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Assistant to the Night Court

By LmonE6
Created: 22nd October 2020 09:31:33 PM
18th October 2021 05:31:32 AM

  1. >Seated high up in the observation panel of the royal Canterlot courtroom, you watched noblepony after noblepony come and go with their petty and minute problems
  2. >Presenting them to the Princess of the Sun with the gravitas of world-ending disasters
  3. >You were seated with your chair turned around and your arms crossed and resting on its back, slowly dozing despite your best efforts to pay attention
  4. >You were Anonymous, age 23, polisci graduate at UW Madison (back in what you'd mentally foldered away as "the old world"), though not particularly well-versed in the political machinations of a divine horse diarchy
  5. >Oh, and you were bored out of your fucking skull if that wasn't already clear
  6. >You'd been in Equestria for about a month now, ostensibly under some social program called the "Lonely Mare Matchmaking Initiative"
  7. >Strange, you didn't remember there being something as absurd as a government-issued boyfriend program back where YOU came from
  8. >Then again, you also didn't recall needing to take zoning permits or parking tickets directly to your local sun deity to resolve the issue
  9. >So whatever
  10. >Regardless, you'd been brought here via what your sponsor (abductor) - the so-called Princess of Love, Cadence - had called the Crystal Heart, something that you understood was essentially a big multi-dimensional parsing machine
  11. >Just put some lonely little mare's name in and it'd automatically find and... suck you through the interdimensional fabric, a sensation that wasn't entirely pleasant
  12. >This process was, of course, something she'd had to explain to you several times over as you were still violently seizing and retching from the system shock the first time she tried
  13. >You were clearly one of the early candidates of this program, or at least you hoped you were, because the infrastructure and staffing of the project was a bit too sink-or-swim for your tastes
  14. >Anyway, things weren't so bad here
  15. >You were quickly picking up on the language (which was honestly hardly different in syntax and pronunciation to American English), you'd been provided a small single-bedroom flat on the outskirts of Canterlot courtesy of the Initiative, and you'd managed to find a quick warehouse wageslave job to keep you occupied in the interim
  16. >All this, and yet a month down the line you still didn't know who your supposed match was
  17. >The whole thing seemed to be moving at a glacial pace for your tastes
  18. >You thought your acclimatization had been going pretty damn well - you hadn’t gotten any complaints from the Initiative, anyway
  19. >And yet, two weeks ago, you’d received a missive from the Crystal Empire directing you to attend royal court sessions daily at your convenience
  20. >How cryptic
  21. >Perhaps your match was some politically active noblemare?
  22. >Celestia, even?
  23. >You really hoped not; she WAS a pretty mare, to be certain, but you could tell just from these court sessions that she just HAD to be a serious ball-buster
  24. >Just imagine her unloading all the pent-up stress from dealing with these pedantic dumbasses on your poor ass every single day
  25. >Yikes!
  26. >So here you were, listening to some earth pony hick from the outskirts drone on about how seeds from Ponsanto’s factory farm kept blowing onto his land
  27. >Internally riveted, you let out a yawn and checked your watch
  28. >Oh joy, only 2 more hours
  29. >You are Anon, and you are... drowsy
  30. >You were - quite gently, you might add - nudged awake by a member of the Royal Guard on duty
  31. >The throne was empty, as was the forum floor and the petition stand
  32. >The harsh evening rays of sunlight through the windows had long been replaced by the calm white glow of the moon overhead
  33. >How embarrassing, you’d overslept
  34. >Reflecting on how rude it was that none of the other viewers had woken you and instead left it to this poor guard doing a graveyard sweep, you wiped away the bit of drool you’d left on your forearm and again checked your watch
  35. >11:38PM, Day Court had ended about two-and-a-half hours ago
  36. >You wondered just how many petitioners you’d missed in the time period since you’d fallen asleep, and decided you didn’t really care anyway
  37. >You stood up, stretched, quickly thanked the guard for waking you, and briskly made your way to the stairs leading down from the spectators’ deck
  38. >That is, until you heard the deafening CLANG of the main doors’ deadbolt being unlatched
  39. >You wheeled around, half in disorientation at such a loud noise cracking through a wide-open and silent space, but half in curiosity
  40. >Who the hell would be entering court this late at night?
  41. >You tiptoed as quietly as possible to the polished bronze guardrail, joining the stallion that had awoken you in silently observing the courtroom floor
  42. >A gruff and important-looking pegasus strode through the now-ajar doors, followed in suit by his entourage of what you could only assume were guards and advisors
  43. >One thing you were certain of was that this was not an ordinary group of riff-raff petitioners; the briskness with which this posse walked implied purpose and urgency
  44. >You tapped the guard at your side on the shoulder, making he who was clearly enamored by the scene in front of him jump in surprise
  45. “Excuse me, you wouldn’t happen to know who that is, would you?”
  46. >You whispered, not wishing to disrupt the proceedings on the floor - or otherwise attract attention to yourself
  47. >The guard, an orange earth pony clearly fresh out of basic and stuck on shit detail, rubbed his chin for a moment before answering
  48. >”I reckon that there’s Lenticulus Slipstream, recognize him from the papers. Think he’s supposed to be some sort of bigwig back in Cloudsdale.”
  49. >You’d heard the name Slipstream before, for sure
  50. >Apparently there were quite some political rumblings going on in the pegasus’ vaunted floating city, but given the lack of access to outsiders, very little information was forthcoming
  51. >Slipstream was one of those few names that had leaked, and the earthbound Equestrian press was painting him as some kind of iron-fisted warmonger secessionist or whatever
  52. >To their credit, he certainly looked the part; he was a large, well-muscled, and rich maple-colored stallion with a peppered beard and a scar running up the right side of his muzzle, dressed in full military regalia
  53. >You reasoned that he wouldn’t look out of place in this world’s equivalent of an adventure serial
  54. >As the occult Nazi villain, that is
  55. >That aside, the lingering question in your mind was still present: What on earth was this esteemed pony doing at the royal court at this time of night?
  56. >It’s not like Celestia is even awake right now, right?
  57. >As if on cue, a small gray pegasus trotted up in front of the throne from the opposite side of the courtroom
  58. >This pegasus was unlike any you’d seen before
  59. >Its wings were bat-like in appearance, its ears were more pointed than you’d come to expect of the ponies in this reality, and while it was hard to tell from this distance, you could swear it had fangs
  60. >”May all in court please bow” the tiny bat-horse herald squeaked “in the presence of the Dreamwalker, Friend to the Thestrals, and Ruler of the Night, Princess Luna!”
  61. >You are Anon, and you are... a bit lost, to be honest
  62. >Princess Luna?
  63. >The neurons slowly clicked into place
  64. >Oh right, only the other half of the Equestrian divine diarchy
  65. >To be fair, you’d never actually SEEN her in the flesh, at best vaguely glimpsing a dark figure off to Celestia’s side in historical photographs
  66. >You’d assumed that her only role was to raise and lower the moon, it had never once occurred to you that she held actual administrative power
  67. >And what was with those titles? ‘Dreamwalker’? ‘Friend of the Thestrals’? What the fuck is a thestral?
  68. >Your line of internal questioning was quickly halted in its tracks by the telltale CLACK of hard metal horseshoes on marble
  69. >You really were now unbearably curious as to what this mare actually looked like
  70. >The pictures you’d seen were washed-out and black-and-white - courtesy of the weird mixture of technologies present in this reality - so you couldn’t honestly say you had a good idea
  71. >Maybe she was like that little bat pony that had just introduced her to the court, although hopefully a bit larger
  72. >Was that a thestral?
  73. >The clacks were getting louder, and you were got more excited with each one
  74. >You were this way with Celestia once, but were quickly disenchanted with the sight of her
  75. >Something about how commonplace her image was and her existence as a staple of the most boring part of your day kind of spoiled the amazement for you
  76. >In this case, however, you were about to see the ever-elusive Princess of the Moon in the flesh, a view not many could say they were privy to
  77. >Your giddy anticipation had you leaning over the railing somewhat, to the dismay of the guard who silently urged you to reign it in
  78. >Just like that, she was around the corner in one instant and poised on the throne the next, a vague figure cloaked in some kind of shadowy miasma distorting her shape and form
  79. >The miasma dispelled as quickly as it had formed, leaving the princess exposed on the throne to the small audience in the dimly-lit courtroom
  80. >What you finally set eyes on was the most relentlessly beautiful creature in all of existence - this reality or otherwise - and of that you had no doubt
  81. >Her stature was a bit smaller than Celestia’s, her head reaching to around your neck by a quick estimate, and yet the way she carried herself was fundamentally different
  82. >She was posed, chest puffed out and snout tilted up, in a way that conveyed not warmth and empathy, but an iron will and no-nonsense approach
  83. >That this made her far more regal and alluring than her sister in your eyes was purely a matter of coincidence
  84. >Her coat was a faultless shade of indigo, the crescent moons on her flanks tastefully contrasted against what looked like large ink blotches surrounding them
  85. >This was not her most striking feature to you, however
  86. >Her mane, perpetually billowing in an ethereal breeze, seemed to present the night sky itself to all who looked upon it
  87. >A single solid mirror of navy blue with thousands of small white specks, undulating hypnotically as if tempting you with some sort of arcane knowledge of the cosmos
  88. >You couldn’t tear your eyes away from it if you tried
  89. >”Your highness”
  90. >The baritone courtesy from Slipstream across the court snapped you back to reality, and you quickly deflated as you realized this was likely to be a court visit like any other
  91. >The princess regarded the old stallion with poised stoicism, and inquired in a booming and, strangely, Arthurian dialect
  92. >”State your business, Lenticulus. What petition dost thine bring to our court that would not be better attended by our sister?”
  93. >Forceful, direct, harsh, it was the polar opposite of the kind of vibe Celestia gave off
  94. >It sent good shivers down your spine
  95. >Even though you were sure this was to be a wash and just some overly-dramatic noblepony wanting his own on-call court service
  96. >Slipstream grimaced slightly at the volume and intensity of the princess’ question, and cleared his throat to answer
  97. >”I did not wish to cause undue uproar in the crowds of the Day Court, and also wish to keep the state of Cloudsdale’s political situation under wraps for the time being. Surely you understand.”
  98. >He ventured to look up from his bow, a disarming smile on his face to accompany the statement
  99. >The princess’ face was unchanged
  100. >Undeterred, the politician continued
  101. >”As you know, my fellow pegasi are fiercely independent. I do not believe the Independent Cloudsdale Movement will remain incognito for long, even to the surface world, and many of my subjects cry out for change.”
  102. >Wait a minute, is this genuine political intrigue you’re hearing?
  103. >”Therefore, as a gesture of good faith and courtesy to the throne of Equestria, I have come to appeal for Cloudsdale’s immediate secession from Equestrian rule.”
  104. >The implication was clear: let us leave peacefully, or reap the whirlwind
  105. >Holy shit, what?
  106. >You are Anon, and you are... intrigued
  107. >Lenticulus Slipstream, the stallion that you now knew must be the premier/president/king/whatever of the floating pegasus metropolis of Cloudsdale, had just announced the city’s plans to secede
  108. >He’s just issued a bold-faced challenge to the crown, and he clearly knows it
  109. >A potentially massive change in the Equestrian government was taking place right before your eyes
  110. >This was WAY more fun than Day Court
  111. >The stonefaced moon deity raised an eyebrow at the provocation, though whether in disdain or curiosity you didn’t know
  112. >”Is that all?”
  113. >The question was delivered by the navy blue mare with the most oppressive and contemptuous deadpan you’d ever heard
  114. >Clearly taken aback by the princess’ apparent disinterest in his veiled threat, the large pegasus’ slight smile quickly turned sour
  115. >”Y-yes, your grace. Our council has already decided upon the course of action, all that’s left is to announce it to the populous.”
  116. >The wind came back into his proverbial sails for his next statement
  117. >”I’ve come to appeal mostly in the hope of avoiding bloodshed. In truth, Cloudsdale will likely secede with or without you or your sister’s blessing, and I simply wish it to be done peacefully and on good terms.”
  118. >The stallion’s appearance coupled with his full contingent of heavily armed guards betrays to you that he expects the exact opposite outcome
  119. >The princess closed her eyes and sighed, seemingly coming to the very same understanding, and looked down her snout at the offending pegasus
  120. >”We must, of course, deny thine appeal, as we are sure thou knew well before this meeting that we would.”
  121. >Slipstream’s expression changed to one of faux-disappointment
  122. >”Most unfortunate to hear, princess. I’d hoped we could come to an agreement, but with your steadfast refusal, it would likely be better for us to leave pro-“
  123. >He was cut off by the loud reverb of silver footwear stomping on marble
  124. >”Last we checked,” Luna called to him, her voice rising several decibels for effect, “thine lease to speak was not renewed, nor was this court declared adjourned.”
  125. >You are anon, and you are... intimidated
  126. >The princess, who had been reserved if a bit stiff up to now, had just cut her petitioner off mid-sentence
  127. >Her tone was still even, but her volume betrayed her emotions on the topic
  128. >”It is not our place to deny the will of our subjects, this much is true.”
  129. >She was up now, and slowly walking towards the offending pegasus, glaring daggers all the way down
  130. >”However, we do not think it in their best interest to engage in a bloody civil war simply to stroke the egos of old pegasi, yearning for glory days they had no part in.”
  131. >The shadowy mare was now almost nose-to-nose with Slipstream, and the height difference between the two in Luna’s favor was apparent
  132. >Why exactly were the princesses so large? You pondered to yourself
  133. >While the now-diminutive pegasus stood firm, you noticed that his entourage had backed up a few paces, leaving him alone against the cold fury of the moon deity
  134. >His ears involuntarily folded down against the back of his head
  135. >”Now, Lenticulus, thee came to this court expecting our denial, yes?”
  136. >The stallion did not speak, merely nodding to answer
  137. >”And, despite this official denial of thine appeal, thine council still plans on moving forward with secession, under the threat of war no less?”
  138. >Another nod
  139. >Luna closed her eyes and looked down, scrunching her muzzle with some effort as her horn flared with a cyan aura momentarily
  140. >Well that was kind of cute, actually
  141. >She looked up, her spell apparently cast, with the very same disarming smile Slipstream had led with
  142. >”Well, t’would seem thou has us between a ‘rock and a hard place’ so to speak. We cannot allow Cloudsdale to secede, and yet we cannot rightly allow unnecessary bloodshed over simple civil disputes.”
  143. >A dark cloud began to encircle Slipstream’s group, causing a mounting panic among those gathered
  144. >The pegasus himself admirably remained rooted to the spot, intimidated though he surely was
  145. >”However, we do see a third option in this unfortunate situation thou hast presented us.”
  146. >As if on cue, the cloud dispersed, revealing twenty-some armor-clad bat ponies surrounding the group, spears brandished and pointing inwards
  147. >”The Cloudsdale city council will not come to a decision if their leader is not present, after all.”
  148. >You are Anon, and you are... growing increasingly nervous by the minute
  149. >It was looking more and more like a minor armed skirmish would break out in front of you any second
  150. >Lenticulus' face had cracked into a scowl of pure fury and indignation
  151. >He growled out a defiant statement grinding his teeth on every word
  152. >"Surely you must realize that this is spitting in the face of every process you claim to uphold."
  153. >The princess, meanwhile, had allowed her smile to evolve into a full-on shit-eating grin
  154. >"Oh dear, didst thee expect to be handled with foal gloves as in our sister's court? Didst thee wish us to beg and grovel at thine hooves and beseech thou to reconsider?"
  155. >She began to slowly walk a circle around the pissed stallion, her face hardly attempting to hide the power trip she was currently on
  156. >This behavior isn't that of dignified royalty, you thought to yourself
  157. >This is more like a sadistic predator toying with its quarry
  158. >"We personally blame our sister for situations like this, it appears the populace has forgotten the nature of our rule somewhere in the past millennia."
  159. >Luna stopped her pacing momentarily and locked her eyes to the back of Slipstream's head
  160. >"Thy notion that thou could disregard our decision in this most exalted of courts - and then be allowed to simply walk out, no less - is proof of such insolence."
  161. >"Therefore," she began, finishing her circle and once again coming face-to-face with her opposition, "for thine open threats against a crown regent of these realms, and thine potential to disturb the peace absent of supervision, we are officially holding thee and thine entourage in contempt."
  162. >The color drained from Slipstream's face as he really and truly realized he was powerless to stop this turn of events
  163. >"Y-you can't-" he stammered out before the now-unbelievably-smug navy-blue horse before him wheeled around and started walking back towards the throne
  164. >"We believe thee will find that we can, actually. Guards, escort them to the holding cells for now. Celestia will decide their more permanent residence come morning. And Lenticulus,"
  165. >The princess twisted her neck, flashing a wry smile as a parting shot to the deflated stallion
  166. >"The release of thou and thy little emotional support group is, of course, negotiable, in keeping with this 'process' valued so dearly by thee."
  167. >With that, the representative of Cloudsdale - so proud and self-assured only minutes ago - hung his head, soundly defeated
  168. >Without a word, he exited stage left at the prodding of Luna's guards, silently dragging his posse (who were just now beginning to raise a cacophony of empty malignancies to their escorts) along with him
  169. >Your eyes, however, were locked to the exiting princess, her regal stature re-established and showing no hints of the sadism exhibited just a moment ago
  170. >To your surprise, her head twisted over her shoulder again, this time looking towards the very balcony you were gawking from
  171. >Her eyes seeming to lock with yours for a moment
  172. >You blinked and rubbed your eyes for a second, and upon refocusing, found that she was long gone, a small scattering of dark specks lingering in the air where she was
  173. >You looked back at the guard next to you to see if he'd registered that little gesture, only to see that he'd fainted long ago at the proceedings
  174. >How curious
  175. >You are Luna, and you are... elated beyond belief
  176. >Too elated for the burning-incense smell of recently-used teleportation magic to even bother you
  177. >Not for any reasons pertaining to your little performance in the courtroom
  178. >That, of course, had been staged and hilariously dramatized
  179. >The situation involving Cloudsdale had been largely resolved MONTHS ago, news which hadn't yet broken on the surface
  180. >The Slipstream family was an old ally to the throne, and Lenticulus a close friend
  181. >He had been of invaluable service in defusing the boiling rebellion within his city, despite the constant character assassination attempts by the terrestrial press
  182. >You were immensely grateful that he agreed to go along with this little act of yours
  183. >Particularly because he, frankly, terrified you
  184. >Coming face-to-face with a stallion that could kill you with his bare hooves was a rare experience for royalty
  185. >Anyway, for what it was, he'd played his part perfectly
  186. >The tranquilizing charm had gone off without a hitch, the oblivious guard had done his job, and you yourself had played up the powerful and confidant ruler shtick to the absolute maximum
  187. >Your plan to make a good first impression on Anonymous was a resounding success!
  188. >What's more, you'd even locked eyes for a second! You were practically married already!
  189. >...
  190. >Yeah, maybe it was no wonder you were so high on the Initiative's hitlist
  191. >You HAD just made your consort-to-be wait around in a strange new world with nary a hint of you until now
  192. >It was on you to stick your neck out, not him, and you'd instead spent a month planning out this harebrained scheme to get him to like you off the bat
  193. >But even thinking all this, you were still skipping and humming your way back to your quarters like a lovestruck schoolfilly
  194. >You were really hoping that little bit of eye contact had been as resonant for him as it was for you
  195. >Teleporting out right then was all you could do to stop yourself from rushing up and embracing him
  196. >Though more out of guilt for the time you'd been wasting than anything else
  197. >It was time to act, you'd both clearly waited long enough
  198. >You wiped the dopey grin off your face and straightened your step, nodding to your stationed guards as you entered your room
  199. >Sighing at the veritable cliff of paperwork threatening to topple off your desk at any given moment, you swept it all aside with a flick of your head, bringing out a strip of parchment and a quill as replacements
  200. >Those vitally important geopolitical documents could wait
  201. >For now, you had a letter to write
  202. ...
  203. >You are Anon, and you are... just lounging on your bed, really
  204. >Not like you had much else to do this time of night, after all
  205. >You'd like to say you were trying to sleep, but realistically you were too wired from the night's events to even consider it
  206. >The existence of such hardball politics in this universe was pretty shocking news to you
  207. >You had almost been kicked out of the polisci program back home several times for your more... "aggressive" views on national politics, so this was nothing but a plus
  208. >After all, why shouldn't an absolute power be able to throw its weight around?
  209. >Especially if that absolute power was patently divine in nature?
  210. >Stewing in your thoughts for the past month had seen you despairing about getting shipped out to the sticks and hitched to some podunk farmer's daughter
  211. >How horrible, eating whole organic meals, getting cut as hell from all the manual labor... seeing hearts in your simple wife's eyes as she gazes upon your Olympian physique... gaining the admiration of your dozens of in-laws for your hard work...
  212. >Yep, you'd always wanted to be a farm-
  213. >Focus, Anon, focus! That was all supposed to be a bad thing!
  214. >Point is, you'd finally seen a part of the political system here that didn't bore you to tears, and this changed the game for you
  215. >You wanted in, and if the missive you'd received was anything to go by, you were gonna get in somehow
  216. >You hardly thought they were having you visit court simply to kill time
  217. >They MUST want you to achieve some level of political literacy for one reason or another
  218. >Thinking on the missive, you were brought back to an old thought that had plagued your mind constantly since your arrival
  219. >Who the HELL was your match?
  220. >You'd entertained it being a noblemare, but now you were fairly sure it had to be one
  221. >How many mares had you even seen taking issues to court?
  222. >You came to realize that pretty much every regular petitioner had blended together into the visage of a single amorphous Giga Complainer within your mind
  223. >You could hardly pick a single face out of that primordial ooze, so you left the question be for now
  224. >Your mind continued to wander as you focused into infinity, eventually stumbling across the memory of two brilliant pools of mint green amidst a cloud of darkness
  225. >Those eyes were really something, miss "Ruler of the Night"
  226. >She'd certainly come off as the perfect Machiavellian to you
  227. >Locking up the ruler of your protectorate under false pretenses to stifle a rebellion?
  228. >A cutthroat power play more akin to a leader of men than a leader of pastel horses
  229. >But that quick over-the-shoulder glance she'd shot you betrayed something
  230. >She'd been acutely aware of your presence throughout the proceedings, of that you were certain
  231. >And yet she hadn't had a guard shoo you out immediately despite the supposedly airtight and delicate issue at hand
  232. >Why exactly was that?
  233. >You definitely had to meet this mare as soon as possible, preferably under more personal circumstances, but you weren't entirely certain how you could
  234. >Maybe if you put in a petition and requested night court for it-
  235. >A loud rap at your door jolted you out of your semi-trance
  236. "Who is it?"
  237. >Expecting the usual crackly voice of the local teenage mailpony, you instead got a husky authoritative tone in response from outside
  238. >"Royal Courier Service, Mr. Ymous. Your eyes only."
  239. >Damn, you really hoped nobody ever called you 'Mr. Ymous' again
  240. >You are Anon, and you are... trying to decipher this flowery penmanship
  241. >Penponyship? Whatever
  242. >You were pretty far removed from your elementary cursive lessons
  243. >That’s an I, right?
  244. >Christ, it’s just a bunch of squiggles to you
  245. >This might be a minute
  246. >...
  247. >The sun is rising
  248. >Your eyes may be bloodshot and baggy, but the letter was finally legible
  249. >You cleared your throat and put on your best English aristocracy impression as you read it to yourself
  250. "'Mr. Anonymous, you are cordially invited to a private audience with Princess Luna, two days from now at 10:00pm sharp. Due to unique circumstances regarding your status, this meeting will NOT be held in the Royal Court, but at the address detailed below. Casual dress recommended.'"
  251. >'Casual dress recommended'? This sounded more like a party invitation than a court summons
  252. >The address in question was at the bottom of the letter, and surprisingly enough, it was in the same general locale as your own dwelling
  253. >As if cued by your full comprehension of its contents, the letter burnt to ash in a plume of cool blue flames
  254. >Magic was fucking weird, man
  255. >Your tired mind set into motion figuring out what this entailed
  256. >There was no return address and the sender hadn't named themselves, but the seal on the envelope told you that this was a legit summons
  257. >A royal summons sent to you only a few hours after you and the princess had first seen each other?
  258. >This could only mean that she had actively INTENDED for you to be there, and your witnessing of the events within that courtroom hadn't been mere happenstance
  259. >Well, this certainly opened your situation up significantly
  260. >You were evidently demanding the attention of Princess Luna for one reason or another, but for what reason you simply couldn't piece together
  261. >Immediately, you ruled out the ridiculous notion of being matched with her through the Initiative
  262. >She surely had a load of suitors at her beck and call, all of them probably a better match for royalty than you
  263. >But maybe, just maybe, she'd read your case file and seen your background in political science?
  264. >Doubt it, it was unlikely anypony but Cadence read those for confidentiality purposes
  265. >Besides, what bearing would your understanding of human politics have on the nuanced processes here?
  266. >Maybe she wanted you in her entourage purely for the optics?
  267. >'Canterlot in uproar! First human advisor to the crown appointed, nobles furious!'
  268. >Probably not
  269. >Fuck, you were tired
  270. >Good thing you had the day off
  271. >You could think more about all this in the morning, you assume she'd given you two full days for a reason
  272. >For now, your slightly-too-small bed was calling to you, and you couldn't stop yourself from answering
  273. >You flopped down and passed out almost instantly, letting yourself get carried off into the calm void of a dreamless fatigue-induced sleep
  274. >You are Anon, and you are... soaked through
  275. >It was the night of your supposed 'private audience', quite ominously accompanied by a torrential downpour
  276. >The droplets were of the big and sloppy variety, the kind that made an audible *splash* when impacting your umbrella
  277. >An instrument you were thankful for, as you were currently just standing stock-still in the road like an idiot
  278. >Directly outside the establishment where you were going to meet the second most powerful entity in this realm
  279. >Which you were understandably hesitant to enter, given that it was a fucking dive
  280. >'Duke Bristle's Eau de Félicité' the sign read in flickering neon
  281. >Fancy name for a pub smushed between a Liberty Maretual insurance office and a decaying chain yoga center
  282. >Was this the wrong address?
  283. >Nope, 2548 Horsefeathers Lane, just like on the letter
  284. >You definitely weren't being punk'd, the courier and the seal on that letter were as real as they could possibly be
  285. >So why here?
  286. >It was understandable for Princess Luna to not want a full-on court meeting to talk, but you were a bit insulted by this setting
  287. >You expected something the slightest bit regal, at least
  288. >Maybe this hole-in-the-wall was her natural territory and suited her better, being the 'Ruler of the Night' and whatnot
  289. >You snickered at how silly and edgy that would be
  290. >Ooooooh look at meeeee, I'm a real tough and hard-boiled pastel-colored horse
  291. >You couldn't deny that you were quite likely to get stabbed in the bathroom in a place like this, though
  292. >You sighed resignedly and started walking to the entrance
  293. >This wasn't an opportunity you were gonna pass up
  294. >No matter the setting, this was your jumping-off point into the world of Equestrian politics
  295. >You couldn't afford to screw it up
  296. >You nodded to the half-asleep and decidedly miserable-looking bouncer, and he waved you in without another glance
  297. >He was probably told to let you in beforehand, but what else was he going to do? Card you?
  298. >It was obviously a slow night and he couldn't be bothered to make a fuss, regardless
  299. >You put your hand on the door, and hesitated for a moment
  300. >You'd been deliberating this for the last two days, and thought your mind was concluded, but one single nagging doubt was still there
  301. >Did you REALLY want this?
  302. >All that inner discourse about how much you admired a strong political hand over all else, but was that strong hand really you?
  303. >You glanced back at the street, distorted by the waves of rain crashing down on it by the second
  304. >You could definitely just walk away right now
  305. >Blowing off a crown princess probably wasn't a capital offense here, your head would probably stay on your shou-
  306. >You shook off the thought
  307. >Mama Ymous didn't raise a pussy
  308. >Eugh, saying your surname like that made your skin crawl
  309. >You took a deep breath, feeling very much like a salmon about to climb a waterfall, and pushed open the door
  310. >You are Luna, and you are... sitting in your usual corner booth, courtesy of old Bristle himself
  311. >He always reserved this spot just for you, bless his heart
  312. >You were a regular here all the way back when his ancestors owned the place, over a millennia ago
  313. >It was a straw inn way out in the countryside back then, in the days when Canterlot was basically just the castle grounds and nothing else
  314. >You had to thank Tia for making sure sure the place didn't go under all those years
  315. >The city may be a massive urban sprawl nowadays, but with this little tavern you could always go back to simpler times
  316. >You supposed that was the reason you’d chosen this venue to meet Anonymous for the first time
  317. >You’d hopefully shown him a capacity for assertiveness and confidence in that little courtroom performance
  318. >Now, your goal was to give the impression of opening up
  319. >To come off as just another mare, with insecurities and emotions just like all the rest
  320. >Meeting in this little dive bar and sharing in a couple drinks would only enhance that effect, you hoped
  321. >You idly swirled your glass in mid-air, allowing the contents of your - third? - whiskey smash to hypnotize you ever so slightly
  322. >Luring him into a meeting on your own turf and throwing up an act yet again...
  323. >Goodness, Luna, you were being quite manipulative as of late
  324. >Why were you behaving so skittishly around your predestined true love?
  325. >Of course, it was because you were deeply afraid that he would reject you regardless of such things as fate
  326. >Past experiences dictated that you didn’t take rejection well
  327. >You knew you had to tell him at least one kernel of truth tonight, what you probably should have said as soon as he’d arrived in this world
  328. >And THAT was why you were downing liquid courage by the glass
  329. >Speaking of, you needed another smash
  330. >Tia had always tried to get you into the fruitier cocktails, but nothing could match the sweet burn of good bourbon
  331. >Add some mint and lemon and you had pure bliss in a gla-
  332. >Over the clattering of raindrops on the window, you heard the front door creak open
  333. >You looked up from the freshly-made cocktail on the table
  334. >Wishing to see what dared distract you from tracking a single drop of condensation down the side of the glassYou
  335. >The sight didn’t exactly shock you,
  336. >But given that this was the closest you’d ever been to each other before, you still couldn’t help but jump
  337. >If it wasn’t Mr. tall, drenched, and bipedal himself
  338. >You are Anon, and you are... not so surprised at the internal quality of this pub
  339. >Narrow and stretching all the way back to what seemed like the other side of the building, bar on the left and booths on the right
  340. >You instantly noticed that there weren't nearly enough lights to adequately illuminate the place
  341. >The 40-watt bulbs every other booth just painted a sickly yellow circle every couple paces and nothing more
  342. >It reminded you vaguely of a nightmare, just walking down a seemingly endless half-lit hallway like this
  343. >Making it worse was the fact that your shoes were audibly sticking to the floor every step
  344. >There was also the mildew stench, enhanced as it was by the lingering rainfall on you, making your eyes water
  345. >It was no worse than the average bar in northern Wisconsin, at least
  346. >You again wondered why one of the crown princesses would ever want to meet in a place like this
  347. >Royalty where you came from wouldn't be caught dead in this hole
  348. >You assumed anyway, it's not like any real monarchs existed in your time
  349. >Of all the undesirable imagery before you, however, what distressed you most was the lack of the princess you were looking for
  350. >A quick scan of the visible parts of the place revealed just four figures to you
  351. >The barkeep, an evidently aged earth pony of robust build, intermittently mixing drinks for his patrons while ever-so-politely refusing to look any of them in the eye
  352. >The two stallions at the bar - old friends in the middle of a long conversational pause, by your guess - both taking huge quaffs from mugs of that disgusting ubiquitous wheat ale that was popular in the area
  353. >And the usual ratty-cloaked vagabond in the corner booth, face not visible but obviously watching you like a hawk
  354. >There was one in every bar, he (or she) would probably try to mug you on your way out
  355. >You could take him, probably
  356. >They didn't call you Anon "Took Second Place in that One JV Wrestling Meet in High School" Ymous for nothing
  357. >Among this rogues' gallery, not a single wisp of ethereal night could be found
  358. >You knew it, this WAS an elaborate punk-in-progress
  359. >One of these ponies was paid a moderate sum to pull your pants down at the most opportune moment
  360. >To what end and for what audience your impending public embarrassment was meant to cater didn't even cross your mind
  361. >And you weren't going to stick around the find out
  362. >Fuming and frustrated at how much effort your mystery harasser had gone to to mildly inconvenience you, you spun on your heel and prepared to storm out
  363. >It was a shame, really
  364. >You'd really been looking forward to having a nice talk with the princess, and now you just felt like an idiot for ever trusting that summons
  365. >Suddenly, you felt a hoof on your shoulder
  366. >Accompanied by, oddly enough, a very pungent scent of incense burning your nose hairs
  367. >You wheeled around as fluidly as you could into a sloppy right hook, certain that this must be the suspicious character in the corner booth making his move
  368. >You planned on just walking out and letting yourself stew in irritation for the night
  369. >But hey, this was a fine excuse to take it out
  370. >However, your fist never actually reaches its target, and you nearly jerk your shoulder out of its socket
  371. >Totally perplexed, you look to your right and see that, despite your best efforts, it's just suspended there mid-swing
  372. >Surrounded in the cyan glow of unmistakable unicorn magic
  373. >You reaaaaaaally hope you didn't just pick an unwinnable fight
  374. >"Not every strange face is plotting against you, you know."
