Chapter 1 – Braeburn.
It's bleedin' hot in Agrabay, and that's the truth.
When I woke up, I was already sweating enough to make an oasis and a half. I felt like my face felt when I drooled in my sleep, only all over. My mane was a tangled bird's nest, and I really felt no need to get out of bed. Getting out of bed would require exertion, exertion would make me sweat even more, and my stomach was twisted up enough already. Moving might violently dislodge something, I felt. Why'd I eat so much last night, I thought, and why is it still alive?
Somepony politely knocked on my wagon's door. I mumbled for Big Mac to get it. I needed some salt, I thought. Actually, what I needed was a dunking in some water and a nice soothing breakfast, but I felt like having some salt. Hair of the dog that bit you, right? Right.
Somepony knocked on the door, louder. "Big Mac, get the door already!" C'mon, Brae. Focus on tonight. Big night tonight, oh yes, big night. I'd been studying this part for months, ever since Trix got that letter from the Sultana of Agrabay. And the last thing I needed was to get sick. This – as Trix was very fond of reminding me at the drop of a hat – was the break of our lives. Years spent on the road, performing from city to city, cementing our reputation as the finest players in the world and beyond it, all culminating tonight in the grandest performance the Twilight Carnival would ever display. This would be it.
The knocking became a thunderclap in my ears, and I rolled over in bed. "Big Mac!" He was gone. Long gone, from the looks of his bed. Just how late had I slept in, anyway?
"Braeburn! Open up before I decide to turn your hair green!" I stumbled over to the door, wincing at the way my stomach flip-flopped. "Braeeeeburn!"
I wrenched the door open. "Well, good morning to you, Trix." It was a good thing that I knew that voice, because I really couldn't see anything other than the light stabbing my eyes. Celestia-in-her-court, that hurt like blazes. "You want something?"
"You look awful, Braeburn." It wasn't a pitying query, but an irritated statement. It's entirely your fault, that voice said, and you're going to pay for it.
"Give me two shakes and a bucket and I won't look nearly so bad, sister. Trust me on this one."
She rolled her eyes. "The Great and Powerful Trixie has been invited to eat breakfast with our employer,” she said, not betraying even a hint of nervousness, “And our leading ponies were invited to come with her. However, it looks like one of them is a lazy bum who will not be joining us!"
"Did I hire you to sleep in bed all day, or did I hire you to act? Hmmm? Do you want to go back to where I found you? Unemployed? In Kazcatstan?"
"Just... I'll be fresh by breakfast. Give me time."
She sniffed haughtily, and then made a face suggesting that she regretted doing that right next to sweaty ol' me. "Fine. I'll send Rarity's servant to fetch you once you’re presentable. Don't you dare do anything else this morning." She turned, striding away, leaving me to blink in the sunlight. She's a mighty fine mare, really. Just a bit high-strung. And who wouldn't be in such a fine band of actors? You need to be a bit crazy to believe yourself an actor, after all.
I stretched my legs across the palace courtyard, going to fetch some water from the river that cut across our strange encampment. Once I had some water in a bucket, I washed my face and mane, scrubbing some of the sweat and dirt off by hoof. It made me shiver, but in a good way. Blast this heat. I caught a glimpse of my reflection - I didn't need to get my coat trimmed yet, and those mare-killing eyes were still in business. I actually looked better than I felt.
Around the time I finished grooming, Spike showed up. He was wearing one of those silly turbans that were so popular in Agrabay, and carrying my hat in his claws. "Hey, Braeburn." He seemed mighty plum about something, so I gave him a grin.
"Morning, lil' buddy! All's right in the world, I hope?"
"Eh." He passed me my hat, which I donned carefully, tucking some of my wet mane beneath it. I'd got that hat in Coltstantinople, and it was a hat like me – brown, practical while still being stylish, a bit rough around the edges but still good. "It's all right."
"You didn't get into another fight with Trix, did you?"
"No. Well, yes. Maybe." He looked away from me, and I couldn't help but shake my head. The kid was incorrigible, no doubt about it. He just couldn't stop asking - please, Trixie, let me play the hero this time, I know I can do it. Let me play the villain, let me do anything other than the pet.
"One of these days, Spike, you'll get it. I know you've got the lines down pat, but - well, this is royalty, you see, and they want to see the best, and today that's me. Tomorrow, I'm sure it'll be you. Now why don't you show me where breakfast is? I'm right starving!"
He gave me a wan little smile. He's a good kid, honest, and I don't think there's anywhere else in the world he'd be happier. He's a true show-beast, and that's the plum truth.
We passed plenty of guards on our way up into the shining-white palace, Spike and I did. After the third patrol passed us with suspicious eyes, I turned to Spike. "Hey, why's everything so tight around here? I mean, security-wise. You'd think they were at war." Spike didn't answer right away, just to keep up appearances, but we both knew that if there were loose lips anywhere in this palace, Spike would have heard them. He glanced back and forward, then waved me close - closer - closer still. In retrospect, this was not the best idea, as it left me blind to the larger world around me, including the guards we were approaching.
"Well... the Sultana has been revising her inheritance, or so I've heard. If anyone was to overthrow her before the revision was complete, it would throw Equestria into chaos. And today, with a motley band of actors here..."
"Can't exactly blame her for being cautious. Still, what would we measly actors be able to do? Maybe one of the sword-dancers might be suspect, but what would I do? Walk up to Celestia and murder her?"
And that's when my world turned upside-down and became rather painful.
"An admission, huh? I knew we couldn't trust you carny scum!"
I would have complained about the rather insulting name - even barbarians don’t use that name for us anymore, at least while we’re in earshot - but it's hard when somepony's practically got their foreleg in your throat. I settled for gasping in pain.
Mama always told me that when I died, it'd be because I'd finally been too loud when I should have been listening. Well, Mama, you were nearly right. Hope you’re happy.
I was dragged upright, and I caught a glimpse of Spike being picked up by a second guard-pony out of the corner of my eye. "And now to present this evil-doer to the queen!" For a moment, my ears refused to believe themselves. Surely, I'd been wrong. I hadn't just been bushwacked by a mare, right?
Well, I said to myself, this is embarrassing. I would have said it out loud, but I wasn't in a position to say much at all. So much for being a strong, manly stallion.
The next couple of rooms were rather painful to be dragged through; I’d have an exact number, but it was all a blur. I'd like to say that she got a few of the guards to grab my arms and legs so that she could drag me through them, but I'm not a liar. She had strength in those wiry limbs of hers, enough that I'd have a hard time betting in a contest between her and Big Mac.
I would describe the rooms, but they were a painful blur. I think somewhere down the line I struggled and got her teeth in my mane. It hurt like blazes, and lost me my hat, to boot. Now that was just the worst thing that could possibly happen, and I would have scrambled back for it, except somepony's teeth were dragging me forward, and I valued my mane too much to risk having it half-ripped from my head.
And then I was unceremoniously dumped to the stone floor, and had a hoof driven into my back, pinning me there like a worm stuck on a hook. "Your Majesty! These pathetic foals declared their intent to assassinate the royal personage within our earshot, and so we detained them! Shall we have them thrown into the dungeons, or will you be incinerating them immediately?" She sounded like someone reciting lines that she didn’t quite understand, looking to impress, other than the incineration bit.
There was a tense moment, in which I was praying hard for the dungeons, and then a shrill and indignant yell met my ears. "You will release the great and powerful Trixie's star actor, you blithering idiots! If he's been hurt, then we'll have to cancel our entire production!"
"Oh, Spike, what have you gotten into this time-" The kid was lucky to have somepony like Rarity on his side. I wished I had somepony like that - but at the time, I just said to myself, Trix will do. She's no princess, but she'll back me up.
"So, you're the ringleader, eh? Well, then, seize her, too!"
"And while you're at it, seize the other unicorn, too! They must all be in on it! In fact, go and arrest everypony outside-"
"Rainbow Dash, you will stand down." That voice, if you'll excuse the worn-out phrase, brooked no disagreement. That was a voice that was used to being obeyed, and didn't like to have to give orders. There was only one pony who could be in the room who could speak like that. Oh, dear.
"But, but... he said he was going to murder you!"
"It was a joke!” I said with as much breath as I could muster. “We actors do that, you know!"
"Well, how was I supposed to know that? If you say stupid things like that, whose fault is it if you get arrested?"
"Rainbow Dash," the sultana said, "Please apologize to our guest. His joke may have been ill-timed and rather inappropriate, but it was only that."
The offending hoof in the small of my back was removed, and I was allowed to scramble upright. I turned to see the mere slip of a filly who'd wrestled me down. I felt even more pathetic comparing myself to her. On one side - handsome, brawny stallion. On the other - skinny, boyish filly.
"I'm... you shouldn't have said that,” she said, looking away from me.
"Rainbow Dash." Celestia's voice carried a stern edge, and the guard-pony's legs quaked.
"I may have been a bit rougher than I should have been." Celestia didn't even need to say anything this time. I could almost feel her glare lying hot on my mane, and Rainbow Dash's wings trembled.
"My apologies! Will not happen again, my lord! Please forgive your humble servant, my lord!" She saluted, and then turned, marching stiffly away. I think she was tearing up there at the end. Gal-darn it, now I just felt even worse.
"You forgot his hat!" Spike added from where he sat next to me. I winced. Kid, why'd you have to open your mouth? I saw the pegasus's wings stiffen, and she called back without turning, "It will be retrieved, sir! Please accept a temporary substitute, sir!" She took the golden wreath from her head, tossing it back to me without turning. You had to hand it to her - it landed right on my head. That took some skill.
"Oh, oh dear, oh my," someone said from right next to me. As Rarity started fussing over Spike, I turned to see who'd been addressing me. She was a cream-colored pegasus, wearing a rather silly rectangular hat. If there's one thing that Celestia's lacking, it's a good haberdashery. "Are you all right? I'm so sorry, you'll have to forgive us for this horrible, horrible breach in protocol, I hope you're not hurt, do you want to have her executed?"
You could have knocked me down with one of her feathers. The way she said it, so softly, as if it were just an afterthought she'd had – who was this, anyway? "No! I mean, she was just doing her job, I wouldn't want to see somepony punished for that."
"Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you, I just thought that you might want..." Her voice trailed off, and she glanced down at my hooves ashamedly. She backed away, mumbling incoherently.
There was a quiet, awkward moment, where I felt even more ashamed than before. I'd managed to upset two fillies already, and it was only breakfast-time. There's a time when a pony just feels like a heel, you know?
"So, now may I get to know this rakish young stallion, Trixie?" Celestia's voice was serene, as if nothing had happened, and I tugged at my vest self-consciously. Was I presentable? Had that drag through the palace ruined my mane? What standards were applicable when talking to a living goddess? There comes a time when a young stallion just has to grin and hope his natural charisma shines through, so I did, bowing to Celestia.
Trxie coughed. "Right!" She switched smoothly from her shocked voice to her actor's voice. "This is Braeburn, formerly of the Appleutian mountains, one of the finest actors to ever come out of that land. He's fought Mercutio's duel, fought giants as Ali Babe, hypnotized vile blackguards as Manedrake the Magician, and won a thousand hearts and the love of a unicorn as Prince Lir, and tonight, he will be playing the part of the hero for your delight."
"He looks just like I'd imagined," came a quiet voice from next to Celestia. I looked at the mare seated there, getting my first glimpse of the Princess Luna. Well, only a glimpse, because she was hidden behind purple-and-silver veils, but that glimpse of her was enough. B'sun-and-moon, the stallion who'd get her hoof in marriage tonight would be the luckiest in the world. "I mean, like a hero would look. Isn't that how you'd imagine Mercutio to look, or Sinbad?"
"Well, it's good to meet you, Braeburn," said the unicorn sitting at Celestia's left side, rather hurriedly. Was that a hint of jealousy I heard? He had on a dark purple coat and a rich embroidered jacket, and a small crown set with those purple gem things. "Why don't you take a seat? My name's Twilit Glory, and these here are - as you probably know - the Sultana Celestia and the Princess Luna, our mutual hosts."
"Morning, all," I said amicably, taking a seat. I took it from Rarity's appalled glare that treating royalty like your bunkmates wasn't exactly the way things worked around here, but blame it all, I was hungry now. "Hope you don't mind if I start digging in."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," the Sultana said mildly, and we took to our food. It was mostly too rich for me - pastries filled with sweet jam, exotic truffles, pickled eels, spiced wine - so I stuck to the fresh fruit. I suppose that royalty could afford to eat like this every day, but it just overwhelmed poor ol' me. So I just sat back and watched. Funny thing for me to do, really. But it was really a funny kind of morning, so why not?
There, Rarity chatting away with the princess. I tried not to stare at either of them. There's a line, you see, and they weren't in my cards, not in this lifetime. The prince, though, he was more their type - though he did seem rather focused on his food, rather than the company. Shame. You never know when a table like this could be set again, you know. Four motley actors and three royal personages - that's the kind of table to die for, you know?
And Trixie, chatting up the Sultana, telling her all about that battle with the Ursa Major. (The real truth of it is, we tricked it into chasing after a hot-air balloon. Saved our skins, it did.) I doubt the Ursa would leave a scratch on Celestia's hide, though - and yet Trixie was bringing it up like she did it with both forelegs tied behind her back. Either the sultana's polite, or real gullible, from the way she was paying such close attention.
And then there was the little shy pony, going around making sure everypony's glass was filled, nearly having a nervous breakdown every time Celestia coughed, trying her hardest to blend in with the carpet. She looked up at me once, catching me in the act of watching her. She kind of winked at me, and I winked back. Cute, but... I couldn't get that eerie calm in her voice out of my head.
And me and Spike, sitting together. Me all scratched up and messy, him still impeccable – but then again, what can get scales dirty? Beneath that, though, we were brothers, both of us out of our league in such opulent surroundings.
So we ate, and laughed, and minded our manners as best we could, we actors being rather uncouth hooligans more suited for a bazaar's square than a royal dining-hall in our natural form, and nothing of true import (other than that one wink) happened for a while. Well, until a guards-pony approached me, coughing politely to catch my attention. "My lord? There's somepony who wishes to see you outside."
"Who?" I asked, realizing who it was just as I said it. "Never mind – I'll come out, I'll come, don't worry. Just give me a moment, please." I looked over to Trixie. "I'll be back, so don't y'all panic over me."
That rainbow-haired guards-pony - Rainbow Dash, that was her name - was waiting for me in the hall outside, her purple eyes staring defiantly at me. She held out my hat wordlessly.
"Thank you kindly," I said, trying to be polite. No use repaying ill for ill, as Granma once told me. If somepony knocks you into a ditch, you don't spit in their food, or whisper behind their back, or knock them down the next chance you get.
That was the wrong thing to say, however. Now she really was tearing up. She continued to hold out the hat, motionless, silently daring me to take it from her. I stood there like a fool, trying to figure out what to do. She shook the hat slightly, and I removed her hat from my head, holding it out in return.
There was a moment where we stood there, each waiting for the other to take their hat back first. Finally, I caved, setting down her hat and taking mine in my teeth, tossing it up with a well-practiced twist of the head. It landed square on my head, just as perfectly as she'd got her wreath on mine. She picked hers up, turned to fly away. "Hey, wait a sec," I said, reaching out – and she turned on me faster than a dragon scenting a gem-mine.
"What? Do you want to make me apologize again? Tell me I'm a fool? What do you want?" I took a breath – sometimes paying good back for ill was harder than it looked.
She looked confused for a moment, and then glared at me suspiciously. "What?"
"I just wanted to apologize, Dash. It was my fault for being a gal-darn idiot, making jokes like that. I should be the one apologizing for shaming you in front of royalty. I mean, if our positions were reversed, I'd be right proper ticked at you right now, and no mistake. In fact, I'd probably have gone and drowned my sorrows in salt, because there are some things that the heart can't take, and an embarrassment like that is one of them, I feel bad enough when I forget a line on stage in front of Trixie, and she's not even a god in pony form, and it's just a slip of memory rather than grabbing an honored guest and dragging them off, which I suppose is pretty bad in and of itself without the additional shame of having to go retrieve their hat – I mean, I would have gone to get it myself if Spike hadn't said anything, and it made me feel pretty low that you had to have your mistake rubbed in like that, and so I guess really it's me who should be apologizing to you because even though I'll heal up quick something like that, as they say, cuts deeper than mere skin and penetrates the armor of the heart – Manedrake said that, you know, and-"
"Braebuuuuuurn!" The little pegasus was right up in my face now, and I backed away sheepishly. I had a feeling that it wasn't the first time she'd tried to get my attention.
"Er, yes, Rainbow Dash?" She kept her stern expression for a moment, and then smiled.
"I accept your apology." And like that, she was off. I stood there for a moment longer, watching her trot off happily. I don't know why, but Luna herself couldn't have moved my eyes. It had nothing to do with the way her hips swayed, honest-to-Celestia.
"She liiiikes you, you know!" I near jumped out of my skin. A pink pony with a crazy mane was right up next to me, wearing an ill-fitting guardsman's outfit. "You should give her a kiss, because that's how these stories always end!"
"What? I don't- I mean, that'd be-" I stammered, before snapping back, "What d'you think you're on, anyway?"
"Happiness! Happiness and joy and wishes and those fancy little tarts that they have here! And I think that you two would look soooo cute together!" As if she didn't have room for more than one thought in her head, she immediately gasped and squeaked out, "Hey, watch this!" She ducked inside the armor, all her limbs vanishing inside the breastplate, and the armor crumpled to the ground.
