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Thank you to DCN, who helped edit initial drafts and get this project off the ground. Wherever you are, thank you.
She was broken.
Many sunrises were put into the contours of that thought, and lonely moonrises to fill it out. Countless sympathetic expressions from kind eyes on the road gave opportunity to practice the feeling. It now went without comment from even herself; it had passed into fact. She had tried so hard, she had failed, and was so terribly broken. Somehow in the low plains of Equestria, she'd found a mountain to break her back.
By mid-journey it was very late summer; some of the early crops were already being plucked from the fields, to be canned, pickled, jarred, and stored for Winter's Rolling. Without money and without a home soon wandering would be difficult, if not suicidal. She wished she’d had some place tucked away to lick her wounds, but as she recalled it never occurred to her she’d be anything but a star returning to Canterlot.
She needed a place for the winter, if not forever.
She followed where her shadow fell every day - toward the Great Winter Gate, the boundary separating Canterlot from the rest of Equestria. Its alabaster twinkled cheerily in the distance, a gray gritty band of light marking the long winding High Road. The high castle walls were … permanent. It was a place that stood forever, would be forever ...
It was a good strong place to go.
The journey to Canterlot was long. It had taken much of the heat of her anger and transmuted it now to dull red grief.
Close to journey’s end, somewhere between bargaining-nigh-on-acceptance and a small turn from the Canterlot turnpike, she was threadbare. During the walkabout she’d started to feel weak at the joints, felt the sheen leave her mane, and weariness creep somewhere in her neck. It creaked sometimes when she turned her head to read the signs, FINEST LINIMENT OIL this and BETTER HOMES IN LOWER REACH that. By her reflection in the odd puddle or stream, a suggestion of ribs had begun to show.
By late August she didn’t just need a place to winter, she desperately needed a place to mend.
The food on the road was thin and often flavorless; the “best we can do, bless your heart” special. Maybe a cupful of oats and some shredded cheese, some spare goat’s milk if they could spare it. Not long ago she would have spat it out. Not long ago … would have thrown her cape about her and glimmered and gleamed and laughed in soft high biting peals. She would have been gorgeous and wonderful and worth listening to, leaving those no-account mud ponies in her dust.
Now there was only a long road and few passers-by; strong stallions pulling fat carts of hay. She always broke their gaze.
There was no one worth seeing on those four chipped hooves.
She was broken.
The Red Ale almshouse on the western lowest rim of Canterlot was full of the those kind-eyed expressions. Just before dinner one day in early autumn, the lone wanderer arrived. Without question or comment, a fresh simple dress was provided, a bed made, and a passable soup and good bread given at mealtime.
By ninth evening bell simple exhaustion bucked and kicked. Near to tenth bell, the slip of a pony stretched out between clean sheets and passed into sleep, slack and relieved. Her last thought was of of the nightstand beside the four-poster bed; it smelled of linens and lemon soap.
The following breakfast revealed an extremely shy and famished pony. There were very quiet tears after a third serving of toast and marmalade. Her stomach was heavy and full and … right for the first time in weeks. Her face broke out in quiet relief, hooves twitching despite themselves. She couldn’t bring herself to use magic; only a bare outline of pale pink came out to help stir her milk after the spoon slipped a few too many times.
This did not go unnoticed, nor the showing ribs, nor the raw coat. Old pale blue eyes took great stock of this from behind the counter.
Madam Stewart was a kindly old mare and head of house. She didn't take many truly hard-luck cases, but there was something lurking in those dark downcast eyes. In time, the manager began to broach conversation with her new … tenant. That was the word.
By degrees Madam Stewart got the story. It was one she'd heard before, uttered by someone with a broken will, a strange haunted expression, a hollow tone - but queer in someone so young. What spirit remained was left low and guttering. Madam Stewart took pains to speak kindly, to let the words come haltingly from her new guest. There wasn’t any money, or fame or fortune - nothing left but a scared little girl.
Madam Stewart checked in on her new charge that night, her yellow lantern flickering in the simple wooden doorway of the small bunk-room. Fast asleep, but twitching - troubled. Returning to her ledger by the cash box, a few numbers were shifted here and there, making room for a scared little unicorn.
The words came more easily in the days to follow; in a week Madam caught just a glimpse of a smile at breakfast. Another guest had crafted an exemplary joke about pears. It was good to see the tiny filly flash a crooked grin. The rising luster in her blue coat almost shone in the early afternoon light.