  375. >Well well well
  376. >That was a voice you couldn't forget
  377. >You turned to your perceived assailant, noting that it was in fact the cloaked figure
  378. >But from up close, the shadow covering its face was far less impermeable than at a distance
  379. >Beneath the hood, you could now pick out an abnormally long horn
  380. >A slight and knowing grin
  381. >And a pair of spring green orbs shimmering like lakes in moonlight
  382. >"Hello, Anonymous. You and I have much to discuss."
  383. >Princess Luna
  384. >You are Anon, and you are... feeling like a bit of an ass
  385. >You'd just tried to sock an astral demigoddess in the face
  386. >Under an understandable pretense, of course, but still
  387. >And here you are now, sitting across from her on the worn-down upholstery of this little corner booth, as if you hadn't
  388. >The princess certainly didn't seem bothered by it in the slightest
  389. >In fact, she was staring at you as one might at a particularly fascinating insect, soft grin still on her face, occasionally sipping at a brown cocktail you didn't know the name of
  390. >You shifted in your seat and coughed involuntarily
  391. >Could you say something? Would that be speaking out of turn?
  392. >What of substance did you even have to say to such an infinitely wise entity?
  393. >'I'm a huge fan of your work, watching you extra-judicially imprison a powerful political figure got me really pumped up'
  394. >Funny, Anon, real funny
  395. >The prior delusion you had of standing on a equal level of discourse with this pony was evaporating pretty fast
  396. >"You like to get stuck in your own head, don't you?"
  397. >Luna was the first to break the uncomfortable silence
  398. >Her voice was significantly less harsh and regal this time around, to your surprise
  399. >She'd even dropped the thou and thee shit
  400. >Thank goodness, that would've worn on you in normal conversation
  401. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty?"
  402. >Sure, we'll go with that one
  403. >It seemed to elicit a cute little giggle from her
  404. >"You would address us so formally given this environment and our attire? Quite the gentlestallion."
  405. >Was the moon goddess... ribbing you?
  406. >"Given the nature of what we'd like to discuss, you should simply call us 'Luna'. Things are liable to get awkward with such an... impersonal tone."
  407. >Just what did she want to talk about?
  408. "S-sorry, I just don't really get to talk to pe-uh, pon-wait no, entities like you back where I come from, you know?"
  409. >Pick a pronoun and run with it you sperg
  410. "So, uh, Luna, what did you mean by 'I like to get stuck in my own head'?"
  411. >She sighed and looked down at the table, seeming to reminisce about something for a moment
  412. >"When one gets to be our age, it doesn't matter the species,"
  413. >She knocked back the rest of her drink and motioned to the barkeep for another
  414. >"The physical tells behind emotions and thoughts all start to bleed together."
  415. >Well, you hardly had a practiced poker face
  416. >Her gaze lifted back up, the gentle smirk coming back
  417. >"And we can tell that YOU, Mr. Anonymous, are the type to read over every minute detail and think well in advance of any action you may take."
  418. >Another sip
  419. >This magical horse was reading you like a book, but you didn't feel insecure about it
  420. >You threw your hands up in mock surrender
  421. "Got me, officer."
  422. >This was apparently immensely entertaining to her, as she began to laugh and bang her hoof on the table
  423. >Just how many of those cocktails had she had before you arrived?
  424. >Once she calmed down, you crossed your arms on the table and attempted to explain
  425. "I've just... always been a worrying kind of guy. Always felt like all eyes were on me even when they obviously weren't and like I was singled out no matter what I did."
  426. >The princess, now bereft of any cheeky expression, nodded in understanding
  427. >"We feel the same way at times. The feeling of trotting on eggshells, afraid to slip up and be berated for not executing perfectly on the way down,"
  428. >Another sip
  429. >"Is not pleasant."
  430. >It was your turn to nod in agreement
  431. >How crazy was this, you shooting the breeze with the second highest government official in the country?
  432. >What's more, you were outright hitting it off!
  433. >Anon, old boy, you're moving up in the world
  434. >"However..."
  435. >However?
  436. >Luna was looking down at the table again, expression unreadable to you
  437. >"This feeling you described... you said you feel this way all the time?"
  438. >Her tone was even, but you couldn't help but feel something was building
  439. "Uh, yeah. I just feel like people are kind of, I guess, hyper-aware of my actions? It's like someone's jumping up to criticize me before I even do anything."
  440. >You leaned back against the booth, not liking this sudden mood shift one bit
  441. "So I try to think far ahead and plan everything out all the time, and-"
  442. >Luna moved so quickly you hardly had the time to yelp in surprise
  443. >She sprang up on her hind legs and planted her forehooves on the table, a scowl now etched on her face, her eyes narrowed in a cold fury
  444. >You now wanted nothing more than to run out of this booth
  445. >But you could do nothing but cower slightly as she leaned forward, stopping with her muzzle mere inches from your face
  446. >She spoke, her tone now a low and menacing hiss
  447. >"Well, Mr. Anonymous, that attitude is absolutely detestable."
  448. >You are Anon, and you are... terrified
  449. >The mood of this conversation went pear-shaped faster than you could blink
  450. >You now had a seemingly furious princess on your hands, and close enough to bite off your nose
  451. >And you didn't really know why
  452. >She seemed sympathetic earlier, but now she was saying your outlook was detestable?
  453. >You cut off your thoughts, as she had left you hanging on her statement and was clearly expecting you to respond
  454. >Now she was just boring holes through you
  455. >The stillness of her face was oddly pleasing when contrasted with her lazily billowing mane
  456. >Focus, Anon, it might keep your head attached to your shoulders
  457. >You gulped comically loudly
  458. "M-my apologies, Princess. Why's that?"
  459. >Hot breath hit your face as she scoffed indignantly
  460. >"Did we not tell you to refer to us as 'Luna'?"
  461. >Seriously
  462. >You could barely stop yourself from rolling your eyes
  463. "Okay, Luna. Why's my outlook so 'distasteful' to you?"
  464. >This time it was a moderately satisfied snort that hit you
  465. >She made no effort to back away or change her expression, though
  466. >"You, Anonymous, are a narcissist, and we cannot stand narcissists."
  467. >You WHAT?
  468. >Oh yeah, it was time to blow up
  469. "Wait a minute, I've been doing nothing but putting myself down this entire conversation! I JUST told you about how my self-esteem has been at rock-bottom my entire life! How is that narcissism?"
  470. >Now YOU were pretty mad
  471. >How could you, with such a pathetic view of yourself, be a narcissist in any way?
  472. >The princess slammed the rest of her drink once again
  473. >Again, without backing off a centimetre or taking her eyes off you
  474. >"You erroneously assume one needs to be confident and self-assured to be a narcissist."
  475. >Didn't you?
  476. >A twinkle of amusement crossed her eyes at your obvious confusion
  477. >"In reality, it's often the reserved and thoughtful among us that are the most truly narcissistic."
  478. >That was sure fucking news to you
  479. >But now you were curious
  480. >Angrily curious, but curious nonetheless
  481. "How do you figure?"
  482. >Seeing that she had roped you in, the princess backed away from your face, keeping her hooves planted on the table and puffing out her chest in the process
  483. >"You, Anonymous, are what we like to call a 'self-defeating narcissist'."
  484. "You just made that term up."
  485. >"All terms are made up. Do you think half of the words we are speaking right now existed in our time?"
  486. >She chuckled haughtily to herself at that
  487. >You repressed a groan
  488. >"Anyway, narcissism simply entails high self-absorption, not necessarily high self-esteem or self-confidence."
  489. >You supposed that WAS the dictionary definition of narcissism
  490. >But getting lost in your own head doesn't mean you're self-absorbed! You obviously care a lot about others!
  491. >"'But I care a lot about others, I can't be a narcissist!' Is what you are thinking at this moment, yes?"
  492. >Now she was just being mean
  493. "Reading my mind isn't fair."
  494. >All hints of anger were gone from her face, replaced now with a measure of smugness and self-satisfaction
  495. >"You overestimate the extent of our magic. This is merely centuries of reading faces at work."
  496. >Well that was hardly any different, was it?
  497. >She looks ready to motion for another cocktail, but hesitates and decides against it
  498. >Must want to stay lucid for this little lecture
  499. >You'd thought for sure your head was gonna roll a few moments ago, but now the princess seemed entirely set on psychoanalyzing you instead
  500. >"You have convinced yourself that you care about others, but in reality you only care about what others think of you."
  501. "You're saying I've been agonizing over my every move all my life just to keep up an image? That's ridiculous."
  502. >She was now seated again, this time shaking her head like she knew something you didn't
  503. >"You said it, not us. We agree, it is a ridiculous notion, but we know it to be true. After all,"
  504. >She paused, leaning forward and turning her expression to stone
  505. >"You would not have abandoned life back in your world so easily if it wasn't."
  506. >You are Anon, and you are... fucking livid
  507. >Livid and extremely hurt
  508. >Did this royal bitch just insinuate you had any choice in the matter of coming here?
  509. >That you'd WANTED to up and disappear from your own life with no warning to your loved ones?
  510. >Nope, she was getting an earful
  511. >It was your turn to get on your feet and plant your hands on the table
  512. "I am NOT gonna sit here and hear you say to my face that I was sucked through some sort of love wormhole - absolutely no warning, none of my earthly possessions, and without so much as a CHANCE to say goodbye to my family or friends - by CHOICE!"
  513. >The princess was stock-still with an expression of ice, evidently expecting this reaction and fully willing to let you indulge in it
  514. >And indulge you would
  515. "EVERYTHING I ever worked for, COMPLETELY down the fucking drain! All for the personal - and I can only assume, sadistic - pleasure of some hole that I HAVEN'T EVEN MET YET!"
  516. >At that, you caught a slight wince crossing her face
  517. >You didn't know why she would be hurt at all by this rebuttal, but you were glad she was
  518. "So what I'm saying is, you can take your little face-reading game and your amateur psychoanalysis and walk out that fucking door! I'd rather be shipped out to Bumfuck, Nowhere and farm rocks on some pathetic little plot of land than spend another fucking minute in your company! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!"
  519. >You collapsed back into your seat, out of breath but satisfied at that tongue-lashing
  520. >Of course, your demand for her to leave hardly made any sense and you couldn't make her if you tried
  521. >Still, it was your way of coping with your complete lack of control of the conversation up to this point, so whatever
  522. >Luna, for her part, sighed and leaned forward in her seat, this time emphatically resting her forelegs on the table
  523. >"I take it from that outburst that our niece hasn't informed you of exactly how the Crystal Heart works?"
  524. >You remained silent
  525. >Of course she had, it was a big arcade claw for the lonely bachelorettes
  526. >It dragged some poor little human out of their perfectly satisfactory life and dumped them with this bunch of exhausting, emotionally-abusive ponies
  527. >Luna, seeing you weren't going to respond, continued
  528. >"I thought not. The thing is, Anonymous, the Crystal Heart usually DOES give suitors the option to refuse."
  529. >Huh
  530. >You what
  531. >You WHAT?
  532. >You grit your teeth to stop from screaming in frustration
  533. >You were gonna have a conniption
  535. >You punctuated each word by slamming your fist down on the hardwood
  536. >Luna was staring at your nose, refusing to meet your eyes, but her gaze had something new within it this time
  537. >Genuine sorrow and regret
  538. >Why?
  539. >"Before we continue, know this: We truly apologize for our earlier sentiments. We assumed you to be more aware of your circumstances than you actually are, and erroneously so."
  540. >She lifted her head up to meet the quizzical look you were giving her
  541. >"The Crystal Heart did not detect any connection to your home dimension in your heart, and so it pulled you out straight away without any confirmation. We were prodding to see why."
  542. >A huge bucket of ice water, poured right over the searing coals piled on your head
  543. >You could practically feel the steam rising
  544. >So... she'd hit the nail on the head, then
  545. >You really hadn't cared about the people in your life
  546. >You'd only ever cared about projecting an air of competence to them, for fear of rejection and disenfranchisement
  547. >It was all so utterly clear now that you knew that one simple little fact
  548. >You deflated like a hot air balloon, and felt something salty welling up in your eyes
  549. >Come on, man, don't cry in front of the princess
  550. >You lowered your head and picked out a knot in the wood floor panels to focus on
  551. >You were so goddamned disappointed in yourself
  552. >23 years of existence, literally just... existing
  553. >No meaningful connections, no notable achievements, no passions, nothing
  554. >And your month here so far hadn't been much better
  555. >You hadn't even met your match yet, and you're sure that was your fau-
  556. >Wait a minute, how was Luna appraised of your situation in particular like this?
  557. >She knew the special circumstances of how you'd arrived here, something she could only have found out by DIRECTLY going to Cadence about you
  558. >Given that it wasn't even on your case file - you'd read it, you'd have known if it was
  559. >Your despair was quickly giving way to the initial curiosity that had brought you here
  560. >You were sure that the princess hadn't merely come to read your mind and drop this emotional bombshell
  561. >The pieces were clicking together
  562. >"Anonymous?"
  563. >You poked your head above the table and looked to the alicorn, noting that her expression had softened significantly into a concerned - and, dare you say, guilty - frown
  564. >She cleared her throat awkwardly, and began to speak
  565. >"It has come to our attention that you... have been here quite some time, yes?"
  566. >Cautiously sitting upright again, you nodded slowly
  567. >"And you... are still unaware of the mare you've been matched with."
  568. >There were only two ponies in existence who could possibly know that
  569. >Cadence, and your match herself
  570. >No fucking way
  571. >Luna was now flexing her wings in and out sporadically
  572. >Pegasi body language for anxiousness, you knew
  573. >She was also avoiding your gaze, opting to look at the suddenly fascinating wall to her left
  574. >"Well... that also happens to be our fault."
  575. >No FUCKING way
  576. >The princess fidgeted with the collar of her cloak
  577. >With her hooves, the sign of a unicorn's thoughts being too scrambled to use magic
  578. >"We did not wish to tell you one emotionally-distressing statement after another, but..."
  579. >You're kidding
  580. >She turned to you, flushed with a clear mixture of embarrassment and nerves
  581. >Covering her eyes with her wings, her next words came flying at you at Mach speed
  582. >"WeartthymatchasordainedbytheCrystalHeartandapologizeforfailingtocontacttheeearlierbutwouldbeverygratefuliftheewouldacceptthydestinedpositionasroyalconsort."
  583. >Uhhhhhhhhh huh
  584. >You are Anon, and you are... gonna have an episode here, man
  585. >All you'd ever wanted to do back home was lead a lazy and honest life
  586. >Marry a mediocre-looking woman
  587. >Have a couple of kids, a boy and a girl preferably
  588. >Settle down somewhere, make sure your kids never have to work if they don't want to, and die before your wife
  589. >Being here for a month, seeing how simple and easygoing life was in this quaint little world, had allowed a brainworm known as the delusion of grandeur to burrow into your mind
  590. >You could absolutely dominate these little ponies in any area of expertise given time, you were sure
  591. >Work your way up the ranks, make powerful friends, work things like a puppetmaster, the works
  592. >And now here you were, getting the realization to all those delusions plopped right in front of you on a silver platter
  593. >By one of the highest powers in the realm, no less
  594. >Who was, by the way, not-so-subtly peeking over her wings to observe your reaction
  595. >You didn't deign to provide her with one, reclining in your seat and looking pensively up at the ceiling
  596. >It was the single most tempting opportunity you'd ever been presented with, you couldn't be more sure of that
  597. >An instant ride all the way to the top, pass go and collect your consort-ship
  598. >All the power and pride afforded to the rulers of this world with no work required
  599. >It all sounded like a dream
  600. >The only thing assuring you it wasn't were the two massive and nagging doubts attached to it
  601. >The first was related to all you had learned in the moments leading up to the big reveal
  602. >This horse before you had - though unwittingly so - appraised your life up until a month ago as an utterly worthless endeavor
  603. >All actions you'd ever taken were in service of your ego and maintaining a facade, nothing more
  604. >No true relationships forged, no genuine achievements, nothing
  605. >You decided here and now that your life from here on would not play out that way
  606. >Every action now would be in service of forging the genuine rather than the fake
  607. >Which brought you to the second doubt
  608. >You did not love this horse
  609. >Accepting the position of consort to the throne would be totally hollow endeavor, done only in service of furthering your position in life and nothing else
  610. >In short, an action you'd sworn off just now
  611. >On the other hand, matches made by the Crystal Heart, as explained to you, were factually destined to be, meaning that this mare was in fact your one true love
  612. >She was a beautiful creature, you knew, but more beautiful in the sense of a magnificent work of art than a woman to you
  613. >Aesthetically pleasing beyond anything else, but not palpitation-inducing
  614. >But you could sense that this was subject to change
  615. >A short conversation with her had changed your outlook on life in an instant, there HAD to be more chemistry under the surface
  616. >Forming a relationship with her was something you wanted to do, out of a genuine passion and desire to make something work for once
  617. >Right here and right now, though, accepting consort-ship without any real established "thing" between you two would be pointless to that end
  618. >Maybe there was another way to make it work
  619. >You'd made up your mind
  620. >Still staring at the ceiling with nary a crack in your thoughtful expression, you kicked your feet up on the table
  621. >The princess was now out of the protective encirclement of her wings, looking you over intently for any sign of a nonverbal response
  622. >Too bad, you're not getting it this time
  623. >Not changing your pose, you finally responded to her request
  624. "Princess Luna, I'm afraid I'll have to humbly refuse your offer for the position of royal co-"
  625. >You were cut off mid sentence by the rather unpleasant sensation of being dragged across the table by your hair
  626. ...
  627. >You are Anon, and you are... damn near pissing your pants for the SECOND TIME this very conversation
  628. >At least the last time Luna had been content to just get up in your face
  629. >This time she’d actually telekinetically gripped your scalp and pulled your face up to hers
  630. >What you were now confronted with wasn’t an expression of fury, though
  631. >Rather, a pout and a slight hint of tears at the corners of her eyes
  632. >That’s just too cute
  633. >Look at her little muzzle scrunching up like that
  634. >It makes a dopey smile work its way onto your face, despite the situation
  635. >She jostles your head around in a less-than-gentle fashion, snapping you back to reality
  636. >"Thou would dare refuse such a proposition?! From a crown princess??! Art thou out of thy mind?!!!"
  637. >Back to the Shakespearean dialect
  638. >There was no anger behind her words this time, you noticed
  639. >More like bold-faced desperation
  640. >"The Crystal Heart's decree cannot be rejected or refused by either party! Does thee not understand? Thou must accept!"
  641. >She punctuated this with a stomp on the table, but it didn't have the kind of intimidating impact she intended
  642. >Mostly because her voice had cracked several times through the statement, and the tears were starting to flow
  643. >You also knew that was a lie, considering she'd JUST given you the option
  644. >You didn't like this one bit
  645. >It was unbelievably uncomfortable to watch the princess, so self-assured and confident in court affairs just days ago, break down like this
  646. >A simple rejection, by someone significantly below her station, was enough to send her flying off the handle like this? What gives?
  647. >There was clearly something going on below the surface here
  648. >It occurred to you that the Crystal Heart was a two-way street
  649. >Given that it had judged you as an apathetic piece of shit, you wonder exactly what problems Luna had that justified your match
  650. >Hopefully, you would come to learn in time
  651. >For now, you had to secure that "time" from this rapidly-deteriorating situation
  652. >And you just thought of a way to do so
  653. "P-princess, please."
  654. >You choked out, finding it somewhat difficult to speak evenly with ethereal claws digging into your skull
  655. >Luna gasped lightly, as if just now noticing her own spell, and released you
  656. >You weren't prepared and failed to catch yourself before slamming your head onto the table
  657. >Undeterred, you picked yourself up and scooted back into your seat
  658. >You dusted yourself off, cleared your throat, and gave your now-or-never winning pitch
  659. "Luna,"
  660. >Her ears cautiously perked up, glad to hear your unprompted casual address
  661. "I'm honored that you would extend this invitation to me, just as I'm honored that the Crystal Heart decided to match me with the prettiest mare in the world."
  662. >That's right big guy, lay it on thick
  663. >She wiped at her eyes with her wings, her vaguely despairing body language slowly disappearing
  664. "The problem I'm having right now is that I can't say that I love you in the way such a match entails,"
  665. >That little wince crossed her face again
  666. "And I think, given some reflection, you'll find that you don't love me in that way, either."
  667. >She locked eyes with you momentarily, clearly crestfallen, but nodded, affirming your statement
  668. >Thank God, you were on the same page
  669. >You continued
  670. "You've awoken me to a few things about myself, and looking back I think I'm a bit too emotionally immature and disconnected to be a good spouse right now, especially to you."
  671. >Another nod, good
  672. >"We also believe... we got a bit ahead of ourselves with such a request."
  673. >Oh?
  674. "Why's that?"
  675. >You probably shouldn't have asked, at the risk of derailing your impending counter-offer
  676. >But you'd like to know why the princess thought she was out of line of all things
  677. >She shifted slightly and looked to the side
  678. >"Those callous sentiments we threw out earlier, about you being an uncaring and impersonal narcissist. Were they correct?"
  679. >Still hurts, but she WAS right
  680. "Yes, they were pretty spot-on."
  681. >She sighed with some measure of relief
  682. >"Only because such personality traits aren't foreign to us, you understand. Duplicitous actions to keep a facade and avoid rejection are something we specialize at."
  683. >Interesting
  684. >She looked back at you again, the tear-stained streaks on her fur accentuating the somber smile now on her face
  685. >"We suppose we, too, are still a bit immature for such a proposition to be seriously considered."
  686. >Wonderful, absolutely wonderful
  687. >Like, seriously, she couldn't have given you a better excuse to lay out your plan
  688. >Emboldened, you struck out
  689. "Well, considering we both pretty much feel the same way, let me make a suggestion."
  690. >This made the princess tilt her head to the side quizzically, not unlike a dog
  691. >You took this as your prompt to continue
  692. "It's so simple, just make me your advisor instead."
  693. ...
  694. >You are Anon, and you are... leaving her hanging on that proposal
  695. >Luna increasing the angle of her head tilt tells you she doesn't quite get it
  696. >This may take some further explanation
  697. >"So... you wish to take up a position as a simple advisor to our court? In lieu of royal consort?"
  698. >She asked, slowly and deliberately to make sure she hadn't misheard you
  699. >You nodded enthusiastically, hoping she would get why but understanding that she probably wouldn't
  700. >The princess shook her head and chuckled knowingly for a moment
  701. >She glanced at the barkeep, and then back to you, a light of inspiration hitting her pupils
  702. >"Anonymous, it occurs to us that we have trapped you in an inn for this entire exchange without even offering you a drink. Would you like one?"
  703. >You were caught a bit off-guard by the change in topic
  704. >To be honest, it hadn't even occurred to you to request one
  705. "Uh, sure. I'd love one, thanks."
  706. >A few moments of silence
  707. >Had you said something out of line?
  708. >Luna cleared her throat and rolled her eyes, looking somewhat bemused
  709. >"...What KIND of drink, Anonymous?"
  710. >Pretty damn stupid, aren't you Anon
  711. >Your face flushed, and you rushed to think of a cocktail
  712. >You weren't exactly an alchie in your college days, so there was only one thing you knew
  713. >Turning to the bartender - who was still barely acknowledging that the bar was even occupied - you ordered as evenly as you could
  714. "Gin & tonic, please."
  715. >Luna motioned to him, the same signal you figured meant "another"
  716. >Was she a regular here or something?
  717. >Looking to you again, she went back to the topic at hand
  718. >"We must say, Anonymous, we do not entirely understand your thought process."
  719. >You figured
  720. >Didn't blame her, either
  721. "Yeah, I know, it's weird to request a step down in position and all, but I-"
  722. >"No, we are aware of your emotional rationale for such a request. You wish to work in a position close to us and get to know us better without feeling guilty that you are simply using us to advance your social position."
  723. >You know, maybe this horse was more in-tune with you than you thought
  724. >Gotta stop underestimating millennia-old celestials, Anon
  725. >The bartender grunted - the old stallion's way of saying "order up", you guessed - and your drinks floated to the booth under the light blue glow of telekinesis
  726. "Well, seeing as you nailed my reasoning on the head, what's the problem?"
  727. >She knocked back half of her cocktail that you still didn't know the name of
  728. >It was pretty brown, maybe a whiskey cocktail?
  729. >"It is a good idea, going from a solely emotionally-charged perspective. However,"
  730. >However?
  731. >"You've failed to consider exactly what being a royal advisor entails, Anonymous."
  732. >You suppose you had
  733. >"Advisors" in a general sense didn't really exist in your world anymore, so the concept was somewhat removed from your experience
  734. >You nervously chanced a sip at your cocktail
  735. >Unable to stop yourself, you visibly cringed, the sharp and burning taste of fermented juniper berries overwhelming the tonic water and lime entirely
  736. >Seems like you'd been given a double shot by accident
  737. >Coughing, you responded to the princess' accusation
  738. "I suppose I didn't, yeah. Kind of assumed my limited experience in politics back in my world would be enough."
  739. >Luna downed the other half of her drink, letting out a satisfied gasp at the end of it
  740. >You weren't even gonna try and keep up, even with the massive head-start it was clear she would drink you well under the table if you tried
  741. >"The position of advisor in these lands is demanding, tiresome, and above all high-context. We would not trust most ponies with such a task, much less a complete alien to our political system."
  742. >You hadn't even thought of that
  743. >Back to square one, you suppose
  744. >This time, you took a nice and long drag of your gin & tonic, relishing the double-shot burn instead of cringing at it
  745. >Maybe you co-
  746. >"Now, have you been sufficiently warned of the kind of workload you'll be facing as advisor?"
  747. >Luna cut off your train of thought yet again
  748. >And you weren't sure how to answer this inquiry
  749. "Uhhhhhhhhh, yes?"
  750. >"Excellent. We now appoint you to an official court apprenticeship, effective immediately."
  751. ...
  752. >You are Anon, and you are... apparently getting pushed up the ladder sooner than you thought
  753. >Apprenticeship?
  754. "What exactly do you mean by 'apprenticeship', Pr-uh, Luna?"
  755. >She was intently digging through a small leather pouch, and answered you without looking up
  756. >"Is it not self-explanatory? We do not know each other well enough for matrimony, but you lack the necessary knowledge and experience to be our advisor- ah, found you!"
  757. >The princess' pupils dilated and she cracked a smile as she evidently found what she was looking for
  758. >Out of the pouch came a small silver disk, which Luna then blew on and briefly polished with a corner of her cloak
  759. >She held it up to the dull light, and then levitated it over and placed it in front of you
  760. >On it, an engraving of her own Cutie Mark inlaid with - was that lead? - standing out against the otherwise mirror platinum sheen
  761. >A badge?
  762. >"Where were we? Ah yes, since we cannot rightly take you as a husband and you are unfit to be a proper advisor, we will take you into an apprenticeship until either we deem you competent enough to be our advisor, or,"
  763. >This was where she looked to you, eyes shimmering with hope for the future
  764. >"You - and we - become comfortable enough to accept each others' hooves in marriage. Do you find these terms agreeable?"
  765. >You slammed the rest of your drink, accepting the burn into your core and letting the accompanying tears well up
  766. >You recalled the question you'd asked yourself before pushing that door open a little while ago
  767. >Did you really want this?
  768. >Your outlook on life had irreversibly changed over this past hour or so of conversation, and even if you backed out here you would never be the same
  769. >But you'd also met this enigmatic and passionate alicorn, for whom you could feel a certain kind of affection slowly developing
  770. >What the hell, you'd come this far
  771. >May as well continue down the rabbit hole
  772. "Yes ma'am, we do find those terms MORE than agreeable."
  773. >Detecting your affirmative response, the outline of the princess' Cutie Mark on the badge glowed bright white
  774. >It jumped at you, making you flinch in surprise, and affixed itself to your jacket just above your left breast
  775. >Giving it a cursory tug, you noticed it wasn't coming off despite the lack of a pin or latch
  776. >Magic, man
  777. >Luna broke into a wide grin, face lightly flushed - from equal parts happiness and booze, you presumed - positively beaming at you
  778. >This time, you matched her expression
  779. >And you just sat like that for a little while, basking in the newfound bond between one another, the medallion on your chest pulsating calmly
  780. >The princess was the first to move
  781. >Pulling a small handful of bits from her purse, she tossed them on the table and scooted her way out of the booth
  782. >Now standing, she turned to address you
  783. >"Given your new position and the distance of your current accommodations from the castle proper, we believe a move is in order."
  784. >You were moving up in more ways than one, it seemed
  785. >"Be prepared to leave by noon tomorrow, we will arrange for somepony to pick you up. Do you have any further concerns?"
  786. >You fake-pondered for a moment, already knowing your response, and shook your head
  787. >The princess smiled again before assuming a chest-out regal posture, a pose that now felt familiar to you
  788. >"We officially welcome you to the Night Court, Anonymous. It's a pleasure to have you, and we look forward to watching you advance."
  789. >With that, she began walking out of the bar, her silver shoes audibly and hilariously sticking to the floorboards just as yours had
  790. >Interestingly enough, the two stallions sitting at the bar also left their seats and fell in behind the princess, and seemed to begin... melting
  791. >The magic disguises sloughed off like wax under sunlight, revealing a pair of bat ponies dressed in the same guard attire you'd seen them wearing in court
  792. >They shook themselves off and flexed their wings a bit before continuing on, mesmerizing you ever so slightly with their movements
  793. >Enough that you almost forgot
  794. "Luna!"
  795. >You shouted after her from the booth, hoping to catch her before she left
  796. >She whipped her neck around, her eyes first hard with concern but quickly softening
  797. >Now was your chance to close the gap between you, ever so slightly
  798. "Please, call me 'Anon'."
  799. >A wry smirk and a glimmer of the eyes
  800. >"See you tomorrow, Anon."
  801. ...
  802. >You are Luna, and you are... simply ecstatic
  803. >Though you obviously weren't going to show it in front of this...
  804. >What was this appointment about, again?
  805. >Ah, right, the head surgeon of Canterlot Municipal was whinging in your ear about EMS funding being cut in favor of blah blah blah
  806. >You used to be a lot more exclusive about what issues could be brought to Night Court, you remember
  807. >A deal struck long ago saw Tia - ever the pony-pleaser and gentle matron - dealing with the concerns of the rabble during the day, while you - the blunt and intrepid mare-of-action - took the specialized national-emergency type cases by appointment and out of sight
  808. >The arrangement suited you both perfectly fine, Celestia loved her little ponies and you hated the self-important nobility that came to you
  809. >It made for a nice good cop-bad cop dynamic, you thought, a throne fair and kind to the commoners and ruthless to the upper crust
  810. >But somewhere along the line it leaked that you were holding after-hours court appointments
  811. >And suddenly YOU were also dealing with tedious civil issues
  812. >Something for which you lacked the tact that Tia had in spades
  813. >You sighed internally as the bespectacled sterile-white unicorn blathered on about the unfair competitive advantage enjoyed by private medical services or somesuch
  814. >Your mind was far too chained to your earlier engagement - and a bit addled by booze - to focus on anything this egghead was saying
  815. >'Anon', huh...
  816. >Your plan for the evening had gone entirely off the rails the second you learned he didn't actually KNOW why he'd been unceremoniously dumped in this plane of existence
  817. >You'd planned on prying into it a bit, tear him down a little to build him back up into revealing he was your match
  818. >Instead, it seemed that you'd wounded him pretty bad
  819. >And he'd rightfully wounded you in response
  820. >Laid bare your immaturity and drove you to tears for the first time since... well, the relatively infamous previous time you'd faced rejection
  821. >But he'd surprised you in the same stroke, showing remarkable restraint and maturity in refusing your offer of marriage in favor of a lowly court apprenticeship
  822. >You'd seen many things in your time, but an individual with the moral resolution to reject a royal proposal was... rare
  823. >He couldn't possibly know it, but you needed somepony like him at your side in an official capacity, romantically or not
  824. >You shuffled your wings as stealthily as you could, your posture suffering from five shots of whiskey
  825. >Your mind was smashed and wandering a desert highway outside of Las Pegasus, it was obvious you couldn't do this right now
  826. >Plus, you were expecting Anon during daylight hours tomorrow, meaning you actually had to get some sleep before the sun came up for once
  827. >Sorry, little pony, this just wasn't your night
  828. "We have heard thy grievance, Dr. Stallionwell."
  829. >Yeah, you'd cut him off mid-sentence
  830. >He froze, mouth open and hoof mid-gesture
  831. >"B-but I haven't even-"
  832. "Unfortunately, we cannot offer judgement or counsel on this matter, as it is not our field of expertise. We recommend bringing this matter to Day Court for proper resolution."
