back and found me gone…”
“Yes, yes. I’ll have your cousin Bubbles come over.”
“Oh.” Fantasy had predicted this, but being correct was not a pleasant experience. Bubbles Longhorn’s personality was bubbly as a bucket of suds, and her head contained the same approximate ratio of air. She also had a habit of using the word like improperly and far too often. “Joy.”
“Yes, sorry to do that to you but you’ll need help. Just don’t give her a job she doesn’t know how to do, okay? The poor filly’s…well, you know. What she can do, she does properly. That’s more than many ponies can say. You can at least trust her to sweep a floor or wash some dishes, and she’s an okay cook if you want it simple. And keep her away from the customers.” Berry gave a delicate shudder.
“Like, totally.” Fantasy said. Her mother turned to give her a Look. “Sorry, mom. I’ll” hic “I’ll be nice.” Barring snarky comments that would whiz so far over her perky blonde head that clouds could pass underneath. “You and dad should probably get go-” hic “going. I mean, before airship service gets interrupted.”
“Oh, you’re right!” Berry abandoned her washing-up. “That little mister is getting an earful about this, I tell you what.” She still only seemed mildly put out. “Get a good view if you can and take notes? Tell us all about it when we get back. You’re good at that.” Fantasy exchanged hugs and kisses with her mother, then watched her vanish up the back stairs.
Fantasy felt a lot less in danger of slipping back under the glamor. It didn’t work so good against things like intense guilt. She hadn’t had to lie, though it was possible she was a little premature. She had express-mailed her little brother a book of short stories. One of the stories involved a hilarious prank that demanded seven ponies working together. The result looked like a bizarre accident. It demanded a fair degree of coordination. Especially in the matter of timing. That book was the only volume of its kind in existence. She’d paid for a rush job with a vanity press. Not technically plagiarism: all but one of the stories listed their author. All of them were public domain now, the writers long dead. The last story was the one with the prank: she’d written it especially for this, in a frantic hour followed by two hours of obsessive proofreading. Though it was a pretty good story in itself. It suffered from…reverse plagiarism, she guessed. Attributing her work to another author.
They were exactly the kind of stories she knew would tickle Punctuality. Her little brother would read them all, probably just as fast as he could manage it. She knew exactly how to inspire his mischievous streak. The other stories would prime the pump. He’d read the final tale, love it, and want to top it. One of the seven pranksters blabbed and got them all in trouble. A proper ending with a nice moral in subtext that Punctuality would ignore. Seven ponies? Punctuality could do it all by himself, teleporting around. Timing was not a problem. And with no conspirators, as long as he didn’t blab he’d be safe.
It was a dirty trick, especially given that she’d also sent a letter to the headmistress of the school, implying she wrote it several hours after mailing off the book. A warning that Punctuality might get the wrong idea from one of the stories in her gift. Fantasy had added a request for the headmistress to wait and see if Punctuality actually pulled the prank. If he didn’t, that was good. If he did, she would know who to punish. But being accused of planning it would not be good, if he hadn’t actually been planning it. Worse, it might put the idea in his head when it hadn’t before. He might end up unjustly accused and feeling the need to avenge that. The headmistress might find herself the target, and Punctuality might use something far worse than custard. The closest thing to a fib in the letter was the suggestion that Punctuality might not actually attempt the prank.
A second letter to Punctuality warned him not to try pulling the prank in the last story of the book. Extra insurance that he’d read it from pure curiosity. Classic reverse psychology. It would work because he couldn’t imagine that his stick-in-the-mud older sister could ever want him to pull a prank. She had neglected to mention in the letter that she’d sent a letter to Headmistress Neighsayer. If asked about that omission, she would have said she couldn’t think of a way to do it without making it sound like a threat and that she had no trust in him. True: just not her true motive.
Fantasy wasn’t trusting to luck. She didn’t have to. Her plan depended on Punctuality and Headmistress Neighsayer doing what it was in their natures to do. Some temptations were just too much to resist. Pull an epic prank with a very high chance of getting away with it? Punctuality had no reason to suspect his sister was setting him up. The headmistress was a cagey old nag with a seemingly permanent poker face. She wasn’t the sort to tip Punctuality off that she was onto him. She was the sort to let Punctuality go ahead with it just so she could have a reason to expel him. That was her temptation. Punctuality had been a thorn in her side from day one. He brought down the tone of her hoity-toity little egghead factory. All the more irritating because he never did anything bad enough to justify expulsion. It was almost certain he’d already done the big prank and there was a letter from the school on its way here right now. Just not express mail.
Expulsion wasn’t in the picture. When Smog said he’d assure Punctuality’s schooling right up to postgraduate studies, he’d done it by setting up a totally legal trust fund that paid its profits to the school. A mere fraction of the money covered Punchy’s tuition. The rest was pure gravy. The money stopped when Punctuality stopped being a student there. Her brother would have to do something outright criminal before they’d expel the goose that laid the golden eggs. Not that anypony had told him that. You didn’t tell a mischievous colt that he had something not unlike diplomatic immunity. Or maybe tenure. Neighsayer hadn’t been told about it either. She ran the school like she owned it, but she didn’t. The extra money also dried up if it became publicly known about why it was being paid.
So Punctuality would be punished but not expelled, and he wouldn’t just get the prank of the decade but the rare glory of being publicly known as the prankster. That ought to help his social status with his peers quite a lot in the long run. Best, or worst, of all…Fantasy had set things up so she had solid plausible deniability. Even shown her good intentions all around in mailing those warning letters. It wouldn’t look like a devious plan where she moved ponies like pawns. Or she hoped not. Her parents would be out of the city when whatever happened, happened. They would be safe. That was for the best. No arguments, no insisting either she leave with them or they stay with her. No leaving something this important up to chance. Even if it meant manipulating her loved ones.
She still felt dirty in a way soap didn’t fix.
The tea flowed freely in the Imperial Suite of the Ivory Tower, and so did the talk as Jindalee and Lady Brushtail caught up. It had been the first time they had a chance to talk since she had arrived in Aura. Jindalee had decided to spend a few extra nights at the Avec Noir, partly to give Bruce and his ‘sugar-dumpling’ more time together but mostly in order to keep close to Smog. In the case of…problems. Bruce had seemed happy to accept that gift, and she as well. Bruce knew Smog couldn’t afford to let Jindalee be harmed while in his city, so he could set aside his bodyguard hat for a while. Jindalee sat back in the plush sunken ring-couch, relaxed and sipping his tea as he let her carry the conversation in a happy stream of gossip.
Of course, unlike some males in this situation, he listened to every word. Lady Brushtail’s gossip tended to be of the more tangible kind, as she had a rare need to get confirmation that the dirt was real before she dished it. She had an eye for those little details that didn’t fit. He poured her another cup and bade her continue with an interested nod.
She took the cup graciously and did so without pausing for breath. “Well, as I was saying he just signed a very lucrative contract as new lead singer of the Galahs, which is interesting, because those kinds of contracts take time. Just drafting and proofreading the documents…and yet their last leading bird’s body wasn’t even cold yet. Very unexpected, a tragic accident involving an improperly fastened stage light. Smells like seapony dung to me, darl. I’d say that the Gryphons are behind it. You know how that lot are, a whole barrel of rotten apples. Griffins can be wonderful people, just wonderful, but when they go bad they’re just awful, like that monster Captain Redeye. The new singer’s probably engaged to the prissy princess-wannabe daughter of a Gryphon member; those seed-peckers are always trying to marry off the spoiled little horrors…oh, and let me tell you about…”
Jindalee nodded politely, smiling, and filed the story under ‘check up later.’ Dirty deeds were done in Freeport, but either by the Longtails or with their consent, and independent operators paid for the privilege. Lady Brushtail was one of the rare creatures that was totally at ease around him. Like Bow Wave, she had been in the employ of the Longtails since before Jindalee taken over. She remembered him as a cute little big-eyed joey, and he had never seen a need to make her fear the glider he had become. He had her loyalty: he didn’t need her fear. It was refreshing to see someone who knew what he was and wasn’t afraid of him.
His father had employed her as something of an ‘outside consultant.’ As the heir to the enormously influential and wealthy Brushtail family, she hardly needed the work, but she craved the excitement, the dark little thrill of playing spy. In exchange for the careful structuring of her family’s accounts and modest economic autonomy within Freeport and the coast, her father had agreed not to object to his daughter’s occasional jobs as a femme fatale for the Longtails. Jindalee grinned. His family often employed young reckless females for such tasks; many jumped at the chance. Handsomely paid to wear slinky dresses around good-looking males? It was amazing how many of the brighter, richer young ladies in society leapt at a chance to flirt with danger. Sometimes Jindalee wondered how much of that infamous attraction to ‘bad boys’ was just a general urge toward risk-taking. Lady Brushtail had met Bruce soon after Jindalee came to power; they had hit it off after Bruce ‘educated’ a male who hadn’t understood the meaning of the word no. They’d ended up married within a year. She technically no longer worked for them, but her feminine wiles and gift for making a creature say more than they realized hadn’t gone blunt. And of course, she still kept her ear to the ground in Freeport. Being a part of an influential family that were ostensibly ‘rivals’ to the Longtails meant that she heard a lot of the word on the street, albeit the high street. Anyone looking to gather support for a coup in Freeport usually went to the Brushtails looking for a wealthy backer. And then, a while later, those troublemakers vanished. Waking up in bed to find a dagger pinning a one-way airship ticket their pillow was all it usually took.
Jindalee was just about to pour himself another cup of tea when the door slammed open. A flustered-looking Bruce lurched inside. “Sir! There’s something going on up on the-” A voice cut him off at a volume that made the crockery rattle. One Jindalee had heard before. He had met the Equestrian Princesses on one of their rare trips beyond the reaches of their empire. Luna had been aloof and distantly regal in public, though he did remember she had a very good voice for doing speeches. There had been an official party later, a posh formal affair. Young Jindalee had found a trial, as it meant being scrubbed and brushed, crammed into a horribly embarrassing velvet suit his mother had considered ‘smart,’ and told in no uncertain terms that he was to be on his very best behavior.
Later on Luna had visited with Jindalee’s father under conditions of secrecy and for a purpose he hadn’t really understood until he was older. Even in private all the talk had been indirect, with much significant looks and little nods. Luna had negotiated with father. The issue had been the tariff Freeport put on the healdust that passed through them from Dust. There had been two: the official one and the kickback to the Longtails. It had made healdust even more expensive than Dust made it. Luna had talked father into giving up the kickback and having the puppet council ‘ruling’ Freeport to halve the official one. In exchange, she had arranged concessions on imperial tariffs levied against certain Freeport goods. Enough to ensure the Longtails profited more than they had from the healdust kickback. The core…Understanding…between them was that the empire would leave the Longtails and Freeport alone as long as the former kept the latter peaceful and prosperous. The gist had been an understanding that there was always going to be crime, and organized crime saw chaos in the streets and rampant petty crime as bad for business.
All that had come to him later. At the time, Jindalee had just been excited to stay up past his bedtime. Very excited. Much to his father’s chagrin, he had immediately clambered up the alicorn’s foreleg and settled happily in her mane. It had been like sitting in a bag of tingles. The look of joy on his face, and of terrified half-amused discomfort on hers, had been captured in a photograph. He would always cherish it, and not just because it was a rather potent tidbit of blackmail. Luna hadn’t known about the camera hidden in the wall. Obviously she wanted no proof that she had ever secretly met with the head of a criminal organization, as opposed to making forced small talk at a public affair with an officially legitimate business-creature. The negative was in a secure vault but he had a copy framed in his private office. If an Equestrian spy ever made it that far, Jindalee hoped the sight of it came as a nasty shock. Just insurance: putting the screws to an alicorn Princess was a cataclysmically bad idea. It was unlikely she knew it existed, and never would as long as she didn’t start to move against the Longtails.
Twitching an ear, Jindalee listened with some apprehension at the speech. It ended, then she launched into it again. Then once more. Luna was here to talk to everypony about something, no need to panic, remain calm, etc. Hardly surprising given the sudden acceleration of events here in Aura. He would have given a pretty to know how Luna had found out about Smog’s transformation, and a quiet corner of his mind wondered if any amount of blackmail or economic clout would save the Longtails if Luna decided they had crossed an unforgivable line. Even after so long, the world remembered Nightmare Moon. Luna had been forgiven…but forgetting was harder. The Princess of the Night was truly good but she had proven just how bad she could be when she put her mind to it.
Jindalee smiled as the speech faded to silence, then frowned. Bruce and Lady Brushtail sat on the sofa side-by-side, Bruce having drifted to her side as the words rumbled through the suite, utterly ignoring the soundproofing. Now they sat looking curious but calm. Jindalee smiled at them, but this was because he chose to smile. “Bruce, come with me please. I feel that there may be an…issue to discuss.”
That code phrase should have put Bruce on high alert. Bruce remained calm, with a frown more of puzzlement than concern. “Are you certain about that, Jindalee? It seems unlikely.”
Jindalee stared at him from behind a smiling face that felt like a mask. Bruce was rather a stickler for acting like a proper employee when on duty. He hadn’t heard the ringtail call him by his first name like that in a long time. Despite his insistence. He looked to Lady Brushtail, who nodded in agreement with her husband. They weren’t acting drugged, no hints of unnaturally induced bliss, but they weren’t worried. They should have been worried. Jindalee blinked again and turned his attention inwards. His ears twitched as he recalled Luna’s words. Tapping his head with a paw, he focused like one of his many tutors had shown him. It was a subtle glamor, one interwoven with the claims of peaceful intent and requests for calm. It encouraged calmness. In the absence of feeling something was wrong, few creatures were capable of truly noticing that something should have worried them. They relied upon that feeling to draw their attention.
Shaking his head, Jindalee thanked his lucky stars once again that he was born to a species with a natural resistance to mental magic. Doubly thankful for being trained to hone that resistance. Glamors, the induced-hallucination style of illusion, direct mental coercion…sugar gliders spotted the attempts faster and put up considerable resistance. Many Freeport scholars had spent their professional lives trying to figure out why, to no avail. Most had given up. There were theories, of course. One was that attunement to magic cut both ways. To have magic was to be more vulnerable to it. Their almost total lack of innate magical powers might be the reason for their resistance to it. Of course that didn’t explain why unicorns had no trouble picking up a glider in their magic, and why there had been no problem placing a cloud-walk spell on Jindalee in Aura. Another theory was that gliders were simply more aware of their thoughts and emotions. If anything tried to monkey with their minds, they spotted the tampering in a hurry. They were more familiar with their mental landscape than most creatures, and knowing the battlefield was a big advantage in a fight. But no one had ever proven what was behind it.
Giving his temple a sharp thump cleared the remnants of the spell in a flash of mild pain. It had no force behind it, but the glamor was insidious as water, ready to seep in through any cracks in his concentration. Jindalee left the two ringtails cuddling on the couch. Trotting up the single flight of stairs to the roof, he found the rooftop restaurant abandoned. He cambered up on a table. A crowd clustered around Princess Luna out on the open part of the roof, keeping a respectful distance but begging for details about her upcoming speech. A very polite crowd. Nopony seemed to feel enough urgency to resort to shouting or shoving. Jindalee’s ears flicked as he spotted a tall pegasus mare, pale grey-green with orange eyes and a white mohawk, slip from the restroom. She looked anxious. Her face was controlled but she wasn’t minding her body language. Anxious, with Luna’s glamor hanging over the city?
Jindalee descended into the forest of table and chair legs, striking out for the edge. He eavesdropped on the conversation between the anxious mare and Gold Star. Grinning when she told him to scram, he hurried to intercept Gold Star as he moved into the forest of tables. Timing it to perfection, he shoved a chair a few inches. The hurrying stallion’s fore-hoof caught it. Down the golden git tumbled like a sack of fertilizer. Before he could recover, Jindalee stepped into sight and tugged his sleeves straight. “Get me a pot of your finest tea, Trottingham blend, and two cups.” The pegasus had fear in his eyes, much more than Jindalee was expecting. Luna’s glamor was a damper on powerful emotions. Like starting a fire or keeping it going during a drizzling rain. To be that visibly afraid, only the glamor kept Gold Star from gibbering. Jindalee sensed that it wasn’t fear of him.
That mare had done something scary Jindalee must have missed. He almost felt bad about tripping Gold as the pegasus nodded as best he could with his chin on the floatwood-underlain white marble of the floor. He flapped his wings once to boost himself back to his hooves. As the pony rushed to the elevator, Jindalee straightened his newly-made suit and headed towards the crowd. It was just another forest, this one of legs. He wove through it with enough grace never to lose his dignity until he breached the front ranks to behold the Princess. A big grey griffin stood by her, and he looked unusually anxious too. The griffin looked as if tying to look like a grim, dangerous bodyguard. To be fair, he probably fooled most of the gathered ponies. Griffins, like hawks or eagles, had faces naturally suited to penetrating glares.
The griffin spotted Jindalee and almost leapt out of his feathers. Oho: his fame preceded him. Those hazel eyes…but no. Jindalee sensed no magic making his mind see what wasn’t truly there. The light-manipulating kind of illusion would fool a glider’s eye: it would even show up in a photo. But they were impossible to get truly right. There were always flaws that made it look…wrong, once you really looked. Jindalee looked, noting the play of shadows and the play of muscles, the shine of lights reflected from the eyes and beak. He looked for little flaws like a patch of ruffled fur or a crooked feather, because some illusions failed by being too perfect. No hints of illusion. The griffin’s paws and talons made the proper scuffing and clicking noises on the marble. He even smelled like one.
The griffin recovered from his shock and whispered to Luna, acting as if he had to nerve himself to put his beak near her royal ear. She looked down as well. The politely clamoring crowd fell into a hush. Luna looked up, focused on something beyond the crowd, then looked back down. Her expression didn’t do anything so crass as scowl but she made it subtly clear that she was not happy to see him here.
Jindalee cleared his throat. “Your highness, it’s been too long.” Holding out a paw, he found himself being raised in her magic to drift at her eye level. Not an enveloping shroud but a platform on which to stand. No hoof was offered for him to shake. He used the platform to sweep a bow, dignified and outwardly composed as she studied him. “If you would honor me with a word, your highness? In private.” He knew what he was asking, and so did she. He became aware of a pony approaching and the sounds of other ponies making way for them. He glanced sidelong as the tall mare with the orange eyes moved past him to stand on Luna’s other side. She adjusted her magnifying monocle to study him. Jindalee refocused on the alicorn. “There are things I could share that are to your benefit, but I cannot share them in public.”
For an answer, magic flared thicker along her long night-colored horn. The world around Jindalee seemed to twist in a way he knew he would never be able to describe to another. Deep blue light blotted out everything else. It twisted further and then dispersed, leaving Jindalee…elsewhere.
Tradewind sighed, looking at dignified as he could, not an easy feat when his whole life had been spent in apologetic sheepishness. Princess Luna wasn’t talking much and refused to answer any question about her upcoming speech except by saying ‘wait and see’ or ‘be patient.’ He chose to act as a silent bodyguard, standing stock still and glaring at anypony who got too close. It was working, his griffin facade certainly helping that; ponies had an instinctive fear of the creatures. Mostly buried but a griffin in a bad mood could trigger it. They looked like what they had once been: uncivilized meat-eaters who weren’t above having pony for dinner. The founding of Equestria and the joining of the three pony kinds had put a stop to that. Moon Pie, on the other hoof, had been coming back from her rush to the restrooms when she stopped to talk to somepony Tradewind couldn’t see past the crowd. Tradewind could see her ears. They looked smaller than they really were but from their waggling it was clear Moon Pie was flustered. Tradewind suppressed a grin behind a scowl. Moon Pie wasn’t used to being so…visible.
Then a familiar-looking sugar glider slipped into sight, emerging from among the pony legs without the ones he paused even noticing. He had his head high and tail swinging in a nonchalant way, dressed in a rather fetching burgundy suit. Tradewind stared at him for a moment, making contact with his gaze, before nerving himself to lean over and whisper to the Princess. “Uh, your Highness…that’s Jindalee Longtail.”
The Princess looked down and the temperature actually seemed to drop a few degrees. She lifted Jindalee to her head height on a sparkly platform. He bowed, as formal as befitted her importance and a little on the shallow side, as befit his own. No subject of the empire, him. Tradewind went back to staring at nothing. He wondered if Jindalee could see through his illusion. There had been a flicker in Jindalee’s eyes, but it had passed. That didn’t mean much. Sugar gliders were hard to fool with magic. Jindalee might just be pretending not to recognize Tradewind since the pegasus clearly didn’t wish to be recognized. Luna and Jindalee did some talking and Tradewind actually managed to ignore it. He was too busy trying not to stare as Moon Pie parted the crowd and stationed her pegasus-looking self on the other side of Luna.
Tradewind hadn’t gotten any sleep in the night just past. As he kept standing here with nothing happening, it was starting to make itself felt. He suppressed a yawn just in time for everything to flash deep indigo-blue with that odd feeling of being teleported. Tradewind blinked and felt his hooves sink into something plush. Now he stood in the middle of the Imperial Suite, which ambushed him with some powerful memories. If the crowd on the roof above reacted to their vanishing, the soundproofing blocked it. Tradewind still stood by Luna, with Moon Pie on her other side. Jindalee stood before them, but on the carpet and facing away. He faced toward Bruce and a female possum in a dress more expensive than it looked at first. They slumped against each other down in one of the circular sunken couches, both fast asleep. Tradewind grinned as Jindalee muttered an old Freeport curse. Then he seemed to sense eyes on his back and turned. He gave Princess Luna smile and gestured vaguely towards the sleeping couple. “Your work?”
“You did say private.” Luna said. With a flash of indigo light, both possums disappeared. Then, across the too-large room, the door to a bedroom clicked shut. “They shall sleep well and wake having dreamed they decided to take a nap.”
“Interesting.” Jindalee said. He drew out the word.
“Whether they choose to believe the dream is the truth is up to them. I do no forcing.” Tradewind took a deep breath and held it. Luna continued after Jindalee gave a tiny nod. “Jindalee Longtail, it has been a…long time.”
A knock on the door interrupted her. Jindalee trotted over and opened it to reveal a very flustered Gold Star pushing a trolley loaded with a tea service. His eyes swept the room, briefly gave Luna a curious inspection, before fixing back on Jindalee. “S-sorry, Mister Longtail, sir. I took the tea to the roof but they said you disappeared along with her majesty’s companions, so I thought I’d come down here to see if you might be here. Here you are, tea for two.” He paused as he saw a tea service with the remains of breakfast on the low table centered in the sunken ring-couch. Tradewind frowned. He looked sidelong at Luna and did a double-take at the cranky-looking elderly griffin in a black dress, with the traditional tawny body and white head. And Luna’s green eyes. Moon Pie had vanished. Tradewind looked down and couldn’t see his body.
The golden pegasus set out the new tea service by the other one with a manner saying he had a thousand questions and no intention of asking any of them. He fled with the trolley at a speed that would make an Equestrian Games sprinter envious. Tradewind grinned as Jindalee laughed and closed the door. Jindalee gestured to the tea set with a flourish. “I ordered finest Trottingham blend. Your highness, for you.”
Tradewind glanced down, relieved to see his own fore-hooves again. Moon Pie had reappeared and Luna shimmered like something seen through water as she returned to her true form. Moon Pie hung back with Tradewind as the princess poured herself a cup, took a sip, and made a face. “Trottingham blend, my hoof. Either that gold colt doesn’t know what it is, or he’s trying to cheat you.”
“I thought invisibility was impossible.” Jindalee said. He seemed relaxed, but the tip of his tail twitched.
“It has never been impossible.” Luna poured another cup from the teapot that had already been there and gave a smile. “Merely impractical. To go unseen by all, one must become blind to all. There are…” She stirred in some honey and made a vague gesture with the spoon. “Workarounds.”
“That’s news to me.”
“Yes.” Luna said. Only this and nothing more.
Tradewind grinned again and nudged Moon Pie, who gave a weak chuckle. He chuckled too and stretched his wings a little. Apparently Luna had made him a griffin because they had bigger wings than the average pony. “Uh, Your Highness, could you drop my disguise for a while?”
The princess gave him a narrow-eyed look. It wasn’t scolding, just assessing. She nodded, and with a watery shimmer Moon Pie became her usual self. Tradewind felt no different but a look at Jindalee told him the illusion must have dropped. Jindalee nodded at them both, all politeness and no sign of astonishment. But Tradewind knew an act when his old colt-hood friend pulled one. “Tradewind, I’m glad you’re alright, although I’m surprised to see you as part of Her Royal Majesty’s entourage…”
Tradewind shrugged. “Long story. Um, Jindalee, meet Moon Pie. She’s nicer than she…” Too late he realized this was going to sound offensive. “…looks.”
Tradewind glanced at Moon Pie, who didn’t look offended. He suppressed another chuckle as the glider, exuding charm like a skunk did stink, walked over to Moon Pie and held out a paw. After a long stare, she lifted her claw so he could pretend to hold it up. Then he kissed it and Moon Pie blushed. “My goodness, the infamous Night Mare.” Luna calmly sipped her tea as she investigated the leftover snacks, back to them all and Keeping Out Of This in big invisible letters. “I must say that I’m rather more surprised to see you here alongside my dear old friend. I’m given to understand that you have caused considerable trouble for him not too long ago…?”
The question dangled like a sword overhead.
Moon Pie stayed red in the face, which rather undermined her deadpan expression. Tradewind nibbled at his wing-elbow, a nervous habit. Was it an embarrassed blush or an angry flush? Worse, did Jindalee have a grudge? “I’ve changed.” Moon Pie said. It came out flat and over-controlled but her ears started sending out signals in emotional semaphore. Embarrassment after all.
Jindalee looked up at her, eyes twinkling with what Tradewind hoped was kindly amusement rather than the malicious kind. “I’m glad to hear it. Given your current company, I’m actually inclined to take you at your word. I must admit it’s a relief to hear it. There are a lot of crimes in Freeport attributed to you, my dear. And we never came close to catching you.”
Tradewind did chuckle this time, half from relief as Moon Pie blushed deeper. She appeared to be torn between embarrassment and amusement at Jindalee’s words. Not many creatures, especially mares, could resist blushing at the glider when he was in full-on charm mode. Apparently that included centuries-old half-dragons. His erudite sentences and polished demeanor gave him a gravitas beyond his youthful appearance. She took refuge in silence, and from what Tradewind had seen, trying to talk would just lead to her stuttering. Tradewind nudged her slightly, because he knew Jindalee well enough to know the glider was angling for an apology. Jindalee spotted the nudge and knew Tradewind well enough to guess what it meant. He waved a dismissive paw. “All in the past, my dear. All in the past. So long as it stays in the past, let’s leave it there.”
The room fell silent for a moment as Moon Pie visibly struggled to keep her face under control, with twitchy results. Tradewind sighed in relief as the tension hanging in the air got a little less stifling. He looked to Luna, waiting for her to explain things. Hoping, really. Besides that she was here for Smog, Luna hadn’t been free with the details about how. Luna set down her teacup. Looking into the distance rather than at them, she spoke. “I am here to punish Smog for his crimes and take him into my custody. I brought along these two because of signs pointing to their presence being…fated. There is a symmetry that I could not ignore. One of his most recent victims…and the oldest of his victims that still lives. Smog shall confront not just myself, but them as well.”
“Your arrival seemed a little…precipitous.” Jindalee said. “No doubt you are here early because of Smog’s recent and rather distressing transformation.”
Tradewind blinked, twice. “Jindalee, what are you talking about?” He looked to Moon Pie only to find her staring at Luna with a look as if she’d just had a horrible thought. Luna looked back and gave her head a tiny shake.
Tradewind looked back to his old friend, causing him to give a sigh and an irritable wave of a paw. “I’m talking about his sudden realization of a terrible fact, the shock of which caused him to transform. He claimed it is his true form, from before he became the pink dragon we know and despise.” Moon Pie gasped, and Jindalee nodded at her. “I doubt this surprises you, Night Mare. He looks rather like a pink version of you. Are you…?”
Moon Pie nodded, miserable. “He’s my brother.”
Tradewind felt his mind go blank. “What.”
“I bade thee tell him.” Luna said.
Moon Pie studied the carpet. “The time never seemed right.”
“Nor could it ever be.” Luna said. Her stern expression faded into weariness. “But had you told him earlier, we would have gotten this drama out of the way when time remained to indulge it.” Her green gaze swung to Tradewind, then away again.