After a moment, I nudged the armor. It rolled on the floor, empty. I looked inside the breastplate, trying to figure out where she'd gone. Was... was she an evil spirit of some sort, come to tempt me into lust? I’d always laughed at the campfire tales of djinn and ghouls that haunted the desert here, but sometimes a pony’s just got to believe his eyes.
Just before I could panic completely, I heard a small cough by my shoulder, and I turned to see that small, adorable head beneath the rectangular hat. "Could I speak with you for a moment? That is, if it isn't a bother, if you really wouldn't mind, I can wait..."
"Sure thing." Truth be told, I just wanted things to be normal for a moment. And this shy little thing was more normal than vanishing fillies and that mysterious feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"Can you do me a favor, sir? I mean, if it's not too much to ask of you, I know how busy you actors are, and I don’t want to interrupt the preparations for the play at all..."
"Certainly, my dear,” I said with a flourish. “Braeburn is at your service."
"This is so embarrassing," she said, "But I had a present that I was going to give the Prince of Coltcutta, and I forgot that I was going to give it to him the last time I visited his quarters. I just forget things, you know, mind like something with a lot of holes in it. It must still be there, and I'd like to present it to him tonight, so could you- before he has a chance to go back and find it?"
"Sure thing, sugarcube. What's it look like?"
"Um, it's, um, bronzeware. Priceless antique lamp. And I really do want to give it to him tonight. If that's not too much trouble, that is."
"No trouble at all, though I don't think the guards will think the same thing when they see me coming," I said, half-jokingly.
"Oh! Well, just tell them that Grand Vizier Fluttershy sent you, and they'll be good. Thank you sooo much, Sir Braeburn. You're... nice."
We returned to the table. Fluttershy immediately dashed off to get another bottle of spiced wine, and I fetched another few pieces of fruit so I could fill my stomach before I went off and did that little errand for Fluttershy.
Breakfast slowly wound to a close, as we finally ran out of food and conversational topics, and I rose from the table first. "If you'll excuse me, gentleponies, I have some business to take care of. But thank you for your hospitality, and be sure to be in the audience tonight."
Celestia laughed politely. "Oh, I will be there, don't worry. I'll be eagerly awaiting your performance."
I stepped outside the room as Trixie and Rarity rose as well. I reached up, pushing back my hat, and tousled my mane a bit. Well, that had gone even better than I could have hoped. The patrons were nice, if a bit eccentric, and I had the chance to help out a pretty mare; I'd made my peace with that intriguing filly, too. Yes, Braeburn, I said to myself, things are going your way today.
"Braeburn!" Trixie caught up with me. "We need to go over the script again."
"What?" I said, and she rolled her eyes.
"Celestia – of course, you weren't there, having vanished most impolitely – suggested that we incorporate some of her servants into the play. Now we need to go over the script and see who we can add!"
"That... doesn't sound like a good idea, to be honest."
"Well, are you the intelligent, beautiful mare who runs this troupe?" She asked, before pressing on to make sure I didn't take that for a real question. "Oh, no, you're not. That would be me. So we're going to do it."
"All right – but can I do something first?"
"No, certainly not. Knowing you, you'll end up in the dungeons if I let you out of my sight for five minutes, if you don't find a place to take a nap first. You've got rehearsing to do!"
Now, you might not know that much about me, but I never break my word. Ever. That's something for ponies who aren't Braeburn. So, obviously, I was caught in a bit of a conundrum there. My eyes lit upon Spike, who was trailing them, and my brain halted in its tracks, finding the solution to my dilemma.
"Hey, Spike. Come here a moment." I gestured him over conspiratorially, and he trotted over with a grin.
"Listen - I've got to go with Trixie and mess around with the script to make unnecessary changes for who knows how long, but I promised that grand vizier that I'd go fetch something for her." Spike nodded. He'd been around me long enough that he immediately saw the dilemma that I was in. "So I need you to go run it for me."
His little chest puffed out in pride. "Sure thing, Braeburn!"
"Okay. It's a bronzeware antique, a lamp, up in the prince's quarters. It's her gift to him for tonight, and she accidentally left it in there. I'm sure you could bring it back to her in one piece, so go ahead and fetch it, would you?"
"Thanks, lil' buddy. I'll see if I can get Rarity to give you a few extra gems tonight after the performance, okay?" He dashed off, and I called after him, "Just tell anypony who stops you that Fluttershy sent you!"
Trixie called back to me, "Are you coming, Braeburn? Hurry up!"
I sighed. Some days were just ups and downs, all over the place. But I didn't feel so hot anymore, and I think there was a bit of a spring in my step as I hurried after Trixie. And it had nothing to do with a little rainbow-haired filly, not at all.
Exit Braeburn, stage left.
Chapter 2 - Nails.
I have a horrible talent for getting out of doing work.
It was near midday, and I was watching Applebloom and Scootaloo prepare the shadow-puppets for the upcoming performance. They were young, true, but they had a talent for this kind of puppetry. Not enough for a cutie-mark, sadly, but until the day they found their talent, puppetry would do well enough for them. The puppets they used were ungainly things, ugly and black, when they were all folded up, but when the two young fillies unfolded them and took their places behind the stage, they were capable of making such wonders, such terrors, as would shock an audience or drive them to awed silence. For this performance, they had out the forty demons of the Maregreb sorcerer who would be summoned to trouble the hero, and the awful genie who would grant the hero his three wishes. I'd seen both of the sets before, and they never ceased to amaze me.
I was half-waiting for Trixie to show up and berate me, to tell the truth – there's only so many times you can go over the reveal in the second act, after all, and watching these earnest young fillies in the shade seemed much better to me than giving my lungs another go at it on stage, which was why I was hiding back behind the stage rather than being up on it. But my expectations were shattered by something I hadn't expected at all: the sound of fillies squealing in glee. I glanced at the shadow puppeteers, who looked as confused as I was. "Uh, Applebloom? That wasn't you, was it?"
"Nope, Brae, it sure weren't," Applebloom said, shaking her head.
"And that was an excited young filly I just heard, wasn't it? Pretty sure it was. Maybe one that just got her hands on a fruit-tart?"
"Who goes nuts over a tart?" Scootaloo asked, looking at me like I was an idiot.
"Don't make me answer that." I stretched my legs, shaking out my mane for a moment. "I'll be back in a moment."
"You watch us too long," they replied cheerfully, "And she'll kick you off the stage!"
I ambled up onto the stage, to where I could see a growing crowd near the seats. I couldn't quite see what they were so interested in, but from the sounds they were making I guessed it was something right adorable. What surprised me was that I could see Rarity there, and Trix, as well as a good handful of our stage-mares. And they don't usually make noises like that, despite what you may have heard about us actor-types.
As I got closer, I could hear somepony reciting lines from the play. "-Ah, beautiful Badroulbadour, I was afraid that you would reject me if you knew that I was but a simple beggar's-foal from Bayjing. I thought you wanted to see a prince, dressed in these finest of clothes, with a thousand servants at my beck and call – and so I was, all for you." Now, the funny thing about those lines was, they were mine. My first thought was that some wise-colt had decided to mock my acting, but when I got closer, I realized that whoever was saying the lines was doing them right and earnest.
Besides, if he'd been mocking my acting, he'd have delivered the lines with the cheesiest smile possible and accentuated every other drawn-out word. I know my faults, and so does Trix, but the crowd loves me anyway. I think it's because everypony doesn't want to see some fool up on the stage, confused and quiet, but a loud and magnificent hero. I do my best to provide. No, this young colt was playing it completely straight, doing his best to conjure up a tearful reunion with the princess, rather than a bold-yet-embarrassed apology.
Being a good young pony, I held back and waited for him to finish the speech. Mama didn't raise an uncouth boar, after all. Truth be told, I couldn't actually see him in the middle of the crowd, but I could hear him giving his best – and he was good, real good – and Rarity providing the princess's lines for him. It sounded just as smooth as when the two of us did that speech, and I'd been working on it for a good while now. But everypony's got to have their chance to shine, after all, so I waited until he gave that last, beautiful line. As he finished, the stage-mares burst into applause, pounding their hooves on the stage.
I pushed my way through the crowd to get a look-see at this youngster, coming up next to Trix. The youngster – and I was right, he was just a slip of a colt – was standing proud, blushing slightly under the weight of all those laudations. He wasn't someone I'd seen around before, though, so I guessed he must have been a courtier or suchlike, come to try his hand at the lines. I mean, I'd remember any colt with a coat so glossy purple, or such bright, spiked green hair. The only pony with that kind of hair that I knew was the troupe magician, "Doctor" Whooves, and his hair was that way only through the careful application of arcane jellies and greases. The colt's hair looked razor-thin and just as sharp.
I poked Trix in the side. "So who's this, then? He doesn't look like the devilishly handsome star actor of tonight's show," I said good-naturedly. "Mind introducing me?"
"Oh, this is Nails, the new star actor for tonight's performance," she said with a flourish.
The words didn't quite sound right in my brain-box. It sounded like she'd said he was the new star actor. "Come again?"
"Nails. He's critically acclaimed, you know – his mentor was none other than Lyra the Magnificent. And he traveled over seven days of scorching hot sands and circling vultures to come here!" I tried to ask her how he'd traveled over circling vultures, but she cut me off. "And now he's professed his life's goal: he wants to perform this role tonight before the Sultana, so he can live happily ever after. Isn't that just lovely?"
"Oh, yeah, fantastic, but I seem to recall you already having somepony doing the role? Hmmm? Somepony called Braeburn?"
"Don't tell me you're jealous of him, Brae! I thought you were better than that!" Blood-n'-thunder, she was being loud again. Everypony was looking at us, even him. Especially him.
"The Great and Powerful Trixie would like to remind you, you neigh-sayer, that the Great and Powerful Trixie does not like diminutives! How could someone like the Great and Powerful Trixie-" I know your name already, Trix- "Ever be diminished in her grandeur? How could you think of questioning me, hmmm? Have you suddenly become an expert in casting for a role? Just like you're an expert in napping and being overdramatic?"
"I'm overdramatic?" I asked, flabbergasted. Now that's just calling the kettle black. "Me? I'm not the one going around demanding that everyone call me the Great and Powerful Braeburn, now am I?"
"That's different. You're not the Great and Powerful Trixie!"
"Braeburn, darling," Rarity said, shaking her head, "you simply must let him perform tonight. It's what has to happen."
"It's what will happen!" Trixie said with more dramatics than was necessary. "Tonight, Nails will wow the crowds, and win the heart of the mysterious pony he loves!"
Everyone was looking at me now, I realized, my heart sinking down into my gut – Rarity was watching me, with her half-pleading face, and the stage-ponies were watching me curiously, and the youngster with his enigmatic gaze. I couldn't see what was going on behind those eyes and that half-grin, and that scared me a bit.
"If this is a joke, Trix, it's gone on long enough."
"What, you mean your acting career?" They laughed. They actually laughed. That hurt, I don't mind telling you.
"No! Why are you even doing this?"
"Because... it's what I want to happen, and that's that!" Trixie turned away, trotting over to Nails. "Come on, kid. I'll give you the old once-over and get you fitted."
He glanced back at me as Trix dragged him off. Just once, that was all, and then the two of them were gone, and the crowd dispersed, leaving me alone on the stage. And that was that.
Well, no, that wasn't quite that. First I slunk off the stage, and said something to the two fillies waiting behind the stage – something about unpredictable lying unicorns and conspiracies, something along those lines – and then I went looking for salt. I really just wanted something to take my mind of the fact that I'd just been upstaged by somepony I didn't even know, and a few licks of salt would do the trick nicely. In fact, I said sourly to myself, there's not really a reason to just stop at a few tonight. Everything's pretty much full up, between our actors and the cameo actors the Sultana sent us, and Trixie's capricious will had a tendency to become iron-set against someone when they passed from her favor.
So that's why I was looking down at the ground, not really watching where I was going, when my world turned upside-down. Again. One moment, sad Braeburn moseying along, wallowing in self-pity, the next, stunned Braeburn looking into a wide grin and vivid rainbow hair.
"Guess who got a part in your play? Go on, guess! You'll never guess!"
"Hey, Rainbow." I gave her as much of a good old smile as I could muster. "That'd be you, I suppose."
"Yeah! Celestia decided that I should try to make up for tackling you this morning by helping you all out." One thing that I've always envied – well, envied ain't exactly the right word, admired might be better – about pegasi is their wings. When she jumped up in delight, her wings extended and began to beat allegro, keeping her hovering in mid-air right above me. "I'm going to be one of the princess's guards-ponies! I mean, in the play, because I'm already her best guards-pony."
"Well, that's.... wonderful." I said, doing my best to sound sincere. "Mighty kind of Celestia to let you do that."
"She's the kind of pony who'd do that for anypony. She never holds grudges, you know – not even that one time when the Grand Vizier fell into the pudding, right in front of the Hisponic ambassador. She's so awesome!" She did a little mid-air trot, tossing her short mane about. "I even get a line! It's the coolest line ever!"
"That's one more than me," I muttered to myself, pulling myself back up. My hat had been knocked clean from my head again, so I flipped it back on the old brainpan. My mane was still all messed up, but I didn't really need to worry about it now.
"Huh? But I thought you were going to get all the lines! You're the big-shot stallion who marries the princess! What happened?"
"It doesn't really bear repeating. I'm no tattle, right? I'm not gonna say a word about that hot-shot colt who came in and just made everypony fall in love with him, with his filly-killing eyes and his perfect diction- I just said too much, didn't I?" My ma always said I'd get hoof-in-mouth disease if I kept up my habit of rambling on, and there I was, looking like an envious hack who got booted off the stage.
Actually, that was worryingly accurate.
"What?" I swear she shot up three feet, fueled by sheer indignation. "You can't treat an actor like that! Didn't you fight back?"
"That's the way show business is." I shrugged my shoulders. "You get your big shot, and if you don't-"
"You didn't even get your big shot! Where's that insufferable unicorn? I'm going to go give her a piece of my mind!"
Now, I know pegasi. I've seen my share in action. But believe me when I say that she shot off like nothing I've ever seen. The only thing that I saw was the blurred rainbow that followed her, like the air itself got confused and thought her tail was still whipping through it. The dust whipped up a second later, shooting up into little devils and whirls, forcing me to close my eyes before I got blinded.
I'd like to say that I ran after her, to try and stop her before she got into a fight with Trix. I'd hate to say that I went and found a few bars of salt and woke up the next afternoon with a pounding-dry head. I didn’t do either of them, as a matter of fact. Something sent me off in a different direction.
I'll gloss over the long search, the asking of directions from various and sundry, and my weaving through the maze of wagons and performers getting ready, all the costumers getting the faux-Equestrian costumes ready (because, really, real Equestrian clothing isn't real enough), and the amusing peccadillo with the sword-dancers that nearly cost me my mane, and instead skip ahead to my finding of Big Mac.
He was – as usual – doing some heavy lifting. They didn't call him the strongest pony in Equestria for nothing. Somepony had sent a prop back to be repainted, one of the heavy background props for the cave at the end of the first act, and now Big Mac was getting it on back to the stage. Being a pony of a few words, Mac just nodded at me as I trotted up alongside him.
"Big Mac, could I have a word?" Nod. "Thanks, cousin. Now, did you hear the news about who's playing the main part now?" Shake. "It's some hot-shot new actor who literally showed up this afternoon! And Trix decided that he's skilled enough to do the part, just after listening to a few lines! I don't get it, Big Mac. I just don't get it. I mean, I won't be envious, I just wonder why it happened tonight. And whether he'll be joining us – what if she sends me back to being my cousin's understudy? Not that I don't like her, she's a wonderful gal, and she's going to do a fine job tonight playing the sorcerer, but you know how she gets, how unreasonable Trixie can be sometimes, and I'm wondering what kind of advice you've-"
"What about the pegasus?" Big Mac doesn't waste words, no sir. I kind of stuttered a bit, just a touch, and then recovered myself.
"How'd you know about... about her?" Celestia-in-her-court, I silently pleaded, please, don't say that one of the fillies had seen me and her and jumped to conclusions.
"Darndest thing. Pink pony came up and talked at me. Something about you and a rainbow pegasus and kissing and all that."
Now, Big Mac's the red one, but I swore, I was burning red, from ears to tail. "Now, just wait a moment – I didn't say anything about... well, I... just goes to show how much that one knows, anyway. We talking about the pink one, big mane like..." I threw my hooves up in the air, "Like poof, mouth like a weasel drinking Coltcuttan coffee, that pink pony?"
"Don't quote me on this, but I think she's some kind of Fury.” I shuddered, thinking back to breakfast, and how she'd come out of nowhere and vanished just as fast. “Only instead of being vengeance itself she's the personification of meddling in matters that don't have anything worth meddling in. Did she... do anything unnatural around you, if you get my meaning?"
"Eee-yup. She was in two places at once, and fast as a pegasus." That was Big Mac to the core – unperturbed, even when talking about some strange pony-ghost-thing that was haunting our fair carnival.
"Well, you know she's crazy. So don't go listening to anything she says." I shook myself, wondering if she was watching me even now. "Anyway. As I was saying... do you have any advice for me, o wise sage?"
"Get that pegasus quick."
"Go talk to the puppet-fillies. I'm sure that they'd appreciate your help."
"You think so?" He nodded, and I set my shoulders square and resolved to do so. When Big Mac suggested something, it was always a good idea to listen. "All right. Now I'll just-"
And that's when another pegasus dropped out of the sky onto me. This one, however, had all the force of a wet dishrag, leaving me standing upright and rather bemused. Big Mac turned slowly, raising one titanic eyebrow, as said wet dishrag began to break down into hysterics.