  833. >Not even bothering to look at the unicorn's reaction, you turned to the thestral at your left and gave the signal to close up shop
  834. >Nodding, the bat pony motioned to two others and began ushering Stallionwell out of the building, his stunned and mortified expression slowly causing his glasses to slide off his snout
  835. >"Wait, y-you can't do this! Do you know how long ago I scheduled this appointment? Three months! THREE MONTHS AGO!"
  836. >And so he hollered about your court being an unfair sham all the way to the door, out of which he was unceremoniously booted
  837. >That hurt a little bit
  838. >You didn't like treating commoners like this, and this little incident would do nothing but sour your reputation
  839. >But you were sure Tia would understand and handle it, your plans tomorrow were more important than a minor PR hit to the crown
  840. >Had to be on your A-game for this
  841. >First advisor candidate in, oh... something to the tune of 12 centuries?
  842. >Definitely worth more to you than the word of the mouthpiece of Canterlot Municipal Hospital
  843. >You excused yourself and bade your guards a good night, to which they bowed and filed out the back of the courtroom to their barracks
  844. >You let out a deep exhale as the last thestral left the premises, finally able to stand and conduct your otherwise embarrassingly-extensive stretching routine, and made your way back to your room
  845. >Walking through the looming and empty marble hallways of the castle on the way to your chambers, you considered everything you could do to impress your new recruit tomorrow
  846. >Would you show him the gardens? The observatory, perhaps?
  847. >The possibilities were endless, and it was a source of considerable mirth for you to imagine his reaction to each and every one
  848. >Reaching your quarters, you immediately flopped onto your far-too-large and far-too-fluffy mattress, and were almost immediately rendered into a pitch-black liquor coma
  849. >No dreamwalking for you tonight, you suppose
  850. ...
  851. >You are Anon, and you are... feeling a little out-of-place
  852. >More than just "one of the only members of your species in pastel horse land" out-of-place this time
  853. >It was that on TOP of "under-dressed at an important social function" out-of-place
  854. >The moving crew had, as promised, arrived at noon sharp
  855. >No less than six of the burliest bat-ponies you'd ever seen (from your admittedly small sample size) had shown up at your door, prepped and ready to conduct a full-scale uprooting
  856. >Imagine their shock when you were already practically out, a canvas bag containing all of your worldly possessions slung over your shoulder
  857. >Those poor nocturnal horses had looked so frustrated
  858. >Luna must've made them stay up for that, and it'd made you feel kind of guilty at the time
  859. >You'd been unceremoniously dumped in this world with just the clothes on your back, did she really think you would need all the help?
  860. >Anyway, hop skip and a carriage ride later, here you are
  861. >Right in front of your metaphorical pearly gates
  862. >It's pretty awe-inspiring, standing before a grand celebration of everything regal like this
  863. >Sure you'd seen it before
  864. >Even been in it if you counted the attached public courtroom
  865. >But the actual front gate? The football field of a front courtyard? The dozens of stark-white steps leading up to the main entrance of the palace proper?
  866. >The White House lawn was peanuts to this
  867. >Never in a million years did you picture yourself treading on that picturesque environment, let alone for the purpose of taking up residence
  868. >And yet, you're about to right now
  869. >Dressed in the same street clothes you'd arrived in a month ago
  870. >'Oh look at the raggedy little primate! Are you applying for court jester?'
  871. >How embarrassing
  872. >You wondered if Luna knew any creative tailors
  873. >A three-piece suit couldn’t be THAT hard to make, right?
  874. >You were so busy lamenting your tasteless fashion that you wouldn't have even noticed the exterior gates swinging outwards, had one of the guards flanking you not elbowed you lightly in the ribs
  875. >Snapping to attention and suddenly aware of the rapid clicking of the gateway's mechanism, you noticed there was a distinct lack of any movement from the castle
  876. >Surely she didn't expect you to walk all the way up and knock on the massive dark oak door like a total dork
  877. >Right?
  878. >But the gates CLANG’d to a halt, open wide and tempting you in, and the courtyard was still as motionless as ever
  879. >What’s more, the bystanders on the street were stopping their activities one by one and staring at the source of the commotion
  880. >Wonderful
  881. >The castle was looking less grand and inviting and more cold and monolithic by the second
  882. >The guard next to you cleared this throat and gave you another nudge, a polite but clear message to get your ass moving
  883. >Guess you weren't getting the Willy Wonka treatment
  884. >You took a deep breath, and began your leisurely stroll through the gate
  885. >The pony passers-by on the street had chain-reaction'd themselves into a practically silent state of observation at the potentially bizarre scene unfolding at the castle
  886. >It never failed to amaze you how hard it was to just walk normally when you were being watched
  887. >Being surrounded by six of her majesty's best DID help, though
  888. >Still, the amount of ground you had to cover between the gate and just the foot of the massive flight of stairs was simply absurd, and your audience was just making it feel longer
  889. >And boy, were you starting to sweat
  890. >A gigantic courtyard, made entirely out of marble and without a lick of shade, reflecting the burning afternoon sun right in your face
  891. >You'd like a word with whatever ancient architect came up with this
  892. >By the time you even reached the stairs - a walk that felt like an eternity in its own right - you were feeling more than a little slippery and salty
  893. >Even the guards, clearly seasoned military professionals, had worked up a bit of a sweat
  894. >Catching your breath at the base, you were relieved at the audible unlatching of the main doors' equally-massive deadbolt
  895. >Thank goodness, maybe they'd bring some water
  896. >And, like, one of those mobile thrones they use to carry around royalty in tribal societies
  897. >Realistically, you were expecting some kind of aide to usher you and your little party inside
  898. >You looked eagerly to the doors as they creaked open, and were summarily frozen by the familiar, rhythmic CLACKs of silver on stone
  899. >As if on cue, your medallion, inert since the princess had left the bar last night, began to pulse softly with the same white glow as before
  900. >You're kidding
  901. >So she WAS going with the Willy Wonka treatment after all!
  902. >The creaking stopped, and out from the relative darkness of the doorway's shadow strode a vague figure cloaked in a cloud of it
  903. >You've seen this trick before, and it isn't going to get old any time soon
  904. >Once well clear of the castle's interior and at the peak of the staircase, the murky fog surrounding the figure dispersed, leaving behind possibly the rarest sight in Equestria
  905. >The Ruler of the Night, in the flesh, out in broad daylight
  906. >This is gonna make headlines
  907. ...
  908. >You are Anon, and you are... in a word, awestruck
  909. >Up to now, every time you'd seen Luna had been in less-than-ideal lighting conditions
  910. >Far away in a practically unlit courtroom and way in the back of a dank little pub were not places that did a beautiful creature justice
  911. >Bathed in sunlight and contrasted against gleaming white stone, though?
  912. >You were at a loss for description
  913. >An immaculately-kempt coat, golden rays bouncing off of its glossy navy blue surface
  914. >A mane made of the night sky, illuminated yet impenetrable to the afternoon sun, billowing in the nonexistent breeze of the aether
  915. >A flawless silver neckpiece, practically gleaming, contrasting beautifully against the the mare it was attached to
  916. >A pair of wings not unlike an archangel's, spread to their maximal extent, equal parts inviting and intimidating
  917. >All of these features were registered in your mind one millisecond after the other, Polaroid clicks going off in your head every time you blinked
  918. >The crowd beyond the gate could only watch in silent amazement, any possible noise being an unworthy interruption to the sight before them
  919. >Chest puffed out and neck arched backwards, the princess - Luna, you reminded yourself - portrayed the very image of stoic regal beauty
  920. >Similar in many ways to a swan, you thought
  921. >Absentmindedly, you took a step forward, intending to make your way up the stairs and greet your new mentor
  922. >Only to feel a strong tug on the back of your shirt
  923. >You knew there was no one behind you, all six of the guards were to your sides by a quick count
  924. >Which meant that, for whatever reason, Luna had just yanked you away from the stairs
  925. >You quickly glanced up at her, seeing that her mouth was made of stone and her gaze was boring into you
  926. >The most imperceptible of head shakes
  927. >She didn't want you coming up?
  928. >But why?
  929. >Your mental inquiry was almost immediately answered, as the princess finished basking at the top and made her way down the stairs towards you, far more deliberately and purposefully than you would have gone up
  930. >As she finally got within speaking distance, she finally spoke to you in an even and professional tone, her face betraying nothing to onlookers
  931. >"This will be your first lesson, Anon; a lesson in optics."
  932. >She'd called you 'Anon'
  933. >Your heart being in your mouth made it difficult to respond
  934. "Optics, Princ-?"
  935. >Your question was cut off as your lower jaw snapped shut involuntarily, courtesy of telekinesis
  936. >Her look was now that of a stern teacher more than anything else
  937. >"We know the circumstances between us are unique, but you are our apprentice first and foremost in environments such as this, for now. Thus, you will speak only when prompted by us and us alone. Understood?"
  938. >Mildly stunned, you nodded
  939. >Jesus, what had you gotten yourself into?
  940. >She replied with a curt nod of her own, then prompted you and the guards to turn and face the crowd as she walked past
  941. >Addressing the rapidly-growing crowd outside of the gate, the princess cleared her throat and switched into that strange Arthurian dialect she'd used in court
  942. >Her voice boomed across the courtyard, and you doubted there was a soul in Canterlot who didn't hear her words
  943. >"Ponies of Equestria, we appear before thee today bearing excellent news! For the first time in 1,200 years, a new apprentice to the Night Court has been chosen! We present to thee, Anonymous of Earth!"
  944. >She gestured to you, prompting every eye beyond the gate to focus in on the lanky and awkward homo sapien in the courtyard
  945. >You suppressed the urge to meekly wave like a sperg
  946. >"We have tested him, and found his strength of character most admirable and desirable among all the denizens of this fine kingdom! We are certain that he will honor thee, and indeed all of Equestria, with his service to the crown! Rejoice!"
  947. >With that, a lone cheer erupted from within the crowd, which quickly grew into a rolling roar of excitement and merriment across the entire street running in front of the castle
  948. >And you were still standing there like a dumbass scarecrow, stunned yet again like the dork you were
  949. >It took you a moment to realize that Luna was already walking past you, beckoning you to follow
  950. >You about-faced towards the castle along with the rest of the guards, and quickly made your way up the staircase
  951. >Oh, you would follow, Princess
  952. >You would follow
  953. ...
  954. >You are Anon, and you are... sipping on some of the worst tea you'd ever tasted
  955. >Come to think of it, you couldn't recall a single food or drink you'd actually enjoyed since coming to Equestria
  956. >Everything was bland and tasteless, textured like hay, or both
  957. >This tea was no different, it was just hot water with the barest hint of chamomile behind it
  958. >You weren't even a big tea guy back home, it was just THAT obviously weak
  959. >Herbivores had hypersensitive tastebuds or something, right?
  960. >Maybe that was the reason for your uniquely omnivorous suffering
  961. >Regardless, you weren't about to show your distaste to your company
  962. >Especially not while you were drinking it from china worth more than a small nation's GDP
  963. >Flawless ebony-brushed porcelain - volcanic ash, you'd been told - inlaid with platinum and patterned with oriental-styled depictions of various celestial bodies
  964. >You felt nervous just touching it
  965. >Something the mare seated across from you seemed immensely entertained by
  966. >"It is a teacup, Anon, not an infant."
  967. >You were pretty comically cradling it, you admit
  968. "You're right, I should be more careful, it's probably more valuable than that."
  969. >At that the Ruler of the Night giggled softly, the evening rays of sun catching her smile in a more artistic fashion than any painting possibly could
  970. >Man, you needed this
  971. >You'd spent the better part of the day since your arrival tirelessly touring the palace and greeting the individuals you would ostensibly need to know for your duties
  972. >Canterlot castle was, as might be expected, larger than life
  973. >How those tiny ponies could wander around under arches that made you feel like an ant without going insane was beyond you
  974. >Any verbal description of a mountainside castle that had stood in perfect condition for over a thousand years wouldn't do it justice
  975. >So instead, you ruminated on the faces you'd met throughout the day
  976. >By far the largest group you'd come into contact with was the librarians and scribes-in-training, the ones responsible for the study and upkeep of Equestrian law
  977. >The library itself looked like a scale recreation of Chicago, the urban sprawl of disorderly bookshelves climbing all the way through multiple floors
  978. >It seemed less like a library and more like a warehouse
  979. >The head librarian, Parchment Fibre, a kindly old unicorn that gave the impression of wisdom beyond even her many years, had guided you through what seemed like miles upon miles of books
  980. >That endless stretch was evidently where you'd be spending most of your time in the early months (more likely years) of your stay at the palace, familiarizing yourself with laws and ordinances dating back thousands of years to the very first horses to pick up a quill
  981. >Just wonderful
  982. >Madame Fibre - for that was how she'd insisted you address her - seemed bemused at Luna's decision to take on an apprentice, and had simply chuckled knowingly when the princess explained your position and predicament
  983. >After which Luna had briefly taken you aside and told you that the librarian always seemed to know more than you expected her to at any given time, a moderate blush on her face
  984. >After that came a brief meeting with the Captain of the Royal Guard contingent on-site, which had honestly blindsided you
  985. >Contrasted with the big, stoic, and mostly-unicorn guard force you'd seen so far, their CO was apparently a roguish young pegasus by the name of Riptide Breeze
  986. >The stallion had regarded you with half-lidded eyes and a dull smirk, and had spoken cordially with an accent matching a west coast surfer back home
  987. >Luna explained to you after the fact that there was almost never a conflict at the castle, and her sister had essentially brought him on because he was easy on the eyes
  988. >You'd hardly ever associate with the normal guards anyway, since you were instead under the guard of her personal contingent of, uh, bat horses
  989. >What WERE those guys called?
  990. >Beyond those two, you faced a bunch of inconsequential meetings with other essential staff, ambassadors, and general ponies of high standing
  991. >All of whom, you were horrified to realize, you now suddenly outranked
  992. >As direct advisor to the crown, you would one day be the intermediary between the moon princess and every single one of them
  993. >They would look to you for assistance and guidance, and Luna would expect you to interpret and filter out their reports for her
  994. >That thought scared you a bit, which is precisely WHY you needed this little moment you were having right now
  995. >A cup of tea out on the balcony of the princess' quarters, watching the sunset cast its pink rays over the picturesque valley below
  996. >Idly chatting with the pony that, for the moment, could stop being your mentor and start being your friend
  997. ...
  998. >You are Anon, and you are... not quite finished with the day just yet
  999. >You have some questions for the princess
  1000. >Now, separated from the watchful eyes of socialites and castle staff, you can ask them
  1001. >Sipping your tea nonchalantly, you fired off your first query to break the serene quiet
  1002. “I’ve been meaning to ask, where’s your sister? I’d like to meet her personally.”
  1003. >You weren’t lying, you really did want to talk to Celestia
  1004. >If only to satiate your curiosity for how an even more ancient and even more powerful horse deity would behave than anything else
  1005. >Luna turned her snout up and away in mock indignance, side-eyeing you
  1006. >"Dear oh dear, Mr. Anonymous, art thou not content with us? Dost thou desire the company of other royalty, instead? How scandalous!"
  1007. >This prompted a good-natured chuckle from both of you
  1008. >Straightening herself out, she answered you seriously this time
  1009. >"We do apologize, we intended to introduce you two this afternoon. However, Ti-ahem, Celestia rarely has time to spare for non-essential diplomatic meetings during the day."
  1010. >Yeah, that made sense
  1011. >Day court ran for six hours a day, which coupled with other important royal obligations, probably led to an extremely tight schedule
  1012. >The princess poured herself another cup of flower water
  1013. >"Of course, we could introduce you tonight, if you wish."
  1014. >Huh?
  1015. "Wh-How? I mean, yes, I'd love to, but how? A busy schedule like hers surely requires a lot of sleep, right? I'd hate to intrude."
  1016. >A chortle escaped Luna's mouth
  1017. >What did she mean by this?
  1018. >"Anon, the biological requirement for sleep was conquered by both of us long ago. Equestria likely would have collapsed into anarchy several times were we not both on call at all times for various crises."
  1019. >It hadn't occurred to you that magical alicorn demigoddesses didn't have the same biological imperatives as mere mortals
  1020. >Did they need to...?
  1021. >No, cut that line of thinking right now
  1022. >She half-flexed her wings a couple times
  1023. >"Of course, in circumstances in which we find ourselves particularly exhausted or... simply wish to do so, sleep may still find us."
  1024. "Okay, okay, I guess that makes sense. Yeah."
  1025. >You took a meager sip of tea again, not wishing to appear overly-eager in your questioning
  1026. >For her part, Luna rested her - elbows? - on the small table between you, pulling the best Gendo Ikari pose a horse could manage
  1027. >These ponies had such a weird range of articulation compared to the ungulates back home
  1028. >Like their forelegs were on a ball joint that could go either way
  1029. >Anyway, back to the questions you had lined up
  1030. "So what's the deal with your titles? I heard that little bat pony rattle 'em off in court. 'Ruler of the Night' is a little self-explanatory, but what about 'Dreamwalker' and 'Friend to the Thestrals'?"
  1031. >Luna exhaled and took a long sip from her teacup, a telltale sign that this was to be a pretty winded explanation
  1032. >You kicked your feet up, taking care to avoid the fine china
  1033. >"The tale behind the former title has been woven into multiple epics spanning many years, so we will condense it for you."
  1034. >She cleared her throat, no doubt preparing her 'regaling' voice
  1035. >"The thestrals are a small race of bat-like pegasi scattered across Equestria, normally found in dark and wet places. Our personal guard force is made up exclusively of thestrals, as you have likely noticed."
  1036. >So that WAS what they were called
  1037. >You'd had a suspicion, but you weren't totally sure until now
  1038. >"We will not bore you with the details, but long ago, we performed a momentous deed in service of the thestrals, one which essentially saved their entire race from annihilation."
  1039. >Your eyes widened a bit, and you whistled
  1040. >The princess' posture straightening a bit with pride told you that it hadn't been taken sarcastically
  1041. >"As a result, the thestrals are more or less pledged to our service, effective until we abdicate the throne. A large amount of our magical prowess is derived from that very pledge, but again, we will not bore you with the details."
  1042. >Prompt and straight to the point you liked this horse's way of storytelling
  1043. >You actually would like to know more about that magic thing, but that could wait for another time
  1044. >Now what about that third title?
  1045. "Alright, that makes sense, but what about your other title? 'Dreamwalker' is kind of cryptic."
  1046. >For this, Luna seemed to start and stop herself about four times before finally getting the words she wanted together
  1047. >"The moon, as a celestial body, is... intrinsically tied to dreams, you understand?"
  1048. >You nodded, mentally dismissing it as some dumb astrology platitude
  1049. >"Well, with that in mind, and given our connection with the moon, we can... 'walk' among the metaphysical landscape of an individual's dream. We occasionally influence them and actively prevent nightmares where we can, but are usually strictly observational... and confidential."
  1050. >Sounds a bit ridiculous, but it does make sense
  1051. >After all, if the moon goddess herself in magical pony land is telling you she can do something, she probably can
  1052. >That last bit sounded tacked on as an afterthought, though, almost like she-
  1053. >Wait
  1054. "...Have you seen MY dreams?"
  1055. >A sheepish grin and a light indigo blush
  1056. >Met in kind by your own embarrassed panic
  1057. ...
  1058. >You are Luna, and you are... in what is by far the weirdest dreamscape you've ever seen
  1059. >Hundreds of years of perusing the mental worlds of ponies, followed by a millenia of aimlessly wandering the collective consciousness
  1060. >None of it prepared you for whatever this was
  1061. >A... sterile waiting room?
  1062. >Seriously, just a totally bare white room
  1063. >Basically a flawless cube, too; the ceiling, floor, and four walls were all equidistant and perfectly smooth
  1064. >Dead in the center was a row of three folding chairs, arranged symmetrically without a hair of error between them
  1065. >The room was well-lit and yet lacked a light source, giving the seats an eerie appearance, like textureless 3D objects floating in space
  1066. >A soft easy-listening piece was playing from a faraway, indeterminable source, its tune peaceful and dreamlike
  1067. >'Let me sail, let me sail, let the Orinoco flow, let me reach, let me beach, on the shores of Tripoli...'
  1068. >Catchy
  1069. >Who's dream was this?
  1070. >You knew from experience that ponies' dreams tended to fall into two categories
  1071. >Esoteric sensual messes, where you couldn't possibly tell up from down or taste from sight
  1072. >Or lucid dreams in which the pony in question could interact with and bend their own dreamscape at will
  1073. >This was different
  1074. >The environment was unconsciously-created, that was certain; the lack of the dream's creator within this space was evidence of that
  1075. >But it didn't have the earmarks of a dream created by pure subconscious thought
  1076. >It was too uniform, the imagery wasn't nearly abstract enough
  1077. >No beings that you knew of, intelligent or no, had dreams like this
  1078. >Curious, you cautiously took a single stride towards the chairs in the center
  1079. >Your hoofstep echoed far more than the strange room's dimensions would normally entail, but the dreamscape otherwise held as solidly as a rock
  1080. >Good, it wouldn't spontaneously collapse on you, at least
  1081. >Looking to inspect as much as you could before moving on with your duties - you still had hundreds of dreams to cover tonight, after all - you circled the little line of chairs
  1082. >Yep, regular metal folding chairs
  1083. >You nudged one an inch out of place, and it immediately popped back in line with the others after your hoof left it
  1084. >Rigidly-organized mental constructs?
  1085. >Usually a sign that an object meant something to the subconscious, literally or symbolically
  1086. >You couldn't imagine anypony seeing objective value in a trio of cheap seats
  1087. >So you were left wondering what exactly this line of chairs was meant to represent
  1088. >Didn't help that there were no identifying marks of the creator anywhere to be found
  1089. >Ah, well
  1090. >You let your baited breath out upon realizing that there was nothing more to this dream that you could currently fathom
  1091. >Checking the moon's position in your mind's eye, you found that you'd spent far more time here than you normally would've allotted such a bare and simplistic dreamscape
  1092. >You'd have to skip over some ponies tonight, much to your frustration
  1093. >Letting the gooseflesh-inducing sensation of magical concentration flow to your horn, you prepared to shift your astral projection to the next dreamscape over
  1094. >Before leaving, you noted the metaphysical ‘scent’ that allowed you to identify and connect dreams to an individual, lacking any other method to do so
  1095. >You would be sure to visit this place again, sometime
  1096. >'Sail away, sail away, sail away...'
  1097. ...
  1098. >You are Anon, and you are... having your fingernails pulled one by one
  1099. >That’s what it feels like, at least
  1100. >”... and then the human female - this ‘Jennifer Connelly’, as you said - poured the maple syrup all over her bare breasts, an act that seemed to enthuse you quite a bit.”
  1101. >If you could bury your face any further into your hands, you would
  1102. >”After that, the two of you engaged in- are you listening? This part is somewhat important.”
  1103. >Looking up from your cupped palms, you saw the princess eyeing you quizzically as if she hadn’t been recounting one of your recurring erotic fantasies out loud
  1104. “Trying my hardest not to, actually. Can we please get off this topic? You’ve been describing the various vulgarities of my subconscious for, like, 45 minutes.”
  1105. >Luna shrugged, regarding your obvious embarrassment with impressive neutrality
  1106. >”’Twas you that pried, not us.”
  1107. >Yeah, you shouldn’t have pried
  1108. >But she’d seemed so shrewd and cagey when you asked!
  1109. >And then she’d started prattling away about your deepest, darkest insecurities and fantasies like it was basic smalltalk
  1110. >Slowly, you were beginning to think this princess might be a bit duplicitous
  1111. >If not duplicitous, then just flat-out bipolar
  1112. >Either way, you doubt she pulled a bait-and-switch like that unintentionally
  1113. >Wouldn't kill you to be more wary every now and again, Anon
  1114. >Luna's straight face softened into one of slightly-condescending empathy
  1115. >"Oh please, Anonymous, we have seen MUCH worse in our day. You would do well not to be embarrassed by such milquetoast lewdness."
  1116. >And now you felt childish for thinking like that
  1117. >Of COURSE the patron saint of dreams had seen worse
  1118. >Should be glad you hadn't been subconsciously outed as a kiddie diddler or something
  1119. "Right, I'll keep that in mind. Moving on..."
  1120. >You shook your head slightly, your personal tic for on-the-spot thinking
  1121. >Clearing the jumbled mess of shit off your mental table, so to speak
  1122. "Uhhhhhhh, what exactly is your day-to-day? It just occurred to me that I don't really know what you DO, aside from the whole court business."
  1123. >The princess pondered this for a moment, hoof to her chin and eyes pointed upwards
  1124. >"Honestly? Dreamwalking and court obligations aside, we actually do very little in the way of official business, upon reflection."
  1125. >Not surprising to you
  1126. >Rulers of the more war-ravaged nations of old back in your world were often just hobbyists with too much time on their hands, by your understanding
  1127. >So what else could you expect out of this one, where everything was perpetually at peace?
  1128. >Seeming a bit embarrassed at her trivialization of her own rule, Luna quickly offered some token damage control
  1129. >"Well of course, sometimes Tia-uh, our sister dumps her excess paperwork on us! It is quite the hassle!"
  1130. >Accompanied by the stiffest dispelling laugh you'd ever heard
  1131. >Noting your unimpressed expression was holding firm, she quickly and mercifully gave it up
  1132. >She then rested her chin on the table with a dejected sigh
  1133. >"... Would you believe us if we told you this afternoon was our first public appearance this year?"
  1134. >Jesus, it was the dead of summer
  1135. >You hid your mild surprise as well as you could
  1136. "I do. Seems to fit what I've seen so far."
  1137. >At this, she shoots you the biggest pair of glistening Bambi eyes you've ever seen
  1138. >Your heart melts and you curse yourself for your cruel bluntness
  1139. >"Well, we cannot necessarily blame you."
  1140. >Ah, a crack in the foundations
  1141. >You sensed an opportunity to learn a bit more about this mare's personality
  1142. >"It is not that we hold any particular disdain for our subjects that keeps us from interacting with them, it is just... we never see any NEED to do so."
  1143. >You could see it
  1144. >Celestia seemed to handle pretty much everything PR-related around these parts
  1145. >Couple that with a thousand years of being an actual evil myth among her subjects, it was no wonder that she wasn't in any hurry to endear herself to the public
  1146. >"Our sister has a monopoly on the public eye as it is, regardless. We do not envy her this, as we are... not in the best standing the common ponies, but we do wish we had SOME level of two-way engagement with them."
  1147. >Interesting
  1148. >You'd had a suspicion of what made this mare tick, and now it just practically fell into your lap
  1149. >She was rudderless and looking for greater purpose - strange, given she was the second highest power in the land
  1150. >But she was also guarded to a nearly venomous degree, in direct conflict with her ambitions
  1151. >In short, just like you
  1152. >You opened your mouth to speak
  1153. >It was just then that Luna perked up suddenly, prompting you to brake
  1154. >"Ah, speaking of, we believe Celestia's duties for the day are well over by now. Would you care to introduce yourself?"
  1155. >Awful timing
  1156. >You didn't really want this conversation to end just yet
  1157. >So close to some real progress, yet so far
  1158. >Next time, big guy
  1159. "I'd love to."
  1160. ...
  1161. >You are Anon, and you are... being led up progressively more-opulent and simultaneously narrower stairways
  1162. >Portraits, coats-of-arms, and busts of centuries-past nobility glaring down at you like an assembled jury every step of the way
  1163. >God, there are so many stairs
  1164. >Being a courtier in this castle must fucking SUCK
  1165. >You weren't ashamed to admit you were sweating and panting a bit; there was no AC and it was the dead of summer
  1166. >It was a wonder to you how these ponies could handle it
  1167. >Luckily for your poor, under-conditioned legs, the moon horse leading you seemed to be pausing her ascent intermittently for no external reason
  1168. >You’d be up half a flight before noticing she was still at the landing, a thousand-yard stare directed upwards
  1169. >She told you it was nothing, of course
  1170. >But you understood
  1171. >For some reason, Luna was inwardly dreading a meeting with her sister
  1172. >Which was, in turn, making you increasingly anxious
  1173. >From what you could remember from your observation of day court sessions (not much, to be honest), Celestia seemed to be the very picture of a graceful and benevolent ruler
  1174. >So what was there to fear?
  1175. >World leaders where you came from seldom matched the character they presented to the public eye, you knew that much
  1176. >But to keep up a facade like that for over a thousand years with seemingly no notable slip-ups?
  1177. >An absurd notion, to be sure
  1178. >Well, are you advisor (in training) to the crown, or are you advisor (in training) to the crown?
  1179. >Time to stop beating around the bush and just ask what the deal is
  1180. >If she takes offense to the implication, well, it's your JOB to know every dynamic there is to know between your boss and her associates
  1181. >Up to and including the other half of this nation's leadership
  1182. "Hey, Luna-"
  1183. >You turned to your side, only to notice that she was once again stock-still at the landing of the last flight you had climbed
  1184. >Goddamn it
  1185. "PRINCESS!"
  1186. >Your exasperated shout bounced up and down through the enclosed space - a little more than you intended - making Luna jump out of her little trance in surprise
  1187. >Her head darted around in momentary panic
  1188. >"Huh? Who? What?"
  1189. >That bad, huh?
  1190. >You leaned on the railing with a hand on your hip, struck with a sudden air of playful smugness
  1191. "I'm sorry, did I interrupt your most recent trip to the moon?"
  1192. >You hoped that wasn't insensitive or something
  1193. >The moon regent quickly recovered as she noticed your demeanor
  1194. >"Pardon us, we were merely, uh, catching our breath! There certainly are many stairs in this tower, no?"
  1195. >This was followed by comically oversold exhausted panting, which you obviously didn't buy for a second
  1196. >You shook your head and walked back down to Luna's side on the landing, making it clear that you intended to pry on this matter.
  1197. >She pivoted to face you snout-on, suggesting she would defend her position here
  1198. "What's the issue, really? Be honest."
  1199. >Despite you obviously being onto her, the princess refused to budge on the matter and stood her ground
  1200. >"We have no idea what you are on about, Anonymous. It has simply been a while since we have made this trek, and we are quite tired from the exertion, that is all."
  1201. >Gotcha
  1202. >Her eyes widened and she quickly brought a hoof to her mouth, realizing she'd just damned herself even further
  1203. >Taking charge, you exploited this little kernel of knowledge
  1204. "Oh? It's been a while since you've visited your own sister on her time off? Why exactly is that?"
  1205. >You had her dead-to-rights, and conveniently on a topic you genuinely wanted to know more about
  1206. >Luna, by her own admission, didn't have much in the way of royal duties to attend to, so what was keeping her from spending time with her family?
  1207. >The princess, meanwhile, hung her head, obviously conceding that she was against a wall but still unwilling to give up the facts
  1208. >This would take some coaxing
  1209. >Taking a chance, you bent over and put your hand to her chin, gently raising her snout until she was eye-to-eye with you
  1210. >She allowed this motion, to your surprise, and calmly met your gaze
  1211. >The last time you'd been this close, she had been utterly furious with you, but this time her expression betrayed a level of vulnerability you considered impossible for a divine figure
  1212. >Don't screw this up
  1213. "I told you in that bar last night that I wanted to forge more genuine relationships from now on, and I meant it. I promise, I'm not digging for some kind of dirt on you or your sister, I just want to know more about the mare I'm to be working under for the foreseeable future."
  1214. >You took your hand off, and were glad to see her head didn't droop again
  1215. >Luna held her pose for a moment, her eyes bouncing around different parts of your face, scanning for deceit
  1216. >Finding none, she exhaled and closed her eyes
  1217. >"We do not like our sister."
  1218. >Blunt and expected
  1219. >You nodded, prompting her to continue
  1220. >"Do not misunderstand, we hold no envy for her position - as we said earlier - nor do we harbor any resentment for our banishment. Our dislike comes from a more... intimate place."
  1221. >'Intimate place'?
  1222. "What do you mean by 'intimate'?"
  1223. >This time she was the one to shake her head
  1224. >"'Tis better for you to see for yourself than for us to explain it. Come, we're almost there."
  1225. >Well, you'd gotten the truth out of her at least
  1226. >You could wait however many more flights to learn more
  1227. >And boy, were there more
  1228. >You counted about twenty before you, strangely enough, heard the wind whistling and were hit by a gust of fresh air
  1229. >Cresting this particular staircase, you noticed with the sickening feeling altitude that you were in an open-air environment
  1230. >At the very peak of the castle
  1231. >Your legs became wobbly and you suppressed the urge to vomit
  1232. >Good thing you didn't; it would be an insult to the view before you
  1233. >From up here, uninhibited by the stone walls of the castle, you felt like you could see the entirety of Equestria from West to East
  1234. >The last few remnants of sunlight peeking over the horizon, meeting the first traces of the night sky
  1235. >Separating you from the large alabaster door that you presumed led into Celestia's quarters was a suspended walkway about fifty feet long, carpeted in red and covered by a stone awning suspended by Romanesque marble columns
  1236. >Enraptured, you were unfortunately also made intimately aware of every slight motion of the castle on its foundations at this height
  1237. >Tempted like a fish to a lure by this feeling, you made the critical error of looking down
  1238. >You immediately snapped your eyes shut and knelt down to stop yourself from hyperventilating with panic, until what felt like a large and downy blanket wrapped itself around your shoulders
  1239. >Your eyes opened to find a navy blue seraph wing over you, pulling you into Luna's right flank
  1240. >"Look at us, Anonymous.”