Tradewind shook his head. He just wasn’t as surprised as he should have been. At least now he understood why Luna had insisted Moon Pie come with them to face Smog, even though the mare had been reluctant. “Empty Night, what a-”
Luna’s stare swung to him and he felt like a germ on a microscope slide, looking up through the device at the unimaginably vast eye of a being he could never hope to comprehend. His words dried up and took his spit with them. Princess Luna wasn’t just a large pony with wings and a horn. She was an ancient and potent force and he got a glimpse of it. After a moment that stretched out for an eternity, she sighed and was once more just a being of flesh and blood. Tradewind felt like he’d been inspected down to his bones and the depths of his mind. He also felt like he’d passed a test, a test he did not want to fail. Luna took a careful breath. The other two didn’t seem to have noticed anything. If that had been his imagination, he was a donkey’s uncle. Luna still watched him. “Where did thou learn that phrase?”
Tradewind blinked, feeling more rattled than a bag of maracas. He could feel Moon Pie’s gaze on him too as he blinked again and peeled his tongue off the roof of his mouth. If Luna hadn’t told them to go water the shrubbery before they left for Aura… “Um…you mean Eeeehhhh…” The sharpening of her stare warned him to stop. “It’s just a curse…I mean…one of those things you pick up. I don’t know where I first heard a lot of words I know. Okay, I guess I always knew it’s a really bad one, not just naughty or rude…like the superstition about not speaking ill of the dead? Or whistling onstage?”
“Um, he might have heard me say it.” Moon Pie said.
Luna visibly relaxed. “Indeed. Ponies in the flies, the rafters and catwalks above a theater stage, use whistle codes to communicate. Short bars of music. Having a heavy sandbag land upon thee might be considered bad luck. Superstitions sometimes have a good reason behind them, Tradewind. Even when the true reason is forgotten.”
Tradewind shivered, and nodded. “Uh, sorry. A-anyway, what are we going to do about it? About Smog changing?”
Luna smiled at him before turning to Jindalee. “Master Longtail, I’m afraid we must leave now. I have preparations to make that must be done in private. Upon the roof now stands a seeming Luna, one of many around this dual city.” Tradewind winced as his griffin disguise fell over him once again. Unlike when it dissolved, having it laid on him felt like a small cold sheet of water passing over him from nose to tail. He stepped forward to gently headbutt Jindalee, who hugged his face before standing back to let Tradewind return to Princess Luna’s side. The Princess nodded at Jindalee in a way that seemed like a farewell. Her next words confused Tradewind: “It has been a pleasure, young Jindalee. I must say that you certainly have grown into a most courteous glider.”
Tradewind got a brief glimpse of Jindalee looking flustered before the world vanished once more in indigo light.
Moon Pie groaned, far back in her throat. Her stomachs were in a riot from all this teleporting around. Her sense of the rules of mathematics, which tended to distort whenever powerful magic bent the natural laws nearby, utterly failed for the moment of transition. It was her special talent, and briefly losing it felt like having the solid ground under-hoof suddenly open into a bottomless chasm. She had the sense that when teleporting they briefly existed elsewhere. A place that was not a place, where the normal rules didn’t apply. Leaping there then leaving again, appearing some other place in the world. Shortcut. Moon Pie fought for control and failed, but thankfully all that bubbled up was a foul burp that wafted a trickle of grey smoke.
“Holy hayfries!” Tradewind said.
“Is it possible,” Jindalee said, “this was a mistake?” His voice was like a frost-covered bar of iron.
Moon Pie’s eyes popped open and her monocle dropped to dangle on its chain. Her blurred vision told her they were in a door-less, window-less chamber made of cloud. About twenty feet to a side, a seemingly perfect cube. She found a burgundy blur not far from her. “Jindalee?”
“As far as I know, yes.”
Tradewind made a long thin squeaking noise. Moon Pie held up her monocle. The seeming griffin had his beak open wide, staring at Luna with enormous eyes. Then it shimmered and it was Tradewind, but the expression remained the same.
Luna smiled at him, eyes twinkling, before turning to Jindalee and sobering. “Master Longtail, I’m afraid you now know too much about my true goal in Aura. In matters so grave I cannot afford to take the smallest risk of Smog’s spies discovering the truth before my trap has sprung. Nor can I be absolutely certain that you would not warn him by intent, seeing more profit thereby. I am almost certain, but this is not a day for ‘almost.’ I must insist on limiting your options. You may consent to the erasing of your memories. I shall send you back to your room, where you shall recall nothing after the last time you appeared in that room. You shall find yourself alone and believe whatever you choose to believe. Or you may choose to be returned with memory intact to sleep without dreams until after the crucial time has passed. I can transport you to the Longtail estate in Freeport, if you prefer. Anything you choose to then do there cannot affect events in Aura quickly enough to be relevant. Or, if you wish, you may accompany myself and my companions when we go to face Smog.”
Tradewind made that squeaking sound again. Moon Pie edged back from the others. The cloud of the floor felt hard as stone. Jindalee tugged at his lapels, his anger obvious but tightly controlled. “And the reason you abducted me without so much as a warning?”
“In case you had precautions you might have activated. I wouldn’t be amazed to learn you carry a means to foil an attempt at magical abduction. I do apologize.”
“Where are we?” Moon Pie said. “Somewhere in Aura, by the sound.” They were faint even for her but familiar as a beloved friend’s voice. She had a sense that the cloud was massively thick in all directions.
Luna seemed to retreat into formality. “Yes, I scooped out a hollow in the foundations. The walls are very dense. Even without a cloud-walk spell, you would not easily pass through. Only a place that did not previously exist can be truly certain not to be under any form of clandestine observation. Apologies to you all, but my preparations demand I part ways with you for a time. The place I go now, you may not. I shall return perhaps a quarter-hour before noon. None of you possess a power capable of piercing the walls of this chamber. The magic in the walls both conceals and contains you. Even should Smog attempt to spy with his crystal ball, he shall not find you. Please use this time to consider which option you choose, Master Longtail. Moon Pie, perhaps you should use this time to discuss with Tradewind that which I asked you to speak with him about before now. Tradewind, I humbly apologize for the glamor I laid upon you to defer your reaction for a time. I lift it now.”
Luna vanished in a silent flash of indigo light.
Tradewind blinked. Then he appeared to recall something he had forgotten. Had been nudged into forgetting. He spun to Moon Pie looking…something. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but whatever he felt, he felt it quite a lot. “Smog is your brother!?”
Tradewind sat on the surprisingly uncomfortable floor of their cloud-prison, lit by sourceless light. It seemed to be sunlight leaking in through the walls, except the chamber was too deep for that to be true. It must have been part of the spell that made the cloud stony and impenetrable even to Tradewind’s pegasus magic. It actually reminded him of the marble-hard walls of a certain interrogation room, when Kincaid and that creepy Ravenor griffin questioned him. The light wasn’t actually that bright. It washed out colors, like…well, like moonlight. The lack of shadows made everything look flat.
Uncomfortable silence filled the empty cubical room. Tradewind had hurled his accusing question: Smog is your brother !? More than surprise at the revelation, and there had been a lot of surprise, had been anger. Moon Pie had known. Princess Luna had even told her that she needed to tell Tradewind and she still hadn’t. He had confessed things to her while she kept something that huge from him.
Moon Pie had reacted to his reaction in a startling way: she had burst into tears. Tradewind wanted to stay angry, but he was who he was. He saw a creature in misery and had to try and offer comfort. He thought he understood why she had done it. Fear. Fear that he’d reject her. Fear that he would hate her for being related to Smog. He didn’t hate her. He wasn’t even angry at her for being what she was. He was angry because she hadn’t told him. She hadn’t chosen to have such a rotten brother. Maybe she had chosen to work as her brother’s best spy and kidnapper…but maybe not. Smog sure hadn’t given Tradewind much choice. Obviously they weren’t still chummy, if they ever had been. Moon Pie had clawed up Smog’s face, took out one of his eyes, and then ran away to Firelight Woods. She had even abandoned that don’t-see-me glamor.
Tradewind did what his heart commanded, and forgave her. He moved to sit beside her and draped a wing over her. Gingerly, because of the mohawk-like stripe of hedgehog-like spines running down her back. It hadn’t gotten much reaction but she didn’t pull away. The tears didn’t stop. It seemed like a lot of bottled-up emotions finally escaping. Tradewind didn’t say anything, mostly because he had no idea what to say that would make things better. He let his presence say it: I’m not going to abandon you.
The pegasus decided not to speak about Smog being her brother until she was ready. He sure had a boatload of questions, starting with the basics like how. They could wait. The silence chafed like a badly-made harness, though. Clearing his throat, he struck up a conversation with Jindalee. Nothing personal. Just catching up on what the other had been doing. That filled some time, but hours and hours remained after they were done. The conversation turned to small stuff, life before they had parted ways as youngsters, how Freeport was at the moment…until a snarky remark by Jindalee sent them both into idiotic guffaws. Tradewind felt Moon Pie shift under his wing.
“Whitefeather Beach?” she said. “Why is that funny?”
Tradewind blinked. “You know it? I thought it was just a local thing.” He lifted his wing away Moon Pie sat up and wiped her eyes.
She sniffed and gave a rueful chuckle. “Well, it was my job to spy on certain creatures, often ones from Freeport. Big wide-open space so nopony can creep up unseen, all the white noise from the surf, nopony looks at you twice for wearing sunglasses, a broad-brimmed hat, and a swimsuit that covers your cutie mark…you’d be surprised how often dirty deals were made while pretending to be two sunbathers chatting.”
Jindalee laughed, and nodded. “She’s right. It’s usually used for delicate stuff. Public venue so nopony dares to try anything funny. Occasionally one pony would set down a book or bag and another pony would pick it up…” He glanced at Tradewind. “Well, it’s your story, really…”
Tradewind smiled, eyes focusing on the past. “It happened when I was younger, of course. Just getting into that gangly stage, all legs and wings. I still thought I’d grow into the wings.” Jindalee nodded, chuckling. Tradewind didn’t, though his scowl was half for show. Shaking his head, he laughed again and sent a sly look at Jindalee, before taking a deep breath…
The sun beat down like it always did in the summer, hot and relentless, but the water was always cold. The White Passage had the icy islands of Silver in them, after all. In the winter it was deadly for anything but fish and sea-ponies. In the summer, it wasn’t so bad. Refrigerated rather than something out of the freezer. The heat of the sun and air made the cold water invigorating rather than horrible. The three friends ducked and weaved amongst the other beachgoers as they sunbathed or built sandcastles or played beach volleyball. Well, two of them did. Jindalee rode on Big Chew, helping keep the basket from falling off. Finding a spot, they laid out a blanket and sat watching the water. Some ponies were surfing, others swam in the water. Here and there a sea-pony floated with their head above the surface, chatting with other ponies and swimming alongside. The lifeguards didn’t need towers and whistles, not here. A few of them had flopped up onto the beach and lay in the sun enjoying the heat.
Big Chew and inserted another piece of sugar cane in his maw with a happy sigh, chewing and watching the waves. Jindalee had already staked out a square of sand and smoothed it down. He always did that before starting a sand-castle. Tradewind just sat, staring at the water. The roar and crash of the surf, the flashes of silver afternoon sunlight bouncing off the deep dark-green water, lured him into an almost hypnotic state. He could sit and stare and shut his brain off for a while. The sun was still high, midway through a long summer afternoon, and all the crowds and their noise couldn’t put a dent in the sense of peace that filled Tradewind.
A peace like that was made to be broken, and it was. An airship’s propellers droned overhead. Nothing unusual about that, but instead of passing by, this noise stayed put as it got louder. Tradewind looked up to see an airship descending right for the beach, nose into the easterly wind. He whistled. Even with distance hard to judge he had a sense of hugeness. Then he blocked the sun with a fore-hoof and made out multiple rows of windows on the hull hung from the bottom of the envelope. It was a lot bigger than he’d thought. Swirls of gold leaf and silver filigree covered the snowy white envelope. The hull was more whiteness, either new paint or kept clean. The golden gleam around the windows helped him pick them out despite the hull being in the shadow of the envelope.
The pegasi on the beach had begun flying up to get a closer look. Looking down at Chew and Jindalee, Tradewind raised an eyebrow. Then grinned. Chew responded with a shrug. Jindalee grinned to match the pegasus and climbed onto his back. Hovering over Chew, Tradewind wrapped all four of his legs around the earth-pony’s belly and took off. Big Chew was bigger than other colts, but he wasn’t nearly full-grown yet. Neither was Tradewind, but he had wings as big as an adult, oversized on him. Carrying Big Chew wasn’t a problem…as long as Big Chew didn’t have a problem with it. Otherwise trying to pick him up was like trying to budge a boulder. Tradewind joined the other pegasi floating up towards the now-hovering airship. It turned out to be an old-fashioned design, with the hull slung under the envelope by chains rather than snugged up tight against it. Less aerodynamic but it let there be an open-air deck. Nothing that huge was going fast now matter how sleek it was.
Ponies crowded the deck, thick along the railings. Most of them wore posh clothes, even the ones that were obviously servants. They happily waved to the circling pegasi. A ring of pegasi in suits that matched the airship’s colors stopped any pony from getting too close. Not just to the deck. The propellers shone as if made of silvered glass, though that was impossible. But the metal was polished bright. Flying into one would be the last mistake any pony ever made. Tradewind circled, Chew waving to the airship with both forelegs. Flying near enough to be within earshot, he joined the slowly-synchronizing chorus of shouters, which had begun to settle on a single question. “Whaddaya call this then?!”
A reply came from the passengers and crew on deck, all at once and obviously rehearsed. “THIS IS THE AIRSHIP GRAND EQUESTIRA, HERE TO BRIGHTEN UP YOUR DAY!”
Jindalee tugged at one of Tradewind’s ears, an indication he wanted to go a certain direction. Tradewind complied. Jindalee’s keen observational skills weren’t wrong. As they approached the bow, Tradewind saw an earth pony with a pink body and puffy grey-streaked pink mane. Her cutie mark looked like some kind of pie. Her jewelry said money but her grin said mischief. Tradewind grinned as Jindalee giggled. The pony peered down over the edge at the beach. Her grin faded by degrees. Scowling, she flailed in apparent exasperation and thumped her fore-hoof on the railing. Two crew-ponies materialized to flank her. She spoke to them, almost shouting. Tradewind strained his ears and thought he heard the word timer.
Tradewind’s position, lower than the hull and looking up, gave him a clear view when a large pair of well-hidden doors swung down and apart on the bottom. Objects tumbled free, thousands of them. They were small and brightly colored. Then each one unfurled to reveal a brownish core hanging under a tiny paper parachute. There had to be magic in them. Instead of being swept out to sea on the wind, they drifted straight down. It was like giant confetti. All the ponies below, already crowded below the ship, began scuffling and leaping to catch them as they came in reach. Pegasi swooped around the edges of the cloud to snag some. Tradewind swooped closer, sacrificing height for speed as he got closer. Jindalee leaped from his head into the cloud. Tradewind dived again, having done this before. Jindalee snagged at least a dozen and then curled up with his gliding-membranes bulging like bags of loot. Tradewind swooped under the little glider and caught him. Both of them ignored Chew’s scream of protest.
Jindalee stowed the prizes in Tradewind’s swim trunks, which had large pockets. Then he dangled one by the parachute where Tradewind and Chew could see it. It was a brown muffin. Tradewind blinked, and then shook his head with a grin. Chew snagged it and took a bite. He chewed, then shoved the rest in his mouth and sprayed crumbs as he spoke. “Chocolate cupcakes!” That earth pony up there was definitely a Pie. One of the ones that followed in Pinkie Pie’s hoofsteps. But something seemed…off. Just dropping muffins seemed too…tame.
Jindalee shifted on Trade’s head, and somehow the pegasus knew the glider was looking up. “Where’s the icing?”
Tradewind felt his stomach bob, then do a barrel roll.
Before his instincts could tell his head why they were worried, Tradewind heard a mare on the airship above give a frustrated half-scream. The words that followed came to him clear: “WHERE IS THE FROSTING?!” Tradewind’s wings, acting on direct orders from his gut, had already put him in a swooping dice that would take him out from under the airship. A few of the other pegasi seemed to have the same idea.
What happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. Tradewind heard a noise above and behind him, like an enormous bubble bursting on the surface of a lake-sized tar-pit. He twisted around in time to see a huge mass of rainbow-colored stuff glooped down from the still-open hatch the cupcakes had dropped from. Tradewind’s eyes and head followed its descent, aware of Jindale and Chew doing the same. Pegasi in the way were enveloped and dragged down with it. The joyful screams of the beach-goers turned into screams of shock, cut short by a massive splash. Tradewind stared. He started to fall and hurried to resume flapping. Silence reigned among the rainbow-splattered ponies. Then a pegasi took to the air again, muzzle licked clean and split into a huge grin. “FROSTING! IT’S FROOOSTIIING!”
Jindalee had perched on Tradewind’s head during the tale, the position comforting to both creatures. Now the glider guffawed and Tradewind joined him. Even Moon Pie started giggling. Too soon, the laugher ended. The silence that followed was a comfortable one. Tradewind chuckled again, looking to Moon Pie. The mare didn’t look sad anymore. He smiled, gently nuzzling her with a wistful sigh. “That was a good day.”
Silence fell again, but this was a restful one. Tradewind felt himself start to nod. Moon Pie gave off heat like a sun-baked boulder. She was better to snuggle with than a hot-water-bottle, if not nearly as squishy. Too many sleepless hours piled up on him like sandbags. He closed his eyes, just planning to rest them for a while. Then he could talk to Moon Pie about all those questions, like how Smog could be her brother when he looked like a pure dragon.
Tradewind’s head jerked upright with a snort and a whinny as something jabbed at his ribs. He looked up. Suddenly the room was bright, not twilit. Princess Luna stood before them, regal from her crown to her shoves, except for a certain twinkle in her eyes as she looked down at them.
Tradewind chuckled, eyes darting from side to side. He squeaked in protest as Jindalee stood up on his head, then shifted his weight as if bowing. “I have made my decision.”
Tradewind held his breath and rolled his eyes up to see Jindalee making a show of straightening his sleeves. He exhaled in relief as Jindalee smiled and tapped the pegasi’s head with a hind paw. “I shall stay with my old friend…and my new one. I see no way that erasing my memory will not result in my knowledge-less self trying to get the upper hand on Smog’s new situation. I will accompany you, Tradewind, and Miss Moon Pie on your mission to beard the dragon in his den.” Tradewind shifted slightly as Jindalee bowed deeply towards Luna. “I assure you that all that I learn will not be used for my own personal gain. I wish not to see this beautiful city succumb to ruin any more than you do.”
Luna nodded back. “Very well. It is time.”
Mithril jolted awake to Luna’s voice. There was something in it beyond volume, something that thrummed along her nerves like a powerful bass line. She found herself airborne, waking up in the middle of catapulting herself out of the bed. Her hooves landed on the mattress. The jolt faded faster than she would have believed. In fact, her fright faded until she was calm. Yawning into a hoof, she kept listening. A speech at noon, huh? Wanted everypony to gather and hear it. Mithril wasn’t worried, and she had a nagging sense that this was somehow wrong. She listened to the speech until Luna started to repeat it. Still listening, Mithril hopped down off the bed. It seemed she wouldn’t be getting any more sleep.
The clock said it was around dawn. Princess Luna had dropped in without any forewarning and the police force would want to have a strong presence. Not that they’d expect serious trouble, but over-excited crowds could get unruly. Shoving to see, stupid cirrus like that. Mithril rubbed at her eyes. She fought a strong sense that it would be all right if she crawled back into bed. Her sense of duty dug in its hooves and pulled. Given that her shift started at one in the afternoon and ended within spitting distance of midnight, dawn was the middle of her night. She knew some cops on the shift went to bed right after work and spent their free time in the morning. Mithril preferred to go to work fresh even if it meant she did her shopping in the wee hours of the morning. ‘So called,’ she thought, ‘because that’s when ponies get out of bed for a potty run.’
Chuckling at her silly thought, she twisted around to scratch at an itch on her side. It turned into a rearing, full-body stretch. Yawning, she was mid-stretch when the door burst open. Next thing she knew, a gray blur bounced around the room, sometimes halting for a second. “Pick?”
“Mithril!” Pick said. He seemed unable to stand still, dancing in place with the effort of staying in one place. His eyes acted as if they wanted to leap out of his face and make a break for it. “We gotta hide!” he said. “Or run! Or run and then hide in the place we ran to!”
Mithril slowly raised an eyebrow. She felt a tiny shameful urge to laugh at how silly he looked. “From what?”
For a long moment, Pick managed to go completely still as he stared at her. His expression conveyed a bottomless amazement at how stupid she was being. “The princess!”
Stifling a snort, Mithril had to stifle a sigh right after it. Pick had been getting better the last few days but it looked like Princess Luna’s arrival had pegged the needle on his paranoi-o-meter. “That’s…” She stopped. Silly was not a helpful word. Pick was being irrational but he was also dead serious, and taking his fears lightly was actually on the list of Things To Avoid that Zeitgeist had given her. “…impossible. I mean, that tracking ring means you can’t leave the city even if I come with you, and anywhere inside it, the police can track you. Even without that, if Princess Luna wants to find you, hiding won’t help.” He froze again, face twisted into a mask of absolute horror. Mithril almost face-hoofed. ‘Oh, yeah,’ she thought, ‘that was totally reassuring.’ She closed half the distance before a twitch said she was as close as he wanted her. She didn’t push it. “Why would she be after you anyway?”
Pick resumed dancing in place, as if the floor was a bed of coals. “Because I was part of the Skulldiggers and…cirrus! The Skulldiggers!” He crouched down and clutched his head. “I’m so stupid, of course! They’ll be sure to grab her, I mean, holding Princess Luna hostage, the ransom-”
Mithril found it easy to be calm. Being serious and showing Pick she was taking him seriously was harder. It was hard to believe he could be serious. “I doubt it, Pick. The princess can handle some ragtag gangsters. Even if the Skulldiggers are nasty, it’s not like they’re super-evil monsters with epic-level powers. If a group of regular ponies had the power to take out an alicorn, none of them would still be alive. Alicorns, I mean.” She said it deadpan and gave the part of her that still wanted to laugh a good kicking. “What I’m more worried about is why she’s here.” Worried wasn’t the word, but Mithril’s inner cop kept prodding her. Something smelled fishier than a sea-pony’s locker room.
“She’s here for-”
Mithril managed to cut him off gently rather than rudely. “She’s not here for you, Pick. If she was here for you, she’d already have bagged you.”
That point seemed to get through. Pick wasn’t in a true panic. He was keeping it together, not totally flying off the handle, even if his heading wasn’t pointed Due Sane. “Then she must be here to prepare us for the coming invasion!”
Her face went as blank as her mind. “The what now?”
“Dust is invading us!”
“Why would Dust invade Aura? I mean, they don’t like magic at all, and I think they have their own problems.” He was listening to her, which was a good sign.
Pick began to pace, as best he could in the bedroom. “But that’s just it! They don’t like magic and want to get rid of it. You know they’re all nuts about that, Perth had to run for his life because he has magic. As for their so-called civil war, that’s what they want us to think! The Queen’s assassination, the civil war, they were all staged to let them get on a war footing without tipping us off.”
“You saw the beginning of it with your own eyes."
“I said staged. Perth could have been wrong…or lying.”
“Smog told me he didn’t kill her…” Mithril said.
“…but that he knew who did.”
Pick seemed to deflate a little. He wasn’t far gone enough to consider Smog lying a possibility. Not totally hinged, just spooking at shadows. In fact, he gave signs of hoping she could shoot down his ideas. That she could convince him it was all going to be all right. Deep down, he had to want to believe that. “Than…maybe she’s here to gather support.”
“For what?” An uneasy feeling troubled her calmness like indigestion. It met up with her cop-sense of hinky-ness and grew solider. What was Luna here for?
“To invade Dust. If the civil war’s real, it’s horrible and pointless. She could come in and make them stop fighting each other. She could make Dust part of the Equestrian Empire.”
“That’s not how Equestria does things. No country has to join, but they can if they want to. You can’t enforce harmony, they have to want it. Besides, you remember the Breach. Discord’s Fire?” Her embarrassing reaction to it. “Dust might be chock full of nuts, but it would be one tough nut to crack for an army that uses magic. I don’t think the princess would go through all that trouble, risk pony lives, to annex a small country of fuzzy nut-jobs.”
Pick thought for a long moment. He almost seemed to calm before alarm widened them again. “Oh cirrus, she’s after us!" He closed the distance, grabbing her shoulders. “She’s after all the ponies that caused the problems in Dust. Kincaid’s probably rotting in some dungeon already.”
“Then why aren’t we in a dungeon yet?”
“Because you don’t scare off the big fish by splashing around catching minnows. Luna’s speech thing is just a decoy so we don’t think she’s here for us. She’ll want to grab Smog first. She showed up out of the blue, no time for him to hear she’s coming and wonder if she’s after him. She’ll grab him and then it’ll be our turn.”
“Why would she come after him now after leaving him alone for so long? I mean, if she grabs Smog, the fallout…it’ll be hugely bad. Why would she risk that? Why now?”
Pick almost stabbed himself in the head on her horn, bringing his eyes near hers. He whispered the word as if afraid to say it louder. “Dust.”
Mithril’s indigestion got a little worse. She couldn’t instantly think of a reason why this idea couldn’t possibly be true. “What about Brando?”
“Luna couldn’t just arrest us without some kind of evidence. Brando probably sold us out for a pardon.”
Mithril smacked him. Not nearly as hard as she could have done, considering. Her anger was plenty hot but it didn’t seem to blaze like usual. Pick recoiled, tripped, and went down on his rump. He scooted away a little more and got to his hooves with a kind of brittle dignity. “I guess I deserved that.”
Mithril took a controlled breath, trying to let her anger fade…and felt off-balance when it actually did. Her inner cop was getting really suspicious now. She’d poke at it later. “Feel better?” He gave her a look with all the scorn that comment deserved. “I mean, calmer.” His face twitched in a way that suggested a shrug. The little bird-track scar on his cheek had turned pink from the slap. “Good. Now, I don’t know why Luna is here, and neither do you. No, listen. You have suspicions. Some of them might be right, but we don’t know anything for sure. Let’s not act like we’re guilty. If we do, it’ll bring suspicion on us even if it wasn’t before. Now I want you in the shower. Lather, rinse, dry. Don’t dawdle. Get clean and get your uniform on. We’re reporting to the Fleet Street Station in one hour.”
Not being a stallion and having showered before bed, Mithril was prepared to put on a little perfume and call it good. Pick, on the other hoof, was so afraid she could actually smell it. A thin, sour smell like a sweaty pillow after a night full of bad dreams. She trotted for her closet.
Pick shuffled his hooves. “But…what if she’s after us?”
“Then we face the problem.” She tried to sound matter-of-fact, but it came out flat. Buttoning her shirt, she didn’t look toward Pick. Their armor was at the station. Not the kind of thing the police liked to risk going walkabout. Pick always seemed to feel better in his armor.
“You just want us to face the music? But she’ll banish us! If we’re lucky. Or she might leave us rotting in a dungeon…or maybe give us to Dust. Or worse! She might-”
Mithril gave Pick a Look over her shoulder. “Do I need to smack you again? This isn’t helping. We don’t know anything and speculating won’t do any good until we do.”
“But, Mithril she might be-”
Mithril turned. “I think I need to hit you again.”
Pick scowled and his upper lip twitched. His face said try it but then he seemed to realize Mithril wasn’t angry. At all. “No, no, that’s all right.” He forced a shaky laugh. “I’m already cracked in the head; I don’t need a cracked head."
“Then go get clean and dressed. Everypony is going to gather, and the bigger the crowd the greater the odds something will happen that needs a cop to deal with it. We’ll see what we can hear. Cops have a good grapevine. Even if they tell us nothing…that tells us something. It means they’re keeping their distance, which means they have a reason to.”
“All right." Pick said. He slipped out of the room.
Once he was gone, Mithril paid attention to what her mind had been trying to tell her. That last argument had made some sense, minus Brando ratting them out. The princess very well might be after the ones who caused the situation in Dust. She shook her head, sighing. There was a good chance that they wouldn’t get in too much trouble for what they had done. All they had to do was tell the truth. Smog had blackmailed them all. Except Kincaid and Red Raider. The griffin was long gone with a brand-new identity to hide behind. Red…was just gone.
Mithril winced and pushed that pain aside. Now was not the time for that. If Luna was after them, trying to run or hide would only make them look guilty. They should stay and act like what they were: victims of Smog’s manipulation. The smart play was to face the music and beg for mercy. Pick hadn’t been in a mood to hear it, so she hadn’t said it. He was a little better, but this morning proved he was a long way from recovered. The way he was acting, you’d think he’d murdered somepony.
This was no time for crazy conspiracy theories. There was a princess in Aura who had something to say. Whatever it was, it had to be important. Maybe the message would help her get to the bottom of this. The only thing to do was wait and see.