"Where is it, Brushburn? Tell me where you put it! Please tell me-" I heard a little squeak, like a mouse being caught in a trap, and looked up to see the little yellow pegasus, hanging from Big Mac's firm grasp. She blushed, looking down in shame. "Er. I mean, I-I'm sorry, if you don't mind, I'm kind of looking for that lamp you said you'd get for me."
"Big Mac, that there's royalty, or close enough. Mind putting her down?" I said, hurriedly, because unassuming or not that was still the royal vizier he was holding. He nodded and set her down carefully, though he kept a disapproving eye on her.
"I'm so sorry, I really am," she said, quivering down onto the ground, and that's just about when my heart broke. Poor thing - I'd given her my word, and then not made sure that it'd been kept. "I shouldn't have tackled you, I was just so frustrated- er, irritated, just with the way my day's gone."
"Well, see, thing is I asked my buddy Spike to take care of it, 'cause Trixie dragged me off for rehearsal. You know Spike. That little dragon kid, sitting with Miss Rarity at breakfast this morning?" Her eyes opened wide, and she smiled at me – the kind of smile that someone not really used to smiling like that smiles, all teeth and open corners.
"Oh, thank you so much, you're very nice, Brushburn."
"Braeburn, sorry, I'm so sorry, I won't forget your name again, it's a really nice name you know, you should really keep it. Do you know where Spike is?"
"That's the funny thing," I said, scratching at my mane in thought for a moment. "I haven't seen hide nor scale of him all day. You know, the last time I saw him was after-"
"Thank you very much you have a nice evening bye!" And then she was off, murmuring apologies all the way. The two of us watched her go.
"That's one odd pony."
Exit Braeburn, stage left.
Chapter 3 - Pinkie.
When you get down to it, a play's a lot like a fire.
You spend ages getting everything set up just perfect, lugging pieces of wood around, making sure that you've got the right kindling so that it'll catch – and then you light it up and it burns bright and hot, until it finally dwindles down and leaves the audience in the dark, clapping. Not a perfect metaphor, but I think it works well enough. You see, I can always feel the sparks right before a performance, the little flashes that signal that the fire is about to be lit. And even when I'm not in the wings, being fussed over, I can still feel it. Tonight, I could feel it stronger than ever.
The temperature was dropping fast, and I had my jacket pulled tight around me as I helped Scootaloo and Applebloom prepare for the play’s opening. The sun had almost set, and the shadows it cast were long; by the time the play opened, it would be night, and the princess’s moon would rise above the city. Under that watchful eye, we’d play out the story of the Bayjing beggar and Badroulbadour, the full-moon-mare. Well, I said to myself, they would, while I sat back behind the scenes and watched. I must admit that I was feeling a mite tense, waiting for the play to finally begin.
Scootaloo and Applebloom were surprisingly casual about the prospect of performing before royalty, probably because they only had a few roles and they just had to move the puppets the way they'd practiced to succeed - they didn’t have to worry about remembering lines or speaking them properly. If a shadow-puppet waved his arm slightly differently than planned, well, who's to notice? They'll be terrifying all the same. So we sat behind the stage together and listened to the hubbub all about, their energy and innocent passion calming my storm-tossed brain-pan.
I kind of wished that I was their age again. When you’re a little pony, nothing seems truly terrifying. A good monster’s nothing like the prospects of losing your job to some upstart young pony. But with age comes competence, and wisdom - maybe a mite of each in my case, but still I’d earned as much as I’d lost.
"Cues?" Scootaloo and Applebloom knew their routine by heart now, but they still went over the list every time, with that special kind of determination only youths can muster up.
"Check," Applebloom said. They had a scrap of the script, just enough copied down so that they knew when to set up the shadow-puppets and when to illuminate the back of the stage, so that when the time came, they would do it seamlessly.
"Check," Applebloom said, glancing over at the lanterns that would light up the stage’s backdrop. They were currently closed, but she’d open them up in a flash when it was time. Or maybe I’d do it, I said to myself. That’d be something that even I couldn’t mess up. Rare enough to find something like that.
"Check." Applebloom rattled the puppet-stilts with a grin.
"Ch... what d'you mean, smoke bombs?" Applebloom looked at Scootaloo as if she were crazy. “Why would we need smoke bombs?”
"For when the genie comes out, duh!"
"Trixie was going to do that!"
"No, she wasn't! We need to have them here!"
"I'll check on them, all right?" I said, hoping to stop them before they could get into a real argument.
“You don’t have to do that, Braeburn,” Applebloom said, but I shook my head.
“Let me do this. I’ve got to be helpful one way or another to you two.”
It would only take me a moment's short stroll into the wings to find Trixie, knowing her habit of hanging around the curtain before showtime. Funnily enough, I couldn't even go that far without running into somepony interesting. I was heading down the back stairs to the wings when I saw him. He was having a quick conversation with our troupe's best singer, Sweetie Belle, and I wouldn't have given him a second glance, being rather preoccupied with thoughts of what I'd say to Trixie and whether I should bring up the touchy subject of ferocious rainbow-maned pegasi who may have attempted contract renegotiation on my part, except for the fact that I heard Spike’s name clearly mentioned. So, naturally, I gave him a second glance, and realized with a start that Twilit Glory, the Prince of Coltcutta, was back here with us actors.
The jacket he was wearing didn't look as fancy as the one he'd been wearing that morning, but it was clearly him. His cutie-mark was Celestia's emblem, the six-point star in deuce or something like that, and five smaller stars surrounded it; it probably stood for his special personality or something like that. Me, I've got an apple. Mama always said that I'd be good at apple-picking, but I had too much of a hankering for the stage to live that life. Me and my cousin, we lit out and never looked back. But him? Looked like he'd been born to royalty, never had to worry about whether going against his cutie-mark was the right thing to do, never had to struggle and fight to forge his own destiny.
Then again, you know what they say about judging books by their covers. You won't be right all the time, especially if it's one of those blank black covers that tells you almost nothing about the book except that it's old and quite possibly boring, but you can't ever really be sure until you open it up.
"I'm sorry," I said, interrupting them, "Did you say something about Spike just now?"
"Yes," Twilit said with a gleeful glimmer in his eyes, "I did. Would you happen to know where he is right now, good sir? I believe he has something of mine in his possession at this moment, and I require its immediate return."
"Something of yours? That can't be Spike!" A horrid thought struck me. "Heavens preserve me, you didn't leave some gemstones out in plain sight where some young dragon, not knowing any better, might think they were free samples, did you? I'm so sorry, he just goes crazy when he sees jewels within reach." He shook his head with a bemused expression on his face, and I heaved a sigh of relief. "Good. I don't want that Fillydelphic incident to ever happen again." That... had been awful. Before that day, I had never wondered about the ethicality of putting a young dragon on a leash.
"No, I wouldn't mind if he took something as common as that. After all, there's always more where those come from, aha. No, this was... um... a more personal item."
"What kind of personal item?" Sweetie Belle asked, radiating innocence from every hair. Twilit Glory turned back to her.
"It's a family heirloom. Um. It's this old beat-up lamp, and, uh, I need it back. Celestia's guards told me that he took it for someone."
"Well, funny thing is, he took it for me," I said with a nervous chuckle. Twilit spun about so fast I thought he'd collapse, his eyes almost bugging out of their sockets. And then he was in my face, so close that I could smell lunch on his breath.
"What? How'd you find out? Where is he now? Have you told anyone else? How much do you want me to pay? Will you let Celestia know? Have you tried using it? What do you want from me?"
"Hold your hippogriffs, sir," I said, backing away, "I did it as a favor for a lady, who said that it was hers and that she was going to give it to you tonight. I needed to come back here, so I asked Spike to get it for me on her behalf. Now, what's this about it really being yours?"
"Who was the lady?" Twilit asked.
"I asked the question first, sir. Mind explaining all this before I tell you who's responsible?"
“...No.” We stared at each other for a moment, but as anypony could tell you, I can’t win staring contests. I sighed, looking away from his accusing gaze.
“Look, I’m not going to besmirch a lady’s honor, no matter how you slice it.”
“Ooooh, a stalemate!” Now, I’m no expert, but I think that Twilit Glory’s scream of terror was more like a filly’s than mine was. Sweetie Belle just settled for staring, bug-eyed, at the bright-pink froofy-maned Fury-of-romance that had just reappeared from behind Twilit. “Stalemates aren’t really fun, you know, I think you should have freshmates! Hey, that kind of sounds like friend-mates, and those are the best kind of mates, well, except for mates-mates, you know!”
“Please, please, just leave me alone,” Twilit Glory said, doing his best to hide behind me. Why must I always be the manly, handsome hero in these situations, when what I’d much rather be doing is hiding behind him?
“You don’t sound like you’re having fun,” she said, her head drooping, her face twisting into a frown. The expression looked positively alien on her. “I thought that you’d enjoy getting to hang out with Celestia and Luna, Twilight.”
“Twilit! The name’s Twilit Glory!” He waved his forelimbs desperately, trying to shoo her away.
“Oh, okay. Sorry, I sometimes forget, Twilit.” She giggled now, her former despondency gone like a cloud chased away by the wind. “But don’t worry! Your auntie Pinkie Pie has got everything all taken care of! Oh, won’t this be exciting?!?”
"No," he said. "No, not at all."
She shrugged, then seemed to notice me for the first time. "Oh, I nearly forgot! Duh, Pinkie! You're the reason I came over here in the first place!" She pulled out a bag – though I hadn't seen her carrying one – and started rummaging through it. "I'm really honest-triple-doozy sorry, Braeburn, this is all my fault. I'm sure it's all going to be fine, but I didn't want to leave you pouting back here tonight! You deserve something better! Aha!" She finally found what she was looking for, producing a shining golden ticket. "This is for you, so you can have a fun night tonight!"
I accepted it cautiously, like it would turn into a snake and bite me at any moment. The sad part was that I actually half-expected something like that to happen. When the coming-to-life-and-biting failed to happen, I looked at the ticket. It read simply:
-One Admission to the Royal Box-
--By order of her Holiness, the Sultana Celestia--
"You want me to go watch the play? In the royal box?" I gaped for a moment, then looked up at her, giving her what I hoped was a calculating glare. "Wait. How'd you get your hooves on this, anyway?"
"I used my feminine wiles, silly!" Celestia-in-her-court, I didn't need to imagine that. I did anyway, and nearly broke my brain-pan.
"You don't even know me," I said, hastily changing the subject, hoping my imagination would follow. "Why'd you go to all this trouble?"
"Oh, silly, of course I know you! Remember that time when we came to Aaaaaappleloosa?" She said, rearing up and kicking her forelegs. "Me and Twilight and Rainbow Dash and-" She giggled, raising her hoof to her mouth. "Whoopsy, that's breaking character. Hehe!"
"You know Rainbow Dash?" It would make a horrid kind of sense, given how she seemed to know that that young filly "liked" me, but I couldn't see this insane pink pony being anywhere near Rainbow, not for any real length of time. Then again, how well did I actually know the pegasus? Not very well, not by far.
"Of course I know Rainbow Dash! I know everypony! But you're not supposed to know that yet, so don't tell anypony, okay? You've got to promise not to tell anypony!"
I mutely nodded my head, thoroughly bewildered.
"Oki-doki-loki! You have fun, okay? Tonight's going to be soooo awesome! There'll be kissing and parties and we'll get to all watch a play together, just like I asked for! Enjoy the play, Braeburn!"
We watched her bounce away, off towards the stage, in silent horror. After a moment, Twilit tried to sneak away, but I caught him by the collar before he could sidle off. "I'm just going to say my peace, sir, before you leave. Spike's a friend of mine, and I know he'd never steal anything. If you find him before the play starts, just explain matters to him. Somepony's lying here, and I don't know who, but if you touch one scale on that dragon, I'll do something that's probably illegal." I looked him straight in the eyes. "We carnival-folk, we're family, all of us. That lil' dragon, wherever he's gotten to, is my brother. And if you want to throw him in your big fancy dungeons, you'll have to throw me in first."
This finally put some backbone in the stallion. His mane bristled, and he shook off my hoof. "I didn't say anything about prison. I understand that you're protective of him, Mister Braeburn, but accusing somepony of ill intentions without just cause or evidence is morally flawed and inexcusably rude. I understand that he may be a pawn in the twisted webs of courtly intrigue, and I will take this into full account when the climax of our game comes into play."
"He didn't say anything about that, Braeburn," Sweetie Belle added, rather unhelpfully. "He just wanted to talk to Spike, and he was very polite." I exhaled sharply, looking down for a moment, then back up at him.
"...So you're not going to hurt him."
"Not in the slightest, though the evidence is looking rather grim for him. Perhaps if you told me who it was that requested that you steal the, um, old family heirloom from my quarters...?"
Now, I know how you're supposed to treat a mare. You don't hit them (unless they hit you first), and you don't shove them into a lake so you won't get wet. That's not being a proper young colt at all, mistreating a mare like that. But Fluttershy hadn't seemed entirely trustworthy the last time I'd seen her, and if I had to choose between a slightly crazy grand vizier and Spike...
"A mare by the name of Fluttershy. She said it was her gift to you for tonight, and she'd dropped it the last time she was in your quarters. Am I to understand that she was fabricating something awful?"
Twilit Glory nodded. "Fluttershy. I should have seen it coming, she was far too nice-" He stopped, crinkling up his face in disgust. "Just say lying, please. Fabricating is not the word you're looking for in this context."
"Sorry. Sometimes we actors pick up fancy words without quite knowing what the context is, you know."
He chuckled mildly. "Straight from being at each other's throats to correcting grammar. Isn't it odd what a little courtesy can do?"
"I'll keep that in mind," I said. I didn't actually plan to. Fabricating is much too fun a word. "Hope you get your heirloom back."
"I hope I do too," he said. "Or tonight might not end well for either of us." On that ominous note, he turned away dramatically, striding away with poise and dignity.
"Do you think he'll notice that he's walking in the wrong direction?" Sweetie Belle asked me quietly.
"Give him time," I replied. "He'll notice eventually."
"Sooooo," she said, trying to sound cute, "Are you going to go sit and watch the performance?"
I looked down at the ticket, and for a moment it was mighty tempting to go and sit out in the audience, to watch the play through new eyes. Why, I might even be able to sit next to the beautiful princess – but the fillies were depending on me, and besides, I'm never on my best manners when around royalty. I might end up offending their delicate sensibilities. No, I couldn't go. I looked back at Sweetie Belle.
"Hey, Sweetie Belle. How'd you like to go watch? I know you're not doing any major musical numbers tonight – the play's a drama piece, after all."
Her eyes widened. "Go and sit with the Sultana? And the princesses? Gosh, Braeburn, that would be the best!" It sometimes takes her brain a little bit to catch up with the rest of her, which is why she gasped dramatically after saying that. "Oh, but Braeburn, she gave the ticket to you! You should go."
"Your pals in the back need my help, and I don't want to go pushing through the crowd rudely after the show starts. If you hurry up now, you should be able to get to the seat, no problem." I held it out, and she hesitated, obviously torn between guilt at depriving Braeburn of the shiny ticket and desire to go and fulfill the dream of every young filly.
What can I say? I couldn't resist pulling it back out of her reach for a moment, just to see her grab for it. "No, wait, Braeburn! I want it, I want it!"
"You sure, Sweetie Belle? After all, you did make some good points just a moment ago, and-" Then I let her grab it away from me with a triumphant lunge, and I bowed back gracefully. "Quick now, before Trixie can catch you and ask you what you're doing with a ticket like that," I said. She giggled, dashing off, leaving me to find Trixie.
I found her conversing with somepony, looking like she'd been interrupted while getting ready to unveil the stage. Trix looked resplendent in her full showmaster's regalia, her cape of bright-blue cloth covered in silver stars draped around her shoulders, her hat even grander and gaudier than usual. If there's anypony who can wear clothes like those without looking like a fool, it's Trixie.
On the other hand, the mare she was talking to looked gaudy for an entirely different reason. She was wearing the kind of clothes that are worn to be looked at instead of you, the kind that was worn by palace slaves. Gold thread, translucent silks hanging over the wings, the works. That was the first thing I noticed about her – I'm a bit ashamed to say that the second was that she seemed to be staring in two directions at once.
"No, for the last time, the great and powerful Trixie hasn't seen her running around!" Trixie snapped at the slave, who cringed back. Poor thing shouldn't have messed with Trix when she was getting ready for showtime. "Now leave the great and powerful Trixie alone! The great and powerful Trixie doesn't have time for this!"
"Hey, Trix," I said as loudly as I dared so close to the curtain, to give the slave a chance to unobtrusively get out. "Quick question."
Trix turned her head, saw me, and rolled her eyes dramatically. "What is it now, Braeburn? No, Nails hasn't suddenly dropped dead, no, I don't have a spot open for you, no, I'm too busy to talk things out, now what do you want?" High-strung might not exactly be the right word for Trixie before a performance. Like a bit dark out isn't exactly the right word for midnight.
"Listen, the puppeteers don't know if they need the smoke bombs or not. Are you going to be triggering them when the genie appears, or not?"
She gave me a disgusted look. "They need to trigger them, obviously. Do they think that I'm capable of being everywhere at once?"
"Yes. The great and powerful Trixie can do anything, after all," I said with a completely straight face. I don't know whether she caught on or not, but her eyes narrowed.