  1241. >Heeding her words, you turned and looked into her eyes, and were slowly but surely nudged forward by her wing at your back
  1242. >Locked-on to those perfectly-stable, undisturbed lakes of cyan - and kept steady by the powerful curtain of feathers - your vertigo seemed to dissipate in an instant, along with the distance between you and the door
  1243. >Luna quickly unlatched the entrance and hurried you both inside, whereupon you collapsed and began to gasp uncontrollably for the breath you didn't know you'd been holding
  1244. "Who... designs... a castle... like this?"
  1245. >You sputtered out, noting that you were in what could be described as a foyer, a pair of flaming cauldrons flanking a much-smaller brown oak door, a stylized sun emblem carved into it
  1246. >It was a rhetorical question, but the princess dignified it with an answer regardless
  1247. >"This entire wing was a late addition by the ruling pegasus family about 1,500 years ago. The king enjoyed being able to step out of his room and immediately take flight, apparently. Celestia, on the other hand..."
  1248. >Assured you were alright and simply needed to catch your breath, she turned to the door, biting her lip with anxious anticipation
  1249. >"... Simply likes being able to survey the land from a single spot."
  1250. >You stood up, dusting yourself off as best you could, and stepped up to the princess' side once again
  1251. >She awkwardly cleared her throat and rubbed her foreleg, the nonverbal message clear
  1252. >'Knock when ready'
  1253. >A wave of anxiety hitting you, you nervously stepped up to the door, and rapped on it exactly three times before you could convince yourself not to
  1254. >Surprisingly, the door creaked open at your touch, giving way to a pitch-black room on the other side
  1255. >You were about to turn back and question Luna about it, when a white smear flew out faster than your eyes could track
  1256. >Crashing squarely into the Princess of the Night, a deafening "LUNAAAAAAAAAAA~" following it
  1257. ...
  1258. >You are Anon, and you are... bearing witness to possibly the most adorable sibling tussle your mortal eyes could handle
  1259. >You initially had a hard time picking out where one princess ended and the other began in the scramble, but as the dust cleared the victor was evident
  1260. >Luna, pouting with an air of extreme indignance and embarrassment, was on the ground, mummified in a vast white curtain
  1261. >This contrasted against Celestia’s expression of seemingly-boundless joy, having trapped her sister in the alicorn equivalent of a bear hug with both her forelegs and her wings
  1262. >Nuzzling almost violently into Luna’s neck and cheek, the sun deity spouted off a rapid-fire string of questioning for which the smaller pony was in no position to respond
  1263. >”It’s been soooooo long since you’ve visited, little sister! I was beginning to think you’d forgotten the way here! What’s new? Have you lost weight? You certainly feel lighter than before! Are you using new feather conditioner? I heard from Canterlot Municipal that you ejected their head surgeon from court, is that true? Took me a while to sort that one out! What about your little ‘Night Court Revival’? Have you found a suitable advisor yet? Oh, and your match! Have you reached out to him? Honestly, after helping with all that setup, I certainly hope-“
  1264. >'Night Court Revival'? What on Earth?
  1265. >And what was this about 'setup'? Celestia herself was involved in your meeting, too?
  1266. >The moon princess nipped her sister’s nose, eliciting a surprised yelp and allowing her to break free from the hug
  1267. >Both horses sprang to their feet simultaneously, squaring up to each other in the middle of the antechamber
  1268. >From this perspective, you could really get a solid grasp of Celestia’s appearance, much more so than you ever had from afar in the courtroom
  1269. >Luna was the most beautiful creature you’d ever seen, but the Ruler of the Day was by far the most... divine
  1270. >Obviously, her most eye-catching trait - relatively speaking - was her size
  1271. >She was a bit taller than you, and flat-out towered over her sister
  1272. >Coupled with a uniquely long and narrow snout, she was definitely the most “horse”-like pony in this realm
  1273. >That aside, her color palette was decidedly spectacular
  1274. >You had assumed she was just pure white, but the rainbow flares glinting in your retinas betrayed something more
  1275. >Like a meticulously-polished opal, the dim firelight of the room reflected off of her coat, making the princess appear steeped in a multicolored glow no matter where you were standing
  1276. >Speaking of multicolored, her mane
  1277. >Rolling lazily in a breeze you couldn’t feel, like Luna’s, but of a much different composition
  1278. >Opposed to said indigo void, Celestia’s locks made more of an off-RGB rainbow, sparkling and slightly translucent
  1279. >It completed her air of majesty well, an embodiment of sunlight that graces all which it touches
  1280. >A very pretty pony, indeed
  1281. >Regarding the little royal standoff you found yourself observing, the power dynamic was immediately clear
  1282. >Your mentor was crouched low in a defensive posture not unlike a big cat, quite ready for a fight
  1283. >Her sister, meanwhile, was as composed as one could be, with a hint of smug superiority mixed in
  1284. >"Come now, Luna, it's unbecoming of a princess to bite."
  1285. >"We would say it is far more 'unbecoming' to tackle every pony that comes to your door."
  1286. >"Oh ho! You have me there!"
  1287. >Celestia chuckled, breaking the tension by amiably trotting over to the moon princess
  1288. >Luna did not move as her sister gingerly draped one of her massive cottony wings over her withers
  1289. >The sun ruler's voice gained a genuine inflection for a moment
  1290. >"I did miss you very much, little sister. Not a day goes by that I don't hope you come knocking, please understand that."
  1291. >At this, Luna begrudgingly relaxed and softened her stance, awkwardly returning the wing-hug in turn
  1292. >A moment of pure sisterly love, bless their hearts
  1293. >It was a good bit before the resigned Ruler of the Night finally spoke up
  1294. >"A-as much as we appreciate meeting in an unofficial capacity, sister, that is not the sole reason for our visit tonight."
  1295. >Reminding you that you were, in fact, a part of the events currently unfolding
  1296. >She gently pushed the larger pony away and made her way over to your side, nudging you to introduce yourself
  1297. >Damn, you were hoping she'd do it for you
  1298. >Celestia balked at your appearance briefly, apparently not having noticed your presence until just now
  1299. >Re-gathering herself, she looked you up and down, neither particularly judgmental nor empathetic in expression
  1300. >Unsure of how you should present yourself under these circumstances, you decided to take the safe bet, dropping to a knee and bowing your head
  1301. "Assistant to the Night Court, Anonymous of Earth. The pleasure is all mine, Your Highness."
  1302. >Nailed that one, you classy bastard
  1303. >You looked up, and your heart sank
  1304. >The princess' head was cocked to the side slightly, her right eyebrow raised in either suspicion or surprise
  1305. >You hoped it was surprise
  1306. >"'Assistant', you say?"
  1307. >She inquired flatly, strutting her way towards you
  1308. >You gulped involuntarily
  1309. >"Not 'Consort-to-be of the Princess of the Moon'? 'Coltfriend of Princess Luna' perhaps?"
  1310. >Her voice was gaining a shit-eating inflection, and you could practically feel the heat radiating off of Luna beside you
  1311. >Ah, so that's how it is
  1312. >Celestia stopped her advance a few paces from you, a grin now fully plastered across her snout
  1313. >Without looking away from you, she addressed the other princess
  1314. >"Dear sister, what did I tell you about roping poor potential suitors into your little political rally? Really, it's looking more like an excuse to keep them all at wings-length the more you do it."
  1315. >All at once, she dropped the smug demeanor and took on one of deadpan seriousness, extending her neck and boring holes in your skull with her - rather brilliant - lavender eyes
  1316. >"Given how many tend to 'disappear', that is."
  1317. >She left you hanging on that ominous remark for a second - and hang on it you did - before bursting into uproarious laughter
  1318. >Now you were just confused
  1319. >"My goodness, Mr. Anonymous, don't look so grim! I was only teasing!"
  1320. >You exhaled in relief and allowed yourself a nervous chuckle, while the princess put a hoof to her chin in exaggerated pensiveness
  1321. >"Well, I suppose that doesn't necessarily make it an untrue statement, though. Many of Luna's suitors DO have a bad habit of ditching at some point down the line."
  1322. >Many? Suitor-S?
  1323. >An incredulous scoff from your right
  1324. >"'Ditching', you say? Quite dishonest of you to lie about driving them off yourself, sister."
  1325. >"It's hardly MY fault that they DECIDE to leave when I inevitably let your childish antics slip, little one."
  1326. >"OUR childish antics? We will have you know-"
  1327. >Back and forth it went, they'd forgotten about you completely
  1328. >This caused something to crack
  1329. >It had only been a full day, but you were already getting a bit tired of this, being dragged around by the nose by royalty and elites that always knew more than you
  1330. >You'd been essentially in the dark since you'd landed here, and come to think of it, meeting with Luna had just raised more and more questions about your actual purpose in this world
  1331. >A frankly embarrassing lack of awareness had led you here, kneeling like a jackass while two princesses squabbled over your head about all the important things you didn't know
  1332. >Time to take some initiative, Anonymous
  1333. >Rising to your feet, you cleared your throat obnoxiously loudly
  1334. >...
  1335. >Man, they're really into it
  1336. >Only one thing left to do, then
  1337. >You dusted off your pants, readjusted your shirt collar, and calmly walked between the warring duo and towards the exit, merrily whistling the refrain of Caribbean Blue the whole way
  1338. ...
  1339. >You are Anon, and you are... desperately hoping somebody(pony? You still can't quite adopt that one) will stop you before you can reach the door
  1340. >You're committed to this play, but you don't want to face that catwalk again so soon
  1341. >Luckily, by the way the squabbling all but halted as you walked past, you assumed that you'd at least caught the princesses' collective attention
  1342. >This was affirmed by the honeyed voice of the sun ruler reaching you, cautious confusion behind it
  1343. >"Mr. Anonymous, where exactly are you going? We haven't even talked yet."
  1344. >'And who's fault is that?' You wanted to ask
  1345. >It wouldn't help to directly antagonize her like that at the moment, though
  1346. >You settled for turning around and bowing slightly
  1347. "Apologies for not properly excusing myself, Your Highness. It simply occurred to me that my role in this meeting was no longer particularly relevant, and therefore decided I should just retire for the night and leave you two to it."
  1348. >A bluff; you didn't even know where you'd be staying here in the first place
  1349. >Luna, aware of this fact, caught onto your intention right away
  1350. >Sheepishness crossed her features, and she uncomfortably shifted in place, clearly embarrassed but saying nothing
  1351. >Noticing this, Celestia only became further lost, her head darting between you and her sister as if to visually find an explanation for your actions
  1352. >"I'm sorry, am I missing something? If you wish to retire, by all means don't let me stop you, but what exactly do you mean by 'no longer relevant'? I was under the impression the two of you came here explicitly so we could meet each other."
  1353. >No good, innocent obliviousness wasn't going to hack it for what you wanted to ask
  1354. >You adopted a facade of empathetic confusion
  1355. "That's what Luna told me, but given that you didn't return my introduction, I assumed that was it and my presence was no longer required."
  1356. >You bowed a bit again, this time keeping your chin up to gauge Celestia's reaction
  1357. "Sorry for being rash, if indeed I was."
  1358. >It was slight, but you saw the princess' eyes widen, finally understanding her faux pas
  1359. >Mission accomplished
  1360. >Thank goodness for it, you'd been a little more blunt than you intended with that last line
  1361. >Celestia seemed like a figure of generally good character to you, and in your experience, letting those types realize their own failings was better than outright calling attention to them
  1362. >Attacking and exploiting a mistake would make anyone defensive and out you as a shady figure, but someone honest might make up for it on their own if made casually aware of it
  1363. >That's what you were banking on here, anyway
  1364. >The sun horse recovered her expression, but not her tone, addressing you in a somewhat shaken pitch
  1365. >"N-no need to apologize, Mr. Anonymous! After all, it was me who was out of line, engaging with my sister like that instead of returning your greeting! Allow me to rectify that."
  1366. >She pointed her chin up, straightened her posture, and cleared her throat
  1367. >"Ruler of the Day and Matriarch to all of Equestria, Princess Celestia."
  1368. >That said, she looked back down to you, wearing an apologetic smile that almost made you feel bad for essentially forcing her into it
  1369. >"I am truly sorry for not properly responding to you earlier. It's... been a while since I've seen Luna, and I just couldn't resist an opportunity to rib her for a bit."
  1370. >The moon pony rolled her eyes at this, but otherwise stayed silent, allowing Celestia to continue
  1371. >"You are my future brother-in-law, as well as my sister's right hoof, and that deserves some level of recognition from the crown. Please, anything you wish to know - about me, the world you find yourself in, or anything else - you have but to ask."
  1372. >Bingo
  1373. >She couldn't have phrased that any better for you if she tried
  1374. "'Anything I wish to know' you said?"
  1375. >She gave you a self-assured nod, seeming quite confident that she could answer any query you could possibly field
  1376. >You rubbed your chin, thinking not of what you were going to ask, but how you were going to phrase it
  1377. >The bits of the exchange between the princesses that you'd caught had illuminated the depth of your ignorance
  1378. >Celestia's involvement in your and Luna's meeting, Luna's previous suitors, this 'Night Court Revival' thing... there was so much to unpack that you just didn't know how to concisely word it
  1379. >You also had some questions for the night princess herself, but you doubted she was in the same sharing mood as her sister right now - if she ever would be at all
  1380. >What to do, what to do...
  1381. >Eh, fuck it
  1382. >You dropped your hand from your chin, having taken quite a while in your deliberation
  1383. >Celestia mockingly leaned forward in anticipation for what would surely be a doozy of a question
  1384. >Here's hoping this satisfies
  1385. "Okay, tell me everything."
  1386. >The princess stayed with her neck craned forward for a moment, before slowly going back to a full-upright posture, puzzled
  1387. >"I know I said 'anything', Mr. Anonymous, but you may have to be a bit more specific than that."
  1388. >Yeah, you figured
  1389. >Rubbing the bridge of your nose, you quickly thought of the best way to explain
  1390. "Listen, princess, my background in politics is shallow at absolute best, and as you can see, I'm not a pastel-colored horse like most everyone else around here, so you might chalk my grief up to sheer unfamiliarity and acclimation pains."
  1391. >Finding that you were talking way faster than necessary, you took a deep breath before continuing
  1392. "However, I can't help but feel that I'm being dragged through this whole matchmaking process and advisor apprenticeship thing faster than I'm able to figure out my place in all of it. Why was I matched with Luna if she has suitors lining up, and why do they all apparently cut and run? What 'setup' did you you help along with that led to her and I meeting? What's this 'Night Court Revival' thing?"
  1393. >You briefly looked to Luna, who seemed to be finding the ceiling very interesting all of a sudden, telling you that she again knew where you were going with this
  1394. "Of course, I wouldn't even be asking you in the first place had I been privy to all of this beforehand. Alas, it appears my ‘guide’ was unwilling to disclose or even mention any of this vital contextual information, and so here I am. An oblivious jackass in front of the presiding regents of this entire realm."
  1395. >There was an inordinate amount of venom in your words, and only now did you notice that you were panting and your heart was racing
  1396. >Temper, temper
  1397. >Luna was indeed hiding behind her wings, as she had at the bar - an eternity ago, it felt - but Celestia was the very picture of regal stoicism
  1398. >There was no doubt in your mind that this was neither the first nor the last spiel like this she had or would hear
  1399. >You expected that she would be angry at you for daring to call her little sister a liar, for calling the morality of her crown into question so brazenly
  1400. >Instead, she simply sighed and shook her head, as if expecting this outcome
  1401. >Strange
  1402. >VERY strange
  1403. >The large spectral alicorn turned to her sister, peering down coldly
  1404. >Luna, for her part, was doing her best to disappear within her own feathery cloak
  1405. >"I warned you about this, Luna. It's different this time, you can't treat this one as you have the others."
  1406. >Her words were chillingly foreboding for such an otherwise warm presence
  1407. >Luna said nothing, content to pretend that the world around her didn't exist
  1408. >Circling back to you, Celestia looked you up and down once more, and then flicked her head to the inner door of the foyer
  1409. >"Come, I will do my best to answer your question."
  1410. >Unable to find words, you nodded your compliance, making your way to the door
  1411. >Luna called an apology after you, though you felt it was directed more at her sister
  1412. >"We are sorry, we just-"
  1413. >"Save it, sister. Wait out here for now."
  1414. >Curtly deflected by the sun deity
  1415. >With that, you walked past the sun emblem and into the unknown maw of Celestia's chambers, and heard the door shut behind you
  1416. ...
  1417. >You are Anon, and you are... being forcibly spread-eagled on the floor of Celestia’s bedchambers
  1418. >No, it’s not quite as good as it sounds
  1419. >The hardwood is actually very uncomfortable
  1420. >You put up a token struggle against the restraining orange aura, naturally, but this magic shit definitely isn’t going to give before you do
  1421. >At least you can crane your neck, enough to follow your assailant with your whole head
  1422. >Speaking of
  1423. >The incandescent princess is pacing around you slowly, with a gait more suited to addressing an amphitheater than talking down to a hapless little human
  1424. >Wearing that previously endearing - now somewhat scary - look of smug bemusement that regents in this land seemed to love
  1425. >And she’s still speaking in an even and light motherly tone, to boot
  1426. >”I appreciate your honesty, Anonymous, but you should know that given the choice between honesty and telling a diarch what she wants to hear, you should really choose the latter.”
  1427. >Well now, how did such a presumably civil environment break down so quickly?
  1428. >Rewind 30 minutes or so
  1429. >You'd followed Celestia into her quarters, whereupon you'd been pleasantly surprised at the simplicity and relative plainness of the space
  1430. >Felt more like what you'd see in a log cabin lodge than a royal eagle's perch a thousand feet in the air
  1431. >A lit fireplace and a cup of dirt disguised as coffee (seems like the only drinkable beverages in this realm are booze and water) later, the sun princess sat you down next to her and broke down the unknowns you'd been struggling with
  1432. >First, the circumstances leading to your and Luna's first meeting had been entirely fabricated
  1433. >There was no rebellion brewing in Cloudsdale, Lenticulus was a friend of the family, Celestia herself had set up a tranquilizer spell ensuring you'd fall asleep into the proceedings
  1434. >Seemed that the only party that wasn't in on it was the poor guard that had woken you up
  1435. >To be honest, you weren't as surprised as you probably should have been
  1436. >Luna's behavior in your following interactions had almost directly contradicted the kind of personality she'd presented in that court session, and the required setup definitely explained the dead month between your arrival and the little show
  1437. >It still stung that she thought she had to pull one over on you like that to catch your attention or whatever; you personally liked the mare you had seen more than the character she had presented at this point
  1438. >You'd gotten over that one pretty quick, and moved on to that concerning talk of "suitors" you'd picked up
  1439. >This one had you considerably more nervous
  1440. >Why would a pony with active romantic pursuits suddenly have their actual soulmate plopped in front of her?
  1441. >Celestia put the number of her sister's previous flirtations at around five (the most recent over a year before your arrival, thankfully), all of them rather young and soft-spoken noblestallions of reasonably high academic repute
  1442. >And they had all, without exception, left the castle within a few weeks of their arrival and with nary a parting word in their flight
  1443. >Unfortunately, the brilliantly-white pony didn't divulge any solid reason for this, chalking it up to Luna's overbearing insistence on 'Night Court Revival' antics over proper romantic pursuits
  1444. >Well that didn't seem right, you remember thinking, YOU had been the one to suggest a non-romantic involvement in this instance, not her
  1445. >This is where suspicions should have started cropping up for you; a vague softball answer like that shouldn't come from someone who clearly knew what was up
  1446. >But she'd hooked you with her mention of the 'Night Court Revival' thing, and that was the bit you were by far most curious about
  1447. >By Celesita's account, the Night Court was the single largest political organization operating in the Equestrian state at the time of Luna's ascension to the throne, running all the way up to her banishment 1,000 years ago
  1448. >It evidently had thousands of members to its name at its peak, and rivaled the political and public pull of Celestia herself at certain points in its existence
  1449. >The sun princess herself confided to you that even she felt demoralized by the dozens of glittering platinum badges adorning those around her at some major court decisions
  1450. >Obviously, once its leader and linchpin was ousted from the political sphere for essentially attempting to wage a one-mare war on the entire world, the organization quickly became defunct as more and more names and families cut their ties
  1451. >Eventually, only the politically-mute thestrals remained
  1452. >Upon her return, she had spent every waking moment attempting to rekindle old bonds and create new ones, only to be continually rebuked; the thought of allying again with the pony that had tried to usurp the sun was out of the minds of most important ponies
  1453. >So now it was down to Luna, the couple hundred thestrals in existence, and of course, you
  1454. >And boy, were you gripped
  1455. >You didn't care if it was in a state of horrific disrepair and a shadow of its former self, you had basically been brought into the Equestrian Freemasons on a whim
  1456. >But more importantly, your heart reached out to the moon princess
  1457. >She had fallen into an existential stasis at the height of her prowess, and suddenly awoken to find herself entirely subordinate to her older sister
  1458. >It was a cruelly hard fall, and if you were unsure of your desire to help her recover at first, you weren't anymore
  1459. >You would help the Night Court return to its former status by any means necessary, if such a thing was even possible in your lifetime
  1460. >About when you made this resolution was when shit went sideways
  1461. >Celestia had suddenly come to her feet and made her way in front of you, backlighting herself in the fireplace and nearly blinding you in the resulting bursting rainbow pattern
  1462. >From here, she'd asked you a simple question
  1463. >"Now, Anonymous, I have a question for you. Given what you have learned of my sister, from my words or otherwise, do you love her?"
  1464. >You answered truthfully
  1465. >And were slammed violently to the ground by overwhelmingly powerful telekinesis for your trouble
  1466. >So here you are, at the present, trying desperately to verbally defend yourself
  1467. "That was an unfair question and you know it! I've known her for less than two days, did you expect me to just say 'yes'?!"
  1468. >Your voice cracked several times through this statement, making it sound less defiant and more pathetic
  1469. >"No, I can tell you're far too honest for that. What I do expect, however, is for you to understand the kind of liability to the crown you represent."
  1470. >The princess paused her pacing for a moment, scraping the floor with a hoof in a brief moment of thought before continuing as she was
  1471. >"Luna is, by alicorn standards, still essentially a filly. She is naive, gullible, volatile, and most of all, entirely out of place in these times. A prime target for courtship by less-than-desirable mates."
  1472. >Geez, princess, don't heap TOO much praise on your sister or anything
  1473. >From such general and negative descriptors, you actually got the impression that you knew more about Luna than her own sister did
  1474. >Not that you'd say such a thing in this position, of course
  1475. >She stopped her circling at your head, looking down at you directly from above
  1476. >"Cadence tells me that your love is destined, and I want to believe her. Knowing that appraisal is based on a simple rock, however... I am decidedly less than convinced. Weighing such a vague claim against the circumstances under which you were pulled from your reality, it was not terribly hard for me to develop suspicions about your character."
  1477. >It's not surprising that she knows about the whole 'not caring about anybody back home' thing
  1478. >And really, the conclusion she'd come to was hardly unreasonable
  1479. >But you like to think that you'd changed at least a little bit, if only due to Luna's immediate influence
  1480. >You doubt it would be worth anything trying to convince Celestia of it at this moment, though
  1481. >So instead, you challenged her
  1482. "I can't say I blame you, but uh, what now? So you don't trust me enough to accept me being with your sister. Are you gonna kick me out, then?"
  1483. >Celestia paused again, and chuckled slightly
  1484. >"And disgrace the matchmaking process so laboriously set up by my niece? I wouldn't dream of it. In fact, I will do quite the opposite; starting now, I am giving you a week to leave entirely of your own accord. No strings attached, no consequences."
  1485. >You were perplexed
  1486. "Just why would I want to do that?"
  1487. >The princess turned to you, still wearing a disarming smile that now felt more sinister than it did comforting
  1488. >"Because if you don't, I will expect you to take up training with the palace guard regiment. MY palace guard regiment, not Luna's thestrals. Think of it as... good-faith physical proof that you're truly dedicated to your position, and not simply using my sister as a springboard."
  1489. >So... she just wants you to start doing PT?
  1490. >Yeah right, as if you were gonna leave because of a little physical activity
  1491. >'Oh no, not a workout routine!'
  1492. >You scoffed
  1493. "Sorry, but that's not much of a convincing incentive, Your Highness."
  1494. >The smile stayed up, unerring
  1495. >"All the better that you think that way, it gives me hope that you may just be right for my sister after all."
  1496. >At once, you felt the magical restraints around your limbs dissipate, leaving you just laying splayed out on the floor for a moment
  1497. >You sat up cautiously, allowing yourself a suspicious glare
  1498. >Celestia exhaled, as if having held in a breath for your entire exchange until now
  1499. >Why was SHE stressed out in this scenario?
  1500. >"Well then, I believe we are done here. I do apologize for being so rough, Anonymous, and commend you for maintaining your composure."
  1501. >You were lifted to your feet and dusted off by magical hands in short order, preferring silence to the curt response you had in mind
  1502. >Apparently satisfied that you were properly-arranged, the princess beamed down at you as if she hadn't just been half-threatening you
  1503. >"Goodnight, little human. Please tell Luna the same for me, if you would."
  1504. >And you were forcefully hit with the sensation of your entire body being pushed through a 2-inch PVC pipe
  1505. ...
  1506. >You are Anon, and you are... feeling like your entire digestive system was just turned upside-down on a whim
  1507. >This being accompanied by a sickly-sweet citrus smell, you nearly puked
  1508. >Dropping to a knee to abate the nausea, you noticed that you were in the antechamber again
  1509. >Did she seriously just teleport you out the door?
  1510. >How rude of her
  1511. >You could see now why exactly Luna didn't like that pony very much
  1512. >Equal parts smothering and paranoid, wrapped up in a frustratingly well-meaning, caring, and amiable package
  1513. >You hated to admit it, but her logic was sound; she had no reason to trust your intentions to any degree, especially if you couldn't even say that you really loved her sister yet
  1514. >But you still felt that the image she had of Luna was far more general and polarized than the image you'd developed in the past two days
  1515. >She clearly still viewed her younger sister as something of a child, which you really didn't think was fair
  1516. >Sure, she may be a bit volatile, and she might let her emotional intent show a bit more often that royalty should
  1517. >To you, though, she was more than these flaws
  1518. >She was a wise, perceptive, and understanding friend, a beautiful and endlessly-endearing presence that you hadn't even known you needed in your life
  1519. >That her own sister apparently couldn't see that, despite having known her for orders of magnitude longer than you ever would, was a new source of irritation that only grew more frustrating the more you ruminated on it
  1520. >The wave of sickness passing, you rose to your feet
  1521. >What in the world?
  1522. >Your medallion's pulsating again
  1523. >But that only happens when-
  1524. >Only now did you notice the princess-shaped bundle curled up against the right wall, barely illuminated by the cauldrons flanking the door
  1525. >...
  1526. >Sighing, you made your way over, resisting a sharp chaotic urge to scare Luna awake
  1527. >Placing your back against the wall, you slid down to a seated position, right next to her head
  1528. >Absentmindedly, you rested a hand on the back of her neck, and began rubbing in a slow and rhythmic circling pattern
  1529. >She didn't stir, but the twitching of her ears and the delayed fall of her barrel from the last rise told you that she was, indeed, awake and aware of your presence
  1530. >Sorry princess, the ball's in your court this time
  1531. >If she wanted to talk, she'd have to start
  1532. >You, personally, could stay here for eternity in silence if you wanted to
  1533. >Because good God, this mane was AMAZINGLY therapeutic
  1534. >The ethereal cloud was like kinetic sand, splitting at your touch
  1535. >Revealing, to your surprise, soft and silky cyan hair underneath
  1536. >You wondered if she had to maintain this spell or if her mane just... did that
  1537. >Moving up to the base of her skull, you scratched with intent at the nape of her neck
  1538. >This drew out a satisfied hum, along with an involuntary backwards arch into the assailing hand
  1539. >Was this a pony or a cat?
  1540. >Evidently deciding the game was up, Luna broke the silence
  1541. >"We envy you these 'hands' of yours, you know."
  1542. "Pretty humble little things compared to magic, if you ask me."
  1543. >She snorted
  1544. >"Our telekinesis is quite limited, all things considered. At least, we have never been able to scratch the spot directly under our right ear with it."
  1545. >She opened her left eye and directed it at you, the corner of her mouth turning up slightly
  1546. >You obliged, rubbing the joint of the offending ear semi-vigorously
  1547. >This action was met with a pleased sigh and a few kicks of a hind leg
  1548. >A few more minutes of silence, which was this time broken by you
  1549. "Just out of curiosity, why'd you decide your sister's foyer was a good spot to sleep?"
  1550. >She brought her chin up to rest on your thigh
  1551. >"You two were taking quite a bit longer than expected, so we thought we would get some dreamwalking done in the interim."
  1552. >Her eye again tracked its way to yours
  1553. >"Also, we do not like crossing that catwalk alone any more than you do."
  1554. "You don't? Can't you fly?"
  1555. >"Falling from a thousand feet hardly becomes more pleasant or less terrifying with sails like these."
  1556. >She grinned, emphatically flexing her right wing outward
  1557. >"We can barely open them as-is."
  1558. >You laughed, the concept of a flying horse being afraid of heights really sticking in your head as hilarious for some reason
  1559. >Luna laughed as you did, but then quickly drooped and looked away as if remembering something particularly somber
  1560. >"...What did she tell you?"
  1561. >Measure your words here, Anon
  1562. >Don't want to ruin this mood by saying something insensitive
  1563. "A couple things I wanted to know and a lot of things I didn't care to."
  1564. >You stroked from the top of her head to the bottom of her neck
  1565. >Probably best not to bring up the stageplay she put on, or previous boyfriends
  1566. >Which left one thing that she would probably LOVE talking about
  1567. "She did tell me all about the Night Court, though."
  1568. >Luna's visage perked up noticeably at this, but she otherwise remained quiet
  1569. "Told me all about just how powerful you used to be, how much sway you used to hold over the the people of this land,"
  1570. >You took an ear in your hand and gently kneaded it between your thumb and index finger
  1571. "And how the thestrals and I are the only ones left, apparently."
  1572. >She blinked slowly, and nodded
  1573. >"All correct. The Night Court did at one point hold most of the political cards in Equestria, and most of its member families and clans are several generations removed from it - or defunct themselves - at this point."
  1574. >She attempted to keep an amicable expression, but there was an unmistakable sadness behind it
  1575. >"Even the thestrals only remain because of the technicality of us never officially abandoning the throne; I'm told there was a significant amount of infighting over the pact spanning centuries prior to my return."
  1576. >That had to be a rough thing to hear, that your loyal followers fought each other for lifetimes on top of lifetimes while you were away
  1577. "That sounds like an awful thing to go through, especially after you just returned. I'm so sorry."
  1578. >Her eyes lit up at your condolence, but her face drooped as she considered the statement
  1579. >"Many ponies naturally assume the opposite, but in reality, Celestia has always been the solitary one between us. Our strength as a ruler is intrinsically tied to the strength of our followers."
  1580. >She rolled fully on her left side, forcing your hand to move down to her right shoulder - not that you minded
  1581. >"Problem being, nopony wishes to follow a ruler as disgraced as us."
  1582. >Completely lost on how to cheer up the despairing princess, you just lightly patted her on the neck
  1583. "Well, noPONY might, but someBODY does."
  1584. >Man, that was lame
  1585. >And yet, it received a cute little giggle in response
  1586. >This pony's a bit of a dork, huh
  1587. >"...We apologize for roping you into a dead political movement, if indeed we did."
  1588. >You stretched out and yawned, much to the chagrin of the pony resting on your quad
  1589. "It's no problem at all. In fact, hearing all about it's peak just made me want to bring it back more."
  1590. >A positive flick of the ears
  1591. >Success
  1592. >Luna also yawned and smacked her lips a few times, and stared at you in concern
  1593. >"We are not sure if you actually mean that or if you are simply delirious, considering the clear emotional fatigue all over your face."
  1594. >You rubbed your eyes, the pent-up tiredness hitting you like a brick as you were made aware of it
  1595. >Muscles heavy and tight, eyes struggling to remain open, thoughts muddled, the works
  1596. >You mocked a glare at the pony resting on you, not ignoring the mischievousness she was emanating
  1597. "That was mean."