A large crowd of ponies stood in awe and anticipation of their beloved princess: not Celestia, but Luna. Among them stood Morhoof, who felt rather uneasy. Luna emerged onto the balcony. Loco smirked. Once, that had happened for real. This time…nothing. No sense of a presence, of not being alone. When Loco was young, the dear Princess Luna had decided to pay Morhoof a late-night visit, as only she could. Why? Loco had no idea. Well. Maybe he had an idea. Even back then, young and stupid and weak, some things he had just…known. That alicorn was Bad News for him. There was no way that Loco could fight against the power of Luna, so he did the only thing that he could. He woke Morhoof up with a jolt of pure terror. The last image burnt into the dream clouds before they dispersed was a very angry-looking princess. Though that was Loco’s doing. Plaster a look of fury over that sickening expression of compassion. Easy as pie with Morhoof half-asleep. Luna could walk in dreams, but in Morhoof’s waking mind Loco had home-field advantage.
Just to hammer the lesson home, Loco had plagued Morhoof with nightmares. And oh, the irony of using nightmares against Luna. Loco brought in other figures, dangerous ones. Even back then, before he and his host were formally introduced, Loco had known how to play the game. It started slow. Dreams of the princesses, ones that started nice and turned subtly wrong. False smiles, flat eyes. Then they got nastier. But Morhoof never remembered when he woke up. The head might argue they were just silly dreams. The heart just…believed. Loco drove Morhoof to insomnia, then eased off. After that, all Morhoof needed was a booster shot now and then, to wake him up shivering and covered in ice-cold sweat. A nudge whenever Morhoof thought of those stinking purveyors of harmony, friendship, and love. Dread, dark side of awe, was subtler than terror or panic, but so much stronger. Dread came right in and made itself at home. Morhoof never even realized it when he’d begun avoiding the princesses. He tried not to think about them.
Time for another booster shot. Past time. Loco had an itchy feeling. Different from the need to drive Morhoof out of Aura before he could get his new leg. Up on the balcony, the dream-Luna began to speak. Loco whispered to Morhoof. Not to his ears, but to his bones. “Run.”
Morhoof tried his best to nonchalantly make his way out of the crowd. Luna began to speak. At first everything went according to the script. Then something else started shaping the dream. A cloying sensation of serenity wafted in on it and settled over Morhoof like a shimmering rainbow oil slick. Loco shook it off himself, bristling with cold hate. He started to blast it off Morhoof’s heart, but then that insidious power grabbed Morhoof’s mind and did what usually took a bucket of ice-water. “Wait, what?”
Morhoof snorted, jolting awake and coming bolt upright in his chair. He almost went over backwards, chair and all, and barely managed to avoid it. It sounded like somepony was in his apartment. In his bedroom? In his…head? No direction to it, no matter which way he swiveled his ears. Not Loco, no. Somepony worse. Morhoof looked down to the mess on the table. A number of music sheets had been smeared; apparently he had drooled on them and then moved his muzzle around. He found the quill stuck to his face. Morhoof felt painfully awake but the gearbox in his head seemed stuck in neutral.
It took a full five ticks of his antique singing clock to realize he recognized the voice coming from everywhere and nowhere. Princess Luna. In full Royal Canterlot Voice. Morhoof’s stomach tried to drop out his bottom. The thudding in his chest had an unevenness that scared him almost as much as the dread that was making his heart skip beats. He had only heard Princess Luna’s voice in person once. He had hoped it would be the last time. As much as he hated to use the word, he had always had an irrational fear of alicorns.
It made no sense for him to fear the princesses, but it felt like he always had. Morhoof mopped at his inky muzzle with a napkin and thought about that. He had no reason to fear the princesses. Not the way he did, shunning any city with one in residence. If he was arrested for a long prison term, then he had cause to worry. His lack of aging would be noticed. Then the princesses would investigate. They would realize the secret, and then they would give Loco some much-needed exorcise. Even, he felt certain, if it killed him. Which it would: even if he failed to crumble to dust on the spot, he’d only have the rest of his natural, currently interrupted, lifespan. After more millennia than he cared to think about, that wasn’t long at all. Now Luna was in Aura.
“All mind games, huh?” Morhoof said.
The power of knowledge, little pony. Loco said.
Morhoof could dimly remember not fearing them, long ago. Maybe only in a dream. In a general sense, nopony wanted to go to jail. The risk of discovery was real, but not that large if he just behaved himself. That risk wasn’t enough to justify what he felt. The dread. Morhoof tried to block out Luna’s speech while he tidied up his papers and tried to clean the ink off of everything. Oddly, he wasn’t flying into a panic like he would have expected. Luna’s voice refused to be ignored. The meaning sunk into his mind. Luna never actually said so, but Morhoof had learned how to spot when a pony was talking around a subject. This promised noon-time announcement was about Dust in some way.
Morhoof chuckled to himself. “Smog had better be on his best behavior, lest he become subject of Luna’s visit.”
A second later Morhoof almost swallowed his tongue. Luna had just arrived unannounced to Aura, calling all the ponies of Aura and Umbra to come heed her words at noon. Not that long ago, a certain pot had been sent away. To Canterlot. Revealing, among other things, that Smog had been sitting on it for who-knows how long. That may have rankled. Then there was Smog’s transformation. Only a few days ago. Did they know? Was this them making their move? Did they think Aura was imminently doomed now anyway, so attacking Smog cost them nothing? Morhoof stopped messing about with housecleaning. Something fell over his thoughts like a cool shadow on a hot day. His mind felt clearer, as if sunglasses blocked the glare of the sun.
It didn’t matter. To him, anyway. If Luna was here to face down Breaking Dawn, there wasn’t anything Morhoof could do. Loyalty to an old friend was well and good, but was he truly obligated to help when there was no help Morhoof could possibly offer? No. Luna certainly wasn’t here for him. Did Luna even know who Morhoof was? What he was? That he even existed? More importantly, how much of his criminal record was actually documented? Morhoof had been a very naughty boy on occasion. No law-enforcement agency had hunted him beyond his immediate small-time shenanigans, so it was probably safe to say that he wasn’t known.
Morhoof slumped onto his couch. He didn’t need to flee Aura. Probably. If Luna was here for Breaking Dawn then there wasn’t much he could do. If he needed to run…running wouldn’t do any good. Probably. Morhoof had long ago learned that being sure of something didn’t make it so. He had no doubt that Breaking Dawn would want Morhoof to get the hoof out of dodge. A friend didn’t ask his friend to go down with him. The question was whether to wait here for a signal to run, head to the Den, or scamper towards the secret meeting point outside the city.
Morhoof stared at the curtains he had put up a day prior. Little more than ugly rugs hung from a metal rod. Morhoof got up, drew the curtains to let in indirect hints of pink-gold dawn-light, and headed for his well-stocked pantry. He would stay put in his apartment until something made it clear he needed to leave. Nothing so explicit as reasoned thought told him to. It was simply a hunch, and he was sure this one wasn’t courtesy of Loco. No, the windigo spawn wanted Morhoof to be over the horizon from here and still accelerating.
All the more reason to sit tight.
And what of Fantasy? Hrm-hmm? You aren’t going to go out, go down there and check on her?
Morhoof refused to look at the front door. If he left the apartment, if he started moving, he wasn’t sure he could stop again. That sense of cool shadow grew a little stronger. It made his stomach-churning dread a little more distant. The sense of clarity made it easier to avoid the urge to run, so it couldn’t be from Loco. Morhoof rubbed his eyes again. “I told her to be prepared. She’ll be fine. If not, as unfortunate as that may be, I have my own matters to attend.”
That’s a good boy.
“B-but he didn’t tell me what to do?”
Perth hugged the box holding the leg to his chest. The yellow, green-haired pegasus who had just given it to him shifted his weight on his hooves. He seemed anxious to leave. “No, nothing.” He turned to go, but a thought seemed to strike him. He turned back. “Mister Smog didn’t give me a message for you. But…he told me that if you weren’t here, I was to deliver the box to the Wandering Lute. At his apartment or the Brass Hoof. If I couldn’t find him, the box was supposed to go in a hot fire. Does that help?”
“Ah.” Perth said. He tapped the box with one of his right paw’s thumbs. Barely kept leashed, panic kept trying to rise up in him along with his dinner. “Yes. Yes, that makes sense.”
“Good luck, whatever you’re doing.”
“And to you as well. You and your brother.”
The pegasus, Headwind or Tailwind, tapped a fore-hoof to the broken goggle lens he wore on his necklace. “Thanks. We’re retiring. My advice? Don’t go to the Den. If he wanted you there, he’d have told me to tell you that.”
“That is so, I suppose. Thank you.”
The pegasus nodded, hesitated another second, and then hurried out without another word. Perth stared at the closed door for what seemed like a very long time. Then something jolted him like a galvanic current. Feeling oddly remote, he watched his paws set the box on the bed. Watched himself start shoving things into the doctor’s ‘little black bag’ valise that he’d modified. He closed it, causing the latches to snap shut. Then he opened it again and shoved more things inside. Things put inside could be twisted through dimensions that he suspected only existed because he willed them to. Magic, even if it wore a mask of science. He could fill it, close it, and in closing it twist the contents so that they had no mass or volume in the conventional three dimensions.
Perth finished packing what he could of his equipment and closed the valise one final time. A list of sequences tucked itself into his memory. He flicked a hidden off switch for the equally hidden mechanisms built into the valise. Disarmed, opening the latches in any sequence did nothing, and anything put in it that way didn’t vanish from mundane existence when the valise closed. He filled it with various sundries that he wouldn’t mind if some police officer rummaged through.
Four latches held its mouth closed. Depending on the sequence they were unfastened, opening and closing it twisted the contents through a specific angle. Like cutting a circle in half, there were an infinite number of angles the cut could run along. In theory he could have an infinite number of valise-loads, all twisted out of existence along different planes, none of them interacting with each other. In practice, four latches were all that would fit. Each latch had to be undone once, with no skipping or repeating, which only left a maximum of twenty-four combinations. Not to mention how it was more a matter of multiple insides than one larger inside. Anything that wouldn’t fit in the valise with the mouth closed…wasn’t going to fit.
A pony doctor’s little black bag was rather larger than one a koala doctor would carry. Perth could have managed to fit the box with Morhoof’s leg in it in the valise. He just didn’t dare. The rules by which a device operated could be arbitrary but they had to be internally consistent. He couldn’t make pi equal three for some gears but three-point-five for others. Not in the same gearbox. He couldn’t even make himself try. The mere idea caused an unpleasant sensation, as if a thousand invisible razors hung a paper’s thickness from his skin. The leg had been made to a different set of ad-hoc natural laws than the valise. Putting the former inside the latter would be a spectacularly bad idea.
Perth realized he was stalling. Focusing on trivia to try and avoid the major issue staring him in the face. Tucking the box under an arm, he grabbed the valise with that paw so as to have one free for doorknobs. He opened the door…
…and dropped both valise and box. Fleur Blanc stood in the hallway, facing the door. Apparently waiting for him to emerge. Perth felt his face warm. Slip away without even saying goodbye? He almost had. Not even by intent. It had simply slipped his mind. Some friend he was.
“You are running?” Fleur said.
Perth had no idea what he was going to say, but he found words emerging anyway. “Toward, not away.”
“Ah, ze leg.”
Perth retrieved the box. “Yes. Um…this may be goodbye.”
“No.” Fleur lunged forward, taking him by surprise, and gave him a brief but fierce hug before retreating. “It is [i]au revoir[i/]. Until we meet again.”
“Yes. Well.” Perth picked up his valise, almost dropping the box. “Aw river to you, then.” At a loss, he fell back on his etiquette lessons. “It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Madame Blanc. I left something for you on the nightstand.” Her expression went very strange. Perth mentally replayed what he said and barely stopped a face-paw in time to save his spectacles. “A gift.”
Her expression shifted to a smile. “Something with your magic?”
“No. A compact clockwork device able to perform mathematical operations with speed and accuracy. The box contains three working units along with detailed schematics and instructions for producing more. Please, patent it. I doubt you would have much difficulty finding those interested in manufacturing them for sale. The royalties will almost certainly make you comfortable, and possibly wealthy.”
The smile had faded. “You…made a deal with Mister Smog. Your inventions are his to patent.”
Perth pushed his spectacles a little higher. “Uh, of course your patenting it is contingent upon…upon that contract no longer having relevance.”
“Oh, I see. If Mister Smog is still around…”
“…you shall continue to work for him and your prosperity will remain assured. But if he should…fall, I felt the need to give you and your brother some means to support yourselves.”
Fleur pulled him into another hug, this one longer. He dropped his luggage again and hugged her back. She eventually let go. Perth tugged at his jacket. He wore the sober, expensive black suit Smog had given him. It went with the valise. Fleur meanwhile felt the need to fiddle with the bangle-hung bracelets on one foreleg. Neither pointed out the unshed tears in the other’s eyes.
“Thank you.” she said.
“You are most welcome.”
Perth picked up his box and valise yet again, sidling past the pegasus mare. Head down and shoulders hunched as if he walked in the rain, Perth fled the first friend he had made in exile. Hopefully not the last.
Heading upwards along a path he’d traced on a map but never walked, Perth hurried along with his free paw in a pocket, fiddling with something that probably counted as a weapon, though it was a decidedly non-lethal one if so. It didn’t even cause pain, just profound unconsciousness for a few minutes. This was not the time to be mugged. Something about his attitude warned off any pony that might have considered robbing him. Or perhaps no pony wished to mug him.
Princess Luna’s arrival had thrown the city into a tizzy. Though not, he sensed, a frenzy. It was rather muted even for a tizzy. Every creature he passed appeared to be, as Luna requested, remaining calm. There was confusion and excitement and worry, but they seemed…muted. Perth frowned as he reached what passed for street level in a city built of cloud. More of the same. Crowds had already begun to gather. The sense of wrongness grew stronger. There should have been…something. Two ponies arguing about right-of-way at an intersection, a baby crying, something. The odds of such a large crowd demonstrating such a total lack of strife was statistically improbable at best.
Making his way to a towering cloud-building nearby, Perth paused inside its faintly shabby lobby. He rooted a necklace out from inside his shirt to check the pocket-watch-sized pendant hanging from it. A double ring of tiny faces sat inside the larger face. The magnifying lens fitted over them all helped make them a little more visible. Each one indicated the measurement of some sort. They ranged from mundane as a barometer or compass to a few experimental attempts to detect the amount of magical ‘flux’ in the area. Ironically, despite being larger on the inside, there hadn’t been room to fit a clock in with the rest. One of the magic-detectors showed activity.
So, more alarmingly, did the big red needle on the main face. That one was attuned, for lack of a better term, to his ‘aura.’ The red needle showed a weak but steady attempt by some outside force to affect him. Change or influence him. It appeared the deflection-resonance aspect worked. Whatever magic tried to get its hooks in him found itself diverted into the device instead. Perth didn’t bother to look around. This was some sort of magic at a distance. Perhaps using a tuft of his fur, but given the unnaturally calm crowds, he doubted it. ‘Remain calm.’ he thought. ‘That is what Princess Luna kept saying. Remain calm.’ The red needle twitched higher each time he thought that phrase. ‘Remain calm.’ It twitched again, the magic trying to affect him getting stronger. Perth closed the lid and dropped the device down inside his shirt. ‘That…is terrifying.’
Heading for the elevator, Perth found it out of order. The sign looked dusty. He stifled a sigh when he confronted the nearby stairwell. Pony stairs tended to be oversized for his short legs. Trudging up, he found his muscles burning before he reached the second floor. By the time he reached Morhoof’s apartment, he was panting. Random ideas for spring-heeled shoes and other stair-mastering devices flickered in his mind. Perhaps pajamas that exercised his muscles as he slept? He brushed the ideas aside and knocked.
Somehow, the silence on the other side of the door got deeper. Perth backed away. “Hello? It’s me. Perth.”
A long, uncomfortable silence followed. Then a number of locks disengaged. Part of Perth mentally identified the sounds. ‘Five-pin spring lock, simple sliding bolt, four-pin deadbolt, another four-pin deadbolt, one of those chain things of which I can never remember the name.’
The door swung open. No one in sight. Very dark, cave-gloomy with thick curtains over the windows. Perth shifted on his hind paws, not willing to run away but not eager to step forward. “I, uh…have your…leg.”
Morhoof’s voice came from somewhere Perth couldn’t pinpoint. Possibly the earth pony was ‘throwing’ it. “Come in.”
Given that running away wasn’t acceptable to his conscience, Perth didn’t feel he had much choice. The door closed behind him and it became too dark to see. Then a match scratch-hissed to life. It revealed Morhoof and a candle sitting on a pool of illuminated table. Lighting the candle, Morhoof tossed the burning match into an ashtray that could have done with emptying. In the somewhat brighter light, Perth made out a few wadded-up sheets of paper.
Perth let out the breath he’d been holding. His inhale made him wish he hadn’t. The place smelled of fresh and stale cigarette smoke, with less savory undertones. But not, he noticed, of unwashed pony. Perth edged across the unlit floor toward the candlelit table. Morhoof sat at it and watched him, expressionless. Perth couldn’t find the courage to speak, so he set the box on the table, opened it, and pushed it as far toward the pony as he could.
Morhoof seemed to thaw somewhat. He pulled the box closer and tapped the limb inside with his living fore-hoof. “It almost looks real.”
“Y-you wanted in-inconspi-spicuous.”
“How does it attach again?”
“A-automatic. Just…put the stump in the socket. It does the rest.” He embraced a hint of his mad detachment. “Self-aligning, self-fusing. No pain, it numbs the nerves using very specific vibrations. Learning to use it will take time.”
“How long before I can walk on it?”
“Walk? No learning curve for that, your mind and nerves are wired for those signals. It’s the other stuff.”
Morhoof pulled the mechanical limb from its molded nest inside the box. Sliding plates at the joints and brown enamel matching his coloring made it almost look like a natural foreleg. He set it down upright. It balanced on its hoof. Shrugging and shifting inside his cloak, he undid the harness holding on his wooden leg and set it aside. Then he stood and shoved the stump down into the socket of the mechanical one.
It came awake, giving a deep throbbing hum like an enormous hornet. Perth hoped he only imagined the faint sounds under it, the drilling whirs and sizzles and slicing noises. He knew the device well enough to vividly imagine those noises as the socket essentially performed surgery. Pincer-blades rooting for the stumps of long-severed nerves. Tiny screws anchoring into bone freshly bared by scalpels so hot the wounds didn’t bleed. Morhoof watched his leg, stony-faced. If it hurt, he didn’t show any sign.
After a while, the hum died. Morhoof sat down and lifted his new foreleg. He studied it. Tilting his head, his ankle joint slowly flexed. He tilted his head the other way and the angle slowly straightened. Then it gave three swift waggles. Morhoof smiled. Satisfaction rather than delight. “The Philospher’s Stone. Is it working? Transforming my body into a slightly younger version of itself?” The hoof rotated clockwise, then counterclockwise.
“It isn’t required at present. It is set to pulse whenever you have done a day’s worth of aging beyond the baseline it just established. At present, the spiritual parasite prevents physical aging. If you age faster than normal once rid of the parasite, it will pulse more often.”
Something like humor glittered in those amber eyes without really thawing their coldness. “I’ll never get more than a day older.”
The hoof split open and unfolded into a pincer claw. Morhoof seemed surprised. After a long stare, he tilted his head again. The pincer moved in stuttering jerks, opening and closing and rotating. Then it folded back into a hoof. Morhoof tipped his head the other way. It unfolded into the pincer. After a few twitches, it folded away again. Open, close. Open, close. Morhoof tapped the metal hoof against the tabletop. “I figured it out. It feels like yawning, with my leg.”
“Tactile synesthesia.” Perth said. He took off his spectacles to polish them, but his eyes weren’t so bad that he failed to notice Morhoof’s blank stare. “Your leg is sending signals to your brain that a normal leg could not. Your mind is trying to interpret them as sensation it can understand. Like how a blow to the head, jolting nerves in the skull, can make your brain think it’s getting messages from your eyes.”
More blankness. Then: “Seeing stars.”
“It’s…banging your funny-bone, but in your head?”
“An excellent way to put it. In fact-”
Morhoof’s new leg opened a long narrow hatch on its inner side, somewhat above the ankle. A magnifying lens slid out on a jointed telescoping rod, its diameter wider than the thickness of the leg. Turning sideways, it leaned over the hoof and then canted back at the end; putting itself right where a pony might put a lens they held in their hoof. Morhoof gave it a look, then raised an eyebrow. “Is it going to keep randomly doing things until I figure them out?” On the outside of the leg another section popped up, rather like a toad’s eye coming open. The glass lens of that ‘eye’ began to emit a bright, narrow beam of sun-like light. Not a weapon, just for lighting.
“They all have an automated retraction in the event of mundane use. Just move your leg like a leg and anything sticking out of it will…ah, there it goes.” Morhoof had waggled his hoof and the magnifying lens yanked back out of sight. The little toads-eye flashlight winked shut.
“I don’t have to worry about things popping out when I walk?”
Morhoof sat forward, pressing his living and metal hooves together in front of his muzzle. “Good. Now we can talk about why you brought it here yourself, at this time.”
Sometimes it was comforting to have rules. Fleur knew what to do, so instead of dithering she did it. Mister Perth had taken more of his things with them than she had thought, given that he only had that one bag. His…things. Aside from a new wardrobe, some essentials like a toothbrush, and a clockwork ducky toy, all Perth owned was…things. Gears and wires and jars. He clearly didn’t care about any of it, except for what he could make with it. Nor did he even seem to care about the things he made. Making things was his passion. Not owning them.
Fleur found that very depressing for some reason. She cleaned the room. Not just the usual swipe with a feather duster and making the bed. She had the tools and the training to clean it until it would be quite hard to prove Mister Perth had ever set paw in it. She soon found a few short gray koala hairs and stuck them in the pincer end of her magnet-all. The short semi-enchanted rod acted like any magnet, except it attracted the same stuff as whatever the clamp held. Useless for tracking a pony; the rod was very short-range. It was useful for fishing non-magnetic things out of pipes and cracks…and rather handy for sweeping a room of things like shed hairs. This one had a decent charge in it, but she probably should consider getting a new one after today.
The bracelets on her left fore-leg jingled as she swept the room for tiny pieces of Perth. Most of the charms were mundane. Camouflage for the dozen that weren’t. Nothing major, and nothing illegal. The little mirror charm made her more aware of her emotions. Caught them and bounced them back at her with a sense of distance that made it easier to sort through them. It didn’t let her control them, but it was good for warning her when she needed to control them. A pony could be angry or guilty or even happy without really realizing how strong the feeling was. It could be hard to realize how much an emotion affected her. It even helped her with that always-tricky Drunkard’s Paradox: by the time a pony had drunk too much, they were too drunk to realize they’d had too much.
It had another benefit now. A tweak after that incident with Tradewind’s attraction-glamor. Fleur now knew when she was being glamored. The charm bounced the imposed calmness back on her with a twist that made it oh-so-obvious that it wasn’t hers. Some glamors were hard to shake off even after a pony started to fight it. This one could be pushed aside with the gentlest breath of effort. It rolled right back in the moment she stopped focusing on holding it back. At which point only the mirror-charm let her realize that she was being glamored again. The calmness made it hard to remember there was a reason to be worried. It felt good. It was hard to want to fight it. Insidious. Fleur knew it had to come from Princess Luna. ‘Be calm,’ she had said, and it was good advice. Nothing good would come from everypony in the city getting over-excited.
It took a few hours to erase every trace of evidence that Mister Perth ever stayed here. Another half-hour to double-check, painstakingly running down a long checklist she had memorized years ago. Maybe ten minutes more to stick the things Perth left behind in the part of the motel that officially didn’t exist. Including the gift of calculating machines. Without letting herself stop, because then she might think, Fleur jumped right in the shower. She was dirty and sweaty and her mane and tail were an absolute mess.
Some ponies found it easy to think in a shower. Fleur was the opposite. She found it easy not to think. Hot water running over her, the white-noise sound, the comfortingly small and private space of the shower stall, the locked door of the bathroom between her and the world. She felt safe. Safe enough to truly relax. Drop her guard. It was the closest to meditating she ever got. Her hooves lathered her coat and sluiced off the foam. They shampooed her mane and tail, rinsed, repeated with conditioner. The whole time, she didn’t really think. Her churning feelings settled.
Toweling off, Fleur attacked her tail and mane with her hairdryer. A different kind of white noise, but now she started to think again. Not about Perth. Maybe later she’d have a quiet cry about him. Once she was sure he wasn’t coming back.
Most of all, Fleur loved showers because they left her clean. It had been…rough, for her and Flambé. For a while they had been homeless, though Flambé always managed to find them somewhere to sleep with some kind of roof. It rarely had running water, much less hot water. Much less a tub. Even after years and years living here at the Avec Noir, with a personal bedroom and tiny-but-private bathroom, Fleur had never come to take showers for granted. Or good food whenever she wanted it, or a soft bed, or privacy. Fleur didn’t let herself forget. Part of her wanted to take those bad years and bury them. Pretend it never happened. That she hadn’t used her special talent for being charming and pleasant to beg for bits. That she hadn’t sometimes gone hungry. That she had never lived day in, day out with the ugly, dull, leaden sense of desperation that came from living without a safety net. She refused to bury the memories of how bad it used to be because it was the first step to forgetting how good she had it now.
Mister Smog had rescued them. Paid for their airship tickets to Aura. Gave them the Avec Noir, trained by the old married couple who used to run it before they retired. He had never lied to them about what he was. He had never asked them for more than they felt comfortable giving. It had all been coldly calculated to win their loyalty. The amazing thing? It had worked anyway. Maybe because he had been honest about how it was all calculated. Smog rewarded loyalty to encourage loyalty. So what if there had been no true kindness in his shriveled little black heart? They worked for him. Flambé prepared Smog’s meals. Nopony with half a brain annoyed their cook. Smog had always been considerate, because that was the smart thing to do. He made sure Flambé and Fleur were happier working for him than they would be otherwise.
Now, incredibly, Smog had rediscovered his heart. He could have insisted Fleur submit to a memory spell, erase what she had seen and heard. It would have been the smart thing. Fleur wouldn’t have objected. He hadn’t. Smog trusted her to keep the secret. She had. She’d been tempted to tell her brother, but only if she could guarantee nopony could overhear. Smog had trusted her. Not calculating Smog. The new one with a heart, who would lose everything if she blabbed.
It amazed Fleur how little it changed how she felt. His loyalty had been calculated, but hers had always been real. Fleur knew Smog did…ugly things. Or had them done. Sometimes she got a glimpse of them when some hurt pony showed up to use the hidden clinic in the back of the hotel. Mostly she had tried not to think too hard about it. Now she could almost hope. Smog was trapped in the web he’d spun, but she had the impression he was trying to downsize the ugly parts.
Fleur stared into the mirror as she wound curlers into her mane. Being damp made it seem even darker. Black instead of midnight blue. Luna had come for Smog. Fleur had no proof, just a feeling in her bones. Smog was trying to keep things under control. He clearly hadn’t been optimistic about his chances. Things were about to fall apart in a big way. The dread of that was like a ball of cold sticky clay in her throat. She’d had literal nightmares about it. Fleur just didn’t see how the Princesses had much to lose by moving against Smog now.
Just like that, Fleur realized she had made a decision. She wasn’t sure when, but it had already been made by the time she became aware of it. It terrified her. The fear couldn’t budge her determination. This wasn’t something she wanted to do. It was something she had to do. It amazed her how well she managed to control the fear. She did a few things, wrote a long letter and stuck it where Flambé would find it if things went utterly pear-shaped. Then she pulled out the curlers and arranged her hair in its usual pile of curls atop her head. It took a lot of effort to make it look so effortless. Fleur donned her makeup and chose a dress of cream silk, simple but elegant. Earrings, a necklace. She felt bizarrely like a warrior pony donning armor before a battle.
Ready as she’d ever be, Fleur slipped out of her bedroom. Flambé was in the kitchen, by the smells. Working on lunch. Time had slipped away. Long shower, for starters. She left him alone. He wouldn’t worry. With Luna’s glamor draping the city like perfume, he would be in a better mood than usual. Fleur slipped into the Den. Door unlocked. Inside, empty. Silent. No music coming from the DJ alcove on its little balcony over the bar. She glanced up. The flat blackness of the walls and ceiling made it hard to judge just how high the ceiling was. It was pretty high. Maybe as tall as it was long. Room for Smog to maneuver if he needed it. Fleur had never really noticed before.
Making her way to the door in the back wall, Fleur paused to look at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. It had been repaired. New shelves in front of it. Bottles all arranged on them just so. The floatwood floorboards behind the bar no longer had a big hole burned through them. Fleur felt a strange sense of calm as she met her reflection’s eyes. Not Luna’s glamor. Whatever happened, happened. She knew what she had to do, and she would do it.