"No, she can't," the slave said, with more directness than I'd expected from her. "She can't tell me where Flutteryshy is." I couldn't for the life of me told you exactly where her accent was from, only that it wasn't from anywhere I'd been. It was just exotic enough to be real confusing.
"You mean Fluttershy?"
She nodded eagerly. "Flutteryshy."
"Poor dear," Trixie said in a stage whisper. "Can't even speak Equestrian right." Now that was beyond the pale, it really was, even for Trix. I pushed forward past her, quite literally, eliciting a surprised yelp from the showpony.
"I'm afraid that Flutteryshy isn't here right now, miss. She's looking for a friend of ours, Spike, but he's not here either." She looked rather sad at that, so I gave her a forced grin. "But she might be back in time for the performance! So why don't you go back and wait for her in the audience?"
She nodded and extended her decorated wings, flying up erratically. "Okay. Thyank you." With a slightly lopsided smile at me, she flew off through the wings, dipping and weaving a bit as she did so. A moment later, I saw her crash into Whooves, and I winced.
"I don't know what you saw in that cripple," Trixie said with a huff. "She was pestering me for five minutes straight, you know. Smoke bombs are in the back, near my wagon. You should need about two for the genie's entrance."
I was about to turn away and go grab those smoke bombs for the puppeteers, but a thought struck me. "Another question, Trix. Did you see a rainbow-haired pegasus today?"
"What, that loutish filly that tackled you at breakfast? Whyever would you ask about her?"
"Um..." I feverishly racked my brains for an excuse. "I thought I saw her around camp?"
She gave me a flat glare. "Uh-huh. And I have wings."
"No. I am very obviously un-winged, unlike that little wretch. She got a part in the play, you know, and decided to waste it arguing with me." An eyebrow was raised in what she thought was a clever manner. "Did you put her up to it?"
"No! No, I didn't. I wouldn't. You know me, Trix."
"Yes, I do, you salt-sodden lump. You're so desperate for the spotlight, you don't care who you trample to get what you want. Well, two can play at that game. And tonight, Nails is going to shine. Do you hear me?" I didn't respond, so she reached out and yanked on my jacket, nearly pulling me off my feet. "I said, do you hear me? If you cause one disruption tonight, you idiot, I'm going to kick you out of the troupe for good. Maybe then you could ask your rainbow-haired marefriend and that cripple for a job."
"Yeah, yeah, I hear you," I said, backing off. "Loud and clear, Trix."
"You will refer to the great and powerful Trixie without diminutives, you foal!"
I just walked away then. Wasn't feeling like getting into another fight. I didn't have the heart for it tonight.
Exit Braeburn, stage left.
Chapter Four – Fluttershy.
The curtains opened.
It's wonderful, being able to say that, every time. The curtains open. Suddenly, the audience isn't sitting in front of a stage, no, they're looking into a window that will send them all over the world - tonight's destination being the most inhospitable corners of the desert, a cave of wonderful sorceries, the second-most glorious city in the world, and the lives of some mad, wonderful ponies. How could it be anything less than amazing? The curtains opened, pulled back by some of our strong-ponies, and the play began, introducing the crowd to the sad figure of the widow of Bayjing, and her rapscallion of a son.
I stood slightly off-stage, to where I could see both the puppeteers and the stage clearly. It was a wonderful vantage-point, and let me watch the play as it unfolded. That's the way you have to present a play, you know - it has to unfold, bit by bit, revealing the story slowly. But the bad thing about standing there was that I had to watch Nails, performing those lines that should have been coming from my lips, and doing them justice in a way that I never could.
Here's what I mean. When I play the Bayjing beggar, I play him as a figure of fun, a foppish fool with his heart in the right place. It goes well with Rarity's dramatics, and often gets a laugh from the audience. With a grin and a wink I can make all the mares swoon, and when I'm imprisoned by the sorcerer or hounded by his demons, everyone knows that I'll be safe. I'm the hero, after all, and I'll always find a way out of a scrape.
But the colt? His portrayal was different. His was frail yet bold, a kid roped into things that he didn't quite understand. His trust was genuine, his naivety was real, his fawning desire for a mare he could never have was all real. I could hear the fear in his voice when the mouth of the cave of ten thousand wonders collapsed, leaving him in the dark with nothing but one match, the terror with which he called out for his "aunt" to come save him. He was good, very good. And that just salted the wound.
As the audience stared, riveted to his performance, I began to ready the smoke bombs, to give my mind something else to stew over. Pretty soon, the genie would show up, and perhaps even upstage Nails. Gilda was going to provide its fearful roar in a way that only she could, with that wonderful voice of hers. And then the fillies would show off their puppets and awe them all. I was almost trembling with anticipation, waiting for my chance to show them all what a real troupe of actors could do.
And then the fillies screamed.
My head whipped around so fast to look back at them, you'd think that I was an owl. And what I saw there - well, I'm just going to say it straight, though it took me a moment to realize what I was seeing. Twilit Glory was behind the stage, tussling with Whooves something fierce. It took me another moment to see what they were fighting over, thanks to their frenzied movements obscuring my view, but then I saw that they were fighting over a lamp. An old, dingy, busted-up lamp, of all things. It was quite probably the most ridiculous thing I'd ever seen, especially because I knew that Whooves was one of the most pacifistic ponies you'd ever meet. He'd hardly hurt a fly! And here he was, doing his best to punch Twilit senseless.
I was standing in front of the fillies before I knew it, telling them to get back, to go run for Trixie. I didn't bother to check and see if they obeyed. I was scared, and no mistake, looking at these two mad-ponies. Now Twilit had it, and then Whooves headbutted him in the stomach, tossing him up with the kind of neck strength only us earth ponies have. Twilit flew back, right through the screen, rolling unevenly onto the stage proper.
"Whooves? What the hay do you think you're doing?" I said, wide-eyed. He glanced at me, a mite groggily, blinking like he'd just woken up. Or been punched in the face, which was a more sensible comparison.
"Saving everypony. If that thing gets into the wrong hooves-" He stopped, looking sharpish at the stage. "Oh, vortex and vapor. Things just keep getting worse."
Nails, who'd been interrupted in the middle of his dramatic monologue, was staring at Twilit with wide eyes - well, I corrected myself, staring at that lamp with wide eyes. Glory be, was that thing some kind of magical greed-maker? "Hold on," Nails stuttered, raising a shaking hoof, "That's mine. Give it back!"
"Yours, you thief?" Twilit snapped back, standing up with only the slightest sway. His act of strength probably would have been more impressive if his eyes weren't unfocused. "It's mine, and none of you will take it from me!" And that's the part where Whooves jumped him from behind, bringing him back down to the floor with enough force to make me wince. Nails proceeded to join in the fun, leaping for the lamp only to receive a punch from one of Twilit's flailing hooves.
Whatever happened to talking things over politely?
I knew I should have tried to retrieve it from them, but I held back. No sense getting into a fight like that, with the hooves flying this way and that. Everyone else must have had the same thought, though Trixie was probably too busy having a breakdown over what had happened to her grand play to intervene.
Nails headbutted Whooves, Whooves trampled on Twilit, Twilit knocked Nails back with his magic, and the audience lost it. They laughed, roared, cried, watching the three of them tussle on stage. Some of them might have thought it was all part of the show, while others might have just liked to see grown ponies attempting to beat the hay out of each other hilarious. But Celestia wasn't laughing, I could see that much from where I stood. She was softly glowing in the moonlight, and she sat in the royal box, eyes intent and face frozen in that regal kind of expression that royals get when they don't want anyone to know what they're thinking. Behind her, I could see the Princess Luna, with Sweetie Belle clinging to her, wide-eyed. Mighty kind of her to accept the touch of a commoner.
Anyway, the fight. Whooves finally knocked the lamp out of Twilit's hooves, and it went skittering across the stage, bouncing and skidding and adding a few more dents to its already battered brass. The three looked up after it, and all of them attempted to get up at the same time while simultaneously holding down the other two, which ended about as well as you might expect. Then, the lamp stopped. The reason for that stop being that someone had extended their hoof and arrested its flight off the stage, and that hoof was attached to a long yellow leg, and that yellow leg was attached to a crazy pegasus with long pink hair.
"Oh, how nice of you," she said with honey and flowers in her voice, "To give this to me. You're such nice boys."
"No!" yelled Whooves. "You don't understand what that is, do you? What opening it would do?"
"I know exactly what it is," she said with a tiny little smile. "It's everything I've ever deserved." I swear that her voice dropped an octave as she said that.
And as Nails, Twilit and Whooves all screamed "NO!" at the same time, she quietly rubbed at the lamp, and then-
Imagine someone trapped a foggy day in a bottle, and inside that foggy day was trapped a pegasus. That's what billowed out onto the stage, to an applause of awed gasps and stares. It was bone-white, with a raven-black mane, and when it opened its eyes and looked over us - it seemed to stare right at me for a moment, which made my spine shiver like it was the middle of winter - it had nothing in them but the night sky, and stars which shone wrong. It didn't seem to move, exactly, it just was always where it needed to be.
And it was the most downright terrifying thing I'd ever seen. It had the shadow-puppet beat out of the park. It could give Dracolta nightmares. It was wrong and right both at the same time. I don't know, I'm not a poet, I'm just saying it was creepy beyond all reason. Oh, and its voice, its voice. Nothing on earth should sound like that.
"Ah. Finally." It said, its voice echoing strangely. "What is your bidding, my mistress?"
"Ahahaha! Yes! Finally, someone asking me what I want!" Fluttershy reared back on her hind legs, giving a cackle that would give Applejack a run for her money. "First, I wish that you would return these pretenders to their real forms!" She said, waving a foreleg towards the piled-up ponies on-stage.
Nails and Twilit Glory immediately scrambled up, and promptly ran into each other. The genie simply nodded its head and in a flash, they were both gone. In their places stood a skinny purple mare, Twilit Glory's fine jacket hanging off her shoulder, and...
"Spike?" I said it at the same time that everyone else did. Rarity fainted dead away, my jaw nearly hit the floor, and Trixie roared something unintelligible at him. Suddenly, everything clicked, and it felt like a punch to the gut. Spike had found the lamp, just like Fluttershy had wanted me to, and he must have rubbed it on accident, and-
"That's enough." Celestia landed on the stage, her hoofs silent as she set them down on the floor. Celestia's wings had looked beautiful that morning, but they looked terrible fully outstretched, like the wings of a roc on the hunt. They were massive, and their feathers glittered like diamonds. Her hair was whipping about like it was caught in a gale, and her eyes blazed with fury. As she stepped onto the stage, I heard the fillies whimper behind me, and I wondered whether Sweetie Belle was hiding under her seat, too scared to watch any more. Twilit Glory cowered, and Whooves just stared, blinking senselessly. I knew I wanted to look away from her and her terrible anger, but something kept me watching. I couldn't have torn my eyes away with a team of wild horses.
"No, it's never enough." Fluttershy said, looking Celestia in the eye with what I took for a fool's bravado. There was iron in her gaze, but Celestia held it fiercely.
"Fluttershy, tell me why," Celestia said, her voice soft and pitying. "What reason could you have for disrupting this performance, and humiliating the Prince?"
Now, that stopped Fluttershy cold. For a second, she looked like a actress who'd forgotten her lines, right when she'd been called upon. I know that look - I've worked with enough amateur actors to know it well. It was a pitiable face, frightened of everypony looking at her, frantically trying to recall the right lines. But then something hardened in her, something that turned the slump of her shoulders into a taut strength, something that took the fear and worry and turned it into sharp anger.
"You've had all that power all your life, and what have you done with it?" She said, her voice resounding with an underlying echo. "Nothing! You raise the sun at dawn, lower it at dusk, but what have you ever done for the animals of your garden, and your poor overworked vizier? Nothing! Now it's my turn to be pampered, my turn to be worshiped, and I'll do a better job of it than you ever did!" She looked to the genie who stood at her side. "Genie! I wish that all of Celestia's power was given to meeeee!"
"As it should be," he said cryptically, as he nodded his head, and for a moment I thought I could see the flicker of a horn that wasn't there. The mist rose, and Celestia screamed, and everything was shrouded upon the stage so that you couldn't see your hoof in front of your face. Then the mist was dispelled by a bright light, and for a moment I thought that Celestia was fighting back against Fluttershy, but then I saw the truth.
Celestia was a thin little filly, a white-coated unicorn with a long pink mane. She was trembling all over, and as I watched she collapsed to her knees with a cry. That was too much - I dashed forward, unable to watch any longer. No one else was making a move - Twilit Glory was still transfixed, while Spike was... somewhere, I didn't know. Whooves was just shaking his head, muttering something to himself, and if nopony else would help her, I would.
I skidded to a halt, standing before Fluttershy and the genie, who were now shoulder-to-shoulder. She had a small white horn on her forehead, curving up like a scimitar, and her wings had grown along with the rest of her. And as I looked into her eyes, I was unable to see any weakness, any pity, only madness. Of course, that might have just been irritation, I'm not really any good at judging people by their eyes. But the plain fact was that she had strength and Celestia had none any more, and I wasn't going to let a strong pony bully somepony weaker.
"Fluttershy," I said, "You can stop this. It's been funny - well, sort of, if you think that slapstick is funny - but you don't really want to hurt Celestia, do you?"
"I... I don't want to..." She said, before shaking her head fiercely. "Yes! Yes, I do!" She launched into another cackle. "And if you want to get into my way, I guess I'll just have to teach you not to!" Her horn glowed pink, and the only thing I could think in the face of uncertain death was that pink was not the most intimidating color in the world. Seriously, if a costumer tried to make pink the dominant color in a villain's outfit, they'd be laughed off the stage. But where was I? Oh, right. About to die.
That's the part where a rainbow blur streaked across the stage, and Fluttershy's head snapped back with the sound of hoof meeting cheek. The genie moved his head the merest fraction of an inch, letting the rainbow pass by him, and it came around faster than you could blink for a second shot. Fluttershy simply closed her eyes, and let her horn burn pink again, and the rainbow ran straight into a wall of magical force, sending Rainbow Dash bouncing back across the stage.
"Well, I suppose I should have expected that," she said, holding a hoof to her reddening cheek. "You were always so misguidedly loyal, Rainbow. Like a puppy. But puppies are cute and can be taught, which is why I'd rather have a puppy than you." She raised her head, looking out onto the stage. "Guards! Come and arrest these miscreants! All of them! Um, if you don't mind, seeing as I'm your new Sultana, and you really should listen to what I have to say, and I can banish you to the moon if you disagree with me."
"No," Trixie cried from off-stage, "Just take Braeburn! We heartily support you, Your Most Grand And Royal And Magnificent Highness Fluttershy!" I glanced back at her, unimpressed, and then looked back to Fluttershy.
Behind me, I could hear Rainbow Dash, desperately asking Celestia to get up. More than that, I could feel everypony looking at me, watching me, seeing what I'd do. And I knew just what I'd do. "All hail Celestia," I said, looking her full in the face. I know it was stupid, and I knew it at the time. Call it a contrary streak. And on that stage, for a moment, I felt like a hero.
That's when Celestia's crown hit me in the back of the head. The last thing I remember is somepony screaming my name, and then-
Exit Braeburn, curtains close.
Chapter 5 - Whooves
Waking up was a bit of a surprise.
I mean, this was the first time I'd ever been knocked out. One moment, I was standing on the stage, my heart beating like Scootaloo had gotten ahold of a drum - the next moment, I was lying on a cold stone floor. Correction: drooling on a cold stone floor. The back of my head was one painful knot where the flying crown had hit me, and the rest of my body wasn't doing so well either. Back aching, legs limp, throat dry, the works. I blinked like a pony coming off of a salt high, insensibly trying to make sense of my surroundings.
Stone. Good, we'd established that already. Dark. Okay, made it that much harder to establish anything else. Cold. How in the world it managed to be cold in the hottest place in the world, I have no idea, but it was cold. Probably because I was missing my jacket.
That fact hit me after a moment. My jacket, my beautiful sexy jacket was gone. I attempted to check and see if my hat was gone, but my hoof didn't make it up far enough to check, being caught mid-raising by a length of chain. I shook my head, feeling my mane poof out around me. Okay, my hat was gone, too. That was a bad sign, a very bad sign. There was a very small chance that it had been removed so that the doc could have a look at my head, I said to myself, but the fact that I was chained to the wall made that rather unlikely.
The doc. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that I wasn't alone in the small stone cell. Over on the other side lay Whooves, his head slumped against the wall, breathing evenly and slowly. He looked disheveled but unhurt, thank Celestia. Or, I guess, Fluttershy. Actually, no thanks to Fluttershy, seeing as it was her fault that I was in this mess. I shook my head, feeling my brain-pan rattle about. Sometimes, Braeburn, I said to myself, you've just got to listen to your gut feelings.
"You're up." He didn't open his eyes, and he didn't smile at me. No, his voice was grim, and why wouldn't it be? "That’s good. Can you tell me who you are?"
"Doc, you know me."
"Can you tell me? Can you really?" That's the thing about Whooves - he's eccentric and lovable and crazy, but when he's being cryptically mysterious, he's a pain in the rear. He was in full “I-know-something-you-don’t” mode.
"Braeburn. You know me."
"Where are you from, Braeburn?"
"Trixie's-" He cut me off. He made the best shushing motion he could with his hooves chained to the wall, shaking his head.
"No, no, before that. Before we came here to play this game."
"I'm from the Applelutian mountains. You know that. I told you back in Coltstantinople, after we performed Beagle. You got the best part in that play, you know, the best." He'd gotten some of the best lines in the whole thing, though his character was a bit of a bumbling idiot. He had Whooves' heart, though, and you could tell.