  1598. >"If we, the Dreamwalker, are telling you that you need sleep, you likely need sleep. Unfortunately for you,"
  1599. >She paused, raising her right wing again, but holding it there this time
  1600. >"We do not wish to cross that catwalk so late at night. Sorry, Anonymous, but it seems you are stuck sleeping with us for the time being."
  1601. >Oh no~
  1602. >Accepting the invitation, you got up and crawled over to her side, resting your upper body on her barrel and draping your arms over her back
  1603. >A blanket of down came crashing down on you, and for a moment you feared you might overheat, pinned between a warm horse body and insular feathers as you were
  1604. >The resultant feeling, however, was more akin to the ambiance of a cool summer night
  1605. >Under such an assault of comfort, you drifted off at record pace, but not before registering a familiar rhythmic humming emanating from Luna's chest
  1606. >Sleep came seconds after you recognized it
  1607. >"Orinoco Flow"...
  1608. ...
  1609. >You are Luna, and you are... standing on an infinitely-expanding rocky coast, moist sea moss squishing beneath your hooves and cold, salty spray tickling your face
  1610. >Except, you aren't actually
  1611. >This is a dream
  1612. >A dream that, despite the radically different setting, was recognizable to you as THAT dream
  1613. >The detail and vividness of it had obviously increased by orders of magnitude, but the subconscious concept was still clearly the same, with the aligned metal folding chairs and the soft easy-listening music echoing across the landscape still present
  1614. >The scent you picked up was also unmistakable; you'd fallen asleep right next to it
  1615. >This is Anon's dream
  1616. >Significantly more confident in the solidity of the dreamscape this time around, you trotted up to the line of chairs, and a few more differences were made apparent
  1617. >As you got within 10 feet or so, you skidded to a halt in surprise when a trio of marble busts appeared, one on each chair
  1618. >They were identical, all sharing the stylized visage of a man with curly hair, rounded facial features, and the most perfectly neutral facial expression you could imagine
  1619. >Posed, oddly, with his neck canted to the left, as though just beginning - or finishing - a scan of the horizon
  1620. >You paused your advance for a moment, fearing they might begin talking or other such esoteric nonsense, before cautiously continuing all the way up to the orderly line
  1621. >Doing a quick once-around of the chairs, you also noticed that on the back of each chair was a character; E-H-M in order from right to left
  1622. >The last characteristic of note seemed to be that the chairs and busts were all faced away from the ocean
  1623. >To reaffirm that these constructs were rigid as before, you grabbed one of the chairs between your teeth and tossed it up in the air, bust and all
  1624. >Both the chair and the bust reappeared perfectly in-line with the others the moment your contact ceased
  1625. >So these still meant something
  1626. >But what, exactly?
  1627. >Racking you brain with everything you currently knew of Anon, you were still stumped
  1628. >You lacked too much information; without knowing what those letters meant, who that man was, or what this coastline itself represented, you couldn't make a properly-informed conclusion on the meaning
  1629. >Letting out an exasperated sigh, you walked to the edge of the cliff separating you from the ocean below and laid down, the wave-beaten rock making a surprisingly comfortable rest spot
  1630. >'Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up, up, adieu...'
  1631. >You should really ask Anon about this song, it's quite the earbug
  1632. >It was able to make this otherwise harsh environment of crashing swells and jagged boulders feel comfy and nostalgic, somehow
  1633. >You looked back to the marble heads, and jumped so hard that you nearly fell off the edge and into the sea
  1634. >One of them was turned around towards the coast!
  1635. >You gingerly stepped back to the line, one hoof at a time, afraid that you may inadvertently affect this change and reset the environment
  1636. >However, your worries dropped away once you closed all the way to the offending bust with no further change in its position
  1637. >This was the rightmost bust and chair from the inland perspective, marking it as the 'E' one
  1638. >Had it been waiting for you to hit the cliff's edge before turning around?
  1639. >Dreamscapes didn't change of their own accord, only by the influence of the dreamer themselves or an outside entity - you, in this case
  1640. >Unfortunately, this change only served to confound you more
  1641. >Knowing that these busts moved according to your actions gave you a hint that they may represent different aspects of the human's personality, but that hardly narrowed the conceptual pool down, in addition to raising the new query of which pieces of his personality you were influencing
  1642. >Closing your eyes and rubbing a temple, you quickly checked the progress of the Moon across the sky
  1643. >As expected, you spent too much time here again
  1644. >You couldn't help it, especially knowing just how important this dream could be to you in the future
  1645. >Preparing to shift your projection once again, you chanced to brush a hoof against the surface of one of the busts, no longer particularly caring if the environment collapsed
  1646. >To your surprise, it did not feel like the hard and porous surface of unpolished marble that you expected, but instead caved like putty to your touch
  1647. >Oh joy, more layered meanings
  1648. >You activated the spell, turning to a cloud of spectral dust and phasing through the subconscious wall, moving to the next dreamscape the Moon would choose for you
  1649. >Leaving the three busts on that oceanic cliff, their mystery sticking in your mind for the remainder of your night
  1650. ...
  1651. >You are Anon, and you are... just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for now
  1652. >It's been a full week since your induction into the Night Court's fold, and you think you're acclimating to it fairly well for a commoner
  1653. >As mentioned before, you did TECHNICALLY outrank everypony in the castle whose title didn't start with 'Princess', but it seems Luna knew better than to grant you such easily-abused power from the outset
  1654. >So you were directed to address others and be addressed as a common apprentice would, which you didn't really mind anyway
  1655. >All but a few ponies within the castle were insufferably polite in the first place, tacking a higher status onto that would get annoying
  1656. >One of those few was Madame Fibre
  1657. >Who, in addition to knowing the veritable ocean of paper and leather bindings known as the Royal Library like the back of her hoof, filled various other roles
  1658. >Including "walking encyclopedia" and "impressively bad educator"
  1659. >The old burgundy mare seemed to know everything about any given topic, and would not hesitate to excitedly TELL you everything about any given topic if even slightly prompted
  1660. >Wanted to know specifically why property taxes in Lower Canterlot give special exemptions to pegasi?
  1661. >Too bad, you're getting a 500-year history of Canterlot municipal tax code
  1662. >Thankfully, Luna was there every step of the way to expertly decipher the useful information contained within the unicorn's ramblings
  1663. >Speaking of the moon princess, there was rarely a moment during the day that you weren't attached at the hip, generally absent of anything else to do as you two were
  1664. >If you weren't learning raw facts at the library with help from her and the Madame, she was bringing you up to speed on the cultural lore and mythos surrounding the unbelievably-ancient history of this civilized world - 'Equus', as it were
  1665. >It really was fascinating, these ponies (among other races) had apparently been documenting things in writing for thousands upon thousands of years, well before equivalent humans on Earth had anything resembling even a spoken language
  1666. >Even more intriguing was the fact that there had apparently never been a large-scale conflict between nations in this vast amount of recorded history; the map you had been shown looked practically the same now as it had almost four millennia ago
  1667. >Their history was that of a continuous peace between states, broken up almost exclusively by individual hostile ponies at irregular intervals
  1668. >To your human sensibilities, it naturally seemed unreal
  1669. >Even more so given you were learning it from an entity that was ostensibly alive to witness some of it
  1670. >'Entity'
  1671. >Your current relationship with Luna was... strange, to put it simply
  1672. >You two were growing closer as individuals day-by-day, certainly, but as you learned more about her and her sister's true nature, the existential gap only felt larger
  1673. >"Of course we do not actually control the rise and fall of celestial bodies, that is merely a simplification for the sake of public understanding."
  1674. >You'd asked as part of an end-of-day routine, set up at your behest, where you both had the opportunity to ask the other exactly one burning question at a time, in hopes of avoiding the kind of in-the-dark frustration you'd experienced the first day
  1675. >Noting your confusion, Luna had graciously decided to elaborate
  1676. >"The Sun and Moon will always rise and set at the beginning and end of each day, regardless of our existence. Rather, we represent the will of those bodies incarnate, though we do not often know exactly what that 'will' entails. We do not control the Moon, so much as we ARE the Moon given form, if that makes sense."
  1677. >You didn't exactly like the implication
  1678. >She had, of course, hurriedly assured you that she was her own pony with her own desires and motivations despite her divine nature
  1679. >But the revelation that you were expected to be the consort of not only the immortal spiritual and political co-leader of a realm, but also an instrument of heavenly will, was a little heavy for your squishy mortal soul to consider
  1680. >That was last night
  1681. >Coupled with a lack of the usual wake-up call from one of Luna's guards, it was a pivotal factor in your decision to simply sit around and wait for something to happen this morning
  1682. >Mostly because you hadn't forgotten the deal you'd been forced into by Celestia
  1683. >Since you obviously hadn't cut and run in the last week, it's supposedly time to take up training with the Royal Guards
  1684. >Something you've been looking forward to, actually
  1685. >Physical activity sounds like a nice change of pace
  1686. >Like hell you were about to go out looking for potential trouble on the sun princess' unofficial orders, though
  1687. >If she really wants you to do this, she'll have to make you
  1688. >As if on cue, a knock at your door
  1689. >A curt and forceful three taps, definitely military
  1690. >Answering the door, you see nothing at eye level and first assume you’re being pranked
  1691. >Until you look down
  1692. >A diminutive, fiery-orange pegasus, clad in luminescent gold armor a touch too large for him, stares up at you with a broad smile and vacant eyes
  1693. >...
  1694. >What was this guy’s name, again?
  1695. >”Wassup Anonymous, my hu-ma~n! 'Member me? Riptide Breeze, at your service!”
  1696. >It takes all your restraint to not snicker at his hilariously informal address and stereotypical California English
  1697. >You swear he'd looked bigger when you two had first met
  1698. >This was the CAPTAIN of the Guard here?
  1699. >You bow in response to his introduction, and he returns it with slow deliberation, lazily motioning with his wing for you to follow
  1700. >As you put one foot out the door, the pony holds out a hoof in a 'halt' gesture, looking you up and down with squinted eyes
  1701. >"Uh, come to think of it, might wanna wear something a little more... breathable, yeah?"
  1702. "Breathable how?"
  1703. >"Y'know, like... 'shorts', right? That's what you call 'em?"
  1704. >You know exactly what he meant, of course
  1705. >You just couldn't get enough of that accent
  1706. >A quick change into the limited sportswear you could have tailored in this nudist society, and you're walking an unknown route through the imposing halls you doubted that you'd ever get used to, hoping that the dim-sounding pegasus knows his way around the castle better than you do
  1707. >This path you're taking is the exact aesthetic opposite to the stairway up to Celestia's quarters from a week ago, the stone walls becoming more ramshackle and damp-smelling as you descend
  1708. >You certainly hope that's not prophetic
  1709. >Stopping at the bottom of a dilapidated cobblestone staircase, Breeze worked his way between you and the open-air archway a couple meters away
  1710. >You can't actually see where it leads, due to the blinding afternoon sunlight pouring in
  1711. >But given the audible clashing of arms, thundering of hooves, and shouting of stallions, you could only assume it was the training grounds
  1712. >Such a blend of sounds made your blood heat up just hearing it
  1713. >The guard captain, clearing his throat, presented his next statement with a bit more gravity than he was clearly used to
  1714. >"Alright, dude. Before we get you out there, you're new here, so I'll give you the choice everyone else gets on their first day."
  1715. >Choice?
  1716. >"Do you wanna go straight to conditioning, or do you wanna spar for exemption?"
  1717. >You scanned the pegasus' face for the good humor you were sure was meant to be there, given such a ridiculous suggestion
  1718. >You found none, just the same half-lidded stare he was always wearing
  1719. >What kind of joke of a military process was this?
  1720. "Could you, ah, explain what you mean by 'spar for exemption'?"
  1721. >"Oh yeah, for sure. Basically, pick anypony you see on the grounds and spar with them, yeah. You win, and you're free to go, dude."
  1722. >He's fucking with you, surely
  1723. "Free to go how?"
  1724. >"Free to go like you don't have to condition with everypony else for the rest of the day, man! You're done!"
  1725. >His frustration tells you that he's NOT actually fucking with you
  1726. "And if I lose?"
  1727. >He flexed his wings and scraped a hoof on the ground in exasperation
  1728. >"Then you do conditioning with everyone else, bro! Geez, I didn't think it'd be this hard for you to understand."
  1729. >Now convinced that he's serious, you weighed those options
  1730. >Thinking on it, you weren't actually too confident you could keep up with these ponies in terms of stamina
  1731. >Horses on Earth could trot at a decent clip for HOURS on end
  1732. >If the guards here could manage even half that speed and endurance, you would be absolutely dead by the end of the day
  1733. >Conversely, most ponies were way smaller than you on average, doubly so if you could pick the smallest one in the yard for a sparring match
  1734. >Which, you're sure, must be the pony in front of you
  1735. >You didn't exactly know how to fight, especially when it came to ungulates, but you were fairly certain you could ride such a drastic bodyweight and height advantage to a lame-but-sure 'victory'
  1736. >Looking at Breeze - stealthily sizing him up - you put on a disarming grin
  1737. "I think I'll take my chances with sparring, then."
  1738. >Though you were certain he knew what you were planning, given how unsubtle your intention was, the stallion beamed up at you
  1739. >"For sure, man. For sure."
  1740. ...
  1741. >You are Riptide Breeze, and you are... being forced to re-evaluate this match ever so slightly
  1742. >You liked to think of yourself as a fair and just leader in the eyes of the stallions under your command
  1743. >And the first step in impressing that image was giving them a chance to rebel, an opportunity to establish themselves as above you in the pecking order
  1744. >Physically, anyway
  1745. >You'd come up with the perfect methodology to this end in your first year as captain, a method that exploited the egomaniacal tendencies of fresh Academy recruits
  1746. >Every rookie got the same choice their very first day on the job: go through PT with everyone else, or fight and beat anypony on duty to be exempt
  1747. >If they picked the latter option and picked somepony other than you, or simply decided to hop into conditioning straight away, then they were unlikely to challenge your command in the first place and would not be an issue
  1748. >If, however, they chose to spar and picked you as their opponent - which, given you were simultaneously the smallest and highest-ranking pony on the grounds, almost every prissy Academy unicorn puke did - they would be summarily beaten into the ground and then made to do conditioning with their injuries
  1749. >Provided they were minor, of course; you weren't a sadist
  1750. >This system was iron-clad, in your experience
  1751. >It cut down on hazing, gave the stallions a common experience to bond over, and instilled a level of earned respect for you throughout the force you commanded
  1752. >There was also something personal in it for you, though
  1753. >Not many could guess given your Cutie Mark and your matching demeanor - the still, glittering surface of the ocean at sunset - but you were named "Riptide" for a reason
  1754. >Just as the calm ocean waves hide a violent and oppressive undercurrent, so too does your amiable and lackadaisical attitude hide a sharp instinct to fight
  1755. >It wasn't impulsive, or even really uncontrollable, but it did gnaw at you from time to time, threatening to boil to the surface of your presented personality
  1756. >When you'd met this human was one of those times
  1757. >An entirely foreign presence in this castle, treading all over your territory with his head held high like he hadn't gotten in on the biggest cosmic convenience in world history?
  1758. >You just had to bring him down a peg
  1759. >You'd almost lied to him and MADE him spar with you
  1760. >However, five minutes in, your hooves grazing the hot dust of the training arena, said human still standing with his arms up in a defensive pose you'd never seen until now, and you're having second thoughts
  1761. >This is no longer a fight to quash a rogue ego, you thought, but a fight to learn more about this alien being
  1762. >Skipping further away from Anonymous, you performed a quick analysis of how exactly this fight had gone in the past three-hundred seconds, and why you were panting and lathering harder than you had in years at this very moment
  1763. >He outweighed you by at least a hundred pounds, and was taller by two feet or so
  1764. >These factors didn't matter to you, you were already the smallest pony in the Guard, and new record numbers for bodyweight and height difference didn't change the outlook
  1765. >What was throwing you off from the start, however, was his anatomy
  1766. >It had taken you an inordinate amount of time to realize that simply hammering those forelegs of his - 'forearms' they were called - was getting you nowhere
  1767. >With ponies, quadrupeds that required at least three points of contact to remain stable, you could get away with such a strategy, as the buckling of even a single foreleg could mean the end of a stallion's ability to effectively fight
  1768. >With this human, such an approach was futile; unless you could outright break them, those shields of flesh and bone would stay up as long as he was still conscious
  1769. >Your few attacks on his hind legs - just 'legs' you suppose - hadn't fared much better, less because they were similarly ineffective and more because the prospect of such a being crashing down on you from standing height as you went low was terrifying
  1770. >Compounding on such a fear was the presence of those appendages called 'hands', an utter nuisance for which you were entirely unprepared
  1771. >Every time you went in for a kick, the human would infallibly attempt to reach out and grab your striking limb, a move that could absolutely cost you the fight if successful
  1772. >It had scared the living daylights out of you the first time he'd tried it, and you'd only managed to slip free of his grip with a sloppy reverse-roundhouse with your off foot to the side of his head - incidentally the only clean hit you had landed so far
  1773. >Of course, despite how ineffective your assaults felt in comparison to your expected normal, you could tell the man was still gradually feeling it
  1774. >His forearms were bruised and discolored, the impacts of repeated sapling-breaking divekicks not lost on them
  1775. >His chest was heaving up and down in irregular and ragged breaths, his mouth hanging open, disciplined breathing long forgotten in the face of sheer fatigue
  1776. >Most importantly to you, his right eye was basically swollen over from your earlier kick, leaving his field of vision effectively halved
  1777. >All in all, by your assessment, he was tired enough for a good, solid hit to the head to have a reasonable chance of both landing and putting him on the ground
  1778. >And you've got just the sequence in mind
  1779. >Reminding yourself to aim a bit higher than usual, you crouched low to the ground
  1780. >The human began advancing in response to this pose, and you would meet him
  1781. >In one smooth motion, you rocketed away from your starting point at a speed only your fellow pegasi could match
  1782. >Pirouetting in mid-air, you made it appear as though you were going for a spinning right roundhouse into his midsection
  1783. >Falling for it, he dropped his left arm to meet the trajectory
  1784. >Gotcha
  1785. >Spinning head-over-hing legs, you dropped your dominant hoof down on top of him in a noon-6 spinning axe kick
  1786. >Expecting to hear a dull thump, you instead heard a piercing crack and a deafening cry of pain
  1787. >He had shifted his head to the side at the last moment, your kick shattering his left collarbone instead of knocking him out as you'd intended
  1788. >Through the euphoria of landing such a decisive blow, you considered that it probably wasn't a good idea to inflict such a devastating injury in a simple sparring match
  1789. >Your conflicted thoughts made you forget for a moment that he had another arm to worry about, which had reached up and grabbed your right hind leg before you could pull it away, his hand's grip an unbreakable vice fueled by pain and adrenaline
  1790. >Oh n-
  1791. >Pivoting, the human lifted you up and over his shoulder before violently whipping you back-first into the ground with all the strength he could muster
  1792. >Which luckily wasn't much, otherwise your brains may have painted the dirt a somewhat grim shade of pink and red
  1793. >As it was, the arc was slow enough for you to fold in your wings before impact, sparing the lighter connecting bones and cartilage from the worst of it, though you did register some fractures along the outer edges
  1794. >The back of your skull rebounded off the hard earth, rattling your brain and darkening the edges of your vision
  1795. >Worst of all, a loud pop and a sharp and grinding pain signified that your right wing had evacuated its socket, forcing you to bite your tongue to stuff the rising cry in your throat
  1796. >Finding nothing more horrifying in the moment than the prospect of this bipedal golem coming down on you from above, you quickly kipped up backwards off of your forelegs and hopped backwards a few more times
  1797. >The human remained in the same spot where you'd landed the blow, clutching his left shoulder as if to stop his arm from falling off and heaving considerably harder than before
  1798. >Gritting your teeth through the searing agony provided by your now-limp wing and squinting through the concussion clouding your vision, you were still fairly certain you'd come out of that exchange on top
  1799. >Regardless, practically your entire guard force had just seen this new, inexperienced, untrained human nearly kill you with a single decisive move
  1800. >For that, you needed to provide a coup de gras and put him out of this fight immediately
  1801. >Unable to take flight, you nevertheless broke into a full gallop, jumping into the air for the last five feet and aiming your right hind leg squarely at the human's left temple, failing to register that the magical medallion glued to his shorts was pulsating rapidly with white light
  1802. >He didn't even guard or attempt to move away from the strike, likely under pain-induced delirium as he was
  1803. >Too late to stop now, though
  1804. >Sorry, big guy, at least this probably won't kill you
  1805. >Probably
  1806. >And just like that, all of your forward momentum ceased as you were enveloped in a
  1807. >For a moment, it felt as though your spine would eject out of your hindquarters
  1808. >What on Equus?
  1809. >There were no unicorns in the Guards who could-
  1810. >Oh dear, the medallion
  1811. >"That human is rather valuable to us, Breeze. We would prefer that you be a bit more gentle, if at all possible."
  1812. >You winced at every word as the assembled audience of guards simultaneously bowed to the presence you couldn't bring yourself to look at
  1813. >Opening your mouth in an attempt to hastily explain yourself, you were unceremoniously flung into the nearest group of stallions before you could start
  1814. >You noted your propensity to let "sparring" escalate to "death match", and mentally resolved to fix this as-of-yet unheard of issue as soon as possible
  1815. ...
  1816. >You are Luna, and you are... providing hasty and ill-advised first-aid
  1817. >"The OPPOSITE shoulder! Draw it over the OPPOSITE shoulder!"
  1818. "My apologies."
  1819. >It is more difficult that one might imagine, especially when also dealing with alien biology
  1820. >For instance, you can tell that the horizontal connecting bone running between Anon's neck and left shoulder - 'collarbone' nominally - is completely shattered, the normally-smooth indent now erratically bumpy and covered in a splotchy shade of purple
  1821. >Given that equines don't HAVE collarbones, however, you don't exactly know how it relates to the overall movement of his arm
  1822. >So far leading to two failed attempts at applying a simple gauze sling on your part
  1823. >Wiping the sweat away from your brow and silently cursing both the heat of the day and the darkness of your coat, you set to the third attempt, gently wrapping the fabric around the man's forearm several times before going up and around his right shoulder
  1824. >Stress, it seemed, had characterized this day so far
  1825. >It disguised itself as mild irritation at first, when Anon had failed to show up before you in the morning
  1826. >You were set on simply scolding him for his willingness to throw punctuality to the wind so early into his career, having prepared a very mature and dignified tongue-lashing on the matter
  1827. >As minutes had rolled over into hours, however, it became more about beating him at the coltish game you thought he was playing
  1828. >'How dare he assume we REQUIRE his presence? If he wishes to shirk such minimal daily responsibilities, so be it!' was more or less your thought process
  1829. >When the the clock struck noon, you sarcastically asked your runner whether or not he had even knocked on the man's door
  1830. >Which, to your furious confusion, he had not
  1831. >The panicking thestral quickly explained how he was intercepted by the Captain of the Guard himself, who had apparently proceeded to claim Anon as his charge for the day under Tia's orders
  1832. >Thus commenced your mad dash to the training grounds - for teleportation had completely slipped your mind - knowing that must have been where your apprentice had been taken but hoping against hope that it wasn't
  1833. >Not that you had anything against the training arena itself
  1834. >As a matter of fact, you found it quite aesthetically pleasing, earthly imitation of a classical Pegasopolis gymnasium that it was
  1835. >There was something undeniably soulful about generation after generation of Equestria's finest training on a simple dirt track, surrounded by the columns and ceramic tiles of antiquity
  1836. >No, it was specifically the methodology of Riptide Breeze that had concerned you
  1837. >Perhaps you should have been more direct in warning Anon to stay well clear of that pegasus, but you supposed it was too late for that now
  1838. >And so you'd shown up just in time, panting and disheveled, right as your court assistant of one week was about to have his head cleanly removed from his shoulders
  1839. >That would've been a record timetable for the loss of a royal staff member, for sure
  1840. >Though you probably could've handled it a bit more delicately than tossing the captain into a group of his subordinates
  1841. >You tugged on the gauze strip, eliciting a pained grunt but snugly securing the human's arm at the right angle he'd described to you
  1842. >Thinking that the binding should hold until reaching the infirmary, you bit the fabric off the roll and applied a small amount of medical adhesive to keep it in place
  1843. >It occurred to you that you weren't exactly the most qualified individual for a procedure like this, but you'd hastily ordered everypony (with the exception of Breeze himself) out of the yard after violently announcing your presence as you did
  1844. >"Everypony" including the on-duty medic
  1845. >All things considered, though, you thought you did an alright job of it
  1846. >Stepping back from your handiwork, you circled around to the uninjured right side of the seated human, crouching down so your withers were level with his shoulders
  1847. "Can you stand?"
  1848. >He didn't turn to look at you, possibly because he was afraid of twisting his neck, but he grinned tightly nonetheless
  1849. >"Well, I don't THINK my legs are broken too, but I'd still appreciate some help."
  1850. >Sharing in his humor and taking the hint, you extended your wing behind his back, allowing him to drape his good arm over your neck
  1851. >You then pushed diagonally upwards into his torso, rising to your full height while his legs at first scrambled for purchase, and then planted firmly beneath him
  1852. >It was utterly fascinating to you that he was still so lucid and possessive of his motor functions; such an injury combined with fatigue likely would have made any pony pass out from shock given a similar time frame, and yet the human was moving and speaking almost unimpeded
  1853. >Sure, this could be a standard human feature, but you elected to believe it was unique to Anon here
  1854. >Of course a follower of yours is made of sterner stuff than the common rabble!
  1855. >Staying still until you were certain he wouldn't tip over, you kept your wing at his back, turning him around and slowly nudging him forward to the field's exit
  1856. >"WAIT!"
  1857. >Just after stepping off the dirt and onto the surrounding marble tiling, you both froze in place at the distant vocalization and rapid canter of hooves across earth
  1858. >Seemingly before you could even turn around, Breeze - who until now had been keen to maintain a more-than-respectable distance - slid to a stop in front of you, breathing heavily and grimacing, but holding a presentable salute
  1859. >You finally noticed that his right wing was hanging limply, the tip of it lazily scraping the ground back-and-forth like a pendulum, causing the pegasus to wince at every motion
  1860. >Strange, you hadn't thrown him THAT hard
  1861. >Could it have been Anon's doing?
  1862. >"It'd be, uh, remiss of me, Princess, to not apologize for my conduct with your assistant. So, yeah. Sorry about that."
  1863. >Informal as it was, you at least appreciated his willingness to apologize
  1864. >Not quite enough to dispel your admittedly-blunted anger towards him, though
  1865. >You opened your mouth to dismiss him for the time, but to your surprise, Anon was the first to speak
  1866. >"You're apologizing to HER? NOT the guy you just kicked the shit out of? Poor form, man, poor form."
  1867. >Flabbergasted as if having forgotten about the human entirely, the stallion had not quite recovered before blurting his response
  1868. >"Y-yeah man, of course! Sorry for, uh, breaking your shoulder and stuff."
  1869. >The human chuckled
  1870. >"Uh huh, and I'm sorry for dislocating your wing 'and stuff'."
  1871. >So he WAS responsible for that?
  1872. >Impressive, you never would have imagined the captain suffering such an injury in a sparring match
  1873. >He broke away from under your wing and walked up to Breeze, who was still nervously standing at attention
  1874. >The pegasus then flinched and dropped halfway into a defensive crouch when the man extended his right arm, but a strike never came
  1875. >Instead, puzzlingly, his arm stayed there, extended with an open hand in a clear human imitation of a hoofshake
  1876. >"Seriously, though, I never imagined a pony like you could put up a fight like that. No hard feelings, yeah?"
  1877. >Eyes darting between the extended hand and Anon's face, Breeze cautiously extended his opposite hoof, which the man grabbed and shook with no small amount of enthusiasm
  1878. >"Let's do this again sometime."
  1879. >Clearly not used to this kind of response from his victims, the stallion responded in a dazed affirmative
  1880. >"Uh, yeah, for sure, just let me know when."
  1881. >Satisfied with that, Anon nodded and broke the shake, then turned to you and bowed a bit more formally than the situation called for
  1882. >"Could you give me directions to the infirmary, Princess? I assume you have some choice words for Captain Breeze, so I'd like to take my leave if at all possible."
  1883. >You raised an eyebrow impassively
  1884. >Perhaps this man had picked some speechcraft up in the past week, forcing ponies into set-up engagements through casual implication as he just did
  1885. >Understanding that he wished for you to speak with Breeze one-on-one for whatever reason, you nodded
  1886. "Of course, Anonymous. Go back up the stairs you entered from, and then continue down the hall to the third branch on the left, and it should take you straight to your destination. Ask for Saline Drip. You are dismissed."
  1887. >Bowing again, he spun around and strutted to the exit with about as much dignity as a human with one usable arm could
  1888. >You and the captain tracked him as far up the stairs as you could until he disappeared from view, at which point you cleared your throat and began the conversation you'd had all of 30 seconds to prepare for
  1889. "Now, Captain, I believe you owe us an explanation."
  1890. >Breeze was still gazing after the out-of-sight assistant, clearly still perplexed at the previous interaction
  1891. >Suppressing a knowing smile, you stamped your hoof against the marble, breaking the stallion out of his stupor with a start
  1892. >"Huh? Wuzzat?"
  1893. "We have been led to believe that your actions today were conducted under our sister's orders. Does this claim hold true?"
  1894. >You had to know, first and foremost, if Tia had called for Anon to be subjected to such brutality
  1895. >Such a move was over the line, even for her
  1896. >Showing surprising perception, Breeze seemed to immediately understand the implication behind your inquiry, and answered in kind
  1897. >"If you've really gotta know, Princess Celestia did order me to take charge of Anon's physical training, yeah, but she didn't specifically tell me to work him over or nothin'. I just gave him the usual choice, same as everypony else."
  1898. >That was a relief
  1899. >You knew her tendency to be... 'obstructive' in your romantic pursuits, and thanked the heavens that she hadn't suddenly and drastically decided to ramp up her efforts
  1900. >But that 'usual choice' comment was the perfect segue for the axe you'd put off grinding for too long
  1901. >You hated Breeze's idea of what a leader of ponies should be, and you would let him know so right now
  1902. "It would seem that your usual training methodology was a failure. That man's ego is far from broken."
  1903. >He lazily regarded you with his usual half-lidded eyes and semi-formed smirk
  1904. >"I'm callin' it a special case, personally. That one's a little different than your usual Academy unicorn, y'know? Plus, recruits don't usually get as good a lick in as he did."
  1905. >Sighing, you took his limp wing in a telekinetic vice, and callously popped it back into place before he could protest
  1906. >The pegasus bit down on his lip, allowing only a high whimper and involuntary tears to signify the momentary agony he experienced
  1907. "Tell us, Riptide Breeze, have you ever taken the time to actually SPEAK with any of the guards that you have put through the wringer?"
  1908. >You strode up to him at your full height, condescendingly looking down the bridge of your snout at the diminutive pony
  1909. >He said nothing, but his contemptuous glare was as good an answer as any
  1910. "We thought not. The fact is, you are not putting these stallions in their places as effectively as you think you are. You are simply humiliating them."
  1911. "You are not cultivating an elite guard force loyal to their commander and their country, as you were assigned to do. What you are creating is a gaggle of belligerent mules unable to see past their blind resentment towards the pony that made fools out of them in front of their comrades."
  1912. >You casually inspected your hoof, wishing to make it abundantly clear that you were making nonchalant observations instead of researched talking points
  1913. >Truthfully, you'd been thinking about this for ages, but he didn't need to know that
  1914. "In fact, given your failure to execute the aforementioned assignment effectively for every year since you were given charge of this castle's guard, it may be well within our right to discharge you for dereliction of duty."
  1915. >At this, the stallion's eyes widened
  1916. >Good, you wanted him scared
  1917. >He knelt down, clearly suppressing the rage that you knew constantly bubbled below his outward facade
  1918. >"Please, Your Highness, this is the only position that fits a pony like me. You and I both know that. Just gimme a chance to change up the training regimen, or something. I promise I'll do it."
  1919. >You did know it, and that was an empty threat in the first place
  1920. >But sometimes, empty threats had to be made for a desired result to be achieved, and achieved it you had
  1921. >Acting on a spontaneous impulse, you also knelt down, doing your best to equalize the stature difference
  1922. "We know this, but the way you are going about it is unacceptable in our eyes. Loyalty is not won through the humiliation of another."
  1923. >The pegasus locked eyes with you, looking jarringly on the verge of tears for one so often lackadaisical and flippant
  1924. "You are a strong pegasus, perhaps the strongest there is; we are beyond proud to have a stallion so easily capable of fighting on equal terms with opponents many times his own size captaining the guard force. All we ask is that you do not waste this strength tearing down the egos of others."
  1925. >Feeling that your point was made, you rose back up from your crouched position, prompting the captain to do the same
  1926. >The way he beamed up at you as he stood gave you a kind of hope, a hope that you could still inspire as you once had
  1927. "... It has been a while since we have reset a wing. It would be advisable for you to report to the infirmary as well."