Knocking on the door to Smog’s office, Fleur waited. Slowly, she became aware of the silence from behind the wood. Smog liked to muse about silences sometimes. This was the silence of somepony being very quiet, not the silence of nopony there.
“Mister Smog,” Fleur said, “may I speak with you?”
More silence. Then the snap of a bolt drawn back. The door swung open. She didn’t see Smog. Slipping inside, she wasn’t surprised to see him behind the door where nopony could see him from the hallway. He was as unreadable as he ever was, but he was still transformed. Or…un-transformed. He had admitted that this was his true form. His living eye studied her. The scrying-orb in the other socket hid under a white eye-patch. Fleur braced against the usual flutter of nerves and felt off-balance when it didn’t come.
“I think Luna will come for you, sir.” Fleur said.
“Of course.” Smog said. His voice broke on the second word, jumping from his usual bass rumble to a feminine soprano. He locked the door and moved to hunker down behind his desk. “You and Flambé wish to retire early.”
Smog started to speak, reaching down into a desk drawer. Then he paused. Blinked. Nothing dramatic, but it was like a dropped jaw for him. After a moment, he set his claws on the blotter and nodded for her to go on.
“I am here.” Fleur said. “To be with you.”
Smog studied his talons, lying on the desk. “In what manner?”
“So you are not alone when Luna comes.”
“I-” Smog broke off, not moving but suddenly radiating tension and intense awareness. His expression subtly shifted and she had the impression that Smog was stunned. “She…the whole city?”
Smog stared past her. “The whole city. Why?”
He heard her that time. “Magic circle.” His claws went up to grip his skull. “I can feel it. A variation on the curse King Sombra put on the Crystal Empire, long ago. Turned, in a sense, inside-out. Until it falls, time inside can’t truly pass. Candles won’t burn down, nopony will grow hungrier or sleepier. The sun won’t move and clocks will tick while their second hands twitch back and forth. However long it seems to be inside, to the outside world, no time will have passed. A pony watching might see the city…flicker…for a moment.”
“I…” Fleur couldn’t even imagine a spell like that. “Why?”
Smog’s eye closed. “All paths out lead back in. You can’t escape a cage that has no walls. If she had put a circle around the Den, I could understand. Why the whole city? I have absolutely no idea. It takes less magic to raise the moon than to manage that. A dozen moons would take less. You should leave.” His eye popped open, focused on her. Not opening and then focusing. The lid came up and his living eye already pointed right at hers. “You can’t help me fight her. I won’t fight her. I…don’t want to fight her.”
“I am here,” Fleur said, “to speak for you.”
His stare turned blank. “What?”
Fleur slipped into a chair and smoothed down her skirt, watching her hooves instead of him. “Ze princess of ze night is…historically, not as compassionate as her sister. Not so much a ‘people pony.’ I hope that if I ask her to be merciful to you, she will at least consider it.”
“I don’t deserve mercy.” A flat statement.
“Are you sorry for ze evil you did?”
His eye slipped closed. No tear fell, but the quiet pain in his expression twisted in her heart. “Yes.” he said. He forced his eye open but wouldn’t look at her.
Fleur spread her fore-hooves. “You will go quietly and are truly sorry for what you have done. You are not ze same creature anymore. Old Smog is dead.”
“No.” Just for a moment, his eye turned cold. “Old Smog is in here. He always will be. Like a cesspool at the bottom of my mind. I don’t…want…mercy. I just…want it to be over. Please, go. Showing loyalty to me is not a good thing anymore.”
“Loyalty is an Element.” Fleur said. Somehow, an unforced smile pulled at her mouth. “If showing it to Princess Luna is a mistake, then something is very wrong with her. Again.” Smog was not amused. “Sorry, bad joke. If nothing else, Mister Smog…I have to be here for you. I won’t let you be alone.”
His stare turned blank again. Not guilty, not tormented, just bewildered. “But I don’t deserve this.”
Fleur sighed, but smiled. “I disagree.”
“Oh, come on!”
Berry Jam winced and shifted to adjust the saddlebags she wore. Things were mostly calm in Aura’s docking spire. They had taken an air-bus up and headed here to get tickets. A local passenger line that would take them to the town where Punctuality’s school lay. Mostly calm. There was always one stinkweed in the rose garden. Tankard glanced sideways at her, then nodded forward toward the angry pegasus stallion complaining to the harried pegasus mare at the ticket counter. They had been married more than long enough for her to read his little brow-lift-and-grimace. It meant: ‘real charmer, that guy.’ Berry pressed her lips into a disapproving line to keep from smiling. He knew that trick, though. Tankard was decent at reading her. When he paid attention. Otherwise, little hints like that sailed right over his head without catching on his horn.
Tankard pretended not to notice that she had to stop herself from smiling. Smart of him. Then he nodded again at the stallion in front of them. It might have looked almost the same, but it wasn’t. He was asking her permission to get involved. To her faint shame, Berry hesitated before shaking her head. Tankard wasn’t happy about it but he wouldn’t have asked if he wasn’t going to respect her decision. He settled his weight on his hooves and quietly sighed through his nose.
Sighing as well, Berry checked their luggage to make sure it was all still there. Not much point, the place was almost deserted. Tankard was a good pony. One of his better qualities was his willingness to admit he had flaws. He was too quick to get confrontational with strangers. Usually because they were being a jerk to somepony who couldn’t fight back. He was too fast to assume jerkiness as opposed to something more forgivable. Once, he had tackled the victim of a pickpocket, only seeing an angry pony grappling with a smaller one who was trying to get away. Tankard knew he had a problem with that sort of thing. If Berry was around he usually looked for her nod. Seeing if a cooler head also thought it was time to stick a hoof in. This time, Berry had the stallion pegged as upset because of desperation.
Looking around the near-deserted lobby, Berry sighed again. Princess Luna’s arrival hadn’t caused an uproar, exactly, but it had caused disruption. The passenger airship line kept to a schedule. Given that pegasi also kept the weather on a schedule, delays for storms got announced well in advance. Only…Princess Luna was here! The crews of the airships didn’t want to miss out on what looked to be a historic announcement. They were arguing that Luna’s request that every pony in Aura and Umbra gather to hear her speak meant them too.
Berry could relate, she really could. She didn’t want to miss this either. In fact, the urge to stay was stronger than she would have predicted. Not strong enough to overpower her need to go visit her prankster son at his boarding school. Close, though. Enough to make her uncomfortable. She wasn’t alone in that. They were alone in the lobby besides the ticket mare and Prince Uncharming. Hardly anypony had turned up, though the local passenger line rarely lacked for morning commuters. Those few had left again when they saw the flight delayed signs.
Suddenly, the skin between her shoulders started to prickle. It came just ahead of a swelling feeling of imminent trouble. Like the feel of an oncoming storm. Of that moment when a dream started to go nightmare. The hunch started to crystallize. Everypony in Aura and Umbra taking this surprise arrival of royalty so well. Hardly anypony around to complain about the crews not setting out on schedule. That was something to chew on, but for now it was just the background: highlighting something else.
The golden-colored pegasus in front of them was anything but calm, and he clearly wanted out of the city now. Berry’s eyes swung around to focus on him a good second or two before the stallion lunged forward to grab the ticket mare by her floral scarf. It went tight around her neck. Far too tight. “I don’t want to hear any more excuses! I’ll charter a hoofing airship if I have to. Now dig up a manager or whoever has some actual pull around here, you daft-”
Tankard introduced himself to the well-dressed pegasus with a maneuver he must have picked up in his somewhat disreputable youth. He draped a foreleg across the pegasi’s shoulders, all very friendly…for a moment. The pegasus tried to shrug Tankard off. Next thing he knew, he was in a headlock. He struggled. Tankard seemed to be counting under his breath. Then the pegasus managed to thump him in the back with a wing. Berry couldn’t see her husband’s face, but his whole body language shifted. Something faded away and something else replaced it. He seemed a lot more relaxed…and a lot less nice.
Raising his free foreleg, Tankard paused for a moment. Berry started to inhale, to tell him to stop. Too late. Tankard hit the pegasus right between the eyes and knocked him out cold. No dizzy staggering. The stallion went down like a string-cut puppet. Tankard let him drop and moved back a step. Giving his head a shake, his manner changed back to the usual. Then he groaned and twisted until his back crackled. “Too old for this s…” He glanced at Berry. “…stuff. Miss, you all right?”
The mare behind the counter was a mousy little thing, probably standing on a low box behind the counter. She had torn off the scarf. Now she fixed her crooked glasses. “He…” She started to tremble.
Berry closed the distance. “It’s over now.” Rummaging in her purse, she found a clean handkerchief and passed it over. The other mare gave it a blank look. Then she burst into quiet blubbering. Berry found the flip-up section of counter and slipped behind the desk. “It’s all right, now.”
Tankard said a word he knew better than to say in her hearing. She shot him a glare. He didn’t even seem to notice. He nodded down, as if she could see through the desk to the pegasus snoring on the floor. She upgraded the glare. He noticed this time. “It’s Gold Star. Small world.”
Berry’s mental filing cabinets took a long second to find a match. “Five Star’s boy?”
“None other.” Tankard said. “Didn’t see his face until…after.”
Berry couldn’t do much for the other mare except keep a comforting fore-hoof on her back, and she did it. “What would he be doing here?”
Tankard grinned, and for a second he looked like the bad-boy colt he had once been. The one who had stolen her heart. “You know…I can’t think of a single reason that he’d care to explain to his papa. Or the cops. Hightailing it out of the city on short notice, not taking the family yacht…assault.”
“How hard did you hit him?”
“Not as hard as I wanted.” Tankard trotted away as he said it, grabbing a paper cup and filling it from a fountain. Then he trotted back and used his magic to lift Gold Star’s head. Berry expected him to splash the pegasus with water. Instead, Tankard poured a trickle right up Gold Star’s nose. It got a reaction, Berry had to admit. The pegasus jolted back to consciousness, coughing and sputtering. Tankard kept his magical grip on Gold Star’s mane as he pulled over a bench and sat. “Just so you know. Attacking me is a bad idea. Attacking either of those ladies…beyond bad.”
Gold Star had gotten his hooves under him. Now he tugged his gold-chased white jacket straight. He reached up to smooth down his mane and found a chunk of it in Tankard’s grip. “Get your magic off me!”
Berry looked at her husband, who seemed calm. Almost cheerful. That was not, in context, very encouraging. “Honey?”
“Oh, all right.” Tankard said. The magic vanished.
Gold Star bolted. He got all of a foot before being brought up short by Tankard’s new grip on his tail. Gold Star tried for chilly anger, but he was too twitchy to pull it off. “Do you know who my father is, you spike-headed idiot?”
“Yeah.” Tankard said. “A drinking buddy I’ve known since before you were born. I’ll make sure he hears about you strangling that little mare.”
“What? I didn’t strangle her!” Berry was inclined to think his shock and denial were genuine.
The ticket-mare had stopped crying at some point, having upgraded to anger. “Horseapples, you didn’t!” She grabbed the scarf off the counter. “Look, it started to rip. This is silk, you…you gilded…chamber pot!” Berry had to bite her lip, mentally making a note to remember that insult.
“She had her scarf in a slipknot.” Tankard said. He seemed to be getting friendlier and more menacing by the minute. “Like you have your tie.” His magic gripped and flapped the mentioned garment, which was a tacky gold lamé thing with a star pattern. Tankard didn’t yank on it…but he didn’t let go.
Gold Star seemed to deflate. “Look, I’m sorry. I really am. I just…I really need to get away. Her eyes were glowing, do you understand?”
Tankard and Berry exchanged a glance, each asking if the other had any idea what that meant. Neither did. Tankard went back to being friendly at Gold Star. “Your daddy mentioned it a few times. He’s worried about you. You don’t really respect mares, do you? Think they’re stupid?”
His sudden deadpan revealed what the pegasus no doubt was trying to hide. “You’re wrong.”
“Whatever. I’ll tell your father exactly what happened. No less, but no more. Then he can deal with you. Whose eyes were glowing?”
“Brise Soleil. Pegasus. Big. Luna-big. Pale green, lanky build, white mohawk, some kind of symbol in a circle for a cutie mark. She arrived with Princess Luna. On the roof of the Ivory Tower. I was…I was trying to find out what her Majesty was doing in Aura. Miss Soleil…got in my face. Then her eyes glowed. Lit up like a pair of orange fireflies. Flash. And her pupils went slitted. During the flash.” Gold Star stared at nothing anypony else could see, and he clearly didn’t enjoy the view. “I happen to know that a unicorn gets glowy slit-pupil eyes when they’re messing with dark magic. It’s a bad sign in a unicorn, and I doubt it’s better in a pegasus. The more I thought about it the more I was certain she is…” He bit his lower lip, falling silent.
“…is…?” Tankard said.
“Evil.” The pegasus gave them a defiant look, as if expecting them to laugh. Nopony did. “I can’t…I can’t get it out of my head. I can still see her eyes. Flash. It’s like a skipping record in my head.” Gold Star looked over at the trolley heaped with a large matched set of designer luggage. Trunks and suitcases. “To Tartarus with my wardrobe, I’ll wing it. I have my checkbook, I’ll buy new clothes when I get there.”
“Get where?” Berry said.
Gold Star met her eyes, and she saw what was under his efforts to keep calm: dread. “Anywhere that isn’t here.”
“Let him go.” Three sets of surprised eyes turned to the ticket mare. She blushed a little and forced a shrug. “No harm done, really. He didn’t really mean it, I guess. Wound up too tight. Thank you, sir. For helping. I think…never mind. All I want is for him to just…go away.”
Tankard gave the mare a look. Then he gave Berry another. Berry thought about it, but nodded. Gold Star bolted as if he’d been set on fire. Tankard slumped, transforming back into his usual self. “You seem awfully calm, miss.”
“I guess I am. Huh. Look, I’d definitely bend the rules for you, but I wasn’t lying to him. We just don’t have any airships leaving at the moment. Um, and you aren’t supposed to be back here, ma’am. Sorry.”
Berry hurried to get out of Employees Only territory. Tankard seemed to need a hug, so she gave him one. And a little kiss. Sitting on the bench beside him, she patted his back and leaned close to whisper. “Well?”
He not-quite-whispered back. “Looks like we’re stuck in town.”
“No, I mean how you were acting.”
Tankard rubbed at his eyes. “I know. I thought I’d changed, grown up, but it all came right back to me. Sorry. I know you want me to be respectable.”
“Oh, sugarcube. You are downright boring.” He shot her a sour look, but chuckled when she did. “Who you were is part of who you are. It’s not the whole thing anymore. Back when you were young, would you have handled it exactly the same?”
Tankard glared at the door Gold Star had left hanging open. She sensed more than heard him growl. “I would have stomped seven kinds of snot out of him for doing that to a mare.”
“There you go. It’s not about not wanting to. It’s about not doing it.”
“My wife, the fortune cookie.” He grunted as she jabbed him in the ribs, then caught her hoof and kissed it. “If the airships aren’t flying, we might as well go back home. Should be time to drop off our luggage before heading for the nearest…Luna.”
“Okay, Mister Boring.”
“You realize that makes you Missus Boring.”
She gave him another kiss. “If only.”
A snap of her beak brought together the little steel cap on the upper half and the little flint-tipped cap on her lower half. A few sparks shot down to land in the bowl of the pipe one fore-claw cradled. The carved dragon tooth of the bowl felt cool, and would have felt just as cool after hours of holding smoldering herbs. The sparks had briefly lit the pitch-black room. Hardly worth the effort. A bunk-like bed along one wall. The brick-shaped trunk she sat on. Nothing else. Felicia Ravenor had never been much for material possessions.
The black griffin ignored the dim red coal in her pipe and the dimly red-glowing smoke the herbs produced. She stared into the darkness. Memories played out in her mind like movie clips. Coming home from Freeport in disgrace, almost hoping Smog would just order her killed. The ruin of her plans and the death of her ambitions. Smog had offered her rule of Freeport under him as a consolation prize, and then he had taken even that away from her. It was hard to think of much reason to go on. Except spite. She had plenty of that. She wouldn’t give her enemies the satisfaction of ending herself.
Smog had ordered her to this safe-house. Ordered her to stay out of sight. Barring the pony who came once a day with enough food for three meals, she had seen no one since getting here. She had spoken to no one since being exhaustively debriefed by one of Smog’s high-level lackeys. Coming to this hidden little windowless room, she hadn’t so much as peered out the door’s spy-hole since. The pony left the food and didn’t try to make conversation.
Felicia had a clock. She had let it wind down. The tick annoyed her and a clock in a lightless room wasn’t much use. She didn’t need one to keep track of time. Not in Aura. She knew the patterns of the city. The wax and wane of the hum made from ten thousand little noises. Felicia stared into the darkness, puffing the herbs that amplified her hypnotic magic. It was a few hours after dawn, as best she could guess. Luna’s arrival and announcement of an upcoming speech had disrupted the city’s usual cycles.
Heat began to fill her skull, pulsing behind her eyes as if trying to escape. Days spent in darkness, only using a little light now and then when she ate or took care of other essential functions. Otherwise she sat, in between stretching exercises to keep limber. It had occurred to her that Smog might never plan to send word that she could leave this safe-house. All he had to do was wait. Eventually the boredom and frustration would drive her to leave it without his orders. Then Smog could use that excuse to execute her.
Not for the first time, Felicia wished her power let her give commands. All it let her do was drop a creature that met her eyes into a kind of sleepwalking state. They would truthfully answer any questions she asked and ignore any command to move. Afterward all they remembered was meeting her gaze and feeling odd. Felicia puffed at the magical herbs and waited. If she was right, her food-deliverer would come early today so he could go listen to the speech at noon.
He did come early. Felicia had ignored him, never looked right at him. Lulling him; just in case she ended up needing to catch him off guard. Like this morning. She moved with fluid speed as his hooves stopped outside the door. It started to open. She yanked it wider and stuck her head through the gap. Her beak bumped his nose. Startled, he did what any pony would do: met the eyes of the creature that had gotten in his face.
That was the exact wrong thing to do with her. She sent her power out of her crow-black eyes and into his brown ones. No subtlety. No slow drawing a web of power around his mind. Her attack came out of the blue and dropped him into the black. Pain throbbed in her brain, keeping time with the flicker of little blue motes swirling across her vision.
Felicia dragged the pegasus inside and bolted the door. She lit a lamp and then stared into his eyes again, gritting her teeth against the pain as it swelled larger. Some of it came from the light stabbing at her sensitive eyes. Not all. This was not what her power was intended to do. It was a slow thing, a gentle seduction, a hypnotic glamor. Putting out her white pipe, Felicia pulled out her black one. The stygian ebony bowl was already loaded. Lighting it with a snap of the striker mounted on her beak, she took a slow, deep pull and held it until it felt as if needles of ice were burrowing into her lungs. Sighed; plumes of purple smoke trickling from her nostrils. The hot pain in her skull dulled somewhat.
Sandbagged by her stare, the pegasus sat in the middle of the room where she had left him. He stared at nothing and drooled a little. Usually they came around as soon as she broke eye contact. If she overdid it, it took hours to wear off and left them with the grandmother of all hangovers. Felicia felt her own headache settle in for a long stay. She had sat in darkness until her pupils yawned and smoked herbs to amplify her powers. Then she had hurled the force of her stare at him as if trying to lift a boulder. Now it felt like she’d had a boulder land on her head.
Carrying the pegasus to the bunk, she laid him on it and eased his eyelids shut. Pulling a satchel of essentials from her trunk of worldly belongings, Felicia added the wrapped meals of cold food and slung it on her back. She covered it and herself with a plain brown hooded cloak. Blowing out the lamp, she left without a backwards glance.
Luna had shown up unannounced and Felicia was prepared to bet her life that the Princess of the Night planned to bag her a dragon while in town. In fact, Felicia had bet her life on it by leaving the safe-house without permission. She would be on Luna’s Most Wanted list too. Even if Luna didn’t quite dare arrest Smog, she might well demand the dragon sacrifice certain lesser pieces. The assassination of Queen Amanita of Dust and ensuing six-way civil war had stirred up the stinky stuff with a big stick. Luna would want to see justice done. She would want to show the Equestrian Empire that justice had been done. Felicia was guilty of the crime and she looked more like a villain than Smog, the stupid pink bugger.
She wasn’t even afraid. Ever since hearing Luna’s announcement, all her fear and fury had just…drained away. Looking at the situation with cold logic, it was obvious what she had to do. Leaving was a risk. Staying was a bigger one.
Felicia stayed low. Below street level; using maintenance corridors. It would take a while to work her way unseen to the cloud-city’s edge. Smog had taken her passport. All her papers. Her badge, of course. Officially she was on medical leave or something. No airship for her. Even if she had the cash and the documentation, they were too easy to track. She was going to wait for the speech to start at noon. Then she would fly away while all eyes in the city were on Luna. Her plan was to fly northwest into dragon country. Real dragons. It was, depressingly, the safest direction. All she had to worry about was some dragon deciding she would make a nice snack. Any other direction and she risked Smog’s informants spotting her. After that, she would run as far as she could and hide as deep as she knew how. However long she managed to live, it would be longer than if she stayed.
Her hope was that Luna did bag Smog. Then she would only have the empire hunting her. Felicia felt better about her chances then. All she had to do was make it to a non-extradition country and she was scot-free. ‘I only wish,’ Felicia thought, ‘that I could be a fly on the wall when Luna comes for you, Smog. I hope she hurls your candy-colored backside into Tartarus. Eternity as Cerberus’s chew toy is too good for you, but I can settle for what I can get. Who’d have thunk it? I might just outlive you.’
Hearing his name, the grey earth pony set down the crate he’d been lifting and turned. His black mane needed cutting, but it wasn’t quite long enough to stop him from seeing the scrawny yellow earth pony trotting toward him. More of a stagger than a trot, and his panting had a nasty wheeze. He wore the kind of shirt you wore when you worked in an office, complete with pocket protector. Eyes made tiny by the thick lenses of his glasses darted left and right. Pickle Barrel didn’t have to look around to know they’d have an audience. Hauling things was boring work, and Kumquat looked more out of place here than a banana in a stack of coconuts.
Kumquat detoured around a big net bag crammed with fat coils of rope. No airship hovered over the warehouse roof, but one was scheduled to arrive in an hour. Nothing but a cargo box under a big envelope, with little propellers stuck on like an afterthought. Then the team of earth ponies who had hauled all this stuff up to the roof would get to load it into the airship for hauling up to Aura.
Pickle Barrel hadn’t seen his brother-in-law much since they’d hauled an unconscious earth pony out north of the city and left him locked inside a secluded little cottage. Since the whole city didn’t know about that, Pickle knew that Kumquat hadn’t told his wife. Cracker Barrel was a sweet mare, but she wasn’t the brightest candle in the chandelier and she couldn’t keep a secret for love nor money.
“Morning.” Pickle said. Kumquat skidded to a halt and wheezed at him. Pickle picked up the much smaller stallion and sat him on the crate. Then he handed over his canteen.
Kumquat took a gulp but sputtered on the second mouthful. Didn’t quite spit it back in the canteen. After a puff-cheeked moment of uncertainty, he opted to swallow rather than spit. Pickle decided not to make the obvious joke. Kumquat smacked his lips with a grimace. “What is that? Booze?”
“Lemonade.” Pickle said. “Ah don’t drink at work.”
“You’re supposed to add, uh, sugar.”
“Ah like it sour.” Pickle took the canteen back and wiped the mouth off with a clean handkerchief before replacing it in his shoulder-bag.
Kumquat seemed to remember why he was here. That look of mild panic returned. Not that it took a lot to make him panic. “Listen, Barrel. Are you going to go hear Luna’s speech?”
Looking out over the warehouse rooftops, which were all the same height because even taller ones weren’t legal, Pickle focused on one about four streets to the west. Princess Luna stood on top of one of the little shack-like structures that capped a stairwell. Or maybe she didn’t. There were Lunas all over Shadowville this morning and up in Aura too. Nopony seemed to really know if Luna was in lots of places at once or they were some kind of illusion. Whatever it was, ponies had already started to gather. “Ah reckon so.”
“She can walk in our dreams.” Kumquat said. “I bet she could look you in the eye and know every bad thing you ever did.”
Pickle considered that quite a leap. He didn’t know much about magic, so maybe there was a reason that the first ability made the second likely. “Your point?”
“Don’t we have something to hide?” Kumquat emphasized that with a lot of eyebrow waggling.
“Ah think not going looks more suspicious. Ah think running around in a panic when everypony else is saying calm like Luna asked looks suspicious. Ah think there are gonna be ponies in the crowds with blacker crimes and blacker hearts than us. Ah think fear of being caught is making you do stupid things, and ah think that you being stupid is the number-one thing that might get us caught. So shut up and calm down.”
Kumquat stared at him with his jaw slack. Pickle rarely strung that many sentences together. He just never felt the need to chatter on and on. The skinny stallion pushed his glasses up. They slid right back down. “You’re right. I…” He trailed off and bit his lip. Giving a little snort and head-shake, he slipped off the crate. He spoke, seeming to think about the words before letting them out. “We can’t do anything if she knows. So…we should act as if she doesn’t. If we panic and act guilty, ponies might start wondering why. Start digging.”
Kumquat hung his head. “I’m a moron.”
Pickle patted his brother-in-law on the back. “Nope. Just scared. Now go on. Be with Cracker for the big speech.”
“Okay. Thanks, Barrel.” He trotted away, looking as if he actually was calming down.
Pickle Barrel lifted the crate up onto his back and carried it over to the pile near the middle of the warehouse roof. This wasn’t his regular job: he didn’t have one. He hired on wherever somepony needed extra strong backs. Living cheap as a bachelor meant he could afford to do that. Variety in his work was more important to him than a reliable paycheck. Besides, some of the jobs he did weren’t the kind a pony could declare on a tax return. Being paid cash for all his odd jobs made it easier to hide that some of his bits were ill-gotten.
Still, he was a hard worker who earned his day’s pay, and that meant places that hired him once would hire him again. He knew a lot of these warehouse rats by sight and some of them by name. As he set down the crate, Brick sauntered over. The pale green earth pony had a brick-red mane, matching eyes, and muscles like a professional bodybuilder. He was a nice guy, if you didn’t make fun of his lisp. Few ponies ever did that to his face. Those that did got their faces rearranged. “Who wath that, Barrel? Your accountant?” This little gem got some appreciative chuckles from others in earshot. These weren’t ponies with enough money to need a minder.
“Brother in law.” Barrel said.
Brick gave him a concerned look. “You pithed?”
“Nope, not angry at all.”
“Not pithed off, pithed.” Brick gestured, tipping up an invisible bottle, then went cross-eyed.
Pickle pulled out his canteen and held it out. Brick started to say something, shrugged, and took it. He gave a sniff, then took a sip. Then sucked his lips into his mouth in an epic pucker. Much merriment from the onlookers. “Hnnnynnaug.” He gave it back. “What ith that?”
“Sugar-free lemonade.” Pickle said. He wiped the mouth off and put the canteen away.
Brick waited, and he should have known better. Finally he gave up waiting for Pickle Barrel to volunteer information. “The little colt theemed upthet.”
“His wife’s pregnant. And cranky.” Very true. Cracker Barrel had thrown a snow globe at him the last time he came around, for no reason that Pickle was able to see.
“Hah.” Brick gave him a thump on the back that was probably going to bruise. “I hear that. My wife’s thisther was a nightmare when she wath pregnant.”
“Ah hope your wife ain’t one, when it’s her turn.”
“Thankth. Gonna watch Luna with uth?”
Pickle considered it. Refusing might insult them, and he had no pressing reason to refuse. “Yup.”
“I think hithory is gonna be made today.” Brick said. Much solemn nodding from the other workers.
Pickle looked of toward the nearest Luna again. His gut said Brick was right. This had to be something big. Pickle had a few ideas about what, but he didn’t see much reason to share them. “Yup.”
The sound of the back door opening sent tension zinging through Fantasy, Luna’s calming spell notwithstanding. She had to gather her courage before she could turn to face it. She expected to see a pair of police ponies asking her if she would please come with them, in that special tone that said it wasn’t really a request. It was almost a relief, knowing it was all over. No more secrets. No more living in dread of the secrets getting out. There was fear, of course. Being arrested wasn’t going to be fun. Her family would be sad. Or worse, ashamed. At least she didn’t have to be afraid that the city would fall into chaos with Smog’s fall. Somehow she felt sure that Luna would be able to stop that. No evidence, beyond the city-wide glamor and the maybe-duplicate, maybe-illusion Lunas all over the place. It had reminded her of an important fact: very few unicorns could rival an alicorn in magical strength, and no mortal unicorn could ever hope to rival the experience and knowledge of a pony that had lived for thousands of years. Princess Luna was older than Smog, and probably more cunning. Fantasy couldn’t shake a quiet certainty that the princess wouldn’t arrest Smog unless she could stop the dragon’s ‘insurance policies’ from ripping Aura and Shadowville apart.