Whooves shook his head. "Does "Ponyville" mean anything to you?"
I scratched through my brainbox for a moment, before shrugging my shoulders. The clink of chains as I did so was a depressing reminder of our plight. "Nope. Not a blessed thing."
"Think. Real hard, Braeburn, just think. About your cousin. About Twilight Sparkle. Think - no, don't think, remember, pull that memory right out and inspect it and realize it's yours." I tried it. It didn’t work. I remembered meeting up with Applejack in Kazcatstan, and joining up with the troupe, and I couldn’t remember a blessed thing about a place called Ponyville.
"Nope. Nothing. You sure you're all right?" I asked. He laughed, a mad doctor's laugh.
"Oh, I'm fine. I'm absolutely brilliant, I am."
We sat in the cold and the dark for a moment. I thought I heard a rat scuttling about, and I prayed that I was wrong. And I thought. About little pink unicorns and heroes who know the tricks of the trade and about rainbow-haired...
"Whooves!" I yelled, my voice echoing in the tight cell. "What happened to Rainbow Dash? And Celestia?"
"I was wondering when you'd ask," he said, with just a hint of smugness. "They're guests awaiting the Sultana's pleasure, too."
"Oh," I said with relief, "That's good." He gave me a flat glare.
"That means they're prisoners, Braeburn." Whoops.
"...Still good." I said. "Means they're alive. They are still alive, right? Tell me they're still alive!"
"Yes, as far as I know. Both of them were trussed up tighter than Ponymetheus, though, last time I saw them." Worry went to relief and then right back to worry.
"But anything could be happening to them!” Horrible thought after horrible thought struck me, making me shiver. “What if they've been executed? What if they're being tortured right now?"
"Naaaah,” he said, in that flippant tone of his, “probably not. I think there's enough of Fluttershy deep down in there that she couldn't bring herself to do that."
“It’s all Fluttershy, right? Or what am I missing here?”
“Everything,” he said with a straight face. “You’re playing by the rules, you see, and that’s the problem. It’s like a maze. You think that the solution’s... I don’t know, ah, you think you need to get to the other end of the maze. You don’t. You need to get outside the maze. Because if you get to the end you lose. Because-” He yelled suddenly, a yell of pain, making me jump. “Why can’t I...? Oh. Right. He wants it to remain intact. I’m just the result of a direct order to the contrary.” He looked at me again, and his eyes were crazy-intense, almost alien. "Braeburn. If we get out - when we get out - I will do everything in my power to help you stop her. Stop it. Stop everything that's going on."
"Me? It sounds to me like you've got a handle on how things are going here."
"But I know how these things go, and I can't be the hero today. Not today. Everypony is depending on you today, Braeburn. Because if you can't do it... you stood up to it. To her. That's important. That's very important. But I'll do everything I can to assist you, because you can't do it alone."
"Do what? How am I supposed to fight an entire palace of guards, and then a living goddess? If you hadn't noticed," I said with a slightly bitter edge to my voice, "I'm not the most pugnacious of ponies."
"I'm certain you'll figure out a way. After all, she is counting on you.”
“Celestia? I reckon she’d expect an Ursa Major showing up to break her out personally more likely than me rescuing her.”
“Not her. Rainbow Dash.” There was silence for a moment. “You know, they had to drag her off from you. I was too addled by the wish's side-effects to fight back, and Celestia surrendered, but she took down at least five guards before they managed to bind her.”
“Why didn’t she fly off?”
“I’d think the answer would be obvious, Braeburn," he said, looking rather pointedly at me.
I shook my head. “Nonsense. What would she see in a pony like me? She was probably just trying to defend Celestia.”
“Believe what you will,” he said. “But I know what I saw, and I saw a pegasus pony defending-”
Knock, knock, knock. I glanced up at the cell's door. "Sorry, we're changing in here. Come back later?"
I heard a brief, whispered discussion on the other side of the door, almost certainly of the common comic variety where one easily-duped guard takes the prisoner at face value and the other worldly-wise guard has to explain why you don't take orders from the prisoner. You know, the usual.
And then from the other side of the door, "Good. We got the right door, just like you said."
The door swung open, and on the other side stood Applejack and Big Mac, in the most ill-fitting guards-ponies' outfits I'd ever seen; I could see a palace-slave standing right behind them. "You couldn't have gotten an outfit that actually fit?" I said, tongue in cheek. Truth be told, they were the best ponies I'd ever seen in my life at that moment, and I wanted to get up and leap for joy. But Applejack would probably have worried sick if I’d had any other reaction to her showing up.
"You'd be surprised how many pairs of guard-ponies there are walkin' around that happen to be one little pony and one big pony. There aren't many."
"Oh, really? I thought they were running around all the time in comedies."
"This ain't a comedy. If this is anything, it's one of those terrifying supernatural tragedies where hearts get broken by lil' dragons," she said with a frown. I shut up. She had a point. "Now come on. Trixie's going to be gone in an hour, and we need to get y'all out of here before she leaves." Another slap in the face, courtesy of that treacherous mule. This one was indirect, but it still hurt like blazes.
"An hour?" I said, looking over to Whooves. That wasn’t much time, but it had to be enough. "I think I... no, we, we can work with that."
"Only if we get out of here now," Applejack said. Big Mac produced a set of keys from his belt, stepping into the cell to start unlocking our chains.
"How many apples do you have, Applejack?"
She must have caught something in my voice, because she snapped back at me, "Not near enough to fight our way out of here, Brae. Just look suitably prisoner-like, right?"
"We need to help Celestia," I said. "And Rainbow."
"You kidding, Braeburn?" Applejack said, looking at me like I'd lost my wits. "I know they're pretty, but you need to be using your head at a time like this!"
"I am! I mean, I am. And I think we need to fix this. Like it or not, Applejack, something's wrong here. I trust the Doctor on this - he says this situation is pretty bad, though I'm still not sure if he's all right in the brain-pan."
"Thanks," he said.
My cuffs fell to the ground, and I rubbed at my hooves. "Good,” I said. “Now, as long as we've got some apples and our wits, there's no force in the world that can stop us." I had to believe that. I had to.
"He's right," the slave said from behind Applejack, startling me. I knew that voice, with the exotic accent. "We need to help Celestyia. Flutteryshy isn't being right in the head, and scaries us. You need to help us."
"Oh, Derpy!" Whooves cried, starting up from where he was sitting. He stopped short, because Big Mac wasn't done unshackling him, but his grin was almost ear-to-ear. "Brilliant! I knew you'd come back for me."
"You know her?" All us Apple folk asked at the same time.
"I ran into Doctory," she said. "He was nice."
"You did run into me again. Funny how that works." He laughed. "Oh, that's just the best. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant!"
"You feeling all right, Doc?" Applejack asked, with a look that clearly said she believed he wasn’t.
"Better than all right! Completely unstoppable! No force in the world, he said, or beyond it - and he's right. We've got my brains, Braeburn's heroics, Big Mac's unusual size, your apples, and Derpy's... companionness." Derpy blushed, and the Doc, stammering, hastily amended it. "Not that kind of companion. Unless Fluttershy is looking for a harem, but that's out of character for the-" He broke off, holding his hooves to his head, whimpering in pain for a moment. Big Mac was there for him, keeping him up. "Okay. Not a good idea, not good at all. I'm not supposed to know that."
He looked to me, and everypony's gazes just sort of followed his. For a moment, I felt terrified, overwhelmed, completely incapable. I'll be honest - I wanted to run away for a moment, just so that everypony would stop looking up to me. I'm not a hero, I just play one on the stage.
But then I saw a rainbow mane in my mind's eye, and being so close to death right there at Fluttershy's horn, and my mind supplied plenty of images of Rainbow Dash tied up in a cold, cramped cell, unable to spread her wings, unable to cry out for help-
That did it. I felt something I hadn't really ever felt before. We Appleutians, we don't anger easy. At least, on my Ma's side of the family, we don't. I think I could count the number of punches I've thrown on my own hooves. But the thought of her in danger lit a fire somewhere down deep, in a part of my brain-pan that drove all the rest in order and gave quiet, forceful commands. Suddenly, I wished that I had all the apples in the world, and a nice strong pair of legs to kick them with.
"Right. Derpy- is that your name?" She blushed even harder beneath her veil.
"Ditzy Dyoo. Derpy isn't very nice, please."
"Right, Ditzy. Do you know where everypony's locked up in here?" She shook her head.
“Too specific, okay. Do you know where an important prisoner would be kept?" She thought for a moment, eyes staring off independently like those of a ponderous chameleon, and then nodded her head.
“They’d be kept in the lower cells. That’s where the bad prisoners are kept. Behind the vault dyoors,” she said. “Down the stairs, and down again.”
"Thank you, Ditzy, that’s all we need. Well, that, and my coat."
"And mine," chipped in Whooves. "That's where I keep some of my more interesting toys. If you want me to assist in this rescue mission, we're going to need that."
"Okay, okay, you can do this, Braeburn," I said to myself under my breath. "Derpy, you take Whooves to go get our stuff, and then meet us down at the lower cells. Cousins, you're coming with me. We're going to go rescue them." Big Mac nodded, but Applejack shook her head.
"It's crazy," she said. "Look at me. Have I ever told you a lie?" I shook my head. "Good. Now, believe me when I say this, this is crazy. There's no chance we could fight our way through all those guards."
"Then take me there. Down to the lower levels. You've already got guard-pony outfits, you can be taking me to the important cells at Fluttershy's orders. And then... well, we'll have Celestia on our side getting out."
"A Celestia who's missing all her power," Applejack pointed out. "And a pegasus guard. That's not gonna save us when we've got all the palace guards breathing down our necks."
"Yes, it will!" I said, certain of it. "Because we are the heroes, Applejack! Did Lir give up when Amalthea was attacked by the Red Bull? Did Manedrake give up when his nemesis stole his girlfriend and framed him for theft?"
"Those are characters, Braeburn," Applejack said pleadingly. "You can't just mix up reality with the kind of stories we do on stage."
"Why not?" I said, and then it hit me. "Everything else seems to be."
"What in tarnation's that supposed to mean?"
"...Something very important that I can't quite seem to explain at the moment." I mean, I could have launched into a long, rambling, half-aware summary of Spike's adventures that I had pulled out of thin air and a comparison with our play and so on and so forth with the false Prince and the Sultana's overthrowing, but I probably couldn't have summarized it with any decency in time to save everypony. “Are you going to work with me or not? Because I promise you, Applejack, that I am going to go save Celestia, and then I’m going to save Rainbow Dash, and to round things out I’ll save Spike and Twilit Glory, too! And then I’m going to stop Fluttershy and save the kingdom!” I realized that everypony was staring wide-eyed at me now, and my knees started to shake, but I must have kept that feckless hero look for long enough to convince them.
Ditzy started clapping. I think that was what caused Whooves and Big Mac to nod, and Applejack to shake her head and mutter something about crazy lovelorn ponies. But I knew, right then and there, that I could trust them to the end.
“And that’s our cue, Der- Ditzy,” Whooves said. “Let’s go. Allons-y!”
“Is that French?” Applejack asked as he dashed past her, all smiles and vim and vinegar, all the grimmness and alien mien vanished as quickly as it had come.
“No, that’s Lesser Assyrian. Yes, it’s French!” He grabbed Ditzy’s foreleg and pulled her along, and I swear that if she was blushing any harder her veil would spontaneously combust.
That left Applejack and Big Mac. I took a deep breath, rolling my shoulders and trying to get my battered old body to do what I wanted it to do. “Ready, cousins?”
I looked at Applejack, and she returned the stare for a moment, before sighing. “As ready as I’ll ever be, you crazy pony.”
I’ll skip over the trip through the prison down to the lower levels. Big Mac had me thrown over his burly shoulders, and I was doing my best impression of someone who’d been knocked out by a flying crown. This seemed to convince the guards we passed, seeing as Celestia must have been hiring based on muscles and not brains. And it worked, up till the point where we had to bluff our way past some actually competent guards.
It went like this: Applejack and Big Mac finally made their way down to the big iron door behind which was sure to be only the most important of prisoners, and the guards there said sternly, "Halt!"
Applejack stepped forward. "Well, partners, just need to throw this here miscreant into the cells, uh, sir. Sultana's orders."
"Rank and password?" The guard replied.
"What? I mean, uh, they changed the password. Didn't you hear?"
"No. Please give yesterday's password, then."
"They just told us to come here and drop him off. In a cell next to that little rainbow pegasus. Didn't say nothin' about no password."
There was a moment of silence, and I was half-tempted to open my eyes and see what was going on, but I was doing my best unconsciousness impression and I wasn't going to spoil the effect now. Then, I heard: "Very well. We'll take possession of the prisoner and install him in the required cell."
"What? Oh, no, you can't do that. They were pretty clear on that." Applejack was starting to sound pretty desperate, and I think they noticed.
"Who gave you these orders, exactly?"
"Um, uh, well, you see, Big Mac here, uh..." Then I heard the sound of an apple smacking a guard-pony in the face. "Get 'em, Big Mac!"
"Eee-yup." Now, I was ready to jump down and try grappling with one of the guards, giving Applejack time enough to pull out her apples. But Big Macintosh proceeded to pull me off his back and throw me into a guard-pony. Literally, just one smooth movement, straight from his back into the guard’s face. I mean, I know that I'm useless when it comes to fighting, but that was just downright inconsiderate. Then again, by the time I'd shaken the stars out of my eyes, three more of the guards were lying down in a pile around Big Mac. You don't mess with Big Mac.
Applejack proceeded to apple another of the guards, and that was that. She was sweating something fierce, and I was staggering a bit from my collision, but we'd managed better than I'd hoped. Applejack looked at me, picking up a set of keys from a guard's belt. "Listen, Braeburn, there'll be more coming sharpish. We made enough noise just now to wake the dead, never mind the guards. So here, take these, go get Celestia, and we'll do what we can to keep a escape route open for ya."
"Eee-yup," Big Mac said with a nod.
She tossed the keys to me, and I caught them. "Right!" I turned to the doors, and pushed on them, but they were locked. Huh, I said to myself, never would have seen that one coming. I started pawing through the keys, looking for a key to open the doors, but Applejack just reached out and pulled one of the doors open, giving me a "my-cousin-is-so-dumb" look.
"Whoops. Heh. Sorry."
The difference between the high-class cells and the cells I'd been trapped in was like comparing a dragon to a lizard. These were the ones with bars on the bars, and iron doors with complicated-looking locks, and arcane seals carved into the walls. Fumbling with the keys, I approached the first one that looked like it was actually being used. I pulled open the door a crack, only to see a maw chock-full of dull crystalline teeth beneath two burning eyes on the other side. The thing on the other side screamed at me, spittle flecking its lips, and rattled its chains so vigorously I thought they'd break. I slammed the door shut, leaning against it for good measure.
Blow me down, this was the kind of place they kept vermin like the Diamond Dog? And they'd locked up Celestia here? That's just downright evil.
The second cell was empty, while the third contained a pegasus strung up from the ceiling in a muzzle and enough ropes to rig a dhow. I mean, there's security, and then there's just trussing somepony up for the sake of it. But she was white, not blue and rainbow-haired, so I apologized for my hurry, and left the door open for her. I think she complained, but what would you have me do? Every moment left my friends in greater danger. Fourth door - nope. Fifth door - sun-and-moon, close it, close it! Sixth door - just a pony in an iron mask. By this point, I was starting to panic, so it was like heaven itself when I wrenched open the seventh door and saw Rainbow inside.
She was huddled up in the corner, doing her best impersonation of a pill-bug, and she glanced up with red around her eyes as I opened up the door. Those eyes, those beautiful eyes, sprang open wide as I dashed in, looking for the right key to unlock her chains. "B-braeburn?"
"Yep, that'd be me,” I said. Her face broke into a weak smile, and she leaped up with a clatter of chains.
“Well, about time you got here! I was wondering if I’d have to pull off a Sonic Rainboom to break out of here. I could have, you know. It would have been awesome.”
“My friends are trying to bust us out, so would you happen to know whereabouts Celestia is? It's kind of important."
“Oh, no, you didn’t come down here for her? You did, didn’t you?”
“Look,” I said, “I came here to save everypony. I wouldn’t leave her behind any more than I’d leave you.”
“But you just missed her!” She pointed back outside. “She was taken up to stand trial just an hour ago!” Well, that was just fantastic, wasn’t it? So much for breaking out of prison and high-tailing it.
"Braeeeeburn!" I jerked my head up - that was Applejack yelling for me. "Hurry up!"
"Give me a sec, okay? I’m not a locksmith- ah, horse apples!” I dropped the keys, and before I could pick them up Rainbow had them.
"Honestly, just let me." She flipped through them in a blur, trying each in turn in the time that it would have taken me to try one. My jaw might may dropped a bit, because she chuckled that special kind of chuckle you do after you've been crying. And then the lock clicked, and she shook off the chains. "My turn to save the day!" She blurred past me, blowing my hair about, and took off down the corner. I heard the crack of air blown about far too fast, and I trotted out after her, still seeing a rainbow afterimage in my eyes.
"Wow, that was cuuuute!" I turned slowly, one of my eyes twitching slightly, to see Pinkie Pie, that Fury-of-romance, returned from Hades to torment me. "I knew you could do it! So what are you going to do now, Braeburn, huh?"
"Rescue Celestia? Set right what's gone wrong? Not talk to you?"