  1928. >Breeze snapped a re-invigorated salute
  1929. >"Right-o, Princess! I'll say hi to Anonymous for you!"
  1930. >With that, he sprinted off to the exit, leaving you feeling better about yourself than you had in quite some time
  1931. ...
  1932. >You are Anon, and you are... walking a thin line between a benign, restful slumber and a flat-out coma
  1933. >As what you can only assume is a symptom of this strange limbo state, your lucid mind is summarily being assaulted by an ever-flowing and mostly incomprehensible stream of subconsciousness
  1934. >Images, memories, and simple lines of spoken words all coming to you in a completely haphazard manner, their forms clear but their meanings less so
  1935. >A sheer cliff of jagged black rock, spotted green on top with sea moss and contrasted against the white fingers of saltwater swells creeping up its face
  1936. >The environment appeared quite unending in any given direction, infinite ocean one way and infinite land the other, the coastal divide itself stretching further than the eye could see
  1937. >A dreamlike projection of the Irish coast, perhaps?
  1938. >It's anyone's guess, but you know it can't be a memory; you've never been anywhere like this yourself
  1939. You don't deserve her, you know.
  1940. >An image of your family, pulled from the group photograph you'd taken at some distant relative's wedding
  1941. >Their features were growing more and more smudged, the finer details of their faces you could once recall off the top of your head now lost
  1942. >An unintended side effect of dimension-hopping, or just patent proof of your apathy and indifference?
  1943. >Impossible to tell
  1944. She's royalty, DIVINE royalty at that. You're a mortal, and a mediocre one at that.
  1945. >What you could only describe as a gigantic stained glass dome, supported intermittently by interlocking stone arches and covering an expansive circular pseudo-courtyard
  1946. >It was a very open floor plan, with beds arranged along the diameter of the dome and some sort of staging area in the middle, nary a wall in sight dividing anything
  1947. >Dead-center, underneath the point where the supporting arches intersected, was a large silver statue of what must have been a pony of some import, situated such that it was always directly illuminated by a focused ray of sunlight
  1948. >Ah, this is your memory of the infirmary
  1949. >Good, you must have made it here while you were still conscious
  1950. Didn't you resolve to forge "genuine" relationships? She has everything to offer and you have nothing. Hardly a "genuine" exchange, is it?
  1951. >A marble bust of a man's head, one that you instantly recognized from your college history classes
  1952. >Alexander the Great of Macedonia, unmistakably
  1953. >But of what significance was the King of Conquerors to your subconscious? To the extent that his visage would appear coherently in this jumbled alphabet soup of thought?
  1954. Just leave. There's still time, and there are other pursuits for you in this world - simpler ones. To persevere in your relationship with her would be pointless pandering to your ego.
  1955. >Duke Bristle's Eau de Félicité
  1956. >The site of your as-of-yet fondest memory of this world
  1957. >A shitty little dive where you and your preordained romantic match had made each other shout, cry, smile, and laugh in an incredibly short amount of time
  1958. >Impressively so, considering it was your first interaction
  1959. >The raw emotional intensity, the hard truths you both had to confront, and the shared euphoria of acceptance - all aspects, looking back, that reminded you of something important
  1960. >Luna was not some cold and distant astral presence beyond your understanding
  1961. >Just a mare that wished well for and expected such from you beyond any measure that anyone ever had - this you were sure of, as you had never been so compelled to meet such well-wishes and expectations before
  1962. >Your resolution to become a better man, to self-actualize and kill the conniving snake of a person you once were, was quickly morphing into something even greater
  1963. >A desire greater than that of a simple advisor, or even a prince consort
  1964. >The resolve to become a king
  1965. A king? Hilarious. Even if it weren't in direct contradiction to your apparent desire - for the action required to even reach such heights in this realm would make you a conniving snake in every sense of the term - such a goal is impossible. You're kidding yourself if you think you can ever live up to the standards of royalty this world presents.
  1966. >This voice in your head sure is a presumptive one, isn't it?
  1967. >Who said anything about subversion being on the cards, and who said you ever planned on meeting those standards?
  1968. >You aren't that stupid or naive
  1969. >No, the whole reason you even DARE to aim so high is because you know the Initiative is a two-way street
  1970. >Some part of Luna is dissatisfied with her current circumstances, and you had ostensibly been pulled through the fabric of spacetime specifically to deal with this dissatisfaction
  1971. >And so, you reasoned, you could walk it into a solution that would satisfy both of your desires at the same time
  1972. >Barring any insurmountable conflicts of interest, of course, but you'd burn those bridges as you got to them
  1973. >Blissful silence settled over your mental environment, and for a moment you reflected on the absurdity of refuting the points of your own subconsciousness as if in debate
  1974. >...
  1975. >What, no more chastising comments or snide remarks?
  1976. Why are you so sure you even WANT to pursue this course? What makes you think you're so cut-out for it?
  1977. >Well, that's the kicker
  1978. >You aren't sure you want anything to do with it, and you definitely aren't cut-out for it as you are
  1979. >But you'll never know if you don't go for broke, and you'll force yourself into the mold if need be
  1980. >With all the opportunities you've been provided, like hell you were gonna sit back and play this new life of yours passively as you had before
  1981. >And at the end of it all, even if you can't reach your aspiration, you'll be happy with changing the life of just one pony
  1982. >Because she had certainly changed yours
  1983. ...
  1984. >You are Anon, and you are... being dragged back into the world of the living
  1985. >Your body felt heavy and lethargic, as if you'd just slept for a full twenty-four hours
  1986. >Which, considering your last waking memory before surrendering to said rest, you very well may have
  1987. >Shifting slightly in the pleasantly-cool sheets, you briefly weighed the pros and cons of opening your eyes and waking up or slipping back into your slumber
  1988. >But then, a low, feminine, and mockingly-thick French (or, well, French-coded) accent hammered into your eardrums like a hydraulic press
  1989. >"Ah, bien, ze lorazepam infusion worked."
  1990. >You slowly but surely cracked your eyes - a task more difficult than it had any right to be, your eyelids being as crusty as they were - and squinted at the blinding brightness of the room
  1991. >Even with the blurry fog of sleep still glazing your vision, it was obvious you were in the very same infirmary you'd seen in your dream, the magnificence of its design still managing to awe you
  1992. >Two ill-defined blobs stood at the foot of your little clinical bed
  1993. >The identity of one was obvious, appearing as a large navy blue amoeba with accompanying cilium undulating around it
  1994. >The other, however, was foreign to you, dwarfed in stature by the princess and colored mint green with a tuft of alternating pink and white on top
  1995. >You blinked a few times to clear the blurriness, only to find with a small amount of panic that it stubbornly remained
  1996. >The stern and commanding voice of a displeased princess fell on you, and feeling as though an eternity had passed since you'd last heard it, you were put oddly at ease
  1997. >"Lucky for you. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it would be for a court aide to be rendered comatose by something as ridiculous as a professionally-applied ketamine overdose?"
  1998. >The accented voice snapped back in short order
  1999. >"Do not pin zis on MOI, ze bodyweight calculations were PERFECTLY ACCURATE. Zese humans, zey are simply less tolerant, it would seem."
  2000. >Okay, so the reason for your unconscious purgatory was a near-overdose on horse tranquilizer
  2001. >Leave it to actual horses, you suppose
  2002. >Making her - for you were FAIRLY certain the unidentified blob was a "she" - way over to your right side, you felt a hoof contact your lower right eyelid and pull it down, whereupon a light was shined in your face
  2003. >"Merde, pupils are still dialated."
  2004. >Sounding exasperated, the blob rooted around in a drawer by your bedside, pulling out a bottle of brown liquid and a glass
  2005. >Luna gasped slightly, and you could hear the unpleasant surprise in her tone
  2006. >"Nurse, now is HARDLY the time for stress drinking!"
  2007. >The sound of a copious amount of liquid being poured accompanied the mare's reply
  2008. >"Non, not for me - yet. For 'eem."
  2009. >The glass was pressed into your hand, along with a callous order of "Drink."
  2010. >And so, finding you were indeed quite parched, drink you did
  2011. >Only to cough and sputter violently as the first sip made its way down your throat
  2012. >A wave of fire tore through every major system in your body, instantly dispelling the fogginess of your mind and heating up your extremities that you only now noticed were somewhat clammy
  2013. >Your vision unclouded right away, prompting another round of rapid blinking as you re-adjusted to your own normal ocular capacity
  2014. >Pouring another glass while staring at you impassively was the mint blob, now materialized as a bespectacled earth pony of decidedly average height and build
  2015. >Her long mane of alternating pink and white stripes was combed over to one side, leaving her bloodshot, pale, and perpetually-squinted eyes a clear avenue to peer into yours
  2016. >"Griffonstone brandy, quite the pick-me-up, non? Feeling better now?"
  2017. >Still dazed despite the jump-start, you clumsily answered with a completely unrelated strand from your internal observations
  2018. "Earth pony...?"
  2019. >She frowned and glared agitated daggers at you, before heaving her head back and launching into a dramatized tirade
  2020. >"ALWAYS with zis! Six years of schooling, it is all I ever get! 'An earth pony? Practicing medicine?! Impossible!' Non, mon ami, I will tell you that it very much IS possible! Would you like to know how? I will tell you how, Monsieur Anonymous."
  2021. >With that, she whipped out a flask - from where, you couldn't guess - and proceeded to take a worryingly-long pull without so much as flinching
  2022. >"Booze."
  2023. >A resigned sigh emanated from the foot of the bed, and you turned to see Luna rolling her eyes
  2024. >"Anonymous, allow us to PROPERLY introduce Saline Drip, head nurse of the Royal Infirmary and one of the premier anesthesiologists in the world."
  2025. >The nurse nodded but said nothing, deep in another swig as she was, and the princess grimaced
  2026. >"...Though considering how she always introduces herself, it is a wonder anypony knows that she is not simply an alcoholic that wandered onto the castle grounds."
  2027. >Finishing her pull with a shiver and a satisfied 'Ahhh~', Drip ignored the remark and addressed you
  2028. >"I can assure you, monsieur, mon resume speaks for itself."
  2029. >Resisting the urge to chuckle at the exchange and thinking that you probably didn't need to introduce yourself, you instead reached out your arm and offered your hand to the mare
  2030. >She stared at it suspiciously for a moment before understanding your intent, at which point she planted her hoof in your hand and curtly shook it exactly once
  2031. "It's a pleasure, Nurse."
  2032. >"Mhm, charmed."
  2033. >She strolled back to the foot of your bed, pulling a clipboard off the side as she went
  2034. >"Now, I presume you have ze usual 'just woke up from a medical coma' questions, oui? 'How long have I been out' and such?"
  2035. >You nodded, and she stepped to Luna, pressing the clipboard into the confused princess' chest
  2036. >"What are you-?"
  2037. >"As much as I would LOVE to run through ze laundry list, I am a busy mare and ze surgery theatre requires mon immediate attention. I leave ze explanations to Your Highness, as I am certain you have memorized the situation just as well as I have, non?"
  2038. >Not even waiting for an affirmative response, the nurse immediately turned and began her trek back to the central staging area
  2039. >She paused after a few paces, however, and twisted her neck around to look at you once more
  2040. >"Adieu for now, Monsieur Anonymous. I certainly hope you feel better."
  2041. >She winked at you and put on a tight smile before turning back around and continuing away
  2042. >One eccentric figure after another with this place, you mused to yourself
  2043. >Feeling playfully smug, you sarcastically addressed the still-dumbfounded princess
  2044. "Give it to me straight, doc, am I dying?"
  2045. >Your reflexes sluggish as they were, you were unable to catch the clipboard that was summarily hurled at your face
  2046. ...
  2047. >You are Anon, and you are... starting to regret that you hadn't just taken that axe kick to the head and gotten it over with
  2048. >It was a point to your pride that you'd been able to read the feint in time to dodge the knockout blow, of course
  2049. >But it would've spared you the shattered collarbone - broken in no fewer than three places, you were told - and thus the projected four MONTHS of recovery to pre-injury motor function had you simply not slipped it in the first place
  2050. >Not helping the situation at all was Saline Drip
  2051. >A pony who, despite ostensibly being hammered 24/7, was cautious to a fault in her practice, and staunchly refused to allow any attempt at magical reconstruction to pass
  2052. >You couldn't argue with her logic on that front; none of the unicorns in her charge knew what a "clavicle" was, much less what a healthy one ought to look like
  2053. >Sure, four months with a bum arm was preferable to a lifetime with the permanently-debilitated one you might receive from a botched reconstruction job
  2054. >That fact was little consolation, however, when going under the knife three separate times over the course of a week
  2055. >Why such a ridiculous amount of operations in such a short timeframe?
  2056. >It was originally planned to be just one single procedure
  2057. >But of course, the ponies involved were bound and determined to make sure that the original plan didn't come to fruition, medical professionals that they were
  2058. >Apparently, in addition to being the first human to be operated on in this realm, you were also the proud recipient of the first conventional bone fracture repair procedure in literal decades
  2059. >So naturally, the team had been extremely thorough
  2060. >And "thoroughness" in their field meant checking and re-checking every little suture and alignment before, during, and after making it
  2061. >This process extended what should have by all rights been a quick in-and-out surgery into a stupidly prolonged affair
  2062. >So much so that you'd had to evacuate the theatre twice simply because more urgent cases required it
  2063. >The protracted nature of it all could have taken quite the toll on your psyche, all things considered
  2064. >It wasn't a stretch to say that you'd spent more hours of that particular week asleep than awake - though in not quite as deep a K-hole as you had gone into when you were first admitted
  2065. >Still, your ability to distinguish between reality and dream may well have been irrevocably fucked by the uninterrupted bouts of unconsciousness
  2066. >If not for the constant presence of the Dreamwalker herself
  2067. >Luna - or rather Luna's astral projection, as she'd said - had kept you constant company throughout your little week of hell
  2068. >In addition to being a recognizable beacon indicating that you were asleep, she proved stellar company in passing the hours upon hours of passing idleness
  2069. >Unfortunately, as your medically-induced slumber was inherently dreamless, and the princess was unwilling to potentially compromise the anesthesia by creating a dreamscape for you, there wasn’t much you two could do within the infinite void in which you found yourselves
  2070. >And so you partook in the only activity you really could: conversation
  2071. >The topic of which wasn't really anything important or groundbreaking for either of you, for once
  2072. >Just simple talk of hobbies, likes and dislikes, personal experiences - the works
  2073. >The type of conversation that you honestly should have made an effort to make a while ago
  2074. >It had occurred to you that you'd been unintentionally keeping this pony at arms-length
  2075. >Ever since she'd so effortlessly skewered your biggest personality flaw minutes after meeting you, exacerbated by your initial view of the gap between her immortal self and your mortal flesh
  2076. >Was it intimidation?
  2077. >Did that inciting moment and follow-on knowledge make you afraid of comparing yourself to such a larger-than-life presence as her?
  2078. >Probably
  2079. >But the knowledge that lavender was her favorite flower and raspberry cake doughnuts were her favorite dessert... dimmed the intimidation factor, somewhat
  2080. >With cute revelations like that coming up every minute, it didn't feel very long at all until a falling sensation crept its way to the scruff of your neck and yanked you back into the land of the living
  2081. >You awoke with a massive jolt this time around, and regretted it instantly as a dull knife of agony stabbed into your shoulder in response
  2082. >Your hiss of pain was audible enough to draw a snide remark from Nurse Drip, yet again standing at your bedside
  2083. >"I take it by your clear and present pain response zat ze anesthesia dosage was correct zis time, oui?"
  2084. >Wincing again as you attempted to shrug involuntarily - that would take some getting used to, for sure - you looked around, finding yourself back in the exact same bed you were in a week ago
  2085. >No comforting trace of starry mane this time, though
  2086. "Where's Luna?"
  2087. >The nurse clicked her tongue
  2088. >"You really must temper this habit you have of answering a question with a question, Monsieur Anonymous, it is quite rude of you."
  2089. >Rolling your eyes and sighing, you answered her initial query
  2090. "Yes, Nurse, it would seem that you didn't quite manage to drug me to death this time, despite what I'm sure was a valiant effort. Thank you."
  2091. >You were still a bit peeved that she hadn't just cleared you for a reconstruction procedure
  2092. >She scoffed and picked a parchment envelope up off the nightstand, along with a small container of pills
  2093. >"Any answer is better than no answer, I suppose. By my guess, Her Highness is just now stirring in her bed, considering she was just conversing with you a moment ago."
  2094. >Your raised eyebrow was aggressively waved away by the envelope
  2095. >"Oh come now, you didn't think ze Princess would be so careless as to potentially wake you mid-surgery without checking with us first, did you?"
  2096. >Before you could respond to the obvious rhetorical, she slapped the envelope down on your lap
  2097. >"Now, you are likely finding it quite difficult to rotate or indeed move your left shoulder at all, non?"
  2098. >You nodded
  2099. >"Bien, zis is because we have run what is in essence one long titanium rod through your left clavicle. If all goes to plan, we will see you here again in three weeks to remove it and begin rehabilitation. Until zen,"
  2100. >She lifted the bottle of pills up to your face and shook it
  2101. >"Painkillers. Two tablets every twenty-four hours if you do not wish to spend every waking moment of your recovery in debilitating agony. Simple enough, oui?"
  2102. >You nodded again, genuinely appreciating the straightforwardness
  2103. >Handing the pills to you, the nurse clopped her front hooves together in the common gesture of self-satisfaction
  2104. >"Excellent. Everything I just said as well as instructions on hygiene and such are enclosed in ze envelope, with which I will not bore you. An aide will be by shortly with ze discharge paperwork."
  2105. >This time, she was the one to stretch out a hoof to you, which you gladly took in your hand once more
  2106. >"I have had worse patients, I must say."
  2107. "Only because I was asleep for most of the stay, I'm sure."
  2108. >"Were you? Ze staff hardly noticed. On an unrelated note, do you know you talk in your sleep?"
  2109. >You both chuckled
  2110. >No treatment quite like some good-natured ribbing
  2111. >After your mutual goodbyes, she began to make her way back to the central desk
  2112. >After a few steps, her back stiffened and her ears perked up, as if she'd forgotten something important
  2113. >She wheeled around to face you again, and a hint of amusement crossed her tired eyes
  2114. >Worrying
  2115. >"It is not my business, obviously, but you should know zat ze Princess was being extraordinarily pushy with me about exactly when you would be up and about."
  2116. >Puzzled, you cocked your head to one side
  2117. >Of course she would be concerned about your health, she was your boss
  2118. "I mean, I would hope so, seeing as I'm under her charge and all. She's probably pretty eager to put me back to work."
  2119. >The mare snorted in amusement and continued on her merry way, calling back to you as she walked
  2120. >"If zat was all she cared about, I doubt she would have used ze word 'date' so liberally."
  2121. ...
  2122. >You are Anon, and you are... to use an old adage, high on life
  2123. >And extra-strength prescription painkillers
  2124. >But MOSTLY life
  2125. >Entirely because you're on a date with a horse
  2126. >An absurd statement by any measure in almost any other context, certainly
  2127. >But it's too late by a hilariously wide margin for benign absurdity to warrant any significant concern
  2128. >No, the sum total of your brainpower is already committed to two tasks and two tasks alone
  2129. >One, maintaining idle smalltalk with the princess
  2130. >An easy enough task; the medication didn't dull your conversational skills too much, and there was certainly plenty to talk about
  2131. >Most intriguing was the apparently turbulent week the guard force had weathered
  2132. >You HAD splattered egg all over their commander's face, after all
  2133. >For even in embarrassingly having your ass bailed out by Luna, you'd inflicted far more injury on him than pretty much anypony prior
  2134. >The story of what happened out on the training grounds had spread through the castle like a middle school game of telephone, your depiction growing ever more favorable as stallions with an axe to grind passed it further down the line
  2135. >As near as Luna could tell you, the barracks were in a state of uproar almost every night, and Riptide Breeze had been dogging the medical wing receptionists for details on your recovery almost as much as she had
  2136. >But alas, you can't really spare much more thought on the details of the topic - or in fact anything beyond simple surface-level discussion as it is
  2137. >Because, honestly, the second task of dumbstruck aesthetic awe is eating up most of your available processing power
  2138. >The moon princess had assured you that what you were embarking on was a casual stroll through the park
  2139. >Nothing particularly daring or strenuous, she said
  2140. >Turns out that was merely regal understatedness at work, as you wouldn't in a million years use a term as mundane as "park" to describe the Royal Gardens of Canterlot
  2141. >You pity the archaeologists of your day, robbed as they are of the sight before you
  2142. >For you're certain that it puts even the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to shame with its splendor
  2143. >What you and Luna were traversing could be best described as a massive layer cake structure of innumerable marble arches, supporting terrace after bountiful terrace of a larger variety of plant life than you could possibly conceptualize
  2144. >Judging by the sheer amount of time it had taken you to fully circle the lowest level, you reckoned it was about a football field long on all four sides
  2145. >Jesus, it's no wonder the palace looks so gigantic from the outside, housing this behemoth within its walls
  2146. >As you worked your way upwards from the relatively-open bottom floor, however, your sense of scale was really and truly thrown out of wack
  2147. >The even and masterfully-crafted stone tilework of the usual castle floors gave way to a pathway of wooden planks, and the trees overhead slowly closed in until the sunlight above was reduced to errant rays poking through the canopy
  2148. >While you still found it a bit understated, you began to understand exactly why Luna had used the term "park"; only nominally a garden, this place was far more akin to a trail through a forest preserve than anything else
  2149. >The air was humid yet pleasantly cool, and carried upon it the earthy scent of loamy topsoil
  2150. >Genuine sounds of nature rang out around you, and not just the rustling of trees in the wind
  2151. >Insects chirped incessantly, small animals you couldn't identify dove in and out of the underbrush, and bird calls echoed intermittently
  2152. >Coupled with the uncharacteristic and seemingly-impossible landmarks you were encountering on your ascent - small waterfalls leading into creeks, rocky outcroppings jutting into the middle of the path, the like - you were quickly losing track of time and space in this ever-winding, ever-climbing forest path
  2153. >Even Luna, your anchor up until this point, was beginning to blend with the greenery in your eyes
  2154. >At times, her dark coat cloaked her form entirely in the shady conditions, and she appeared to you as little more than a pair of shimmering mint orbs and a cloud of sparkling dust
  2155. >They scared you a bit, the mysterious effects the garden seemed to be having on your mind
  2156. >But they intrigued you even more
  2157. >So you keep walking and talking about God-knows-what with the floating pair of eyes, wishing to finish your ascent and see what exactly lies at the peak
  2158. >The ambient noises growing louder and louder with each step you take
  2159. >The foliage closing in around your vision, creating more of a tunnel than a path
  2160. >The canopy gradually shutters, blocking out the sun almost completely
  2161. >A whisper of white noise from your own mouth, and a squeaky reply of the same to your right side
  2162. >Gotta keep going up
  2163. >Nothing matters but what's at the end of this-
  2164. >"Anonymous!"
  2165. >You stopped mid-stride - mere paces away from breaking into a full sprint, if your body language was anything to go by
  2166. >In an instant, everything returned to normal
  2167. >The volume of the forest equalized, the path dilated back to its full width, and rays of sunshine brightened the environment to lightly-shaded levels
  2168. >Luna, now formed as an actual pony instead of the weird miasmal entity from before, was staring at you with no small measure of concern
  2169. >You blinked involuntarily
  2170. "What?"
  2171. >She huffed and took a few cautionary steps towards you, as if fearing you might bolt
  2172. >"As we were saying,"
  2173. >This statement was slow and methodical, as if she was testing you for some kind of tic in your answer
  2174. >"Of course Miss Drip is 'just' a nurse, in much the same way that we are 'just' a princess. Does the word 'nurse' hold different meaning where you come from?"
  2175. >Huh?
  2176. "Sorry, I'm not sure what you're talking about. Did I say something like that?"
  2177. >The princess exhaled, seemingly relieved at this response for whatever reason
  2178. >A twinge of pain radiating out of your shoulder indicated that the painkiller was beginning to wear off, and lucidity was gradually returning
  2179. >Had you just been on the verge of some kind of episode?
  2180. >Luna patted you lightly on the back with a wing, nudging you forward
  2181. >"Perhaps we should find a place to sit for a while, yes?"
  2182. ...
  2183. >You are Anon, and you are... frustrated
  2184. >Frustrated with yourself
  2185. >Because, in spite of Luna's good-natured insistence that it was nothing to be bothered about, you'd clearly killed whatever mood she was trying to set up
  2186. >It was supposed to be a nice opportunity for you to close the employee-boss gap, maybe nudge you two a little closer to the lovers you were supposed to be
  2187. >Instead, she had walked you to a decaying log off the path - made from a tree that seemed far too large to have ever taken root in the garden, of course - sat you down, and was currently scanning you all over for any form of magical interference
  2188. >Treating you quite like a child who'd fallen out of a swing at the park
  2189. >Humiliating
  2190. >BUT, you reminded yourself, all hope wasn't lost yet
  2191. >The date was still young - at least as far as you could tell, given that you didn't have a watch nor any frame of reference through the thick canopy of trees
  2192. >There was no forgone conclusion that you couldn't still salvage the situation and bring that mood back
  2193. >Just a soon as you got to the end of the trai-
  2194. >God DAMN it
  2195. >You shook your head violently and slapped your own cheeks a couple times
  2196. >Spinning over to the princess to diffuse any undue surprise you'd caused, you found her still hunched over and peering at you, horn cloaked in a soft cyan aura
  2197. >Like the cuddliest gargoyle you ever did see
  2198. >Satisfied that you hadn't bothered her or thrown her off, you turned your attention back to the surrounding forest
  2199. >Man, you didn't have the slightest clue where you were in the garden at the moment
  2200. >Looking across to the opposite side of the path, what should've been a view to the outside was blocked entirely by a heavy thicket of brush and branches
  2201. >You were having a harder and harder time believing that this really was the "simple" structure of tiered terraces that you'd laid eyes on prior to entering
  2202. >Not a botanist by any measure, you still doubted the ability of such a relatively low amount of soil to support the massive amount of root systems running beneath your feet
  2203. >And that was without even considering the landmarks you'd come across along the way
  2204. >Creeks, boulders, waterfalls, cliffs - hell, the log you were sitting on
  2205. >All of them were unquestionably placed with intent in the pony-made garden, yet entrenched in the environment as if they'd formed here naturally
  2206. >It wasn't TOO mind-boggling, of course
  2207. >You were well aware that the magic present in this world was a means to accomplish the impossible
  2208. >This was simply the first time you'd ever been surrounded on all sides by products of such impossible means, and it was throwing you off a bit
  2209. >A short fizzling noise followed by a sharp pop rang out beside you, causing you to jump in surprise
  2210. >You quickly found the source of the noise to be the princess, a relieved grin on her face and a wisp of white smoke trailing off the tip of her horn
  2211. >Firecracker…?
  2212. >Whatever, you assumed it was a sign her spellweaving was done
  2213. "Find anything?"
  2214. >You found yourself calmed a bit when her expression of relief didn't leave as she addressed you
  2215. >"We feared at first that you may have been caught under a malicious magical influence of some kind, but our search has thankfully turned up nothing on that front. You are certain that it wasn't some strange psychoactive effect of your painkillers?"
  2216. "Certain enough. Painkillers are usually depressants, right? I felt charged and hyper-focused at the time, pretty much the opposite of that description. Besides,"
  2217. >You winced emphatically as another pinch ran through your shoulder, slightly more intense than before
  2218. "I think they were wearing off by then, anyway."
  2219. >The princess nodded with a small measure of empathy
  2220. >”Then, both of those conclusions ruled out,”
  2221. >She laid down, surely displacing thousands of creepy-crawlies that resided in the rotted bark in doing so, and thoughtfully picked at a pad of moss with a hoof
  2222. >Possessive of a stronger stomach than you, she was
  2223. >”We believe it was a benign case of background magic temporarily overwhelming your psyche.”
  2224. “’Background magic’? What, like background radiation?”
  2225. >She stopped plucking bits of moss off the bark and cocked her head, confused
  2226. >”’Background radiation’? We have never heard tell of such a concept.”
  2227. >Figures
  2228. >Well, you weren’t well-versed enough in the concept yourself to explain it, and it wasn’t exactly relevant anyway, so whatever
  2229. “Forget it. How does this ‘background magic’ explain what happened to me? The erratic behavior, the hallucinations, all that?”
  2230. >Luna inhaled, closed her eyes, and rested her free hoof on her chin, the other resuming its idle torture of the small green patch in front of her
  2231. >What a fascinating little tic
  2232. >”As you may have already surmised, this garden – grand though it may be – is an artifice, constructed and maintained through the use of magic. A liberal amount of magic, at that.”
  2233. >’As I’d surmised’ indeed, you thought, internally patting yourself on the back and nodding your understanding
  2234. >”Sometimes, in regards to beings less ‘in-tune’ with magical arts, the relatively strong undercurrent of magic in places like this can have unforeseen effects on their mental states. Your description of trees overgrowing and closing in to form a tunnel, and the trail itself beckoning you upwards to its terminus… such imagery lines up with the intent of the magic used here. Magic to make things grow and magic to carve a path, respectively, may have been the cause for your strange thoughts and behavior.”
  2235. >That certainly explained the issue in your eyes, and even explained why you were still feeling a mild compulsion to continue up the path
  2236. >But you’d picked up something, some subtle implication in the princess’ words
  2237. >’Less in-tune with magical arts’ didn’t feel right
  2238. >It felt like a softball, as a matter of fact
  2239. >A feeling that was validated by what Luna said a moment later, addressing you in a painfully apologetic tone
  2240. >”Such magic being the cause of your distress, we must apologize. Quite frankly, we assumed that the magic in this structure, ancient as it is, wouldn’t be an issue for you. We failed to consider your condition and general unfamiliarity with magical forces, and for that, we are sorry.”
  2241. >An apology
  2242. >You could easily just accept it amicably and let the moment pass and continue on with the date, armed with the new knowledge that the garden was trying to fuck with your head
  2243. >But a circuit of thought had just been completed in your brain
  2244. >A nagging spear of frustration immediately stabbed into the back of your mind, far worse than it had been at the start of this little fiasco
  2245. >It was understandable that this strain was more vitriolic, as it was over something far more principled and important than a minor faux pas like throwing off the mood of a date
  2246. >This time, the object of your mounting irritation was Luna’s continual avoidance of a single irrefutable fact, a fact which had caused you no small amount of grief in the past few weeks
  2247. >You were weak
  2248. >If your whole experience as a member of the Night Court so far had shown you anything at all, it was that you were a strong person in neither body nor mind
  2249. >Getting beaten to a pulp by a pegasus a third his size would put things in perspective for any man
  2250. >Nonetheless, you’d come to terms with your weakness, and were genuinely committed to fixing it in the times ahead of you
  2251. >So it was all the more grating to you, then, that Luna was pussyfooting around the issue so hard; it was very clear by her tone and terminology that resisting the influence of this ‘background magic’ was essentially child’s play for her, so simple that she hadn’t even been doing so consciously
  2252. >She’d expected the same kind of resistance from you, and you’d failed to meet that expectation
  2253. >And yet, she was apologizing to YOU, as if she was somehow responsible for your inability to do so
  2254. >It didn’t sit right with you in the slightest
  2255. >Which is why you didn’t accept her apology
  2256. >Instead, you clenched your fists, tightened your jaw, and looked straight ahead, uttering a statement not at all verbose enough for the massive string of mental gymnastics you’d just gone through
  2257. “I see.”