Finally finding the courage, Fantasy slipped off the stool where she’d been waiting and turned. “No!” The word burst from her mouth like a startled bird out of a kicked bush.
It startled her father too, edging backwards through the doorway levitating a pile of luggage after him. He jumped and it collapsed to the floor. “Hey! What?” He reared up and whirled, looking for danger. All he saw was his daughter staring at him in horror. He turned in place, trying to look at his own rump. “Do I have a spider on me?”
Fantasy tried to speak and squeaked instead. Berry Jam peeked into the back room over the logjam of suitcases in the doorway. “Fantasy? We thought you’d be in bed…which I see is silly of us, you’d want to stay up so you can go hear Her Majesty speak.” Her magic lifted a suitcase and used it to prod her husband. “Be a dear and put these upstairs?”
Tankard gathered up the luggage and headed up the back stairs, floating suitcases jostling for room in the narrow stairwell. Berry stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Fantasy squeaked again. Her mother gave her a glance that turned into a subtle double-take. “What’s wrong, sugar-bee?”
Removing the saddlebags she wore, Berry set them on the big plain table that dominated the room. She followed it over, coming close to Fantasy. “Nopony wants to miss the big speech, including the ponies who crew airships.” Berry carefully removed her ‘traveling’ hat, as fancy as anything worn to a Canterlot derby. She had to pull out honest-to-goodness hat-pins that secured the thing to the bun underneath. “You looked like you swallowed a mouse. Sounded like it too.” She shoulder-nudged Fantasy, playful. “Did your big-winged beau come back? Did he go bolting out the front when we came in the back?” Fantasy blushed, half from the innuendo and half from the shame of the real reason for her shock.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Fantasy said. To her horror and relief, the truth spilled out in an unstoppable flood. “I set Punchy up to pull that prank so that you and daddy would have to go to his school and not be here today. I didn’t know what was coming but Morhoof warned me something’s coming and that I should be ready to flee the city but I just couldn’t do that and I knew if I told you the truth you and daddy would never agree to leave without me so I set things up so…” Her breath ran out and she gasped in more. “So I manipulated Punctuality and Headmistress Neighsayer to get you and daddy out of the city when it hit the fan so you’d all be safe even if I’m not.”
Berry looked a little dazed. “What?”
Dropping her rump on the hard floor, Fantasy stared down at her fore-hooves. “Luna’s here for Smog, I’m sure of it. What he did in Dust was probably just too much. She’s cast a glamor of calm over the whole city. I think that’s just the start.”
“Here for…oh crap.”
It was anyone’s guess which of the mares looked more shocked to hear Berry say that. Berry won on embarrassment a moment later when she turned red. Fantasy recovered first. “Mom?”
Berry sat down beside her. “It’s…a lot to take in. You’re telling me that Smog caused the Dustan civil war?”
“I wish I found that hard to believe. Who’s Morhoof?”
“Oh.” Fantasy face-hoofed. “The Wandering Lute.”
“Oh. It’s about time Smog was arrested.”
“Mom…” Fantasy said. She stopped as she realized that Berry Jam probably had no idea what kinds of things Smog had done to ensure the cost of removing him from power was too high for any moral creature to pay. “Smog has lots of blackmail on lots of important ponies. He has a lot of ponies in his pocket too. Police, government, business. The cloud and rainbow factories. He’s set things up to make as much trouble as possible if he dies, disappears, or gets arrested. All the blackmail goes public. Most of the government and the police are exposed as crooks who work for him, willing or forced. Lots of companies would fail when it gets out they launder money and stuff. Just freezing all his assets would crash the economy. There’s even what happens when all the criminals who behave themselves because of Smog don’t have to play nice anymore. He did it all so nopony would dare arrest him.”
Berry didn’t speak or even move for a long moment. When she did, it was to take a long, slow breath and let it out as an even longer, slower sigh from her nose. “I believe it.”
“I think the princess knows how to stop it. Or…make it not so absolutely horrible.” Smog no longer wanted them to happen but he’d been cunning enough to set them up so even he couldn’t stop them. For all Fantasy knew, Smog had planned this with Luna. If he could face justice without it destroying the city, Fantasy knew Smog would turn himself in. Some things Fantasy didn’t dare say. Not even now. Not even to her mother. Just in case Luna wasn’t here for Smog. “But that only occurred to me after I told you about the prank and you left. I still think it’s safest if you and father aren’t here.”
Berry took Fantasy’s fore-hoof in both of hers, cradling it with one and patting it with the other. Fantasy leaned sideways and Berry did likewise, so their shoulders and heads pressed together. Berry asked the question Fantasy had been expecting. “Why did you stay?”
Fantasy picked one reason to stand for all. “Tradewind might have come back. I didn’t want him to find us all gone. I think if he came back and we were all gone…he wouldn’t handle it well. I’m probably being silly.”
“Ponies in love are often silly. In this case, I think you’re not being silly. I agree with you. Tradewind…that colt has problems. If he came back but you were gone, packed up and cleared out…he might do something silly. Like jump to the conclusion that you abandoned him.”
After a somber silence, Berry stirred a little. “How did you set your brother up to get in trouble?”
Tankard’s hooves clattered on the stairs, announcing his arrival. “Okay, the luggage is all in our bedroom, let’s shake a leg and try to get a good spot for the speech.”
“I-” Fantasy said.
A flare of purplish-blue interrupted her. It bloomed near the back door. A sound like a metallic zap mixed with a firecracker bang accompanied it. When the light winked out an instant later, a half-grown unicorn colt stood where it had been. All gangly legs and oversized ears, he was light brown of body, dark brown of hair, but offset by eyes the same vivid color of that flash of light. An hourglass cutie mark without any sand in either bulb.
“Gah!” Tankard said. “Give a guy a heart-attack, why don’t you?”
Punctuality wilted, eyes darting back and forth between his parents. “Er…”
“Why are you here?” Tankard said. “I thought we agreed you stay in school and only come home for official breaks.”
The colt pasted a big bright insincere grin on his face. “Um, it’s actually kind of a funny story…look, it’s totally not Fantasy’s fault, I got her letter asking me not to do it.”
Fantasy had to give her brother that much. Neck-deep in alligators, he still thought to make sure she didn’t have to join him. Tankard’s puzzled frown became a very different breed of frown. “Oh, right. The prank. You’re in trouble, mister.”
“You know about the prank? How? I mean I just…”
“I can answer that.” Berry said. Fantasy closed her eyes. She heard her mother rise to her hooves. “But not yet.” Fantasy’s eyes popped open. Berry offered a hoof. Fantasy accepted it and rose. Berry spoke to Punctuality but kept her eyes on Tankard. “It can wait. You’re here. You might as well come with us to hear the big speech as a family.”
If confusion were a disease, Punctuality would have dropped dead. “Go hear the who with the what, now?”
“Princess Luna’s in town.” Fantasy said. She got perverse enjoyment at how her little brother’s jaw dropped. “Looks like you got here just in time to come listen to her with us. I mean, your talent is being on time.”
“B-but, I didn’t know she was here. I came here for something totally else. This was just a coincidence. I’m only good at being on time for things I know about.”
“Maybe not.” Tankard said. “Maybe your talent extends to being where you need to be, when you need to be there, even if you don’t know before that you’ll need to be there.” Now all three of them were staring at Tankard. “What? I can’t be deep once in a while? Come on. You’re still in trouble, but your mother’s right. It can wait until later. Something like this only happens once in a lifetime.”
Forte Presto had managed to obtain a window seat. He left it open a crack to flow a stream of cool air on his face. The room smelled of poor ponies and some had matching hygiene. It might arguably have made it harder to run, if running proved needful, but that was predicated upon the assumption of common courtesy in the runner. If Forte faced a danger dire enough to require a swift vacating of his seat, he would go right over the ponies between him and the aisle. It might surprise them to see such violent agility from him. He had dyed his body and mane, wore contacts to change his eye color; cheek pads combined with jiggly water-pouch padding inside his sober antique suit made him look fat. A false beard hid his lack of a second chin while looking as if it had been grown to hide the presence of one. The overall theme was a pony flying economy-class not because he was poor but because he was cheap.
Checking his watch, Forte saw the hands approaching noon. A little less than a minute away. His inner sense of time insisted it was high noon now. He wondered if his time-sense or the watch had been thrown off by the journey southeast from Zevera. It was close to noon, in any event. They were still more than a mile from Aura’s outskirts. The airship was behind schedule. Of course it was. They should be docking right now. The westerly wind and the need of countering its sidelong push meant the airship didn’t quite face the same direction it traveled. It sidled, bow pointed west so the propellers could counter the wind as it made maddeningly slow progress south.
Forte had chosen a port-side window on purpose. Now he could look out and forward to see Aura slowly growing larger. It already dominated the horizon even from a mile away. Part of his mind had been counting ticks. He snapped the watch closed on the tick that marked the moment of high noon. Unless, of course, the clock was wrong. A mere instant after the crisp snap of the watch closing, Aura vanished. It reappeared after an interval so brief that a blink could have encompassed it. A lesser mind might have dismissed it as a blink, or as ‘seeing things.’ It might not have even reached the conscious mind, edited out by a subconscious that firmly knew entire cities didn’t simply vanish. Forte was different.
He had always been forced to see what was really there. He noticed things others overlooked. It was as much a curse as a blessing. No matter how long he sat in a quiet room, he never stopped being aware of a clock’s ticking. A bad smell never stopped registering. Every crack in a brick wall, every hoof-step behind him, every spice in the cooking when he walked past a restaurant. He was like an exposed nerve. Even inside his head, the silly or weird or dark thoughts that most ponies ignored made their voices heard. It had made him painfully aware of the signs in Aura, the subtle but smothering miasma of Smog’s evil. So much evil in the world, both grand and petty…and unlike most ponies, Forte simply couldn’t fail to see it. How could he fail to oppose it?
His gift for music sprang from his curse. Where most ponies heard the melody, Forte heard the notes. Reproducing even the most intricate musical phrase was as obvious as playing connect-the-dots. His name, Forte Presto, was a musical term meaning a piece was to be played loud and very fast. That was how reality hit him, every moment of the day.
The constant flood of unignorable distractions could have driven a lesser mind insane. Forte had grown up with it. He could endure it. It had taken years to master it. He had once been impossibly attention-deficient. Forte had overcome it with ferocious self-discipline and unrelenting concentration. No twitching at every noise. No smashing a clock for its maddening tick. He could be aware of his every heartbeat, every subtle movement of the mare seated next to him, the number of flies buzzing around through the muggy air, without being distracted by them. He could focus on what was important. Strong emotions were leashed and muzzled. It was just too painful to feel everything. He couldn’t ignore his own evil thoughts, but he could refuse to act on them.
Possibilities tumbled through his mind, too orderly to be termed a storm. Too vigorous to be called a queue. None of the possible explanations for Aura’s brief vanishing act pleased him. Some of them were cause for extreme alarm. None of them, on consideration, would sway him from his goal. At most they might change how cautious he had to be in going about it. There was a certain peg-legged earth pony, close crony of Smog, who needed to be removed from play.
Another teleport, another surge of nausea that was doubly bad for having two stomachs. Moon Pie managed not to puke only because she had already emptied them back at the Ivory Tower. As her churning guts quieted, she could focus on her surroundings. Black walls, floor, and ceiling where Smog had breathed his smoke into the cloud. White floatwood tables and the floatwood bar standing in sharp contrast. It strongly suggested the decorator had a diseased mind. While that was arguably true, Smog’s personal insanity wasn’t on display here. His cunning was. Anypony trying to get into Smog’s head by profiling his Den would be quite deliberately led astray. Smog was not a creature of absolutes. He saw the world in shades of gray, barring a few absolute rules like never lying. Even those were pragmatic and self-serving rather than moral. A reputation for not lying gained him more than lying ever could. Everything he did to help others was to help himself somehow. Smog’s twisted genius had even turned selfless acts to selfish ends.
The memories hit Moon Pie, and she would have rather suffered the nausea. Centuries of visiting here to report missions accomplished or rarely failed. Hundreds of hours of conversation: lessons in how to spot liars, subdue ponies, pick locks, suppress emotions, and more. Moon Pie was going to spend the rest of her life trying to unlearn some of those lessons.
Aware of the irony, Moon Pie used mental disciplines learned from Smog to lock away her boiling-over memories. Everything vanished except the present moment. Princess Luna was inscrutable. Maybe calm; maybe controlled. Jindalee rode Tradewind’s head. The former seemed to be exercising his own mental disciplines. Whatever he felt or thought, it didn’t show up on the surface. She turned an ear his way and caught the hum of a heart going even faster than a sugar glider’s normal. The latter wore his heart on his sleeve, even if he probably thought he was hiding his feelings. Fear, of course. But also hungry anticipation tempered by the guilty awareness that vengeful rage wasn’t a good thing to feel.
Moon Pie had expected feel anticipation, at least a little. She felt a lot of things, but none of it was eager. She knew what Luna planned to do to her brother. That was just too bloody far. Even the part that stubbornly refused to stop hating Smog had flinched when Luna shared that. A tiny, ancient part of her, recently unearthed, remembered Smog back when he was Breaking Dawn. Before he ran away from home. He had always seemed angry, a constant background simmer, but had never once aimed it at her. Not even when she was a pest. That part of her still loved her brother. She had to love him, or the thought of what he’d become wouldn’t have hurt so much. That was why she had tried hard not to think about his confession the last time they met. He hadn’t just told her they were siblings. He had told her he remembered who he used to be and come to hate who he had become. Smog had been a lie. Her brother had used magic to bury his true past and plant a fake one of growing up a dragon in its place. Smog had died when Breaking Dawn remembered his true past.
Just like that, Moon Pie realized why even the part that hated Smog wasn’t champing at the bit to see justice done. Smog was gone. Now Breaking Dawn was going to be punished for the crimes of Smog. Horribly punished. The punishments would be no more extreme than the crimes, but those were horrible.
Moon Pie realized her sinuses felt clogged. She remembered this feeling once before, the profound but elegant distortion of the laws of mathematics. “You circled the Den.”
“Circled?” Jindalee said.
“Like by the lake?” Tradewind said. He rolled his eyes upward to look at Jindalee. “Luna cast this spell. Um, if you headed out, you ended up heading back in. And time didn’t pass inside. Not real time. And…no time had passed outside the circle after it fell. I think that covers it.”
“It hits the key points.” Luna said. “I did not circle the Dragon’s Den. After I left you, I flew alone and unseen around the city. One circuit, clockwise. Upon bringing myself and you three here, I closed that circle.”
“The whole city?” Tradewind said. He seemed impressed, but he clearly didn’t really understand. Otherwise he would have been a lot more impressed.
“Yes. As King Sombra once did, only he stood outside that circle. I stand inside. That is why, from the outside, the city will vanish only for a moment.”
“I see.” Jindalee said. “With Aura and Umbra on lockdown, you can limit the repercussions of Smog’s absence to a defined area. Will we grow hungry in here? Aura imports its food.”
“Hunger is not an issue.”
Jindalee sported a thin smile. “Nice. Let the chaos run its course, pick up the pieces, get everything squared away, and then drop the circle.”
“No.” Luna’s horn glowed with magic. It boiled to molten white intensity before flaring out. “Every creature in Aura and Umbra, saving we four, Smog, and the ponies I brought with me, are now asleep. All of them dream, and it is a single dream. They dream that they are still awake and that time passes as it should. In the dream, they will hear a speech encouraging them to remember the virtues of Harmony when dealing with the Dustan refugees. In that dream, we who are still awake have simply vanished. The world of that dream must act exactly the same as the waking one. I walk in it now. A part of me. I shall watch how everything unfolds in Aura and Umbra with Smog vanished. Ponies charged with secret orders to cause chaos will dream they carry them out. Those with blackmail materials will release them. I shall make note of them all. When the dream ends, every dreamer will forget the dream. They will hear the speech again. Then all will unfold as it did in the dream…except this time those ponies carrying out Smog’s revenge shall be dealt with before they can carry out their mischief.”
Moon Pie managed not to stand there with her jaw dangling, like Tradewind did, but it was a close thing. Even Jindalee seemed unnerved. He recovered first. “You brought others with you?”
Luna smiled, but she seemed a little distracted and rather sad. “They wear the illusion of my appearance. I called all citizens to gather for their safety. All pegasi were commanded to land before the speech began. It is my deep hope that no pony was flying or operating dangerous equipment when they fell asleep. While they dream, my assistants shall search for injured. It is a difficult thing to truly die inside a circle such as this. If they can be healed, they will be healed. Of the unicorns I brought, many have talent for healing.”
“So…” Tradewind said. He had that dawning-of-an-unpleasant-realization tone. “Smog’s still awake. In here with us.”
“He is.” Luna said. She pulled a small white urn from under a wing and floated it above her head. When she spoke next, it was louder than the pounding dance music that usually filled the bar. “SMOG SILVERTONGUE, HE WHO WAS ONCE KNOWN AS BREAKING DAWN! I, PRINCESS LUNA OF EQUESTRIA, COMMAND THEE TO COME FORTH AND FACE JUSTICE FOR THY CRIMES!”
Moon Pie opened her eyes. She sat on the black-smog floor, cringing, with her fore-claws clamped down over her oversized ears. Tradewind hadn’t moved, but only because he had gone rigid. A frozen expression of pained shock almost pulled a hysterical giggle from Moon Pie. Jindalee had merely laid his little ears back and set his body paws as if leaning into a strong wind. The mirror behind the shelves behind the bar had cracked in two places. As Moon Pie straightened, a bottle that had vibrated near the edge tipped over.
Luna caught it in her magic and nudged it back in place. The door to the back opened even as she did. Breaking Dawn slipped through. Moon Pie stopped breathing. He was exactly like her oldest memories. Except the spearhead-shaped spines down his back were ivory, not pink. And the eye-patch, of course, with parallel lines of raised white scar where she clawed his face.
His slitted green eye went straight to that little white urn and stayed there. Moon Pie felt a slow burn of shame despite Luna having taken that from her without permission. It held Smog’s eye, the one she had clawed out. Her insurance policy that he would leave her alone: if he didn’t, she would have given it to one of his enemies. Now Luna had it…and Moon Pie was with her.
“What the bloody sodden moldy hayfries?” Tradewind said.
“He has returned to his natural form.” Luna said. She was all frost and iron now, moving forward between Smog and the others. “Hence the need for haste on my part. Should his transformation become known, it would have triggered the fall of the city.”
Tradewind growled like a dog, deep in his chest. Then it shook and transformed into bitter, mocking laughter. “Sure, okay. Why not? Let’s clap him in irons, or whatever.”
“I won’t resist.” Smog said. His voice cracked and broke like Moon Pie’s. His was a deep bass and a musical soprano. Tradewind laughed a little harder, either at the voice or words. Smog didn’t react. His eye was dull, his posture defeated.
Luna opened the lid of the little white urn. “Do you have anything to say before I carry out your punishment?”
Raising his drooping head a fraction, Smog looked Luna in the eye. “If you let me, I will do everything in my power to try and avert or minimize the harm my fall will cause to others. I will give you lists of every living creature who worked for me and a list of their crimes, as well as whether they were pushed into committing them. I do not ask for mercy.”
“Duly noted.” Luna said. “Remove the patch and the false eye, Smog. I shall return your eye to you.”
Nopony present was less than astonished, and Smog was most of all. He obeyed without a word, however. Moon Pie was more confused than anything, but then she realized this wasn’t the kindness it appeared to be. Smog popped out the little crystal ball and set it on the end of the bar, which sat near the doorway he stood before. The patch joined it. Moon Pie braced her stomachs for the sight of the eyeball flying out of the urn and over to Smog.
Deep purple-blue light flared in the urn and behind Smog’s sunken eyelid. The eyelid filled out and then lifted. The eye behind was just as green as its mate. It was bloodshot and purple light shone from the slitted pupil. Smog stared at nothing. Then he flinched. Slow as melting ice, his expression transformed into the deepest possible horror. His hind legs gave out. Muscles jumped under his skin. Tears welled up and overflowed. He gave the impression of trying and failing to scream. That awful expression just kept getting worse. Guilt and dismay and agony piled on layer after layer until Moon Pie had to look away.
“Uh…what’s happening?” Tradewind said. It came out a whisper.
“There is an elixir.” Luna said. She seemed…not quite shamed, but…maybe the word was diffident. “Tempus Redux.”
“Oh, that stuff.” Tradewind said. “Smog made me drink it. I relived my past like it was happening again.”
“Then I can skip the explanation of its effect. I soaked his eye in it, modified with what can only be called a curse. He shall relive his entire life…from the point of view of every creature he has ever harmed. He shall experience every death he has caused or ordered done. Those he ruined, he must feel their shame. Those whose loved ones he took, he must feel their grief. Those he beggared, he must feel their hunger and desperation. Those he caused to hate him, he shall feel their hate for himself. Those he forced to do evil, he shall feel their guilt. Every terror, every torment. All the misery he has caused in his life, he must now experience. He shall never be able to forget the least part of it. It shall take a minute for us. To him, it shall stretch…millennia.”
Jindalee whistled long and on a descending pitch.
“Oh…my…” Tradewind stopped, sounding choked.
“What he reaps is what he sowed.” Luna said. Now she just sounded tired. “This is not vengeance, born from the desire to cause pain upon one who has hurt thee. This is justice.”
Tradewind forced out words between hard swallows, his eyes swimming with tears. “If you’re going to kill him, just cut his head off!”
“Killing him would not punish him.” Luna said. She was gentle, but unyielding. “He wishes to die.”
“This is…cruel.” Jindalee said.
Luna turned her back on them, facing Smog. “There will be mercy. But justice must come first.”
Long moments passed in silence. Moon Pie kept her eyes shut tight. She heard it when the spell finished taking Smog’s mind on a tour through time and the minds of every creature he had ever wronged. Including, she knew, her own. She heard him collapse. Heard his throat unlock. The harsh gasping sobs hit her like hurled stones. Moon Pie couldn’t imagine what it had to be like. To know, beyond doubt, the pain her actions had caused others. To have felt it like it was her own. It would probably be impossible to make herself hurt another creature, ever again.
Her eyes popped open and she fumbled to fit her monocle back over one of them. Enlightenment had started to creep over Moon Pie. Luna moved closer and crouched beside the shattered ruin of her brother. The alicorn spoke with heartbreaking compassion. “True justice is always a lesson. It teaches that evil actions have unpleasant consequences. A punishment that destroys you teaches nothing. As it stands, what I have done to you is not true justice. I have shown you only your darkness. Now see your light.”
Smog’s clenched-shut eyes slowly relaxed, and then opened. Purple light still shone from one of the pupils. Luna rose and backed away. Smog kept sobbing, but quieter and not so raw. His expression wasn’t horrified anymore. It was harder to define. Agony mixed with awe, perhaps. The revelation of some truth as beautiful as it was terrible.
“He relives his life through the eyes of others once again.” Luna said. “This time he sees all the good he did. However cold his heart and selfish his motives, many of his deeds did have beneficial consequences for others. He funded clinics and soup kitchens. Ponies who were hurt found healing. Those who hungered found food. Smog gave the asylum in Umbra, the one named after me, certain profitable properties and businesses. The profits from those fund my eponymous hospital for the mentally ill. There have been other things. Many things great and small.”
“Does it outweigh the evil?” Moon Pie said.
Luna glanced at her. “Not even close. But it should be enough. Doing good deeds feels good. An act of kindness or generosity is its own reward. Right now, Smog is being educated in that truth. To despise his evil is not enough. He must desire to embrace goodness. If he can be reformed, there is much good he could do in the service of Harmony and the Empire.” Luna pulled out the urn, which she had put away at some point. “My sister and I are not fools. We shall keep his eye, and should he return to evil, we shall end him with it.” She put the urn away.
“But.” Tradewind said. “You didn’t put it back?”
“I made him grow a new one.” Luna said. “Rest assured, we shall keep Smog on a very strong leash. It currently falls to me to oversee certain aspects of government, things best done in shadows and secrecy. Spies and subterfuge. I neither enjoy it nor am particularly suited for it. I do it because there is no one else who can.”
Moon Pie couldn’t stop the giggle the bubbled out of her. Half of it was Tradewind’s expression of terminal disbelief. Half was the notion itself. “Smog’s being press-ganged as Chief Spook?” He’d be terrifyingly competent at it…
“Chief? No.” Luna said. “Think of him as a…consultant. No authority to command, only advise. Trusted, because I shall have him on a leash. Smog shall mysteriously vanish from Aura this day and his true fate shall never be known. He has too many enemies that would seek his death otherwise. I shall have your word to keep this secret, and know that I shall bind you by it. Attempt to reveal it, by any means, and you will find your bodies refusing to obey. Decline to promise and you shall be detained until you change your mind.” She seemed apologetic about it, but she didn’t appear to be bluffing. “Not punished, beyond involuntary confinement in comfortable rooms.”
“I promise not to tell anypony what happened to Smog.” Moon Pie said. She felt the spell slide over her like ice cubes under her skin, and shivered.
“I should like to mention,” Jindalee said, “that Freeport has always been friendly toward the Equestrian Empire. Even the extra-legal parts of it have always made certain not to offend. I hope that Smog’s list of tasks won’t include the destruction of the Longtails.”
“We have laws against that.” Luna said. “Freeport is a sovereign nation, if a small one. So long as it remains so, and not a clear threat to the Empire, we have no right to punish its criminals. That is for Freeport to do…or fail to do.”
Jindalee gave her a bow. “I promise to take the truth of Smog’s fate to my grave, Your Majesty.” He gave a little shiver and grinned. “Brisk. Trade?”
The pegasus began to speak. Smog gave a heavy snort and leapt upright. His eyes swiveled, independent of each other, but then he seemed to remember the trick of moving them as one. The left one’s pupil no longer glowed. Both of them turned aside, not looking at anypony. He saw his false eye on the bar, a clear crystal orb with faint lights and colors sliding over its surface. Picking it up, he tucked it under a wing. The patch, he ignored. Smog’s eyes had always showed his age. Now they looked even more ancient. From his perspective, it had been thousands of years since he had seen them last. Thousands of years as a helpless observer in the minds of other creatures: first experiencing the deliberate evil he had done them, and then the heartlessly calculated good. He would have had a lot of time to think.
Humility or insanity: Moon Pie didn’t see much chance for any outcome less extreme. If he was nuts, it was a quiet kind of nuts. His cracked, two-pitch voice didn’t give any clues either. “You bound me to truth.”
Luna inclined her head in a nod. “You are compelled never to knowingly speak an untrue word. Not directly compelled, but you sense the spell hovering over you. You may choose to lie…but if you do, the spell shall kill you. You are bound from other things, and you can sense what they are.”
Nodding to himself, Smog forced his gaze to each of them in turn. All the frost and venom in them was gone. They held nothing but sorrow. “For every bad thing I have done to all of you, I am deeply sorry. I know how much I hurt you.” His eyes unfocused and his expression went queasy. “Exactly.” Blinking, he seemed to fight back the memories. “If I could take it back, I would. I can’t. All I can do is tell you that I’m sorry and I’ll never forgive myself.” He blinked again and a pair of tears trickled down his scaly pink cheeks.
“You shall come with me.” Luna said.
“Yes.” Smog said. “I will confess my crimes. I understand that they merit execution.” No pride, no courage, no nobility. Just that deep, heavy sorrow.
“Your punishment is done.” Luna said. “For every evil act you have ever done, you have suffered in equal measure. Legally, the slate has been wiped clean. If ever you wish to die, simply speak an untrue word. Death shall be swift and painless, but it shall only come by your choice. I offer a much harder fate, if you have the courage. Atonement. Can you sacrifice all your hopes, dreams, time, and energy to the selfless service of harmony and light?”
Smog went on staring at nothing, but then he gave a tiny nod. Luna returned it with something almost formal before turning to Tradewind. The pegasus stared at Smog. Jindalee tapped his paw twice on Tradewind’s head. “Huh?” He stirred. “What?”
“I need your promise not to speak of what happened to Smog. Nopony must ever know what became of him. I say he deserves a chance to atone, but many of his enemies will not agree. This must be a secret you keep even from your beloved, Fantasy. I would not ask unless I must. But I must, and I ask.”
Moon Pie stared at her brother, who stared at nothing. There was something…switched-off…about his expression. The lights were on, but was anypony truly home? Insane or humbled? Bowed or broken? She wasn’t sure and she suspected she was never going to learn the answer.