After some time there came chores. While the too-thin unicorn couldn't give bits, at least she could prod about with her magic. Failing that there was cleaning in the kitchen, seeing after neighborhood children during high work days, and the stand-by "being a good dear and running a grocery errand." To the enigmatic pony the days were comfortable if threadbare. She was warm and fed; each day was a gift.
It wasn't after many days of suspiciously easy labor and mysterious “extra” servings put on her plate the tenant was given a neatly folded acceptance letter from a local shop for an interview.
She hadn’t sent an application.
The old mare with smiling pale blue eyes protested to not have a clue where it'd come from, or how, or why. Madam Stewart did however know precisely where a warm plate of orange scones should go - her guest room.
The filly spent most of the night gnawing away at a single scone, nervous to bite too much off. Only important people deserved that sort of gluttony.
She'd been important once.
The letter called for a very specific time. It was eighth morning bell, sharp, in bracing italics.
Madam Stewart brought a surprisingly refined dress to the room at sunrise, a cake of honey soap, and a surprisingly forward "Good luck." Though the French blue cloth was some 40 years old, the patterns all matched at the seams, the lace was elegant. With a thorough scrubbing and a good trim of her robin’s egg mane from Mister Clips next door, she was presentable, even winsome.
Despite her best efforts to stay calm, she had every appearance of a very presentable shaking leaf. The rising autumn winds in the garment district that day did not lessen the impression.
The sign very clearly and proudly exclaimed "Hoity Toity Boutique." Flat serifs spoke deeply of poise; each thick line spoke of couture and money.
Her interviewer, a pudgy if well-poised stallion named Percival Precision commented on "the very chic fashion choice” of his interviewee - no, “guest.” To everyone, she was a guest. His sweater-vest spoke of comfort and a certain age and understanding. His eyes and hooftips knew business sense and a good worker.
The introductions had been amicable; the wages were outlined helpfully if a little sharply. Hours were flexible within reason; some 25 hours to start, very early shift work, but a lot of other young mares to get to know hopefully, and a chance of holiday double-shift work soon enough. Two smiling eyes danced as he remarked, "Any filly of a certain age would have better things to do in the afternoons, and likely school work. You are in college, aren't you?"
Her resume wasn’t asked after; Madam Stewart's name had a certain weight. The mahogany desk at first seemed daunting, but the office held shades of warm cherry and business acumen. A bowl of candies at his elbow softened the impression. His slight Fillydelphia accent rumbled gently but firmly, ushering the interview along.
By half-past-eighth bell, the interview had been smooth enough. Her ability to speak and appear … normal, at least, was better than Percival had really expected. Tensions had eased, but not vanished. She was intently staring at a point just beyond his ear as Percival cleared his throat meaningfully. "There's one thing I have to ask, it's something I ask everyone. There are a lot of workers who can do patchwork and simple order taking, customer service. What makes you special, exactly?"
She winced, hoping it wasn't visible. She maintained, "I have experience in the field; my mother was a seamstress. I know thread magic very well."
The graying stallion hmm'd through a well-groomed mustache. In his middle drawer an extremely enthusiastic letter folded about a darned sock of his from Madam Stewart had intimated as much. "And …?"
"I can - I can cast strong illusion spells in fabric," she quickly added, "as the designers like. Both light and volume mechanics."
The stallion’s brows arched a touch. Hoity had been searching for talent along those lines …
"And if you were asked to fill in at the store front, do you have … flair?"
"Yes. I have flair. I did theater," she forced, emphasis on did. It felt like the right thing to say in a retail interview.
Percival took in a long view of the young filly. There was a measure of hesitation and fleeting panic, but the round face remained determined. Her stage presence was good; the performance of being a normal filly “just come in for an interview” was a far cry from the personality he’d stitched together from postscripts riddled with exclamation points from Madam Stewart.
She might falter some days, certainly, but ...
Percival broke into a reassuring smile. This was a charity case at first blush, to be sure, but there was promise for great talent - and grace under pressure. With a certain bristle of his whiskers, "I feel you'll do well here."
Relief washed over the her face; a long-awaited sunrise. It deepened the rightness of the decision.
Percival reached for a quill from its deep dark ink well, and set the nib to a fresh contract.
"How do you spell your name, exactly?"