  2258. >You let the statement hang for a few moments, staring off somewhere into the undergrowth, not particularly wanting to see if your crass refusal of an apology you didn’t deserve had elicited any concern from the princess
  2259. >After a strangely long spell of silence, however, you felt compelled to look over, and found her stock-still, her eyes oriented directly upward
  2260. >You followed the line of her vision, and quickly discovered the reason behind her lack of reply
  2261. >A stark-white moth had alighted on the very tip of her horn
  2262. >You are Anon, and you are... frustrated
  2263. >Frustrated with yourself
  2264. >Because, in spite of Luna's good-natured insistence that it was nothing to be bothered about, you'd clearly killed whatever mood she was trying to set up
  2265. >It was supposed to be a nice opportunity for you to close the employee-boss gap, maybe nudge you two a little closer to the lovers you were supposed to be
  2266. >Instead, she had walked you to a decaying log off the path - made from a tree that seemed far too large to have ever taken root in the garden, of course - sat you down, and was currently scanning you all over for any form of magical interference
  2267. >Treating you quite like a child who'd fallen out of a swing at the park
  2268. >Humiliating
  2269. >BUT, you reminded yourself, all hope wasn't lost yet
  2270. >The date was still young - at least as far as you could tell, given that you didn't have a watch nor any frame of reference through the thick canopy of trees
  2271. >There was no forgone conclusion that you couldn't still salvage the situation and bring that mood back
  2272. >Just a soon as you got to the end of the trai-
  2273. >God DAMN it
  2274. >You shook your head violently and slapped your own cheeks a couple times
  2275. >Spinning over to the princess to diffuse any undue surprise you'd caused, you found her still hunched over and peering at you, horn cloaked in a soft cyan aura
  2276. >Like the cuddliest gargoyle you ever did see
  2277. >Satisfied that you hadn't bothered her or thrown her off, you turned your attention back to the surrounding forest
  2278. >Man, you didn't have the slightest clue where you were in the garden at the moment
  2279. >Looking across to the opposite side of the path, what should've been a view to the outside was blocked entirely by a heavy thicket of brush and branches
  2280. >You were having a harder and harder time believing that this really was the "simple" structure of tiered terraces that you'd laid eyes on prior to entering
  2281. >Not a botanist by any measure, you still doubted the ability of such a relatively low amount of soil to support the massive amount of root systems running beneath your feet
  2282. >And that was without even considering the landmarks you'd come across along the way
  2283. >Creeks, boulders, waterfalls, cliffs - hell, the log you were sitting on
  2284. >All of them were unquestionably placed with intent in the pony-made garden, yet entrenched in the environment as if they'd formed here naturally
  2285. >It wasn't TOO mind-boggling, of course
  2286. >You were well aware that the magic present in this world was a means to accomplish the impossible
  2287. >This was simply the first time you'd ever been surrounded on all sides by products of such impossible means, and it was throwing you off a bit
  2288. >A short fizzling noise followed by a sharp pop rang out beside you, causing you to jump in surprise
  2289. >You quickly found the source of the noise to be the princess, a relieved grin on her face and a wisp of white smoke trailing off the tip of her horn
  2290. >Firecracker…?
  2291. >Whatever, you assumed it was a sign her spellweaving was done
  2292. "Find anything?"
  2293. >You found yourself calmed a bit when her expression of relief didn't leave as she addressed you
  2294. >"We feared at first that you may have been caught under a malicious magical influence of some kind, but our search has thankfully turned up nothing on that front. You are certain that it wasn't some strange psychoactive effect of your painkillers?"
  2295. "Certain enough. Painkillers are usually depressants, right? I felt charged and hyper-focused at the time, pretty much the opposite of that description. Besides,"
  2296. >You winced emphatically as another pinch ran through your shoulder, slightly more intense than before
  2297. "I think they were wearing off by then, anyway."
  2298. >The princess nodded with a small measure of empathy
  2299. >”Then, both of those conclusions ruled out,”
  2300. >She laid down, surely displacing thousands of creepy-crawlies that resided in the rotted bark in doing so, and thoughtfully picked at a pad of moss with a hoof
  2301. >Possessive of a stronger stomach than you, she was
  2302. >”We believe it was a benign case of background magic temporarily overwhelming your psyche.”
  2303. “’Background magic’? What, like background radiation?”
  2304. >She stopped plucking bits of moss off the bark and cocked her head, confused
  2305. >”’Background radiation’? We have never heard tell of such a concept.”
  2306. >Figures
  2307. >Well, you weren’t well-versed enough in the concept yourself to explain it, and it wasn’t exactly relevant anyway, so whatever
  2308. “Forget it. How does this ‘background magic’ explain what happened to me? The erratic behavior, the hallucinations, all that?”
  2309. >Luna inhaled, closed her eyes, and rested her free hoof on her chin, the other resuming its idle torture of the small green patch in front of her
  2310. >What a fascinating little tic
  2311. >”As you may have already surmised, this garden – grand though it may be – is an artifice, constructed and maintained through the use of magic. A liberal amount of magic, at that.”
  2312. >’As I’d surmised’ indeed, you thought, internally patting yourself on the back and nodding your understanding
  2313. >”Sometimes, in regards to beings less ‘in-tune’ with magical arts, the relatively strong undercurrent of magic in places like this can have unforeseen effects on their mental states. Your description of trees overgrowing and closing in to form a tunnel, and the trail itself beckoning you upwards to its terminus… such imagery lines up with the intent of the magic used here. Magic to make things grow and magic to carve a path, respectively, may have been the cause for your strange thoughts and behavior.”
  2314. >That certainly explained the issue in your eyes, and even explained why you were still feeling a mild compulsion to continue up the path
  2315. >But you’d picked up something, some subtle implication in the princess’ words
  2316. >’Less in-tune with magical arts’ didn’t feel right
  2317. >It felt like a softball, as a matter of fact
  2318. >A feeling that was validated by what Luna said a moment later, addressing you in a painfully apologetic tone
  2319. >”Such magic being the cause of your distress, we must apologize. Quite frankly, we assumed that the magic in this structure, ancient as it is, wouldn’t be an issue for you. We failed to consider your condition and general unfamiliarity with magical forces, and for that, we are sorry.”
  2320. >An apology
  2321. >You could easily just accept it amicably and let the moment pass and continue on with the date, armed with the new knowledge that the garden was trying to fuck with your head
  2322. >But a circuit of thought had just been completed in your brain
  2323. >A nagging spear of frustration immediately stabbed into the back of your mind, far worse than it had been at the start of this little fiasco
  2324. >It was understandable that this strain was more vitriolic, as it was over something far more principled and important than a minor faux pas like throwing off the mood of a date
  2325. >This time, the object of your mounting irritation was Luna’s continual avoidance of a single irrefutable fact, a fact which had caused you no small amount of grief in the past few weeks
  2326. >You were weak
  2327. >If your whole experience as a member of the Night Court so far had shown you anything at all, it was that you were a strong person in neither body nor mind
  2328. >Getting beaten to a pulp by a pegasus a third his size would put things in perspective for any man
  2329. >Nonetheless, you’d come to terms with your weakness, and were genuinely committed to fixing it in the times ahead of you
  2330. >So it was all the more grating to you, then, that Luna was pussyfooting around the issue so hard; it was very clear by her tone and terminology that resisting the influence of this ‘background magic’ was essentially child’s play for her, so simple that she hadn’t even been doing so consciously
  2331. >She’d expected the same kind of resistance from you, and you’d failed to meet that expectation
  2332. >And yet, she was apologizing to YOU, as if she was somehow responsible for your inability to do so
  2333. >It didn’t sit right with you in the slightest
  2334. >Which is why you didn’t accept her apology
  2335. >Instead, you clenched your fists, tightened your jaw, and looked straight ahead, uttering a statement not at all verbose enough for the massive string of mental gymnastics you’d just gone through
  2336. “I see.”
  2337. >You let the statement hang for a few moments, staring off somewhere into the undergrowth, not particularly wanting to see if your crass refusal of an apology you didn’t deserve had elicited any concern from the princess
  2338. >After a strangely long spell of silence, however, you felt compelled to look over, and found her stock-still, her eyes oriented directly upward
  2339. >You followed the line of her vision, and quickly discovered the reason behind her lack of reply
  2340. >A stark-white moth had alighted on the very tip of her horn
  2341. >You are Anon, and you are… trying your best not to giggle
  2342. >In a side profile, you’re sure the view of the princess gazing at the snowy little insect residing on her horn must have been quite majestic and beautiful
  2343. >Front-on, however, she looked flat-out ridiculous
  2344. >Eyes wide and crossed, mouth slightly agape in silent wonder, a lot like a little kid
  2345. >In spite of your foul mood at the moment, you couldn’t help but appreciate the view
  2346. >The fact that Luna was willing to let you see such a naked display of any emotion at all - even the kind that made her look stupid - was patent proof that you’d at least moved past the “hollow posturing” phase of your relationship
  2347. >The prospect made you feel all warm inside, big sap that you were
  2348. >And you sure couldn’t blame her for being a bit awed, anyway
  2349. >That WAS a very pretty moth
  2350. >It was surprisingly large, first of all - its body about the size of your thumb with a 5-inch wingspan, by a quick estimate
  2351. >Ivory fur covered its back and wings like a dusting of powder snow, accentuated quite pleasantly by the dark specks on its legs and jet-black orbs on its head
  2352. >You observed it intently as it lazily traversed the foreign indigo tower it found itself on, intermittently pausing to rub its antennae clean
  2353. >Blissfully unaware of what the spire was, who it was attached to, and the significance of both therein
  2354. >You briefly envied it a bit on that end, musing to yourself about how different your relationship with Luna might be if you could just turn a blind eye to her station and status
  2355. >Ignorant, aspirationless ol’ Anonymous, content to be the simple royal househusband forevermore…
  2356. >Sighing, you absentmindedly felt for the faintly-glowing medallion over your left breast, continuing to quietly watch the insect go about its business
  2357. >’Should’ve taken the proposal, dumbass’ was a thought that you didn’t want to entertain in the slightest
  2358. >The awareness you had and the convictions you possessed were things you couldn’t give up now that they were yours, so what was the use in resenting them now?
  2359. >You were a man, after all, not a moth
  2360. >Eventually, said moth apparently decided that it had better places to meander about aimlessly than the magical appendage of a deity
  2361. >Fanning its wings at the very precipice of the princess’ horn, it took to the air in that ambling, erratic manner that moths do
  2362. >You both stared after it in a trance, two sets of dopey eyes following it until it finally disappeared into the darkening undergrowth
  2363. >Darkening, huh
  2364. >Blinking rapidly and shaking your head to ensure it wasn't another bout of hallucinations coming on, you noticed that sunbeams were no longer penetrating the canopy, the few gaps instead showing a sky painted in progressively-lighter shades of orange sunset
  2365. >Your sense of time had really and truly escaped you here; you could've sworn it was midday just a few minutes ago
  2366. >The fading light did explain the moth's presence, come to think of it
  2367. >You were about to break the quiet and comment aloud on the rapid passage of time, but Luna spoke first
  2368. >Her words of choice reminding you of the sour feeling in the pit of your stomach
  2369. >"Apologies for our silence. One just doesn't often see such a sight as that, wouldn't you agree?"
  2370. "Stop doing that."
  2371. >The stern command left your mouth before you could think better of it, as that would have required a desire to think better of it in the first place
  2372. >The princess balked slightly in shock at the order
  2373. >"Excuse us? Sorry, we are not certain what you're re-"
  2374. >So painfully unaware of what she was doing wrong
  2375. >You couldn't take it anymore
  2376. >Meeting confused look with what you hoped was a convincingly-intense glare - furrowed brow and all - you extended your arm and pointed an accusing finger right between her eyes
  2377. "That! The perpetual apologies! Christ, I've never heard of such self-flagellating royalty in my fucking life!"
  2378. >Luna folded her ears back against her head at your outburst, but otherwise retained a look of innocent confusion
  2379. "'Sorry I didn't stop a tiny little flying horse from beating the hell out of you, Anonymous.' 'Sorry for exposing your embarrassingly shallow superiority complex, Anonymous.' 'Sorry for dragging your feeble little virgin mind out into these benign magical woods, Anonymous.'"
  2380. >Your voice cracked as you continued in the mocking tone, realizing upon reflection that the princess had held you accountable for virtually nothing these past few weeks
  2381. >She'd invariably opted to blame herself for your shortcomings in the compromising situations with which you'd been involved, citing her failure to prepare you properly almost every time
  2382. >You hated it
  2383. "It's just totally frustrating and confusing to me. You're a PRINCESS, and an unbelievably powerful one at that! It's not like it's below your station to berate subordinates who underperform! Scold me! Let me know I'm doing a shit job and you're disappointed! Do SOMETHING befitting your position!"
  2384. >On one hand, you appreciated that she was willing to just sit there and let you vent, her puzzled look replaced by a tight-lipped frown and narrowed eyes
  2385. >On the other, you resented that she still refused to silence you when it was well within her right
  2386. >Looking down and away and folding your good arm across your chest, your final statement was more of a self-projection than anything else
  2387. "A ruler shouldn't act like this. A leader that lets his followers get away with anything isn't suited to lead in the first place."
  2388. >With that, peaceful quiet once again fell over the little patch of garden
  2389. >Well, you'd let your frustrations air out and were pretty much out of steam
  2390. >Whether or not the princess would respond (and if she did, how) to the flurry of degradation you'd just hurled her way was out of your hands
  2391. >This was, what, the third time you'd had this kind of emotional cookoff since meeting her?
  2392. >Perhaps you had some unresolved anger issues
  2393. >The two of you sat in total silence for quite some time, so long that the last traces of sunset disappeared and you were left in total darkness as well
  2394. >So, for a fleeting moment, you were blind and deaf
  2395. >A fleeting moment before a phenomenon you should have expected out of a magical garden occurred
  2396. >A field of bioluminescence erupted around you all at once, bathing the entire area in varying shades of neon
  2397. >Where there was once a shadowy and dull grove, illuminated by the odd singular ray of warm yellow sunlight, there was now a vast myriad of soft purples, greens, and blues emanating from every individual leaf in sight
  2398. >Gazing around in silent wonder, you noticed that the very moss you were sitting on was giving off a cyan glow
  2399. >It reminded you of the aura of Luna's magic, in a way
  2400. >At that thought, your vision was pulled back to the indigo pony for the first time since you'd finished your tirade
  2401. >She was now sitting upright and side-on to you, perfectly still
  2402. >While her coat had blended perfectly with the darkness of nightfall, the cyan underglow painted her features back into recognizability
  2403. >Highlighting, in particular, the expression of downcast contemplation on her face
  2404. >You hoped for a second that you hadn't been too harsh, but quickly disregarded that hope
  2405. >She was an ancient moon deity; if she couldn't take a relatively mild reality check from her protégé, then you had way more pressing concerns than her non-confrontational attitude
  2406. >So, for now, you were content to take in the beautiful natural processes unfolding before your eyes while she continued to stew in your words
  2407. >Firefly-like insects were taking to the air all around you, flashing shockingly varied sequences of colors as they buzzed about aimlessly through the trees
  2408. >You reached out and gently grabbed one, then opened your hand to let it crawl around your palm
  2409. >Far larger than any firefly you'd seen on Earth - more akin to a bioluminescent bumblebee, really - this one was flashing a quick pattern of green, yellow, and red in what seemed to be three-second intervals
  2410. >A far more complex method of communication than the simple on-off blinking of the lightningbugs you were used to, it seemed
  2411. >The fat little bug nosed around your hand with its feelers for a bit, its patterned flashes giving way to a steady green light which you took as a sort of visual 'all clear' signal, before it took to the air again to rejoin its brethren in... whatever activity these insects partook in at this time of night
  2412. >And not a moment too soon, as over the din of the garden's more nocturnal denizens waking up for the night, you perceived a preparative sigh to your right
  2413. >You looked back over to the princess to find her eyes closed and head bowed
  2414. >This should be good
  2415. >"...Do you recall the feeling you described to us on the night of our first meeting? That of treading on eggshells, attempting to please all you cross paths with, never a chance to allow one's own desires to bleed through?"
  2416. >You were immediately lost
  2417. >Where was she going with this?
  2418. >Regardless, you nodded in affirmation
  2419. >Opening her left eye and directing it at you, she clearly hoped her next statement would catch you on the chin
  2420. >"It was that emotion, we would say, which lead directly to the emergence of the entity formerly known as Nightmare Moon."
  2421. >And you weren't so sure it did
  2422. >Like, THE Nightmare Moon, the rogue pony that had attempted to usurp the Sun, antagonist of the creation myth that formed the building blocks of modern-day Equestrian society, whose name said society continued to be wary of to this day?
  2423. >You knew of Luna's connection to it, and how that connection was a large part of why she wasn't particularly favored in this day and age, but that its origins lay is something so predictable as an outburst of repressed emotions was...
  2424. >Disappointing?
  2425. >Noting that you were more unimpressed than anything else, the princess huffed in exasperation and turned to face you head-on
  2426. >"Nightmare Moon's appearance is confounding to most historians who bother to read into the sequence of events, as it emerged when we were at the very peak of our power. The Night Court of old was an utterly dominant force in Equestrian politics at the time, so the question remains of why we suddenly succumbed to the influence of that foul entity while we held all the proverbial cards."
  2427. >Oh, so there was more to it
  2428. >You were beginning to get an inkling of how it connected to what you said
  2429. >"The key factor, put simply, was doubt. We began to doubt in our ability to lead our own movement were it to grow any larger, as we were already at our limit in terms of keeping up with the varying demands of each individual member. We saw no way out, and thus allowed the more primal and unreasonable essence of the Moon take over."
  2430. "Waitwaitwait, the myth reads like you were a hapless victim of a malicious outside force. Are you saying that you actively let that entity take the wheel?"
  2431. >She gave a half-grin and a wink
  2432. >"Let us just say that our sister graciously decided to have that bit scrubbed from the records in preparation for our return, so as to curb the amount of the populace calling for our head."
  2433. >That was... an interesting new perspective on the legend
  2434. >Regardless, it was safe to say you were hooked now
  2435. >It felt scandalous, in a way, like you were learning an unabridged version of US history from the POTUS himself
  2436. >"Once Nightmare Moon took control, it was essentially over for us. Even if 'eternal night' was physically possible - it was and still is not, in case you were wondering - the entity was never going to trounce Tia in a million years. The Sun was as unconquerable to us then as it is now, and Nightmare Moon itself possessed little more in the way of magical prowess than we currently do. In a way, you could consider it a simple villainous costume change."
  2437. >She put a hoof to her mouth and giggled a bit at the comparison
  2438. >An action you didn't share in, as you were more than a little dumbfounded at the casual revision of a historical event that had shaped more than a thousand years of this world's history
  2439. >And you were an outside observer that had only known the legend for a little more than a few weeks!
  2440. >Imagine if some little pony who had been born and raised with the story was hearing what you were hearing
  2441. "Well, what about the Elements of Harmony? Didn't they seal you away in the first place? Weren't they responsible for bringing you back? You talk like Celestia did both of those things herself."
  2442. >"Only the latter part is true, and only partially. The Elements did purge Nightmare Moon from us upon our return. However, our sister was the sole contributor in shackling our soul to the Moon in the first place, and practically handed us the route back to the physical world on a silver platter once she was confident that her new student could absolve us of the entity forevermore."
  2443. >Her voice suddenly took a tone of dead seriousness, almost warning
  2444. >"Take it from us; Tia's strength is on a level incomprehensible to most mortals. As opposed to the Moon, which provides no inherent magical power on its own, the Sun provides a practically infinite pool of magic that she can draw from on a whim. At any point in time she could have deemed us unsalvageable and simply atomized Nightmare Moon on the spot, and that she simply banished us instead showed remarkable restraint and strength of character. She has, of course, had this fact scrubbed from the tale as well, as she does not want the ponies she rules over to know of the power she possesses and fear her as a result."
  2445. >Only after this statement did you notice that Luna had been leaning ever closer to you, to the point where her horn was nearly tapping you on the forehead
  2446. >You gulped involuntarily
  2447. >Nightmare Moon had been hyped up to you as some being of ultimate power that had required intervention from the very building blocks of reality to fully subdue and vanquish
  2448. >And now you were hearing the exact opposite, that Celestia had been in control of the situation from the start and had quashed the entity with relative ease, restrained only by the fact that she didn't want to erase her own sister from existence
  2449. >Try as you did to resist the lame comic book comparison, horrifying parallels to Doctor Manhattan briefly crossed your mind regardless
  2450. >Apparently satisfied that you understood, the princess drew back, clopped her front hooves together a few times, and drew in a deep breath as if to re-focus herself
  2451. >"We do believe that we have gotten a bit off-topic. What we mean to address in telling you all of this is your implicit claim that we are unfit for a leadership role due to our refusal to, as you said, hold you accountable for your failures. Despite our actions, we agree with you on this front; a ruler should not cave to the interests of those she rules over."
  2452. >Huh?
  2453. >But according to her, Nightmare Moon took over because-
  2454. >"'But it you believe so, then why did you attempt to bend over backwards for everypony in the Night Court back then?' is your current thought process, yes? The answer is that there is simply no other way of going about it in this world. Our sister set a precedent back then that effectively consigned ruling figures to purely neutral servants of the public and nothing more. A precedent that, despite our best efforts, carried into and colored every aspect of the Night Court."
  2455. >Luna seemed to deflate as she spoke, clearly reflecting on the defilement of something very near and dear to her
  2456. >"So we were forced to behave in kind, and naturally reached our breaking point as we were forced to curtail our own desires and very sense of self to meet those of an ever-growing and changing mass of individuals. As time passed and our input mattered less and less, we weighed our options and decided that we would rather go out in a desperate attempt to reclaim some form of personal influence than continue to watch the organization which we dedicated our eternal life to move on without us."
  2457. >She was beginning to sound choked up, and you were beginning to feel extremely stupid for voicing your callous thoughts to someone far more experienced in the field than you
  2458. >The princess turned away from you again to look off into the distance, and you saw a tear welling up in the corner of her left eye
  2459. >C’mon, salvage it, apologize
  2460. >You sheepishly rubbed the back of your head
  2461. "Hey, look, I'm sorry. It was stupid of me to say all that stuff about responsibility and whatnot, I had no idea-"
  2462. >She whipped her head back around, stood up on the log, and marched up to you until the base of her horn was pressed against your forehead, enraged pants buffeting your chest and misty eyes of cold fury trained directly on yours
  2463. >"Of COURSE you had no idea! You STILL have no idea! Your pitiful mortal lifespan precludes you from EVER understanding what it is like to dedicate nigh on a century to a cause only for it to warp and bend entirely out of your control!"
  2464. >Don't respond, Anon, you'll only make it worse
  2465. >You remained silent, merely praying internally that she wouldn't try to telekinetically scalp you again
  2466. >Seeing your refusal to defend yourself, the mare snorted and backed her head away, opting to raise her neck and look down her snout at you instead
  2467. >"You wish for us to hold you accountable? Fine, we will certainly hold you accountable for this. In fact, we believe this will make for a wonderful advisory breaking-in, so to speak. Since you, Anonymous, who has seldom held power the likes that we have, are oh-so-knowledgeable in the makings of a good ruler, tell us. Tell us how we can better take on a role that history has made clear we are not meant to take. Advise us, as you have insisted you wish to, and be mindful that we WILL be taking it into serious consideration."
  2468. >Shit, she was putting you on the spot
  2469. >She couldn't really expect you to come up with a competent answer as you were, right?
  2470. >No, best not to test her patience in this state
  2471. >Come on, think, Anon, think!
  2472. >What DO you know about leadership? When have you ever lead people in your life?
  2473. >Nope, that line of thought was a dud, you'd NEVER been in a role remotely comparable to royalty
  2474. >You shut your eyes tight, knowing that you looked ridiculous and childish doing so, hoping that an answer would come to you in a lightbulb of inspiration
  2475. >What came to you, however, wasn't a lightbulb
  2476. >It was a marble bust
  2477. >In spite of yourself, you grinned
  2478. ...
  2479. >You are Luna, and you are... not quite as much of an inobservant dullard as this man seems to believe
  2480. >Anon didn't REALLY think he was hiding his frustration from you that well, did he?
  2481. >No, you’d picked up on it well in advance of this little rendezvous
  2482. >The betraying tic of his was slight, something almost imperceptible to you and certainly invisible to an untrained eye
  2483. >So quick that the human himself likely hadn't even noticed he was doing it
  2484. >But a century and change of reading faces hadn't failed you in identifying it
  2485. >Your assistant tended to twitch his right eyelid whenever you took an even slightly apologetic tone with him
  2486. >You'd tested that tic of his over the course of his first week, and found it to be a reasonably consistent thing, only failing to materialize when he hadn't picked up on your tone in the first place
  2487. >Whether he was aware of it or not, that little twitch gave up volumes about Anon's feelings in each moment; simultaneous disgust, contempt, and anger at the sight and sound of a dignified figure acting so submissively
  2488. >You did not blame him for such thoughts
  2489. >As a matter of fact, you shared in them
  2490. >You were certain it was a sorry and gut-wrenching sight to an outsider, a princess tripping over her own hooves to apologize for the infractions of her own subordinates
  2491. >So if you understood what he felt - sympathized with him, no less - then why hadn't you acknowledged it? Why allow the man to stew in these negative feelings instead of simply defusing them from the get-go as you easily could have?
  2492. >Well, you couldn't begin to imagine exactly what kind of figures from his dimension Anon was subconsciously comparing you against
  2493. >But it was clear that, if he was becoming incensed at your actions in the first place, such characters carried themselves much differently than could possibly be allowed in Equestria
  2494. >As it was also unlikely that he would ever be able to truly drop this frame of reference, especially by any action you could take, there was but one way you could think of to handle the situation
  2495. >He would need to just... learn to ignore it
  2496. >Ignore the nagging feeling that the example you were setting wasn't at all becoming of a royal sovereign, just as you yourself had learned to years ago
  2497. >To that end, you would not under any circumstances confront him about his underlying frustrations
  2498. >If nothing further came of it - the outcome that you'd hoped for - then he didn't actually have any boiling emotions, you'd simply misread his face, and all of the thought you had dedicated to the subject would have been for naught
  2499. >Embarrassing, to be sure
  2500. >If, however, he did reach an eventual outburst - the outcome that you expected and were facing right now - well...
  2501. >You were kind of caught on your back hoof, since for all your deliberation over it, you didn't ACTUALLY have a response planned out
  2502. >All things considered, though, you thought you'd handled it quite well
  2503. >Digging into the Night Court's past stung a bit, of course
  2504. >It always did
  2505. >But for a moment, you were fairly certain it had taken the desired effect
  2506. >You had reversed the situation entirely on the human, denying him any retreat from his claims and forcing him to face the reality that you could not meet the unrealistic expectations of a sovereign he was levying on you
  2507. >Shackled to the status quo Tia had done nothing but entrench in the public's mind in the centuries since your banishment
  2508. >You wondered if Anon was parsing through this very same thought process in his current - and doubtlessly panicked - effort to answer the command you had just issued
  2509. >'Tell us how we can better take on a role that history has made clear we are not meant to take'
  2510. >Obviously, you didn't expect a coherent response to a query you couldn't even answer yourself, much less from somepony with far less experience and perspective on the matter
  2511. >ESPECIALLY with an angry princess staring daggers down at-
  2512. >The man's expression suddenly morphed directly from a fearful grimace, eyes squeezed shut and all, into a small, goofy grin
  2513. >Huh?
  2514. >What in the world did he have to be smiling about?
  2515. >You suddenly felt quite stupid, realizing that he may find the sight of you standing on the log amusing in some way
  2516. >Perhaps like a petulant filly trying to boost her stature by standing on a soapbox
  2517. >And you would only look MORE ridiculous if you reneged and stepped off it or laid back down now!
  2518. >Irritated, you snorted sharply and scraped your hoof on the rotting wood
  2519. "Do you find our command risible? We are dead serious, you know."
  2520. >The man pinched the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb and looked away, smile still firmly attached
  2521. >"No, no, I just thought of something interesting, is all. Gimme a minute and I think I'll be able to articulate it."
  2522. >You felt your brow furrow involuntarily
  2523. >He didn't actually think he could thoroughly consider some aspect of the issue you hadn't already examined in such a short amount of time, did he?
  2524. >He HAD to be reading the room more aptly than that, right?
  2525. >...
  2526. >Then again...
  2527. >Maybe you were writing him off a little too quickly
  2528. >A fresh, totally foreign perspective on a conflict you had given up on years ago might be just what you need
  2529. >At any rate, you leaned back on your haunches and studied the man's posture intently
  2530. >Not like rushing him along would get you anywhere, and his body language - head bowed, hand on his chin, eyes shut tight once again - indicated that he was thinking about it quite seriously
  2531. >A slight breeze swept through the wood, kicking up the passively-floating flashbugs into a momentary swirl of panicked red pulses
  2532. >Fat and dumb little things, even for insects
  2533. >It is no wonder they were extinct in the wild for centuries
  2534. >Anon's head snapped up, his eyes shooting open with conviction
  2535. >"Mhm, got it now."
  2536. >He spun until he was sitting cross-legged on the log and facing you, right hand resting on his knee, wearing that same slight grin from before
  2537. >You ruffled your wings and went back to looking down your muzzle at him, hopefully regaining some of the haughtily-superior poise you'd lost
  2538. >The man cleared his throat, and opened with an unfittingly formal appeal
  2539. >"It's occurred to me that something was sorely lacking from my previous statements: a solid reason for my beliefs. I failed to make it clear exactly WHY I found your overly-prostrative conduct to be unbecoming of a ruler, and for that I must apologize. I am sorry, Your Highness."
  2540. >So he had (improbably) remembered the sentiment that he was to act as your apprentice first and foremost in situations like this
  2541. >Or he was (more likely) just laying it on really, embarrassingly thick
  2542. >The man shrugged sheepishly
  2543. >"I must say, I feel equally obliged to clear up my reasoning as I do to answer your call-to-duty. Thankfully,"
  2544. >He raised his good arm and emphatically stuck his index finger up
  2545. >"I think I can kill two birds with one stone here. If you'll allow it, I'd like to tell a story. A story that, I believe, will be illuminating for you in a similar manner as the revised mythos of Nightmare Moon was for me."
  2546. >You flicked an ear and raised an eyebrow at the proposition
  2547. >A tale from the human world?
  2548. >If nothing else, this could at least be interesting to hear
  2549. "...What kind of story?"
  2550. >Tapping his chin for a moment, eyes pointed skyward in thought, the man responded cautiously
  2551. >"I guess you could call it a... biography. The life story of a legendary figure that I spent a fair share of my time studying, back in my university days."
  2552. >You scoffed a bit internally, your hope of gleaning anything useful from his response evaporating somewhat
  2553. "Sounds like a story we lack the necessary context to fully understand. How will this accomplish what we have tasked you with?"
  2554. >He shook his head dismissively
  2555. >"Trust me, I think you'll understand by the end."
  2556. >Grumbling slightly at his evasiveness, you nevertheless extended your left wing in an exaggerated 'proceed' gesture
  2557. "Then we suppose we will allow it."
  2558. >The human leaned back, exhaling lightly as he did so, before snapping forward into a hunched-over position, eyes locked to yours
  2559. >”This, Your Highness, is the tale of one Alexander III of Macedon, otherwise known as Alexander the Great. He was quite possibly the most important human to ever live.”
  2560. >You laid down and crossed your front hooves, thoroughly doubting the ability of such a story to impress you
  2561. >You are Anon, and you are… exhausted
  2562. >Looking up to the thick canopy, your fatigued optic nerve was able to pick out a hint of orange in the gaps between branches
  2563. >You let out a massive yawn, turning your attention back towards Luna
  2564. >Feeling your tiredness melt away momentarily as a grin of endearment spread across your face
  2565. >The princess’ giant teal orbs were wide open and carried an inspired sparkle behind them, her mouth half-agape in total awe
  2566. >Yeah, you remembered first reading about the mutiny at Opis
  2567. >You twisted your trunk a few times, attempting to stave off your exhaustion through any kind of physical activity
  2568. >The moon princess had been right, at first
  2569. >Establishing the contextual lens through which the King of Conqueror’s accomplishments were impressive had been the most difficult part
  2570. >It had taken you the majority of the night simply to establish Macedon, Philip II, Darius III, and the Persian Empire alone, much less the stage for his conquests further east
  2571. >Compared to these explanations, you found the story of Alexander’s conquests actually quite short in comparison
  2572. >However, Luna was utterly enamored through all of it, totally gripped as you walked your way east, telling of all the battles and legends the king of the Macedonian Empire had taken part in
  2573. >Always leading from the front, ever-convinced of his destiny to rule over the entire world, never once satisfied with his holdings, inspiring all those he led with his never-ending urge to conquer…
  2574. >Couldn’t be you haha
  2575. >”This speech you have related to us, did it truly happen as you say? Was this man really capable of such feats with mere words?”
  2576. >You came up from your thoughts and raised an arm in deference
  2577. “I can’t promise that I’ve recounted it exactly or even accurately, but all accounts point to his speech being so compelling that his war-weary and homesick men were almost immediately spurred to continue eastwards at his words.”
  2578. >She mouthed a ‘wow’, propping both hooves under her chin
  2579. >”What then? Surely his campaign went on if both he and his men desired it, yes?”
  2580. >Oho boy
  2581. “Nope.”
  2582. >She cocked her head, brow furrowed in concerned confusion
  2583. >”Why not?”
  2584. “Because after returning to his impromptu capital of Babylon to plan further conquests, Alexander the Great died at the age of 32. Less than a decade older than I am now.”
  2585. >The moon horse’s expression drooped as you continued
  2586. “After his sudden demise under circumstances that have long since been lost to history, the Macedonian Empire that he’d spent most of his life building collapsed almost immediately into various warring factions, none of them able to inspire quite the same respect or devotion as Alexander had over their subjects. However,”
  2587. >She perked one ear up, curious as to how you could possibly spin such a grim and abrupt ending in a positive light
  2588. >Time to wrap things up with a nice little bow
  2589. “Despite 2400-odd years having passed since his death, Alexander’s empire has only been matched or exceeded exactly once in terms of sheer size. Literal millions of square miles were conquered under the will of a single man, and the resultant Hellenization of the areas he annexed is still acutely felt in most modern human cultures. It’s doubtful he died with any regrets beyond failing to reach his mythical goal of Okeanos.”