Tradewind blinked and ducked his head, using a wing to cover his face as he wiped the moisture from his eyes on the feathers. He looked up to Luna, nodding. “O-of course. I promise.”
The Princess nodded in satisfaction, and then it felt like Tradewind had been dumped in ice water that went right through his skin. Jindalee shifted, then made a somehow dignified leap from his perch on Tradewind’s head to a bar stool. From there he gave Smog a critical inspection. The dragon…half-dragon…had an unfathomable expression. Something like resigned sorrow. Tradewind watched as a fat tear rolled down the pink creature’s cheek. Smog was still crying. Tradewind blinked as tears welled up in his own eyes again. Every creature in the Den stared at Smog, unmoving. Nopony seemed to quite dare. Tradewind decided he would break the spell.
It had just never been in him to really hold a grudge. That especially went after a sincere speaking of those magic words: I’m sorry. A dark little voice snarled a refusal inside him but he had its number now. Luna had shown him the truth. That darkness inside him was the voice of his fear. It only had the power he gave it. It couldn’t control him unless he let it. He refused to let it. Slowly stepping forward, he passed Jindalee with a nod and then rounded the far end of the bar. His wing knocked against it, making him wince. Coming face-to-face with Smog, he stopped. Smog had only been a midget for a dragon. He had been bigger than a pony. Even as a dragon-pony, Smog was big. Bigger than his sister, for sure. The only reason they were face-to-face was because Smog’s head drooped. If Smog noticed him, he didn’t show it: staring straight through the grey pegasus with another fat tear rolling down his other cheek.
Tradewind stared back. Smog’s left eye was just like the right. Regenerated. The scars still crossed his face. He wondered if Luna had left them on purpose. Tradewind slowly lifted his right fore-hoof. Smog’s slight twitch surprised him beyond what he had prepared for, and he froze. The moment was electric, like landing on a storm-cloud just itching to let off a bolt. It passed as Smog didn’t bite his head off. It must have been a flinch. The pegasus exhaled and slowly moved his hoof forward again, resting it against Smog’s scarred cheek. Satisfied that he wasn’t about to be vaporized by ravening dragonfire, Tradewind sat on his haunches and lifted his other fore-hoof to Smog’s other cheek. He slowly brought the dragon-pony’s head forward. And down a little more. He made as if to headbutt Smog between the eyes, but in slow motion and without malice. Their foreheads eventually touched. Smog felt as much like a sun-baked rock as Moon Pie did. The little heart-shaped scar on Tradewind’s forehead prickled. Without thinking, barely aware of it, Tradewind made a little noise in the back of his throat. It was a soothing noise. Strange to hear from a pony, though his mother had often made it when he was young and upset.
Smog gave a stifled little sob, almost the noise of a pony dealing with food headed down the wrong tube. Tradewind knew, in a flash of absolute clarity, what that sound meant. Smog might know how to do all kinds of things but it seemed clear he didn’t have the first clue how to go about crying. The tension in the room was suffocating until Jindalee gleefully smashed it to splinters. He gave a snort that would have done justice to a minotaur and started laughing. He laughed so hard he fell over backwards off the bar-stool. It was a high tittering laugh, a raucous someone’s-been-at-the-fermented-nectar giggle that just went on and on. Luna caught him before he face-planted on the black cloud floor and lifted him, still upside-down. A purple bubble winked around the sugar glider and muffled his convulsions of hilarity to something heard at the far end of a long tin tube.
Tradewind held Smog’s head for perhaps forever, both of them silently leaking tears. Smog eventually seemed to wonder if something was expected of him. He whispered: “I’m sorry.”
There was only one possible response. Tradewind closed his eyes in sync with Smog. There was only one thing he could say. He took a precious moment to make absolutely sure he wouldn’t be speaking a lie. Not that he wouldn’t have said it anyway. It was the only kind thing to say. But Tradewind doubted it would help to say it to Smog if he didn’t mean it. Smog had a reputation for spotting liars. Happily, a quick rummage though his heart turned up a massive majority vote in favor.
“I forgive you.”
Smog had always known the distinction between belief and truth. A belief was unsubstantiated. It could be almost certain, with mountains of circumstantial evidence, but only when there was no possible room for doubt did belief become truth. Belief could exist in the absence of truth. He had never really considered the reverse. Hearing what Tradewind just said, he knew it was true. He heard the sincerity. Tradewind meant what he said, which made it true. A pony could be sincere and wrong about some things, but not when it came to their own emotions. Even the ones able to lie to themselves could rarely fool Smog. Tradewind wasn’t a good enough liar to fool him.
That didn’t mean Smog could believe it. It felt dreamlike, unreal. Then again, so did everything. He had just spent an eternity being forced to endure a Grand Tour of every creature he had ever in some way wronged. He had lurked behind their thoughts, a bodiless point of view hurled back in time. He had been powerless but able to follow everything they sensed and felt and thought. He had followed more creatures than he cared to think about into the darkness of death. The ones who lived were often worse. Sometimes decades went by trapped in a single grieving pony, watching them go through life feeling as if their heart had been ripped out. Often they recovered. Eventually. Though that meant becoming strong enough to bear the pain rather than the pain fading. Others broke. Sooner or later he left a pony and entered another. Another and another and another. He often left a pony only to find he had to relive the same events again from a different pony’s perspective.
The memories were all still there, each one a grain of salt for his wounds. His own memories, vast as they were, felt dwarfed. He had learned so much; gained tremendous insights into the minds of thousands of individuals. So many secrets. So much knowledge. Five centuries of history viewed from tens of thousands of perspectives. Mostly around Aura but with outliers scattered across the rest of the world. His understanding of their hearts and the empathy born from it would prevent him from ever using that knowledge for selfish gain. As for willfully causing suffering…just the thought of it provoked actual nausea. He had relived every conversation he ever had from the other side. Seen the cold, calculating cruelty of the monster he had been. Felt the terror and helplessness and pain he had inspired in others. He could never do that again.
After that had been a shorter and far less unpleasant eternity going for a second tour of his life-through-the-eyes-of-others. Not nearly so many perspectives and they tended to not be for as long. Every flash of pride and pleasure when he told some employee they had done good work. The gratitude when he showed them some kind of generosity or kindness or loyalty. Even when some droll observation made a pony laugh. A sickening awareness of his insincerity had made them bittersweet at best. He knew it had all been calculated. Selfish at its rotten heart.
Being forgiven wasn’t the only thing that felt dreamlike. Just being back in his own body and able to move it felt surreal. The massive burden of memories wasn’t easy to manage either. Some burned worse than others. Smog had gotten to experience, right at the start, the death of a mouse. He had caught a mouse when barely more than a hatchling and squeezed it, fascinated by the sounds and how it wiggled. He just hadn’t understood he was hurting it, scaring it. Killing it. The mouse’s last vision had been young Breaking Dawn looking down at it with innocent curiosity. One of the very few evil things he had done without evil intent, to one of the most purely innocent of his victims.
Smog drew back until Tradewind got the message and retreated. Memories of being in the pegasi’s head boiled to the top. Smog had been there to suffer the pain he had caused the stallion, including some truly horrifying hallucinations. He had seen other things while in there. He knew Tradewind forgave him. Really and truly. Whether forgiveness was deserved was up to the forgiver, not the forgiven. The one owed the debt was the one with the power to dissolve it. He just couldn’t believe it. His mind flinched away from accepting it.
Smog had seen into Jindalee a few times. Just glimpses. Flashes of fear, flares of anger. Enough to glean a few insights. Tradewind and Jindalee had rubbed off on each other as childhood friends. Much of the kindly acts done by the Longtails hadn’t been nearly as calculated as Jindalee would prefer his enemies to think. Smog looked toward the sugar glider, still wracked by laughter in a small sound-damping shield. Tradewind had, all unknowing, done exactly what Jindalee had done a few days earlier. It was a huge enough coincidence to trigger amusement.
Old habits died hard, and part of Smog’s mental machinery was still in working order. It had hummed away, indifferent to things like conscience, filing away all the new memories as they came and cross-referencing them in a thousand ways. It had kept going long after his conscious mind had been hammered into numb silence by the relentless parade of his crimes. That organization had probably saved his sanity from the avalanche of memories dumped in his skull. Now another surviving fragment handed him something: a part trained to look for the things that weren’t there. He had wronged Fantasy Longhorn but hadn’t once slipped behind her eyes. Nor the princesses, but he assumed they would have defenses against every imaginable form of mental intrusion. It was a riddle, a mystery. Smog had always felt moved to solve them. He’d always hungered for things to make sense, for everything to fit into some logical pattern. That was why being a half-breed had tormented him: he didn’t fit. There was no place for him.
Smog felt things turning in his mind, slotting into place with the agonizing bliss of stretching out a long-unused muscle. Everything clicked together and there it was, obvious at last: his special talent. Seeing the pattern in the chaos. Seeing the truth among the lies. He’d always had a gift for it. Standing apart, remaining an observer that might manipulate a situation but didn’t like to get involved. That was the missing key, the place he fit: not in the pattern, but observing it. Even old Smog, trying to remain heartlessly detached as he imposed his own idea of order and control, was a warped reflection of that truth.
The tears dried up. Smog doubted he’d ever shake his monster days enough to lose the knack for controlling his emotional reactions. Taking a deep breath, he met Luna’s eyes. Somehow, she knew. Had known. It was obvious to him now. She knew what his talent really was, and that was why she was giving him a chance to atone for his crimes. She saw a way for him to serve Harmony. Smog closed his new left eye and knuckled the lid. That subtle aura of knowing vanished. He looked at her again, and slowly closed his right eye. Moon Pie looked scandalized. She thought he was winking at Luna. He wasn’t. He was doing what he did: investigating something until he understood it. Looking away at a table, he saw…nothing. Just a table. He looked at his sister and wondered if she hated him. As soon as he wondered, he knew she did: in a little corner of her heart she was determined not to feed.
“The new eye you gave me,” Smog said, “has a power.” Looking at Luna with the question in his mind, he knew that she had done it on purpose. How he knew baffled him but it felt like absolute certainty. “Yes?”
“Yes.” Luna said. “The power to see truth.”
“Um, what?” Tradewind said. He had retreated to stand by Moon Pie and draped a wing over her back.
“That has always been his talent.” Luna said. “Truth. Seeking it, seeing it, understanding it. The moment when enlightenment dawns and what was obscure becomes clear. That is the true reason why his one unbreakable rule was to never lie. No matter how deeply you try to bury your true self, it always shines through. In that eye, I have merely given you a tool to bring it into focus. Smog’s eye cannot be fooled by any illusion. He sees it, but knows it for false and knows what it conceals. Even mundane disguises. When reading a written message, he can tell if the creator wrote with a false heart. Even if written upon a typewriter. Looking at seeming chaos, he can see the true order that hides within it.”
Moon Pie muttered. “Sounds perfect for a cop.”
“Do what?” Smog said. “The Imperial Bureau of Investigations?”
Luna looked aside. “Nay, their counterpart in the shadows.”
“I.S.I.” Smog said. Imperial Secret Intelligence. Smog’s ears rose, then fell. “Me?”
“There is need of you.” Luna said. “Your talent for finding the truth and your experience in running a criminal organization could become a potent force of good if directed in the right way. We have need of intelligent creatures capable of thinking like criminals without being one.”
Smog knew that she considered herself one such creature, but hated it. Luna was the princess tasked with overseeing the I.B.I. She was dutiful but far from eager. Luna had the skills but she didn’t truly have the talent, the flair. She wanted someone to take this burden off her shoulders. Someone who would be better at it.
“Set a thief to catch a thief.” Jindalee said. He had recovered at some point and hung in Luna’s magic watching Smog with keen interest. Smog looked at him and knew the sugar glider was worried that he might be the thief Smog was set to catch. His eye didn’t give him details: not the why, just the what. Jindalee made a grand gesture. “Who better to catch the sneakiest of criminals than the sneakiest criminal of all?”
“Exactly.” Luna said.
Smog got up off his rump. He took the eye patch off the bar top and put it on to cover his left eye. He’d had his fill of seeing what lay behind the eyes of others. The power of the eye seemed directed by his mind. Before it showed him an answer, he had to form the question. Asking the right questions was harder than most ponies realized. Smog was no exception. He had misunderstood his father’s warning about the danger of becoming a monster as a warning to hide that he was one. It had been born from Smog’s nagging feeling that he didn’t belong, which led him to assume he must be a monster. He had heard what he expected to hear. Since then Smog had honed his talent for asking the right questions. Too much for comfort. He wished he hadn’t wondered where Luna got her insights into his special talent. It would have been easier not to know that Luna had spoken to his mother. The knowledge put an obligation on him he would have avoided.
It had to wait, for now. “I am yours to command, Your Majesty.” Smog said. He bowed low and formal and, for the first time in his life, with sincere respect. Moon Pie made a croaking sound of utter shock. One foreleg came up to point a trembling claw-tipped finger at him. He had half-spread his leathery wings as part of the bow. That uncovered his flank.
No longer blank. A straight black horizontal line must have represented the horizon. The rayed circle of a golden rising sun sat three-quarters of the way above it. A slit-pupiled green eye filled the disc. Looking at it, Smog realized he wasn’t even surprised. Part of him had already mapped out the symmetries. Moon Pie’s special talent involved the truth too. The truths of mathematics, the laws of nature. Smog saw the truths of living creatures and the patterns of their interactions. They were clutch-mates, more or less twins. Male and female, sun and moon, red and green. Pink being nothing but pale red, and she was pale too. Even their cutie marks both had a circle with something in the middle. Hers had the symbol of pi, his had an eye. They even rhymed.
“Well, that’s sinister-looking.” Tradewind said. His mouth sounded as if working on autopilot.
“Depends,” Jindalee said, “on how you look at it.”
“Six rays.” Moon Pie said.
Smog instantly understood what she meant. So did Luna. Seeming relieved and almost…vindicated, she produced a black wallet and floated it before him. He took and opened it. A badge gleamed up at him. The heat of his claw soon had the little suns and moons on the star’s points glowing. I.S.I. marked the heart of the star in bold black letters.
Imperial Secret Intelligence was indeed the shadow of the Imperia Bureau of Investigations. The badge of both agencies was a polished copper six-pointed star, three rays capped by small suns made of sungold, the alternating three by small crescent moons of moonsilver. All had the same protections against magic that sought to cloud the mind or fool the senses. The black letters in the heart of the star had an S or B between the I’s. That was the only difference. Even then the font could leave the S mistaken for a B at a glance. A subtle glamor reinforced it. Few ponies saw the S unless the badge owner wanted them to. Children, the less-than-sane, and those with a knack for seeing what was really there. When working in the open, I.S.I. agents often posed as I.B.I. Their badges were made for that fiction.
Smog wouldn’t be doing anything in public ever again. The world had to believe he was dead and he honestly had to admit a sense of relief about that. This was about atonement, not fame or glory. He felt his mind ease back from the brink of collapse. The terrible burden of guilt didn’t get any lighter but he felt a little stronger. More able to bear it. The memories of the good he had done floated like embers in the vast black sea of the evil ones. Far more darkness than light but it was the embers that held beauty. Like stars in the sky.
The future stretched out before him, empty of pleasure but filled with purpose. Living with the crushing weight of all his crimes was never going to be fun. It didn’t seem so impossible to face tomorrow if he looked at it as an opportunity to do somepony a good deed. Or multiple ponies. The sky of his heart was always going to be black. It was always going to be hard to keep going. He’d probably never know a single moment of true peace in his mind or heart no matter how long he lived. As long as he could keep adding stars to that sky, he knew he’d be able to face the prospect of tomorrow.
Without a word, Smog put the badge away under a wing.
“Now we talk.” Luna said. Lifting one of the tables huddling near the walls of the room, she moved it to the center and sat behind it. “You said you would share all you know of the contingency plans set to cause chaos upon your vanishing. I would find this knowledge most useful.”
“That will take a while.” Smog said. Luna set Jindalee on the table. Tradewind and Moon Pie exchanged a glance before taking the sides flanking Luna’s. That left one for him. He took it. “There’s a mare in my office. I assume you are the one to put her to sleep.” It was an assumption, with his left eye covered. He could have looked and simply known. That would have been rude.
“She shall come to no harm from her sleep, no matter how long it may last. Time within the city chases its tail. When she wakes, she will believe you have vanished into thin air.”
Smog started to construct an idea of what Luna had done. If he was right, it was brilliant, and likely to counter almost all of his insurance policies. More proof of his arrogance, assuming the princesses held back from removing him because they couldn’t do it. It was simply that they disliked taking action with such a heavy hoof. Trampling the rights of their subjects, casting spells on them without their permission…the princesses didn’t lightly do such things. As long as he was generally a force for order and prosperity in Aura, the necessary evils that must be done to defeat him had still outweighed the evil he did. Fully nine-tenths of Aura and Shadowville, all through the centuries, had never been seriously touched by his evil. Smog was grateful for small mercies. Even a tenth of all the ponies to live in a large city over multiple centuries still added up to an enormous number.
Taking out his new badge, he looked at it again. In his head, an insanely elaborate construct took shape. The web of things he had arranged to trigger if he fell from power. “Where do I start? Financial, political, social?”
Luna gave that some thought while teleporting in a tea service from elsewhere. “The current state of decay in Aura’s governing body should do as a starting point. I need to decide who deserves a pardon and who deserves a cell.” Pouring tea, she looked at the other three present. “This is likely to be a very long, dull, and unpleasant conversation. Should you wish, I am willing to put you into dreamless sleep until it is time for the city to awaken.” Smog added another point of data in line with his suspicion of Luna’s plan. Then he sipped his tea. Even in a very long life, he had never tasted better. Luna teleported in a fat scroll that appeared to be blank, along with a bundle of quills and a net bag of inkpots. They came from elsewhere inside her enormous circle. Even her magic couldn’t have reached beyond it without ending the spell. “You may ask for sleep at any time. Until then, interruptions are acceptable should you believe you have something to add. Better to risk voicing a foolish idea than to risk withholding a good idea for fear of it being scorned.”
“How long will they dream?” Moon Pie said.
“Perhaps a week as they see it. The dream moves more slowly on the inside. Else I could never hope to observe everything within it that needs observing. It shall be subjective months for we who are awake. Things like food and sleep will not needed.”
“I…would rather sleep through that.” Jindalee said. He sounded rather amused. “Perhaps a few months doesn’t rate for long-lived beings, but I’d go loopy. Not yet. I’ll stick it out until the boredom gets too much. I’d love to hear what Smog’s devious mind cooked up.”
Tradewind gave Smog an odd look, as if wondering about this change from a broken wretch to quiet confidence. It was, of course, an act. But it was a superb act backed by long practice and iron willpower. He might feel like curling up and sobbing but that wouldn’t help anypony. Remaining calm and telling Luna about the mess she was going to unravel, would. There was a core of truth to the seeming. His cutie mark had finally appeared. He finally knew his true talent, purpose, and destiny. Smog…Breaking Dawn…finally knew who he was supposed to be. All those wasted centuries was a single regret among millions. Now that he knew what he was meant to do, he wasn’t going to waste even more time moaning about how awful he felt. There was a city full of ponies who would soon be suffering unless he did something to help stop it. He was finally doing the right thing for the right reason, and it felt…right.
Taking another sip of tea, he focused on his mental flow chart of the current government. “Time to fix the mess I made.”
The nearest Luna vanished. Fantasy assumed they all had, all over Aura and Shadowville. The vanishing had the look of a teleport rather than an illusion being dispelled. She wondered if that meant anything. The princesses practiced magic on a level beyond anything she had ever studied even as pure theory. There was that old story about the Mirror Pond or Mirror Pool, but these Lunas had seemed too…conjoined for that. They had all spoken as one, in perfect harmony across Aura above and Shadowville below.
The crowd began to disperse, a quiet undercurrent of conversation humming through it. Some seemed thoughtful, others seemed more animated. A noticeable fraction appeared worried. Fantasy kept close to the rest of her family as they waited. They weren’t in any particular hurry to go anywhere so they had decided for the crowds to thin before heading home. Many ponies seemed more eager to get back to the lives that Luna’s arrival had disrupted. Some seemed to be waiting for the same reason as the Longhorns. More had begun to clump up in smaller groups to discuss what Luna had said.
To Fantasy, it had been an anticlimax. The civil war in Dust was a tragedy. It was the moral obligation of all the citizens of the Equestrian Empire to show kindness and generosity to the refugees fleeing the country. That was it. Luna had padded it out, gone into details, but that was what it all boiled down to. That seemed enough for most. Fantasy had been expecting…more. A public announcement of Smog’s arrest, maybe. A request for everypony to remain calm; that panic would only make the coming disruptions even worse. Was it possible Luna really had come here just to make the speech she had made? Was Fantasy reading too much into it, seeing deeper layers where none existed?
That soon became a background worry. Fantasy had a tremendous, dizzying sense of déjà vu. Her clairvoyant power had felt similar. That made her nervous. Was this feeling some re-surfacing of that power? Fantasy knew déjà vu was just a brain-derp: mis-identfying new experiences as remembered things. She was still recovering from having her head messed with without her consent. This was a new twist for her, but déjà vu was on Doctor Zeitgeist’s list of symptoms she might experience. It beat the hoof out of paranoid hallucinations, at least…
To prove it was nothing, Fantasy decided to test it. Her brother wasn’t great at keeping quiet for extended periods. It didn’t take a crystal ball to predict he’d say something soon. Fantasy felt sure she knew what he was going to say before he said it, though she couldn’t bring the details to mind. Watching Punctuality from the corner of her eye, she waited for him to speak. She would speak at the exact same time. When what she said didn’t match what he did, she would have proven this feeling was…
Punctuality stirred and inhaled.
“Can we go already?”
Punctuality and Fantasy stared at each other. He looked surprised, shading to suspicion. She had exactly imitated his words and intonation. Fantasy stared back with sheer brain-numbing shock, shading to dread. She had exactly imitated his words and intonation. Not a hair behind him. Not even in harmony. She had been a little ahead. Tankard and Berry looked back and forth between their children. Then their father made a snorting laugh. “Great minds think alike? Yeah, okay. Let’s brave the busy streets. Better slow progress than no progress?”
He exchanged an amused look with Berry, who rubbed her nose against his with a chuckle. Punctuality, careful not to let his parents see, mimed shoving a hoof down his throat. Normally Fantasy would have needed to pass a laugh off as a cough. Right now she didn’t feel like laughing. The four of them headed out of the open plaza where they’d joined at least a thousand other unicorns and earth ponies there to hear Luna speak. Punctuality kept quiet, giving her little looks now and then. Fantasy’s déjà vu persisted. Everything that happened felt as if it had all happened before. Even her testing it, and the outcome, and the events that had unfolded from that complaining duet.
Fantasy tried to keep calm, but this was beginning to seriously freak her out. It was if she had been given the ability to perfectly see into the future…but only a half-second ahead. There was a terrible sense of inevitability, of ironclad fate. No matter what she did, no matter how zany or impulsive it might be, could be spontaneous. Even the sense of panic squirming in the back of her mind was fated. It was all in some script; her apparent ability to read a few words ahead of everypony else did nothing but make her aware that they were all puppets on strings. A hint of bile crawled across her tongue as a possibility crept across her thoughts.
It was almost unthinkable. Not too long ago, it probably would have been. The possibility she now considered would never have occurred to her. Since Smog had entered her life she’d had her mind opened to wider horizons of possibility. Unpleasant ones, for the most part. The darkness was out there, and inside her too. She refused to let it control her but she couldn’t ignore it either. So she had the thought, though it felt disloyal to the point of treasonous: is Luna doing this? Had she swapped out a gentle glamor of soothing calm for something that put the future of the city on a pair of shiny little rails?
If it was so Luna could arrest Smog but prevent the city from being torn apart by his ‘insurance policies,’ then…Fantasy could understand the necessity. Even forgive it. Maybe. After she had some time to get used to the idea. The sensation of being stripped of her free will was a deeply unpleasant one. It was entirely too familiar. She had looped back to the night-that-never-happened twice now. Once with Morhoof, once with Tradewind. Acted it out, aware it was wrong but unable to stop herself. If the situation got too similar to the opening scenes of those false memories, she dropped right onto the rails Smog had laid in her mind and rolled along them to the end.
By the time they got back to the Brass Hoof, Fantasy trembled on the edge of what felt like a full-blown nervous breakdown. The only thing that kept her from giving in was the bone-deep certainty that she wasn’t going to give in. She felt like she had suffered this crisis before and managed to keep her head. So she would this time, because she had to. Everything she did was what fate decreed. Even her attempts to defy it only served it. She was incapable of going off-script. That almost tempted her to let the hysteria have her.
Of course, only almost. Her inner darkness was down there, waiting. A pit that would definitely swallow her but made no promises about letting her back out. Of course this didn’t have to be some dark spell cast by Luna. It could all just be in her head. Her fragile mind might be showing new cracks. ‘Paranoid hallucinations here I come.’ she thought. ‘All aboard the Crazy Train for Locoville.’
“I’ll be in my room.” Fantasy said. It came out sounded bizarrely casual. The pervasive sense of déjà vu continued undiminished.
“That’s fine, sweetie.” Tankard said. “Your mother and I need to have a talk with your brother about pranks. We’ll be up in the parlor, all right?”
Punctuality seemed to have forgotten about that in all the excitement of seeing Luna. Fantasy got a glimpse of his sudden shamefaced grin as she fled for the stairs. Her own shame chased her up them all the way to her room and curled up in bed with her. It was her fault. She had set him up. At least she had confessed it. Mom knew. There was trouble headed her way too.
A voice hit her like a bag of wet sand. “Fantasy Longhorn.”
Fantasy leapt to her hooves with a scream of fright. Or rather, it tried to be one but all that came out was a little squeak as her throat locked up. A sense of double-vision hit her, only it embraced all her senses. She was curled up on her bed in her room, all alone. She was also standing on her bed in her room and she was not alone.
Princess Luna sat in one corner, Mister Billy the goat doll balanced atop a raised fore-hoof. It dangled its legs in a relaxed fashion.
Even Fantasy’s voice came out doubled, in the sense that in half of her split awareness, it didn’t come out. “What the hay!?”
“You are both awake and asleep.” Luna said. “Awake in that you remain aware of your physical senses and surroundings. Asleep in that you dream. I could not visit you in the flesh. I am truly sorry for the distress I have caused you, but our need to meet was too great. If you would permit, I can bring you more fully into a dreaming state.”
Fantasy plopped onto her rump. The full body double-vision thing was starting to make her nauseated. “I have a big corundum here.”
“What color?” Luna said. She seemed puzzled.
“What?” Fantasy said. “What do you mean, what color?”
Luna tipped her head to one side. “What?”
Fantasy gave her head a shake and planted her fore-hooves on the floor, though she also remained curled up motionless on the bed. “You might be real, or you might be a hallucination. Asking if you’re real is a waste of time; a hallucination would claim to be real too.”
Enlightenment seemed to dawn for Luna. “Oh, a conundrum.”
“That’s what I said. Tell me something I can’t possibly know but will learn later. That way, if it comes true, I know you were real. Until then I’ll provisionally accept your reality, unless you ask me to do something that’s not sensible. I am determined to act sensible if I possibly can.”
“There is a flaw in your logic. You have past experience with knowing things you should not have been able to know. Anything a hallucination might say, even if it should prove true, could be drawn from an inner source.”
“I…” Fantasy stared at Luna, fore-hoof raised and mouth hanging open. “Okay. A hallucination trying to fool me into thinking it’s real wouldn’t have said something like that. So if you’re a part of me, it’s a part of me that’s trying to be helpful. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I can’t do…that…anymore.”
“Indeed not, Fantasy Longhorn. That power was granted by a…force, if you will. I could sense if it was still within you. That force comes from outside.”
“Outside of me?”
“Outside of our reality.” Luna said. She used a rather matter-of-fact tone for saying something like that. “The spectator sees more of the game than the players, it is said. A perspective from outside reality can perceive reality in ways we who are within it can never hope to do.”
“Okay, pull me into the dream.” Fantasy said. Luna gave a nod and Fantasy lost all sense of being curled up on her bed. She sat on the bed and held her head between her hooves. “That’s hard to handle even without doubled perspective. You’re telling me my brain was seeing reality from the outside looking in?”
“In a very limited way, yes. Other ponies in the past have suffered a similar…insanity. No truly sane pony can push their mind beyond the walls of reality. Many strange abilities can manifest in one whose mind has moved past that wall.”
“Like Pinkie Pie?” Fantasy said.
It was half a joke, but Luna didn’t laugh. “Yes. She could do things even I or my sister cannot. Teleport to the inside of a mailbox?” Luna smiled. “I would be crushed, even if I managed it. To her, reality was…flexible.”
“So Pinkie Pie really was certifiably crazy?”