"That's not very nice, frowny-pants," she said, bouncing over me. "But I forgive you! Because you're trying to escape from prison, you know, and that’s got to be really stressful, so after you escape you should probably have a party of some kind! Parties are fun, just like escaping from prison isn’t!" Her legs twitched, and her eyes somehow managed to open up even wider as she gasped. "Hey! Something cool's going to happen in a minute! But you need to go back to the exit right now to see it, okay?"
I'm not ashamed to say, by that point, that I was already half-way down the hallway. I’d run the moment she was distracted. I heard her behind me, going, "Hey? Where'd you go?"
I skidded to a halt at the entrance to the fancy prison cells. The reason for that was the fact that there were a large assortment of pointy objects leveled at me. Big Mac was currently being held down beneath about a dozen guards, and Applejack and Rainbow Dash were both being held at swordpoint. And all eyes turned to me as I came to a halt.
I chuckled, nervously. "Well. Looks like this went well. Couldn't even rescue the princess in distress. Some kind of hero I turned out to be."
“Told ya,” Applejack said. I’m pretty sure the swords were the only reason she hadn’t beaten the guards black and blue for knocking off her hat, but she was doing her best to burn my head off with the force of her glare.
"Give it up," the lead guard-pony said to me. He was a big brown horse with a weight as his cutie-mark, and he was currently holding a spear in a very threatening gesture pointed at me. "We have the fillies, and your giant, too."
Now, I was going to raise my hooves and surrender, on the condition that they didn't hurt my cousin or Rainbow, but that was the moment that, in the words of that pink menace, 'something cool' happened.
That something cool was the firecracker that got lobbed into the center of the mass of guards. Everypony, including me, looked down at it with a horrified expression. And then everypony looked back at the swaggering pony coming towards us, as cool as ice. Whooves grinned. "I've only got one suggestion for everypony: run."
And that's when the firecracker exploded, and chaos erupted in the room. Something came hurtling towards me, but before it could hit me, I was knocked clean off my feet. As my eyes spun about, trying to find something to focus on, I heard that infuriating giggle. Pinkie Pie was right on top of me, grinning wider than I thought possible. "Whoopsie-daisy. You'd better look out when there's explosions, okay?"
"Get off of him!" That's when an orange blur knocked into the pink pony, knocking her off of me.
“Look, I think we’re all on the same side here,” I said, but that didn’t seem to stop things. What did was Whooves poking his head into the door, with a cheshire-grin, Ditzy and Big Mac behind him.
“Secret passage?” Applejack and I asked at the same time. He, in his immeasurable smugness, waited to pull out and light another firecracker, lobbing it back behind him without a second glance, before answering.
“Secret passage, yes. Turns out that there’s a way up into the imperial gardens from one of the cells down here.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
He nodded back to Ditzy, who was - I now noticed - wearing my hat and jacket. “Well, we do happen to have someone who actually listens on our team. Team? Band of brothers? Fellowship? Party? I’m sure there’s a better word.”
“It’s dyown here,” she said. “Do we have everypony?”
“Where’s Rainbow Da-” I didn’t quite get to finish, because that’s when a rainbow blur shot out of the chaos. She halted in mid-air effortlessly, looking down at me with a grin.
“I’ve wanted to beat up those punks for years!” I wasn’t sure that was the most mature use of being a wanted criminal, but I wasn’t going to complain.
“Now, to the secret passage!” Whooves said with a dramatic flourish. “Which is, if I’m correct, going to become much less of a secret in a moment!”
The most embarassing thing was that it was in the same cell with the white pegasus. We all crammed into it. Whooves and Ditzy started going over the wall in the back of the cell, tapping at random stones, while Big Mac stood in front of the door. I doubted anything short of a dragon could have knocked the door down.
Fact: eight ponies, one of them a towering paragon of strength, cannot fit into a prison cell comfortably.
“Move over, Braeburn!”
“I’m trying! Doc, what’s taking so long?”
“Give me a moment, I’ll find it, just a moment.”
“Ooooh! Can I help? I love looking for things! What’s it look like?”
“Why in blue blazes is she in here?”
“Shouldn’t we let her loose?”
“No time, and no pointy things to cut her loose with! Whooves!”
“Look, genius takes time, give me time-”
“Hold it up, Big Mac! Shouldn’t be more than a moment!”
“Maybe up hyere?”
“Will everypony stop talking?”
“Where’s the fun in that? Talking’s fun, as long as it’s talking between friends, and we’re all friends here, right? Well, I hope we’re all friends, because being stuck in a room with meanie-pants is never any fun!”
“Can we throw her outside?”
“You’d have to unchain her from the ceiling, first-”
“Somepony’s wing is poking my back, will you kindly stop-”
“Look, I can’t really move either, so you can-”
“Got it!” There was a click, and the scrape of stone on stone, and all eyes turned to the Doc, who was now standing in front of an opening in the wall. “Allons-y!”
Following his cue, we started to stampede out. Rainbow Dash, Big Mac and I were the last ones out, and before we stepped through I turned to Rainbow Dash. “Shouldn’t we at least let her loose? I did say I was going to save everypony, after all.”
“She’ll be fine. She’s the palace storyteller - and she liked telling stories about Fluttershy. And me.”
“Ah. Well, that doesn't sound too-”
“Let’s go already!” She took me by the hoof and shot off down the corridor, leaving Big Mac to close up the passage behind us.
Exit Braeburn, stage left.
Chapter 6 - Celestia.
Truth be told, I’m terrible at making plans.
When we stumbled out into a lush palace garden, blinking in the bright sunlight, we didn't immediately start running off to save the Sultana. Instead, we just generally milled around for a moment, uncertain of what to do or where to go. Once my eyes adjusted to the sunlight and I could see straight again, I gathered what remained of my wits, and focused on the problem at hand. To wit: Fluttershy would probably be executing Celestia and Twilit Glory any moment now. Maybe she’d just banish them, but if there’s anything a power-mad tyrant loves, it’s executions. Now, if I had a crack team of palace guards-ponies ready to go save the Sultana, that wouldn't be an insurmountable problem, but I had three capable fighters, a magician with a head problem, and a slave with an eye problem. And, I added, wincing inside, a little pink menace who was currently attempting to talk Applejack's ears off. Maybe it was cowardly of me, but I was actually rather happy she'd stopped paying attention to me. Applejack had tougher ears than I did.
I turned to Ditzy, who was fluttering at shoulder height, looking back at the secret tunnel and looking at the gardens at the same time. Poor dear – how many people just saw the eyes when they looked at her? I mean, I sure did when I first met her. "All right, I think I've got a plan. But can I have my clothes back, first?"
Ditzy gave me a sad look, like I’d just given her a puppy so I could kick it. "I like these. They're good clothes." And, truth be told, they did look better on her than the gauze-and-gold palace attire.
"Yes, I know they're good. Which is why I want them back!"
Ditzy proceeded to flutter just out of my reach, continuing to give me that sad, hang-dog look. "Nice clothes. I keep them, please."
I sighed and shrugged my shoulders. "Fine, you can keep them. It's hotter with them on, anyway."
"...Yeah, really. I hate the heat here."
The next thing I knew, Ditzy was giving me a hug. I didn't even glance at Rainbow Dash before returning it - if she was the kind of mare who'd get jealous at that, then it would be yet another horrid judgment of character on my part, and I’d get my foolish young heart broken again. You know, like usual. But after Ditzy broke off, and fluttered over to boast to Whooves about her new clothes, I sneaked a look at her.
She was smiling the kind of smile you only smile when you think that the sap you're smiling at won't get to see you see that kind of smile, the kind of smile that you get when you see kittens playing with a ball of yarn and think they're just the cutest things in all of creation. You know, that kind of smile. And she shook herself and looked stern again quick enough, but I saw that smile, and she knew that I saw that smile, and that made all the difference in the world.
I think that's the moment when I well and truly fell for her, honest-to-Celestia. Anypony can be cool and excitable and gorgeous, but a man's heart is looking for another heart that it can be paired up with, and I saw hers for just a sec, underneath the bravado.
"Plan," Whooves said, interrupting my lovestruck reverie. "We need a plan. Because I figure that we have twenty minutes to leave the area before the palace guards get here. Just a rough estimate, based on the layout of the palace and the average speed of a pony."
"We go stop Fluttershy," I said. "That's a plan, right?"
"And how in tarnation are we going to do that, cousin?" Applejack asked. I looked Whooves square in the face. Maybe he couldn't say things outright, but a man's body has ways of telling things that his tongue can't, and I needed his advice on this one.
"How'd she get her power? Come on, we all know this one, just tell me," I said.
"The genie," Rainbow Dash said.
“The lamp,” Ditzy said. Whooves perked up at that, and I nodded.
"Whoever's got that lamp has control of the big white menace. We get it back, we wish for everything to be put right, bingo, end of problem."
"That's nice and all, but how are we going to get it? That's what we need a plan for." Applejack pulled an apple from her bag as she said that, tossing it thoughtfully.
"We'll make that up as we go,” Rainbow Dash said. “Come on, we don't have that much time!"
"She's right,” Whooves said. “We're losing our window of opportunity, and if we don't act now it'll shatter into a million pieces. Allons-y!"
So we left, heading into the palace. What else could we do? Ditzy led the way, running instead of flying. Given what little I'd seen of her flying, that was probably a wise choice. Rainbow Dash, too, kept to the ground, easily keeping pace with Applejack. And the little pink one just hopped along, easily matching my own speed.
We met some guards along the way to the throne room. I'll skim over this part, because it was mostly Rainbow Dash and Applejack slamming into them before they had the chance to sound the alarm. I couldn't help but wonder if we were just saving up a whole world of hurt for ourselves if we failed, given how many enemies we were making among the palace staff. But after ten minutes or so, we got to the throne room, and found something we weren't expecting at all.
Ditzy stopped us before we turned the last corner, and pointed us in that direction. "Guards," she said. "Be careful."
Whooves started pulling out another one of his firecrackers, but Applejack slapped his hoof down. "What are you thinking?" she hissed at him. "We'd have that crazy pony breathing down our necks before it finished exploding!"
"Applejack's right," I said, "We need stealth and subtlety to get close enough to Fluttershy."
"Do you hear something?" Rainbow Dash asked. "I think I hear somepony saying something." Truth be told, I could hear something as well, but I'd dismissed it as not being worth paying attention to at that point. It did sound like somepony giving a speech, and I wondered if we were about to arrive at the hind-end of the trial.
"How're we going to get into the throne room?" Big Mac asked. "It's not like we have two Rainbows." It was then that I got a wonderful idea.
"But we've got Ditzy," I said, a grin spreading across my face. "She can warn them that there are some miscreants over thataway, and that she needs their immediate assistance. Then they run off, and ta-da! No guards. But first I'll need my hat and jacket back," I said to her. She frowned.
"Can I have them back?" she asked with a slump in her shoulders. "Please?"
"Sure," I said. "But they'd look right funny on you, at least to the guards." She shrugged off the jacket and tossed off my hat, and passed them to me. Then she trotted quickly around the corner, and immediately began shrieking up a storm.
"Intruders! Brigyands! Thieves! Oh, help! They need help that way, please!" Then we heard the clop of hooves on stone, receding off into the distance. I peeked around the corner.
"One left. Rainbow Dash?" She grinned, and trotted back slightly, then surged forward with that now-familiar speed, zipping around the corner. We galloped after her. Poor guard never stood a chance - he was busy reassuring Ditzy that the bad, bad ponies weren't going to hurt her, honestly, and then Rainbow Dash tackled him right into a wall. There was an awful clanging, one that was rather prolonged as she dropped him on the floor, and I winced.
"Shoot. Now she's bound to know we're here. Okay, Applejack, apples out and ready. Rainbow Dash - I'm counting on you to try and get the lamp. If she doesn't make it, everypony, do your best to make a grab for it and-"
Ditzy opened the massive throne-room doors a crack and stuck her head through. Then she looked back at us. "Everypony's watching the play. It's good."
"Hang on," I said, as quietly as I could. "The play?"
"Yes," she said. "The play!" Then she slipped through the doors. I lunged forward, caught the door before it could slam shut, and then urged everypony through. Big Mac was the last one through, and I closed the door shut quietly behind him. "Look," I whispered, "Can you keep the doors shut? Make sure nopony comes in or out?" Nod. "Okay. Good luck." I turned from the door, realizing for the first time that I was backstage.
They'd moved the entire stage into the throne room, backstage and all. I suspected Fluttershy was to thank for that fact. Good thing that the room was absolutely massive, large enough to contain the stage - and good thing, too, that it blocked the audience's view of the throne-room doors.
"Okay," I hissed to our assembled group, "New plan, new plan. We go get disguises from backstage so we can sneak up to Fluttershy and get the lamp."
"Sounds good," Whooves said. "I'll go get that dark Mulish coat I wore in my last- my last performance, in that performance in Coltstantinople. I could pass as nobility in that."
"Let's hurry," Applejack said. "Sounds like they're already in the third act."
So we scurried backstage, hoping we wouldn't be noticed. Thankfully, there was only one stage-pony between us and the costumery: Cheerilee, a delightful pony who was in charge of watching the performance and being ready with a prompt if necessary. She looked up as we sneaked up the back stairs, and her eyes widened. Before she could give a shriek, Applejack raised her hoof to her mouth and shook her head. Cheerilee, eyes wide, nodded for us to go. B'sun-and-moon, there comes a time when a pony just loves being an actor. No other profession in the world breeds such trust with one's compadres.
As I passed, she stopped me, placing a hoof on my shoulder. "Braeburn," she said as quietly as she could, "What are you doing here?"
"Saving the Sultana. Is she here?" Cheerilee nodded.
"Yes! The Sultana's watching the play. She was the one who insisted that we perform in here, you see, and-"
"No, I mean the old Sultana. Celestia."
"Oh! I'm sorry," she said, and my heart stopped beating for a moment. No! I couldn't have been too late! All this, for nothing? I couldn't save her. I wasn't a hero after all, and all this had just been stupid play-acting. "Our new employer brought her up here to see the play with her. She's with the prince, a captive audience, if you will." My heart started beating again, and I restrained the urge to shake Cheerilee by the neck. That wouldn't be very chivalrous of me, and she really does do her best. "But she's under guard, and magic-less, and under the new Sultana's watch! You can't possibly save her," she said, and she believed every word of it. I could tell, and that hurt my spirits a bit. But you can't give up before the end of the third act, otherwise, what's the point?
"Yes, I can, and I will," I said. "Does she have the lamp?"
"Around her neck, hanging from a necklace." I sighed. That would be a pain to steal, but we'd have to find some way of doing it. Or, I told myself, yet another bolt of inspiration hitting me, I could use my wits to trick her, just like the evil magician in the play who's convinced that he can have all the power in the world if he becomes a genie. If worst came to worst, I could use that as a weapon. Words are always the best weapons, I find.
"Thank you, Cheerilee. And," I added, "If things go south, if we fail - get Rarity and get out of here, all right?" Rarity. That ringed a bell, and just as she turned to leave I asked quickly, "Oh, and Spike? Is he all right?"
"You don't know?" Oh. Oh, gods, no. Don't tell me that Trixie banished Spike already- "Trixie's got him locked up. Says he's going to pay for making her look like a fool." Blast it, Cheerilee, I said to myself, stop giving me these panic attacks!
"Thank you. Remember: get out. Don't stop to be a hero, all right?"
"Okay," she said back. "You're already doing that for us." And she gave me a weak little smile.
I should have gone over to get a disguise, but I couldn't stop being a gosh-darned hero. I turned, trotting over to where Trixie would have him locked up. There was only one place she'd keep him – her wagon. If Trixie had brought the stage back here, she would have pulled her wagon up onto the left wing, I knew it. And, indeed, she had. I crept over as quietly as I could, ducking behind props and watching carefully to make sure I wasn't seen by anypony. Even I couldn't trust the players to keep their lips shut when they saw me running around, after all, and the last thing we needed would be our cover being blown by yours truly. But I made it, somehow, right over to where I knew her wagon would be. And yes, I didn't think to go ask my compadres for help. In retrospect, this was yet another of my bad ideas.
Trixe's wagon was an old golden wagon, of the kind often used by solo performers. I'd heard that it was the first vehicle that ever belonged to the troupe. But over the years it had become too heavily modified to be counted among those carriages any longer – it was an imposing vehicle, and it often seemed to me to be bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. At least, it had the few times I'd gotten to take a look inside. I knew that it was locked, bolted and barred when Trix wasn't in it, and usually when she was, as well. Trix valued her privacy something fierce. I also knew, through methods and means that I will not get into here, due to them being downright embarrassing, that I could fit through the upper left window, which had a rusty latch that didn't close all the way. So I pulled a barrel over to the side of Trixie's wagon, looked around to make sure nopony was nearby, and nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw Ditzy was following me without a care in the world.
I waved her over and then said in a low hiss, “What are you doing here, Ditzy?”
“Doctor told me to follow you. And you've got my hyat.”
I looked around again, hoping to goodness that Trixie wasn't around. “Okay. Keep down, and if something happens to me, go get help. Don't fight anypony – just run and get somepony.” She saluted me with a determined look on her face, and I clambered up onto the barrel, pulling open the rusty latch and heaving myself up onto the windowsill.
It was not the most dignified thing I'd ever done, but to hay with dignity when there's a baby dragon to save.
Unfortunately, I only got about halfway in before coming face-to-face with a horrible phantasm that rose out of nowhere. After I most definitely didn't scream like a little filly, I noticed that it was Trixie, half-way through re-applying her stage makeup. She looked almost as uncanny as the genie with her face half-painted.