  2590. >You slapped your right knee, signaling the final note
  2591. “And that, Your Highness, is the end of what I consider the relevant events of Alexander the Great’s life.”
  2592. >Luna blinked a few times, clearly still somewhat surprised at such an anticlimactic ending
  2593. >She rose to her haunches and put a hoof on her chin, muzzle scrunched in thought
  2594. >”… We think we understand your disappointment in us now, somewhat.”
  2595. >She shrugged, looking off solemnly into the brightening woods
  2596. >”After all, how can a princess who has accomplished nothing over a millennia possibly compare to a king who ruled the world in a fraction of that time?”
  2597. >Been there, felt that
  2598. >Recounting the conquests of Alexander always made you feel inadequate, like you were wasting your life horribly no matter what you were doing
  2599. >’Nothing I do can possibly compare, so what’s the point?’
  2600. >The princess shook her head, then stared at you with soft yet inquisitive eyes
  2601. >”What we do not understand, however, is how this pertains to our query. It is very apparent that your King of Conquerors was a far better ruler than us, but our situations are not comparable in the slightest. How will examining his life help us become a better leader of ponies?”
  2602. >This was where your more radical take would come into play
  2603. >You drew in a deep breath, then pointed an accusatory finger at the mare
  2604. “Because you two are way more similar than you think.”
  2605. >She balked heavily at your ridiculous claim, then craned her neck forward, studying you like a mental patient
  2606. >”Clearly exhaustion has gotten the better of your reasoning. Might we ask what we have in common with a human king even more ancient than us?”
  2607. >You rolled your eyes as if there was an obvious connection that she was missing
  2608. >This didn’t change the fact that it was a dumb stretch, of course
  2609. >But you weren’t lying
  2610. >You held up three fingers in her face
  2611. “Three core aspects, I believe, are what made Alexander the great leader that he was. From what I’ve seen, you possess two of those three - more than enough commonality to consider you alike.”
  2612. >Looks like that research paper from all those years ago WAS gonna come in handy
  2613. >Even as the princess seemed poised to ask, you lowered one finger and emphasized the remaining two
  2614. ”Ambition and skill. Alexander had the ambition to conquer beyond his means, and the skill as both an orator and a general to execute on that ambition. He most definitely wouldn’t have made it all the way to India if he lacked either of these traits.”
  2615. >You looked her up and down
  2616. “I’m not sure exactly how the Night Court formed in the first place – mostly because you’ve tended to focus on how it collapsed, so far – but given how political movements crop up, I’m sure it was a result of you providing an ambitious and aggressive alternative to Celestia’s status quo peace-at-any-cost philosophy, right?”
  2617. >She said nothing, but dipped her head slightly after a moment of thought
  2618. >You nodded in recognition
  2619. ”And I’ve experienced for myself the oration skills of a thousand-year-old moon entity, so there’s absolutely no doubt of that one in my opinion. Which leaves,”
  2620. >You lowered your middle finger, leaving only your index pointing upwards
  2621. “Belief. Above all, Alexander unrelentingly BELIEVED that it was his destiny, his very right to rule the world and reach the ocean at the end of it before any other man. Some might consider it an egotistical character flaw, but I don’t think he would’ve achieved what he did absent of that belief.”
  2622. >This claim fielded, you leaned in, prompting Luna to finish your thought and ensure that she was following
  2623. >She blinked once before affirming it
  2624. >”You are saying we lack conviction?”
  2625. “More or less. You claimed that you behave as you do because you can’t go against the expectation Celestia has set up and solidified in your absence, but have you even tried? How much has Equestrian society REALLY changed since you were banished that you, a princess, can’t flex your title like you clearly want to?”
  2626. >Her eyes widened and directed themselves diagonally to the right at these questions, and you weren’t totally sure why
  2627. >More pressingly, her face was somewhat flush with embarrassment
  2628. >Had she never considered those queries before this very moment? Seriously?
  2629. >In that case, you really had to hammer it home
  2630. “You DO lack conviction, Your Highness, and it pains me to no end that you do. Not just because I have a lofty ideal to hold you to, but because it’s just a horrible waste of potential in my eyes. A ruler should not deny herself the right to rule as much as you do. You’re intelligent, ambitious, skilled in your craft, beau-“
  2631. >In the midst of your rambling, you became aware of a hot and moist breeze on your face
  2632. >Ah, so that was the reason for the embarrassed body language
  2633. >You’d unconsciously closed with Luna during your explanation, to the point where you were practically nose-to-nose
  2634. >Her eyes were darting to and fro, desperately avoiding yours as you felt her breathing speed up ever so slightly
  2635. >Absolutely certain your face had gone beet red in an instant, you quickly rocked back and scooted your way to the opposite edge of the log
  2636. >Had you just been too tired to notice? Too hyper-focused on your rapid-fire thought process to even feel yourself acting out unconscious desires like some kind of ape?
  2637. >Stupid, Anon, stupid
  2638. >Now she wasn’t even gonna consider anything you just said, embarrassing yourself like that
  2639. >Maybe you co-
  2640. >A short, wet peck registered on your right cheek
  2641. >Bringing your hand up to the spot, you turned to see the princess much closer and with her head cocked to one side, eyes closed and grinning sheepishly
  2642. >”Your praise flatters us, Anonymous. We are truly grateful, both for your story and your advice on the matter. It seems what we really needed all along was a fresh perspective.”
  2643. >Heart palpitations
  2644. >Ruffling her wings and winking, she hopped down from the log and walked up beside you
  2645. >”Rest assured, we will take what you have said tonight to heart, as we believe there is much to be gleaned from it. However,”
  2646. >A telekinetic tug at the back of your shirt collar prompted you to stand
  2647. >A bad idea, all things considered, as you nearly collapsed from the pins and needles the moment you did
  2648. >You’d been sitting here for a while
  2649. >”It may be a good idea to get some rest before we do so; we understand that it isn’t advisable for one fresh out of the infirmary to be up and active for 17 hours all at once.”
  2650. >THAT long?
  2651. >Groggily, you nodded
  2652. “I’d rather not sleep out here, though.”
  2653. >She brought a wing to her mouth to stifle a giggle at your matter-of-fact delivery
  2654. >”Our quarters are far closer and far more comfortable than yours, if you wish to accompany us there.”
  2655. >You returned her mirth and accepted graciously
  2656. >And so, just as the flashbugs petered out one by one and the leaves began to lose their glow, the two of you walked slowly and tiredly out of the glade, which had proven itself to be illuminating in more ways than one
  2657. >You are Luna, and you are… relishing the taste of saltwater on your lips
  2658. >Mmm, delightfully metaphysical!
  2659. >The black seaside cliffs felt especially vivid this time, likely due to the creator sleeping right at your side
  2660. >You pursed your lips in irritation at the thought
  2661. >Anon had flopped haphazardly onto your bed and started snoring almost immediately
  2662. >With his injury, such exhaustion was to be expected, you supposed
  2663. >But…
  2664. >Bah, curse this modern generation of stallions
  2665. >Bunch of nervous little cherrycolts, the lot of them
  2666. >You shook your head, damp mane flopping around while simultaneously attempting to retain its ethereal cloak
  2667. >Even in a dreamscape as structurally sound as this, negative thoughts still ran the risk of forcing your projection out in a moment’s notice
  2668. >You broke into a trot, heading to the place that you always made sure to visit in this dream
  2669. >Despite their jaggedness, these cliffs offered deceptively good running ground
  2670. >No place in Equestria was quite like this
  2671. >You’d been to many a seaside before, of course, but those all offered sandy beaches and relentless sunshine
  2672. >A little cold, stinging spray under the cover of clouds was a nice change of pace, even if it was only a dreamscape
  2673. >Your heart pumping to the slow beat of the easy-listening music that permeated the very fabric of this space, you accelerated from a trot into a canter
  2674. >There was little incentive to hurry; very few other ponies were asleep at this time of day
  2675. >Yet you couldn’t stop the skip in your step if you tried
  2676. >You felt like some sort of breakthrough had been reached between you and Anon recently, and hoped beyond hope that something had changed with the heads
  2677. >And were, of course, disappointed
  2678. >The clack of your silver shoes against rock decreased in cadence as you slowed to a walk, seeing that the busts hadn’t changed position at all
  2679. >You circled the line of chairs, wondering if their order or labelling had possibly changed
  2680. >Nope, still ‘E-H-M’, right-to-left
  2681. >Snorting and scrunching your muzzle, you lightly kicked a leg out from under the nearest chair
  2682. >Of course, it and the bust residing on it righted themselves before fully toppling over
  2683. >Damned constructs confounding you so
  2684. >This dream definitely did mean something, meaning a possibly-important message had been dangling in front of your face since Anon’s arrival at the castle
  2685. >And it was a message you still weren’t close to deciphering in the slightest
  2686. >Just enigmatic clay-like busts resting on enigmatic lettered chairs placed on an enigmatic coastline
  2687. >You sighed and sat in front of the one bust that was facing the ocean – the ‘E’ one
  2688. >What are your secrets, annoying little thing?
  2689. >Perhaps it really WOULD start talking to you if you prompted it
  2690. >Chuckling, you flicked it on the forehead
  2691. >And jumped back as the sharp crack of metal-on-stone rang through your hoof
  2692. >Cautiously, walked back up and rapped several places on the bust in quick succession
  2693. >Hard marble…?
  2694. >Repeating the same action with the other two, you found that all of the busts had, in fact, been solidified into their proper materiel forms
  2695. >You moved between all three of them and sat again, chewing on your lip and squinting in thought
  2696. >Distinctly remembering that they had been soft and malleable the last few times you’d visited this dream, you figured that this development HAD to mean something
  2697. >Such changes in permanent fixtures didn’t occur without-
  2698. >Oh, duh
  2699. >Your eyes widened in realization as you finally considered who these busts were depicting
  2700. >Standing and focusing on the center and leftmost busts, still very much turned away from the ocean, you did something that even you - the shamefully apologetic princess – rarely did
  2701. >You bowed
  2702. >Not a simple lowering of your head in acknowledgement, but a real, genuine, forelegs-to-the-ground gesture of respect
  2703. >Respect for a man who - if Anon was to be believed - had surpassed you, Celestia, and all other worldly royalty in your dimension, all in the space of a shorter-than-average mortal lifespan
  2704. >Despite the fact that he was long dead and you weren’t even bowing to a physical representation of him, you still felt obliged to spare a thought
  2705. >’Rest well, King of Conquerors. Know that you are the only human king to ever win the reverence of an Equestrian princess.’
  2706. >You rose from your bow, and a wide smile broke across your face as you laid eyes on the leftmost bust
  2707. >Poised exactly like its rightward brother, gazing longingly out towards the ocean
  2708. >You are Anon, and you are... unbelievably well-rested
  2709. >Gingerly rolling onto your back and staring up from where you lay, you followed the spiraling mural of the night sky up the domed ceiling, all the way to its terminus at the full moon in the center
  2710. >You slowly blinked twice, wide awake but unwilling to leave the protection of the royal bedspread just yet
  2711. >Mostly because you knew the room outside of your comfy blanket cocoon HAD to be cold as shit
  2712. >Canterlot Castle, being an excessively old building, lacked any form of central heating, the anti-draft charms and thick stone walls themselves deemed adequate enough protection from the harsh elements invariably encountered by the structure this time of year
  2713. >Adequate enough for hot-blooded, thick-coated ponies, that is
  2714. >For you, a mostly-bare homo sapien with an average body temperature several degrees below that of a common pony, well…
  2715. >When waking up, at least, it was like jumping directly from the bed and into an ice bath every morning
  2716. >Just thinking about the freezing square feet separating you from a blissfully hot shower (thank God the princess’ rooms had their own hot water boilers, at least) sent a couple of errant chills up your spine
  2717. >You let out a long sigh and gazed out of the open-air balcony to the right which, absent of the aforementioned charm, would undoubtedly be letting in a face-shearing winter gale right about now
  2718. >Greeted by one of many dark, cloudless mornings that marked the norm around these months, you casually wondered what time it really was
  2719. >Craning your neck and switching your eyes over to the grandfather clock standing against the opposite wall to check, you couldn’t help but appreciate what a beautiful piece of craftsmanship it was
  2720. >Pure silver with obsidian inlays in a similar aesthetic vein to your medallion, ornately decorated in meticulously-carved visages of various nocturnal creatures, perfectly-tuned and maintained to tick audibly but not disruptively
  2721. >You squinted at the hands, marveling at how the scant rays of moonlight seemed amplified upon bouncing off of their immaculately-polished surfaces
  2722. >4:42 AM
  2723. >God, you wanted to smash the damned thing to bits now
  2724. >You WOULD wake up a full two hours earlier than necessary, you high-strung piece of shit
  2725. >Groaning dramatically, you slammed your head back into the luxuriously-plush pillow, knowing full well that you wouldn’t be able to find any additional rest with your mind now up and active
  2726. >Painfully aware of your volume, however, you slapped a hand to your mouth and held your breath for a moment
  2727. >From your left came a light snort and an unintelligible murmur, but the lack of any subsequent movement let you exhale in relief
  2728. >You’d forgotten the OTHER reason why you didn’t really want to get out of bed
  2729. >You weren’t confident that you could unravel yourself without inadvertently rousing Luna – a wake-up call you were sure she didn’t deserve at the moment
  2730. >Slowly turning your head to ensure that you hadn’t unduly disturbed her, you were greeted by the sight of an ever-regal princess spread-eagled on top of the covers, tongue lolled out and forming a small puddle of drool on the priceless satin sheets
  2731. >An amused grin worked its way onto your lips
  2732. >The royal sisters, despite ostensibly being able to shirk bedrest indefinitely, were not necessarily immune to the effects of fatigue
  2733. >And so, after a particularly exhausting or long-running stretch of uninterrupted activity, they still appreciated the rejuvenating properties of a good old-fashioned nap
  2734. >The Ruler of the Night especially, for obvious reasons
  2735. >A small pang of regret wormed its way into your mind
  2736. >She’d dismissed you early from last night’s court session, no doubt expecting you to wait up as the conclusion of the last case seemed close at hand
  2737. >So you’d waited
  2738. >And waited
  2739. >And waited some more
  2740. >Those Ponsanto reps must’ve been particularly evasive, dragging the case out for so long when the princess had them so clearly dead-to-rights at the time of your departure
  2741. >In the end, as the clock struck 1:30 AM, you’d given up and turned in
  2742. >You had a pretty active morning scheduled, after all
  2743. >Still, you couldn’t help but feel like you should’ve stayed up just a little bit longer
  2744. >You knew for a fact that she had been up and active for a solid 30 hours by your count, all the way from the opening of the courtroom doors two nights ago to the end of the most recent session at the very least
  2745. >That kind of time on one’s feet – er, hooves – warranted a certain amount of emotional support and snuggling afterwards, you thought
  2746. >You were, therefore, a bit disappointed in yourself for failing to provide that service
  2747. >…
  2748. >Ah well, you’d make it up to her somehow
  2749. >There would be more chances, more opportunities for you to do the right thing down the line
  2750. >What was one minor misstep when you had the rest of your life to make up for it?
  2751. >Rubbing your eyes, you brought them back in line with the ceiling, once again losing yourself in thought as you traced the mesmerizing patterns of the painted stars towards the heavens
  2752. >The rest of your life…
  2753. >How long had it been since you’d woken up in the quarters allocated to you, again?
  2754. >By your memory, the last time was the morning of the day you’d gotten your collarbone broken
  2755. >The dead of summer, more or less
  2756. >Which, considering the chill in the air and the ice on the ground, was…
  2757. >Six months ago?
  2758. >Another sigh escaped your lungs, this time with a more forlorn inflection
  2759. >Over half a year removed from your initial induction into this little apprenticeship
  2760. >You could confidently say that you were a better man now than you had ever been at any point in the past
  2761. >Stronger, smarter (well, more knowledgeable, at least), and far more in-tune with those around you in an emotional sense
  2762. >The relationship between you and Luna was still a bit of a stumbling block, you had to admit
  2763. >Somewhere beyond close friends but just short of genuine romance was about where you would place it
  2764. >Sure, spending almost every single night inseparably intertwined with each other was a bit outside of the envelope of the former
  2765. >But the latter would require casting aside what inexplicable shreds of modesty and inhibition that still remained stuck fast between the two of you, which neither you nor the princess seemed too eager to do
  2766. >All in all, though, you could safely say that you’d built an astounding amount of character in your time here
  2767. >So why, of all emotions, were you feeling apprehension?
  2768. >Idly considering the question, you slowly rose up to a sitting position, yawned, and swung your legs off the side of the bed, affording the clock another quick glance
  2769. >4:52 AM
  2770. >The good ol’ ten-minute morning reflection
  2771. >Meh, better early than late
  2772. >You placed your feet on the ground and rocked up onto them as lightly as you possibly could, flinching at yet another unintelligible grumble from the snoozing alicorn
  2773. >Rising to your full height, you put your hands on the back of your head and twisted your trunk
  2774. >You smugly rotated your left shoulder a few times - a morning ritual you’d adopted to reaffirm its restored range of motion and your gratefulness of it – and walked to the bathroom, teeth chattering along the way as the morning chill worked its way to your core
  2775. >As you stripped over the polished marble tiles of the royal bath, an answer to your question came to mind
  2776. >Your feeling of doubt was rooted in how quickly time seemed to be passing
  2777. >Thinking on it as you twisted the brass knob labeled ‘H’ to its maximum extent, you realized that you had precious little recollection of the past few months, in spite of your explosive growth and development
  2778. >You shivered as your hand made contact with the steaming hot stream of water, and after getting acclimated to the temperature, you stepped all the way in
  2779. >…No, that wasn’t quite right
  2780. >You amended your thought process while allowing the mid-pressure waterfall to wash over your head, reveling in the brief respite from the cold it provided
  2781. >It wasn’t that you didn’t remember the events of those months, just that they had all seemingly come and gone at a uniformly breakneck pace
  2782. >Good or bad, uplifting or embarrassing, cathartic or frustrating…
  2783. >No matter their nature, those experiences all passed you by relatively painlessly, with almost no lasting emotional registry in your mind
  2784. >You frowned and looked down at your open palm, studying its progressive shift from pink to red under the heated torrent
  2785. >To anyone else, the dilated and emotionless perception of events might be seen as a good sign, an indicator that you’d adjusted nicely to your new normal
  2786. >To you, it meant trouble
  2787. >It meant relapsing into the state of uncaring entropy from your past life that you’d been trying so desperately to avoid
  2788. >You slowly squeaked the knob back to the ‘off’ position, stepping out of the impromptu sauna of a shower and back into the chilly morning air
  2789. >Only a rinse for now; properly washing up would be a tad redundant, given your plans
  2790. >As you toweled yourself off, you attempted to shrug off the feeling that you were unconsciously memory holing events that should have otherwise stuck in your mind, chalking it up to early morning grogginess and shuffling it away in the eaves of your brain
  2791. >After all, your acute awareness of it indicated that it couldn’t be anywhere NEAR as bad as the level of callous apathy you’d initially carried over from your place of origin, of which you’d been completely oblivious
  2792. >Right?
  2793. >You shook your head and put the thought out of your mind with some finality
  2794. >It wasn’t worth worrying about, for now
  2795. >Exiting the bathroom, freshly dry and buck-ass naked, you noticed that the princess had curled up into a fetal position in your absence
  2796. >D’aww
  2797. >She wore an almost unbearably peaceful smile, even as her leg kicked and ears twitched in reflexive response to whatever pleasant dream she was wandering through
  2798. >As stealthily as you could, you made your way up to the bedside, keeping a sharp eye on the steady rise and fall of her barrel to make sure she was, indeed, still asleep
  2799. >You sheepishly rubbed the back of your neck before planting a quick kiss on her exposed cheek, your face flushing red like the pathetic little cherryboy you were
  2800. >A pang of panic overtook you when she seemed to hum a bit in response to the contact, but you quickly got a hold of your nerves as the pony made no further noises or movements
  2801. >You felt embarrassingly childish, only doing things like this when you were sure nobody, not even Luna herself, was lucid enough to notice
  2802. >Open displays of affection were still a little too far off the beaten path for you, for some reason
  2803. >Someday, you’d get over that hill, but it wouldn’t be today
  2804. >Shaking your head, you checked the clock once more
  2805. >5:19 AM
  2806. >Well, maybe you could get an early warm-up in or something
  2807. >Cracking your neck in both directions, your eyes traced their way from the clock to a prepared set of garments sitting on the dark oak dresser
  2808. >Athletic shorts and a rash guard – courtesy of a visionary tailor down in Ponyville, apparently – along with your ever-present moon-inscribed medallion
  2809. >Not exactly the kind of ensemble one would expect of an advisor – and one Luna herself disapproved of to a certain extent - it was nonetheless the one you would don for the day
  2810. >For today was not to be a day of poring over law texts or practicing oration
  2811. >Today, like every other Tuesday, was to be a day of pumping adrenaline and immense physical trauma
  2812. >A grim smile cracked across your face
  2813. >You are Luna, and you are… in a wondrously good mood
  2814. >Possessive of an uncharacteristically sunny disposition, one might say
  2815. >This mood carried into your body language as you lackadaisically trotted through the vaulted halls of Canterlot, merrily humming a familiar tune
  2816. >”Orinoco Flow” it was called, a serene and relaxing little human ditty that had grown to be one of your personal favorites
  2817. >If only because it was a massive earbug, more so than any other piece of music you’d ever heard
  2818. >You had continually – frustratingly - shirked the prospect of asking Anon about it directly, for you would have to explain a cryptic and potentially-prophetic dream if you did
  2819. >Thus, you were lucky you’d caught the human casually whistling it to himself, saving you the trouble and letting you learn the song in full
  2820. >Unconsciously, you brought a wing to your left cheek
  2821. >Anon
  2822. >That man hadn’t yet figured out how light a sleeper you were, or how unsubtle he generally was, and you were going to keep it that way for as long as you possibly could
  2823. >Because it was absolutely adorable, what he did when he thought you were still asleep
  2824. >Always some small act of affection before he left for his daily activities, done with exceeding care and gentleness
  2825. >A light scratch at your neck, a quick stroke of your mane, the rearrangement of a few frazzled and displaced feathers
  2826. >And, more recently, a peck on the cheek
  2827. >He always seemed apprehensive of being caught in the act, like he was overstepping some kind of boundary
  2828. >Cherryco~~~~lt
  2829. >Due time, Luna, due time
  2830. >No reason to stronghoof him out of his relational comfort zone just yet, and goodness knows you didn’t want to stop that little routine of his
  2831. >It always melted away the lingering stresses of the previous night, a clearing of the slate that you oftentimes desperately needed
  2832. >That you could be so peachy this morning in spite of the frustrating ordeal of last night was all the proof required on that front
  2833. >Last night, you had needed to chew on your hoof to stop yourself from stomping that team of Ponsanto reps flat into the courtroom floor
  2834. >They had been sending suit after expendable suit to your court sessions every week, seemingly hoping that YOU would overturn the recent change Tia had enacted in Equestrian trademark law
  2835. >The change in question was the explicit exception of incidental cross-pollination of crops between EDA-approved businesses as trademark violations, which kneecapped the agricultural giant’s primary method of expansion
  2836. >That being the despicable practice of bleeding smaller farms dry of bits via lawsuits and then buying them up for peanuts
  2837. >While you were, of course, glad that such illicit actions had been curtailed, you didn’t appreciate being hounded as a result of your sister’s decision
  2838. >Those uptight businessponies obviously thought of you as an easier mark for persuasion than Tia, a perception undoubtedly shared by many of their ilk in modern times
  2839. >Around the time of your return up until fairly recently, you had fatalistically accepted that perception as your destined persona
  2840. >Consigned as a meek subordinate presence to the Sun princess for the rest of your time on the throne
  2841. >However, the past few months had radically changed your disposition on that front
  2842. >Some kind of switch that was stuck fast in the OFF position since the end of your banishment had been abruptly flipped during that night you’d shared with Anonymous in the Royal Gardens
  2843. >Since then, you felt… bolder, more confident, and significantly more willing to pull rank on ponies whose behavior you found less-than-appropriate for dealing with royalty
  2844. >The Luna from half a year ago, faced with such petitioners, would have fallen back on the old standby that it was beyond her power to change an important piece of policy on a whim, and to take it up with her more powerful and knowledgeable sister instead
  2845. >And she would certainly NOT have threatened to manufacture a magically-modified organism scare for the sole purpose of getting an agricultural magnate to fall in line, nor would she have taken sadistic amusement in their ensuing apology-laden scramble to revise their petition as you had
  2846. >Hmph, served them right for testing your newfound conviction in your title
  2847. >From now on, if anypony wanted a softball on whatever pressing subject they deigned to bring before the throne, they could take it up with Tia
  2848. >If they didn’t like your new way of conducting yourself, they could go and-
  2849. >You unlocked your involuntarily-clenched jaw, realizing with a start that you had been standing stock-still in the middle of the hallway for the entirety of your little reflective process
  2850. >The pair of guards stationed at the upcoming intersection were looking at you with perplexed frowns, obviously wondering why the Ruler of the Night had suddenly come to a dead stop and started gazing blankly out of a window
  2851. >Cheeks flushing slightly, you cleared your throat with enough volume to ensure the armored stallions heard, prompting them to snap back to attention
  2852. >You raised your head and turned up your nose pompously, adopting a stiff gait as you passed the guards and holding it until you rounded the corner
  2853. >Only when you were certain you were out of their sight did you exhale and relax your withers, allowing a mild bounce to re-enter your step as you continued on your way
  2854. >You’re in a GOOD mood, damn it
  2855. >Stewing in the frustration caused by events passed wasn’t the way to keep that mood up
  2856. >Of course, observing what you were planning on observing wasn’t likely to, either
  2857. >There was a reason you hadn’t set hoof in the guards’ training grounds in well over three months
  2858. >You’d delegated oversight of the more… ”physical” side of your apprentice’s training to other parties, ostensibly because you knew nothing of hoof-to-hoof combat and would be entirely unhelpful in such an endeavor
  2859. >But personally, you had no particular desire to watch Anon get the tar kicked out of him every other day, and couldn’t understand why he was so adamant about continuing along with the downright sadistic methods of Riptide Breeze
  2860. >Developing his skillset in that area wasn’t even necessary to an advisory role in the first place, in your opinion
  2861. >But he and the diminutive captain had cooked up the excuse that the stallion closest to you would naturally make for the best personal bodyguard, as well
  2862. >It was flimsy reasoning, but you’d given the resigned go-ahead on the condition that debilitating injury could absolutely be avoided
  2863. >You were confident in your personally-appointed overseer on that front, at least
  2864. >Feigned-reluctance and all
  2865. >You paused for a moment at the top of the staircase leading to the training field, its unremarkable and auxiliary-looking entrance masking the importance of what lay behind it to the casual observer
  2866. >Taking a deep breath, you passed the threshold of the anti-draft charm, and were instantly smacked in the muzzle by a rush of freezing cold air that refused to let up
  2867. >Why hadn’t the kings before you invested in a closed-air training area, again?
  2868. >Puffing up and lowering your head against the persistent draft, you soldiered on down the progressively-dilapidated stairs, wondering with some bitterness why you were even bothering
  2869. >You’d been avoiding this journey for three months, so why make it today?
  2870. >… Because it was a bit unfair of you to avoid it, on reflection
  2871. >Disliking a certain aspect of your apprentice’s training didn’t hold any weight as an excuse to disregard it, even if you had nothing useful to add in its respect
  2872. >Quite the opposite, you should be glad about his tenacity and drive to branch out from under your umbrella and familiarize himself with an unknown field
  2873. >So basically, you’d resolved with finality to get over yourself and at least observe your apprentice at work, regardless of how unpleasant it might be at first
  2874. >Who knows, you might even come to like it as he had
  2875. >Nearing the outlet into the yard, your ears swiveled around as you picked up a slight din over the whistling wind around you
  2876. >Two sets of markedly different limbs scraping across a frozen dirt floor, accompanied by sharp exhales which accentuated the meaty impacts of said limbs on flesh
  2877. >Quickly folding the offending appendages back against your neck in an effort to block out the noise, your heart nonetheless quickened and you involuntarily broke into a nervous trot
  2878. >Calm down, Luna, you’re definitely overreacting
  2879. >They can’t possibly have worked each other over THAT ba-
  2880. >You skidded to a shocked halt as you passed the opening arch, silver shoes practically creating sparks on the marble tiles surrounding the arena
  2881. >The previous thought of tolerating this brutality flew out of your mind as you laid eyes on what appeared to be a pair of ambling corpses circling each other in an exhausted stand-off
  2882. >You are Luna, and you are… beside yourself with indignant anger
  2883. >The training pitch looked absolutely nothing like the set of a safe, low-intensity sparring session
  2884. >Rather, it resembled what you thought the aftermath of a brawl between a pack of timberwolves and a herd of buffalo might look like
  2885. >Despite the stone-like solidness of the soil this time of year, the field was pockmarked by countless pits and gouges, each one betraying the delivery or reception of a particularly savage blow
  2886. >Small reddish-brown smears and blotches colored the relatively smooth surfaces in between, and a particulate fog of dust ever-presently hung over the area, whipped up from the craters by the bitingly-cold breeze
  2887. >The scenery painted a grim picture in and of itself, but it wasn’t what really turned your royal blood to ice
  2888. >No, what really infuriated you was the physical condition of your apprentice pacing around in the midst of it
  2889. >A condition that, to your untrained eye, could be aptly described as “grievous”
  2890. >You first noticed, with a start, that Anon appeared to somehow have been worked over even worse than in his first hoof-to-hoof foray
  2891. >His forearms had gotten the worst of it by a long shot; the appendages were an even shade of dark purple - practically ebony - across their outer edges
  2892. >Undoubtedly a result of the sturdy flesh walls’ interception of innumerable knockout blows otherwise aimed at his head, such was his unique form of defense
  2893. >Other bruises of varying size and severity dotted the man’s chest, flanks, and thighs, accompanied by dozens of minor cuts and abrasions filling the empty spaces
  2894. >Like a cherry placed delicately on top of week-old roadkill, a persistent stream of blood flowed down Anon’s face from his nostrils, dripping off his chin and leaving a small trail of crimson dots in the dirt as he shuffled along
  2895. >He strafed further and unwittingly turned his back to you, causing you to involuntarily draw in a sharp breath of concern
  2896. >An array of fresh gashes covered every square inch of your apprentice’s skin all the way from his shoulders to his waist
  2897. >Red ichor leaked slowly from the myriad of cuts, mixing with a thin layer of grime and sweat to create a grisly rust-colored smear like some sadistic work of modern art
  2898. >How in your sister’s name had THAT happened?
  2899. >You gagged and pulled your eyes away, opting to move your assessment to the stallion opposite the man rather than continue analyzing that bloody mess
  2900. >To your amazement, it seemed that the human had at least given as well as he’d received; Breeze looked less like a pony than he did a mange-afflicted coyote
  2901. >His turquoise mane and orange coat were horrifically disheveled and unevenly matted with dirt and blood, and his normally smoothly-groomed wings bristled like pipe cleaners with bent feathers
  2902. >While he couldn’t bear his injuries with the kind of involuntary openness as the human on account of his fur coating, a closer look revealed that the stallion was also quite heavily bruised, with clusters around his chest and, oddly, his barrel
  2903. >Capping off his visible damage was a cut above his right brow noticeably trickling a stream of blood into his eye, forcing him to periodically wipe at it with a wing while he continued in his circular path
  2904. >In spite of your mounting anger, a swell of smug satisfaction worked its way into your chest
  2905. >Where did all that lazy overconfidence get off to NOW, little pegasus?
  2906. >Such an even fight likely went a long way in reinforcing the lesson you’d imparted on him months ago
  2907. >Silver linings
  2908. >Regardless, you still had to put a stop to this farce right now, seeing as the attendant you had appointed hadn’t seen fit to do so
  2909. >Where had she gotten off to, anyway?
  2910. >Puffing out your chest and attempting to project the most authoritative air you could, you strode across the tiling, prepared to give both parties a more-than-stern lecture on restraint
  2911. >However, as your forehoof hovered over the divide between marble and earth, a change came over the arena
  2912. >Still opposite each other, the two males had stopped pacing, each of them adopting straight faces with narrowed eyes
  2913. >Slowly, Breeze lowered himself into a panther-like pose, his withers and flanks poking out well above his spine
  2914. >Anon took his own stance in response, bending slightly at his waist and knees, left foot forward and arms raised to chest-level
  2915. >They both remained motionless for an agonizingly long moment, the puffs of hot fog from their staggered breaths giving the impression of two great steam locomotives piling on coal
  2916. >You gulped, still frozen mid-step, as you felt a heavy air of anticipation settle over the arena