“Crazy, yes. Insane, no. There is a saying. Laugh or go mad?” Luna looked down at Mister Billy, or a dream of the doll. “Your ability to write of events in other places, even to the thoughts of the one experiencing them, is gone from you. I am certain it will never return.” The princess’s manner turned more regal, a down-to-business kind of pose. “A level of sensitivity remains. You are not hallucinating. If anything you are prone to the opposite extreme, that of seeing aspects of reality that most ponies do not. I knew you would be more affected than most by the aftereffects of my actions. You feel it.”
Fantasy nodded, still holding her head in her hooves. “Crushing déjà vu. Well. Not anymore. Not in this dream.”
“We are…backstage, as it were.” Luna said. “I knew you would soon manage a deviation on your own. A deviation being inevitable, I chose to come and enlighten you. If you understand why you should…play along…then your awareness that things are…scripted…might not cause major disruption.” Luna appeared to be choosing her words with care.
“So this is a huge fate spell or something?”
“Nay, for that would be mass involuntary compulsion, and slowly drive everypony affected to insanity.”
Taking a deep breath, Luna fixed her eyes on the goat doll she held and began to speak. Within three sentences Fantasy’s jaw had begun to dangle. It stayed dropped right to the end. “So you see; your déjà vu is an awareness of the dream I was unable to completely seal from your consciousness. I even caused the dreamers to feel déjà vu within the dream so that even this influence would be the same once they awoke. Things must play out the same way so that I may predict what will happen, and so avert the disaster I watched unfold. The unconscious memories of the dream shall help ensure it does. Ponies will have their actions guided into doing what it feels right to do. A large enough disruption could still undo it. I only need a day or two. Not enough time for tiny deviations to gain momentum. After things begin to significantly diverge, I must return to reacting to events as they unfold.”
Fantasy closed her mouth. “Um. Okay? I can let the déjà vu guide me. No making waves. Play it through until things stop feeling like they’re scripted. Right. What about Smog?”
“He is gone from Aura.” Luna said. “He shall not return.”
“You said. That’s all you said. Is he dead, arrested, did he run away? Did you transform him into a public toilet seat, what?” After it came out of her mouth, Fantasy wondered where that had come from.
Luna’s deep green eyes narrowed, but not in anger. “If you would know, you must consent to a binding that would forever prevent you from sharing it with another. You would not even be able to admit you know but cannot say.”
“No thanks. I’m sick of secrets.” Her curiosity raised a strenuous objection but she sat on it.
Luna looked aside. “I do not require a binding promise, but it would be best if you don’t share what I have revealed. It is for the best that what I have done in Aura this day remains…secret. Revealing the truth would serve no useful purpose and might well do considerable harm.”
“To your reputation.” Fantasy said.
She hadn’t actually meant to accuse, but Luna bristled. “Smog deliberately arranged a situation whereby no purely ethical solution could remove him from power. Forgive me for attempting to limit the damage caused by the line I crossed.”
Fantasy nodded. “No, I know. I understand, believe me. Legal, necessary, moral: sometimes the best you can do is two out of three. It sucks.”
“Indeed.” Luna said. “I beg your pardon for my churlishness. It has been a very long day for me, and it is not yet done. Tradewind is within Aura.”
“Whoa, what? Really?”
“He delivered the cursed urn to me at Smog’s request. I brought him here with me when I came. Yes, there is more to it than that. There are secrets he is bound not to share. Not even with you. I know you are not a mare to let a mystery stand uninvestigated. I hope you are a mare who can let a loose thread remained un-pulled if she knows that tugging upon it can lead to nothing good.”
Fantasy took a second to untangle that. “He knows more than he can tell me. If I keep bugging him about it it’ll just frustrate us both. There are things he can’t tell me. Even if he wants to. It might drive a wedge between us. You want me to just let it go. Accept that I’m better off not knowing.”
“You could know. Again I offer: consent to a binding of silence and I shall tell you everything he might, were his tongue free.”
“If I decide not to know, I at least know it was a choice?”
“But if I choose to know it, at least we’ll both know. Even if we can’t talk about it. I’ll know what happened, same as him. He won’t be bugged by an urge to tell me what he can’t tell me if I know it already.”
“You would not be able to tell him you also know it.”
“But you could, right?”
“I cannot. I have already interfered more than I strictly must in order to avert this crisis. You mentioned morality, necessity, and legality? I have already moved beyond the borders of moral behavior by my interference with an entire city’s dreams. This meeting with you comes very close to the edge of what I may legally do even with emergency powers. Two out of three is forgivable. One out of three is not.”
“Why make the exception at all?”
“I would not see my actions be the reason your and Tradewind’s love should founder and fail. The pegasus has ‘commitment issues.’ He fears to embrace his love for you. He fears to love you for fear of the pain if he then lost you.”
“But if he…I mean. If he avoids me, runs away, he loses me anyway, and is miserable anyway. If he loves me, he only maybe loses me. Even if he does, he gets all the days between now and then. Which he won’t if he runs.”
Luna rolled her eyes, and when she spoke her tone was drier than desert sand. “He also fears that, if he stays with you, he will hurt you. Ponies in love are not famed for rational thinking. By all means, make the point you made to me when you see him tomorrow. It may even work.”
“Tomorrow?” Fantasy tried not to sound like a disappointed filly, and failed.
Luna smiled and suddenly Mister Billy draped across Fantasy’s head rather than the alicorn’s fore-hoof. “He was not within the shared dream. He cannot be permitted to interact with those who were. Not in the first crucial day. Once things begin to diverge, one more random factor shall cause no issues.”
“I will see him tomorrow?” Fantasy pulled her treasured foal-hood doll down off her head and hugged it. “Promise?”
Luna smiled with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “I promise.” The twinkle faded but a hint of it remained. “This is your last chance. Thrice I ask and done, as we once put it. Will you choose to know the fate of Smog, and be bound to take that secret to your deathbed? To the world his fate must remain a mystery. Once you know, you may wish that you did not. The truth might displease you.”
Fantasy looked within, consulting her heart. This struck her as the kind of thing where being rational was overrated. “Tradewind knows. I have to know too. Even if I can’t ever tell him that I know. Even if, no: especially if it’s terrible. I need to share his burden so I can understand it.” Fantasy took a deep breath and hugged Mister Billy tight. “So hit me with it.”
Luna did. By the end of it, Fantasy didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or be sick. One thing she did know, she loved Tradewind even more than before. “Thank you.”
“For making it so that spell on Smog ignored me.”
“I wish I could claim my motives were pure.” Luna said. “Yes, I do feel that your mind has already been violated too much by Smog. I am glad to have spared you from further invasion of your privacy. I also feared what might happen should Smog’s time-traveling consciousness touch yours during the time when a splinter of unreality remained lodged within it. Tempus Redux is a safe form of time-travel because the observer is only that: an observer. They can view the past in safety because they have no power to influence it. There is no risk of a temporal paradox. Usually.”
“Wow.” Fantasy stared past Luna. “I mean. Yikes.”
“Yikes indeed, Fantasy. Other exceptions were made. Smog’s mother. I visited her not long ago. I needed to learn about Smog before he became…Smog. In exchange she demanded to know what I knew. Learning what her son did to her daughter…she hates him now as only a wronged dragon can hate. They hoard their grudges more jealously than their gems. If Smog ever learns of her hate, it shall not be my doing. I knew his punishment might break him. I knew that experiencing his mother’s fresh hatred of him, coming near the end of his punishment, would break him. Most of the other exclusions were for security reasons. I have contingency plans in place if Smog somehow escapes my control and returns to evil. I cannot imagine how he might do that, but that may merely be a failure of imagination. Only a fool assumes that she can see all possible outcomes. He cannot know of those plans, and so he was spared from suffering all the headaches and frustration he has caused me.”
“Okay. Tradewind and other others chose to sleep out the months of not-really-time when the circle was up.” She found it difficult to wrap her head around that kind of magic. “I guess you’re just going to keep them asleep and out of the way until they can’t hurt anything by being awake?”
“Yes, except for Berta. Excuse me, Moon Pie. I have already sent her back to the home she has found and the stallion she loves. There was no need to delay that reunion. Nothing she does from there can affect Aura enough to matter. Not in the next day or two. Especially not since she understands the need to avoid dramatic action. Jindalee Longtail’s inexplicable vanishing, coupled with Smog’s, would likely cause consternation in Freeport. The dream let me identify every covert way his agents in Aura will send word of his disappearance there. The attempts shall only appear to succeed. By the time they learn otherwise, Jindalee shall have reappeared.”
Fantasy groaned. “No more. My head hurts.”
Luna gave a heavy sigh. “Mine as well, and my headaches are just beginning. Aura will remain troubled for a time despite all my efforts. I must remain here until it stabilizes.”
Looking down at Mister Billy, Fantasy spoke. She wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, only that she had to say it. “If I can help, I want to.”
Luna smiled. “Thank you, Miss Longhorn. Perhaps I will think of a way. Your willingness to help was in itself helpful to my mood. But now you should awaken. In a few moments your mother shall enter and request the sordid details of your manipulation of Punctuality.”
“I’ll go with the flow.” Fantasy bowed, remembering her manners. “Your Majesty.”
Luna inclined her head in a regal nod. Standing, she rapped her fore-hoof on the floor three times. It had a strange echo, seeming to come from behind Fantasy as well. Luna spoke, and her voice also had an echo. “Honey? It’s me.”
Fantasy awoke: a smooth transition rather than a jolt. Her eyes slid open and the dream evaporated. A hoof knocked on her bedroom door three more times. “Fantasy?” Berry said. “We need to talk.”
Fantasy sat up, starting to speak…and paused. She held Mister Billy snuggled against her. Fantasy looked over at where she had left him, guarding her inkwell on her desk. Down at the doll again. “Nice trick. Was I sleepwalking?”
Berry spoke through the door. “Sugar-beet. Are you okay?”
“Fine, mom! I’m coming!” She gave Mister Billy a kiss and set him on her pillow. Shaking her mane into something more orderly, she let the sense of déjà vu guide her movements as she headed for the door. It was like moving through a dance she knew by heart. ‘Time to face the music.’ she thought.
For a mare facing a fair degree of parental disapproval, it was a rather cheerful thought.
After the third cup of the tea Flambé kept urging on her, Fleur realized she had stopped shivering. Shrugging off the blanket draped around her, she put her hoof over her cup before Flambé could top it up again. “He’s gone.” she said.
One those terrible words were out, the rest emerged in an unstoppable flood. Though she managed to divert its path around certain subjects. Flambé listened with growing agitation until it clearly took all his effort not to interrupt. He managed it. Fleur eventually wound down. “And then he was gone. No flash, no sound. No warning at all. I even looked behind the desk despite knowing he’s too big to hide back there.” She sniffed and it turned into a hiccup. “The next thing I knew I was in here having hysterics all over you.”
Flambé looked around the kitchen. “Think we should run?”
“No.” Fleur said.
“I actually agree. It would look guilty.”
“Guilty? Luna stole Smog out of his office! The Imperial Mint doesn’t have security that good! I was in there too. Luna must have heard everything we said. She knows we’re guilty. I am, anyway.”
“I’m worried about Smog’s employees. You were there when Smog vanished. If you and your brother are then seen trying to flee the city, they will wonder why, and want to ask us.”
“They might want to do that anyway.”
“I know.” Sinking onto a stool, Flambé poured himself some tea. He drained it in one long pull. Fleur rolled her tongue and realized he had spiked the tea he gave her. A weak flutter of outrage bloomed and died. Her brother looked tired and afraid and she suddenly knew how he would look when he was old. Heaving a sigh, he made as if to hurl the cup before gently setting it down. “At least if we don’t seem guilty, they’ll ask politely the first time. Those are the rules. Tell them the truth, sister. It doesn’t incriminate you.”
Fleur picked up her teacup and set it back down, though she had no idea why. “Shouldn’t we tell somepony? Not just wait?”
“Who? Doctor Blue Shield? All our contacts are low-level. If we use them, word will spread up the chain, but down it too and sideways as well. I don’t think telling the whole city he’s gone is a very smart idea.”
“I didn’t tell you everything. Smog has changed. He-”
Flambé raised a hoof to stop her from continuing. “Are you supposed to be telling me this?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore-”
“Are you sure of that?”
“You can’t un-tell me. Wait until you’re sure.”
His eyes lifted to hers. “Fleur. Is it important enough to risk me being killed for knowing too much? Or worse. I’m attached to my skin. I want it to stay attached to me.”
Grinding her teeth, she yanked the teapot toward her and filled her cup. “Fine. Low blow, brother.”
“Of course.” He held his cup out and she filled it too. “If Luna really has snatched Smog…I hope she’s ready to deal with what comes next. For everypony’s sake.”
Fleur lifted her cup. Flambé tapped his against it in a somber mockery of the usual tradition of glass-chiming. They drank.
Straightening his tie, Icepick shifted the book under his left wing. The big pegasus felt more nervous than he had the first time he went on a date. Probably more. He was stone cold sober this time. He wanted a drink and he knew he couldn’t have one. This was not going according to plan. He was supposed to have shown up for the book-reading and book-signing shindig up at some Barns and Royal up in Aura. Even bought a nice suit so he’d look all right and slicked his mane back with some flower-smelling grease stuff. Then Luna showed up and it was cancelled. He guessed, anyway. When he showed up there at six o’clock sharp the store had been doing what he guessed was its usual thing. Icepick didn’t know what fancy bookstores were supposed to be like. Fantasy Longhorn sure hadn’t been there.
It was like Luna’s showing up drove it out of everypony’s heads.
So here he was in Shadowville. In a bar that was like something out of a movie set back in the Olden Days of Your. ‘Your’ what, he had never understood. Your Ancestors? The one time he asked, the pony he asked had laughed at him. So Icepick had punched him. This wasn’t a good part of the town either. Especially not for a pegasus, alone, after dark, in a pretty expensive suit. The coat hid his wings and his size made most ponies assume he was an earth pony. Even with the dark blue body, white mane, and violet eyes that were more pegasus kinds of coloring. He could handle himself in a fight too. Of course he could. But he was here to deliver a letter that Smog might not be happy to see delivered. This was not a good time to get in a barfight. This was not a good time to draw attention.
Icepick rubbed at his nose. He really needed a drink.
A flustered female voice spoke, making him aware of the presence in front of the corner table he’d claimed. “Sorry for the wait, sir, we’re really busy tonight and you were sitting over here so quiet I just sort of overlooked you.”
Looking up, Icepick stared at the perky all-purple unicorn smiling at him. Then he had to remind himself he was married. Not exactly happily married at the moment but a lot better than when Moonshine had kicked him out. She was happy he wasn’t really dead. He could tell. So he was sleeping on the couch for a while. Okay. She needed to pay him back for making her think he was dead. Even if that had totally been Smog’s doing, and what was he supposed to have done, snuck her a letter when Smog told him not to?
The reason he was here tonight reared up and kicked him square in the onions. Fumbling out his copy of The Requiem of Lightning, he hesitated between offering it to her and setting it on the table. Then he set it down. “Um, I showed up for the book signing earlier but-”
Fantasy Longhorn’s magic vanished and dropped her little waitress order-taker book thing on the floor. She didn’t seem to notice. “Oh…poop! That was today? That was today! This afternoon! Luna…” She spoke the name of the Princess of the Night the way Icepick had heard Moonshine say his name after she found all those empty beer bottles in the bathroom sink. Kind of a growl that promised trouble.
“Nopony remembered.” Icepick said. “Um. Except me, I guess.” His ears fell. That made him sound like a creep. “I just…it’s because I promised a friend of mine I’d try and get you to sign his copy and mail it back to him.” And that sounded like a creep lying so he didn’t sound like a creep. “I mean, it wasn’t like you left everypony hanging. That would be worse, right? Yeah, I guess it’s Luna’s fault, everypony just forgot about it.”
Fantasy snatched her order-taker off the floor. Pulling the pencil free of its little clip, she gave it a look and bit her lip. “Look, I will sign it, but I want to do it right. In ink, I mean. Just stay here, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Not long after she vanished, another waitress came out and started working the crowd. This unicorn mare was also all-purple but done in really pale shades. Her cutie mark was of bubbles. It fit. She was one of those bouncy giggly life-of-the-party types. Icepick ordered a glass of lemonade he didn’t want just to make her go away. He liked his mares with some grit and gumption, as his granddad used to put it. Icepick was stupid, and he knew it. Maybe it was wrong for him not to like stupid mares for being stupid, but he did. Bubble-brains like this mare made his head hurt. Give him a mare that could out-cuss, out-drink, and out-think him.
In fact, he already had one. That made him smile.
When Fantasy returned, Icepick’s ears perked up without him telling them to. He forced them down and tried to act like he didn’t care. Fantasy saw the other mare and her jaw dropped.
“Bubbles Imogene Longhorn!”
Whatever that special tone was, known to mothers, wives, and teachers everywhere, Fantasy nailed it. The room didn’t go dead quiet but it got pretty hushed. Bubbles turned and smiled, the only one in the room who didn’t realize she was in trouble. “Hey, cuz! Like, this barmaid stuff is totally easier than you said it was. Nopony’s even tried to feel me up.”
Now dead silence fell.
Rubbing between her closed eyes with a fore-hoof, Fantasy used the other to point to the door leading in back of the front room. She didn’t say a word. Bubbles scowled but seemed to think better of arguing. She flounced out, and it was a real flounce. A chicken on springs couldn’t have beat her.
“Did she shortchange anypony?” Fantasy said. She sounded as if she hated to ask but felt she must.
Nopony volunteered that they had been cheated. Fantasy left it at that. The crowd took a minute or two to get back to the same hum as before, and only mostly made it. Fantasy took orders and ferried drinks, and she finally stopped at his table. Taking in his drink, she raised an eyebrow. “Hard lemonade?”
“No. I stopped drinking.”
Fantasy smiled at him. He kicked himself in one hind ankle with the other hind hoof. Married. She pulled a quill and a bottle of ink out of her apron’s pocket. “Well, as a pony I have to say I respect your decision. As a waitress in a bar…” She chuckled and he had to laugh as well. “Who do I make it out to?”
“Uh, just your name is fine.” She signed the book on the inside of the front cover instead of one of those strange blank pages some books had near the front and back. Icepick looked down and froze when he realized the letter was lying there in plain sight, exposed when she opened the book. He didn’t remember tucking it in there. “Uh, that’s for you.”
Fantasy gave him a stare. If the look had been any sharper it would have shaved his slicked-back mane off his head. He stared back, aware his ears were back and down as far as they could go. Fantasy never looked away from him as her magic lifted the smudgy envelope and tucked it away along with her quill and ink bottle. Finally her eyes released his. When she spoke it seemed to be to herself. “This stupid table is jinxed or something, I swear it is…” She walked away without another word.
Icepick almost closed the book before remembering the ink might still be wet. It was. He sipped lemonade as he waited for it to stop glistening so he could close it and get out of here. By the time he could close it he remembered that he had to stay longer so it wouldn’t look like he’d been here just to have her sign the book. Taking another drink, he choked on it. He barely managed to spit most of it back into the glass.
Lemonade! How in the bloody hay had he managed to drink a whole half a glass of it without remembering the special lemonade that Agent Green had made? He’d sworn to himself he’d never drink the stuff again, and here he was.
Yup: stupid. Icepick rubbed his nose again and paused mid-scratch. A burly older griffin at a nearby table was giving him the old hairy eyeball. He couldn’t read books that great but he knew when a creature was hoping tonight’s fun would include a fight. Once, Icepick would have asked the birdbrain what he was looking at. Once, he would have been fine with pounding the griffin into new and unusual shapes. That was before he’d met Xero…and Miss Ossuary. The griffin didn’t scare him. He didn’t even annoy him. Icepick stared back. If the griffin started anything, his plan was to put him down hard and fast, then run for the door.
To his surprise, the griffin suddenly got very interested in inspecting his drink. Leaving the money that Bubbles had forgotten to ask for, he paused and then left double. Tucking away the book, he wound his way through the crowded room to the door. Outside, even under the permanent cloud cover, the air had that autumn-night bite that said winter was coming. It hit Icepick like a much-needed slap to the face after the muggy heat of the bar.
There was a bench along the front wall. Icepick sat down on it and just breathed the air for a while. All the fear he’d been choking down while in there came out now and he was too shaky to fly right away. After a minute the door opened so light and noise poured out. A griffin slipped out and the door shut. That griffin. Their eyes met. Icepick slipped a hoof into his new coat, not even trying to make it look casual.
The griffin hopped back like a startled crow. “Hey, now!”
“Not. In. The. Mood.” Icepick said. He’d always reacted to being scared by getting angry, and here it came. Guaranteed to make him feel better…and make him even stupider.
“Yeah, sure. I don’t want no trouble, dude. Just to talk.”
Icepick kept his hoof in his coat. “So talk.”
“You look like one of the ‘in crowd.’ Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
The griffin’s head swiveled like an owl’s. He even looked up to check the edges of the nearby roofs. “Look, I’ll be straight. I’ve been hearing rumors that Mister Big is gone. Just gone. Like, poof. Is it true?”
Mister Big? “You mean Smog?”
The griffin acted like Icepick had pulled out a crossbow and pointed it at him. He cringed and raised his forelegs. “Hey, whoa! Straight talk is one thing but come on, dude! If he’s gone then it’s, like, really not smart to admit you’re in the know about him, ya know? If the cops find out…”
Icepick rubbed at his nose with the hoof not inside his coat. Yep, he was stupid. Took him this long to notice. “No cops could be around without me knowing.”
“Yeah. It’s a knack. I always know when cops are around. Makes my nose itch.” Icepick met the griffin’s eyes and rubbed his nose again. Saw that little flicker. Icepick slowly pulled out his hoof, empty. He didn’t have anything to pull out but a book, anyway. “I don’t know nothing, I haven’t seen nothing, I didn’t do nothing, I know my rights, am I under arrest?” He said them in a bored monotone, hopefully.
The twitchy act vanished as the griffin stood taller. “Yeah, I’m a cop. Technically. Special Crimes. Know what that means?”
He did. Enough, anyway. “I’m gonna say no.”
“I figured you might know something. The boss funded her book getting published. Solid rumor says she’s important to him somehow, even has some serious talent playing bodyguard for her. Scary dude, wooden leg, very tight with the big guy. Probably a show-stopper.” Slang for assassin. “Rumor was he even got himself committed so he could watch her while she was in the nut-hatch herself. I came here hoping to talk to him. Then you’re there, looking toff and walking tough, chatting it up with her. I’m serious. Things are getting hairy. If he’s just lying low because Luna was in town, it would really help if I could tell the lads he’s still taking care of business, follow me? Do you know what’s gonna go down if he’s really gone?”
“No.” Icepick said. Though his own personal worries would go away if Smog really was gone forever.
The griffin cop, and a bent cop was still a cop, studied him for a long moment. “I believe you. Crap. No way are you high up on the food chain if you don’t know that. Maybe you’re a runner for somepony important? If you are, just…tell them things are getting borderline. Use that word, borderline. They’ll know what it means, or their boss will.”
“No promises.” Icepick said.
“Tch. Figures.” Stalking to the door, the griffin yanked it open and dove back into its noisy golden glow. The door slammed shut and left Icepick alone in the blue-lamp-lit twilight of Shadowville.
Pulling off his coat, Icepick put it back on with his wings sticking out through the slits for them. He stuck the book up inside the shirt of his new suit. Jumping into the air, he flew for home. Post-office first. He needed to mail the book back to Zevera, like he’d promised.
Baz stared at the ceiling, smiling. It had been a good few days. The repairs were finished, but the Just in Time was still docked in Zevera. The Captain had delayed due to a personal emergency. Kirra had found a nice old zebra lady who specialized in cosmetic potions and spent a little of her pay to get an elixir that helped ponies change the color of their manes or bodies. The thing was…the change was permanent. If there was some way to reverse it, Kirra wasn’t talking. The result was her involuntary confinement to one of the roomier storage lockers, complete with a pillow for a mattress and a little bucket in the corner. Baz shook his head and rolled his eyes. Poor Kirra would have gone insane after too long without companionship. He looked at his cards, the result of several turns-worth of work and luck. He made his move.
“I put down my Fluttershy in healing mode and advance my hydra, with three cards face-down. Your turn.” The hydra had slow regeneration and got plus-one to attack damage for every time it returned to full health. It just kept sprouting more heads. Hard to kill unless you could dish it out faster than the hydra could recover. Backed by Healer Fluttershy, that wasn’t easy. Nothing but a one-hit knockout was going to put it down and anything less was just going to make things worse. Except fire damage, which negated regeneration effects…but not healing ones. Of course no beast could remove the last health point of an enemy when backed by Healer Fluttershy: that was the Kindness aspect. All he had to do was get all the enemy fighters weak and then use one of his reserve cards: Beware the Nice Ones.
Baz grinned at his sparring partner, who threw down her own cards and folded her arms, cheeks puffed out in an annoyed huff. Baz laughed and patted the glider’s head. Kirra didn’t like losing. Too bad she wasn’t good at The Elements of Harmony like she was at poker. Baz chuckled some more as she kicked the cards around the table like a little hydra herself. Baz picked them up as they fell off. He regretted not being able to finish his Kill ’Em With Kindness maneuver, but a win was a win, even if it was a forfeit.
Kirra froze, balanced on one hind paw, ears swiveling. An instant later Baz heard a shrill chiming noise. Sounds carried through the ventilation ducts anyway, and it was clever to use them to carry the sound of alarms and signals though the ship. Like the doorbell. Baz sighed. “You’d better go back to your locker, Kirra. If he catches you outside again, you might be walking home.”
Kirra gave a solemn nod and executed a standing leap from the table top to the carpeted ceiling. Giving the overhead light fixture a twist, she caused it to swing down like a trapdoor. She slithered through the gap and the fixture pulled back up into place. The light, an enclosed lift-gas flame heating a little knob of quicklime so it glowed white, never flickered. Baz shook his head and headed for the port-side hatch, the one hooked up to the gantry bridge. Peering out the fish-eye lens, he saw a familiar face…er, no: a familiar hood shrouding a pony’s face. He opened the door. “Any luck, boss?”
A growl was all the reply he got or needed. He inwardly grinned as the Captain stalked past him, still cloaked, and disappeared into his cabin. Baz resisted the urge to cackle. Starting to shut the hatch, a shout made him pause. He stuck his head out. A zebra started up the gantry stairs making more noise than a colt with some tin pans. He seemed familiar. He seemed in a hurry too. Baz decided to shut the hatch just in case. The zebra saw him and said a word that twisted through Baz’s brain like an eel. It was there and gone, leaving no trace but a vague sense of slimy residue. When Baz tried to shut the hatch, it wouldn’t budge. Not like it was wedged. More like something stronger than him was holding it open. He had a creepy sense of somepony standing way too close, but he was alone.
Baz put himself in the doorway and lowered his head. The zebra skidded to a halt and gulped for air. His lips looked red. Not like he’d been eating cherries. More like he’d kissed a pizza fresh from the oven. The stallion suddenly went still, took three slow breaths, and stopped panting. It was weird, how suddenly he went calm. “I require swift transportation to Aura.”
Baz blinked and tilted his head. That creepy sense of being crowded had gone. The zebra sighed in frustration. “I…re-kwy-er…a…ti-kit…to…oar-ah.”
Baz growled, without much malice. “And who are you?”
The stallion blinked. “Ah, yes. I have changed somewhat since we last met. Picture me with yellow eyes and a few more wrinkles. Do the clothes seem familiar?” He adjusted the suspenders holding up his old-fashioned black pants. “You were there when I lost the tie I used to wear.”
“Agent Green?” Baz said. He saw it now. “How did you get your eyes to turn brown? Why are you here?”
The zebra leaned close to whisper. “Not out here.”
Kirra heard the susurration of voices coming from the common room. She strained her ears. The ponies were talking too low to be understood. Too much stupid carpeting everywhere. She rolled her eyes and climbed back onto the ceiling, a new hole in the corner replacing the one welded shut once again by the Captain. She crept through the crawl-spaces above the ceiling until she reached the galley light fixture, opening it with slow care. Nopony there. She dropped to the floor and crept over to the door standing open between the galley and the common room. Peeked around it. Shivered as she recognized the zebra. The Captain had called him a sorcerer, a spirit-binder. The zebra had admitted it. He worked for Smog too. Kirra wasn’t sure which was worse. Both together…gah.
Agent Green didn’t look as creepy, but his lips looked almost sunburned. Kirra’s memories flooded with old folk tales told by her granny. Her tail bushed out as Agent Green began to speak. But they were just words. “Mister Baz, I have explained as you demanded. Now please inform the Captain of my presence.”