"Um," I said, slowly grinning, "Aren't you supposed to be out there, Trix? Doing the play thing?" I raised my voice as loudly as I could, so Ditzy would hear. Thank the stars that Trixie already thought of me as a loud twit with nothing in my brain-box.
"Braeburn," she said through gritted teeth, "What are you doing in my wagon? Aren't you supposed to be in jail?"
"Well, see, I just asked you the same thing. You're supposed to be out there, so I can sneak in and rescue one of my best friends, so could you just swagger off and go on-stage?" I tried scooting back a bit, but my hips caught on the window-frame. Blast.
I could hear something clanking, and I caught a glimpse of a cage hanging from the ceiling in the back. Spike was watching us now. The poor dragon looked all right, though she hadn't even put down any straw for him to lay on. He'd probably had to spend the whole night in that cramped thing, alone and afraid and guilty. I looked back at Trixie, my temper rising.
"Well, I see that not even Fluttershy could keep you from being a nuisance. Useless royalty, always shifting their problems to somepony else." Kind of hypocritical of you, Trix. "Well, I suppose I could always keep you here until it comes time to banish Spike from the troupe – I could always make it a two-for-the-price-of-one deal."
"And how're you going to do that, Trix?" I asked, pulling myself free of the window and down onto her floor. I shook myself, then rose up to my full height, looking down at Trixie. "If you hadn't noticed, I'm a sight bigger than you are, and just a mite angry."
"Was that a threat, Braeburn?" She asked, her voice shrill. Her eyes were wide, and she backed up slightly, just a teeny bit, but I saw it and knew that, for the first time, she was actually scared of me.
"I wish it didn't have to be, Trix, but I reckon that it was. Release Spike, and then get out of my way." For a moment, I thought that she was all bluster and no bite, that I'd defeated the legendary mistress of the troupe with nothing but the anger in my voice.
But then she said, with venom in her voice, "I am the great and powerful Trixie." Her horn glowed, and I didn't have time to stop her. Truth be told, I don't think I could have, given that the alternative was to try and brain her. Ribbons pulled themselves from costumes, her old Indian rope rolled out from the corner, and all of them glowed with her magic. "Not Trix. Never Trix."
Now, I'm not a unicorn, but I've never seen one move multiple objects at the same time – at least, I hadn't, not until Trixie really showed her stuff. She moved them in an elegant pattern, quickly, efficiently and gal-darned tightly. There's vengeance, and then there's what the buffalo call karma. In a few seconds, I resembled that pegasus we'd left down in the dungeons, trussed up tighter than a turkey.
Then the light around her horn vanished, and I collapsed to the floor, pretty much unable to move a muscle. She was panting, trembling slightly, and I realized that she hadn't had to use magic like that in ages. She knew every trick in the book, and how to pull them off efficiently and cleanly – but she still had the raw power to pull off a mass telekinesis. That was why she was in charge, and I was just her lead actor. Well, former lead actor.
Braeburn, I said to myself, you're an idiot. I know, I replied. And why do you only catch onto things after they've blown up in your face, I asked myself. Well, I replied back, because that's the lot of a feckless hero. Wish it weren't, but it seems to be the way things work.
"Trixie," I said aloud, "Please, just stop, just listen-"
"Sorry, Brae. You had your chance." She shoved one of her star-patterned handkerchiefs in my mouth, and pulled another around it, all while examining her hooves as if she didn't have a care in the world. Must be nice to be able to do things with magic, but we earth ponies get by with grit and luck and never-giving-upness. "And you failed. Miserably. So please, sit tight while the great and powerful Trixie finishes the performance of her life and then decides what exactly she'll do with you."
She leaned in close to me with a nasty grin. "I'm sorry, what was that? Sounded like 'sure thing, great and powerful Trixie, and by the way, I'm not worthy to lick your hooves' to me. Good thing you finally realized that! Took you long enough." She laughed, and swished her tail in my face a few times. "Now, excuse me. I need to finish getting ready in half the time. You really are so inconsiderate, you know." She turned back to her mirror, levitating up her makeup, humming a cheery little tune as she did so.
I found out, over the course of the next minute, that Trix doesn't do things by halves. I was completely and totally helpless, even moreso than Spike. At least he could try and call for help, I said to myself. I proceeded to accomplish nothing but getting sweaty and exhausted through struggling as Trixie finished her makeup. She swaggered over to the door, blew me a kiss as she stepped through, and then closed it behind her. The locks and bolts glowed purple, and the door was locked fast after her, leaving me in the dark with Spike.
There was silence for a moment, but for the sound of my breathing, heavy and muffled. Then, Spike said softly, "Thanks, Braeburn." Silence again. Then, "I guess I messed things up pretty bad, huh? I'm sorry. It's just... I wanted that part so bad, and I thought... she wouldn't miss it..." Spike was sniffling now, and I wished like blazes that I could tell him that I'd forgiven him. "And now, you're going to get banished, because I messed up. I'm so, so sorry, I am, it's all my fault." The kid broke into tears, and my heart darn near broke in two.
Then, from the window, I heard something that made my heart leap up and do a jig. "Braeburn? Oh my stars, that pegasus was right!" Applebloom was at the window, swaying unsteadily from side to side. She raised her forelegs, but couldn't quite get them over the sill. She scrambled for a moment, then looked down. "C'mon, everypony! Give me just a little more lift!" Once she got her forelegs through the window, she was able to tumble right in. She shook her head, dazed for a moment, then hopped right back up to her feet. "Don't worry, Braeburn, I know all about knots and suchlike!"
Fact: if there are two ways for Applebloom to pull a knot, one which tightens it like crazy and one which undoes it, she will always go for the first one. I grunted in protest as she pulled things tighter, and she squeaked out an apology. "Whoopsie, sorry, Braeburn. How's that..? Okay, maybe if I pull it this way...? How about this...? No, that’s not right...? Aha! There we go!” The scarves loosened, and I was able to scramble out of them and pull the gag out of my mouth. Bleh. Trixie's hankies tasted like glitter. Not that I know what glitter tastes like, but I reckon that if glitter had a taste, it'd be that taste.
“Okay. Applebloom, get that door unlocked. Trixie always leaves a key somewhere.” She saluted and dashed off to go search, leaving me to go get Spike.
“Hey, Spike,” I said, clambering up to unhook the cage from the ceiling, “That was a pretty low-down thing for you to do back there, but you know what?” I swung the cage down from the ceiling, and looked him in the eyes. This was going to be hard, but it needed saying, right now. “I forgive you. Okay? I understand, you just made the wrong choice, and I'm not going to hate you for it. Now, I expect you to apologize to Rarity for leading her on, all right?”
Spike nodded, his eyes wet, and I gave him a smile. “Chin up, kid. We'll save the day yet.”
“Got it!” Applebloom yelled from the other side of the room. “Door's unlocked, Braeburn!”
“Wonderful!” I said. “Now, if you could just-”
And that's when I heard all Hades break loose outside. Yelling, hollering, and the unmistakable sound of magic being fired off. I bolted for the door, throwing Spike's cage into Applebloom. “Sorry!” I said, and stopped for a moment as I pulled the door open. “Applebloom, get him to safety! Go with Ditzy, the grey pegasus wearing my hat, and get somewhere safe.”
“O-okay, Brae-” And then I was off, dashing onto the stage as quickly as I could, my hooves hammering just as loud in my ears as my heart.
The smoke from one of Whooves's firecrackers was clearing up, and the nobility that had been watching the play with Fluttershy were making a stampede towards the exit. Rainbow was tussling with Fluttershy, trying to get the lamp, but as I watched, Fluttershy tossed her off towards a wall. Rainbow hit it hard, sliding down the wall into a slump on the floor. Fluttershy turned to Whooves, her eyes glowing bright pink. “You!” She screamed, her voice high and... well, a little bit frightened.
It was a frozen tableau down there: Whooves standing before Fluttershy, his fool head raised high and proud; Applejack and the guards-ponies loyal to Celestia grappling with those loyal to Fluttershy, with Fluttershy's two prisoners in the midst of the brawl, and – my eyes kept coming back to her – Rainbow, lying in a heap on the floor.
“This is going to keep happening.” Somepony's voice rang from the rafters, echoing loudly, and it took me a moment to realize it was mine. “One day, Fluttershy, you won't be so lucky.” I hopped down off the stage, ignoring Trixie's screaming at me, and stared her down. “Somepony's going to get their hands on that lamp, no matter how well you guard it. Because, really, you're only second-best.”
“What?” Fluttershy's attention was all on me. Actually, everypony's attention was on me, even those nobles who were still in the room.
“That power's not yours, not really. It's on loan. And one day, you'll have to pay the interest on it.”
“Explain!” That was a command, sharp and taut with fear.
“Who gave you that power, Flutters? Who can take it away just as easily? The genie did. You think you've got power? He's got power pouring out of his ears, more power in his left ear than you've got in your whole horn. And one day, somepony will get lucky. Maybe while you're asleep, maybe when you're raising the sun, maybe while you're in the bath. They'll take it, and whose head will be the first to roll, you think? Face it, all that power's on loan from the pony with the real power.”
She thought for a moment, the pink glow fading from her eyes. Then, she said, as quietly as when I'd first met her, “Do you think I'm stupid?”
“Sorry?” I asked, taken aback.
“That's the oldest one in the book. Even I know that one. You wish to become a genie, then you're stuck in a lamp for a few thousand years. I'm not stupid, you know. I was top of my grade when I finished school.”
“Well, um...” I suddenly felt very small. “Yeah, I thought that would work. Sorry.”
“Do you know what the moon looks like, Braeburn?” I gulped.
“That big silver disc? Yeah, I've looked at it from time to time.”
“Well,” she said, smiling, “You're about to become much better acquainted with it.”
“That ain't going to happen, sugarcube,” said Applejack. She brushed the hair out of her face and stepped in front of me. “You ain't harming a hair on my cousin Braeburn's head, you hear? Because he's family, and so help me, I don't let nopony hurt my family.”
“Fine,” Fluttershy said, “I'll banish the both of you, and you can spend a thousand years trapped up there together.”
“No.” Fluttershy blinked, and I looked back at the stage. Rarity stepped down carefully from the stage, walking towards us. “If you want to banish them, then you'll have to banish me, too.” She stepped in front of me, eyes bright with courage.
“What?” Fluttershy said, taken aback. “Why would you want to protect him?”
“Applejack is my friend, and any cousin of hers is a cousin of mine. Besides, I abhor bullies.”
“Bullies?” Fluttershy tilted her head, looking curiously at her. “I'm not a bully.”
“Yes, you are,” Rarity said. “You get power, and what do you do with it? Terrorize those without any power to fight back. Why, if Celestia had acted so badly, all of Agrabay would be a hideous wreck by now. No, I implore you to reconsider.”
“That's right,” said Whooves. “It doesn't have to be this way. We attacked you without trying reason, and I'll admit that was wrong. I'm sorry that I didn't try to help you. But I won't let you harm Braeburn – out of all of us, he's only tried to do his best to help everypony who needed it.”
“That's right!” The pink menace jumped out of Whooves's coat pocket, bouncing her way up to Fluttershy. “Braeburn's the nicest nice pony there ever was, even if sometimes he's just a bit too serious, you know, and you're being really mean, Fluttershy, I mean, I know you are playing the villain, but you're starting to scare me, and I don't scare easily, you know, I just go hahahahaha but you don't seem to be laughing right now, so why don't you give a little giggle and let your worries disappear?”
There was a moment of hesitation, a moment where Fluttershy looked at the five of us, and then Celestia marched over to us, dragging her chains behind her. “Fluttershy, Grand Vizier of all Equestria, I hereby absolve you of all wrongdoing in this matter, on the condition that you release your usurped power immediately. Or, to put it another way, I forgive you.”
“What?” Twilit Glory asked, from the midst of the guards-ponies. “You forgive her?”
“Yes,” Celestia said softly. “None of this is her fault. Isn't that right, Tirak?”
A low chuckle filled the room, and mist began to pour from the lamp again. Fluttershy scooted backwards, as startled as any of us, as the genie took shape. That little pink menace squeaked, zipping her way behinds me. He looked down at us with those soulless night-sky eyes, continuing that dark, disturbing chuckle. “Perceptive as ever, your former majesty.”
“You have no power here,” Celestia said, as calm and quiet as ever. “I made sure of that.”
“Not unless I am called upon, my dear,” he replied. “And I have been called upon by three masters already. And now, I shall serve faithfully, to provide whatever my mistress requires.” He turned, and looked straight at Fluttershy. “Shall I destroy them in your name? Give the word, and they will trouble you no more.”
“But...” Fluttershy seemed lost and terrified for a moment, and the stars in Tirak's eyes flashed.
“Say the word! Bid me to kill them! Do you want to be banished, and imprisoned within your place of banishment? Do you want Celestia to regain her power? Do you want ponies to continue to ignore you, underestimate you, and use you as they will, or do you want to be respected and feared? All you need to do is tell me what you wish.” He smiled, and his teeth were all perfectly straight and sharp. “A simple wish.”
“Fluttershy,” I said. “We forgive you. And we're sorry that we took you for granted.”
“Huh?” Applejack said. I elbowed her in the side.
“We all forgive you. Me and Applejack and Rarity and Whooves and Celestia. Isn't that right, everypony?”
“Oh," Applejack said sheepishly. "Shucks, yeah, we forgive you.”
“It wasn't your fault.”
“Please, darling, we aren't angry at you!”
“They're all right, Fluttershy. You're important to us.”
“They're lying,” Tirak hissed. “None of them respect you at all. They're just afraid of you, of us, and they're trying to make you lower your guard. That's all! They're liars and cheats, and you'd be better off without them!”
"No, they ain't!" I turned, horrified to hear Applebloom. What in blazes was she doing there? I had told her to get to safety, galdarn it! She trotted up with Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, Spike and Ditzy following closely. "My sister Applejack's the honestest and most dependable of ponies, and if she says something, she means it. I don't know who you think you are, big white pony, but nopony calls Applejack a liar!"
"That's right!" said Scootaloo. "And Braeburn here is too dumb to lie!" She came right up next to me. "If he says that he forgives you, then he's ready to take you out on a date, because he's completely forgotten about-!" I may have shoved my hoof into her mouth, just a little bit.
And Ditzy set down Spike – still in the cage, I noted – next to me. Then she trotted up to Fluttershy, giving Tirak a glare as she passed him. She kneeled down next to Fluttershy, leaning her head in close. "Flutteryshy?"
"What... what do you want?" And that's when Ditzy kissed her. The veil got in the way a bit, and my hat got all up in Fluttershy's hair, but it was a kiss, all right.
"I love Flutteryshy, and this isn't Flutteryshy, with a horn and such meanness. Can you be Flutteryshy again, for your Ditzy?" I'm not sure who was blushing more, me or Fluttershy.
"L-lies," the genie said, turning and kicking aside Ditzy Doo. She skidded across the floor with a cry.
I started forward, yelling, "No!"
"Wish!" Tirak roared in Fluttershy's face. "Just say it! Command me to destroy them!"
"What?" He screamed. "Obey me!"
"No!" Now Fluttershy was standing up again, and Tirak had to back up to avoid getting stabbed in the eye. "How dare you hurt Ditzy? How dare you? Get back in the lamp right now, mister!"
"But... no, this cannot be, you are under my control..."
"That was a COMMAND, mister!" Tirak roared, slamming his hooves down on the ground hard enough to shatter the floor, but he was already turning back into mist and swirling back into the lamp. Fluttershy reached back to her mane, and with a click, her necklace fell from her neck. "You don't tell me what to do," she said, and then rushed over to Ditzy.
Applejack started forward, but Whooves stopped her. "Let Braeburn take it."
"What?" I said. "Are you crazy? Why don't you take it?"
"Remember what I said to you, Braeburn," Whooves said grimly. "You need to do this."
I looked to Celestia, and then I looked past her to where Rainbow Dash still lay, and I grit my teeth. "All right. I'll do it."
I stepped forward and picked up the lamp. Immediately, I saw – well, I saw myself sitting on Celestia's throne, Rainbow Dash clinging to me in one of those slave outfits. I saw Trixie, bowing to me, and Applejack telling me how much she respected me, how I'd finally made it big.
Naw, I said to myself, I'd probably ruin the whole country. Besides, respect needs to be earned, not bought. Fluttershy probably thought she had respect, after all, and she just came off as a big bully.
The image shifted. Now I could see myself as the richest pony in the world, more than rich enough to settle down and impress Rainbow Dash with my wealth. I could buy anything my heart desired, anything at all. And I saw myself the way I'd want to be: handsome and suave, well-dressed and clean.
But that wouldn't be the real Braeburn, I said to myself. I'm happy with just foolish, feckless old me. And I wouldn't buy Rainbow Dash, not for all the money in the world.
I opened my eyes, and rubbed the lamp. The mist poured out again, and Tirak manifested himself bare inches from my face. "Yes?" He said, his voice dangerous and low.
"I wish that Celestia's power was returned to her."
"Is that all? Think of how much I could give you. How much you stand to lose. I can help you, you know – I can deal weal as well as woe."
"I wish that Celestia's power was returned to her. Now."
"Done," he snarled. "Done and done, damn you!"
"Now, back into the lamp." With lighting and thunder, Tirak returned to the lamp, and I dropped it. "There. There, it's done. It's over."
"It can't be over, silly!" The pink menace was in my face again, and I stumbled back, blinking. "I mean, duuuuh, it can't end until the kiss! Don't you know anything about how these things work? Everypony knows it! The baddie's been defeated, and then the hero and the love interest get all gushy, and then everypony claps because it's the end!"