The earth pony looked as if he’d been hit over the head again. Baz coughed. “I did, earlier. He’s on his way, he’s just trying a potion to get his…well, he’s just cleaning up, a bit of a, uh…spill, you see, just engine fluid, nothing major.”
“I see. If he takes much longer I will be forced to take a slower airship to my destination, as it might still get me there sooner. Cash money is about to walk out the door.”
“Right, Baz, what’s so important you need to-Agent Green.”
Kirra giggled under her breath as she saw the Captain’s state. He was damp from what must have been a recent bath, which had no effect on her little…punishment. The Captain looked like a zebra, only his white coat had been striped in vivid purple. He was glorious, bedecked in diamond-glittery gems that covered his striped body in swirling patterns. He looked like a street performer seeking to amuse a bunch of drunken tourists. Except his boring old cutie-mark-covering coat. The potion Kirra had gotten from a nice zebra alchemist had done the trick. The little old mare had said that it was permanent until the drinker spoke the word of release. But he didn’t know it. Kirra would tell him after he learned his lesson not to mess with her ship. The captain said where the ship went. The mechanic said how to keep it running.
She turned her eyes back to Agent Green, who disappointed her. No reaction at all. Not even a sudden deadpan. It was as if he didn’t see the stripes and spangles or genuinely didn’t care. It was creepy. “I need to go to Aura. I am willing to pay a great deal, with a bonus for rushing. This ship is in the business of hauling select passengers at speed, yes?”
The Captain joined them at the table. “Why the rush?”
“It’s wild, Captain.” Baz said. “You see-”
“My sources tell me Smog has vanished.” Agent Green said.
Kirra squeaked, quickly clamping her paws over her mouth, but the damage was done. The Captain’s magic enveloped her, carrying her to the table and unceremoniously dumping her onto it. Gracelessly regaining her paws, she stared at the zebra. He stared back with that same look, as if she was no more interesting than a teacup. “Smog is what?!”
She continued to stare at Agent Green. He looked at each of their faces, nodding. “He appears to have disappeared from the city, without warning, some hours ago. Certain alarms were tripped and word spread along secure channels to high-level individuals. I am headed to Aura to investigate. I can only tell you this much because the secret is bound to leak, and soon. I know you will not agree to transport me without knowing why.”
Kirra looked to the Captain, whose dazzling spangles glittered and flashed in the light so much she had to squint her sensitive eyes. He ignored her and watched Agent Green with a deadpan face. A deadpan, stripy, spangly face. “We need to go to Canterlot and meet up with Tradewind.”
“Yeah,” Baz said, “about that-”
“My sources inform me he is in Aura.” Agent Green said.
“Your sources.” the Captain said. He put an odd spin on the word, some double meaning.
“You think Smog didn’t plan for the package, as I think Freeporters put it, going walkabout? Tradewind was being tracked and so was the package. My sources confirmed that the package was delivered some days ago. Tradewind vanished after that but he resurfaced in Aura at noon today. Aura time: it wasn’t yet noon here.”
The Captain sat back and brought his fore-hooves together under his chin. “How convenient. I think returning to Aura might be the best idea after all. So nice if we can get paid for doing it. I think we both understand how very unfortunate it would be for you if I discover you lied about Tradewind. When do you want to leave?”
“I want to have already left. Fifty thousand bits to transport myself. I have no luggage, others will meet me there with the equipment I need. Get me to Aura in under twelve hours from departure and I’ll double it.” Agent Green pulled a pair of scrolls from his pants pocket. They proved to be some kind of bank certificate. Pay to the Owner of this Document the Sum of Fifty Thousand Equestrian Bits. In big letters at the top, so fancy she could barely read them, The Imperial Equestrian Bank. Lots of ribbons and seals and signatures and scrollwork: even a magical watermark with the looped animation of a silhouette pony at full gallop. The zebra let them look, then took them back and put them away. “And yes, they are legitimate.”
“Let’s get airborne.” the Captain said.
Kirra squeed and leapt onto the Captain’s head, using it as a springboard to return to the ceiling and disappear through the hole behind the light fixture. Returning to the room she shared with Baz, she sprung the lock on the chest where the Captain had put all her stuff. She’d rigged it to open for her within hours of it being locked. Kirra grabbed her paw-gloves and flying goggles. She’d have to come back to Zevara soon, if only to make sure that big fat stupid zebra Zenzar hadn’t undone the tuning she’d done to his bike. But for now, it was time to go on another adventure.
The sugar glider Kirra had initially seemed excited. That lasted until the unicorn known only as Captain locked her out of the bridge. After vanishing for a time, she reappeared in a quietly foul temper. Stalking up to the bridge door, she gave it a kick. Xero stepped aside as she stalked aft along the corridor to the small room that served as a general place to eat and socialize. He followed. The glider leapt up onto the table and stared at the earth pony, Baz. He kept shuffling a fat deck of cards embossed with the symbol for the Elements of Harmony on the back. Five circles arrayed in a ring around a sixth. Twilight Sparkle’s cutie mark sat in the middle circle, the other five with the marks of her famous friends.
“Did you help?” Kirra said.
“Help what?” Baz said.
Xero sat at the table, utterly disregarded.
The glider put her fore-paws on her hips. “The Captain. Did you help him me-proof the helm?”
Baz stopped shuffling and set the deck aside. “No. You mean you really couldn’t get in?” Not a hint of amusement showed on his face. He seemed troubled, but not by Kirra’s problem. A distance in his eyes said his heart was elsewhere.
The glider snorted. “I’m still out here. He blocked or booby-trapped every way in, even ways I never used before.”
“Whoa, booby traps?”
“Not deadly ones. Like, one of them was a sticky trap. The kind you put down for bugs. A whole yard of vent wallpapered in sticky traps. Glued down good, too. They were obvious enough not to get me but I couldn’t get past them.”
Baz resumed shuffling the cards. Then he dealt six of them face-down as if he was a fortuneteller. One surrounded by five. He appeared to be doing random things, as a pony did when they didn’t know what to do. “I dunno. You know his talent. Maybe he thought about how to kill anypony trying to get in, and that helped him work out all the ways to get in? Then he just made sure the traps he set weren’t deadly. Or he thought about where to set a trap to kill somepony trying to get in, and then blocked it or set a harmless trap, and then he did it again, until there weren’t any ways left for somepony to get in? I dunno. Just guessing.”
Kirra’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been thinking about this.”
“Well, yeah.” Baz resumed shuffling the rest of the deck. “Like, the Captain’s not evil. You only get your cutie mark when you realize your destiny and accept it. He can’t have an evil talent. So yeah. I’ve been trying to work out how it can be used for good. There has to be one.”
Kirra plopped onto her rump, tail twitching. “Maybe the obvious?”
“What’s the obvious?”
Eyes downcast, Kirra almost whispered. “Killing things.”
“I said things. Not people. You think it was wrong to kill that thing in the tree? On the roof?”
Baz shuddered and fumbled the deck. He caught them and tapped the cards straight. “Oh. Like…fighting evil. But I thought you were supposed to try and make them not be evil.”
“Yes. You should try and help. Sometimes you can’t. I think that the Captain’s talent is for the ones that can’t be saved but have to be stopped. He’s scared. He likes using his talent. He’s scared if he uses it to kill evil monsters he’ll stop needing a reason and just need an excuse. Then someone dies who didn’t deserve it.”
“Makes sense. I guess.”
Kirra inhaled longer than seemed possible before letting it out as a sigh. “He can’t be happy. Not really. This isn’t his destiny.” She hopped up onto all fours and shook herself from head to tail. “Bazzie?”
Her tail twitched back and forth as she seemed to find the ceiling suddenly interesting. “Did you notice the thing that zebra didn’t say?”
Xero scowled where he sat, but he couldn’t interfere. His special talent to go unseen only worked as long as he was a passive observer. A zero in the equation. If he tried anything to distract them…and he had a number of tricks that would have done it…he would suddenly become visible. Even committing himself to an action would do it. He was a very limited spy: unable to shift a page or open a door without suddenly becoming noticeable to all present.
Meanwhile Baz gave the glider a flat look. “What?”
“He never said that Tradie showed up in Aura at the same time that Smog disappeared. He was careful not to say anything that would make us realize it. Tradie delivers some kind of cursed jelly-jar or something directly to the Princesses. Then he vanishes so that even Smog’s goons can’t find him. Then he turns up in Aura and now suddenly Smog’s gone. You think it’s a coincidence?”
“No.” Baz said. “Cirrus, now I’m really worried about Tradewind.”
“Join the club, knucklehead.” Kirra said. “You going to turn those cards over?”
“I just laid them out for…I dunno.” Kirra flipped them over, going clockwise around the outer five. They had text and numbers on them, some kind of intricate game, but each one also had a picture. The cards had pictures of Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie. By that point, Baz stared as if the cards had begun to croak like frogs. Kirra flipped the middle one. Twilight Sparkle. Baz blinked, very slow and deliberate. “Wow.”
Xero quelled a sudden mingled surge of fear and anger. Kirra meanwhile became openly outraged. “You dirty cheat! No wonder you always win this game, you…” She lunged forward and kicked the deck in his hooves to spray him with cards. Then she became a grey streak that vanished somewhere Xero wasn’t able to spot.
Baz sat there with cards stuck in his mane. “B-but I didn’t…”
Kirra streaked back, popping into sight as she leapt onto the table. Pop-eyed scared. “That sorcerer isn’t in his cabin.”
“You went in his cabin?”
“Past it. The door was open. He’s not there!”
“Well, he hasn’t come past me.” Baz said.
Their eyes met, and they spoke as one: “Engine room.”
Xero left the table and hurried to his cabin. Sitting on his bed, he adopted an old-fashioned meditative pose and allowed his talent to relax. His hips complained from being flexed in unfamiliar ways. Baz trotted past mere moments later with the glider on his head. Kirra spotted Xero and hit the brakes by pulling backwards on the earth pony’s ears. He skidded to a rearing halt. “Ow!” He noticed Xero and jumped. “Whoa! Bloody heart attack here!” He shook his head until he dislodged Kirra, who hit the ceiling and clung. “Not funny, Kirra.”
Kirra gave Xero a look of deep suspicion, peering under the top of the doorframe, head upside-down. “No, it’s not. He wasn’t in there, Baz.”
“I was meditating.” Xero said. In the back of his mind, something like giggling wind-chimes scratched at his awareness. The minor wind-spirit was like a weak windigo full of mischief rather than malice. Only a very distant cousin to a windigo. It had been behind those cards falling as they had, and opening his cabin door, which Xero distinctly recalled shutting.
“Uh-huh.” Kirra’s tone oozed skepticism.
Baz groaned. “Come on, Kirra. He’s paying a hundred thousand bits for us to fly him to Aura. He’s a customer. You’re usually nice. Why not with him?”
“He’s a sorcerer.”
“Sorcery isn’t evil.” Xero said. “It’s how you use it.”
“A not-evil sorcerer who works for Smog. The same Smog who sent the Nightmare to kidnap Tradewind. Yeeeaaah.”
Xero was tired. Just…tired. He was older than he should be and he’d die after fewer years than he deserved. “I admit I’m a criminal. You could say I’ve done evil things. Maybe I was evil once. I chained myself to an evil thing.” His fore-hoof went to his neck, remembering the feel of the enchanted noose when it went tight. “For a long time now, I’ve been trying to find a road out of the dark. I was willing to die to see Miss Ossuary destroyed, if I could be sure she would be destroyed.”
“Uh, he did say that.” Baz said. “And I saw him being strangled before that pegasus saved him. He’s not so ugly now.”
“He works for Smog.” Kirra said.
“It was that or die.” Xero said. One of the things he was tired of doing was keeping the truth a secret. “I had done something stupid and bound something too powerful for me. I would have been dead in three years. He gave me the knowledge and the means to strike a pact with the thing and lessen the strain of binding it. For a price. For an oath of loyalty. A binding oath. I feel loyal to him. It feels real. I suppose it is real, as when I made the vow I was sincerely prepared to be loyal forever if only he could save me. I’m not allowed to stop feeling or being loyal to him.”
They didn’t say anything at once. Xero closed his eyes. No tears fell, of course. The word xero meant dry. He had chronically dry eyes. To the point that he needed eyedrops to keep from being forever bloodshot. However appropriate blood-red whites and yellow irises would be for a sorcerer. Not once in his life had Xero ever shed tears. Not even when he cried. Not even as a foal. Not tears of laughter or pain or sadness. Not so much as a drip caused by grit in his eye. That didn’t mean he was heartless, though for a time he worried it might mean exactly that. Xero had never been very nice zebra. Especially when younger. Distant: an instinct not to get involved, mistaken for coldness. In his heart, he knew that kindness was never going to come naturally to him.
Xero had begun to see the point in making the effort. He had made it with Icepick and that had turned out well. He felt a small but very solid satisfaction about that. Life had disappointed Xero. He had hungered to be a somepony rather than a nopony, which his talent seemed to be saying was his destiny. Xero had sought to be powerful, not a zero. He had gained great power. But it was an evil power that he could never flaunt. He had become powerful and still almost nopony knew he existed. Those that did were criminals or police, and none of them liked him.
Something touched his fore-hoof. Xero was surprised, but he merely opened his eyes. Decades of being tormented by Miss Ossuary had destroyed his startle reflex. Kirra stood on the bed with one small warm fore-paw on his hoof. She seemed to want to meet his eyes, a challenging glint that dared him to. So he did. There was something there, tickling behind his eyes. Something that saw beneath the surface. He never would have noticed if not for long practice at knowing when something else was spying on his mind. Not everypony could look deep into another’s eyes and see the truth of the heart behind it. Kirra could. Xero had heard about her spotting Agent Pearl, ‘the Nightmare,’ in Equadoe. Overcoming a glamor like that wasn’t an easy trick. It was a sign Kirra might have been able to become a sorcerer. He felt not the slightest urge to tell her that.
Kirra looked away first. “You’re very lonely.” Xero had been expecting something insightful, but it still managed to stab right through him. Kirra hit him with another. “You know, you don’t have to stay in here. You can come out and sit with us.” That was exactly what he had been doing earlier, though he hadn’t realized the real reason why. Xero had assumed it was just to gather information. He was lonely. Had been, for so long it had just become how things were.
“No more being rude?” Baz said. Kirra spun away and took a flying leap that battened her onto the earth pony’s face with her membranes spread. His indignant snort puffed them out.
Kirra giggled. “No more being rude. I’m headed for the engine room to see if I can’t get this classy lady to go a little faster. You can teach Mister Green the Elements of Harmony.” She dropped to the floor and kicked Baz’s hoof. “And none of your cheating.”
Baz sputtered but Kirra scampered out of sight before he could say anything sensible. The earth pony and zebra exchanged a look that didn’t convey much information in either direction. Xero was professionally unreadable. Looking for deeper layers in Baz was like cutting open an apple to count the rings. What you saw was what you got. The earth pony rubbed his mane with a hoof and found a card. He gave it a sheepish wave. “It’s pretty complicated, but if you want I have regular cards too.”
Unfolding from his false meditative pose, Xero winced as his hips gave a pop each. He had felt giddy-young again when Miss Ossuary died, but it had been a false vitality. Like eating bitter greens, then drinking water. The water tasted sweet, but it wasn’t. It just wasn’t bitter. His youth was gone and he was never going to get it back. “I think I’ll try to acquaint myself better with the Elements of Harmony.”
Baz nodded and moved out of sight, no doubt to harvest the scattered cards. The deeper meaning had clearly sailed over his head. Xero was reminded a little of Icepick. No deeper layers there, either. Pausing to ease his back, Xero returned to the common room. He helped pick up the cards, taking a moment to study them. By the time Baz began his enthusiastic but erratic attempts to give a tutorial, Xero had already worked out some of the basics. The game appeared to have a hidden moral. No Element was greater than any other. Not even Magic. Each had strengths and weaknesses, but the only unbeatable combination was to gather all six Elements together. That was tricky, and always rare. There were many ponies in the world, but how often did six suitable avatars of the Elements all come together in true bonds of friendship?
Not often enough.
A few peaceful hours passed. Not playing for real, just sparring as Xero learned how to play. Nor were they truly pleasant hours. Baz clearly worried about Tradewind, but he didn’t ask Xero any questions.
The Just in Time raced southeast on a direct line toward Aura. Xero hoped her name would prove prophetic for him. He didn’t have much hope. There was almost no chance of flying in and somehow rescuing Smog from danger. He would if he could. He must. But that wasn’t why he was ordered to head for Aura in the event Smog seemed to vanish. Smog trusted Xero because Xero had no choice but to be trustworthy. He had a combination of power and knowledge that made him, in theory, very dangerous to Smog. In reality, he was no danger. He was headed to Aura to work a sorcerous ritual that would locate Smog if he was alive. There was no known power or spell that could block or shatter the resonance they had woven between them.
Xero had the sinking feeling that he was going to be like a doctor at a deathbed, there to check for vitals and formally announce time of death. That was his job: to make it official. To confirm that Smog was dead, imprisoned against his will, or had willfully forsaken Aura. In any of those cases, all Tartarus was going to metaphorically break loose in Aura. Deep in his bones Xero knew Smog was dead. The haste, the dipping deep into his emergency funds, all of it, was just honoring procedures. One last demand of loyalty.
There were others like him. He had no idea who, and they didn’t know about him. All he knew was that all of them had a degree of skill in sorcery. Some would have already been in Aura. The ones further out were insurance against the local ones being somehow negated. They might have confirmed it by now. The ones outside Aura would be coming to the cloud-city at all possible speed to do the same thing that he would do. His haste might be pointless. He must come to Aura and perform the ritual to confirm the truth to himself.
Confirmation would free him from any obligation of loyalty to Smog. The same went for the rest like him. Xero somehow doubted that the other sorcerers were as atypical as him. Perhaps a few. All of them? Impossible. Smog hadn’t tolerated competition. Lesser monsters were turned into useful tools that served his will, or destroyed. No middle ground. An unknown number of sorcerers, most of them genuine black-hearted villains, were in…or converging on…Aura. They were all going to slip their muzzles.
Xero felt a great many unpleasant emotions about that, but fear for his life wasn’t one of them. He could simply wrap his talent around him and walk out of the chaos: touching nothing and touched by nothing. Like a coward.
All Tartarus appeared to break out aboard the Just in Time. It announced itself with a clang, a clink, and a brassy cloing-oing-oing. A scream of near dog-whistle shrillness came on its heels. Baz shot to his hooves. Xero looked up from his cards, startled only on the inside. A grate on one wall, concealed by thin strips of the ubiquitous carpet glued atop its crosshatched bands, clanged down like a drawbridge with its chains cut. Kirra sallied forth, still emitting a noise capable of melting earwax. The glider hit the floor, bounced like a ball, and then began to do something like frantic arrhythmic break-dancing.
Even as a tumbling blur, there was no mistaking that she had turned pink. The kind of violent pink that almost seemed to glow. She seemed to be dusted in pink glitter as well. Xero put down his cards and began to rise. The stink invaded his nostrils. It was, technically, perfume. Something like mixed fruits. This smell suggested the fruits were a little past their sell-by date. Even without it, the odor was so strong it made his eyes and nose burn. He could taste it, and it did not taste like fruit.
Full-chested laughter, loud despite the closed door between the laughter and Xero, came from the helm. Baz made a surprisingly bass noise, something like a gagging bullfrog. He ran out of the room, took an audible gasp, and ran back in with his cheeks puffed out. He grabbed at Kirra, missed, and then leapt back with a snort as she battened onto his face. Moving blind, he stumbled for the port hatch and opened it. A small recessed balcony sat outside, its railing flush with the hull to either side. Xero retreated to the starboard hatch. Closing it behind him, he panted to flush the perfume from his lungs. Fumbling out his eyedrops, he gave each eye a triple dose.
It appeared that Kirra had tried and failed to circumvent a booby-trap.
The Captain slumped in his chair, occasionally using his magic to tweak a dial or adjust the wheel, but mostly he brooded. He had long ago learned it was possible to be afraid and bored at the same time. Tradewind was in Aura and Smog had vanished. The Captain’s instincts were screaming that something huge had happened and that Tradewind was up to his neck in it. He might well need a mate or three to come and pull him out of the cack.
The Just in Time was going as fast as she could. Pushing to get to Aura even faster would burn out the engines. Then they wouldn’t get there at all. It remained to be seen if the ship’s name was going to prove prophetic or become a blackly ironic joke. Despite all the urgency, there was nothing for the Captain to do. Thus, he was bored. Bored and very, very annoyed. Trying hard to keep a lid on it, but that just meant he simmered instead of boiled.
Kirra had, after taking a four-hour bath that used half their supply of water, managed to get rid of the perfume. The smell of fermenting fruit salad mixed with a lab accident lingered all through the ship, but at least Baz and Agent Green were willing to come inside. The trap had worked perfectly. The garish shade of pink (according to the bottle, it was called ‘Neon Pinksplosion’) was almost painful to look at. Kirra had looked somewhat devastated when she emerged from the bath. It had removed the smell, but she remained pretty in pink.
The Captain huffed and stuck his pipe in his mouth. Lighting it felt wrong while aboard, even with the ventilation blasting chilly fresh air through the hull. Old habits were one thing his talent didn’t help him kill. Staring at the controls without seeing them, he clenched his teeth on the stem. “And then it all went wrong.” Instead of prostrating herself before her captain and begging to be un-pinked, telling him the word of release that would remove his purple-striped, rhinestone-dazzled cosmetic spell…instead of doing that, she had looked in a mirror and promptly laughed herself sick. Racing away, she had returned wearing a raffish ball gown cobbled together from scraps of cloth and cloth-like things. Mosquito netting had featured, and a shawl made from the two black-and-red signal flags that together meant Hurricane.
The nutty flying squirrel had staged a one-female staged an impromptu fashion show on the little common room’s table. Even Agent Green had almost smiled at her antics. Almost. His lips had lost their downward curve and his eyes went half-lidded. The Captain had almost laughed, half-smiling all the way back to his quarters. Until he lowered himself onto the bed, of course. Having a bedazzled butt wasn’t an easy thing to forget. Worse than having a pebble stuck in his hoof.
Heaving a sigh, the Captain shifted on the pillow tucked into the chair at the helm. He shifted again to gingerly rub at the spot where the rhinestones had left bruises. Kirra would pay for this, one way or another. Even if it meant she would also be unable to sit down for an extended period. The Captain grinned, though it felt weak and forced. The hostilities between them hadn’t been this bad since the job in Camelu. His grin faded. The prank war had cost him both his dignity, and, after his unconditional surrender to the little rat, his bedroom for the better part of a month.
This one was shaping up to be worse, covered as he was with purple stripes and glittery rhinestones. Sooner or later she’d steal his coat, and things would get serious. That was what had caused his surrender last time, and Luna be damned if he’d let it happen again. Kirra could survive being hurled out of an airship. That meant it was an actual option.
Trotting over to one of the benches flanking the door in the rear wall of the small triangular room, he paused for a moment to struggle with a mix of gloating and trepidation. The seat was also a lid that swiveled up on hinges to reveal the storage locker. It had come standard; a place for equipment and supplies. The latch clicked when tickled by the right key. Lifting out various supplies, the Captain emptied the space so that he could lift out the bottom. Underneath it lay a smuggler’s hole he had sealed off from the dead space under the floor. All by himself, when Kirra and Baz were off the ship.
Turning to look back at the instrument panel, he used his magic to manipulate the altimeter’s re-zeroing controls. You had to hold down a button to unlock the dial, which locked its new setting when the button was released. The Captain twisted the button like a dial and pushed the dial like a button. A pneumatic hiss was his reward, followed by the clunk of a latch disengaging under the locker’s false bottom. He grabbed it with his magic and lifted before the second clunk a moment later, which would have locked it again. Even if Kirra had figured out how to unlock it, there was no way to get from the controls to the locker before it locked again. No easy way to lift the false bottom without magic, either.
He puffed his cold pipe with uncharacteristic glee. The panel rose, revealing his arsenal of…nothing. The Captain’s pipe fell from his mouth, and it was a good thing it wasn’t lit. The pipe landed in the box of signal flares. A ragged glider-sized hole yawned in one wall of the space. It looked as if done by a very old-fashioned can-opener. And there, right in the middle, nestled in an oil rag, sat a gem. It was big. It was shiny. It was obviously glass.
It had a smiley face with derped eyes and its tongue sticking out.
Kirra set down Fluttershy, healing her Grumpy Bear with a neck massage and bringing it back into play at the cost of its Grumpiness. It was too little, too late. Mister Green had caught on to this game very quickly, and his unstoppable duo of Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, along with the incredible luck of drawing his Endless Pranks card early, meant that anything Kirra did at this point was delaying the inevitable. She set down her hand cards face-up. “Okay, okay, you win.” Not really. Forfeiting was losing, but it wasn’t the same as actually being beaten.
The zebra almost smiled. Baz let out a hearty chuckle. “Oh, well done Mister Green; you’re a fast learner. Should let you play against some of the kids in Freeport, they’ll give you a run for your money."
Kirra happily nodded, scheming her overwhelming victory in the next match. Or the next. However long it took her to pattern his style and exploit it. No one seemed inclined to call it a night, even if it was closer to midnight than dusk now. They would arrive in Aura in the morning. Kirra knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. If she lay down and closed her eyes, she’d start thinking of all the trouble Tradie might be in. The card games were just to keep her distracted until the prank war started its next and final stage.
Baz vanished into the galley and returned with two Wattle beers and one Kirra-sized glass mug. The earth pony gave one to Agent Green, topped up the mug from the other, then sat back down. Drinking deep, he gave a sigh that segued into a rumbling belch. Kirra sipped at her own while Mister Green gave the bottle in front of him a dubious stare. Finally, he popped the cap and took a sip. There wasn’t much reaction, but Kirra saw it. Besides, the way he took a longer drink said it all. Kirra grinned; no creature could resist.
She was about to say something to that effect when a strangled scream of impotent rage filtered through from the helm, audible even through the decent soundproofing of the Just in Time. Baz turned to stare up the short length of corridor to the closed door of the helm. Mister Green sat very still, closing his eyes. Kirra grinned and raised her mug in a mocking salute as the helm’s door slammed sideways into its recess. A fabulous purple-and-white-striped unicorn stood revealed, managing to both seethe and sparkle. His bloodshot eyes focused on Kirra. They slowly became even more bloodshot. Kirra purposefully ignored him, inspecting the claws of her free fore-paw and humming to herself.
She used the mock claw-inspection to check her coloring: still bright pink. Oh, well. The unicorn closed the distance to the table. No stomping. He moved in a kind of graceful glide that spoke of enormous quantities of anger barely contained by rigid self-control. After several long, tense seconds, she looked up and pretended surprise. “Ohai, cappity-cap, didn’t hear you come in.” She slurped beer as the Captain made strange little faces, flickering glimpses of demented snarls as the inner inferno tried to shatter his deadpan.
Speaking without roaring seemed to be a struggle. After a while, the Captain managed a word at a mere growl: “How.”
Kirra giggled and drained her beer. She leapt from the table to the Captain’s head. Not without a faint flutter of anxiety mid-leap. If she had pushed him truly over the edge, she would never know what hit her. Setting her hind paws on several glittering stones, making sure they pressed against his skin, she leaned down. Well aware of Baz’s eyes on her, she stage-whispered in the Captain’s ear. “This is my ship, Cappity-cap. I know more about her than you ever will. Just like the Longreach, and just like the Beautiful Celeste, may she rest in peace.” She patted one of the Captain’s ears, causing it to violently flicker. Kirra took a flying leap to the ceiling and popped the hatch behind the light fixture. Looking back, she favored the unicorn with an impish grin. “When you’re ready for me to move into your room, let me know.”
She made a casual but non-sluggish exit, pulling the light fixture back up into place. Moving away from the heat radiating from it, she paused a moment to relish the long, slow exhale of the Captain. He only did that when he was really annoyed, but powerless to do anything about it. Well, besides throw a murderous tantrum, but the unicorn never considered that an acceptable option.
Kirra moved on. Time to lay very low for a while. Rubbing it in his face would make him angrier, and more stubborn. Leave him alone to calm down and he’d concede defeat. She wondered how long it would take for the Captain to realize what had happened. She had set off the pink-and-stink booby-trap…and created a hole in his defenses. A four-hour bath? As if. Kirra got industrial-grade filthy working with the machinery. Her shampoo could have been used as engine degreaser. The long bath had just been a feint. While they all thought they knew where she was, Kirra had gone somewhere else. Sometimes winning the war required losing a battle. As for knowing about his hidey-hole, Kirra had double-checked everything the repair ponies did. She had spotted the jiggered controls without even trying. All his pranking munitions were hers now. Time to accept his surrender with smug glee. She would even tell him the word of release that would undo his fabulous new look. Eventually. Before they reached Aura. Probably.
She giggled; this was fun.