"So... would that be Fluttershy and Ditzy, or Twilit and Luna? I mean, it's certainly not..." Rainbow Dash. I stopped, turned away, trotted over to Rainbow as quickly as I could. It didn’t look like she was breathing, even though I couldn’t see any blood. Pegasi were light, and their bones were fragile, and being swung into a wall so hard-
"Rainbow Dash?" I said, quietly. "Tell me you're all right. We stopped Fluttershy. We saved Celestia. Everything's all right, so tell me you're all right, because I probably couldn't live with myself if I managed to get you killed, I mean, it was my own bleeding fault, I told you to go for it and you trusted me with your life, and it's all my fault, I shouldn't have trusted Fluttershy or made you come with us in the first place, and if I hadn't run off to go find Spike, I could have been there with you, and I don't know what I would have done but I would have found some way to save you. And now I can't anymore, and I didn't even get the chance to tell you that I was in love with you, which I was honestly going to do after we saved Celestia, but then again I would probably have been too much of a coward to tell you anyway, but it doesn't really matter now anyway, because I was so much of an idiot, and if I were to wish you back to life it would probably get twisted somehow so you'd be, I don't know, immortal or evil or something like that, or maybe even both at once, which wouldn't be good at all, because-"
"Braaaaaeeeeeeeburn!" I blinked, realizing for the first time that Rainbow Dash was glaring at me from the floor. "You talk too much."
"Oh? Oh, sorry, I'll-" And that's the part where she grabbed me by the hair and yanked my head down to hers.
Oh. Oh. That kind of talking too much. Right.
I guess Pinkie Pie got what she wanted, after all.
And then there was nothing but applause.
Chapter 7 - Rainbow.
That kiss was the most real thing in the entire universe.
I couldn't have told you, had you pulled me out of that kiss to ask me, whether north was up or down, which way the sun rose, or what my name was. All I knew was that the touch of her lips on mine was blindingly, wonderfully real, that the caress of her foreleg on my mane was like the sea stroking up against the shore, that the heat of her body pressed against me was burning like fire. Everything else in the world melted away, because it couldn't compare at all. It was like holding up a candle to the sun. My stomach twirled, my legs shook, and my head plain shut down, except for the parts of my brain-pan that were in charge of keeping me in that kiss. In short, it was the best thing ever.
What made me come to my senses was the cold breeze running down my back. It made me shiver, but in a good way. Rainbow Dash noticed, though, and she pulled away. I opened my eyes, blinking in the sudden darkness. I could barely see my hoof in front of my face, but that was enough to see the fright and confusion on Rainbow Dash's face, and I could feel her stiffen up under me. She wasn't quite looking at me, thank Celestia, but right past my shoulder. So, naturally, I looked up, too. The first thing I noticed was the surprising lack of the palace's white shining walls and the disappearance of its high, painted ceiling. The stars were out in the black sky, most unusually for early morning; the crescent moon's light overhead was bright and crisp, and the howling wind was cold. I looked back down at her, and started to try to explain that I really didn't have a clue as to what was going on. However, I was saved from having to do that by the sound of a firecracker going off behind us.
I turned, ready to chew out Whooves for setting off another of the blasted things, especially after we'd already stopped Fluttershy and returned peace to the world as we knew it, but it wasn't one of his firecrackers at all. It was the lamp, burning with a red light, hissing and roaring and screaming, spitting out sparks and gouts of magic. It was floating in mid-air, spinning about like a leaf caught in the wind, mad and dangerous and frightening.
One second, I was standing over Rainbow Dash - the next, I was on the ground under her, beneath her skinny wings spread over me, and I couldn't get out the words for her to save herself and just leave me. Even if I could, I doubt she would have listened. I wouldn't have, in her place.
After a long, loud moment, the glow faded away, and the lamp fell to the grass, still smouldering, bouncing and rolling until it finally stopped, and the last vestiges of its glow winked out of existence.
That's when it felt like my head darn near split open. I couldn't help crying out in pain - it was unlike anything I'd ever felt before. Through the red mist, I could hear Rainbow Dash screaming, right into my ear, and then beyond that so many more. I can't even metaphorize it. It just hurt.
Then it was done. Where a moment before I'd felt agonizing, blinding pain, now I just felt cold. In the sudden darkness and quiet, I took a deep, shuddering breath. It was cold, and it burned going down, and it kept me from going crazy. It occurred to me suddenly that I was a long way from home, and that Rainbow was quite literally lying on top of me. I could feel her breathing, one-two-three-four, like a startled rabbit, and I could feel her forelegs wrapped tightly about my neck. "It's going to be all right," I said quietly, not believing myself.
"Of course it is," she said. "I'm here to protect you." And she meant it. I smiled, and didn't make any move to get up. The wind tousled our manes, and the cold crept in down to the bones.
"Braeburn?" Rainbow Dash's voice trembled in the cold air.
"Why do I want to join the Wonderbolts and the Lions of Celestia?"
I thought about that for a moment. "Same reason I'm an actor and an apple-bucker, I reckon."
Then the night was banished by light, and the cold was beaten back by a soothing warmth, that chased out the cold and got my blood moving again. Unlike the angry red light of the lamp's last gasp, the light was a clean blue-white, coming from Celestia herself; unlike Agrabay's heat, it wasn't humid and dispiriting, but rejuvenating, like the hearth at home when the wind's trapped outside and you're sitting with your hooves up by the fire. My heart leaped to see Celestia back in her full glory again: giant stature, unearthly mane and all the other trappings of a goddess. I looked beyond her, seeing... well, pretty much everypony, all looking at Celestia for guidance. Applejack and Big Mac and Rarity were standing right next to Celestia with Applebloom and Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, Luna and Twilight were together, and Trixie stood with the players and the gentry, some of whom were looking remarkably common in the light. All of them were looking to the Princess, and all of them looked as confused and lost as I felt.
Except for one pony, who stepped into the middle of the clearing with a smug victory grin. "All right, are we all here? Present and accounted for? Don't worry if you're not feeling at your best, it's just a side-effect of a complete arcane sub-dimensional collapse, that and the return to your normal temporal path, synchronizing with the past three days, perfectly normal, just don't eat any kumquats for the next, well, let's say the next twenty-four hours and we shouldn't have any really adverse side effects. Now, priorities, priorities. Tirak! He's definitely a priority." Whooves knelt down next to the lamp, digging inside his coat for a moment before sighing and removing his hoof. Then he picked up the lamp and licked it. "Seal's not broken," he said, running his tongue over his lips. "That's good, that's absolutely brilliant, as long as we don't have any ponies with clever ideas coming in and trying to make a wish we're home and set. Wonderful. Now. Second priority. Explanation."
He didn't get the chance. Everypony started talking at once. From my rather terrestrial vantage point, I couldn't see much but a chaotic mass of ponies, all trying to get the Doc's attention. There, I could see Celestia, commanding everypony to remain calm, and there, I could see Trixie and Rarity arguing heatedly, and there, Applebloom and her friends, all crowded around Applejack. But what caught my eye most of all was a little yellow-and-pink blur, racing off towards the forest.
"What's going..." Rainbow Dash seemed frozen up, like a rabbit in front of a wolf, watching the crowd. You know the type as well as I do – they can do anything when their blood's pumping and their heart's racing, but then after passion's turn is done, they're lost. So I provided a direction.
"This is the Everfree Forest, right? Right on the brink of it, at least? I just saw Fluttershy run off, and-"
"By herself?" That got the old wings buzzing again – now she had a goal. "But she'd never – where's Ditzy – come on, Braeburn!" Off she shot, like an arrow from a bow, and I pulled myself up and galloped after her as quickly as I could, right into the forest.
Fact: forests are very easy to get lost in. Within two minutes, I'd already lost sight of Rainbow and Fluttershy, and when I turned around, I could no longer see the clearing. I pressed on anyway, because I wasn't about to just let either of those fillies down. So I trotted on, calling out for Fluttershy, and thought to myself. I'm not the most introspective of colts, but now I was thinking hard, trying to sort through my memories to figure out what was what.
I was far from home, and it was all Applejack's fault. Her and that play. A play for Celestia. Both my memories agreed on that. And... that's where things started to get muggy. Because I had left my home just to come see this play, at Applejack's insistence, and I'd come to watch and perform. I remembered both. And I couldn't decide which was stronger, which was more real.
I remember chatting away with Applejack about the harvesting season, and the best ways to plant apples, and the new varieties we'd been making back home. I remember talking with her about memorization and delivery and whether Beagle's plays were better than the collected works of Mo'ares. They both happened. That's the strangest thing. They both happened, and I remember both with crystal clarity. Well, not perfectly crystal, but with that haze that all memories have. Some ponies... well, I didn't have many memories of Rainbow in one of my lives, and none of Trixie. But I remembered Sheriff Silverstar and the buffalo tribes of Appleloosa as clearly as I could see the crowded streets of Agrabay.
It's a horrible thing, not knowing which part of your mind to trust.
After a few minutes of running through the forest, I heard the unmistakable, brash tone of Rainbow's voice, and headed towards it. As I got closer, I could hear quiet, dry sound of Fluttershy's weeping, though little more. To get over to them, I had to circumvent some thorn bushes, and when I say I circumvented them, I mean that I walked straight into them and then cussed the sky blue. They went silent, and I immediately regretted it. I cleared my throat as I circumvented the bushes properly. "Um... it's just me. Braeburn."
"Get over here, Braeburn!" Rainbow Dash, exasperated and snapping. I could almost hear her rolling her eyes.
"I-I can't..." Fluttershy, quiet and broken.
"It's just Applejack's cousin. He's nice." Ditzy, soothing, brave in a way I couldn't be.
"He's going to hate me." So soft, I had to strain to hear it.
"I promise I won't," I said. I finally cleared the bushes, and got a good glimpse of Fluttershy and Ditzy. They were huddled together beneath the branches of a great big elm; I stepped forward carefully, as slow as I could. "It's all right, Fluttershy."
"They're going to hate me now, everypony is sure to hate me."
Rainbow Dash glanced over at me, stage-whispering, "It's hopeless."
"I'll vouch for you," I said to Fluttershy. She looked up, and her eyes were big and tear-filled and I just wanted to run over there and hug her and tell her that everything would be all right. But Ditzy was doing that already, so I refrained. "Tirak was in your head, right? Messing about with your brain-pan." She nodded. "He tried to do that with me, too. And nearly got me." Well, that's a bit of a lie, but Fluttershy probably didn't need to hear that I'd shrugged him off easy. That would just crush her spirit, and I wasn't that cruel.
Rainbow Dash's eyes widened, and I realized that I hadn't told her about this. "Really? When did that happen?"
"While Fluttershy was fussing over Ditzy, and you were taking a nap." Ditzy was still wearing my hat, I realized. Well, she could keep it – she'd saved my hide back there, twice over. "I had to tell him to give Celestia her power back."
"Oh," she said, rather reservedly. I racked my brain-pan for something more to say.
"Um... oh, I want to thank you, Fluttershy. Because, if you hadn't made the right choice, we would have died. You stood up to him, whatever he was, and told him what was what. And you think we're going to be mad at you?"
"Yes," she said, nodding her head. "Because I was just awful. I... I can't go back. I'll live here in the Everfree Forest forever. That way, Celestia won't have to go to the trouble of banishing me."
"So you're going to banish Ditzy, too?"
"What? No! I 'd never, I wouldn't... I couldn't banish her."
"She wouldn't," Ditzy agreed, holding her tighter. "Not my Flutteryshy."
"Well, if you decide that you're going to banish yourself, I'll bet you bushels to barrels that Ditzy will come along, too."
"I would," she said, nodding her head in agreement.
"No matter what anypony thinks about you, Fluttershy, there's one pony who'll never leave your side. She trusts you, and you've got to be ready to repay that trust. When you were all crazy, who was looking out for you, trying to get help? She was. Trust me, Fluttershy – Ditzy's going to stick with you through thick or thin."
"Even if everypony else hates Flutteryshy," she said, "I'm going to love her, okay? So be brave?" Fluttershy stood up, her knees trembling, and put on a brave face.
"O-okay. I can do this," she said. "I'll just go back, in front of all those ponies, and tell them I'm sorry."
"I'll be there with you," Ditzy said. "Don't be afraid."
"I'll try," Fluttershy said, though she didn't sound confident at all.
"I know you can do it," Rainbow Dash said, jabbing her hoof into Fluttershy's side. The little pegasus jumped and gave a squeak, and Rainbow laughed. "C'mon! Just because you turned evil, doesn't mean that we can't forgive you!"
"In fact," I said, "We already did. And we're going to keep that promise. At the very least, I will, to the end."
"Okay," Fluttershy said, and she pulled herself up, into what she must have thought was a brave and confident pose. "Okay! I'll go back and apologize... to Princess Celestia herself... and that horde of ponies..."
Rainbow Dash glanced at me, shaking her head, and then began to push at Fluttershy from behind. Fluttershy had no choice but to move forward, and Rainbow laughed again. "Let's go, Fluttershy! No time to think about stuff like that!"
Fluttershy and Ditzy Doo started off, back what I hoped was the direction of the glade. I started to follow them, but Rainbow Dash turned and blocked me off. "Hey, Braeburn. We need to talk."
"Yeah?" I said, so eloquently. She was frowning.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry that it was just a stupid play. I'm sorry that it was just all scripted and part of the story. I'm sorry that-" She broke off, turned away. "Let's go."
"That kiss was real," I said. She didn't turn back to me. I looked down at the grass, and took a deep breath. I had to keep talking.
"I don't know what happened, but... I'm me, and I was me, and we're the same person. I've got some of my old memories back, I think, but... I still love you." There, it was said, hanging in the air. "And I'm not going to stop, just because you're not a guards-pony anymore. I mean, you do look good in that outfit, stunningly good, but that wasn't what caught my heart, well, not at first. I mean, it was the way you were so strong, so confident, and yet you weren't cruel – well, not too cruel, I will admit that it hurt when you nearly tore my hair out by the roots, but that was just you doing your job, and it's not like I haven't done worse on accident before, there was that one time with a razor and the sheriff that left him wearing a hat for a couple of months, and you'd still look rather fetching in a hat, nothing wrong with hats, except I don't have mine anymore, though that was for a good cause, and Ditzy looks pretty good in it, not that I'm saying she looks better than you, it's just that her costume wasn't really the most modest, and a nice warm jacket is sure to be good on these cold winter nights, and holy Celestia it is really starting to get cold out here, do you feel cold-"
I'll give you three guesses as to what Rainbow Dash yelled at me, and the first two don't count. Hint: it was my name. I blinked, stumbling back, and that was all the opening she needed.
"Braeburn, you are the most infuriating... why do you have to do this to me? It isn't going to work! It was all just a story! It would be like an actress falling in love with an actor just because of the characters they played, or something dumb like that! And you keep acting like this! Why?" I'm no expert on taking the brain-boxes of ponies apart and telling you how they tick, but... there was desperation in her voice, as if she were trying to convince herself, not me. That gave me courage enough.
"Because it's me," I said, stepping closer. "It was always me, from start to finish. I just had some different memories in my brain-box for a little bit, and-"
"Braeburn!" Preemptive interruption. She was getting wise. "I... I don't know that! I can't know that! Seriously, I can't just open up your brain and take a look inside!"
"Words'll have to do, then," I said. "I love you. I do. I mean, it started as a crush I couldn't admit, and then Pinkie Pie happened, and you risked your life to save me, and then I got to rescue you and you weren't jealous a bit of Ditzy, and then- well, this! It's a whirlwind and it's crazy and you're wonderful and I really want to know you, really know you, because I've seen glimpses of what you're like inside and I can't live without that!"
Her eyes widened. "What?"
"Well, I could probably live, but it would be a miserable life, filled with tears and longing sighs and not filled with you." I stopped for a moment, letting the words fill the air and then die away on the wind, and then I shook my head. "Oh, listen to me, I sound like some kind of romance heroine." I looked back up at her. "If you're sure, if it was all the play's fault, then... I won't stop you. I'm not going to hurt you like that. You can go." The words tore their way out, scraping up my throat as they came. "Because that's the thing. The prince can't get the girl just because he's got the genie on his side, that's the wrong way to do things, he has to let her have a chance to see him, and if she's not impressed with what she sees – well, we don't tell stories like that, because the hero always has to win. But he can't get the girl under false pretenses, not if he loves her at all."
Silence, under the leaves, for a moment. I was cold, very cold, and I don't think I've ever felt as vulnerable in my life as I did that one second. Not ever, not up on the stage in front of hundreds of ponies, not when I was standing alone in front of an angry goddess. Just when I put my heart in the hooves of another pony.
"Promise." Her face was inscrutable now.
"Promise you won't suddenly change and be somepony else. That you'll be Braeburn, silly, stupid, kind Braeburn, and you won't suddenly become... I don't know, Applejack's crazy hick cousin."
"...Can I be both?" That got her. She laughed, laughed the kind of laugh you laugh when you're about to crack and then someone just gets you off-sides and turns your frown into a grin. "Because I think I'm crazy. At least a little bit, and you know how I come from the country and all..."
She smiled. And then she turned away. "It's cold out here, Braeburn, come on! Let's get you back home, and tomorrow... we can talk." She started to walk away, and stopped. "I... might like you too. A little bit." She hesitated, then grinned, looking back at me. "Catch me if you can!"
So I grinned back at her, and galloped off after her.
Exit Braeburn, curtains close.